The Desolation

by Dana E. Beehr

Across the cracked and broken wastes, two figures came walking.

They were a man and a woman, under a darkened, starlit sky. The man was tall and slender, his skin, eyes, and hair all pale, as if bleached by years or decades of handling power. He was dressed in a dark tunic and trousers with dark, belted outer robe. The woman was shorter, all cinnamon, with hair and eyes the color of fine coffee; she wore a sleeveless top that left her midriff bare, and loose pants cinched in at the ankles above soft leather boots. The man’s hands were bound behind him with glowing chains, and more chains fettered his ankles. Around his neck rested a collar of solid light, and a lead ran from it to the woman’s hands.

An air of subtle, habitual cruelty hung about the man: an icy chill that suggested he was capable of terrible things. The woman gave away nothing, her dark eyes limpid and unreadable. Yet there was something about her—in the way she moved, the easy lightness of her stride—that spoke of danger; and indeed the man regarded her with the respect he might accord a venomous serpent. The woman carried a curving sword, though the edge of the blade was dull; the man was unarmed.

After a time, the man spoke, quietly. “What is this place?”

The woman glanced back at him over her shoulder with one eye. At length, she responded, “This is the Desolation.”

“And what is that?”

“This is the place broken things go to die.”

 ◊ ◊ ◊

They walked on, the woman leading, the man trudging after, his steps shortened by his fetters. Around them, the vast, lifeless plain stretched out, littered with detritus that might have fallen from the sky: smashed houses jutting out of the earth at impossible angles; splintering carts; broken tables and chairs; jagged wheels embedded in the ground, their spokes sticking up like fangs; ruined child’s toys; crumbling walls and sections of towers. The plain was speckled with these things as the sky above them was speckled with stars. From time to time, they passed flickering, transparent human shapes—thin, hollow-eyed, dressed in rags—hovering over the wreckage. These shades stretched out beseeching arms, calling soundlessly; the man and the woman ignored these mute pleas and walked on.

The man’s eyes were cast down, but not in humility. He was thinking. At length, he looked up.

“And you are to leave me here? Is that to be my punishment?”

Again, she glanced back at him. “No one returns from the Desolation.”

“It is hardly necessary, you know,” the man continued, in that soft, almost gentle voice. “Nor are these—powerless as I am now.” He worked his shoulders, indicating the chains.

“You are not powerless, Edan,” the woman said. “I will not make the mistake of thinking you are.”

His pale lips curved in a smile. “You flatter me.”

The smile faded under the woman’s wordless stare. He averted his eyes in a show of submission that failed to cloak seething anger.

At last they came to a toppled section of a stone tower, lying on its side like a giant, downed tree trunk. A flash of recognition crossed Edan’s features. Holding the lead in her hands, the woman turned and commanded, “Down.” His knees folded under him like a puppet whose strings had been cut. More anger flashed in those colorless eyes. The woman fixed the lead to an iron ring in the side of the wall.

“We will stop here,” she said.

“Terathena—” the man began.

“Do not say my name.”

Edan drew a breath, clenched and relaxed his fists behind him. “Please,” he said. It was clear that “please” was not a word he cared for. “Will you—do you really mean to leave me here?”

Terathena turned that flat brown stare on him. “No one returns from the Desolation,” she repeated stonily.

His brows drew together; and then his fury broke. “You can’t!” he raged, helpless. “You can’t abandon me here—I am Edan, the Lord of the Nine, Starkiller, Highest of All!  How dare you!  You’re no more than a—a tavern dancing girl from a long line of dancing girls, and you think that the few tricks you know allow you to stand equal to those who have spent a lifetime studying the names of the stars! I—I command you!” he shouted. “I command you to bring me back with you, you hear? I—” He ran himself into the ground and knelt there, panting in fear and despair.

Terathena simply regarded him, arms folded, displaying no visible emotion. Without a word, she leapt lightly onto a fallen block, then lowered herself to a crosslegged position with her back to Edan.

Edan wet his lips. His mind was clearly still working. “Tera—forgive me, Thena,” he corrected himself. “Please. Will you bring me back with you? I will—will reward you beyond your dreams. I can give you things that—” He looked up at her. “Thena?”

Terathena turned her head to look at him. After another moment, she said, “No one returns from the Desolation.”

Edan stared at her. Dawning awareness lit in his eyes.

“It is as I told you,” Terathena said. “The Desolation is where broken things go. To die.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan began to laugh, a strange, carefree, almost joyful sound completely at odds with the chill that hung about him.

“So, then. This punishment is for you as well. I had wondered why a tavern dancer had been assigned as my escort.” His voice turned soft, sympathetic. “What wrong did you commit that you were ordered to this fate along with me?”

When the woman answered, it was with a strange air of sufferance, perhaps even resignation. “I chose this duty freely. I am the last of my trio; my sisters sacrificed themselves to defeat you, Starkiller. It is just and fitting that I follow them into death.”

“How very noble of you.” Edan spoke the word as if it were the vilest profanity. “If you—”

“Enough.” Terathena turned her gaze toward the distant horizon. “Soon, the Dead will come.”

“The…the Dead?”

“In this place, all must face their sins. They will come, and soon.” She nodded to the distance. “There, they are gathering now.”

Edan went still. He followed the direction she indicated, and paled further.

Some distance from them, a bright mass of light flickered into being, moving toward them, slowly and surely; then it broke apart, into a host of human forms.

There were thousands of these forms, if not tens of thousands. Men, women and children, reduced to transparent, colorless images that flashed against the night sky. They drifted toward the segment of tower where Terathena and Edan waited, passing through the shattered relics littering the flat plain, past the shades orbiting the relics. Edan steeled himself.

“Who are they?”

“Your victims,” Terathena replied. “Those you wronged. Those you killed.”

“What will they do to me?” His voice was iron-hard.

Terathena gave no answer. Above him, she rose to her feet, alert. The horde drew closer, their faces gaunt and haggard, their hair matted, their eyes empty sockets. Many of them bore the wounds that had killed them; some were missing limbs or gaping chunks of flesh. Blood streaked their clothing, dark and clotted against their transparency. They came, limping and staggering, stretching out their hands and crying, “Edan!  Edan!

“See what you’ve done to us, Edan!”

“You murdered us, you monster!  Monster!”

“Your life in vengeance!  Your life!”

Edan recoiled. His pale face went waxen; his features set, rigid and harsh. “No,” he snarled, barely audible beneath the howling chorus. “No…no, it wasn’t like that, you— You know nothing—You have no right to judge me, you can’t— Leave me!” he cried suddenly. “The Stars’ sake, leave me in peace—!”

The Dead paid no heed. They pressed onward, until they were almost close enough to touch him. Edan shrank away…

Then Terathena leapt down from the block, yanking the sword from her back.

The golden blade lit with eldritch blue flames. She passed close enough to Edan’s head to make him flinch back; as she landed, she lunged into an attack. Blue fire lanced from the blade, striking perhaps a score of the Dead; they boiled away like mist. More pressed forward, but Terathena danced among the shades as a thresher among wheat, slashing with sword and fist. Azure light burst and sparkled with each blow, as more and more of the shades evanesced into nothingness.

Yet the Dead paid the dancer no heed; all their attention was on Edan. They struggled toward him, but none could penetrate the circle defined by Terathena’s flaming blade. Cautiously, Edan straightened, watching with bright interest.

On and on Terathena fought, showing no sign of exhaustion, and the great host of the Dead diminished.  Finally, the very last of them winked out; she lowered her weapon and was still under the dark, starlit sky.

“Well done,” Edan murmured. “I would not have thought you frivolous dancers were capable of such power.”

“This was not a battle,” Terathena said flatly. “These were your Dead. They had come for you. They could not harm me.”

Edan’s pale brows drew together. “They came for me.”

Terathena nodded.

“Then why did you not let them take me?”

Again, that weighing, measuring stare. “A quick death is too easy for you.” She looked to the distance. “It is too easy for me.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan followed Terathena’s gaze, and tensed again. Two more shining figures were drifting toward their fallen tower like dandelion seeds caught by the wind.

“Are they—”

“These are here for me.”

“Will they harm you?” he asked as they drew closer.

A muscle quivered in her jawline. “No. Their purpose is other.”

As they drew nearer, Edan saw that they were both female, Terathena’s age. Colors were muted in the flickering wash of their bodies, but one seemed as pale as he, with large, blue eyes and long blonde hair caught up at the top of her head; the other was dark as burning rock, with a complex hairstyle of tiny braids gathered at the back of her head and studded with pearls and other precious stones. Their clothing marked them as Deep Dancers like Terathena: the midriff-baring top, the loose breeches gathered into low, soft-fitting boots, the coin scarf at the hips. They too had swords at their backs; but the dark one carried a veil wound about herself, while the blonde one was laden with rings, bracelets, and necklaces. They stopped perhaps half a dozen paces away, gazing at her.

“Who are they?”

Terathena looked down at him. Again, when she spoke, there was an air of resignation and acceptance; if this was a punishment for her, then answering Edan’s questions was clearly part of it. “They are my line-sisters and members of my trio. Teraisë and Teramin.” She nodded to the pale one and the dark one in turn.

“Ah.” Edan pondered this revelation. The two women continued to watch Terathena, profound grief in their eyes. “Why do they not speak?”

“There is no need.”

“Why do they not attack?”

“What makes you think they are not?” He looked up at her, startled, as she continued: “The strongest attacks are not always physical.”

“I see.” Edan cast his eyes down, thinking. “They must be very angry with you, to come to you so,” he said, his voice laden with false sympathy.

“Angry? No.” Terathena watched her line-sisters. There was a strange depth in her dark eyes: almost a wistfulness. “Reproachful, perhaps. We all agreed on what had to be done. It was the only thing we could do… ”

“I could say the same,” murmured Edan, a small smile playing around his lips.

“But that does not change the fact that I survived, and they did not.”

“And what was it that you did?”

Her eyes hardened. “Save your breath, Starkiller. You will need it. The attack of conscience is next.”

Edan began to laugh again. “Attack of conscience? You are wasting your time, dancing girl. I don’t have one.”

Terathena extended her sword. “You will.”

In the sky, a dark cloud was gathering.

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan followed the line of Terathena’s pointing blade and saw it: a thick, dark, roiling mass. It looked something like a thunderhead, far off, yet swiftly drawing nearer.

A sound drifted to them: a high-pitched, whining noise that seemed to drill into Edan’s brain like a diamond-tipped blade. He knotted his hands into fists behind him and looked up at Terathena, to see if it was grinding on her too; her face was as stony as ever, but there was a new tightness around her eyes.

The cloud boiled closer still. It seemed to be made up of fine particles of some sort, but he couldn’t tell what—and then it struck him.

Insects.

Thousands, perhaps millions of tiny insects, milled above them in the starry, empty sky. The cloud wafted over them—then bent and twisted back upon itself, and arrowed straight for them.

“Thena!” he shouted in warning.

But Terathena was already moving, tracing a circle around them, her feet weaving an intricate pattern of steps. She swirled and tossed her sword so that it flashed in the air, a flowing snake of blue-gleaming metal. Where she stepped, a shield of blue flame blazed alight, arching over them in a perfect dome. With the shield complete, she raised her sword to a guard position and set herself.

The insects came for them, squealing mercilessly. They were hideous, bristled creatures: each as long as a thumb, black bodies banded in sickly gray or blue or green and ending in inch-long, gleaming stingers. Their tiny heads were a twisted parody of human features; they called in voices rendered shrill and tinny by their size, and it was this that made the sickening whine. They were so repulsive that Edan drew back, shaking; then the creatures in the leading edge of the attack struck the barrier and flashed into flame.

They blazed out as quickly as sparks, and the entire cloud halted. It lifted away from the barrier, milling in buzzing confusion.

Edan hesitantly looked up. “Will they leave us?”

Terathena shook her head. “No. They will be attacking again in short order.”

“They are so ugly,” he mused.

“They carry vile deeds.” Terathena tightened her hand on her sword hilt.

Edan lowered his eyes in thought. “And how many of these insects have come for you, Terathena?” he asked her, with that same false sympathy.

She did not give him so much as a glance. But she lifted her free hand and held up fingers—one, two.

Teraisë and Teramin. He laughed again, while above, the cloud came for them.

◊ ◊ ◊

The full mass of insects struck the shield with a roar, like waves crashing on rocks. Hundreds of them went up almost instantly; Edan squinted against the brightness of the little creatures’ funeral pyres. Another wave came at once, and another—until under the onslaught, Terathena’s defenses began to weaken. The blue fire of her shield bowed inward, growing thin. In the shadow of the surging insect cloud, he shuddered.

“Your barrier will hold?”

“We can only hope.” Terathena swept her sword along the places where the shield was injured. More blue flame followed the curving path of her blade, but for every damaged section she healed, another appeared. Edan watched, fascinated. He had always dismissed the Deep Dancers as tavern wenches; he had not dreamed they had such power.

“If you free me, I can help you, Thena,” he offered.

“Be silent,” she snapped. She danced within the shield, faster and faster, and yet more and more of the insects flung themselves against her defense, until a section of the barrier was worn paper-thin.

“Thena…” Edan’s shoulders tensed.

“I see it!” She whirled to face the new vulnerability. Yet as she threw her fire at it, more rents began to open up in the fabric of the barrier. A huge section of the dome split open from top to bottom.

“Terathena!” Edan shouted.

With a cry, Terathena extended herself in a wild lunge, sweeping the blade down the gaping rend as if opening an opponent’s belly. The wall of the barrier flowed back together, but a high-pitched whine announced that some of the insects had slipped through. Edan felt three searing pains at the base of his neck.

With a choked cry, he collapsed flat on his face, pressing his forehead against the hard earth. His guts were filled with lead, his heart with ice. Guilt!

He saw them clearly, three faces. Narelan, his first victim—his friend. Selchie, his mentor. Demeald, his faithful follower—the last, futile death. Had he not repaid their kindness with betrayal and murder…? Only three deaths, out of the thousands he had caused, and yet now their weight was crushing him. Edan clasped his hands over his head, crying “Terathena, help!

It seemed like a lifetime before the three points of heat were swept from the base of his neck. The burden lifted; even so, Edan kept his face pressed to the ground, lacking the strength to move. The after-effects of that horrible guilt were still with him; he trembled, terrified that it would return. He lay there, helpless, hearing Terathena’s blade sing as she danced, defending him.

Finally, as the last edge of the insects’ hum died to silence, Edan raised his head.

Terathena stood with her back to him, her sword clutched in one hand. Her back was straight, her head high; her countenance was grim, rocklike. The blue, flickering shield was gone. Around them, a perfect circle was demarcated by ash and insect corpses piled in tiny mountains.

Outside the circle, Terathena’s Dead remained, watching her with deep sadness. Something in the set of Terathena’s hard shoulders showed that she was acutely aware of their presence. Edan looked closer.

Clinging to the back of Terathena’s neck were two of the same, wasp-like creatures that had stung him.

Thena,” he said harshly.

She turned her head.

“Your neck—”

Absently, Terathena reached up and slapped the wasps away.

“Did you know?” Edan asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“I knew.”

“Then why—”

“My conscience already stings me; the insects could not hurt me further.”

Edan watched the Deep Dancer in dawning awe. “Name of the Triune, what did you do, Thena?”

Terathena shifted her eyes to Teraisë and Teramin. “I killed them.”

“Killed?” Edan laughed a little, though it was hollow. “That, I do not believe,” he chided her mildly. “I cannot think you capable of such a deed; not one of you dancing girls. Those of your order have never understood true power. If I—”

Now Terathena glanced at him again. “Be silent, murderer.”

Edan raised one brow. “Have you not said you were a murderer yourself?”

“I am,” Terathena said shortly. “That is how I can recognize such crimes in another.” She reached out and touched the pale strand of light that led from his collar to the ring in the wall. “Silence.”

Edan’s voice died in his throat. He almost choked from the force of it, from his own rage and anger. Terathena resumed her position, staring out across the plain of wreckage and shades, simply watching.

Time passed. Edan shifted restlessly. Anger at Terathena was foremost in his mind; he thought of how he would like her to die—her, and the others who had condemned him, the High Council of the Nine Cities. If I still was what I had been, they would never have dared, he thought with a petulance that even he recognized as rather childish. They would not dare to do this to…

But they had: the High Councilor, Kilantra Rasheman, the other councillors, two from each city. As they had passed sentence, he had burned their faces, their names into his mind, swearing silently that he would revenge himself on them…all of them…they…

Suddenly the realization struck him that he could not remember the others. Even their faces were misty. Had there been the full eighteen councillors? He tried to recall the details—but they slipped away. With a bright spark of fear, he reached further back, for that last, disastrous battle where his forces had been overthrown and he had been enchained. He could remember staring out over the walls of his citadel, built in the ruins of the City of Starlight, seeing the forces arrayed against him across the Plain of Stars; could remember his fury at their defiance, at his own subordinates’ failures, but little beyond that. He knew that the walls had been breached, that it had come to hand-to-hand fighting within the citadel itself…but the memories themselves were gone.

He could only remember three things with clarity: the faces of his Dead.

Burn the Triune, he thought viciously. Above him Terathena watched the skies.

Silence stretched out; minutes turned into hours. The faces of his dead filled his thoughts. Edan slowly realized he felt a chill…as if strength was draining from his bones. A strange lassitude seemed to be creeping into his body. He started up with a gasp.

Terathena spared him a glance. After some consideration, she reached out and touched the strand of light that served as his tether. “Speak.”

Edan exhaled sharply. “I feel…weaker.”

“Yes.” Terathena nodded. “I feel it as well.” Her rigid, upright stance was starting to falter. “It is the Desolation. It drains you of your strength, your life, until there is nothing left, and you become…”  She nodded toward a pair of shades sitting on a shattered oven: a sobbing outline of a man holding a child.

“And my mind—” Edan broke off. “It is going. I cannot remember—”

“The Desolation takes everything from you except the wrongs you committed.” She faced her own Dead. “Those remain with you always.”

The chill inside Edan deepened into panic. Narelan, Selchie, Demeald—their eyes bored into him. And behind them, more— hundreds, thousands… “Why? Why was I sentenced to this? What purpose can it serve? The dead are dead; this will not bring them back—”

“Not ‘the dead’,” Terathena corrected him. “Your victims, Edan. They deserve justice.”

“No,” he whispered. “I cannot—”

“You have no choice. Neither do I.” She returned to watching the wastes.

Edan gritted his teeth, angry not just at her response, but at his own weakness. I will not speak to her again, he vowed silently.

More time passed; there was nothing but that gnawing, cold lassitude. Terathena’s sword sagged, as if it were too heavy for her to lift. Edan found himself shivering as if he were standing in a blizzard. Yet the cold did not seem to be physical. There was nothing to do but to contemplate the end.

At last Terathena took a seat on a stone block that had fallen from the tower. It was the ruined Tower of Stars, his citadel; he had recognized it at once. Seeing the ruins here had shaken him; it seemed almost purposeful.

If Terathena recognized it as well, she showed no sign; she settled with her back to the wall, resting her sword on the ground. Her eyes were distant. Her Dead moved to stand beside her, each still watching her with identical expressions of deep grief. Seeing them grated on Edan’s nerves.

“Thena,” he said at length—for a moment he had not been able to remember the name of the woman who held him prisoner, “why do you not drive them away?”

He saw a brief blankness in her eyes, as if she were struggling to remember, too. “I can’t,” she said at last, and looked down. It took Edan a moment to realize what was in her voice:  Helplessness.  The thought flickered that he could use this to his advantage, but it was distant. He realized, with dismay, that he was coming to accept that no escape was possible.

“Why not?” They bothered him, those Dead of hers; their silence, their piercing gaze.

She shook her head dully. “They have earned whatever reproach they see fit.”

“For the Triune’s sake, Thena!  At least tell me what you did, that you believe you merit such punishment.” His own Dead hovered, demanding. As she considered him, he offered, “It will help pass the time at least.”

She hesitated, then gave a sigh. “It is little enough to tell.” Again, he could see that she felt this to be a part of her punishment. “Do you remember your taking of the City of Night?”

A small smile came to Edan’s pale lips, tinged with bitterness. “Of course. That is where I earned the name Starkiller.”

“After the fall of Night, you seemed unstoppable.” Her dark eyes were distant, as she looked on things long past. “When it became clear that the First City, Elean the City of Dreams, was your next target, there was panic.”

Edan said nothing, but that small smile remained.

“The Grand Assembly met for three days and three nights. All the Great Houses, the merchant nobles, the heads of the sorcerous orders—all gathered, searching for some way to respond to the threat. Who could know how to fight an army such as yours? Creatures forged from the bones of the living—unnatural, twisted, in torment—”

Edan’s brows drew together. “No, you are wrong. Those who followed me were content to serve me. They were—”

“If they were content, it was because you had stripped their minds away and turned them into empty vessels for your will, Edan Starkiller,” she retorted. Edan fell silent, seething. Terathena continued.

“Elean, the City of Dreams, is not the City of Blades—Elean rules by wealth and splendor, not by iron and steel. They had few defenders to send against you. I and my sisters—” She looked over at Teraisë and Teramin, and Edan gritted his teeth at the emotion in her eyes. I did not take them from her; she did that herself, by her own admission.

“The Council was divided. Some thought we should join the other Free Cities in the field, hopeless though it might be. Yet just as many believed that to contest your might would bring destruction, and that it would be best to surrender to your will.”

“Wise,” Edan murmured.

Under Terathena’s gaze, his smile withered. She went on. “Those who argued for peace pointed to the City of Night. There had been a few brief reports conveying that they had been treated well after your conquest. But my sisters and I—no. I did not trust them.” She lifted her eyes to her sisters again. The sorrow in their faces deepened immeasurably.

“I suggested that we should go to the City of Night ourselves, to learn whether my worst imaginings were true. They…they agreed. We had pledged our lives to each other: that we would face all dangers together, that where one of us went, so too would the others. We had pledged…” She trailed off.

“We were perhaps a week on the roads, before we crested the Mountain of the Sun and saw the City below us, in all its dark and jewelled glory.”

She brushed at her forehead again.

“There we cast lots. Two of us would go on. One would remain, to carry the tale back, if the other two did not survive…” She pressed her hand briefly to her eyes. “I was chosen to stay behind.”

“I watched as they approached the city gates; as they were surprised, overpowered, and taken to the holding pens. I watched, from the heights of the hillside, as they were thrown into the great forging vats in the heart of the city; as they were remade into mindless, obedient thralls. When the transformation was complete and they were sent out to walk the roads, I confronted them and slew what was left so that they would not suffer the fate to which I had abandoned them. The fate that, by right, I should have shared with them.

“The rest is known to you,” she said simply. “I returned, alone, and gave my testimony to the Council of Nobles. They argued and protested, but in the end, they believed.  Elean joined the other Free Cities, and together overthrew your stronghold in the City of Starlight. If I had not returned, then they would still have been debating when your army appeared at their gates. But…”

Again, a single muscle quivered along her jawline. “But my sisters are still dead. I sent them to corruption and ended by taking their lives. If we had held to our pledge—if I had accompanied them into the city, the three of us might have stood a chance. At least we could have died together. I broke our vow,” she murmured, addressing her Dead directly, “but you paid for it. And for that, my sisters, I will never forgive myself.”

The two shades shared a glance, joining hands. A deep and aching grief was in their faces.

Terathena spoke again. “That is what I have done, Edan Starkiller, to merit the Desolation.”

Edan lowered his eyes once again, thinking. The fatigue drained him, clouding his mind. He was beginning to find it hard to breathe, and more and more memories were fading. Her sisters…Teraisë, Teramin… He thought he could see the shadows of his Dead behind them. Everything else was faint.

“You should not blame yourself,” he said at length. “You did not act out of malice…”

“They are no less dead for it.”

Edan managed to shrug. “What purpose does such blame serve now? It will not restore the Dead. Would it be not better and as just to simply live?”

“Is that your philosophy, Starkiller?” Terathena goaded him. “Tell me the names of your Dead. If you can, there are so many.”

“I can,” he said quietly. “Three, at least: Selchie. Narelan. Demeald.”

The names seemed to abash her, but she rallied. “And what else do you know about them? They aren’t people to you. They never were.”

Edan thought at first to dismiss her question, but then paused, considering. What else was there to do in this place?

“Perhaps you are right,” he admitted at last. “To me they were just…means to an end.” His thoughts circled morbidly.

Narelan. Selchie. Demeald. “Narelan was…my friend.” Was he? a small voice whispered. “We had both hoped for an apprenticeship with the same master; I was more skilled, but Master Selchie thought his temperament was better suited to advanced study. So I…cleared the way.”

“How?” Terathena asked.

“Poisoned wine. I knew he would take it from my hand. He took one sip and fell dying at my feet.” Narelan’s eyes haunted him. “He knew, at the last.”

“Something to be proud of,” Terathena said coolly.

Anger flared; Edan felt his face harden. “He had no right to stand in my way.”

Terathena did not respond. Wearily, she placed her sword crosswise at her feet. “And the second? This Selchie?”

“Selchie…” She had been a slim, rugged woman, all sharp angles and crags, as if the rigor of her discipline had pared everything nonessential away. Short silver hair had shaded piercing green eyes over a face like a stone outcropping. “Selchie took me on after I disposed of Narelan. I used to wonder if she suspected. But I was careful always to show myself the good apprentice to her.”

“I remember,” Terathena said slowly. “There was some upheaval in the City of Starlight… The Revered Speaker Selchie had been proved a traitor, dabbling in forbidden magics… She was sentenced to the Stone Death…” The Deep Dancer shook her head. “The details are gone. But—” She studied him. “Was it you, Starkiller?”

Edan nodded. “She did not see what I was doing until it was too late. She thought my interest in the Dark Speech was for pure scholarship. I had not planned to move against her as swiftly as I did, but she came upon me, late one night in the catacombs under the tower, and saw what I had conjured. She tried to expose me, without realizing that she was tripping the jaws of my carefully laid trap. By the time I was done with my revelations to the Greater Circle, I had them convinced it was I who had come upon her speaking the Darkness.”

“No one believed her?” Terathena asked.

“No.” Edan shook his head slowly. “The more she struggled, the deeper she was ensnared. They dragged her to the Plain of Statues, even as she still screamed the truth. She cursed me vilely as the Stone Death took her.” He paused. “They were all so grateful to me that they immediately moved to make me the new head of the Grand Council, though I had been raised to Master less than a star cycle before.” He gave a small laugh. “Revered Selchie and the Statues of the Plains were among the first recruits for my army.”

“Your walking statues, Starkiller,” Terathena said scathingly. “And her, Edan? Do you take pride in this too?”

He put his head back and looked up at the sky. The subtle chill that hung about him deepened momentarily; if Terathena had been a lesser woman, she would have quailed. “It was the neatest trap I ever laid,” he said softly. “It was truly a thing of beauty.”

“You did not answer the question, Killer of Stars,” Terathena pressed.

For another moment, Edan remained with his head thrown back, looking up at the sky above him; then the line of his shoulders slumped. He shrugged. “It was necessary, that is all. She brought it on herself.” His brows drew together. “Stop asking me.”

The eyes of her Dead rested on him.

“And you as well, shades,” he snapped.

“The third one, Demeald—why him?”

Edan started to flare, then stopped; he was too weak for anger.  “When I slew him… Everything was falling apart by then. Your armies were at the gates. My hold over the minds of my troops was going. If you had only understood—” His anger surged again, hot and welcome against the creeping chill. “Triune above, Terathena, if you had only seen what I wanted to give you—”

“If we had only allowed you to enthrall us? Is that what you wanted, Edan?”

“Well…yes,” he admitted, stonily.

“What sort of world would that be?” Terathena sounded as weary as he felt. “A world full of mindless beings who followed you because you had left us no choice?” She regarded him with outright incomprehension. “Why would you desire that?”

“Because no one would follow me any other way!” he burst out. He dropped his eyes and stared at the ground, working his hands behind him; a slight flush stained his chalky complexion, though Terathena, watching, could not tell if it was shame or rage. Perhaps both.

There was silence for a time, and then Terathena said again, “Demeald?”

“Demeald was the only one who chose to follow me.”

“Why?”

“How should I know,” Edan said, scowling. “Why does anyone follow anyone? Why did your Dead follow you? It was enough that he did.” He jerked irritably at the manacles.

“He came to me after Selchie’s downfall, and asked to be my apprentice. He had no aptitude for magic, but he was loyal and an able commander. That day he came to tell me that the Citadel had been stormed. I knew a rite that might still strengthen my defenses—the darkest of all magics, one that required a human life. And since Demeald had failed me in battle…I thought he might serve me another way, with his blood. So I slit his throat and drained his body of life.” Edan gave a bitter laugh. “And it was useless. He failed me again.”

Terathena was silent, but her eyes rested upon her sisters. Edan felt sudden irritation prick him.

“At least the deaths of your sisters were not for nothing. Comfort yourself with that.”

“I will never forgive myself.”

“Then you are a fool,” he said.

“What do you know of forgiveness?” Her eyes were still on her Dead. “You haven’t even forgiven your victims.”

Edan felt that harsh, tight anger rise in him again. “Why should I?” he asked her sharply. “It’s because they failed me that I’m here!  Don’t talk to me about forgiveness when you have no use for it yourself.”

She was still watching her Dead. It grated on him.

“You think I should seek forgiveness,” he said sharply, wanting her to look at him, the living. “Then why don’t you seek it from them?” And he nodded to her Dead.

Terathena’s stony visage cracked a bit. “From them?”

That got her attention, at least. “Yes. Shouldn’t it be up to them?”

He saw her frozen expression with some satisfaction. Teraisë and Teramin watched her somberly. Terathena started to speak…then closed her mouth. She leaned back against the rock wall and turned away. “Be silent.”

Edan shrugged. He was tired of talking anyway. He wondered briefly if Demeald had been in the horde of Dead that Terathena had slain to preserve him.
Again, silence descended.

◊ ◊ ◊

“So, this is it?” he asked sometime later. “The two of us just sit here until we fade?” His voice was thin, weak.

“If…we are fortunate,” Terathena replied.

“And if we are not?”

“There are deaths here…that can make fading look like mercy.”

He leaned back against the wall of the Star Tower. “How long?”

Terathena shrugged. “No way…to tell. Time is not the same here as it is above.”

“And then we will become—Shades.” He glanced toward a fire-blackened table in the distance; a young woman sat on it, gazing blankly into space. “Well—” he managed a laugh. “They seem happy enough.”

Terathena said nothing.

“Is there truly no way out of this place?”

“Some say there is: if you find your Dead, and they give you resolution. Or if you somehow can find that resolution in yourself. Still others have whispered of other ways. All the same, no one has managed to return.”

Find resolution… “You slew my Dead.”

Terathena shrugged again. “They were only stories.”

Suddenly, a strange alertness came over her. Her eyes fixed on the distance. “Ah,” she said, reaching out to touch the sword that she could no longer lift.

“What is it?”

A faint smile flitted across her lips.

“Another way out of here, perhaps.”

And she nodded toward the horizon.

◊ ◊ ◊

Edan looked toward the line where the star-studded sky met the blasted earth. There was a strange thickness, as if he were seeing a distant object. As he watched, the horizon line strengthened.

“It’s approaching.”

“Yes,” Terathena confirmed. “Here it comes.”

The thickness became an indistinct shape, drawing nearer. Edan felt a chill.

“What is it?” he asked Terathena.

That faintly bitter smile ghosted across her face again. “A Devourer.”

Edan could see it now: a great dense fog drifting toward them. It looked like an elongated cone of swirling smoke, with a tail that lashed from side to side. As it came in contact with the pale, wailing shapes clinging to bits of debris, both shapes and wreckage winked out of existence. It is consuming them, he realized with a start.

Its head swung toward them: there were no eyes, no nostrils, no features of any kind, only a giant circular maw lined with row upon row of teeth. Even at this distance, a tremendous roaring sound came to his ears—the sound of its feeding.

“What is that monstrosity?” he demanded.

“Some say the Devourers were created to clean the Desolation, to make room for new lost souls. Others say that they are born from the despair of the place, searching endlessly for escape from their grief. They have been here as long as the Desolation itself.”

The Devourer swallowed a boulder orbited by three young women; two chairs; and a cart with a horse skeleton in the traces. Edan shuddered. “And what happens to those it consumes?”

“No one knows. Perhaps, nothingness; or they may go on to another realm. It is possible the Devourers are doorways into another world.” Terathena managed a half-laugh. “We should soon find out.”

“Nothingness.” It sounded strangely seductive. The creature was closer than before, its droning noise louder. “Can we avoid its notice?”

She shook her head. “It is drawn to the fire of life, and that fire burns more strongly in us than in anything else here.”

Even as she spoke, the creature again swung in their direction. Its gullet was all the shades of red in the world against its dull smoky exterior. Its tail lashed over a ruined forge as it began to drill toward them.

Triune, it must be huge. Edan’s spine chilled. Despite the distance, he estimated that he could stand inside the creature’s throat, stretch his arms up above his head, and there would still be room to spare.

“Can it be stopped?”

“My strength is spent; even were I whole, it might not have been enough.” She grasped her sword. “Yet I will do what I can.”

She pulled her weapon forward laboriously, then levered herself up. She almost fell more than once. Finally, leaning on the Tower wall, she reached her feet. It was painful to see her thus, and Edan looked away, working his hands in the manacles. Her Dead watched mournfully.

“You can’t fight this, Thena.”

She shook her head. “I must.”

“You can barely stand—”

She raised one dark brow at him. “You believe you could do better, Starkiller?”

“Yes,” Edan said bluntly.

She managed a laugh. The roaring of the creature was a grinding hum like a storm wind. “You cannot.”

“I can,” he said, reaching for anger and not finding it. “Or try, at least. You’ve wasted your strength defending me, Terathena. Let me fight for you now.”

She regarded him skeptically. Her Dead folded their arms and glanced at each other with that same disbelief. They watched the Devourer’s approach without emotion; perhaps it held no fear for those already dead.

“You’ll be killed.”

He gave that carefree laugh again. “Perhaps that is what I want.” The Devourer augured closer, ingesting a chandelier to which a young man clung, two women in a broken boat, and a crumbling monument. “To have a quick death rather than slow fading. To die as…a shadow, at least, of what I once was.” The roaring of the creature was louder. There was a breeze now, brushing against their faces. “I slew my Dead for nothing, in the end.” He sought for the anger that had accompanied thoughts of them before, and was faintly surprised to realize he could not find it. “Let my death at least serve some purpose.”

Terathena’s face might have been carved of granite. “Do not pretend to remorse.”

“Not remorse, exactly, but by the Triune, Terathena, it just seems fair. Cannot a man wish to do some good despite his nature?” She studied him, unimpressed. He sighed heavily. “As you would have it, then. Think of it this way instead. I am done with existence; I seek only oblivion. Besides, even if I wanted to escape this place, you know I cannot. What harm could there be in releasing me to fight?”

She looked from him to the Devourer, her expression flat. The ground was beginning to tremble now.

“It would be foolishness for us both to die in that creature’s gullet,” he told her, softly serious.

Terathena tightened her hand around her sword. Her arms tensed, but she no longer had the strength to raise her weapon one-handed. “We are almost certainly both going to die anyway.”

“You might still have a chance if you release me. To fight that thing is suicide.”

“Yes. Suicide.” Her eyes remained fixed on the creature; at once, Edan understood, and felt anger.

“So this is your penance?” he demanded. She shifted her unreadable eyes to him. “I have slain far more than you. If you wish to suffer so much—” He jerked his head in the direction of her phantasms. “Ask them for forgiveness. That’s suffering to you.”

Her dark eyes narrowed. The Devourer drew nearer, the ground shaking, its roar filling the air. It inhaled a huge dragon skull, then the top of an ornate carriage; the elderly man in senatorial robes who had sheltered beneath it went to his doom without complaint.

At last, Terathena released her sword and dropped to one knee behind him. Edan felt the manacles and fetters fall away. She touched the strand of light that chained him to the tower wall, speaking a word, and the collar lifted from his throat.

Edan shook his wrists to restore the blood flow, then sought to rise, almost overbalancing; he had underestimated his weakness.

He faced Terathena, meeting her steady gaze. The Devourer roared like a terrible gale. Wind screamed in his ears.

“Ask, Terathena!” he called above the gale. “Your Dead. Ask them for forgiveness. I want to see that of you before I die.”

She crossed her arms. “And what will you do if I do not?”

Edan laughed. “Nothing,” he said, “but I would still like to see it.”

She studied him. Then, as if this too were something she must endure, she turned to face her sorrowful Dead.

“Teraisë,” she said. “Teramin.” And her stony façade cracked, to reveal a pain greater than Edan would ever have guessed. Her shoulders trembled, her iron voice shook. Tears glistened on her cheeks  “My line-sisters. Forgive me. I sent you to your doom, while I remained. I know I have no right to ask, and yet I do—Forgive me?”

“Well done, Terathena,” Edan said quietly. She seemed not to hear him, focused entirely on her silent, watching Dead. Edan dismissed her, and turned to face the Devourer.

It was almost upon them. Its fog-like tail lashed. Its maw loomed up above him, twice, three times his height; its throat seemed paved in fire. Long, gleaming ivory teeth studded its gullet in concentric rings, all the way down its throat. The ground shook so hard Edan could barely stand, and a great blast of scorching-hot wind made him stumble  The creature’s roaring filled his world. Still, he felt strangely light hearted; he had chosen and by the Triune, he had no fear of the end. One last time he thought, without rancor, of his Dead—Narelan, Selchie, Demeald—and then all that was left was a heady sense of freedom.

Edan laughed again, a bright, carefree laugh. Terathena saw him spread his arms wide, and he began to call upon the Nine Names of the Stars, the words that had given him his strength in the world outside. The fog skin of the creature began to split. Fissures appeared, running the length of its body; smoke trailed from them, streaming into the air like blood in water. Its tail thrashed; it writhed in evident agony, and the roar of its breath grew high, keening.

Edan was reeling too. With each Name, he paled a little further, swayed a little more. By the time he spoke the Third, he almost fell; with the Sixth, he collapsed to his knees, and tried to rise but failed. His lips moved, but Terathena could hear nothing above the din. He was trembling in every limb.

As he knelt there, panting, the Devourer reared up into the sky and then plunged downward. Its howls sounded like the shredding of the world. Edan lifted his head and spoke one final word.

The Devourer began to shatter, streaming smoke so thick that Terathena’s eyes stung with it; and Edan gazed straight at his doom as with its dying breath, the Devourer swallowed him whole.

Then, the fog creature crashed to the ground, shuddered, and was still.

Terathena approached the carcass of the dead beast. It lay like a beached whale, stretching on forever. Smoke still streamed like blood from the cracks in its surface, though it was thinning to a trickle. She reached out and laid one hand on its side; fog pooled around her fingertips.

“Well done, Starkiller,” she murmured.

“Terathena,” a voice came from behind her.

She turned, one hand going to the hilt of her dance sword, though she was so weak she could barely lift it.

Teraisë and Teramin stood hand in hand, shining so brightly that Terathena could scarcely look at them. Their terrible grief was gone as if it had never been. Instead, a radiant joy filled their faces, shining straight into Terathena’s heart.

“My sisters…” The tears in her eyes were not from smoke.

Our sister.” Their combined voices chimed like the ringing of bells. Almost blinded by emotion, Terathena reached out to them—but then realized with a shock that they were disintegrating before her eyes.

“Wait!” Her own hands were thinning, becoming transparent. Desperately, she reached for them again, but her hands passed right through them. “Stay—forgive me, if you can—”

“There is nothing to forgive. It is not we that keep you trapped here, Terathena; it is yourself. Forgive yourself, we beg you,” they chimed. “Forgive yourself and go, with our blessing and our love.”

“Teraisë—Teramin—wait!” She longed to take them by the hands, to hold them with her just one moment longer. The world was fading; her line-sisters were no more than featureless outlines of light. Yet still she could see their eyes, shining with love and joy.

And then Terathena knew that the grief in their eyes had never been for themselves, but for her.

◊ ◊ ◊

A light breeze was playing across her face. She was lying on something soft that felt like grass.  She opened her eyes, and sat up.

Terathena found herself in a grove of trees. Oak, sycamore, rowan, hazel, maple, ash, walnut, mulberry, cypress: the trees of the nine cities. It came to her that she was in the Forest of the Nine, the grove where she and Edan had been transmuted to the Desolation. The trees’ branches formed a solid wall of green leaves around her.

She looked up at the sky. It was night. The Stars blazed forth in the heavens. The light breeze brushed her cheeks and stirred her long curls.

Beside her, on the grass, lay Edan’s lifeless body. Starkiller—who wrought so much devastation in life—looked almost peaceful in death.

She looked up at the sky again. She was here. She was here.

Slowly, she rose to her feet, stretching her arms up to the heavens, giving thanks to the Triune Mother that she had returned. Survived. She then looked down at the dead man and nodded to him as well. Thank you, Starkiller, for your final request of me. Had he wanted her to have the release he could not have sought for himself? Her thoughts turned toward Teraisë and Teramin.

“Thank you, my sisters,” she whispered aloud, remembering their grief, their joy. “I will never forget you.”

She reached back, touching the hilt of her dance sword, then straightened her shoulders. In one smooth movement, she drew her weapon, then held it out, pointing it straight at the tree limbs forming the barrier. They uncurled from each other to create an archway. Beyond was a long, grass-covered hill, sloping down to a rippling river. Low, forested mountains loomed beyond, dark shapes against the brilliant stars. Terathena felt buoyant, as if a weight had been lifted. She drew a breath and then stepped through the arch in the foliage. The night lay before her, open and welcoming.

The leafy archway closed again behind her, hiding Edan’s lifeless form from view. She sheathed her weapon and started down the grassy hill, toward the world that waited for her.

—«»-«»-«»—

Dana E. Beehr

Captain Jack

by Arthur Davis

seaside_townLights from the windows of Brennan’s Fishing Lodge seeped through the ground fog ahead—a welcoming beacon for lost souls.

Brennan’s rested in an oval spit of land that jutted out into the St. Lawrence Seaway in the heart of the Thousand Islands of Southeastern Canada just above New York State.

The traffic light turned green. The battered gray pick-up to my left pulled away. I remained trapped in thought at the intersection in the mist of a cold October afternoon. A car drove out of Brennan’s long, sinuous driveway, stopped and turned left towards Gananaque, a quiet town about five miles west. We’d go there and walk the village when it rained and it was impossible to fish. But mostly so my brother and I could buy fireworks—boxes of fireworks, every kind and size of fireworks. The rarest of adolescent contraband and parental indulgence.

We were teenagers, when we first came up to Brennan’s in 1966. My father and his friends had fished the St. Lawrence and Alexandria Bay for years before their poker group disbanded. One of the players had accused another of cheating and the other four were forced to take sides. A meaningless squabble breached a friendship that was born before my older brother. After that, we came up as a family whenever my father could afford it, which meant a long weekend every other year or so.

Brennan’s was a spacious private home that had suffered through several poorly thought out renovations. When their children married, Molly and her husband Bill decided to put their hospitality and excellent fishing location to better use. There were four bedrooms upstairs and two smaller ones on the first floor that were in constant demand.

Guests were picked up every morning at seven o’clock by guides who tethered their launches to the long dock that poked into the bay. Molly ran the kitchen and accommodations and smiled constantly. Bill arranged for the guides and managed the finances. Bill was the straight man, while Molly plied the small dining room after dinner, ladling out homemade vanilla ice cream on top of homemade chocolate layer cake mixed with local folklore and terrible jokes.

The body of water was so vast you could spend an entire morning without seeing another soul, overcome by the beauty of lake, land, and great natural bounty of the northern rim of the Adirondacks.

Under the calm of a Canadian sun, there were no distractions from this glade of isolation and retreat. And if you were skilled, but above all patient and fortunate, you might catch a pike, perch, or smallmouth bass. If the gods embraced you, a muskellunge or northern pike would take your line for an unforgettable ride.

The light turned red then green again. The sirens called as they had a week ago. So a phone call was made and clothes were gathered and my rod was taken from the closet and memories were dusted off and confronted.

It was Wednesday. By tomorrow night, the lodge would be filled with guests and expectations, and the few who longed for solitude. I unpacked, ate alone nodding cordially at the two other families steeped in laughter and familiarity. After dinner I withdrew, as is my tendency, and had coffee on the porch overlooking the seaway. Stars twinkled above as they had on my last trip and the one before it.

“What do you know that I don’t? Probably everything. Send me a comet, a flash, or bolt. A marker. A word of truth to save me from myself,” I said pondering the possibility that the almighty may be a woman who’s been humoring the assholes of mankind simply in order to continue the experiment. Mosquitoes darted around my ankles searching for dessert.

My alarm drew me from a deep, forgiving sleep the next morning. The wind rattled the windows on the west side of the home. I washed and dressed and was greeted by Molly who scolded me for being late. I should have known better, she said, concerned that Captain Jack would be pissed.

She was right. “Does the condemned man get a last breakfast?”

Molly was about to further her rebuke. “I’ll tell him your shower wasn’t working. Sit down and I’ll get you something.”

Molly’s something was bacon, eggs, sausage, blueberry pancakes, and steaming coffee. She remembered I liked oatmeal cookies and prepared a fresh bag offered with an affectionate pat on the head as I made my way down to the landing. Captain Jack Hutchinson sat facing the morning sun, his back to the lodge adjusting a reel. A lifeless cigarette slung from his lips.

A ripple rose on the lake surface a dozen yards out to my right and moved toward the dock. It struck the piling as I passed over then disappeared under the dock. It didn’t come out the other side. I stopped and waited, but the surface of the water to the left of the dock remained still.

The first thing that strikes you about Jack Hutchinson—besides the pinch of gray hair that slipped between his coat collar and baseball cap, his cracked canvass brown skin, slight hunch, and torn black turtleneck sweater—were his eyes—a fire of cobalt blue shaded by thick brows, receding into depth and distance, set in a wasteland of cracks and crevasses, etched lines marked an absolute intensity. Captain Jack wasn’t simply looking at you, but scanning your soul for flaws.

I introduced myself. He nodded thoughtfully. We were the last boat to clear the dock. It had to bother him.

I came here because I had to, only I wasn’t certain why. Just that this was the place for me to be this weekend. This is what I told my friends. They were silent, hoping that I would find a foothold out of the miasma that had held me in its grip for these many months.

Captain Jack attended to the helm and his intuition. The sun’s glare showered us from the east, the wind confronted us from the west. I pulled my reel from my gearbox and attached it to my pole. I threaded my line and opened the bait box. A swarm of minnows frantically looked for deeper waters.

His launch hummed along like a fine tuned musical instrument. We skirted the shoreline for another ten minutes until we came around the crest of Pelican Cove. Jack throttled back the engine and slipped past a bed of thick marshes and tangled horse reed. He let the boat drift a while then dropped anchor near the trunk of a half-submerged oak.

The boat settled. The sway felt good, comforting under foot. How many times had I set my line and sent it flying out across sun-speckled water? How often had I dreamed of being up here rather than working in New York City or flying to client meetings in Atlanta or Philadelphia or kidding myself that there was still time left for me to find happiness?

“You were out with Andy Larsen,” Jack said.

Andy Larsen. “A long time ago.”

“You caught a five and a half pound smallmouth bass off King’s Point with him.”

I let the weight of the minnow drag on the line then flipped it back and sideways twenty yards off the stern. It landed near the tree stump. I’d caught my first pike out here. I remembered the cove, and Andy Larsen.

“Terrible breath,” I said, working the line.

“As long as I’ve known the old badger.”

“He knows I’m up here?”

“His back’s real bad or he would have taken you out himself.”

“I gave him a hard time.”

“You caught the biggest damn smallmouth bass he’d seen in years and twice the catch everyone else caught for the weekend you were up here.”

“He’s a good man.”

images-boat“With a blown out back,” he added as the boat drifted toward a rocky outcropping close to the shore, “Give it a toss over there.”

I dropped my line again a few yards from the outcropping and let it sink. There’s no telling where a school might be. It depended on the weather, the time of day, the current, if others boats have been around in the past few days, and luck. Even the dumbest fisherman can get a bite if luck rides his line.

“I never got that fish.”

“I know. Bill was embarrassed. Molly too. Everyone round these parts heard the story.”

“It’s probably hanging over a mantelpiece a few miles from here.”

“A prize like that’s hard to pass up.”

It was stolen from Molly’s freezer before it could be picked up by the taxidermist. “Even twenty years ago?”

“I was the one who Bill wanted to mount it for you.”

I looked into those cold blue eyes. “You’re that Captain Jack!”

A fragile grin broke across his grizzled jowls. “Ain’t another within a hundred miles.”

Captain Jack! “That’s what Molly wanted to tell me.”

“I thought she had.”

“No. I was late getting down to breakfast. There was a problem with the shower. She fed me and sent me right out to your boat.”

“Watch you don’t snag your line there,” he said, noticing the boat was turning toward a sunken branch spiking up through the surface.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said again, to the man Bill Brennan guaranteed would give me the finest fish mount in Canada. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who took it.”

“I thought about it for a long while when it happened. Everyone around these parts was surprised. Doesn’t look good for business. When word got around what happened, the local who took it, and it had to be a local, wouldn’t dare brag about his good fortune.”

I was nineteen. It took me a half an hour to bring that fish to the side of the boat. Andy kept maneuvering the bow of the boat to keep my line clear. The fish sounded, and then ran off half my line. I took him square on my flimsy six-ounce test line and he fought until the end. Andy lifted the bass out of the water and dropped it into the holding tank with our other catch.

“A very big fish,” was all he said.

It was only when we brought it back to the dock and Bill weighed and measured it against the catch from the other boats did we grasp what I had landed.

Old Andy Larsen. “What if.”

Jack turned to me, “You say something.”

“You ever play, what if?”

“Never heard of it.”

That’s because I just made it up. “Something to pass the time.”

“How’s it go?”

“Ask yourself what if you could have whatever you wanted. Like change something in your past, or live to a hundred?”

Jack thought this through. “Longer.”

“Whatever you wanted. Anything.”

“A man asks himself that all his life.”

“Every time he sees a loved-one sick or dying,” I said.

“Or wishes he’d have said something instead of remaining silent.”

“Or what if he could have gone back in time to change his life?”

He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. Hard question to answer, I mean off-hand.”

I felt a sharp, biting tug. The line tightened and sliced left, then right, through the water. A fish will grab bait and swim with it in its mouth undecided as to whether it should be swallowed. Only if it’s swallowed can you set the hook. If you pull back too quick on the line, a fish will simply let go of the bait. The fish came around near the stern, swam on a little longer, and then released the bait.

“He’s down there,” I said pulling up my line.

Jack released the dead minnow and set a fresh one and I let it drop over the side. Jack lit up a cigarette and hung his legs over the side of the boat. He dropped the beak of his baseball cap over his eyes letting enough light in to see where my line had entered the water.

Tiny waves lapped up against the launch. I was glad to be back.

I could feel a nudge, a ping on the line. I was being tempted and teased. I moved to the center of the boat to steady my balance and gave a slight tug. Nothing. Another tug brought with it a tug in turn.

I dropped the tip of my pole closer to the surface. “What if?”

“What?”

“What if you could see the fish?”

Captain Jack came off his haunches. My line jerked to the right, then steadied itself. “What if you could see the fish?”

“Wouldn’t be much sport there,” I answered.

“It would be like hunting elk or lion. You set up the crosshairs and squeeze off a shot from a hundred yards out. Hardly call it a sport the way it used to be.”

“That’s what makes fishing different. You never see what you’re going after or what you’ve hooked until it comes to the surface. Could be anything.”

“You have to feel it, not simply pay an expensive, ill-mannered guide like me to shuttle you to the quarry.”

“What if you could predict where all the fish were all of the time? Would you still want to fish?”

He shook his head. “Not much thrill in that.”

“It’s more important to know where and how to stalk.”

“It’s about the journey.”

“That’s what most people fear.”

“Ain’t no point knowing everything.”

I gave a slight yank on the line and set the hook. Jack pulled anchor and let us drift as I worked the line. For the next ten minutes, I reeled in, then let the fish swim away as its strength overcame the tension on my reel.

“Nasty little critter.”

I pulled back some line and he surfaced a few yards out. “Pike. Nice one too,” Jack said reaching for the net.

“Not yet.”

“The tension on your drag is too taut.”

I immediately released the drag screw on the side of the reel letting my line run out faster. The fish ran out line and sounded again. We maneuvered for a few more minutes until he came to the surface for good. Jack scooped him into the net and held him out to me. “Got to be six or seven pounds.”

“Nice catch,” I admitted.

“Nice day’s catch.”

It was ten-fifteen. We went back to the lodge at twelve-thirty with another, smaller pike, two respectable smallmouth bass, and a large perch. No other boat did as well. The other guests sat at tables in the dining room while their guides went around back and ate in the kitchen or on their boats.

We returned to reality and went back out at one-thirty. The afternoon wasn’t as productive or as animated as the morning. We were relieved to see that the rest of the boats had fared as poorly.

The next day was cloudy and cool. A stiff breeze from the west set a coating of fine ripples rubbing the surface to a froth. Fish would be biting today as they came to the richly oxygenated surface. Guests were down early and eager. Breakfast was taken in greedy quantities, as if we were warriors preparing for certain battle.

We spent the morning combing Jack’s favorite spots, zigzagging across a body of water with no beginning and no end. Everyone should spend a day on this stretch of nature’s imagination—hold a pole in their hands and test themselves against a wily adversary who harms no one and provides endless hours of pleasure and, if you’re available, an opportunity for reflection. In the morning, I caught a sizable pike and had my line snapped clean, Jack insists, by a muskie he knew lived nearby. We went back to the lodge for lunch, reluctant to disclose our failures. By the evening, I had added three smallmouth bass.

As we tied off, Jack asked me if I would like to have dinner with him. I accepted. I told Molly about it. She said Jack never invited guests home. Guides never exposed themselves to such familiarity. But she approved.

West Benton Pond Lane. A winding, rolling dirt road that sprang from nowhere four miles out of town, marked by small, widely separated cottages and undulating stretches of Canadian grandeur. I was early and enjoying the scenic route. Jack said his house wasn’t much while Molly disagreed. Jack Hutchinson was an excellent cook who participated in life when his wife was alive. His daughter had moved down to Albany to work for the government. Molly said she was very pretty with her mother’s fire green eyes, her father’s sharp tongue, and a native innocence about her that belied a quick, resourceful mind. Jack saw her and his grandchildren every chance he got.

I turned onto the dirt road that twisted and rolled until a quarter mile later I saw the house that Jack built obscured by thick underbrush and a rangy stand of Canadian scotch pine. I got out with my bottle of wine in hand and knocked at the door. Something I judged as stew wafted down from the chimney.

The door opened. “Good evening,” the woman said, moving back from the door.

My first thought was that the woman in her early forties was his daughter. I strained for similarities around the eyes and mouth. A young girl in her twenties came out of the kitchen. She was as beautiful as the one who introduced herself as Gretchen. Younger, but here was a definite similarity in the high cheekbones, complexion, and the full, sensuous mouth.

Gretchen put on her coat and wished me a good evening. She kissed the younger girl on the cheek and closed the door. No other car or pickup was in the driveway. Laura introduced herself and asked me how I fared today. I recounted my mediocre performance. She curled up her legs and listened attentively. I was as captivated by her as she seemed to be transfixed by me.

She moved closer on the sofa. “You have sensitive hands,” she said taking my right hand in hers. She stroked my palm, examining the surface of each finger the way I searched for ripples on the water. “A long life and a strong mind and a willingness to explore new opportunities.”

“You can tell all that?”

She wrapped my hand in hers. “I can tell you a lot about yourself,” she announced quietly.

Her smile and charm was transparent and without guile. There was a childlike innocence and yet a depth of maturity. “Can you tell me where the fish are biting?”

She laughed. “No. I can only tell you where I am going to bite.”

I heard no other movement in the house. If Jack were about, he was either standing quite still or sleeping. “I feel at home here.”

“I’m glad.” She seemed genuinely relieved.

“And with you.”

“I felt that too when you came in. I’m usually not so trusting. Neither is Gretchen. I think you were quite taken by her.”

“She’s very beautiful. You both are.”

“And, if you had to choose one?”

“I’m very happy to be with Laura.” And I was.

“What if you could have us both at your side? Don’t most men think about that sometimes?”

“Maybe. I guess so. Maybe as often as women think about being in the company of two men.”

“Well, I think she was as taken with you as you were by her, and I don’t mind.”

“You’re very pretty,” I heard myself say.

“I feel very pretty with you.”

“You have a beautiful home.” She did. Or she and Gretchen did. Wouldn’t Molly have warned me about the possibility of a threesome? And Jack was apparently late for his own dinner. I was expecting something quite different, though what I could not immediately recall.

“I’m happy you came.”

I didn’t know who she was, or her companion’s purpose. I did not know who these women were to Jack Hutchinson. I was tempted by this girl but fought to respect my boundaries.

“We’re alone. You have nothing to be afraid of.”

“I’m not afraid,” I said and reached out and she fell into my arms.

I knew time had passed as I counted the kisses before I could count no more. She got up and took my hand and guided me to the bedroom. We held and touched and caressed, confirmed and relieved each other. I had come to Canada to find a sanctuary and had been delivered to this room not by circumstance but a design that I made no attempt to fathom.

The wind picked up outside. No one was in my room in the lodge. The wind would shake no one awake. My wristwatch said it was past midnight. I had been here four hours. Impossible! I turned and Laura curled herself into me.

She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, or held. Who she was pleased me immensely. She was darker than Gretchen. Possibly bigger boned, fuller in the chest and waist, though not heavy. Her youth wore her instead of the reverse. She was understated where Gretchen’s silhouette was more obviously seductive.

Her hands were never at rest, constantly stroking and probing and searching for delights and to please. She pinched and bit and laughed and her lips were always upon me. By the time I entered her, we had known each other forever. I did not want this night to end and was already burdened by the thought of leaving when I heard the front door open and close.

A jacket was being hung on a brass hook in the living room. Sighs of relief from the cold outside. Cabinets were opened and secured. Footsteps in the kitchen. I was concerned for Molly and Bill. These were good and decent people who deserved more in friendship than they were getting from me.

Laura turned away from me in her sleep. An omen I thought. It was an opportunity to get out of bed. Instead, I kissed the back of her neck and traced my hand down her back. I caressed her backside and moved it up in front until I could feel the heft of her breast in my hand. She moaned agreeably. I was erect and wishful.

Footsteps moved closer to the bedroom. There was no purpose in pretending nothing had happened. Laura’s touch and tenderness had vanquished the spirits that had seized my soul captive, which had shackled and burdened me. I was inspired and relieved. A sense of passion had been released and restored that I had not felt for some time.

The door opened to reveal a smattering of light from the kitchen. Gretchen came into view, turned towards the bed, and closed the door behind her. She went to the closet and removed her sweater and unbuttoned her shirt. She slipped out of her skirt. The light streaming through the bedroom door crack cut up her thigh and buttocks and shadowed her breasts. I could see the measure of her body—beautiful and full. She closed the door completely then came to my side.

“I’m sorry I got back so late,” she said taking up the corner of the comforter and slipping in next to me as though this had always been her practice. “I don’t want to wake her,” she said and set herself in the crook of my arm.

I left just before daybreak and parked in Brennan’s driveway as a delivery truck pulled out. I went up to my room showered and dressed and considered how I would reconcile with the friends I had betrayed.

I bounded down the steps as though I had been relieved of a terrible burden. I had been exorcised of a pall that had taken over and made my life less than what it could have been for too long. The casualty of my relief was that I had dishonored my friendship with Captain Jack.

Bill greeted me and Molly served me and the other guests. Molly made no inquiries as to how my evening went. When I was the only guest left, I got up and put my coat on and walked down the pier.

“Morning.”

“Morning,” Jack said and untied the bowline as I unhitched the stern line.

He got in and I pushed us away from the pier. I checked my pole and bait box. In the corner behind Jack’s seat was a long battered box tied off with a piece of string that cut into the corrugated as though it were born to it. I opened the thermos of coffee Molly had left on my table and offered a cup to Jack.

“No thanks,” he said throwing the boat into gear.

Instead of hugging the shoreline, we headed to the open bay and dropped anchor.

I set my bait and cast out. The minnow flew long and straight over the surface and arched down over the spot in my mind’s eye. There was a moment’s pause after it struck the surface then a stiff tug at the line. The fish sounded immediately. A few minutes later Jack scooped up the fat, thrashing pike.

“Let’s throw him back.”

Jack hefted the fish whose bright eyes and fins marked an adult with an excellent instinct for survival. He looked surprised. “It’s a prize fish!”

“I know. But let someone else bring him in.”

Jack examined the fish. “You don’t want to keep him?”

“Cut the hook and let him go, Jack.”

“Not a man on the lake wouldn’t give up a day’s wages for this one.”

This was something I couldn’t explain. It went in the face of the man’s job, what he did for a living. Bringing the fish back to the lodge was as much a distinction for him as it was for the one who landed it. “Cut him loose.”

Jack removed the hook and dipped the pike into the water. The pike started wiggling immediately and lurched out of Jack’s hands. He wiped off on his pants and picked up the battered corrugated box that was the size of a vacuum cleaner. “Here.”

I took it. “What’s this?”

Jack sat down on the engine housing still smarting from my largesse but with a grain of ulterior satisfaction. “I shouldn’t even give it to you after that,” he said making reference to my recent act of irrational generosity.

“What is it?”

“You’ll see.”

I put the box on the bait locker and cut open the string. The corrugated box nearly fell apart in my hands. There was a thick roll of old newspaper in it. I peeled back the newspaper that revealed another string that was tied around a smaller bundle of newspapers. I cut the string again and stripped away the final folds of newspaper. The first thing I saw was the eyes then the teeth, then the bony dorsal spines and finally the entire body of my prize smallmouth bass.

“Andy called me yesterday. He told me he’d have it for me after nine. That’s why I couldn’t make dinner last night.”

“Dinner?”

“Yeah. I left you a message at the lodge. Maybe you’ll come by tonight.”

I spread the newspaper back. How many years had it been? “I never thought I would see this. I gave up hoping decades ago.”

Jack came closer and examined the taxidermist’s handiwork. “Someone did a first class job.”

“As good as you?”

“This wasn’t done around here. I know the best in this province.”

“Then you know who took it?”

“Andy said he didn’t know. Only that someone called him and said they knew it was his and told him where to pick it up. What with his back and all, I went for him.”

“Just like that?” I believed him.

“After all these years and on the very weekend you’re up here; just like that,” he said clearing away the old newspaper, “you finally got your fish.”

We examined the sheets of newspaper. They were all dated the week that I had been up here. “And tonight?” I asked.

“If you’re up to it. You can tell me the story of how you caught it over dinner.”

“One-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane.”

Jack stood up and looked curiously at me. “You don’t want to go there.”

“That’s the address you gave me,” I said pulling the slip of paper I wrote out as he described for me yesterday before we docked.

He read from it. “One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane.” Then handed it back to me.

One-thirty-two East Benton Pond Lane. There it was. Clear and unmistakable. “Why not one-thirty-two West Benton Pond Lane?”

“There is no one-thirty-two West Benton. West Benton is a rutted dirt road that was never completed. Not a house on it—one-thirty two or otherwise. Now let’s make the best of the morning and bring back enough fish to cover the lodge in trophies.”

I could still feel Gretchen’s biting my shoulder as she snuggled in beside me. I could still feel where Laura’s lips paused before she consumed me. I could still feel the warmth of love and desire.

I could still feel my soul sigh with relief.

One-thirty-two West Benton was as real as any fish I’d ever caught and as exciting as anything I’d ever done, and part of a weekend where all my ‘what ifs’ came true.

“Sounds great. Let’s make it so.”

—«»-«»-«»—

Arthur Davis

The Persistence of RAM

by Christopher Mowder

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I parked my dented Chevy Caprice in the hot asphalt sea of Beemers and Benzes. I thought about dinging the Lexus next to me. Bring a refreshing taste of anarchy into some yuppie’s life. I didn’t, though. Mr. Lexus probably deserves it, but I’m just not that kind of girl.

The five-story building looked like a hospital. Sliding doors whooshed open and too much air conditioning blasted me in the face. I turned right, following the signs for the Advanced Robotics Laboratory.

For the next mind-numbing half-hour, I did nothing but sign my name to waivers and releases. Considering the government requires me to be here, covering their ass with legalese seems like a pretty cowardly blanket. Even after reinstating the draft, mandating two years’ military service, and making voting compulsory, men in Congress still felt guilty forcing citizens to participate in government research. Oh, they claim this is no different than jury duty, that there’s no risk of harm to the test subjects.

With jokes like that, Senators could do stand-up.

piercingsWhen I finally finished the forms, an Asian woman in a white lab coat took me to a waiting area. I asked what to expect. She ignored me. “Please take a seat,” she said. “When the door opens, enter the room, and the experiment will begin.”

Before I could get another question out, she slipped back down the hall.

Whatever.

When I checked in, the receptionist confiscated my purse, phone, and my tattered copy of A People’s History. Nothing allowed in the experiment, she said. She looked at my jewelry like it might be off-limits too, but she can go to hell. I’m not taking out seven piercings.

No phone. No book. With nothing else to do, I kicked my black Chelsea boots up on the suede Ottoman, and waited.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

Looking down the rows, I saw no close spaces open, so I whipped my Range Rover into a handicap spot. I passed five of those, all open. Why waste so much prime parking? I suppose even secret military research must be ADA-compliant.

I adjusted my necktie in the rearview mirror, and headed in to find the lab.

My clients don’t mind if I’m a few minutes late. I bill by the hour, and twenty minutes is a rounding error in the legal profession. This receptionist, though, glared at me as I walked up. I smiled and introduced myself. I apologized for being late, and I even complimented her godawful hairstyle. She warmed to me after that. All sins forgiven.

ticketedI read through their legalese garbage, the standard (and poorly-written) government nonsense. I could tear it apart in court, so I didn’t mind signing it, even the non-disclosure agreement. Then an Asian chick in a white lab coat led me back to an empty waiting area. I gave her my smile and complimented her necklace, but her face remained flat and cold as steel. “Please take a seat,” she said. “The experiment will begin shortly.”

All business. Nobody has time for fun anymore.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01) x—x

A buzzer sounded, and the door slid open. I expected a stark white laboratory, beakers and test tubes and clipboards.

Instead, I stepped into a retro 1920s jazz club. Antique leather chairs and matching deep brown couch formed a seating area in the center. A dimly lit bar stood along the back wall, crystal martini glasses hanging from dark cherry wood, with rows of liquor bottles behind. Large plants chilled out in corners. As soon as I entered, a speaker clicked and light jazz floated down. Nothing romantic, just enough to set a casual mood.

For a government job, this was incredibly classy.

Only then did I notice the giant silver mirror on the wall—one-way glass, I’m sure. They’re watching me, I reminded myself. And they weren’t the only ones. Opposite me, another door had opened. A guy in a suit and tie stood there blinking like he just woke up.

We both entered, and our respective doors slid shut behind us, flush with the wall.

The guy came up to me and smiled. “Hi. I’m Jackson.”

“McKayla,” I said, shaking his hand. I got that same urge from before to create anarchy. Just reflex. I wanted to kick him in the shin. I resisted.

“This is…pretty unbelievable,” he said, hands on his hips and looking around. “I don’t know what I expected when I got the summons for the Advanced Robotics Lab, but it sure wasn’t this.”

“Please have a seat.” A woman’s pleasant voice floated down from speakers in the ceiling, the jazz volume lowered to bare background noise. Jackson and I sat next to each other in the leather chairs, facing the mirrored wall. “The Android Robotics Laboratory thanks you for your participation in Experiment 3F24. For your information, audio and video recording equipment will be in use today, and laboratory technicians will be observing the events.”

The technical talk sounded jarring and out of place in the smooth, suave surroundings.

The woman paused. “Today, you will be testing our newest model, developed here at the ARL.

“Our latest android unit resembles humans not only in appearance and operation, but in consciousness as well. The android model you’ll be testing today believes it is human.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

An android that thinks it’s a human? I laughed. McKayla shot me a look.

“That explains all this,” I said, sweeping my arm around the speakeasy. “The robot thinks it’s a human, so give it a human surrounding. They couldn’t have picked something in the era of television? The Nationals play this afternoon.”

“Shut up,” McKayla hissed.

Above us, the Asian chick droned on. “The android is programmed to believe itself a human being in every way. This android will remember fictional experiences, have preprogrammed emotions, and hold opinions. It will believe it has a life outside this facility. In fact, we activated it just a few minutes ago.

“You may interact with the android in any way you see fit,” the chick concluded. “Your goal is to convince the android it is a machine. Once you do, the experiment is over. Now, please make yourselves comfortable. We will begin the experiment in a few minutes.”

A third door to the room stood next to the silvery mirror. I turned to face McKayla, and watched the door over her shoulder. “So. Come here often?”

McKayla rolled her eyes. “Save it, unless you want me to call you Jackass instead of Jackson.”

If she thought I was hitting on her, she had nothing to worry about. From the shock of purple in her jet-black hair, her plentiful facial piercings and her personality like a nail file, I knew she was not my type. “Just making conversation.”

After a minute, she touched my arm. “Hey. I didn’t mean to be bitchy. Sorry. I’m just a little on edge.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I smiled at her. “What do you suppose this thing’s going to look like? I mean, they say it’s human, but I don’t buy they could make it flawless.”

“Judging by the atmosphere, I wouldn’t underestimate it,” McKayla said. The music played again. “Stan Getz,” McKayla said, after a moment.

“You know jazz?” I would have bet money she listened to nothing but death metal. “I like it too. I played bass guitar in undergrad, before law school sucked all my time.”

She nodded. The longer we waited, the harder it became to keep conversation going. She rapped her fingernails on the leather chair. My knee bounced involuntarily. I put a hand to stop it. We both stared at the door now.

“How much longer?” I called out to the mirrored wall.

The Asian chick’s voice crackled back over the speaker. “The experiment is about to begin.”

We both stood, waiting for the door to open. McKayla crossed her arms. I clenched my fists at my sides. “Whatever happens, let’s do this together.” She nodded back at me.

We waited a full minute I’d say. I looked behind me. No other doors opened. No one else entered.

“Where’s the android?”

The voice came over the speaker one last time. “The android is one of you.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I stared at Jackson, and staggered back a few steps. Oh my God. This guy is an android.

We stared at each other for a long time. His eyes struck me the most. They looked so real. They darted back and forth like a frightened animal.

Surely, this is a social experiment. What would a normal person do when she’s told she’s in a room with a robot?

Minutes ticked by. That scenario looked less and less likely. Neither of us sat back down. The silence became unbearable.

“When did you first learn you were an android?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’m not.”

“So androids can lie.”

“Apparently so, judging by you. I almost believed you were human in the beginning. Almost.”

I laughed, but it came out short and stilted. He can’t really believe it’s me. This is just part of his programming. “I’m no android. I remember my whole life, all the way back to childhood. It sucked.”

I was adopted. A website matched Midwestern do-gooders with orphans around the world. My ‘parents’ were Herbert and Judith Johnson. Lifelong residents of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was plucked up from Morocco by the two whitest Americans in the whole country. They named me Margaret, and when I turned eighteen, I changed it to McKayla. I couldn’t stand Margaret.

As I told Jackson all this, I studied him. Jackson is white in the way my parents would have liked: close cropped blonde hair, blue eyes, tan skin. He has a charmer’s face, the type of face that’s punched a lot of V-cards. He wore a light gray suit with expensive brown shoes, and he keeps smoothing his necktie and smiling at me as I talk. Not saying a word, just smiling.

I remember my asinine childhood. Herb went to the Elk’s Club every Friday night. Judy stayed home and read books where a cat solved mysteries. It’s no wonder I got addicted to pills before I graduated high school. I wanted to tell Jackson all this, but the more I talked, the more I felt I should stop talking. Abruptly, I shut up.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

I would never admit it to McKayla, but it devastated me to learn she’s an android. I found her fascinating, despite myself. And I much preferred the prospect of her and I facing an android together, rather than me facing her alone.

I know I’m not the android. That’s impossible. I’ve been married to Megan for ten years. I didn’t just imagine that, I didn’t imagine Gavin and Ashley. I didn’t dream up three years of law school and three more spent clerking for some jagoff judge in Baltimore, fetching him grande lattes every morning and driving him home from the bar every night because he got pissing-himself drunk. In another ten years I’ll be partner in the biggest firm in D.C., and my kids will be at the same prep school as the First Family.

I’m not the android, end of story. Which means she is.

Time to go to work.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not an android. I have memories just like you, a childhood with a mommy and daddy who didn’t love me and wouldn’t look at my baseball trophies. That doesn’t make a bit of difference. One of us is telling the truth and one of us—you—is saying what they were programmed to say.”

“What makes you so damn sure?”

“That I’m human? I do corporate trial law for clients from here to Boston. I know people, and people know me. You can’t fake the connections I have, honey.”

She smirked. “Or they made you think that, when they turned you on fifteen minutes ago.”

“You want to prove it?” I asked. I pulled off my jacket and loosened my tie. “Let’s prove it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked. He was ripping off his clothes like we were drunk teenagers with our parents out of town.

“No matter how well the android speaks, something will be different physically,” he said, as he pulled off his white shirt. “Skin texture, bone structure, hell, maybe even a USB port or a ‘Made In China’ sticker.” He started unbuckling his belt.

I crossed my arms. “If you think I’m getting naked with a robot while a bunch of scientists watch, you have a serious bug in your programming.”

A wide smile spread across his face. “So. You have something to hide.”

miles-davis“Yeah, it’s called modesty. And safety. This may be tough for your hardwired male brain to grasp, but stripping naked with a strange man would be incredibly dangerous for any woman. So keep your clothes on, RoboCop.”

Jackson looked at the mirror-wall, as if pleading for an intervention. Nothing but the strains of Miles Davis came from the speakers. He looked down at himself, half-undressed, slacks around his knees.

“Fine,” he said, and yanked his pants up. “But the burden of proof is on you now. Make me believe.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

I finished buttoning my shirt, and watched myself in the mirror-wall as I retied my tie.

“Oh save it,” McKayla called over my shoulder. I deliberately took more time, and started over tying the knot. Why should I listen to her? She basically insinuated I was ready to rape her. What kind of scumbag did she think I was?

I pulled on my jacket and smoothed the flaps. She gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh for the love of God stop primping!”

I sat down in the chair, and crossed my legs. “Very well. Your turn. What do you suggest we do to figure out the answer?”

“I told you, I’m not an android—“

“And I told you, I could give a shit what you say.” My words shocked her, I think. She stared at me. “I’ve got no reason to believe you, and you’ve got no proof. What’s your next idea?”

I knew it came out a little harsh, but I wasn’t about to apologize. I let the sharp words hang in the air like suspended knives.

She thought for a minute, and then lifted her hands into fists. “Fight me.”

“Do what?”

“Fight me. You wanted a physical test. You’ve got me by at least fifty pounds and five inches. If I can kick your ass, then maybe I am the android, all metal and steel inside like the Terminator.” She smiled, and bounced back and force. “Or maybe you’re just a pussy who will get beat up by a girl.”

“I’m not fighting you.”

“Oh, have something to hide?” she mocked, imitating my voice. “C’mon, rock’em sock’em.”

“No.” Emphatic.

“Why not? Scared I’ll hurt you?” I heard a malicious taunt in her voice.

I adjusted my tie. “When I was twenty, my older sister Rachel married a fat Armenian named Tony. All the family knew he was bad news for Rachel.

“What we didn’t know: Rachel married Tony because he threatened to kill her if she didn’t. Nearly killed her anyway. Beat the living hell out of her four times in their first year of marriage.

“After three years, she finally told us what was happening. I stood between my sister and Tony the night she left him.

“So no. I won’t hit a woman. Even an android.”

All McKayla’s energy deflated. Her hands dropped to her sides, and she sank into the heavy leather chair. Above us, a sad saxophone crooned.

“Your turn,” McKayla said, without looking up.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

Jackson blathered on about his job, something about his record winning cases, his name in the newspaper, all that. I really wasn’t listening. He had no way to prove it.

“McKayla.”

Jackson had stopped talking, and was looking at me. “What was that? I missed it.”

“I asked what you do for a living.”

“It’s boring. You wouldn’t care.”

“Probably computer science, something an android would do,” he said.

What the hell? Did they program him with my bio?

That grin spread across his face again. “I knew it.”

“I’m a server admin—” was all I got out before he erupted in laughter. Bastard. What, is everybody in IT a robot? Millions of androids out there just because we’re smart enough to send emails without needing tech support? You can stop laughing anytime now, Jackson, before I slam your empty head into the wall.

Maybe my therapist is right. Maybe I do have some unresolved anger issues.

He finally calmed down, but still had this grin stitched to his face. I said, “When you think about it, a computer tech like me is the ideal person to evaluate the most advanced robotics available—like you.”

His smile vanished. “Nice try.”

After that we quizzed each other on current events. It turned into an obscure game of Jeopardy. We both got some and missed some and argued about others. I don’t know anything about golf. Neither do a lot of people. Who won the Masters this year? Who cares? That doesn’t make me the android, it makes me not a boring white bread sonofabitch.

Of course, when he missed one of mine, he got this smug look on his face. Said things like, “Oh, that’s right,” as if he knew the correct answer all along. What an enormous tool.

Plus, I don’t believe nobody’s buried in Grant’s tomb. Jackson can take his trick questions and shove them up his Brooks Brothers ass.

We’ve been in here for nearly an hour now. I can tell he’s getting antsy. So am I. But I’m going to break him. Any minute now, I am going to break this android, and leave his programming in pieces on the smooth tile floor.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” McKayla asked me.

I looked over at her. “What do you mean?”

“You heard me. The worst thing you’ve done, on purpose. Not, ‘Oh, I wasn’t paying attention and got in a car wreck.’ Did you ever steal money? Sell drugs?” She paused. “Ever kill somebody?”

I shook my head. “Why in the world would I tell you that?”

“Because everyone has something. C’mon, hotshot. I assume you signed non-disclosure agreements here, same as me. If you really believe I’m the android, then you’re just talking to a machine.” She sat forward in her chair. “But I’m betting you don’t have anything. Never got a DUI, never even missed your kid’s soccer games. You’re no more human than a microwave.”

McKayla seemed to relish her idea, and clung to it. She pushed, and pushed. I stood up and turned away from the mirror wall. I looked at the old bar and wanted to pour myself a drink. I knew what story to tell. Encouraging me, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane played “In A Sentimental Mood.”

“Nobody knows about Clarissa,” I began. “Especially not Megan.”

God, am I really doing this? I must be crazy.

McKayla closed her eyes. She could see where this was headed.

“It’s not an affair,” I said, to clarify. “It’s just about sex, which Megan and I haven’t had since Ash was born. I still love Megan, I love my kids. Clarissa is just…different.”

In truth, Clarissa lived in my peripheral vision. I only saw chestnut hair, long legs in a short skirt, not a whole person. Clarissa was a means to end, not love.

McKayla sat forward, chin resting on her hand. She tried to hide her gleeful smile. “You love your wife but you cheated on her. You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?” She sighed. “How many times?”

“I saw Clarissa last Thursday.”

“It’s still going on?” McKayla practically shouted. “Good God, what the hell is wrong with you?”

“You asked.”

“Yeah, but I—“

“Before you start judging me, I want to hear yours.”

She paused, mouth open.

I set my jaw. “I said, tell me yours. You know my dirty little secret now. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, McKayla Johnson?”

She sat down. “I was going to tell you getting hooked on Vicodin and Oxycontin, nearly flunking out of college. But after hearing yours…” McKayla looked at me. “Why are you still doing it? You’ve got a wife, two kids. Why risk it?”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure. I wish I wasn’t. I just…can’t stop. I need it.” I decided against full disclosure: Clarissa wasn’t the first.

If there’s a hell, you’re going to it.”

We were quiet for awhile, although her words struck me as strange. If there’s a hell, she said.

“What do you think about death?” I asked. She gave me a funny look, as though I asked if she were pregnant. “Do you believe in God? An afterlife?”

“No.”

“Karma? Anything?”

“No,” she said emphatically, as if the matter were that simple.

“Just ‘no’?” I held my hands out, palms up. “Nothing more to it? All of humanity just sprang from nothingness for no reason? One day, we’ll all die, and that’s the end of existence forever?”

She crossed her arms. “Yes.”

“What about the human spirit? The soul? Are those just made up fairy tales too?”

“I didn’t— “ she started, but stopped. “I’m not getting into a religious debate with you.”

“Why not?” I asked. “You’re willing to argue everything else. You’re happy to say what I’m doing in life is immoral, but you clam up when I ask about your basis for right and wrong?”

“Listen to you,” she said. “The adulterer, lecturing me on morality. Spare me.”

I sat back, rubbing my neck. “I’m not exactly an every-Sunday churchgoer,” I admitted. “I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t always do right by everyone. Sometimes, I don’t even try.”

I paused. My necktie suddenly felt too tight. I tugged it looser. “That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for religion, I realize. Still, whether or not I personally do right, I believe there is a God, or another life after this, or something. Maybe there’s even a hell, but I hope not.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, her voice sharp and cold. “There’s not.”

Amazing. I had never tried to reach someone before. I ignore the doorbell when pimply-faced guys carrying Bibles come calling. But here I am, evangelizing, and I chose this as my first attempt?

“I read once that 90-some percent of people on Earth believe in a higher power,” I said, “be it God, Buddha, whatever. It makes sense an android wouldn’t believe in anything, though. An android’s god is a human.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

I wanted to spit at him. That’s not the urge for anarchy talking. That’s all me. I despise Jackson.

One minute he’s telling me about screwing his mistress, and the next he’s judging me—judging me!—for not believing. He’s the churchgoing adulterer, the supposed defender of battered women who turns around and uses them for sex. What a hypocrite.

I tapped on the mirror and told the anonymous faces beyond the glass I needed to pee. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Jackson. He jumped up and said he needed to pee, too.

Of course. I bet an android looks human, but doesn’t have the same urges. If I hadn’t mentioned it, he might have gone hours, maybe days, without remembering.

Next to the cherry wood bar, a section of the wall slid open. Inside was a toilet and sink. Apparently, the scientists didn’t want us leaving the experiment for anything.

When I finished, I stepped out and Jackson went in.

Listening at the door, I have to hand it to the scientists. He pees as loud and noisy as any other man I’ve ever known.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

McKayla’s restroom theatrics were a nice touch, very believable. I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. Time for closing arguments.

I laid out my case to McKayla this way. Science has obviously created an exceptional android, one that believes it is human. Thus, either of us should be equally likely to be the android. But only one of us displays other characteristics consistent with a machine’s thinking.

One: McKayla has a computer background. She thinks and speaks in computer lingo. I, on the other hand, rarely send my own email.

Two: McKayla has no biological connections. She has adopted parents, and no siblings. She doesn’t have a boyfriend—though she claims she has before—and she’s mostly a loner. Only a few close friends, but of course, she can’t prove even that.

Three: She refused to let me examine her body. She obviously has something to hide.

Finally, four: McKayla doesn’t believe in God, and isn’t spiritual. That’s very consistent with machine thinking, although almost all humans believe differently.

Judge, I rest my case. McKayla is the android.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #1 (TS-01)

Fuck him. Pretty-mouthed son of a bitch. He stands up and gives a speech, always with an eye toward the scientists behind the glass, a pet performing for its master. He thinks that will trick me? Two can play at that game. Here are the reasons you, Jackson, are the android.

You’re a male bimbo, printed out of a catalogue. All surface knowledge and nothing underneath, no personality, no uniqueness, just like an android prototype. You’re a white male with a suit-and-tie job, a wife and two kids. That’s got to be Generic Android Model #1-A. Oh, that’s right, you also have a mistress. That doesn’t make you not an android, it makes you a shitty, amoral android. It proves you don’t give a damn about the feelings of other people, because you can’t feel anything yourself.

You don’t believe me? You want to find out for sure? I had a cutting problem as a teenager. Let’s dig into our arms, we’ll find out which one of us has metal inside.

◊ ◊ ◊

Test Subject #2 (TS-02)

“Holy shit, what the hell are you doing?”

McKayla pulled off one of her many piercings, a huge one with a long backer, and held it like a needle above her forearm.

I jumped out of my seat. “She’s going to cut herself! Somebody,” I shouted to the glass, “if you’re watching this, get your ass in here and stop her!”

We both waited, the thick silence hanging in the air. No one came.

“We’re on our own,” McKayla said, the long backer poised just above her skin. “Still think you’re the human?”

Her program must be malfunctioning. Or maybe this is the last ditch effort. She knows she’s made. This is the only way to get me to concede, and fail the experiment. Imagine that: the human lies and says he’s the android, just to protect the machine.

“I’ve got another earring,” she said. Her voice sounded lower, half a snarl, like a dog circling an injured animal. “Are you too much of a coward to do it with me?”

Why haven’t the scientists come in here to stop this? Are they going to let us cut ourselves? What if we tried to cut each other?

What if we tried to kill each other?

She’s still got the thing above her arm, holding it like a needle. She says she’ll do it.

Maybe she’s bluffing. Maybe they programmed her with a fail-safe mechanism to prevent—

“Screw this,” McKayla said. She plunged the backer into her forearm, and pulled as hard as she could. She screamed, and I heard a tiny sound like the scrape of a dull knife against thick flesh. She collapsed to the floor, and held up her forearm, a long strip of skin cut away.

Nothing but silicone and metal showed beneath.

◊ ◊ ◊

The experiment must have ended after that. I vaguely remember the door buzzing open, the scientists carrying McKayla, unconscious, from the room. I think I talked to one of them, maybe filled out more paperwork, but these are foggy flashes from a dream. I was halfway to Virginia before I realized I was driving.

I knew McKayla was the android. I never doubted it, not for a second. How could I? I’m a human being.

Only, McKayla seemed no less committed than me. That frightened me, even from the beginning. Made me doubt. What if all my life I thought I lived, my childhood and college and Megan and kids, what if all that had been programmed into me, just before walking in that room? That was McKayla’s life, an entire existence lived on a flash drive.

The scientists told me afterward she wasn’t dead. They just shut her down to prevent more damage. This was the 24th experiment they’ve run with McKayla, and self-harm was a first. They will repair her, try to fix that particular bug. Next week is experiment number 3F25.

It was terrible to watch McKayla practically commit suicide in front of my eyes, but the worst is knowing McKayla has to live that tiny window of existence over and over, always being so committed to her beliefs, and always, in the end, being wrong.

When I got home, Megan was in the kitchen, on her cell phone and slicing peppers for dinner. In the backyard, Gavin chased his sister with a squirt gun.

McKayla may have been an android, her memories artificial and her passion a façade. Even so, the impact she left on me feels real enough indeed.

I opened the door to the backyard, and relished the delighted squeals.

«»-«»-«»

Christopher Mowder

Christopher Mowder is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, living in the Midwest. Most recently, his work “The Goblin’s Son” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @cmowder.

The Executioner’s Correspondent

by Kathleen Brogan

When Dornan Blackthorne was twenty-three years old, he began receiving strange messages from an unknown correspondent. Dornan had just been appointed Master Executioner in the city of Telvannath, after eleven years apprenticed to his father, and had never corresponded with anyone in his life. His father, the executioner in a much, much smaller town, had taught him how to read and write via the Scriptures, but that had been for God, not for letter-writing. And letters, Dornan knew, were something quite different from what he was receiving. They were longer, for one. Two, you knew where they were coming from. Three, letters came by post, not in your private journal.

The idea for the journal came from his father. Grellik Blackthorne was a sharp old man, and he knew the trade as well as anyone. “Write ’em all down, the poor sinners,” said Grellik, “Mark ’em down with a date, the crime, and the sentence. Show it to the city when you need more money. Proof of work performed.” And so Dornan did. There was no more honorable an executioner than Grellik Blackthorne, Dornan thought, so he planned to follow in his father’s footsteps the best that he could.

Dornan did not notice his first correspondence until after he had completed his second execution in Telvannath. He had pulled his journal from the shelf and sat down at his desk, a rickety old thing in the cluttered, unpacked room where his children would live if he had them. His wife, Caralee, sat in the floor hunched over a copy of the Scriptures. The right side of her face was horribly scarred–an accident from her childhood. She was the blacksmith’s daughter, and had an unfortunate encounter with a piece of hot metal. She’d fallen face-first on a rack of cooling pots and pans, and from what Dornan understood, she was lucky to be alive. Caralee was much older than him–thirty-five, she had told him, but she wasn’t sure. Her marital options were limited by her scarring, and Dornan’s by his occupation. No one wanted to marry the hangman. Dornan opened his journal and glanced over the first entry he had completed.

1. Jorund Faxil. Theft, rape. Death by the sword. Guilty

The sword. He snorted at the memory. The man deserved death by the wheel. The man would’ve been drawn and quartered back home, but they didn’t do that in Telvannath because they were progressive. His father would’ve caused a fuss, Dornan knew, but the executioner in Telvannath didn’t have that kind of power. Everything here was decided by Senate ruling. Dornan was naught but the instrument of the Senate’s will.

Dornan was still thinking about that, and a little bit of what he might’ve done differently had he the power, when he noticed something underneath Jorund Faxil’s entry. There was a word there, a word he had not included in his original assessment.

Guilty.

Or perhaps he had included it in his original assessment? He looked more closely at the handwriting, which at first glance could’ve passed for his own, but upon closer inspection it was far too neat. Dornan’s handwriting was serviceable at best. Besides, why would he, Dornan, write the word guilty as an addendum to an entry? Of course he believed Faxil guilty, or he wouldn’t have bloody executed him! It was justice!

The back of his neck was hot, flushed, and he thought that maybe he should open a window. “Caralee, love,” said Dornan. “Have you had any guests over that I’ve not known about?”

“No sir,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“Someone’s mucking about in my journal,” Dornan said. “I didn’t write this bit.”

Caralee appeared beside him and set her copy of the Scriptures down on his desk. She leaned in close to read the word–she had awful eyesight. The smooth, unscarred side of her face brushed up against his. “Goo-lty.”

“Guilty,” Dornan corrected. Caralee was not a good reader, but she tried very hard.

“Guilty,” she repeated. “You didn’t write that?”

Dornan shook his head.

“Maybe it’s someone having a laugh,” said Caralee. “Sneaking into the hangman’s house on a dare.”

“Maybe,” said Dornan, but he doubted it.

Caralee stood up straight and placed her hand on the Scriptures. “Maybe it’s the Lord talking to you. Telling you you’re doing the right thing, and that Faxil’s burning in a lake of hellfire right now.”

Dornan snorted. He hadn’t set foot in a church in years. Not because of any reservations against the institution (he had his Scriptures and he read them daily) but because no one liked seeing the executioner in church. In his hometown, Dornan’s father had been told explicitly not to attend sermons because it made people jumpy. Dornan didn’t want to make any good church-going folk uncomfortable, so he stayed at home with his Scriptures. He sincerely doubted that the Lord wanted anything much to do with him. “I guess that’d be a good thing,” Dornan said.

“Put it away somewhere safe,” said Caralee. “That way you know you’re the only one writing in it.”

That, at least, was a good idea. Dornan carefully wrote his latest entry:

2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword

And locked his journal in the box where he kept the money that he would send home to his father every month. Old Grellik’s eyesight was failing, and Dornan knew he couldn’t keep up the profession much longer. The pittance the town would give Grellik once the executions stopped would hardly be liveable.

◊ ◊ ◊

There was some period of time between his second and third executions. Dornan spent much of his time travelling back and forth between the Senate hall, located at the top of the escarpment that was the city of Telvannath, and Docktown, where his home was located. Every day he made the long trek from the bottom of the hill to the top, seeing if the Senate had any work for him that day. He was paid either way, and perhaps because of that he felt obligated to check in frequently to ensure he was completing his job to the Senate’s satisfaction. It was what his father would’ve done. He took to stopping by the cathedral on days that the Senate didn’t need him, again because it was what his father had done. “Church-goin’ folk don’t need a reminder of earthly punishments when they’re thinking of heavenly ones,” Grellik had told him. “But don’t let your Bishop be a stranger.” Telvannath’s holy man, Bishop Yelvin, never made Dornan feel unwelcome. More importantly, the frail little man seemed comfortable in Dornan’s presence. Perhaps it was because they had somewhat of a professional relationship–Bishop Yelvin gave the last rites to poor sinners before their execution.

Execution number three was Dornan’s first woman in the city of Telvannath, and also his first hanging in the city. It was a much more high profile case than his first two, and Dornan felt that this could really cement his position. In the days that led up to the event, Dornan worked himself up into a frenzy making sure that everything went off smoothly. He replaced the ropes in the gallows and then double-checked and triple-checked their integrity, using heavy sacks filled with stones. Caralee cleaned up his black leather armor with some oils she bought from the tanner, and she cut his hair. When Dornan had tried to go to the local barber, the man had shooed him out quickly, not giving him any definitive reason as to why. He didn’t have to. Dornan had seen the same thing happen to his father all of his life.

Elizabeth Baker, the poor sinner that Dornan would be executing, had been charged with killing her newborn child, caught in the act by her husband. As with the execution of 1. Jorund Faxil. Theft, rape. Death by the sword, Dornan was surprised that Elizabeth Baker was getting off so easily. His father had executed many women by the wheel, by drowning, even one drawn and quartered for the same crime. Not so in Telvannath. Elizabeth Baker was to be hanged.

Dornan did not sleep well the night before. He kept thinking of the journal, though he refused to look at it. If anything had been written next to 2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword (which, Dornan knew, was highly unlikely), it could compromise the sense of calm that was so important for all executioners. He had to maintain the impassive face of justice. Any showing of doubt or uncertainty could not only end his career, but start a public riot.

At high noon, Dornan led the procession from the Senate Chamber, flanked by soldiers in shining metal breastplates and blue plumage. Back with the sinner walked Bishop Yelvin, wearing no armor except for the heavenly kind, his long black robes brushing up against his boots. Bringing up the rear of the party was one of the town’s Senators, dressed in judicial red, who would be pronouncing judgment on Madam Baker. The streets were filled with Telvannath’s citizens, far more than for his first two executions. Dornan’s suspicions had been right–this was going to be a spectacle. They passed midtown, where merchants tried to hawk ‘holy’ or ‘blessed’ items to anyone who would listen. They further descended Telvannath’s hill, coming back to Docktown. The gallows were built against the southeast wall of the city, where the tang of the river’s smell mixed awfully with that of the rotting corpses the city occasionally left artfully displayed across Dornan’s workstation.

Dornan ascended the gallows steps with Madam Baker and Bishop Yelvin. Despite the bishop’s soft, gentle assurances at possible salvation, she did not repent. Dornan suspected that was more from the fact that she could not stop crying long enough to form words. The crowd was immense, reaching past the field of Dornan’s vision, but in that moment he was not worried. He had prepared as well as he could, and besides, he had the most experience with hangings. They were the execution of choice back home. The gallows were better constructed in Telvannath, actually containing a trap door so that the executioner wasn’t required to simply push the sinner from a ladder. The only other difference was that the sinner was hooded which, as far as Dornan was concerned, was kinder to the children in the audience. The awkward way the dying kicked their legs was enough to cause nightmares. The eyes bulging, the tongue flailing–no one needed to see that.

Elizabeth Baker was safely conveyed into the hands of the Lord, Dornan performing a near flawless hanging. The noose gave him no difficulties, the trap door did not stick, and the poor sinner did not kick–well, kick more than was to be expected, at any rate. Dornan did not let his impassive countenance drop as the crowd dispersed and, once he felt the body was safe from any sort of mob behavior, he decided it was safe to head home. They’d remove Madam Baker in a few days, once everyone had the chance to see her. Dornan thought about his journal and felt a sense of dread and apprehension, though he told himself that was foolish. It had been a fluke, a one-off trick by some street rat. That was the end of it.

In Docktown proper, the streets were largely empty. People were probably still hanging about the pub, talking about the poor sinner and what could’ve possibly motivated her to kill her own child. When Dornan arrived home, he noticed that some of the shingles had fallen from his roof and cracked on the cobblestone street. He would have to get them replaced.

Docktown as a whole had a slapdash feel to it, built from whatever materials were travelling through port at the time, but Dornan was making enough money to maintain a level of upkeep that his neighbors could not. Dornan knew that he could probably afford a house in one of the nicer districts, but he also knew that would never be allowed. It didn’t bother him so much. His was a nice little house.

Caralee was inside, trying to read. At first he thought that she was looking at his journal, but of course she was not. It was the Scriptures, as always, and he immediately felt guilty for his momentary suspicion. Caralee was one of the kindest people he’d ever met, and she deserved better. He didn’t give a damn about her scarring, but everyone else had. Now she was stuck with him, the son of an executioner who had no other job prospects. No one would apprentice the executioner’s son. No one would marry the executioner’s son–no one, except sweet Caralee. She glanced up at his entry. “How’d it go?”

“Off without a hitch,” said Dornan. “Talk about it in a moment.” He retreated to his bedroom, where he kept his lockbox underneath his bed. He took the lockbox to his office, hands shaking slightly, unlocked it, and retrieved the journal. Underneath 2. Gerard Wallace. Embezzling city funds. Death by the sword, were the words Not Guilty.

The rage that burned through Dornan’s veins was like nothing he’d ever felt before. Not when a poor sinner broke his father’s wrist during an execution, not when he’d watched his mother’s body become riddled with boils from the plague. This was a personal attack. His lips formed words that never saw air, and he was suddenly sweating. It wasn’t his place to judge the sinner. That was the Senate’s job! Yes, he’d done it before, but not in Telvannath–that wasn’t his job. If he wanted to keep himself and Caralee in good health, why, he had to keep doing what the city told him. Besides, Wallace was obviously guilty. He’d confessed to Dornan three times under the screws, which he had done at the city’s behest. Who was this person to judge Dornan in his own journal? He was merely the instrument of justice!

Furious, he withdrew a piece of parchment from his desk and began writing some correspondence of his own. His father would know what to do.

I find myself in a situation that is perplexing and peculiar.

He had a dictionary and had to look up how to spell both ‘perplexing’ and ‘peculiar’.

I am keeping a career journal as you have requested of me, but someone is leaving notes in it.

He gave a brief description of the hangings, further consulting his dictionary three times. Dornan closed his note with his own suspicions.

I think that someone is breaking into our home and playing some sort of trick on me, though Caralee thinks it is the Lord writing these messages. This journal is well guarded and locked away. I would appreciate any counsel you could provide. With all of my love, your Son Dornan.

Writing the note had calmed him somewhat. He was giving this mysterious person what they wanted by giving into his anger. He shook his head as if that would actually clear it, then wrote the third entry in his journal:

3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging.

Dornan didn’t know what he would do if this one read ‘Not Guilty’. He placed the journal in a pouch, grabbed the lock from the lockbox and its key, and made for the front door. “What’s the matter?” asked Caralee.

“I have to go to the locksmith,” said Dornan, not even sparing his wife a glance. Perhaps it had been her, after all. He didn’t know what to think.

“Another note?” she asked, but he did not answer her. He slammed the door shut behind him and set off at once for Docktown’s locksmith.

The locksmith was a man probably close to Dornan’s age, but the way his skin pulled tight over his bones made him look much older. Dornan hoped he wouldn’t turn him away like the barber. Dornan looked to the lock in his hand and realized he was still wearing his executioner’s leathers. He cursed inwardly. No chance of the man not recognizing him. “I need a new lock,” said Dornan, when the locksmith did not initially demand that Dornan leave. He seemed to be testing a tumbler mechanism, fiddling with a pick in the keyhole. “I think someone’s figured a way to get into this one. I’ll gladly exchange it for a discount toward a new one.”

“That was funny about Baker, wasn’t it?” said the locksmith. “Bring me your lock.”  Dornan was not eager to speak of 3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging, but the locksmith continued. “Happy marriage. Why do you think she dunnit?”

“Who can guess the mind of a sinner?” asked Dornan. This was not a conversation he wanted to be having, and he hoped the locksmith would take the hint.

He did not. “I think–I’ll tell you what I think–I think that it was the husband that dunnit. I think he framed the lady.”

“I don’t make those kind of decisions,” said Dornan. “I just follow the will of the Senate.”

“Easier that way, I bet,” said the locksmith. He tossed Dornan a new lock, which he fumbled and had to retrieve from the floor.

“How much will that be?” asked Dornan.

“Two silver.”

“Two silver? Are you mad?”

“Two silver or no lock,” said the locksmith. His smile showed too many teeth.

Dornan grumbled but seemed to be without option. He handed over two silver to the locksmith, who inspected them closely.

“Thank you kindly,” he said, dropping the silver into his pocket. “Good work today, hangman. You did your job good.”

Dornan was still fuming about the price-gouging, but he had enough of a mind to remember his place. At least he hadn’t been refused service. “Thank you, good smith,” he said, his face becoming impassive only through years of practice. He returned home and locked the journal away in his lockbox with his new lock. He placed the entire box inside a larger box, which had some trivials inside–old dice, a hammer and nails, a piece of flint and steel, and the like–that he had not bothered to unpack since his arrival in Telvannath. Caralee came upon him there, in the space room.

“Another note?” she asked again.

Dornan snorted.

“What did it say?” Caralee asked.

He said nothing.

“You’re just doing your job,” said Caralee.

Her words echoed the locksmith’s, and he didn’t like it.

Execution number four was rushed through Telvannath’s courts because the poor sinner was considered a risk to both himself and others. His name was Marvin Addle and he was the closest thing the city had seen to a career killer in some time. He murdered women who looked like his mother, though from what Dornan could gather, she was a ripe old bird and he could almost understand Marvin’s frustrations. An unfortunate trio of black-haired, blue-eyed women fell to him before he was discovered by a stable boy, who had come to work in the early hours of the morning and discovered Marvin screaming at the corpse of his Master’s wife. The only reason Marvin was granted death by the sword was because the Senate wanted it over as quickly as possible. Dornan later discovered that one of the poor black-haired blue-eyed young women had been a Senator’s wife.

Marvin was a difficult case from start to finish. He babbled and flailed as Dornan’s assistants attempted to reign him in for judgment. He kissed Bishop Yelvin on the lips when the priest asked if he sought absolution for his sin (Bishop Yelvin took that answer as a ‘no.’) Dornan could hardly hear the Senator’s judgment decreed over the sounds of Marvin’s yelps. The Senator gave Dornan a helpful nod and then–in what could only be considered divine providence–Marvin stilled enough so that Dornan could give a clean cut. A good death. An excellent example of his ability to remain calm in the face of adversity. He considered writing that in his journal, though he knew he would have to look up how to spell “adversity.”

Following this particular execution, Dornan chose to accompany Bishop Yelvin and his assistants on their journey outside of town, to the mass grave where Marvin Addle’s body would rest. The Senators had insisted that his body be removed from Telvannath as soon as possible. Yelvin’s assistants sat in the back of the church’s wagon with the body, while Dornan sat next to Yelvin in the front.

“Bishop,” said Dornan. “I have a question, and it’s not going to come out right. I try to do right by the Scriptures, but it’s hard when I can’t come to church.”

“Ask away, Blackthorne,” said Yelvin. “And the Lord appreciates your efforts, even given your situation. Especially given your situation. You know that.”

Dornan ignored that statement. “Does the Lord speak to you directly?  Does he leave you messages that you give the church?”

“It is…” the Bishop paused. “A trifle more complicated than that. The Lord nudges my thought patterns, but he doesn’t give me words in the way that, say, he gave us the Scripture.”

“Oh,” said Dornan. The wagon creaked along, and the two men sat in silence for a moment.

“Don’t worry on it, Blackthorne,” said Yelvin. “Though he may not speak to you in a manner you understand, he guides your life in other ways. Especially you over others, as the instrument of his judgment.”

Dornan considered revealing his situation to the Bishop, telling him of the strange messages that no one else could possibly leave. But Dornan was afraid. The Bishop had close connections to the Senate and, well, if they suspected Dornan was mentally affected, then he would be removed from his position. What would happen to him then? And Caralee? So he remained silent, and looked on as the Bishop’s assistants unceremoniously dumped Marvin’s body into the stinking pit.

Instead of returning immediately home after his excursion with the Bishop, Dornan returned to the church with him and confessed. He confessed his desires for other women. He confessed his anger at the children in his community who threw horse dung at his windows. He confessed his doubt in the Lord and the judgments that he cast down on the poor sinners. Bishop Yelvin assured him that the Lord worked in mysterious ways, and Dornan agreed with that wholeheartedly. Yelvin gave him some special prayers to try over the coming week, and Dornan was grateful.

When Dornan finally made it home, dusk had fallen over Telvannath. He kissed Caralee and ate the pork chops she had made for him. She told him that his father had responded to his letter, and Dornan told her that he would check it when he was done with work that evening. He had put off the journalling long enough. Then he retreated to his office and locked the door.

3. Elizabeth Baker. Infanticide. Death by hanging.

Then:

Guilty.

He breathed an immense sigh of relief. The word guilty had never looked so lovely. Of course, the mystery of the correspondent still went unsolved, but Dornan had exacted justice for Elizabeth Baker’s child. The shaking that had stirred his bones since Marvin’s death ceased, and he rubbed his temples, feeling as though he could smooth out the wrinkles that had taken root. Then he wrote:

4. Marvin Addle. Murder (3 counts). Death by the sword.

He breathed in, and out.

He had expected being the instrument of righteousness to involve less anxiety. Already, he was wondering what the journal would say for Marvin. When would his bones begin to quake again?

Deciding that it was not a topic for the moment, Dornan locked his journal away, putting it in the same place it had been before. It was obvious that there was no hiding it. Dornan found Caralee, who gave him the letter from his father. It was short, and it was simple, like his father always was.

My dear Dornan,
Send your correspondent my regards. I have retired from the profession and am glad to finally be free of his incessant judgments.
                        G.B.

Dornan frowned and read over the letter again. And again. He checked the back of the paper to see if he had missed something, but he had not. He looked up to Caralee, who wore an expression of mild concern. He knew that he should apologize to her for having been so cross lately. For suspecting her of being responsible for this foolishness. She really was too good for him. “What did he say?” she asked.

He did not have a ready reply. He looked back to the paper and thought of his father, poor Grellik Blackthorne, and how the old man was to survive with the pittance paid to a retired executioner. “He’s retired now,” said Dornan. Maybe he could stay in Telvannath with him and Caralee. Dornan could clean out the spare room.

“Oh,” she said. “Did he say anything about…” She did not finish her sentence. The smell of the pork chops from dinner lingered in the air, and it nearly made Dornan sick. There was innocent blood on his hands, and there would be more. Innocent blood bought his livelihood.

“Someone playing a trick,” said Dornan. “Must be. No need worrying our heads about it.” He gave his best attempt at a smile and took her hands in his own. She raised her eyebrows at him, but did not question him further.

He wore the mask for the rest of the evening, the mask he knew he would wear for the rest of his life. It was not so different from the stern indifference he wore when working at the gallows. But it was a lie then and it was a lie now. What would be written underneath his name, he wondered, were it written in his journal?

Dornan Blackthorne. Murder, innumerable counts.

He never wanted to know the answer.

«»-«»-«»

Kathleen Brogan
Kathleen Brogan recently received her MA in English from Marshall University. She works as a librarian in Huntington, West Virginia.

Eisin, an Eastwise Folktale

by Laura DeHaan

One sings the tale of Eisin, in her grave before her time
                 A grave made not of ash and earth, but hoarfrost and hard rime.

The tale they sing is false. It’s not the ice that holds the wench but the summer sun and the seaward breeze, and the love of a youngling fool.

I sing then the tale of the youngling fool, who fell in love with a maiden of ice and broke her heart thereby. I sing for her parents, the poor witless fools, I sing for the witch and her wretched assistance, I sing for the summer and sunshine and sweetness and I sing for the silence that follows a sigh.

I sing then this song.

Oldmother Taige and Oldfather Fallow had wished for a daughter a very long time. They had not always been old, but they had always been barren, and this was a source of marital strife. One could not even blame the other, for both were as sterile as swampwater boiled. Perhaps they went mad. Perhaps they were mad. For certain as summer, something had snapped.

This thing snapped in winter, as many a madness-related things do. The snows were thick and stuck like thistles, the wind was quiet and biding its time. Oldmother Taige and Oldfather Fallow scarce could open a window or door without a snowdrift drifting inside. With no way to leave and no one to visit, what else could they do but go out of their minds?

A daughter they fashioned from snowdrift and ice, a tiny thing first for she would melt and puddle into the earth. With perseverance (and madness— never doubt, this was madness) Oldmother and Old-father crafted themselves a lovely shining maiden.

By then the outside snows had melted and winter was merely a memory, but inside their home the winter remained.

Oldmother said, If we open the door, our daughter will melt.

Oldfather said, Then let us stay inside and die, so that our daughter may live. Is there a greater act of love than this?

And so Oldmother and Old-father stayed inside, growing weaker and weaker, their ice-daughter watching them with no eyes at all. They would have died, and should have died, but for the witch passing through the woods.

Most witches keep to themselves and their hovels, waiting for fools to come before them. This witch then was different, nosy and meddling, peddling her bargains at tuppence a head.

Misery and maledictions! came her cry to the winter-locked door:

Misery and maledictions,
Fortune-telling and predictions,
Quaffs for coughs and all afflictions:
Misery and maledictions!

The old couple heard this and made their lament:

Mercy, not misery, Wise One, oh Witch,
Succour and sustenance, salvage and scrap!
Mercy, not misery, Wise One, oh Witch,
Fold us in kindness, let love be your wrap!

The witch, she went to the door and knocked. Who asks mercy of a witch? she said. Who thinks they have the right?

No right, said Oldmother Taige, no right and no hope, but we are hopeless and have something to lose, and so we ask mercy, oh wisest of hags.

And what would you ask of me? said the witch, who knew better than to open the frost-rimed door.

Save our daughter, said Oldfather Fallow. Give her our lives, that she may live.

And what do I get? said the witch.

Oldfather had no answer, but Oldmother said, Take our memories before we die. I’ll not have my daughter living with the shadow of our sadness over her well-sculpted head.

Done! said the witch, and in a trice the ice-girl breathed her first and her foolish parents breathed their last.

The witch swung open the cottage door and gestured grandly to the outside world. Your inheritance! she said, and buried the bodies and swept the floor and started a fire in the crusted old pit. The ice-girl never moved, never spoke, never saw. She lived, and that was all, and so the witch stayed in the old couple’s cottage and practiced her doings within.

Those who lived nearby knew to stay away from the witch and her newly-bought daughter, but there would be travellers with more stuffing than brains, more romance than reason in their well-meaning hearts. They saw this girl, this beautiful cold creature who merely breathed and shone and did nothing at all, and they proclaimed that they would give her their all, for so beautiful a creature should not be cursed with the mere heavy burden of living. One foolish young fisherman gave her his eyes, one foolish young troubadour gave her his tongue, one foolish young roustabout gave her his movement, one foolish young cripple-boy gave her his ears. This left the cripple-boy with nothing of his own in the world and he joined the old couple in the bottom of the garden.

From herself, the witch gave the girl the name Eisin and thereafter largely ignored her. The girl was a gift-grab but useless besides; her voice was most pleasant but her songs passing dull, her conversation was limited and her intellect null. Still, she inspired the travelling fools, and the witch continued making her bargains and trades.

At last came along the most foolish of our travellers, a young man so in love with the idea of love that his every breath was a sigh and every blink was a bow. When he saw the crystalline form of Eisin outside, glowing and radiant and casting dancing drops of sunlight over the woodland floor, his sweet young heart burst and broke and scattered itself.

I love you, he cried incautiously, and her first response was a smile. She would have smiled if he’d called her a dunce or a sluggard or a sloth, but he didn’t know it and that was that.

Did you hear me? he said when she did nothing but smile. I love you. Haven’t you any response?

Still she only smiled, and the witch stuck her meddling head out the window and called to our youngling fool:

Flittering and flattering,
Not a thing is mattering.
Run and dance and smile and sing,
But she cannot do everything.

I care not for what she cannot do, said our Young Mister Foolish.

You should, said the witch. You spoke of love, and Eisin here hasn’t a shred nor a morsel within the whole of her being.

Then Eisin spoke, and our boy’s heart shattered anew: What is it, to love?

Our young fool gathered her hands in his. Cold they were, and slick and yielding; she smiled at him and murmured nothing.

To love is to replace yourself with another, said our youth. It is to take them within yourself. One who loves has a blessed existence; one who loves may never die.

Eisin looked to the witch in the window, and the witch, she smiled too. May I have this love? asked Eisin.

Our boy, he answered for the witch: Take it, he said, there is nothing else worthwhile in life if one such as she cannot love.

And what do I get? asked the witch. If she is getting your love, which is the only worthwhile thing, then what dregs do you plan to throw to me?

Take the rest, our boy said wildly, all that remains of me after, whatever is left I leave for you.

Barely worthwhile, said the witch, but worth enough. All right then, keep holding her hands and enjoy the feeling while it lasts.

And a surge, such a surge that our foolish young idiot felt! Eisin’s hands grew warm in his, warm and slick and yielding, plumped instead of sculpted. He smiled, she smiled, and the wider she smiled the less he cared, and the less he cared the more she melted.

Melted! Ah yes, melted; how else should this story end? When Eisin loved, she became truly human, but a human heart’s too hot to hold a figure of ice and snow. She melted, did our Eisin, and her hands ran to water in our youngling’s foolish grasp. The drops of sunlight became drops of herself; the tears she cried were her eyes.

I love you, she told our witless hero, and in the next moment his ankles were damp with her self.

I’ve killed her, he said.

The wonderful part, said the witch, whose heart was a stone full of maggots and holes, is that she never would have died if you hadn’t told her to want something that was not hers by right. Tell me, is it better this way?

Our boy looked at the water seeping into the earth, steam rising from pockets and splotches and springs, cooling and misting in the hollows of tree trunks, fading and fleeting and gone.

She will return in the rain, said our boy. In the morning dews, in the winter snows, in the water we drink and the tears that we cry. She is larger than herself, as love is larger than self. And he himself fell dead at that, for his life was for love and his love had melted, scattered to summer and the seaward breeze.

«»-«»-«»

Laura DeHaan
Laura DeHaan is a healthcare practitioner in Toronto. Her first novella, Becoming Beast, comes out in October 2016 with Grace&Victory Publications. You can find the lists of her other publications on her website I Am In Your Eyebrain, or follow her on Twitter @WritInRooster if you need to kill like five minutes of your day.

Issue 32 Stories

The Desolation

The Desolation

Across the cracked and broken wastes, two figures came walking. They were a man and a woman, under a darkened, starlit sky.

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Captain Jack

Captain Jack

Lights from the windows of Brennan’s Fishing Lodge seeped through the ground fog ahead—a welcoming beacon for lost souls.

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The Persistence of RAM

The Persistence of RAM

The five-story building looked like a hospital. Sliding doors whooshed open and too much air conditioning blasted me in the face. I turned right, following the signs for the Advanced Robotics Laboratory.

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The Executioner’s Correspondent

The Executioner’s Correspondent

And letters, Dornan knew, were something quite different from what he was receiving. They were longer, for one. Two, you knew where they were coming from. Three, letters came by post, not in your private journal.

Read more

Eisin, an Eastwise Folktale

Eisin, an Eastwise Folktale

One sings the tale of Eisin, in her grave before her time A grave made not of ash and earth, but hoarfrost and hard rime.

Read more