Hydroplaning

Chapter One

I drove into Deepcalm, the single small town on the edge of Lake Caill, peering through veils of rain for my hotel. Then my tires left the ground and the world fell away. It was rainy. I had been driving too fast and with no thought for the rain on the road.

I had been warned that this could happen. The company man who made me sign off on the cab called it “hydroplaning.”

I had the cab on loan from Okson Frontiers, my employer. It was a heavy black horseless carriage, hardened wood over a simple iron frame, but the inside all red leather. It was powered by a bordier’s spell, a transference of heat and energy under the carriage; it all linked back to a furnace at company headquarters. That meant that it took a second to shift gears—or to brake.

My stomach lurched forward. I gripped the wheel and instinctively tried to right the cab—the wrong move. The cab started to spin, twirling with the heavy momentum of a carnival ride. I fought for control of the cab, but there was nothing I could do. I could barely see the road. And when I did, I couldn’t make sense of what I saw.

There was a boy in the road, taller than average and built like a tree, all thin limbs. The driving rain obscured his features, and I was spinning so fast I could only catch a glimpse, but he was there, standing with long arms to either side and watching me. I could feel his eyes even if I couldn’t see them, could feel his regard like a cold wet hand around my throat. I had never seen a child so angry.

Finally, the cab’s tires caught the dirt as I skidded off the road. The wheel jerked in my hands, but I got a hold of it and pumped the brakes until I came to a stop, the windshield an opaque screen of water. This was a western town with no guardrails and, thankfully, just as many other cars on the road. If that hadn’t been the case, I might have crashed into one or the other. As it was, Lake Caill loomed, steely and massive on the other side of the road. It was only dumb luck that I hadn’t gone into the water.

The whole thing felt like it lasted for minutes, except it could not have been that long; I’d been holding my breath the whole time and only now let it out.

Then I held my breath again, afraid that whatever I’d seen might hear me. I knew I should get out of the cab and inspect any damage or if the person I’d nearly hit needed help. But a glance around told me I was alone. It had been a trick of the mind, my confused eyes making something out of adrenaline and the messy rain.

I waited there a long time until my pulse was almost normal. I tried to crank down the window, thinking the cool night air would clear my head, except the handle didn’t seem to catch. It was jammed. One of the problems with the company cabs, which were otherwise the kind of bordier-made miracles most folks considered pure magic: whoever used them last usually failed to write up any damage to the vehicles, kicking the responsibility down the line to someone else. It was easier to make it someone else’s problem, so some things never got fixed.

I let go of the handle and ran my hands over my face. A poor substitute for cold air, but it gave my hands something to do aside from wrestling with the busted window crank. I opened the cab door and looked around, but there was nobody there. I opened my mouth to call out for the kid, but something stopped me, a fear I could not explain coupled with the sudden certainty that what I had seen was no child. Could it have been a spirit, the kind that filled old western explorers’ pulpy memoirs?

If there had been a child there before, there was no one now. I flattered myself that if I had heard the sound of movement, of breath, I would have gotten out and looked more carefully. But the night was fresh-corpse still. There was nobody who needed my help.

Most likely, it was a trick of a tired mind. I needed sleep badly.

I slowly took the cab back out on the road, checked into the town’s single crummy hotel, and failed to get any work done. I emptied the mini-fridge—which didn’t work, and so the small bottles of spirits were room temperature.

Sleep did not find me for a long, long time.

Chapter Two

I worked for Okson Frontiers as an auditor. I was given freedom to use a company cab for my trips, including my trip to Deepcalm. I had appointments with several fisheries, where I mostly talked to tired-looking men and women with scarred hands and loose coveralls and a sense of smell that must have been ruined by too much time on the deep green water of Lake Caill; if they could have smelled the places where they worked, they would have gagged, as I did.

I was set to spend five days there, conduct some interviews with people who frankly knew and cared more about fish than me, and write a report for my boss back at Okson about the pros and cons of buying up these little fisheries and trawlers, which were barely hanging on, to see if we could turn them into something profitable again.

It was boring work, but it was also kind of like a vacation. After all, basically everyone in Deepcalm—population three thousand and change—had a vested interest in making me very happy.

The first day was not promising. It was rainy and miserable when I left my hotel, the surface of Caill turned to jumping razors by the slashing rain. I wore a thick, fur lined coat that went up to my hair, but somehow the icy damp crept fingers down my back and traced a cold wound along my spine.

“Great weather for the fishing, though,” my host told me.

Her name was Itinna Manners, a round-faced young woman with black hair kept coiled beneath a brown sealskin hat that looked like an undersized footstool on her head. She had a sturdy build beneath her coveralls and bright red boots that seemed ubiquitous on the Deepcalm docks. They didn’t call her Mayor, but instead Speaker; apparently the town had adopted some old phrasing after Nerst & Sons left them.

That’s why I was here. The town had been established as a Nerst & Sons venture. Nerst & Sons went under, recalled their bordier and law man, and left Deepcalm on its own. Insanely, the residents stayed on even without those protections against scorpions and plainswolves. Earlier in the year, they petitioned Okson Frontiers, my company, to open negotiations for acquisition. Depending on what I saw on my visit, I would recommend that we start drawing up a contract. If that happened, the company would send a bordier—one of its trained wizards, though they did not like that phrasing—to help Deepcalm turn a better profit. Every town this far west wanted a bordier to protect their children from wild animals, their crops from weevils, their buildings from dry rot. Which meant every town I visited wanted to make me their best friend.

As Speaker, Itinna was trying to convince me that Deepcalm was a good investment. As an Okson Frontiers auditor, it was my job to be skeptical.

The town had taken a vote and elected Itinna as my escort. Something about her hair and face made me think she might have had a relative in her family from far west, on the other side of the Scarlett River, among the Pessoera.

She showed me first to the finest fishing vessels the town had to offer, introduced me to their captains. Itinna herself was captain of a two-masted dogger called Sunsorrow.

“Strange name for a boat,” I said.

“Oh, not really, Mr. Escio,” said Itinna. “We get our best fishing done before the dawn.”

“Ah,” I said, as if that made sense. It was quaint. I had to acknowledge that if the weather hadn’t been so poor, I might have found Deepcalm—and Itinna—charming.

There was something to the town’s apparent reveling in the dreariness and the hardship of the place that warmed me against the cold. Not one person had called me a city slicker, or otherwise jabbed me for my new boots and obvious discomfort. 

True, they wanted something from me.

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to give it to them.

I’d done research back in New Ondbava, both in the company library and over lunches with fishermen and ship manufacturers, and what little I knew told me that repairs to Deepcalm’s fishing fleet would be expensive and time-consuming. It would be easier for Okson to buy new boats out east and transfer them here. And if we could convince these folks it was necessary, maybe we could convince them to take a company loan to buy the new boats themselves. There had to be a way to make this pay for itself, or else Deepcalm was going to stay on its own.

After an afternoon nodding appreciatively at a number of ships, Itinna asked if I wanted to get fried fish pockets at the local pub, a place called The Soggy Tom. “Best sammich yer likely to have,” she said, smiling.

The name of the pub didn’t exactly convince me. “I gotta jot down my notes from today,” I said. “While it’s still fresh, you know.”

“Sure, sure. Just thought you might want to get to know some of the folks,” she said. “I mean, we’re a hardy crowd, but we can be good verch, too.”

“Excuse me?”

She laughed—too loud, I thought. “Oh, uh, ‘verch,’ it’s just a word for, like, fun. It’s a Pessoera word.”

“Gotcha. No, I’m sure you’re a lot of fun,” I said, realizing too late it might sound salacious. “But I’ve really got to get started on my report, or else I’ll forget everything.” I could see what she was doing; inviting me out to meet the townsfolk, try to get me feeling some kinship towards them. Maybe get me in my cups—it would be good to let her know that wasn’t going to happen—and try to extract some promise of funding before I made my final report. Anything was possible. 

“Okay,” she said, shrugging, her good cheer apparently uninterrupted by disappointment. “You want a quiet place to work? Library is closed right now, but I can talk to our girl Merroam and get you in. She’s head librarian. Only librarian, actually.”

“No, no, that’s okay. I have my notes back at the hotel. And I want to get there before this rain gets any worse.”

“Well, you be careful now,” she said. “I don’t trust those company cabs in the rain. But you folks do say, ‘Innovation is an act of courage.'” It was one of Okson Frontiers’ slogans. She had done her research. 

“You know, maybe you’re right. I almost spun out coming in last night. Roads were so slick and I thought I saw—” Something in Itinna’s face stopped me short. It wasn’t an expression; it was the pure absence of one, a peek behind the affable Speaker who only wanted what the town deserved. “Thought I saw someone in the road,” I said, carefully.

“Oh, people see all kinds of things near the lake,” said Itinna. “It’s no ocean, but it’s near big enough maybe one of Lord Anhu’s fish lives in there. Folks at the pub would tell you they’ve seen all kinds of creatures break the water and disappear. Course, that’s after they’ve had some of the finest whiskey you’re going to find this far west. Got a trip to the distillery lined up for you, Mr. Escio. Maybe you’ll see all kinds of things on the water.”

I laughed, as it seemed the only thing to do. I must have imagined the figure in the road. I hadn’t seen another cab, that was certain. Probably these were the safest roads in the West.

My near-accident coming into town was just a fluke. Nothing to worry about.

Chapter Three

I ditched Itinna on purpose. Most of what I need to know about a town I can learn from its records and books. Let’s call that sixty percent of what I need to know.

The rest I usually get from the interviews. I learn a lot more than the mayors and sheriffs and town planners mean for me to learn, as much from what they leave out as what they try to sell me, too. That’s almost everything I need, honestly. Let’s call that another thirty-nine percent.

But there’s a little bit left, just a small part of what I need, that you can’t get without a walkaround. I can’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for. It’s more of a feeling.

I could never pitch it like that to my bosses at Okson, but it’s simply this: every town I visit is desperate, and it’s up to me to get a feel for whether it’s the desperation of folks who need help or folks who know they’re beyond it.

It was hard for me to tell which kind of desperation hung off of Deepcalm. The local playground was empty, which was not a good sign. But on the other hand, I passed two men in rain slickers laughing over fried fish and a basket of onion chips—though they clammed up as I passed by. I popped into a few shops, and in one of them I passed a pleasant moment chatting idly with an older woman about how she managed to make hard candies for the kids out here. (She got caramel in bulk transferred in, though she had to pay for the transfer fees herself—something that, she said pointedly, would be much easier for her if they had a company bordier on call.)

Then I saw the temple.

Back in New Ondbava, the seat of the Ganarian System and its companies that now ruled the east, most companies tolerated a few temples around their headquarters. Good for company morale, at least with some folks. But it was an open secret that upper management hoped time would see them all closed. What did people need to pray for when they had company wizards who could see to all their needs? That was the line, at least.

The temple was indistinguishable from a long log cabin, except that thick grass grew like fur off its walls, giving it the appearance of a great green dog sitting down on its paws for a nap. The sign above the door said, “Deepcalm Linnithan Temple” and, beneath that, “The Grass Queen Guides All.”

I pushed on the door and found it open. Inside, the temple was lit by low, green-burning candles. It was smaller than it appeared outside, with only six rows of seating before a small altar of dirt and grass. Beyond that stood an idol of Linnith herself, appearing here as an old woman in an off-the-shoulder dress ending at her ankles. She had one hand up high as if beckoning visitors closer, the other holding a broad flat blade, a falcata. The place had an air of disuse about it; some of the grass had started to push through the walls, bending them in odd places and pushing fine, hairy roots into the building’s dim interior.

Part of me wanted to turn around and go, but I found myself drawn towards the statue of the goddess. I was never much of a worshipper myself; I had vague memories of praying to Gallora Rainqueen as a child, but I lost the habit when I began to take my studies seriously, when I began to think of a future as a certified company man.

I stopped short as I felt water flood my shoe. I looked down and saw the center of the temple had been dug out so it formed a large basin, too regular to be an accident or the result of time. It was full of dark, brackish water. I wondered that the earth beneath didn’t drink it all up.

There was a small wooden placard set before the pool, dirty with age, half-buried. Black paint read: Anhu Oceanlord sees all your efforts. The rest was smudged beyond legibility.

As I stepped out of the pool, I gave up on these socks as a lost cause.

“Damn,” I said, shaking out my damp pant legs.

“Oh, hello there?” A woman shot up from the first bench near Linnith. She had a wide mane of wild black hair was held back in a loose wooden circlet like a napkin holder. It shone in the green candlelight, and I marveled that I hadn’t seen her sooner.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m Birrs Escio. Auditor with Okson Frontiers. I’m here to look at the town. I saw the temple, and just thought…” What did I think? Well, if the temple seemed like a central part of Deepcalm’s community, that would tell me something, one way or another. As it was, it was mostly depressing.

“Of course, the company man,” said the woman. She swiped at her face as if she had been crying, but her eyes seemed perfectly dry. “Itinna said we should be ready to answer any questions you might have about life in Deepcalm.” She saw me glance around and said, “I’m Merroam. I’m the town librarian.” I raised an eyebrow and she added, “I’m here on my lunch break.”

“You don’t look like you have any lunch,” I pointed out, and felt like an asshole.

“I ate it on the way. You want to sit?”

We sat in the front pew and studied Linnith. Up close, I could see cracks and water damage on the statue. Linnith was usually shown as the oldest of the Sundered Gods, but even then, I thought she had more lines down her face than usual.

An offering bowl at the idol’s feet held long, curled shoots, an offering of grass that was only recently burnt. Strings of smoke hung low over the bowl like a gauzy net.

“I’m surprised,” I confessed, nodding at the idol. “Is there a lot of…Linnith worship out here?”

“It’s mostly just me.” Merroam hooked a thumb over her finger. The sleeves of her blouse were rolled to the elbow, and I saw smudges of ink down her forearms. “When I was very young, there was a mass conversion. The old timers just call it ‘the hard years.’ Folks started praying to Anhu Oceanlord instead. You see that? It’s a worship pool. I hope that doesn’t hurt our chances…”

There was good reason to ask. There were rumors that long ago, in the Compact, Oceanlord prophets would ritually bleed into worship pools and try to commune with Anhu himself, asking to see the future or speak with the dead. Zealous war priests had performed human sacrifice to Lord Anhu in exchange for victory over their foes. While it was true the Compact terrorized the coasts through much of pre-Ganarian history, that was all superstition.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “And you make it sound like folks much pray to the Oceanlord anymore?”

“Not really,” she said, and shrugged. “At least, not that I’ve seen. My parents always said that it was a fad, something people did when they were depressed.” She held up her hands. “I’m not saying that, mind you!”

I sensed an opportunity. “Your parents have been here for a while, then? I’d love to talk to them.”

“Oh, they’re both dead. It was a long time ago, when I was a teenager. Just…they got sick.” She smiled sadly. “Though I guess that wasn’t that long ago, now. It just feels like a long time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling ridiculous and small. My own parents were alive and well in New Ondbava, though at times it seemed like their lives were as well as over. Not that it mattered; they often said I was their greatest success, and my job with Okson was everything they’d ever wanted for me.

“It’s okay,” Merroam said, though it clearly wasn’t. “But to answer your question, no, there’s not a lot of people who come in here now. People still pray to the Sundered Gods, like anywhere, but it’s not a public thing. Is that something the company cares about?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “It’s just information.”

She looked at me, and for once I felt like she could tell I was not telling the truth.

The truth was…complicated. If more of the town worshipped Linnith and met regularly to do so, that would show investment in the community, social skills, all things that could work in their favor when I ran the numbers (unless they were radical Linnith worshippers who showed anti-company sentiment). I didn’t know much about formal Anhu-worship, except what everyone knew: it was the state religion of the eastern Compact. If there were a lot of Anhu-worshippers here, it could be a sign of subtle dissatisfaction with the Ganarian System and all the companies that ran it.

“Look,” I said, “it’s something I consider. But I consider all kinds of things.”

“That seems like a way of avoiding the question. I know your job must be quite complicated, Mr. Escio, but to me it seems pretty cut-and-dry. Any place where folks have been living for a decade without help from a company would do better with a company wizard to help them again.”

“Nobody calls bordiers that,” I said, automatically. “And there are some problems they can’t solve. They can only move things around. That’s all transference is. It’s not really magic.”

“Your horseless cab sure looks like magic to me,” Merroam said. She threw her arms out. “But maybe I’m just a saaaaad, parochial librarian who is too easily impressed by the big company man?”

I couldn’t help but laugh with her. “I doubt that. Say you had your bordier, like you want. What would you ask for?”

“What do you think? I’ve had to order books by post, Mr. Escio. You know how often we get a courier through here? There’s children who don’t remember it.” She sighed heavily. “And things for the children’s classes.”

“You’re a teacher?”

“Goodness, no. That’s old Mr. Isckou. I just run a few classes here at the library. I help sometimes. And if we had a bordier to just bring things from the city for us? We could order them out of a catalog and have them here the same day? That would make a huge difference. And a bordier could widen the trails around town! Nerst left us with a sizable spread of land, but the young ones get so restless, you know.”

“And you never get restless?”

Merroam looked up at the statue of Linnith. “I would like to see the wide world, Mr. Escio. That’s what my parents wanted, and it’s what they wanted for me. But the truth is, for now, I’d settle for seeing my neighbors get a little more comfortable. I don’t want to up and leave when there’s still so much work to be done here. That’s another thing a bordier could give me. Just a feeling like I could leave folks here.”

“You ever think about becoming a bordier yourself? There are programs for folks starting later in life.”

I felt foolish saying it. In fact, the company wanted their bordiers to be brought up in the profession. It was why so many of the Ganarian magic-users were orphans; the companies like to recruit from orphanages so they could track the children’s progress from the very start of the schooling.

Was Merroam an orphan? She was a young woman, not a girl. When was the cut-off? For that matter, when my parents die, would I be an orphan? Surely not. I was a grown man. I’d travelled the wide world, as Merroam—and in truth, plenty of people—only dreamt of doing.

“No,” said Merroam. “A bit late for that.” She stood up and smoothed her skirts. “I’m sorry you didn’t get what you were looking for here.”

“That’s okay,” I stood. “I actually think you can help me. If you’re the town librarian, you must have all of Deepcalm’s census records, right? I know there’s not a town hall or anything, so…”

“So they kicked all it over to a single girl and part-time teacher’s assistant? You have that right.” She didn’t seem particularly upset about it, with a curve to her lips, but I think I may have touched a nerve. “You’re right. You can come by, and I’d be happy to help.”

“Speaker Itinna said the library was closed…”

Merroam furrowed her brow. “No, we’re open. I’m away from the desk, as you can see.” She bit her lip, came to some decision, and pointed to the bowl at the statue’s feet. “I wasn’t really here for lunch. I still make an offering to Linnith, sometimes.”

“You think she hears you when you…burn the grass? To give it back to her?”

“Maybe. She can’t be everywhere at once. And people worshipped the Sundered all across the world before the Ganarian System.” That was true enough, and so I said nothing. She continued, “I know you might put that down against us in your report, but I think it’s not so bad, if people come together to pray to the Sundered. You have to remember that we were…stranded out here when Nerst & Sons left us. I don’t remember it, but it must have been hard, just trying to survive.” She paused. “It would be better, I think, if more people still met here, rather than in the pub. People need to believe in something greater than themselves, Mr. Escio, to be stronger than themselves. And they need a place to do that.”

“And that’s why you’re a librarian?”

“Ha! Maybe. Anyway, about Itinna, I suspect she just didn’t know the library hours.”

I didn’t trust myself to comment on her offering to Linnith, or her views on religion. “So I can swing by and take a look at what you have?”

“But I don’t think that’s going to help you make your decision about Deepcalm. Not to tell you how to do your job, of course.”

“No, please,” I said, seriously. “Tell me how to do my job.”

“You should go to The Soggy Tom. Have a pint. I’ve read enough papers to know you think we’re all grim and taciturn out here, but if you just talk to people, I think you’ll find them more than willing to talk about what it’s like living here.”

“Ms. Itinna doesn’t seem to want to talk to me about much aside from your fishing yields.”

“She’s older.” Merroam shrugged again, and her mane of dark hair shivered in the green light. “We’ve had some hard times, things you won’t really get from a book. People are resilient.”

“Good advice,” I said. “I was planning on it. When can I swing by the library?”

She gave me a time right before closing the next day, so I could look at the records myself. “And maybe,” she said, “it would be better if you weren’t there while the old-timers were lounging around. The pub’s for talking. They don’t take kindly to anyone interrupting their quiet time except the youngsters.” She held a finger to her lips, made a parody of a scary librarian face, and shushed me.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, laughing.

I liked Merroam, liked her pluck, liked that she liked where she lived. That, more than anything, was a rare and unusual thing for any town, whether or not it was part of the Ganarian System.

But as we left the temple to Linnith, I looked back and saw the statue lit from below with the odd, green light of Merroam’s offering, and felt a peculiar sadness for the town. I had no strong faith, but it seemed odd that a town with a temple this size could abandon it so thoroughly. What had happened to shake their faith?

And how would it effect my report?

Chapter Four

Back at the hotel, I tried to set down my initial impressions. At the top of the page in my notebook, I wrote: How’d they hang on without a bordier? Why the religious conversion? Resilient?

And, beneath that: Go to the pub.

The truth was, my first day left me with more questions than answers. Deepcalm was a company town, with a stupid company name, and lots of old company veterans—but no company.

That’s why it was an opportunity for Okson Frontiers and for me. And I had to admit that Deepcalm had a lot going for it.

It was established as a freshwater fishing venture backed by Nerst & Sons more than a decade ago. Deepcalm sits on the edge of Lake Caill, one of the largest bodies of water in the settled west, more than two hundred and thirty kilometers across at its widest. When the town was founded, it was teeming with bass of every variety, fat yellow perch, and huge boney bowfin, good mostly for soups and chuck. (Freshwater razorgills too, long ribbons of silver with cutting teeth at the end of them like little bent steak knives that could latch around a leg and worry it to the bone with no effort at all.) The company wanted people to fish the lake, freeze and pack the fish, and transfer them back east to New Ondbava for sale.

A few bordiers could work all the magic needed to send the fish back—once they were caught and killed, since trying to transfer any living thing would turn it into a dead thing and, worse, splatter its parts all around its final destination.

But then Nerst & Sons went under. A few bad investments, a couple public scandals, and they were gone. And what about all the settler communities they funded? All the places Nerst & Sons provided with canned goods and jars of milk and, most importantly, the expertise of company bordiers—they were on their own.

So Deepcalm had got along for as long as they could. There was a mass exodus of people who had the money or the means to make it somewhere with better prospects, but most of the folks in company towns were there because they didn’t have many other options. They made do with fish and farming, putting their faith in the protections Nerst & Sons left behind.

But walls need repairing. So do glyphs and wards and even the thunderstones Nerst & Sons left with the town’s sheriff. It was an old story: a company town without a company wasn’t going to last. Goats wind up dead. Maybe somebody’s kid goes out to play and doesn’t come back. All this starts a second migration–mostly families who weren’t desperate enough to leave but are worried about the little ones now. That leaves a town populated only by scared, paranoid bachelors. Sooner or later, it leaves a lot of empty buildings choked by tanglevines, pulltrees growing up through cold chimneys.

But Deepcalm held on. Folks liked the lake, they liked their life here, and few enough people gave up and ran when Nerst & Sons went under. They had toughed it out for more than ten years, kids growing up and more kids getting born. And if they were to be believed, they had clawed their way back to profitability—fish farming near the shore to avoid depletion, trawling deep out on the lake, catching more than they could eat.

They shared this good news with some of the bigger companies that do settlement and reacquisitions. Okson Frontiers, my employer, was one of them. It was my job to see if it was worth it and I had to take every detail into account.

Which is why, after I’d written an account of all my activities that first day, I wrote one more thing at the bottom of the page, something that I couldn’t jettison from my mind, no matter how I tried:

What did I see in the road?

With some time and distance, I was more and more certain that what I had seen was not a human child…or some exhaustion-induced illusion. After all, where had he gone? I wanted to forget all about it, but somehow I could not put the image out of my mind. As much as I wanted to ignore the figure I had spied in the rain, I couldn’t. I wanted to say it was just my imagination, just my brain trying to graph an image onto a nonsense blur of adrenaline and fear, there was a chance it was something that could cost us in the long run.

I had to find out Deepcalm’s every secret before I wrote my report. Anything and everything that might move the margins.

#

The next day was a tour of the fish farms.

Itinna met me just outside of town by a large gray warehouse that looked like it was made out of paper mâché near a maze of thin docks. We shook hands with an older man, the lower half of his face lost in a silver beard, who introduced himself as Lamar. He spouted off numbers about the fish population. He got down on his knees and reached into one of the caged-off partitions and came up with the ugliest fish I’d ever seen, a massive bowfish that struggled mightily in his hand. Itinna smiled as Lamar told me how fast they grew, how they’ve been able to maintain the overall population of the lake. He was a morose fellow, and the juxtaposition of his sad recitation of Deepcalm’s accomplishments and Itinna’s seemingly genuine good cheer made me uncomfortable.

“Thanks, Mr. Lamar. Seems like you got a great operation here.”

“We do good with what we got.” Glancing at Itinna, he couldn’t disguise that he’d forgotten some agreed-upon line, which he hastened to add: “Could do more, course, if we had a little help. Half a dozen more hands would do us good, and the right tools for expanding the farm along the north shore—”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “No, it looks like you’ve really accomplished a lot.”

“Lotta hard work,” he said. “Lotta sacrifice.”

“Could I take a look at your books?” Those would tell me more than some unfortunate fish wriggling in the big man’s hands. For all I knew, Lamar had opened the cages this morning, filled them with chuck, and slammed them shut behind schools of interested fish; this sampling here could be the entire population of Lake Caill.

“Sure thing,” Itinna said. “Thanks, Lamar. I’ll show Mr. Escio the ledgers. You take it easy.”

Lamar’s relief was palpable. He looked like he might cry.

As we walked back along the docks toward the warehouse, I tried to fill the silence. “Big fish,” I said.

Itinna laughed. She had a low, throaty laugh that seemed to come from deep in her chest. “That’s what we’ve been trying to tell you, Mr. Escio! One of those could feed two families, or just one family for a couple’a days, yeah? Great on the grill!”

“Mr. Lamar didn’t seem happy about it,” I observed.

“That going in your report?” asked Itinna.

I smiled back to avoid giving an answer. It was true that local morale would be part of my report back to Okson Frontiers. The company had a metric they called the “Stamina Index,” meant to be a way to objectively measure a locale population’s grit. If Itinna had been my only sample, then Deepcalm would’ve ranked pretty high. Lamar’s sour mood didn’t mean anything, but I couldn’t pretend it didn’t leave an impression.

Itinna sighed. “Life is dangerous out here. Something we’d like to change if we have a company backing us. Lamar lost his daughter, Molucia, years back.”

“I’m sorry.” And I was, but it was also unsurprising. They had made their decision to stick around after Nerst & Sons failed; they all knew the risk of operating without a company mandate, or else they wouldn’t be trying to get one now. “What happened?”

“Drowned.” Itinna shook her head, almost wistful. I thought I understood; it was easy to imagine a preventable tragedy going another way, if they had a lifeguard or better rails or could teach their children proper swimming techniques. Any and all of the above.

“Sundered Gods, that’s awful,” I said. “I mean…how did that happen?”

“Oh, I don’t rightly know. Easy to fall off the road and go right into the drink if there’s a storm. There’s thick weeds and whatnot in the center of the lake, easy for a kid to get their foot tangled, is probably what happened. Body washed up some time later.” She shook her head, frowning prettily. “I don’t know, man.”

Which struck me as an odd thing to say, as if there were more to it. With the death of a child, there probably would be more to it—depression, drinking, ruined lives. I didn’t ask where the girl’s mother was. I didn’t want to think about my own parents, who I hadn’t visited in almost two years. I kept meaning to get out of New Ondbava, but there was almost always another trip, another town or minor venture to evaluate. A visit to my parents became exhausting, unthinkable, even as I also grew tired of nights spent at a company cantina. Assessment trips like this were the only time I had energy, and the only thing I spent my energy on. Surely there had been a time when I was a kid when I’d felt awake without hotel coffee and the prospect of trying to see through a lot of folks’ lies?

Which reminded me. “Well, speaking of kids…” There was no graceful way to transition from discussing a young girl’s death. “How’s the birth rate?”

“Ha!” said Itinna. “Okay, wow.”

“I have to ask.”

“Yuh, I get it. Just funny change of subject. Look, we’ve had folks getting married young out here. Can’t say they’re all happy marriages, but it’s not like we get a lot of new faces since Nerst & Sons went under.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “It was a long way to come, even with the company cab. But if folks weren’t having kids…”

“Those first few years we were on our own, well, let me put it this way: I lost a lot of weight, maybe for the first time in my life.” She saw me glance at her figure—muscled arms, stout middle, solidly built, not someone you’d want to wrestle—and laughed. “Yeah, it’s hard for me to imagine now too. People weren’t much for having kids then. And with people underfed, you know, we had three years with a lot of stillbirths. Miscarriages. All that.”

“I thought you said you had more than enough to eat from the lake?”

“We do now,” she said. “But without a company bordier to shore up the ships, without the extra grain coming in from out east, it was hard. Hard to live on fish alone. Harder when the lake’s dangerous with razorgills. I already told you about the razorgills, yeah?”

I nodded. “Can’t imagine that makes Lamar’s job any easier.”

“We’re safe enough now. But back then, we tried to send out everybody in big groups, get some of the crews to work together. We had to limit how much we fished anyway, since we knew the only chance we’d have was you people.” Was there some acid in her voice? Some resentment with the memory? I couldn’t tell. “But a couple of times, folks got desperate. We’d have somebody go out in a little dingy by themselves trying to get some extra, and not come back. A lot of folks thought the town would just dry up. People weren’t in a baby-making mood.”

She gave me a lopsided grin. Mocking? I couldn’t tell.

“That’s hard,” I observed.

“That’s what I said.”

There didn’t seem much more to say. I had a feeling she was leaving something out. That was normal; when a couple of pages you type alone and skunky in a hotel room determine their whole future, folks lie to you. But there seemed to be more to it there.

“Where to next?” I asked. “The letter we got said there’s another fish farm to the north.”

Itinna looked out her window, squinting into an iron gray sky. “Might be done early for the day. Looks like rain. Imagine it’s not safe in a cab out here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I almost got in an accident coming into town. The cab hydroplaned. I must have been driving too fast in the rain…but it was strange. I think my eyes were tired.” I looked at Itinna, hoping she could tell me something to put my mind at ease.

A shadow crossed Itinna’s rosy face. “See, those company cabs, I don’t trust them. People weren’t supposed to move that fast. I know your company would like us to be productive, and we are, we are. But folks out here like life a little slower. Move too fast and your mind can’t keep up.”

“That’s probably what it was.” She had given me exactly the assurances I wanted. So why didn’t I feel any better? Maybe it was because she did not ask what I had seen, showed no curiosity at all.

As if she already knew.

“You be careful on the roads, Mr. Escio,” said Itinna. “Wouldn’t want to lose you before you’ve signed us up with the company!” She eyed the sky for a moment. “But I could use a ride home, if you’re offering.”

Chapter Five

I dropped Itinna off at her home, a straight-walk cabin-style home where you could see into a tidy back yard from the front porch, parked my cab back at the hotel, and started for the tidy town center. I was left with some time to myself, and it was almost closing time at Deepcalm’s library. I figured it would be my only chance to look at some town history, given the busy schedule Itinna had planned for us.

The Deepcalm library was practically a tower, as if they had the expectation of keeping many books in as little real estate space as possible. More realistically, it might have been built as a particularly nice house judging by the tiny widow’s walk. A mayor’s house, or a sheriff’s, in the original Nerst & Sons plans, repurposed by the locals.  

I walked into the library an hour before close. The entrance was basically a living room, with soft blue sofas and chairs scattered around a low table covered in piles of books beneath a sign: “This Month’s Recommended Reading—Inspired History!”

Merroam sat at the welcome and collections desk in a wrinkled blue blouse with her sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She still had the loose napkin-holder-looking circlet to keep her hair back. As I approached, she closed the book she was reading and slid it to the side so she could plant her elbows on the desk and lean forward. I noticed a small Linnith’s Knot hanging from a nail on the side of her desk; Merroam caught me looking.

“Hello, Mr. Escio. It’s just a good luck charm if you want to think of it like that.”

“Ms. Merroam,” I said, “I am used to folks trying to pull one over on me. Don’t think I can’t tell you’re a true believer.”

“You caught me,” she said. “What can I say? I spend a lot of time alone in here, and sometimes a girl needs someone to talk to.” She saw me glance at the book she had put aside. “One from our classic collection. We have a wide variety of old texts on early religion, manuscripts dating back to the Age of Land Queens, when they say Anhu and Linnith walked the earth.”

“That’s…surprising,” I said. “How did they get out here?”

Merroam shrugged. “If anybody would know, it would be me. And I don’t. Our records aren’t clear. And before you ask, yes, I’ve tried to figure it out. Maybe they were here before the town. Life is hard out here. People have always asked the gods for help.”

“Do they ever answer you?” I smiled as I spoke, to show that I didn’t expect an answer. I was firmly of the belief that people’s beliefs were their own concerns. This wasn’t the Compact, where some measure of Anhu-belief was required to join their navy.

But Merroam seemed to consider my words carefully. “Maybe she has,” she said. “They say Linnith hears everything that’s said where the world is green. Maybe you think too much time with books has addled my mind?”

“Not at all. I actually score for literacy when I write up my report to the company.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve come to take out some light reading to make the night easier?”

I held up my hands in exaggerated guilt. “Sadly, I don’t think I have the time for any ‘light reading.’ But I am interested in the town’s ledgers. Specifically, I’d be interested in the town’s birth and death records. If that offer still stands…?”

“Oh.” Merroam nodded, stood, clapped her hands together without actually making a noise, and strode around the desk. She wore a gray skirt and chunky flats that, I realized, must’ve been made here in Deepcalm if they were made in the last ten years. These people had indeed done a lot with a little. “We’re going all the way up, then.”

Merroam led me up to the third floor. The stairs creaked beneath our weight like trees in a gale. She took a book of matches from a shelf and walked around the library’s uppermost room, lighting candles as she went. Their soft glow revealed towering shelves—but unlike the lower floors, these were only-half full. On the far side of the room were a couple of sheet metal filing cabinets. Merroam withdrew a set of miniscule keys from a necklace tucked beneath her blouse and started unlocking the cabinets one at a time.

“Town records are all here. Technically, there was no need for them after Nerst & Sons went under. But Itinna said the fishermen would want to keep track of yields, and if we were ever going to make a case for reintegration we’d need records, so…”

“So you got stuck with the job?”

She laughed, and in the dim candlelight I saw she had one crooked canine. “I wasn’t going to say that. So what does a company man like you look for first?”

“Deaths,” I said, and regretted being so blunt as soon as I saw her face fall. “I mean, there’s a lot of safety protocols that come with being a company town. Bordiers have to do a lot of work to reintegrate a place into the Ganarian system, and, you know. Accidents.”

“I understand.”

She led me over to a filing cabinet and took out four heavy ledgers, only one of which had a company seal on the front. The others looked to be bound by an amateur between soft leather covers. I wondered who in Deepcalm kept up with the hobby even after the place wasn’t beholden to Nerst & Sons. Merroam put them down on a low oak desk—the furniture here was utilitarian in the extreme, a stark contrast to the well-worn sofas downstairs.

“We have, uh, had a number of accidents over the years,” said Merroam before she left me with the ledgers. “But I don’t think that would’ve been the case if we had a bordier. Just…don’t judge us too harshly, please.”

I wanted to tell her that I would take their circumstances into account, but before I could open my mouth she was gone.

I set about my working, feeling oddly comfortable. How many nights at New Ondbava University had I spent studying until the candles burned all the way down? How long had I spent searching for the secret that had to be in the books somewhere, the secret my parents had sent me to find, the secret to spending a comfortable life, in a place of your own, the secret to your golden years spent in well-earned luxury instead of arthritic torture and days of deteriorating health, death slowed down to a hateful crawl?

This wasn’t just my job; it was my trade—and I was good at it. Reading between the lines. Assessing. Adjusting.

The Nerst & Sons records didn’t tell much. But next ledger I opened, the records from Deepcalm’s first years as an independent town, told a story. 

#

First Year Decommissioned –

Death Record

Gani Heersham – F, 8 yrs old. Gum disease. Malnutrition.

Rori Eelam – M, 14. Drowning accident.

Kittian Hunts – M, 54. Drowned. Fishing accident. Survived by wife, Till Hunts, and daughter, Jadi.

Heath Awan – M, 9. Drowned. Swimming accident.

Minda Lamar – F, 6. Fishing accident, razorgills, body not recovered. (Hunger madness.) 

Otaktay Leeorul – M, 30. Knife wound. Fight. Survived by wife and two sons.

#

I wondered about Minda Lamar, and if she had any relation to the man who had shown me how fishing was done at Deepcalm’s docks. In a small town like this, it seemed likely there was some relation, at least.

The record painted a grim picture of the time after Nerst & Sons went under: without a company bordier’s protections on the town, the death rate shot up. There were a number of deaths to “drink sickness” and malnutrition; they must have been starving. And, worst of all, an increase in drownings that would’ve been prevented by a well-maintained warning system—or even just a good lifeguard, I suppose.

Then again, there were miles and miles of shoreline around Lake Caill, and when they were struggling just to survive, many parents were probably happy to have their kids out of the house and playing by the water. They couldn’t be everywhere at once. 

Then, round the third year, one entry stood out to me:

Nikiti Manners – F, 10. Drowned.

Two things stood out: Itinna’s family name, of course, but also the brevity of the description. “Drowned” certainly had different connotation in my mind than “drowning accident.” Did somebody murder Itinna’s sister? I guess that would explain why she didn’t bring it up…

But Nikiti wasn’t the only one who was simply “drowned.” In the town’s third year as a maverick fishing village without a company, I counted over a dozen drowning victims, all children, all young.

Merroam seemed like she had an interest in local history, and I knew from my studies that you could always trust a librarian to have something to say on a subject—or else help you find something to say. I imagined her life here must have been a boring one, and she took on work as Deepcalm’s record-keeper because there just weren’t that many fishermen coming through looking to take out more of the same books they’d had for more than a decade.

She seemed excited when I came downstairs with my question, but her face closed like a door slammed shut when she heard what the question was.

“Oh, really tragic times,” she said, tugging at her hair, undoing it and feeding it back through her wooden circlet. “I barely remember them. I was young, then, you know. I just remember the company bordier being called back—Mr. Ocha, his name was—and we had more kids getting into trouble. Not just razorgills, but even scorpions wandering into town. They normally stay away from the water, but…”

“Yeah,” I said, considering whether to go on. My curiosity trumped my sympathy without too much difficulty. “But Ms. Manners, she never mentioned anything of it. I hate to ask, but if I’m going to give an honest assessment to the company, I need to know if there was some kind of trend. It looks like more than a dozen kids died in a year, all in the lake.”

“Maybe it really was just accidents,” said Merroam.

She was lying, but not to me: she was lying to herself. I understood the instinct.

“Look, I don’t think it’s going to hurt your chances with Okson, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said. “In fact, if you people had a bunch of kids dying and then fixed it on your own, that would work for you, when I run the numbers on the Stamina Index.”

“Honestly, we…we just lost a lot of food. Like I said, it was over a decade ago, Mr. Ellum, but I do remember being hungry. Hungrier than I’d ever been, before or since. We lost most of the grain stores to a bad storm, folks’ gardens got torn up. You ask me, the kids just weren’t thinking straight, and neither were the parents. My da did alright by us, but some of the folks talk about eating dirt at night, just to stop…well…”

“I understand,” I said. “Like I said, this might help you all. But I’d love to see the agricultural yields, goat births, I mean, everything. Someone must have kept track if there wasn’t enough to go around?”

“The library is going to close, Mr. Escio. I need to get home…”

“I’ll take them with me.” Seeing her hesitation, I added, “I mean, if they’re incomplete, we won’t hold it against you, I don’t think. Okson does take accountability very seriously, but we understand it’s easier when you have a finance pro from the company. You can just tell me if the town let it slip.”

“No, no, that’s not it.” Merroam sighed. “I guess you company men have to be like that, to make a life out of it?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, but without thinking I responded, “I guess so. That, and you have to appreciate middling hotel accommodations. Going to be a long night reading in bed with these.” I nodded to the books.

“Have you been to The Soggy Tom yet? You could read there if you can find a quiet corner. And like I said, you’ll learn more about Deepcalm there than anywhere else.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said. “What do you recommend off the menu?”

“The fish,” she said, and we both laughed.

A subtle tension hung in the still air. The natural thing to do was for me to ask if she would join me. It would be nice to have company. Every time I saw my mother, she asked me if I’d met some “nice young woman” to spend time with; and every time, my father told her to stop asking, that “the boy needs to focus on his career,” and there was real sadness in his voice, more emotion than I ever heard from the man growing up.

But I was only supposed to be in Deepcalm less than a week. I had to focus on my report. And anyway, there was a chance I would need to recommend against Okson acquiring the town. I couldn’t let friendship, or anything else, cloud my judgement.

Merroam gave me the books. I had to borrow a rainproof leather carry-all to hold the volumes, more than a dozen. I left her looking at her hands, as if she were ashamed—and for some reason, she wasn’t alone in that feeling.

I left the library and went back into the orange-gold glow of the setting sun. I remembered the cab’s tires leaving the ground, sliding perilously close to the lake, and the fear that came with it. Another part of me, however, was thrilled at the chance to have something to study, work to do that was right up my alley. If there was something wrong with Deepcalm, I was going to find it here. 

Chapter Six

I drove my cab to The Soggy Tom and tried to order a hot coffee. The guy behind the counter said they were done serving coffee after supper, so I got a hot cider instead, and settled into a corner beneath one of its brighter lamps to go through the records. I got a few curious glances from the after-dinner crowd, mostly fishermen who sat down still in their slickers, but I think the stack of ledgers made it clear I wasn’t looking for company.

After an hour and another cider, the picture became pretty clear: after Nerst & Sons pulled their support and left the town to its own devices, Deepcalm had a few rough years. Without a bordier to help them, wild animals made it into the town, sometimes destroying property and sometimes—worse—ravaging foodstuffs. At the same time, more than a dozen children had drowned.

I checked for funeral records to see if I could get more information, but they were understandably brief. Thankfully, the town took on the cost of funeral services for grieving parents, which showed me something else: these funerals were cheap, dirt cheap. My suspicion was confirmed when I noticed that for each of the drowned children, their final resting place was listed as such: “Memorial at Deepcalm Cemetery.”

But for every other death? “Interred at Deepcalm Family Cemetery.”

It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. The kids’ bodies weren’t recovered. They were still in the lake.

“Hey, whatcha reading?”

I looked up at the voice. It was Lamar, from the docks. He had a pint of a beer that looked dark and thick as maple syrup in his glass. He seemed unsteady on his feet, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was drunk; he’d been sober when we met, but he still had the long-staring faraway look of someone who, perhaps, had trouble focusing even on the best of days. Someone confounded by tragedy.

“Uh, hello, Mr. Lamar. I’m just doing some research on the town. I got some of the old books from Ms. Merroam over at the library.”

“Huh,” he said. “Guess you need to know everything bout us before you go and give your report. Is that right?”

“Well, it’s impossible to know everything, but yes I have to be very thorough, that’s true—”

“You find out about my Molucia in there?” he said.

“Itinna told me,” I said.

“That something you all care about when you’re deciding whether we’re out here alone or not?”

That put to rest any doubts about the girl whose named I’d glimpsed in the Deepcalm death records.

“Mr. Lamar, I’m very sorry about your daughter. Truly.” I licked my lips, prepared myself to lie to this poor man. “I highly doubt that such an issue will affect Okson Frontiers’ final decision. We understand that tragedies like this, they do happen out west.” 

Lamar staggered forward, and my doubts about his inebriation went away. He put down his beer and braced himself on the table with both hands. They were covered all over with furious white scars, jagged and awful. It was hard to look away from them and meet his face. “Not like this. No, you don’t know. You really don’t know. It should be—in your report—it should be something for us. What we’ve had to do. What we’ve given up when the company cut and run—”

Two of Lamar’s companions came from the bar to his side. One tried to turn him around but Lamar shrugged them off and bellowed, “You tell them we’re tougher than any of those other towns! You tell them what we gave up, those first years!”

I should’ve kept quiet. I should have gathered my things and left. I was used to dealing with distraught frontiersmen who wanted something from me. I’d been called a company stooge, a villain, inhuman, heartless, worse. But as I looked over the ledger, and I saw that none of the children who drowned were recovered from the lake, a seed of suspicion had been planted in my mind, one that now sprouted into a dreadful riot of dark certainty. I remembered my father groaning in the night, and asking my mother what had hurt him, and her answer: “He’s just hungry, son. He’s just very hungry.”

I could not say exactly why, but I thought again of the dark shape in the road, my first night driving into Deepcalm. I knew, in the blood in my veins, that I had not imagined the child, after all.

I came to my feet. “What was that, Mr. Lamar? What you gave up? It seems to me it wasn’t you who gave up anything. It seems to me it was your girl.”

Lamar broke free of his companions and went for my throat. If there hadn’t been a table between us, he might’ve knocked me against the wall and killed me outright. As it was, he knocked into my table, sending both our drinks rolling onto the floor, glasses shattering. He tried to edge around the table while I went to the other side, and for a moment it was an almost comic scene, the kind of goofy slapstick you could expect from a stage play for young children.

Then Lamar lunged over the table, his long arms putting me in reach, and he snatched the front of my jacket. He pulled me forward, wrapped his hands around the back of my head, and slammed me into the table. My nose didn’t break, but my eyebrow opened and the blood ran freely and instantly into my eyes, nose, mouth. I tried to breathe and tasted iron. I coughed and sputtered and could not speak, could not ask again, What did you give up?

Then it was over. Lamar’s two friends had him off of me.

Someone brought over napkins to wipe the table, which seemed to show a startling lack of prioritization. The bartender hollered, and I’m not sure Mr. Lamar or his fellows heard me when I said, “Don’t think I don’t know! Don’t think I have some idea what you all—” And then I was able to stop myself, because Mr. Lamar was in tears.

“You bastards,” he said. “We earned it. Bring us back in.”

Even the men holding Lamar back seemed to agree. They looked at the floor, as if they didn’t have the heart to hold Lamar back if he was truly intent on giving me a beating.

I took my notes and left the bar, wondering how much of this night would make it into my report.

Chapter Seven

I got in my cab and slammed the door, as if I could keep out the night itself. The rain had finally stopped, but there was fog thick in the air, draped around me as a wet blanket. I pressed the button that brought the cab’s transference engine to life, gripped the wheel, and took it out on the unnamed road that circled the whole of Deepcalm, heading back to the hotel. 

I’d read enough. I didn’t need the specifics, whether it was all done through ritual tracked back to Anhu-worship, or mere negligence. It would make a difference in my report, but not a big one. The short version was this: Deepcalm was not a place we wanted to invest in. Not a people we wanted to invest in—however much they had invested in the place themselves.

I’d never seen anyone out on the road—as far as I knew, I had the only cab in all of Deepcalm—but I still went slow because of the fog. The last thing I needed was to hit somebody during what now felt inevitably like my last day in the town. I had a feeling I would need to cut my visit short.

As the road curved around the water, I was glad for my caution. A dark shape was walking towards me, a mere silhouette of a human, easily missed. Their head was obscured by a hood—or a shapeless hat, something that made the air around their face seem indistinct, gauzy. I had plenty of time to hit the brakes…

Except the cab didn’t stop. The wheels left the road and the cab began to rotate. I felt friction fall away as surely as if I’d stepped barefoot on oiled ice. I was hydroplaning again, even as my mind ran through a list of all the reasons that shouldn’t have been possible: it wasn’t raining, I hadn’t seen a puddle of any depth…

This time, I didn’t panic. I pumped the brakes gently, once and then again, telling myself over and over this was how it was done, this was how a rational company man could handle the problem, taking knowledge and applying it…

The cab sped up.

Against all logic and reason, not just in its forward momentum but in its spin. It didn’t just feel like I’d lost contact with the ground, but like the cab was being pulled along by some unseen hand wrapped around the tires.

No, not an unseen hand—a visible one, sheets of water moving along the ground like thick snakes, gripping the wheels. A living, hungry thing.

As the world spun around me, once and then again, I glimpsed the figure I had seen in the road, much closer now, as if they had closed the distance between us with a thought. They were still not distinct, just a shape emerging from the dark, only just visible against the foggy gray night around us.

Closer, it was hard for me to guess their age—or even their size. They seemed tall as two horses in one moment: and in the next, diminutive, a child.

For a moment, I thought I saw their face.

Then the cab hit the water and the dark was all around me.

I felt the cold and the pressure right away, like a giant’s hand wrapped around my entire body. Water came into the cab and my whole lower half was instantly submerged, all the way up to my groin. I gasped with pain from the whiplash and the chill and started scrambling for my seatbelt. By the time I was free of it, the water was past my bellybutton. I tried the cab’s handle but the door wouldn’t budge.

The water pressure, you idiot

But rational thought wasn’t helping. Rationally, the cab should’ve floated for a minute or two before it went under. Unless it was being pulled under. Unless something truly reached up, grabbed my vehicle, and was even now dragging me down.

I went for the window crank—and immediately it broke off in my hands, as if it had been waiting to do so. Of course.

Lord Anhu, I thought, you bastard. You bastard. But it wasn’t Anhu who was killing me now, it was my own stupidity. I knew the window handle was damaged. I could have had it fixed.

It was my only way out. Desperate, I put my hand against the glass and tried to pull it down. All my muscles ached, from a combination of whiplash and sudden, heavy exhaustion. What was I doing? I couldn’t move the window like this, and now the water was up to my chest.

Then I saw the crack, almost imperceptible, where the window wouldn’t meet the top of the frame. I dug my fingers into the space, desperate. Skin peeled away right behind my fingers, but I kept going as hard as I could, pushing for purchase. Water was gushing in now, and the pressure was immense; it was like digging my fingers into concrete, but the concrete was fighting me.

Then it stopped. For a second, impossibly, it was as though the water pulled back. As if it said, Well, just to be fair, let’s see what you can do.

I know an opportunity when it comes, and I know when to grab for it. I tucked a foot beneath my seat and pulled, screaming with all my might, desperate to be heard again, desperate for the shitty, boring conversations of my windy life blowing through small towns like a minor tornado, assessing what can be taken and what needed to be bolted down. I remembered my father’s body broken from years of labor and my mother’s ruined hands and pictured them both bent like crooked coat-hangers beneath the weight of a building, the weight of discarded lives. I pulled so hard I tasted blood. Something in the cab’s door broke with a subsonic snap, felt rather than heard, and the window eased down and away, forever, with no more resistance.  I gasped and spat and almost forgot what remained to be done, almost sat back and drowned with the satisfaction that I’d done this lone, impossible thing for myself, and was now completely submerged.

But I was not so far gone. As I kicked out the window, the cab twirled away from me into the dark, into grasping lake weeds. I hadn’t come out into the water, it seemed, but into a forest, the kind of woodland you visit on a weekend retreat to “reconnect” with yourself, all that horseshit. All I had to do was make it to the surface—

But something pulled me down. I felt it sure as a lover’s arm around the small of my back.

The undertow, I told myself. The car is taking me down with it.

But in my panic, my mind was split, and it seemed a voice not my own, calmer than I felt, responded: You know that’s not true.

I clawed at the water as I sank down into the weeds. My lungs ached, not like they were empty but as if they were swollen and on fire. The surface seemed miles above me. Certainty entered my heart, pouring in as cold and as fast as the water that had filled the car, that I was going to die.

I was near the bottom of the lake now. The part of my mind that still had rational thought made a rudimentary plan: I could kick off the bottom of the lake, try to propel myself past whatever current was dragging me down in the car’s wake, and maybe I would rise to the surface even as I blacked out.

I readied myself for this final push, thinking to use my whole body, hands and feet, jumping straight up like a frog. But as I brought my hands down to the murky bottom of the lake, I froze. I was looking into a small skull. I would’ve missed it, except for its two empty eye sockets…

I blinked, and the skull was replaced by a face, ghastly and pale. The girl was not yet a teenager, with the thin limbs and frame that came from a mixture of malnutrition and simple youth. Her eye sockets were empty caves, darkness against darkness. Thin strings of gray hair wafted around her like a torn spiderweb.

I blinked again, and the flesh was gone—only a skeleton, wrapped in chains, her hands in front of her as though clasped in supplication, half-buried in the silty lake bottom. Some of the bones seemed to move slightly. It must have been the sinking cab’s undertow stirring them to a semblance of life, but the effect almost killed me—I started to scream and let the last of my air escape.

And it almost happened again when I wrenched my eyes away from the dead girl’s staring skull and saw thin, tangled shapes all around me, glimpsed through weeds like prison bars.

Each robed in rusty chains.

Looking at death, I was certain of my own. Would anybody find me? What did it matter? I had no friends to take pride in my accomplishments or admire my bank accounts—and no family of my own, as my parents pointed out time and again, the only part of my life that disappointed them. No one would be looking for me…

Then the skeleton reached out. Bony fingers scraped my skin, drew blood as the hand grasped my shirt, drew me close. The body was no longer a girl’s skeleton, but something vast and unknowable, cloaked in shadow but very solid, and very deep. If you stabbed a sword into a body like that, it would keep going forever and never plunge through the other side.

But its voice was a man’s, and it was deeper than I thought possible, echoing like the impact of a tidal wave against the shore: Not in my Name. I sensed disdain, rejection—not hatred, but repudiation. The children couldn’t fight; they’d been weak and starved, they’d begged for help, and I knew their fear, mortal fear, fear that killed some of them long before the lake exploded their lungs.

The hand that held me opened, pressed against my chest with more than skeletal strength, and pushed. Water surged around me. Everything happened too fast for me to register real shock: I broke the surface, launched into the air, saw the night sky around me as though I’d been blasted back along Gallora’s path and all the way to the start of time. But I was only taken instead to the hard-packed road that ringed Lake Caill.

I coughed, vomited before I could roll over, tried to stand and failed. Steam rose around me. My lungs burned with the best and cleanest air I had ever tasted, and I could not find strength to stand. I looked at the black surface of the lake. Water still churned in a slow spiral where the cab had gone under. Where it had been pulled under.

Lights in the distance, sickly orange. Another hallucination, I thought, since what I’d seen in the lake must have been the scrambled thoughts of a drowning mind—even though I knew it wasn’t true, knew the feel of that hand on my chest. The sound of heavy boots brought me back to a sense of normalcy—rescue was on the way.

Somehow, I knew it would be Itinna. She was flanked by three others, Lamar among them, looking considerably more sober than the last time I’d seen him. The lantern swinging from Itinna’s hand showed deep lines on her face that hadn’t been there during the day. What did I see there? A moment of satisfaction, surprise, something she hadn’t meant for me before she knelt at my side and said, “Oh, gods, Mr. Escio, your cab—”

There was a moment I could’ve said, I was pulled into the water.

I saw bodies in the lake.

Someone spoke to me.

But it would not be to my benefit. I was still processing what I saw, but I felt that if I revealed it all to Itinna here, I would be in danger. We were too close to the lake to have that conversation; it would perhaps drag me back into the icy water and this time, I would not escape.

“Yeah,” I said. “Accident.”

“Must’ve been a puddle,” she said, pointing at the road. “Your car must’ve hydroplaned. Told you to be careful, Mr. Escio. But Lord Anhu doesn’t want you yet, it looks like.”

“How did you find me?”

“We heard your cab go in the lake more’n a mile away. The sound it made! You’re lucky to be alive, Mr. Escio. Let’s keep it that way, get you somewhere warm. You want to keep moving.”

Itinna pulled me to my feet. One of her fellows, a woman with dark red hair and a face like a brick, threw a scratchy blanket around my shoulders. Shaking, I let them lead me back to town. Their lanterns turned us to long, jittering shadows, barely human.

Chapter Eight

Itinna and the others led me to her home. It was made of sturdy logs with big grilled windows and a red brick chimney. It had been gray once, but was repainted a light blue; I could glimpse the older color where rain off the lake had stripped away some of the new paint job.

Inside, Itinna gave me a new set of clothes. Warm wool socks. A corded sweater that seemed impervious to the damp. She sat me down around the kettlebell stove that warmed her living room and came back with a serpentine stovetop coffee pot that sputtered weakly on a coaster before she poured it into a tiny porcelain cup and passed it my way. An insane, paranoid part of me waited until I’d seen her take a sip of her own before I tasted mine, even if I couldn’t express why she would poison me.

“Nasty business,” Itinna said. She had told her men to leave us alone, but I hadn’t heard the front door open. They were still in the house, presumably listening should Itinna require them. 

“What was?” I asked.

“Your accident!” She had her legs stretched out so her feet, clad in cozy blue and white socks, rested comfortably close to the fireplace. She smiled like it was funny. “You’re lucky to be alive, Mr. Escio. I hear you only have a few seconds to get out if your cab goes in the water like that. Quick thinking, must’ve been.”

“I don’t know,” I said, uncertain. I felt like we were putting on a stage play for an audience, or else playing at a children’s game of make believe. “I’d heard how you’re supposed to go through the window, not the door. There was an article in a company pamphlet about it. Said the pressure in the cab won’t let you open the door. Turned out that was true.”

“Smart,” she said. “You must’ve been scared. But you’re feeling better now?”

How could I answer that? Taking stock, I had to admit that I was warmer, and becoming more comfortable by the minute. But I could still remember the feeling like my body might burst, like my skull might implode.

“I’m doing better,” I said. “Thank you, again.”

“Don’t need to thank me,” Itinna said, smiling prettily, for all the world like she had loaned me a few spondulicks instead of saving my life this evening. “But, well, if we’re already here, can I ask you something? What did you learn from the library? Heard you were taking out all kinds of books…”

“Oh, it was just records. Birth rates. Town events. Stuff like that.” I didn’t sound convincing, but I wasn’t too hard on myself. I had almost drowned a short while ago.

“Shame they’re lost in the lake. Sounds like you got a chance to read them, though.” Itinna leaned forward suddenly, dropped her voice to a confidential tone. “Two days you’ve been in Deepcalm. Don’t you think you’ve seen everything you need to see, for your report?”

Before I could answer, she had produced a notebook, a quill, and a small, stoppered inkwell. She laid them out on the low glazed coffee table between us. She had a comfortable living room, and this completed the picture; we might have been old friends sitting down for an evening of letter-writing in one of our homes. We might have been the subject of a painting—though with four silent men just out of frame.

“I was hoping,” Itinna continued, “we could sort this out tonight. I know you’ve been through quite a shock, and I wouldn’t want to impose, but with you already here. And, you know.” She laughed, a good belly laugh. A comfortable, full laugh. “You’re not going anywhere tonight, are you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure I have it in me right now—”

“I have some whiskey, if you like? Warm up those bones. It’s just that we’re all really looking forward to having this wrapped up and getting to work with Okson. What else do you really need to see?” I could think of quite a bit, but Itinna lowered her voice and added quietly, “I mean, after your accident, surely you don’t want to stay here.”

That reached down and dug out some part of me that was very glad to be alive, the part of me that had grasped the window and would’ve broken off each of my fingers with effort if it meant I got to taste the frigid cold air again. “It was just an accident. Believe me, I’ve done assessments in more dangerous places than this. And if I haven’t, then Deepcalm isn’t ready to be acquired.”

She held up her hands. White lines like heavy netting ran over her palms. “Okay, okay. How about I leave you alone to think about it? If you still think you need more time to do it, that’s fine. I just thought that, after tonight, you’d want to be safely on your way. You write your report now, then you can get going. Maybe take a nice detour. Nobody at Okson has to know you got yourself a three-day paid vacation, eh?”

I almost said, Are you threatening me? But an instinct for self-preservation held me back.

“That makes sense,” I said. “Can I just, look, can I use the bathroom first?”

An obvious gambit for time, and Itinna must’ve known it. “Sure, Mr. Escio. Mr. Lamar will go with you. Mr. Lamar! Can you show Mr. Escio to the latrine? So he doesn’t get lost.”

Lamar came down the stairs. Itinna looked at him, her brow knotted angrily; his speed showed that all four men were listening just out of sight. He stood there awkwardly, shifting his massive weight from foot to foot, and finally said, “Sure thing, Speaker. No trouble.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lamar.” Turning to me, Itinna said, “It’s very dark out. And while Deepcalm has been safe enough without a bordier of our own, I still don’t like the idea of you out there without any help. You already had one brush with death tonight and I think that’s quite enough. It wouldn’t do for some wandering plainswolf to catch you with your trousers round your ankles while you’re making water.” She threw her head back and laughed.

Far more than was warranted, I thought.

Outside, Lamar hovered behind me, a massive shadow with shape and weight. “That way,” he said, pointing over my shoulder. I got a glimpse of how big his arms were. If I made a run for it, his long legs would catch me, and there was no hope I could overpower the man. Maybe if I stuck my fingers in his eyes, pushed past the balls and into his brain—

I shook my head, feeling a shiver that was more than just the cold. Had it come to that? Was I in a fight for my life? Itinna only wanted me to write the report.

But once she had it in hand, would I fall victim to the kind of “accident” she had threatened me with before? She had to know that if she let me go, I could always amend my report, tell the company I was under duress. And she had to know what I’d seen at the bottom of the lake. What I put together from the ledgers, and from talking to Merroam.

I was in serious trouble and I didn’t have a way out, not unless I was willing to risk a sprint for the road, or the outskirts of town. And where would I go?

Itinna had surely meant to remind me of the dangers surrounding Deepcalm. Some said that wild animals out west could smell a man’s fear. Superstition…but if it were true, every one of these beasts could probably smell me for miles around. 

All of this went through my head in the time it took us to cover a few long strides, and we were almost at Itinna’s outhouse when Lamar spoke up, close enough I could feel his hot breath against the back of my neck: “You see anything down there?”

“Where? In the lake?”

“Yeah,” Mr. Lamar said. “You went under. I just mean…” He must’ve known how weird this sounded. I heard in his voice an echo of the fear in my chest. “I just mean, you went all the way under. Maybe, uh, you saw some razorgills.”

“I think if a razorgill was close enough for me to see it, I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.”

“Ha,” he said, just a single syllable with no laughter in it. When we got to the outhouse, Lamar said, “I’ll be right outside. Don’t be long. It’s damn cold out.”

I shut the door and locked it, for all the good that would do. If Mr. Lamar thought I was taking too long and got suspicious, he could wrench the crumbling wooden door clean off its hinges.

And what could I do anyway? I was freezing, but now that I was here I thought I may as well go to the bathroom. I let loose a weak stream of piss into the dark hole of the latrine. A cutting antiseptic odor came back to me, metallic and miserable. Then I went to wash my hands…

And looked deep into the basin. In the near-total darkness of the outhouse, it was as black as the lake had been—and made of the same water.

My mind was like a howling wind. A scream. A series of thoughts held in suspension, unable to move forward, unable even to fall into coherent words, as they ran against a wall of rationality.

But I remembered Merroam’s words. I remembered her altar, her candles, her faith in something greater than herself, in the history of her people who surely had fought and died out here, left out in the badlands with no support from the people who sent them here.

Even after all I’d seen, did I believe in ghosts? In spirits? I could not answer for myself. But I believed that my mother had not raised a man who would give up, who would acquiesce to veiled threats. And my father had not raised a son who would shirk from any task, any hard but necessary work. He raised a son who could look into the dark and put one foot in front of the other. If it was not love they had given me, it was something that held more value: the currency of survival.

“All done?” Lamar called. Time for dallying was over. 

I gripped the sides of the basin. My body shook; the basin did not. After I’d almost drowned earlier, it took all my will to touch my face to the surface of the pool—and then to keep going. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth and forced out my air.

There was a moment of resistance in which my body rebelled. Then the air did not so much leave my lungs so much as it was wrenched out as though by some creature with tiny, grasping hands. The water came in and there was no doubt in my mind it was destroying me, no doubt I was dying, even as the part of me that could still think rationally—if that’s what it was—screamed to hold on, go where only the dead walk, and the bordiers of old.

I felt the water fill my lungs, and then my soul, and I drowned in a few inches of clean water in a small latrine at the edge of the world.

Chapter Nine

Having successfully drowned, I blinked in surprise. I could do nothing else. It had been difficult to die, and even then it was not an end to my difficulties. 

I stood on a stone floor of dark basalt. The sky above me was ocean shot through with solid steel beams of moonlight. I stood in a single cone of light, and the darkness was all around me. My clothes were perfectly dry. My lungs remembered their death, and the memory hurt.

An eel swam slow circles through the darkness, winding towards me…or at least, my mind strained to see it as an eel, long as a street and wider than two cabs. Its eyes were hazy and flat, but I knew they saw me and knew me.

At the same time, my brain—which felt fuzzy and bifurcated, as though I were seeing as an iguana sees—saw a man, whipcord thin in a blue robe that flowed from his shoulders to his feet. He took long strides towards me, and where his feet came out from beneath his tunic. I saw that they were bare, alabaster, marble-like, but they made no sound on the stone floor.

He drew near. The world was all water, a drowned world, a world where things could change like water, could be two things at once—container and contents both. Up close, his face was at once an eel’s sharp visage and the unblinking face of a human–not of an old man, as I’d expected; his beard was neat, close-shaved, unnaturally black. The most narcissistic, dandified boss in New Ondbava would have envied his carriage, his stature, his clean command. This was someone who spoke what he wanted and did not stay to see that it was done.

He had wide, full lips that barely moved as he spoke. “You have my attention. Do not waste it.”

“How?” I knew I didn’t have to say more. His gaze was like a fist in my skull.

“You died willingly. The children did not. Any fool can murder a child.” He shook his head, and I had the distinct idea that he knew my thoughts before I did. “Nothing so naïve as a sense of ‘honor,’ or any of the other impositions my sister left you. It is simply not worth my time. Is that all? It’s been some time since one of you was here to petition me…directly. It is disappointing if it is only curiosity that drives you. You don’t have any enemies you would see swept away in the tide?”

“You can do that?”

His face, if it was possible, became even more still. Yet, there was a powerful storm beneath the surface. “You waste my time. Say your piece. Then we shall see how much of you leaves my domain. If any.”

“The town, they killed the children. The records, they must have killed…”

“Fourteen children. A waste. Better to have had the adults starve.” Again, he went on as if I had spoken out loud: “No, no. Merely a matter of resources. The children have more potential. A better investment for the future, whatever your goals.”

“Where are they now?”

He spread his arms, and as he did so the robes fell back. My breath—my breath?—snagged and hitched, and I expected to see something awful where his hands should be, something terrible, and I was ready to scream in this place nobody would hear. But they were only hands, strong hands with no lines on them at all. They shone, I thought, very faintly; he must have been wearing fish scale gloves of the finest make, so thin I could make out the articulation of each knuckle.

“They are not here,” he said. “The fools in that place meant to send them here, but of course they are held fast in your world. Children’s souls are larger than your adults, that way. It is easy for them to get stuck. You forget this. You forget so much.” Disdain. Again, I knew this kind of manager; he was happy to watch us hang ourselves, if it meant he got to be right. He was so self-assured, confident it would go his way in the long run.

Of course, Lord Anhu had more reason to feel that way than most.

“Can you…” I stopped myself short. “Please help them.”

“How would you have me aid them? They are beyond the kind of help that you would want, certainly.” He gestured at the dark water that surrounded us. Something dark moved beyond my ability to see, shadows on shadows. “I could end their suffering, if that’s what you’re asking. Devour them whole. I could give them new life in the depths, if that’s what you want. They could be one of my helpers, who shape the strength of humans with teeth and claws and patience.”

“Just…set them free.” I did not know where the words came from. I was not even sure what they meant. Especially that last word. Was I free? Had I chosen the road that led me here, to a death I could not fathom? To a fear that did not shake my heart because I had no heart to shake, but instead filled my soul like ice water?

His consideration was wider, more potent than my own. He made adjustments and assessments I could never fathom, seeing through the dark around us and into the future. “They are already mine, in some ways. Certainly, that was what the fools who offered them intended. Why shouldn’t I take them for my own if you want them gone?”

“You know the worth of things,” I said slowly. “And you want a world in which we all know as well.”

“No one can know as well as I,” he said, “who followed my sister through the stars, who carved out the oceans so the land could have its shape. I know every secret thing and I know every life that ever was, for some part of it must always lead back to the oceans, in time. I know the end of every dream of every living creature, for these too have an end, an end we all share. And when time has run its course and the cities of men have crumbled and they hold out their hands, and the jungles and forests and the wide grass plains are too cold for them, you will all turn back to me.”

I nodded. I could see it as he described it; I saw white towers sliding, sliding into the ocean, crumbling like broken cliffs, shedding bodies with pinwheeling arms that writhed to get over each other as they struggled for the surface. It was the same thing I’d seen in Lamar’s eyes, the same basic fear that had driven him and so many others to desperation beyond imagining.

“I think if you let them go,” I said, “that would get the same point across, really.”

The floor shook beneath me and I almost fell. The grinding of the earth against itself was all I could hear. He was laughing…and at the same time, the eel’s mouth was open in a grin, showing one set of razor-sharp teeth and, beyond that, another set that descended into its long, long throat.

“You are right,” he said. “Everything is as it should be when the waters are left to flow downhill. We’ve dug our trenches. Now let’s leave it alone and watch how it runs.” His lips weren’t moving at all now. “And you. What will you do now, with the life the Oceanlord has given you?” He shrugged, robes billowing around him. “Don’t tell me what you’ll do. I haven’t had a witness of your kind in some time. I am so rarely surprised anymore. It is the only thing that sours conquest: it so much more predictable than defeat. Go.”

I felt pressure around my middle. The water was back in my lungs, bursting them, tearing me apart. I was certain the last thing I would feel would be my skin distending, my lungs blossoming open and spraying blood across the floor in a hot mess. I pictured what it would look like if I drowned and washed up on some distant shore, my face made unreal in death, a color you would reject from deli meat. It felt like something more than imagination.

“And never question what I can do again,” the god whispered. “Or else I may be forced to remind you.”

Chapter Ten

I woke up choking. I was on my knees. My fingers scrabbled at the floor as if I could find purchase in the wood. A stray splinter caught under a nail, but the pain was nothing like the burning in my lungs.

I’m on fire, I thought. All that water, and here I am on fire.

Had Itinna poisoned me? Already, the face of the eel-man under the ocean seemed a crazed delusion. Poison, that was it. Poison.

But then why was somebody banging on the door?

“Open up in there!”

It was Lamar. I was in a latrine. I had tried to stall for time. I had drowned myself—or I had tried. It was clear that I’d failed.

I came up on my knees, put my hands to my stomach, and retched. When I was done, I let myself collapse on my side, lucky to land away from my watery sick. Then I saw that I wasn’t alone.

Someone was standing in the sink.

I saw what appeared to be small human form rising out of the basin. What little light leaked through its walls caught in the figure’s translucent body. I couldn’t see its eyes, but it appeared surrounded by wild, watery hair floating weightlessly around it—and its attention was fixed on the door of the latrine.

Lamar hauled on the door. Something wooden snapped; he forced it open. He stopped his hollering. Briefly, the only sound was my labored breathing.

“Oh,” said Lamar. “It’s…” His voice broke off in a sob.

Then the watery figure rushed forward, without any warning, moving fast as floodwater and just as powerful. It impacted Lamar’s body with sledgehammer force. 

I scrabbled to my feet with aching limbs. What was that? When I left the latrine, Lamar was some twenty meters away, flailing. The watery figure was still astride him, arms working frantically. A thick, wet sound came out of Lamar’s body, a noise like a soccer ball being deflated, and a bright ribbon of blood that hung in the air for a terrible instant before splattering to the ground around him.

The night air it chilled my lungs as I ran, bringing back wild half-memories of my time in the latrine. Had I been hallucinating? Was I hallucinating now? The ground beneath my feet and the burn in my muscles told me I was still alive. I ran around Itinna’s house, trying to keep quiet. I was almost back to the road when I heard the front door open behind me.

“Hold it!” Itinna yelled. “Stop right there, Mr. Escio, or I’ll blow you away!”

I stopped, arms out to either side, and began to turn slowly around. She held a thunderstone in two hands, her feet out wide, and I had no doubt she would kill me if she knew I would not write her report. She smiled a rosy smile, and I thought of advertisements for butter.

“Where’s Mr. Lamar?

“He’s out back,” I said. “He could use your help.”

“I’m sure he could.” Her smile widened, awful. “Gotta admit, didn’t think a city boy like you could best one of our own. But I guess Lamar hasn’t been himself for a time now, has he? You come on back inside and you write your company, Mr. Escio. You can’t get away from a moment of honest work, no matter how you might fight it.”

“But Lamar—”

“Don’t. If you pushed him at a bear or something, then he can manage himself. Or he can’t. I’m sick of having you here. You come in here and do your job so…” She cocked her head to the side.

We both turned at the sound of shoes slapping dirt. Someone was coming from the direction of the town. A woman, far off—but I could tell it was Merroam.

“Don’t say a damn thing,” Itinna said. The smile was gone. The thunderstone dropped an inch. Every part of me fought to stay still; I remembered the damp rope of blood jetting out of Lamar’s ruined body.

Merroam slowed as she saw us. “What’s going on?”

“Could ask you the same thing,” Itinna said. “Now, don’t worry about this. Mr. Escio here was, uh, having some trouble with a coyote that stalked him here. Rabid, probably. I was going to give the poor beast a bit of this.” She paused, as if considering how much she could lie before it got away from her, as if she’d been even remotely convincing already. “Now what brings you here in such a hurry?”

Merroam looked at me. She wore a light canvas jacket, unbuttoned. Light brown leather shoes, the kind you could wear around the house. She’d come in a rush, that much would have been clear even if I hadn’t been able to see the fear in her eyes. I shook my head as subtly as I could.

“Itinna,” Merroam said, “let him go. There’s something in the town, and we need to leave.”

“What kind of something?” said Itinna.

“You should have left for the city,” I said. “I’m sorry what happened to you people, and it makes sense if you feel cheated, but there was nothing left for you here.”

“You shut up!” Itinna hollered, her voice echoing around us, passing over me and through me and bounding back from somewhere distant. “Merroam, what you talking about? And you,” she said to me, “where is Lamar? You hurt him that bad?”

“Not me,” I said. “Anhu Oceanlord sees all your efforts. He watches them rise towards the sky, and he watches them melt into the sea.”

“I said to shut it!”

“He sees every trick you try, hears every debtor’s plea.” The words came to me like lyrics from a childhood song.

Itinna raised her thunderstone once more. There was fear in her voice now, fear I had not heard before: “I swear by all the Sundered, Escio, you stop—”

But I was too far along to stop. I could feel something immense and unfathomable behind me, pushing me on, inevitable as gravity or death. “He commands the kings who conquer, and in conquest he saves—”

“I said—”

“—every worthy warrior for his place beneath the waves.”

“You don’t know a thing about it,” said Itinna.

“What happened to Nikita, Ms. Manners?” I said, remembering the name in the ledger: I should have stopped there, but any mercy in my heart had been drowned, or at least submerged beneath my fear, my desire to see another sunrise. “I think I do know about that.”

“Itinna, don’t!” cried Merroam.

There was murder in Itinna’s face. I threw myself to the ground, bruising both my knees and elbows; I knew in my body they would hurt tomorrow, and sleep would be hard-coming if I ever got the chance to rest again. These concerns were drowned out by the roar of the thunderstone’s shot passing over my head. My eyes shook in their sockets, and I squeezed them shut. It didn’t stop me from seeing the horrific purple flash of the thunderstone’s fire tearing through the air above me. My shoulders burned. The back of my neck felt like it had been licked by tongues of fire.

“You scorpion-fucking bastard!” Itinna screamed, her controlled voice now hoarse and broken. “We did too much to have some weak fool from the city come here and judge us. You don’t know nothing! We earned it! We gave up so much, and we earned it! I hope the Oceanlord takes your whole damn coast and swallows you up! I hope—”

Itinna was cut off as the doorframe behind her shattered. Watery limbs exploded from the dark of the house. One wrapped around her throat. The thunderstone fired off another arc of purple lightning that hung like a silver necklace in the air. I closed my eyes again but couldn’t block out the gruesome sound of breaking bones.

When I could see again, there was nothing left of her but the ruined front door, a gaping wound in the front of her home, a faint sound like a dying fish left to flop on the docks until it drowned in the air.

Merroam had a hand under my shoulder. “We need to go,” she said. “Come on, Mr. Escio.”

“She tried to kill me,”

“What was that thing?”

“I don’t know. But you’re right, we need to run. I’ve got a feeling there’s more than one.”

I didn’t know, truly, what the creature was. I didn’t know if I’d hallucinated what I saw in the latrine, or if there had been some awful moment where I knew more than a man is supposed to know. It all felt pressurized, painful, crushingly heavy. More than I could contain within myself.

The creature was not as large as the eel I’d seen beneath the ocean. It was small, delicate, not yet grown. It was a tragedy, and one that could have been avoided.

Itinna was right. They had given up so much. And what had they received?

Someone, at least, thought it was just what they deserved.

Chapter Eleven

We alternated jogging and walking back to the center of town. My lungs and legs ached, and I couldn’t go far without bending over and huffing. Merroam rubbed my back and said nothing, and I was not sure which made me more grateful.

I told her what I could. She did not ask many questions. She did not seem surprised.

“I have a memory,” she said, “of children disappearing. It could have been me. Sundered Gods, it could have been me.”

We heard the town long before we reached it. I heard someone somewhere moaning, then screaming. A window broke, shattered glass rained down on wood out of sight. It was distant and awful as a dream.

Merroam nearly pulled me off my feet when a figure crossed the street ahead of us. Dim starlight shone in the gentle curves of its body. A child’s body, but a wolf’s slow, inexorable walk. Stalking wounded prey. It disappeared around a house. I stumbled forward, dragging Merroam with me. We would need to pass through town if we wanted to head east, and from there make our way back to New Ondbava. Never mind the distance. Never mind the wilds between here and the next village. I was certain that our chances with the bears and scorpions was a far sight better than our chances here.

Somewhere, a child was sobbing. 

Merroam and I stopped briefly outside her home long enough for her to get me a wool coat that was only a little too short for me. She had a shapeless green carpetbag.

“We need to get out of here,” I said. My face burned with cold. “Do you have food?”

“We can’t leave,” said Merroam.

“We can’t stay here. You have food for the journey?”

“All my neighbors, and their children…”

“Are already gone,” I said. “Or as good as. If they’ve brought on…” I couldn’t make myself say it, whatever these vengeful water children were. I would not say that they were ghosts or spirits or anything else. “If they’ve brought on an angry god,” I said, which felt like the truth, “what are we going to do? Even if we could fight them, which we can’t, how many children do you think they killed? And how many are back now? It’s too late to get organized into some kind of fighting unit.”

“Stop it,” Merroam said, quietly. “Stop sounding so much like a company man. I know the chances. I’m not stupid. But they’re mine. It’s different for you, who has all kinds of places. This is the only place I have.”

“You could—”

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t say that I could go anywhere I want. Anybody here could go anywhere they wanted, with the right money. So you go run away after I saved your life. You run, if you need to. But I’m not leaving Deepcalm to be another piece of trash left on the ground by a careless company.”

She didn’t understand that it was already lost, because now I could never finish my report. And if I did finish it, what would I write? How could I recommend a town that had been through this much trauma? This much death? I wasn’t a psychologist, but from what I knew…

I caught myself. Merroam was right.

“Okay,” I said. “But what can you do? Because it won’t help anyone if you try to fight one of those things.”

She sunk her fingers into her dark hair until it looked like her arms stopped at the wrists. Her eyes shone but she refused to cry. “I don’t know. I’m just a librarian. If we had a bordier, maybe they could do something.”

What would a bordier do, except try to craft new glyphs, new signs to delay the things that had come out of the lake? What would they do but echo some piece of the power I had seen for myself in that dark place beneath the surface of the world?

I knew I had done something tonight that had not happened for a hundred years, not any company town. What was to say it couldn’t happen again?

“Grass,” I said. “You don’t need a bordier, you need grass.”

“You don’t think,” she said, and I didn’t blame her for stopping there.

“I don’t know, but I think it’s better than doing nothing.”

We had to leave for the town’s center. It hurt her; she closed her eyes and held her elbows as we heard a man’s scream turn wet and muffled and finally go quiet.

Something sluiced across the road ahead of us, moving like wide, fat weasel but shaped and colored for all the world like a dark, living puddle. I pulled us flat against a building while we waited, certain we would be next to get pulled by some dark watery shape into the street, or towards the lake. I felt I was on my own now, and the dim memory of an eel-man beneath the world might’ve been a dream—and if it wasn’t, I knew he was not coming for me again. A man in danger is not interesting. If I survived, maybe then I’d warrant his attention; maybe then I’d seem a worthwhile investment.

We made it to the library. Inside, I nearly collapsed from the effort of dragging a few heavy chairs against the door while Merroam ran behind the desk and retrieved a key. She charged up the narrow curving stairs of the library and came back a moment later with a large green book in one hand and a length of dried grass in the other. She set down the book on the table and began skimming through its pages.

“I’ve never done this,” said Merroam. “Not really.”

“Just trust yourself,” I said, because it seemed like good advice, and vague enough she couldn’t take issue with it. “‘Innovation is an act of courage,’ don’t you know?”

“This is hardly innovation,” she said. “This manuscript is hundreds of years old, older even than the Plains Wars. There’s nothing here to indicate it was even written originally by the Pessoera. It might’ve been written by the Indh instead, and this is merely a copy—”

“Can you do it?” I hobbled over to the table. I wasn’t going to get the door any more secure, and the truth was I didn’t think it would hold any of the drowned children, regardless. I remembered abandoned kitchens and warehouse games of hide-and-go-seek, and thought there were few enough doors that held back determined children, even in life.

“I don’t even know what it is,” she said. “You’re asking me to talk to a goddess. No one has tried this in…I don’t know if anybody’s really tried this.”

“I do know,” I said. “There’s things you just know that aren’t in any company course, and they’re not in any book.”

Merroam nodded, pushed her glasses up on her nose. “You’re right. And one thing I know”—she tapped her knuckles on the book—”is that none of this is something you do alone. Linnith’s early rites, all of the spells and evocations and prayers, all of them are communal. In pre-history, you know, the goal was group cohesion. If somebody took their family and left one of the nomadic grass tribes—”

“Merroam,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “I need you to hold my hands. And you can’t let go.”

“Okay,” I said. “Easy enough. What’s going to happen?”

“You’re going to want to let go.”

Merroam held the length of grass between her hands, both of which were open before her. I put my palms on hers. The grass between us was warm. She closed her eyes. Without willing it, mine closed as well.

I saw the crumbling walls of my parents’ apartment. I saw the moldering brick of my first school, and a teacher I had forgotten about, Mr. Remy, who pulled me into group activities, introduced me to other children. I felt my boss’s hand on my shoulder—Mrs. Ngin—when she told me I could take time off, the day my mother broke her hip, when I had no more vacation left. My hands burned with their help, as if the collected heat from their bodies could be turned to a fire and that fire twisted into a single scratchy rope, and that rope was now between us.

Merroam was right. I wanted to let go. I felt certain that if I held on, the fire would burn away my skin and flesh and bones. I’d be left with bloodied stumps, unable to help myself. I’d seen the men who lined up daily outside Okson’s headquarters looking for work, who couldn’t get it, many of them with injuries that disqualified them from company jobs. Safety protocols was the reason, but I knew better.

Instead I felt the help I’d received my entire life burning at my hands—and then, suddenly, it turned cool as water against my fingertips.

I opened my eyes and the grass was gone. I held only Merroam’s hands. Her skin was soft and warm, and if there was something intimate in the contact, it was buried under the relief I felt at our survival, her nearness as another person who wanted badly to live.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I asked for help. I…prayed, I guess. And then the grass was gone.” She withdrew her hands suddenly, as if realizing for the first time that we were touching each other, and examined the floor around us as if the grass might be there. “Did you see where it went?”

A rush of wind rocked the library. The candles flickered. The chairs I had stacked against the door shook like someone had rammed a cab into them.

“Something’s outside.” Merroam started around the desk, hands out at her sides, jogging lightly.

“Is that a good idea?”

“You wanted me to trust myself,” she said. “This is me trusting myself.”

I had to give her that.

And so I pulled the chairs away, throwing them to the ground, not at all sure if it was a wise decision to open us up to the outside again. But I had followed Merroam this far. She had saved my life, and I knew from the set of her thin eyebrows there was no stopping her from getting outside.

We threw the doors open. From the steps of the library, we could see down into the center of the town, where a tall woman with long hair stood. Even at this distance, we could see her posture: arms low, hands held out to the sky, chin held slightly up. She was singing—but that word seemed inadequate, as if she was singing with something more than her voice, a language more than words. I did not only hear her song but felt it as one feels miles travelled and miles yet to go. I heard her with a sixth sense, the sense that tells you when you are on a cliff, at the edge of death, and one step further will carry you further than you’ve ever gone if only you could take it; the same sense that tells you not to take it yet, that there are too many people and too many hours sacrificed getting you to this moment for you to throw it away.

There were children all around her. Children of water, dark shadows moving slowly out of homes, gliding with feet that seemed to fall apart and reform with each step they took. From a distance, I couldn’t make out their faces, and I didn’t want to get any closer. If anything, I wanted to run back inside the library and barricade the door again, wait there until the sun came—as if the sun could offer any protection from the way the world had turned mad.

Merroam whispered, “She’s so beautiful. Do you think it’s really her?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “In a lot of the stories, she sends someone else, doesn’t she?”

As the children neared the green lady, they seemed to waver and collapse, water melting into the ground around her. One by one, they disappeared, shadows falling into nothing, like ice sculptures melting under some impossibly hot lamp.

When it was over, she stood in the street for a moment, hands out by her sides. I got the sense from her posture that she was taken by an infinite sadness, a sadness compounded by years I could never understand.

She turned in our direction. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I felt her gaze. Merroam put her hands to her mouth, then went down to her knees. I was frozen, feeling naked and guilty, until Merroam grabbed my hand and pulled me down next to her. I put my hands together and closed my eyes.

“I’m not sure I remember how to pray,” I said.

“Then don’t say anything,” said Merroam. “Just be grateful you’re not dead.”

That much, I could do.

After a moment, a powerful wind rushed through the town once more, slamming shutters and shaking buildings in their foundations. When I opened my eyes, the street was deserted. The lady was gone.

“I think it’s over,” said Merroam.

“Nobody is ever going to believe this,” I said. I didn’t even have time to feel relieved. I was overcome by full-body exhaustion, like my heart and lungs were so tired they might wither and die.

“How much of this is going to make it into your report?” Merroam asked.

“I’m not going to start writing that,” I said, “until I get some coffee.”

Chapter Twelve

At first, Merroam wanted to get back to the library to reorganize it, but then we both remembered that there were people who might still need our help.

The woman who would normally organize the town’s efforts to recover after a disaster was gone, after all.

I was reluctant to follow her, thinking there was a very good chance somebody might want me dead, and for good reason. But Merroam pointed out, quite reasonably, that nobody knew a thing about what had happened at Itinna’s house. Most people in the town center were probably unaware what had even happened to them.

We found recovery efforts already underway, with some of the fishers going around and doing a headcount. The older folks huddled together on rickety kitchen chairs they’d dragged out of their homes. Children milled about, playing across a stretch of verdant grass that now occupied the town’s square, choking what used to be an open stretch of road. I wondered why nobody was pointing at it, screaming in confusion if not horror. At most, the adults seemed to edge around it with no more concern than you’d show for a dangerous-looking dog. But they didn’t mind their kids playing on it.

Merroam volunteered me to help a stocky woman in a gray wool coat that came up to her ears as she tried to get a head count.

“The company man,” she said, and pressed a clipboard into my hands. “You should be good at this, then. Don’t hesitate about going into people’s houses. What I’ve seen, if the doors are off their hinges, it’s because one of those things broke in. Give a holler if somebody needs a doctor.” She shook her head. “Doubt it’ll do much good, but we’ll try.”

I was curious what the people thought had happened during the night. “What do you think those…things were?” I tried to keep my voice neutral.

She gave a big shrug. “Didn’t see them myself. Scorpion could’ve gone crazy, pushed itself past the old wards, weak as they are. Or else something out of the lake we’ve got to worry about.”

“You didn’t see anything, though?”

“No,” she said. “I thought Merroam said you were going to help? Get moving. Sooner we get a head count, sooner we can get to boarding up all the ruined doors, if we need to. Scars in the sky, where’s Itinna?” She turned away before I could answer, and I was grateful she could not see my face.

I went door to door, talking to scared families and writing down their names. Most of them had heard screaming and shuttered their windows. When they asked what had happened, I repeated the stout woman’s response: some kind of animal, or animals, gone rabid. Breaking into homes in search of food. They nodded grimly, even the children. The kind of random, totally explicable tragedy that befalls frontier towns every day, those places left behind with no bordier.

When I arrived at one of the houses with a gaping, open door, I hesitated. The doorframe was a ruin, like someone had tried to drive a cab into the home. It was also soaking wet. The darkness beyond yawned at me. Even a week ago, I would have passed it over. Somebody else’s problem. Not what I signed up for. But then, even a week ago I never would have been going door to door helping with the effort to—let’s be honest—count the dead.

Inside, damp footprints led down the house’s short hallway. It was a single-story shotgun home, a straight line from the front door to the back. Easy to see where the footprints went off at the end of the hall into a small sitting room. Easy to buy time inspecting the kitchen: dishes in the sink, but otherwise in order. The bathroom: brackish gray water filled the tub, but mostly fine.

The bedroom: sheets and blankets thrown on the floor, but nothing else of note. An empty crib in the corner, covered in dust. The blankets yellowed with age.

In the little living room, it was all a mess. Two bodies, a man and a woman, were crumpled against one wall, very near each other, arms stretched out of their soaking bedclothes. The faces were swollen, purple, inhumanly disfigured.

I moved closer, drawn by curiosity, a need to know for certain what I already knew with my heart. As I got closer, I could see their necks were in worse shape than their ruined faces. It was as though they’d both been hanged; their spines were bent out of shape, all crooked and broken. No, not like they were hanged. More like something had wrapped a very small, very strong pair of hands around their throats and squeezed all the way to the bone.

As I stared, still trying to think how much of tonight had been a nightmare and how much of it was real, how much I should remember and how much should just be forgotten, the man’s head moved in my direction.

I jumped back, not screaming but moaning, arms out to steady myself. No one could survive the kind of trauma that body’s neck had endured. In a night full of terrors, there was another in store, another impossible hand reaching from beyond the trenches between stars and grasping the world in its horrible grip.

But no—it was just the body settling as a cupful of water poured out its nostrils and its hanging mouth. Very dead. Two parents with no child at home, drowned in their living room. I knew, bone-deep, that we would find at least thirteen more homes just like this. I knew, also, that the people of Deepcalm would not bury these bodies in graves outside of town, tamp down the earth and cover them with grass, offer their souls to Linnith, Queen of Plains and all growing things. These bodies were for the lake.

I walked backwards out of the living room, turned in the hallway, and forced myself to a steady walk out the front of the home. I took down the number over its tin mailbox and left with my arms swinging, my mouth dry as a desert.

Chapter Thirteen

“So what’s going in your report?” asked Merroam.

We were sitting in The Soggy Tom, a booth in the back. Buttery morning sunlight hung in the air like dust after a sandstorm, so thick you could put your hand in it. I was exhausted and more grateful to be alive than I’d ever felt. It helped that we were splitting a tin pot of hot, bad coffee and a plate of half-burnt toast with slices of thick sausage spicy enough to make your eyes water. The waitress, a young woman with circles under her eyes and dark lipstick that seemed designed to match, had deposited them wordlessly at our table once we sat down. She’d come back with a small boat of unpleasantly thick white gravy. I wasn’t sure if it was for the toast, the sausage, or both.

Merroam had to fend off a few people who came up to her asking questions. A team of men had gone out to Itinna’s house and found her dead. I didn’t ask about the state of the body, but word spread fast that her thunderstone had been cracked fully in half. I’d thought that impossible.

“I don’t know,” I said. “If I said half of what happened out here, I’m not sure anybody would believe me.”

She eyed me. “I don’t know about that. Stranger things have happened. There was a time people believed the Pessoera didn’t even exist anymore. It must have been hard to get people to believe there was a whole country still out west they didn’t know about.” She paused. “And anyway, there’s some people who believe already.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what happened,” I lied, just to move us off the subject. I still felt an eel wrapping itself around my world, massive beyond telling. “And what does it matter, anyway? All Okson really wants to know is whether to invest or not.”

“Hmm. So what do you think? Are we worth it?”

Despite everything, I found myself smiling, more disbelief than anything like happiness. “More than a dozen people died last night. I don’t think the company would want to invest in a town like this, after such an…accident. Even if it was their fault to begin with.”

“It wasn’t Okson, or even Nerst, that made those parents put their children in the lake.”

I cringed, but part of me was glad Merroam had said it. Glad she had dragged it out into sunlight where it was nothing more than the truth.

“For my money, I think this place is a good investment.”

“You’re joking,” said Merroam. “Even after everything you learned?”

“Seems most folks who…did that are gone,” I said. “I mean, the only thing a company would be paying for is the bordier getting the fish back, really, so ROI is looking pretty good. That would be the most expensive part of the whole thing. Fish from Lake Caill would catch a fair price back east. Okson would make up the cost in five years. You don’t need them to be profitable, but with Okson’s money behind you? Could be a force.”

“Wait, really?” Merroam cocked her head to the side, curious and confused in a way she had not been when confronted with a goddess. “Why did it take this long to get somebody interested, then?”

“Because at the time, it would’ve taken six years. Or seven or whatever. The point is, in the long run it would save them money to let you struggle. Build a new dock, figure out which parts of the lake are best for fishing, all that. Then they could swoop in just when you were about to turn profitable.”

“But what if some other company struck a deal with us first?”

I shrugged. “It was a risk Okson could afford to take. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”

Merroam leaned back against the booth, then leaned forward, shifting like she couldn’t quite get comfortable. I didn’t blame her. “The way you describe it, they were just letting us…suffer out here because it saved them money.” Her breath caught when she said suffer, as if she had to convince herself of something. I understood; a company did not make decisions like a person would do, but it did make decisions. “And this is who we’ll deal with if they do decide to back us. If we want life to be easier.”

“They won’t when I tell them about the deaths. My own recommendations won’t matter next to that. I’m sorry,” I said again because there was little else to say.

“What’ll you do, then?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t understand her; I couldn’t go back to Okson as if nothing had happened. “Oh, hell, I don’t know. I could find a job somewhere else. There’s shipping ventures in the Compact that need somebody who can do…analysis. Maybe I could get a job there.”

“You’re not going to stay with Okson? What changed your mind?”

“After what happened here? Like you said, the…suffering would’ve been so easy to prevent. That’s what crazy to me. All of this might seem like it was Itinna’s fault, or any of the old Anhu-worshippers. But all of it was preventable if the company looked beyond numbers. If they weren’t so afraid of what people like me told them.”

“Will they listen to you?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I said, I think the town’s a great investment. But there’s a good chance that the higher-ups at Okson…if I tell them what really happened? Everything that I saw?” I shook my head.

“Well, maybe your job here isn’t quite finished,” said Merroam. “I think we could find room for you here, after last night.”

“What could I do here?” I asked. It was hard to imagine waking up here, donning high rubber coveralls, chasing the sun across the broad surface of Lake Caill, casting a net into its depths.

But it was equally hard for me to imagine going back to New Ondbava. I could see it clearly: finishing my report, two days off to clean my cramped but luxurious high rise apartment, take out the trash and read the newspapers, see how my investment portfolio was doing, make a few tweaks here and there, fill out some paperwork, update my resume with my latest successes on this trip. That bullet point would be easy to write: “Facilitated Acquisition of Deepcalm Fishing Community…” But it all seemed too heavy, too rigid. It was the life my parents wanted for me, and I was grateful for all they’d done to secure it. All they’d sacrificed. But there was so much pressure that went into it.

And now it was gone.

It felt like coming up from underwater.

“What couldn’t you do?” said Merroam. “Either you’ll tell your people at Okson the truth and they’ll leave us on our own. Which is fine. We’ve made do without them, and we can make do still. Or else…” She trailed off. There was only the faintest glimmer in her eyes. It might have been tears; it might have been hope.  

I took a deep breath, and it felt like the first one I’d taken in a long time.

“I’ll still need to write that report,” I said. “Maybe you don’t need the company, but everybody could use a little help now and then.”

Merroam raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask more. We finished our breakfast. It tasted burnt and delicious. The coffee was strong and dark. The eggs were just right. The night had been a long one, horrible, and nothing could shake it from my memory. There would be work to do during the day, for everyone. Hard conversations, harder explanations.

It would be nice, I thought, if for once one of my reports didn’t make life harder on people.

###

To: Eric Unshwale

From: Birrs Escio

12 Moonswane 1911

–Final Report: Deepcalm Acquisition—

Mr. Unshwale,

It is my recommendation that Okson Frontiers immediately approve an investment of 125000 spondulicks to facilitate future contracts with Deepcalm’s current fishing ventures. Although I have not finalized contracts with the township, my assessment is that such a sign of good faith is vital in order to secure Okson’s place at the front of future negotiations with the town. (See attached List of Future Revenue Streams for more.)

For this reason, I suggest that the 125000 sp is transferred in Universal Silvers to facilitate my negotiation efforts. (See Bordier Transfer Coordinates, attached.)

In short, Deepcalm has exceeded our best estimates of their productivity. Without any company backing, they have created a very lucrative venture and impressive infrastructure that, once acquired, will be a significant source of revenue for Okson at relatively little cost for us. Our years of watching and waiting will have paid significant dividends—but only if we act now and the town is not scooped up by one of our competitors.

I have reason to believe that several of our competitors, in fact, may be offering similar bids. Without going into details, I spied several other company agents throughout the town. Interviews with Deepcalm’s citizens and leaders confirm my suspicion that several other companies are hoping to acquire exclusive contracting rights with the town.

On a personal note: I realize this request is unorthodox and may seem surprising given my previous history of caution with the company’s assets. I hope that my reputation will stand to emphasize what a rare and important opportunity Deepcalm represents for Okson Frontiers. This town, while doubtless not unique in the hardened lands of the still-wild west, has grown strong and industrious beyond our imaginings. It is almost hard to believe what they have accomplished without company support, beset on all sides by wild animals and the regular terrors of the west. I can only say that it has come about from the town’s strong work ethic and willingness to sacrifice, traits that Okson Frontiers prizes in its employees and which is so hard to find among the general population, even among those raised within the Ganarian System. I can assure the Acquisition Committee that the 125000 sp would be put to good use.

If any further endorsement is needed, I would also like to request more time at Deepcalm to oversee initial negotiations. No other specialist is needed, as I am qualified and licensed to oversee the matter myself as soon as I see fit, at least until all parties are ready to sign. (See Request for Deployment Extension, attached.) I’m not sure exactly how long these final touches will take, and so I cannot provide an exact date of my return. However, I must confess the town’s many charms have induced me to see this project through; you can expect my request for long-term reassignment shortly.

Thank you again. I am confident that with this one-time investment from the company, Deepcalm is on its way to a bright and promising future that will benefit all worthy parties.

Your Servant, Birrs Escio

About the Author

Peter Medeiros

Peter Medeiros teaches composition and research writing at Emerson College, fiction and poetry at the non-profit GrubStreet, and Kung Fu at Davis Square Martial Arts. His work has appeared in over a dozen publications, most recently in Swords and Sorcery Magazine and The Worlds Within. He is particularly interested in SFF that explores issues of education and community. He is represented by Susan Valezquez at JABerwocky Literary Agency.

Find more by Peter Medeiros

3 thoughts on “Hydroplaning

  1. Andrea Moss says:

    Booooooooooooooring!

  2. Marie S says:

    EXCELLENT STORY! I’m a sucker for plots with “secret creepy sinister vibes beneath the surface of a normal-seeming town,” and I loved the way that the truth of what’s going on in Deepcalm unfurls as the story goes on and the outsider narrator, Escio, becomes acquainted with a few suspect characters. Very rich world building with the company-oriented societies and decaying religions, with surprising pay off by the end as these things come to life. So good!

  3. Becky B. says:

    Loved it! Exciting twists play out in a rich and evolving world. Fun!

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