by Jack Neel Waddell
Three thoughts crowded at the door of my waking mind. First was that the sun was streaming through a skylight above me. Second was that my alarm hadn’t gone off. Third was that I had woken, yet again, in a room I didn’t recognize.
Pink silken sheets cocooned me in a circular bed as it hovered gently beneath the congruent skylight. I shielded my face with my arm as the rotation of the bed brought me into the glare of a sunbeam.
No alarm meant no phone. I needed to find out what time it was. It was hard to tell from the sunlight stabbing inward. It couldn’t be past eight, right? Eight thirty? I’d be late, but not unforgivably late. I could skip a shower. Although I could feel and smell the sex on me from the night before, it was better than being too late. It would help if I could call ahead.
The floor was only a few feet down and cushioned with a thickly napped carpet of vacillating colors. I slipped, naked, from the covering sheets to search for my clothes or, better, my phone.
The carpet went with the domed walls, which were painted in all jewel-toned hues with garish block graphics that tapered up to the skylight. It was exactly what I’d expect from a nocturn. The walls were if anything outdone by the shifting harlequin of the billowing pants I found under the bed, the closest to my own I was likely to find. At least I could be sure they would fit, albeit loosely. There were no pockets for a phone.
I rehearsed the conversation I would probably have with my captain about being late.
The only respite from the walls were a wardrobe, a staid bronze-stained wooden casement with double doors, and a door hanging half-open to a tiny bathroom. I had to hunt for the handplate to command a door to slide open for my escape from the bedroom.
I stepped out into a placid living room. Music played gently from an unseen source, and some dish clattered around the corner. The smell of a cinnamon tea and baking bread lifted my spirits a bit.
“Hey there, sleepyhead,” said a voice like a tinkling bell.
I hadn’t yet noticed my headache. Now it oozed out like the yolk of a poached egg. The room spun a little, and I wondered if the bed had really been rotating.
A woman stepped out, tall and athletic, skin as pale as a pigeon’s egg. Just the sort that Ritter would go for. She looked concerned.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
I folded onto the arm of a comfortingly tea-brown couch. The room steadied a bit.
She folded her arms over her chest and grimaced sympathetically. “I’m Masy, by the way.”
I nodded, and introduced myself. “Jomo.”
“What were those two up to, huh? You still feel woozy, too, right?”
She was too cheerful, like our alturns were nothing but rambunctious teenagers. I could feel my pulse rising in my neck.
“Have you seen a phone?” I asked.
Masy frowned as she walked back to the kitchen, “Sorry, hon, but my alturn had something to say about it.”
She grabbed a phone from the counter — ringed in a ruby case, it clearly wasn’t mine — and thumbed it on.
She read, “‘Hey, Sunshine!’ She calls me Sunshine, isn’t that cute? ‘What a hottie, right? We had a great time. Take it easy today! Anyway, Ritter says that he is super sorry about his phone, but he lost it. Tell the guy, will you? He said he’d buy a new one, one of those new Jupiters. Can you imagine?'”
A pit opened underneath me. I got dizzy again.
“See? Don’t worry. You’re getting a new awesome phone!”
An oven door squealed twice, then clanged.
“What time is it?” I managed to say.
“It’s only ten.”
“Officer Ngilu, it’s about damn time.’
I ducked my head. It was ten-thirty by the time I made it to the station and changed into an appropriate daylight outfit I kept there. My first assignment was on the outskirts of Urbana. I took a carriage, and drummed my impatience into the dashboard as the bullet-shaped car slid into line and joined the train of other travelers to the suburbs.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” I said, jogging up the stepping-stone path to the front door of the residential house. Each step jarred my hungover brain. “It’s my alturn.”
Lieutenant Hernandez waved away my explanation with a toss of his cigarette-laden hand. “You beg for these cases and then leave me waiting. Next time I won’t take an excuse.”
I nodded again and slipped inside.
A whole house was an extravagant expense, unless you shared it with your alturn. What good was a half-time house? Usually it meant children.
This one was a spacious ranch. The living room opened into the dining room and galley kitchen. A small bedroom, decorated in pink and unicorns, spurred off there. Deeper inside was a master suite, decorated in the dark, flat colors of a diurn’s preference. A den in the back left the house feeling lopsided.
A short officer named Fennel in blue paper booties showed me why.
The officer frowned at my feet first, sending a wave of heat to my face. It was a stupid mistake for a forensics officer to make. I grabbed a pair of booties from a box by the back door and slid them on.
We went through the hall closet, through a door hinged onto the back. The room on the other side was small and stark, a square perhaps seven feet to a side. The walls and floor were all covered with a medium density foamboard that gave way slightly underfoot. A mattress lined one wall. A bucket sat in each corner of the opposite side – one held clean water. The other, with a plastic lid, was used as a chamber pot.
“Sweep it for prints,” Fennel said. “I’ll bet anything there’s only one set.”
I half hated her for getting ahead of me. Of course there would be only one. This room was designed for imprisoning alturns. The fact that it was open during the day told the story of which alturn was getting locked away.
I turned back to the lock. There were trails in my vision as I turned too fast. I closed my eyes for a moment, then walked back to the closet door. There’d be either a combination lock, or a lock set on a timer.
I couldn’t believe my luck at landing in an alturn apprehension case. This was exactly the kind of case I wanted to handle, just the unit I wanted to work in when I made detective one day.
“Who called it in?” I asked, poking at the lock. It was a push-button combination.
“The daughter, who just Schismed. The new diurn side didn’t like what was happening, so she called it in when her pappy went into the box just before sundown.”
I pulled on the wheel, feeling a little slop, then proceeded to push on the buttons in order. When I came to the three I felt a nudge in the wheel. I felt the same with the five, the six, and the eight. There were twenty-four arrangements of those four numbers, but it only took a few minutes before I hit the right combination – five three eight six. The wheel turned and three bolts emerged into empty space. Had the door been shut, they would have locked into the door frame.
Fennel grunted approval. I felt a wave of pride. Even hungover and still in the aftereffects of whatever drug Ritter had put into our body late into the evening, I could put together clues and solve puzzles. I could make contributions to the team. Maybe I could retake the detective exam at the end of the year.
“Blinking God, Jomo,” Fennel said, “where are your gloves?”
I had them on, didn’t I? I looked at my hands, willing them to be covered in purple vinyl. I remembered tugging on the paper shoe covers. The gloves were right there.
“What’s this?” Lieutenant Hernandez stepped into the room. “Ngilu, are you contaminating my crime scene?”
My throat seemed to close. “Sir, I-“
He grabbed my hands and pulled them off the wheel.
“Late and interfering with evidence. Is there a reason you’d want your prints to appear at this scene, Ngilu?”
He dropped my hands and sighed. “I’m tired of this. You’re good when you’re sober, but we can’t count on that, can we? I’m recommending to the captain that you be terminated.”
“Are you still whining about that?”
The voice was nearly my own, but I felt my tongue raise, seeming to push my voice up and back. It was nasal and throaty at the same time, in the fashion of the nocturns. It always put me in the mind of films of gangsters from the previous century.
“Mr. Ritter,” said Dr. Kajin, “that’s not sympathetic. Please consider Jomo’s concerns.”
“Fine,” he said.
Something switched in the circuit fixed to my head, and my voice was my own again. “I know it doesn’t mean much to you, but my job is important. It’s how I pay for food and rent. And it makes me feel like I’m doing something important.”
The secret thing switched again. I felt like I was trapped in a glass room in my mind. I could see the world and hear my thoughts, but I could not touch the places that gave them voice. I couldn’t speak, and Ritter didn’t bother.
“Please, Mr. Ritter,” Dr. Kajin said. “Jomo is spending his precious money and daylight for this conversation. The least you could do is communicate.”
“I said I’d pay, and I meant it. I’ll set him up with an apartment, with a credit account at the grocer. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Dr. Kajin closed his eyes. I wasn’t sure whether Ritter could see through our shared eyes. Ritter had never summoned me in the darkened hours with a mediator. When Ritter lived, I only slept dreamlessly.
“Will you accept this compromise, Jomo?” Kajin asked. He pressed the button, toggling who could steer the body’s tongue.
I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have an apartment, only a transition room. I would need somewhere to stay in the day, a base of operations for my job search. I needed food until then.
Not that I would starve. No matter how hungry I got during the day, Ritter would eat like a king when the sun fell. Hunger wouldn’t mar his hours.
But I couldn’t bear to depend on Ritter and his money. Her money, really, Ritter’s mother’s. I clenched my jaw at the thought — I wondered what showed on Dr. Kajin’s instruments then.
“No. I will find my own way.”
I kicked the door just at the deadbolt. It took two kicks to splinter the frame. I felt a twinge of gratitude that Ritter spent so much time in the gym, even if it was only for his own vanity.
Tweakers and hookers went scrambling for the front door or windows. I glanced for weapons, but only saw the backs of the users. Manuel, the only one sitting still in the storm of fleeing bodies, leaned back into his easy chair, both hands visible on the armrests.
He couldn’t know that I didn’t have a gun. Every time this scene had played about before, I had been armed, with backup on call.
“Officer Ngilu,” Manuel said. “A pleasure to see you again.”
I eyed the room, just as I would if I were here for a bust. Bottles were strewn between beanbag mattresses. A few stood upright, their contents not quite spent. A few needles laid on the floor or stuck into the armrests of couches too ratty even for a fraternity’s porch.
“Of course,” Manuel continued, “it would be my pleasure to see your warrant.”
Manual’s speech was slurred slightly and his sunken eyes looked a little glassy, likely due to the unlabeled bottle standing beside his chair, but his wits remained sharp.
I waved away the words. I walked to the bedroom and flung the door open. There was more scampering and the shattering of glass. Manuel winced behind me.
I pulled open a closet door to see a teenage boy, painfully young to be in a dive like this. I grabbed his arm and hauled him to the front door.
“Your warrant, officer?” Manuel repeated. “Or should I call the department?”
I listened for a moment. It seemed quiet. It seemed empty.
“There’s no warrant, Manuel. And I’m no longer an officer.”
Manuel’s eyes squinted nearly closed. With his sunken eyes and gaunt face, he looked like a viper ready to strike. What might be tucked into the chair’s cushions?
“I’m here to buy.”
Manuel shrugged with upturned hands. “Buy what, officer? I was merely hosting a party for my friends.”
His tone had changed, though. He was no longer slick, he was obsequious. He was mocking me.
I charged him. Manuel could barely raise his hands before I clutched his elbows and pulled him into the air. Whatever disease had run through the man in childhood had left him short and thin. With the bulk Ritter had built in our body, it was easier than lifting that boy from the closet.
Manuel’s eyes showed nothing. I dropped him to the floor. At least he was away from the chair.
“Either that was police brutality, or merely assault,” Manuel said, getting to his knees. “What do you need?”
“Phase,” I said. There. The word was out there, hanging between us, heard by whomever was there to hear it.
Manuel looked up at me. “I don’t have any.” His voice was as cold as his eyes.
“But you know where it can be found.”
“No.” He was on his feet now. “Get out.”
I shook my head.
“I can’t help you. I wouldn’t if I could. That is an evil thing, against all God’s order.”
Briefly, I felt the lack of the Woken God’s medallion on my chest. I shut it from my mind.
“You sell drugs in the daylight.”
Manuel shrugged. “Perhaps even God needs to daydream. Drugs and sex are not against His order, only against his schedule. What you seek undermines His creation.”
“Perhaps, but there is worse evil to defeat with it.”
Manuel cocked his head to the side, squinting, considering.
“Body thieves,” I said, when Manuel would not speak.
Manuel motioned for me to continue.
I closed my eyes for a moment, then let my secret out into the air. “My mother is a victim. Her alturn flies from Amundsen-Scott to Saint Nick’s every six months on a corkscrew flight that avoids the daylight. My mother hasn’t woken in the sun for over a decade.”
Manuel shook his head. His voice, when he spoke, was sympathetic. “You cannot fight them, Mr. Ngilu. Not the big people with all the money. They have all the laws, all the police.”
“I must try. I have nothing else.”
He stared at me for a long moment then, reluctantly, he nodded. “It will take time, and a lot of cash.”
In the end, it took three days, and all the cash I could scrape together. I had sold my lease at my transition house immediately. My carriage pre-paid card went fast, but I was still disheartened when I took my scant possessions from my closet and safe to a pawnbroker. I didn’t eat during my days — I let Ritter handle that — and I started each dusk at a park bench.
That was risky. A quick-waking nocturn mugger could have gotten the drop on Ritter before he stirred. But Ritter wouldn’t have had anything for a thief to take, except maybe a phone that he could easily replace. Twenty years ago he would have carried a wallet with two sleeves, one for each alturn, but fortunately technology had advanced to biometrics and PINs. Too many alturns had broken faith with their counterparts, taking cash and using their cards on overseas purchases.
After three days of living slim, pulling odd jobs where I could for every penny, it was time.
“It’s not enough,” Manuel said, when I showed him the cash I had scraped together.
“It will be. It must.”
Manuel frowned, but led me through the footpaths that gridded the city center. Between them, city-owned engines pulled ad hoc trains of commuter carriages on steel rails to the silver skyscrapers that reflected the morning sun into my eyes. I squinted into the light, fighting a headache.
I watched Manuel carefully, and his surroundings too. Despite Manuel’s surprising faith in the Woken God, he was still a crook. He pimped, he dealt. On two occasions I had busted him with stolen goods in his apartment, though he’d always claimed they had been brought by his “guests.”
The Woken God needed people like me to guard the world against people like Manuel. And that’s what I had done, until Ritter had pushed me too far.
My anger quickened my steps. Perhaps subconsciously, Manuel sped up.
We met our guide in the pantry of a mid-tier restaurant. She was short and light-skinned, dressed in simple but clean clothing. Her head jutted too far forward, so that her back hunched slightly, but she didn’t look like a crook.
She took my name and alturn registration number and typed both sloppily on a note in her phone . She grabbed the money and, with a practiced look, riffled the edge of the bills. With a satisfied face, she tucked the cash into her blouse, either into a pocket or her bra.
“Are you wired?” she asked. She clipped her words like they were pressed out of a letter-cutter.
I shook my head, but she waved at a steel door. “In here.”
In the freezer, with the door closed, she took my phone and waved some sort detector over me, much like the wands security personnel used instead of a frisk. This one was wired to a box on her belt, covered in dials and lights. She adjusted a knob and waved the wand over me again.
“Alright. You have to leave the phone, though.”
“What? Where are we going? Don’t you have the Phase with you?”
She gave me a piercing look. “Comments like that are why people might think you’re wired. There’s no Phase here. Leave your phone.”
“I need my phone.”
“Give it to him,” she said, pointing through the freezer door window at Manuel.
I sighed. My last belonging, the new Jupiter that Ritter had purchased. I tapped at it, erasing my local profile and locking it down.
She banged on the door with the heel of the wand. Manuel hauled it open.
“He’s good. You’ll get your finder’s fee. Hold his phone for him.”
She shouldered past him and I had to hurry to keep up, pausing only long enough to press the Jupiter into Manuel’s hand.
I noticed as I moved past that Manuel clutched a necklace in his other hand. As I followed the nameless woman out the back door, a psalm of the Woken God followed, winged from Manuel’s lips.
She led me through the alley to an adjacent street. Three Windsprint bullet-shaped carriages waited in a line at the roadside. The woman pulled out a prepaid card, rather than a phone, and waved it at the access scanner. The passenger door scissored up to open, and she reached in to hit a button so the back door opened, too.
I took the hint and slid on the fabric seat and strapped myself in. The woman tapped on the dashboard until the carriage rolled out.
“Where are we going?” I tried. The woman kept her steely silence.
I wondered why she wasn’t worried. She had my money, but we were alone, and she had already set the destination. If I were the wrong sort of person, I could surely take her out, take back my money, and possibly find out where the dealers were.
She wasn’t worried, which worried me.
What would Phase be? I wished she had just brought it. Whether it was in a pill or needle, I wished to get it over with while my will held out. The Eye of the Woken God gleamed in the western sky, staring down at His creation and judging it. I had never had a drink, never taken a pill that wasn’t medicine. Even then, the doctor had to order me to take it.
The carriage quickly forked away from the spires of downtown and joined an ad hoc chain sloughing towards the wharfs of the bay. The other carriages tended to be beefier, carrying cargo as often as passengers.
The woman tapped at her phone, nose jutted forward, birdlike, so I nearly expected her to tap at it with her nose. She only spoke when their carriage disengaged from the chain and sidled up to a row of rectangular cargo containers, each larger than the room I had recently rented.
“Watch your step,” she said as she climbed out.
The dock was wet and slick with algae, which seemed like a hazard. Perhaps this section of the wharf was seldom used.
The woman passed the first container and knocked on the second, a forest-green one with an eight-digit ID number that I tried and failed to memorize. The door cracked open, and we both squeezed through.
In addition to the woman, there were three men in the space. One closed the door behind me, even as I stepped back toward the wall. Two more stood on either side of a deeply reclining chair, a chair that seemed quite familiar.
Then it became clear. Of course Phase would be similar to the transcranial stimulation that a mediator performed, but somehow more persistent.
“Mr. Ngilu,” said one of the men. This one wore a lab coat and stood closest to me by the chair. He was nearly bald, though pale stubble grew in a halo around his crown. “It is a pleasure. Please be at ease.”
The man by the door took a stance like a soldier at parade rest, arms behind his back. He looked straight forward, apparently at nothing. The woman had joined the third man, and was showing him her phone and whispering.
I should have told someone where I was going, someone besides Manuel. I wished I had my gun, or at least my phone. I found myself clutching at my shirt, at the missing medallion of the Eye of the Woken God.
There was no way but forward, so I stepped forward, extending a hand to the man in the white coat. “Yes, Mr…”
“Doctor, please. Doctor will suffice. Please, have a seat.”
I pushed down a spike of anxiety and laid out on the chair. The doctor took the transcranial mesh cap and affixed it to my head. The tiny metal studs felt colder and sharper than they should pressed against my scalp.
The doctor pulled out a rubber strap and wrapped it tightly around my arm.
The doctor pulled over an IV stand. “These will be necessary for the transition to take place.”
Coldness clawed at my chest, but this was just one more boundary I would cross. I nodded, and the doctor stabbed his needle into my arm and released the band. Then he injected something into the IV port at the top.
Finally, the woman came back around into view. “Mr. Ngilu, we need to talk about the details of our arrangement.”
“We’ve made our arrangement.” My words were syrupy in my mouth. I tried to sit up, to confront her, but she leaned down and pinned me using just her left hand. “I paid you.”
She nodded, spilling hair across her face. She let it lie. “And that is what got you this far. This is an expensive procedure, Mr. Ngilu. The doctor’s expertise does not come cheaply, and neither does the equipment.”
I tried to grab her arm, but missed.
“Be still, now,” said the doctor, “you’ll disturb the IV.” He grabbed my hand and strapped it down, then walked around to my left and strapped that one down as well.
No one would have any idea where to look for me. I wondered who would end up with my case.
“I gave you eight thousand. I don’t have any more money.”
“No,” the woman said, raising up and letting her hand drop from his chest. “But Mr. Ritter does.”
“But how could he…” I started, but then my drug-muddled brain caught up. “You want me to give you his money.”
I closed my eyes. It was easy, with the drugs in my veins. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”
“No matter. If you want to Phase shift, you’ll do it.”
“How much?” I asked, eyes opened. She would have already done the calculation. The time in the carriage she used to research me and Ritter. What would have happened if Ritter had been a garbage man, or a county clerk? Would I have simply been dropped into the Bay, or would the eight thousand have been enough?
I tried to keep my face impassive, but I couldn’t be sure how much control I had. Sixty thousand. Ritter should have that much and more at his disposal, given to him by his mother. They wouldn’t even notice that much missing.
“Fine. How long do I have?”
“Just tonight. How do you think this works?”
“I have no idea.”
“I suppose I can enlighten you,” said the doctor, stepping forward. He had another needle, this one filled with a fluid that was antifreeze-green, which he shot into the port in the IV.
“We are going to hyperactivate your network, the network for your diurn personality. The mesh-net on your head and the drugs we are administering maintain the diurn network’s stimulation for at least twelve hours, enough to last through the nighttime hours. Another cocktail of drugs will inhibit your nocturn’s network through the night, when your normal circadian rhythm and the absence of solar rays would normally activate it.”
“Tonight. I’ve only got tonight to get you sixty grand and what I was planning.”
The woman snapped her fingers in front of my eyes, forcing me to focus on them, then drew my gaze to her. “Do you have another choice, Mr. Ngilu? It is a little late to back out.”
The third man, so far unacknowledged, shifted into view. It was impossible to tell his build beneath the creases of his gray suit, but he moved with the smooth assurance of a dangerous man.
“Mr. Tian will make sure that nothing prevents you from accomplishing your goals.”
Tian nodded. “I would shake your hand, but…” he indicated the straps. Then he took a seat at the far end of the shipping container, looking at me.
The world was getting distant, and I struggled to keep his eyes open. Outside, the Eye of the Woken God was surely closing at the horizon.
“Good bye, Mr. Ngilu,” said the woman. “I hope our business will be concluded satisfactorily for all.”
The doctor followed her, and I heard the door slide open, then shut. Tian stayed seated where he was, though after a few moments he reached down and lifted a briefcase to his knees. He snapped it open and pulled out a large sketchbook and a few pencils.
“Do you mind, Ngilu?”
I grunted noncommittally, confused as to what he was doing. Tian took this as an affirmative and began to draw, lifting his eyes toward me every few moments. The scratching of the pencils only accentuated the remaining silence.
Tian did not sleep. Neither did I, not even when enough time had passed that I was sure the Sun had drooped behind the edge of the world. My thoughts drifted dizzily, dreamily, but consciousness never fully left me.
I snapped to attention when Tian stood suddenly and approached me, holding the sketchbook and pencils in one hand. With the other, he tugged the straps away from my arms, then rudely yanked the IV needles from my arm. I swallowed my protest. Tian grabbed a bandage for my arm and tossed it to me, but I was too foggy to catch it. Fortunately, it landed on my chest.
“Your head should begin to clear now, Ngilu.”
Tian tore a page from the sketchbook and handed it to me. It was a good likeness, but I seemed sad.
Tian opened the door, confirming my instincts. It was fully dark.
“You had better hurry. Caffeine will help the fogginess.”
“Can you arrange a carriage?” I pulled the TMS cap and stood. “I sold my subscription.”
He shook his head. “You are on your own. At least until it is time to settle. My advice to you? Don’t fail. This wharf has swallowed more than one that has disappointed her.”
“What should I call her?”
“Don’t. But her name is Lafferty.”
The last time I had seen the stars, I was ten years old, before our Schism. I could barely see them now, now a couple of faint points striving behind the streetlights. They must have been the brightest, I supposed, maybe planets. I wondered if Dreamers knew these things.
I walked out to the street. A middle aged man climbed out of a carriage, late for work, unshaved. He frowned at me as he passed. Most of the nightshift workers would have been delivered by their carriages during twilight. His diurn must be selfish.
The carriages wouldn’t take me without a phone, and Tian had left me alone for whatever purpose he had.
I walked at a quick pace, first at a sharp angle away from the docks, then along the downtown streets toward where I had left my phone.
Ritter’s phone. That was key to all of this. The woman had been foolish to make me part with it so thoroughly. It would cost me much of the night just to get it. Surely she knew that.
The realization struck me like sour milk in my tea. She did know it. This was the game, to waste my time so that I am unable to finish my own mission. Perhaps I was even meant to fail hers. Either way, I would be beholden to try again.
A group of teenagers boiled out of a large black carriage, already exchanging puffs on a long silver pipe. I found myself clutching at the empty space at my chest, but the bronze eye no longer hung there.
One of them, a girl with pink feathers in her hair and a taffeta drees, caught my gaze. She nudged the bruiser next to her, though I couldn’t take him seriously in parachute pants and a cape. Still, the boy pointed the silver pipe at me and laughed as I turned down an alley.
Everything about me was wrong in the night. The way I dressed. The way I walked. Even, should I get to that point, the way I spoke. I was a Worker, not a Dreamer, and the difference was clear.
I practiced my night walk down the alley — leaned back, languidly pushing my feet forward. It was hard to say if I was making a farce of it, or if it looked authentic. I tried to just not fall over. I had hoped that my body would remember the motions, but the network in my brain must not be firing right for that to take over.
Finally, I could wait no more. My clothes were still wrong as I went out the back of the alley onto the next street, but my walk, I could hope, was closer to a Dreamer’s lazy-looking mosey.
There were just as many clubs and bars on the next street over, and people were beginning to fill them in. I passed a pair of men, tightly holding hands, laughing with one another. One raised an eyebrow at me and opened his mouth, but the other man slapped his shoulder with his free hand and said, “Oh, hush,” in that Dreamer’s voice. Still, they laughed together after they passed me.
Manuel’s apartment was lit up when I arrived, but that could have meant anything. I had no idea whether the individual squatting there would be Manuel’s alturn, or would even know who I was talking about.
At first, I was surprised that my legs weren’t tired or sore from the unfamiliar walk, but then I recalled that it isn’t unfamiliar to them. Just me.
I knocked on the door. The windows, just as in the daytime, were covered over. I hoped there would be no illicit activity. Then I remembered — the laws at night are much more libertine. Very few drugs were illegal while God and children slept.
After some moments, the door opened. A nun stood there, draped in a white habit with a silvery disk of the closed eye of the Dreaming God hanging on a chain on her chest.
I peeked past her into the room. Men and women lay on cots and couches.
She sees me frown. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Yes, Sister.” Then I realize how odd my story will sound. How would a diurn get ahold of a nocturn’s clothes? Especially a nocturne still dressed as a diurn? Sure she’d see through me, I went on.
“A diurn named Manuel has my phone.”
I forgot my voice. Her back stiffens. “Yes. He left it here, with a note that said you’d be here for it. But I won’t give it to you.”
She began to close the door, but I stepped forward to block it with my foot. Some of the people inside turn to look.
“It is an evil thing you deal with,” she continued. “If I knew your name I would report you. Leave now before I call the police.”
Even the night police would respond to Phase. I considered pulling away, but who knew what Tian and the woman will do to me if I fail to deliver? I needed the phone.
“Who is Manuel to you?”
Her lips tightened, but the answer was clear on her face. Her small frame and short stature were familiar. Her eyes were the same hooded portals that sat in Manuel’s face. She could be his sister, but I knew better.
I pushed the door open, forcing her back. A large man on a cot stirred, but he was too weak to me — whether from drugs or from illness, I couldn’t tell.
“I’m calling the police,” she warned.
“I’ll tell everyone.”
“It is not a grave thing amongst the Dreamers. Gender is fluid under the Sleeping God, which I’m sure you do not know.”
I nodded. “But not among the Woken. What will Manuel’s clients think? Or his neighbors?”
Her lips withered as though she would spit if she weren’t in her own home. I sickened even myself, but I kept my face impassive.
She reached into the pocket of her draped robe and pulled out a Jupiter. She looked at it again, then handed it to me.
“Leave, disgusting creature.”
I stepped through the door, letting one heel keep the door from slamming shut behind me. “For what it is worth, I’m sorry.”
Now she did spit through the door, just missing my leg.
“May Nightmares stalk you.”
Ritter’s phone took only a thumbprint to unlock. As I sat on a darkened curb a few blocks distant I poked through his screens, trying to find anything that would help. Mercury, his banking app, took more than a thumbprint — I’d need a PIN, and nothing on the fresh screen surface clued me into what the sequence could be.
I knew Ritter lived on Bayfront, in an upscale complex. I read through texts, trying to find an apartment number, but nothing came to the forefront.
“How goes the search?”
The voice came from the deeper shadows. I was light-blinded by the bright screen, but I needn’t turn to know it was Tian. Was he the Nightmare with which the sister had cursed me?
“I have a plan,” I lied.
He grunted, and now I did turn. He held a true cigarette, burning against the dark of the night, between his lips. No vaporizer or pipe. How much must that have cost? His clothing, which I could barely see, was now appropriate to the night — a patchwork of jewel-toned colors.
“Why does she want me to fail, Tian?”
He puffed a large cloud into the sky. “She keeps no counsel with me. I’m am just her strong arm.”
“But you know.”
“You seem smart.” The glowing ember at the end of the stick brightened as he pulled on it.
“To hook me for more. I fail to get sixty. She threatens to kill me. I promise more, perhaps a hundred. I am strung along, bringing in ten or twenty thousand at a time, perhaps, until I’m caught or cut loose.”
He grunted again, something unreadable. “Well, if that’s a fate you want to avoid, you’d better get moving.”
It was midnight already.
Bayfront was an easier journey than Manuel’s apartment had been, because the phone meant a carriage subscription. For a short ride they only needed a thumb print to authorize against the phone’s credentials. Tian traveled with me in silence.
Bayfront was one of the rare establishments in the city that believed in truth in advertising. The towering expanse of the edifice overlooked the bay from the north, a quarter turn around the bay from where I had visited the wharf earlier. From here the view of the beach was unmarred. A private marina was set a length away, judged to be the optimal distance for convenience and beauty.
The building itself had a marbled look. In the night, I couldn’t make out the colors, if any.
“How will you make it in?” Tian asked.
“I can’t do this with you following me around,” I said. “You took off earlier. Can’t you do that again?”
He gave me a long look from under his heavy lids. I returned it the best I could. He wasn’t about to shank me on this street.
“Fine. But, here—”
He reached into my jacket’s inner pocket and pulled out my phone. He tapped it with his own so that they exchanged contact information. Then he tucked the phone back in my pocket.
“I’ll be in touch. Don’t try to dodge me.”
It had taken an hour to get to Ritter’s, and I wasn’t even inside yet. I didn’t know his apartment number, or even the floor. I didn’t know how to get in when I got there. I didn’t know if any of that would help me get the money from his bank. All in all, a shaky start for an improvised heist.
I walked toward the main doors. Behind them, a long curved desk stood sentinel, manned by a solitary woman with close-cropped hair and a harlequin-colored dress that draped from her shoulders. Behind her were the elevators to the towers of apartments.
The hostess waved at me through the glass. My face burned for a moment — I had nothing to say to her. Would Ritter know her name? How would he act toward a hostess?
I fished my phone back from my pocket and acted out an urgent call, turning my back on the door. Ritter’s apartment was the best place to look for the code I’d need to withdraw a large sum of money. There had to be a way to find it.
I looked down at our phone and thumbed it on. With a few quick flicks I found Ritter’s list of nightly calls. Near the most frequent was a man named Nylan. The picture in the profile was a pale-faced man with slicked back frosty-blue hair. He had a sharp nose and high brows.
I took a deep breath and dialed.
“Ritter,” came the voice over the phone, pinched high and back. “How are you, my dear?”
I tried to remember what it felt like when Ritter spoke in the mediator’s office, with my tongue pressed toward the roof of my mouth.
“Wonderful, and you?” I bleated.
“Are you ok? You sound dreadful.”
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t pull this off on the fly. Nylan would see through this even over the phone. But an idea struck me.
“Tip top,” I said in my own voice. “Couldn’t be better.”
“Oh! That’s marvelous! What an impersonation! Who are you doing? No, don’t tell me. Roxbey Stewart?”
I thought I recognized the name as a Dreamer actor.
“Spot on, don’t you think?”
“It’s wonderful. Now, to what do I owe the honor this evening?”
I needed Nylan to show me Ritter’s room. How?
“A party. At mine, tonight,” I said. “Dress like it’s daylight.”
“A Woken party! Oh, I love it!” He slowed his voice, dropped it low and throaty. “I’ll see if my alturn has anything I could borrow. Oh, you have the best ideas. I’ll be there in an hour.”
The Jupiter in my pocket guided me to the nearest tox store. I had never been inside one, never even seen one open. Bottles, mostly clear or amber, lined the shelves inscrutably. Powders hung in plastic bags. Balsa boxes advertised the tobacco and marijuana for pipes that hid inside.
I wasn’t the only customer. Kaleidoscope robes hung off the shoulders of young folk filling their baskets with bottles. An old couple, too hunched over to shuffle like the Dreamers I’m used to, browsed cassettes filled with pills.
“You look a little lost.”
I looked over my shoulder to see a young woman, wearing an uncharacteristically binding wrap for a Dreamer. She smiled.
I remembered to smile back. Ritter would have had something charming to say. He was somewhere in this brain, some other subnetwork of neurons. If only I could access a fraction, to gain his skill and knowledge, but to leave him floating in the unconscious dark.
I should have sent her away. I couldn’t afford to raise suspicions. But a skeptical stranger would be better than a gaffe among Ritter’s friends.
“Uh, yeah,” I managed, trying nasal tones as I turned toward her. “I’m having a little get together, and I’m not sure what to serve.”
“Costume,” I said, spreading my arms in my Woken clothing.
She put her hand to her forehead. “Of course. I was wondering. Well, let’s see what we can put together for you.”
Yerra, as it turned out she was named, guided me. Every bottle felt like a sin, every pill a betrayal against the Woken God. But I had already betrayed Him by being here when the sun had set, and while He slumbered these things were reckoned no sin. Still, I had to swallow my guilt as I lugged the box Yerra had provided me to the counter.
A thumbprint on the Jupiter transferred the funds, but just barely. A few bottles more and the price would have crossed the threshold needing PIN confirmation.
“Need a hand with that?” Yerra leaned against the counter, swiping her phone over the scanner to pay for a demure azure bottle.
Ritter would know what to say. Of course, Ritter would want her in his bed. My instincts were not so finely honed as his, but even I felt like that was what she was after as well.
I could barely keep the box in my arms. What I needed is to know whether this woman could help me find Ritter’s PIN. If she could, I didn’t see it.
“No thanks,” The bottles rattled as I shifted the weight. “I can manage.”
I could barely carry the box back to the apartment. I stopped half a dozen times to set it down and adjust my grip. But gradually, huffing through the streets, I approach Ritter’s apartment building.
“Ritter, dear!” A man approached in a long gray coat hanging to his knees. He had dark hair over high brows. It was the man from the phone, Nylan, though he had changed his hair.
“Can I help you with the box?” he asked as he came close. His voice was still pitched high.
“No, thank you.”
“Oh, still so marvelous! When have you practiced?” He didn’t pause. “What do you think of my outfit? I mustn’t soil it, my altun would be so miffed.”
I began to walk toward the glass doors of the apartment. Nylan followed. “You won’t believe who’s coming.” He rattled off a list, too fast and too long to follow. Ritter’s social circle had a wide radius.
Nylan held the door open as I passed through it. We both nodded to the woman at the desk, who smiled at our costumes.
“We’re having a little get together tonight,” I say in my own voice.
“Isn’t he tremendous?” Nylan adds. “He should go on Star Seekers.”
“I’ll have them ring you, Mr. Ritter. You can buzz them up.”
I walked beside Nylan to the elevators, carefully watching which way he went, acting as though I knew as well.
We got in an elevator, and I let Nylan choose the floor. Twenty-seventh out of thirty-six. As we ascended he listed the roll of invitees.
My plan was working so far. Nylan led me to my apartment door halfway down the gray-green stone-tiled hall. A sleek keypad guarded the door.
I waited a moment, hoping Nylan would offer to press the code. Did Ritter trust his friends with it? I supposed not, when Nylan kept quiet.
“Can you hold these?” I asked, knowing I could have put them on the floor. But I wanted Nylan distracted for a moment.
The buttons, thank God, had not been wiped regularly. The slight grimy buildup of repeated finger punches showed the most on the two, then the one, then the seven, followed finally by the six. I pressed the numbers in that order and the screen flashed green.
I led Nylan through the door as it slid open. Could I be lucky enough for the PIN to be the same? I needed time to check.
Ritter’s apartment, I wasn’t surprised to learn, was palatial. At least by my standards. The foyer opened into a wide expanse, richly carpeted in shocking white. To the left, couches and chairs angled toward one another and toward a large screen on the wall. Immediately ahead of the door, a dozen wooden chairs surrounded a wood and glass dining table. To the right was a galley kitchen, open to the entertainment space through a long counter. It was here that Nylan delivered the box.
“I’ll be back,” I told him as I took off down the hallway to the right. The first door was a bathroom. Then a bedroom with a decadently large bed piled high with cushions. The final door, locked with a handprint, led to an office.
I sat down with the Jupiter and opened Mercury. 2176 failed to unlock the app. I began to dig through drawers, searching papers or notes for codes.
There was a knock on the door. “Ritter?” Nylan’s voice was high and nasal, but pitched with concern.
“Just a minute,” I said in my own voice, since I couldn’t mimic Ritter’s. “Have to find something.”
There was a long moment of silence. Then, “Ok, dear. Hurry. Guests are arriving.”
I pulled open a cabinet and flipped through the files. One was labeled “Documents.”
Inside were a passport, a birth certificate, and so forth.
I opened Mercury again and clicked “Forgot my PIN.”
Questions came up. Full name. Date of Birth. Alturn registration number. Mother’s alturn name. Thumb print and retinal scan. Between what I knew, what I had, and what was in the files, I entered everything.
Finally: Choose a new PIN.
Why not 2176?
There, spilling out electronically before me, was all of Ritter’s allowances. All twenty grand of it, only a third of what I owed Lafferty.
My first instinct was to look around the room, as though I would find Tian standing over my shoulder.
A knock at the door nearly stilled my racing heart.
“Ritter?” Nylan’s voice again. “Your guests are asking after you.”
I opened the door and pushed past him. “Finally,” he said under his breath. But I turned and pushed my way into the bedroom.
“Where—“ he started, but I shoved the door shut in his face.
Ritter’s closet was enormous, filled with a dizzying explosion of color hanging from a half dozen rods. I found an outfit that seemed the most tailored, though it still draped off uncomfortably.
As I opened the door from the bedroom, Nylan was scowling. “Ritter,” his nasal tone pitched throatier with anger, “by the Shut Eyes of God, what is going on?”
I tried to mimic Ritter’s voice as I pushed through a gray-clad crowd toward the front door. “I’m sorry. Something has come up. Please care for the guests.”
It was a little past three in the morning, and a chill was developing in the air. I hadn’t thought much about that. In the day, the heat tended to build throughout until perhaps the last hours. Obviously, with the Eye set, short of air masses moving in, it would only get colder as the night wore on.
I walked along the street, back to where the shops dotted the lane. I stepped into a café and ordered a coffee, the simplest I could find on the menu. They served it to me, steaming, in a paper cup with a lid. I sat in a quiet corner under a print of a leaning barn.
I looked through Ritter’s videos on his social media, trying to find any of himself so I could practice his voice. I found a few. It was hard to get the sounds right – throat tight, tongue high, sliding past words at an exhausting pace. Perhaps any witnesses would think I was an actor, practicing for a role.
Every once in a while, I would get a call from Nylan or another friend. I sent those to voicemail and continued until I felt that I had recreated the feel from the mediator’s office, like there was a snake in my throat doing all the talking.
I flicked through all the names in Ritter’s contacts – it wasn’t under Mom or Mother, but toward the beginning of the list, under Charity Ritter. I tapped the name to call it.
After only a couple of rings it cut off and went to voicemail. I tried again, with the same effect. I put my lips to my coffee and nearly burnt them. I put the cup back down.
“You had better be hurt, Patrick. If this is about money, you’ll never see another dollar in your life. I’ve already told you to cut down on your spending.”
That voice. I hadn’t heard it in over a decade, since before my Schism, and rarely then. Charity Ritter had always been the dominant alturn, and I had thought of her as my mother, though I had been raised in the city by a nanny as Charity flew back and forth between the poles. I would visit and, rarely, she would visit me.
After our Schism, that all changed. I was the diurn, heir to the diurn personality’s fortunes, which were essentially nothing. I followed Ritter to prep school on the coast, where I was allowed to learn in exchange for part-time labor in the kitchen and fields. The Ritters never let me forget the gift they felt they gave me, going along for the ride, but the truth was my body was there anyway. It’s not like a carriage could have commuted between the city and the coast daily and nightly. All the alturns of the wealthy students made similar arrangements – we were the labor that kept the school going.
“Are you ok? What was so urgent?”
The tinkle of the bell on the door seemed to cut through my concentration. I looked up to see Tian standing in the doorway, nearly taking up the whole width.
“I want to come see you.”
There was a sigh.
“Patrick. Can this wait? I have the flight next week, then a board meeting in two weeks, and after that-“
“Tonight. I need to come tonight.”
Tian walked to the counter and spoke to the woman there.
“Patrick, you’re scaring me. Why can’t you just get a ticket?”
Maybe I could. They didn’t explain how Phase worked. But here was my theory – once the rays of the Eye hit me, our ordinary cycle would return, and Ritter would awaken the next dusk. But what would happen if I stayed in the dark?
“I need a corkscrew flight.”
Her voice tightened. “What happened? What did Ngilu do to you?”
“Nothing, yet.” A kind of truth. “Please.”
There was a pause. “I’ll see what I can do. Keep your phone nearby.”
She hung up just as Tian sat down in front of me, sipping from his cup of iced mocha. I tried my own coffee, but it was still too hot to drink.
“This is a new look for your, Ngilu.”
I nodded and tried my Dreamer voice on him. “The finest money can buy.”
“Good!” He gave a little laugh. “You almost sound native. But speaking of money…”
I waved my hand. “You’re a Unity. I’ve only heard stories.”
“There are barely even any studies. No one knows why you didn’t Schism. Why work for the mob? You could do almost anything.”
He shrugged. “Ms. Lafferty came to my aid at a time of need, and she pays well.”
He stared at me, drilling through me with his eyes.
“You don’t have the money.”
“I have a start. And I can get more, if she gives me time.”
He dropped a hand below the table, his eyes still fixated on me. I could almost feel a bullet lined up with my liver. After a long moment, he shook his head.
“There’s no more money coming, is there?”
“Give me a chance to go back to the apartment. I can sell things.”
He pursed his lips.
“Come on,” he said at last, “we’re going back to the wharf.”
He stood, one hand in a pocket. In my own pocket, my Jupiter started buzzing.
“It’s Ritter’s mother. She has the money.” I dug out the phone and showed him the ID. It was her. He nodded and I answered.
“Ok, Patrick,” she said, “the plane is ready to take off in an hour. It will corkscrew ahead of dawn all the way to Saint Nick’s.”
“Thank you,” I said, my voice nearly slipping into my slow daylight drawl.
There was a bit of a pause on the line. “This had better be worth it, Patrick.”
She hung up and I tucked the phone back into my pocket.
“What was that?” Mr. Tian asked, nodding toward the door.
I didn’t move from my seat. “She has the money, but I have to go see her.”
He looked around the shop. He clearly didn’t want to talk about this here, with the other customers so near. He lifted me to my feet. Coffee nearly slopped out through the lid of the cup of my other hand.
“Let’s go talk to Ms. Lafferty.” He guided me to the door, one hand on my arm, the other in his pocket. A few café-goers looked up.
I shook my head. “I need to go. Can we just call her?”
“She does not do business over the phone.” He pulled me into the street.
Dreamers strolled and laughed in the streets, hardly giving us second glances. He seemed to be heading for a row of carriages at the end of the lane.
“I can give a down payment.”
He grunted. “It’s not for me to say.”
“What if I gave it to you to hold?” I wasn’t subtle. “I’ve got twenty thousand I could send to you. That’d cover a lot of art supplies.”
He was silent, but his grip tightened, and I knew I blew my chance.
Tian pulled his other hand out of his pocket and reached into chest pocket for his phone to wave it at the carriage door.
“Wharf,” he said as the door scissored open.
Not a tavern or a flat, where we might meet with Lafferty and talk. He was taking me somewhere dark with deep waters that sunk secrets.
I slung the paper cup of coffee up and squeezed it until it burst into his face. It scalded my hand, and we both screamed, but he turned and covered his face, letting his phone clatter to the ground. I grabbed it and jumped into the carriage, slamming the door shut.
“Go to the airport,” I said as it slid into the lane. Green lights swirled on the screen before flashing acceptance.
I turned to see Tian standing and turning to watch my carriage link into an ad hoc train across town. Without his phone, he had no easy way to track me, and no quick way to follow. I feared shots that didn’t come as he shrank into a dot in the mirror.
I wondered if Tian or Ms. Lafferty would have guessed where I was headed and cut me off, but there was no one waiting for me at the airport besides the crew of the chartered jet. We took off on schedule and fled the dawn in a curved path that took us north and west until we were well past the Artic Circle, past the terminator line where constant night ruled until the equinox dawned in just another week.
I stared at my watch, wondering if, when 8:00 a.m.came back in Urbana, I would be myself because I was the diurn and I was meant to be at that time, or because I was still the dominant neural sub-network, and there have been no disruptions to the sequence.
I supposed I would find out in twelve hours or so.
Saint Nick’s dominated the landscape, a man-made island directly centered on the geographic north pole. It was a fully equipped city, home to the wealthy nocturns in the winter and diurns in the summer, and the poorer ones that served them. All legal, because there was no wealthy opposition.
It was nearing midday, but Saint Nick’s shined their lights against the near-equinox twilight. It was a tight-packed city, with towers that rose high into the darkened sky, the best to maximize use of the shadow cast by the Earth’s bulk. Ribbons of carriages threaded through the centers, a river of light through the false mountain peaks. But the entire city died at the edges of a circle as though it were inscribed with a compass. These, I supposed, were the limits of light and shadow where one alturn could dominate for the entirety of a half-year.
The plane landed smoothly at a runway on the far edge of the airport that skirted the outside of the inscribed line of the city.
“Patrick Ritter?” The man who came through the door as the plane landed wore a Dream conundrum – a colorful suit, but it was tightly tailored and each piece was a uniform color. A red coat over a blue suit jacket sitting atop green slacks.
I nodded and the led me to a carriage. “Brady, sir. Your mother has arranged a room for you at the Hermes.”
“When can I see her?” I tried in my Dreamer voice. If he noticed anything wrong, he gave nothing away.
“Not today. Perhaps tomorrow or the day after.”
“The equinox is coming. She’ll have to make preparations to leave.”
He looked at me like I was a slow child. “Of course, sir. We have that well in hand.”
“I just mean, I have to speak to her before then.”
“Of course, sir,” he said again. He stood straight and waved at the open door to the carriage.
Tuesday passed, then Wednesday. The Hermes was a fine hotel, perhaps the finest space I’ve ever stayed in. A huge bed dominated the room. Sleeping for hours was strange to me now, though of course I had slept as a child. I laid down when I was tired and, after long hours of dreaming, I awoke as myself. It seemed like wasted time, though in truth it took less time than I would have given Ritter through much of the year.
Other than that, I had little to occupy my time. I wandered the streets, which were swept meticulously clean of snow and debris by a host of specialty carriages and broom-wielding workers. Most of the Dreamers I passed were dressed like Brady had been. I had no other clothes than those I wore on the plane, so I bought a pair of suits like his and mixed and matched them.
I ate at the finest restaurants I could find, three times a day, rather than once. This also seemed like a waste. I also spent an hour or two in the gym, repaying Ritter for the one blessing he had given me, a healthy and well-maintained body.
An idea struck me, and I stopped at a tox store. What I wanted was expensive, but I had Ritter’s money to pay for it, since I had never sent it to Tian and Lafferty. I wondered what the tox store did during the summer portion of the year, whether they put up another storefront or simply closed up shop and opened down south.
I supposed I ought to worry about Tian or Ms. Lafferty showing up and dropping me into the Arctic Ocean. They hadn’t yet followed me, though surely they would have guessed where I was. I dug out Tian’s phone. I had taken out his battery so he couldn’t track it, but now I replaced it and turned it on.
There was no Lafferty on any contacts, but there was a frequently called number that wasn’t linked to a contact. I checked the time, and it was shortly after sundown back home at Urbana.
I texted “Just give me time, and I can get you double.” Then I took the battery back out.
I wonder if they could track a text?
Then I realized. After sundown. There would only be one location I could be and still have control. I had just given them the clue to my location.
Thursday came. I called Charity every day. Most days it went to voicemail. Once it went to an assistant. Then came Friday.
“Patrick.” She sounded exasperated. “Can you not give me some space?”
“I need to talk to you, Mother.”
“Tomorrow. We’ll have lunch.”
Tomorrow. The day after they would depart for Amundsen-Scott for the equinox.
I’ve never heard of anyone using Phase like this. Not that anyone knew much about Phase. How long would it last? Forever? Could I Phase my mother, and the two of us live as Ritters for the rest of our lives?
I just wanted to talk to her again, for the first time since I was a teenager. Charity used to let her call me on equinoxes as the plane flew through daylight on the way between poles. That stopped when she started taking exclusively corkscrew flights.
What would it be like to have her in the daylight and let the Ritters live their own lives in the night? But they weren’t content to live with their half. Ritter claimed my daylight hours with his drugs, and Charity claimed nearly all of my mother’s life.
The carriage pulled up in front of Maximillian’s International, the corporation for which Charity worked.
The receptionist gave me a tag and showed me to the elevators. Brady met me on the thirty-second floor and guided me to a waiting room outside her office.
My heart was fluttering. I had managed to fool her on the phone. How could I fool his mother in the flesh?
There she was. I had hardly seen her in the flesh as a child – mostly on a screen. She had more lines on her face, of course, but the hardness of her eyes was still there. Her suit was colorful, but the colors coordinated — an eggplant suit jacket over a berry red shirt. She did not open her arms.
“Right this way,” she said.
I sat in her office, spacious, and in a corner. Mostly it was packed up. Only a small tablet sat on her desk.
She sat primly and folded her hands on the desktop. “Now, what is all this about?”
A hundred things I could have said. I didn’t know how to start.
“I’m not your son,” I drawled as though the sun were overhead.
Her eyes hardened. She began to reach for her phone. I raised a hand.
“I just needed to speak to you.”
She didn’t stop, so I raised my other hand — and the needle it held — to my neck.
She hesitated, then put down the phone. “What is in the syringe?”
I shrugged. “Enough. That’s all you need to know.” In truth, I barely understood the full extent of the narcotics in the cocktail, only that the dosage would be enough that neither Ritter nor I would ever wake again. The tox store sold me whatever I wanted, provided I paid enough.
She pursed her lips, no doubt trying to decide whether I was bluffing. “What do you want? Money?”
I thought about Lafferty, either waiting for me at home or coming for me here, but I needed something else more.
“I want to talk to my mother.”
She slouched back. “Is that what this is about?”
She closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them again. “If I do that for you, do I get my son back?”
I nodded. “We can take the daylight flight back to Urbana. You’ll be mother and I can speak with her. When night falls, Patrick will be restored.”
I had no idea if that was true, but there was no reason to clue her in.
She stared at me. “You can put that down now.”
I lowered the needle.
“I’ll agree to your plan. But you won’t like what you hear, Jomo.”
I half expected police to grab me in the early hours of the morning, but instead Brady came to gather my bags for the plane. The sun was just at the edge of the horizon as the carriage rolled to the airport. I wondered if the nocturns were already all asleep.
Charity was cloistered in her berth when I boarded. I took a seat and waited as Brady closed up the plane. Some autopilot routine kicked in and took us south, not in the corkscrew that most of the chartered jets were taking as they lifted off the ground, but straight toward Urbana.
I dozed, not the sleep of an alturn switching personalities, but the light slumber of the bored. Brady, or Joel, as the diurn was called, woke first. His phone calls home woke me, and I walked back to the sleeper berth where mother would be.
I knocked softly, then louder when there was no answer.
“Come in,” she said at last.
There was no mistaking this woman, Mwende, for Charity. They had the same body, surely, but their bearing and face was different as, well, night and day. Where Charity held herself up, kept her spine and face rigid, my mother was soft nearly to the point of limp. I nearly felt like I had to rush over to hold her up.
She looked up at me, face betraying confusion.
I stepped forward, taking her into my arms, crushing her clutched arms against me, and kissing the top of her head.
“Mother! Oh, it’s you! I wondered when I’d see you again? How are you? Are you ok? I’ll get you out of here somehow, ok? I promise, we’ll find a way.”
I don’t know how I was making such promises, when police and gangsters both awaited me when I landed, but perhaps Ms. Lafferty could be convinced to help us. Between mother and I, we could take the whole Ritter fortune and find a new place to hide, perhaps on one of the new orbital stations for diurns where the sun never sets.
She pushed away. “Jomo! What am I doing here?”
I didn’t understand. Had I misunderstood? “I’m here to save you, mother.”
“No, what am I doing here?” Tears were streaming down her face, tears I had misunderstood.
She took a deep breath. “Oh, Jomo. How are you? Tell me you’re ok, at least. I can handle everything, I think, if you are ok.”
“Yes, mother. I’m ok.” Minus the police and gangsters.
“Are you? You won’t be in trouble for whatever you did to bring me here?”
She was insightful, whatever her state.
“No, mother.” No use in upsetting her.
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re ok. I’d like to go back now.”
Ice clutched at my heart. “You can’t go back, mother.”
Tears welled back up in her eyes.
“Not yet. Not until nightfall.”
“Oh, Jomo. What have you done?” She slumped against the bed.
“Mother, what’s wrong? What has Charity done to you?”
She looked up at me through tear-curtained eyes. “To me? Charity has blessed me with relief, Jomo. She gives me peace.”
I reached a hand to her face. She put her own hand on top of it. “I could never have been a mother to you, Jomo. Charity made sure you were raised and educated. She made sure you had a job and a life. All I could have done would be to darken your days, son. I owe her more than I can imagine. And she keeps me from hurting.”
My heart ached to see her hurting like this. “There are other ways, mother.”
She shook her head. “Charity never agreed to the medications. It was her body, too, Jomo.”
I lowered my hands. My voice was barely a whisper. “Won’t you come with me?”
She laid back down. “I think I’ll just sleep here, son. Maybe until nightfall.”
The plane landed with the sun still shining. Lieutenant Hernandez was waiting, along with a few others for backup, which they didn’t need. In the distance, I saw Tian standing by a carriage. Another figure sat inside. Tian raised a finger to his lips.
I didn’t give them anything on Tian or Ms. Lafferty, the reason being I wanted to survive prison, but I confessed to Phase shifting and alturn abduction. After pleading guilty, I got ten years in the city prison. Every dawn Ritter stopped at one of fifteen centers throughout the city and got in a special carriage which took our body to the lockup before the sun rises. Every dusk he walked out a free man. The day-lit hours in between, I read or worked out. I tried to exhaust my muscles, just to give him something to complain about during the Dreaming time.
Every dusk, as I laid down, I tried to remember what it was like to be myself, what it meant to have my neurons firing. I was starting to dream at night, of languid walks and colorful parties. I could feel my voice in my nose and throat and my fingers tapping on the phone.
I sponged the forehead of the man on the cot below me as he began to thrash. I reached and held him down.
“It’s happening again, Sister Jolene!”
She strode near to put a rubber strap between the man’s teeth. She took the sponge from where I had dropped it and took over. She looked down with so much grace and empathy that it was hard to remember that the face was also Manuel’s.
The silvery Closed Eye of the Dreaming God dangled and caught against the simple tie that kept it from swinging down into the man’s face. In time, perhaps one could hang in front of the simple white layman’s robe I wore.
In time the thrashing ended.
“Nyx is such a terrible drug,” she said, shaking her head. “It shouldn’t be allowed regardless of the Sun.”
I nodded, and she turned to the next patient.
We weren’t in Manuel’s apartments anymore. We were into a much cleaner space, though still downtown, outfitted with new cots, sterile IVs, and a small crew, all generously outfitted by Ritter’s funds.
Though she no longer thanked me nightly, Sister Jolene’s face shone with gratitude every night I spent working here.
Nylan and the gang had long since stopped calling. There had been no sign of Tian, though if he got word of Ritter’s change of routine I’m sure I could expect a visit.
I changed back into my clothes to walk to the carriage stop for a ride back to prison, a walk I always enjoyed.
A walk free under the stars.