By Kyla Chapek
I already didn’t like our potential new father. Wolves didn’t like him either. He didn’t smell right, and I didn’t like how his beady dark eyes roved over me and my older siblings like pieces of candy. My siblings didn’t seem to mind, though. I tried to stand straight, quiet, and not fidget, despite my discomfort with being lined up and put out on display. Mario had told me that it was very important for me to behave during the interview today. He had said that we had to make the man who came to see us today happy if we all wanted to stay together.
My six older siblings and I stood in a row in the middle of the white walled and windowless interview room. Most of the white brick walls were covered in colorful posters depicting children wearing toothy grins with things like puppies and cats. Maybe the caretakers thought the posters made the room look cheery. However the phrases the posters also sported like, Assimilation is a Citizens Duty, and, Conformity Leads to Permanent Placement, failed to create any cheery feelings inside of me. The only furniture in the room was the director’s desk and chair pushed up against the far right wall along with two chairs probably meant for guests.
My siblings and I stood in order from oldest to youngest with me at one end and my sixteen year old brother, Mario, at the other. Mario stood straight and tall with his hands behind his back like a soldier at ease. I copied his stance.
“And you say that they’re all Gifted?” asked our potential father. He stood by the director’s desk and his eyes roved over us. The man had pasty white skin and thinning dirty blonde hair. He wore a fancy blue suit with gold cufflinks; he must have been a rich man. He had to be a rich man to be able to adopt seven kids.
“Yes, Mr. Dornbeck, all of the Whistler children are confirmed Gifted. Their father was a sorcerer with natural elemental capabilities and all have shown signs of inheriting his gifts,” said a weasel faced man wearing a blue government uniform. He was the director of the re-education camp that we had called home for the past two years. “There is potential that a few of them have inherited the abilities of their mother as well, who was classified as a Kresnik, but only the youngest has shown any signs.”
“A Kresnik? I’m not familiar with that classification.”
The director swiped his finger across the holographic screen hovering above his desk. “It is a rare Gift that allows the subject to communicate with animals and even be able to possess and control them at times. The classification is so rare that the limits of Kresnik abilities have yet to be confirmed.”
“Are any members of your family Gifted or have Fae lineage?” asked the director as he stood from his chair.
“Of course not,” said Dornbeck quickly. “My wife and I relocated to Reservation City for work reasons only. We try to make a point of giving back to those less fortunate, however, whenever possible.”
Who’s he calling less fortunate? Snow, one of my wolves, growled in the back of my mind. I fidgeted and tried to ignore the feelings of hostility that were suddenly pulsing through me.
Mario said we need to be good, I silently growled back at Snow. The feeling of hostility subsided some, but didn’t completely disappear.
I don’t like how he smells, Slim, stay on your guard, warned Night, my other wolf, in the back of my mind. Despite her distrust of the rich man, Night helped me mentally wrestle her brother into submission. The feeling of hostility subsided to nothing, but Night’s wariness pulsed through me just as strongly as Snow’s hostility had. Night studied the rich man intently through my eyes.
“Well, it’s indeed very gracious of you to consider taking in such a large family, Gifted as they are. We try to keep the families together whenever possible,” said the director. He activated a device on his wrist and a holographic tablet appeared hovering above his hand. He walked over to Mario as he swiped a finger over the holographic screen that seemed solid under his touch. “Let me make proper introductions. Starting at the left we have Mario, sixteen years old, and his twin sister Athena.”
“What a lovely young woman,” said Dornbeck to my eldest sister. Athena remained silent, she stood straight like Mario, but her brown eyes stared blankly past the man at the posters on the wall.
“She’s a little shy,” said Mario with a nervous laugh, “but we’re all very excited to meet you, sir.”
Dornbeck nodded with a thin smile and moved on down the line to my next sibling and looked him up and down as the director read off his name and information. All my siblings had jet black hair and light brown skin like my father. Thor, my fourteen year old brother, stood straight with a big smile on his face; just like Mario had told us to do. Dornbeck looked him up and down and gave him an approving nod. Kaiden, Thor’s junior by just a year and a half, looked like he could be Thor’s twin, but his demeanor was completely opposite. He stood hunched over with his hands in his pockets and a sour look on his face. Dornbeck frowned down at him.
A cold breeze suddenly whipped through the windowless room. The whole line of us stood a little straighter, Kaiden included. It was Mario’s warning; he had told us we couldn’t screw this one up, or else. I tried to stand up straight and plaster a smile on my face. It was hard though, Night and Snow were arguing about something. Their growls and mental nips and scratches at each other sent prickles up and down my spine. I scratched at my left ribcage where their markings were, what my wolves called the physical manifestation of our bond.
“And here we have Leaf and her twin brother Shadow, both ten years old,” the director continued introductions.
The twins smiled sweetly up at the rich man. I could tell that Leaf’s was genuine and Shadow’s was forced. Like me, he had no interest in having a new father, or mother. Mario said we had to get out of here though. Athena hated it here, I didn’t like it here either; I couldn’t let wolves out to run here.
Night and Snow continued to argue in my subconscious. I couldn’t understand everything, they blocked me from most of it, but by their emotions I got the general gist of it. It seemed like they agreed on something important, but were arguing over what to do about it.
“Lastly we have young Slim, eight years old,” said the director. “She’s very…mature for her age.”
I tried to block out Night and Snow and focus on the rich man who now stood over me. With great effort I twisted my lips into a smile and reached out a hand to shake his.
“Very nice to meet you, sir.” I looked him straight in the eyes.
Dornbeck’s eyebrows rose in question and his smile thinned. I was doing something wrong, though I wasn’t sure what it was, but it wasn’t making the rich man happy. I glanced at my other siblings. All my brothers stood tall like soldiers. Leaf, however, was slouched and rocked back and forth from her heels to her toes. She twirled her bangs between her fingers as she rocked. I should probably be acting more like her. That would be more normal.
I copied Leaf’s posture and began to twirl my curly hair with the hand I had reached out to shake with. “Are you going to be our new daddy?” I copied Leaf’s stupid giggle for full effect.
Snow scratched at the back at my mind, trying to get my attention. I continued to block him out and looked the rich man in the eyes, steady and unblinking.
“What beautiful red hair you have…” said the rich man, his smile turned wide and toothy. He took a knee and came down to my level, “…and such interesting mismatched eyes.”
The man reached up to stroke my hair. Run! screamed Snow, shattering through my barriers. I jerked away from the man’s touch, crouched back on all fours defensively, and growled. The man stared dumbfounded.
Why?! I demanded, before I took further action.
He smells like he wants to mate, growled Snow.
He wants to hurt you and the pack, confirmed Night. Run or fight, Slim.
Protect the pack! growled Snow. I nodded before letting out a feral growl. Then I attacked, biting and clawing at the man with everything I had.
The locks on the isolation room door engaged with dull thud. I cowered in the corner of the padded cell until I heard the caretaker’s footsteps echo to nothing down the hallway. I used wolves’ enhanced senses to ensure that we were alone and wouldn’t be disturbed anytime soon. Once satisfied, I sat up and crisscrossed my legs.
I straightened my back and folded my hands like a Buddha statue; just like I remember Momma doing when she would give form to her beasts. Taking a deep breath, I focused all my will and pushed Snow and Night into physical form. A stinging sensation began in in my left ribcage. It was a good kind of hurt, like peeling a scab. The sensation spread to my shoulder blades and then down my skinny arms.
When the feeling reached my elbows wolves’ markings became visible from under the short sleeves of my camp uniform. Two distorted images of wolves slithered down my arms; one black down my right arm, and a pure white one down my left. Kaiden called them my liquid tattoos. Just before the wrist bone the markings peeled away from my skin and took on their own physical form.
Two young wolves, far too big to be pups but not quite full grown yet, took shape before me. One pure white with red eyes, and one black with deep blue eyes. Snow and Night, my wolves, my best friends, my literal soulmates.
They scampered to my side once paws were on solid ground. They jumped on me and licked and nipped playfully, happy that I was okay and that they could get out to move around. I giggled and scratched behind their ears and rubbed their bellies. The isolation rooms were one of the few places I could let them out without being seen by the caretakers. Athena said the caretakers might do bad things to me if they found out about wolves.
Isolation rooms were one of the few places in the camp that didn’t have cameras. Mario said it was so the director could always have plausible deniability, whatever that was. He said I was too young to worry about that, though, and that wolves would protect me from any sickos. Athena hated the isolation rooms, she was always real quiet after coming back from them. I loved them though, it was a relief for all of us when wolves could get out to stretch. We couldn’t be apart for too long, our bond was what kept them alive, but it was always nice for us to have our own bodies to do with what we liked.
After we snuggled and wrestled around for a while, Snow started to chase his tail and Night restlessly circled the cell. The desire to be outside of these walls filled me. To be near the earth and under the open sky. My limbs ached to run as far and as fast as I could. I remembered back to my earliest memories when my family would all go on runs together through the woods. My father and older siblings would use their elemental Gifts to climb the trees and leap from limb to limb, while I would ride strapped to Momma’s back with Mother Wolf always at our side.
Suddenly the memory wasn’t a vague memory anymore. It was fresh, clear, and full of understanding, but not from my perspective strapped to my mother’s back, it was from Mother Wolf’s perspective padding along at her side. I closed my eyes and let myself get lost in what I called the dream memories. Athena called them ancestral memories, I liked dream memories better.
As I trotted beside my best friend/mother, Nissa, I could smell the damp earth beneath my paws. I could feel the crisp air of the early morning sting my nose. The pups/my siblings swung from the trees above me like a pack of wild monkeys. I could see myself strapped to Nissa’s/Momma’s back, a ball of pink squishy flesh. My muscles were taunt, ready to run fast and wild, far ahead of them all, but I held back to keep vigil over the pack. Besides, I needed to take it easy, my own pups were beginning to grow inside of me.
This memory faded and a series of memories cascaded through my mind. On all fours I ran through a green forest with a teenage Nissa struggling to keep up at my side. Then I was a different wolf, an older wolf, running through snow covered mountains in search of an injured caribou. Warm blood flooded my mouth when my fangs found soft flesh.
I opened my eyes and the padded walls of the isolation cell replaced the forest around me. My mouth tasted like copper coins and I tried to lick the taste out of my mouth. It was hard to shake off the over bearing urge to run. My muscles were tense and ached to move free.
Snow and Night wined and scratched at the padded walls, feeling the same urges as me. Night walked up to me and snuggled into my side.
We want to run, Slim, we need to run, she said.
“I know,” I said out loud, wrapping my arms around Night’s neck. “I want to run too.”
“The wolves are making her crazy, Athena,” Mario’s frustrated voice leaked through the thin walls of our family cell unit. “You saw her, she was totally rabid. Maybe we should tell the caretakers about them. They’re not puppies anymore, we can’t keep hiding them.”
“Absolutely not!” said Athena sternly.
She sounded like Momma when she used that voice. I was the only one who looked like Momma though, with my red hair, lighter skin and green eyes. At least my eyes were green when I wasn’t completely bonded with wolves. When we were bonded my left eye was red and my right blue.
“At best she gets shipped to the lab and becomes their new science project. At worst they might try to separate them.”
I cringed at the thought, and wrapped my blanket tighter around me. The small bedroom I shared with my sisters was dark. However, with my enhanced senses along with the small amount of moonlight that filtered in through the barred window I could see just fine.
“And that would be a bad thing?” Mario was starting to raise his voice.
“Snow and Night would die! Slim probably would too!” cried Athena. “I’ve seen hosts separated from their spirit animals at the lab. It’s horrible what happens to them. Most go insane.”
“She’s already going insane!” yelled Mario. “They’re parasites. They were never meant to be attached to a human soul. Let alone two of them.”
I’m not crazy, I growled to myself. In my mind Night gave me an affirmative yelp and a comforting nuzzle.
He knows nothing, growled Snow. He wants us to sell out. We won’t sell out. Mothers would never want us to sell out.
Memories of my mother and Mother Wolf filled my mind. They lived by a code of honor. They would never bow to the unworthy, they would never go back on an oath. I had sworn the day they died I would never give in to their murderers. Easier said than done for a six year old. For the past two years the government had ran every aspect of my life. I hated it. I hated them; the caretakers. I hated the locks and the fences. It also annoyed me that at eight years old everyone still treated me like a little kid and acted like I couldn’t take care of myself.
I did little things, though, to keep my freedom. To show myself they didn’t own me. I took needless risks; like stealing extra desserts, and sneaking out with Kaiden and Shadow after curfew. Every now and then I would even sneak under the fence and go for a run in the woods that surrounded camp.
“Mother Wolf raised Mom. She practically raised us, and you want us to just sell out her kids. Not to mention who knows what it’ll do to Slim.” Athena and Mario continued to argue.
See, sell out, grumbled Snow.
“She had no right to bond her offspring with Slim.”
“She was dying, she had no choice. Slim asked her to do it.”
“She was six then, she wasn’t capable of making that kind of decision.”
I rolled my eyes at Mario. I never regretted my decision. I loved Night and Snow more than anyone else in this world. In the end I could always count on them. They would never leave me, and would always love me. My wolves knew me like no one else could. I couldn’t really remember what it was like not being bonded to them.
“Do we get any say in this?” Kaiden’s bored voice.
“No!” yelled Mario and Athena at the same time.
“Whatever,” Kaiden grumbled, “come on, Shadow, their rolling some dice a few cells down.” The main door to our cell swished opened and then closed.
Athena and Mario were quiet for a while. I got up and walked over to the small window. Standing on tip toes I peered into the night. Our cell had a good view of the main yard. The cheery sports fields and playground equipment where brightly lit by the spotlights mounted on the tall chain-link fence that surrounded the yard. A razor sharp spool of barbwire lined the top of the fence. Both the fence and the barbwire were made of a special silver-iron alloy that helped keep in all the variously Gifted children and Fae haflings that populated the camp.
“Her sentence has been extended.” Mario spoke much quieter this time. Probably to make sure I couldn’t hear them; none of them realized how good my hearing was.
“How long?” Athena’s voice wasn’t surprised, but it had an edge of panic to it.
“She won’t be eligible for placement for another six months. That’s if she’s on her best behavior. If the rest of us wait for her for placement we’ll be bumped to the bottom of the list.”
I stared out the window as I eavesdropped on the twin’s argument. Beyond the lights mounted along the fence there was an open field of perfectly manicured grass. The field was a twenty second sprint wide from the fence to the tree line. Even with my good senses the forest was nothing but blackness. The need to run coursed through me again. I gripped the windowsill so hard my fingers hurt.
“I can’t wait that long,” said Athena. “I have to get out of here, Mario. Word of what happened with Zach has got around. Now all those caretaker pigs think they get a go.”
“I’m not going to let that happen.” Mario practically growled like wolves.
“You can’t protect me! I’ve filed the emancipation paperwork.”
“You’re leaving us!” Something twisted in my gut. “What will you do? Live on the streets?”
“A firm offered me a position. There’s high demand out there for a talented elemental. I’m leaving in two weeks.”
“I can’t believe this, I can’t believe you.” The anguish in Mario’s voice made me wince.
“You should take the old widower’s offer. Go work on her farm. That Gifted couple wanted to take Leaf and Shadow, and Thor wants to go off to the Military Academy. Kaiden and Slim will be placed sooner or later. We all have to take our out while we can get it.”
I stopped listening and turned away from the window. Blinking tears out of my eyes I found my leather satchel and gathered supplies for a run. I spread my stash of ultra-bars, a baggy of tobacco and marijuana cigarettes, a piece of red string, and a bent metal fork out on my bed. All of my ultra-bars went in my satchel along with the fork and I counted out how many cigs it would take to get through the fence.
Lastly I closed my eyes and called for Nigel. Within minutes I heard the familiar scratching in in the walls and then the large pack rat emerged from under Leaf’s bed. Leaf was curled up under her covers fast asleep.
Hi, Nigel, I thought to the rat. I scooped him up and placed him on my bed.
What’s up, Slim? asked Nigel.
I tied the red string around Nigel’s middle. Take this to Jared. Then meet me by the bathrooms. I set Nigel back on the ground.
Sure thing, thanks for the treats you left me last night. Nigel scurried back under Leaf’s bed.
“You’re welcome,” I whispered out loud. Then I went back to gathering my things.
“Are you going to the woods?” Leaf’s sudden voice made me jump.
I spun around and found her sitting up in bed. “Go back to sleep.”
“Are you going to the God’s Wood? Mario and Athena say it’s dangerous.”
“Wolves will protect me,” I said with a shrug.
Leaf looked unconvinced. She reached under her pillow and removed something black and shiny. “Take this. I found it in the woods when the caretakers took us for our walk the other day. It’ll protect you from mean Fae.”
I took the offered stone. It was smooth with sharp edges. Obsidian, my dream memories told me. Then Poppa’s voice, The only thing that hurts a Fae as much as cold iron is lava glass, obsidian. Both Momma and Poppa had always carried obsidian knives on their belts.
“Thanks, Leaf.” I smiled and put the stone in my satchel. Leaf beamed, it wasn’t often she was able to act the role of big sister. I was usually the one taking care of her. “Now go back to sleep.”
“Was Dornbeck a bad person? Is that why you went nuts?” She settled back under her blankets.
“Yeah, he didn’t smell right. Wolves didn’t like him. Don’t worry, the couple that liked you and Shadow smelled right. I think they’re good people.” I tucked in my big sister and kissed her on the forehead. “Now go to sleep.”
I waited until just before dawn to leave. Everyone sounded like they were asleep. I slipped out of my bed and slung my satchel over my shoulder. The non-automated door that divided the girl’s room from common area of our family cell was silent as it slid open and then shut behind me.
Athena caught me before I made it to the main door. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Going for a run. I need it,” I mumbled, both me and wolves were embarrassed that she caught us.
“Do you plan on coming back?” she asked simply, eyeing the satchel slung over my shoulder. I was rarely gone more than a day.
“Why should I? You’re leaving, everyone is going to leave me,” I snapped.
Athena winced from my harsh tone. “The caretakers will hunt you down if you’re not back within a few days. Don’t let it come to that or you’ll never get out of this place. Take a coat with you. Be careful, Slim, and for the Goddess’ sake stay away from that freak with the violin.”
“But I like Gump,” I pouted, though I was happy she was resigned to letting me go. Athena seemed to be the only one that understood how badly I needed to run. “He’s fun to play with.”
“You can’t trust those pure blooded Fae, you never know what they want. He’s also a Founder. It’s their fault we’re trapped here. They control the barrier.”
“Gump says the barrier is the only thing that keeps the humans from slaughtering us outright,” I countered. This was an old argument, but I was feeling aggressive.
“It’s also what traps us here. Don’t forget the Founders sold out our parents.”
“Not Gump, wolves remembers. He tried to save them.”
Athena rolled her eyes. “Just please be careful, Slim. You’re just a kid.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes. Stop wasting your time with this one, Slim, huffed Night. She’s leaving us behind.
Bitterness towards my sister burned in me and I turned my back on her. I typed in the bathroom code on the key pad left of the door. The door swished open and lights illuminated on the floor of the dark hallway leading me towards the bathrooms. Without looking back I headed down the trail of yellow lights.
Technically the camp wasn’t a prison since the vast majority of the occupants had never committed a crime. Most were children of imprisoned or dead criminals or political dissidents. So the government did everything they could to make it seem less like a prison. You could freely come and go from your rooms even after lights out, as long as it was for something the caretakers deemed important that is, and that you returned to your room as soon as possible.
I met Nigel in the bathroom. He squeaked in greeting and nuzzled my foot. A black string was tied around the rat’s waist confirming that Jared had gotten my message. Everything should be set up.
I reached in my satchel and removed the bent fork. I sat down and pulled up my pant leg to reveal my security anklet. It was how the caretakers kept track of us. It could also send a neuro shock through my body that would disconnect me from my Gifts for a few moments if the caretakers so chose. It hurt like hell.
With some fiddling with the fork and a little electric shock of my own the anklet snapped off. I quickly removed it and attached it around Nigel’s belly. Just go back and hangout in my bunk for the rest of the day, I thought to him. I left half a doughnut under my bed for you.
Thanks, Slim, squeaked Nigel as he scurried out of the bathroom. I waited five minutes before I left and stuck to all the shadows and camera blind spots I knew on my way to the exit.
Jared waited at the exit to the sports fields. “Hey, Kid,” said the blonde haired teenager with a smile. “You got the goods?” Jared was always right down to business.
I removed the bag of cigs from my satchel and handed them over. Jared did a quick count and nodded. “The guard will be looking the other way. When the lights switch off you’ll be clear to the fence.”
“Thanks,” I muttered, and made to walk past him through the door.
“Should I have your return set up for this evening? I heard that your sister is taking off and all.” Jared seemed to know everything that went on in this camp.
I paused, not sure of the answer. Part of me just wanted to disappear into the woods and never come back. Another part of me wondered if I could really ditch my siblings like that. “Have it set up, just in case.”
Jared nodded and lit up one of the cigs. “You know, Kid, my offer is still open. I could use a partner like you. Making the camp your home ain’t so bad if you know how to work things.”
I shrugged, “I’ll think about it.” Jared wasn’t family so I didn’t completely trust him. On the other hand wolves thought he was solid, and he seemed like a good kind of guy.
When I walked out the door his offer was pushed to the back of my mind. Fog hung over the yard as the first light of dawn peeked over the trees to the East. Dew that clung to the grass soaked into my sneakers. I pulled my coat tighter around me; my breath made mist clouds in the air.
Snow and Night’s excitement for our run made me feel all jittery and shaky. They pawed the back of my mind, restless. Just a little longer, I thought to them. Stay focused on getting out of here.
I pressed my body to the wall next to the door until the lights shut off with an electric snap. I ran to the fence, and knelt down on the ground just inches from the chain links. Then I pressed my bare palms down on the dewy grass and felt the earth like Poppa had taught me.
I closed my physical eyes and opened my inner eye. Awareness beyond that of my enhanced physical senses flooded into me. I could feel the life-force in the ground beneath my palms. It was in every blade of grass, in every microbe and insect that called the ground its home, it was in the soil itself. Once I had a sense of the flow of power I pictured what I wanted to happen and pushed with my mind. The mental muscle that opened my inner eye flexed and strained with effort.
A cracking followed by a sucking sound told me that I had been successful. I opened my eyes and looked down at my handy work. The ground had opened up in front of me and a tunnel had formed that ran under the fence to freedom. Almost there, I thought to my gleeful wolves.
We were finally free. My heart pounded in time with my labored breathing. I pumped my arms and legs as hard as I could in a vain attempt to keep up with Snow and Night. I knew the bond with wolves made me much faster and stronger than a normal eight year old girl, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with Snow and Night’s full speed. If they wanted to I would be eating their dust. They held back, however, and trotted just behind and on either side of me. We didn’t like being far apart even when they had their own physical forms.
Twigs and leaves crunched beneath my bare calloused feet as we ran in a loose triangle formation deeper into the woods. The earthy smells and natural sounds of the forest assaulted my senses. I smoothly ducked under low hanging branches and dodged around and leapt over logs and shrubs. By the Goddess it was amazing to run and really feel the earth beneath my feet. With every step it was like the earth whispered to me.
I was halfway up a ridge top and over a mile away from camp before I stopped for the first time to catch my breath. Night and Snow playfully pounced on each other and thoroughly rubbed themselves into the mossy earth. They wanted the smells of camp off of them. I took a whiff of my arm; smoke, spicy magic, chemicals, and human.
We’ll scare off game smelling like this, said Night.
Following wolves example, I lied down and rubbed myself into the moss and leaves. I grabbed hands full of leaves and rubbed them all over my braided hair and satchel just to be sure. Snow and Night padded over and rubbed up against me to make sure I smelled more like wolf than human.
When they were satisfied they began to whine about running again. “Go ahead,” I said, “I’ll catch up.”
Night and Snow bolted, melting into the forest as if they were ghosts. I could still feel them in the back of my mind. They were more distant than when we were completely bonded. Our connection was still there, but it was foggy; their thoughts where whispers I could easily block out. They were already on the trail of a buck in his second season.
I got to my feet and then looked back in the direction of camp. The sun was a palms width above the trees now and from where I stood I could see most of the valley. Camp, sitting at the base of the slope I was climbing, was a dull grey square cut out of a green ocean of trees. The forest continued for a few miles before it abruptly ended and was replaced by Reservation City. A steel and concrete jungle whose skyscrapers stood four times as tall as the tallest trees of the forest.
Res City dominated the valley. It was the only Gifted refuge on the west coast sanctioned by the federal government. If you were classified as Gifted or Fae you needed to have a special permit to travel outside of the refuge. I looked up to the sky and opened my inner eye. The purple sheen of the barrier partially obscured the clear blue sky. The purple dome extend in all directions as far as I could see completely encircling the refuge.
My parents had made the mistake of thinking we should have the right to come and go as we please. They thought we should be allowed to live safely outside the barrier without a permit from the government. I had dream memories of all the things they had done to try and change things. The government killed them for their troubles.
I shook off the sad thoughts, closed my inner eye, and turned my back on the city. Snow and Night were calling for me to catch up. They were gaining on the buck, but didn’t want to leave me too far behind.
The sun was nearing its midpoint in the sky. It was getting hot and I had shed my jacket. We were over twenty miles away from camp deep in the wilderness that made up the rest of the refuge. Snow and Night were far ahead of me still running off their excess energy.
I had slowed to a casual stroll, walking with my hands in my pockets and my face upturned to the sky to feel the sun’s warmth. My stomach rumbled and I fished around in my satchel for one of my Ultra-bars. The brownish chewy glob tasted like cardboard, but contained all the necessary vitamin and nutrients as well as enough calories to rival a three course meal. It was plenty to calm my rumbling stomach. The fresh hot meat of Snow and Night’s kill from earlier had seemed far more appetizing, but Athena and Mario said raw meat was still bad for me so I had passed on my portion.
The eight Ultra-bars I was able to scrounge together wouldn’t last me long. I got hungry fast when I gave form to wolves. With any luck I would soon track down Gump. Or he would track me down, which was how it usually worked. Gump always had good food to share and sweet drink that made my head feel dizzy. He always played music for us that made both me and wolves want to do nothing but dance and play for hours on end.
Over the morning we had followed the ridgeline and steadily made our way west towards the God’s Wood and Gump’s territory. Several Fae creatures and Gifted humans who couldn’t or chose not to live in the city called the woods home. The most ancient Fae lived in the area known as the God’s Wood. I didn’t know exactly where Gump lived, but he always seemed to find me when I was looking for him. Athena said that the God’s Wood was dangerous, but I didn’t care what she thought anymore. Maybe I should ask Gump if he wanted to adopt me. I didn’t know if they would let a pureblooded Fae like Gump adopt a Gifted human like me.
For the fun of it I tried to climb a tree like I remembered my father and siblings used to do. I walked up to an old growth red cedar and placed my hand on the bark. I closed my eyes and sunk into one of my dream memories.
I was Mother Wolf curled up in front of the fireplace. A tinny me sat on the ground next to me playing with building blocks and making gurgling noises. The baby me thumped my fists on Mother Wolf’s head and pulled at patches of her fur, but she didn’t mind. She just playfully nuzzled me and steered me away from the fireplace every time I tried to crawl towards it. The couches and chairs were pushed up against the walls of our living room. My father and the older kids stood in the middle of the room practicing their Gifts. The younger ones sat on cushions near the fire watching.
Nissa’s male/Poppa’s deep voice resonated through the house. “Gaia’s power flows through all living things. At our smallest level we are made up of building blocks. Tiny pieces of life make up of everything around us. The building blocks are all the same, it is only how they are put together that determines the form they ultimately take.” My siblings/the pups sat or stood silently, engrossed in our father’s lesson.
Nissa’s male, David, stood in the middle of the living room of our log cabin house wearing nothing but dear hide britches. With his light brown skin and long black hair pulled back in a ponytail he looked like one of the Native Indians in the History Vids and old cowboy movies. My father walked up to one of the log pillars that held up the second floor of our house.
“Our flesh and bone are no different than the bark and wood of a tree.” He placed his palm on the wooden pillar. “If we feel those blocks, those particles of life, we can change their form. Or, we can rearrange the particles of our own body to match that of another object.”
The color and texture of Poppa’s hand changed to match that of the wooden pillar. He placed his other hand on the pillar and it changed to match the wood. David/Poppa began to climb up the pillar as if he were an insect climbing a wall. The pups cheered and clapped their hands at the display. Poppa climbed all the way up to the second floor balcony.
“Your turn,” he said.
Nine year old versions of Mario and Athena happily began to scurry up the pillars and joined my father on the second floor. A seven year old Thor and a six year old Kaiden attempted to do the same. They only made it a few feet up the pillars before they would fall to the ground. Momma was always there with a thick cushion for them to fall onto, or she would just snatch them out of the air. Every time the boys made it a little farther up the pillars all the pups would cheer and clap their hands. Little me would squeal and clap my hands as well even though I didn’t know why we were clapping.
I opened my eyes and the dream memory melted away and was replaced by the woods. My cheeks were wet and my eyes watery. I wiped away my tears and tried to focus on my mission. Taking a deep breath I focused and tried to feel the tree like Poppa had taught my siblings.
A cold vibrating feeling started in my palms and I began to climb. Or try to climb that is. My skin wasn’t quite bonding with the bark. I tied to scurry up the tree, but I kept sliding down after just a couple feet. Maybe if I got a running start.
Stepping back about twenty feet I sprinted towards the tree and then up it. This time I got a good fifteen feet up before I fell backwards. There was no one there to catch me. I landed funny on my wrist, pain shot up my arm, and I heard a pop. I hissed at the pain and tried to sit up.
Slim, are you alright?! cried wolves in unison. Their presence filled my mind as they fully bonded with me. They pumped their magic into my body and the pain in my wrist disappeared. The bruising that had already formed on my wrist melted away.
That was a stupid thing to do, Slim, admonished Night. You know you can’t climb like that yet.
“I know,” I grumbled as I stood, embarrassed at my failure.
Come on, the river is this way, wolves directed my attention to my right. I walked in the direction they indicated and dug around in my satchel for another Ultra-bar. My stomach was starting to rumble again. Hopefully Gump would find me soon.
After a few minutes of walking I came to the river. The God’s Wood didn’t have any boundary markings I was aware of. I knew the river wasn’t the exact boundary, but I also knew pretty much everything on the other side of the river was within the God’s Wood. The river, known by locals as the river Styx, was only a narrow stream this far up in the mountains. It flowed all the way down into and through the valley, cutting the city in nearly equal halves.
Taking a deep breath, I thought cold thoughts and stepped out onto the swiftly flowing water. The water froze beneath my bare feet. The ice spread and formed a bridge. As I walked across the bridge I extended my arms and gave form to Night and Snow. They yipped happily at first, then whined as their paws slipped on the ice. I giggled at them as they struggled across.
Not far past the river the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Snow had ran off ahead after a squirrel, but Night remained by my side. She stopped and looked around, baring her teeth. I balled my fists and looked around for the danger. A hissing growl drew my attention to a rotting stump about twenty feet away. There stood a red fox, with his ears folded back and his own teeth bare.
This fox was different from any I had ever seen before. It was big, nearly as big as Night. The creature had multiple tails extending from its backside, there were at least four or five.
Danger, growled Night.
“It’s okay,” I said to the fox, holding my hands up in a calming gesture. “We don’t mean no harm. We’ll stay away from your den.” The fox just growled. I tried to reach out to him with my mind, but there was nothing. It felt like I hit up against a brick wall. An uneasy feeling ran up my spine.
He doesn’t smell right, Slim, let’s get out of here.
The fox crouched and lunged in our direction. Surprised, I stumbled backwards, but Night met the threat head on. Night and the fox turned into a jumble of red and black snarling fir. After a short scuffle the fox managed to pin Night down and sank its teeth into her throat. Pain shot through my left side, making me wince and cry out. Night’s physical form melted away and the fox turned his sights on me.
That’s not a normal fox! cried Night, retreating to the back of my mind to lick her wounds. It’s some sort of Fae. We need to get out of here.
I turned tail and ran. Snarling came from behind me. The fox leapt over me and landed in my path. I tried to veer to the right, but the fox was in front of me before I made it three steps. It swiped out at me as I skidded to a stop, but just missed. I turned again and ran back towards the river. The snarling continued close behind me.
We can’t outrun him for long. Can we climb a tree? I looked around, no low enough hanging branches. A fir tree loomed ahead of me that had a branch I might be able to reach even if I couldn’t quite bond with the bark.
Both Night and I focused all our power and we scurried up the tree. There was a little bit of tug in my feet and hands, but not enough for a solid hold. It was like trying to run up a vertical sand dune. With my speed and strength I made it farther than I had before, but I lost momentum and started to slide back down before reaching the branch. This time I kept my hands at least partially molded to the tree so I slid down at a safe speed instead of free falling.
The fox was waiting for me on the ground. I scrambled for some sort of weapon. My hands found a large stick and I turned to face the fox. It didn’t attack me even though I was a sitting duck. It just growled and swiped at the air. Night and I growled right back and took a swing with our stick. The fox easily avoided it, but it stopped growling. It caulked its head at me and looked surprised.
A growl came from my right and a white blur pounced onto the fox. There was a flurry exchange of sharp teeth and claws before the two creatures parted. Snow stood between me and the fox.
About damn time, growled Night to her brother. She was almost healed enough to take form again. Where have you been?!
Just shut up and run! Snow didn’t take his eyes off the fox. Get Slim out of here. If she dies we die, remember.
Night growled back at Snow in reply, but I could feel her relief at the arrival of her brother. We took his advice and ran. The fox couldn’t permanently harm Snow as long as I was safe.
For a few minutes we ran so fast I felt like I could fly. Night’s concern for Snow tugged at the back of my mind. She didn’t like him facing whatever that thing was alone. Go to him. Still running, I extending my right arm and gave Night form. My pace slowed.
Night continued to run by my side. Are you sure? She was torn between seeing me to safety and helping her brother.
I’ll keep running. Make sure Snow is okay. Catch up to me when you can. A feeling of gratitude filled me as Night fell behind.
I ran until I was out of breath; paying little attention to what direction I was going. Then I ran some more. Snow and Night had all their attention on fighting the Fae fox; I could only get vague impressions of what was going on far behind me.
Finally I stopped to catch my breath. My stomach cramped with hunger. I dug around in my satchel for another Ultra-bar; only one left now. I also found the obsidian rock Leaf had given me. Between bites of my Ultra-bar I sucked in air. Sweat dripped down my face and stung my eyes. As I forced down the chewy muck I wiped the sweat from my face and contemplated going back to help wolves. Maybe I could make a difference with the obsidian.
I was in a part of the God’s Wood I had never been in before. It was an ancient part of the forest. All the trees around me were giants; some of their tangled roots that protruded out of the ground met me in height. The ground was a thick carpet of moss covered with orange spotted mushrooms the size of my head. It seemed unnaturally quiet here as well; no buzz of insects or chirps of birds.
When I finished my Ultra-bar I stuffed the rock into my pants pocket and decided to head back towards wolves. Every injury they sustained sent a chill down my spine. It was more of an assumption than fact that they couldn’t be permanently hurt as long as I was safe. So far all the times Night and Snow had sustained fatal wounds in their physical forms they had automatically re-bonded with me so they could heal their aura. If I ever got hurt all they had to do was bond with me and their power healed me. They couldn’t bring me back from the dead, however, and I didn’t know if a powerful Fae could harm wolves in their physical forms.
Keep running! wolves growled in unison before I could move. In my mind their voices seemed far off. I let out my own growl and turned back towards safety. Frustrated tears filled my eyes as I began to run. I hated being so useless.
The tears blurred my vision and I tripped on one of the roots. I went down hard. My shin hit a rock and I hissed from the pain. The sound of flapping wings came from above me.
“Cacawww, cacaww.” I looked up and blinked the tears out of my eyes. I was expecting to see a crow, but instead I found a woman. She sat on a large moss covered rock ten feet away from me.
The woman was definitely Fae; she reeked of spicy magic. She had jet black hair and greenish skin. Her features were sharp and beautiful; her ears were slightly pointed. The woman’s eyes were as black as her hair and a black cloak was draped over her shoulders.
“And what brings you to these woods, my child?” asked the green woman.
I scrambled to my feet. “I, I, I came to visit Gump. Then this fox with a bunch of tails attacked me and wolves.”
“A fox you say? Akira must be up to some sort of mischief. Come, sit by my side and I’ll tend to your wounds.” The green woman brushed aside her cloak and patted the rock beside her.
Something about her voice drew me in and I took a step towards the woman without thinking. I paused before I took another step. “Who are you?”
She gave me a toothy smile. Her canine teeth were long and sharp. “I am the Morrigan, Slim Whistler. Come, sit by my side.”
My suspicion spiked but I took another step towards her. “How do you know my name?” Morrigan seemed very familiar, something stirred in my dream memories, but it was unfocused and distant. “Have we ever met?”
“Once, but you were far too young to remember I’m sure. I was a friend of your mother.”
“You knew my mom?” My interest was piqued and I took another step towards her. Gump had known my parents as well and had all kinds of stories about them. I loved his stories.
“Oh yes, Nissa and I were…very close once.” She patted the rock next to her again. Her fingernails were long and black. “Come, sit beside me. Your leg is hurt. I will heal and protect you. Just like I promised Nissa.”
Part of me was still unsure of Morrigan. Yet I soon found myself standing next to her. I hesitated before I sat; something about the way she looked at me made me uneasy. Her eyes looked hungry.
Morrigan’s smile was soft and kind, however. She reached up and gently took my hand. Usually I would have jerked away if a stranger tried to touch me, but I didn’t have any urge to with her. A warm tingling sensation started in my hand and spread up my arm and then down to my hurt shin. The stinging throb there disappeared.
“Wow!” I sat down next to Morrigan and pulled up my pant leg to inspect my shin. It was perfectly healed. I had never been healed by anyone else besides wolves before.
A sudden hot pain sliced into my ribcage. I cried out, doubled over, and hugged my ribs.
“What’s wrong?!” The woman grasped my shoulders, which was the only thing that kept me from falling to the ground and rolling around in pain.
“The fox hurt wolves real bad!” I said through clinched teeth. Every muscle in my body was tensed from the pain that was coming from my left ribs. “They came back to me to heal. It hurts real bad, but it will go away soon.”
“I will take your pain, my child.” Morrigan draped her cloak over me and the pain vanished. My muscles relaxed and I slumped into the green woman. She hugged me close to her side. Her cloak was made of hundreds of tiny feathers that were soft against my skin.
Who the hell is this! snapped Night, deep in my mind. She drew power from my aura to recharge her own and scanned my memories to catch up on things.
She smells like crow and Fae, noted Snow. She’s warm and pretty. I like her.
Shut up, Snow. You think we can trust all pretty girls, grumbled Night.
“Slim, your eyes have changed.” A green hand raised my chin and she looked into my eyes. Something about the woman’s completely black eyes made me not want to look away.
“It’s because wolves came back to me. They see through my eyes,” I said, staring into her eyes unblinking.
Don’t tell her stuff like that! growled Night, but I ignored her. The black eyes had all of my attention.
Morrigan looked confused for a moment and then nodded in understanding. “I see what you are now.” She stroked my cheek gently with her long nails. “You are far more than you seem. The wisdom of a thousand lives within an eight year old child. You will be the perfect familiar.”
I felt sleepy. My eyelids were heavy and I was forced to break eye contact to blink.
“Sleep, I will protect you.” Morrigan cradled me in her arms and pulled her cloak tighter around us. I felt warm and safe and exhausted.
Don’t fall asleep, Slim, came wolves’ voices from somewhere far off. I ignored them again; I was just too tired to listen.
Morrigan stroked my hair and rocked me back and forth. “I will protect you, just like I promised Nissa. You will be mine forever, just like Nissa should have been. My sister will be so jealous I got to you first.”
“What?” I mumbled. My sleepy mind couldn’t process everything she was saying.
“Just go to sleep.” Morrigan began to sing a lullaby I remembered Momma singing to me.
Wake up, Slim! She’s using binding magic! Sharp claws raked across my thoughts. A sharp pain sliced through my side.
“Owwww!” I shot upwards, now wide awake. A panicked need to run away filled me.
“Calm yourself,” cooed Morrigan. Her grip tightened around me.
I tried to push away from her, but she was too strong. “Let me go!”
“Don’t fight it. I promise you’ll like being my familiar. I’ll treat you well.”
“No, we don’t want to belong to you.” I kicked out with my feet and hit her with my balled fists. The blows seemed to have no effect. I tried to give form to wolves, but they weren’t healed enough to take shape.
Morrigan let out a cruel laugh. “You’re just like Nissa. She always tried to fight our bond, but she always gave in at the end. That is until your father took her away from me, and then got her killed. At least they left me behind you.”
I remembered the obsidian stone in my pocket. My right hand dove into my pocket and wrapped around the stone. I felt the smoothness of the stone and its sharp edges. In my mind I pictured it with perfect clarity. A cold vibration started in the tips of my fingers and spread part way up my forearm. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and swung it at the Morrigan with everything I had.
My blackened fist collided with her cheek hard. Morrigan let out a cry of surprise and pain. She released her grip on me and grabbed her face. I scrambled away and took up a defensive crouch a good ten feet away from the scary woman.
I couldn’t move my fingers so I looked at my fist. The obsidian had totally melded with my flesh. My frozen hand was entirely black, smooth and hard.
Cool, thought me and Snow together. We’ve never done that before.
Let’s get the hell out of here! growled Night.
We turned to bolt. Hysterical laughter came from behind me. Curiosity made me look back. Morrigan was laughing. She held her hand over a cut on her cheek that oozed blue blood.
“You made me bleed, child,” she said gleefully. “Do you have any idea how long it has been since a mortal has managed that?” She removed her hand from the small cut and licked the blood off of her fingers. Locking her black eyes with mine she gave me a cruel smile. “You will be most fun to tame.”
Run! yelled wolves. I turned and sprinted.
I thought I had ran fast away from the fox. This time the forest around me was just a green blur. The only thing in focus was the path directly in front of me. Still the beating of wings followed me.
“Cawwcaw, cawwcaw.” A stone rose from the earth directly in my path. I was going too fast to avoid it. My foot collided with the rock and I tucked and rolled as I went down. I was on my feet in seconds. Wolves heeled my small wounds as I turned to face the threat.
A giant crow, big enough to be an eagle, perched itself on a root of one of the ancient trees. I can give you power beyond your wildest dreams, Slim. Morrigan’s voice penetrated into my head. The things I could teach you. Don’t run from your destiny.
Despite the fact that nearly every instinct I had said to keep running, something deep within me made me want to go to the crow. If it wasn’t for wolves’ strict refusal I probably would have. A hissing growl was our only warning before a snarling mass of red fur pounced on the crow.
All strange feelings to go to the crow disappeared. I turned and continued my escape. The surrounding forest turned into a green blur again. We ran for a good five minutes.
Stop! cried wolves in unison. My body was jerked to a halt. Snow and Night forced themselves into physical form. The suddenness of it surprised me.
We need to run! I growled.
Mother?! They asked in awe.
What? I asked looking around. Images of Mother Wolf and Momma filled my mind. There was a flutter in my chest.
We stood in a large clearing. The clearing was ringed by five trees that dwarfed the ancients I had seen so far. In the center of the clearing was a tree that was bigger than them all; it rose far above the canopy.
Standing at the base of the tree was a massive grey wolf. Mother! they said with more certainty.
The grey wolf approached us. As it walked it changed form and turned into a woman. The woman had bluish skin and white hair. She wore a white shift dress and a grey fur cloak. Alarm bells rang in my head; the woman’s features were strikingly similar to the Morrigan.
That’s not Mother Wolf, I warned, sending wolves memory images of their real mother.
No, she’s the mother of mother’s, said Snow. They began to walk towards the woman despite my objections. I didn’t understand what he meant.
She’s the First Mother, explained Night. Images of a long linage of Spirit Wolves flooded my mind. At the very beginning, when the first was created, there was the woman that walked towards us. She’s our Goddess!
Snow and Night were enraptured, but I had learned my lesson with the green woman. I tried to pull wolves back into me, but they refused, which had never happened before. They went to the woman and happily nuzzled and licked her hands. I couldn’t believe they weren’t listening to me.
“Do not try to part us, Slim Whistler,” said the blue woman. “My children have never known their birth mother, with me they find peace. It pleases me to find a pair of my creations so healthy and strong; there are so few left in this world. You have cared for them well.” Wolves were overcome with a sense of loving bliss.
“Who…who are you?” I asked. It was hard to resist my own urge to run to the woman’s arms. Part of me wanted to feel for myself that bliss wolves were feeling.
“My name is Artemis. You look just like your mother. I knew her well; she was raised by one of my children. Come closer, let me get a better look at you.” Artemis extended a hand towards me.
She’s so soft and warm, encouraged Snow. He rubbed himself against Artemis’s thigh.
We can trust First Mother, confirmed Night.
I always trusted wolves instincts, so I reluctantly joined them next to their goddess. Something stirred in my dream memories giving me a sense of warning, but again it was distant and unfocused.
“You are just like my children, Slim,” said Artemis. She fussed with my hair a bit. Tangled wisps of red had escaped my tight braid. “You are without a mother. Someone to care for you and protect you. I could be a mother to you.”
Artemis cupped my cheek with her hand. Her blue nails were short, but sharp. A feeling of comforting bliss that I had only gotten a taste of through wolves’ bond filled me; it wrapped around me like a warm blanket. An image of my mother Nissa holding me in her arms came to mind that was so vivid I felt like her arms were actually around me. My eyes blurred with tears and I took another step towards Artemis. I never wanted this feeling to end.
“Cawwcaw, cawwcaw.” A flurry of black feathers appeared out of the corner of my eye. Sharp talons cut into Artemis’ outstretched arm. Artemis withdrew her hand and hissed in pain. The bliss disappeared and I stumbled backwards.
The giant crow landed in-between me and Artemis. The crow blurred and then reshaped into the green woman form of the Morrigan. Besides their coloring and clothing the women looked nearly identical.
“Bitch!” yelled Artemis, clutching her forearm.
“She’s mine, little sister,” said Morrigan. “You’re too late, as always.”
Wolves growled at Morrigan. A feral rage pulsed through me. I sprang towards her, swinging with my blackened fist still melded with the obsidian. She easily dodged my wild attack. Morrigan grabbed my arm with a vice like grip. “Fool me once, child,” she spun me around and pulled me close to her, “but not twice.”
Wolves lunged at the Morrigan. She raised her other hand and pointed her open palm towards the wolves. “Down, doggies.” Snow and Night fell to the ground with a pained yelp. Their physical forms disintegrated into nothing and I felt them fully re-bond with me. Pain shot through my ribs, but it was quickly washed away by a wave of sleepy warmth.
“Get your hands off of her!” cried Artemis. She grabbed my other wrist and pulled. I moved away from Morrigan, but she kept her grip and I came to a stop in-between the two Fae sisters.
“I claimed her. She is Kresnik; her kind belong with me!” shouted Morrigan. My body was jerked to my right.
“She is bonded mind, body, and soul with two of my own creations. Only I can ever teach her how to exist in such a state, and reach her full potential.” My body was jerked to the left.
“It was your stupidity that drove Nissa away. I won’t let you steal this one from me.” Morrigan wrapped one arm around my torso and hooked her other under my right armpit. She lifted me off the ground and tried to pull me out of Artemis’ hold.
“You are still a greedy bitch. It is no wonder we settled a continent apart. If only it was still so.” Artemis gathered up one of my legs and continued to pull.
“You are the one that never knew how to share, little sister. Both you and Apollo needed a piece of everything, but all is at an end if one takes from you.” An arm wrapped around my neck.
“Don’t you dare say his name!” Both my legs were lifted off of the ground.
I felt like I was the rope in a tug-o-war match. My limbs were being pulled out of their sockets and the arm around my neck choked me. In a confused panic wolves and I lashed out with all our strength, but we couldn’t free me from the strong hands. I was going to be torn apart.
Stop, we thought in unison. Stop! Stop! Stop!
“Stop!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
A familiar hissing growl came from far off. One of the women cried out and my legs fell to the ground. “How dare you touch my sister, you damn rodent!” yelled Morrigan.
The rest of me was dropped to the ground and I scrambled to safety. I took refuge behind one of the huge roots and then looked back at what had saved me. The giant Fae fox stood in-between me and the sisters. Its red fur and many swishing tails made it seem like the beast was on fire.
Morrigan helped her sister to her feet. “Did you bring your bow?”
Artemis let out a sardonic laugh. “Am I ever without it?”
“I’ll go left.” The sisters seemed to abandon their feud and focused all their attention on their new enemy.
Part of me wanted to run, part of me was too scared to move, and another part of me was too curious to take my eyes off what was happening. “You’ve had this coming a long time, Akira,” hissed Artemis. From beneath her fur cloak she withdrew a golden bow and quiver of arrows. Morrigan slowly circled to her left. Her sharp black nails extended into long talons.
The fox let out another hissing growl. A jingling sound came from somewhere and the fox mutated into a human-like form. It took the form of a man that was much more human looking than the sisters. He was dressed in black robes and had strong Asian features. The only thing that visually seemed Fae about him were his long pointed ears. In his hand he held a red staff. At the top of the staff was a large ring and several smaller rings were looped around the larger one.
“Shame be upon you both,” said Akira with a deep voice full of disgust. He held his staff out in front of him as if it were a shield. “How dare you break your oaths. We all swore to Nissa and David to protect their offspring and to never take advantage of them.”
“I swore nothing to that man,” sneered Morrigan. “To Nissa I merely swore to protect her children. I have every intention of doing so.”
Her black eyes locked with mine for a moment before they refocused on Akira. Their dark hunger sent a chill down my spine. Something stirred in my dream memories again, this time it was clearer. Images started to fall into place, things started to make sense, but understanding was still just out of reach.
“I swore to protect Nissa’s children.” Artemis notched an arrow to the string of her bow. “I swore never to take advantage of them. This one came to me willingly. I would never do anything to her without her permission.” She drew back the string and took aim at Akira.
“You use your power over her Oni to gain her trust!” shouted Akira. He practically shook with rage. “Both of you have tried to bind her to yourselves. She is far too young to give consent to such a thing. This is the greatest betrayal of her mother.”
“You are one to talk.” Morrigan was slowly approaching Akira’s side. “She was running from you when she took shelter with me.”
“I was trying to scare her out of the God’s Wood. The Whistler children are safest away from us. The affairs of gods only bring mortals suffering.”
Artemis let out an icy laugh. “He’s just mad it wasn’t one of the boys that wandered into our woods, Morrigan. If it had been, he would have scooped them up faster than us. Our Nissa stole away his favorite butt boy after all.” Morrigan laughed.
“I cared for both Nissa and David deeply,” snarled Akira. He crouched, ready for attack.
My dream memories finally cleared. I recognized all these Fae now. They were all Founders, protectors of the peace treaty between the normal humans and the Gifted and Fae. They were the ones that powered the barrier. My parents, being both forest children, had known all the Founders and had been mentored by them at various times in their lives. My parents had met when they were both pupils of Akira.
What my parents’ relationships with these Fae were exactly was more confusing. Some things I saw confused me, or were still out of focus. A chaotic mix of love, trust, and gratitude, along with a deep seeded anger and sense of betrayal filled me. Wolves and I were all confused; we delved deeper into our dream memories for explanation.
“Not all things are meant for children’s eyes,” said Morrigan. Her eyes locked with mine. That sleepy warmth filled me. The dream memories I had been examining blurred and then disappeared.
“Hey! Give those back!” I cried out. I stood up from my refuge behind the tree root.
“Come and get them.” Morrigan gave me challenging smile.
“Give the girl back her memories,” said Akira.
“They are not her memories. Besides, the girl does not need to know all that went on between all of us and her parents. Don’t you agree?” Morrigan turned her challenging smile on her sister and Akira.
The three Fae shared a look. Artemis lowered her bow and nodded. “Very well,” said Akira.
Wolves growled in the back of my mind; they felt betrayed by their goddess and didn’t like the fox man. I didn’t like that these people thought that they could make these decisions for me.
“Give us back our dream memories!” I demanded. They’re all we have left.
Standing tall, I marched towards Morrigan, ready to go another round with my obsidian fist. Akira stabbed his staff into the ground blocking my path.
“Beware, child.” He looked down at me. “You do not have the power to beat her, and the more contact you have with her the stronger her power over you becomes. They have both already left their mark on you.” His warning sent a chill down my spine.
“Time to die,” growled Morrigan.
There was a loud twang sound and Akira’s staff turned into a red blur. A strong wind hit me. It picked me up and set me down several yards away. When I touched down onto the thick moss I scrambled to my feet and looked back at the Fae.
Akira and Morrigan were in a heated dual. Morrigan had acquired a staff that looked like it could have been a random stick from off the ground. She wielded it with expert skill, however, as she twirled it and struck out at Akira. Artemis periodically shot her golden arrows at Akira, but didn’t approach. Akira managed to parry all of the Morrigan’s attacks, and dodged or parried all of the arrows.
“ENOUGH!!!!” boomed a loud deep voice. A blinding white light flashed. When my vision cleared all three of the Fae were on their backsides. Between them a tall tree stump had sprouted out of the ground. Next to the tree stump was a bare chested boy with stubby horns and brown furry goat legs.
“Gump!” I cried, and ran to my friend’s open arms. He wrapped them around me and scooped me up into a hug. Gump might have looked like a boy not much older than me, but his arms had the strength of several grown men.
“It is good to see you, Slim,” he said with his usual raspy voice.
“How did you do that?” I asked as he set me back down.
“It wasn’t me.”
“It was me,” said a deep voice from above. I jumped, startled, and looked up at the stump. It was about twelve feet tall, covered in moss and conks, and was talking to me. Three quarters of the way up the stump the grooves of the bark formed a crude face, the stump’s two remaining broken and twisted branches began to move and became very arm like. “Welcome to my God’s Wood, Slim Whistler. Though I know it is not your first time here.”
One of the branch arms extended down to me and I shook the twig fingers. “Nice to meet you,” I finally managed to stammer. I had seen a lot of crazy things before, but never a talking tree.
“That was uncalled for, Green Man,” said Artemis. She picked herself up off the ground and her bow and quiver of arrow disappeared beneath her fur cloak.
“What is uncalled for is the three of you making moves upon the Whistler child the moment she wanders into the God’s Wood when my back is turned. Then you dare try to make violence in this sacred place!” The Green Man sounded angry and the trees around us swayed and groaned as if in a strong wind, but there wasn’t the slightest breeze.
“I was just trying to scare her away from them,” said Akira defensively.
“You should have just let Slim visit me,” said Gump, he put a protective arm around my shoulders. I let him, both wolves and I trusted Gump. Our dream memories of him weren’t blurry either. He had been my parent’s friend, plain and simple. “The twin bitches were only able to intervene because she sought shelter from you, Akira.”
“Like you are any better of an influence. She would be half drunk off your wine by now and exhausted from dancing to your song.”
“I’m extremely careful with Slim.” Gump petted the top of my head. “I never make her dance too long and feed her well. I never permanently bind her with my magic, nor stop her when she wishes to leave. I remember my promises.”
“The girl sought shelter with me,” interrupted Morrigan. “I gave the gift of Kresnik to the humans. She should remain with me.”
“I was the one that gave humans the gift of the elemental. Your claim is no more than my own,” said Green Man. “Being the mother of the Kresnik does not give you dominion over her soul. You made this false assumption with Nissa as well.”
“She is bound to my children. She will not leave this Wood until my claim is recognized!” Artemis folded her arms and stamped her foot like a child throwing a fit. “I will not risk letting her leave and never return.”
“Don’t I get a say in this.” I folded my arms and took up a similar stance as Artemis. I didn’t like all these people arguing over me like a pack of wolves over a prized piece of meat.
The talking tree chuckled. “I am so glad you asked. You have the right to choose to whom you pledge service. By no other way can any of us completely bind you. Just like you had to give your Mother Wolf permission before she bound you to her offspring.” I nodded in understanding, this was a relief.
“Then she must choose!” Morrigan’s eyes locked with mine. I shivered and snuggled closer to Gump. “She has taken shelter in our woods often enough. It is time she chose one of us as a teacher and guardian.
“I have seen into your heart, Slim Whistler. You wish for a home and a family. I can give you all this and more, and I will not abandon you like your siblings. You know you belong with me, remain here as mine.”
A strong longing to run to Morrigan washed over me. I fought it with all my will. A mental image came to mind of Snow and Night digging their paws into the dirt and bracing against black cords that were wrapped around us and pulled us towards Morrigan.
“Don’t be absurd!” sniffed Akira. “If she does not return to the camp we will have our woods overrun with government men within days. The peace is fragile enough without us kidnapping children.”
“The humans owe us,” said Artemis. “They will give us the girl as a reward for our continued cooperation. I agree with Morrigan. Slim must choose. This child is more powerful than any of you realize. She would shake the earth with every sneeze if my children did not feed from her aura. We cannot risk her becoming indoctrinated by the humans and ending up as their puppet. We cannot let her return to the camp.”
Wolves screamed at me to run to their goddess. They had mixed feelings towards her. Part of them didn’t like that she was trying to bind me against my will, and that she had allowed Morrigan to take our dream memories. A deeply ingrained instinct still drew them to her, however. They would rather belong to her if we had to choose.
We won’t belong to anyone! I silently yelled at wolves. My forehead was sweating and I felt dizzy from the effort of resisting the opposite and intense pulls. I felt like I was the center of their tug-o-war match again.
“Resist their influence.” Akira stamped the end of his staff onto the ground. The rings at the top of the staff jingled. The nearly overwhelming pulls diminished, but didn’t completely disappear. My body sagged with relief. Gump held me upright. “Choose me, Slim. I will see you safely back to the camp and there you will remain. You will have a life free of the strife of gods.”
I looked Akira up and down. Both me and wolves could sense his sincerity, but we didn’t want to choose him either. He reminded us of my brother Mario. They both wanted to keep me safe, but they didn’t really understand what we needed, and probably cared little about what we wanted. Akira didn’t understand what it was like living in camp. He wouldn’t let me come to the woods to run.
Artemis, Morrigan and Akira quickly fell into another argument. I ignored them and looked up at Gump. “Can’t I choose you?”
“You could, Slim, but I am no high god. I am the least of the Founders, and have the smallest influence with the humans. I fear I would not be able to protect you from both humans and other Fae.”
I looked up at Green Man. “I would not bind you even if you gave your consent, Slim Whistler. Such was my promise to your parents. Though I am happy to be your guide anytime you wander into my woods.”
Choose First Mother! said wolves. They tried to force themselves into physical form so they could run to Artemis. It took all I had left to restrain them.
We would never see the rest of the pack again, I reminded them. Despite not wanting to return to camp, I didn’t want to never see my brothers and sisters again. I sent them mental images of my siblings. Both Night and Snow shunned these images. All they cared about was me and being with their goddess.
The fox would never let us return to the woods to run, retorted Night. We can’t live caged in camp forever.
I like First Mother best, but the crow lady wouldn’t be a bad choice either. She’s strong and pretty. Snow had to give his two cents.
Shut up, Snow! snapped Night and I together.
The Fae continued to argue the various reasons I should choose them. It reminded me of the annual evaluations they did at camp. Special agents from the government would come and ask all kinds of questions to assess our assimilation status. When it came to religion they would give me a list of all major world religions to choose from. They kindly explained to me each one and talked about their benefits and histories. I had refused to choose; Gaia hadn’t been on the list. I never scored very well on those tests.
We choose none of them, I told wolves.
I looked up at Green Man. “Can I choose Gaia. I want to serve Mother Earth and her husband Father Sky, like my parents did. I just want to be able to come and go when I want. To be able to run and feel the earth whenever I can.”
Gump clapped his hands together gleefully and Green Man let out a deep chuckle. “You choose the Gods of the gods,” said Gump. He patted my head again. “You are a clever one.” I smiled up at him, it must have been a good choice.
“I object!” cried Morrigan.
“As do I,” said Artemis, “she was to choose one of us.”
“You said she had to choose. You did not specify further,” noted Akira. He wore a crooked grin.
“This isn’t fair!” Artemis stamped her foot; the ground shook.
“Enough!!!” yelled Green Man. The ground stopped shaking, but the trees around us swayed and moaned. The massive trunks seemed like they would snap at any moment. “These are my woods! As long as you take refuge in them you shall obey my decree.” All the Fae shuddered and the spicy smell of magic filled the air like a thick cloud of perfume. “Slim Whistler has made her choice and we shall all honor it.”
“She is so young for such a decree to be made permanent,” said Morrigan. “She may yet change her mind. To serve the Unseen Gods can be a far more lonely and perilous life than she would have in my service.”
“You are one to speak of her lack of years,” hissed Akira.
“I declare her to be a forest child in service to Mother Earth and Father Sky,” continued Green Man. “She shall remain as such at least until her eighteenth year. I shall not have any of your influences corrupting her judgment until she is old enough to see through your wiles.”
A static shock danced across my skin and my ears popped. Artemis pouted her lips; Morrigan harrumphed and rolled her eyes. They both transformed back into animals.
We will see each other again, you will be mine, said Morrigan’s voice in my head. The giant crow took to the air and disappeared into the trees.
Do not let this keep you from visiting, Slim Whistler. Artemis’s voice this time. Snow and Night still need their mother. The massive grey wolf gave us one last look before trotting off and melting into the brush.
“Finally that is settled,” said Green Man. The woods were calm and the trees were still. He looked down at me and I think he smiled. “You just might be the savior of us all, Slim.”
“Three souls in one, touched by five gods, but servant to one, and slave to none. Could it really be that old prophecy?” asked Gump. He looked at me with knew interest in his eyes. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You mean that legend about the one who could expand the barrier? Impossible!” Akira shook his head. “It’s a myth and the child isn’t touched by five gods. Only the twin bitches left their mark on her.”
“You forget, Akira, she is elemental. All of her kind are touched by Green Man. She has some of you in her as well,” noted Gump.
“What are you talking about?”
“Were you not with her parents the night of her conception?”
Akira fidgeted uncomfortably and crossed his arms. “David is her father,” he said bluntly.
“Even so, she didn’t just get this red hair from her mother.” Gump petted the top of my head.
I looked up at him, totally confused now. “What are you talking about, Gump?”
He smiled down at me. “We’ll talk about it next time you visit.”
“Akira, take the girl back to the camp. You have something to give her, I think,” said Green Man
I opened my mouth to protest; I had so many questions. Akira tapped the butt of his staff into the ground. The rings jingled and my vison blurred. “Be well, Slim. Visit again soon.” Gump’s voice was the last thing I registered before everything went black.
When I came back to myself I stood at the edge of the woods that ran along the south edge of camp. I looked around, but Akira and the other Fae weren’t there. In my right hand I held the obsidian stone, no longer melded with my fist, I tucked it away in my satchel. In my left hand I held a necklace, I recognized it as the one Momma always wore. It was a leather cord with at least a dozen tiny silver charms dangling from it. Each charm was in the shape of a different animal.
Your wolves can teach you how to use them, Akira’s voice rang through my head. I slung the cord around my neck.
When the sun set I snuck in the same way I had snuck out; it wasn’t hard. As I made my way down the corridors towards my family’s cell a few people whispered about my disheveled appearance, but no one asked questions or made to stop me. They all knew my reputation of going feral on people I viewed as a threat. I had to wrinkle my nose against all the harsh smells of camp; plastic, chemicals, and the stink of too many people being confined in too small a space. It had a spiciness to it from all the confined magic in the air that tickled my nose.
Both wolves and I already wanted to be running again. We longed for the green woods, the wide open spaces, and the clean earthy smells. Part of us regretted not staying in the forest with Morrigan or Artemis.
We need to stay and protect the pack, I reminded Snow and Night. Even if they leave us in the end, we can make sure the people that adopt them aren’t like that Dornbeck creep. Night and Snow grudgingly agreed.
We should think about Jared’s offer, encouraged Snow. We would be stuck here until you’re eighteen, but we could sneak out whenever we wanted. He promised.
For once you might be right, said Night.
I met Nigel in the bathroom and retrieved my security anklet. Wolves sent me images of choke collars around their necks. I don’t like it either, I said, as I returned to my family’s cell.
I typed in the code, the door swished open and swished closed behind me. The common room was filled with my siblings. They all relaxed when they saw it was me.
“Finally!” cried Kaiden, throwing his arms up in the air. “The crisis is fucking over!” He stalked towards the door. As he walked past me he lightly punched me on the arm. “Good to see you, Kid.” The door slid closed behind him.
Most of my siblings dispersed into different corners of our cell, or followed Kaiden out the door. Mario and Athena remained standing in the center of the room. I could tell that they had been arguing.
“Where have you been?” asked Mario in his stern voice. His eyes narrowed in on my new necklace.
I covered my necklace with my hand protectively. No one was going to take it from me. “I went for a run,” I looked Mario in the eyes, “and found my new family.”
Mario and Athena shared a concerned look, but I didn’t stick around to hear their opinions. I marched to the room I shared with my sisters and curled up in my bunk. After eating my very last Ultra-bar I passed out.
I dreamed of my mother that night. Completely naked, Nissa/Momma sat cross legged on the ground next to a crackling campfire. She held her charm necklace in her hands. Momma closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The charms melted into her skin and each became a liquid tattoo slithering across her skin. She did a series of hand motions with deep breaths and the liquid tattoos one by one peeled from her skin and took on their own form. I was now joined around the fire by a massive grizzly bear, a black panther, a red hawk, and two hissing snakes.
Nissa opened her eyes. She smiled and her green eyes looked at me. “I finally did it, Mother Wolf.” A feeling of pride towards my adopted pup filled me.
by Mike Murphy
It was the morning of the 12th when 34-year-old Simon Baker first noticed The Change.
He was sitting on the toilet in his cramped upstairs bathroom when he saw a sudden flash of yellow in the vanity mirror to his left. He leapt to his feet, thinking a bumblebee had gotten into the house. He and his wife, Loretta, had been having problems with them lately. What he saw in the mirror stopped him in his tracks. For nearly a minute, he stared at his reflection.
The yellow he had seen was his own hair.
But how? His hair had always been black. He had never dyed it. Whenever Wendy, his stylist, suggested putting various lotions and potions on it, he always politely declined. “As long as it stays on my head,” he’d say, “just cut it.”
He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and ran his fingers through his hair. Yup, definitely blond. Even the stubble on his face was blond. His arms, his chest. . . everywhere . . . blond. Frightened, he ran down the hall to the bedroom. “Honey!” he called.
Loretta grumbled and pulled the comforter over her head. “Let me sleep,” she pleaded. “I told you that I don’t have to be at work until ten this morning.”
“But, sweetheart –”
“Go take your shower. I’m not ready to face the world yet.”
“But it’s important!” Simon pleaded.
Loretta unhappily poked her head out from under the comforter. “What?”
“Is that all you have to say?” he asked incredulously.
“What, honey?” she replied, sitting up in bed.
“Look at me!” He gestured at his entire body with his hands.
Loretta did so. “Yeah?” she asked.
“Don’t you see?”
“Simon,” she answered, after a yawn, “I’m in no mood for games.”
“I’m a blond!” he exclaimed.
“You just noticed this?” his wife replied.
“You’ve always had blond hair,” she returned. “Now let me sleep!” She settled down on the mattress and pulled the comforter back over her head.
“Loretta, please,” Simon pleaded.
“You’re talking to the dead,” she replied. “You’d better get ready for work.”
“Go!” Loretta exclaimed, her right index finger jutting out from under the covers like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Defeated, Simon gave up and shambled back to the bathroom. On the way there, he passed the series of pictures hanging on the wall, including the one from his and Loretta’s wedding day – when he had blond hair.
“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” Dr. Manderson said, opening Simon’s file and flipping to a certain page. “Look here,” he continued, pointing at a particular line. “Hair: Blond.”
“Are you saying I don’t know what color my own hair is?” Simon asked, squirming on the examining table.
“Are you saying my records have been wrong all these years?” Manderson countered.
Simon sighed. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve been a patient of mine since your twenties,” the doctor went on. “Don’t you think I would have noticed that mistake by now? Something simple like that. . . well . . . it’s Doctoring 101.”
“Can we assume for a moment that I’m right?” Simon asked.
“On a medical point?” Manderson replied.
“OK,” the doc answered after a pause, “but just to play devil’s advocate.”
“What could cause something like this to happen?” Simon asked, gesturing at his hair.
“Nothing I’m aware of.”
“How about that alo. . . Oh, what is it called?” Simon fumbled. “A guy in the office had it.”
“Alopecia?” the doctor suggested.
“Alopecia makes your hair fall out,” Manderson explained, “not change color.”
The next morning, The Change had continued.
“Honey,” Simon began, stomping into the bedroom.
“What is it this morning, dear?” Loretta asked, completing her work outfit by putting on her earrings in front of their dresser mirror.
“My eyes,” Simon continued, pointing at them.
She paused and turned to her husband. “What about them?”
“What color are they?”
“More of this?” Loretta said, getting exasperated.
“They’re blue,” she answered. Ready for work now, she took a few steps forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Blond hair and blue eyes,” she continued seductively, giving him a peck on the cheek. “What girl wouldn’t have fallen for you?”
“But have my eyes always been blue?”
Loretta sighed and released him. “Honey,” she said, “you have nothing to worry about but, if you are concerned, maybe you should go see the doctor.”
“I saw Manderson yesterday.”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
“Then who. . . You mean Segal, don’t you?” Simon asked.
“He could help.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me upstairs!”
“If you say so.”
“And I refuse to visit a psychiatrist,” Simon said adamantly.
After Loretta left for work, Simon started poking around the house. In every picture he found of himself – even from the days before he and Loretta met – he had blue eyes, not, as he recalled, brown. Even on his driver’s license, it said “Eyes: Blue.”
He grabbed a Coke out of the fridge, sat down at the kitchen table, and tried to think about his problem like it wasn’t his problem. If one of his pals came to him and mentioned that he had this weird problem, what would he advise him?
It occurred to him that The Change must be happening overnight, while he slept. Everything was as he remembered before he fell asleep: He had black hair; he had brown eyes. If he just stayed awake. . .
But how long could he do that? One night, maybe.
It turned out to be less than that and, when he awoke, he was taller.
He went to his toolbox and got out the tape measure. Measuring his height with the cranky metal thing wasn’t easy, but his best guess was six-foot-three. No one in his family had ever been over six feet tall.
Even stranger, when he got dressed without giving another thought to his new-found height, he discovered that all of his clothes still fit! How could they? He bought them for someone five-foot-ten. Had they grown with him? The tags on the clothing proved him wrong. They were all in sizes he had never purchased. . . sizes that would have been swimming on the five-foot-ten him.
Maybe he did need to see Dr. Segal after all.
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”
From his tattered clothing, dirty appearance, and the bedroll he was sitting on while leaning against the drugstore’s outside red brick wall, Simon assumed the grizzled old man was homeless. He approached him carefully. The old guy noticed his cautious footsteps and, amused, motioned him over with a cupped hand. “I won’t bite ya!” he said with a chuckle.
“What did you say?” Simon asked, standing in front of him at what he deemed a safe distance. “Something about a mirror.”
“I looked like you once.”
“Many years ago,” Simon added.
“Not as many as you’d think,” he continued. “Blond hair, blue eyes.” He looked Simon up and down. “I see she made you taller though,” he added.
“She?” a confused Simon inquired.
“The Mrs.,” the old man explained. “Loretta.”
“How can you –” Simon began, surprised.
“That is her name.”
“Who are you?” Simon asked.
The old man stood to face him. “Harold Dixon,” he answered, holding out his hand for Simon to shake. “I’m Loretta’s previous husband.”
Simon started laughing. “Did I say something funny?” Dixon asked, withdrawing his ignored hand.
“That’s a good trick.”
“To get money out of me.”
“I don’t want your money,” Dixon told him.
“Right!” Simon replied with a chuckle. “And that bit about being her first husband. . .”
“I didn’t say first,” Dixon clarified, pointing at Simon. “I said I was her previous husband.”
“Oh,” Simon continued, amused. “How many husbands has she had?”
“I’m at least number 4, that I can prove,” he went on. “There may have been one or two more around the time of the American Revolution, but I couldn’t nail down those facts for certain.”
Simon laughed. “You are nuts!”
“I was married to your wife.”
“You’re more than twice her age.”
“And I’m 18,” Simon replied sarcastically.
“Does she still have that heart-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder?” Dixon asked. Simon was shocked. How could anyone else know that? “She did this to me,” Dixon continued. “I displeased her, and she did this. I swear,” he went on, “I’m not much older than you.”
“Loretta’s never been married before.”
“She told you that too, huh?” Dixon continued. “She never admitted it to me either, but, once I started doing some research, I learned the truth.”
“Which is?” Simon asked, prompting the old man to speak.
“That’ll cost you a cup of coffee,” the old man said after a pause.
“I knew it!” Simon replied, starting to pace. “You are trying to get money out of me.”
“Not money. Coffee.”
“Which costs money.”
Shaking his head, Simon stopped pacing and turned to walk away. “Aren’t you the least bit curious?” Dixon called after him.
Simon stopped in his tracks and turned to face the old man. “About?” he asked.
“How I knew your wife’s name, for one. How could I guess a name like ‘Loretta?’” he inquired. “It’s not like she’s named ‘Mary.’”
“OK,” Simon responded, taking a few slow steps closer to Dixon. “You got me there.”
“And the birthmark?”
“Yes,” Simon replied. “That too.”
“There are some other things that you really ought to know. . . things that could save your life.” Dixon motioned at the doughnut shop across the street. “Coffee?”
Simon returned to the table carrying two large, black coffees. Dixon thanked him as he put one down in front of the old man. Simon didn’t really believe him, but he was curious to see how far Dixon would carry on this charade and to learn what was behind it.
It reminded him of the old joke where the man invites two Jehovah’s Witnesses into his home. He makes them a nice lunch and then asks them what they want to talk to him about. The two Witnesses look oddly at each other. One of them replies, “I don’t remember. We’ve never gotten this far before.”
“So,” Simon said, sitting down across from Dixon, a small circular table between them. “Spill it.”
“I asked you here,” Dixon began, “for some privacy too. I didn’t want to tell you what I need to tell you out in the open.”
“Very considerate,” Simon said, amused.
Dixon took a big swig from his cup, as though to steel himself. “Loretta’s. . . a succubus,” he said.
“Is she?” Simon replied, smiling.
“Yup,” Dixon continued. “A demon who thrives on the strength and souls of young men.”
“Uh huh,” Simon continued.
“Is the sex good?” Dixon asked nonchalantly after a beat.
Simon practically spat his coffee. “What?” he said incredulously.
“Is the sex good?” Dixon repeated.
“That’s none of your goddam business.”
Dixon chuckled. “Yeah,” he said wistfully, “it was good for us too.”
“Mr. Dixon –”
“Some of the best I ever had,” he continued wistfully, though Simon didn’t want to hear. “A strong woman. Insatiable. Every time we finished, I felt like I had been hit by a truck! That’s how she first gets to you – saps your energy. . . and your soul.” Simon began to rise. “She’s everything you ever wanted in a woman, isn’t she?” Dixon asked quickly.
“She is,” Simon answered, sitting back down.
“It’s like God Himself made her for you?”
“And now, she’s re-making you for herself – making you into what she wants – her ideal man: Blond hair, blue eyes, tall. Every morning, it’s something different, isn’t it? I call it The Change.”
“You’re quite a storyteller.”
“That’s when she’s best able to take your life force. . . when you’re asleep. You’re the most vulnerable then.” Dixon reached forward and grabbed Simon by the shoulder. “Think about it, man!” he stressed. “These changes you’ve been going through, what’s the common element?”
Simon shook his head. “You’ve lost me.”
“You’re not changing yourself, right?”
“Hell no!” he answered.
“Then all that’s left is. . .”
“Loretta?” Simon offered.
Dixon took a big drink. “She can assume any shape she wants – whatever her victim finds attractive.” He removed his hand from Simon’s shoulder. “She’s using you and, eventually, she’ll drain you dry.”
“Then how are you still around?” Simon asked.
“I recognized what she was doing. I ran, but not fast enough. She was able to take some of me permanently.” He touched a hand to his chest. “This is all that remains,” he sadly said.
“Why would she have stopped?”
“I don’t know,” the older man continued after a sigh and a swig. “Maybe she figured she might need me again. Maybe she had you in the on-deck circle and saw no reason to kill me. Why waste energy, right?”
“Or,” Simon went on, “maybe you’re full of it.”
“You can think that if you like,” Dixon said, peering down sadly at the table. “I felt an obligation to tell you, and I’ve done that.” He drained his cup, rose from his seat, leaned on the table, and continued. “If you wake up tomorrow a. . . a ‘changed man,’” he said, “don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“If what you’re saying has the slightest bit of truth to it,” Simon asked, looking up at Dixon, “and that’s a big if, what would you have me do?”
“Run!” Dixon answered, slamming a palm down on the table and speaking a bit too loudly. “Run fast and far. Forget how good the sex is and run. . . before you end up old before your time – like me.”
Simon was glad Loretta wasn’t home from the market yet. He quickly Googled “succubus” on his laptop. A lot of what Dixon had told him was there; some of it wasn’t. He was reading the Wikipedia entry when he heard his wife’s car in the driveway. He quickly shut down his computer and went to the front door to meet her.
The last of the groceries put away, Loretta asked Simon, “So, what did you do today?”
“Nothing much,” he replied, closing a cabinet door. “Just some errands. The drugstore, stuff like that.”
She seductively walked up to him and slung her arms around his neck. “Your nurse is right here,” she whispered. “I’ve even got the uniform. Remember?” She started planting several small kisses on his chest.
“N-Not tonight, honey,” Simon stammered.
“I thought you’d liked my nurse’s uniform,” Loretta went on, pretending to be hurt.
“Oh, I do, I do,” her husband continued, chuckling uneasily. “There are a lot of good memories in that outfit!”
“Then what?” she asked insistently.
“I’m. . . just not feeling too well.”
“What is it?”
“A cold coming on, I think,” he answered, throwing an errant sniffle in for good measure. “Achy and sniffly. Feeling. . . blah.”
“Anything I can do?” Loretta asked, concerned.
“Thanks, but I don’t think so,” Simon answered. “I’m gonna take a couple of aspirins and call it a night.”
Simon awoke with a start in the early morning light. He knew he’d had one of those can’t-get-away dreams. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow and looked at the blankets-covered sleeping form of Loretta beside him.
His wife. His love. How could she be anything but the woman he had fallen for? Why did he allow himself to even think otherwise? He spooned into her, which always calmed him, and waited for sleep to return.
In an instant, he realized that something was very wrong. Loretta felt. . . different – hard and wrinkly. He boosted himself up on one elbow and slowly pulled the covers from her shoulder. “Honey?” he said, shaking her gently.
He had never screamed so loudly.
What he had been spooning to were the very dead remains of Harold Dixon.
All the “air” had been let out of him. He looked like one of those “Happy Birthday” balloons several days after the big event. His deflated face was contorted in the agony he must have felt at the moment of his death. Afraid to touch the man’s remains anymore, Simon kicked it from the bed with his bare feet. It landed with a squish on the hardwood floor.
Loretta walked calmly into the bedroom from the hall. She appraised the situation for a few seconds and looked pleased. “You really should delete your browsing history,” she said.
Simon sat up nervously, glancing alternately at Dixon’s corpse and his wife. “You mean
it’s. . . it’s. . .” he stammered.
“True?” Loretta suggested, walking toward their bed. “Yes.” She sat down on the corner of the mattress and reached out for him. Simon pressed himself against the wooden headboard. Loretta chuckled. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked.
“You should be,” she said.
“Why did you. . .” Simon began, looking down at Dixon’s remains.
“Covering my tracks,” she explained. “When I saw what you were Googling, I knew you must have run into Harold. He was my only living ex-husband.”
“But you let him live.”
“Only because I had found you, and you could do whatever I needed. . . and more. . . better than he.” She sighed and added, “I’m not happy with what you did, sweetheart.” Her words visibly frightened Simon, who tried unsuccessfully to push back beyond the limits of the headboard. “But I’ll forgive you. . . this time.”
“Where. . . Where do we go from here?” he asked nervously.
“Just a few minor tweaks should be enough,” Loretta explained. “If I say ‘jump,’ I want you to say ‘how high?’”
“Of course,” Simon quickly answered.
“If I have some womanly needs to be satisfied, I’ll expect you to be there.”
“You got it.”
“You should know,” she went on, “that I don’t have anyone else lined up. If you’re not good to me, you’re gone. I won’t be as lenient as I was with Harold here.”
“Not to worry.”
“I prefer to make the changes overnight,” Loretta continued. “But I can make them while you’re awake too. I’ve made you handsomer, lover. I can also make you uglier.”
“I’m. . . I’m sure you can.”
“How would you like to be the size of a garden gnome, to be covered in warts, to be a hunchback?” She reached out and cupped his blond, stubbly chin in her palm. “You’re so pretty now. Don’t make me angry.” She stood quickly and, looking down at Dixon’s deflated remains, said, “Now get out of bed and clean this place up.”
There has been no trouble at the Baker house for many months. Simon believes that his eyes have become bluer and his hair blonder, but he can’t be sure. There’s no sense in asking anyone. He’s begun doing little things for his wife that he never did before, especially if she doesn’t seem too happy in the morning when she leaves for work.
Loretta doesn’t have to tell him to be good. The slightly stinky garment bag hanging in his closet, which holds the decomposing remains of Harold Dixon, is reminder enough.
By Drema Deòraich
Max crouched on the ledge, muscles tight as she peered down at the plunge pool. Beside her, Sybil squatted, eyes wide. Max shot a look toward her friend, watched the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the flush in her skin. Sybil didn’t belong here. Waterfall jumps were Max’s thing. Sybil’s comfort zone stopped high above in the clifftop picnic area, a scenic view surrounded by safety barriers and trail markers. She’d never wanted to tag along before, so why now?
Max gestured. Are you sure?
Max turned back toward the water and rose into position. Such a beautiful place! She breathed deep the humid, perfumed air, her body surging with electrical signals.
Then she dove.
Her arms and legs jerked inside the pod, manipulated by automated machinery even as she felt herself pressed into warming pads beneath her inclined body. Gravity had been activated, then. Mild pulses twinged her muscles again and Max stirred against the straps, licked her lips with a raspy tongue. A deep rumble, more felt than heard, chased away the last vestiges of her dreams. The sedatives must be wearing off. She lay quiet, recalling her assignment to command this maiden voyage of The Swift, first Long-Range Explorer Class ship to carry a human crew. An odd name for a ship with such a portentous mission, she’d thought at first. But when she had said as much to her C.O., he had explained the extraordinary flight capacity for that small, unassuming bird. After that, the designation made perfect sense.
Sweetened air hissed into the chamber. In the pod, a smile curled her lips, and Max opened her eyes. If Ship had awakened her, they must be close to Beyuli.
K2 2495d, her sleepy brain prompted.
Screw that. Jain had dubbed it Beyuli, like the peaceful valleys of refuge in the Himalayas back on Earth. As a moniker, that was more memorable, more meaningful. Save formality for the logs.
Months of training formed her automatic response. “Ship, I’m awake. Pod one vertical.”
The capsule rotated to a standing posture.
“Ship, release restraints.”
A neutral voice replied. “Bio signs normal. Acknowledge release.”
Freed, Max worked in slow motion to remove her tubes and leads, then stepped out on shaky legs. An enormous yawn pulled her face into a contorted mask while shoulders and back and limbs stretched. All those endless repetitions of induced torpor and reanimation were finally paying off. The whole process felt almost natural. But Max had never been a morning person. Waking always came hard, and dregs of the torpor meds didn’t make it easier. She glanced back at the warm bed she’d just vacated. Maybe another hour?
Sheesh. Wake up, Maxine. A two-year nap ought to be enough sleep for anyone, even you.
Yawning again, she scratched idly at her naked hip and took a minute to orient herself. Seven additional pods lay equidistant in a circle around the room, each accompanied by a small locker. No frills marred the grey, utilitarian space. Just like in the sims. Conditioning took over and Max slipped into her role without a second thought. She planted her earbud firmly in place.
“Ship, report.” Her voice sounded weird after all this time, hoarse.
“Current ship date 21350911. Time is twelve eighteen. All systems go. Stasis pods functioning within acceptable parameters. Eleven-point-seven-zero hours to full awakening.”
Max tugged on a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved pullover, opened a nutripac and sipped the stage-one “food” while she padded around to the other pods. Mechanical arms went about their business above the other sleepers, moving wires or adjusting restraints to ensure continued comfort but vital signs for all seven of her crew lay well within specified range. Ship was right. Ship was always right. A quick check of Swift’s position showed a graphic display of their present location, still several days from Beyuli.
“Log entry, Mission Commander Maxine Patel recording. Ship has roused me on schedule. Crew is green across the board. I’ll report more once I’ve completed my initial inspection. Conclude entry.”
Max swallowed the last of her nutripac and pushed its wrapper into the recycler. A quick trip to the head, then she walked the length of the habitat module, peering into labs and storage as she went. All quiet, rooms pristine just as they’d been on launch. Soon enough these chambers would fill with bustle, a scientific crew running tests, making log entries, coming and going from the surface, playing games, talking, laughing. Too bad she couldn’t have soloed on this mission. She loved her crew—good thing, since they’d be practically on top of one another for the next few weeks—but Max loved her solitude more. Too much exposure to other people, even those she liked, got on her nerves after a while. Her lips puckered.
Enjoy the peace while you can, girlie.
In the small rec room Max climbed aboard a treadmill to begin working out the kinks of long-term stasis with an easy walk. Before her, the wall bowed out in a thick plaz bubble to reveal a clear view of the star system that would be their home for the next four weeks. Below and to the left glowed the small bright arc of a gas giant crowded by tiny specs of its moons. The other biggie, an ice planet, would be in a far-side orbit now. Ahead, Beyuli hugged a tight stellar orbit along with its fellow rocky planets, indistinguishable from stars to her naked eye at this distance. To the right and above the system’s plane hovered a distant blue smear of bright gas, some ancient remnant of a supernova whose designation she’d forgotten.
She was the first human being to lay eyes on this strange, alien view. Seeing it rendered in a holosim or on a star chart paled in comparison to its actual beauty. She amused herself by imagining each of her crewmembers’ reactions to the sight. Seth would grunt and go back to work. Lucia and Beck, whose mathematical language sometimes required translation even among the other scientists, would at least offer helpful data like orbital parameters and equations to explain the erratic movements of this or that planetary body.
Max debated the odds and decided on projections for the other, more philosophical members. Anouk would claim this wonder for God. Jain would quote Siddhartha Gautama. Noah and Kevin would debate whether All This was created by some mythical architect, or whether the universe comprised an illusion or a test, whether authentic existence lay unseen, unfelt, as long as we wear these skins.
She scoffed. Superstitious fantasies designed to provide subjective comfort. Assigning humanistic traits and purposes to the design of astronomical gravitation and the formation of planetary systems served no reasonable goal. Why believe in something that was by its very nature beyond the realm of proof, or which had never shown scientific merit as a working hypothesis? God was a wishing well. She would rather throw her metaphorical pennies into reasonable theories.
She increased her pace on the treadmill, beads of sweat rolling down her face. Twelve hours until she could enjoy that debate. Well, probably closer to eleven now, and plenty to accomplish in the hours between. She ran through an index of tasks in her head. Test lab equipment. Double-check status of supplies (little late to realize now they were short on something). Verify status of environment suits in case of emergencies. Confirm position and progress in Control. Review inbound comms and send an arrival confirmation to Titan base. By the time the others got up, everything needed to be ready to go. She should get a move on.
Max slowed, breathing hard, then stopped and wiped her face on her shirt. Vibe shower next. She’d give a lot for a real hot-water bath right now, but that small luxury lay more than a few years in her future. She reentered the head and stripped, croaking an old rock ballad off-key at the top of her voice. Within minutes, she emerged energized and ready to tackle her to-dos.
In the lab, she unpacked equipment piece by piece, latched it all to the tables and set them on self-test. Next, she threw on a jacket, grabbed another nutripac, and walked along the aft corridor toward the shuttle bay and the engine room.
She couldn’t help but wonder what they might find on Beyuli. Long-distance atmospheric scans had indicated a breathable atmosphere as well as the presence of water and, surprisingly, signs of life. Specifics remained uncertain until Swift’s crew made landfall but no exoplanet closer to Earth had shown as much promise. Humanity needed a place to expand, safe from the radiation of space and climate disasters it’d brought on itself. Resource shortages had already sparked one deadly war. Max hoped it would be the last, but she held no illusions. For her crew, this mission would take just over four ship years, while fifty Earth years would pass before they returned to Titan base. That’s the fastest turnaround mission planners been able to manage, yet given the desperate state of affairs when the ship left, Max had little faith her crowded home planet would resist hostilities for that long. Even this mission had sparked tensions over who would shoulder its massive expense and whether or not the spoils of discovery would be shared equally with all. The Swift may have been the first of her class, but unless she turned an outstanding profit, there would never be another.
So they’d test and sample the hell out of Beyuli’s air, soil and water, as well as any lifeforms they turned up—microbes probably. Drone flyovers would record holosurveys of their landing site and as much of the surface as they could manage in four weeks. If everything went according to plan, two ship years later she and her crew would be back on Titan. Another Earth year after that, they would again stand in the big conference center on base to participate in projections and plans for colonization.
Outside the bay, environment suits hung in two neat rows of five, one for each crewmember and two surplus in case of accident or suit failure. She analyzed each one’s insulation, air supply, bio- and visor displays. Next she slid on a thermal suit and stepped through the narrow hatch into the aft passage.
Her stomach growled.
“Ship, time to awakening?”
Damn. She’d taken in two nutripacs already, but her body was sucking up fuel as fast as it could. She’d grab another on her way to Control, maybe a stage-two. Her mouth watered at the thought of nearly solid sustenance.
Damn, it was cold in the main engine module. Microgravity made the going slow, but she ran every eval through to her satisfaction before pushing back to the weighted corridor. Once on a solid deck, she shed the suit and plodded forward again, stopping only to grab an edible, then headed toward Control. Ship as a whole ran big, just over three times the length of their habitable space, unwieldy enough it had required an orbital shipyard for construction. Secondary thrusters and an assortment of other mechanicals spanned out on structural supports both fore and aft, but their working and living space felt comfortable, like home. Walls in every room of the habitat module and along each corridor were soft with pale grey padding. Recessed panels along the ceilings emitted light on either side to fully illuminate without glare. She looked around, forcing herself to consume the gelatinous ration slowly as she went. Yes, she thought. Home-ish. By mission conclusion, she would have lived aboard Swift longer than she’d been at any other domicile since she joined the military. She might even be sorry to leave when all was done.
She stepped through the hatch into Control, a shadowy chamber of dark grey everything. Fewer ambient lumens augmented the clarity of instrument panels and holo projections. Eight stations lined the module, two facing front and three on either side, each with adjustable tracseats. Straight ahead through the viewpanel lay the bulk of this star system and, hiding in the distant darkness, Beyuli.
She took another bite and dropped into the seat at her station. Every system showed normal readings, just as she’d expected. All the trepidation she’d felt during planning and training ops dropped away. So far, so good. The Swift had proven her worth.
“Ship, display a list of incoming messages.”
Dozens of texts filled the screen at her station. Mission parameter revisions, updates on Beyuli’s readings, notice of an apparent geothermal event on its surface and instructions to add that to her drone surveys. Only four of the incomings were visual. Max spun in her seat to face the holodisplay.
“Ship, play vids in order of receipt.”
At once, a smiling, familiar form stood in the center of the module.
“Good morning!” the holographic Sybil crowed, throwing her arms wide in a long-distance embrace. Then she looked left and right, swinging her shoulder-length blond hair, and crouched closer to the camera. “I’m not supposed to be sending yet. You only just entered torpor a few days ago by my calculations and these holos are expensive! But hey, they can dock me if they don’t like it. I wanted my face to be the first one you saw when you woke up.”
Max grinned. That’s more like the kind of rebellion she’d expect from Sybil, not waterfall diving. Not after so many close calls in air defense. They’d made a great team back then, but Sybil preferred to keep her feet firmly on the ground these days. After all they’d been through, Max couldn’t blame her.
“Remember that time you snuck rum onto Titan base and Captain Mitchell caught us getting shit-faced in the supply module?” Sybil’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “I still can’t believe you convinced him to drink with us instead of writing us up! You always had a way of making everything sound so reasonable. No one else gets me into trouble like you did. I miss that. I miss you.”
Max’s smile faded. When she got back to Titan, her friend would be old, maybe even dead.
“Can’t stay on long, I just…” Sybil paused. “I know how badly you wanted this. I’ve never been more proud of you than I am right now.” She winked a blue eye, then disappeared. Max swallowed past a sudden lump in her throat.
An unfamiliar face appeared next. Black hair bunned at the nape of her slender brown neck. Frank dark gaze that met the holocam without flinching. Regulation uniform, starched and spotless. Crisp, businesslike voice with a trace of Aussie accent. How old could she possibly be? Thirty? Younger? Max wondered if they were recruiting out of grade school these days.
“Patel, I’m Ground Commander Sinclair. Commander Driskoll retired three weeks ago, so I’ll be your new C.O. I’ve heard great things about you and your mates up there. The whole team down here sings your praises, so do us proud. Not sure what help I can be from so far away, but if you need anything, just let me know. Maybe we’ll have the opportunity to meet when you get back. Sinclair out.”
The third vid started, stuttered, and stopped, flickering over and over on an image she couldn’t quite make out. Looked like Titan Base. Max frowned.
“Ship, check current holovid for integrity.”
“Checksum invalid. File corrupt.”
“Very well. Continue playback.” Max took another bite from her pac. She would have to investigate that little mystery later.
The fourth sender peered out at her from a pallid face with hollow, haunted eyes. Limp colorless hair drooped around cheekbones that protruded way too far. Ragged clothing hung on the trembling skeletal frame. Behind her—it was a her, wasn’t it?—lay Control on Titan base. Two or three people she didn’t recognize rushed about the space in a frenzy.
Then the sender spoke, and the food in Max’s mouth turned to ash.
“Max, it’s true, what I said before. Worst case scenario. Everything’s…” She struggled for words. “…gone. We still don’t know what happened. Luna sent the probe, like I said, but…” She swallowed hard. “Earth’s a cinder. Confirmed, no survivors on the planet or in atmo.”
Sudden loud pounding at the door made Sybil flinch forward, her words spilling out in a confused jumble. “Luna didn’t have enough supplies for survivors from orbiters and their own people, so they all came here. Eighty? A hundred people? Titan’s a bigger base, they must have thought…”
Sybil’s face twisted. “They were wrong,” she sobbed. “We were due for resupply in another two months, but we shared with them anyway. We divvied up every last morsel, hoping… I don’t know. But it wasn’t enough. They’ve started killing us. Said they’d make what was left go farther, that they’d—”
A loud crash sounded and Sybil jumped again, glancing over her shoulder at the door, which had begun to inch open. She whirled back to the camera, her words stumbling over each other in her haste. “Doesn’t matter. Even without the fighting, we can’t survive without resupply. We’re done. The ones they already killed are better off. Max—”
The door behind Sybil shrieked against its latches and finally gave way, spilling mutineers into the tight space. Max watched as one of them slashed a hurried blade across the throat of another crewmember just inside the door, then advanced toward the camera. Sybil thrust herself forward to fill the visual, screaming.
“Max, I was right, it’s over! You’re the last—“
The image blinked out.
Max stood less than a meter away from the projection, one hand extended toward the spot where her friend stood a heartbeat ago. She stared at the suddenly empty space, tendons in her neck stretched taut, every muscle rigid, her nutripac forgotten on the floor at her feet. Silence pounded her ears. Hair stood up at her nape. Her breath jittered in and out.
“Ship.” Her pinched voice sounded distant, surreal. “Replay last message.”
Sybil’s tortured face etched itself into Max’s neurons, her scream encircled Max’s heart and squeezed until every breath wheezed in her throat. When the quiet returned, Max replayed it again. And again. There had to be a mistake. Surely her friend didn’t mean…
Surely The Swift’s crew wasn’t…
“Ship, record return communiqué.”
“Recording,” Ship replied.
Max opened her mouth but no words emerged. If Sybil’s message were true, if The Swift—
Max shook her head, unable to complete the thought. “Ship, belay recording. Display transmission data for all four vids at station one.”
She stumbled back to her seat. The screen showed three dates.
Message one: recorded transmission, sent ED21331218.
So three days after The Swift hit speed, at least for Sybil.
Message two: recorded transmission, sent ED21411117.
Almost eight years later, Earth time.
Message three: recorded transmission, sent ED21461003.
Almost five years later.
Message four: live transmission, commenced ED21461214 at 21:20:14, terminated 21:34:42.
Live? Max blinked, looked again at the data. Yes. Live. Transmission ran much longer than the visual. Twelve years had passed on Earth since then. She scrolled through the text comms again. Nothing had come through since almost an Earth year prior to Sybil’s last holo. Max struggled to grasp the revelation conveyed by her calculations. If anything had changed, someone would have sent another comm, wouldn’t they?
oh god oh god oh god
Her head shook in negation. Every mouthful she’d consumed lurched in her stomach and she heaved, turning to spray the floor instead of the console.
“Spill in the control module,” said Ship.
Max swiped a trembling hand across her mouth. “Noted. Ship, communications equipment has malfunctioned. Why aren’t we receiving incoming messages?” She waited, expectant.
“No malfunction is detected. Communications are fully operational.”
“Ship, ping Titan base. Alert me the moment they respond.”
“Time required to receive response would exceed—
“Irrelevant,” Max snapped. “Follow my instruction.”
“Ship, time to awakening?”
“Six point two-five hours.”
Thoughts crowded her mind, blurred and disjointed. She pushed up from her chair, stepped on quivering legs over her mess and kicked the nutrient pouch on her way out of the module, every step as much on autopilot as was Ship. Max stumbled down the corridor, through the hatch into the habitat module, and kept going until she reached the viewport in the rec room. Beyuli lay somewhere ahead, a distant point of light tagged like a child’s party game with all humanity’s dreams. The others had yet to even see these stars. For the moment, she was the only alive and aware human in the universe.
The enormity of their situation slammed into her like a runaway hoverbus, and she crumpled to the floor beneath its weight. Memories barged through, waterfall jumps and barrages of fighter fire and being shot down and learning to walk again. Faces and names and places and growing up in the foreshadow of social collapse and rioting in the days prior to the war. Doing bar shots with Sybil and the rest of her squadron. First impressions of Luna base, first glimpse of Earth-light, pride at her assignment to The Swift mission. Seth’s body lit by candlelight in Max’s bedroom, his limbs entwined with her own. Training with her crew for this voyage. Sybil’s tears when she learned Max was leaving. Imagined terrors her friend endured in the lead-up to that final message.
Tears pooled on the floor beneath her face, and Max blinked away another stream, sniffed through clogged nostrils and rolled over onto her back to stare at the ceiling, reliving Sybil’s last message over and over. Echoes of her screams blotted out Ship’s rumble and the quiet hiss of air circulators.
Sybil was gone. Earth was gone. It was all gone.
Her stomach heaved again and she lurched to the side, retching up dregs of fluid. When it passed, she wiped a trembling hand across her mouth and sat up.
“Ship, time to awakening?”
“Five point three-nine hours.”
Her arms lay leaden against her body, hands limp on the floor.
Get up, Max.
Why? What’s the point?
You’re Mission Commander.
Mission seems pointless now, doesn’t it?
Tell that to your crew, the survivors of your species.
The crew. Fresh angst contorted her features and spilled down her cheeks. How the hell was she going to tell them? Lucia and Seth, older and more jaded than the others, would probably take it better. Anouk believed humanity was doomed anyway. This wouldn’t surprise her. Noah had the Summerland to look forward to after death, but Max doubted he’d want to hasten his arrival to any afterlife, no matter how pleasant. Kevin and Beck, babies of the crew, both still bubbled over with fresh excitement for all life had to offer. How could Max bear to dim those gifted rays of light?
And Jain! Max owed her life to Jain twice over, once for her surgical skill, which pulled Max back from the brink after her fighter went down, and once for convincing her to continue with rehab when Max herself had given up. Jain and Sybil were the reasons Max landed on The Swift in the first place. After the war, Sybil and the rest of Max’s squadron had gone on to pursue promising futures in the service, but Max retired from active duty and moved on. Pain of physical therapy paled in comparison to the lingering nightmares but both eventually faded, replaced by a shiny new engineering degree and a fresh career in space, beginning on Titan.
Max loved that base! It was Titan’s observatory that detected Beyuli, Titan’s scientists that discerned its potential. That discovery had restored Max’s hope for humanity, refueled her determination to serve, as she had in the squadron, only this time she wouldn’t be destroying. She’d be setting the foundations on which they could build anew.
…except now the whole project, and all the controversy and excitement that went with it, was for naught. Swift’s crew had no one left to help but themselves. If Sybil’s last message were true, then Titan Base lay dead, all its humans rotting inside the structures or, if the seals had given way in all these years, frozen in a permanent state of preservation. Even if it weren’t, even if some humans had managed to survive despite the odds, what the hell was she supposed to do about it? She and the crew couldn’t go back—unless her ping elicited a response, no point wasting their own limited resources—so any resolution to their current predicament must be based on whatever lay ahead. She mined her considerable training for reasonable propositions to suggest a next step.
Nothing came to mind.
Max pounded a fist on her knee. What the hell could have happened? Not a natural disaster, surely nothing that would turn Earth into a cinder and kill every living thing within reach of its atmosphere. Nothing from the skies, either. A stellar event would be no mystery. Luna Base would have been affected too, maybe even destroyed. At the very least, Luna and Titan would have seen any meteor strike of extinction-level proportions long before it struck, and the result would have been highly visible.
That left only human stupidity. Probably from the same greedy mucks who ransomed Earth’s food and water supplies to enslave the rest of its population. Their predilection for acting without consideration of long-term consequences had created Earth’s resources dilemma and the desperate need for this mission in the first place.
Max jerked to her feet and staggered closer to the plaz. It should be those idiots who paid the price. Not the billions of innocents who died at their hands. Not her crew. Not Beck with her PhD in astrophysics by the age of 21 and 32-year-old botanist-slash-entomologist Noah and Kevin the chemist, who at age 30 was still too shy to bump uglies! They’d only just gotten a start in life. Her crew had expected to spend four years by ship-time in mission and return to a world advanced fifty Earth years. In the months of training for their trip, they’d wondered what Earth would look like when they got back. Now they’d never know.
A ragged yell tore itself from Max’s throat. One hand shot out, punching the plaz bubble — a solid blow that reverberated through her knuckles and fingers, up her forearm, all the way to her shoulder.
Calm down. Think.
She swiped at her wet face and stared through the viewport as she struggled to think of a way to tell her crew. What “right” words could possibly explain that they were the last eight humans? How could she lay that at their feet?
She paced the length of the room in search of some optimistic seed. Maybe they had a reasonable shot at survival. Human history held multiple examples of population bottlenecks where recovery overcame extinction, despite the odds. One theory held that Homo erectus occurred as a result of speciation among a group of Australopithecina more than two million years ago. Another university study from more than two hundred Earth years ago theorized that early native populations of the pre-Union Americas descended from fewer than a hundred individuals who crossed an ancient land bridge in the north pacific. Numerous arguments had been put forth to explain limited genetic diversity in small, isolated populations over the centuries. None had been proven, but all offered feasible explanations for a set of givens in the study of mitochondrial DNA and reduced adaptability from founder effects. Clearly, something had traumatized the human gene pool a number of times, yet the species always managed to survive.
Maybe The Swift’s crew could too.
It was conceivable that Beyuli would offer a welcoming, fecund environment devoid of any other sentient life-forms, so that her crew could spread into this new homeworld as their numbers grew. If that were so, perhaps Anouk could suggest a biological gamble Max had missed, or even tweak their on-hand equipment so that they could experiment with genetic modification and expand the procreative potential of their small group. As ship’s doc, Jain might know of a medical option—she’d once collaborated with a team to investigate methods of human cloning before it was outlawed. In fact, everyone on The Swift’s crew was specifically chosen from the best and brightest Earth had to offer. Once Max woke the others, they could all contribute to a solution.
At the hatch, she turned back toward Control, arms wrapped around herself, tears running unheeded down her face. Even if Beyuli held sentients, perhaps she could bargain for some small space on that world where the crew could begin their new lives. Maybe the inhabitants would take them in as part of their own civilization. Cross-breeding, if it were possible, would be better than total extinction. Perhaps, in that scenario, the last eight humans could even evolve into something else. Something more.
The bubble of her fantasy bumped against pointed reality, bursting into a sickening array of facts. Who the hell was she kidding? They weren’t set up to colonize! That was never Swift’s purpose. They hadn’t the equipment or seedstock, not to mention adequate supplies. Besides, while many theories had been put forth regarding minimum numbers for viable human populations, she’d never seen an estimated low of fewer than 80-120 fertile adults. Eighty. Not eight.
And when it came to repopulating the human race, they weren’t even eight. Seth carried Tay Sachs. His candidacy for fatherhood was inadvisable. Anouk, a male-to-female transexual, couldn’t conceive. Neither could Jain, who had uncovered her own infertility years ago—it was the main reason she’d never married. That left Beck, Lucia and Max to bear the babies, with gay Noah and virginal Kevin to father them all. Even Max’s fertility, tainted as it was by familial diabetes, had an approaching expiration date. She’d been tugging on the skirts of menopause since about a year before they left Titan. How much longer did she really have to contribute?
Five adults would never produce a sustainable population. Even if they could tweak some of the lab gear to modify the genes of their ovum and sperm—a statistical improbability—how would they implant these engineered embryos? Their medical facility was limited to simple injury repair, not fertility experiments or major surgery. Nor did they have the means even to care for healthy infants, much less incubate preemies or deal with any major neonatal emergencies.
Max found herself standing in the stasis room, staring at the pods. She tiptoed from pod to pod, staring in at the faces of her friends and crewmates, recalling moments from their shared training, celebrations of achievements, secrets and intimacies of long-term close association. If she woke them, they would quickly go from hopeful to shocked to despairing, as she’d done herself. A likely lingering death awaited, whether they stayed aboard the ship—dehydration, starvation or asphyxiation once their supplies ran dry—or went to Beyuli, where they risked a whole world of unknowns. Even barring toxins in the atmosphere or environment, predators, unwelcoming or hostile sentients who may want to kill or eat them, even if they could manage to reproduce without catastrophic results, what if they couldn’t grow food there? What if their assessment of the presence of water was off by a significant percentage? What if one of them got sick or injured? She would have only prolonged their suffering, postponed the inevitable.
Rationally speaking, they may as well already be dead, so why even consider waking them? Was it for their sakes, as she’d told herself, or was it—oh ultimate quirk of fate—because Max the recluse didn’t want to die alone, the last of her kind? If that was her reason, company would be selfish consolation bought at the crew’s expense.
She wiped her face and wandered back out into the corridor, retracing her steps. She could reverse the awakening process, leave them in stasis indefinitely. Set the ship off in a new direction and hope that someone, somewhere, at some point in the future might find and resuscitate them. Said rescuers might even have the means to help them reproduce with greater diversity, better chances for success. Slim hope, yes, but as long as they were alive they had a chance. Asleep, they’d burn fewer supplies. Ship could go on for years, maybe. If she left the crew in stasis and no one ever found them, they’d never know.
On the other hand, if someone did find the ship, a sleeping crew would be helpless. Their fate could go either way. Slim chance, true, but Max cringed at the idea of waking to a hostile situation with no opportunity to prepare or even to flee.
What, then? If she didn’t want to wake them, and indefinite stasis wasn’t an option, that left only…
Max’s feet slowed and stopped outside the rec room.
It would be easy. Critical failure of the life support shouldn’t awaken them, but just to be sure, she could modify the CO2 scrubbers to asphyxiate them quickly, cleanly. They could then just drift away into nothingness—or into the next world of their beliefs—without ever knowing the fate of their species. Wouldn’t that be kinder? gentler? more merciful? Hadn’t she, just moments ago, been decrying human selfishness?
Yes, but… kill the crew? Could she really live with herself if she did?
The irony of that question struck a manic chord and burst from her in great gasping guffaws. She bent, hands on her knees, laughing and weeping at the same time. What the hell difference did it make? If she killed them all, she’d soon follow. She remembered Death’s face clearly, had held a nice long chat with it while wounded, awaiting rescue behind enemy lines. Death promised her that day they’d meet again, so Max wasn’t afraid. She and Death were old friends. She wondered whether its approach would frighten the others.
Noah had told her, during one of his uncharacteristically loquacious moments, that he bought into the illusion of reality theory, that he believed consciousness creates experience. If he was right—or Anouk, for that matter, with her belief in the Catholic god—then Something or Someone awaited them at the end of the illusion, when they awakened for real. If they were right, maybe the death of humanity served a purpose.
She sobered and paced back to the viewport, wiping her face. There had to be a right answer, something she didn’t yet see.
It felt wrong to “play god,” as if there were such a thing. This decision belonged to the group as a whole. She had no justifiable right to decide the fate of her crew, the entire remaining human population. Except that she was the only person alive who knew the truth. And no matter what she did, she would be choosing for them all. Even refusal to act constituted a decision, so the answer really boiled down to what was most important to her: the theoretically possible, yet improbable chance to rebuild the human race, or one last opportunity to demonstrate compassion to those entrusted to her care.
“Ship, time to awakening?”
“Two point one-zero hours.”
If she waited much longer, the matter would be decided for her.
She stared through the plaz at the alien system. It really was beautiful. She remembered her first glimpse of Earth from Luna base, and how strange Sol system looked from Titan. Constellations so clearly defined from Earth’s surface fell apart out there. What a difference a new perspective made!
Max shifted and, for a second, caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the plaz. Tousled, dark hair wisped with grey framed her brown face. Traces of past laughter lined the corners of her eyes, crinkling around that small mole on her cheekbone. Seth had teased her about that spot once, after she’d told him it was a beauty mark. Grumpy old crab. Even after sex, he’d always seemed annoyed. What had she ever seen in him? Other than his physical beauty, that is, and his determination, and his underlying ache that touched her heart. Right now, the fact that he was a living, breathing human being went a long way toward validating forgiveness for any shortcoming, real or imagined.
Her full lips lifted into a grin, revealing the slight gap between her top front teeth. He might be a grouch, but she loved that bristly curmudgeon with her whole heart. Indeed, she loved them all. She knew what she had to do.
Still smiling, Max left the viewport and headed down the corridor toward the stasis room.
by Jack Neel Waddell
Three thoughts crowded at the door of my waking mind. First was that the sun was streaming through a skylight above me. Second was that my alarm hadn’t gone off. Third was that I had woken, yet again, in a room I didn’t recognize.
Pink silken sheets cocooned me in a circular bed as it hovered gently beneath the congruent skylight. I shielded my face with my arm as the rotation of the bed brought me into the glare of a sunbeam.
No alarm meant no phone. I needed to find out what time it was. It was hard to tell from the sunlight stabbing inward. It couldn’t be past eight, right? Eight thirty? I’d be late, but not unforgivably late. I could skip a shower. Although I could feel and smell the sex on me from the night before, it was better than being too late. It would help if I could call ahead.
The floor was only a few feet down and cushioned with a thickly napped carpet of vacillating colors. I slipped, naked, from the covering sheets to search for my clothes or, better, my phone.
The carpet went with the domed walls, which were painted in all jewel-toned hues with garish block graphics that tapered up to the skylight. It was exactly what I’d expect from a nocturn. The walls were if anything outdone by the shifting harlequin of the billowing pants I found under the bed, the closest to my own I was likely to find. At least I could be sure they would fit, albeit loosely. There were no pockets for a phone.
I rehearsed the conversation I would probably have with my captain about being late.
The only respite from the walls were a wardrobe, a staid bronze-stained wooden casement with double doors, and a door hanging half-open to a tiny bathroom. I had to hunt for the handplate to command a door to slide open for my escape from the bedroom.
I stepped out into a placid living room. Music played gently from an unseen source, and some dish clattered around the corner. The smell of a cinnamon tea and baking bread lifted my spirits a bit.
“Hey there, sleepyhead,” said a voice like a tinkling bell.
I hadn’t yet noticed my headache. Now it oozed out like the yolk of a poached egg. The room spun a little, and I wondered if the bed had really been rotating.
A woman stepped out, tall and athletic, skin as pale as a pigeon’s egg. Just the sort that Ritter would go for. She looked concerned.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
I folded onto the arm of a comfortingly tea-brown couch. The room steadied a bit.
She folded her arms over her chest and grimaced sympathetically. “I’m Masy, by the way.”
I nodded, and introduced myself. “Jomo.”
“What were those two up to, huh? You still feel woozy, too, right?”
She was too cheerful, like our alturns were nothing but rambunctious teenagers. I could feel my pulse rising in my neck.
“Have you seen a phone?” I asked.
Masy frowned as she walked back to the kitchen, “Sorry, hon, but my alturn had something to say about it.”
She grabbed a phone from the counter — ringed in a ruby case, it clearly wasn’t mine — and thumbed it on.
She read, “‘Hey, Sunshine!’ She calls me Sunshine, isn’t that cute? ‘What a hottie, right? We had a great time. Take it easy today! Anyway, Ritter says that he is super sorry about his phone, but he lost it. Tell the guy, will you? He said he’d buy a new one, one of those new Jupiters. Can you imagine?'”
A pit opened underneath me. I got dizzy again.
“See? Don’t worry. You’re getting a new awesome phone!”
An oven door squealed twice, then clanged.
“What time is it?” I managed to say.
“It’s only ten.”
“Officer Ngilu, it’s about damn time.’
I ducked my head. It was ten-thirty by the time I made it to the station and changed into an appropriate daylight outfit I kept there. My first assignment was on the outskirts of Urbana. I took a carriage, and drummed my impatience into the dashboard as the bullet-shaped car slid into line and joined the train of other travelers to the suburbs.
“I’m sorry, Lieutenant,” I said, jogging up the stepping-stone path to the front door of the residential house. Each step jarred my hungover brain. “It’s my alturn.”
Lieutenant Hernandez waved away my explanation with a toss of his cigarette-laden hand. “You beg for these cases and then leave me waiting. Next time I won’t take an excuse.”
I nodded again and slipped inside.
A whole house was an extravagant expense, unless you shared it with your alturn. What good was a half-time house? Usually it meant children.
This one was a spacious ranch. The living room opened into the dining room and galley kitchen. A small bedroom, decorated in pink and unicorns, spurred off there. Deeper inside was a master suite, decorated in the dark, flat colors of a diurn’s preference. A den in the back left the house feeling lopsided.
A short officer named Fennel in blue paper booties showed me why.
The officer frowned at my feet first, sending a wave of heat to my face. It was a stupid mistake for a forensics officer to make. I grabbed a pair of booties from a box by the back door and slid them on.
We went through the hall closet, through a door hinged onto the back. The room on the other side was small and stark, a square perhaps seven feet to a side. The walls and floor were all covered with a medium density foamboard that gave way slightly underfoot. A mattress lined one wall. A bucket sat in each corner of the opposite side – one held clean water. The other, with a plastic lid, was used as a chamber pot.
“Sweep it for prints,” Fennel said. “I’ll bet anything there’s only one set.”
I half hated her for getting ahead of me. Of course there would be only one. This room was designed for imprisoning alturns. The fact that it was open during the day told the story of which alturn was getting locked away.
I turned back to the lock. There were trails in my vision as I turned too fast. I closed my eyes for a moment, then walked back to the closet door. There’d be either a combination lock, or a lock set on a timer.
I couldn’t believe my luck at landing in an alturn apprehension case. This was exactly the kind of case I wanted to handle, just the unit I wanted to work in when I made detective one day.
“Who called it in?” I asked, poking at the lock. It was a push-button combination.
“The daughter, who just Schismed. The new diurn side didn’t like what was happening, so she called it in when her pappy went into the box just before sundown.”
I pulled on the wheel, feeling a little slop, then proceeded to push on the buttons in order. When I came to the three I felt a nudge in the wheel. I felt the same with the five, the six, and the eight. There were twenty-four arrangements of those four numbers, but it only took a few minutes before I hit the right combination – five three eight six. The wheel turned and three bolts emerged into empty space. Had the door been shut, they would have locked into the door frame.
Fennel grunted approval. I felt a wave of pride. Even hungover and still in the aftereffects of whatever drug Ritter had put into our body late into the evening, I could put together clues and solve puzzles. I could make contributions to the team. Maybe I could retake the detective exam at the end of the year.
“Blinking God, Jomo,” Fennel said, “where are your gloves?”
I had them on, didn’t I? I looked at my hands, willing them to be covered in purple vinyl. I remembered tugging on the paper shoe covers. The gloves were right there.
“What’s this?” Lieutenant Hernandez stepped into the room. “Ngilu, are you contaminating my crime scene?”
My throat seemed to close. “Sir, I-“
He grabbed my hands and pulled them off the wheel.
“Late and interfering with evidence. Is there a reason you’d want your prints to appear at this scene, Ngilu?”
He dropped my hands and sighed. “I’m tired of this. You’re good when you’re sober, but we can’t count on that, can we? I’m recommending to the captain that you be terminated.”
“Are you still whining about that?”
The voice was nearly my own, but I felt my tongue raise, seeming to push my voice up and back. It was nasal and throaty at the same time, in the fashion of the nocturns. It always put me in the mind of films of gangsters from the previous century.
“Mr. Ritter,” said Dr. Kajin, “that’s not sympathetic. Please consider Jomo’s concerns.”
“Fine,” he said.
Something switched in the circuit fixed to my head, and my voice was my own again. “I know it doesn’t mean much to you, but my job is important. It’s how I pay for food and rent. And it makes me feel like I’m doing something important.”
The secret thing switched again. I felt like I was trapped in a glass room in my mind. I could see the world and hear my thoughts, but I could not touch the places that gave them voice. I couldn’t speak, and Ritter didn’t bother.
“Please, Mr. Ritter,” Dr. Kajin said. “Jomo is spending his precious money and daylight for this conversation. The least you could do is communicate.”
“I said I’d pay, and I meant it. I’ll set him up with an apartment, with a credit account at the grocer. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Dr. Kajin closed his eyes. I wasn’t sure whether Ritter could see through our shared eyes. Ritter had never summoned me in the darkened hours with a mediator. When Ritter lived, I only slept dreamlessly.
“Will you accept this compromise, Jomo?” Kajin asked. He pressed the button, toggling who could steer the body’s tongue.
I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have an apartment, only a transition room. I would need somewhere to stay in the day, a base of operations for my job search. I needed food until then.
Not that I would starve. No matter how hungry I got during the day, Ritter would eat like a king when the sun fell. Hunger wouldn’t mar his hours.
But I couldn’t bear to depend on Ritter and his money. Her money, really, Ritter’s mother’s. I clenched my jaw at the thought — I wondered what showed on Dr. Kajin’s instruments then.
“No. I will find my own way.”
I kicked the door just at the deadbolt. It took two kicks to splinter the frame. I felt a twinge of gratitude that Ritter spent so much time in the gym, even if it was only for his own vanity.
Tweakers and hookers went scrambling for the front door or windows. I glanced for weapons, but only saw the backs of the users. Manuel, the only one sitting still in the storm of fleeing bodies, leaned back into his easy chair, both hands visible on the armrests.
He couldn’t know that I didn’t have a gun. Every time this scene had played about before, I had been armed, with backup on call.
“Officer Ngilu,” Manuel said. “A pleasure to see you again.”
I eyed the room, just as I would if I were here for a bust. Bottles were strewn between beanbag mattresses. A few stood upright, their contents not quite spent. A few needles laid on the floor or stuck into the armrests of couches too ratty even for a fraternity’s porch.
“Of course,” Manuel continued, “it would be my pleasure to see your warrant.”
Manual’s speech was slurred slightly and his sunken eyes looked a little glassy, likely due to the unlabeled bottle standing beside his chair, but his wits remained sharp.
I waved away the words. I walked to the bedroom and flung the door open. There was more scampering and the shattering of glass. Manuel winced behind me.
I pulled open a closet door to see a teenage boy, painfully young to be in a dive like this. I grabbed his arm and hauled him to the front door.
“Your warrant, officer?” Manuel repeated. “Or should I call the department?”
I listened for a moment. It seemed quiet. It seemed empty.
“There’s no warrant, Manuel. And I’m no longer an officer.”
Manuel’s eyes squinted nearly closed. With his sunken eyes and gaunt face, he looked like a viper ready to strike. What might be tucked into the chair’s cushions?
“I’m here to buy.”
Manuel shrugged with upturned hands. “Buy what, officer? I was merely hosting a party for my friends.”
His tone had changed, though. He was no longer slick, he was obsequious. He was mocking me.
I charged him. Manuel could barely raise his hands before I clutched his elbows and pulled him into the air. Whatever disease had run through the man in childhood had left him short and thin. With the bulk Ritter had built in our body, it was easier than lifting that boy from the closet.
Manuel’s eyes showed nothing. I dropped him to the floor. At least he was away from the chair.
“Either that was police brutality, or merely assault,” Manuel said, getting to his knees. “What do you need?”
“Phase,” I said. There. The word was out there, hanging between us, heard by whomever was there to hear it.
Manuel looked up at me. “I don’t have any.” His voice was as cold as his eyes.
“But you know where it can be found.”
“No.” He was on his feet now. “Get out.”
I shook my head.
“I can’t help you. I wouldn’t if I could. That is an evil thing, against all God’s order.”
Briefly, I felt the lack of the Woken God’s medallion on my chest. I shut it from my mind.
“You sell drugs in the daylight.”
Manuel shrugged. “Perhaps even God needs to daydream. Drugs and sex are not against His order, only against his schedule. What you seek undermines His creation.”
“Perhaps, but there is worse evil to defeat with it.”
Manuel cocked his head to the side, squinting, considering.
“Body thieves,” I said, when Manuel would not speak.
Manuel motioned for me to continue.
I closed my eyes for a moment, then let my secret out into the air. “My mother is a victim. Her alturn flies from Amundsen-Scott to Saint Nick’s every six months on a corkscrew flight that avoids the daylight. My mother hasn’t woken in the sun for over a decade.”
Manuel shook his head. His voice, when he spoke, was sympathetic. “You cannot fight them, Mr. Ngilu. Not the big people with all the money. They have all the laws, all the police.”
“I must try. I have nothing else.”
He stared at me for a long moment then, reluctantly, he nodded. “It will take time, and a lot of cash.”
In the end, it took three days, and all the cash I could scrape together. I had sold my lease at my transition house immediately. My carriage pre-paid card went fast, but I was still disheartened when I took my scant possessions from my closet and safe to a pawnbroker. I didn’t eat during my days — I let Ritter handle that — and I started each dusk at a park bench.
That was risky. A quick-waking nocturn mugger could have gotten the drop on Ritter before he stirred. But Ritter wouldn’t have had anything for a thief to take, except maybe a phone that he could easily replace. Twenty years ago he would have carried a wallet with two sleeves, one for each alturn, but fortunately technology had advanced to biometrics and PINs. Too many alturns had broken faith with their counterparts, taking cash and using their cards on overseas purchases.
After three days of living slim, pulling odd jobs where I could for every penny, it was time.
“It’s not enough,” Manuel said, when I showed him the cash I had scraped together.
“It will be. It must.”
Manuel frowned, but led me through the footpaths that gridded the city center. Between them, city-owned engines pulled ad hoc trains of commuter carriages on steel rails to the silver skyscrapers that reflected the morning sun into my eyes. I squinted into the light, fighting a headache.
I watched Manuel carefully, and his surroundings too. Despite Manuel’s surprising faith in the Woken God, he was still a crook. He pimped, he dealt. On two occasions I had busted him with stolen goods in his apartment, though he’d always claimed they had been brought by his “guests.”
The Woken God needed people like me to guard the world against people like Manuel. And that’s what I had done, until Ritter had pushed me too far.
My anger quickened my steps. Perhaps subconsciously, Manuel sped up.
We met our guide in the pantry of a mid-tier restaurant. She was short and light-skinned, dressed in simple but clean clothing. Her head jutted too far forward, so that her back hunched slightly, but she didn’t look like a crook.
She took my name and alturn registration number and typed both sloppily on a note in her phone . She grabbed the money and, with a practiced look, riffled the edge of the bills. With a satisfied face, she tucked the cash into her blouse, either into a pocket or her bra.
“Are you wired?” she asked. She clipped her words like they were pressed out of a letter-cutter.
I shook my head, but she waved at a steel door. “In here.”
In the freezer, with the door closed, she took my phone and waved some sort detector over me, much like the wands security personnel used instead of a frisk. This one was wired to a box on her belt, covered in dials and lights. She adjusted a knob and waved the wand over me again.
“Alright. You have to leave the phone, though.”
“What? Where are we going? Don’t you have the Phase with you?”
She gave me a piercing look. “Comments like that are why people might think you’re wired. There’s no Phase here. Leave your phone.”
“I need my phone.”
“Give it to him,” she said, pointing through the freezer door window at Manuel.
I sighed. My last belonging, the new Jupiter that Ritter had purchased. I tapped at it, erasing my local profile and locking it down.
She banged on the door with the heel of the wand. Manuel hauled it open.
“He’s good. You’ll get your finder’s fee. Hold his phone for him.”
She shouldered past him and I had to hurry to keep up, pausing only long enough to press the Jupiter into Manuel’s hand.
I noticed as I moved past that Manuel clutched a necklace in his other hand. As I followed the nameless woman out the back door, a psalm of the Woken God followed, winged from Manuel’s lips.
She led me through the alley to an adjacent street. Three Windsprint bullet-shaped carriages waited in a line at the roadside. The woman pulled out a prepaid card, rather than a phone, and waved it at the access scanner. The passenger door scissored up to open, and she reached in to hit a button so the back door opened, too.
I took the hint and slid on the fabric seat and strapped myself in. The woman tapped on the dashboard until the carriage rolled out.
“Where are we going?” I tried. The woman kept her steely silence.
I wondered why she wasn’t worried. She had my money, but we were alone, and she had already set the destination. If I were the wrong sort of person, I could surely take her out, take back my money, and possibly find out where the dealers were.
She wasn’t worried, which worried me.
What would Phase be? I wished she had just brought it. Whether it was in a pill or needle, I wished to get it over with while my will held out. The Eye of the Woken God gleamed in the western sky, staring down at His creation and judging it. I had never had a drink, never taken a pill that wasn’t medicine. Even then, the doctor had to order me to take it.
The carriage quickly forked away from the spires of downtown and joined an ad hoc chain sloughing towards the wharfs of the bay. The other carriages tended to be beefier, carrying cargo as often as passengers.
The woman tapped at her phone, nose jutted forward, birdlike, so I nearly expected her to tap at it with her nose. She only spoke when their carriage disengaged from the chain and sidled up to a row of rectangular cargo containers, each larger than the room I had recently rented.
“Watch your step,” she said as she climbed out.
The dock was wet and slick with algae, which seemed like a hazard. Perhaps this section of the wharf was seldom used.
The woman passed the first container and knocked on the second, a forest-green one with an eight-digit ID number that I tried and failed to memorize. The door cracked open, and we both squeezed through.
In addition to the woman, there were three men in the space. One closed the door behind me, even as I stepped back toward the wall. Two more stood on either side of a deeply reclining chair, a chair that seemed quite familiar.
Then it became clear. Of course Phase would be similar to the transcranial stimulation that a mediator performed, but somehow more persistent.
“Mr. Ngilu,” said one of the men. This one wore a lab coat and stood closest to me by the chair. He was nearly bald, though pale stubble grew in a halo around his crown. “It is a pleasure. Please be at ease.”
The man by the door took a stance like a soldier at parade rest, arms behind his back. He looked straight forward, apparently at nothing. The woman had joined the third man, and was showing him her phone and whispering.
I should have told someone where I was going, someone besides Manuel. I wished I had my gun, or at least my phone. I found myself clutching at my shirt, at the missing medallion of the Eye of the Woken God.
There was no way but forward, so I stepped forward, extending a hand to the man in the white coat. “Yes, Mr…”
“Doctor, please. Doctor will suffice. Please, have a seat.”
I pushed down a spike of anxiety and laid out on the chair. The doctor took the transcranial mesh cap and affixed it to my head. The tiny metal studs felt colder and sharper than they should pressed against my scalp.
The doctor pulled out a rubber strap and wrapped it tightly around my arm.
The doctor pulled over an IV stand. “These will be necessary for the transition to take place.”
Coldness clawed at my chest, but this was just one more boundary I would cross. I nodded, and the doctor stabbed his needle into my arm and released the band. Then he injected something into the IV port at the top.
Finally, the woman came back around into view. “Mr. Ngilu, we need to talk about the details of our arrangement.”
“We’ve made our arrangement.” My words were syrupy in my mouth. I tried to sit up, to confront her, but she leaned down and pinned me using just her left hand. “I paid you.”
She nodded, spilling hair across her face. She let it lie. “And that is what got you this far. This is an expensive procedure, Mr. Ngilu. The doctor’s expertise does not come cheaply, and neither does the equipment.”
I tried to grab her arm, but missed.
“Be still, now,” said the doctor, “you’ll disturb the IV.” He grabbed my hand and strapped it down, then walked around to my left and strapped that one down as well.
No one would have any idea where to look for me. I wondered who would end up with my case.
“I gave you eight thousand. I don’t have any more money.”
“No,” the woman said, raising up and letting her hand drop from his chest. “But Mr. Ritter does.”
“But how could he…” I started, but then my drug-muddled brain caught up. “You want me to give you his money.”
I closed my eyes. It was easy, with the drugs in my veins. “That’s not why I’m doing this.”
“No matter. If you want to Phase shift, you’ll do it.”
“How much?” I asked, eyes opened. She would have already done the calculation. The time in the carriage she used to research me and Ritter. What would have happened if Ritter had been a garbage man, or a county clerk? Would I have simply been dropped into the Bay, or would the eight thousand have been enough?
I tried to keep my face impassive, but I couldn’t be sure how much control I had. Sixty thousand. Ritter should have that much and more at his disposal, given to him by his mother. They wouldn’t even notice that much missing.
“Fine. How long do I have?”
“Just tonight. How do you think this works?”
“I have no idea.”
“I suppose I can enlighten you,” said the doctor, stepping forward. He had another needle, this one filled with a fluid that was antifreeze-green, which he shot into the port in the IV.
“We are going to hyperactivate your network, the network for your diurn personality. The mesh-net on your head and the drugs we are administering maintain the diurn network’s stimulation for at least twelve hours, enough to last through the nighttime hours. Another cocktail of drugs will inhibit your nocturn’s network through the night, when your normal circadian rhythm and the absence of solar rays would normally activate it.”
“Tonight. I’ve only got tonight to get you sixty grand and what I was planning.”
The woman snapped her fingers in front of my eyes, forcing me to focus on them, then drew my gaze to her. “Do you have another choice, Mr. Ngilu? It is a little late to back out.”
The third man, so far unacknowledged, shifted into view. It was impossible to tell his build beneath the creases of his gray suit, but he moved with the smooth assurance of a dangerous man.
“Mr. Tian will make sure that nothing prevents you from accomplishing your goals.”
Tian nodded. “I would shake your hand, but…” he indicated the straps. Then he took a seat at the far end of the shipping container, looking at me.
The world was getting distant, and I struggled to keep his eyes open. Outside, the Eye of the Woken God was surely closing at the horizon.
“Good bye, Mr. Ngilu,” said the woman. “I hope our business will be concluded satisfactorily for all.”
The doctor followed her, and I heard the door slide open, then shut. Tian stayed seated where he was, though after a few moments he reached down and lifted a briefcase to his knees. He snapped it open and pulled out a large sketchbook and a few pencils.
“Do you mind, Ngilu?”
I grunted noncommittally, confused as to what he was doing. Tian took this as an affirmative and began to draw, lifting his eyes toward me every few moments. The scratching of the pencils only accentuated the remaining silence.
Tian did not sleep. Neither did I, not even when enough time had passed that I was sure the Sun had drooped behind the edge of the world. My thoughts drifted dizzily, dreamily, but consciousness never fully left me.
I snapped to attention when Tian stood suddenly and approached me, holding the sketchbook and pencils in one hand. With the other, he tugged the straps away from my arms, then rudely yanked the IV needles from my arm. I swallowed my protest. Tian grabbed a bandage for my arm and tossed it to me, but I was too foggy to catch it. Fortunately, it landed on my chest.
“Your head should begin to clear now, Ngilu.”
Tian tore a page from the sketchbook and handed it to me. It was a good likeness, but I seemed sad.
Tian opened the door, confirming my instincts. It was fully dark.
“You had better hurry. Caffeine will help the fogginess.”
“Can you arrange a carriage?” I pulled the TMS cap and stood. “I sold my subscription.”
He shook his head. “You are on your own. At least until it is time to settle. My advice to you? Don’t fail. This wharf has swallowed more than one that has disappointed her.”
“What should I call her?”
“Don’t. But her name is Lafferty.”
The last time I had seen the stars, I was ten years old, before our Schism. I could barely see them now, now a couple of faint points striving behind the streetlights. They must have been the brightest, I supposed, maybe planets. I wondered if Dreamers knew these things.
I walked out to the street. A middle aged man climbed out of a carriage, late for work, unshaved. He frowned at me as he passed. Most of the nightshift workers would have been delivered by their carriages during twilight. His diurn must be selfish.
The carriages wouldn’t take me without a phone, and Tian had left me alone for whatever purpose he had.
I walked at a quick pace, first at a sharp angle away from the docks, then along the downtown streets toward where I had left my phone.
Ritter’s phone. That was key to all of this. The woman had been foolish to make me part with it so thoroughly. It would cost me much of the night just to get it. Surely she knew that.
The realization struck me like sour milk in my tea. She did know it. This was the game, to waste my time so that I am unable to finish my own mission. Perhaps I was even meant to fail hers. Either way, I would be beholden to try again.
A group of teenagers boiled out of a large black carriage, already exchanging puffs on a long silver pipe. I found myself clutching at the empty space at my chest, but the bronze eye no longer hung there.
One of them, a girl with pink feathers in her hair and a taffeta drees, caught my gaze. She nudged the bruiser next to her, though I couldn’t take him seriously in parachute pants and a cape. Still, the boy pointed the silver pipe at me and laughed as I turned down an alley.
Everything about me was wrong in the night. The way I dressed. The way I walked. Even, should I get to that point, the way I spoke. I was a Worker, not a Dreamer, and the difference was clear.
I practiced my night walk down the alley — leaned back, languidly pushing my feet forward. It was hard to say if I was making a farce of it, or if it looked authentic. I tried to just not fall over. I had hoped that my body would remember the motions, but the network in my brain must not be firing right for that to take over.
Finally, I could wait no more. My clothes were still wrong as I went out the back of the alley onto the next street, but my walk, I could hope, was closer to a Dreamer’s lazy-looking mosey.
There were just as many clubs and bars on the next street over, and people were beginning to fill them in. I passed a pair of men, tightly holding hands, laughing with one another. One raised an eyebrow at me and opened his mouth, but the other man slapped his shoulder with his free hand and said, “Oh, hush,” in that Dreamer’s voice. Still, they laughed together after they passed me.
Manuel’s apartment was lit up when I arrived, but that could have meant anything. I had no idea whether the individual squatting there would be Manuel’s alturn, or would even know who I was talking about.
At first, I was surprised that my legs weren’t tired or sore from the unfamiliar walk, but then I recalled that it isn’t unfamiliar to them. Just me.
I knocked on the door. The windows, just as in the daytime, were covered over. I hoped there would be no illicit activity. Then I remembered — the laws at night are much more libertine. Very few drugs were illegal while God and children slept.
After some moments, the door opened. A nun stood there, draped in a white habit with a silvery disk of the closed eye of the Dreaming God hanging on a chain on her chest.
I peeked past her into the room. Men and women lay on cots and couches.
She sees me frown. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Yes, Sister.” Then I realize how odd my story will sound. How would a diurn get ahold of a nocturn’s clothes? Especially a nocturne still dressed as a diurn? Sure she’d see through me, I went on.
“A diurn named Manuel has my phone.”
I forgot my voice. Her back stiffens. “Yes. He left it here, with a note that said you’d be here for it. But I won’t give it to you.”
She began to close the door, but I stepped forward to block it with my foot. Some of the people inside turn to look.
“It is an evil thing you deal with,” she continued. “If I knew your name I would report you. Leave now before I call the police.”
Even the night police would respond to Phase. I considered pulling away, but who knew what Tian and the woman will do to me if I fail to deliver? I needed the phone.
“Who is Manuel to you?”
Her lips tightened, but the answer was clear on her face. Her small frame and short stature were familiar. Her eyes were the same hooded portals that sat in Manuel’s face. She could be his sister, but I knew better.
I pushed the door open, forcing her back. A large man on a cot stirred, but he was too weak to me — whether from drugs or from illness, I couldn’t tell.
“I’m calling the police,” she warned.
“I’ll tell everyone.”
“It is not a grave thing amongst the Dreamers. Gender is fluid under the Sleeping God, which I’m sure you do not know.”
I nodded. “But not among the Woken. What will Manuel’s clients think? Or his neighbors?”
Her lips withered as though she would spit if she weren’t in her own home. I sickened even myself, but I kept my face impassive.
She reached into the pocket of her draped robe and pulled out a Jupiter. She looked at it again, then handed it to me.
“Leave, disgusting creature.”
I stepped through the door, letting one heel keep the door from slamming shut behind me. “For what it is worth, I’m sorry.”
Now she did spit through the door, just missing my leg.
“May Nightmares stalk you.”
Ritter’s phone took only a thumbprint to unlock. As I sat on a darkened curb a few blocks distant I poked through his screens, trying to find anything that would help. Mercury, his banking app, took more than a thumbprint — I’d need a PIN, and nothing on the fresh screen surface clued me into what the sequence could be.
I knew Ritter lived on Bayfront, in an upscale complex. I read through texts, trying to find an apartment number, but nothing came to the forefront.
“How goes the search?”
The voice came from the deeper shadows. I was light-blinded by the bright screen, but I needn’t turn to know it was Tian. Was he the Nightmare with which the sister had cursed me?
“I have a plan,” I lied.
He grunted, and now I did turn. He held a true cigarette, burning against the dark of the night, between his lips. No vaporizer or pipe. How much must that have cost? His clothing, which I could barely see, was now appropriate to the night — a patchwork of jewel-toned colors.
“Why does she want me to fail, Tian?”
He puffed a large cloud into the sky. “She keeps no counsel with me. I’m am just her strong arm.”
“But you know.”
“You seem smart.” The glowing ember at the end of the stick brightened as he pulled on it.
“To hook me for more. I fail to get sixty. She threatens to kill me. I promise more, perhaps a hundred. I am strung along, bringing in ten or twenty thousand at a time, perhaps, until I’m caught or cut loose.”
He grunted again, something unreadable. “Well, if that’s a fate you want to avoid, you’d better get moving.”
It was midnight already.
Bayfront was an easier journey than Manuel’s apartment had been, because the phone meant a carriage subscription. For a short ride they only needed a thumb print to authorize against the phone’s credentials. Tian traveled with me in silence.
Bayfront was one of the rare establishments in the city that believed in truth in advertising. The towering expanse of the edifice overlooked the bay from the north, a quarter turn around the bay from where I had visited the wharf earlier. From here the view of the beach was unmarred. A private marina was set a length away, judged to be the optimal distance for convenience and beauty.
The building itself had a marbled look. In the night, I couldn’t make out the colors, if any.
“How will you make it in?” Tian asked.
“I can’t do this with you following me around,” I said. “You took off earlier. Can’t you do that again?”
He gave me a long look from under his heavy lids. I returned it the best I could. He wasn’t about to shank me on this street.
“Fine. But, here—”
He reached into my jacket’s inner pocket and pulled out my phone. He tapped it with his own so that they exchanged contact information. Then he tucked the phone back in my pocket.
“I’ll be in touch. Don’t try to dodge me.”
It had taken an hour to get to Ritter’s, and I wasn’t even inside yet. I didn’t know his apartment number, or even the floor. I didn’t know how to get in when I got there. I didn’t know if any of that would help me get the money from his bank. All in all, a shaky start for an improvised heist.
I walked toward the main doors. Behind them, a long curved desk stood sentinel, manned by a solitary woman with close-cropped hair and a harlequin-colored dress that draped from her shoulders. Behind her were the elevators to the towers of apartments.
The hostess waved at me through the glass. My face burned for a moment — I had nothing to say to her. Would Ritter know her name? How would he act toward a hostess?
I fished my phone back from my pocket and acted out an urgent call, turning my back on the door. Ritter’s apartment was the best place to look for the code I’d need to withdraw a large sum of money. There had to be a way to find it.
I looked down at our phone and thumbed it on. With a few quick flicks I found Ritter’s list of nightly calls. Near the most frequent was a man named Nylan. The picture in the profile was a pale-faced man with slicked back frosty-blue hair. He had a sharp nose and high brows.
I took a deep breath and dialed.
“Ritter,” came the voice over the phone, pinched high and back. “How are you, my dear?”
I tried to remember what it felt like when Ritter spoke in the mediator’s office, with my tongue pressed toward the roof of my mouth.
“Wonderful, and you?” I bleated.
“Are you ok? You sound dreadful.”
I closed my eyes. I couldn’t pull this off on the fly. Nylan would see through this even over the phone. But an idea struck me.
“Tip top,” I said in my own voice. “Couldn’t be better.”
“Oh! That’s marvelous! What an impersonation! Who are you doing? No, don’t tell me. Roxbey Stewart?”
I thought I recognized the name as a Dreamer actor.
“Spot on, don’t you think?”
“It’s wonderful. Now, to what do I owe the honor this evening?”
I needed Nylan to show me Ritter’s room. How?
“A party. At mine, tonight,” I said. “Dress like it’s daylight.”
“A Woken party! Oh, I love it!” He slowed his voice, dropped it low and throaty. “I’ll see if my alturn has anything I could borrow. Oh, you have the best ideas. I’ll be there in an hour.”
The Jupiter in my pocket guided me to the nearest tox store. I had never been inside one, never even seen one open. Bottles, mostly clear or amber, lined the shelves inscrutably. Powders hung in plastic bags. Balsa boxes advertised the tobacco and marijuana for pipes that hid inside.
I wasn’t the only customer. Kaleidoscope robes hung off the shoulders of young folk filling their baskets with bottles. An old couple, too hunched over to shuffle like the Dreamers I’m used to, browsed cassettes filled with pills.
“You look a little lost.”
I looked over my shoulder to see a young woman, wearing an uncharacteristically binding wrap for a Dreamer. She smiled.
I remembered to smile back. Ritter would have had something charming to say. He was somewhere in this brain, some other subnetwork of neurons. If only I could access a fraction, to gain his skill and knowledge, but to leave him floating in the unconscious dark.
I should have sent her away. I couldn’t afford to raise suspicions. But a skeptical stranger would be better than a gaffe among Ritter’s friends.
“Uh, yeah,” I managed, trying nasal tones as I turned toward her. “I’m having a little get together, and I’m not sure what to serve.”
“Costume,” I said, spreading my arms in my Woken clothing.
She put her hand to her forehead. “Of course. I was wondering. Well, let’s see what we can put together for you.”
Yerra, as it turned out she was named, guided me. Every bottle felt like a sin, every pill a betrayal against the Woken God. But I had already betrayed Him by being here when the sun had set, and while He slumbered these things were reckoned no sin. Still, I had to swallow my guilt as I lugged the box Yerra had provided me to the counter.
A thumbprint on the Jupiter transferred the funds, but just barely. A few bottles more and the price would have crossed the threshold needing PIN confirmation.
“Need a hand with that?” Yerra leaned against the counter, swiping her phone over the scanner to pay for a demure azure bottle.
Ritter would know what to say. Of course, Ritter would want her in his bed. My instincts were not so finely honed as his, but even I felt like that was what she was after as well.
I could barely keep the box in my arms. What I needed is to know whether this woman could help me find Ritter’s PIN. If she could, I didn’t see it.
“No thanks,” The bottles rattled as I shifted the weight. “I can manage.”
I could barely carry the box back to the apartment. I stopped half a dozen times to set it down and adjust my grip. But gradually, huffing through the streets, I approach Ritter’s apartment building.
“Ritter, dear!” A man approached in a long gray coat hanging to his knees. He had dark hair over high brows. It was the man from the phone, Nylan, though he had changed his hair.
“Can I help you with the box?” he asked as he came close. His voice was still pitched high.
“No, thank you.”
“Oh, still so marvelous! When have you practiced?” He didn’t pause. “What do you think of my outfit? I mustn’t soil it, my altun would be so miffed.”
I began to walk toward the glass doors of the apartment. Nylan followed. “You won’t believe who’s coming.” He rattled off a list, too fast and too long to follow. Ritter’s social circle had a wide radius.
Nylan held the door open as I passed through it. We both nodded to the woman at the desk, who smiled at our costumes.
“We’re having a little get together tonight,” I say in my own voice.
“Isn’t he tremendous?” Nylan adds. “He should go on Star Seekers.”
“I’ll have them ring you, Mr. Ritter. You can buzz them up.”
I walked beside Nylan to the elevators, carefully watching which way he went, acting as though I knew as well.
We got in an elevator, and I let Nylan choose the floor. Twenty-seventh out of thirty-six. As we ascended he listed the roll of invitees.
My plan was working so far. Nylan led me to my apartment door halfway down the gray-green stone-tiled hall. A sleek keypad guarded the door.
I waited a moment, hoping Nylan would offer to press the code. Did Ritter trust his friends with it? I supposed not, when Nylan kept quiet.
“Can you hold these?” I asked, knowing I could have put them on the floor. But I wanted Nylan distracted for a moment.
The buttons, thank God, had not been wiped regularly. The slight grimy buildup of repeated finger punches showed the most on the two, then the one, then the seven, followed finally by the six. I pressed the numbers in that order and the screen flashed green.
I led Nylan through the door as it slid open. Could I be lucky enough for the PIN to be the same? I needed time to check.
Ritter’s apartment, I wasn’t surprised to learn, was palatial. At least by my standards. The foyer opened into a wide expanse, richly carpeted in shocking white. To the left, couches and chairs angled toward one another and toward a large screen on the wall. Immediately ahead of the door, a dozen wooden chairs surrounded a wood and glass dining table. To the right was a galley kitchen, open to the entertainment space through a long counter. It was here that Nylan delivered the box.
“I’ll be back,” I told him as I took off down the hallway to the right. The first door was a bathroom. Then a bedroom with a decadently large bed piled high with cushions. The final door, locked with a handprint, led to an office.
I sat down with the Jupiter and opened Mercury. 2176 failed to unlock the app. I began to dig through drawers, searching papers or notes for codes.
There was a knock on the door. “Ritter?” Nylan’s voice was high and nasal, but pitched with concern.
“Just a minute,” I said in my own voice, since I couldn’t mimic Ritter’s. “Have to find something.”
There was a long moment of silence. Then, “Ok, dear. Hurry. Guests are arriving.”
I pulled open a cabinet and flipped through the files. One was labeled “Documents.”
Inside were a passport, a birth certificate, and so forth.
I opened Mercury again and clicked “Forgot my PIN.”
Questions came up. Full name. Date of Birth. Alturn registration number. Mother’s alturn name. Thumb print and retinal scan. Between what I knew, what I had, and what was in the files, I entered everything.
Finally: Choose a new PIN.
Why not 2176?
There, spilling out electronically before me, was all of Ritter’s allowances. All twenty grand of it, only a third of what I owed Lafferty.
My first instinct was to look around the room, as though I would find Tian standing over my shoulder.
A knock at the door nearly stilled my racing heart.
“Ritter?” Nylan’s voice again. “Your guests are asking after you.”
I opened the door and pushed past him. “Finally,” he said under his breath. But I turned and pushed my way into the bedroom.
“Where—“ he started, but I shoved the door shut in his face.
Ritter’s closet was enormous, filled with a dizzying explosion of color hanging from a half dozen rods. I found an outfit that seemed the most tailored, though it still draped off uncomfortably.
As I opened the door from the bedroom, Nylan was scowling. “Ritter,” his nasal tone pitched throatier with anger, “by the Shut Eyes of God, what is going on?”
I tried to mimic Ritter’s voice as I pushed through a gray-clad crowd toward the front door. “I’m sorry. Something has come up. Please care for the guests.”
It was a little past three in the morning, and a chill was developing in the air. I hadn’t thought much about that. In the day, the heat tended to build throughout until perhaps the last hours. Obviously, with the Eye set, short of air masses moving in, it would only get colder as the night wore on.
I walked along the street, back to where the shops dotted the lane. I stepped into a café and ordered a coffee, the simplest I could find on the menu. They served it to me, steaming, in a paper cup with a lid. I sat in a quiet corner under a print of a leaning barn.
I looked through Ritter’s videos on his social media, trying to find any of himself so I could practice his voice. I found a few. It was hard to get the sounds right – throat tight, tongue high, sliding past words at an exhausting pace. Perhaps any witnesses would think I was an actor, practicing for a role.
Every once in a while, I would get a call from Nylan or another friend. I sent those to voicemail and continued until I felt that I had recreated the feel from the mediator’s office, like there was a snake in my throat doing all the talking.
I flicked through all the names in Ritter’s contacts – it wasn’t under Mom or Mother, but toward the beginning of the list, under Charity Ritter. I tapped the name to call it.
After only a couple of rings it cut off and went to voicemail. I tried again, with the same effect. I put my lips to my coffee and nearly burnt them. I put the cup back down.
“You had better be hurt, Patrick. If this is about money, you’ll never see another dollar in your life. I’ve already told you to cut down on your spending.”
That voice. I hadn’t heard it in over a decade, since before my Schism, and rarely then. Charity Ritter had always been the dominant alturn, and I had thought of her as my mother, though I had been raised in the city by a nanny as Charity flew back and forth between the poles. I would visit and, rarely, she would visit me.
After our Schism, that all changed. I was the diurn, heir to the diurn personality’s fortunes, which were essentially nothing. I followed Ritter to prep school on the coast, where I was allowed to learn in exchange for part-time labor in the kitchen and fields. The Ritters never let me forget the gift they felt they gave me, going along for the ride, but the truth was my body was there anyway. It’s not like a carriage could have commuted between the city and the coast daily and nightly. All the alturns of the wealthy students made similar arrangements – we were the labor that kept the school going.
“Are you ok? What was so urgent?”
The tinkle of the bell on the door seemed to cut through my concentration. I looked up to see Tian standing in the doorway, nearly taking up the whole width.
“I want to come see you.”
There was a sigh.
“Patrick. Can this wait? I have the flight next week, then a board meeting in two weeks, and after that-“
“Tonight. I need to come tonight.”
Tian walked to the counter and spoke to the woman there.
“Patrick, you’re scaring me. Why can’t you just get a ticket?”
Maybe I could. They didn’t explain how Phase worked. But here was my theory – once the rays of the Eye hit me, our ordinary cycle would return, and Ritter would awaken the next dusk. But what would happen if I stayed in the dark?
“I need a corkscrew flight.”
Her voice tightened. “What happened? What did Ngilu do to you?”
“Nothing, yet.” A kind of truth. “Please.”
There was a pause. “I’ll see what I can do. Keep your phone nearby.”
She hung up just as Tian sat down in front of me, sipping from his cup of iced mocha. I tried my own coffee, but it was still too hot to drink.
“This is a new look for your, Ngilu.”
I nodded and tried my Dreamer voice on him. “The finest money can buy.”
“Good!” He gave a little laugh. “You almost sound native. But speaking of money…”
I waved my hand. “You’re a Unity. I’ve only heard stories.”
“There are barely even any studies. No one knows why you didn’t Schism. Why work for the mob? You could do almost anything.”
He shrugged. “Ms. Lafferty came to my aid at a time of need, and she pays well.”
He stared at me, drilling through me with his eyes.
“You don’t have the money.”
“I have a start. And I can get more, if she gives me time.”
He dropped a hand below the table, his eyes still fixated on me. I could almost feel a bullet lined up with my liver. After a long moment, he shook his head.
“There’s no more money coming, is there?”
“Give me a chance to go back to the apartment. I can sell things.”
He pursed his lips.
“Come on,” he said at last, “we’re going back to the wharf.”
He stood, one hand in a pocket. In my own pocket, my Jupiter started buzzing.
“It’s Ritter’s mother. She has the money.” I dug out the phone and showed him the ID. It was her. He nodded and I answered.
“Ok, Patrick,” she said, “the plane is ready to take off in an hour. It will corkscrew ahead of dawn all the way to Saint Nick’s.”
“Thank you,” I said, my voice nearly slipping into my slow daylight drawl.
There was a bit of a pause on the line. “This had better be worth it, Patrick.”
She hung up and I tucked the phone back into my pocket.
“What was that?” Mr. Tian asked, nodding toward the door.
I didn’t move from my seat. “She has the money, but I have to go see her.”
He looked around the shop. He clearly didn’t want to talk about this here, with the other customers so near. He lifted me to my feet. Coffee nearly slopped out through the lid of the cup of my other hand.
“Let’s go talk to Ms. Lafferty.” He guided me to the door, one hand on my arm, the other in his pocket. A few café-goers looked up.
I shook my head. “I need to go. Can we just call her?”
“She does not do business over the phone.” He pulled me into the street.
Dreamers strolled and laughed in the streets, hardly giving us second glances. He seemed to be heading for a row of carriages at the end of the lane.
“I can give a down payment.”
He grunted. “It’s not for me to say.”
“What if I gave it to you to hold?” I wasn’t subtle. “I’ve got twenty thousand I could send to you. That’d cover a lot of art supplies.”
He was silent, but his grip tightened, and I knew I blew my chance.
Tian pulled his other hand out of his pocket and reached into chest pocket for his phone to wave it at the carriage door.
“Wharf,” he said as the door scissored open.
Not a tavern or a flat, where we might meet with Lafferty and talk. He was taking me somewhere dark with deep waters that sunk secrets.
I slung the paper cup of coffee up and squeezed it until it burst into his face. It scalded my hand, and we both screamed, but he turned and covered his face, letting his phone clatter to the ground. I grabbed it and jumped into the carriage, slamming the door shut.
“Go to the airport,” I said as it slid into the lane. Green lights swirled on the screen before flashing acceptance.
I turned to see Tian standing and turning to watch my carriage link into an ad hoc train across town. Without his phone, he had no easy way to track me, and no quick way to follow. I feared shots that didn’t come as he shrank into a dot in the mirror.
I wondered if Tian or Ms. Lafferty would have guessed where I was headed and cut me off, but there was no one waiting for me at the airport besides the crew of the chartered jet. We took off on schedule and fled the dawn in a curved path that took us north and west until we were well past the Artic Circle, past the terminator line where constant night ruled until the equinox dawned in just another week.
I stared at my watch, wondering if, when 8:00 a.m.came back in Urbana, I would be myself because I was the diurn and I was meant to be at that time, or because I was still the dominant neural sub-network, and there have been no disruptions to the sequence.
I supposed I would find out in twelve hours or so.
Saint Nick’s dominated the landscape, a man-made island directly centered on the geographic north pole. It was a fully equipped city, home to the wealthy nocturns in the winter and diurns in the summer, and the poorer ones that served them. All legal, because there was no wealthy opposition.
It was nearing midday, but Saint Nick’s shined their lights against the near-equinox twilight. It was a tight-packed city, with towers that rose high into the darkened sky, the best to maximize use of the shadow cast by the Earth’s bulk. Ribbons of carriages threaded through the centers, a river of light through the false mountain peaks. But the entire city died at the edges of a circle as though it were inscribed with a compass. These, I supposed, were the limits of light and shadow where one alturn could dominate for the entirety of a half-year.
The plane landed smoothly at a runway on the far edge of the airport that skirted the outside of the inscribed line of the city.
“Patrick Ritter?” The man who came through the door as the plane landed wore a Dream conundrum – a colorful suit, but it was tightly tailored and each piece was a uniform color. A red coat over a blue suit jacket sitting atop green slacks.
I nodded and the led me to a carriage. “Brady, sir. Your mother has arranged a room for you at the Hermes.”
“When can I see her?” I tried in my Dreamer voice. If he noticed anything wrong, he gave nothing away.
“Not today. Perhaps tomorrow or the day after.”
“The equinox is coming. She’ll have to make preparations to leave.”
He looked at me like I was a slow child. “Of course, sir. We have that well in hand.”
“I just mean, I have to speak to her before then.”
“Of course, sir,” he said again. He stood straight and waved at the open door to the carriage.
Tuesday passed, then Wednesday. The Hermes was a fine hotel, perhaps the finest space I’ve ever stayed in. A huge bed dominated the room. Sleeping for hours was strange to me now, though of course I had slept as a child. I laid down when I was tired and, after long hours of dreaming, I awoke as myself. It seemed like wasted time, though in truth it took less time than I would have given Ritter through much of the year.
Other than that, I had little to occupy my time. I wandered the streets, which were swept meticulously clean of snow and debris by a host of specialty carriages and broom-wielding workers. Most of the Dreamers I passed were dressed like Brady had been. I had no other clothes than those I wore on the plane, so I bought a pair of suits like his and mixed and matched them.
I ate at the finest restaurants I could find, three times a day, rather than once. This also seemed like a waste. I also spent an hour or two in the gym, repaying Ritter for the one blessing he had given me, a healthy and well-maintained body.
An idea struck me, and I stopped at a tox store. What I wanted was expensive, but I had Ritter’s money to pay for it, since I had never sent it to Tian and Lafferty. I wondered what the tox store did during the summer portion of the year, whether they put up another storefront or simply closed up shop and opened down south.
I supposed I ought to worry about Tian or Ms. Lafferty showing up and dropping me into the Arctic Ocean. They hadn’t yet followed me, though surely they would have guessed where I was. I dug out Tian’s phone. I had taken out his battery so he couldn’t track it, but now I replaced it and turned it on.
There was no Lafferty on any contacts, but there was a frequently called number that wasn’t linked to a contact. I checked the time, and it was shortly after sundown back home at Urbana.
I texted “Just give me time, and I can get you double.” Then I took the battery back out.
I wonder if they could track a text?
Then I realized. After sundown. There would only be one location I could be and still have control. I had just given them the clue to my location.
Thursday came. I called Charity every day. Most days it went to voicemail. Once it went to an assistant. Then came Friday.
“Patrick.” She sounded exasperated. “Can you not give me some space?”
“I need to talk to you, Mother.”
“Tomorrow. We’ll have lunch.”
Tomorrow. The day after they would depart for Amundsen-Scott for the equinox.
I’ve never heard of anyone using Phase like this. Not that anyone knew much about Phase. How long would it last? Forever? Could I Phase my mother, and the two of us live as Ritters for the rest of our lives?
I just wanted to talk to her again, for the first time since I was a teenager. Charity used to let her call me on equinoxes as the plane flew through daylight on the way between poles. That stopped when she started taking exclusively corkscrew flights.
What would it be like to have her in the daylight and let the Ritters live their own lives in the night? But they weren’t content to live with their half. Ritter claimed my daylight hours with his drugs, and Charity claimed nearly all of my mother’s life.
The carriage pulled up in front of Maximillian’s International, the corporation for which Charity worked.
The receptionist gave me a tag and showed me to the elevators. Brady met me on the thirty-second floor and guided me to a waiting room outside her office.
My heart was fluttering. I had managed to fool her on the phone. How could I fool his mother in the flesh?
There she was. I had hardly seen her in the flesh as a child – mostly on a screen. She had more lines on her face, of course, but the hardness of her eyes was still there. Her suit was colorful, but the colors coordinated — an eggplant suit jacket over a berry red shirt. She did not open her arms.
“Right this way,” she said.
I sat in her office, spacious, and in a corner. Mostly it was packed up. Only a small tablet sat on her desk.
She sat primly and folded her hands on the desktop. “Now, what is all this about?”
A hundred things I could have said. I didn’t know how to start.
“I’m not your son,” I drawled as though the sun were overhead.
Her eyes hardened. She began to reach for her phone. I raised a hand.
“I just needed to speak to you.”
She didn’t stop, so I raised my other hand — and the needle it held — to my neck.
She hesitated, then put down the phone. “What is in the syringe?”
I shrugged. “Enough. That’s all you need to know.” In truth, I barely understood the full extent of the narcotics in the cocktail, only that the dosage would be enough that neither Ritter nor I would ever wake again. The tox store sold me whatever I wanted, provided I paid enough.
She pursed her lips, no doubt trying to decide whether I was bluffing. “What do you want? Money?”
I thought about Lafferty, either waiting for me at home or coming for me here, but I needed something else more.
“I want to talk to my mother.”
She slouched back. “Is that what this is about?”
She closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them again. “If I do that for you, do I get my son back?”
I nodded. “We can take the daylight flight back to Urbana. You’ll be mother and I can speak with her. When night falls, Patrick will be restored.”
I had no idea if that was true, but there was no reason to clue her in.
She stared at me. “You can put that down now.”
I lowered the needle.
“I’ll agree to your plan. But you won’t like what you hear, Jomo.”
I half expected police to grab me in the early hours of the morning, but instead Brady came to gather my bags for the plane. The sun was just at the edge of the horizon as the carriage rolled to the airport. I wondered if the nocturns were already all asleep.
Charity was cloistered in her berth when I boarded. I took a seat and waited as Brady closed up the plane. Some autopilot routine kicked in and took us south, not in the corkscrew that most of the chartered jets were taking as they lifted off the ground, but straight toward Urbana.
I dozed, not the sleep of an alturn switching personalities, but the light slumber of the bored. Brady, or Joel, as the diurn was called, woke first. His phone calls home woke me, and I walked back to the sleeper berth where mother would be.
I knocked softly, then louder when there was no answer.
“Come in,” she said at last.
There was no mistaking this woman, Mwende, for Charity. They had the same body, surely, but their bearing and face was different as, well, night and day. Where Charity held herself up, kept her spine and face rigid, my mother was soft nearly to the point of limp. I nearly felt like I had to rush over to hold her up.
She looked up at me, face betraying confusion.
I stepped forward, taking her into my arms, crushing her clutched arms against me, and kissing the top of her head.
“Mother! Oh, it’s you! I wondered when I’d see you again? How are you? Are you ok? I’ll get you out of here somehow, ok? I promise, we’ll find a way.”
I don’t know how I was making such promises, when police and gangsters both awaited me when I landed, but perhaps Ms. Lafferty could be convinced to help us. Between mother and I, we could take the whole Ritter fortune and find a new place to hide, perhaps on one of the new orbital stations for diurns where the sun never sets.
She pushed away. “Jomo! What am I doing here?”
I didn’t understand. Had I misunderstood? “I’m here to save you, mother.”
“No, what am I doing here?” Tears were streaming down her face, tears I had misunderstood.
She took a deep breath. “Oh, Jomo. How are you? Tell me you’re ok, at least. I can handle everything, I think, if you are ok.”
“Yes, mother. I’m ok.” Minus the police and gangsters.
“Are you? You won’t be in trouble for whatever you did to bring me here?”
She was insightful, whatever her state.
“No, mother.” No use in upsetting her.
“That’s good. I’m glad you’re ok. I’d like to go back now.”
Ice clutched at my heart. “You can’t go back, mother.”
Tears welled back up in her eyes.
“Not yet. Not until nightfall.”
“Oh, Jomo. What have you done?” She slumped against the bed.
“Mother, what’s wrong? What has Charity done to you?”
She looked up at me through tear-curtained eyes. “To me? Charity has blessed me with relief, Jomo. She gives me peace.”
I reached a hand to her face. She put her own hand on top of it. “I could never have been a mother to you, Jomo. Charity made sure you were raised and educated. She made sure you had a job and a life. All I could have done would be to darken your days, son. I owe her more than I can imagine. And she keeps me from hurting.”
My heart ached to see her hurting like this. “There are other ways, mother.”
She shook her head. “Charity never agreed to the medications. It was her body, too, Jomo.”
I lowered my hands. My voice was barely a whisper. “Won’t you come with me?”
She laid back down. “I think I’ll just sleep here, son. Maybe until nightfall.”
The plane landed with the sun still shining. Lieutenant Hernandez was waiting, along with a few others for backup, which they didn’t need. In the distance, I saw Tian standing by a carriage. Another figure sat inside. Tian raised a finger to his lips.
I didn’t give them anything on Tian or Ms. Lafferty, the reason being I wanted to survive prison, but I confessed to Phase shifting and alturn abduction. After pleading guilty, I got ten years in the city prison. Every dawn Ritter stopped at one of fifteen centers throughout the city and got in a special carriage which took our body to the lockup before the sun rises. Every dusk he walked out a free man. The day-lit hours in between, I read or worked out. I tried to exhaust my muscles, just to give him something to complain about during the Dreaming time.
Every dusk, as I laid down, I tried to remember what it was like to be myself, what it meant to have my neurons firing. I was starting to dream at night, of languid walks and colorful parties. I could feel my voice in my nose and throat and my fingers tapping on the phone.
I sponged the forehead of the man on the cot below me as he began to thrash. I reached and held him down.
“It’s happening again, Sister Jolene!”
She strode near to put a rubber strap between the man’s teeth. She took the sponge from where I had dropped it and took over. She looked down with so much grace and empathy that it was hard to remember that the face was also Manuel’s.
The silvery Closed Eye of the Dreaming God dangled and caught against the simple tie that kept it from swinging down into the man’s face. In time, perhaps one could hang in front of the simple white layman’s robe I wore.
In time the thrashing ended.
“Nyx is such a terrible drug,” she said, shaking her head. “It shouldn’t be allowed regardless of the Sun.”
I nodded, and she turned to the next patient.
We weren’t in Manuel’s apartments anymore. We were into a much cleaner space, though still downtown, outfitted with new cots, sterile IVs, and a small crew, all generously outfitted by Ritter’s funds.
Though she no longer thanked me nightly, Sister Jolene’s face shone with gratitude every night I spent working here.
Nylan and the gang had long since stopped calling. There had been no sign of Tian, though if he got word of Ritter’s change of routine I’m sure I could expect a visit.
I changed back into my clothes to walk to the carriage stop for a ride back to prison, a walk I always enjoyed.
A walk free under the stars.