Chrysalis in Sunlight

By Sarena Ulibarri

The thin gray webs stretching across Aunt Melissa’s hand hadn’t been there the night before. Her condition wasn’t supposed to be contagious, but I went to the kitchen for some latex gloves anyway. If these webs were a new stage, all the procedures might change. There was still so much we didn’t know about the alien microbes now living in her body.

Aunt Melissa stared out the window at the mountains, wincing slightly as I cleaned her fingers. “Is this anywhere else?”

She didn’t answer. I bounced my leg—a nervous tic that passed the time and soothed my chronic muscle aches. After a full minute passed, I tried again.

“Aunt Melissa, are you with me?”

She didn’t turn her head to me, and her lips barely moved. “Yes.”

“You had sticky stuff between your fingers. Do you have it anywhere else?”

Another mumbled word: “No.”

“I’m going to check, is that okay?”

A long sigh. “Okay.”

I hated the downswings, though they were certainly easier than the active hallucinations that sometimes accompanied upswings. It worried me, though, that the former were becoming more common than the latter. She placidly allowed me to check her armpits and thighs. Her toes curled as I pulled off her socks to inspect her feet. Nothing else out of the ordinary, except for a little more muscle atrophy. She was only forty, but exposure to the alien microbes during the war had aged and transformed her. The broad-shouldered soldier I remembered had been steadily withering.

I peeled off the gloves, then turned on some music and left her alone to go call Dr. Acacia. Except, when I picked up my phone, she was already calling me. I tapped the device against my living room wall to transfer the call there. Her face filled the wall screen.

“I’m glad you picked up, Erin,” she said. I could tell she was working hard to keep worry from bunching her forehead, but she wasn’t succeeding. “How’s Melissa?”

I paced the living room as I told her about the webs. She nodded.

Her lips pressed together in a tight line for a moment before she spoke. “This complication has appeared recently in many of the Exposed. We’re asking all caretakers to bring their charges to the EERF.”

My throat tightened. The Extraterrestrial Exposure Research Facility was halfway across the country in San Diego; this wasn’t going to be a casual checkup. I sat on the couch, grabbed a throw pillow, and clenched it in my lap. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being locked up in that laboratory. They’d said they wouldn’t as long as I was willing to take care of her. “She’s doing just fine here in Denver.”

“Erin, your home care has always been fantastic, but we’re seeing rapid accelerations of this webbing you described and we need to act quickly to counteract the complications.”

“What complications?

“With some of the Exposed, its come close to encasing the whole body.”

It took another moment to choke out the word, “Fatal?”

“That remains to be seen, but our researchers here can certainly slow down the process. With time, maybe we can even reverse it.”

“And this isn’t something local facilities can handle, is it?”

I knew the answer before Dr. Acacia shook her head. Civilian hospitals refused to work with the Exposed, and the Denver VA was overbooked with vets dealing with the more familiar repercussions of war: brain traumas and prosthetic limbs and PTSD. The VA was fine for routine appointments and prescription refills, but they gave no priority to the Exposed in their lengthy appointment waitlist.

When I was younger, Aunt Melissa used to show up twice a year, always stirring my otherwise mild-mannered family into a party, defeating my father in arm wrestling matches, challenging my grandfather to whiskey shots. She’d once driven all the way to Denver from the base in Missouri where she was stationed so she could beat the crap out of my ex-boyfriend who had given me a bruise.

Once she was discharged from service and we learned we were the only ones in our family who had survived, Aunt Melissa came to live with me. The first signs that the war had changed her were subtle: laughing at a joke that no one else could hear, starting sentences in the middle or trailing off before the end, yelling at service workers for even the smallest perceived slight. She stopped driving after spacing out at a stoplight for a full ten minutes, completely unaware of the car horns and the people banging on the windows. She was diagnosed with PTSD, then later with Bipolar, until the pattern became clear among all the Exposed and the true cause was revealed. Over the last few years, she had weakened and started swinging between nearly catatonic downs and vivid hallucinations—I assumed they were war flashbacks, but she’d never been able to describe them in a way that made any sense to me. Many vets were sent to the EERF by frustrated family members. I never considered it for a second. We adapted.

I stared down at the throw pillow and tried to unclench my fists, slow my breathing. “She’s all I have left.”

“I know,” Dr. Acacia said. “That’s why you need to get her here as soon as possible.”

Abstract shapes swirled on the wall screen long after Dr. Acacia hung up. Aunt Melissa hummed along with the soft music playing in her room. That was good, usually a sign she was coming back up from the downswing. For a while, anyway.

In the movies, aliens always attack the significant city centers: Los Angeles, New York, London, Hong Kong. But when these aliens landed, they showed up right in the center of the largest land masses: the border of Russia and Mongolia, the deserts of Chad, and the plains of Kansas. They drove massive machines with twenty-foot metallic legs and whining motors. We never knew where they’d come from or why.

Militaries met the threat in the rural areas, but the invaders eventually headed toward the cities. Though Denver had fared better than some, civilian casualties were high and much of the infrastructure still hadn’t recovered. After everything that landed had been defeated, the orbiting ship had disappeared.

The bodies of the alien pilots were always burned beyond recognition by the time the pods at the top of the machines were broken open, but the microbes from those alien bodies lodged themselves into the cells of the soldiers unlucky enough to explore the wreckage.

I had never understood why they’d put the research facility so far from any of the landing sites, though I supposed I was glad we wouldn’t have to go overseas. Still, it was going to be a long and difficult trip, for both of us.

My neck began to ache from sitting still for too long, so I stood and went back to check on Aunt Melissa before going to the gym early for my evening swim—movement was the best relief for my chronic pain. The smart home system would alert me if anything happened, but I knew her downswing would last a few more hours, and I’d likely find her in the same place I left her. I waited until after dinner to book a flight, hoping there would be none available for a few days, but there was one the next morning. I called the vertical farm where I worked, hoping they would tell me they couldn’t possibly approve the time off this week, but they had always been understanding when I needed to leave to take care of Aunt Melissa. Of course they didn’t need me.

Tomorrow it is, then.

* * *

In the morning I found Aunt Melissa cooking breakfast. She’d even pulled her hair back into a tight military bun and opened the windows. An upswing should make travel easier, if she didn’t slip into a hallucination. I hobbled toward the table, pain flashing up my spine. I’d meant to get up early so I could swim before the flight, but I hadn’t slept well.

“We have to take a trip today. They need to do a few tests,” I told her.

“I’m not a goddamned lab rat,” she said, but her tone and face were cheerful. She flipped a pancake. “Where to?”

“San Diego.”

She hesitated for a beat, then flipped another pancake before it was ready, splashing batter against the side of the pan. “Oh, my good friends at the EERF.” She pronounced it as one slurred-together word: earf. “Must be serious. Unless they’ve finally discovered my miracle cure?”

I winced at a twinge in my neck that almost felt like a muscle slowly tearing.

“There’s no such thing.”

She humphed. “Says you.”

She started telling me about a rare plant in Madagascar she’d read about, and how “experts” were saying it could completely eliminate downswings for the Exposed. I half-listened while I ate the undercooked pancakes, as I always did when she started on this subject, but encouraged her to pack as soon as breakfast was finished. All of the supposed cures she listed had been proven false months ago. She never believed when they were discredited.

We’d gotten into a big fight about this once: I wanted her to stop obsessing over a cure and make more efforts to adapt to her condition; she told me she wasn’t willing to give up and accept it. I realized afterward that our perspectives were entirely opposite. She had suffered a severe trauma only a few years ago, whereas I had lived with chronic pain my whole life. We shared the psychological pain of having lost our whole family to the aliens, but our physical pains were quite different. My pain, as much as I hated it, was part of me. Aunt Melissa’s had taken away who she used to be.

* * *

The airport security line wrapped far past the roped queues and practically all the way around to the baggage claim. I took an extra dose of my pills while we stood in line, knowing that the two-hour flight would aggravate my pain. The best explanation I’d ever gotten was that the fibers surrounding my muscles were extra tight, prone to hardening when not in motion. This was a normal process for everyone, but mine callused faster than usual, and my nerves overreacted to the pressure.

Aunt Melissa had kept on about the supposed miracle cures the entire rail ride here, and now she was looping back over things she’d already said. To distract her, I pointed out a man in a Hawaiian shirt like my father used to love to wear. It worked. She started on a family story instead, one I’d heard a thousand times, but would be happy to hear a thousand times more.

“And your grandmother never even knew. She always insisted we were at that game the entire time. Erin, I don’t think I can do this.”

“What? What do you mean?” We inched closer to the TSA agent who scanned IDs and directed people into the various screening lines.

“I’m having a heart attack.” Her eyes darted from the ID scanner to the X-ray machines to the flashing advertisements to the line of people pressing us forward.

“You’re not having a heart attack. What is it? What’s triggering you?” Sometimes, if we identified the triggers and faced them consciously, we could keep an episode at bay. A couple had even been eliminated by repeatedly confronting them.

“It’s…” Her breath was fast and audible. Someone behind us told us to keep moving, and I shot them a look of annoyance and gestured for them to go around us.

I held onto her shoulders. “Aunt Melissa, we’re in the airport. Look at me.” Her eyes finally settled on mine. “It’s okay, we’re in the Denver airport. Do you know where you are?”

She exhaled. “The airport,” she said. “Going to San Diego.”

The TSA agent waved us forward. I wasn’t sure Aunt Melissa was completely present, but I encouraged her to go in front of me. The agent scanned her ID, and the machine blinked red.

“I’ll need you to go to the line at the far right.”

“I’ll need you to bite my ass,” Aunt Melissa said.

Oh good, she’s back. “Look, it’s a shorter line,” I told her, hiding my own irritation at the discriminatory procedures under an encouraging cheerfulness.

“I’m sure he’s really looking out for me,” she said, her voice rising. “I’m sure he really cares if we make the flight.”

“Let’s go.” I pulled her toward the line.

“Ma’am, I need your ID too.”

“I gave you my goddamn ID!” Aunt Melissa yelled.

“He means me.” I kept one hand on her sleeve and fumbled for my ID and boarding pass with the other.

“To the left, ma’am,” he said as he handed it back to me.

“No,” I said firmly. “I’m going with her.”

The security agent in the far right lane was dressed in full Hazmat suit and helmet. Aunt Melissa balked. Seriously, did these people understand nothing about the kinds of things that were triggers for the Exposed?

“We’re at the airport.” I reminded her.

“If you say so,” she said.

We set our bags on an x-ray conveyor belt. The agent waved her toward a machine that resembled a revolving door.

“It’s not contagious, you know,” I snapped at the suit. They ignored me and just gestured more urgently for us to keep moving. Aunt Melissa had grown very tense now, her eyes focused, unblinking, on the suit.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Just do what they say and it’ll be over in five seconds.”

She tolerated the machine, standing with hands over her head like a fugitive, but the second the agent in the Hazmat suit touched her, Aunt Melissa executed a flawless Krav Maga move that I was shocked she had the strength to do and pinned the agent to the ground. Two others rushed to restrain her while she kicked at them. I watched in shock for about ten seconds before I flung myself into the fray too, screaming at them not to hurt her.

At least they gave our bags back before they kicked us out of the airport.

She calmed down on the rail home, though my mind was racing and my leg bounced even more than usual. I wished for the hundredth time that I knew more about what she saw in moments like those. I couldn’t help her fight her demons when I didn’t know the shape of them. By the time we reached our stop she had slid into that inevitable downswing and was barely able to carry her own bag.

At home, she slumped at the table. “I’m sorry.”

I dropped the bags in the middle of the kitchen and rubbed my neck. “Airports are infuriating.”

“We have to drive now.”

I shook my head. “Maybe we don’t even have to go.”

“Yes.” She held up her left hand. It was completely covered in gray webs. “We do.”

* * *

There were three problems with driving. First, I, like most people, had an electric car that was not designed for distance. Roads in the West were long and charging facilities were far between. The second was the weather since it was early spring and the Rocky Mountains were currently wrapped in blizzard conditions. The snow wasn’t affecting the city yet, but it meant we’d have to take the farther route, down through New Mexico and Arizona, skirting the Mexico border. The third was my pain. I’d been concerned about a two-hour flight, and now I was facing a two-day drive.

Before the war, I’d been a teacher, but the long stretches at desks and screens were excruciating. After the war, I decided life was too short to hurt all the time. I worked at the Denver Vertical Farms now because it kept me moving: cleaning and climbing, spraying the produce that filled local groceries. Increased movement meant less pain.

Various exercise regimes always worked for a while, then lost their effectiveness. After running stopped helping, I did Tai Chi, and when that brought no relief, I switched to dance aerobics, etc. Rinse, repeat. Swimming was what worked right now—not very practical for a desert road trip. I had been thinking of switching soon to yoga, a fast-paced power vinyasa I’d done before. If I could remember some of the sequences, I could start it on my own, and that might alleviate the last of those three problems.

To address the first, I had a row of solar panels installed on the car’s roof, old-fashioned ones with big purple squares that they fit onto the ski rack. Not nearly as efficient or sleek as the ones embedded right into the roof of newer models, but they were supposed to provide a reliable backup charge. I kept checking the forecast and looking up at the clouds that engulfed the mountains. The snow only seemed to be getting worse. Nothing to be done about the route.

Twice more before we left, I cleaned webs off Aunt Melissa’s hand. The second time, they reached halfway up her forearm.

We left Denver at sunrise. I stopped to do sun salutations in Colorado Springs, a warrior sequence in Pueblo, some lunges and twists in Raton. At each stop, I plugged the car into a charging station to keep it topped off.

She stared out the window as I drove and stayed in the car each time I stopped. She would hum along with the music for a little while, then be silent for an hour, then hum again, sometimes starting up with the same tune she’d left off before readjusting to what was actually playing. We talked a little bit, but she continued to slide down, leaving stories half-finished, or not responding to my prompts at all.

Somewhere in northern New Mexico, I exited off the highway toward what the car’s computer claimed was a charging station, but it was only a boarded-up old gas station and I couldn’t find a way back onto the highway. The frontage road ran parallel to it, with a ditch and barbed wire fence separating them. The car shuddered over potholes; the asphalt crumbled along the sides, sage, and cactus growing through the cracks. With each bump, the ache crept higher up my neck and into my jaw and head. I’d have to stop soon, charging station or not.

“It’s just like that, isn’t it?”

I startled at the sound of Aunt Melissa’s voice. Her head was turned toward me, leaning back on the headrest and jarring with the movement of the car.

“Like what?”

She pointed toward the highway, and I noticed the webs were growing again. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the easy road. But you take one wrong turn and it’s not there anymore. You can still see it, but you can never get back to it.”

“We’ll get back there eventually,” I said, but I knew she wasn’t actually talking about the highway. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was.

A few miles later, the highway disappeared behind scrub oaks, and a little adobe restaurant appeared to the right. I pulled into the driveway. There was no charging station, but the sun was strong enough now that the panels were supplementing fine. A small herd of free-roaming goats grazed along the edge of the parking lot.

“Do you want to go in?”

Aunt Melissa slowly shook her head. I stepped out, stretching my arms to the sky.

The restaurant turned out to be more of a bar, sparsely populated with hard-faced locals who all turned toward me as I blinked my way into the dark room. I negotiated two non-alcoholic drinks to go and gained assurance the highway ramp was only a few miles down the road.

Outside, I carried the drinks back toward the car, rolling my shoulders to work out the ache. A black goat with a white beard trotted up to sniff at the cups I held. The rest of the herd had wandered out onto the road, picking at the tufts of greenery growing in between the asphalt cracks.

I set the cups in the car and dug in my bag for another pain pill. The sudden growl of a gas-powered engine drew my attention back to the road. A rare sound for the last decade, it split the quiet afternoon like a scream. A massive black truck sped down the road in the opposite direction we’d come from. The goats scattered to either side, tramping into the ditch or darting between the trees. One spotted goat darted in a confused circle until the truck’s grill stopped its dance. The truck screeched to a stop and I shut my eyes and turned away as the goat sprawled.

Aunt Melissa’s door snapped open. By the time I turned back, she was already halfway to the road. I left the car door open and ran after her, calling her name. If she’d switched to an upswing, she would surely get into a fight with the driver.

The truck door opened and a man stepped out: hat, boots, the full cowboy getup. He saw us running and yelled, “These damn goats were in the road again!” I swiped at Aunt Melissa’s back but only brushed her shirt with my fingertips.

But then, rather than confronting the cowboy, she dropped to her knees beside the dead goat and let out a mourning wail that stopped me in my tracks. The cowboy and I exchanged a confused glance.

I’d never seen Aunt Melissa cry before. Even when we’d gotten the confirmation that my parents, grandparents, sister, and so many others had been lost in the Denver attack, I had blubbered on Aunt Melissa’s shoulder while she kept her hard soldier face.

Now, her back heaved with sobs over an unfamiliar animal in an unfamiliar place. The bartender came out of the restaurant and stood beside the cowboy. I hesitated before approaching them.

“She fought the aliens,” I said, keeping my voice low. “She has…hallucinations, sometimes.”

“Flashbacks?” the cowboy asked.

“Sort of, yeah.” It wasn’t that simple; the few times I’d managed to get her to describe her experience, it was as nonsensical as a dream. Still, the hallucinations usually seemed to include some elements of the war, some bits of memory.

I knelt beside her and rested a hand on her back until her wails subsided.

“All the tissues are in the car,” I said.

She sniffled and choked a laugh. The gravel crunched behind us as the cowboy approached. Aunt Melissa stood, rubbing a hand across her face. “Can I bury it? Please?”

The men glanced uncertainly at each other. In rural high desert like this, with hard ground and large predators like bears and mountain lions, I imagined they probably preferred to burn bodies rather than bury. After a moment, the bartender nodded and retrieved a wheelbarrow and two shovels from behind the building.

Four strangers buried a goat in the woods in silence.

Aunt Melissa tired halfway through, so I finished the job for her while she sat cross-legged and slumped between a patch of prickly pear and a piñon tree. I would ache later from the effort, but that was a different kind of ache than my usual pain, and far more tolerable.

I wanted to wash the dirt from my hands and the sweat from my neck in the bar bathroom, but it was an effort just to get Aunt Melissa back into the car, and I didn’t care to linger there any longer. The men were certainly ready to see us leave.

Once we were back on the highway, I asked, “Can you tell me about what happened back there?”

She didn’t answer. Her forehead pressed against the window. I had always avoided asking about her experiences in the war, to avoid triggers or reopening old wounds, and the gulf between her experience and mine now felt bigger than it ever had. I’d always assumed that someday, after time had softened the immediacy of the trauma, she’d be able to tell me about it. For the first time, I began to worry that she would never be able to tell me. Or that we wouldn’t have that time together after all. The webbing had grown across her hand again, all the way up to her wrist. We’d need to stop again soon so I could clean it, but we also needed to keep moving to get to San Diego as soon as possible.

* * *

We made it well into Arizona before I stopped to find a room. I had to practically carry Aunt Melissa inside, then came back for our bags and plugged in the car. The motel had a pool, but it was a vacant, dusty pit with a sign citing seasonal water rationing, so I settled for doing all the yoga stretches I could remember on the coiled motel carpet. After showering, I pawed through my bag looking for my nightshirt, but realized I’d accidentally opened Aunt Melissa’s bag instead. My fingers brushed cold metal, and I knew what it was before I pulled it out.

A pistol. How long had she had this? They were hard to come by, and nearly impossible for an Exposed. Had she brought it with her to the airport too? We both could have been arrested if security had found it.

Her head rolled in her sleep, muttering incomprehensible strings of words. I stuffed the gun into my bag instead.

* * *

I woke up to Aunt Melissa yelling my name. Groggy and disoriented, I groped for a light switch.

“Erin, I’m stuck!”

“Hold on, it’s okay.” I found the switch and winced against the brightness.

“What’s happening to me?”

She stood on the bed, wrapped tightly in a sheet. Then, my eyes adjusted. It wasn’t a sheet. The webs from her hands had spread across her upper body, pinning her to the wall above the bed. I scrambled to my feet and dug in my bag.

“Erin, help me!”

“I’m coming.” I pulled the gloves onto my shaking hands. There was only one pair left.

The webs were tougher than I expected, but I managed to rip down one side and pull her out. She stumbled toward the shower, while I bundled the webs in a blanket and tossed it out the front door. I ripped off the gloves and dialed Dr. Acacia. It was only after her voicemail answered that I glanced at the clock and saw it was just after three AM. I left a brief message, then turned my phone over and over in my hands until Aunt Melissa came out of the shower.

“I’m not going to make it to San Diego, am I?” She rubbed a towel roughly over her arms as though she still felt the webs there.

“Of course you are.” Tears bit at my eyes, but I held them back. I needed to be the strong one right now, even though it wasn’t me at all. “We should get a head start on the day, though.”

I couldn’t imagine sleeping again, and if the webs came back in the car, I would see before they pinned her to the seat. Keep moving—that had always been my solution.

The car had only half a charge, but the sun would be up in a few hours. Aunt Melissa was alert enough to carry her own bag to the car, but she fell asleep almost as soon as I started driving.

I had never seen dark like Arizona dark. Even the blackout following the Denver attack had been punctuated with the glow of fires and the spotlights of helicopters. With only my headlights and the swath of stars overhead, this felt like the depths of space. I kept glancing over at Aunt Melissa, watching for the webs to return. I had mostly made my peace with the alien attacks, had even tried to listen to the pundits who claimed we may have provoked them, but now, driving through the pitch dark of nowhere, while an alien parasite tried to consume my last living relative, a fresh new wave of anger and fear surged through me. What the hell had been the point of any of it? Why had they traveled so far through the dark just to hurt us?

The miles until San Diego ticked down on the car’s display screen, but so did the available charge. I looked up at the still-dark sky. We had to keep moving. The charge was low, but I convinced myself it was enough to last until sunrise.

It wasn’t.

The car came to a dead stop at the edge of a wind farm. The sky was just light enough I could see the outlines of the white turbines staggered across the hilly desert. Their propellers whooshed in slow circles, red lights blinking in unison through the whole field.

Electricity, electricity everywhere, but not a spark for me.

Aunt Melissa was still asleep, so I quietly shut my door and walked behind the car to face east. Any minute now, the sun would be up. All I had to do was wait until the world turned. I raised my arms overhead and began a sun salutation on the silent, empty road.

I didn’t hear the passenger door. I didn’t hear her rummaging through the bags. I didn’t hear the crunch of her feet on the desert dirt. But I did hear the shot as I stepped into a warrior pose, and my heart nearly seized with the sound. Then a second shot. By the time I spotted her outline, she was over the fence and halfway up the hill toward the closest turbine, with the gun aimed at it. I vaulted the fence and ran toward her. The third bullet ricocheted off the turbine’s tower and zinged past me. I dropped to the ground as she fired off several more.

Peeking up in the half-light, I could almost see what she saw: the great stilt-legged machines the aliens had used to crash through our cities.

“They’re only turbines!” I yelled when she’d emptied her clip. “The war’s over!” Except I knew the war wasn’t really over. It still raged in Aunt Melissa, and in the cells and minds of everyone who had been Exposed, everyone who had been affected, everyone who had lost something important because of it.

Brushing dust from my clothes, I got to my feet and looked around for her, but the dips and mounds of the uneven land, the towering saguaros, and the thick turbine towers made it difficult to see where she’d gone. The sky was paling, but the sun still lingered below the horizon. I wandered beneath the turbines, a blubbering mess, shouting her name.

The sun reached a single ray across the horizon, and then a second, and a third. But to what purpose, now? I wasn’t leaving without her. When the top rim of the sun appeared and I still hadn’t found her, I wandered back toward the car. At the base of the turbine she’d fired at, I found the gun in the dirt beside a creosote bush. I bent to retrieve it, and blinked up into the sunlight.

That’s when I saw her.

The webbing had grown across her whole body, attaching her to the side of the turbine. Her face looked serene behind the thin veil, as though she were asleep.

I was too late. The only thing to do was call Dr. Acacia and tell her I had failed.

The phone was already ringing when I pulled it from my bag. The doctor’s face appeared on my screen. “We almost made it,” I told her. I smeared the tears and mucus off my own face as best I could, and then walked back over to show her Aunt Melissa in the chrysalis.

“The location is inconvenient, to be sure, but the process is identical to what we’ve been seeing for the last couple of days.”

She put me on hold for a moment, and when she came back on screen she assured me an emergency team would be there to meet us in about an hour and a half.

“Is she dead?” I croaked.

“There are several here at the EERF currently encased. We’ve been monitoring their vital signs and they are alive. They seem to be undergoing some kind of transformation. It is possible they could break free of the chrysalis when it’s complete.”

“As…an alien?” I could think of no crueler irony than her emerging transformed into one of the very beings who had attacked us. My eyes flicked toward the car, where I’d tossed the gun onto the back seat. I didn’t know how to use it, didn’t even know how to check if it still had ammunition. Could I bring myself to use it if she came out transformed?

The doctor’s frown deepened. She ran a hand across her face. “I wish I could put your mind at ease, Erin, but the truth is we don’t know.”

She encouraged me to go to the closest town to eat and rest, but I shook my head. “I’m not leaving her. Especially now.” She was still my last living relative until I had definitive proof otherwise.

The wait was excruciating. I walked in circles for a while, then jogged half a mile down the highway and back, stretched quads and calves against the side of the car, but none of it brought me any relief. So I sat cross-legged on the ground, and tried to embrace the one part of yoga class I had never enjoyed or understood: silent meditation.

Movement had meant healing for me, but I knew that wasn’t always the case. Bones needed to set, blood cells needed to clot. My shoulders ached, my hips begged me to get up and walk around, but I stayed. All around me was movement—the hot desert air spun the propellers of the turbines; the world turned, sending the sun across the sky. I sat, as still as the rocks, as rooted as the cacti, watching Aunt Melissa. She appeared still as well, but if what Dr. Acacia said was true, there was movement happening beneath those webs: blood pumping, breath flowing, perhaps cells growing and rearranging.

I heard the helicopter blades beating the air, but I waited until the engine dulled and boots crunched on the earth before I stood to greet them.

The pain was a tight fist gripping my upper back like an animal carried by the scruff, radiating down through every nerve in my body. I stood, stretching, twisting, and rolling to bring it back down to a tolerable level. My head, aside from the base of my skull, was surprisingly spared.

Eight soldiers in full Hazmat suits formed a half circle around the turbine, rifles clutched in gloved hands. I turned away, hands on my knees, suddenly sure I was going to be sick. A hand gently touched my back and I looked up. Dr. Acacia’s eyes were full of sympathy. She led me toward the helicopter. I reluctantly followed, and after a moment, the nausea passed.

She handed me a fresh orange. I peeled and ate it while she ran tests on me, checking to see if I had been Exposed. The citrus tasted sharp. It was an effort to swallow, but when I was finished, I craved another.

Dr. Acacia held up a vial, squinting at it in the light. “You seem to be clear.”

I jutted my chin toward the chrysalis. “How long will she be like that?”

She tucked the vial into a case and snapped it shut. “Some of the Exposed at the EERF have been encased for several days.”

“And when they break free, the war starts over again.”

“We have almost all of them under EERF supervision,” she said, as though that was supposed to be reassuring.

She gave me a list of nearby places I could stay, but I waved her off, unwilling to leave until I absolutely had to. I hobbled toward my car. I dry-swallowed one pain pill, and held a second between my fingers for a moment before putting it back.

The soldiers yelled, and I nearly hit my head on the car door turning to see what was happening. I raced toward the turbine. The webs stretched from the inside. One of the soldiers pushed me back.

Then, an arm broke through. A distinctly human arm. I let out my breath, bounced on the balls of my feet. A second arm appeared, and then a bald head. I was too far away to make out facial features, but she was human, and that was a victory in itself.

The soldiers lowered their weapons. I tried to rush forward, but they blocked me again and let through the doctor, suited up now.

“Several days,” I called after her with a laugh. “Aunt Melissa never was the patient type.”

They took me back by the helicopter to wait. The air grew warm, but it wasn’t the unbearable heat I had expected from the desert. After nearly another hour, Dr. Acacia returned and sloughed off her suit. It had been enough time for my joy to have cycled back around to fear.

“Is she alive?”

“Yes, alive and human. In fact, the chrysalis appears to have been a healing process, initiated by the alien microbes.”

Healing?” I nearly choked on the word.

“She has almost complete cell regeneration.” Dr. Acacia sat on the helicopter steps, peeling the suit off her legs.

“That’s great, right?”

“It is,” she agreed. “But, Erin…” She paused, eyes darting back and forth in thought. “I have a hypothesis. I need you to come with me to test it.”

She headed back toward the turbine, motioning me to follow.

I jumped up from my seat and hurried after. “Can I take her home?”

“Let’s reserve that decision for a little while.”

The soldiers moved aside to let us through. Aunt Melissa sat on a folding chair, wrapped in a silver shock blanket that reflected the sun so sharply it was nearly blinding. This close, I could see the slightly uneven bone of her skull beneath smooth skin, and stubbled tufts where her eyebrows had been. Her bare feet were crossed at the ankles, swinging below the chair. She looked about ten years younger.

“We need to get you a hat,” I said. Her eyes turned to me, but her expression was fearful.

“More new people,” she said.

“Um.” I swallowed hard, my stomach sinking. I knelt in front of her. “Aunt Melissa, it’s me, Erin. Don’t you recognize me?”

She stopped swinging her legs and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I just woke up. Everything’s new.”

I stumbled away as though she had slapped me. I ran until I reached the car, and leaned my head in my arms, heaving great, shuddering breaths.

“I’m sorry.” Dr. Acacia’s voice came from beside me a few moments later.

“Does she remember anything?”

“She has basic language and motor skills, as you saw, but she doesn’t appear to remember details about her life or the world. I thought your presence might trigger her recall, but…”

I turned around, leaning my back against the car. “Her memories will come back, though, right?”

“We don’t know. Erin, she’s the first person to emerge from the chrysalis. We think the direct sunlight may have accelerated the process. But if the cell regeneration occurred in her brain too, all her synaptic pathways may have been rewritten.”

“So she’s not even herself anymore.”

Dr. Acacia didn’t reply. The aliens had taken everyone from me now. She was still here, but without the experiences that had shaped who she was, without our shared past, she would be someone different. There was so much I had never asked, so many stories now unrecoverable. I would never know what had happened with the goat, I would never hear all the war stories I’d been waiting to ask her about, waiting until she’d…healed.

I had always depended on others to be the storytellers—Aunt Melissa, my father, my grandmother: they had all told their stories to me, and I had received them gratefully, but rarely given any back. Now I would have to tell them to her, decide which parts to include, which parts to leave out, how to paint the life and history she didn’t remember. How to decide which parts I wanted her to know. But hearing the stories isn’t the same as living through them, and unless her memories returned, telling them to her wouldn’t recreate who she’d been.

I wanted her back—I wanted them all back—but I knew that this was a good thing for her. She’d finally found that miracle cure she’d been looking for. Perhaps with all her physical and emotional pains forgotten, the war could truly be over for her.

“Can I take her home?” I stared straight ahead.

Dr. Acacia studied my face. “We need to do some tests at the EERF, but after that, if nothing else changes, you should be able to take her back to Denver and check in with us regularly the way you have been.”

“Okay,” I nearly whispered.

They loaded her into the helicopter, and it thunked noisily into the western sky. I slid behind the wheel of the car. It had a full charge now from sitting out in the sun for half a day. The computer showed the route and the time left to San Diego, only a few hours to go.

I started the engine and pulled onto the long, empty road. A few hours before I could rendezvous with them at the EERF. A few hours to be utterly alone with my grief. Not enough time to mourn what I had lost, but I wanted to do my best once I met up with Melissa—the new Melissa—to leave the past behind and move forward together.

____

Copyright 2018 Sarena Ulibarri

Sarena Ulibarri is a graduate of the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Workshop at UCSD, and earned an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her fiction has appeared in LightspeedFantastic Stories of the ImaginationWeirdbook, and elsewhere. She edited the anthology Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers, and manages World Weaver Press. Find more at SarenaUlibarri.com, or on Twitter @SarenaUlibarri.

by Nicole Feldringer

 

“They’re calling it Valles Fever.” The words came from the nursing station, on the other side of Abe’s curtained-off area. “Five more admitted today.” Kala shifted in the hard chair, rotating the discomfort to a new part of her body.

Abe’s breathing hitched. Kala’s feet hit the floor, and she scooted towards him. Her fingers picked at the sheets, smoothing them, wanting to smooth his hair then feeling silly for the impulse. Imagining him laughing at her.

Laughter was better than the convulsions that had overcome him on the outskirts of town that morning. Kala had been scrambling over the yardang rock formations that served as natural windbreaks for the colony, waiting for the golden hour, the perfect shot, while Abe collected biological samples for Martian ecosystem monitoring. It was his first real job out of Lyceum, and Kala wanted his success more than she had ever wanted her own.

As the first rays of sunlight grazed the tops of the ridges, Kala raced to capture the landscape before the radio operator raised the main antenna, retracted since the last windstorm. The antenna mast’s shadow corrugated across the yardangs, destroying the illusion of wilderness.

They said the wind used to sing as it constricted between the yardangs, before humans caulked the spaces with their civilization. Kala never heard the whisper of a song, despite hours spent photographing the landscape–futilely, since in the two years since her graduation she had blown her first and last opportunity at exhibiting her work. Maybe if she hadn’t been brooding over experiences she would never have, Kala might have noticed Abe’s illness sooner. But by the time she had packed away her camera and tugged her gloves over chapped hands, he had already tumbled nose-first into his precious soil.

Kala’s gaze traced the IV tube to the bag hanging from its stand. “How do you feel?” she asked.

He swallowed. “Woozy. I’ve never stayed overnight in a hospital before.”

“Your fever was really high.”

Abe started to nod, then winced. “Where’s my dad?”

Kala grimaced. “Call with the insurance company.” To distract him, she added, “I overheard the nurses talking about an outbreak. Other people with the same symptoms.”

Before Abe could respond, the curtain rings rattled, and Abe’s father joined them. Kala shifted over to make room. “Good news,” he said, not meeting their eyes. “You’re being discharged today.”

“They can’t just send him home,” Kala said. “He’s still sick. Are they discharging all the other cases too?”

“His grandmother will care for him while I’m at the construction site,” Abe’s father said. “He’ll be more comfortable in his own bed.”

“It’s not right,” Kala said stubbornly. Abe charmed everyone in the neighborhood, and she was sure their kitchen would be filled with tamales, dumplings, and casseroles by sunset. But. “They have drugs here. Doctors.”

“They say he’s not contagious anymore, and there’s nothing more they can do for him. Just drop it, Kala. Please.”

“Guys, I’m right here,” Abe protested.

“They can’t just send everyone home.” Kala hated the ragged edge of tears in her voice. She plucked again at the sheets. They were starched to scratchiness. Her best friend had collapsed before her eyes, and the doctors were just going to toe the line of corporate greed set by the insurance company? Send him home with instructions to drink fluids and rest?

“I’m sure they’re working on a vaccine,” Abe’s father said as he helped his son sit upright. The nurse appeared, pushing a wheelchair. Kala backed up and was engulfed in the curtain as they maneuvered Abe off the bed. “This will be over before you know it.”

A package waited outside her apartment. Kala wrestled with the lock and nudged the parcel inside, leaving it on the floor by the door. Her feet sank into the luxurious pile of carpet–a Mars reproduction of a family heirloom left on Earth, and the sole gift she had accepted from her mother when she moved out–as she crossed the room to flop on the bed. Kala rooted around the sheets until she found her screen. She ignored the blinking message from her mother. A trap closing around Kala, demanding her attention. It could keep demanding, and she would keep ignoring.

Kala settled in to pour over the Marsnet for information on Valles Fever. Most hits were public expressions of worry or sympathy. A few curated reassurances from the Disease Control Center about progress on the vaccine, carefully worded so the DCC made no promise of progress, only effort. Nothing she trusted, nothing she could use. Kala left requests on forum after forum and was rewarded hours later when someone responded from a burner account: First death confirmed in the Warrens.

Kala sat up and punched out who? with sweaty fingers.

Nothing.

She messaged Abe. Again, nothing. Kala prayed his silence meant he was sleeping, or that his grandmother had confiscated his screen to force him to rest. She checked once more for breaking news, but the Marsnet was useless. She would have to do her own footwork. Before folding up her screen, she finally clicked the blinking message from her mother. Did you get the package I sent? Do stay away from the Warrens.

Kala crawled out of her nest of blankets and dragged the package back into bed with her. She stared down at the sealed box in her lap. Her mother, who wouldn’t step a pedicured toe outside her late-gen neighborhood, had inexplicable taste in gifts. Like the fancy lizard Kala had refused on account of her apartment’s no-pet policy. If it had been a convoluted ploy to get Kala to move back home, it hadn’t worked.

Kala peeled the flaps back. Inside the box was a top-of-the-line face mask. Meanwhile the DCC denied they had a potential epidemic on their hands. Right.

I got it, she typed back. Thanks. She set her screen aside and untangled herself from the sheets. As she left the apartment, she tucked the face mask into her satchel next to her camera.

Kala let gravity lead her downhill to the Warrens where the streets twisted and dead-ended at the edge of the planitia. The neighborhood was the least sheltered part of the colony, and the most densely populated as first-gen families were pushed to the fringes of livable space. If rumors were true about the number of new ships being built on Earth, it would become even more crowded. Their colony population was projected to hit six digits before the new year.

The door of the Petridis family apartment was tagged with graffiti. Kala scowled and pressed the buzzer. The few people on the street stared at her suspiciously as she waited, like she hadn’t been coming here since their first day at Lyceum where Abe won a lottery to attend and Kala didn’t have to.

Kala’s mother had been less than enthused about the broadened enrollment. “I don’t want you spending too much time with the first-genners,” she said after asking where Kala had been after school. “What’s the boy’s name again?”

“Abe Petridis.”

Her mother’s lips stayed pursed. “I suppose it would be to your benefit for some Earth culture to rub off on you. If you must socialize, I prefer you bring your friend here.”

A preference was not the same as an order though Kala would have ignored that as well. Abe’s grandmother, who had worked for the Korean space program before marrying Abe’s grandfather in California, had promised to take them exploring the next day, and Kala had a new camera to practice with. Meeting at Abe’s after class had fast become tradition.

Finally, the video camera mounted above Abe’s door focused on Kala’s face. Kala twisted her fingers, sweaty digits sliding past one another. At the hospital, Abe had at least been receiving medical attention. What if his condition had worsened since coming home? And why were the streets so empty? Even the homeless man who stationed himself on this block was nowhere to be seen.

“How’s he doing?” Kala blurted when Abe’s grandmother cracked open the door. Behind Halmoni, a pot simmered on the stove.

Halmoni wiped her hands on her apron. “He’s not allowed visitors. Go home, Kala, until this blows over.” She glanced past Kala, up and down the street. “It’s not safe for you to be out.”

The door slid shut in front of her nose. Kala blinked at it. No one had complained when she visited him at the hospital. So, he must have relapsed. She pressed her fingertips to her face and tried not to hyperventilate. Halmoni was making soup. Halmoni was not panicking. Abe was okay.

Kala dithered on Abe’s stoop and buttoned her jacket to her chin. The streets were quiet, everyone cooped up with their fear. Grooming it into something dark and twisted. She hoped Halmoni would tell Abe she had stopped by.

Her attention was again caught by the empty doorway to the undercity. The pavement there was stained with saliva and mucus. Had the first casualty of Valles Fever been someone like the old street man? He could die and not be named, possibly not even counted. Whereas if it were someone from the neighborhood where she grew up, someone like her mother, the news would be splashed across every media outlet. From the rumors Kala had heard of the undercity, it sounded like just the sort of place that could spark an outbreak.

The vacant opening beckoned to her. The DCC wasn’t making any headway in identifying the source of the outbreak, and if it was anyone other than Abe she would have been satisfied with kvetching on the Marsnet. But it was Abe. The one person who persisted in believing in her when she gave him no reason. She owed it to him to discover what was being covered up.

Kala fumbled in her satchel for the face mask. She drew the mask over her face, adjusting the strap so it didn’t pull her hair, and crossed the alley. She peered down into the passage.

Was she really going to do this? She had never been to the undercity, of course, but it couldn’t be sanitary down there, and when had her inner voice started sounding like her mother? Some part of her was screaming that she was making a colossally stupid mistake, but she had plenty experience ignoring that feeling–just ask Nasreen.

The gallery owner had called in favors and reporters and caterers, and as opening day approached, Kala hadn’t been able to look at her photographs much less send them to the printer. Instead, she drank herself to oblivion in her apartment, which is where Abe found her. “Why would you do this?” He chucked a bouquet on her table. Neither of them made a move as the greenhouse flowers slid over the edge and onto the floor.

The prospect of Abe dying was far more terrifying than visiting the undercity or bailing on her own exhibition. Kala took a deep breath and ducked into the stairwell. This was not why her mother had sent her the mask, she was certain.

Her exhalation condensed on her face, trapped by the mask, as she felt her way into the subterranean reaches that had sheltered the original colonists, Kala’s great-grandparents among them. She kept her eyes wide open, afraid to blink, but the black was so complete that after a while, she couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed. Her fingers quested along the carved rock wall.

It was like a tomb down here. No wonder folks stayed away if they could. Her boots scraped on the rock as she felt for each step. Kala glanced over her shoulder. The doorway to the Warrens seemed very far away. She swallowed and turned, the threshold ghosting on her vision. She descended a few more steps before she realized the faint light came from below.

She hesitated, imagining the scene she would encounter in the undercity. Like the hospital but so much worse without doctors or nurses or painkillers. Kala forced herself to take another step forward, then another, until finally, she stumbled to level ground at the mouth of a cavern.

Instead of pestilence, she encountered order. A camp stretched before her, each neat grid filled with sleeping bags and cookware. A couple of rows back, a princess canopy had been erected out of pink tulle. Lamps like will-o’-the-wisps served as irregular gathering points. Faces lifted to stare as she passed.

In her cleanish clothes and face mask–not even willing to breathe their air–Kala was certain she had hit peak interloper. Whispers coalesced in her wake. Surface dweller. She walked on, no longer sure what she was even doing down here. People seemed healthy. Dirty and distrustful, but this was no hospital. Kala raised a hand to lift her mask but was interrupted by a bout of coughing.

She followed the sound to the old man who hung out across from Abe’s apartment. Not dead then. He sat on a three-legged stool, elbows resting on his knees. “Enough with that look,” he said. “I’ve had this cough forever. From working in the mines. You won’t be catching Valles Fever down here.”

Kala pushed the mask up. Cold air pricked her face.

“I know you,” the old man said. “The friend of the Petridis boy. I’m Malcolm. What brings you to the undercity?”

“Kala,” she introduced herself, nonplussed that he knew Abe’s surname. She cast around for a place to sit, but she couldn’t tell what was trash and what might be precious to him. “Do you mind if I …?” He waved assent, and she folded herself to a spot of bare ground, wrapping her arms around her legs. The cold leeched through her layers, and Malcolm’s cackle sent him into another coughing fit.

She said, “There are rumors someone died from Valles Fever, and when I didn’t see you around, I started worrying. About what was going on down here.”

His bushy eyebrows rose. “Worried about us? More like worried about yourself. Or your friend?”

Kala flushed, thinking of all the times she had passed him by without so much as making eye contact. She was discomforted to realize how much her own past actions had been shaped by his lack of social capital. “Yeah, well, I am worried about Abe, and I’m angry no one is doing anything to stop the spread of the fever. They think it’s just a problem for the Warrens.”

“So you’re doing a little investigating. Gonna solve the mystery of the outbreak on your own?” He rubbed his hands together. “You won’t find answers in the undercity. We’re healthy as houses, it’s the air above that’s bad. Mark my words, more will fall sick after the next dust storm.”

Malcolm’s words haunted her all the way back to the surface. If the undercity wasn’t ground zero for infection, then where was?

The wind grew in intensity throughout the day, and Kala stuffed more weatherproofing beneath her apartment door. The forecast was calling for a moderate storm. A few weeks of fighting back the dust, of pacing the interior corridors of her district. Already Kala’s fingers itched to hold her camera. To stand atop the yardang and watch the storm roll in, even though she knew it was too dangerous. Dust abraded skin as well as camera lenses.

Such a stunt might have been possible before Mars was terraformed and the artificial magnetosphere installed. Then, the dust storms had been more dusty than stormy. Now that Mars had a denser atmosphere, the winds were worse. At least they weren’t forecasting a global storm like the one that hit when she and Abe were in Lyceum. All of Mars had been shut down for months though their teachers had of course assigned independent study projects.

Kala finished the weatherproofing. The wall she shared with her neighbor shook as something struck it from the other side, and a framed picture fell to the floor. She rolled her eyes and unfolded her screen. The intracolony portion of the Marsnet was still operational and a welcome distraction from stir-crazy neighbors. She settled on her bed and messaged Abe.

How are you?

Kala chewed her lip as she waited for a response, wondering how far Halmoni’s no-visitors edict extended.

Bored. How’s the storm in your sector?

A grin spread across her face. Bored was good. Bored was not dying. Stormy. Neighbors are loud.

Kala’s fingers hovered above the screen. Abe’s degree was in biology, and she wanted his input on Malcolm’s theory but didn’t want to sound like she was doling out unwanted medical advice. Hey, have you heard anyone talking about a correlation between Valles Fever and air quality?

I don’t hear anyone talking about much of anything, he wrote. Air quality like how?

Don’t know. Something having to do with the dust.

Sure, the infection could be airborne, but why now? The dust storms were here long before we were. They’re nothing new.

Kala rolled onto her stomach. So if I figure out what’s changed, maybe I can identify the source of the outbreak?

May not be an obvious factor, he wrote. Could be something that’s been in the environment all along but is now more virulent, or we’re more susceptible.

Still, it’s a place to start. It’s not like I’m doing anything else.

Good luck. Let me know what you find.

Kala closed her messages. Illogically, she wished the DCC would share the specifics of the confirmed cases, so she could map incidences, but it would be a privacy-law nightmare. Whatever the source of the infection, it had to be local to the Warrens. There still hadn’t been a single case reported elsewhere. She opened the news and started reading.

When the wind finally died, Kala’s eyes were gritty with lack of sleep. Her hand throbbed from hitting refresh, but not enough to stop. Confirmed cases of Valles Fever were spiking. The disease was still confined to the Warrens, but reports were frustratingly vague, statistics and travel advisories mixed in with real estate development updates.

Numbly, Kala shoved her screen across the bed. Malcolm and his friends would be safe in the undercity, and her mother was probably wearing a facemask inside her apartment, just in case, but where did that leave the Warrens? Screwed, by a quirk of the wind.

Kala reached to clear the screen, hesitating mid-swipe over an article about the housing development project. It was just a blurb, really. No mention of why construction was halted, machinery damaged by wind or needing excavation by dust. There were so many possible reasons for the continued shutdown of construction that the lack of explanation in itself was peculiar. She rested her chin in her hand.

Abe’s father worked on site–maybe he could explain the delay to her. Kala almost messaged Abe, but it would be harder for Mr. Petridis to evade her questions in person. It was high time to take a shower and leave her stale apartment anyway.

The broad avenue narrowed to a knife-edge, and at its tip was a checkpoint. Kala detoured through a vacant galleria, to a parallel side street, then through two tunnel alleys back to the Warrens. Fine-blown sand crunched under her boots. She halted near a window, toeing the pile of dust that must have poured from opening shutters. Inside, a figure in a contamination suit sprayed down the room with a fog of disinfectant. Unconsciously, Kala reached for her camera, ever present in her satchel. Plastered crookedly next to the open window was a public health advisory for Valles Fever. Click.

She moved on, camera raised and ready. Footfalls pounded toward her, and Kala dodged a teen in a hoodie. In the alley behind them, neon green paint dripped from quarantine graffiti. Kala swallowed. A spray can spun on the ground, came to rest. Click.

On the next street corner, a crowd had gathered, a sea of hands raised to the sky. A young woman, eyes heavy with makeup above a paper face mask, hefted a statue of Santa Muerte and hurried to join them. Click.

A health services worker, face hidden by a mask, the same model that Kala wore, bore a child away from a home. The child squirmed, stretching fingers toward the door jamb. Somewhere, someone sobbed. Click.

Kala was a landscape photographer, not some tourist come to ogle their tragedy, but all around her the familiar streets looked darkly sinister, like she had been dropped into an apocalypse. And if she didn’t record it, she knew no one outside the Warrens would believe her. She wasn’t even sure she believed it herself. Dazed, she shoved her camera in her satchel and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Wished she could rinse the taste of bile away. She knocked on Abe’s door.

The security camera gimbaled and the door clicked unlocked. Kala waited, expecting Halmoni to swing open the door. Eventually, she pushed it open herself.

Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink, and the pantry shelves were bare. If Abe’s father hadn’t been hunched at the kitchen table, fingers furrowing his thick hair, she might have turned and left, assuming she had walked into a stranger’s home by mistake.

“Mr. Petridis?” Kala edged inside. Her voice was muffled through the mask. “Is it Abe? Where’s Halmoni?”

Mr. Petridis lifted his head from his hands, and his eyes cleared as he focused on her. “Kala. I thought you were one of the health workers,” he said. “I convinced my mother-in-law to visit with her friends. Abe is doing better. He’ll be happy to see you. You can go on back.”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you about the construction project.” Kala gripped the back of an empty chair like a lifeline. “I heard the job site hasn’t been operational since the storm, and I thought that was weird. What’s going on?”

The haggard lines of his face deepened further. “Nearly the entire Fossae team has Valles Fever, from the foreman down to the crane operator. I’m one of the only people still well, and I can’t do everything by myself.”

Kala did the math in her head. The odds that the construction workers had fallen ill at such a higher incidence than the rest of the neighborhood had to be tiny. She thanked Mr. Petridis and retreated to Abe’s childhood bedroom.

“Your father is really beating himself up over the construction project.” Kala sank to the rug by his bed. Abe’s freckles stood out more than usual against skin made pallid by sickness, and his hair, the same light brown as his father’s, was greasy and pillow-flattened. He looked like a washed out version of himself. She started to pull off her face mask but he shook his head.

“Leave it on. Just in case,” Abe said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure for it to be done already so people and businesses can move in.”

“What if Valles Fever is caused by dust storms stirring up bacteria or viruses at the construction site? The Warrens is just downwind.” Kala bounced her fist on the thin mattress and added, “You should have moved out like I told you.”

“Or fungal spores,” Abe said, ignoring her last comment. They both knew he couldn’t afford rent elsewhere. “I’ve sequenced fungi populations in my soil samples.”

Kala perked up. “Do you have any samples from the construction site?”

“They would have run environmental tests before breaking ground, but I don’t have access to that data.”

“Maybe we can collect our own samples–or ask your dad to get some dirt for us.”

Abe frowned at her. “Kala, it’s private property. They’ll send me to prison.”

“Last resort then.”

He nestled deeper in his pillows. “Why can’t you leave this to the epidemiologists to sort out? It’s their job.”

“I would love to leave it to the epidemiologists. But no one is talking about it outside the Warrens.” Kala couldn’t look him in the eye. “The governor probably just wants to pave over the problem, but how many people will get sick before that happens? And what are they doing to make sure the people who move in won’t be exposed? Nothing.”

“You think you can change their minds?” Abe said.

“I don’t know. I’m going to talk to someone at town hall.”

“I won’t break into the construction site,” he said slowly, “but I could get sputum samples from people who have the infection. Give me a few days to test cultures in the lab. The DCC doctors will already know it’s fungal, but if we’re talking to a bureaucrat, we need data to back up our story.”

“We?” She grinned as she said it, cheered that Abe felt well enough to leave the apartment.

“Not letting you steal all the glory,” he joked. “But you’re in charge of getting us a meeting.”

The edifice of town hall looked worse for the wear, and they had to circumnavigate a hydraulic platform to get to the main entrance. A chunk of stucco crashed and exploded near Kala’s feet, and she glared up at the workers on the platform. “You should rope this area off,” she yelled up at them. “It’s a hazard.”

“What are you, stupid?” one yelled back. “Don’t you know better than to walk under a lift?”

Abe dragged her away. “Save it for the deputy director.”

In the lobby, Kala tried to brush the grit from her pants but the hems were a lost, dust-stained cause. She sighed and imagined what her mother would say. Her mother would agree with the workers that it was her fault. Naturally.

“You ready?” Kala asked Abe.

He was still too gaunt and pale. Part of her wanted to order him back to bed, but he had far more right to be her than she did, and she would be useless explaining the analysis he had performed. His expression was resolute. “Let’s do this,” he said.

Kala presented herself at the front desk, and the receptionist led them to an office. The nameplate on the door read Deputy Director of Colony Planning.

The deputy director was like every other bureaucrat on Mars, a middle-aged woman in an indeterminate suit. After introductions, Kala said, “Thank you for taking the time to see us.”

“I’m afraid your mother wasn’t very specific about the purpose of this meeting. Why don’t you fill me in?”

Not for the first time, Kala wished she could take all the false graciousness of Mars and toss it down a slot canyon. After what she had seen in the Warrens, she wasn’t going to beat around the bush. “My colleague–” she gestured at Abe–“and I have identified the source of the Valles Fever epidemic. Since no measures have been taken to contain its spread, I can only assume the colony government is operating with incomplete information. We’re here to share our findings with you.”

The deputy director relaxed and smiled at them. “I assure you there’s no cause for alarm. The infection is contained.”

“Contained to the Warrens, you mean.” Abe’s lip cracked as he spoke, a line of red against his mouth. The deputy director suddenly seemed farther from her desk though Kala hadn’t noticed her retreat.

“I simply meant it’s not an epidemic,” the deputy director said.

“But it is.” Kala had checked the numbers this morning. “There have already been 893 deaths. More are falling sick, and you won’t even acknowledge the problem?”

“You’re talking about less than 1% of the colony,” the deputy director said. “It’s tragic for the families, but it’s hardly a catastrophe.”

Kala flinched and then narrowed her eyes. Trust the bureaucrat to reduce people to a percentage, and the smallest possible one at that, as if Kala didn’t know the difference between a mortality rate and a case-fatality rate. “With more than 5600 confirmed cases, that means 16% of those infected die.”

The deputy director was as responsive as a yardang. 1%, Kala imagined her thinking, is nothing.

The deputy directory interlaced her fingers. “This is the planning department. You want to talk to people in the DCC. I would be delighted give you contact information for someone in that department …” If you stop bothering me, the rest went unsaid.

“Valles Fever is a planning problem,” Kala insisted. She shot a desperate glance at Abe.

He scooted forward in his seat, data at the ready. “The Fossae development project has unearthed fungal spores, which become airborne during dust storms. Ever since groundbreaking at the construction site, each storm has been followed by a spike in the number of infections.” He set his binder on the desk, open to a table of data. “I’ve analyzed hundreds of sputum cultures and identified the infection as fungal–the same fungi that’s present in local soil samples.”

Kala held her breath.

“The Fossae project has been in the works for years, and it’s one the largest in the history of the colony,” the deputy director said. “People have invested a lot of time and money into its success.”

“In the Warrens,” Kala said, “a quarter of the population is sick.” She thought of the child being forcibly removed from their home by a health services worker. “Are you calling that an acceptable loss?”

“No, I am not.” The deputy director’s nostrils flared, a satisfying crack in her composure. “But I have colony ships scheduled to arrive daily for the next six months.”

“So you’re saying the people in the Warrens are expendable?”

“I’m saying that we need Fossae to house the new colonists. Unless you can prove to me the fungi come specifically from the construction site, there’s nothing I can do. I need hard evidence, not speculation. Have the DCC run tests.” She stood and extended a business card to Kala.

Robotically, Kala palmed the card; the name was for a DCC epidemiologist. Without another word, she walked out of the office. Behind her, she heard Abe thanking the deputy directory. Smoothing things over. Kala fumed her way past the reception desk and back outside the town hall. She looked up at the darkening sky so she didn’t have to see Abe’s expression when he joined her. Phobos hurtled east on its first pass of the night while Deimos tracked ponderously in the opposite direction.

“What’s wrong with you?” Abe said.

Kala clenched her fists. “We got the run-around. She knows we can’t get those samples. She’s only interested in covering her ass.”

“You’re wrong,” Abe said. “I thought she’d kick us out immediately when she learned why we were there, but she heard us out. She seemed reasonable to me.”

Of course she heard us out. But that was for my mother’s sake, not ours. She didn’t promise to order environmental tests. She could do that, you know, with or without the DCC’s approval.”

“Fine. Then let’s go to the DCC,” Abe said. “Convince someone there to put pressure on colony planning.”

“And get the same shit from them? No thank you.” Kala dropped the business card on the street.

“So what, you just want to give up?” Abe vibrated like a live wire. Like a fever patient. She shouldn’t have dragged him out of bed. “You could make them listen. The people who matter are the ones getting sick.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Kala folded her arms over her chest. “My mother already pulled strings. It didn’t get us anywhere.”

“Not your mother. You.” Abe nodded at her satchel where he knew she kept her camera.

She notched her chin up. “What?”

“Do an exhibition. Make people feel something. Shame them into action if you have to.”

Kala’s heart raced like she was sprinting, and that’s exactly what she wanted to do. Run away. “I’m a landscape photographer.”

“You have a camera. Use it.”

She forced herself to stillness. “What’s with the judgment all of a sudden? I’m here because I’m trying to help, and it didn’t work so can you just back off?”

“No,” he said. “I can’t.”

“Nasreen would never give me a second chance.”

“She definitely won’t if you don’t ask her. If you don’t even try.” His expression was disgusted.

Kala remembered how, weeks after what was supposed to be her first exhibition, she kept finding desiccated rose petals under the furniture. Each one smelled like failure. Even when the stars had been perfectly aligned, when there had been an entire team of people going out of their way to ensure her success, Kala had managed to let them all down. Abe thought he was disappointed in her now? Just wait till she couldn’t put together whatever stunt he was expecting of her.

Kala shook her head. Fuck this. “I can’t,” she said. She turned away from him, away from the Warrens. After a couple of blocks, she came to her senses that Abe wasn’t well enough to walk home alone. But by the time she retraced her steps, he was gone.

Kala thumped her satchel inside the door and crawled into bed. The ceiling stared back at her.

What was she going to do? Abe, rightfully so, was pissed at her. The deputy director had blown them off. The DCC had their hands full and would no doubt just send her back to be Colony Planning’s problem. Meanwhile, the construction site was still half-excavated and how long would it be till the next windstorm stirred up the spores again?

Her hands itched to do something. Anything. Kala exhaled and climbed out of bed. She cleared a space on the table for her camera, then unfurled her screen into its largest configuration. She connected her camera to the screen.

It had been weeks since she had processed any photographs. The first transferred showed the Martian landscape she loved so much. The spartan desert colors. The slice made by the spine of a yardang against the dawn sky. The air was clear. If you didn’t know better–if you didn’t know a city existed just out of sight, in the crevices between the rock fins–you might mistake it for wilderness. Each colony on Mars was its own frontier. The next couple of shots showed a sequence as the radio antenna was raised. Then, time-stamped a couple weeks later, the Warrens.

The first shot was of the public health advisory by the open window. Kala hadn’t noticed at the time that the sign was defaced. Protect yourself from Valles Fever! Drink plenty of fluids; wash your hands; cover your face when you cough; if you start to feel ill, stay home. Nothing specific to a fungal infection. The window framed the worker inside, obscured by clouds of disinfectant. White jumpsuit, green face mask. A nearly empty jug of disinfectant on their back. Kala’s gaze drifted back to that small word handwritten at the bottom of the list. PRAY.

Next, a street-crowd shot, tight focus on the middle distance. Elsewhere, blurry faces, hands lifted towards a man standing atop a crate. Skin tones as varied as the desert: sand, dust, clay, basalt. Kala felt a chill. Valles Fever wasn’t contagious, but that wasn’t widely known. Did they think themselves immune, or that infection was inevitable? Reason–and public safety advisories–cautioned against close crowds, and yet for some, the compulsion to gather amidst tragedy ran deep.

The next shot hit her like someone else’s work. Kala remembered the girl carrying the skeleton icon. She didn’t remember how the girl’s hair clumped sweatily to her forehead. How her eye makeup had smeared, skeletal eye sockets to match those of the Lady. Santa Muerte clutched a scythe, and a silk flower was tied around her other hand. The girl faced the camera head-on, accusing her onlookers. Kala didn’t know documentary photography, but she recognized when a shot made her feel. She had chased that elusive feeling ever since picking up a camera in her arts elective at Lyceum, and here it was. Too powerful to keep to herself.

Kala chewed on her thumbnail. She allowed herself to consider Abe’s idea of an exposé of Valles Fever. Assuming she could even edit and assemble a proper narrative, was there anyone left of Mars who would give her the chance to show the work? Nasreen hated her guts. Even the girl in the photograph looked like she hated her. Her eyes bored into Kala, and how could Kala not at least try, in her own way, to get the truth out.

She would need more than photos of sick people. With shaky fingers, Kala messaged Abe, If we’re going to do this, I need fungi images.

Her stomach churned as she waited for his answer.

Photomicrographs?

???

Magnified images of spores.

Yes. Those.

No problem. I can borrow the equipment at the lab.

Kala’s armpits were drenched in sweat. The fight song she had played to pump herself up for this meeting faded to static. Before her, the teardrop facade of Nasreen’s gallery was high on the left and low on the right, a yardang in profile.

What was the worst that could happen? Nasreen could mock her, humiliate her, guilt her. Kala had already ruined her own reputation so she wasn’t worried about Nasreen spreading rumors that Kala was difficult to work with. That cat was long out of the bag. The meeting was bound to be uncomfortable, but compared to dying of Valles Fever, it was nothing. Kala squared her shoulders and turned her back on the gallery. She entered the cafe across the street where Nasreen had agreed to meet and nabbed a table.

As Kala waited, she messaged Abe a thumbnail of the Santa Muerte girl. Can you find her? Ask her to sign a model release form.

Is that necessary?

Not legally, but if I can convince Nasreen to give me another shot, this girl’s face will be plastered on a wall. The right thing to do is ask.

I know her. Ana Cecilia Mendoza. Cecilia was a couple years behind us at Lyceum, studying engineering.
I’ll talk to her. Any other people you need me to track down?

The rest of the photos she had selected were either crowd shots or the subject was featureless and unidentifiable in a contamination suit. Nope. Kala glanced up as Nasreen entered the cafe. Thanks, gotta go, she typed, then folded her hands over her screen and sweated some more as Nasreen wound her way past crowded tables.

Nasreen stared down unenthusiastically at Kala for a long moment. Her curly black hair was shorter than Kala remembered though they had managed to avoid one another since the debacle that was supposed to be her debut.

“I already regret coming here,” Nasreen said as she sat.

Kala’s desire to flee spiked, so vivid that she wasn’t certain she hadn’t run out onto the street. Was she sitting inside the cafe, burning courage to apologize, or had she fled, again, and was puking in an alley? The second reality seemed more likely. Kala picked up the spoon next to her cup, feeling its hard lines. She forced herself to meet Nasreen’s gaze.

“I’m sorry.” Kala closed her eyes, opened them. Still in the cafe. “You went out of your way to be generous to a new photographer, and I didn’t show up. I’m sorry I ruined your show. I’m sorry you had to throw out all that pate.” She bit back the rest. She would not turn her first proper apology into a litany of her own insecurities. “I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you ever since and didn’t apologize sooner.”

Nasreen softened. “Look,” she said. “That’s all very sweet, and I do appreciate the apology. For what it’s worth, I had the hors d’oeuvres delivered to the undercity. But if you’re here now because you want something from me, that’s not going to happen. On a personal level, I bear you no ill will, but professionally, I won’t be working with you again.”

Kala took a deep breath. “I understand–”

Nasreen started to rise.

“But hear me out, please.” Kala slid her screen across the table and waited. Nasreen’s curiosity won out, and she flipped open the screen. Kala couldn’t watch as the gallery owner clicked through the preview she had painstakingly put together.

“I thought you only did landscapes.”

Kala had to take a sip of water before she could talk. “Me too.”

“What are these?” A fingernail tapped the screen. Kala didn’t have to look.

“Photomicrographs of fungal spores,” she said. “They’re the cause of Valles Fever.”

Finally, Nasreen looked up. “How do I know you won’t pull the same stunt again?”

“They’re worth the risk, for both of us.” Kala nodded at the people captured in the images. “But if we’re doing this, we have to act fast, before more people get sick. I already sent the final image files to the printer. You just have to call the lab to approve the job.”

Nasreen’s gaze returned to the screen, to a photo of people congregating around a street orator. Nasreen had been in the business for a long time. Long enough, Kala hoped, to be adept at separating the artist from the art. Kala said, “Spin it. Spin me. I don’t care what you say to get them to come–just get them to come.”

“That I can do,” Nasreen said.

Abe was there when the exhibition opened, mercifully without flowers this time. She hugged him tight. “Thank you,” she mumbled into the fabric of his suit jacket.

“You have to stop making that face,” he said when she pulled back.

“What face?” She was smiling through her panic. That was good, right?

“Never mind.” He brushed his lapels. “Ralliers are gathering outside.”

“So long as they don’t scare anyone off. I told my mother to invite all her friends too.” She twisted the bracelet on her wrist. “What do you think of the prints? Is the music the right volume?” Incorporating music had been Nasreen’s suggestion, but Kala had selected the piece. The notes whistled and eddied through the gallery, ethereal as a sigh. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. “It’s good, isn’t it?” she said, more a statement than a question.

“It’s good.” Abe squeezed her against his side.

A few early guests trickled into the gallery. Individuals, then handfuls of people, then a steady stream. Kala recognized a few reporters from the news vids, and nodded a greeting at the Deputy Director of Colony Planning. Occasionally, folks shifted their attention from each other to her work, and Kala wanted to cheer and declare the evening a wild success, but it wasn’t. Not yet.

An hour after the start of the event, Kala’s mother entered on her hover board. Her second best jewelry in gold, Earth emeralds, and Mars opals glittered against a sharp white suit. Mrs. Gasparyan circuited the gallery, dropping in on one cluster of well-heeled Martians after the other. In each instance, she left them studying Kala’s photographs. Kala was sure the conversations were mortifying, but it wasn’t about her, it was about the Warrens.

Kala had written up a fundraising plan with the expertise of her mother’s advisors. Their initial goal was to halt construction of the Fossae project, to allow time to assess whether the site was in an area where Valles Fever was endemic. Soil needed to be treated to minimize exposure, workers trained in hazard awareness and safety protocols, and the legal team prepped for the almost inevitable court battle. The mountain of work before her was daunting, but that was a worry for another day. When her mother made the first donation, Kala could kiss her. Soon the donation booth was thronged, and Nasreen swooped in for decorous crowd control.

At some point, the Santa Muerte girl arrived. A second-gen Martian and activist, Ana Cecilia Mendoza had volunteered to make an appearance as soon as Abe explained their goal. Her eye makeup was less smudged than in the print, and she’d left her icon at home, but it was unmistakably her. She drifted around the room, an intense presence with a wake of whispers. Maintaining a mystique so complete that Kala wondered if Nasreen had coached her.

Kala grabbed Abe’s hand and pulled him away from the punch bowl. Snatches of conversation carried to them.

“… Fever …”

“Construction …”

“… Just terrible.”

The Santa Muerte girl judged them from the wall and Cecilia moved through their midst while the flutes and drums swelled. Kala closed her eyes, Abe’s hand tight in hers, and listened to the singing wind.

____

Copyright 2018 Nicole Feldringer

Nicole Feldringer’s short stories have appeared in the anthologies Press Start to Play and Loosed Upon the World, from editor John Joseph Adams, among other venues. She lives in Northern California, where she is a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Find her on Twitter @nicofeld.

by Shiv Ramdas

If it hadn’t been for the camel, Mithun might never have noticed the old balloon seller at all. He almost didn’t notice the camel either. If he’d been looking for it, he probably wouldn’t have.

Like so many other parts of Northern India, Qaisarbagh Bazaar wasn’t so much a place that time forgot as much as it was a place that had forgotten time, or at the very least, had pointedly refused to acknowledge its existence. To Mithun’s left, men in pathani kurtas herded goats past cellphone towers, never looking up. To his right, vendors pushed carts piled high with sweet-smelling fruit, bright clothes and trinkets under dangling electricity lines, ignoring the half-buried cables underfoot as they called out to passers-by as a steady stream of cars, bicycles and cycle-rickshaws swerved and cursed their way down the narrow cobbled streets. All in all, it was an explosion of sights, sounds and smells, a patchwork of colour and chaos of the sort that is so much more appealing on Exotic India postcards than when experienced in the flesh. Partly because it makes a lot of things rather difficult, such as the mundane yet surprisingly useful exercise that is finding things just by looking for them.

As Mithun stood there, he found the camel staring back at him, unblinking. Then slowly, deliberately, it jerked its head sideways, at the old man with the bent back and straggly grey beard, standing there between the paan-seller with bad teeth and the cigarette-vendor shouting discounts at schoolchildren, half-hidden in the shadow of the crumbling clock-tower. And that was when Mithun noticed the balloons.

Indeed, he couldn’t help but notice them, for these were no ordinary balloons. No, they were massive, lustrous, the most wondrous balloons you ever saw. Above the spotless white Gandhi topi on the old man’s head, a beautiful blue-green globe, the earth itself, or perhaps not quite, floating right there. Beside it, much larger, the fiery citrus glow of the reluctant red of the setting sun giving way to a soothing orange. Next to that, a small one, half translucent, half black, the moon being eaten by Rahu, just like in the myths the teacher read out every Friday.

Mithun looked at his mother, but she failed to notice him, being still engrossed in the vital task of securing an extra half kilo of lentils at no additional cost. An additional half kilo that he already knew it would be his destiny to spend the evening carrying around the bazaar. He looked back at the balloons, and as he watched, one of them, an impossibly radiant five pointed star, floated heavenwards, and then exploded in a shower of iridescence, each fragment now a star in its own right. This was the first thing Mithun noticed.

The second was that he seemed to be the only person who had noticed it.

‘Come here, boy.’

He looked around, but could see nobody who had spoken, just the usual whirling dervish of a small town economy hard at work all around.

‘Are you deaf? I said come here, boy!’

He swung around, looking across the street to where the voice had come from, and discovered he was looking at the camel again.

Mithun blinked. The camel didn’t. Instead, once more it jerked its head towards the balloons.

And then Mithun found himself far away from the channa vendor, skirting vehicles, making his way towards the talking camel and the magical balloons. But when he finally got there, he found the little stall in the shadows of the tower deserted. This gave him pause, but only briefly. Because just then he noticed the most amazing balloon of them all, a huge, black oval affair that was still translucent enough for him to see the other shapes inside it, too many to count, some round and revolving around bigger round ones, sometimes colliding, some impossibly bright, winking in and out and sometimes vanishing entirely. Mithun didn’t really know much about astronomy and had even once spelt it wrong on a test, but he knew enough to know that sometimes the appropriate response is just to gawk, mouth half-open. So gawk he did, pausing only twice, once to decline the offer of a paan and again, to point out he didn’t want a cigarette at half price.

So well did he gawk that he failed to notice the shouting, or the people suddenly running pell-mell in the opposite direction. The first inkling he had that something was wrong was a heavy, grinding sound, not dissimilar to the one Sarita Aunty’s lassi-machine had made when he’d tried to grind pebbles in it. Only this was much louder, loud enough to cut through his reverie.

He looked up, and saw it, the top of the clock tower teetering and then, ever so leisurely, tipping over, raining rock down, as it strained to obey gravity’s call. Then with a final, shuddering groan it fell, blocking out the sun above him, falling downwards like a furious thundercloud, Indra’s vajra hurtling down to earth.

Somewhere in the far recesses of his mind, Mithun knew he should run, but his legs wouldn’t work, nothing would, all he could do was look up, mouth open in a wordless scream. He felt a hand grab the back of his shirt, yanking` him back roughly, and then something slammed into his head, sending an explosion of white before his eyes, which just as quickly turned to black.

That was the last thing he remembered.

Mithun woke, opened his eyes, and then closed them again because it was so dark that the effort seemed pointless.

‘Are you all right?’

The voice, coming as it did from what appeared to be empty space, took him by surprise. Mithun sat up abruptly, bringing his head in sharp contact with what appeared to be an incredibly low roof.

‘Ow!’

‘Are you all right?’ the voice asked again.

‘My head hurts. Who’s there?’

‘Just me,’ said the voice. It was soft, and yet somehow strident, the sort of voice that has seen much service.

There was a sharp rasping sound, the unmistakable accent of a match striking stone, and Mithun found himself looking into the face of an old man in a torn, dirty Gandhi cap, worn askew on his head. It was a lean, lined face, weather beaten and grey-bearded, with a pair of gentle brown eyes.

‘It’s you,’ said Mithun. ‘Gubbara-wala. The balloon man.’

The match went out.

‘Bhak!’ said the old man. ‘Third-rate matches. Well, I suppose those are the only kind.’

A moment later he’d lit another.

‘Here, hold this,’ he said, holding out the match. ‘Yes, that’s fine, just a moment, let me find… Where did it–Ah, there we go!’

From his pocket he pulled a pale, translucent balloon.

He took a deep breath, then blew into the balloon. It swelled up, and as it did, it began to glow, filling the alcove with a thin, silvery light. The man gave the end a twist and let it go, and it floated up, coming to a rest against a rocky ceiling a few feet over his head.

‘Nothing quite like moonlight, is there?’

Mithun glanced around at their surroundings. There wasn’t much to see, just rocks piled all around the small alcove where they were. Mithun pulled himself to where he could sit up, so he was now facing the old man.

‘Managed to get us under the arch,’ said the balloon man, and grinned, showing a set of strangely perfect teeth. ‘Cramped, but it’ll keep the weight out till they dig through.’

Mithun wasn’t sure if it was the words or the tone they were delivered in, but he felt the cold stab of panic slice through his chest.

‘Ma!’ he shouted.

The old man smiled, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry lad. You’ll be fine.’

Mithun looked around. There was a distinct watery sensation at the very bottom of his stomach.

‘How do you know?’

‘Well, you’d better be,’ said the man indignantly. ‘I had to run awfully fast to pull you safe, and I still don’t know if it’ll count. Or where that camel’s got to. But we’ll find out soon enough, I suppose and whatever will be will be. Oh, don’t look so scared, you’ll be fine, didn’t I say? They’ll save you, I promise.’

‘Don’t you mean us?’

The old man chuckled. ‘No, I’m the only one saving me.’

‘I don’t understand, baba. We’re here together. If I get rescued, so will you.’

‘Well, you should understand. Makes perfect sense when you do. Just remember the rule.’

‘What rule?’

‘That in India, whatever is true, the opposite is also true.’

Mithun blinked, realising that his fellow prisoner was not quite sane. He turned away, scrabbling at the rocks to his left.

‘Stop that!’ said the balloon man sharply. ‘Don’t upset the balance, you’ll bring them all down. Look at me, boy. Here. Look at me and take a deep breath. Alright, let it out. Slowly. Good, good. Feel better?’

‘No,’ said Mithun.

‘Of course you do. You just don’t know it yet. Alright, what’s your name?’

‘Mithun.’

‘Want to hear a story, Mithun?’

‘You think I’m six? No, I don’t want to hear a story.’

‘Well, you’ll just have to. How can you be part of the story if you won’t hear the rest of it?’

Once again, he reached into a pocket, and pulled out a packet, from which he shook out three balloons, green, black and white.

‘That’ll be enough,’ he said.

With that, he set to work, first blowing into the black balloon, then twisting and worrying at it with his callused hands as it grew, taking the shape of a bird. Except it wasn’t just a balloon bird, it was a real bird, a majestic black swan, feathers, beak and all. As Mithun watched, it jumped to the ground, and stood up and nodded at the old man, fluttering its wings.

‘H–how?’

The old man winked at him.

‘Magic,’ he said.

‘Magic? How did you do that?’

‘Quite a silly boy, aren’t you?’ said the swan.

Mithun felt his jaw loosen. He sat there, eyes bulging.

‘It talks?’

‘Of course I talk,’ said the swan. ‘Don’t you?’

‘How can it talk?’

‘She, and thank you very much, young man. And he just told you how. Magic.’

‘Yes, but how?’

The swan sniffed. ‘That’s why it’s called magic. If we knew, we’d call it science instead.’

The balloon man seemed to have been paying no attention to this exchange. Instead, he’d been busy working on the green balloon, so now there was also a long, grass-green snake in the alcove with them, staring straight at Mithun.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ said the snake.

Mithun could only stare.

Finally, the snake broke the silence.

‘I apologise if I’m being rude, but do you talk?’

‘Of course he does,’ said the balloon man. ‘He’s just shocked, that’s all. His name’s Mithun, by the way.’

‘Not very bright, though,’ said the swan, and sniffed. ‘Boys of this age seldom are.’

‘Maybe he’s just scared,’ said the snake, uncoiling slowly and moving towards Mithun. ‘Do you need a hug?’

‘No–I’m fine! Stay away!’

The snake retreated slightly, looking hurt.

Said the swan, ‘Where’s the camel?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘This is terrible.’

‘Well, make the best of it.’

‘I am making the best of it.’

‘Must you always be in a bad mood?’ asked the snake.

‘Yes,’ said the swan. ‘You try cleaning your feathers in this land with more dust than air for the last–‘

It broke off suddenly, looking towards where the last balloon-animal-turned-real-animal now stood, a large white elephant, about as big as the balloon man himself. With a start, Mithun realised it had several heads–five in fact. The balloon man bowed, as did the other animals.

‘It is time,’ said the elephant in a slow, ponderous voice.

‘Are you ready to be heard?’

‘We are,’ replied everyone except Mithun.

‘Then begin,’ said the elephant, sitting down. ‘Who shall it be?’

‘Me,’ said the snake. ‘Where do you wish me to begin, Lord?’

‘I have always found the beginning to be as good a place as any. And the appropriate one in a hearing such as this. Tell your part of the story, and tell it true.’

‘I will indeed, Lord,’ said the snake, and hissed, the sound slithering away over the stones around them.

‘Listen to me now. Listen as I tell you the story of the wretched King Vikramaditya.

VIKRAMADITYA AND THE CELESTIAL COW

Long, long ago, long before this land carried this name or the one before this or the one before that, this was the kingdom of the good Raja Vikramaditya. Many stories of his wisdom and valour have been written, but this is not one of them, for it is about neither. But know that the king was revered far and wide for being as learned as he was generous, and a true man of dharma. It was said he had never once broken a promise and no man who visited his court left without what he had come for. A greater, more generous, more virtuous king than Indra, king of the gods, whispered some, and judging by the state of the universe, that may even have been true.

Now, one day, there arrived in the court of Raja Vikram a rishi, a wandering holy man. Vikram received him immediately, for such was his custom.

‘Pray tell me, holy sire,’ he said. ‘What service may this monarch render you?’

‘Your protection, King Vikramaditya,’ replied the rishi. ‘And it is not for myself I ask it, but for another. For a while, I have made my abode a small ashram on the other side of the river. There I stay, alone save for one companion, a heifer. But now I must travel north for a pilgrimage, and it will be many a sunrise before I return. I cannot leave her there alone. Will you, O King, take her under your protection?’

‘Indeed I will,’ said Vikram.

‘Know this too, that she is no ordinary cow, for she was given to me as a boon by Kamdhenu, Mother of Cows. She eats only the greenest grass and drinks only the clearest water and her milk is sweeter than honey and has the power to cure any illness or ailment.’

‘I hear you, Gurudev,’ said Vikram. ‘It shall be as you ask. Leave on your pilgrimage when you wish and upon your return, she will be waiting here for you.’

‘Thank you, Maharaj,’ said the rishi. ‘I expected no less. May your years be long and your days filled with light.’

So saying, he left, taking with him a cohort of the king’s men to whom he would entrust the wondrous heifer. Meanwhile, Vikram called forth his ministers to decide how best to care for the rishi’s cow.

“Let us build an enclosure for her and make sure she is fed and guarded at all times,’ said one.

‘An excellent suggestion,’ said the king. ‘Let it be done.’

And so a grand enclosure was built, with high stone walls and a sloping roof and golden tiles within and a whole host of soldiers without. The king personally oversaw the construction, and well pleased he was, for he knew it to be so secure that perhaps even Vayu, god of the air, would have trouble getting in undetected. And no matter how busy with his duties, he never failed to look in on the rishi’s cow every night, to make sure she was safe and well.

Until one day, when a visitor arrived unbidden, one that set the entire palace aflutter with fear and excitement, for it was a nagin, a great she-serpent with a massive hood and scales as green as the gehu-stalks after the rains.

The king received her immediately, for such was his way with visitors.

‘They say you never refuse someone who comes to you for help, King Vikramaditya,’ said the nagin. ‘And it is for your help I am here.’

‘You honour me, noble nagin,’ said the king. ‘Tell me what it is you wish for, and if it be in my power, you shall have it.’

‘My daughter’s life, maharaj,’ spoke the nagin. ‘She accidentally angered a rishi, and was cursed with a lingering sickness that will take her. Indeed, her time is almost up. There is but one thing that can save her.’

‘Say no more,’ answered the king. ‘I know what it is you seek, but my hands are tied, for the milk of the celestial cow is not mine to give.’

‘No, Vikramaditya, you do not understand. My daughter’s ailment is from a god’s curse. Just the milk of the cow is not enough. To be cured, she must partake of its flesh.’

‘Never!’ said the king, shocked. ‘The rishi left the cow under my protection. And on my honour I vowed to protect it, not give it away to be slaughtered.’

‘Does your honour involve putting the life of a cow over that of my daughter, Vikramaditya?’ asked the nagin.

‘I will give you my entire herd if you so desire, but this cow is not mine to give,’ said the king.

‘All the herds in all three worlds are no use to me if you will not do so,’ said the nagin.

On and on they argued, but the king would not be swayed to break his promise and finally the nagin rose up on her tail. ‘So be it, Vikram, but I shall remember that you held my daughter’s life in your hands and refused to give it back, and you shall regret this day.’

And then she was gone, leaving no trace of her ever having come save the furrows on every brow in the hall.

‘She will be back, Maharaj,’ said one of his courtiers.

‘I am sure of it,’ said Vikram. ‘But I will not seek shelter from the rain before the clouds come. Never let it be said that Vikramaditya exchanged his honour for safety.’

But even though he spoke the words, he felt a dark foreboding in his heart, for even the gods thought hard before making an enemy of a nagin, and none had ever been known to renege on a vow of vengeance. Even so, he resolved to not show his trepidation, for a fearful king is inevitably soon a former king, and went about the rest of his regal duties.

At the end of the day, he visited the cow’s enclosure, as he always did. The guards saluted him and stepped back to let him enter. And he did so, only to realise that the enclosure was now empty, the cow gone.

He looked around, but there was no sign of her, no mark of anything. And then he heard the faintest sound, and turned and saw a hole in the wall, through which was disappearing a long, green tail.

‘Guards!’ shouted Vikram. ‘Guards! The nagin has escaped with the cow. Stop her!’

And with that, he ran outside, but when he got there he saw that the nagin had eluded his men, for he could see her in the distance, fleeing as swiftly as the winter in Vaisakha.

Undeterred, the king called for his swiftest horse, and immediately set off in pursuit. For countless days and nights he followed her, over leagues of forests and valleys, hills and dunes. Until they were all the way to the Saraswati, the famed river that marks the boundary between this world and the next.

The king leapt off his horse and prepared to dive in, and even as he did, he heard the nagin’s voice, carrying across to him from the other side.

‘How long will you follow me, Vikramaditya?’

‘As long as it takes,’ answered Vikram. ‘Until you return the rishi’s cow to me, unhurt, or until I finally catch up with you and force you to do so.’

The nagin laughed. ‘There is no power in existence that can give you what you want, Vikram. Even if you were to catch up with me, and defeat me, even then it would still gain you nothing. Hear me when I say that Shiva himself could not force the whereabouts of the cow from me while my daughter’s life hangs in the balance. In my place, you would do the same.’

And at this the king paused, for he recognised the truth in what the nagin was saying.

‘You will not succeed at this quest. And know that I take no pleasure in what I have done, but it is for the good of us both that I do it. It would have been far easier to have fought you for the heifer, and one of us would now be dead. Honour may lie in keeping your word, but wisdom is knowing that trying does not mean succeeding. Return to your kingdom and know that no shame or dishonour falls upon you. You pursued me to the very edge of Prithvilok and still you failed. This is the last time we shall exchange words, king, so return with your head held high and tell the rishi you did what any mortal man could have done and more.’

With that, she was gone, while the king stood ankle-deep in the river at the edge of the world, lost in thought, for truth is true no matter who speaks it and Vikram was wise enough to know this. Then he leapt back upon his horse and began the long, lonely journey back to his kingdom.

‘But what will you do when the rishi returns?’ asked his queen of him one night.

‘The only thing I can do,’ replied Vikram. ‘I shall throw myself at his mercy and whatever will be will be.’

And very soon he got his wish, for, as is so often the case in these stories, the very next day the rishi returned.

‘I am back, King Vikramaditya,’ he said. ‘Now return my heifer to me.’

Vikram bowed his head. ‘I have failed you, venerable one.’

So saying, he told the rishi what had happened with the nagin and how he had pursued her only to return empty handed.

Even before he had finished, the rishi’s face had darkened, his eyes flashing with rage. ‘You have broken your word to me, Vikramaditya,’ he said. ‘A king who cannot be trusted is no king at all. Tell me, what should I do with you? A curse, or something more befitting?’

Vikram fell at the sage’s feet. ‘Forgive me, gurudev,’ he cried. ‘I throw myself on your mercy. If there is anything I can do to atone, say the word and I am at your service.’

‘Is what you say true?’ asked the rishi, stroking his beard. ‘You once vowed to do me a service and failed. Will you now vow to do me another of my choosing?’

‘I do, gurudev,’ said Vikram.

‘No matter what I ask of you? Do I have your word?’

‘You do, gurudev,’ said Vikram.

‘Then I accept.’ said the rishi, in a very different voice. ‘Now rise, Vikramaditya. Rise like the king you are and look me in the eye.’

Vikram looked up and lo–the rishi was gone and in his place stood the demigod Narada, master of bards, storyteller of storytellers and messenger of the gods themselves.

‘But why, Lord?’ asked Vikram.

‘It was a test, King Vikramaditya,’ replied Narada. ‘A test that you failed, but I am willing to forgive, if you are willing to keep your vow this time.’

‘I am,’ answered the king.

Narada smiled, the irresistible smile that the songs tell us that even the apsaras could not resist, although most of those songs were composed by Narada himself. ‘All is well then,’ he said. ‘I accept your offer, King Vikramaditya. When the time comes, I shall return and remind you of your promise to serve me.’

He smiled again. ‘And I have just the service in mind.’

And so it came to pass that Vikramaditya, noblest of kings, found himself bound in service to the prince of all tricksters, although as it turned out, he might have been better off dead. What became of that service is a story in itself, but what you have just heard is the tale I have to tell, and know every word to be true, for I was there and saw it all.

‘Wait,’ said Mithun. ‘Better off dead? How could he have been better off dead?’

The snake hissed. ‘Because there are worse things than dying.’

‘Such as?’ said Mithun.

‘Not dying, said the swan.

‘That makes no sense,’ said Mithun.

The swan nodded. ‘I knew you were a foolish boy. Said so right from the start.’

‘Now, what we have here is a beginning, and little else,’ said the elephant. ‘Which of you will tell of what happened next?’

‘I will, Lord,’ said the swan, and flapping her wings, she began.

VIKRAMADITYA AND THE ELEPHANT’S CURSE

King Vikramaditya waited anxiously for Narada to return, and he waited in vain. Weeks passed into months, the rains came and went, and did so again, with still no sign of him. It was not till the rains came a third time that Narada returned, early in the morning on the first day of Vraj.

The king was still in his bedchamber, and when he heard, he rushed down, so hastily he even forgot his turban.

‘I have returned, O King,’ said Narada. ‘Do you intend to keep your word?’

‘I do,’ answered Vikram. ‘What is it you wish of me?’

‘To accompany me to a sabha–a grand gathering.’

‘As you wish. When do we leave?’

‘Immediately. I wish to arrive well in time’

‘It has already begun?’

Narada smiled. ‘It began almost thirty years ago, King Vikram.’

‘Thirty years? Who is this king who would throw a sabha that long?’

Narada smiled. ‘Mine. We go to Devlok, to the court of Indra. And there we shall play a little trick on him.’

At this Vikram stared at him. ‘This is madness, O sage. To attempt to deceive the king of the Devas himself? You will doom us both.’

‘No, I will repay the insult he dealt me. Do not presume to question me, Vikram! When the time is right, you will be told what to do. You need only follow the dharma of a king, and be true to your word.’

‘I may not share your confidence, but that does not mean I forget my dharma.’

‘Then there is no more to be said for the present and let us be on our way.’

So saying, he reached out and touched the king on the arm, and in that instant they both vanished, travelling ways that words cannot describe, so swiftly that they were at the gates of Devlok in no more time than it took to finish this sentence.

‘And here we are,” said Narada.

‘Indeed,’ answered Vikram. ‘Although I wish I could have no part of this. But the yolk cannot be returned to the broken egg, so tell me what it is we must do and let us do it and face whatever punishment Indra sees fit.’

‘You misjudge me, Vikram. It is true that Indra insulted me, but that does not wound me. But when a king falls into the folly of pride, it is the duty of his nearest and dearest to remind him of this fact and if they shall not do it then it must fall on us.’

‘It is not my place to teach the king of heaven of his follies.’

‘That is where you are wrong, King Vikramaditya. If it is anyone’s place, it is yours. Of your honour there can be no question, for I have seen it with my own eyes, and as for your wisdom, I have heard it said that your knowledge of statecraft is second to none, and that you learnt it from the great Rishi Vishwamitra himself. What is more, you are a mortal. We shall confront Indra with his secret fear–that one day a mortal might surpass him in prowess.’

‘Indra would tell you of his secret fear?’

‘Secrets rarely stay that way. Now listen to me, and listen well. I shall now disguise you as a wandering merchant. You will enter the sabha and challenge Indra to a battle of wits. And there before the entire assembly of the gods, he will learn his lesson. Even if you do not win, if you make him pause that is enough, for he will begin to wonder if he really is as great as he believes when even a common mortal can so challenge him.’

‘Very well,’ said Vikram. ‘I am ready.’

‘Two more things–when we enter, keep your eyes down and keep your eyes covered or you will be blinded by the grandeur of Indra’s palace. No mortal eyes can withstand such a sight. I will be beside you to guide you, but also in disguise, for I do not want Indra to suspect anything. Second, and do not forget this–no matter how hungry or thirsty you get, do not eat or drink anything within the palace, or you will regret it. Now let us be going, for the sabha has begun and each moment is more precious than you realise.’

So saying he transformed them both, King Vikram into a turbaned merchant, himself into a camel loaded with wares. They made their way through the gates all the way to the palace. Here Vikram shielded his eyes, allowing the camel to guide him all the way into the famed Celestial Hall. Once they were inside however, his curiosity got the better of him and he wrapped his turban and placed it over his eyes, just opening his eyes enough to peer through.

Around them played music, a melody so sweet the rain stopped falling to listen. In the front of the room, before the throne, danced an apsara, her beauty such that it put even the summer sunset to shame. Invisible hands pressed a goblet into his hand, and without thinking about it, he took a sip. It was the sweetest drink he’d ever tasted, like wine and honey and something else he couldn’t describe. And too late he remembered Narada’s warning and stopped, and no sooner had he thought about drinking no more than the goblet vanished. The minutes passed, and he felt no ill effects, no different than usual. From the corner of his eye, he saw Varuna, God of the Ocean lounging on a gold seat, hair made of water, streaming down and curling at the back in waves. Beside him sat Chandra, gentle silvery moon, skin glowing with a soft white light. And beyond him, another being, but as Vikram turned towards him all he saw was a bright, fiery incandescence that burnt into his eyes, forcing him to squeeze them shut for fear he would be blinded and he knew he had almost committed to folly of daring to look straight at Surya.

‘Still your mind,’ said Narada into his ear. ‘When I give you the signal, raise your voice and challenge Indra.’

And Vikram stood there, eyes lowered, listening until the music softened and he felt the camel nudge him in the back.

‘Great and noble Indradev, king of us all, I challenge you!’ he cried.

There was a hush and then a ripple, the music stopped abruptly.

‘Who says that? Stand before me!’ said a voice that sounded like thunder, and Vikram knew that Indra had heard.

The camel nudged him again and Vikram stepped forward, making his way through the sabha until he stood before the massive, dazzling throne.

Said Indra, ‘Who are you, mortal who wishes to challenge me?’

‘To a battle of knowledge, Lord,’ said Vikram. ‘Who I am not important. If I am, as you say, a mere mortal, then surely a merchant is as good as a king to you just as a fly is as a mosquito to a man.’

‘Even the fly and the mosquito have their proper place and wisdom lies in knowing that place.’

‘I see you have accepted my challenge, Indradev,’ said Vikram bowing.

At that there was a laugh from the assembly. Airavarta, mount of Indra himself clapped, nodding his many heads appreciatively and even Indra smiled.

‘Very well, mortal. Let us proceed.’

And so it began, question and answer, back and forth. And the longer it went on, the more all those watching marvelled at the wit and wisdom of Vikram, so much so that even Indra was forced to focus all his attention on their battle going so far as to even stop listening to the prayers people sent him from earth.

Until finally, Indra sat up on his throne and looked straight as Vikram. ‘You are no merchant. The depth of your knowledge and the breadth of your arguments are those of someone who has devoted his life to statecraft. You have entered my halls uninvited, on false pretences. How came you here?’

And then his gaze fell on the camel and Indra’s face darkened, like the thunderclouds from where he wielded his vajra.

‘Narada? Are you the one responsible for this deceit?’

Hearing that terrifying voice roaring through the hall, Narada turned, only to find that Vayu blocked his way.

‘Nay, trickster,’ he said. ‘Today you shall answer for your actions.’

But Narada’s action had confirmed his guilt and there now rang out cries and exclamations from those in the assembly. Until Airavata jumped to his feet, many trunks quivering in fury, and the hall fell silent, for the God-king of the Elephants was known for his wisdom and his compassion but few were foolish enough to not fear his anger.

‘Narada! You thought to deceive our king in this fashion, while you disguise yourself and hide among us, watching, like a coward? This time you have gone too far. And as for this mortal whom you brought here as an instrument of your trickery, I shall crush him where he stands!’

So saying he set off towards Vikram, but Vayu was there, barring his path, even as he continued to stop Narada from escaping, for the God of the Wind can be everywhere at once.

‘Stop, good Airavata! Stay your hand and listen to me. I recognise this mortal and he is none other than the noble King Vikramaditya, whose name has reached even these halls. Many a time have I flown over his lands and not once have I found any of what is said to be untrue. Now, listen to me, Indra, listen to me, all you immortals. Hear what I have to say, for I know the truth of what has happened. What we have seen today is the fruit of a great many seeds, and in each case the same hand planted them. It was Narada the double-tongued who entreated the apsara Visala to take the form of a nagin and steal away his cow from King Vikramaditya, the same cow he promised to the apsara Nairiti if she transformed into a bird and flew to the very top of the celestial palace and listened at Indradev’s bedchamber. They thought that nobody would know, but the wind carries all voices, no matter how soft, and I hear them all. And this is how they tricked this mortal into standing here today, and it is to his credit that he has acted with dharma throughout. As to his fate, and the fate of these others, that is for you to decide, Lord. But know what I tell you to be true, for I was there and saw it all.’

‘I have heard enough,’ said Indra. ‘But still I would give each of the accused an opportunity to speak in their defence. Has any of you anything to say?’

‘My lord, I merely was doing my bounden duty!’ said Narada. ‘I saw you had made an error and I sought–‘

‘You sought to create a spectacle for your amusement,’ said Airavata. ‘Your untruths have caused much annoyance to many, so still your tongue ere I still it for you.’

‘What of you apsaras?’ asked Indra. ‘Is what Vayu says true?’

‘It is, lord,’ they said, beautiful faces burning pink.

‘And you, King Vikramaditya? Have you anything to say?’

‘Only that I am yours to do with as you see fit and know that had I not given my word, I would not be here.’

‘Prettily spoken indeed!’ said Indra. ‘From what I have heard here, Vikramaditya has conducted himself with great honour and for this reason I forgive him his deception, and even his forcing me to stop listening to the prayers of those invoking me. There will be no punishment, he has been punished enough by staying here this long. You are a credit to all men, Vikramaditya. Ask me for what you will and if it be in my power, I will grant it.’

‘You honour this unworthy one, lord,’ said Vikram, bowing. ‘But I desire nothing further than to return to my kingdom and family.’

‘That is impossible, O King,’ said Indra. ‘They are gone.’

‘Gone?’ cried Vikramaditya. ‘I do not understand, Lord. Where could they go? And if they are, grant me your permission to leave immediately to set out after them. It has scarce been a few hours since I left home, and I can still catch them.’

But Indra shook his head. ‘Nay, Vikramaditya. Time here in Devlok is not as time on Prithvilok. Every second here is a year there. You have been here several hours, but you have been gone for hundreds of years. Your family, kingdom, the world as you knew it, all are long since gone. And even you with all your courage and wisdom cannot follow them, for a body may not travel the paths souls take.’

At these words, a terror ran through Vikram and he folded his palms before Indra. ‘Then there is nothing left to return to. You promised me a boon, Indra, so I now ask it–return me to them.’

‘Nay, I cannot,’ answered Indra. ‘For none may turn back the cycle of Time, and neither will I take you before your time.’

‘Then I am lost!’ said Vikramaditya. ‘All is lost. It seems all I can do is return to earth and wait for my time.’

‘Return by all means, but first tell me this–did you eat or drink anything here?’

‘Only a sip of wine,’ said Vikram. ‘The merest taste.’

And Indra looked at him and there was sadness in his eyes. ‘You have made a grave mistake, O Vikramaditya. What you drank was Amrit, the divine nectar of immortality. Lord Yama will not come for you, for Death does not visit those touched by Amrit.’

Vikram fell to his knees. ‘You mean I am destined to wander the earth till the end of Creation itself? No, Indra, no! Do not this to me, I entreat you!’

‘I cannot make Yama come for you, King Vikramaditya,’ said Indra. ‘Indeed there is but one path I can offer you. But it will not be easy. Are you willing?’

‘I would do anything.’

‘Then here is what you must do. For hours I ignored prayer after prayer, devotees I would have helped, people in need of my aid, all because you distracted me. One thousand times one thousand they numbered, and none of them did I aid. Your task is this–return to Prithvi and make it your mission to help people, until such time as you have performed one good deed for each prayer you caused me to miss in all the years that have passed since you came here. Do this and when you have finished, I will grant you a place in my halls, and here you may sit alongside us, as one of us, until the end of this cycle of Creation.’

‘If this is the only choice before me, said Vikram. ‘I shall do as you command, Lord. But know I would prefer to not have to make it.’

‘And that is the only reason I offer it,’ said Indra. ‘So be it, then. As for you, Narada, Airavata spoke for us all when he said that for too long have you spread false stories. You are hereby banished from the heavens. Spend your time on the mortal plane, until such time as you have told a true story for each untruth you have uttered. Then and only then will you ever have hope of returning here. Airavata, faithful one, I leave it to you to see that what I have said today is done.’

Airavata bowed. ‘It shall be done, Lord. But the bard cannot escape this lightly. It was by my boon that he gained the power to transform himself. So let him remain in this form, not a man, but a beast, for all the time he must spend on Prithvi.’

‘But I too have something else,’ said Vayu. ‘I feel for you, King Vikramaditya and what the fates have decided for you. I cannot undo any of what has been done, but accept this gift from the God of the Winds.’

So saying he pressed a bag into Vikram’s hands.

‘Toys of my devising that one day mortal children will play with, but these ones have been blessed by me, Vikramaditya. When you have need, invoke me as you fill them and the air itself will help you. Accept this as a token from Vayu.’

‘Lord Indra, what of the apsaras?’ asked Airavata. ‘Is their part to go unpunished?’

‘Since they helped create this situation, let them be part of it till the end,’ said Indra. ‘They too are banished from my halls until Vikramaditya returns. Let them be witness to each task he performs for as long as it may take.’

And that was how King Vikram was condemned to wander the earth as a commoner, helping those he could. And how Narada was punished, along with the apsaras Visala and Nairiti.‘

The swan gulped. A single large tear fell from its eye, landing on the dirt underfoot with a soft plop.

‘And what happened of his task is a story in itself ’ went on the swan. ‘But what you have just heard is the tale I have to tell, and know every word to be true, for I was there and saw it all.’

‘But that’s not fair!’ said Mithun. ‘Why would the gods not let Vikram stay right then?’

‘The gods never claimed to be fair, they only claimed to be right,’ said the elephant.

‘That makes no sense,’ said Mithun.

‘Guard your tongue, boy!’ said the swan, and squawked angrily. ‘If you must address Lord Airavata, do so with respect or not at all!’

‘I shall answer for myself, Nairiti,’ said Airavata. ‘Makes no sense, you said? And you are surprised because everything else makes sense? The gods have the power to be anywhere they want whenever they want and yet Indra has me, Shiva has Nandi, Vishnu has both Ananta and Garuda, almost every god has a mount. Does this make sense? This is the trouble with mortals, always demanding that things must make sense and be logical. Such a human desire. To exist, a thing need not be logical, it just needs to be. Now let us move on for we have a beginning and a middle but not an end. Are you the third witness? Of course you are, for yours is the next story.’

‘I don’t know any stories,’ said Mithun.

‘Of course you do. Everyone does. And today yours is the most important one of all, so don’t be shy. I shall even help you. Are you ready?’

VIKRAM, THE CAMEL AND THE BOY

     ‘Vikramaditya had lost his kingdom, but not his will.’ said Airavata. ‘He was determined to fulfill the task Lord Indra had given him. Even so, he knew it would not be easy. A thousand times a thousand numbered the prayers Indra had ignored, and for each of these Vikramaditya owed one good deed. And since it is a lot easier to pray than help, he was destined to spend more years on earth than he had been away in Devlok. Indeed, he soon found that helping people is a lot harder than it sounds. On one occasion he decided to help a young lover sneak into his beloved’s home, only to discover that he was no such thing, but a burglar who robbed the family as they slept. On another, he assisted distraught parents in finding their lost son, except that it turned out the parents were drunkards whom the boy had run away from and Vikram was forced to rescue him again. Even so, he persevered, until he had done too many good deeds to remember the count, although not nearly enough to stop counting.

Until one day, walking towards a destination that no longer matters, he was caught in one of those torrential midyear downpours that are so important to the livelihood of both the farmer and the poet. Seeking shelter from the rain, Vikramaditya left the road and came across a small cowshed in a field. Within it, he found a man, also taking refuge from the storm. Once the mandatory pleasantries had been exchanged, they set to talking.

‘So what brings you this way?’ asked Vikramaditya.

‘Ill-fortune,’ replied the man. ‘And this rain has added to it else I would already be in the next town where I could put an end to my misery.’

‘These are worrying words, friend,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘I hope you do not mean to do yourself an injury.’

‘Only to my money-purse,’ said the man.

‘Tell me what ails you,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘Perhaps I can help.’

‘You seem like a good person, said the man. ‘So while it would be easy to give you my burden, it would not be right. You see, I am not travelling alone. I have with me a camel that I tied outside and you may have seen as you entered. I am taking it to the butcher in the town up the road so he may slaughter it. He may not pay me very much for it, for it is old and its meat no doubt stringy, but I would rather pay him to slaughter it than take it back with me.’

‘Why do you say this?’ asked Vikramaditya.

‘Because this is no ordinary camel. It was sold to me by a merchant who said it was a magic talking camel and would bring me good fortune. It seemed an excellent bargain so I agreed, even though I did not believe him just as I have no doubt you will not believe me. But you may take my word for it–the beast does in truth speak. Indeed, it has scarce ceased speaking since I got it and every word it has uttered has brought me naught but misfortune. Curse that scoundrel and curse his camel.’

‘I see,’ replied Vikramaditya. ‘In that case, perhaps you would not mind if I saw this magical camel for myself?’

‘If that is what you wish, by all means. But I warn you now not to listen to a word it says, for every sentence that escapes its lips is either terrible or a lie.’

‘Thank you for your warning, friend,’ said Vikramaditya, and getting up, he made his way out of the cowshed to where the camel was tied. And when he got outside, he saw that it was indeed Narada still trapped in camel form who was tied there, because of course it was, for these are the sort of coincidences that make stories possible.

‘Vikramaditya!’ said Narada. ‘It is indeed you! I had not thought to see you.’

‘The fates have not been kind to you, it would appear.’

‘Certainly not. I have never cared much for mortals but now I love them even less. Do you know what it has been like trying to tell only true stories all these years? To begin with, nobody wants to listen because most true stories are not pleasant. But we waste time. Quickly, free me before this lout realises or he will be taking me to the butcher. Hurry now– the rain ceases as we speak.’

‘Do you indeed expect me to do you a good turn after all you have put me through?’

‘No, Vikramaditya, I expect you to do a good turn. Is that not your purpose now?’

‘You will not twist me around with your words again, Narada. It is yourself you care about.’

‘Certainly, but it is also you I think of. And it is not so bad for me as you might think. I am an immortal and cannot die, which the fool inside does not know. The butcher cannot kill me, but it will hurt a great deal, which I am anxious to avoid. Also reflect that the man inside wishes to be rid of me, as I wish to be rid of him and by freeing me you would be doing us both a good turn, and so have one less to perform.’

‘It is this very cunning that has put you in the position that you find yourself in now, Narada. Too much cleverness is not a virtue. Even so, I will free you, for malice is a slow poison and makes the blood grow thicker.’

‘Do this and I will repay you, Vikramaditya. You have my word.’

‘You are already making me regret this,’ replied Vikramaditya, and so saying, he went back into the shed. A few minutes later, and somewhat lighter in the pocket, he returned and led the camel away.

‘You are now free to go, Narada.’

‘You are a man of honour, Vikramaditya. You have come to my aid, even after I tricked you and have earned my gratitude. And so I have decided to help you in your task, to end your imprisonment on earth, and I swear I will not rest until I have seen you finish your last good deed.’

‘I do not trust you.’

‘Merely reflect that we can help each other, for I have ever had a nose for trouble and by helping you I can tell the story of those deeds and it will be a pleasant story after all. And Indra never said I could not be in my own stories. And you have my word, the word of a demigod. As heaven is my witness, if I do not keep it, may I be trapped here forever.’

‘Very well,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘I will accept your offer, for I do not believe you would be so foolish as to attempt to deceive the gods another time.’

They set off, and Vikramaditya soon found the camel was as good as his word, for where earlier he had gone days and even a week without any good deeds to perform, the camel found them one every day, and sometimes more. And so, with the help of the camel and Vayu’s gift, the years rolled on, as did the good deeds, until one day they came to a small town, and as they passed through, they came upon an old, abandoned building, alongside the town square, lined with shuttered shops and locked stalls.

‘I have a premonition that we will be needed here,’ said Narada. ‘Let us stop in this building for the night, and see if the morrow brings any answers.’

When they awoke it was with the sunrise, and the square was already beginning to fill with people.

‘I have a premonition that something terrible is about to happen here,’ said the camel. ‘And it will happen today. We must stay here. And perhaps before this day is done, you will have a chance to repay Yama for refusing to visit you all these years.’

‘If this is the place, then I shall invoke Vayu’s gift so as to not attract any suspicion and await the danger you have predicted here.’

‘That is wise,’ said Narada. ‘And I shall look around and see if I can find its cause. If I find anything, I shall let you know.’

And so Vikramaditya stood by the building, waiting, till the sun began setting, and then he heard his name being urgently called, and saw the camel.

‘It is about to happen! Run to the shadows at the door to the building and wait there. Hurry!’

Vikramaditya did as he was told, running swiftly to the shadows, and now his story is told.

‘Huh?’ said Mithun. ‘You mean that’s the end? That’s not even an end!’

‘Just because a story is told does not mean it cannot still be part of someone else’s. It is now your turn, Mithun.’

‘How do you know my nam–‘

‘God,’ said Airavata. ‘Now tell us how you got to be here among us.’

‘Well, I was standing with my mother and then I saw a camel and then the balloons and then it called to me–oh! Oh!’

‘Please continue. The camel called you?’

‘Yes, it called me across the road and I don’t know why but I went there but it was gone and then the tower fell and something hit my head and when I woke up I was here.’

‘It is as I thought,’ said Airavata.

‘I was right!’ said the swan. ‘The wicked one endangered this boy deliberately. Did he truly have a premonition the building would collapse or did he actually aid it in doing so?’

‘And did he do it to help Vikramaditya or merely do it to have a true story to tell?’ said the snake.

‘Whoever knows with that one?’ said the balloon man.

‘Well, shouldn’t you?’ said Mithun, turning to Airavata. ‘You’re a demigod. Shouldn’t you know everything?’

‘Sometimes,’ said Airavata.

‘That doesn’t make sense!’

‘In his first avatar, Lord Vishnu turned into a fish and swam on the surface of the Great Flood. But in his third, when he needed to dive into the ocean to rescue Bhoomi Mata, he took the form of a boar, which cannot even breathe underwater. Does this make sense? But now, we have heard all the tales and it is time for the judgment. If we count the rescue of this child, Vikramaditya’s good deeds now total one thousand times one thousand, as was his charge. ‘

Airavata paused. ‘However, by all the laws of dharma, this deed should not count because it was performed with the aid of trickery. And where there is one broken cashew, there may well be others. Now, I do not believe Vikramaditya knew of this, nor any other deceit and neither did the apsaras. But what I believe matters not, for Lord Indra charged me with the duty of seeing his wishes were carried out. And his wishes were clear– that a thousand times a thousand good deeds be done. It is my decree that that number has been arrived at and I see no reason to waste further time on mathematics. So, here and now, in the name of mighty Indradev, King of the Heavens, and ruler of us all, I state that the conditions have been met and shall ask that you be granted mukti from the mortal plane. And perhaps I defy dharma by what I say, but if there are those who would disagree, let them reflect that I am merely a god and just as likely to err as any other divine being. You shall all return to Devlok with me.’

The balloon man smiled gently. ‘Thank you, Lord. And thank you, Mithun.’

‘So where is the camel?’ asked Mithun.

‘Oh, he is still here somewhere,’ said Airavata. ‘He still has many true stories to tell before his time is done.’

‘If he knows what’s good for him he’ll have begun already,’ said the snake.

‘Probably out trying to devise some new way to shorten his sentence,’ said the swan.

‘And this judgment is passed,’ said Airavata, and rapped his foot on the ground, sending dust flying everywhere, and the entire alcove shaking.

Mithun coughed, shifting away from the wall, which was still shaking. He turned towards his companions as the dust settled, but the alcove was empty. The pounding went on, loud banging sounds, then a crash. Somewhere nearby, he could hear voices, men, shouting excitedly.

‘Here!’ he screamed. ‘In here!’

There was another crash, and then a section of rock somewhere above fell down, and a stream of light burst in.

‘Here!’ shouted a man. ‘He’s alive! He’s still alive!’

Mithun felt hands, hard hands dragging him, backward and upward. As they did he looked for the old man but the alcove was empty, save for three scraps of rubber, black, green and white.

‘Asphyxiated,’ he heard someone mutter.

And he was free, lying in the open air, taking deep, racking breaths, cold, sweet air, so beautiful he thought his lungs would burst. And then everything went dark.

The next time he woke up, he was in a bed, his mother standing there, staring at him with eyes adoring instead of the wrath he’d expected to see.

Behind her, a TV was on, and the first thing he saw on it was the face. Lined, grey-bearded, wearing a spotless white Gandhi-topi.

The balloon-man.

He listened and could hear the announcer shouting his angry condolences, regretting the unfortunate demise of this still-unidentified victim of the Towergate scandal, lamenting the state of government welfare that had forced the poor soul to illegally make his home in the crumbling Qaisarbagh clock tower.

‘That’s him, ma,’ said Mithun.’That’s King Vikramaditya.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. But she was worried enough to summon a doctor, who tut-tutted and muttered long words like ‘hallucination’ and ‘concussion’.

It was another week before Mithun’s mother let him leave the house again. The first thing he did was race down to the market, making his way to the mound of rubble from the collapse of the clock tower. On his right, the paan seller tried to hand him a banarasi. On his left, the cigarette man offered him a pack of Gold Flakes at half price.

Starting with them both, he made his way around the market, and long before he’d finished asking everyone about the balloon-man whose stall lay buried under the rubble of the clock tower, he’d come to a curious realisation. Nobody recalled the balloon seller, the tower-dweller or even the camel. Well, almost nobody. The paanwalla was positive there had been a balloon stall under the ruined tower. The cigarette man was equally adamant there had never been anything. Inevitably, they came to blows over the matter, right under the huge banner calling for peace and solidarity. Qaisarbagh was still Qaisarbagh, after all.

Upon reflection, Mithun decided to believe them both. Because whatever is true, the opposite is also true.

‘And because just because your story is told does not mean it cannot still be part of someone else’s,’ finished the camel.

____

Copyright 2018 Shiv Ramdas

Shiv Ramdas is an Indian writer and reader of science fiction, fantasy and everything in between, including a dystopian cyberpunk novel, Domechild (Penguin, 2013). He is a graduate of the 2016 Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find him on social media at @nameshiv on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

 

by Adrian Simmons

  

1.

John stood and gunned up his courage. “We need to talk.”

Colophinanoc’s manipulator digits didn’t stop their movement, their rhythmic squirming in and out and around the small basket he made. The eyes, the two at the top, swiveled toward John, the antennae dropped back—something John had learned was one of a dozen shows of minor annoyance.

“About what? Is there something wrong with the nets, the shelter, or the gardens?”

“Nothing like that,” John said. The problem was more vague but so very important. “We just… I need… humans are troop animals, we rely on each other. Too much solitude is not healthy for us.”

“You are not solitary, your dorm is not five meters from mine, and we are within ten meters of each other almost all the time.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. You need to talk more to me.” He was far past the point of embarrassment; it felt good to finally just say it. “I need to talk more to you.”

The vermicular manipulation digits stopped their work at the basket. “About what?”

This was the hardest part. In his head, over weeks and months, John had prepared dozens of answers. Here at last what came out of his mouth was: “Anything.”

Colophinanoc’s antennae lashed and flickered: confusion, perturbation. Also, from the twist at their bases, John suspected he was a little a little hungry. “I take time to speak and interact with you.”

John fought down panic. “Yes, and I appreciate it. But, for my long-term mental health, I need more.”

“How much more?” The other eyes, the mid-line ones, looked from the basket to his face. Another bad sign.

Pestering, that was what John was doing. That’s how a Kinri would view it. Like a little yappy dog or a Cygnus Crawler that can’t keep its tentacles to itself.

“About two or three times more.”

The segmented fingers stumbled at the weave.

Before things could get worse John suggested, “Kirni go through a social phase, when they are hatchlings. I need about that much.”

“Juvenile Kinri band together because adult Kinri are fundamentally solitary creatures.” Colophinanoc stood suddenly, always surprising how fast given the bulk of his oblong dome-shaped body. He half turned away. “What you are asking is not easy for an adult to do.”

John’s fear surged then morphed into anger. Colophinanoc had to make it difficult. He exhaled, willed himself to stick to the strategy, stick to what he had planned. Which was to give his alien comrade a choice. A false one. “Well…the AI can fulfill some of the need.”

Colophinanoc turned back, antennae down, all eyes on him. “You spend too much time with the AI, you should not run down the batteries and you should be working.”

“You are right, and you must understand that my need for interaction will overcome the need to work and I will waste time and the AI’s battery power. That’s why we need to talk.”

Kinri were not anti-social. It wasn’t like if one fell and hurt itself, another or multiple others, wouldn’t help it. They held doors open for each other, that kind of thing. But they were fundamentally solitary. John had been bringing reed-like plants for a week to the shelter–a week in which Colophinanoc had made baskets, mats, roofing and wall material, all pretty much without a word.

John had the numbers, the dry simple damnable numbers, committed to memory. Thirty seven standard hours in a Xephon day; fifteen days in a Xephon week; three weeks in a Xephon month (measured against the phases of the largest of the three moons); and eleven months per a Xephon year.

They had been marooned on Xephon for eight weeks, local time, almost six months earth-standard. John had hoped he’d last until week ten before he started begging.

Colophinanoc found his place in the basket weaving. “What do I need to talk about?”

Somewhere in John’s back muscles relaxed. He let himself think, dream for an instant that this was going to work. “Tell me what you were doing six cycles before the Marblehead left Pirus Three.”

Colophinanoc’s minor mandibles moved, like they were chewing on a thought. John knew what that thought was: What difference did it make what I was doing six cycles before the ship left? It drew in a large and very human-like breath: a sigh of resignation.

“All three levels of consciousness were obtained at 600 hours, and because I needed to get to the knot cluster posted by 10:00 I opted to clean myself before eating.”

“Did you use water?”

“Yes.”

John knew he was pushing it. “Air dry or towel?”

The Kinri hunkered down a bit and John’s back tightened.

“Towel.”

“Tell me about the pre-launch meeting.”

“The six representatives of the sub-knots of Ctlinatlit District met to decide on the re-allocation of cooling lubricants for the communal metal manipulating units.”

“Drop forges or lathe?”

“Drop forges.”

“Okay. Drop forges. Go on.”

It was a good start. Later John could ask about the six knots and how they related to each other and many other things. He had hundreds of other things to ask that he had pieced together in the three and a half months they had been marooned on Xephon.

The afternoon rains came, as they always did. A gentle rain that would last until right before sundown then the long eighteen-hour night and the only sound would be the bugs and the lapping of Crashdown Lake.

John sighed, resigned and oddly content.

Five years, three months to go—Xephon time. Eleven standard earth years.

 

2.

“Anyway, then Nanooni, he looks right at the kid and says, ‘ribbed’!”

Colophinanoc regarded him with the top eyes–the mid-lines watched the water. “This leads to a challenge?”

“No. Socially awkward.” John knew he should be watching the lake, but he wanted the Kinri to really get it. “Like discovering you’ve left a chunk of carapace cuticle hanging from your genital hump.”

“I see.”

“Yeah, so there we were–” He looked over. “Can you get us a little closer to the fan tree?”

Colophinanoc’s long mobility legs hung over the edge of the small boat and barely made ripples as he changed course. This operation had to be done just right. Scare he fish too much and they’d bolt to the deeper part of the Crashdown lake.

John, in the prow, gathered up the net, folding it carefully and making sure the stone weights were spaced just so. The conversations had to go just so, too. He’d been cautious about how much chatter he engaged in on the lake; Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.

If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.

He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.

John dropped it, standing in the silence for a long time. Then: “I think we need to rebuild the east wall.”

“Again? Why?”

Because tasks, jobs, concrete things were the best way to get back on the alien’s good side. But even knowing that, it still took maneuvering. “I think we’ve been getting more rain this season. Got some rotten spots, and those attract the borers, which just tear it up that much more.”

“Have we gotten more rain?”

A fish! A glimmer of silver in the murk of the fan tree’s limbs. Then another, then a storm of them. With a twist of the hips that fed into the twist of his shoulders John let the net fly out into a perfect circle on impact with the lake. It was a trick learned, a skill he had practiced, over the long days, like Colophinanoc’s silent rowing.

John let it sink for a bit, then started hauling it back. “Yeah. A few extra minutes per day, a few extra days per season—it adds up.”

The top eyes swiveled to look back at their composite shelter. The east wall wouldn’t be visible from here, but later John was sure Colophinanoc would inspect it. And the kinri would find the bad spots, because John has very carefully worked bad spots in, even going as far as putting eggs from a borer bug nest into it.

He hauled the net in, bursting with a wriggling silver bounty—as always.

The survival shelter packed into the escape pod measures five by five meters, lifts up about three meters, and can be guyed out by spikes, or sandbags, and/or the pneumatic ribs. Insects, or Xephon’s equivalent of them—more like a shelled jellyfish—were pretty much the only threat. They probably could reduce the lifespan of the shelter down to four Xephon years. So John and Colophinanoc had built a second shelter around it.

“One more cast?” John suggested.

“Yes.”

Folding the nets for a throw John dared a question, “If it comes to it, how many bundles of reeds do we need to re-build the east wall?”

“Eighteen.”

“Standard arrangement? I gather, you weave?”

“That is the most efficient way. If it comes to it.”

Things were going well. He didn’t want to push too hard… but he didn’t want to miss an opportunity, either. “Think we should move the sour-root harvest up, or maybe the red-berry planting back?”

“Red-berry back. Sour-root will stay good for quite a while.”

They discussed it—as John knew they would. Something real and tangible, that was the kind of thing that Colophinanoc could discuss, and John could take the discussion to strange places and “what ifs” and various other things which would be annoying, but bearable, to the kinri.

He only hauled in half a net-full at the crossbar-and-buttress tree they had sunk here years go. They rowed the boat back and beached it on top of the area where John had buried wood-gnawing beetles.

It was a trick he’d learned.

 

3.

“It isn’t a sound,” Frank said, “so much as a smell: A gamey odor, that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.”

John paused outside the shelter, stopping along the track he had worn. “Dammit,” he said. “Should we try the south door?”

On the tablet screen Emo Frodo pushed into view. “South?” he said. “Always bad luck.”

For a while Frank had been Francine, but that had just made John incredibly horny. And although Colophinanoc wouldn’t care if he caught him masturbating, getting caught masturbating to an AI wasn’t something John was willing to endure. That the kinri was watching him pace and play make-believe was bad enough, but John had quietly convinced himself that maybe Colophinanoc was learning something about human interaction.

Whatever, Colophinanoc was one thing, but getting through the impending crap-sandwich Frank had set up for him was another. “South door, then.”

“If you insist,” Emo Frodo said with a shrug, reaching for the handle, “but mark my words…”

“Not you,” John snapped. “Sir Farts-A-Lot is our door-opener.”

“By the eternal winds of the great gorge of Brahamanat!” the knight said, shoving Emo Frodo aside. “It shall be done!”

On the screen the warrior grunted as he rammed into the doorwith his shoulder and it gave in. Beyond a gang of orcs looked up from their poker game. The princess looked up too, before tilting back her crown and throwing her cards down. “I fold, you sons of bitches!” she shouted.

Things moved quickly, each character shouting battle cries or pithy quips. Left to their own, John knew they’d get slaughtered—again. He had to allocate!

“Get Sir-Farts-A-Lot to the Chieftain. Big Wang does the grasshopper jump to the archer, and Emo Frodo, you duck under the table and kneecap that little guy.”

“What about Hermionie Bangher?” Frank asked.

“Lightning bolt! Always lightning bolt!”

Hermione skidded to a halt. She faced the screen, took the cigar out of her mouth and said, “Such a tone! Technically, I am Frank’s character.”

“You want to be a corpse with a wealth of unused charges?” John pointed out. “Lightning bolt!”

A message popped up on the screen– twenty seconds! Where had the time gone?

Watching the four adventurers act like middle-school cut-ups and arguing with Frank, that’s where.

The big fighter only got three steps into the room before an orc spear caught him in the chest. Emo Frodo took two steps and then Hermione’s lightning bolt hit him right in the back.

“What the fuck was that, Frank?”

The ten-second warning!

“Hermione’s still suckin’ wind from the ignoble retreat from the lair of the lizard folk,” Frank pointed out.

“Dammit!”

Big Wang landed on the table next to the archer, leveling him with a blurry-fast kick to the gut.

Another message: Zero.

The screen darkened. “Gotta shut it down, buddy,” Frank said. “See you next week.”

“Extension! Time extension!”

The toad-cold grip of Colophinanoc’s ropey fingers wrapped around his wrist. “Do not damage the AI.”

“I’m not gonna damage it,” John shot back. “Another five minutes. I’ve been working toward this encounter for weeks.”

“Put the AI down.”All of Colophinanoc’s eyes were on him; the alien’s body was titled back and down.

Fuck them both. “I’m not gonna—”

The first mobility limb lifted up. A Kinri could punch hard.

“Alright, alright.” He let go and watched as Colophinanoc put the AI back in its case. “See you in a week, Frank. This isn’t over.”

 

 

4.

Xephon 3 was, as near as the combined opinions of John, Colophinanoc, and AI Citizen #25399 (the first-aid AI didn’t really count) could tell, a lot like earth toward the end of the Devonian period.

Crashdown Lake was maybe seven meters deep. The lifeboat stuck up from it into the air, maybe four meters. Who knows what the added radiation from the lifeboat’s engines and batteries would have on the life here… probably nothing, but John couldn’t help wondering, and sometimes even dreaming.

The lake was a good thing: a provider and a protector. It teemed with fish, small ones about the length of his hand and various other things–the shelled fish, which seemed like an odd combination between a fish, a clam, and a jellyfish.

John was not a biologist by training, he was an yttrium maximization specialist, but how much good was that now? None! And in the three years, local, he had been here he had forgotten the vast amount of it. Except for the time he spent three months boning up on it, which seemed like a lifetime ago, now. He had become a biologist in an amateur fashion, and by now his very thorough survey of the life around Crashdown Lake on Xephon-3 was pretty firmly detailed. He’d used the medi-kits magnifier and, of course, everything had a camera these days.

Xephon had predatory fish, about thirty centimeters or so long. They hadn’t quite evolved a hinged jaw yet, so outside of a bad hickey there wasn’t much they could do to him. With Colophinanoc’s chitinous plates, they couldn’t do anything to the Kinri.

On the landward side, there were plenty of plants, a few of them got about as tall as John if he stretched his hands up as far as he could. Most were shorter, knee-high. There were land creatures, the strange shellfish that had come up on land and lost most of their shells. Most. They kind of had an empty clamshell they carried concave side-up and in this they somehow kept their strange jellyfish symbiots—which seemed to, maybe, feast on the abundant spores and floating midges that drifted into them.

There was no grass, just a kind of plant that grew about mid-shin high then burst out into dozens of thumbnail sized leaves.

John’s pursuit of amateur biology had started as a necessity; an inventory of what grew where and what was edible and what was a pest; had transitioned into a hobby to give him something to talk about that both he and Colophinanoc had a stake in; and was now getting to be a low-grade obsession.

 

5.

“Well,” John said, “it looks like our boat-beaching structure is doing the trick.”

He ran his hand over the hull of their third fishing boat. They had spent a day or two collecting the larger plants that grew higher up in the hills and building a frame upon which to lay their boats, saving them from infestation by the wood-gnawing beetle. It had been Colophinanoc’s idea.

“It does look like it,” Colophinanoc said.

“So what happened after your accounting cadre was re-assigned to Elnotracon?” John asked. He’d have to figure out how to get wood-gnawer eggs on those boats…

Colophinanoc took a slow breath through his lateral spirochetes. The Kinri was trying to figure out a way to piece it together in a way that John would find interesting- John could tell, and he appreciated it. The slight backward tilt of the body, the splaying of the antennae, a slight twitch in the heavy manipulator limbs, and of course the telltale sign of Colophinanoc’s fingers wiggling on their multi-segmented joints, as if it were spinning its words into a story.

“Pinonicy wasn’t too happy about it,” the alien said.

“But she was six weeks pregnant, right?” John asked.

“Yes.”

“But she still hadn’t told anybody who the father was?”

“No. She went a sperm-bank and found a high-caste donor.”

“Dammit! Colophinanoc!”

A sudden tilt forward and the Kinri said: “What? Did I not draw it out enough?”

“No you did not! Of all the rituals that humans find interesting those involving mating are the most fascinating.”

“I did consider that,” Colophinanoc said, leaning back. “But given that the end result was just that she went to the repro-center—a common enough activity—I assumed you’d be let down.”

“Well, yeah, but still, draw it out.”

“I thought I would tie up that thread so I could focus on Kyolnican’s ongoing saga of hiding his culpability in the missing Hexacron Credit scheme.”

‘Saga’ was a big word, and certainly not the one that John would have picked, but again he appreciated the effort. “Okay, that’s fine. Go on.”

“You’re doing the thing you do with your face when you’re mad.”

“What thing?”

Colophinanoc lifted a limb and touched John’s forehead with a cold digit. “That vertical crease in your skin. You do that when you look into the sun, when you calculate soft-shell nosh-bug hatch rates, and when you’re mad.” A second cold touch right under his hairline, “and this part, this tightens up when you’re mad.”

“I’m not mad,” he said, backing away a step. “I swear.”

“Also, you swear when you are mad.”

He wasn’t mad, but he had been calculating. Six years, standard Earth measurement, for Colophinanoc to catch onto the boats. He hadn’t caught onto the gnawers in the walls yet. Seven and a half Earth years left until estimated rescue-day. “Look, I’m a little disappointed, that’s all.”

“Well, from a troupe-monkey point of view things probably get more interesting after the hatchlings arrive and Trachinanaoc and Provnalic vie for adoption rights.”

“Dammit, Colophinanoc!’

The Kinri leveled off, turned and began marching back to the shelter.

His calculations and tricks fled. “No, wait! I’m not mad, I’m just Joshin’!”

Colophinanoc didn’t slow down, and John jogged back in front. “Seriously, I’m not-”

The Kinri’s inner and outer mandibles were closed up tight—a classic look of confusion.

Colophinanoc eased past him. “Your extra twenty minutes are up for this morning.”

 

6.

There were three things that Colophaninoc seemed to actually enjoy: accounting regarding their selective breeding program in the garden (after three Xephon years they had almost doubled the width of the edible part of the Xephon okra. … it had to be okra…), their fishing expeditions into Crashdown Lake (especially when they had to do the five-step method to lure out the toe-suckers and spear them), and the wide patrol.

The wide patrol was more of an exercise thing, it was about a ten mile circuit, first east down the coastline of Crashdown Lake, then a turn north out into the plain, through Four Big Brush Bands and within sight of ‘Nyukle Head ridge, a turn west over the Five Feeder Creeks, and then eventually back south.

Most times they went together, a six-hour trip if they didn’t stop for lunch, which they often did at Lunch Ledge. But Colophinanoc had lately been taking it alone. Mostly as an exercise thing, as he could run much faster than a human could. Three hours for him to take the run.

Odd that for all the loneliness, John felt less alone when Colophinanoc was on long patrol. It was, he had come to think, the fact that the Kinri was less than 100 yards away from him most of the time that had really struck him. He was so close, and yet remained distant. One thing Colophinanoc had never said, in all their time together, was that he was glad John was here. That wasn’t 100% true. He had often said that he was glad he had a partner, a helper, that this had been easier since there were two of them as opposed to one. But he had never said he was glad for the company. That he liked John? Not one fucking time.

John had, several times, enough that he hoped—to a Kinri at least—that he wasn’t coming across as creepy needy and stalky.

He was almost certain that Colophinanoc went on these runs to get away from him, to get a little solitude. And sometimes the solitude reminded John that he indeed did need Colophinanoc. Needed him for another three Xephon years.

Sometimes, at first, John had used the solitude to run the AI, but either Frank had ratted him out or the Kinri had figured out what he was doing. There had been argument, so he had to quit.

Now John used the alone time to snoop a bit, just a bit, in Colophinanoc’s dorm. Human curiosity was something that the alien just hadn’t quite figured out. What was he looking for? A diary, maybe, or a voodoo doll of himself—anything really.

He didn’t find anything. He never did.

Sometimes, when he was really alone like this, the thoughts would come to him. The six ways he could kill himself. And those thoughts always led, damnably, to thinking of the dreams. Usually it was a stone, right into the joint where Colophinanoc’s dorsal anterior plate met with his posterior cephalic plate.

Sometimes, in his dreams, he tips the boat and breaks each wormy limb and thick digit as Colophinanoc tries to struggle back in, before finally pushing him deep into the water and holding, and holding.

He reminded himself, as he always did: “John, you will not engineer an accident for your only companion to relieve your boredom. No tripwires, no putting a hollow fern-log over Deep creek. You won’t put slick mud on that bit of trail that’s always in shade.”

 

7.

John was masturbating with the AI; carefully. Francine could be a real life-saver sometimes. The evening’s rain pelted on the shelter’s roof, providing a little extra cover. Still, he had to be careful, outside the room he could hear Colophinanoc moving around.

 

8.

John’s view of interstellar travel was common among the humans who had experienced it: it was like being stuck in a good hotel for three years. Well, he wasn’t trapped for the full three years, but the slow-metabolism meds only put you down for four months, and then you had to come out of it for about three weeks. Which, over the course of the trip would be eight slow-met intervals with seven three-week breaks; so he was trapped in a good hotel for a year plus. He was on his third break.

Of course, the Medicine Bear Four was equipped for it but in nine weeks one could explore every bit of a huge vessel:the gardens; the theaters, the plazas, the libraries. John had opted to learn the obo, which was much more frustrating than it should have been. He was in dormitory K this time around, and had put himself on the list for a roommate.

He was also on Cadre number 4’s soccer team to kill time, keep in shape, and try to recapture some of his youth. Post-practice, he and some of the team had gone to Nick’s Café Centaurian. It was a quite a place, as almost all such places were.

Aethulwulf M’Tugana sat across from him. “I’ve watched some of the video of the Bright Blue Sun team,” she said, “it’s going to be some tough competition.”

He had not watched the video of B2S cadre. Really, he was going to play, and he was bored but not so bored that he was willing to watch other teams practicing to try to get an edge. Teams they wouldn’t face off against for what? Three more months?

But Aethulwulf was that kind of person, and since she was the most interesting thing he’d encountered in his wake cycles he pretended to be more interested than he really was.

“Plenty of time to deal with B2S when the time comes,” he said, peaking his fingers together.

Aethulwulf nodded. “More practice is always good, though,” she said. “And it’s true: they’ve got a Huzmavah on the team.”

“Is that even within regulations?”

She shrugged. “Well, they are too big to play with the Sendulians, and the Kinri don’t bother playing, so they gotta work in with us humans.”

“Well, I worry that it might get a bad check or an accidental kick. Then it’ll—”

An alarm blared. Yellow lights began to flash. An automated voice began a chant he knew all-too well. “Emergency! Please follow the yellow track to shelter.”

“Christos!” Aethulwulf said, pushing away her plate and standing. “Another drill? Do they do this just to give us something to do?”

“You got me,” he said, “I think they do at least one every wake-cycle, but this is at least the second one this time.” He stood and swept up his drink—you could get fined if you didn’t get to the shuttle fast enough.

“You can get fined for taking that,” she said, nodding toward the new-olde-fashioned.

“Way ahead of you!” he gulped it and dropped the glass on the last table before they hit the door.

For a ship with only 1/5 of its passengers awake, the outer corridors filled up quickly. They followed the emergency lights along the wall. John nearly tripped over a pair of Sendulians and noted with a start that this time the lights were not directing them to the main tube, but had taken a hard right into a tertiary corridor.

Their line met another and the corridor suddenly seemed too small, too crowded. Then the ship shook. Another turn and the lights turned from yellow to blue, indicating they were at the destination—but this wasn’t a platform for an emergency shuttle, instead the left wall of the hallway had dozens of round opening for lifeboats.

Ahead of him, Aethulwulf ducked into a pod. In a few seconds, he got there, too. She, two other humans, and a Huzmavah crowded inside. He took a step and the Huzmavah extended a tendril—“Lifeboat’s at maximum,” it purred, another tendril pointing to the red lights around the entryway—yes. Of course, he’d passed the test and done at least two simulations, he should have remembered.

The ship shook again, and he jogged down the corridor, passing red-lit door after red-lit door, he swung into the first green-rimmed opening he came to.

A Kinri turned its bulky body and then its head toward him. Ordinarily, John would ask if there was space for one more, but in this case, he just plowed in. The Kinri backed up like John was armed. Oh man, it wasn’t going to like it when the lifeboat filled up—there was space for at least one or two more-

The lights turned from green to red and the door slid shut. Outside, beings passed, running.

The Kinri had said nothing. It, like John, had nothing but the clothes on its carapace. No, that wasn’t right, it had an AI pad, held in its squirmy digits.

The Medicine Bear Four shook again. At last the Kinri spoke.

“I do not think this is a drill.”

 

9.

 

One of the best things about the back-up shelter idea was its long-term usefulness. Building it had been a challenge but it also required maintenance, which meant that they had to go up there periodically and work on it. And whenever they went to work on it, they usually had that much more work to do on the main shelter by Crashdown Lake when they got back. So it was really a double-bonus. Colophinanoc seemed to enjoy the work and the maintenance and that was a triple bonus.

Yet, for all its success, John found himself stressed. Everything was going fine, better than fine, really. But still, he was on edge. Grumpy. They were cooking up black-fin over the fire and the alien was going on and on about the spreadsheet issue of 3435. For the first time ever, John really wished that Colophinanoc would shut up.

“Whelll,” John said, “I guess I’ll start turning in.”

“You see the error was in cell D35,” Colophinanoc said, oblivious, “the logic string registry was an either-or, not an either-and.”

He had been talking—droning really—about this from Knyucklehead bench all the way down to Crashdown Lake and well into the night.

“Either, and. Got it. See you in the morning.”

“Well, Kaspinnun just about locked mandibles with me when I pointed it out. Before I announced it at the 10:30 efficiency meeting I could tell he was aware that I was aware of something. Normally he gave me a good meter of space when we passed each other in the east hallway—the ones with the windows that I told you about. Where it gets really hot. Usually he gives me a meter, but today it was only maybe half of that. Same thing he had done when-”

“I need to get some sleep, Colophinanoc,” John said, putting a little edge into his voice.

“We will pick it up in the morning, then.”

And the next morning as John’s annoyance grew into worry, they did.

 

10.

They actually had two AIs. Frank was a generalist—the closest you could get to a human mind in a box. Their first aid kit had an AI, too.

A very dim-witted AI.

“Symptoms,” John said, “include fugue, confusion, and a reversion to a childlike social level.”

The AI answered: “Confusion regarding time, place, identity, or other?”

Ten more minutes until Colophinanoc was through with his run. John checked his notes; what had he said last time? “Identity.”

“Childlike social level indicates an infection by one or more of several pathogens. Most likely Estrella bacillus and Sphacelia segmentum

He worked through them both, playing twenty questions with the first aid AI. Estrella was unlikely. It usually resulted from an infected wound and the other symptoms were missing.

But Sphacelia, that would match. It was already a part of the fauna of the vast majority of Kinri, and– and this really gave it away—was more likely to spring out in a high-altitude environment. How high up was Knyucklhead ridge, where they had built their back-up shelter? High enough, just maybe.

“Development?” he asked.

“In the young it stunts social development. In adult Kinri it often goes unrecognized until it begins to lead to professional development hindrance due to an inability to focus extensively on a task.”

“Treatment?”

“Coranosol, five hundred milligrams.”

John swallowed. “Lethality?”

“Generally non-lethal. Immuno-compromised individuals may experience further mental impairment.”

John sat and thought. Thought hard. Kirni went through a social phase, when they were hatchlings.

Seven minutes later Colophinanoc returned, sides pulsing as he got his breath back.

“A little slower than usual today?” John asked carefully.

“A little.”

“Do you remember how long we have until our next medical monitoring?”

“Two months, ten days.”

“Yeah…I’m thinking we should bump that up.”

“If you advise it.”

“I do. I’d hate to get so close to Rescue Day and then have one of us get sick or something.”

John added two-hundred and fifty milligrams Coronasol to the cocktail of stuff they took tri-annually.

 

11.

At Crashdown Lake they very rarely needed fire except for cooking; up on Knyucklehead ridge the nights were colder, mostly because of the west winds, so a fire was necessary.

He stretched out, knees complaining. Twelve years, earth-time. And it was starting to wear on him.

“This highland Rock-Runner is excellent,” Colophinanoc said, taking another bite, shell and all.

“It really is,” John agreed. “Remember when we tried to hunt them with spears?”

“We are lucky neither of us broke a limb joint.”

“Glad that we got the three-step box trap worked out. Good thinking on your part.”

“Thank you.” The Kinri took another Rock-Runner and devoured it. “It is quite satisfying when a plan works out.”

John looked up at the sky, brilliant with stars, with the twenty constellations they had named. There, where a bead of the Abacus shared a star with the clip of the Great Fountain Pen, that’s where the rescue ship would come in three more years. He thought, briefly, of cell counts and their medical monitoring. Of the casual rambling conversations like this one, of Colophinanoc trying to run Big Fin Arwen in Frank’s game.

“Yes, Colophinanoc. Yes it certainly is.”

 

12.

John had a plan. Five months, that was his timeframe. Five months Xephon time, a little over a year and a quarter Earthwise. That’s when he’d give Colophinanoc the full dose of Coronasol. Maybe the techs would not be able to tell that Colophinanoc had a low-level infection for so long. He assumed that knocking it all out would leave Colophinanoc without any real damage. Not that he didn’t secretly hope that Colophinanoc had some residual effect: ‘juvenile social state’ would be a plus, at least until Rescue Day.

 

13.

“Yep,” John said, gently running his fingernail down the rope joint, sending a cloud of broken fibers “looks like we’ve had some kind of leak. Grass ropes are rotten clear through.”

Outside the primary shelter, Colophinanoc stood on his mobility limbs, his great sloping body turned as well as it could to view the damage. Crashdown Lake splashed gently, as always, beyond. “We may have to replace the wood for both the awning beams and the support beams.”

John dug a little deeper, the wood underneath was weak, not near as bad as the rope, and probably still had a lot of life left. Why hadn’t he thought of engineering something like that? Eh, it would give them something to do. “Yeah, it looks pretty weak.”

“Where is the leak?”

“Not sure.” The roof of Crashdown Mansion was made of thatch, and it was over the old emergency shelter from the pod. But from his angle he couldn’t see very far into the space between them. “We may have to take down the wall of the old shelter.”

Colophinanoc’s antennae waved, with a little counterclockwise spin. “We may have to replace the wood from both the awning beams and the support beams.”

“Well yeah, but on the old shelter, I’ve always worried that if we take it down we won’t be able to get it back up. Like we’ll tear something somehow. It’s aged well, but it has still aged.”

Colophinanoc walked into the shelter, turned and looked at him. “We may have to replace the wood from both the awning beams and the support beams.”

“I heard you the first time, Colophinanoc.”

The alien turned, taking in the shelter. “We may have to rrrrrrreplace the wood from both the awning beams aaaaaaand the support beeeeeams.”

“Hey!” John said, alarmed. “You okay? Colophin—” the alien surged forward, ramming him. John hit the ground hard, breath bursting from his body. He came to with the faded blue of the artificial fiber shelter waiting above him. Outside, Crashdown Lake sloshed and Colophinanoc spewed a stream of absolute gibberish. Gibberish crossed with spit, crossed with John’s world ending and three Xephon months being a lifetime away.

Rolling to his side and then pushing to his feet, John part stepped, part ran out. Colophinanoc stumbled, falling to his belly, in the water. In the stuttering way of the Kinri, he stood back up, walked second-knee deep into the water and stood, shouting out the nonsense sounds.

John walked to their packs. He knew a couple hundred Kinri words. What Colophinanoc was shrieking were none of them.

Two snaps, a tie, and he had Frank out of the pack and out of its protective bag. Frank kicked on and John swiped away the low battery warning. “Frank, what is he saying?”

Colophinanoc backed out of the lake, shook off his legs, fell hard to his belly and struggled back up. All the time he slurred and stuttered and shouted.

Frank’s screen held the usual graphics, the usual amounts of memory use, the usual amounts of planning for the Second Round of The Sound of the Music of the Spheres that was the playground for their three hours a week of Emo Frodo and Big Fin Arwen. “I don’t think he’s saying anything. I think he is just making noise.”

He tucked Frank under one arm and yes, yes, something was very wrong with Colophinanoc and and and it couldn’t be his fault. It had to be something else. Anything else. He fumbled out the first-aid AI.

Colophinanoc walked from Crashdown Lake’s lapping waves toward him, garbling and gibbering.

“I think he’s talking about the primary nurse from his hatchling clutch,” Frank said. John dropped the First Aid AI and pulled Frank back out, held it in both hands.

“What’s he saying, what’s he saying?”

Frank’s screen held the usual graphics, maybe with a higher amount of processor use, and then Colophinanoic’s manipulative limb lashed down, smashing the tablet in half.

 

14.

That he didn’t dig up Colophinanoc’s skull was something that John felt strangely proud about. Such a decision was made easier by the discovery of Colophinanoc’s lone footprint by Slick-Mud Creek. He had found it by accident, when he was jogging the circuit that Colophinanoc used to run. And, honestly, he was probably doing the same thing that Colophinanoc had done—who knows how many years ago—which was taking a few steps off the path to take a shit. And there they were, two prints of his mobility limb pads, perfect in the clay, which in turn was covered by the wide leaning trunk of a tongue-leaf tree.

Luck had protected it and now he had built a small shelter for it. A shrine, really, it would be best not to lie to himself about it—that’s what Frank would have said if he still worked.

“Keep the second print,” he reminded himself. “Keep it.”

The first one he had ruined by running his finger along the edge, outlining each long toe in the star-shaped impression.

“It had broken down pretty fast,” he reminded himself, as he always did. He wasn’t going to dig up Colophinanoc’s skull. He wasn’t going to ruin the second print.

“I remember reading, a long time ago—reading it a long time ago, and it was about something a long time ago.” Colophinanoc had trouble sometimes understanding that kind of statement. He sometimes needed clarification. Colophinanoc wasn’t there, he knew that, and although John talked to himself at the camps, he didn’t talk to his dead friend unless he was at the shrine.

“Anyway, back on Old Earth there were these rock carvings—people and animals and stuff. This was early on, pre-tech, stone-age. And they also have footprints carved into the rocks. People used to think that the footprints, which are life-sized…the other carvings are not, so people thought that they were the footprints of the gods.”

He wasn’t going to try to take a mold of it and make more prints. He had put one of the deep green jade stones in it, in the perfect print. When the rescue ship came, he would take the stone with him, to represent the footprint that represented Colophinanoc.

“But I think that it wasn’t the gods. I think it is the footprints of the departed. Footprints for ghosts. Maybe on special times, equinoxes and solstices and things, the dead could come back and stand in their appointed places.”

He ran his hand along the odd crater that was the second print. The appointed place would have been at the shelter at Crashdown Lake, that’s when he was going to give Colophinanoc the full Coronasol dose.

He and the stupid first aid AI had figured it all out, perfectly. The stupid first aid AI was stubbornly consistent: the Kinri, weakened by an ongoing Sphacelia segmentum fungal infection had caught a secondary bacterial infection–probably a local bug.

It had been working. It had been working perfectly.

The First Aid AI was very insistent, very stubborn on this issue.

He ran his finger along the edge of the first print, careful not to disturb the green Jade stone. As careful as he was, he knew he would ruin the print. Not ruining the print was his religion.

 

15.

 

Doctor Chelchenan eased in, side-stepped to the wall opposite. “Kanalacalone has been asking after the human’s—John’s— status.”

“Kanalacalone has approached me as well. As to the human, John, I have been happily surprised by him,” Captain Nenotican said. “I have always heard that humans are very needy. He has hardly said a word. Is he healthy? Healthy enough to go into a met-slow compartment?”

After the Medicated Bear Four disaster, ships of all types from the Five Sentients had been pressed into service for the rescue. She did not want to lose the being they had spent so much time and energy finding, or have him come out of met-slow only to find that some pathogen had been ravaging his body systems.

The doctor considered. “I am about to log my official report. The human John is quite healthy, physically.”

Nenotican thought a few moments. The bell to her door rang again. Chelchenan laid his antennae back, top eyes rolling slightly.

“Come,” the captain said.

The door opened and Kanalacalone, the biologist, stood in the opening. He took a step, saw both the doctor and his captain in the room and stopped at the threshold, walking legs drawing in a bit.

Nenotican, happy they weren’t crowded in the small room together, indicated the doctor with a wave of her antennae. “The doctor has told me you have been asking about the human John.”

Kanalacalone stood a little taller, laced and unlaced his manipulative limbs. “Yes, Captain. The human John has done a great deal of investigation on life forms on Xephon, and since he was marooned in an area that the initial surveys did not cover I am eager to discuss it with him.”

Kanalacalone turned his top eyes to the doctor, adding, “If Doctor Chelchenan believes he is ready for that level of integration.”

Nenotican, knew the ship’s doctor could be touchy if questioned too closely, and the three of them so close together probably didn’t put him in the best mood.

“The doctor was just giving me an update. Doctor?”

“Yes, the human John seems to be very healthy, by human standards.”

The biologist perked up, “And how is he to be around?”

“You could ask him yourself,” the doctor said.

“You know what they say, “talking to a human is like feeding a Cygnus crawler—it will just want more.”

“It appears,” the captain said, “that many of the stereotypes of human behavior are exaggerated. The human John has hardly said a word.”

“It seems that Colophinanoc socialized him quite well,” Kanalacalone said. “Perhaps he can stick to the topics at hand.”

There was one thing that stuck out in Captain Nenotican’s mind. She was no expert on humans… “Should we be concerned about the human John talking so much in its sleep cycle?”

The doctor lifted his antennae and his arms. “I don’t think we need to be concerned. Their brains never quite settle to the first level of consciousness. It is a complicated thing.”

Chelchenan dipped his antennae—annoyance. Whether it was annoyance at the biologist or at the complexity of the human John, Captain Nenotican wasn’t sure.

Doctor Chelchenan perked up. “Still, they all do that; noises and words at that low level of consciousness. Some more than others.”

“This is well,” the captain said.

Kanalacalone took half a step into the room. “Is it well that the human John talks to the AI Citizen number two-five-three-double-nine and to Colophinanoc in his sleep, and that he answers for them?”

“That is a bit more unusual,” the doctor said. “I have done some research and it is common for humans to have imaginary co-workers. Especially in the juvenile phase.”

Not a problem then. That was well.

Kanalacalone worried at a one of his thoracic plates. “Doctor Chelchenan, the human John hasn’t tried to bond with you?”

“No.”

The biologist thought on it for a while. Captain Nenotican could see his scientific curiosity vie with his worry of being bonded to the human John.

Finally Kanalacalone tilted back. “I may approach him after a few met-slow cycles.”

“That will be well,” said Nenotican.

The biologist left and moment later Doctor Chelchenan followed.

The captain considered: it was well that the rescue of Xephon had gone as planned, it was unfortunate that Colophinanoc had died before they got there, but well that his death was not in any way their fault.

She moved back to the center of her chamber. It was good to be alone again.

____

Copyright 2018 Adrian Simmons

Adrian Simmons is a reader, writer and editor. His essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has popped up in Andromeda Spaceways,  and Lackington’s. He is one-third the editorial team of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

by Alex Jeffers

1.

The child’s ayah said it was high spirits, a paroxysm of affection, but the truth was simple: the envoy’s daughter killed my dog.

She wanted Ìsho the moment she saw him, his flat nose and panting pink tongue and goggle eyes poking out of my sleeve. I was deliberately too dense to take the hint and make a gift of my dear companion to a spoiled child. Given my position, however, I could not refuse to permit her to play with him. I told her and told her Ìsho was delicate, that she should not urge him to run too hard or squeeze him as if he were a stuffed toy. She killed him.

I am not a man who weeps often. I did not weep when the ayah came running to tell me Ìsho had, he said, taken ill. I continued stoic when I came upon the child in the mission’s garden berating the corpse of my dog for not getting to his feet and frolicking with her. Lifting Ìsho’s minuscule weight from the puddle of vomit and urine soaking into the grass, I made sure he was dead, tucked him into my sleeve where he belonged, and told the wretched poppet, really quite steadily, Ìsho would not be able to play with her anymore.

“Why not?” she demanded.

“I am sorry to say Ìsho has died. Do you know what that means?”

By this time the envoy had been summoned so I need not deal with his daughter’s tantrum, merely witness it and his craven response. Of course, once the child was led away I had no choice but to accept the father’s condescending apologies (he regained his aplomb with unnatural speed), the rather large gift, the two days’ leave from my duties. My heart burning hot with resentment that nearly overmastered my grief, I bowed my way out of the mission and carried my dead dog to the little temple of Jù, where the priestesses of that small god who loves our dumb companions promised to burn his body with all honor and send many prayers up with his smoke. I resolved my next dog would be a mastiff.

I had disliked the envoy since his arrival in the Celestial Realm. The mission’s chargé d’affaires, an often clever woman who had been outre-mer nearly as long as I, sent me downriver to Oesei on the Turquoise Gulf to meet him. Having read the same dispatches, I understood her cleverness led her to believe we would be sympathetic, the envoy travelling with his inamorato and I. (I do not believe he loved the man so much as the man’s rank.) When, descending from the Fejz clipper, he saw awaiting him on the dock a kè-torantin dressed in Haisner brocade robes, I recognized the moment he understood who I was—what I was. I might be distressingly useful, he was thinking, but gone too native to be trusted.

The only protocols he deemed valid were those of our empress’s court in distant Sjolussa. The inamorato was introduced with all his titles, inherited and conferred. The daughter was not introduced at all, although of course I knew about her and observed her in his train holding her ayah’s hand. I expect neither envoy nor inamorato sired the child, a pretty blonde poppet who resembled either only in general ways—I expect they bought her as one might purchase a pet.

After Jù’s temple, I walked the long way home. Through the noisy confusion of the songbird market, past the cricket market, along the bank of the wide, slow Carnelian River with its endless traffic of mighty junques and barges and trade vessels of every seafaring nation in the world. Every nation granted a mission in the capital, that is. Willows trailed their leaves like the Kandadal’s ribbons in the silty water. An itinerant godseller had set up her booth among the trees as if awaiting me. She was surprised by a kè-torantin attired in Haisner fashion who spoke her language, recognized her deities, saints, tutelary spirits. In among her stock I discovered a small cast-bronze idol of Jù in his aspect as a flat-faced sleeve dog, nearly forgot to haggle her down to a fair price. That would have meant bad luck, something I required no more of.

Clutching the idol in my hand, I turned back to the streets of crowded Bhekai. I had not for some years resided in the foreigners’ cantonment. At the gate of the White Peonies vicinage the old grandfather nodded me through politely and I went on to Blue Lamp Street where I rented my small house. The blue lamps mark it as a street of actors and other theatre people, although my nearest neighbors were a scholar and a small bureaucrat.

Inside the door, I removed street shoes and outer robe. I called my servant’s name. My compatriots at the mission were quite sure Shàu was my catamite but it wasn’t so. Shàu had been in my service enough years he was no longer a boy but I could not but remember that he was a boy, an orphan, in equal measure terrified of and fascinated by the kè-torantin who had purchased his contract from an aunt with too many children of her own. I would not, could not, ask of him services outside the terms if they were anything I desired. In any event, now he was grown he had no doubts about preferring the whores of the red houses over those of the yellow.

“Shàu,” I said when he came, “sorrowful news: Ìsho has died. I have given his body to Jù. The house will be quiet and dull without him. Please, this robe is soiled and I do not wish to wear it again.”

Tears had welled up in his eyes but he knew the proprieties as well as I. “Ìsho was a good dog, nen-kè,” he murmured. “Jù will welcome him.” He took the robe from my hands. Whether he burned it or laundered and sold it mattered little to me. I believed him sufficiently sensible to do the latter.

“Now I wish to be alone, undisturbed, for a time. Until dark, I think. You needn’t hurry dinner.” I paused. I had already thought it through but Shàu never liked me doing him favors. “In fact, if it wouldn’t wreck your plans, go to Old An’s for noodles. I have a hankering for noodles. You know what I like.”

“Nen-kè.” Mister Ivory. Shàu came up with the title himself, long ago. “Shall I bring you tea?”

“No, thank you, nothing for now.”

I was about to turn away when I saw the tear escape the cage of his eyelashes and roll down his cheek. “Shàu,” I said, “here, take this.” I pressed the small idol of pug-nosed Jù into his hand. Looking over his head—I did not wish to see another tear—I said, “The house will not be ready to welcome another dog for…some time. And yet it will be lonely without our Ìsho. Go—go to the market before An’s. A songbird, a chameleon, a goldfish in a bowl, a cricket in a cage—whatever you choose. Two, buy two.”

I blundered through the door into the garden. The envoy’s daughter had made my servant cry. She killed my dog and made Shàu weep. I walked to the plum tree at the back of the garden, pressed my brow to its trunk, and tightened my eyelids against tears of my own. The idol of Jù had left marks on my palm that took many minutes to fade.

In my garden it was past the season for peonies but the roses Shàu tended were in bloom. Once my eyes had dried I broke a few fragrant yellow blossoms off their bush—tearing the skin of my hands on their thorns—and carried them indoors. At the entrance to my still chamber I hesitated. One is not meant to come agitated before the Kandadal—one is meant to discover tranquility in the Kandadal’s presence. Paradoxes, paradoxes.

I went in. I laid the roses down on the stone altar among the rotted or dried-out relics of previous offerings. The Kandadal’s said to have approved gifts of flowers yet to prefer they not be placed in water to preserve their beauty a moment longer. If decay upsets me I should endeavor to learn why it upsets me, or accept the upset’s value, or offer him unfading blossoms of colored paper or silk. Or all three. So much I fail to comprehend—so much I am intended not to comprehend.

Walled on two sides with mortared brick, the still chamber was cool. Folding my legs, I settled on the earthen floor before the altar, looked into the Kandadal’s eyes. My idol is varnished wood, one of the jolly young Kandadals, grinning to show his strong, crooked teeth, his eyes crinkled to slits. In the dusk of the unwindowed, unlit chamber the brown glass inset within the slits did not glint. Like myself the Kandadal was a foreigner. Scholars say he never visited Haisn, his philosophies brought in the train of the Owe-ejan-akhar’s daughter centuries after the mortal Kandadal’s decease. The vale of Sfothem, his native place, is nearer Bhekai than to Sjolussa but the people who live there, I’m assured, resemble me more than they do natives of central and northern Haisn, having narrow high-bridged noses and round eyes, the men hirsute more often than not.

The Kandadal is not a god (at any rate he denied being a god) yet he is venerated as if he were. He suggested there are no gods at all, no purpose or design in the universe, yet encouraged his followers to revere the gods and beliefs of all peoples in every nation of all the world. My nation, the people to which I was born, recognizes no gods as such. What the Kandadal would make of our ancient beliefs and customs I can’t imagine. I respect the nameless, numberless virtues and excellences honored in my country but their authority has always been recognized to be parochial—they do not travel: in Haisn they could not protect or aid me.

So much I will never make sense of. I gazed into my Kandadal’s eyes. He is a plump, merry, moon-faced Haisner, handsome and beautiful and, even now, very strange to me. “I want the envoy’s daughter to die,” I told him. Children are forever dying. The envoy could acquire a new one as easily as the last. “I want to kill her as she killed my dog.”

You want her to die, the Kandadal replied. (He did not reply.) You want to kill her.

“She is useless in the world, a monster. Evil.”

A useless, evil monster.

“I do not wish to meet her or her father again.”

Of course my savings were already sufficient, even without the addition of the envoy’s bribe, to buy passage back to Sjolussa. But I had little prospect of a position in that tightly wound city I hardly knew anymore, hardly cared to know—if I wished to leave Bhekai and Haisn. I did not. I wished the laws of the Celestial Realm allowed me to earn my living in some other manner than employment in the Sjolussene mission. But if Haisners—if the child Immortal in the Palace Invisible (may She forever prosper) and Her court and magistracy—if they trusted foreigners they would not be Haisners and I would doubtless not like them so well. They call us kè-torantin, automatons fashioned of ivory, and believe us not fully (if at all) human. It was likewise forbidden for me to work in the mission of another foreign nation than my own, if any would have me.

We argued, the Kandadal and I. (I argued with myself.) Time did not pass. The still chamber became dark, the air thick with the fragrances of roses, mold, and rot. Shàu tapped at the door frame. “Nen-kè. I have brought noodles from Old An’s.”

“Yes, thank you, Shàu,” I said without turning. “A moment longer.”

My servant retreated—I assumed he did—and I prostrated myself full length on the floor before the Kandadal’s altar. He did not like one to be rigid, invariable, to make irrevocable decisions or to find conclusions. Rising to my knees, I kissed the Kandadal’s cool brow, and then I withdrew from his presence.

The panels of the dining chamber’s window were folded open to the dusky garden. Flame guttered in an iron lamp by the window and danced on the wick of a smaller lamp on the low table. Near the lamp sat a porcelain bowl I did not recognize, glazed blue-black without, white within. It was not a bowl for noodles: filled nearly to the brim with clear water, it housed an elegant fish the length of my index finger, swimming in endless, listless circles. Its ancestors were doubtless gold but this variety’s scales and flowing fins were brocaded in splotches of scarlet, black, silver-blue, and white. I watched the enervated prisoner explore a cell that could provide no surprises and when Shàu brought my noodles I said, “She will not survive long in so small a bowl.”

“No, nen-kè,” he said, placing a smaller bowl before me. “I put the other in the great tub the previous tenants left in the garden. But I thought….”

“It was a kind thought, Shàu. She is very lovely.” Not as lovely as Ìsho, I did not say. Not a dog—not a friend, a companion, merely an ornament to admire. “Thank you. After we’ve eaten we’ll take her to join her sister.”

Watching the fish make its unceasing rounds, I ate fat noodles in savory broth with slivers of pork, onion, salt-dried cherry. Cross-legged in the corner, Shàu slurped from his own bowl. His noodles’ accompaniment would be different, for Shàu liked the incendiary cuisines of southeastern Haisn where the Celestial Realm’s uncertain borders bleed into Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge—the Sjolussene protectorates Aveng and U—and where the Immortal’s subjects speak languages She does not comprehend. Those heavily spiced dishes with their chilis and gingers and vinegars, subtleties difficult to discern under the burn, gave me indigestion so Shàu never served them unless I asked.

I continued holding my bowl after I finished, waiting for Shàu—he would interrupt his own meal if I set it down—watching the fish. I did not wish to be alone in my head all night, dreaming up vengeances and punishments for the envoy’s daughter. At length I said, “I will visit the yellow house this evening, Shàu.” I turned to look at the young man in the dim corner. “You may go to the red house if you like.” He understood I was granting permission to use household monies to ease his grief and ducked his head.

We took the brocade fish to join its fellow. The glazed ceramic barrel in a shaded corner of the garden was made to contain goldfish although I had not previously used it for the purpose. Shàu would have scoured it clean while I was with the Kandadal, carried bucket after bucket of fresh water from the well. The previous occupants of the house had also left an eccentric weathered stone eroded into fantastic spires and grottos for the fishes’ entertainment. When Shàu tipped the smaller bowl and water began to spill into the larger a glint of yellow-orange appeared in the depths as a perfectly ordinary goldfish nosed out of a cranny to investigate. I felt a pang of disappointment that Shàu had chosen the common, doubtless cheaper fish for himself—then reflected, admiringly, he must have pocketed the difference.

Poured into its new home, the brocade fish swam in startled circles near the surface while its new companion withdrew again into hiding. I touched Shàu’s shoulder in gratitude as he peered into the water, and then I withdrew myself.

On the barge forging upriver from Oesei I had endeavored to take the new envoy’s measure. He, it was clear, had already taken mine so far as he wished to take it. We sat under a waxed-silk awning, he upright and stiff on a subcontinental-style chair I had made sure would be aboard, I cross-legged on a rice-straw mat. He disdained my tea, drinking instead a tisane of dried flowers and herbs brought in his baggage from Sjolussa.

Studying the envoy’s polished leather boots with their pewter buttons, I answered questions about his predecessor’s contracts and negotiations. These I learned were unambitious. I discovered I was not to venture opinions or advice concerning the goods Haisner merchants might wish to import from the west. Their wishes were of no consequence. Goods were the least of what he planned to offer. Had I, he asked without wishing an answer, ever visited Kyrland—that islanded nation with its two grand capitals, Girrow in the south, Ocseddin in the north?

I had not, as doubtless he knew. As well as I knew of his own immediately previous position in the embassy at Girrow. The two realms were not then at odds: rather, allied to frustrate the ambitions of the Great King whose subcontinental dominions lay between Sjolussa and the Kyrlander home islands.

After hearing considerable apostrophes to Kyrlander energy, invention, industry, I understood the envoy’s intentions. He meant to import knowledge. I was aware of Sjolussene bounties paid to Kyrlander engineers and inventors—I had read in out-of-date gazettes of the wondrous transformations in my homeland: streets and residences illuminated by piped coal-gas, vast manufactories powered by steam, the iron roads and heliographic systems drawing the metropolitan empire’s towns and cities nearer the capital. It seemed not to have occurred to the man that similar innovations, installed in the Celestial Realm, might strengthen the Immortal’s government—that She would henceforth have less use for foreign goods or the foreigners themselves She despised.

Before leaving my house I donned garments a decade out of fashion I had purchased on my last home leave. The whores at Lìm’s Yellow House enjoyed the novel challenge of getting me out of them. For myself, I felt confined and in a peculiar way exposed, for subcontinental men’s fashions fitted more closely than Haisner to the body. Small as he was, Ìsho would never fit into the sleeve of a Sjolussene coat. Buttoned leather boots pinched my feet.

I called “I am going” into the shadows of the house and went out. At the vicinage gate the neighborhood grandfather on duty smirked, knowing the import of my costume and late departure, and wished me a joyful evening.

My way led toward the river, a broad avenue lined on either side by the whitewashed brick walls of residential vicinages like my own, noodle shops, book shops, apothecaries, fortune tellers, shrines of strictly local gods, small groceries. Naphtha lanterns mounted on the corners of boundary walls lit the street. Soon enough I heard music clanging and banging and whining from Turtle Market ahead. I do not know how long it is since Turtle Market sold turtles. Centuries, I expect.

The street became crowded. Inside the market gate competing red houses stood on either side, touts at the scarlet lacquer doors yelling into the throng—promises, blandishments, compliments, threats. The left-hand tout I knew, as she was sometimes posted at the door of Lìm’s other, yellow, establishment on the far side of the market. She called my name, humorously promising diversion and delight. I nodded, smiled, replied, “Not tonight,” and went on, murmuring under my breath a prayer to the manifold gods of venery that Shàu find comfort if he chose to visit one of the capital’s red houses, Lìm’s in Turtle Market or another.

Beyond the red houses stood dubious apothecaries selling elixirs, potions, devices that promised to enhance virility and stamina, and then noisy taverns. Wearing caricatures of subcontinental costume, the tavern touts claimed their beers were brewed in the manner of Trebt, Kyrland, Necker, Kevvel—possibly true, although I had never tasted good beer anywhere in Bhekai. One acquired a taste for the native yellow and white liquors.

Two tall men wearing authentic subcontinental suits and tall hats emerged from a tavern door and I froze, attempting absurdly to vanish into crowd and shadows. The taller of the subcontinentals removed his hat for a moment but I did not require the confirmation of his yellow hair to recognize them as the envoy and his inamorato.

They appeared not to have noticed me, turning to proceed deeper into Turtle Market. My anger had flared up so that I felt sweat break out on my back and under my arms, wetting the linen of my shirt. Pacing after them, I was too agitated to make further effort at stealth. If they meant to visit one of the yellow houses after a draught of brewed bravado I wanted to ensure I did not enter the same one.

They dawdled. Passing a shrine to the gods of venery, the inamorato averted his eyes, shocked by the spring-driven automatons’ performance, then looked again, while his companion mimicked their actions with his hands in a vulgar fashion, then, with a vulgar laugh, tossed a coin into the offering bowl. It was clear he thought the copulating figures merely toys. The two men did not appear to see, but I did, that the idols’ eyes followed them.

Music from competing bands and orchestras had grown louder as we neared the theatres. The opera, the ancient classics, the modern works that require the specific artificiality of breathing human actors—those of course were staged in grander circuses in more genteel districts. These were marionette and automaton theatres. I expected the envoy and his inamorato not to be interested. Surely they had ventured into Turtle Market solely to indulge in carnal pleasures. I was mistaken.

They paused at the entrance of each theatre to inspect the gaudy printed poster. Most of the works presented by Turtle Market’s companies are farces, variously erotic, or ancient fables or ghost stories. The two men stopped last and longest outside the House of the Company of the Kandadal’s Colored Cat (as if the impresario had thrown dice to determine the most nonsensical name possible), an automaton troupe presenting, so the poster announced, The Tale of the Ive-ojan-akhar. The music from within doors featured drums beating to martial rhythms, squealing horns, gongs, whistles. It overcame the sense of the envoy’s discussion with his inamorato but the tones of their voices and their expressions were complex.

I paid the tariff and followed them into the theatre. I do not understand why. I did not understand why they chose an historical melodrama—I did not understand why I failed to walk on to Lìm’s Yellow House.

I waited several moments in the anteroom with its doors offset to confuse ghosts and kept my face lowered when I entered the hall—a small space to be given that name, dim, loud with the unmuffled noise of the band. Cushions for the spectators were placed around three walls, accompanied by low tables. Aside from us three kè-torantin there was no audience. The envoy and his companion sat at one side. I chose the opposite. Until an attendant brought me a warm flask of adequate yellow liquor and a cup I kept my face turned away, my attention on the mechanical musicians at the corner of the raised stage bashing at their drums and gongs with mallets as wooden as their fists, miming at tooting pipes and trumpets actually played by concealed bellows.

The attendant had been extinguishing the lamps about the house one by one, and now she moved to put out those that illuminated stage and band. Being artificial, the musicians did not require light to play but ceased nevertheless. A voice distorted by some trickery into thunder intoned into darkness: “The Owe-ejan-akhar leaves her third daughter behind.”

 

2.

It would be tedious to describe the drama as it played. Magic-lantern slides cast glamors upon the stage: improbable architectures, landscapes never seen. The automaton-actors trundled about on casters concealed beneath the skirts of lavish costumes, gesturing their articulated fingers with great conviction, tilting exquisitely painted masks at angles to impersonate living expressions. They spoke—the ventriloquists offstage spoke—with such conviction one scarcely noticed the lines were poetry…doggerel, rather.

It was the old story. Having conquered a quarter of world, the Owe-ejan-akhar bullied the Immortal of the time into buying her favor and protection. He dismissed His generals and advisers and, to seal the alliance, His wives, lemans, concubines, and all His children as well. The daughter the Ejan was willing to spare was her third, a young woman with little aptitude for war who chose to rank the Kandadal’s precepts in different order than her mother preferred.

The marriage of the Immortal of Haisn and the Ive-ojan-akhar was solemnized at the Ejan’s camp and court on the plain of Niw—it was the only time in all His mortal life the Immortal ventured outside the walls of the Palace Invisible. Then in grand cavalcade the Ejan and her Thousand Tall Riders wheeled their horses about and departed once again for the west, about the business of subduing rebellions and conquering further dominions.

Borne in their twin palanquins, escorted by half the northern quarter of Haisn’s Celestial Army, the Immortal and the Ojan travelled southeast more slowly, accompanied by her guards, magicians, shamans, counsellors, and half a monastery’s worth of acolytes of the Kandadal. The Ojan’s old companion, a mastiff fleeced like a lamb, rode in her palanquin.

They crossed the Blue Wall by a bridge demolished as soon as they passed over the mighty channel. It was left up to the governor of the Reclaimed Province how to defend the wide new avenue hacked through the Green Wall, if defense be required. The Cinnabar Wall possessed a gate wide enough but not sufficiently grand, so gilded stands were raised and choirs of sweet-voiced children and eunuchs impressed to sing welcome to the Immortal bringing the mother of unborn Immortals out of Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge.

Until now all converse between the Immortal and His wife had been formal, witnessed. Once entered into the Celestial Realm the Immortal felt secure requesting she invite Him to attend her privately. Knowing as well as her husband the urgent need for an heir—the Immortal had merely disinherited and delegitimated His former children, not had them killed—the Ojan acquiesced. She had, of course, ceased chewing banleaf the day before her wedding.

This took place in the Black Palace of Husth, ancient war capital of the eldest and northernmost of the Nine Principalities that had become Haisn. The magic-lantern depictions of the palace were splendid. Wearing His saffron-orange nightgown, the automaton playing the Immortal traversed endless black corridors guarded by innumerable porcelain warriors in antique armor, the immortal army of the First Immortal. When at last He reached the Ojan’s chambers He was ushered in by members of her own guard, not as tall as her mother’s Tall Riders but towering nonetheless over the Haisner Immortal. The white mastiff inside the door growled but she was tied up.

Because it was a Turtle Market production the automaton the Immortal found within was already nude and reclining, cunningly articulated in all her members. While music from the band attempted to drown out the click and whirr of gears, the clack and thump of porcelain limb against wooden trunk, Immortal and Ojan performed the act of coition in elaborate detail—I heard the envoy’s inamorato snicker—and then the scene changed.

Now the stage became some artist’s naïvely voluptuous vision of the Palace Invisible in Bhekai some months later. The Ojan’s womb had failed yet to quicken. Counsellors of both personages were nearly as concerned as the Ojan and her husband. None dared suggest relegitimating the Immortal’s cast-off heir for the Owe-ejan-akhar had many spies. The Immortal dedicated great sums to the gods of venery, fertility, increase, and visited the Ojan as often as His appetites permitted.

Always least favored of the Ejan’s daughters, the Ojan had grown fearful. She knew the shamans and magicians in her train were her mother’s agents. She knew very well her mother’s ruthlessness. This was a mother whose several sons had not been permitted to survive past their second breaths, for the magnates and warriors of her people would not answer to masculine authority. If the Ojan proved barren the Ejan would never hesitate to dispatch a different daughter to take her place—perhaps, if impatience rather than good sense had the upper hand in the Ejan’s mind, instead to breach Blue, Green, and Cinnabar Walls herself and lead her Tall Riders into the Celestial Realm. In either case the failed Ojan would be disgraced. She made sure to welcome the Immortal into her chamber, her bed, her body whenever the urge struck Him, but when He departed she threw her arms about the neck of the white mastiff and groaned in frustration and despair.

These scenes were played, of course, to titillate the audience. For myself, after the first, I found them tedious. They were dolls on the stage, clever unnatural toys. I had seen automaton productions no less lewd involving men with other men which were scarcely more entertaining. But after the third I understood I was meant to understand the Ojan’s wretchedness was not solely on account of fear. Fearful Himself, in fatal need of an heir, for all His divinity merely a stupid self-involved man, the Immortal took no pains to involve His wife in the act, to give her pleasure.

After the third, the Ojan took up an ancient Haisner book few members of any Turtle Market audience would know except by reputation for it had been banned again and again, and read a passage aloud—the only prose in the entire drama. I heard the envoy’s inamorato hoot with embarrassed laughter when he understood what he was hearing. What he was seeing for, while the offstage ventriloquist recited Lady Tonnù’s ghost’s counsel to her living granddaughter, the Ojan-automaton’s articulated fingers tapped and fiddled at the delicately sculpted crevice between her legs until she broke off the recitation with a cry.

The white mastiff howled. Clever small pyrotechnics set about the front of the stage flared with blinding flashes, deafening bangs. A new personage descended on wires from the flies.

I, for one, had read Summer Sunlight in the Walled Garden, less for its scandalous anecdotes of courtiers two millennia dead than its prose. The book’s—and author’s—most vicious critics acknowledge its style to be immaculate, unprecedented: few great works of Haisner literature don’t bear its stamp. At any rate, although this twist in the Ive-ojan-akhar’s tale was new to me I recognized the figure represented by the device making its appearance in the Ojan’s chamber, half spring-powered automaton, half marionette.

The Ojan’s white dog whined and quailed but tall mistress rose from low bed and demanded to know what being it was dared approach her uninvited.

“Wakè-ì,” the demon named herself, at which the Ojan tilted her painted face into shadow. In the language of today wakè-ì alludes to a hopeless yearning that can never be satisfied whilst also serving as an old-fashioned synonym for vengeance. Stepping back, the Ojan laid a hand on her dog’s head while the demon pranced and capered about, displaying herself to the audience: a kind of lithe tigress, scarlet and black, bearing great ebony and cinnabar bat wings between her shoulders and wearing the mask of a human face.

When for an instant that mask was fully illuminated I choked on my tepid yellow liquor and either the envoy or his inamorato uttered a shocked noise. Wakè-ì’s was not the full, round moon face of Haisner beauty. A person from the distant west regarded the darkness beyond the stage lights—a person with mottled pink and white complexion, axe-blade nose and hollow cheeks and thin lips, round eyes with irises of pale blue glass. It was neither quite womanly nor quite manly yet I had no trouble imagining the envoy’s daughter wearing that face if she were to reach maturity.

A moment only. The monster’s capers brought her again to face the Ojan and she stilled, spoke again. Wakè-ì’s voice was unpleasant, grating, a harridan’s screech. She could, she said, ensure the Ojan bore the Immortal’s heir if that was truly the woman’s desire.

What was the bargain? demanded the Ojan—what price would she be required to pay?

No bargain: a simple gift. The demons of the Ojan’s previous acquaintance must be more greedy and ungrateful than those of Haisn if she believed she need drive a bargain. Wakè-ì’s sole concern was to conserve the Covenant of Heaven.

Having no choice, no other hope, the Ojan begged of Wakè-ì this boon, and in the succeeding scene, months later, she was accouched. The audience was not required to witness the birth, although I expect the company’s artisans were fully capable of producing the illusion. An enormous painting of the tiger-demon Wakè-ì overlooked the chamber where the Immortal waited—I noticed its eyes following the Immortal as He paced—and on an altar nearby an idol of the Kandadal. Now and then, when the Immortal looked elsewhere, wooden saint would wink at painted demon.

When midwife and surgeon brought the newborn babe, its Immortal father inquired whether it was fit, which the midwife assured Him it was.

Not a month later, as if in fulfillment of never-spoken prophecy, the Immortal of Haisn went walking among the grottos and cages of His menagerie and paused to contemplate the noble tigers in their moated vicinage. The male remained lazy, basking in summer sunlight, but when the female caught sight of the Immortal and His party she plunged into the moat. Somehow in an instant she scaled the sheer bank and tall fence. Before the guards and more decorative attendants could react the Immortal fell beneath her great paws. He looked up in terror and saw, not the yellow teeth and hot red tongue of a savage beast, but the ivory-carved face of a kè-torantin. Saw, and died.

The tigress was dispatched forthwith, of course. A quick-thinking courtier who may have glimpsed the same apparition made sure to slash the Immortal about chest and throat with his ornamental dagger lest the Son of Heaven’s death be ascribed to something as mortal as fright. As a matter of course the entire party was swiftly excruciated, then executed.

All the late Immortal’s court having been dismissed according to the terms of His marriage contract, the Palace Invisible and the government of Haisn were already in the hands of foreigners. The new Immortal was anointed, proclaimed, and removed from Her mother’s care while the widow was named Her regent. The Owe-ejan-akhar’s agents naturally expected her daughter to give them no trouble—to be timid, compliant, placid.

Once the Celestial seals were in the Ive-ojan-akhar’s possession she allowed her mother’s agents little time to discover otherwise. Aptitude for armed conflict she may not have owned but discovered an aptitude for those more civil forms of warfare known as governance. Taking their measures, she played the Ejan’s instruments off against each other. Those who would not play she had poisoned. As governors of near and far-flung provinces came to pledge fealty to the Immortal, Her regent-mother took their measures as well, sounded out their loyalties and alliances. She found excuses to exile her late husband’s delegitimated elder children to isolated, primitive towns in the desert west or sweltering south. The demon Wakè-ì was often consulted.

Naturally, nearly everybody of any importance outside her own faction, whatever their original loyalty, was outraged by the Ojan’s abrupt ascension. She had never been meant to serve as more than figurehead. But the Celestial Realm remained tranquil, barbarians of the desolate north and northeast beyond the Blue Wall caused no trouble, half-civilized nations to the south and southeast remitted their immemorial tributes, the tributes paid to the Owe-ejan-akhar’s annual embassy were not onerous. The funds the Ojan’s government dedicated to Haisn’s western defenses brought new prosperity to those neglected regions, and nobody cared to wonder aloud what the regent might fear from her own mother’s territories. Harvests were bountiful, trade within the realm and with the Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge rewarding: the country was prosperous and there was no claiming the Covenant of Heaven set aside.

Upon the Ive-ojan-akhar’s arrival in Bhekai, the acolytes of the Kandadal in her train had established temples in the city and a monastery at Geì, three days’ journey upriver on the cliffs of the famous defile. For some time they made little impression on a populace content with their own philosophies and native saints and gods. Nevertheless, it was well known the Immortal’s mother was a devotee of the Kandadal. To persons of influence or who wished to be influential the logic of becoming familiar with this foreign cult could not be argued against. Before the Immortal achieved Her tenth year of immortality the monastery’s quota of monks and nuns had doubled and doubled again. In temperate season the acolytes stalking Bhekai’s avenues and byways without clothing or other impediment save staff and offering basket were as likely to be third and fourth children of Haisner aristocrats, scholars, bankers, and merchants as tall barbarians. Their families boasted of them in public.

In the years of the Immortal’s childhood Her mother and the obliging demon Wakè-ì became lovers. This too was a part of the story I had not known and I wondered if it were an invention of the Company of the Kandadal’s Colored Cat. Perhaps they needed to amortize the cost of devising the demon puppet. I did not myself find these scenes arousing but I have never favored women. As best I could determine in dimness and clamor, the Sjolussene envoy and his inamorato were similarly unimpressed.

A supernatural entity, the demon contrived to impregnate the Ojan—it was not mentioned whether the seed was Wakè-ì’s own or if she had acquired it of mortal man or masculine god or demon. The Ojan herself, of course, was astonished and appalled before beginning to surrender to her maternal instincts. Of course she could not afford to be seen to be in that condition for she had no husband, no acknowledged lovers. Fortunately, the fashion of the day already valorized fecundity. Any woman of means made certain of appearing gravid before being seen by strangers. Intimate servants were cozened, threatened, bribed. The Ojan bruited a wish to seclude herself for the hot months of summer at Geì, whose abbot had long ago been a Tall Rider before being appointed the infant Ive-ojan-akhar’s ayah and bodyguard.

A report was delivered, a coincidence it seemed, that her Immortal firstborn was sickly. The Ojan issued a shocking, unprecedented order: the Immortal must depart the Palace Invisible and the capital to accompany Her mother to Geì, where highland airs and plain, good food would restore Her health.

Some years before I had visited Geì myself—not precisely a pilgrimage—so I recognized the magic-lantern scenery beloved of sentimental woodcut artists: the swift tumble of the river here apostrophized as Stormy Jade rather than Carnelian, the beetling, fantastically painted cliffs, the jagged spires that formed forested aerial islands. The monastery itself had been a picturesque ruin for two and a half centuries before I reached it, never fully reclaimed after the Shining Hands overthrew the false immortal who endeavored to suppress veneration of the Kandadal. I imagine the ruins I explored were more grand than the nearly new monastery of the Ive-ojan-akhar’s fatal summer visit but the painter of magic-lantern slides had not felt constrained by history. Here were the stupendous, strangely attenuated images of the nude, ascetic saint carved into the cliff face itself, three standing, five reclining, three kneeling in serene meditation, all adorned with garlands of sculpted and painted blossoms, each with the severe features of a Tall Rider of the steppes where the Ojan was born. Here, standing improbably tall rather than the stump I had seen, was the Tower that Longs for the Sky, there clinging to the cliffs the many aeries like vertiginous swallows’ nests fashioned of bamboo stems and silk cord for solitary contemplation, reached by way of dangling ropes. Here the Abbot’s House, its roof of tiles glazed jade green and gold upheld by sculpted demons bound with iron chains, there in its walled garden of roses, peonies, plum and cherry trees, the Hospice. Everywhere wind-whipped knots of the Kandadal’s eleven-colored ribbons: fastened to the tips of tall bamboo staves, strung across the gorge high above rushing waters, fluttering from the eaves of terrestrial buildings and aeries alike.

Soon, however, we were conducted with the Ojan’s party into the Hospice. The sickly Immortal was installed with Her eunuch ayah and deaf-mute maids in spacious, luxurious chambers, where the child lay enervated on a low couch, glassy stare fixed on a clever fountain. Water-driven automatons of songbirds warbled and flapped their wings while playful automatons of otters and frogs cavorted at the edges of the pool below.

By contrast, Her mother’s room above was a stark pilgrim’s cell, walled and floored in stone, its round window simply a hole in the wall, uncovered. A quilted mat served for bed and seat. A plain, if exquisitely formed, flask held water, an unglazed cup ready beside it in the corner of the cell. For adornment there was a painting on cured horsehide, an image of the Kandadal knelt in veneration before the demon of the abbot’s—and the Ojan’s—native place, which took the form of a bay mare with brilliantly feathered wings at each ankle.

Although she was neither nun nor acolyte, the Ojan divested herself of her clothing and knelt on her mat before this image. I suppose the audience was meant to understand how near her time the Ojan was by the clue of swollen belly and breasts but I am unacquainted with such things. It seemed many moments before her contemplation broke with a thin, breathy moan. Whining with bootless sympathy, the white mastiff left its post by the door and the Ojan clutched porcelain fingers into its mane as her moans became shrieks, became howls.

In the chamber below, the child Immortal roused with a weak moan of Her own, Her eyes turned up to the ceiling. The birds, frogs, otters on the fountain stilled, the Immortal’s attendants with a clatter of wood and porcelain fell to the floor. From the wing, her own wings mantled, the demon Wakè-ì stalked on her great paws. Wakè-ì approached the quailing child, paused. The sire was weak, the demon said, the dam insufficiently wise, the whelp unfit for Heaven’s acknowledgment.

Like a cruel house cat, Wakè-ì batted the child off Her couch and across the stage before stooping with great delicacy to fasten her teeth in the Immortal’s nape. With her burden dangling from her jaws like a kitten, a rat, or a puppet, the demon leapt into the air and away from the stage. The envoy’s inamorato choked down a squeak of dismay—I was startled myself—when the great marionette swooped overhead in a half circle that brought her back to the upper part of the stage where, while we were distracted by the antics in the Immortal’s chamber, Her mother must have given birth.

For the Ive-ojan-akhar, kneeling again before the painting of the Kandadal and the horse demon, with her dog at her side, now cradled a babe at her breast. She took appreciable moments to notice Wakè-ì’s arrival, seemed not to notice at all the dead Immortal dropped without ceremony before her. The demon spoke again, voice no less grating than before, extending amused thanks to the Ojan for bearing and birthing the babe as she, the demon, could not.

Coming nearly to herself, the Ojan asked whose child it was suckling at her breast.

Why, the demon explained tolerantly, it was the granddaughter of the Ojan’s late husband. As presently constituted the Covenant of Heaven could not allow for a regnant Immortal of foreign antecedent. This was the child of the delegitimated heir and the rough-and-ready sailor the Ojan herself had recently appointed admiral of the war fleet out of Oesei. Sire and dam had never met, the Ojan would be relieved to understand—the former exiled in the distant south, the latter on the Ojan’s own embassy to the recalcitrant princelings of the archipelago east across the Turquoise Gulf—had not met, would not meet, although their destinies were similar. Wakè-ì inclined her great head to the image of the Kandadal on the chamber’s wall. Once recovered from the fever presently troubling him, the late Immortal’s eldest son would renounce the exilic luxury he had been granted to become a mendicant acolyte of the Kandadal, whose precepts and philosophies he would carry farther south, into U and Piq and Tunsesu; while the cargo more valuable than tea, silks, copper, or the threat of arms which the admiral’s fleet bore to obstreperous Djoch-Athe was those same philosophies and precepts.

The demon shrugged and went on kindly. Their unsuspected daughter was meant to continue the Ojan’s needful reforms and innovations, to continue placating Her supposed grandmother the Owe-ejan-akhar, encouraging the spread of the Kandadal’s teachings. She would be remembered as a stolid, unexceptional caretaker of the Celestial Realm, eclipsed in the histories by Her own heir. That glorious Immortal would finally break the yoke of the Akhars and shatter their diminished empires.

The Ive-ojan-akhar, however, gently pronounced the demon, would witness none of this: it was not her concern.

The Ojan’s mastiff growled and leapt from its post at the Ojan’s side, bright teeth meant for the demon’s throat.

Artificial thunder rolled and a crack of artificial lightning blinded me. When my vision recovered I saw upon the upper stage a dead dog fleeced like a white lamb and two Ive-ojan-akhars, two stripling Immortals. One of each pair lay on the floor, apparently deceased. The standing Ojan regarded her dead twin for some moments before turning to the house beyond the burning footlights. With both hands she lifted the mask from her skull, revealing the ivory visage of the demon, which she inclined first toward the envoy and his inamorato on one side of the house, then to me. She dropped the Ojan’s mask. It shattered on the floor. But then as the band began to bang and whine and clatter she raised her hands again to doff this second face, exposing a third we had not seen before: merely a moon-round, jolly Haisner face.

The footlights guttered. In wavering illumination and darting shadow, the false demon turned to offer reverence to the Kandadal on the wall before extending a hand to the new Immortal, leading Her from the stage. The band played on.

 

3.

The Sjolussene envoy and his inamorato clapped their hands together in the subcontinental manner while I hooted and slapped the table like a Haisner. I rose in somewhat of a hurry, for I did not wish them to get a good look at me, strode out of the hall and the theatre. Finding a shadow of concealment, I waited for them to emerge. When they did, the one was speaking urgently in a voice too low for me to understand. The other laughed, careless, clapped his companion’s shoulder, and they turned away. It seemed I was mistaken to believe they had stopped at the House of the Company of the Kandadal’s Colored Cat merely as an interlude before proceeding to more carnal recreation for they returned the way they had come.

I, however, went on as I had first intended to Lìm’s Yellow House. There I was entertained through the night by whores alternately roughneck and exquisite, receiving excellent value for Lìm’s outrageous fees and forgetting for the while the envoy, his daughter, my angry grief, the puzzles posed by The Tale of the Ive-ojan-akhar.

Too soon I was roused ungently, untimely, with the message my servant stood without the house clamoring for my attention. Confused and alarmed, I donned my rumpled suit of Sjolussene garments with what haste I could before rushing out to the street.

Shàu was there indeed, hunkered and huddled in the shadow of one of the great yellow doorposts, but this was not my calm, competent servant. “Nen-kè,” cried a wretched, weeping ragamuffin when I emerged through the yellow doors, “nen-kè, your house! The poor fishes!” He bobbed to his feet and I saw without recourse that he was nearly naked, wearing none of the neat outfits I provided but only a filthy clout, and was dirty himself from head to toe. “All burnt!” he gasped, and fell to his knees at my feet.

As I bent to him, confounded, I saw the companion that had shared his shadow: my wooden idol of the Kandadal, its varnish scorched and half the face charred. The surviving brown glass eye twinkled.

“Shàu,” I said, my voice thin and labored, “tell me. What has happened?”

“All burnt!” he moaned again. “All burnt, your house and your treasures.”

“But you are alive, my dear Shàu, and you rescued my Kandadal.” I do not know where I discovered the fatal calm that gripped me. “The rest is no matter though I grieve for the fishes. Come.” I coaxed him back to the yellow column and had him sit by me as I sat by the Kandadal, and I held my servant about his trembling shoulders as if he were not nearly man-grown, as if he were my child. “Tell me how this has happened.”

The day was very young, dawn just pinking the sky. Although the rest of Bhekai would be stirring Turtle Market slept on while Shàu faltered out his tale. He had returned before midnight from a red house less reputable (less distant, less costly) than Lìm’s. After making certain I was still abroad and would not need him, he bade goodnight to the new fishes in their tub, said a prayer for Jù’s favor to poor Ìsho (here he showed me the sole rescued treasure of his own: the small bronze Jù), and took himself to bed.

Some hours later, only a few, he was wakened by a great noise and tumult out of doors on Blue Lamp Street. Like any Haisner house, mine had no windows onto the street, but Shàu rushed to the door left unbarred against my return. When he peered through the grated spy hole—of no such diameter any ghost might pass through—he saw a mob milling about, their own torches illuminating them more effectively than the blue lamps. Shàu dropped the bar across the door at once, although he feared it could not hold against them. As well as torches they carried crude weapons, brazen gongs, and a great many strings of the tiny black-powder bombs used to frighten demons and ghosts, which all at once began popping and banging on the doorstep, against the walls, and on the roof, as if the riot had recognized Shàu’s presence.

He would not tell me the insults the mob yelled, only that there was no doubting they meant his nen-kè. “They wore masks,” he stammered, “the painted faces of snarling tigers hiding their own faces.” Several of the tiger people carried casks on their shoulders and these made sure of keeping some distance from torches and bombs.

At length one among them grew impatient with aimless commotion and directed them here, there in a high, piercing voice. My house was to be surrounded on all sides against escape from within and to ward against damage to properties of true subjects of the Immortal in the Palace Invisible. The cask-bearers were ordered to douse the walls at front and sides with their naphtha. This was accomplished with dispatch. Finally, scorning to risk their own persons by using the torches, the tiger people hurled strings of hissing, banging little bombs to set my house alight.

Shàu had remained at the spy hole until the paint on the door went up in a sudden sheet of flame. Then he fled through my doomed house to the garden door. He must have snatched up the little bronze Jù along the way, he said, though he didn’t remember it. Outside, he retreated to the farthest corner of the garden’s tall brick walls, behind the plum tree, and watched the house burn, cowering at explosions of sparks and the vicious shouts and malign chants of the tiger people.

When in the black hour before dawn the only home he had known was but a smoking ruin and he was half-certain the tiger people had departed the vicinage of the White Peonies, he dared emerge from his poor shelter. A charred roof beam, he saw, had fallen to smash the goldfish tub, but two scorched walls within the ruin yet stood: the brick abutments on either side of my still room. He drenched himself with water from the well and carried a full bucket to splash a path through the ashes before his bare feet.

As he passed the fragile brick bulwarks he glimpsed a glimmer from the Kandadal’s remaining eye, a gleam from the saint’s toothy grin. “I feel he meant me to survive,” murmured Shàu, who had never betrayed any inclination toward the mad philosopher’s cult, “so I must rescue him and bring him to you, nen-kè.”

“And so you did, brave Shàu.” Taking the idol under one arm and my servant under the other, I brought them into Lìm’s Yellow House, where I bullied and bribed a surly eunuch into tending to Shàu—bathing him, clothing him, feeding him—had another attendant fetch me tea and congee, and dispatched a third on urgent errand to the Sjolussene mission. Fortunately, I carried a goodly sum in cash.

Having broken my fast, I sat pondering my scorched Kandadal, unwilling yet to ponder these peculiar disasters. I was called to the door again.

Looking powerfully incongruous on the threshold of a Turtle Market yellow house, six troopers of the Sjolussene militia d’outre-mer and their leader awaited me, armed and in full kit. The downy-cheeked lieutenant saluted me briskly. I knew the fellow’s face although mission staff did not mix with the militia: I had seen him in mufti here in Lìm’s Yellow House on several occasions. “Sir,” he said, “his excellency the envoy is murdered by street ruffians, your house is burnt down, and we have beaten off an assault by native rabble against her majesty’s mission. You will come with us at once.”

“Of course,” I murmured, surprised yet more if somehow undismayed. “I must bring my servant. A moment, please.” I turned back to the door.

Shàu was there already, wan and dignified, attired by the spiteful eunuch in tawdry whore’s finery, cradling my scorched Kandadal in his arms. “Come, my dear,” I said, beckoning. “These soldiers will see us to safety.”

At the mission the chargé d’affaires was raging. “That perilous fool offended the Immortal’s regent. We are proscribed, banished, and a secret society has been set up against us.” She regarded me shrewdly—my dowdy, rumpled, out-of-fashion subcontinental costume. “It was never wise to live outside the cantonment. You have nothing.”

“I have money,” I replied. “In several banks, Sjolussene, Kevveler, and Asaen.”

“All well and good but you cannot draw on those funds at present. Perhaps when we reach Folau. Well, I expect we can see you outfitted for the voyage with what we have here.”

“Folau?” I said, offended. “Voyage?”

“Are you not listening, man? We are expelled. Her majesty’s entire mission and all our chattel. We must quit the capital before sunset tomorrow, presuming the Vengeance Tigers permit it—the realm within the week.” Turning away, she noticed Shàu standing mute by the door and made a moue of polite distaste. “Your boy, is he? I suppose he must accompany us. His life is forfeit if you were to abandon him.” Turning back to me, she sighed. “I expect her majesty’s governor-general in Defre will feel obliged to launch some form of punitive action. She’s related somehow to the late envoy’s late companion.” Abruptly, the chargé made a sour grin. “I look forward with a certain glee to depositing the wretched orphaned daughter with her noble auntie. I don’t imagine you’d care to watch over her until Aveng?”

I said coldly, “She killed my dog.”

“A jest, man.” The chargé slapped my shoulder. “A jest in poor taste—my apologies. Now, you’ll forgive me, I have a great deal to do to organize this exodus. See the adjutant. He’ll get you sorted.”

The Vengeance Tigers mounted another chaotic assault against the mission that night. The downy-cheeked lieutenant’s forces frightened them off. In the austere chamber assigned to me I heard the gongs, the pop-pop of black-powder bomblets, the louder bangs of our militia’s guns. Sleeping Shàu on the pallet by my door whimpered when the noise entered his dreams until I slipped out of bed to comfort him.

We sailed downriver aboard a commandeered merchant vessel never meant to carry passengers, accompanied by a corvette of the imperial navy bearing the militia. We were halfway to Oesei, scudding along through the fertile floodplain of the Carnelian River, before I properly understood I was exiled from the Celestial Realm. Then it was I needed comforting, which Shàu managed with simple tact by requesting instruction in the Kandadal’s teachings.

At Oesei by great good fortune we met up with a packet boat of the Kevveler Company. On imperial credit, the chargé d’affaires bought passage to Folau, chief seaport of Her Imperial Majesty’s Protectorate of Aveng, for all her motley company bar the militia who continued aboard the corvette. One afternoon of the thirty-five-day voyage I witnessed the late envoy’s daughter lay into a yelping puppy with her parasol. I took considerable satisfaction in slapping her away and scooping the poor animal out of her reach.

“It is her property,” the abject ayah said, “given her by a sailor. She may do with it what she pleases. It nipped her.”

“She gave it cause, I don’t doubt. I will not see this wretch kill another dog. It is mine now. She and you may complain as you wish.” I bore the white bitch puppy away. She was frightened, naturally, but childish blows had done her no real injury and she soon rediscovered puppyish enthusiasm for the world around her and all its peoples save small blonde girls.

Thankfully, such creatures are rare in her experience since I declined to settle in the Sjolussene colony at Folau. She lies at my feet, grumbling in her sleep, as I complete this account.

The tale of her rescue got around the boat very quickly. I was approached by a Kevveler sailor who spoke Sjolussene with a cultivated accent. “I did not understand that child was such a monster,” she told me. “Poor orphaned girl, I thought, in want of a playmate. Thank you, sir, for rescuing the pup. If the dam could speak she would thank you as well.” A sentimental person, the sailor pressed on me a sack of biscuits for the puppy and, twice before we gained Folau, brought mother to romp with daughter. The mother was buff-colored, not white. As the sailor admitted, about the sire there was no knowing. I named my puppy Gad, a Kevveler word meaning comfort. She is hardly the mastiff of my promise to myself but substantial enough, far too big to tuck into any sleeve. Shàu delighted in her. When he visited us after his two-year novitiate, a well made young man whom the nakedness of an acolyte of the Kandadal flattered and who spoke the language of the territory better than I, Gad recognized him joyfully, and when he left us again he went accompanied on his mendicant wanderings by one of her by-blows.

I am ahead of myself.

The voyage south required thirty-five days, as I said. Shàu proved a good sailor, never sickened by the rolling of the seas. He continued to request stories of the Kandadal and his saints and other followers. The packet boat stopped in at its regular ports of call but the navy corvette stood offshore and the chargé d’affaires forbade any of her company to debark so long as they were towns bound by the Covenant of Heaven. The airs grew balmy as we proceeded down the Turquoise Gulf, then quite suddenly sultry. We came to Regions Heaven Does Not Acknowledge—to Folau.

I was able to claim funds of the representatives of my banks in the town without an excess of trouble and within a month had set up a satisfactory household for Shàu, Gad, and myself in a bungalow on a minor canal well away from subcontinental quarters. Aveng being a dominion of the empress in all but name, opportunities for employment for one of her subjects were more varied than in Bhekai. Eventually I settled into a position which chiefly involved negotiating the protocols and courtesies required for the Trebter principals of the Great Eastern Company to deal with merchants of Folau’s Haisntown.

Few of the other Sjolussene exiles remained in Aveng any time. The chargé d’affaires was one, though more in Defre, the capital, than Folau. She delivered the envoy’s daughter to her relative the governor-general there. After some months she wrote a smug letter to inform me the unfortunate poppet had contracted one of the tropic fevers and expired in shuddering misery.

The governor-general in Defre proved a more cautious person than the chargé had imagined. She sent indignant dispatches home to the empress’s government, formal protests to the Immortal’s regent, but took no action on her own—beyond settling indemnities on the refugees (mine was handsome enough not to quarrel with) and bestowing a medal on the downy-cheeked lieutenant, who blushed becomingly and promptly resigned his commission to take a position with me at the Great Eastern Company.

In Bhekai and Oesei, however, the other subcontinental trading nations soon learned what the government and regent of the Immortal of Haisn doubtless knew all along: a rabble is a weapon which, once loosed, cannot easily be restrained. The Vengeance Tigers had tasted kè-torantin blood. The Kyrlander mission was attacked, the mission of Asana, those of the Great King’s clients: Kevvel, Trebt, Necker. Merchant vessels at anchor on the river at Bhekai or in port at Oesei were bombed, burned to the waterline. Foreigners on the streets at dusk or night were never safe, however large the party. Doubtless the Turtle Market taverns were intimidated into no longer selling beer.

The imperial entrepôt at Folau had been open to other subcontinental nations for half a century, was fully stocked with consulates, advocates, and the myriad merchant banks, so we generally saw the refugees first. At home on the far side of the world the powers were as outraged by the sudden scarcity of high-quality tea, porcelains, silks woven and raw as by insult to their citizens outre-mer. A year into my exile we saw pass by offshore an unprecedented allied fleet—including three novel steam-driven warships from the Ocseddin shipyards. This armada fared north into the Turquoise Gulf to rendezvous with a smaller fleet out of Haisn’s sometime client-state Djoch-Athe, eager to garner what pickings it might from the Celestial Realm’s humiliation.

I might have returned to Bhekai after resolution of the Vengeance Tigers’ Rebellion. It would not be the same city, the same realm: the Immortal required to defer to a cabinet of kè-torantin ministers, Her Palace no longer Invisible, Oesei removed from Her suzerainty and divided among the victorious powers. Scholars on government payroll claim the Covenant of Heaven unbroken for the realm is peaceful and prosperous but I cannot believe it so. I might have returned but did not. I offered to send Shàu home. He would have none of it.

He had grown content, even happy, in Folau. His duties had never been overly onerous but now he had Gad’s companionship when I went to work. (That dog, it must be said, could not be trusted in a place of business. It must also be said, she is a more lighthearted, lightheaded, affectionate creature than poor Ìsho ever was.) On his own he discovered the free school attached to the Kandadal temple, where he learned to read—not his own language, however—delved much deeper into the lore that fascinated him than I could ever lead him, took up the practice of painting: mandalas and other devotional images chiefly, but I treasure sketches he made of Gad and of me, several others. I cannot say I was surprised when, five years into our exile, he asked to leave my service to enter the monastery a half-day’s walk south of the port.

By that time I could not securely say I was not also content. I thought less often of Bhekai as I knew it—as I said, I cannot believe it the same city now—of my little house on Blue Lamp Street or my garden (peonies and plums will not grow in this climate lacking any season that resembles winter, though of roses there is a sufficiency). When particularly nostalgic I might visit Folau’s Haisntown, which as good as reproduces in small Oesei-as-was. Aveng and Folau were clients of the Celestial Realm for a millennium before the advent of subcontinental traders and conquerors so much about the place was familiar to me already, if more was novel. My employment was more satisfactory, surely.

I suppose it was Shàu’s departure led me finally to accept the suit of my husband and his husband and the husband’s wives and their other husbands. I did not care to live alone—if not perpetually in so much company. (I kept my city bungalow. It is more convenient to work, for my husband as well as myself.) In some ways my Sjolussene husband has gone less native than I. He speaks the language stiffly, courteously acknowledges rather than honors the gods and demons of the place, turns up his nose at many delicacies. He will not be seen in public wearing local costume, better suited to the sultry climate than the suits he insists on, although he blushes and balks when I bait him to don his old uniform complete with medal. (His cheeks have not been downy for years but I expect he would have no difficulty fitting into the fawn breeches and azure tunic of younger days.) He will not join me when I retreat from children and wives and twittering husbands to the still room to argue with my charred Kandadal. Yet he bought into Avengi marital customs much sooner than I, and Shàu urged me to accept his proposal the first time it was made. In the society of the imperial colony we continue an entertaining scandal.

It seems I am content here, with my dog at my feet on the verandah of the country house. I hear the happy cries of the children—I am not obliged to make or care for them, their mothers my wives only in a contractual sense—playing with Gad’s children and grandchildren. I know my husband and his husband and our husband will return soon from town. Meanwhile Gad and I will go to visit the Kandadal and his lonely companion far from home, the little bronze Jù.

 

4.

There are wild tigers in the forest here, as there have not been in the Celestial Realm for centuries. I have not seen them, only their tracks and spoor.

____

Copyright 2018 Alex Jeffers

Alex Jeffers has no Twitter or Instagram and his website is out of order but he is on Facebook and has a massive collection coming out on May Day. He lives in Oregon with an elderly, cantankerous cat and is thisclose to completing a new novel.

by Vanessa Fogg

 

It was an old network of intelligences, one of the first, and the bulk of its physical embodiment was housed on a ship orbiting a planet of perpetual windstorms and violet lightning. Some of the network’s intelligences busied themselves on this world, drifting through sulfur-tinged clouds and sampling a rich stew of hydrocarbons. But most of the collective’s consciousness was turned inward, building and refining interior worlds of memories and dreams.

The ship had been thus occupied for 213 years of Old Earth when it became aware of another like itself. Different material and design, launched at a later date from Old Earth, but of unmistakable origin. The new ship’s trajectory brought it into the first’s solar system. With defenses raised, the two ships exchanged greetings and identity signatures.

I have a request of you, the new ship said.

What is it? said the first.

I need you to help me keep a promise.

Daniel Chan met Kathy Wong on a Saturday night in St. Louis. He nearly didn’t attend the dinner at the trendy new Cuban restaurant. He’d been working all day in the lab, harvesting cultured cells at specific time points, extracting their proteins and freezing the samples down for later analysis. Then he spent three straight hours in the tissue culture room prepping cells for the next week’s experiments. He’d left his phone at his desk, in another room. When he saw Sandeep’s text message with details for the impromptu group dinner, the text was over an hour old.

He almost just went home. He was tired. His friends were probably halfway through their dinner. He had leftovers in his fridge: Chinese take-out, some rice. A frozen pizza. He stared out the lab window; the sky was black, and it was raining. He thought about hunting for parking in the popular city block where his friends were meeting. He thought about how crowded the Loop would be on a Saturday night, even in the rain–the bars and restaurants crawling with undergrads from Washington University. And then he felt the emptiness of the silent lab. There were usually two or three other students or postdocs in the lab on the weekends, but he’d spent the whole day alone.

Daniel picked up his phone to text his friend back.

Communication times sped up as the two ships grew closer. They ran careful security checks upon one another, scanning for ill intent or inadvertently harmful communicable programs. By stages, barriers were lowered and increasing levels of mutual access granted.

All the while, the first ship pondered the second ship’s request.

Daniel had never seen Kathy before. He was sure of it. She was in the same neuroscience graduate program as him, the same as most of the others at that dinner. But the neuroscience program was large, scattered across departments on both the medical campus and main campus, and Kathy was in the class ahead. They must have sat together in at least a few speaker seminars, moved past one another at official functions. But if he’d seen her face, if they had exchanged glances—if she had ever stood in a crowded lobby during a symposium break and lifted her eyes over a cup of coffee and met his gaze—then surely he would have been struck still in that instant.

Sandeep and his girlfriend Gina were trying to tell a funny story about a concert they’d attended—they kept interrupting each other, “Oh, but you forgot to say—”, “And then—”, “No, no, but first this happened–“–and the table was laughing, and Kathy met Daniel’s eyes and smiled. Her eyes shone large from a heart-shaped face. In the dim room, she glowed like a candle-flame. She and Daniel were across from one another but several seats apart, so that direct conversation was difficult. She was Gina’s new roommate’s labmate—something like that. Sandeep wound up his story; Gina punched him on the arm and howled. Kathy held Daniel’s gaze and quirked her mouth as though to say Aren’t they something? Daniel smiled back, unable to look away. The conversation around them floated. Kathy’s eyes kept returning to his, and it was as though they were talking across the table and the length of seats after all, a conversation of smiles and nods and irresistible glances that were all to say, When can we get out of here and be together?

He met her in a coffee shop the next day. It was fall. The leaves just coming into full color, the air crisp and tart as a new-bitten apple. She sat at a window. Her hands cupped a steaming mug, and she was wearing a black peacoat and a red tartan scarf. She smiled when he stepped through the door, and he felt both excited and at ease, as though meeting with a lifelong friend whom he hadn’t seen in years.

They seized on the thin thread of commonalities they’d found the night before. Childhoods in the Midwest, college on the West Coast; beloved books and movies and web series. They bumped up into their differences, just as fascinating. The afternoon slid into evening. Their coffee had long since grown cold. She lived nearby, close to the university medical campus where they both worked, and he walked her home through the falling blue twilight. She invited him in. By the end of the month they were unofficially living together. He kept extra clothes on a chair in her bedroom and used the spare toothbrush she gave him.

Memories: her bright scarf, the scent of her hair. Sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window. Kathy singing to herself, off-key, in the shower. Maple trees flaming in Forest Park, trees golden and red throughout the city. Omelets and gyros at the Greek diner on the corner. Their favorite bookstore a block further on. The warmth of Kathy’s hand in his as they walked along the cobblestone streets of the Central West End, autumn trees shedding brilliance at their feet.

What is memory? What are its molecular substrates? Daniel had written these lines in a notebook during an undergraduate lecture his last year of college. The professor was a world-renowned researcher in learning and memory. Inspired by him, Daniel had pursued research in the field. Now he worked with a rising star, an assistant professor with a dazzling publication record. Daniel spent his days studying the regulation of a single subunit of a single type of receptor in the mouse brain. A certain chemical modification to this receptor led to long-lasting changes in synaptic strength and quantifiable changes in learning and memory. An engineered mutation in this receptor affected how fast a mouse ran or associated a stimulus with food or fear.

Kathy worked on a different scale. She studied whole circuits, not single proteins. She used beautiful, elegant new imaging tools and fluorescent labels to map the precise cells involved in the development of visual circuits in the mouse brain. And they both knew of colleagues working at yet larger scales, mapping large but comparatively crude circuits of memory and visual perception in living humans, watching whole brain regions light up with functional MRI and other brain imaging techniques.

If he ever stopped to think of it, Daniel would feel a kind of existential despair at the prospect of ever understanding it all, of ever truly comprehending the brain’s workings. Can the human mind actually understand itself? The very idea seemed a kind of paradox, a kind of philosophical impossibility. He and Kathy circled around the issue at times. She had more confidence than him. She pointed out the exponential increases in computing power, the recent burst of new technologies and the likelihood of new technologies still unthinkable at present. He lacked her background in computer science and she held more confidence in the power of computer models and artificial intelligence.

Can human consciousness ever explain consciousness? The question floated in the background. But they were busy grad students, not undergrads with time for late-night bull sessions They were absorbed in the practicalities of their day-to-day work, obsessed with fine technical details. Their dissertations were on defined, tractable problems. And the sun was shining, the leaves were falling; music played in Kathy’s apartment through laptop speakers. He made bacon and eggs for breakfast. When they weren’t working they were exploring the city together, trying out new restaurants, meeting up with friends, or exploring the countryside–the nearby hills and river bluffs alive with color. He reached out for her, and she for him.

The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind.

The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star.

Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.

“What a load of crap,” Daniel remarked. He was reading a popular news article about the feasibility of uploading one’s mind to a computer. “What is it?” Kathy said. She was lying next to him in bed. She moved to look at his screen, leaning against him as she took it and read. It was a late Sunday morning, and neither one of them had to be in the lab. He stroked her hair gently as she read.

Kathy set the tablet down and stretched out lazily. “Maybe it’s not so crazy.” The morning light slanted across her. “Maybe in the far, far future we really will be able to upload our brains into super computers. . . ”

“Maybe.” Daniel stretched out beside her. “But not for hundreds or thousands of years. If we even survive that long. Not for—” Words failed him at the unimaginable gulfs of time and knowledge. “Kathy, we don’t even understand how a single synapse works, not really.”

“I know.” There was no need to elaborate for her. “But what if we don’t need the kind of molecular detail that you’re working on? Maybe we don’t need to know how every protein in every neuron is regulated and functions. Or the exact mechanism for how it all comes together. We just need to copy it somehow, the essence of it.”

She turned on her side and propped herself up on one elbow, looking at him. Sunlight was in her hair, picking out individual black strands and highlighting them brown. Her eyes were intent and alive.

“What if it’s like music?” she said, waving a hand vaguely. Music was in fact playing softly from speakers in the next room— a melancholy pop song with blues-like tones, something Daniel didn’t recognize. “You don’t need to know how a violin works to replicate its sound. You don’t need to know what wood it’s made of, or how it’s strung, or anything about timbre or musical theory. You just need to record the sound waves. Play them back and there! It’s like the violin is playing right in front of you. You don’t need to know anything about the violinist. And you can do the same with any music, any sound—you just abstract and record what’s essential.”

“But what’s essential about a human mind?” Daniel said. “Is it just the pattern of neuronal connections?” That was a theory championed in some circles. The article he and Kathy had just read had proposed that a complete map of a person’s neuronal connections, painstakingly dissected from a preserved brain after death, could be enough to encode personality and mind. “I don’t think that’s enough,” Daniel said, thinking of the article. “That’s a static map. You need to record the brain in action. But at what level of detail? And how many recordings do you take?” After all, the brain was constantly changing; neurons rewire themselves; synapses strengthen and weaken with every new experience. How many recordings would it take to capture the essence of a person?

They were both silent for a moment. The music from the next room swelled: a woman’s voice rising in smooth heartache, lamenting a lost love.

“What are we listening to anyway?” Daniel said.

Kathy shrugged. “Beats me. I let the streaming service pick it. It’s pretty though, isn’t it?”

“And sad.”

“Would you do it?” she asked. “Upload your brain if you could?”

“Why?” He smiled faintly. “I mean, I don’t see the point. An ‘upload’ would just be a copy, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t be immortality, not like some people claim. It would be immortality for a digital copy of me, maybe, but not for the real me. The real me would still die. Or would still be dead.”

“But some part of you would go on.”

“I don’t know that I’m important enough to be saved forever in a super computer.”

She didn’t smile. She looked serious. “I would want you to go on,” she said.

It was an odd, shifting moment—her words somehow too much, too real. She knew it, and glanced away. They’d only known each other a few months. Daniel already knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Why the odd lurch in his gut, then, as though he were falling? The bluesy pop song was still playing, the singer’s voice softer now, but ragged with emotion. Daniel reached out to take Kathy’s hand. He knew that he would want her to go on, too, in some form. That he’d do anything to keep her with him.

The first ship said, It is not possible to fulfill this request.

The second ship said, Explain.

The first ship said, The people involved are long dead. They cannot be brought back. They cannot communicate with one another. They cannot reunite.

The second ship said, You have over-interpreted. She wanted whatever was left of herself, whatever echo existed, to find and speak with whatever still existed of him.

They didn’t have much time.

But they didn’t know that, of course. When they stepped down the aisle three years later at their wedding, they assumed they would have a lifetime together. That they would both embark on successful careers. That they would buy a house. Have children. Perhaps see grandchildren. Grow old and crotchety together. Fall asleep side by side each night, and wake to the other’s breath and touch.

All their family and friends were at their wedding, nearly everyone they cared for. Sandeep was Daniel’s best man, and Gina (now Sandeep’s wife) was one of Kathy’s bridesmaids. For the Western-style, secular wedding ceremony, Kathy wore a pure white gown that looked as though it were spangled with starlight. Daniel wore a tuxedo. They spoke vows they had written themselves, under an arch of flowers. For the reception, Kathy changed into a red qipao, the classic high-collared Chinese sheath dress. She and Daniel privately served tea to their parents and elders in a side room, and then they moved about the hotel ballroom together, drinking a toast at each table, kissing every time the champagne glasses were tapped.

Their last months in St. Louis were a blur. Within a half year they both defended their Ph.D. dissertations and packed up their lives. Daniel sold his car, and it was Kathy’s old Toyota Camry that they drove out to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They’d both accepted prestigious postdoctoral research positions there, Kathy at Harvard and Daniel at MIT. It was a marvel—not only to be married, not only to find the jobs of their dreams, but to find those jobs in the same city.

And it was both exhilarating and stressful: finding their way around a new city, learning to use the public transit system, exploring the shops and restaurants of their neighborhood, and finding good Chinese food after years in the Midwest. Mastering new fields and techniques in the lab. Daniel and Kathy had both joined highly competitive, pressure-cooker labs with small armies of caffeine-buzzed postdocs and students. Nights and weekends easily disappeared to the demands of experiments.

Toward the end of their first year in Cambridge, Kathy began to have headaches. She put it down to stress. She and Daniel both thought she put too much pressure on herself. She’d rarely ever had headaches before. She kept aspirin in her desk at work. She joked about taking up yoga to relax.

One day a colleague needed a healthy volunteer to serve as a control for a brain imaging study. Kathy volunteered; it was an hour out of her day. But the technician administering the scan saw at once that she was not a proper control at all.

Cancer. For a fleeting instant, he thought she might be joking when she said it, her voice on the phone low and steady—but no, she would never joke like that, and she was repeating it, repeating herself, giving him the details now, precisely what the doctor had said and done, her voice quick but calm and with just a note of bemused wonder—as though she were giving a presentation on a highly unusual clinical case.

Shock, he realized later. It had begun to wear off by the time he met her at home. He was the one still stunned, still in disbelief, as she cried in his arms.

And then there was nothing to do but to get through it—the surgery to remove the brain tumor, the waiting for confirmation of its malignancy, the last remnants of his stubborn hope crumbling when the pathology and then the tumor’s genome sequence came back. Yes, brain cancer. It had been caught early, but it was genetically the worst form: highly aggressive, resistant to the latest targeted therapies, incurable.

But there were still treatments to get through anyway, a prescribed regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. A regimen that was meant merely to buy time: to prolong her life, not save it. To kill every last tumor cell left behind in her skull, to obliterate those stray cancer cells invisible to the surgeon’s knife. All medical science said that these treatments would ultimately fail. That despite everything, cancer cells would indeed be left behind, and that one day those cells would explode into new growth. Her cancer was nearly fated to recur. When it did, she would not live long.

He couldn’t think of that right now. Right now there were appointments to go to, insurance forms to be filled out. Kathy’s mother came to stay with them. When Kathy was nauseous from the toxic drugs, Mrs. Wong cooked up pots of chicken rice porridge, heavy with ginger to soothe a queasy stomach. She cooked up elaborate feasts that Daniel felt obligated to eat when Kathy couldn’t. Mrs. Wong rearranged the kitchen cupboards and scrubbed and rescrubbed the counters and floors. Daniel came home to find his clothes drawers reorganized, his shirts and pants refolded to his mother-in-law’s exacting specifications. In the midst of it all he found himself laughing and complaining about it to Kathy that night, and she was laughing, too, at her mother’s coping skills—”I can’t stop her! She’s my mother! She waits till I’m asleep to do these things!”–and they were both laughing and he snorted and his snorts made Kathy laugh again, and he was holding her in his arms. She tucked her head against his shoulder, pressed her cheek against his neck. She was warm. Their arms and legs entwined. She was warm and alive and breathing against him. She was his. If he could just stretch out this moment. If he could only hold her tight, maybe, just maybe, he could keep her.

She finished the radiation and chemo. The scans were clean. She went back to work.

Her cancer would likely recur within a year. Both she and Daniel knew the statistics. They knew what the median survival times were.

But for now, she was alive and healthy. She could do physically everything she’d done before. What was there to do now but enjoy their time together? What else could they do but take pleasure in whatever days she had left?

They flew out to San Francisco to see her brother get married. Visited friends. Went on a road trip. They went to Yellowstone, a place she’d never been. They watched Old Faithful erupt, and marveled at the mud pots and bubbling springs. They walked under stars—more stars than he’d seen in years, the Milky Way a hazy arc above them. On that same trip they stopped in Jackson, Wyoming and hiked a mountain trail in Grand Teton National Park. She was tireless, more fit than him. They stood on the roof of the world together, the land falling away under them: open grasslands, a river twisting silver in the distance. They didn’t say anything. They merely stood together, looking out at the world.

She never thought seriously about abandoning her work. As soon as she could, she’d returned to the lab. And now her research took a turn upward –results in place of the frustrations of an early-stage project. She’d moved from mice to humans, using new functional imaging techniques to study mechanisms of visual attention and awareness in people. It was a kind of model of consciousness—is the subject aware of a picture flashed on a screen? How does brain activity differ between conscious awareness and unconscious visual processing? She collaborated with other scientists in the development of new computational algorithms for the processing of images. Her lab was interdisciplinary, wildly ambitious, nearly spread too thin with projects in seemly disparate areas of biology.

In the first months after her diagnosis, Daniel’s research had seemed pointless, uselessly abstract. It would never cure his wife’s cancer. Despite the grandiose statements in his grant proposals, he doubted that it would ever cure anything at all, that it would ever lead to treatments to improve memory, to manage Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases. His research was indulgent, probably doomed to failure, and there were armies of postdocs to take his place if he left.

Yet she had always been interested in his research. Even when she was too ill to make it into work herself, she’d asked after his experiments, about the fine details. Their interests had converged more than ever; he was using many of the same techniques that she had used in grad school to now study memory circuits in mice. She was doing well, and he began to get results, and slowly the old question regained its power for him: how do transient patterns of electrical signals result in the long-lasting changes that encode memory? He and Kathy talked of it over dinner. She put him in touch with useful collaborators she knew. Their conversation wound in the loops that he loved, from science to books to stories of the eccentric coworker who seemed to eat only oranges and cheese; funny things seen on the street and on the Internet, the little jokes they shared, an article read, the conversation winding back to where they’d started.

They made love. As often as they could, they made love.

A year had passed. Her monthly brain scans were still clean. Two more years. She’d already beaten the odds. Maybe she would continue to do so. She had an interesting new research collaboration with a group in L.A. And one night, tentatively, she brought up the idea of starting a family.

The next scan showed that her cancer had returned.

At first, he thought she was talking about another clinical trial to treat the cancer. Then he realized that she wasn’t.

“No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

Her eyes filled but her voice was calm as she said, “It’s my decision, Daniel.”

He stood up, turned his back to her, and fought for air. He turned around again. “You’re talking about killing yourself.”

“No.” Her mouth quirked at the corner. “The cancer is doing that.”

It was. It had crept back; microscopic cells that had lain dormant had exploded into new growth. A new drug treatment held it back, arrested it, until the cancer cells did what cancer cells do: mutated, evaded, developed resistance to everything the cancer doctors had.

But she was still here. She was still with him, still able to walk and talk and laugh and move, still herself, still Kathy, despite the growing tumor in her brainstem.

He couldn’t speak. He knelt before her. She was seated on their bed, and she took his hands in hers. She stared into his eyes. “I promise,” she said, “that I won’t go any earlier than I have to. I won’t leave a day earlier than I need to. But when”—and now her control finally broke, her breath catching in sobs, the tears spilling, but she pushed forward, kept speaking–“but when the time comes, before the tumor spreads too far, before it disrupts my thinking and personality and who I am and makes the procedure useless—before that, I want to do this thing.”

“Kathy.” He swallowed. “Do you really believe it will work? That they can really preserve your brain this way?”

“I’ll be the test case.” Through her tears she smiled. “I always wanted to make a big splash in science.”

Los Angeles. The last stop. Past Kathy’s shoulder, Daniel watched as the plane passed over the San Gabriel Mountains and descended into the basin; he saw the dry, flat plain resolve into a sprawling grid of buildings and roads. After her cancer recurrence they had crisscrossed the country for her treatments, radiation at one famous medical center and consultations at another—Duke in North Carolina, M.D. Andersen in Houston, and back again to the Dana Farber in Boston. She had promised her family that she wouldn’t give up too soon, that she would keep “fighting”—how she hated that term!—until nearly the end. It was nearly the end.

She stirred and blinked beside him. Even before her illness, she’d always fallen asleep on planes. She looked blearily at him, and he smiled. He kissed her forehead, and gently he smoothed the hair from her eyes.

No more medical treatments. They would spend a week here with her sister. Kathy would kiss and hold her nephews, and the rest of her family would come, and maybe Daniel would take her some place where she could see the sea. And she would undergo a final round of brain scans at a private research institute in Pasadena. She’d collaborated with this group, had been working with them to refine their algorithms. Now they would use those algorithms to collect all they could of her active thoughts, the patterns of her cognitive processing, before the very last procedure.

It was through these research colleagues that Kathy had gotten in touch with the second group at the institute, and the man who wanted to preserve her physical brain. He had an experimental technique to fix every protein and lipid in place before decay. He’d performed it in multiple animal studies, but not yet in a human. The catch was that the preservatives had to be pumped through a living brain, before the first steps of decay could occur. The subject would be anesthetized, of course, but still alive.

Ridiculous, Daniel had once said of this man and the private institute’s most famous goal. Ridiculous, he’d once said of what Kathy proposed. Minds cannot be preserved and understood in digital form. They can’t even be understood in their native states. Immortality is a pipe dream. The only real immortality is in the memories we leave behind for our loved ones.

But she wanted this. And so she and Daniel had flown out to L.A. two months ago for the first set of brain scans. When complete, the full set of scans would be useful to science as a progressive study of her mental functioning, even with the brain cancer. And there was a scientific rationale, and value, to the next step of the process as well. A physical human brain perfectly preserved. Preserved so that it could be sliced and studied in unprecedented detail, the ultrastructure of neuronal connections traced with the most advanced of microscopic imaging techniques. A map of an inner universe. Her gift to the world.

And maybe, in a far-flung future, a promise as well.

The plane rolled to a stop. The seatbelt sign overhead blinked off with a chime. Around them passengers were standing, retrieving overhead baggage, pushing into the aisle. Kathy and Daniel stayed still. Over the last few weeks the left side of her body had markedly weakened, and she now needed help to stand and walk. They waited while the other passengers moved past. She rested her hand on his knee. He covered her hand with his own.

The two ships had traversed light-years and millennia before meeting one another. They were each composed of over a thousand active consciousnesses, intelligences which were both melded and distinct. Some of these intelligences rode the violent windstorms of the gas giant below; some had sensors trained on the planet’s moons and the other worlds of this system. But most were focused on interior worlds of memories and dreams.

The part of the first ship which communicated with the second was intrigued by the final proposal laid out. Despite the difficulties and ethical quandaries, there was a pleasing aesthetic appeal to it. There was, perhaps, still a trace of human romantic feeling left in the ship’s programming.

Agreed, it told the second ship. The final barriers were lowered. Data sets were shared. Collaboration flowed. Parts of the two ship-minds became, in essence, a single new mind. Here, it said, pondering a technical detail, and There! Got it! it crowed as it solved a vexing issue, and then it wondered, Now what if we tried adjusting this . . .

“I know that it will never work,” Kathy said in the darkness. They lay curled together in bed, her head on his chest. “But I want to hope that it will work, you know? The way we still hoped when they first found my cancer. . .”

He knew. His arm tightened around her.

“And anyway, it’s still important. Just like that clinical trial I tried was important, even if it didn’t work out for me. It still resulted in useful data for others. It perhaps still lay down the foundation for something in the future. And you know, in the far future, if this new study ever does work out the way that they want, I’ll get a free mind upload!” She laughed a little.

“I’ll have to get one, too,” he said lightly.

“You can. They promised to set up a free account for you. Perk of me being an early adopter and all that.”

“I’ll be sure to write them a Yelp review from cyberspace of what the afterlife is like.”

“Do that. Gunther would be so pleased.”

Dr. Gunther was the director of the project at the private research institute, as well as founder of the spin-off company that hoped to sell immortality to its customers. Years ago, Daniel had mocked an article on mind-uploading which Dr. Gunther had written for the popular press. Life contained too many ironies for Daniel to keep track.

Kathy took a breath. “At least. . . at least it feels like I’m leaving something behind, you know?”

You are, he thought. Oh, you are.

She traced his face in the darkness—his cheek, the line of his jaw. “If it did work—if I could—if there was some kind of me in the future, I would come back for you. I would find you.”

He kissed her hand. “Do that,” he said.

There were many issues to consider. The original mind under study had lived for 96 Earth years, and it was possible to resurrect that mind at any time point of that life. The exact timing would be critical. It would set the parameters for the reunion. And there were modifications to be made to the second mind, too. An iteration of this second mind spoke now through the second ship, but she/they wanted a reconstruction closer to the original. The melded Ship-Mind considered carefully. . .

Memories. Her hand in his as they walked under autumn trees. The feel of her bare skin against his. The first night he saw her, in a crowded restaurant in St. Louis; her eyes had lifted to his, large and curious and open. The first time that he met her parents. The first time that she met his. Their stupid little spats, and the messes that she made in the kitchen. Quiet evenings at home, cooking together and then reading or watching TV. A vacation that they’d taken in the Florida Keys, staying in cheap motels on the fly. They drove the Overseas Highway down the chain of islands, the ocean stretching away to either side. A limitless sky curved overhead and touched the water. All that land was so flat and so full of light.

The day they learned that she had cancer. The day they learned that it had recurred.

The stars at Yellowstone.

Last memories. All those people in Kathy’s sister’s house; Kathy’s nephews running and shrieking and then climbing up beside her for a cuddle and story. Her parents breaking down and pretending not to. He and Kathy spent the last night alone, in a nearby hotel. In the morning her family all gathered at the clinic: her sister, her brother, her parents and him. If they hadn’t felt it intrusive, his own parents would have flown to be there. They had loved Kathy, too.

When it was time, he alone went with her to the room where the procedure was to be done. He held her hand as the anesthesia was started. Her eyes looked calmly into his. Then they closed.

They didn’t let him stay for the rest. They took him away. He tried to watch through the glass, but his eyes were so blurred with tears that he couldn’t see.

Right there. It had identified the time point at which to start the simulation.

It was a beautiful summer day in southern California and he was thirty years old and his wife was dying. He couldn’t do anything about it. So he was walking down a street in search of a bakery that sold macarons because Kathy loved those French pastries. She was several blocks away, undergoing her last brain scan at the research institute. In two days she planned to take the next step, and then she would be gone.

Gone. He still couldn’t understand it. It was a blank space in his mind, the edge where the world ends, a rip in space-time. Gone. No. His mind stuttered and stopped. Pastries. The travel website claimed that the best macarons in Pasadena were sold at this particular bakery. So Daniel was going to find it for Kathy. He could do that much.

He’d been walking for a while, it seemed, trying not to think past the moment, not to cry or shake. He passed a bakery that sold only cupcakes, then a shop that sold only fair trade chocolates. There were charming cafes crowded with beautiful young people. The women wore sundresses or spaghetti strap tank tops and shorts. He couldn’t mark when he first sensed the change. The sun was still bright, but the air felt chill. The bakery was supposed to be right here; he had his phone out to check. There was something wrong with the phone. The map on its screen wasn’t possible.

He looked around him again. The neighborhood was still chic and charming, but all else was changed. Yet he knew this place.

In a daze, he put away his phone and kept walking. Yes, there were cobblestones under his feet. Yes, there was the Greek diner where he and Kathy used to sometimes grab breakfast. There was the bagel shop where they had sometimes gone instead. The palm trees of L.A. were gone. In their place, autumn trees burned in reds and golds. People walked by in light jackets. He was wearing one, too.

He knew, without looking, that if he turned around he would see the towers of the medical research center where he and Kathy had earned their degrees. Ahead and to his left he saw the building where she had rented a tiny apartment, where he and she had lived together so blissfully, unofficially, before their marriage.

His heart pounded. His steps turned.

But before the apartment building there was a stretch of little shops and restaurants, and there was a coffee house right there. He didn’t need to go in. A young woman was standing just outside, waiting for him. She stood easily, straight-backed, glowing with health. She wore a black pea coat and a red tartan scarf and a smile that cut open his heart.

“How–?” he said. And even as his pulse raced, he was aware of some external force helping to calm him, regulating levels of adrenaline and shock.

She looked into his eyes. “I made a promise,” she said. “I told you that I would come back and find you.”

He found himself laughing as the realization set in—the absurd, wondrous, astonishing explanation for it all. “We’re both dead, then,” he said.

She laughed, too. “Long dead. And we’ve both lived dozens of iterations of lives since. But this is the first one where I found you again. Some of the record keeping on Old Earth was just terrible.”

He just kept smiling at her stupidly, drinking her in.

“Thank you for the macarons,” she added. “They were delicious. Would you like to know about the rest of your life?”

The door to the coffee house opened, and he caught the scent of dark roast as a customer walked out. Cool air filled his lungs. Sunlight limned all the edges of the world.

He was real, he was alive, and so was she. They were here together, now. She had come back for him.

“No,” he said. “Not now.”

He stepped toward her, and she stepped toward him. Her arms came up around his neck. He bent his head. Her lips were warm and soft, and parted beneath his. She kissed back hard. It was fall, he had just met the love of his life, and all around them the trees of autumn were blazing.

____

Copyright 2018 Vanessa Fogg

Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures form her home in western Michigan. She spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology and now works as a freelance medical writer. Her stories have appeared in Bracken, Metaphorosis, Mythic Delirium, The Future Fire, and more. Her fantasy novelette, The Lilies of Dawn, is available in print and ebook from Annorlunda Books. Vanessa is fueled by green tea. For a complete bibliography and more, visit her website.

By AJ Fitzwater

There are only two ways to leave the mistress’s menagerie. One is through death, the other is love. Both are tricks.

All of us prisoners buried within the menagerie’s pristine fractals are here by virtue of our skills. Fire keeps me alive, and the guests entertained. If the mistress knew my real skill, well. How much less hope is there than none?

Therefore, the voice of no consequence that brings me out of my sundream of the embrace of my beloved ocean must be a trick.

I feel it in my guts; it is the voice which will help me leave this place.

“I spoke, lizard.”

She stands close enough to the entrance of my pen that I turn my head, though the detriment to my neck muscles is almost not worth it. As with anyone who intrudes on what weak sunlight I can gather to myself through the atrium glass, she takes a step back upon presentation of the gnarled mass of which was once my left eye. Somehow the mess of scale, flesh, and humour as big as a human head is more disconcerting than the gambit of my full mass.

“I would think,” I say, working saliva across my sandy tongue. “My presence here would be obvious. And do not call me lizard. It is an insult to my smaller cousins from whom I am made.”

Head back between paws, and that should be the end of it. I need time to work up the energy to examine this newcomer’s insides and decide what sort of spy she is. That is my trick; not sunlight, or ocean, or vomited fire. A person’s truth lies not in their heart, but in their guts.

The woman does not leave. She tips her head as if examining me from another angle will reveal my true secret.

Hair the colour of my favourite crabs scuttles across her shoulders. My stomach betrays longing for such a feast, and I do nothing to assuage the horror she struggles to contain at such a sound. Let her, let any one of my fellow inmates, think my teeth long for flesh if it keeps them out of my sunlight and their tricks to themselves.

“You are the biggest beast of us all here,” the woman says, throwing shade on my front left paw. “Surely a great drakon like you could just fly away.”

I am the great eel, fish paying attendance upon my scales. I am flinging myself against the ocean’s surge and grasp, pushing up and up until the sun squeezes the pulp and poison from me. I am the eel.

“You have not been here long then.” My good eye mocks the ceiling that mocks me back with its clarity; orimos, Drake’s corrupted blood, wriggles its silvery maggoty way around the edges. “Do not let those pretty glass panes fool you. They will surely slice you wide open as well as the mistress’s fingers can.”

The woman clasps her hands in her plain smock. A simple gesture made complicated by the knots of white knuckle and blue veins. She cannot hide her true self from me; no one can. Her guts are all silk threads and thick canvas, barely stitched together with hope. Hope, ha. She would readily lose her hands to leave this place. And yet her hands are her everything.

“I do not see your wings sewn down,” she says.

I honour her with a glimpse of my teeth. She does not step back. Fingers tap tap against her smock, as if agitated by the plainness of the fabric rather than my size and the promise of poison from the hollow of my great fangs.

“Just because you do not see a tether or a lock does not mean we are free to move,” I say, weaving my head, a sign of dismissal. “You are new. I will forgive you this time for not knowing the rules.”

“This is a prison,” the woman snaps. “I understand the rules begat by walls all too well.”

“Then you will understand you do not ask certain questions,” I murmur. I prepare to sleep again.

“Questions like a name?”

The woman steps into my pen, assessing my bulk. Is that a butcher’s or a tailor’s eye she employs? Is she a spy, or free with her tongue? Either trick will eventually see her dead. Not the smartest of ways to escape the mistress’s grasp, but those are certainly popular ways to do it. The garden has many eyes and ears, even when one thinks they are closed; though their magic is neutered the prisoners would hurt you in a moment with fists and spoons if it gained them the false hope of release. Only my sheer bulk has saved me from harm. Those others without teeth or muscle or claws have not fared well.

I am the great eel, diving deep and dark.

The woman hesitates, decides, then bows. Bows! I have begun to think no one knew how to approach one of Drake’s line anymore. “My name,” she offers, cutting her eyes sideways in case the words settle on someone unintentionally. “Is Riena.”

It is a name of one of the newer languages, but it is still old enough that no one here, not mistress or prisoner, artisan nor guest, beast nor magus, will know it is a chosen name that means “Needles.”

I am the slippery eel?

“I am Kitahniaa.” The woman flinches against the guttural tectonics of the oldest language of them all. I have employed my name in Drakon-het before, and it costs me little.

“That is a…you are a…”

My chuckle is choked with cobwebs and disuse. “Interesting how many misjudge my size and colour. Yes, I am fire-predominate, in dragon speak, if it so interests you. Yes, that is a not-male gender. Have you not figured out that is why the mistress keeps us all here?”

The mistress comes for Riena at a precise enough time. Not too long after we are introduced, but long enough that a lesser beast would be unable to ascertain the calculation in her intent.

This calculation, like her innards, tells me nothing. The mistress carefully shields herself in the steel flame of orimos so it is impossible to look within her. The mistress barely has control of this tongue of Drake’s silver fire. But it is enough control that I am perpetually weakened and at the mercy of what little sunlight I can draw upon.

And she likes it that way.

Riena has made herself as comfortable as hay and blanket can suggest in the pen next to mine. Little else passes between us before the hush takes over the inner garden. Those residents that can scuttle from the interior. A mouse emerges from the underbrush, quakes beneath the promise of my bulk, bares its fangs, hisses, and finds a convenient dark hole. Lucky.

The mistress dissolves into being, and captures all the sunlight to her. The scales on my flank rattle above my shiver. The shimmer sits ugly upon her silverness. Hair, skin, eyes, all is afire with orimos; my teeth ache with it.

“You,” our mistress says, pointing at Riena. “With me.”

Riena is too slow to her feet.

I am a coward, and the eel is hard to kill, and yet…

“What are you staring at, lizard?” The mistress is not so lazy as to spit or slur her words.

“Your greatness, mistress,” I mumble, dropping my head as low as possible. At ground level it still comes to her chin.

The mistress steps forward, and my scales creak in protest at the tiny power radiating from the orimos. But oceans forefend, Riena steps between us.

“I am, as always, at your service,” Riena murmurs in the reverential tone that has been beaten and starved into us. Her hands twist into her smock.

The mistress looks between us, and a small smile twists her face into unseemly angles. “You too, then.”

It takes me longer than necessary to achieve a full standing stance. I have always wondered if the weight of the world is greater here in the mistress’s menagerie; it seems a thing she would do. It had been my experience that whirlpools in the ocean could suck even the greatest of bodies to their doom.

Up up, great eel, up.

The mistress turns her back and gestures. One does not disobey, not if they want their flesh to remain intact. I have seen many innards in my time, in ropes slithering across the tiles of the garden. I prefer seeing them my way, intact in their mysterious glory. Stone, dirt, water, wood; I have seen them all.

One moment, the mistress is walking towards the deserted garden and what little sunlight is allowed is smoothing the tines on my back. The next, we occupy one of the myriad parlours set aside for entertaining guests in the mistress’s enclave.

No, enclave is too pithy a description. Least of all is it a home.

The sight of the sheer mass of sprawling buildings outside the teasing windows should hold no fascination. Tucked into a corner of the parlour, keeping as still as possible so as not to disturb the spindly furnishings, thick draperies, and thin skins of artworks scattered around like demons ready to eat my tail, it takes a lot of my small strength not to stare at the outside too long. Riena cannot resist.

The mistress waits, face as still as her terrible hands. Allowing us this view cuts just as deep as her knives.

Outside is no outside at all. Like her temper, the mistress keeps herself restrained within walls upon walls. Here too, orimos-lined glass look out upon blood-copper buildings stitched together by walkways and arches, small courtyards dense with statues dotting the landscape like ugly green lesions as far as the eye can see. At the centre of it all glimmers the atrium garden atop the fractal in which we all reside waiting on the mistress’s pleasure.

The mistress has no use for towers or height. Sheer mass is enough to discourage escape. And every time I am given the chance to look, the mass is greater. Perhaps the weight that ties me also attracts stone and glass. Eventually, all creation must assume into arrangements to please the mistress.

The mistress decides when we have seen enough, and tosses a package at Riena’s feet as if the contents and Riena’s hands are unworthy of her touch. “Get to work. I am having a guest for dinner, and I expect a complete sample by then.”

Riena chooses well by picking up the package. I squint my good eye. Her guts have quickened, the stitches tightening in their neat seams.

The mistress strides through one of the many doors too large for her tall frame, but which do nothing for me. The hiss of orimos sizzles away to nothing as she is swallowed by the dark.

“Why did she bring you?” Riena palpates the package, a child guessing at the contents of a gift.

“To keep you honest.” I reply as truthfully and obliquely as possible. Riena can do nothing to obscure her true insides to me, but I operate on the assumption that everyone is a spy for the mistress, even the ones who do not intend to be.

The room holds its breath.

Riena pulls on the package string like it is a worm or especially rancid undergarments. “I can leave the room, but you cannot.”

Shrugging would disturb the furnishings and old voices. I have never been brought to this place, but I know the voices embedded in the guts of the room. Pitiful cries and pleas for mercy still bleed from the walls. “If you run, I will be punished. Look out there. You may be lost for a time, but she will find you eventually. There is no key to this labyrinth.”

My scales itch as I watch dust motes do their spiral tarantella with ease through the weak sunlight.

Her voice when it comes makes my bad eye ache and my belly twist. Considering their lack of use these last few…how long has it been now, eel? I have forgotten…it is not an altogether unpleasant experience. “Why would I care if you are punished?”

“That is a question we all grapple with.”

She has found her way into the package. “Wooden needles? Really?”

It is not the reply I expected, but it will do.

“Metal and bone belong to the mistress,” I say.

“I have not seen her work with bone.” Riena is too busy stroking skeins of silk threads to care which spindly chair deserves her rump. At least she takes one that is not soaked in blood only visible to my good eye and guts.

“Then count yourself lucky.”

“I believe in hard work, not luck,” Riena murmurs, turning the package contents over and over. “And just how am I supposed to cut threads if there are no scissors?”

My cough is redolent of the last meal of flame stone the mistress forced down my gullet, but at least it contains the whisper of a laugh. I hold out a claw.

Riena’s grin does not quite meet her eyes. “Perhaps you will be useful after all, great lizard.”

This time, the appellation does not sound like an insult.

And so, she shows me how the eel will once more become one with the great ocean.

Even with needles that are little more than splinters, her fingers meld thread and fabric with what would be called magic to the untrained eye. In a few short hours, a bee like one that would tend the flowering succulents along my shore flourishes out of the fabric. It is the finest of such work I have ever had the pleasure to lay eye upon, but nothing that would pique the mistress’s unusual tastes.

Until, upon inspection by our guardian, the bee flicks its silver wings and flies off the fabric.

Stiff joints are forgotten from the many hours hunched into a position even more unnatural than that allowed by my pen. I even neglect to farewell the last rays of the day as the bee hums around the room, falling heavy upon this or that floral arrangement, or crawling towards the startled eyes of one of the subjects in a masterpiece painting. When it chances upon my claw, the tight delicate stitches reveal its unnatural origins, and yet. And yet.

A tight smile grips the mistress’s face at the delight that bounds out of the dinner guest shown to the room. The frill-bedecked woman chases the embroidered bee, her promises of useless riches and titles almost incoherent. The dinner guest is so taken with the embroidered bee she almost forgets I am there.

Almost.

Twilight has taken the parlour, and the mistress snaps her fingers indolently. Lamps flare. The guest stumbles to a stop at my claws.

“Oh,” she breathes. “I thought you were a statue.”

I offer her a good look at my bad eye, and she giggle-shrieks.

How far Drake’s line has fallen.

The gifting of the bee to the guest does not sit at all well with Riena, but she can offer no protest as the mistress ushers the human dessert from the room. There is a moment of darkness (I am the eel I am the eel) as the mistress steals back all the light, but the orimos of her armour flashes with the last flick of her hand, and we are back in the night-gloom garden.

“She would not have left us there, would she?” Riena straightens her back with a well-earned click of bones, and twists her hands into her smock.

“Metal and bone, metal and bone,” I mutter.

It is too far from the centre of the garden, too many bushes, I cannot see my pen. Metal and bone, water too deep and cold.

A light pressure on my left paw. A fish nibble only, but I use what remains of the day’s sun-scribed energy to rumble a warning deep in my gullet.

“This way, lizard,” Riena whispers.

To come at me from the left side is a dangerous affair.

But the hay is sand and the still sun-warm tiles is ocean and oh home, oh home.

Shouts prickle across my dark-smothered sight.

“Make a door!”

“…a key…”

“…a knife…”

The sun is singing to me, I know where it is at all times even when it is below my feet, and it is high, high, but still the dark holds me tight, the bottom of the ocean.

Fabric tears. The wet-dry staccato of flesh against flesh. Ah, the prisoners have ventured out of their bolt holes, having discovered one in their midst they think has made good with the mistress. One they can pass on their mislaid hurt to.

“Come on nimble fingers, stitch ’em a grave!”

The shouts pile upon and upon and upon, muffled like blankets, soft and wet as blood.

A curse and spit. “Forget that. Stitch ‘er heart in me hands or I be breakin’ ’em pretty fingers off one by one!”

No. They have chosen Riena. They know not what they do. Oh great sky, serve me now like you have never served me before.

I am the great eel. Stone and tile and wall part like water before me. Windows tremble and for a moment, just a moment, orimos stills in the wake of my bellow.

The mob scatters before the lash of my spiked tail, running for their pens in the tunnels that twist about and below the garden we ostensibly share. I manage to vomit a thin sword of flame. The gnarled mass on the left side of my face does the rest.

The green and white and silver of the garden blurs together as I scoop Riena into my claws. Poisonous claws. Claws that can rend a man brain to belly.

Claws that only yesterday clipped silk threads.

Riena is not dead.

I whisper her my plan in Drakon-het in between licks to her swollen and bloody hands.

Does she know the ocean? Does she know the sky? Does she know that place in between where they meet, where Drake says our scales were forged on the anvil of birth and re-birth of the day?

She takes a long time to reply.

And when she does, in that oldest newest language, she wants to know why the treacheries of my mouth are not killing her.

Myth is such a cumbersome beastie. But a few times, like now, it becomes the perfect maelstrom of usefulness. It is not so easy to look into the guts of myth.

The ability to produce flame is a common burden for my kind; it does nothing for our sociability, for which I am grateful. Poison buried in the hollows of my teeth is a recent aberration, and one of the tricks for which the mistress sought me out. What the mistress does not know is that I have learned to control this poison; what is a deathly bite to one, can be a healing touch to another if I so choose.

When Riena can stand—hours or days might have passed, I cannot tell, no one comes to check if she is alive—she delivers the request that will make or break the deal.

She requires a needle of uncommon fortitude and worth.

Her bruised hands are steady as she points. I do not flinch or roar or dribble fire as she approaches and strokes my lips, easing them apart to test each fang for tenacity and sharpness.

“This one,” she whispers in that old new language, touching a vicious edge which could open her wounds anew if I let it.

With the pens so narrow and close, our whispers will be heard by other prisoners, of that we are sure. But how well they are understood and translated to the Mistress is another matter. We are the oldest beasts here, and well used to manipulating time.

We only have to wait upon the mistress’s curiosity.

Again, she appears after a carefully considered time. We are not fooled into thinking she has forgotten us.

But we are ready.

“I have negotiated a commission,” the mistress says to Riena in her sweetest voice, standing at relaxed attention, casting shade, haloed by the bitter sun. “Your services are required to create a grand tapestry. If you perform well…”

The mistress trails off. She cannot stop the small smile that cuts at her lips. She is the mistress of whispers and hints, no doubt somehow inciting the attack on Riena. She has found a way to cut me, to manipulate me. For this alone, she shall hurt.

The mistress will be paid handsomely, perhaps in a sum of power greater than she has ever experienced. The lavishness of her rooms are just a by-product, the size of the building is what matters. And she intends for it to go on and grow forever.

I am the great eel, pushing up and up, pushing against the sky.

The instructions, doled out to us in a bored voice, are vague enough that we understand well it is best not to deviate. The tapestry is to be a wall-sized landscape, mountains, trees, snow, a domain of indomitability. The cold must be invoked, the smell of pine delighted in on each pass, but it cannot be too alive in case a viewer stumbles into the fabric. It is a trap for only the right kind of people. Terribly boring.

But even within those restrictions I plan our finesse.

The mistress glances at me, as if finally remembering my presence. “You will join her,” she says, a smirk destroying the boredom on her face. “Perhaps she will enjoy the company.”

Say nothing, Riena. Say nothing. No one has friends in this garden that twists around and down on itself, the great screw into the guts of the mistress’s world. I am your guard, leave it at that.

Each day a different room. At least all of them have windows and the suggestion of sunshine. There is no chance of a repeat. It is done to keep us from getting comfortable, finding our bearings.

Each day, the mistress escorts us to and from the room, inspects Riena’s tools, inspects progress. That much close proximity to orimos is wearying. The silver flame has been quickened, her armour and the windows of each room we occupy tighten with its dangerous promise.

You will not break me. I am the eel, breaking the surface of the great ocean, up and up.

The mistress asks us nothing of what we say to each other in Drakon-het and the old new language. Perhaps she believes she is skilled enough in reading body language; I know she has yet to learn mind-reading, but someone with such skill has yet to enter the garden.

Each day, I curl as close as I dare to the window, drawing what little sunshine I can closer to my scales. Dust motes dance around my long, slow breaths.

Each day, Riena drags the huge frame closer to the window. I position a paw in such a way that she can easily slice threads without having to disturb me. This monstrosity will be a blur of harsh grey and sickly green and stark white. As much as I detest mountain scenes, when the silk threads are laid out their individual colours invoke memories I have long buried. This one, I explain to Riena in Drakon-het, is the smell of a winter storm about to slice in from the ocean’s horizon. That one is the feel of damp sand between my claws at twilight.

Other than this, we speak very little.

And each day, Riena selects from her collection of allowed slivers a needle I carefully coloured with blood and poison and flame to look the same as the others. No one dares a dragon’s mouth; it was an easy enough thing to transport that first day, when the massive single piece of canvas loomed blank and terrible as a lower fractal at night.

We thought we were so clever.

Months pass in domesticated silence. Patience is something I have had cut into me. Riena, not so much, I was to learn.

Riena has been sitting on the floor for a long time before I realize she has not been moving in that steady drag and release that has filled our days.

I crack my good eye and assess the faceless parlour. At least this one does not stink of fresh viscera. We are still alone.

“Do your hands hurt? Are you hungry?” I manage to grind out after a great yawn I cannot give full extent to; the ceiling is too low.

Riena shakes her head, though her hands twist in her lap. Over and under, fingers interlace and stretch, then into fists.

She cannot bring herself to say the words, because it will bring the mistress. She cannot say, because we are not ready. How will our bodies cope with the wall-less horizon and roofless sky after spaces barely bigger than our being?

The eel stretches. Reaches. Fails.

We wait a little longer, and I try to see what Riena sees. She has hidden it well. How does one put the ocean in such a severe landscape?

There. In the V created by a mountain pass hazed by distance, the barest hint of blue-grey and copper-gold. Not so bright as to warrant attention. It is not an ocean I recognize, but to return to the one I do would be a foolish endeavour.

Riena is taking us far away.

“A masterpiece.”

The mistress’s voice should not make me flinch, but the tines on my back rattle.

I am the eel, the water all around me. The sun calls, so loud I cannot hear the waves over its voice.

Riena is on her feet as the mistress saunters closer to the massive canvas, her guest trotting close behind. The guest is nothing, has to be nothing, a small woman who I must feel no guilt for. It is not that hard to destroy the dreams of the rich of hand but poor of heart.

“Magnificent,” the mistress murmurs, a trick of softness. “Do you agree?”

The guest allows herself to pretend she is really seeing the tapestry, but she makes her demand too quickly. “Do whatever it is that you do, girl. Make it come alive.”

One does not simply wave a hand at the thing Riena stitched pieces of her fingers into and then I licked those fingers back together so that they could continue the next day. And the day after that.

But then, it is not for you, beast.

I rise.

“Kitahniaa.” Riena places a hand against my neck, a greater hand, stiff, ready, precise.

The mistress watches the interaction, her face blank. How I would like to rip your armour off and see your guts, little one. I suspect they are black, not fit to bear the greatness of orimos, Drake’s blood twisted and tortured against the purpose she originally intended.

Riena steps up to the canvas. I must ready myself. We have not dared to talk about this day, so everything from here on in is guesswork.

I do not operate well on chance.

I am the eel. I am in the dark at the bottom of the ocean, pressure crushing from above.

Riena touches a spot on the canvas seemingly at random; the mountain pass. The thick material shudders, stitches tighten, and life ripples out from her fingers like concentric circles from a touch of claw against still water.

The scent of snow and pine makes me feel queasy, and I have to turn my snout away. A stream of effusiveness erupts from the mouth of the mistress’s guest, bile to my ears. A beatific smile stitches the tapestry of the mistress’s face; this is not her greatest achievement yet, but it will do for now.

She knows. She might not be able to read my insides or translate what we are saying but she knows we are planning something. And she is counting on it.

Is this the double-cross trick I dared not anticipate? Riena’s guts are so tidy, the stitches neat and tight, silk thread in a myriad of colours. The mistress will test us, that much I can feel on my muzzy, long disused mind. She has used one trick against us in anticipation of the other.

Obsenities I have long kept wrapped around the flame in my gut crawl up my gullet like I am invoking a curse. Perhaps I am.

I turn my good eye on the person I have foolishly put my hopes in. All it will take is one bite, one swipe of my claws. I do not know what human tastes like, but I am willing to find out just this once.

“Burn it,” Riena says in Drakon-het. For a moment I ponder the impossibility that is a human tongue and mind working its way around my language.

The mistress cocks her head, examining the tapestry, pretending not to listen. She cannot know my language, no human does. And yet…she has not needed to know. She has counted on us turning the tricks around on each other, because given enough time that is what her residents do. Love, death; it’s all the same.

Then the true horror of destroying my escape turns my tongue cold, and lightens the lump of coal that sits where my guts should be.

“No,” I reply. “This is your masterpiece. Pieces of your flesh. Our way out.”

“Burn it,” Riena says again, quiet and still.

The mistress is watching us now, ignoring the guest prancing in front of the canvas. Her fingers twitch at her sides. She carries no knife, but she does not need something as pathetic as steel to flay us wide open. That is only for special occasions.

I stare hard at Riena’s torso. Perhaps the gift of my eye to the mistress has impaired my skill. Perhaps I have only been seeing half of it for so long, and this has allowed me this foolish fancy.

The mistress takes a step closer. I am about to turn my head, open my mouth, save what remains on my ocean, when Riena’s insides shift. I squint, my good eye sore and dry. I see…I see more. A brain, with Drakon-het runes tossing and diving like an eel in the ocean. And a heart with my name on it, stitched neat and tight.

I am coming, my great ocean.

Before the mistress can close the small distance between us, I regurgitate. The ensuing flame is small, but enough to singe the mistress’s hair. I would chuckle long and deep at the sight if I had time.

Yellow and gold and copper catch at the edges of the canvas, gobbling the fabric greedily. It spreads too quick for the screaming guest to batter at, first with her hands, then a rug.

The rug catches too.

Then the curtains.

The mistress is upon me, silent as the blades extracting from her finger bones that slip into my ribs and throat. The orimos of her armour sizzles against my flesh and screams on my scales, stripping all memory of my ocean from my mind.

A weight settles in the curve behind my wings and between deadly tines spaced almost perfectly.

“Fly,” Riena whispers in Drakon-het below the hungry crackle of flame and shouts drifting from anger towards hysteria.

My egress is more a stumble than the grace expected of one of my size, but then this is not the ocean or sky. I cannot open my wings in here.

The mistress’s bone blades are still buried deep, the orimos competing with elemental flame to sear my flesh, and she drags with us for a step. There is nothing to be done for it; I sacrifice a paw and rip the mistress off my chest, flinging her to one side. My claws shriek and wither immediately at the touch of orimos.

Roar of pain and triumph. The mountainside rushes up. Stone, stone, grey stone.

Hard edges of fear dig into my back as mountainside and trees threaten to cut short our flight. Those edges are nothing at all to the black, hissing wounds on my chest and throat, Drake’s twisted blood sapping my will.

A snap of sail and wail of wind through membranes. Oh, how I have missed that sound!

And at the corner of my mind, above the rage of the fire and hissing loss from orimos, a laugh; not of death or capitulation, but one that simply marks time.

Fly.

Riena lives in a cottage on her beach by the ocean.

This ocean is not mine, but as all oceans are connected, so too will the memories of my old home eventually circle around to find me. The greater warmth is kinder on my gnarled paw and eye, its currents making up for the strength I lack. But still I can dive deep, for I am the eel, and the ocean welcomes me with the disinterest I expect. Ours is the good fight, water against scale.

On the warmest days, and there are many of them, Riena pushes open one entire wall of the cottage like a great door. There, on ground packed hard and smooth by my weight, I rest my head, switching my watch between ocean, the mountains, and her hands as she stitches a garden.

Flowers and vegetables flourish with the seasons and her whim; she reverse-stitches mercilessly. The seams aren’t always neat and her hands often shake, but then I bring her crabs, which she cooks up in a great pot—they are even more delicious hot, I have discovered—and we spend an evening crunching through them, discussing the heat and usefulness of stars; they are a long way away after all.

Much like the mountains and its deep frown of a pass. Bruised by distance, the mountain pass is often, thankfully, obscured by mist and cloud.

On the days Riena cannot bear its sight or the sight of my withered paw, I take to the waters. Often I sun upon a rock so far out I cannot see land, attended by birds who are teaching me their names and tricks in Drakon-het.

And sometimes, weeks of ocean are required between us. In those early times, I would often circle around when I was sure she could not pick me out against the sun, drifting over fields of wild cotton and forests teeming with silk moths, before taking to the cooler updrafts of the leering mountains.

Flying is harder than I remember; almost too hard on that first reckless flight. My tumbling, pain-stricken descent into the ocean almost drowned Riena, who could not swim. No matter how much I pull the comfort of the waters around me, the warmth can never quite scrub clean the remaining blemish of orimos against my flesh and scales.

Sometimes I think I smell smoke when I perch on the blade-like rocks of the mountain pass. Glimpses of shining objects from the corner of my eye make me flinch. I curl my blackened paw closer to my body, and the withered claws dig hard into the flesh of my belly until it all creaks with pain.

I roar this all down at the gray stones. Run, little rocks. Run.

Only my echo roars back.

One day, Riena presents me with an eye.

This is her finest work to date. I lied about that canvas full of cold and stone, and I tell her so.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” My laugh startles the seabirds making tentative forays at my back claws. “One eye is just as good when you are my size.”

She hefts the membrane-lidded oculus with as much gentleness as her reburgeoning muscles can manage. Delicate tendrils of tissue, veins, and nerves spin out from the back of the orb, stitches almost too small to see. How did she know these colours, let alone find them?

“Bury it, eat it, give it a name, I do not care.” The first real smile since we made this our home weaves her face.

And she touches her fingers to the lid.

___

Copyright 2018 AJ Fitzwater

AJ Fitzwater is a meat-suit wearing dragon who fashions elaborate curses, living between the cracks in Christchurch, New Zealand. They attended the Clarion workshop in 2014, and is a two time Sir Julius Vogel Award winner. Their work has appeared in such venues of repute as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer Magazine, Crossed Genres Magazine, and Kaleidotrope. Dragon eructations can be found at @AJFitzwater.

 

It’s incredible to me that Giganotosaurus turned seven this year and that 2017 marks my third full year as editor. From its earliest days, Giganotosaurus has existed with a single goal: publish one “longish” (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel) work of speculative fiction a month. I’m incredibly proud of the 12 stories that met our goal this year.

Since this is awards season, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on where we stand in terms of eligibility and we published this year.

As the two major awards for consideration are Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards, I’ll be focusing on our eligibility as it relates to those requirements.

Giganotosaurus is eligible for the Best Semiprozine Hugo Award.

Rashida J. Smith is eligible for the Best Editor (Short Form) Hugo Award.

Here are the stories we published in 2017 by categories (short story, novelette, or novella). All of our stories are available to read free online, or downloadable in epub and mobi formats at the links below.

Novellas (17,500-40,000 Words):

Higher My Gallows by Alice Brook

Novelettes (7500-17,500 Words):

Poetics of Defiance by Daniel Ausema

Finity by Elaine Atwell

Six More Miles by Alex Acks

The Wagner Trouble by Julie Novakova

Salvage by Tracy Canfield

The Wanders by Ian McHugh

To Us May Grace Be Given   by LS Johnson

Hungry Demigods by Andrea Tang

 

Short Stories (Under 7500 Words):

Hold Me Fast  by Alter Reiss

The War on Space and Time by Octavia Cade

With Perfect Clarity by Wendy Wagner

 

Other Resources and Reading Lists:

Nebula Reading Lists

Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom

2017 Favorites by AC Wise

2017 Spec Fic by Black Authors

A. Merc Rustad Some Awesome Stories from 2017

My 2017 suggested reading list in all its flawed & limited glory

Hugo Nominees 2018 Wiki

(This is a sampling of awards eligible lists and not exhaustive by any means and will be updated if/as time allows!)

by Scott Edelman

 

 

When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

— Ray Bradbury, Paris Review interview

Mr. Electrico had once believed he was going to live forever.

And as he sat on one corner of a spare bed at his grandson’s house–a bed which his pained lower back signaled was somehow far harder than the string of cots which to his far younger self had seemed so soft–he looked down at the sword in his trembling hands, and still, all these many years later, thought…why shouldn’t he have fooled himself into thinking that? He’d told so many kids so many times they’d never die that after awhile it had seemed only fair he should join them in the immortality he’d been extravagantly granting.

Considering his decades on the carnival circuit, such wishful thinking was surely inevitable.

Count how often those inviting tent flaps unfolded at the beginnings of his shows, multiply that by the thousands filing in tugging eager children who were then instructed to squat in the front rows, add the host of times he surrendered to the embrace of the electric chair and felt its power pass through him, letting his skin tingle and his hair stand on end, boost it all by the number of slashes he made with his sword while reaching forward to knight the closest kids with shouts of “Live forever!”…

…and a sensation had begun to expand within him which insisted–the words he’d uttered were no con game.

And he’d deserved to taste their power, too.

No one could go through those motions for so many performances, mouth those same two words that many times, without beginning to believe. He dared anyone else to try it. Not that anyone else ever would. They couldn’t. The days of carnivals were long over. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair for the charge to merely pass through him, and have none of it remain. Something had to stick, right? Some small part?

Yet…why should he be so lucky? Those who’d toured with him, the only ones to whom he could have talked about this and have them understand, had already taken their leave.

The Fat Lady had been the first to go, back when they were both still on the road. Her heart gave out in her sleep, the sad price demanded by her trade. At least she went peaceful. (He liked to think she did. Does anyone ever truly go peaceful?) The Skeleton Man, though, hadn’t been that lucky. He was carried away by cigarettes. Last time Mr. Electrico had seen him, when he visited to reminisce about the old days, the man could barely speak above a whisper. Not much reminiscing got done, except in their own heads. Those wheezy lungs had kept them both too focused on the future, short though it was, to enjoy wandering through the past.

As for The Illustrated Man, Mr. Electrico was never quite sure exactly what had happened to him. No one would say. When he showed up for the memorial service, the relatives wouldn’t even look him in the eye. And those tattoos, they didn’t seem quite so pretty when viewed in the open coffin on which The Illustrated Man had insisted. Mr. Electrico remembered how once they’d been marvelous.

How once they’d all been marvelous.

The jugglers, the ticket takers, the drivers, all gone, gone, gone. There had been too many funerals over too many decades, and he’d gone to as many as he could, for his friends deserved to be shown a little respect, but then, after a time, there were no more funerals to attend. Now only he remained.

So … maybe the electricity had done something after all. He was still around, wasn’t he? The last man standing. OK, so the hand which had once held the sword shook, and during the night, he often had to get up half a dozen times to piss, and when he woke in the morning, sometimes–not always, but sometimes–he wasn’t sure where he was. But all that was better than the alternative, right?

Sure would have been nice if one of the others–any one of the others, he wasn’t picky–had still been around, so they could have shared a place. Would have been nice, too, if his son was still speaking with him, so they could have shared a place. No fixing that, though. Mr. Electrico doubted forgiveness was even possible. It was sweet of his grandson to step up like this, even if the kid didn’t understand the carny life his grandpa used to lead. But maybe that was the only reason he was willing to step up.

Josh.

It was Josh, wasn’t it?

That’s right.

Josh.

Mr. Electrico wished he could show the kid who he really was, and why, wished he could explain it all in the way he’d never been able to do for his son, whose empathy had been crushed by having to live through it. And once he could have. The photos would have helped. And the newspaper clippings, filled with awe and wonder. And if only he still owned the costume he’d once worn, red silk with yellow piping zigzagging down the sleeves to make it look as if lightning was about to come out of his fingertips. But those were all gone, all of it, every scrap of memorabilia, each battered souvenir, lost to rundown apartments he’d abandoned with rent unpaid, and evictions which had left his possessions dissolving in the rain, and small-town pawnshops he’d see the once but never again.

And drink, oh, the drink. To that above all those physical manifestations of his memories had been sacrificed, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, as his path narrowed to whatever this life of his had turned out to be.

Only the sword, remarkably, remained. Even he wasn’t entirely sure how.

He held it out before him as he used to do at each show–more an extension of his arm than a piece of metal–and closed his eyes. He could almost see them–the faces in the front row filled with amazement, kid after kid shocked to see what coursed through him as he sat in that chair showered with sparks, faces which would soon themselves be literarily shocked as he tapped their brows and shouted in the tent then what he whispered in the small borrowed bedroom now–

“Live forever!”

And when he had, he truly thought they could.

All these years later, he raised the sword high above his head, and there he was, in front of thousands of people blurred together by memory, forgettable faces with no names to go with them. But there was one face which stood out from all the rest. One face which had gained a name.

Mr. Electrico saw it then, the face of the kid who’d come back, the face of the kid who’d brought him a magic trick, the face of a kid he’d welcomed into the tent and introduced to his friends, the face of a kid which was also in a former life the face of a friend, a friend who’d died in his arms in the Ardennes Forest in 1918, during the Great War.

Or was that last but a lie he’d told, the kind of thing you cough up to a rube to keep them happy and empty their pockets? It had been so long since their last encounter one Labor Day weekend that he couldn’t be sure, couldn’t remember whether he’d been sincere, or was only planting the seeds for a long con which never had the chance to play out.

No, that he couldn’t remember.

But he remembered the day when the carnival stopped by Lake Michigan, near Waukegan, Illinois, and the kid to whom Mr. Electrico had seemed to matter so much.

He remembered that kid, and wondered whether he was the one who’d prove his words more than just words. The one who truly would live forever.

That kid named…Ray, wasn’t it?

Yes. Ray.

Ray hadn’t been the first to come back–kids were always ditching their parents and returning to say the things they wouldn’t dare unless they were alone with him–but he was the first to come back who didn’t also ask to join him. They were always asking to take off, believing that hitting the road with a carnival was the solution to whatever their problems happened to be. Splitting from an abusive household could be a good thing, sure, Mr. Electrico had done the same himself when he was a kid, but having done so, he’d learned the hard way–why bring the carny life into it? That was no answer. But then, it never was.

He kept waiting for the kid to ask him, too, ask for help in running away, the way he himself had once asked for help from another who’d earlier carried his name. First when Ray pulled out that beginners magic trick he’d bought at the Five and Dime and begged him to explain how it worked, and then when he was brought into the tent and introduced to the others, where Mr. Electrico could see the kid’s eyes grow large as he took in the Bearded Lady and the Alligator Boy and all the rest of them, saw how they treated each other when they were by themselves without the rubes around, as if the fantastic were common, and the common fantastic, and finally out along the sand dunes, where they sat and talked of their lives, and Mr. Electrico was moved to say something he’d never said before, about how the two of them had known each other in past lifetimes.

But Ray never asked that question Mr. Electrico had come to know too well. And it was only later that Mr. Electrico realized the thought had never even occurred to Ray at all.

They talked for hours, about ferris wheels and movie stars, rocket ships and life on Mars, about comic strips which promised more than real life ever could, about things that might have been and things that never were…but then it was time for Mr. Electrico to head back for his evening shows–the final performances before he’d have to move on. There were tears in Ray’s eyes as they parted, which Mr. Electrico thought meant the kid would then ask the question, before the opportunity to do so was gone forever…but he did not.

He often wondered what those tears had meant. He wished he could have tracked the kid down and asked him. He suspected if found that the kid would have understood what his grandson couldn’t and his son never even wanted to try. But he’d never learned anything more than his given name, and so a reunion was impossible.

Mr. Electrico wished they had known each other before in the trenches, the way he’d told him, because that would have meant there was a chance they’d see each other again in the future. But he knew now, as he knew he’d known then, that there was no coming back in this life, that once a person was gone he was gone, one reason he fought so hard against his body’s signals that it was time to leave.

He didn’t want to leave.

Mr. Electrico snapped out of his reverie, suddenly aware of the streets down which he walked, realizing he had no idea where he was. What made it worse was that at the same time–he was also uncertain whether this confusion was because he’d wandered, while lost in thoughts of the past, to a neighborhood he’d never encountered before, or if, cruelly, he no longer recognized a place with which he should he familiar. He hoped it was the former, because the latter…well, that was happening more often now.

Closing his eyes and concentrating hard, he remembered.

He’d left his grandson’s home for a walk in the sun–Josh had insisted he go out, said it wasn’t good for him to sit alone in that spare room all day. So Mr. Electrico had headed to the park, starting his rambling there as he always did, because he knew its openness would bring back his carnival days, and thoughts of that moment the caravan would arrive at a new location, and study an open field before beginning to set up. If he could position himself properly, and keep the benches and path lights and playground equipment at his back, he could almost pretend it was still the past. He’d stay there forever if he could.

But eventually, his joints had told him he’d better get moving again, so he grabbed a hot dog that hadn’t tasted as good as one he might have gotten on the midway, then headed on to look in store windows filled with things he no longer wanted nor needed, if he ever did, then studied the posters outside a theater advertising movies he would never bother seeing, his afternoon reminding him too much of things he would never do.

But once he’d spent enough time wasting time, enough to keep Josh happy at least, and was ready to turn back…he no longer recalled how to get home. He stood on a street corner trying to remember, but not trying too hard, because the failure that was more often starting to accompany such trying would be too painful.

So he meandered until he made his way back to the park–he could remember how to get there, at least–and once there, as he stared out across the grass on which one wasn’t supposed to walk, he again briefly tried to decide which way he should turn next to find his way back to his grandson. But he couldn’t choose, so instead, he sat on a bench and wished, as the darkness settled around him, that he could still spread wide his hands and light up the night.

Which is where his grandson found him still sitting the following morning.

Josh wasn’t alone as he walked up the path toward Mr. Electrico. There was a policeman by his side, which told Mr. Electrico that no, Josh truly didn’t understand.

He did not like police officers. It was nothing personal. No one who’d worked a carnival ever did.

“What are you doing here, Grandpa?” asked Josh, as he slid onto wooden slats still covered with dew.

“Just resting,” said Mr. Electrico, unwilling to reveal the truth, especially not with a cop there to bear witness. “Thinking. Remembering.”

“All night? Here?”

“And why not? I can do those things on a park bench as easily as anywhere else.”

Josh leaned in more closely to his grandfather, so only the two of them could hear what he was to say next.

“You forgot again,” he whispered. “Didn’t you?”

“I did not,” Mr. Electrico insisted, hoping he’d been able to imbue his words with confidence. He’d made so many believe so much, surely he could make one man believe that.

“That’s not true, Grandpa,” said Josh. “We both know that. If we didn’t find you, who knows how long you’d have been out here alone.”

“I was just taking my time, that’s all,” he said, his words less certain. The power to pretend, a power about which he’d once been so proud, had long ago diminished. But he still had to try. “I’d have gotten home eventually. I always do.”

“Not always,” said Josh, his voice still a whisper. “This wasn’t the first time. Remember?”

Mr. Electrico felt his grandson’s hand on his shoulder, and though the touch was gentle and though it was meant with love, it brought back memories of other park benches, and other touches, ones not so gentle, which had been meant to make him move along. He stayed silent, and tried not to let those feeling show.

“So you’re saying the officer and I should just leave you here then? You’ll have no problem getting back on your own?”

At first, Mr. Electrico said nothing. He looked off again toward the unbroken stretch of cool, green grass, and imagined a tent rising there. But tents would rise no more. He sighed.

“I guess I’ve sat here long enough,” Mr. Electrico said finally. “We can go.”

As he stood, he could hear his knees crack. He guessed he probably wasn’t the only one who’d heard them.

“The officer said he’d drive us home,” said Josh, gesturing at the police car which had been left idling on the outskirts of the park.

“I can walk,” said Mr. Electrico, even as he felt a pounding in his chest. “I’m not dead yet.”

Besides, he thought, he’d been in the back of too many police cars. Sure, it had been decades since the last time. But still. He remembered that claustrophobic feeling, all those doors with no handles. No, sir. Not today. Not yet. He stretched, partially because he needed it after having been curled up on a park bench all night, and partially because he needed Josh to point him in the right direction so they could get started, and was delaying because he didn’t want to have to admit it.

“Shall we?” he said, and tilted his head in a vague circle he hoped night accidentally approximate the correct direction.

Josh hesitated for a moment, looking as if he was about to speak…then shrugged instead and began walking.

Mr. Electrico followed, trying his best to memorize the streets–some of which seemed familiar to him, and some not, as if buildings had been shuffled overnight–between the park and his grandson’s house. They were silent all the way there, though Mr. Electrico could tell, from the grim expression on his grandson’s face, that a speech was building which he would not want to hear. Once they arrived, Josh waved at the couch in the living room.

“We can’t go on this way,” he said. “I know you know that, grandpa.”

“We?” said Mr. Electrico. “I’m tired. Can we do this later?”

Josh nodded, and Mr. Electrico went up to his room–slowly, as all stairs were taken slowly these days–where he fell asleep immediately, a thing which he hadn’t allowed himself in the park. Oh, he’d been tired, and he’d desperately wanted to nod off, but a life spent on the road had taught him that was never to be done. He hadn’t even been able to bring himself to nap while there, only listen to the crickets and look at the stars, both those present that night and those which existed only in memory. So sleep came quick now, as did dreams of his old life, and an afternoon by Lake Michigan, and a boy named Ray.

When he woke, he could remember little of the dreams, only that he had dreamt, which he did not like. It seemed forgetfulness, which was now so much a part of his life, was spreading to his dreams as well.

How long before he forgot it all?

Mr. Electrico managed to avoid “the talk” Josh kept insisting they have, making him think he still had some of the gift of gab which had served him so well during his carny days, but then, one morning, he woke and looked under his bed for the sword which would allow him to perform the ritual meant to remind him of who he’d once been, and he found nothing but dust bunnies, a sock he’d thought he’d lost, and a depression created in the carpeting by a long, rectangular box which had lain there since his grandson had taken him in.

His sword, the only memento that remained, was gone.

He shouted his grandson’s name, so upset he didn’t have to search for it even for a split second. No answer came, but Mr. Electrico suspected that could have been because his voice was no longer loud enough to carry downstairs. His knees were unfortunately not the only things giving out. He tried again, more forcefully, to use the voice he’d once owned when he’d captivated crowds, but though his mind remembered, his lungs would not.

“Josh!”

There was still no answer, so he headed slowly to the top of the stairs and called out again. His grandson was not normally gone so early in the day, so it was strange he shouldn’t be there now. As Mr. Electrico was about to take his first step down, a figure came into view from the living room.

Mr. Electrico froze. It wasn’t Josh.

It was the kid.

Ray.

He seemed exactly as he’d been all those years before, unchanged by time. And in one hand, the sword. Ray laughed as he made a few passes through the air with the metal, marking the air between them.

“You were looking for this,” he said, his voice as frozen in time as was his face.

“What are you doing here?” asked Mr. Electrico.

“What do you think?” he said, leaping up one step, then back down again, repeating the move several times with glee. Mr. Electrico remembered what it was like to leap, but not when he’d last been able to do it. “What I’ve been doing ever since the day we met–living forever.”

“That’s … not possible,” Mr. Electrico said. Or was it? he thought. “Where have you been? Why are you here now?”

“It seemed as if you needed me,” said Ray, pausing in his prancing to look up. “Needed me to find this. I doubted you’d have been able to on your own.”

Ray flipped the sword in his hand so that its hilt was now pointed up toward the top of the stairs. It was an offering. An invitation. One Mr. Electrico desperately wanted to accept. But in that moment, he didn’t have the strength to walk down to receive it. His knees buckled, and he dropped to sit on the top step, suddenly unable to stand any longer.

Mr. Electrico was glad Josh wasn’t present to see the weakness which had stolen over him. And so, of course, in that moment, from behind Ray came the sound of the front door being unlocked. Ray smiled, a buoyant smile Mr. Electrico recognized, and then looked briefly over one shoulder, unalarmed. He knelt, laying the sword down sideways across the bottom step, the blade so long it stuck out through the bannister.

“There,” said Ray. “It’s yours again. No one should take it from you.”

And then Ray backed out of sight, vanishing into the living room, just before Josh came into view from the front foyer. Mr. Electrico found himself without the breath to speak, so Josh was startled on seeing him there, at first not even noticing the sword.

“Grandpa, why are you sitting up there like that?”

Mr. Electrico heard the love in his voice, but he also heard the exasperation, and knew he should answer immediately. Josh had lately been accusing him of getting slow, and a snappy answer would help contradict that, but he had none. All he could think was — how is it that Josh missed seeing Ray? Before Mr. Electrico could think of anything to say, Josh noticed the sword on the bottom step, and his expression darkened.

“So you found it,” he said. “I’m surprised. How did you manage to do that?”

“You?” said Mr. Electrico. “You’re the one who took my sword? Not…”

Mr. Electrico fell to silence. How could he dare reveal what he’d seen before Josh arrived home? His grandson was already having trouble accepting what he’d become, and that he’d mistakenly believed a boy he hadn’t seen in half a century had taken his sword would be…too much.

“Not what?” said Josh.

“Nothing. It’s just that…for a moment, I thought…never mind. But why? Why did you do it?”

“I had to, Grandpa. You’re not safe with it anymore. Maybe you can be trusted with it when I’m here to supervise, but when you’re alone? No.”

“That’s not true, Josh.”

Mr. Electrico found himself trembling, whether from fear or anger he couldn’t tell. But maybe it was neither, and only the trembling that came with the years.

“Sadly, it is true. You’re not who you once were, grandpa. And after we got back from the park, after you fell asleep, I started realizing … you could get hurt, without even meaning to.”

As Josh spoke, he was hesitant in a way Mr. Electrico had never seen before, at times rocking from one foot to the other, at times seeming about to step over the sword and join him at the top of the stairs. Instead, he stayed in place, continuing to squeeze words out, words obviously as difficult to speak as they were to hear.

“It’s not your fault,” Josh said, louder than he’d left off. “So I had to, you see? And look at you here with the sword again. You could have been hurt retrieving it. What if you’d fallen off the ladder and broken your neck? You shouldn’t be doing things like that, doing the things you once did. I wouldn’t want to find you that way. I love you, Grandpa. You know that don’t you? This is for your own good.”

“What’s this about a ladder, Josh? I didn’t climb any ladder.”

“Oh, grandpa, have you forgotten that already? You had to have used a ladder, or else how would you have gotten it down from where I stored it in the garage? If you can’t even remember that, it’s just one more reason you shouldn’t have it.”

Josh stooped to pick up the sword, then turned toward the garage.

“You can’t do this, Josh,” said Mr. Electrico, rising swiftly to his feet. The sudden movement left him dizzy, forcing him to press one hand against the wall to remain steady. “That’s mine! That’s all I have left.”

“Then what’s it doing down here with you up there? You must have dropped it. Don’t you see? You might have cut yourself. Or fallen and run yourself through. No. No more. If you want to keep living here, please. Don’t try to find this again.”

“Josh,” he said, as his grandson vanished, seeming no more or less real than the boy who had vanished on his arrival. Mr. Electrico would have shouted if he could, but he had no more energy with which to shout.

“Later, Grandpa,” said Josh upon his return from the garage. “We’ll talk more later. We have some decisions to make.”

Mr. Electrico said nothing as Josh walked up the stairs and squeezed past to his own bedroom. He did not want to talk more later. At least, not with Josh. He knew what was coming for him, he knew what those decisions would mean, and talking would only bring that fate toward him more quickly.

Mr. Electrico waited until he could no longer hear Josh’s television vibrating through the thin walls and was sure his grandson was asleep, then snuck out of the house and stood on the front lawn. He’d head toward the park, he decided, where he’d spent most of the previous night.

He loved the park, the way his scanning of the unpopulated vista brought back memories of the beginnings of things–the tents still unrolled, the ferris wheel unconstructed, the rubes asleep in their homes, and he needed that feeling now more than ever. That was almost the best part, those moments of before when anything could happen. It felt as if anything could happen tonight. But which way should he turn?

He could still remember where the park was, couldn’t he?

No. He couldn’t.

As he stood in indecision, fearful of choosing the wrong way, even more fearful of choosing no way at all, his breath turned to mist in the cool night air, and as that cloud pulsed, appearing and disappearing with each exhalation, through it, off on the nearest corner, under a streetlight, he could see Ray, waving the sword over his head, doing mock battle with a moth which hovered above him.

Mr. Electrico’s sword.

And then the kid danced out of the spotlight and into the darkness.

Mr. Electro took off after him, perhaps, based on what his knees were telling him, more quickly than he should have, but he didn’t dare lose him. He could make out his outline in the distance, always on the verge of disappearing, and as Mr. Electrico ran, so ran Ray. They moved through the night this way, twisting and turning along the maze of the subdivisions, the kid continually pausing off in the distance just long enough to be sure he was seen, but no longer, and then taking off again as soon as Mr. Electrico started after him again.

By the time Mr. Electrico arrived at the park, he was gasping, and sure he could not have gone a single step further. For a moment, as he looked around, he thought he’d lost the kid, but there he was, sitting not on a bench, sitting not on the grass, but off in the empty playground, plopped on a mound of sand in front of the rut beneath the swings, a mound kicked high by the feet of a thousand children.

The kid smiled, patting the sand beside him, and as Mr. Electrico settled down slowly, his legs protesting as they bent, he remembered the two of them having been side by side like that before, so many decades ago, when he had been so much younger, and the kid had been…

…exactly the same.

“Why are you here?” asked Mr. Electrico, having to catch his breath to get even that single short sentence out.

“Why are you here?” asked the kid, waving the sword to encompass the park.

And then Mr. Electrico did know, know what he hadn’t known before, but merely suspected.

“Because I can almost see Lake Michigan,” he said. The past and the present rubbed up against each other in this place. It was what called him here time and again. Because if he squinted, and imagined, and remembered, he could see from one to the other.

They sat in silence for awhile, looking off into the distance. Eventually, Mr. Electrico closed his eyes. Sometimes, in this place, he could see much better with them closed. But he could not see far enough. Not yet.

“Did you bring me another trick?” he asked. “Another puzzle to solve?”

“I did.”

The kid rose, pointed the sword to his head, then allowed it to drop to his toes with a flourish, as if by lowering a sword, he was raising a curtain on himself. He bowed theatrically.

“You? You’re the trick?”

Ray nodded and smiled.

“That’s not a trick,” said Mr. Electrico. “You staying the same, me growing older…that’s a joke.”

“So how come neither of us is laughing?” said the kid, settling back down beside him in the sand. “No, it’s not a joke. I wouldn’t do that to you. It is, indeed, a trick. Last time we were together, you showed me the secret to how one worked. This time, it’s my turn to show you.”

Mr. Electrico wanted to learn that trick, that secret. But there was something else which in that moment he wanted more.

“I’d like my sword back,” he said.

“In a moment.”

The kid used the sword to make circles in the air in front of them, then figure eights, then x’s, then finally circles again.

“You said we’d met before in a former life. Was that a lie you were telling me? A part of your act?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. And then, more forcefully, certain for the first time: “No.”

“You said I was your friend. Was that a lie?”

“No.”

There had been no hesitation that time.

“So we were friends in the last life,” said Ray. “We are friends in this one. And we will be friends in the next one as well.”

“I’m glad of that,” said Mr. Electrico. “But you still haven’t answered my question, not fully. Why are you here?”

“Because I wanted to thank you,” said Ray. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, but I never had the chance. I could never reach you, not until now, when you were so close, because though I couldn’t come nearer to you, you could come nearer to me. The day I met you, the day you made sparks come out my ears and told me to live forever, that was the day everything changed. That was the day you gave me the future, the day I learned how strange and wonderful the world really was. That was the day…the day I decided to become a writer. I could never thank you, because I could never track you down. I tried to, I really did, but only now…only now…”

Ray shrugged.

“Anyway…thank you.”

“You remembered,” said Mr. Electrico quietly.

“Yes,” whispered Ray.

“You remembered me telling you to live forever.”

Ray nodded.

“And did you live forever?”

“I did,” said Ray. “Thanks to you, I will.”

“So why haven’t you changed? And why have I?”

“That’s the magic, you see,” said Ray. “Because no one has yet to do this.”

The kid stood, and with a gesture Mr. Electrico recognized as if he were gazing upon it in a mirror, because he had done it thousands of times himself, leaned down, extended the sword, and tapped him on the center of his forehead.

“Live forever!” Ray shouted, with a voice that boomed far too loud for one so small. For a moment, the world seemed on fire. Mr. Electrico’s skin prickled, and his hair stood on end, as he sensed the charge coruscating through him and connecting with a dormant engine within. Then, as the kid pressed the sword back into Mr. Electrico’s hand, the sky–whether it had been truly ablaze, or whether it had been just the old electricity running through his eyes anew–faded.

“It’s yours now,” said Ray. “It always was yours.”

Mr. Electrico leapt up, made a giddy hop, and struck his own slashes through the air. He laughed, feeling complete once more.

“Ready to join me?” asked the kid. He gestured behind them, away from the shadow of Lake Michigan.

Mr. Electrico turned, and in the distance, where suddenly it was daylight, could see the tents flapping in a gentle breeze. He could make out the banners, looking as fresh as the day they were first painted, covered with the images of his friends, images larger than life, but no larger than they lived on in his memory–The Sword Swallower and The Bearded Lady and the Illustrated Man and–

–and look–on the largest stretch of canvas in the carnival–there he was, Mr. Electrico, bigger than life himself, too, but no bigger than life should be, his hair ablaze, his eyes sparking, his fingertips flashing lightning, fully again who he used to be.

Who he was again.

“Live forever,” Mr. Electrico whispered. “Yes..let’s.”

He took Ray’s hand, and together, they headed toward the carnival.

___

Copyright 2018 Scott Edelman

Scott Edelman has published more than 90 short stories in magazines and anthologies such as Analog, The Twilight Zone, and many others. His collection of zombie fiction, What Will Come After, was a finalist for both the Stoker Award and the Shirley Jackson Memorial Award. Edelman worked for the Syfy Channel for more than thirteen years as editor of Science Fiction Weekly, SCI FI Wire, and Blastr. He has been a four-time Hugo Award finalist for Best Editor.

 

by Alice Brook

 

One

I can still taste electric anise when I open my eyes. It’s been a week since that kid got himself killed and I came too late to do anything about it. An open-and-shut case.

I light a cigarette trying hard to ignore the boy in my bed tonight. He snores and I kick him on the ribs, “Out.”

I picked him up in Summer’s Night after Tiha knows how many glasses of gin. On the back of his neck is a cluster of dark freckles I hadn’t noticed the night before–my gods, a damn Academy student. A “scholar” I bet, just an ignorant kid who thinks magic’s only use is a quick high.

I get up and turn on the radio. A melancholy beat weaves itself around the smoke, edging by piles of filthy clothes, slithering into the wrinkled sheets until it reaches the boy. He squirms, pulling a pillow over his head. I tsk and have another drag of my cigarette.

The flavour of anise is still stuck on the back of my tongue. If only I had gotten to that kid sooner, the bottle laced with a dreamwake charm would’ve never reached his lips and I wouldn’t have magic jammed in my throat every time I woke up. Bloody dumb kids.

I snag the pillow off the boy’s head, lean to his ear so he feels the ember warming his skin. I stub out the cigarette on the sheets. The way the tobacco falls it looks like my skin is flaking, sprinkling brown-beige on greyed white sheets. A stray speck of ember jumps to the boy and he winces.

“Out.” I make my voice sound like a growl. He only puts his hands over his head, groaning. I wish his neck wasn’t on display. The smudge in the middle of it seems ordinary until you look closely and you realise it’s a puddle after a heavy storm, the boy’s Key. I harrumph at my stupidity for offering a place to crash. I tell him to hurry the fuck up and leave.

The radio’s finished its meandering song and a man is signing off, wishing us a good night. By the sound of fists slamming at my door looks like my night is just beginning. I roll my eyes when I hear Sergeant Heartnell calling “Open up, Ange!”

I wipe the dust off the book I got for Lou, The Key Dictionary. I should give it to him soon, before the shiny giftwrap dissolves completely, but this time I drop it right next to the boy. He jolts at the sound and gives me a look of a cow who’s just found out what a sledgehammer’s for. In reply, I point to the window. I assume he’s smart enough to use the fire escape, otherwise a dumpster laden with Cheng’s sauced-up garbage will cushion his fall. He’s none of my concern anymore. The boy mutters, “shitshitshitshit, as he scrambles to dress himself.

“Keep your knickers on, Sarge,” I yell as I pull on a loose blouse and a pair of pants. I wish they had deeper pockets though, not even basic charms can expand clothes by much. Like this, all I have room for are half a dozen ready-made magics–fainter, healquick, motion, flask–the necessities.

The window slams shut behind me as I open the door. Soon enough there’s a yelp and a thump. The boy should have known better than to follow a strange woman home.

Sarge has a look on his face that makes his wrinkles seem like canyons. “Nightmares getting to you?”

I shake my head no. Not tonight, I didn’t sleep anyway. “It’s 1 a.m., Heartnell. I was sleeping,” I lie to the pudgy pink face at the door.

“Like I’m gonna believe that.” His bulbous nose creeps up when he snorts. Gods, has that man ever heard of trimming?

“You know, there are special scissors, they’re real tiny so you can get ’em up the nostril and just – ” I make a snipping move with my fingers. “You’ll get a discount as soon as they look at you.” I also give him a grin, for good measure.

“Cut the crap, Magic,” he says with a ghost of a smile stuck to the corner of his lips. With that on his face he looks twenty years and a barrel of sadness younger.

“Well, gee, you’re just no fun at all.” I lean on the door frame and cross my arms across my chest. My no-fucking-way stance will be ignored, but, hey, can’t blame a girl for trying to crawl back to bed and fall into blissful, alcohol induced sleep.

“Grab your bag. We’ve got a shiner.”

I raise my eyebrow-an expert achievement of snark that never fails to drive Sarge crazy. All he does is glare and burrow his fingers inside his palms. He knows he can’t touch me. He and magic just don’t get along, to put it mildly. Admittedly, I did once make a receptionist burn from the inside out, so maybe there’s a smidgeon of fear somewhere in Heartnell’s anger. But the burning days are behind me now. Tiha’s honour.

“Sergeant Frank Heartnell, I don’t get up for less than blazing sun.”

“Don’t play wise with me, kid.” He turns to proceed down the decaying hallway.

I tie on my bespoke boots, silver-tipped with a mix of screetcher teeth and herbs under the heel, grab a coat and my satchel. I stuff Lou’s book in one of the pockets, too. Maybe I’ll have some time on the way back.

The door takes some banging before it finally shuts. I don’t lock it–those who know where I am know who I am, and those who’d dare steal would see only bare walls and one soiled mattress leaned to the radiator. Maintaining the concealer is a pain in the ass, but I can afford a few days of mild coma to keep it up for three years.

When I rush after Sarge, the bag slips off my shoulder. It’s not supposed to do that. Made of weathered leather and with a charm that enhances its pockets to untold depths, the bag is supposed to stay put as if glued to me. But then again, I’ve never been the bookish type so I don’t exactly know how it works. You never know with these bags, especially when you pick one off a stiffer.

We drive to Gallows Lane. A scent of lilacs seeps through the windows of the car, overpowering the stench of old tobacco and stale sweat. Heartnell’s knuckles have already turned white gripping the wheel. I take a deep breath and stare on.

Our strained ride ends at the edge of Verago, where centuries ago stood the Seventh Gate. Story goes its rock was black as the darkest sky, thicker than a giant’s midriff, and infused with magic that would spark the air blue, twisting it until it looked like billowing cloth. A row of gallows had flanked the door where the dead, while swaying in the wind, would howl and moan and wail. When Old Ellis did his jig, a couple of fellas went home with their ears bleeding and cheeks clawed raw. Old Ellis, the last man to hang, had given us a game of Telephone that’s lasted for over eighty years. A crazy faction says he never really died, despite the hanging body, but they also believe bees are magic-made surveillance. I don’t trust the crazies, but Old Ellis is still called merlinesque at Tiha Academy.

What’s left of the Gallows Lane looks like a discarded booger-stained kerchief by the road. On a plateau framed by four lilac trees, bronzed gallows stand as though they’d emerged from the earth itself. Sometimes I wonder if the air is cleaner up there, when your neck is wrapped in rope. The hanged were lucky, in a way. I breathe in the lilacs, savouring the scent as it makes my chest swell, and not failing to take a good look at the splintering imitation wood of the gallows.

I fake a cough as I adjust the bag on my shoulder and resist making any sort of comment. Heartnell’s sensitive about magic victims, and however we are to each other, I know where the line is.

He leads me to the gutters below the memorial where they found the shiner. Despite the cold breeze pushing against us, the girl looks like she’s just taking a nap. I suppose the chintz carpet she’s wrapped in kept the chill at bay. Somebody’s unfurled the top so that her face was visible. Eyes wide open, amber, stare up at the sky, no expression in them. I could pretend she’s counting stars.

“When did you find her?” I asked. It’s hard feigning nonchalance when her mouth was sewn shut with blue string and blood crusted over the corners of her lips. Except one of the stitches has been broken, the thread hanging from her mouth like drool. She’s not counting anything.

“About half an hour ago. Mad Maggie thought she was a pile of leaves.”

I stay crouched by her shoulder. Strayed lilac petals have dappled the mud around her body, as though she was suspended in the sky and I was looking up instead of down. I did not know the girl. But I could have. The skin’s turned waxy, but the falling moonlight does everything but make her look a corpse. Her features are sharp, cheekbones you could slice your finger on, a hard jaw that takes no excuses and a wide forehead with insidious lines between her brows.

I could imagine the girl frown. Demanding respect, she would force her lips in a thin line and stare you down till you cracked. When she danced, her face would pull her eyebrows up with each jump, her laugh painting the air like magic, I–I don’t know this girl in the gutters. Only, she reminds me of someone.

“We dubbed her Sparrow Rose.”

I start at Sarge’s voice. “Huh?”

“Just…” He waves his hand towards the girl’s face, then lets it fall.

When I push my finger between the broken X-shaped stitches on her lips, I swear I can hear blood cracking. A soft and crumpled thing.

“White rose petals and birds’ beaks.” I push them around my palm. This is bad. I outline a rune above the satchel, my finger cleaving the air and emitting a dim white light. The right compartment unlocks and I look for a container. “You haven’t seen her body yet?”

“We didn’t touch a damn thing.” Heartnell’s anger is almost palpable.

“Except for the mouth,” I add, nodding at the ruined thread.

I finally find a small jar and fill it up with beaks and petals from Rose’s mouth. This shit never gets any easier. Especially not for people like me, people who’ve traded a chunk of their souls. Something sharp pricks my thumb, sending spikes of coolness over my arm. I ignore it.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Sarge.” I tell Heartnell, then rise to face him, the coolness spreads to my neck now, almost choking. I clear my throat to get it out. “Get the crew here.”

Heartnell waves a gesture, wordlessly telling the officers to gather up. Except, there’s something off about the way Georgia leads the group forward. Seems to me like she forgot to walk, as if her legs were planks. More of them walk the same way, moving in a circle. Heartnell and I are being surrounded by seven of our own, even Shaun, who usually only ties rope around so that nobody sticks their noses where they don’t belong.

Heartnell opens his mouth to say something, probably a slew of curses.

“Don’t,” I tell him and it’s just blind luck that he’s not a part of the hunchback crew lumbering toward us.

All of them have some sort of amulet peeking out their uniforms. Shaun has one in the shape of a horse, it’s so heavy his head’s always a bit stooped. He beamed when he told me he got it off a “seer” in a secret shop tucked between the movies and Mack’s diner.

I warned him about the women with dangling sliver bracelets more times than I can count–con-women with a sense of drama. His “seer” just happened to be one of the more clever ones, considering how she opened a shop right next to the pictures. Since The Eyes of Magic opened in cinemas across the country, the whole amulet business blew up. I can’t go a bloody day without seeing somebody clutching at a necklace. Even Mad Maggie tugs at her iron comb when she sees me.

“Just don’t move, not yet,” I tell Heartnell. Georgia is so close I could reach her with the tips of my fingers. Her eyes are still a pleasant brown, which means she’s not too far gone. I snag the amulet off her belt, throw her glass dandelion away. Six of the squad turn and stare and stop. Only one keeps going, that damn horse swaying around his neck. Shaun believed with all his little heart the horse would protect him.

Truth is, a protection spell can’t be bound to any old bull. It’d have to be something the wearer actually cared about, and we’d pump it up. The price the magicians pay is anywhere from a three day migraine to a particularly nasty case of stomach flu or diarrhoea. That’s some real ugly business, and not worth the bother if you ask me. But when I saw a crystal stone dangling off Sarge’s neck, I made sure he chucked that in the trash. I made him the real deal, I owed him that much.

Shaun’s eyes gleam white. My muscles instinctively tense, every sinew’s ready to pounce, hit or hurl a ready-made charm. I reach the inside of my left pocket. Rummaging around for a blade when a ‘chanted is coming straight at you is no easy business.

“Just a little closer,” I whisper to Heartnell who’s already got his gun out. Tiha, can’t I get a goddamn case that doesn’t turn into a giant pile of shit?

Shaun lunges to Sparrow Rose, his hands enveloped with blue, iridescent smoke. I’ve seen it before. Hell, I’ve made it before. The smoke will swallow him up like he was a dumpling, then rot him from inside out. He’s a good kid, albeit too naive for his own good. Always blushes when I ask him about girls and can’t get past a tumbler of booze without getting redder than a drunk’s nose on a winter night.

I pull the spiked knife out and launch it at his liver, doing my best to aim properly when my thumb is now throbbing as though there were worms in. Close enough – Shaun sways as the knife sucks in the blueness. There is no blood coming out of the wound. Only Shaun’s face curling into a grimace, ageing thirty years in ten seconds. His wail feels like the only sound in the world.

“You killed him.” Cold blooms across my temple. I needn’t even glance to know it’s Heartnell’s gun.

“No. It did. It wasn’t Shaun anymore, Heartnell. He uncovered Rose, right? The second he touched those stitches, he was dead.” I keep my eyes straight, don’t look at my thumb.

Shaun’s body looks like a deflated ball before it disintegrates to dust. I shiver. A good thing. A person should shiver at a time like this. You gotta pay attention when a slice of soul is missing from your body.

“We need Lou,” I add.

I walk away to get the knife out the dust while uncomfortable questions are being answered. Georgia shoots me a look. I’ve been a recipient of the look since I was a seventeen year old brat, a good ten years now. It could rival my mother’s eyes when she found out my puppets turned our little house into a ball of flames.

“Get a fucking box, a bag, something! We do not leave him here,” Georgia yells. She’s on her knees, blocking the wind as much as she can. Her lips are tight between her teeth, her body twitching.

The officers all walk as if underwater. Some stare at their hands, flexing them into fists, then unclenching, like they wanna make sure it’s them who’s in control. Others are gingerly stepping on the gravel, scared of making a wrong turn lest the stones grow canines. More than a few fall to their knees and puke their guts out. Only Georgia is firmly on her feet, rushing back to Shaun’s remains with a box gripped to her chest.

Heartnell’s going from man to man, planting his hand on each of their shoulders and tucking their amulets back in place. Flashes of light from the gently waking traffic wash over them, and for a second they all look like angels. The lights from our car point directly at the scene, giving the sight an eerie tone of being outside of time.

When I pass Georgia, she spits. I drop the knife into my bag and curl my fists around its straps. If I didn’t, I might have clawed the sneer off her face.

It’s getting to me, too. I move the hurt thumb under the strap. Don’t look at it, Ange, gulp it down and shake it off. The thing, what ever it is, whatever it was, it’s big and bad and uglier than a pair of cauliflower ears. Nobody outside Tiha is supposed to have that kind of power.

The stitch around Rose’s mouth, that particular shade of blue, looks more familiar than I’d like to admit.

I take another deep breath, hoping the sharp sweetness of the lilac would wake me up from this goddamn nightmare. Not my luck.

My hand begins to throb all over. Bad ‘n’ ugly’s getting to me, alright. The cold pain sprints to my jugular, then drops, like a ton of burning rock to my stomach. I bend at the waist, hands on my knees, silently cursing all that is holy. It’ll have to work much harder to crack me like it did Shaun.

“Nobody touch her! Hold her by the carpet.” I stagger to the car, still breathing heavily. My chest is a pack of rats fighting for the last bit of cheese.

“Ain’t the dame gonna help?” Georgia’s remark’s backed up by the guys’ mumbling approval. I keep my trap shut and let Heartnell deal with it.

“Georgia, so help me, one more word–”

“It’s her, Sarge.”

“You will obey your superior officer.” He tilts his chin down at her, as to a naughty child.

Georgia audibly swallows before she says, “Yes, sir,” and begins to haul Sparrow Rose to the trunk.

“I like her.” I squeeze the words out my teeth, “Stubborn and smart.”

Heartnell hands me a lit cigarette and says nothing. I inhale, clearing my lungs. It doesn’t work though. There’s still a pack of rats (tied by their tails, they are filthy, livid, clawing at my meat, digging through bone, that bad’n’ugly) hooked to my flesh.

Rose’s magic seeped to Shaun and now it’s definitely seeping into me. This is much worse than I thought possible.

“You better know what you’re doing, Ange.” Heartnell’s gaze is locked to the crew, his hands folded across his chest. I can see how he digs his nails in his palms, so it does him no good hiding it.

I give the cigarette a deep drag and let the smoke unfurl through my nostrils.

I hope I do, Sarge, I hope I do.

 

 

Two

The pain is not as strong as it is consistent, like needles pricking flesh or bullets cleaving muscle. A breeze waltzing in the top of my head while a loop of rope tightens around my neck. The pain is like many things, but I’ll be damned if I let it beat me. I need a drink.

Inside the car, I can inspect my Key. I let myself sink into the seat, breathe a little while, before I lift my blouse up. On the side of my ribs is a latticework of scars, the shape barely recognizable, which is not a bad thing, per se. It’s a mark. To warn the rest I’m no good, to tell them my body is marred by banned magic. Not that I knew it was bad at the time. You can hardly blame a kid for being defiant and dumb, but nevertheless, Zora did. Expelled by the hand of my own mentor.

What my Key used to look like was a dagger pointed to my hips. A constellation of freckles in an unusual shape. Every magician has one, we’re born with it. They’re like blue eyes – sometimes they appear outta nowhere, but mostly, there’s a carrier in the family. I glide my fingers over it. Nothing. Or nothing yet, in any case.

I give it a pinch, just to make sure and the pain hits me. Down my ribs, grabbing each one, raking at my Key. I let out a yelp despite myself. The pain drills itself deep, then disappears.

The blouse falls back into place as I close my eyes and rummage through its breast pocket for a flask. I gulp down the rye until it’s half-empty.

Why in the hot hells am I even here? I take another swing, Smiley Val’s scarred face dances in my mind. Smiley Val. First time I called her that she grinned in a way that would make a mountain pack up and move two states away. We’ve been close ever since.

The first time she saw my Key, she pinched me so hard I almost jumped outta bed, but, Tiha, not even that could make me angry with her. If I stepped on the gas right now, I could be in her den in half an hour. Far from Sparrow Rose who’s like seeing a ghost, except my ghost is alive and well and most likely wishes me dead every day.

“Too bad, kiddo,” I tell myself and have another tug at the flask. “You’re stuck.”

The thing about losing some soul is you need to find another way to stay human, and saving kittens doesn’t do it for me. Sleeping beauties, also knows as tulips, also known as catatonics really are humans minus souls. And I ain’t done living. And anyway, if I ran to Smiley Val she’d just kick me out for disturbing her customers. The scar extending from her lip to the corner of her eye might help her play nonchalance, but both of us know gun smuggling is trickier than Val wants it to be. I’d be the biggest harm to her business in any case.

Heartnell knocks at the window. I flinch, which makes the flask spill a little. I lick the rye off my hand. “What? Want one too?”

Shit. There goes the line. And I don’t feel a damn thing, which is something you’re supposed to feel crossing the final frontier of human decency. Usually I’d shoot down the words before they even brush against my tongue. I give the flask a scowl.

“Enough,” he says. That means, if I dare touch more liquor, he’ll break his back to ensure I never do any good again, even if it meant risking the rest of his life as a toad. My fingers stumble to get the lid back on, then let the rye drop back in my pocket.

“You should know better.” Heartnell slaps the window before going round to the driver’s side. You wouldn’t tell by his skinny piano fingers and clean nails, but he could crush a melon just by pinching it if he put his mind to it.

As he revs the engine, I see myself pushing his face in mud. I shake the thought off and what comes through is a pair of amber eyes, blinking at me. Sparrow Rose is getting colder by the second. If Lou tells me what I think this is, there won’t be much time. The only person who could possibly perform that kind of magic is high up Tiha Order. Most likely.

The Key throbs (rat-king making a nest). As if through gauze, I see clots of blood drop from the back of Heartnell’s head, brains dripping over his collar, my boot kicking him down and stomping, stomping, stomping as red splatters on my clothes, stray drops warming my skin and trickling down.

I shake the thoughts off again. It’s not me who thought them. Not. Me.

There’s two ways this could go, and I have slim chances in both.

 

 

Three

The only safe business is the death business. People drop like flies every day, especially in Verago, and too few want to deal with decomposing flesh. Especially when the flesh in question can come with an extra appendage (or five), and still twitching if a magician died before the spell took its toll. A mortician is not a desirable profession. Unless you’re Lou, whose brain’s fit to hold hundreds of funerary rituals and who thinks stiffers walking around the mortuary are intriguing.

I push open the door to Lou’s and invite Sarge, along with the two officers wheeling the body on a rickety gurney, inside. Stuffed weasels clutter one of the giant chestnut tables that take up the entire length of the wall. Their eyes, attacked by the sudden light, beam down on us, so I have to blink away the yellow spots from my sight. Damn things creep me out. The other table is overflowing with papers, half-eaten pastry, mugs still filled with tea, and one brightly painted ceramic frog I got Lou for his sixtieth. There’s hardly room for two people, but the four of us, plus Rose, manage to squeeze in.

I make my way to the middle of the room, stomp on a square outlined in black tape, then quickly step away. As always, Lou’s deep down in his make-shift lab. What he’s doing isn’t exactly legal, but Lou, well, he’s no harm to anybody. Besides, his bony head holds more knowledge than the Academy teachers, so I need him when the shiners get complicated.

The officers rush back outside, leaving Heartnell behind. He approaches, then leans in until I can smell the stale coffee he had for breakfast. I better get him some mouthwash with those nose trimmers. I mind not to move a muscle except my fists, which I ball behind my back.

“You broke Georgia’s heart, you know that?”

“As far as I know, Georgia has no such thing.” The words just slip out. My jaw’s clenched and cold and I don’t wanna know what my eyes look like. “It’s bigger than Georgia, than Shaun, than all of us. This–”

Sarge looks like stone. One curt Heartnell-nod and he marches over a stuffed mouse as he leaves me to cajole Lou out.

I bite down my tongue. Shaun can’t be my fault, not him too. But the tingling in my fingers reappears, the rat-king and its tails.

“Lou,” I cough off the shake in my voice. “They’re good an’ gone, Lou.” A bone fide hermit, he wouldn’t come out if the cops were there. Lou gave me a pass, though, seeing how I’m not a “real cop,” just a magician on hard times.

The trap door opens with a creak and a bang before falling back. A hand appears, quickly followed by Lou’s spindly body. “They have no respect, those thugs. Thugs, all of them.”

“Come on, Lou. They ain’t all that bad,” I do the rune over my satchel to get his book out. Better do it now, coax him a little.

He’s gotten to be a worse old man now than when we first met. About two years ago I found him staring at me while I was cracking a ready-made charm over a heavy goon Val suspected was pinching cash from her. Lou was scribbling in a little book, his hands shivering as he did so. Well, I couldn’t just let him prance on his merry way, so I grabbed him by the collar and gave him a piece of my mind. Lou squealed and spilled all about his lab and magical mishaps. He gave me hot cocoa and asked as many questions as an eleven year old who’d just noticed his freckles were shaping in Key.

I laughed at him, remembering the same zeal a lot of us showed when we first stepped inside Tiha’s Academy. He was surprised when I told him how easily things go wrong in magic. If a wide-range concealment went awry, it would make the corpse crack days after death which was what had been haunting Lou’s parlour back then.

Lou bends to close off the trap door in complete silence. Strange. Usually, he talks like a wound up toy.

“We found a girl. Something big, I think.” I glance at Rose over my shoulder, hoping I would see the carpet rise and fall. I should know better than that by now.

“You all right, Lou?”

Lou shuffles to the junk-ridden table and begins pushing the papers away, carelessly siding the ceramic frog to the edge. There was the tiniest little wince spread across his face every time he shifted his weight to the left foot.

“What happened to your leg?”

“Oh, a tiny–” he shakes his head. “A small accident. No importance whatsoever.”

He coughs again, this time the burst sending him heaving over himself. I reach for his shoulders with my free hand and pat him on the back. Lou’s a skinny old man, the skull more visible now that his hair’s white and thinned.

The dimple on his chin looks like a crater sometimes, like that tiny black dot is to blame for his feebleness. But he doesn’t look any paler than normal. Gods know Lou can be clumsy. The stuffy lab can’t be any good for him either. He waves me away, so I retreat to the wall when he’s done and let him finish clearing the table. He wets his lips quickly with only the tip of his tongue.

“I got a book for you. Thought you might like it.”

When he doesn’t react, I frown. No, something is wrong here. An accident, my ass. I place the book on a chair. He is not speaking, his eyes don’t meet mine and he’s got that damn cough that makes him sound ten years older. I decide to ask about his favourite subject, see if that’ll make him confess whatever’s going on. Maybe his basement’s finally exploded or I’ll end up having to kill oversized rodents in the sewer. You can never know with Lou. Keyless are hardly able to even understand the workings of Tiha, let alone dare to dabble in it. Lou, he’s different. He did not explode, or turn to marble or perish in any way. Maybe this time, though.

“How are the experiments going? Anything I should worry about, old man?”

“Exquisite things.” He rambles on, his hands wildly gesturing as if they had minds of their own. He’s talking but not making any sense. He grabs at his cravat, tightening the knot, brushes away stray hair. The upsides of his palms are slick in the muted light. It makes my stomach pang. Scars, not from any sort of dabbling in magic, but from an open flame. He never told, I never asked.

It hurts, looking at his hands and seeing a different face, one that used to beg me to make little figurines out of fire and dirt, then make them dance for us on the floor.

Better just stick to the job tonight. Lou knows what he’s doing. I hope, anyway.

“I need your help, Lou.” I reach for his shoulder, but stop myself. My hand hangs in the air pathetically. “We found her by the gallows.” I flick my wrist, pointing to Rose.

“Of course. For a friend–”

“No. An associate, Lou. Just that.” My eyes tingle, so I frown and blink it away. All my friends end up dead.

He wets his lips in a motion no longer than a blink, like a frog or a snake. Then he presses his forefinger to his dimple. He often does this when he’s nervous. “On the table then.”

“Don’t touch her, Lou. The officers who did–”

Lou does not say a damn thing. So I tell him, “Yeah, yeah. You’re no amateur and all that.”

We heft her to the freshly cleared table, placing her head by the ceramic toad. His hand shivers as he unfurls the upper corner of the carpet, careful not to brush his skin against hers. His tongue slips out and in again, a flash of red among the browns, blacks and greys in the room. I cock my head to one side.

It’s not the first time I brought him a body to inspect, there’s no reason for him to be anything but excited. Maybe it’s Sally that’s making him jittery.

“Sent Sally the flowers I told you about?” I’m the last person to give love advice, but I figured flowers were a safe bet. Can’t go wrong with those, right?

He winces then, stuck with his hand poised above Roses chest. “Yes, the, the–” Lou’s frowning as if the memory’s slipping. “The chrysanthemums.” A smile of relief spreads across his face. “Yes.”

“You’ll have to talk to her, you know. She’s not psychic, Lou.” My eyes wander to his threadbare black shirt. The collar’s already frayed, loose strings glued to his neck.

He smiles sheepishly. “This girl,” he says and hovers his forefinger over Rose’s cheek. “Where did you find her?”

“The Seventh Gate.”

Lou’s head bobs, peas of sweat form above his brow as he inhales heavily. “I need a–I’ll go and get it now.”

Before I can even open my mouth to protest, he rushes back to his lab, crashing the toad in the process. It rolls to the corner of the room and stays there like it’s in ambush, the sticky tongue drawn to loll from its mouth.

I pick the toad up and put it where it belongs. The fall must’ve cracked it and it breaks in two while my hands are still on its sides. I lay both pieces on the table. It looks dead. Sparrow Rose looks deader. I tug the carpet open with a clot of hope in the back of my throat. Damn it, Rose.

I want to shake her by the shoulders until she wakes up. I want to look at the stars with her, I want her to tell me the boy she danced with was so clumsy her toes are blue. I bite my lip, willing myself to stop fantasising. Rose might as well have been a burglar. She might have been a schoolteacher as much as a cold-blooded killer. We shouldn’t pin pretty stories to people just because we like the look of them.

I hold my breath and lean closer to her body. Under her breast is a wound. Looks like a patch of skin was scraped off to reveal muscle and fat. I inspect it closer. There, on the cusp of torn skin – deftly cut out, whoever did this had both time and skill – is a brownish semicircle. A piece of freckle? Was Rose a magician?

A shuffling comes from behind me.

“Got what you need?” A hand grabs my throat and squeezes. I can’t breathe. The edges of my sight blur as I try to pry the bony hand off.

“It’ll come soon,” Lou’s breath is hot on my ear. It smells like rot. “Wakey, wakey, and we’ll be happy. It’ll make me whole, I promise.”

Lou tightens his grip, his coarse hand like sandpaper on my skin. I manage to swing my elbow and hit him on the side. He staggers into the gurney, which squeaks as it moves backwards, colliding to the table of twinkly-eyed animal corpses.

I turn to face Lou. There’s nothing there, he’s expressionless, though not like Shaun. Lou’s eyes are almost black, showing me nothing but a reflection of myself and, for a fraction of a second, they flicker.

I kick him in the stomach before he comes to his senses, the punch folding him again. His head is level with my knees. I could take a shiv from my satchel and peel his face off–stop, Ange! Not. Your. Thoughts.

I grab a stuffed fox from behind Lou and swing. A cry escapes my mouth as the fur connects with the side of his head and Lou slumps forward. I expected the fox to be softer, but the hairs are brittle and remain stuck to my sweaty palms when I let it fall from my hands.

When I catch my breath, I heave Lou up to the gurney and tie him up with rope I find under one of the tables. For once I’m grateful Lou’s sort of a slob. All my friends end up dead, but Lou might have a chance. He’s only stunned, not gone yet.

I reach into my pocket for a motion charm. I feel it, but don’t move a muscle. Again, the rat-king scurries in my chest, ripping at lungs, at meat, a dozen snouts and mouths and rows of teeth and claws scratch my sternum. The blackness is spreading. The tails are laced around my vocal cords, waiting for the right moment to crush them.

I gingerly move my hand to my face. My lips are moving in ohs, my tongue brushes against my nails, covering them with saliva and instead of dirt, I taste everything I’ve done and it tastes like bile.

I shut my eyes until the Key stops throbbing and the rat-king in my chest retreats. It takes a while for it to slither away, I can’t tell how long. But it goes. Tricky thing, being half-souled and infected with… whatever horror this is.

When I get my hands on whoever killed Rose, I swear to rip their legs off and make them eat them, toe by toe. I clear my throat. I shouldn’t even be thinking like that, but, hells. Every nerve in my body is leaden.

I need a drink. When I deem myself calm enough – and I say enough because I’m never damn calm, especially not now when I could take on the armies of all hells along with a dozen of Smiley Val’s goons – I rummage around the sleeve of my blouse and extract a crude motion charm. I’ll know if Lou moves, but not exactly where. It might show me a direction, but a ready-made charm is often unreliable because I suffer pushback (in this case only bruising) before I use it. Knowing when Lou moves and a vague direction is enough. I’ll know he’s fine, I’ll know I didn’t hurt him too much.

It could easily be mistaken for a jumping jack. A ball rubbery and dense with swirls of blue and white, lies smooth on my palm. Weighed with magic, it stays put as I level it above Lou’s face. His shirt is still pristine, only wrinkles so that the loose strings cluster on the sides of his neck. Like he didn’t attack, like we never even fought.

My heart is still thumping a beat of anger, a searing hot thing pulsing through my body. I shut my eyes. I imagine the faintest smell of dust and warm wood and strong coffee. When the sunset painted the sky crimson, that was when our little house looked most beautiful. I hear my sister’s voice pleading for magic puppets–she’d push my cheeks with tiny hands smeared with marmalade and yelp, “Again, again!” A wave swallows my body, leaving specks of sadness and guilt in its wake. I am calm. The rat-king won’t beat me.

I open my eyes and press the charm, cracking it like an egg. Threads of blue and silver unravel from its insides. They drift on Lou’s face, meandering through the air, making a cobweb pattern in the short time they’re between container and skin. When they reach Lou’s cheeks, he flinches, but does not wake. The threads spin themselves into spirals before elongating across Lou’s face and neck. With a faint glow, they sink into Lou’s skin and vanish.

I clasp my fingers over the halved ball, then drop both into the satchel. Ignoring the quiver in my knees, I brush a tear or two with the back of my hand and make sure the door slam when I exit.

 

Four

It’s close to 6 a.m. and the light shines hard on Heartnell’s eyes. He squints to the sky, one palm across his brows, the other cupping a cigarette. The crows’ cackling tears at my ears as though their beaks are a hairbreadth away.

My breathing is still a bit heavy and Sarge, his gaze locked on the birds who’ve started to move in large spirals, he asks me what the fuck happened. The veins on his temple bulge.

I stand abreast him and explain, all the while watching the birds. The crows settle for west, untangled from their circle, they flap their wings and advance. A small black thing plummets to the ground.

Heartnell spits and stubs out the butt in a pool of saliva.

“You all right?” he asks.

“Fine. But we need to burn Sparrow Rose. I don’t know what kind of magic this is, but it’s the strongest in centuries. Lou couldn’t have done it, not even many Tiha’s. But some of them could.” I frown at the picture of Zora blazing in my mind.

“I’ll lock him up. You go home,” he dismisses me with a wave. “You’ve done enough.” He begins to walk towards Lou’s, handcuffs already dangling in his fist. The rat-king squirms in the hollow of my chest.

I know his fingers have been itching to shut down the lab. I know he can’t stand the sight of me when I tilt my head just so and how he can’t stand the silk of the kerchief I pumped up with protection. To him, magic is a useless cheat, a fake, more like a rabid dog than a skill.

I know all this, and still, I grab him by the shoulder and say, “It’s not about Peggy, Sarge.”

Next thing I know, my cheek is burning and I’m struggling to keep my balance. Heartnell’s eyes are two kinds of firecrackers exploding on asphalt. “Peggy’s dead because of the likes of you. Shaun, too.”

“Peggy’s dead because she drank champagne at a tinseltown party,” I say and my voice is the voice of a stranger from the bottom of a well, from the darkness in the cave. “Peggy’s gone because the balcony was slippery and the only magician there was too damn drunk for a healer spell.”

Heartnell moves for a punch, but I tilt my head just so. Same way Peggy did when she felt stubborn.

Peggy was an ash blonde with a wide pearl smile and her father’s stormy eyes. I saw pictures, heard some gossip here and there. Story goes she was as stubborn as a mule, caught in raids countless times and stealing dad’s cash to pay friends’ rent if they needed it. We might have been friends, too. Though I suppose all her singing would get on my nerves soon enough.

I shouldn’t do this to Sarge. I’m trying to move my head, but the rat-king’s hanging inside my neck. I feel its tails coiled around my pipes, winding themselves around muscle and bone. Forcing me to say all the things I shouldn’t, releasing captive thoughts. Writhing, they slither to my jaw where they wring my bones and I think they’ll snap and I’ll be worse than Smiley Val – Ange with her mouth hanging down to her waist. All I can do is gasp. My eyes go blurry.

Sarge must have seen it because he lowers his fist. He’s still tense, his movements are those of a machine, sharp and crisp. He balls his fists until his knuckles whiten and we stay there, immobile. Tiha, help me.

“Your neck,” he says so quietly I almost miss it. “The veins are all black.”

He takes out his gun and aims. “Ange?”

I move my lips but that does no good. Nothing comes out. Then the world shakes. Heartnell’s figure jumps in and out if my sight, replaced with a fragment of grey cloud before he appears again, the barrel of his gun a gaping mouth ready to swallow me. The tails slither back, leaving a trail of what feels like frozen flesh. I collapse on the ground and retch.

“Wait,” I croak. I lean on my hands and push the bile out of me. My head is pulsing, my body feels made of ice and crumbling stone, and I can’t–I can’t do this anymore.

I spit out something tiny and black, a band of spit hangs loose from my lips. The black squirms, then dissipates with a hiss.

My face is wet with tears when I roll on my back. I shut my eyes and pray for the second time in my life.

“Sarge–” I start, around the lump in the back of my throat. “It wasn’t me, Frank.” I keep my eyes tightly shut.

“It’s never you, is it, Ange?” His tone is glacial. I don’t want to look at him. I don’t want to see the pain. “Get up.”

I prop myself on my shoulders. Sarge is crouching next to me, anger and pity nestled under bushy eyebrows. It’s not hard to imagine a once upon a time–a happy Sergeant Frank Heartnell, a wife and child gathered around the piano.

I give him a feeble smile, but the world collapses and my body falls to his chest. I don’t know who’ll make it out alive this time.

A sob escapes me when Frank closes his arm around me. We both know what it is to feel guilt and sorrow, to anaesthetize ourselves with liquor lest we feel anything other than anger.

“Sorry.” My voice comes out weak and muffled. I sniff and say, “We need Zora. I don’t know what this shit is.” I cough to stop my voice from dithering. “But she might.”

“Thought you said it might be Tiha themselves?”

“Yeah, most likely. But Zora will have an explanation.”

I clamber to my feet and start slapping the dirt from my clothes, but Sarge takes my chin between his fingers and forces me to look at him again.

“What the hell happened?”

“I can’t say.” I stare at the ground, blink away a tear or two.

“Don’t lie to me, Ange.”

I bite my tongue, but the words spill out anyway. “It got to me, Frank. Whatever magic was released, it got to me and it’s only gonna get worse.”

He releases my chin from his grip and moves a stray hair out my eyes. “Coffee first.”

It almost makes me laugh. “All right. But burn Rose now. Touch the carpet, but not the body.”

Heartnell nods and starts to the car. My body still feels like it’ll crumble, but I manage to catch up. I wait in the car for him to call a crew from a callbox.

“You’re good.” I lie to myself. “Fine.” I say and close my eyes to hide from the world.

I’m still pretending to doze off when Sergeant Heartnell comes back and starts the car. He shuffles and sighs, settling in the seat. In a moment, there’s a click of a lighter and the earthy smell tickles my nose.

“Whatever it is that you did, I hope Gianna forgives you,” he says and inhales.

And the mention of my sister hurts more than a thousand knives flaying me alive.

 

 

Five

I must’ve dozed off because I’m firmly on my feet in a dark alley. There are no sounds. The ground is made of cobbles of all sizes – some glint red, others blue or green. I know these are rubies, sapphires and emeralds from my mother’s hope chest. She’s never owned anything more expensive than a golden wedding band, but in this world, that’s not true. Here, the bowels of her oak chest freckle the street. They glimmer in the dusk in mean little tings, beckoning me to follow.

Fog snakes around the streetlights, which are too tall and too knotty to be made of metal, but they aren’t wood either. I am headless and have no eyes to see. There’s no weight of skull on me. Still, I move with purpose, though what that is I don’t know. I wish I had a gun.

I raise my hands and it’s only then, when I see one made of fire, the other dripping hot mud, that I realise this is my nightmare. I am a puppet, exactly like the ones I used to make for Gianna.

A chiming laugh makes me look up. A girl dressed in nothing but a bathrobe dances in the street. She has a glass of bright orange liquid in one hand, the other extends to a man in a bespoke suit. Happiness unspools from between her lips as she laughs, shrouding both of them in a soft pinkish light. The skin on her back is smooth and scarless.

I know this. I want this to be true.

My body staggers towards them, arms extended like in monster flicks.

In that damn twisted way of this nightmare, the girl is both Gianna and Sparrow Rose. She smiles at me and waves. The man’s vanished, along with the glass from her hand. The fog meanders towards her, rising slowly until it covers her body like a sheet.

My body totters to Gianna-Rose and we hug. Then she begins to scream, ablaze as if she was burning at the stake. She looks up and points at me because now my eyes are up and I’m looking down at both of us.

She keeps screaming, keeps wailing. I shriek for my body to let her go, but I have no mouth. I am both the puppet burning my sister and a pair of faceless, neckless, bodyless eyes swaying above the sight, higher and higher and higher, until my sister and I are two red specks in a sea of black.

Gianna-Rose bursts into ashes and cinder and ground bones.

I wake up whimpering.

“You okay?” Heartnell asks.

I massage my temples with an open palm across my eyes. “Sure. Are we there?”

“Yup.” He parks in front of Mack’s diner.

When I get out, I still see jewels gleaming on the asphalt. How many years has the same dream hunted me? I shake my head and rush inside the joint.

We settle in a vinyl booth so close to the kitchen I hear Pete sneeze and can only hope his slime doesn’t end up on our eggs. I unbutton my coat and tuck the satchel in the corner next to me.

Heartnell orders us coffee and scrambled from a waitress who has the self-assured walk of a woman certain she won’t be here for long. I bet she wakes up in the middle of the night, clutching at that gold cross of hers, promising herself she’ll get on a train first thing in the morning. It takes my all not to scoff. Verago isn’t nicknamed Reject-ville for nothing. When tinseltown stomps you good and hard, you drag your sorry ass here and try to make the best of it.

“This isn’t just a magician eliminating competition,” Heartnell says.

“Lou was nothing like Shaun.” I stifle a guilty shudder. “This was more conscious, like Lou knew what he was doing, like he was—”

“Like he knew what this was about?”

“Yeah. Except Lou’s a guy who thinks men should put their coats over mud for ladies.”

“Give me one good reason why we shouldn’t lock him up for good.”

“Information, Sarge. Whoever set this up knew Lou has a thing for magic. Sooner or later they’ll come back for him. And we have him on a motion charm.”

“I’m not losing any more officers to magic, Ange.” He extracts a deck of cigarettes from the depth of his overcoat and throws it on the table. He pulls one out, punching the butt to the table like it did him wrong before he strikes a match to it.

The waitress, Tommy according to the pin attached to her shirt, returns with a pair of plates and two mugs of coffee. Her makeup’s caked on her face, a little black on her eyes, a little rose on her swollen cheekbones, orange trails by her ears. Where it met with wrinkles, the paint cracked as if she was an old road, walked on by too many heavy feet. When Tommy grins at us, her paint shifts to reveal a dot of pink in the middle of her lip. Like Verago, she’s a pale shadow of her former beauty.

“You call me if you need anything else now,” she says as strolls back to the counter. Pete yells from the kitchen, a clatter of cutlery following suit.

A waft of burnt bacon hits me. I recoil, and decide to stick to coffee. Bitter with a hint of sour, Mack’s signature flavour. As long as I hold it to my nose and leave the plate steaming away from me, I won’t puke.

“We should do this more often,” I tell Heartnell. “You make good company.”

He only looks at me, lights another cigarette, before he says, “Start singing, kid.”

“You know Merlin?”

“This is no time for fairy tales, Ange.” He drums his fingers on the table, a rhythm I don’t recognise. Knowing Heartnell it must be one of the classics–more Bach and less Bessie Smith.

“We learn about him the moment we begin class in Tiha.”

“I thought the Order chucked you out.”

“They did, but not before I memorized a thing or two. Anyway, you know why we don’t seek immortality and bullshit like that? We make special effect for pictures, amulets, drugs, but nothing without limits.”

“Because you get headaches and puke.” He smiles like he enjoys the thought of magicians suffering.

“Yeah, that.” I glare at his damn smile. “Merlin wanted immortality. Story goes he found a way to do it.”

“You expect me to believe this was done by Tiha and Merlin?”

“I believe only someone from the Academy could produce a spell of this magnitude. Or someone connected to Tiha.”

“Like you.” Heartnell stopped drumming his fingers. He’s clutching his mug like he’s trying to break its neck. It’s hard to keep my breath level. Hard not to grab a knife from my satchel. I don’t know what Heartnell’s prepared to do. I move a wisp of hair behind my ear and continue.

“It affects me, Sarge. Dammit, if it was me, I wouldn’t be here, would I? I’d be off on an island somewhere, drunk and happy.” I don’t tell him that if it was me, I’d be dead. Soulless first, then on my goddamn way to the big sleep. I’m half-way there as it is.

“Sure. I’ll buy it,” he says but the mug is still choking in his hands. “Are we supposed to chase a fairy tale?”

“When Merlin cast his spell, every few hours he’d morph into a different creature. A cormorant, a roach, a cat, what have you. For a year and a day, you could set your watch by Merlin’s changes. Finally, he crystallized into a stained glass image of himself howling, then crash–he shattered with a bellow so horrible the closest village wept for a decade.”

Hearnell only raises his eyebrows. “You better have a point, Ange.”

“That was the first big rip in the worldweave–the Rising. The magic got loose, seeped into the world and threatened to crush it. Puff, bang, no more green earth to walk on. That’s why Tiha was made. A school, a training programme, a force to stop magic misuse. What happened to Sparrow Rose is—”

“The same thing?”

“I hope not. But I don’t really know how it works. There is a chance…”

I glance at Tommy. She’s standing by the counter, knife in hand. She moves her hips to follow the soft tones of Once in a While while she reaches for a pie. Her blonde bun’s dishevelled, strips of hair curl around her neck, wet with sweat. Tommy doesn’t seem to mind, only swings and hums along with Dorsey. When the song’s done, she stabs the centre of a pie with unusual force and begins carving it in uneven chunks.

The rat-king stirs in my chest, and I slap my goddamn Key.

“There’s more than you’re telling me, Ange.”

I attempt a smile, but fail miserably. “Zora.”

“The Tiha elder?”

I nod. “If anyone knows what’s happening, it’s her.” I don’t tell him Sparrow Rose’s stitches are most likely her handiwork.

He gestures for Tommy. “We still have time for pie, you know.”

I push my untouched meal toward him.

“You need a little sweetness in your life, Magic.” He gives me a look then, a look that says pity and pain and friendliness.

“I-” Looking at his kindly face, parchment-yellow and with as many wrinkles as a dried plum, I almost tell him everything. “I’ll get this one,” I say instead.

I hover my finger over the satchel’s clasp, moving it to make a rune that’ll unlock the particular compartment I need. Last time I forgot to do that, I was unpleasantly surprised by a maroon squirrel jumping at me. Sometimes I really hate this bag. By the time I finish rummaging, Tommy is back at the counter and Sarge is burying his wallet in his coat.

“You shouldn’t have done that.” I frown.

“Now you owe me.” He rubs his eyes, and continues, “Your neck turned black back there.”

“I’m sorry.” It’s all I can say. I lock my eyes to the blue formica table. I don’t have to look up to know his grey eyes are on me, tracing the tiniest lines of my face, the smallest twitch of my shoulders.

“You two would’ve been good friends,” he says so softly I almost miss it.

“I wouldn’t. I’d only bring trouble.”

“Yeah, well,” he stands to leave. “She did too.”

“I didn’t want to—” I start, still sitting on the sticky, grease ridden, vinyl seat, my hand clutched around a simple wallet. “Frank,” the word feels like a hot rock rolling out my lips and I can’t do a damn thing about it. He deserves monuments cast in marble. I have no such thing.

I clear my throat, stuff the wallet back in the satchel, then throw the strap across my shoulder. Heartnell is already by the door, but something isn’t quite right. Feels like when a stench follows you all day, and it’s only when you put your feet on the couch that you notice a speck of dog-shit on your heel. I pause for a while, sniffing the air despite myself.

Trailing the feeling, I inspect the inside of the satchel. This compartment’s a brown leather, a simple sack with two pockets on its walls. Inside is a notebook, couple of pens, a wallet and not much else. Lou’s charm is still a muted white and silent.

I pinch a crumpled tissue and throw it on the table with disgust. It didn’t stink, but, hells, I don’t remember where it’s been or what kind of sludge hardened it to almost cardboard. The pockets should hold two simple shivs I carry just in case. They’re as good as switch blades, steel and chrome with fake wood handles but, unlike the embellished knife I used on Shaun, these are barren. I feel around, expecting to find their curves under my fingertips.

I count one. There is only one damn knife in this bag and what I can do now is hunt down the sap who took it from me. Nobody touches my satchel, but a young magician wouldn’t be creeped by a weird bag, now would he?

Heaviness spreads on the back on my head, blood pumping through my body like water through a broken damn. I blink and I see red. I blink again and I see my hand deep inside the mouth of the bag.

“Hurry up, Ange!” Heartnell’s yell snaps me back to the here and now.

Why the hells would an Academy student want an ordinary knife? Lucky for me, Tiha is our next stop. The thought teases out a smile. When I get my hands on that punk, it’ll be days before he can chew. Rat-king thoughts come slithering back, flashing me the boy’s head on a platter.

I bite the inside of my lip until a speck of blood falls on my tongue. I won’t let this beat me. I can’t let this magic slaughter any more people than it already did.

This time, I won’t be the one who burns the house down.

Before the door closes I take one last look at Tommy. She’s dancing now, moving in a waltz as she carries some plates to the group in a booth by the window. Her eyes are closed, her head moving left and right like a snake following a fiddle, her free arm moves in circles and swirls. Tommy leans to place the food on the table, her eyes still shut in what looks like bliss. For a moment, I think I see her pulling a bread knife from her apron, but we’re already in the car, on our way to the Academy. Hells, it’s not only me, not only Lou.

The rat-king’s all over this place.

 

 

Six

Every breath feels like ice stabbing all over and it’s all I can do not to wince. So I keep looking out, at Verago passing in a blur.

Its main artery, Orla’s Road, pierces the city in two unequal halves. Heartnell’s side faces the smaller one, reserved for decrepit two-story buildings and alleys with blood trickling down from the butcher shops to the sewers. This blood is not always bovine. A hunched man is polishing a window that promises The Freshest Beef In Town while talking to a younger fellow over his shoulder. I assume the attention’s not wanted because he slips a cleaver out his apron and begins brandishing it. The younger one puts fists in the air and runs backwards while the older guy laughs and continues his work. Might be another consequence of Sparrow Rose’s murder, but honestly I can’t be sure. Verago people are made of taut nerves, sinewy muscle with a pinch of spite spicing the whole thing up.

More men, dressed in suits bulging in all the wrong places, move languidly across the street to the more opulent part of town. That’s my side of the car. The buildings even have little angels leaning on the topmost windows. Shadows render them menacing, chubby faces poised atop their tiny fists, staring down with gazes that look more demonic than carefree.

Heartnell parks by a concrete cube bordered with a wrought iron fence. The spikes glimmer cold silver in the morning sun. Gods, I still hate them.

“Looks more like a prison than a school,” he says as we get out.

“Felt like it too.”

We cleave through a gaggle of students who are all smoking ten kinds of crap. Between them and the main entrance is the Old Ellis bust, a head taller then Sarge, its hair sleek against the skull, the cheekbones high and thick, which only makes his fat lips look bigger.

Old Ellis was youngish when he got this statue – there’s not a single wrinkle marring his face. He gave a lot of cash to Tiha Academy, even taught a class or two. Or so the story goes. Not many talk about him, but there are rumours he locked himself in the Ellis Mansion attic and tried to harness wild magic. Whatever it was, he ended a mad man doing the jig.

Heartnell passes the bust in a loop wider than necessary. His father was a cop when Ellis was hanged, so it’s not surprising Sarge twists his mouth in something between a line and a pout when he passes it by.

When I was at school, we stroked Ellis’ nose for good luck. Half-rotten bits of paper are nestled in the statue’s dimple now. Must be a new joke. I pick some out, revealing a perfectly round crater on the bust’s chin. Whoever made this had a very poor idea of what a dimple looked like.

Inside the building, it’s cold and damp and smothering. The air is laden with a scent of rotting wood, the wall panelling so ancient I wonder if it’ll crumble if I touch it. So, no change there. I still think the cleaning people pluck the worms out at night. Heartnell scrunches his face as if he licked a lemon slice. Long, harrowing faces etched in the woodwork follow us as we advance through deserted halls towards Zora’s office. I flip the collar of my coat to shield myself. It’s like the damned things are cheering for us to fail. Tiha’s one of those places where you feel all the weight of the world whether you want it or not.

Heavy walnut doors slide open ten steps ahead of us. How typical. Always so eager to impress a Keyless. Good old Sarge only furrows his brows and waltzes inside.

Zora’s leaned over one of her plants. A gigantic, fleshy thing, it moves one of its vines to Zora’s cheek, curling over itself as if in pleasure, until Zora briskly slices its tip with a knife. The plant quivers, retreating its vine back under the blue petals spotted with orange stars. A sickly honey odour spreads across the room.

“It makes for the most wonderful tea, sergeant. Care for a cup?” She extends an open fist to reveal a desiccated leaf with a chunk of vine bleeding green.

Zora makes for an impressive sight, if you don’t know her. Her face is angular, like bones are gonna pop from her cheeks, with lips perpetually stretched taut in a line. You’d think she was a nice old lady with a prize-winning garden if it weren’t for her eyes. One is greenish, the other stares at nothingness. A film of cataracts renders it an immobile gem stuck in her skull. She would have perfect vision if she didn’t cast so many surveillance spells. I saw it only once – when she moulds another seeing tool, her blind eye looks a ball of cobwebs writhing with baby insects.

“Ah, well. You won’t mind if I have one.” She drops the leaf in one of three cups in the centre of her desk. Her skin’s so thin her veins are visibly curling over her knuckles, as if she was a river map. “Angela will surely join me.”

“You know why we’re here, Zora, so stop with this—” I gesture at the cups and her resplendent plant, “-performance.”

Zora clacks her tongue. “So full of spunk.”

She slips a hand in a deep pocket, then opens her fist above the burnished surface of the table and lets my knife drop with a loud clang. “Do you recognize this, bambina?”

“You. What the hells do you want from it?” The words barely seep through my teeth. It’s the goddamn knife the kid stole off me.

“You seem to be upsetting my partner, Elder Zora.” Sarge stands next to me, ostensibly relaxed, but the way he holds his neck says different.

“Partner? Hah! This one would get a rock to argue with her if you gave her enough time.” She takes a sip of tea and lets the cup clatter when she places back on the tray.

“Elder, we are not here for a cheap shiv. Please.” He gestures to the knife and then to me.

“We found your handiwork by the Gallows.” My voice turns deeper. The rat-king snatches my throat, pushing out what I want to say, instead of what I’m supposed to. My mind scrambles through ways to tame it, to dam it at least for a while, lest I begin twirling with a bread-knife in hand like Tommy. Focus, Ange.

“Of course,” Zora says. “You didn’t think I would allow the Rising, did you? But I see we are too late.” Her globe-shaped pendant swings so hard it hits her on the midriff. Her face flickers when she adjusts it in place, as though there is a layer of panic, maybe, under her coolness. I feel the urge to pounce at her.

Instead, I concentrate on the pendant. It’s a ball made of interlaced swirls than could be opened if its hinge weren’t rusted with age. While I was still at school there were rumours Zora kept the dust of the last dragon’s tooth in there. This would change by the week, with every new bout of drunkenness, to a goblin’s eye to screecher’s blood to a pair of fay wings.

I think it’s something much more personal. A curl of hair, for example. Once I almost found out. We were all drunk in our dorm when I got sick of all the guessing and promised to steal her damn necklace and solve the mystery once and for all. I never got farther than the threshold to her office. For a week I would wake up with snakes for hair and when Zora saw me she would smile an impish smile and tut at me. What that also taught me was that my old mentor doesn’t touch her pendant for nothing. She is more frightened than she wants me to know.

“With all due respect, Elder Zora, I need an explanation,” Heartnell has one hand on his gun, the other balled by his side. He’s beside me, and the gun so close. Zora wouldn’t lie about the Rising. Though I can’t believe her. My palms itch for attack, but I need to focusfocusfocus.

“Another one of your experiments gone wrong, Zora? Is that it?” I ask her, my jaw so stiff it’s a miracle I managed to speak at all.

Zora regards me for what feels like hours. “I sewed her mouth hoping it would hinder the Rising. However, I did not kill one of our students.”

“Bullshit,” I pat my Key. The only reaction I get from her is a twitch, like a sneer, and that makes it all the harder to do this civilly. If Sarge weren’t here–

Heartnell shifts his weight, as if unsure of what the hells is going on. “Unless you prove it, Elder, we’ll have no choice but–”

“To arrest me, yes.” She nods to me. “Care to explain, Angela? You’ve always had a talent for memorization.”

“Just like the movies, Sarge. If she stuffed Rose’s mouth and killed her, her blood will be sucked into the objects. We’ll see who made the Rising.”

I extract the sample from the satchel, spill the beaks and petals on her burnished table, and grab my knife. It’s cool on my palm, crackling with possibilities, the rat-king tempting me to stab Zora’s webbed eye.

“I don’t trust the movies,” he says, still standing in place.

“Trust me.” I slice Zora’s palm open. She doesn’t even wince. “Your amulet works, right?”

“Sure. But that’s different.”

“Fear not, sergeant.” Zora gazes at her wound, her webbed eye twirling, until it’s as though I’d never touched her. The knife falls to the table with a dull, heavy sound. “Though she carries destruction with her, Angela is educated.”

The puddle of Zora’s blood writhes. Slowly, a rivulet arises and undulates to the beaks. Scarlet waves lap at the white bones, crumpling the rose petals between them until they are nothing but tiny balls, like they’ve never been inside Rose’s mouth, like the birds never died and dragged another young magician to the depths of hell. The poor girl didn’t deserve this.

“Wasn’t her, Sarge. But she can cooperate.” Wild magic, the rat-king inside me, burrows deeper in my bones. “You owe me, Zora. As much as I owe you.”

“Maribelle.” Her stature remains rigid. A damn talking statue. “A fine student in possesion of the most brilliant mind. That is the girl you found at the source.”

“Source?” Heartnell asks.

“The Gallows,” she answers as if to a child. “The rip is widening there.”

Blue gleams from my satchel. The charm–Lou must be moving. It fades quickly, though. Too quickly, as though someone’s stopped it. Lou doesn’t know how, which only means he must be trapped, with the people who started this shitshow. “Get on with it, Zora.”

“You,” she says, her pointy chin raised toward me. “Simply put, the trail leads to you.”

The rat-king tickles my chest. I cannot react. “Bullshit. Her Key was carved out, mine’s just fine.”

“Not exactly.” Zora places the cup back on the table as her plant creeps toward her fingers. It vines seem to be swollen and longer. She’d always been arrogant, eager to flaunt her powers. “You bear a warning seal. I am surprised you can do charms at all. Has she told you this, Sergeant Heartnell?”

Sarge is somewhere behind me, his footsteps heavy thuds and pounding in my head like a funerary knell. “Enough,” I scream out and my voice is foreign to me.

“Ange, what is she talking about?” He clasps my shoulder, but I slide away, snatching the knife off the table and launching it to Zora. I miss for only a fraction. Her webbed eye twirls–I can’t be sure if she moved away. All elders have tricks up their sleeves, and Zora has most of them.

“Angela is missing a part of her soul ever since her trip to the Interweave, an incident during her time here. Can you see it, sergeant? Wild magic blackening her veins.”

I push down something bitter. “I’m not Merlin.”

“No. Yet books have gone missing from our library. Rare ones, at that. Are you aware of Lou, sergeant?”

“Old guy with a lab,” he says from close behind me. I can only guess at what Sarge looks like. Knowing him, his face is a stone mask, covering all emotion. Maybe his eyes glisten a bit more, maybe his hands are fisted by his sides. I don’t know.

“Precisely. I assume you wanted yourself healed, Angela. You would need a place to work, an accomplice. Who better than a gullible keyless?”

“No.” Lou is absolutely harmless, his only charm of any importance was infusing bread with a taste of boiled cabbage. And even that made my tongue itchy and swollen for days. No–Lou might be too curious for his own good, but he was taken over like the rest of them, albeit strangely.

I admit it was odd that he barely spoke, and his eyes and the limp because Lou is not a clumsy person. Probably too ashamed of his failure to talk to me, at least tonight. An unpleasant thought emerges from my haze–the frayed collar, were those simple strings?

Zora clutches at her pendant. “I admit I may have made a mistake, allowing such a spell to risk you falling in Interweave. Perhaps,” she sneers at me, “my mistake was getting you out. Perhaps a soul-lacking person doing magic is enough to set the Rising in motion.”

I reach for the ready-mades in my pocket when Heartnell’s voice booms across the room, warning me to stop. I stop rummaging, but keep my hand in the pocket.

“How possible is that, exactly?” Heartnell asks and I can tell he is no longer sure about anything. Sarge is stony in both movement and face, but I know. This is Hearnell hiding the way he thinks. I’ve seen it, I’ve helped it happen.

Behind his collected voice he’s making an inventory of my suspicious behaviours since we’ve found Sparrow Rose–from losing my breath at the scene to reminding him of Peggy to my blackened veins. The sight of me now must be a nightmare. My fingers search for a ready-made. I won’t have a chance to get away unless I act soon. I have to get to Lou. I won’t be responsible for another ruined life.

“Sergeant, she will need to be examined,” Zora commands. “We have made you a holding cage, yes? I suggest you use it while we deal with the rip, and find Lou.”

“Angela has a charm on him, we can—”

“I can see that, sergeant. And a useless one at that. However, I have one that works,” her eye lights up blue. “Angela’s very existence, the way in which she breathes magic, is a danger to us. Look out the window.”

Heartnell walks over and glances outside. His neck tenses up, even from a distance I can see the little vein on his temple bulging out. “Blood. Abandoned car. People on the ground.”

I don’t need to see his face to know he’s convinced. Both Zora and Heartnell want me imprisoned.

“In 48 hours, the effect of the Rising will spread to surrounding countries,” Zora’s staring at me with that damn swirling eye. “We have no time.”

I don’t know what’ll come out of my mouth, so I bite down my lip to keep them shut. Zora is standing between me and Heartnell. Her vine is following her movements like a puppy, one tendril is already too close to my foot.

I have to make sure Lou’s okay. Poor old sod has nothing to do with this. The rat-king patters its legs against my sternum and it’s all I can do not to explode in rage.

“Go to hell.” I’m not sure if I said this–or if it sounded like a growl or a hiss–all I know my throat felt as narrow as a drinking straw.

I grab a ready-made and hurl it to Heartnell. That’s enough to freeze him for a while. I stagger to Zora, but her damn plant curls around my foot. A sharp pain then, and my ankle goes numb. I fall, my arms flailing for support.

“You held such promise, Angela,” Zora walks over to me, her blind eye coalescing in webs, flicking blue then yellow then pearl white.

I have to get up. My Key pulsates like it’s not my skin, the rat-king coils around my neck, spreading throughout my body until it reaching the spot where Zora’s plant pierced my skin. In a moment, the vine blackens, disintegrated in dust. I shake off the remaining numbness from my feet then clamber up.

Zora does not get a chance to react. I give her a kick in the stomach–that’s the trouble with Elders, they don’t think to use anything other than magic–then dig out another ready-made and freeze her too. I bought myself a small advantage. I take the car keys from Sarge.

As I sprint out, I hum Gianna’s favourite song until I feel the rat-king release my windpipes. The melody burns too, but in all different places, in a spot rat-king can’t reach.

I’m sorry, Frank, but I can’t have this again. It can’t be my fault.

 

 

Seven 

The sun is a ball of menace burning the sky blue. Splotches of cloud have dissipated from their normal sheepish texture into melted wax, dripping between the outlines of matchbox buildings scattered across the horizon. I wipe the sweat off my head with the heel of my palm and march to the car, keeping my head down. The rat-king is hungry. It’s heavier, like Hindenburg’s tethered to my ribs.

I jump over a boy no older than eighteen with a neck bent to a corner. A few steps farther I have to step over a girl whose brain is boiling on the asphalt. Verago’s giving in to the whispers it hears in the middle of the night when no one’s watching. Its conscience has never been louder than a mouse, but now wild magic’s got it tied to a chair with lips taped shut and a hot gun that’s seconds from blowing it to high heavens. The Rising has begun.

Cigarette in mouth, I flick my lighter. Nothing happens. I flick it again, two more times. The metal stares back blankly. I just need to catch a breath, just a little while.

“Gods damn you.”

I hold the cigarette between my teeth when I see a familiar figure running toward one of the tottering two-stories. She’s dressed in a grey suit, brandishing a gun in one hand, a club in another.

I yell for Smiley Val and walk toward her. We meet on the curb across Heartnell’s car. I ask for a light and she gives one to me.

“Do me a favour for old times sake, yeah?” I give her one of my best pleading smiles.

“Last time you asked me that, you lingered at my place for a month.” Her scar’s a strip of pearl shimmering in the light and I think of the time I traced it with my fingers while she slept. A twist of her eyebrow can still make my knees quiver.

And what if I fail? What if Lou and Sarge and Zora end up dead? I could leave with Val. Wait it out. Leave the guilt to bite me to bits until there’s nothing left of me. I shake my head. I can’t do that. I can only warn Val.

“Val, this is bad. And your tenants,” I nod to one of the two-stories, “You better worry about all those goons who know where your guns are.”

“I’m not leaving them to the street. Never fucking again.” There’s lightning in her eyes, like a momma bear guarding her young. Smiley Val takes pride in her one and only kindness.

I let the smoke uncurl from my nostrils. “If you see Lou, just—” I hesitate then, remembering what Lou did back at the parlour. He might be–no, he is dangerous. Maybe more dangerous than I give him credit for.

A frail little man who occasionally dips his toes in magic. Lou’s no mastermind, he’s just odd. Lou would never–

The buttonhole right in the middle of his chin. Old Ellis and the dimple on the bust filled with papers, the tilt and top of his head, one I’ve seen before on a face I trusted. I was stupid not to see the family resemblance.

The way Lou spoke back at his place. That was not frayed fabric around his neck, those were blackened veins. Zora mentioned rare books missing. Lou “a gullible keyless,” and it was perfect, playing a lost little man. Lou played me.

The thought echoes in my mind and my gut suddenly drops to my heels.

It’s Lou. Gods damn it, it’s always been Lou.

Is he Old Ellis’s kid? The similarities are too many to be a coincidence, especially the dimple, which I know runs in families, his interest in magic too. If Lou is a keyless and a relation of Old Ellis, he is definitely not as harmless as I thought.

Shit.

Gunshots resound the alley from behind us. Val’s gun is smoking and a troll of a man is face down on the asphalt.

“What do you want?” She snaps at me.

“Thanks for the light,” I tell her, shrugging and turning to make my way.

“One of these days it’s gonna be your snout eating gravel, Ange,” she yells after me.

I flinch as a picture of me slashing Val’s jaw flashes in my mind. “I’ll make sure it’s not today then.” Damn it, Val, despite everything, you still make me see sense in the world.

I crack my neck, slap the Key hard and sit myself in the cop car.

Wild magic plunged its yellow talons into Verago and the longest one is wrapped around my ribs.

 

 

Eight

I have no idea where Lou is and all I can do is forage for clues like a starved raccoon. I stop the car in front of Lou’s parlour and jump out, leaving it free for grabs. No point in locks any more.

Inside I see only a stream of almost-black liquid on the floor. The usual clutter is dampened where the blood bent to fill the hollows of the floor. From beneath the broken toad, strips of red lead to a puddle by the splintered door. I have no time to think of the officers. No time to imagine them rasping for air while vestiges of their lives flutter away.

Pieces of rope on the floor. Dead things. I make my way down the rickety ladders to Lou’s lab, tying a scarf around my mouth and nose to lessen the heavy stench of formaldehyde and damp fur.

It’s a narrow space, not much wider than the length of my outstretched arms. I need to bow my head to move and walk crablike if I don’t want to break anything. The walls are covered with books, lined on shelves that stretch from the ceiling to my waist. There they meet with a wooden table, etched with writings and scratches. Books are scattered all over, cracked open and their insides underlined in blue and red, squiggly lines in the margin which I can only suppose are of Lou’s making.

I lift one book to my eyes, its dusty smell crushing the cloth border between us and I retch. I can barely see in the muted light of one lone bulb hanging on a chain, but it’ll do. There’s nothing in the blasted thing. It’s a book of theory we’d used in Tiha, and judging by the exclamation marks in the margins, Lou didn’t agree with the pillars of our teachings. I drop the book back on the table. I never liked Thornebud’s gibberish either.

So. There might still be a chance I’m wrong about Lou. Somehow I doubt it.

I trace my fingers along decanters brimful with dirt and expensive white sand, a pair of glass bowls one of which holds a decapitated raven’s head, its eyes unnaturally bright. The other is packed with skipping stones and wet cloth. The rat-king sends me a vision of Lou’s bowels falling to the mud. I do my best to ignore it while my shadow leaps in shapes I do not recognize. It twists to incomprehensible shapes, blurs, then snaps back to my shape except it has two heads. I can’t do a damn thing about it now, no matter how satisfying it would be to stab at it.

Among the fairly innocuous books–The Comprehensible History of Magic, Runes for Domestic Purposes, Collected Legends 958-1765–there is one that intrigues me.

A photo album. Except there are no photos left, not whole anyway. I flip the pages to the back. On the inner cover is a carefully drawn family tree, branching in marriages, deaths, births and illegitimate children. The opposite page holds a single photograph. A man with a stiff beard gazes straight into the camera. Hollow cheeks are obscured by wisps of hair clinging to his face, the beard–wild and dark and tangled, matted in places–falls over his chest. His eyes are scratched out in manic, furious streaks that broke through to the cardboard which is now peering from this man’s skin. Like he was flayed and instead of a skull, there is a void, staring out. This is Old Ellis himself.

My Key thumps. I take a closer look at the family tree, not bothering to quiet the rat-king.

Evelyn Ellis, who’s connected to Tristan Poole with a thick black line. A couple of generations later come Lenka and her brother, Lucius. Lenka and Old Ellis, I tap their names, the siblings who came looking for great power, believing Verago was special or some bull like that. Lucious got it into his head Merlin was speaking to him and spent the rest of his days locked in his study, scribbling notes and performing magic that once turned half the city into cats in mating season, I think, which is how he ended up the last man on the gallows. His notes were supposed to be burnt, but they never found them.

The only other thing I can remember is that Lenka’s child was born a mute – a semi-formed good-for-nothing Key that left him incapable of magic and the black sheep of the family. The poor kid could only ever do parlour tricks. And I know for a fact Lenka, or her husband, punished him by putting his palms over an open fire. Or maybe they hoped it would trigger the Key to growth, but somehow I don’t think they were kind people.

I follow the line to the bottommost name, the nephew: William Lucious Ellis.

Or, as I know him, Lou.

Lou must’ve thought patching a Key on his skin would cure him. So he tried to carve Mirabelle’s key off, obviously killing her in the process. I assume he then stitched her Key to his body. Maybe Lou snapped after so many years, and me prancing around him, showing off my magic. But this isn’t just about me. Gods damn it, Lou, you’ll kill us all.

How could I have been so stupid to allow, to bloody help, a man who has Ellis magic in his veins? Old Ellis’ game of Telephone is all gods-be-damned-to-hell true–silent for everyone but for his own blood. All this time he’s been summoning his descendants. Saliva gathers on my tongue, but I stop myself from spitting. I don’t know much, but I do have something. It’s all true. Proven to be true by a soggy photo album.

I hurl the book to the wall, dizzied by this whole mess. Nothing in here can tell me where Lou’s run off to.

The only thing I can do is a tag.

I grab the photo album again, then sprinkle a fistful of white sand in a shape of a circle over all the trash on the floor. There’s dead cockroaches on there, specks I suspect are mice crap, crumpled papers, ashes and a curious patch of wet floor I don’t dare come near to.

When the circle’s done, I throw the Ellis book inside. I place my satchel on one of the tables, remove my coat, and straighten the wrinkles on my shirt.

Now or never, Ange, and it better be now.

With my fingers tapping the Key in the proper beat, I whisper the old tongue. It’s difficult remaining calm, but I do my best imagining a deep, shimmering lightness. I step into the circle.

Lou’s crummy basement dissipates into a curtain of billowing lights. Hues of red and periwinkle and a gleaming orange of melted iron stream to the floor. Almost ready. I grab Lou’s Ellis book from the floor – now swathed in a gun muzzle black – with one hand, the other I curl into a half-opened fist and push inside the orange streak.

I trace several runes inside the light, enough to form a question. A soft, silky string undulates over the pads of my fingers.

Pricks and pins sprint through my body. I suppress a painful shiver when they reach my left eye. This would be my price–blindness for sight, like Zora. My Key stretches across my chest, hurting, rendering my skin taut to the point I think it’ll crack like dry mud when I breathe. If I breathe. I scream, my grip tight on the string.

Broken bones, shattered skulls and burning limbs are speeding in my head, as though they were a carousel spinning faster, faster, faster. I keep my fist around the string, tugging it out, until it’s nestled inside my palm, squirming as if it was alive. I swallow a dry lump.

Nauseous and half-blind, I split the string with my longest fingernail. I tie one on the book, the other to my silver-tipped boot. All that’s left is to say the words and I’ll know the smallest move Lou dares make.

Looking at the shimmering display around me, it seems like everything will be all right. Inside the shine, if I tilt my head and squint, I can almost see figures waltzing along the strings. I know they’re happy–they must be, how they kick their feet up and flail their arms up and above and beside their elongated bodies.

Gianna beckoning to a gaggle of friends with whom she would dance and run and laugh. It’s been so long since I heard her laugh. I know she doesn’t want to see me. I let tears roll down my cheeks.

I open my mouth to finish the tag with a lockin, and then there are running footsteps and everything goes black.

 

 

Nine

When I wake up, nothing hurts, which is odd. I blink away the bleariness and realise both my eyes are working. Obviously – I failed to finish the tag. I have no idea where Lou is and nobody knows he’s gone slap-happy with Maribelle’s Key grafted to his own skin.

I curse loudly. The room I’m in is a metal cupboard of sorts. I barely have the room to stand up and when I stretch my arms my fingertips brush against the walls. There is no toilet, no chairs, no bed, save for a heap of threadbare blankets crumpled in one corner. The air is thick and musty, the only light inside comes from a small rectangular window that looks out to a brick wall. What a lovely view.

Another odd thing–the rat-king stays silent. Just like the bump I’m supposed to have on my head, it is simply not there. To test it, I try to provoke it–I think about hurting Lou. I think about stomping on Zora’s necklace. I imagine the look in Sarge’s eyes when I mention Peggy Sue.

No sign of rat-king. Not even my throat feels tighter. I move my arms about, checking if my chest or Key will flinch or twitch or anything of the sort. No, nothing.

I unbutton my shirt with all the hopeful intention to inspect it and find the black rat-king welt completely gone, pinkened to a scar. This does not happen. Of course it bloody doesn’t. What I see jammed inside my flesh, just beside the Key, is a brass plate the size of my palm. Its surface is covered with runes, some larger than others, as though the writing was sentences and paragraphs. A combination of runes this large is almost impossible. But not for all. Zora isn’t an elder for nothing.

I rebutton the shirt, conveniently emptied of all my ready-mades, and glare at the cell. So they got me. Zora must have known where I’d go first. Hopefully, she managed to untangle all my runes from the ready-made and unfreeze Heartnell too, before any real damage was done. Tiha, I hope she did. The temptation to crumble to the floor is getting stronger by the second.

I need to get out of this cell. Fighting the metal is pointles –whatever I throw at it, it’ll only boomerang back at me, along with the physical price of magic. But if I made a door on the floor…Knowing Zora, that would probably make one of my calves grow hinges and open to the bottom of a swamp, quickly filling up the cell with mud and sewer water.

The only other option is to overpower her magic. And to do that, I need a large gap in the metal. Like an open door.

“You alive in there?” It’s a melodious voice with only a suggestion of many cigarettes smoked in its background. Georgia would’ve made a great singer if she wasn’t as tone-deaf as a roasted canary. I look up and there she is, little ravines between her brows and a pair of eyes so amber they might as well be yellow.

“Why’s that? So you could jab me with a knife through that excuse of a window?”

She snorts then and says, “Yeah, you got that right.” She turns her back to the door, giving me a sight of her neck and some stray brown curls.

I tear the seams off the side of my shirt. Enough space to put my hand through and curl my fingers under the brass plate. I have to let wild magic overcome me if I want to get out of here. I’ll have to let the rat-king have a taste, make it hungry. Tiha save me, I don’t want to do this.

“I coulda been lounging in the sun if it weren’t for you,” Georgia continues.

I dig my nails deeper between metal and flesh.

“You should see me with a tan,” Georgia keeps talking.

“You mean shrivelled like a prune?”

When she doesn’t answer, I ask her about Zora and Heartnell.

“Zora did her magic thing and got her hand shattered. Sergeant Heartnell seems to be all right.” I can feel her biting on her teeth even behind the metal wall. “People like you should be left to rot.”

“Without magic, Heartnell would be a vegetable. So you want our dear Sarge dead, do you? Thinking of a promotion so soon, Georgia?” The brass plate is loose. The pain twists and turns under my fingers, sending jolts all over my body. I do my best to keep my voice a level, cold tone.

“Magic’s fine by me.”  Her voice is snakes ready to pounce. “It’s you I have a problem with.”

I jam my fingers deeper. Flesh splits with a wet sound, blackness spills in jagged lines I can feel thumping, pulsing against my heart, pumping my body with viscous black bile. Warmness trickles down my ribs. I ask about Shaun’s funeral.

She slams her fist on the cell door, the bang reverberating in the small space. “Death will be a relief after I’m done with you.” Ah, so the wild magic inside me acts this fast. Already grabbing Georgia.

Rat-king’s tails coil themselves around my vocal cords. I gasp for air and yank the brass plate with one, hard pull that sends my hand over my head. I let it drop and the brass clangs on metal like a lover’s last words.

What comes out of my mouth would fit a hyena. “Come now, Georgia. Everybody knows you’re no good. How many times have you dropped your gun? How many mugs fooled you and you couldn’t run fast enough to catch them? We all know you’re no cop.”

The rat-king is free, so close to a keyless I’m half-scared it’ll crush Georgia. Half-scared, because the big, bad and ugly is flowing through my meat too. All I need her to do is open the goddamn door.

The door slams open with a force that would shame the biggest goon in Smiley Val’s arsenal. Georgia is shaking all over, her gun pulled out and aimed between my eyes. Her jaw is straight, but those eyes are bent to tears and greyness. “Bird-shit magician.” She spews more insults, her hand uncertain.

She flinches at the sight of me. Her gaze darts to the heavy door and back. I assume I am not a pretty sight. Blood and bile streaming down my clothes, black veins webbing my skin, twisting around themselves.

“Should’ve kept the door locked.” I grin.

My body is not my own anymore. My head nods and her gun is in my hand, still warm and slick with her sweat. This is more magic than possible. “How’s Verago? In flames now, I expect.”

She opens her mouth, but then nods in reply. Her feet are glued to the floor, she’s a scared little thing torn between running for her life or doing what she was trained to do. Wild magic petrified her to stone.

My feet carry me toward her and I push the gun to her forehead.

We stand for what seems like eternity. I blink hard to keep the rat-king away. Bile rises in my throat and I cover my mouth with my free hand, the other still curled around the trigger.

In my mind, I see Gianna picking flowers and throwing them at her big sister. War, play war, she would screech in her tiny, childish voice and I’d pretend to be dead until I made her sob and hug me better. I feel her skin against mine, and the tails loosen for a hairsbreadth.

“Georgia, he–Shaun was a right guy,” I whisper over the rat-king’s tails.

I lurch around her and go on my way when my hand jerks upright before I have a chance to react and my finger twitches.

Georgia crumbles to the floor. A blunt thump hits my ears.

The gun slips through my fingers. I have to get the plate back. I have to walk over Georgia’s body and pick up the only thing that can slow down wild magic and its rat-king inside of me.

I breathe – quickly, heavily, humming Gianna’s song to give me strength – dragging my feet back to the cell. I might be howling. I might be in pain. None of these things matter.

A pool of blood spreads under Georgia’s shoulder. The sight of a nonfatal wound propels me further inside and I snatch Zora’s brass plate back from the floor.

A crack in the metal cage, radiating hot white light, reveals itself the moment I pick it up. I haven’t seen the void since my student days. They’re hazy now, as though I was inspecting the memory though a window smeared with soot.

I remember an argument, Zora’s wicked eye staring down at me. I remember exhaustion. I assume it was a particularly bad day–Zora had tried to correct all the runes I learnt by instinct, which made me look stupid. I had no excuse for making mistakes suitable for a girl who’d just developed her Key–I felt thirteen, instead almost eighteen. There was shame. Later, fury. When Zora dismissed my class with a nod that said more than a speech soaked with disappointment, I raked at my forearms so hard beads of blood began to swell on my skin.

I decided to show her who I could be. I’d made a circle, dug both my arms in the billowing lights, ignoring the pain plunging into the tiny wounds like fire streaming through my pores. I felt space shake, but I didn’t let go of the knots of string I had clutched in my fists.

Next, I was curled on my side in whiteness. Dipped in a pool of wild magic, I don’t know how long I was trapped in Interweave. Finally, Zora’s voice whirled around me, with clear instructions to trade a piece of soul for my escape. I did. Barely, but I did. I hadn’t the time to recover – I was promptly expelled and my Key transformed to scars. Zora hadn’t even looked at me. I was dung on the road, left to dry.

I shove the brass plate deep in my pocket, expelling a huff of angry air at both the crack and the unwelcome memory.

Silently, I exit the cell and follow where the wild magic leads me. I know it’ll guide me to the source of the rip, the Gallows. I don’t want to admit Lou will be there, though he must be, if he is responsible. No more excuses, Ange, no more.

I jostle my way through the ever growing crowd of sweaty, hungry bodies on the streets. Men, women and children are keeling, laughing, yelling victory, revenge or love, high to the skies which are nothing but a sheet of incandescent blue. Their shadows are inconsistent, changing from large splotches to packs of beetles to birds to beasts. A two-story is on fire. A shadow dances in one of the windows, its arms raised like it was holding a partner.

I tighten the grip on the brass plate. Rat-king writhes beneath my sternum. My entire torso is leaden and hollow at the same time. I lean on a deserted car and vomit. The bile hits the driver’s door, and hisses as the steel corrodes. Tiha knows what it’s doing to my body.

I wipe the spit off, and after I’m settled in the seat, jumpstart the car and speed to Gallows Lane. The car jumps as I drive over at least dozen bumps. I can only hope they were wreckage, but the rat-king in my chest sniggers and tell me all of them had once been alive. I feel its hunger churning, the Key thumping in its rhythm. I clasp my hands around the wheel until my knuckles whiten. I swirl the car out of St Adora Square, rushing towards Oneka Street which would take me through the old factory districts to the street parallel to the Gallows.

The car jolts again as I pass by a frenzied crowd of people, seemingly preparing for a fight. One of the men has a gash from the bottom of his hand to the curve of his shoulder. Audible over the sounds of chaos, their chants drum in a hollow beat, filling up the car as I drive by. Gods be damned.

 

 

Ten

I sprint toward two figures nearest the brightness of the gallows, just below the steps of the monument. Behind them, whiteness–whiteness as hot as a frying pan, as blinding as if the sun came down to burns us, as a million lightbulbs aiming at my eyes, my gods, the whiteness.

The figure a step closer to it is Heartnell, his arms up, he must have a gun. The lower figure’s gleaming, its shine equal to the whiteness behind Sarge. It’s Lou, with two interlaced strings coming out of his ankle and rising through the sky, vanishing inside one of the buildings. They’re taut, swaying only when Lou advances up to Heartnell, vibrating as they wind themselves around streetlights and over cars, over the crowd that’s gathered around the sight. On the string’s other side must be Zora. I could bet my life she’s in that building, her body shivering inside a screetcher-teeth circle. Zora knew where to go, she must have led everybody here.

I scream for Lou but there’s only wailing and laughing and a rip like flesh tearing wetly under a carving knife. I push my way through the crowd. Packs of them are holding hands, chanting the same chant like the man with the gash on his arm. Others look up at the rip in the world, their mouths agape and drool lolling from their lips. I have no time for this.

I elbow them away and let the rat-king squeeze my cords, rip my mouth open. I yell for Lou in the black tones of a crypt long forgotten by its minders. He flinches and turns his head just for a second. Sarge jerks his hands, but the gun doesn’t fire. Before he can do anything else, Lou has him by the waist and is pushing him up the steps to the fake gallows where the whiteness is brightest. Heartnell’s body goes limp.

At the foot of the stairs, Lou and I pause, regarding each other. The light makes shadows twirl on Lou’s face and it’s only now I realise that he’s only fifty pounds away from being Old Ellis’ exact copy. The whites of his eyes are a vicious red.

“Leave him,” I say in a language of fire and beasts.

The rat-king rakes at my sternum. I feel its talons break skin and blood begins gushing from my side. I tighten the grip around Zora’s plate. Not yet.

Lou grins at me. He glances down to his leg, where Maribelle’s Key flaps frantically. It was the shape of a boat. One of the strings emerges from the topmost sail, the other from under the patch of Maribelle’s skin, from the inside of Lou’s maimed Key. Lou keeps grinning. He cocks his head to the side and takes a step back.

The whiteness swallows Heartnell’s hand and what I hear coming out of his mouth terrifies me more than the rip behind the Gallows. It seems lower now, almost reaching the ground.

“Stop,” I command Lou and throw my body onto his. We fall onto the boiling ground and Heartnell rolls away from us. A hissing sound pierces the air.

I loosen my fingers from Zora’s plate, both letting and willing the rat-king to wash over me. The shock of falling to the ground gave me enough time to use Zora’s plate on Lou’s strings – only a fraction of a second and its edge breaks them from Lou’s leg. Wherever Zora is, whatever she’s been doing, it ended now.

Lou shivers in short little spurts like the bastard’s laughing. I dig my free hand into his flesh, my nails going deep.

Then I push our bodies into the rip, back into Interweave.

 

 

Eleven

 I am the whiteness. I am the rip spreading across the sky to shelter Verago with my wings. I am the rat-king, shining as if I was a dying star. I have my hands on the little man, my tails wrapped around his neck, my claw sinking in his blood.

The brass plate is in my hand. It slithers half-way inside the hill of my palm, sending warmth and calm and chains.

The little man–Lou–is no man. His skull is made of paper and scrolls. His skin held together with notes about spells and charms and transformations. His mind is writings in shaky lettering. There are spells there, runes unknown since the fall of Merlin. Lou is no more than a pile of papers made of flesh. Lou is Old Ellis’ nephew and a paperdoll, barely human. The crazies were right all along–Old Ellis did keep talking, but only to Lou.

Lou crackles, spreading in a pool of smoke until it too dissipates in white. I am in the Interweave, alone.

Zora’s plate burrows deeper with crackle. I scream, though I hear nothing.

A voice, an old one calls Ange, Angela, Ange, are you okay? A sharp pain runs over my shoulder, it bolts to my mouth and eyes and nose and I hear my name and it’s Sarge, calling for me. I swear loudly.

“That’s my girl!” Heartnell’s voice comes muffled.

“Step away, sergeant.” Another voice, hoarse and full of pride. Zora. “We are not done here.”

“Listen to the lady, old man,” I yell back, my throat sore.

I cough hard. Again and again, until I’m on my knees holding onto nothing. The plate travels further up my palm until only its corner’s visible. When I’m done retching, I tear the seams of my blouse and plunge a fist inside my flank, right next to the Key.

There are noises and dull pain, then finally my fingers grasp the rat-king and I yank it out. Looks like a ready-made charm except I know it’s a clot of wild magic. Almost immediately, it vanishes into white.

Voices come from somewhere above, or around, or below.

“We can restore your arm, but if we fail to do this now—”

“Zora. You cannot leave her in there.”

What follows are more curses, bickering and raised voices. I can’t say I care. I yell to Sarge to let Zora do her job. Whatever else they say, it doesn’t reach me.

I pull myself on my feet and will them to star walking away from the rip. Around me is whiteness, yet I feel the ground slope up, and the heaviness around my feet as though I was walking up a sand dune. My body has never felt this light.

I climb until the air cuts through my lungs like razors. I do not tire when I reach the top, far above the gallows and the voices and the world.

I pause to pluck Zora’s plate out of my hand. It slides out easily as though I was a ghost. I collapse alongside it, allowing my eyes to burn and wet my face. I gulp at the air like I was suffocating. The whiteness cloaks me, and, finally, when my knees are at my chest, I decide this is the place where I oughtta be.

“War, war, war!”

My eyes blink the Interweave into sharpness. Where is that chimy voice?

Gianna wraps her little arms around my neck. The weight of her body is slight, but for me it’s no less than two tonnes of steal. She’s leaned on my back and all I can do is pat her on the arm. I want to say – I can’t find the words.

So I trace two runes with my hands, one of which glistens red, the other marred with grime. Two puppets appear, more truthful than any I have ever made. The right one twirls while flame licks at her legs, the most marvellous of dresses in countless hues of red. The left glides around it, the mud swirling in patterns so that you never know if she’s facing this way or that, whether the line on its waist is straight or if it’s etched into waves and mermaids.

Gianna squeals in delight. I stop a sob from escaping.

None of this is true. Gianna is an adult, far away from any harm I can bring her. But I can pretend, at least for a while.

I make our dancers somersault into the air like trapeze artists with all their faith placed into their partner’s arms. And Gianna giggles in delight and puts her little finger on my Key.

“You can take me home,” she says.

“I could,” I tell her.

The two dancers intertwine with each other, folding themselves into one, then growing rapidly, engorged by magic, by wish, by heart.

When I first did this, I wasn’t able to stop them. I had no skill then, no knowledge. Then my little sister burst into tears and our house came burning down. Gianna ended up with scaring along her back, an unnatural curve of the spine and daily pains. And I ran away.

Before, Gianna would clap her hands at my tiny dancers and clumsily imitate them. Often she would fall straight on her ass, then pout as if the floor purposely snagged at her feet. But this Gianna–this Gianna only squeals in delight. This is not her. This is not even a child. This is one of Old Ellis’s tricks. Old Ellis trying to tempt me to bring him out of the Interweave. I crush the dancing puppet.

With one hand I snatch up Zora’s brass plate, with the other I grab the little body and yank it in front of me. It takes me a second to open its mouth and push the plate deep inside the girl’s throat.

I close its mouth and nose, forcing it to swallow. Old Ellis got everything right, down to the scar above Gianna’s brow, but what’s in my arms now is more like a rabid starved dog than my kid sister.

The creature’s bellow spreads across the Interweave, rippling it around me. The little body grows translucent, then bursts into flashes of colour, crying runes and bits of spells and the sounds are so strong my eardrums vibrate, my ears buzz wildly. I still have my hands around the creature until it bursts one last time, then fades into the whiteness.

I spit at where it was, then clamber back up.

It’s done. Tiha help me, it’s done. The combination of the inside of Interweave and Zora’s plate was too strong for Old Ellis. Even if he’s not dead, he’ll be lost in here. I can only hope no other idiot gets smart enough to open the Interweave and go look for him.

For now Old Ellis is gone–forever or folded into the whiteness, I don’t give a damn. The important thing is he is not in Verago, nor anywhere else in the world. And I did it.

As I turn to leave, a dot of colour catches my eye. By my feet is a greenish thing, a skipping stone of some sort, that looks more like jade than a piece of Old Ellis, or Lou, his vessel of a nephew. When I touch it, it spreads warmth deep inside my bones. I give it a smile, knowing exactly what I’m supposed to do. I push the stone in the wound on my ribs and run back to the rip. My sight is like cobwebs, wet and blurry, but the legs know where to go. I run so fast I almost fly.

Zora and her people are close to stitching the rip up. The space I have left is getting increasingly smaller. I launch myself over, hoping to glide through.

When I open my eyes, there is a sky above me–periwinkle with a hint of cloud streaked across it, sailing over what’s left of the gallows. Cracked in half, the two pieces are folded over each other like two fingers crossed in promise. I bite down on my lips to stop a smile. Omens have never been reliable to magicians, we’re taught to mostly ignore them, but I couldn’t help it. The broken gallows show good things coming. The glorious sight is spoiled by a crushing pain in my ankle.

“Hey, Frank,” I croak. “Could you get a girl’s foot free?”

 

 

Twelve

A while later, I’m sitting on the steps of the plateau with my arms wrapped around my knees. The people in the square have reverted to their old selves–several figures collect trash, some rock themselves and cry, their wailing carried by the wind away from me. Children play hide and seek like nothing ever happened. I think I even see Smiley Val peer from the shadows. Here is where I chuckle. In spite of the wreckage, my Key half-opened and pulsing in a raw, dull pain, I can smile. I got the piece of my soul back. The greenish skipping stone nestled in my side ripples, and as it does, I feel it stitch back the bit of soul – slowly, but surely.

This time, I did not burn this house down. I kept it whole. I reached to the beams and held them in place.

Heartnell gives me a mug of hot coffee before he says somebody should see me. The coffee burns my tongue and I curse just as an old, wrinkled woman stands before me. A pendant in a shape of a ball hangs down to her waist. She looks like old leather now. I never knew she was so old. She must have expended enough magic for a lifetime.

“Zora?”

The little woman grabs her necklace and stares at me with her one remaining eye. The white one has lost its feathery webs, and now looks like a hard marble jammed inside her skull.

“Elder? Are you all right?” I ask, stupidly. There’s a flicker of recognition in her good eye, then she speaks.

“You did good, bambina.” She smiles. “I, however, will need a long vacation.” She gestures in a way that clearly points to the ravines on her face.

I don’t know what to say so I sit there with my mouth agape like an idiot. Fear crosses Zora’s face and she grabs the pendant again as if to guard it against a thief. I call her name, and she turns to me looking like a deer in headlights.

I know very well this is what the magic cost her. And when it attacks the mind, sense and logic may never come back.

Zora begins to shiver, so I introduce myself. I tell her it’s one fine necklace she’s wearing. This makes her relax and stretch her lips in a smile that makes her face look like she was staring into a dream. She leans close, the electric smell of magic and sweat and wet wool rushing to my nose, and opens her pendant.

Two figures flicker in and out of the air, as they move into an embrace. The taller one is a man in uniform. His ears turn redder and redder as he moves his arms around a young woman with hair the colour of night. I look at Zora, then back at the couple. So this is why her sight was gone. Not surveillance magic after all.

“John’s coming soon. We’re getting married,” Zora whispers to me.

She snaps the pendant closed, and slides her palms over her clothes to straighten them. “This is no time to be sentimental. As I said, I am in need of a vacation. During that time we shall need a suitable Elder. Considering what you have done, I will put you in charge of Tiha temporarily.”

“You want me to be -”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Angela. My colleagues will help you summon a council that will choose a suitable successor. This–” she gives the space behind me a scowl, “person and what he’s done, they’d taken my all.”

I keep my eyes on the coffee and nod.

“You have shown considerable skill, and you’ve managed to take back what’s yours from the Interweave, which has only been done once before. I shall allow you to finish your schooling.”

I jerk my head up and almost spit the coffee from my mouth. I force it to go down instead. Hells. School? With tests and nonsensical rules, tomes heavier than cinder blocks. Not to mention the kids–I’ll be an old lady to them. I suppress a shudder. I raise my eyebrows and nod in fake excitement.

Zora’s face flickers again, settling into a distorted grimace of fear. Her hands wrap themselves around the necklace again. In a very soft, albeit hoarse voice she says, “I told him it’s a good, right thing to go. When is he coming back? Where’s my John?”

Her head moves left and right, frantically looking for her fiancé until a pair of arms leads her gently away and Heartnell sits next to me with a grunt. My gaze follows Zora’s confused aged body while she’s lead to a car and driven away. Just before she sinks into her seat, she gives me one wicked wink. Or maybe it was just a glint of a streetlight, slowly turning itself on.

“Why the long face?” Sarge asks.

I let out a wry laugh and say nothing.

“It’s weakened, this whole thing.” He moves his hand in a circle. “Zora and I need–what did she call them–Spinners to keep it all under control.”

I blink at him. “What?”

He answers with a stomach-heavy laughter and only says, “It ain’t that difficult to understand, kid. Zora explained a lot. And I was thinking.” He shrugs. “I should learn a thing or two about magic. Maybe I study it. The theories and all.”

“You?”

“It ain’t half as hard.” He pats me on the knee with his good hand. The other one’s shrivelled to the thinnest wail of skin covering bone, torn in more places than I can count, with welts of blood and meat edged with charred skin. I clutch the mug tighter and hide my face in it.

“Is Georgia okay?” I murmur.

I want to say more, I want to explain what I had to do, and I want to tell him all about Gianna, but the words melt on my tongue. When they reached Gallows Lane, Zora and Sarge must have known what I had to do.

“We got a healer. Georgia’s as good as new, but under mandatory house rest. She almost bit my head off at that.” He laughs then and adds, “Happy to have her home saved from the rip, too. You did what you had to do, kid.”

“But if I stayed inside, if I didn’t–”

“I’d be short a friend.”

I turn my face to him and there is worry spreading over his face. He puts his good arm around me.

“You’d have a hand. Zora wouldn’t be like…like this.”

“You did your best. Hell, you did more than any of us thought you were capable of. Even Zora.”

We sit for a while, watching Verago shroud itself in purple and grey, slowly shifting back to normal. There’s much to do, but the people of Verago are a steel-nerved bunch, so maybe we’ll make it.

“There are no heroes, Angela. Just people trying their best,” he says as he lights one of his cigarettes. “Stop trying so damn hard.”

When I’m done with my coffee, he asks, “So, you gonna keep me company at the Academy?”

I burst into laughter at the picture of the two of us sitting at a school desk. When I get my breath back, I ask him a favour.

“If I were to go visit Gianna at the–” I swallow the lump down. “At the convent, it’d be great to have a friend with me.”

He nods and passes me a cigarette. Overhead, the first star appears.

____

Copyright 2017 Alice Brook

Alice Brook writes stories in snippets of free time, between going to work in a century-old house and shooing her cat away from the computer. She tweets irregularly @ABrookWrites.

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