There were snakes in her trailer. Sometimes they talked. Afterwards, she didn’t know if they were real. That didn’t mean she shouldn’t listen. They were blacksnakes, anyway, harmless, and she figured they ate mice. She knew the mice were real.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” Samson asked.
“Sleeping with your boyfriend, I expect.” Jordan did not have or want a boyfriend, now, but Samson didn’t need to know that. She figured he wasn’t actually gay. Bi, maybe. She saw how he looked at her legs, warm days. He let her park her trailer on his farm, as he called it. The main things the farm produced, besides whatever came out of the barn, were coyotes, blackberry vines, and various small trees growing in the abandoned fields. He charged her no rent, she knew, so she wouldn’t tell about the lab in the barn. At least, he hoped she wouldn’t tell.
He probably thought not charging rent made him some kind of philanthropist.
The old bus, yellow, was half-hidden in underbrush, a couple dozen feet off the long, circuitous, dirt-and-gravel drive that led back to the gray house. In another year or two, the bus would be completely hidden by saplings and honeysuckle, at least until winter came. Vines curved over the wheels.
Inside, summer heat made it smell of rubber and grease and mold. It reminded Jordan of the gym locker room, back when she was in high school. The bus was full of junk–used clothes, chipped coffee cups, old car parts, starter motors, generators, pumps, mufflers, the stripped-out bell housings of transmissions. A washing machine full of empty beer and whiskey bottles. Small branches grew through missing windows.
She pushed aside a cache of rodent-besmirched National Geographics, covers discolored and wrinkled by rain and age. The final few feet between her and the back of the bus were blocked by trash bags full of what felt like clothes. She moved them without looking inside. A dented toaster, once made of shiny metal, now corroded, lay on its side on top of a wooden box, about three feet long and a couple of feet wide, eighteen inches high. When she picked up the toaster, a small green snake wiggled out and disappeared in a crevice between the trash bags.
The box rested against the bottom of the rear door. She had seen it through the glass, yesterday, coming back from her ginseng hunt, and somehow felt drawn to it. The part she could see through the window said Dynam–, the rest of the word obscured by the door’s metal frame. She could think of only two words that started that way. Dynamite, and dynamo. Make that three. Dynamic, as in Duo. The Batman TV show’s theme started to run through her head. The show was older than she was, but she’d seen reruns when she was a kid. And now Adam West was dead. Him and a million others.
She pulled the rope handles fastened to either side of the box. The one on the left broke, but the box moved six inches, so she saw the rest of the word. Dynamite, of course. She brushed a thick layer of dust off the top of the box, and read the other words, Caution and Explosives.
The box made a noise.
Or rather, something in the box must be making the sound, a low-pitched rumble. She felt it in the soles of her feet, too. The world’s largest dog, a last warning growl before it sprang on the intruder.
The rumble stopped, replaced by a high-frequency whine.
Jordan backed away from the box. The whine ceased. No rumble.
She stepped closer. The rumble began once more, then the whine. She thought of lost puppies, or kittens.
She stepped away. The sound stopped.
She stepped closer. This time, just the whine. Definitely sounded like kittens. She knew an invitation when she heard one. Also, she knew there were no kittens in that box. It had been buried under too much stuff for even a cat looking for a safe place to give birth to find. Nor did kittens rumble like angry German Shepherds.
The not-kittens fell silent. She heard faint voices, human voices, and looked out the windows of the bus, though she knew they, too, came from the box.
She pulled the rope handle knotted through the top, cautiously, as instructed, expecting it to break. The top came up an inch, stiff hinges creaking. She started to put fingers under the lid, thought better of that idea, pulled a large cooking fork from a box of mismatched kitchenware, and used it to pry the box open.
The dark circle spread, black as midnight, and mushroomed out of the box to form an oval three feet wide at the center, extending to the roof of the bus. It looked deeper than the old well behind the farmhouse.
She dropped the lid. It flapped back over the top of the box with a dull thump, and the black oval disappeared. She saw only the dirty back window of the bus and
the woods beyond.
She opened the box again, stared into the seeming abyss, and shut the box to watch the dark give way to a green summer day.
The third time, she pushed a child-sized cowboy boot from one of the boxes into the oval. The toe vanished when it touched the darkness. A second later, the rest of the boot was pulled from her hand.
“Hello?” Jordan said, staring at the oval, as if she would see something if only she looked closely enough. “Hello? Is someone there?”
No answer. Cicadas rattled in the woods.
She closed the box and looked for the boot, which of course she did not find.
However, on the floor beside the box she did find a notebook, a pocket-sized three-ring binder. On the first page, in block letters, someone had printed The Care and Feeding of the Oval. She flipped through the pages, hoping for information, but found only a single ominous entry on the second page: “The portal must be fed on a regular basis, or it will grow voracious.”
Fed? Fed what? Apparently, cowboy boots would do in a pinch.
She opened the lid again, still pushing with the fork, and watched the dark oval bloom from the box. Her hand twitched. It wanted to reach for the silky darkness, When she was a kid, a seventh-grade school trip included the Empire State Building. She thought about the view from the top deck, how nobody said so, but when you looked down, you had to wonder how it would feel to fall, to fly, if only for a few terrifying, glorious seconds. Her hand still wanted to touch the darkness, caress it like velvet, or the fur of a cat, the petals of a rare orchid. It should feel cold, even in summer heat.
She picked up a coffee mug with a broken handle and stepped toward the oval. She tossed the mug. Like the boot, it disappeared without a sound. The dark oval did not so much as flicker.
In stories and movies, when people went through the portal, the gate, the wormhole, the rabbit hole, the mirror, whatever it was called, they always had a terrible time, if they made it home at all. It never worked out easily. If they ever made it back, something tragic was sure to happen first. Yet they could not resist. Just as she had not resisted opening the box. She was no Pandora, though. Why should she have thought it was anything except a box?
Jordan asked herself how she knew it was a gate or portal. How did she know the boot and the cup went anywhere? What if the objects that went in just ceased to exist? Her instincts told her that shouldn’t happen, but then her instincts were not trained to deal with whatever was in that box.
This discovery needed a lot of thinking over. She closed the lid, put the bags back on top, and left the bus.
“Oh, you knew it wasn’t just a box,” Mother Blacksnake said. She lay half-hidden under the towels when Jordan stepped out of the tiny, trailer-sized shower. “You knew it very well.” Her obsidian eyes glittered in the moist air.
Jordan didn’t disagree. Only partly because it seemed silly to argue with a snake. Getting no response, Mother slipped away behind the sink.
“What’s the deal with the old bus?” Jordan asked that evening. “Does it run?” She knew the answer, but it was a way to turn the subject.
“Ha,” Samson said. “Probably not since 1992. Why?”
He took a long drink of beer and asked, “Find much green gold?”
She poked the bag with a bare big toe. “Couple pounds. Probably worth more than what you cooked up in the barn today. And it won’t blow up.” Actually, she’d spent too much time in the bus, and filled the bag with leaves and grass, so Samson would believe she’d been cutting ginseng. He wasn’t going to look in the bag. She felt protective, almost proprietorial, about whatever was in the box.
“Who does it belong to?”
“You cut it, it’s yours,” he said, looking at the bag and then her.
“The bus, I mean.”
“Roda, I guess. She used it to clear out the antique store when she closed it.”
“The stuff that’s in it is hers, too, then?” Jordan said, tilting the glass to drain the last drop of tea. The ice slid down and hit her nose.
“Rats and all.” Samson reached in the cooler for another beer. “But it’s all junk. Nothing worth a dime, or she wouldn’t have left it here.”
“You ever talk to her?” Roda was his ex-wife, who had left him for the public defender who somehow managed to exonerate her for selling pot from behind the counter of her store. The cops had looked the other way, especially since the sheriff was one of her best customers, until she sold some laced with meth to the mayor’s kid.
“Not for years. Last I heard, she was in Denver. Why so interested?”
“Just thought the bus might make a good camper, if somebody got it running,” she lied.
He laughed. “Yeah. Good luck with that.”
“How much would you pay me to paint this house?” she asked. She didn’t mention the bus again. She didn’t want him to get interested and go poking around.
“Free rent for parking your trailer here.”
“You have paint? Brushes?”
“I’ll get some next time I go into town.”
“No rush. Hasn’t been painted in years. It can wait a day or two.”
Mother Blacksnake was coiled on the arm of the recliner. Not that Jordan ever reclined in it. Wasn’t really room in the little trailer. The mother stirred when Jordan poured coffee. “Be careful today. Strange smell in the air.” Her tongue, black as the rest of her body, flickered in and out.
“I’d offer you coffee, but you probably don’t drink it,” Jordan said.
“Makes me jumpy,” the mother said.
“Where are your babies?” Jordan asked, putting the pot back on the stove, but when she turned, the snake was gone.
Jordan took her coffee, picked up her guitar that leaned by the door, and sat outside, in the lawn chair under her trailer window. The grass was still wet. She held the guitar on her lap, careful not to spill coffee on it. Though after all the bars and coffee shops the band had played, coffee was probably the least offensive liquid it might be exposed to.
Samson opened the side door of the house, old hinges screeching in the quiet morning. He walked across the short space to where her trailer was parked by the edge of the woods. There was that look in his eye.
“You want to make some deliveries this afternoon?” he asked.
“Not really. You go put some pants on, I’ll think about it.”
She had expected the question before he asked. The two men in the Cadillac SUV had come the night before, one carrying the briefcase that swung like it weighed a lot more when he left. They talked for fifteen minutes, alone on the other side of the house.
“Don’t think too long. Days are getting shorter now.” He walked away, glutes pumping smoothly in the tight white underpants. He did have a cute butt, she had to admit. She could see what Roda had seen in him a decade and a half ago, when they’d all been young and stupid. Some of us are still stupid, she thought.
After lunch, he said, “So, about those deliveries . . . “
“Right. What about them?”
“They need to be made. Soon.”
“Why don’t you make your own deliveries?”
“My car is not built for it. You know that. Your truck can haul anything.”
It was true. As far as it went. His Miata had room for one passenger and the spare tire. As long as the passenger didn’t weigh much. Her truck, on the other hand, was designed for hauling. She had bought it to pull her trailer, after the band broke up and they all went their separate ways.
“So you borrow my truck. Just don’t bring it back low on gas.”
“I’d rather you do it.”
“So what’s in it for me?”
“Same as usual. Free rent. Free beer.”
“Yeah, that’s not worth going to jail for. Or worse, maybe, dealing with your business associates. And you know I don’t drink.”
“Deliveries have to be made. Like I said, I’d rather you do it.” The way he said it, she knew he wasn’t asking.
“Just admit you’re curious,” Mother Snake said. “It’s easy: ‘I’m curious.’ Then you don’t have to go through the portal. If that’s what it is.”
Jordan plopped spaghetti in the boiling water and turned down the gas. “I’m curious,” she said. “Very curious indeed.”
“Come on, I want to show you something,” Jordan said. She stood on the grass by the porch. Late afternoon cast long shadows across the yard. Samson sprawled on the ancient wooden deck chair on the porch, beer in hand, blond hair pasted to his head with drying sweat. He’d been busy in the barn all afternoon. She didn’t need him to tell her he was putting the final touches on the product he wanted her to deliver.
“Show me what?” he said. “It’s late, and hot. I’m tired.”
“I can’t really explain. Not so you’d understand, anyway. You just need to see for yourself.” She twisted her toe in the grass, drawing his attention to her legs. “It’s way cool. You’ll be glad you did.”
She led him past the first curve in the driveway, and cut across the woods along the deer trail she had discovered the day before. It was shorter than following the curvy driveway. Briars scratched at her thighs. The still air smelled of mold and old leaves.
She carried the hammer and nails in a plastic grocery bag.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“Just a little experiment.”
He shrugged and kept walking.
Halfway along the shortcut, he stopped. “Not that old bus again? What’s your obsession with that, anyway?”
“Not the bus. Something in it, though.”
“I told you, nothing but junk. You think Roda left anything worth a dime in there?” But Jordan kept going, pushing briars away from bare legs with a stick. He followed, cursing the briars.
At the back of the bus, she lifted the bags off the box. “Open it,” she said.
“What’s in there, besides snakes and spiders, probably?”
“No spiders. The snakes would have eaten them, anyway.”
He read the warnings printed on the box, Dynamite, Caution, and Explosives. “Looks dangerous.”
“It’s not. Just open it, you sissy. I did.”
“You’re sure it’s safe?” The box began its characteristic whine and rumble. Samson backed away.
“I’m standing here, aren’t I? Why should it be dangerous? You don’t think Roda was peddling black-market dynamite on the side, do you?”
Samson shrugged, but he bent forward and gingerly lifted the lid. The oval, black as obsidian, mushroomed up to the ceiling.
He gave a mindless cry and leapt backward, almost knocking Jordan down, but she moved aside.
He stared, then moved forward. “What the hell is that?”
She handed him a National Geographic. “Toss this in and see what happens.”
The darkness swallowed the fluttering pages.
“Where did it go?” He leaned forward as if to look behind the oval.
“Beats me,” Jordan said, and pushed him into the dark.
The wood was old, dry, brittle in places, rock-hard in others, but it took her only a couple of minutes and a dozen of the big nails to spike the lid shut tight.
The notebook said the portal must be fed. She believed it. After sitting in the bus so long, it must be pretty hungry.
The following afternoon, when the revving engines on the highway slowed, followed by the crunch of fat tires on the gravel driveway, she took her guitar, the only possession in the trailer that she cared much about, and went up the deer trail. She watched from the shadows in the woods as Samson’s business partners ransacked the house, the barn, her trailer, and were gone in half an hour. It didn’t take her nearly that long to put the sheets back on her bed, her clothes back in the closet, the food back in the cabinet. The dishes were mostly plastic, so hardly anything was broken.
She doubted they’d noticed the snakes.
When the cops came looking for Samson, not long after the business partners, they asked Jordan about the barn. “He said never go in there. Mean bull.” She paused. “And snakes. Also bats. I’m terrified of snakes and bats. Don’t care much for bulls, either.”
“So you never went in the barn? You have no idea what’s in there?” The deputy who asked was named Fifer. He was young, maybe twenty-five. The other deputies leaned on their cars and smoked cigarettes while he talked to her.
“Of course not. Why would I?”
She could tell he did not believe her. But it was true that she had never been in the barn. She wasn’t dumb enough to leave DNA or fingerprints.
“You have any idea where we might find Mr. Samson?”
“Nope.” Which was true, as far as it went.
“When did you see him last?”
She hesitated as if thinking. “Day before yesterday, I guess.”
“You didn’t talk to or see him yesterday?”
“No. We weren’t that close.”
“He never mentioned going away, to you?”
Jordan shook her head. “Like I said, we weren’t that close.”
“So why did he let you stay here? You pay . . . some kind of rent?” During
the pause, he glanced up and down her legs, let his eyes roam over her tee-shirt.
She noticed the deputy’s use of the past tense. “No. No rent. I did odd jobs. Cut grass, paint the house.”
“That’s all?” Fifer asked, after a moment of meaningful silence. He glanced at the mostly silver-gray wood, where paint had faded or flaked away on the wind and rain, years ago. Samson had never gotten around to buying the paint.
Jordan let her own moment of meaningful silence spool out in the quiet August air. A mockingbird cawed like the rusty hinge of the screen door. “Yeah, absolutely. That’s all.”
“You don’t seem to know much, for someone who lives here.”
“His ex-wife was my best friend for years. She told me more than I wanted to know.”
“Just not what he really did in the barn.” Fifer pushed his hat back, rubbed his forehead and pinched his nose, as if he had a headache.
“Roda just said the same as Samson. Stay out of the barn.” Jordan had called her the night before. They caught up on old times. Roda seemed to have forgotten the bus. “You want it, it’s yours,” she said.
They wanted to search the barn and the house, saying they had warrants. The sheriff himself, this time, waved a paper at her. She didn’t take it. “Not my barn, not my house. Do whatever you want.”
She let them look in her trailer, too. They’d have come back, anyway, with warrants and bad attitudes. If they saw the snakes, they did not say so.
One good thing about cops, they were neat-freaks, as long as you didn’t piss them off. They didn’t make much of a mess in her trailer. The house and barn were no doubt still in disarray from the visit of Samson’s partners. She hadn’t investigated.
“Are you real?” Jordan asked Mother Black Snake, when the cops were gone. The snake smiled and said, “It’s time for us to go.” She flicked her tongue, tasting the air, the acrid smell of cop sweat. “Oh, and Adam West is not really dead.”
She kept an eye on the box, or locked it in the trunk of Samson’s car. If he did come straggling back, she wanted to know about it. Maybe the nailed lid would stop him, or maybe opening it was just the switch. How could she know? Meanwhile, she wondered what happened to him. Did he simply vanish into the void and cease to exist? Or did he find himself teetering on the edge of a cliff, pursued by whatever passed for bears in that world? At sea in a leaky boat? Or maybe it was pleasant–perhaps he was a sultan surrounded by a harem of beautiful humans of whatever gender he was in the mood for. No way to tell. Well maybe one, but she didn’t want to know that badly.
Yellow police tape crisscrossed the doors of the house and barn. She didn’t disturb it. She slept in her trailer, as usual, and got ready to hit the road again.
She put her truck up for sale. Got a hitch welded to the frame under the back bumper of the bus, so she could bring her trailer. It took another couple of months to clean out the bus and give it a new paint job. She considered a multi-colored flower-child design, but went instead with straightforward blue and white. No point inviting hassles from cops, campground managers, and other defenders of the status quo. All new paint except the Emergency Exit sign. She took the box out of the trunk of Samson’s car and put it back in its place in the bus, by the bottom window in the rear door. She thought about just leaving it behind, but it was too rare to abandon.
Besides, it was always good to have a way out.
David Rogers’ latest work is Roots of the Dark Tower: The Long Quest and Many Lives of Roland, available from Amazon. More of his work can be read at Davidrogersbooks.wordpress.com. He also curates “David Watches Movies” and “Antique Rockets” (free classic sci-fi/fantasy stories) on Facebook.
Nick’s head was already pounding when Gunther sent word of an emergency in the stables. It was worse by the time he arrived and was struck by an obnoxious wave of odor, the pungent reek of reindeer poop and puke. Nick’s stomach lurched, but he managed to keep his half-digested meal of cheese, bread and ale – a lot of ale – from coming up; it would only add to the revolting miasma.
Nick turned from side to side, his good eye taking in the situation. In every stall, reindeer were down or barely standing. They shivered and trembled, eyes wide with alarm and anxiety. At irregular intervals, one or another would lower its head to vomit onto their stall’s straw-covered floor, or let loose an even more malodorous stream from its nether end. Or both, simultaneously.
Even Nick’s lead reindeer, a big bad-ass buck named Rudolph, was clearly sick. It’s normally bright pink nose was pale, with a greenish tinge. It’s stall was in even worse shape than the others. Rudolph stared at Nick with fevered accusing eyes: Why have you let this happen to me?
Gunther’s stable-dwarves were trying to help, putting heavy blankets over the shivering animals and taking up the soiled straw and putting down fresh.
Gunther himself was in the stable’s workshop, adding various powders and herbs to a large tub of water and stirring vigorously. The tub hung over a brazier of hot coals to warm the liquid. A leather funnel and hose lay on the wooden workbench.
“Reindeer flu, m’lord,” the weathered little man explained. “I’d heard it was striking the wild herds in the southlands, but I hadn’t expected it to reach this far north.”
Nick sat wearily on a low stool and placed his head in his hands. He wondered if Gunther’s concoction might help his own through-a-knothole-and-beaten-with-a-stick misery.
No, he decided. He was already getting too many looks of pity and disgust from his workers; he wasn’t sure which was worse. He really, really needed to cut back on the drinking. Snap out of it, he told himself. You’re not the first man whose wife has left him. Buck up! It’s Christmas Eve!
“Will that–” He waved a hand towards Gunther’s tub. “–get the reindeer sky-worthy in time?”
“Mmmmmm….” Gunther wouldn’t look Nick in the eye.
“Just give me the bad news.”
“Not a chance in Hell, m’lord. Between the vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration is the biggest danger. With this–” He gestured at the tub. “–and this–” He held up the leather funnel. “–we can keep the herd going until the flu runs its course. But that’s at least another day, perhaps two.”
Nick sighed. I don’t want to deal with this. Not now. Not ever. Once, he had enjoyed overcoming challenges, but that had been in the old days. The old old days, when problems could be solved with a sword, or an axe, or a spear. But he was older now. He was lesser now. Downscaled, that was the word this era used.
He stood up and crossed to a small thick-shuttered window. He pushed it open. A blast of frigid air slapped his face and set his thick beard rippling. He stared out at the bleak night-wrapped landscape of ice and snow and stone.
After a moment, he closed the shutter and stepped back into the stable’s warm – if smelly – air. He knew what had to be done. It was his duty, damn it. Millions of children around the world counted on him. The rotten little shits, he thought.
“Gunther,” he said. “Gather up the cats.”
+ + +
There had been only two cats in the beginning, when the arctic encampment had been only a few small buildings. As the factories and workers barracks and other facilities had expanded over the decades and centuries, so too had the cat population. Dozens now roamed the various buildings. Some bonded with workers and were devoted pets; others were aloof and semi-feral.
Nick had indulged his wife’s reluctance to winnow the cat population. When she had left, though, she had taken only her two favorites. The remaining cats had been a constant reminder to Nick of his failure as a husband, as a man, as a legend. But now those cats might save Nick’s bacon.
While every available worker was put to finding and fetching cats, several of Gunther’s stable-dwarves hastened to adjust reindeer harness to fit smaller animals.
“I have doubts about this, m’lord,” Gunther advised. He wrung his cap in his hands. “You’ve never herded cats before. Your wife was the only one who–“
Nick cut him off with a gesture. “I don’t want to hear that. I am Nicholas goddamned Claus, and I always make my deliveries.”
Except, of course, he was not really Nick Claus. The name was a title that came with the position. He’d had another name long ago, a much older name.
But there was too much to do to dwell on the past, whether ancient or recent. “Is the sleigh ready? Is it loaded?”
“Yes, m’lord. No problems with that, great blessings be.”
“Yeah, yeah, great. Get the cats harnessed as quickly as possible. I still need to change.”
In his private quarters, Nick’s elf-servant Fred had laid out the annual apparel: Undergarments of wool and silk, scarlet trousers and a matching scarlet coat trimmed in white fur, suspenders and a broad black belt, fur-lined mittens and cap, and boots so well worn-in and comfortable it was almost like being barefoot.
That was part of the magic. The clothing kept Nick warm no matter how cold the weather was, yet was perfectly comfortable in blistering heat as well. And they always fit perfectly, no matter how much weight Nick might have lost or gained.
He still grumbled, though, when the belt had to be cinched a notch looser than the previous year. It’s all the ale, he thought. And the other booze. I’ve got to stop drinking.
“Fetch me a whiskey, Fred.”
Fred had been brushing the coat smooth over Nick’s stout figure. He spaused before answering. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, sir?”
“Dammit, Fred, just get me the whiskey.”
“As you wish, sir.” Fred exited the room.
Nicked checked his image in the mirror. Damn. He’d been a lot leaner and fitter when he’d first become the Claus. He’d had the body of a fighter, a warrior. He’d been a fighter and warrior, and more.
All lost now. Guts and glory, faded to… this. A fat man in a garish red suit. No wonder his wife had left.
“Ho. Ho. Ho.” His voice was as flat and dead as he felt inside.
“Your whiskey, sir.”
“Thank you, Fred.” He took the proffered tumbler and tossed its contents down his throat. He barely tasted it, but felt the warm burn inside. “Ready as I can be. Let’s go.”
+ + +
The cats had been harnessed, but at a cost. Two dwarves at the side of the garage were being tended to by a third; a first-aid box lay open on a table beside him. The first two had copious numbers of scratches and bites on arms and faces, to which the third applied ointments and bandages.
Nick whistled at the amount of widespread, if minor carnage. “Sorry, boys. I didn’t think the task would be that dangerous. If we ever do this again, I’ll arrange for some sort of protective gear.”
“No bother, really, sir,” lied the taller of the two dwarves. His name-badge identified him as NIGEL. “The hardest part was arranging them in an order where cat-fights didn’t start.” He held up his bandaged arms. “It took a while.”
It seemed to have worked, though. A dozen cats were lined up in harness, and none were actively trying to get away or squirm out of their harness. Some washed and groomed themselves; others were curled up and napping. A few twitched their tails and glared at Nick and the others, but they remained otherwise calm even in their harness.
The sleigh already bore the immense sack of gifts to be distributed. Even large as it was, the sack’s apparent size was misleading. It was larger on the inside, and its weight was a reflection of its exterior volume, not the actual hundreds of tons of its contents.
Magic, thought Nick. But not MY magic. Or not completely. Nick’s destiny – or curse, depending on his mood – and all the accoutrements and obligations that came with it may have been in service to a newer God, but elements of the old remained. The sleigh was built of oak and ash and thorn from ancient sacred sites, with ancient sigils and symbols carved deeply into its timbers and components. The runners were immense lengths of bone shaped and sharpened to cut and glide across ice; the public story spoke of whalebone, but Nick remembered when giants still walked the earth and battles were fought against them.
Everything looked ready. Nick climbed into the driver’s seat and took up the reins. The coterie of cats looked too small, after so many years using the larger reindeer. But it was the sleigh’s magic empowering the animals, not the animals themselves, that pulled the sleigh through the sky on its annual journey.
Nick flicked the reins. “Yah!” he shouted.
Nothing happened, beyond several of the cats turning their heads and casting Nick a puzzled stare.
Nick flicked the reins again, a little harder. “Yah!“
One of the grooming cats yoga-ed itself into a meatloaf asana and went to sleep.
Someone tell me this isn’t happening, Nick thought. Someone please tell me that.
Nick turned his head to see who had come up beside the sleigh. It was the dwarf Nigel again. The tall little man had one hand raised for attention.
“What is it… Nigel?” Nick asked in a flat voice.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I think I know what the problem may be.”
Nick sighed unhopefully. “All right. And what may the problem be, Nigel?”
“Well, reindeer are herd animals, sir. It’s their nature to move as a group, and in the same general direction. But cats are… well, cats, sir.”
“I see. You know how cats think, Nigel?”
“Oh, yes, sir, I think so. Love them dearly. Volunteered to help with this, sir. That fellow there–” Nigel pointed to a large Maine Coon holding a lead position. “–is my very own Samson. Splendid fellow, if I say so, sir.”
“I’ll take your word for that, Nigel. But I still have a sleigh stuck in parking mode, and a herd of harnessed cats not pulling even their own weight. Do you have a solution, Nigel?”
Nigel beamed. “Yes, sir! I believe I do!”
+ + +
From a storage barn for outdated gifts, an old-fashioned bamboo fishing pole, over twelve feet long, was dug out. The kitchen provided a large trout, gutted and cleaned but still smelling strongly of fish.
“What we have to do, sir,” Nigel explained, “is give the cats a common goal.” The pole’s fishing line ended with a sharp hook, now being worked into the trout’s mouth by Nigel.
“Food and play, sir. A chase, with a chance of food at the end of it.”
“Let’s try it.” And if this doesn’t work, I’m taking a pallet-load of Scotch back to my room and not come out until spring.
There would need to be two people in the sleigh, one to handle the reins, and a second to maneuver the pole. It was a squeeze when Nigel joined Nick on the driver’s bench. Nigel swung the end of the pole carefully up and forward, bracing the pole’s shaft against the sleigh’s dashboard. The trout-baited line dangled and swung as it moved towards the front of the harnessed cat herd.
One by one, the cats noticed the dangling *thing*, and then the enticing odor it emitted. Eyes locked on, tails twitched. The fish swung down further, dangling in front of the cats rather than above them. Several cats, then more, stood and leaned forward in their equipage.
With a soft hissing rumble, the sleigh began to move, bone runners sliding across the smooth stone floor.
“It’s working,” Nick said, amazed. “It’s working! Gunther, open the doors!”
Gunther and his workers scrambled to open the wide sliding doors. Blasts of freezing air raced in, but Nick felt the magic gaining power as the sleigh moved; the frigid gusts felt like a cool gentle breeze to cats and riders alike. The sleigh’s speed increased as the cats chased the dangling trout. The sound of the runners against the floor lessened, then ceased altogether. Air appeared between the cats’ racing feet and the floor.
As in so many other years, Nick’s sleigh was flying. Cats, sleigh, and the sleigh’s occupants were a foot above the ground as they flew out the open doors into the dark and cold.
Nigel raised the trout slightly, and the sleigh’s angle of ascent steepened. The reins were mainly useful for minor course corrections, Nick found. Nigel’s raising and lowering the trout, or swinging it to either side, was the primary control for the cats’ direction.
They soared into the sky, steered between thick cloud-banks, up, up, into clear air, night sky spangled with bright stars. A gibbous moon cast ghostly light over the cloud fields now far below them.
Nick laughed. “It’s actually working, Nigel!” Finally, something’s going right, he thought, feeling… was that joy?… for the first time in a long time. “You’re a genius, Nigel!” he shouted, and gave the young dwarf a congratulatory slap on the back.
Nigel lurched forward in surprise. His grip loosened. The tip of the fishing pole dipped precipitously. The trout dropped in reaction.
One of the big lead cats saw its chance and lunged forward, paws extended, claws out, and snagged the trout.
“Samson, NO!” Nigel cried too late.
The Maine Coon yanked the trout towards itself and bit. The other lead cat reacted by turning and attacking, trying to grab the fish away from Samson.
Nigel hauled on the pole, trying to snatch the trout away from the cats, but the animals would have none of that. The sleigh lurched as the two cats abandoned their duties and fought.
If Nick had had both hands on the reins, he might have been able to stop what happened next. But he was still fumbling, trying to get his grip again, when the two lead cats, snarling, spitting, intertwined, fell back from their position and into the next pair of cats. Nick hauled on the reins one-handed, but now there were four cats involved in a hissing ball of cat-brawl. Then six, then even more as the coiling conglomeration of fangs and claws and flying bits of fur sped towards the sleigh, a rolling snowball from Hell.
And now the sleigh itself was out of control, tumbling, rolling, pitching, with down the only common direction.
Down. Nigel dropped the pole and grabbed for the sleigh’s dashboard. Nick followed the example, dropping the useless reins. The pole whipped around at the end of its line, the trout still buried somewhere deep in the screaming ball of feline outrage.
Down. The stars, the moon, the clouds, the less-and-less-distant mountain peaks below, all spun crazily in Nick’s vision.
Down. Something hit Nick in the head. What the–? He tightened his grip on the dashboard, somehow turned his head against the force of the spinning, falling sleigh.
The gift sack’s neck had come undone. Stuffed toy animals, dolls, games, anything and everything were spilling out, spinning off into the air in a thick stream. The sleigh’s wild tumbling brought escaped objects whizzing by Nick and Nigel. Nick ducked a pair of roller skates. Nigel uttered a pained “Oof!” as a box of plastic building blocks bounced off his ribs and spun into the night.
Down. A flash of mountain peaks again, but now they were to one side of the falling sleigh instead of below. Sudden murk as they flashed through a cloud layer, then burst into clear air again, now with nothing between them and the far-too-less-than-distant ground.
The sleigh smacked into the mountain’s slope with a high white splash of snow. Nick, Nigel, and cats flew in all directions, the felines’ harnesses snapping with the impact. Men, cats and sleigh all bounced, rolled, and came to a stop. The scene was still and silent.
A moment later, a scattered shower of packages and objects pattered into the snow. The silence and stillness resumed.
+ + + + +
Nick wasn’t sure how long he was out. He came to with a faceful of snow. Every bone and muscle in his body felt sore and aching.
The sleigh’s magic had kept them all from being smashed into a blood-and-guts holiday trifle on the mountainside. But even the strongest magics had limits.
He rose painfully onto his elbows, wiped snow from his face, and turned his neck carefully for a full view of his surroundings. The sleigh was on its side a short distance away, but looked undamaged.
To one side of the sleigh, Nick saw the cats gathered in a loose circle; at the center of the circle, Samson crouched, vigilant, the remains of the trout between his front paws. The big cat tore another chuck of fish-flesh off the trout, growling and flattening his ears whenever another cat started to move forward.
Nicked turned the other way and saw Nigel. The young dwarf was half-sitting against a rock outcropping. His eyes were open, and he gave a weak waggle of his fingers when he saw Nick looking in his direction.
“Are you… all right… Nigel?” Nick said, carefully. Even his tongue felt banged up.
“Never been worse, sir,” Nigel replied in a strained but somehow cheery voice. “Ha, ha. Ouch!” Nigel pressed a hand gently against his ribs. “Better than you, sir.”
“Uh, your… face, sir?” Nigel raised a hand and pointed at his own features.
Puzzled, Nick raised a hand to his face. He didn’t feel more than badly banged up and bruised. His fingers brushed across his face—
The right eye-socket was empty.
“Damn it, my glass eye came out!” he exclaimed. The impact – or impacts; Nick remembered several bounces, none fondly – must have knocked it loose.
“Glass? Oh, thank heavens!” Nigel sighed in relief.
“Do you see it anywhere?” Nick asked, knowing the question was probably hopeless. If the eye had landed in snow, it would have punched beneath the surface and be impossible to see. If it had hit rock, a glass eye separate from its owner would have lacked the sleigh’s magical protection and shattered. Even hitting a soft patch and surviving undamaged, the long slopes stretching away below meant it might even now be rolling further and further away.
He combed through the snow with his fingers, but stopped after a moment, self-doubt draping his mind. Reindeer sick, cats uncontrollable, sleigh crashed, gifts scattered everywhere. Why am I bothering?
Nick fell forward again, face into snow, a deep lassitude creeping over him. He wanted to sleep. Or drink. But trying to find a bottle of gift liquor amongst the scattered packages was too much effort. I’ll just lay here a while longer.
Even when he heard footsteps crunching through the snow, coming towards him, he didn’t move. Nigel’s gotten up, he thought, but that didn’t matter.
Then Nigel’s voice spoke, and it was still coming from the position over by the sleigh. Even more surprising were the words Nigel spoke: “Oh, my… Mrs. Claus, is that you?”
Nick lifted his head from the snow again, just as the footsteps came to a stop before him.
He blinked snow away from his eye and saw…
Sandals of woven gold, spotted with jewels of differing hues, adorned slim feminine feet that led upwards to well-formed calves. A belted robe of shimmering fabric failed to conceal the trim, nicely curved shape beneath it. A feathered cape draped wide shoulders. A necklace of thick gold nuggets circled the woman’s neck. Her face was not only beautiful, but held a strength and resolve impressive on its own. A thick braid of long silver-blonde hair hung over one shoulder and across the front of her torso.
Nick’s jaw dropped. It had been months. She’d lost the dumpy weight, and her body was firm and toned again. The unromantic house-dress, gone. The frizzy head of white hair, gone.
Nick hadn’t seen her look this way for years. No, centuries.
“Freya?” he asked in astonishment.
* * *
“Welcome to New Asgard.” Freya waved a hand at the vista spread before them as they exited the narrow mountain pass.
Nick, from his seat in the uprighted sleigh, saw a wide valley set between towering mountains. Ice and snow on the mountainsides thinned away as the slopes leveled. The valley’s central land was verdant with forest and meadows and fields. A large lake, of an almost-black blue, stretched away to the far end of the valley. Several dragon-prowed longships skimmed the lake’s surface in the distance. On the closer shore, buildings clustered, dominated by an immense hall with many side-structures.
Nick was still trying to recover from the rush of events. The crash. The unexpected arrival of his wife, followed by a stream of Freya’s Valkyries, winged helms and all, on their flying horses. In moments, the sleigh was upright again and the Valkyries had rescued the scattered gifts and packages from the snow. A strip of cloth from the hem of Freya’s robe became an improvised eye-patch for Nick. Then Freya, in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by two remarkably large cats, Tregul and Bygul, had brought the still-stunned travelers here, the sleigh following close behind Freya’s chariot. The North Pole cats, back in mended harness, followed Treygul and Bygul’s lead without hesitation.
“What is this place?” asked Nigel from his perch atop the big toy-sack, filled again and tied firmly shut.
“These are the Mountains Between the Mountains,” Freya answered. “These are the Lands Behind the Lands.”
“But, but… why isn’t it on the map?” Nigel insisted.
Freya cast the young dwarf a disdainful look. “You live in a place that’s not on any map.” Nigel reddened with embarrassment.
Nick tried to give Nigel a better answer. “There are places created by belief and desire. Present but non-present, real but not-real at the same time. Like the Pole, like… like the old Asgard was.” He stared again at the sight before his eyes. “This is rather smaller.”
Now it was Nick under Freya’s glare. He raised his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Hey, sweetie, I’m amazed to see anything like this at all. We barely escaped the old place, remember?”
Damn, those memories, of watching the borders of their world, a world where he’d been not only ruler but god, shrink and contract as the outside world’s belief had diminished and turned to other gods and religions, still hurt. And it had happened so quickly at the end. Other Aesir and Vanir had abandoned Asgard earlier, but he and Freya stayed until almost the end. They narrowly escaped into the wider world before Asgard had crumpled into a wizened ruin. Weary and heartbroken, sad refugees, they’d trudged along a dusty road in a dry hot land unfamiliar to them. If they hadn’t met that bright-eyed fellow at a crossroads… what had been his name? Nick couldn’t remember now. Impressive talker, though, and kind-hearted; he’d shared bread and fish with Nick and Freya, told them of a job opening he knew, and pointed them in a direction they’d not have chosen on their own.
But Nick had questions of his own. “How did you do this, Freya?”
“I didn’t. But we’ll talk at the meet-hall.” Freya turned her attention forwards again and spoke in the cat-tongue. Tregul and Bygul, pulled Freya’s chariot a little faster. The other cats, back in mended harness, followed the bigger cats’ lead without hesitation. The sleigh moved down the rough road to the valley below, its runners levitating several inches off the ground.
They passed through the forests and by the fields and came to the settlement by the lake. The largest building, the meet-hall, was of heavy timber embellished with carvings of patterns and runes, some brightly painted. The upper reaches of the high walls held several large openings. Nick watched as some of the Valkyries’ steeds flew in and out of the building.
They stopped in front of the meet-hall and dismounted, proceeding inside as chariot and sleigh were taken away by Valkyries. The openings in the upper walls let light and fresh air into the building. Fire-pits of old were replaced by modern fireplaces and chimneys at intervals along the walls. That’s an improvement, Nick thought, remembering the dim interior and omnipresent odor of smoke and sweat in the old Asgard’s meet-hall. There were balcony-like platforms built between rafters, close to the window-door openings; a number of the winged horses were hitched there, Valkyries sharing the platforms and observing the main hall below them.
Freya led them to the far end of the hall, where a large wooden throne stood, deeply carved with more runes and figures, and cushioned with layers of fur from wolf and bear and fox.
Nick couldn’t repress a smile. “Freya, it looks just like it used to. How did you manage all this?” Before Freya could answer, Nick stepped onto the dais, turned and plopped himself onto the throne.
Suddenly the hall filled with hissing. The faces of the Valkyries, both on the ground floor and perched in the rafters above, flashed with anger.
“Nick,” Freya said in a cool tone. “You’re sitting on my throne. You need to get down.”
“What?” Nick stared around the hall. “Are you joking?” The hissing increased. The Valkyries began fondling swords and other weapons.
“My throne, my hall, my Valkyries. My Asgard. Get. Down.“
Nick rose back to his feet. Freya had always been strong-willed, but this… this was a level of authority he’d never seen in her before. “What are you saying?”
“Let’s talk privately.” Freya cast a glance to the side, where a nervous-looking Nigel was flanked by several Valkyries.
“Hmph. All right. Nigel, why don’t you ask the nice, heavily armed women to take you to the sleigh and see if it’s airworthy again? If–” He turned back to Freya. “–it’s all right with you, Freya.” Freya nodded.
“Uh, okay?” Nigel responded. Two Valkyries escorted the dwarf from the hall. Freya raised her hand and made an imperious gesture to the Valkyries in the rafters. The warrior women quickly mounted their horses and flew out the openings. Another gesture, and Valkyries on the ground floor departed.
Nick and Freya were alone in the large hall. Freya stepped onto the dais, moved past Nick, and sat on the throne. She cast a challenging look at Nick.
“I’ll admit, you look good sitting there. But you’re a queen, it would come naturally.” Then he couldn’t contain the frustration and questions building up inside since Freya’s arrival at the crash site. “How did you–? How long has this–? What have you–? Damn it, Freya, why did you leave me?“
She stared coolly at him for long seconds before speaking. “You really don’t understand at all, do you, Nick?”
“If you’ve taken the name of Freya back, you could at least call me–“
She raised a hand. “No. No, Nick, I can’t. You haven’t been who you were, not for a long, long time. You haven’t even been who you were supposed to be for a long time.”
“You lost faith in yourself. You began doing things by the numbers. By rote. You stopped caring.”
Nick tried to keep his face blank, but Freya’s words were uncomfortably true. “I’m sorry you felt that way, but–” He waved a hand at the huge hall. “–how long has… this… been in the works? When you left, it wasn’t a sudden decision, was it?”
“No. No, it wasn’t, Nick.”
“You could have told me.”
“You were building your own little world at the bottom of a bottle. You didn’t even notice the signs of a new inter-world coming into being.”
“And you did.”
“Yes, Nick, I did. When the first stirrings of a new potentiality began, I was listening for them. When the first shoot of a new world-tree shattered the rock it grew from, I heard the crack. I found it, I nurtured it, I guided it to become… this. A new Asgard, a new home for the gods we once were, the gods we could be again.”
Freya nodded. “That’s what I thought. At first. But you changed my mind, Nick. You changed my mind. It’s not the same, it can’t be the same as it was.”
Nick sighed. “I only see one throne, Freya, and you’ve already told me it’s not mine to sit upon. So why am I here at all?”
“Simple mercy, Nick. Far-sight showed me your sad try at cat-herding, and your crash. I couldn’t just leave you in the snow.”
You didn’t have trouble leaving me before. The thought hurt, and its pain added to the bruises and aches Nick already had. He rubbed his temples. “Do you have any aspirin here?”
“Of course. We’re not medieval here.” Freya pulled a cellphone from somewhere in her robe. “I need aspirin and water in the meet-hall,” she spoke into the phone. It vanished into her robe again. “Where were we?”
“You rescued me. Not that it matters. Christmas is ruined.”
“Stop moping, Nick. What did you see outside when we arrived here?”
“Um, big valley? Lake? This place?”
“In the sky.”
Nick thought. “Oh. The sun. Wait, it was still—“
“Land Behind the Lands, remember? Time is… flexible here. You should have realized that.”
Yes, I should have. Millions of Christmas deliveries in one night, how else? Just how hard did I hit my head in the crash?
“Some are rather battered, but all your gifts and parcels are gathered up and back in the sleigh’s sack. I can teach you the cat-tongue’s command words and loan Tregul and Bygul to lead the sleigh; they won’t need much direction, or a fish, and the other cats will follow their lead. Rest here for a few hours; when you leave, only a few moments will have passed in the outside world. You can still make deliveries in time.”
A Valkyrie entered the hall, bearing the promised aspirin and water. Nick took the proffered items with gratitude. The Valkyrie’s face seemed familiar, somehow.
Nick turned back to Freya. It grated, and he felt a sense of shame and humiliation, but he said the words anyway. “Thank you, Freya.” After a second, he added, “And afterward?”
Freya shook her head. “There’s no ‘afterward’, Nick. You needed help; I was available. But it was a one-time thing. Get yourself straightened out, Nick, because I won’t be there next time.” She addressed the Valkyrie. “Take this gentleman to a room to rest. He’ll be leaving later.”
Nick followed the Valkyrie out. There didn’t seem to be any point in trying to say more. He followed his guide into one of the building’s side-wings and to a small room. It held a bed heaped with furs, and a small rough-hewn table supporting an ewer of water and several mugs.
“Do you need anything else?” the Valkyrie asked.
“No,” Nick answered, then paused. There was something familiar in the woman’s voice too. “Wait. Do I know you?”
The Valkyrie chuckled, then lifted her helm off to better show her face. “Oh, maybe a little,” She winked at Nick. “Odin.”
Nick’s eye widened, not for the name itself, but for the sudden masculine tone of the Valkyrie’s voice.
He could see it now. The shape-shifter god had changed almost beyond recognition, but… something around the eyes, and definitely Loki’s unnerving smile.
Nick gestured at the woman standing before him. “This again?” It wasn’t the first time Loki had assumed the shape of a woman or other creatures. Nick couldn’t keep a note of disapproval out of his voice.
“Oh, c’mon, you have to admit I rock a dress better than Thor.”
“Thor was in disguise. He was acting. Which I hear he’s still doing, and quite well at it, apparently.”
“So it’s said.” Loki sniffed. “Talk about playing to type. Did you know he’s partly responsible for all this?”
“What? Freya didn’t mention that.”
“Really. Conditions for a new inter-world were primed by a few people trying to reestablish the old religions about a century ago, and increased when a version of what was called our myths entered their culture by–” Loki laughed. “–by comic books, of all things. But it was the past few years’ movies, with millions of people sitting before theater screens and televisions, wanting and willing to suspend disbelief if just for a few hours, that raised the potential to the tipping point. And Thor’s human identity being cast to play the role of Thor, that provided the final push from potentiality to actuality.”
“Huh. Didn’t think he had the smarts.”
“Oh, the dolt doesn’t even realize what he helped create. He’s happy playing a human playing a god.”
“But what are you doing… here?” Nick waved at Loki’s female form. “And why this?”
“You might find this hard to believe, but I’m actually trying to prevent trouble.”
Several seconds of silence stretched between them before Nick spoke. “You’re right. That’s hard to believe. What are you talking about?”
“Have you sen any men here, other than yourself and the little Nigel fellow?”
“Um….” Nick thought back to his arrival. “There were longboats, out on the lake.”
“All-female crews. There aren’t any men in New Asgard. Freya doesn’t allow them.”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s something to do with disappointment over the men in her life.”
“You’re putting this on me?”
“Partially. Also, attitudes and mores have been changing. Overall, women accept changes faster and more easily than men. Only natural, since many of the changes are to women’s advantage. But to forbid men from Asgard altogether seems… extreme.”
Nick spluttered. “Asgard… Asgard was never restricted to men! Why would they–? Why would she–? What about the battles? The glory? What about–?” Nick’s face flushed with outrage, and his eyes seemed to flash with internal lightning.
Loki smiled thinly. “Freya has lost all respect for tradition. She has made her Asgard a travesty of what it was. She must be stopped. You can stop her. Only you, Odin, All-Father, Lord of Asgard. Retake your rightful position. Take the throne. Take New Asgard and make it again what it was.”
Nick stared, aghast at Loki’s words. “She will not yield. I know her that well.”
“No, she will not. You know what you will have to do, All-Father.”
Nick’s face paled. “No. I will not say those words. I will not.”
“Say them and make them true.” Loki leaned closer. She spoke in a low whisper. “You must murder Freya.”
Nick turned away, hands rising to cover his face. A deep groan rose from within him. “No. Let me think. Let me think. She is my wife.”
“Is she, still? She left you. More than abandoning you, she has usurped your rightful place, your proper throne. She has stolen your destiny.”
Nick shuddered, groaned again. For a moment, he stood still and silent. Then, slowly, Nick lowered his hands and turned again to Loki, his face set in stone, his mouth a thin grim line.
“Destiny. I had almost forgotten that word. But how can the deed be done?”
“I escaped Asgard’s collapse only shortly before you and Freya. I managed to bring several… items… with me.” She whispered again. “I have the Spear.“
Nick’s eye widened. “Gungnir? It survived?”
Loki nodded. “That, and more that may be of aid to you.”
Nick stood silent for another long moment. Then he spoke. “What must be done, shall be done. Take me to the Spear.”
* * *
Loki led Nick to a door leading out of the meet-hall. They moved cautiously, trying to stay unseen. A close-by building, Loki explained, held stables for the Valkyrie’s steeds, and storage rooms at its far side.
Nick and Loki crouched behind low bushes. They were only a score of yards from the stable, but there were Valkyries coming and going. From combs and brushes several of the warrior-women held, Nick concluded it was a regular time for grooming.
“How will we get past them to the storage rooms?” Nick whispered.
“I could cast an illusion over you, make you look like another Valkyrie.” Loki squinted skeptically at Nick. “Perhaps not. But that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s almost time for–“
The long blare of a horn, off towards the front of the meet-hall, interrupted her words.
“–one of the planning meetings,” Loki finished. “Everyone has to attend.”
Sure enough, several Valkyries left the stable, heading towards the hall’s front entrance. Others quickly finished their work and left at a faster pace..
“That should be almost all,” Loki whispered. “I’m required to attend, but we have about ten minutes yet before it gets called to order.” One final Valkyrie exited the stable at a fast walk, following the others. “That’s everyone. Let’s go.”
They crossed the open space quickly and entered the building. The stable was softly lit, smelling of hay and timber and horse. There were long rows of stalls, most occupied by the winged horses; some whinnied or nickered as Nick and Loki entered.
Loki headed towards the back of the stable. “There’s an entry to the storage rooms back he–“
“Mister Claus, is that you?“
Nick and Loki both turned in surprise. At the opposite, far end of the stable, in an open area, was Nigel. Behind him was Nick’s sleigh, and scattered fuzzy lumps Nick recognized as the cats from the Pole.
An exasperated noise came from Loki. Then the shapeshifter streaked down the aisle at high speed.
“Wait!” Nick shouted and ran after Loki. By the time Nick reached the open area, gasping and panting, Loki had seized Nigel by the throat and pinned him against the side of the sleigh. Nigel’s eyes widened in terror as Loki began to draw her sword.
“No! Loki, stop!”
Loki paused and looked back. Nick, wheezing, staggered to a halt. “He might raise the alarm, Odin. We can’t allow that.”
“No, but we need not kill him.” Nick pointed to a coil of rope hanging from a nail in a nearby stall post. Loki loosened his grip on Nigel’s throat as Nick moved towards the rope.
Nigel gasped, sucking air into his lungs. “Mister Claus,” he said in a weak voice. “What’s happening? Why did she call you–?”
As Nick lifted the rope from the post, the horse inside the stall neighed with sudden excitement and reared up on its hind legs, pawing the air with sharp black hooves. Nick stepped back. “What the–?”
Loki chuckled. “Oh, you’ll like this.” She gestured with her available hand, and the horse… changed.
Both Nick and Nigel’s eyes widened as the horse’s legs wavered, blurred, and then doubled in number.
“Sleipnir!” Nick exclaimed. He reached to touch the horse’s head. The now eight-legged animal grew calmer and moved forward to press its head against Nick’s hand. “I thought you died in Asgard’s collapse. You still remember me, boy?”
Nick looked towards Loki. “You saved him?”
“Of course. What kind of mother would I be if I hadn’t?”
“Yes, well… thank you, Loki. I mean that.”
“Let’s save the sentimental hug-fest for later. We have a dwarf to tie up, and a goddess to murder.”
“Murder?” Nigel squeaked. “What–?” Loki snatched the pointed cap from Nigel’s head and wadded it into the dwarf’s mouth.
“Sorry, Nigel.” Nick said. He and Loki bound Nigel’s legs and tied the dwarf’s hands behind his back. “Have faith. I know what I must do.” They picked Nigel up unceremoniously and laid him in an empty stall, ignoring Nigel’s muffled grunts.
“Quickly now.” Loki led Nick to the storerooms. One room held stacks and piles of shields, greaves, and weapons. Long spears leaned against one wall, but they were ordinary spears, with plain wooden shafts and sharp but unadorned black iron points.
“I do not see the Gungnir.”
“I hid it in plain sight,” Loki answered, gesturing again.
One of the spears blurred and transformed as Sleipnir had. It lengthened by half a foot, and the shaft thickened to fit a larger than normal hand. The point stretched and widened into a long blade, engraved with runes and symbols; the bluish metal held an undulating pattern like waves in the ocean.
Nick lifted the transformed weapon away from its ordinary companions. “Yes,” he said, seeming to stand taller and straighter now. The red-suited old fat man appeared suddenly strong, and ready, and dangerous.
“Great,” said Loki. “Do you have a plan? Make it quick. If I’m not at that meeting on time, it may arouse suspicion.”
Nick told Loki his plan.
* * *
Meanwhile, Nigel worked the makeshift gag from his mouth. Confusion raced over his face at the strange turn of events, but the important thing was to get free from his bonds. He struggled, but felt no slack in the ropes.
Nigel heard a meow. He turned his head towards the open end of the stall. A fuzzy brown face looked back at him. It was Samson, Nigel’s big Maine Coon. “Samson!” Nigel called in a low voice. “Samson, come here!”
The cat came into the stall, then stopped. Nigel called again. Samson stared for a moment, then padded towards Nigel.
“Good boy! Come on, Samson! Come here!” Nigel wriggled the fingers of his bound hands. “The ropes, Samson! You need to claw the ropes!”
Samson went to the wriggling fingers and sniffed at them.
“Good boy, Samson! Claw the ropes open! It’s okay if you scratch me too. Claw them, Samson!”
Samson hopped onto Nigel’s buttocks, turned around once, laid down, and went to sleep.
Nigel groaned. Samson purred.
* * *
“Audacious, but risky. I’ll try to keep you from being killed immediately. I’m off.”
Nick watched Loki depart, then stood by the storeroom door another moment, deep in thought.
He went back to the stables, to the stalls where Sleipnir waited and Nigel lay.
Nick nudged the cat off Nigel’s posterior, propped the Spear against the side of the stall, and pulled the young dwarf into an upright position, leaning him against another side of the stall.
“Mr. Claus, please, why are you doing this? This isn’t what a Claus is supposed to be. This isn’t you. Santas don’t kill.”
Nick sighed. “In my day, Nigel, I’ve slain many. I put that aside for a long time. But the sun and planets turn in their circles and cycles, and that older time seems to have returned again. A time for warriors, not saints.”
Nick opened Sleipnir’s stall. The horse came forward and they touched foreheads. “Hello, old friend,” Nick said. “Ready for new adventure?” Sleipnir whinnied in response and moved out into the wider pathway.
Nicked backed several yards away, took a deep breath, ran forward, and leaped up, turning in mid-leap to land neatly on Sleipnir’s back.
Nick smiled. “Hah! Fat but not flabby.” He leaned over and picked up the Spear.
“Please don’t do this,” Nigel begged. There were tears in his eyes.
Nigel looked towards Nigel again; his expression turned serious. “Nigel, I know what I have to do. Try to trust me.” He held up the Spear in display. “Once thrown, Gungnir always strikes its rightful target. I’ll try to have you let loose as soon as possible.” He turned Sleipnir and rode out the stable’s door.
Alone again, Nigel felt despair. He looked around for any sign of hope.
His eyes lighted on the nail where the coil of rope had hung. If he could scooch himself over to the post… if he could push himself upright against the post… if he could raise his hands high enough behind his back….
Nigel began to scooch.
* * *
Once outside, Nick urged Sleipnir into a gallop. Not towards the meet-hall where Loki and the Valkyries had gone, but away from it. They went between buildings, staying close to walls that kept them out of sight of the meet-hall’s upper windows. Nick’s plan called for stealth and surprise, and Loki had laid out a way to achieve it.
To call Sleipnir’s pace a gallop was understatement. The eight legs blurred as their pace increased. Horse and rider zipped between buildings and across pathways in eye-blinks, not seconds.
They reached the far edge of the settlement, zipped across a field, into the forest, and increased their speed yet again. Sleipnir’s hooves rose above the ground, now churning air rather than dirt, swerving and dodging swiftly between trees.
Nick laughed. His beard rippled in the storm-wind of their passage. He felt strong, and powerful, and… sober? Yes, that was it. His mind was clear of desire for ale or whiskey; it had been a long time.
The movement of Sleipnir beneath Nick gave an immediacy and connection to his surroundings the sleigh had never managed. This was what he was meant to be, this was what he had been, and might be again.
Nick and Sleipnir missiled through the woods. Thickly forested hills rose outside the settlement, and their course led around and behind them. A long arc brought them to a valley between the hills. They turned into it, keeping low and under the tree cover. They were heading back towards the settlement, back towards the meet-hall, approaching the hall’s back side. That side of the hall bore no windows from which they might be seen.
Zip. Zoom. Out of the woods, past more buildings, a swift vertical climb up the back wall of the meet-hall, a quick deceleration and hard turn at the roofline, and Sleipnir dropped softly onto the meet-hall’s roof, next to a tall chimney.
Nick dismounted. The slant of the roof was no problem; centuries of experience made Nick sure-footed even on the steepest pitch. He stroked Sleipnir’s head.
“Here’s where we part again for a time,” he said. Then he leaned close and whispered into Sleipnir’s ear.
* * *
Nigel panted with effort. He’d pushed himself to his feet while leaning against the post, poking himself painfully several times with the protruding nail. Now he tried to stay upright while raising bound hands high enough behind his back to slip the rope over the nail. His shoulders protested sharply; it was much more difficult than he’d expected,. But he managed it with a gasp, then began rubbing the rope back and forth along the nail’s rough shank. There was little room for movement along the shank, perhaps a finger’s width, and each stroke brought a fresh twinge to Nigel’s shoulders. But he kept on, unsure what his next step would be if he freed himself.
He heard a sound and turned his head toward the stable’s entrance. The eight-legged horse had returned, but without the Claus. It stepped towards Nigel, hooves clopping against the floor in a crowded rhythm.
“What… what is it? Where’s Mr. Claus?” Nigel asked.
The horse ignored his words. It moved beside him, wedged its head behind Nigel’s back – Nigel winced at the added stress on his overextended shoulders – and began nipping carefully at the rope’s knot.
* * *
The planning meetings were a chore, but a necessary one. Freya stifled a yawn and shifted on her throne; even padded with furs, her butt grew sore eventually. The committee reports – construction, recruitment, resources and other areas – tended towards the dull and dry and numerical. Discussions could grow heated, but Freya kept a firm hand on arguments that seemed at risk of getting out of control.
It surprised almost everyone in the meet-hall when a deep rumbling noise emanated from the fireplace on the back wall. The interior of the fire-chamber twisted and blurred, then a scarlet spheroid shape suddenly burst from the fireplace. The shape unfolded in unorthodox and impossible directions, becoming a white-bearded fat man in a scarlet suit, a cloth tied over one eye. A fat man with a long spear. A fat man who bounded across the space between fireplace and throne and jumped nimbly onto the back edge of Freya’s throne, balancing there without tremble or waver, spear held high and pointed downwards at Freya. Freya twisted on her seat and stared up at Nick with eyes grown wide.
Valkyries reached for weapons, but one Valkyrie raised her hands and shouted in a penetrating voice. “Hold, my sisters! Do not risk our Queen!”
The hall’s occupants froze in place, uncertain whether to act or not. Those who recognized it knew the spear Gungnir, once thrown, invariably struck its target.
The Valkyrie who had spoken stared intently at Nick, growing impatience in her eyes, and gave a tiny jerk of her chin, as if to say, Well? Get on with it.
Nick looked around the hall. Gungnir never wavered in his hand.
“My name is ODIN!” he shouted, in a voice that rang clear to every corner of the huge hall. “All-Father, and KING of Asgard! And I have a few things to say.”
He paused, then continued. “I ruled Asgard. I fought for it. I gave an eye for it, trading that eye for knowledge. When Asgard fell, I became Nicholas the Claus. A lesser creature, a lesser god, a lesser man than I had been as Odin. But Odin and the Claus have this in common, a special knowledge….” The muscles in Nick’s arm and shoulder tensed, and his next words were a mighty roar. “…we know who’s NAUGHTY!“
With those words, he twisted the Spear upwards and away from Freya, and threw. Gungnir flashed across the room, straight and true. It struck the Valkyrie who had spoken in the shoulder with such force she was thrown back and pinned to a wooden support post. The Valkyrie screamed with pain and clutched at Gungnir’s shaft with both hands.
The other Valkyries reached for weapons again, but a quick gesture from Freya stilled their hands. Nick leapt from the back of the throne, somersaulted in mid-air and landed upright. He pointed at the Valkyrie he had struck. “That is no Valkyrie! That is Loki, the trickster! Loki, the liar! Loki, the perfidious! Loki, who made for Baldur’s death from envy, and who sought to suborn me into slaying Freya, my own wife, your Queen!”
The Spear-stricken Valkyrie still clutched at Gungnir’s shaft, grimacing, her eyes glaring hotly at Nick. The womanly shape shifted, became the shape of a man. Gasps and murmurs of recognition rose from the onlookers.
“Trickster, liar, perfidious?” Loki’s voice was strained, but rang with anger and venom. “Strange words for one winning advantage by his own lies and trickery.”
“I told no lies,” Nick replied, walking towards Loki. “And I have had enough of you.” He grabbed Gungnir’s shaft and yanked the spear from Loki’s shoulder. Loki groaned and slid down against the wooden post, clutching at his wound.
Nick lifted Gungnir again. The Spear’s point now aimed directly at Loki’s heart.
A hand fell on Nick’s shoulder. “Hold, Nick,” Freya said.
Nick turned his head towards her. “Hold? He tried to have you killed, Freya!”
“He is Loki. Mischief and chaos are his nature.”
“He’s spied on you for months!”
Freya shrugged. “Do you think I would not recognize Loki, in whatever form?”
Loki’s mouth gaped at her words. “Yes, Loki,” Freya said. “I knew you, and I have kept your mischief here small while you continued your charade. Better to keep one’s enemies close, is it not?”
Loki snarled. “The mighty of Asgard have fallen once. They may yet fall again.”
“Poor little scorpion,” Freya answered. “What am I to do with you?”
“Yes, what?” Nick asked. “Slay him and let us be done with it.”
Freya eyed Nick. “Forget not that you once swore blood-oath with Loki. You are forbidden from slaying him.”
“Well, that was a mistake,” Nick muttered.
Freya continued. “And those are not words a Claus would speak.”
“I am more than the Claus, Freya.” Nick struck his chest with a fist for emphasis; a slight wave jiggled across his belly. “There is still Odin, your lord and husband, within me.” Their eyes were fixed on each other’s now.
“Gah, what mush,” muttered Loki, and struck. He lunged forward, his body stretching and lengthening. Arms and legs shrank back into his torso, Valkyrie armor and uniform falling away as Loki’s new shape slid from within them. Scales erupted over skin, and Loki’s head reshaped into a horned and sharp-fanged, snake-like aspect.
The Wyrm that had been Loki struck at the Spear, knocking its point aside before Nick could react. Snakish coils whipped around both Nick and Freya and tightened, drawing them together with Gungnir pinned upright between them.
The coils tightened again, and Nick felt breath being squeezed from his lungs. He struggled to no avail. Inches away, Freya also tried to free herself, her face mottled with strain.
Valkyries around the hall shouted and drew swords. Loki’s Wyrm-shape moved, twisting and rolling even as he held his crushing grip, giving no opportunity for would-be rescuers to strike without risking Nick or Freya. The hind-part of Loki’s transformed body whipped around, knocking several Valkyries off their feet and making others step back.
Again the coils tightened, and Nick’s groan came out as an anguished gasp. His vision turned black around the edges. He struggled to stay conscious. He heard more shouts, but they came from above, not from the surrounding Valkyries.
Nick craned his head up, and saw a horse – a eight-legged horse, moving fast – fly through one of the upper-story window-openings. It zoomed into the hall, performed a tight loop, and rushed downwards. Through ever-narrowing vision, Nick saw a small figure on Sleipnir’s back, arms clutched tightly around the animal’s neck.
“Hold on, Mr. Claus!” Nigel shouted. As Sleipnir leveled out of its dive, Nigel jumped. The dwarf slammed into the Wyrm’s thick body just behind its head. Loki jerked in surprise. The crushing coils around Nick loosened by a fraction, and Nick hauled a load of blessed fresh air into his lungs.
Nigel clutched desperately, arms grasping the Wyrm’s neck. Loki thrashed, trying to dislodge the unexpected attacker. Nigel was making shouts of “Aieee!” and “Oh-h-h-h, poop!“, but still he held on. Nick felt an additional fraction of freedom, enough to tighten his grip on Gungnir and jerk the Spear upwards. The movement was only an inch or two, but enough for spear-point to prick underside of Wyrm-jaw. Loki jerked again at this new surprise, and Nick gained enough slack to bring the Spear up further and faster than his first attempt, trying for a wound to incapacitate, not just annoy.
But Loki pulled his head aside as Nick thrust. The blade rose alongside the Wyrm’s cheek, causing only a scratch. Loki’s eyes widened as spearpoint slid past eyeball in a near-miss.
The Wyrm roared and gyrated wildly. Nigel flew off the Wyrm’s neck in a high arc, wailing. Nick and Freya were slammed about, then the coils loosened and withdrew, leaving them sprawled on the hard floor.
A half-dozen Valkyrie, seeing opportunity at last, rushed towards the Wyrm, weapons drawn. Several fell as Nigel landed in their midst.
The Wyrm sprang into the air, twisting and blurring into a new, smaller, shape. Loki, now a sparrowhawk, beat wings frantically, darting back and forth in the air. Swords and spears batted at it, but the small swift bird dodged. It climbed higher and zoomed out a window-opening. Valkyrie on the upper platforms jumped onto their steeds and pursued the fleeing bird. Valkyrie on the ground floor ran out the door and towards the stables.
“Oof,” said Nick, sitting up slowly. His bruises had bruises.
“Ack,” said Nigel, wincing as he disentangled from a pile of Valkyrie.
“Crap,” said Freya, rising to her feet. “Are you all right, Nick? That bastard tried to kill you!”
Several Valkyrie helped Nigel to his feet. They seemed to bear no ill-will for his collision with them. Several smiled warmly at him, casting considering eyes over the small man’s frame.
“I’m all right, Mr. Claus. I think.”
“That was a spectacular display of bravery, young Nigel,” said Freya. “Very impressive.”
“Very stupid,” said Nick. “By the stars and sky, I only sent Sleipnir back to let you loose, not for reinforcements. But, ahh…” A sheepish look crossed Nick’s face. “…I’m glad you came.” He tried rising to his own feet, failed. Freya extended her hand. Nick hesitated, then took it and let himself be assisted.
“I think Mr. Claus has the right of it, Mrs, ummm…”
“Call me Freya, Nigel. And you can call Mister Claus ‘Nick’. Right, Nick?”
“Hmm? Uh, sure. Sure, Nigel.”
“Nick?” Nigel’s voice was uncertain. “Not…?”
Nick waved a hand. “I’ve been Nick a long time. I’ve gotten rather used to it. That other name….” He looked towards Freya.
Frey hesitated before replying. “You are both Odin and the Claus, Nick. You showed the best of your Odin-self here, just a few moments ago.”
“Heh.” Nick couldn’t restrain a grin. “Even when I had a spear pointed at you?”
Freya arched an eyebrow. “Did I look that frightened?”
“Hmmm. Actually… no.”
“You’ve disappointed me sometimes, Nick, but you’ve never hurt me. I was surprised, not frightened.” She considered for a moment. “Maybe a little. But for you, too. I feared you’d be skewered by my Valkyries.”
A Valkyrie standing by Nigel spoke. “It was a near thing, my Queen. If Sybil… err, Loki, that is… hadn’t spoken out, I was ready to let an arrow fly.”
“Well, good that Loki spoke out then, if only for extra seconds to see Freya slain,” Nick said. He looked towards the window-opening where Loki had fled. “Think they’ll catch him?”
“Probably not,” answered Freya. “Loki’s slippery, always has been.”
“It was all a sham, then?” asked Nigel. “Both of you pretended to be deceived by Loki?”
“Yes,” answered Nick. “Sorry. It seemed the best way to keep you out of the way and safe.”
Sleipnir approached, its eight hooves cloppity-cloppity-cloppity-clopping against the floor, and pushed its head against Nick. Nick stroked the horse’s head. “Were you ever on a horse before, Nigel? Your riding technique looked a little… unusual.”
“Barely riding at all, sir. More climb on, hold on, and let him have his way. I didn’t know if he’d go back to you after freeing me. It was sheer hope.”
“I couldn’t let the Claus ruin Christmas. Or himself.”
Freya took Nick by an elbow and led him a short distance away. “What did Loki tell you,” she asked, “meant to make you want to kill me?”
“You know what Loki’s like. A bit of truth, a lot of twist. He, ah, said you were usurping my rightful place over Asgard, and turning it into a women-only paradise.”
Freya stared at Nick for several long seconds, then burst into laughter.
“Oh, Nick. Yes, Asgard is being rebuilt by women, and I’m trying to create a system where women have authority and rights the old Asgard lacked. But we’re not excluding men, not forever. We’re just trying to minimize assholes. The loudest arguments in our meetings have been over how soon to admit men.”
“Hmmm.” Nick looked towards Nigel and the small coterie of Valkyrie around him. Several positively cooed over the young dwarf; one ran a finger along the outside of Nigel’s ear. Nigel’s eyes were wide and startled-looking.
Nick turned back to Freya and spoke in a softer voice. “So the Valkyrie…” He held up two fingers held slightly apart, brought them together. “…aren’t…?”
Freya rolled her eyes. “Some of them are. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Point taken.” He paused. “Nigel and I should go soon. Christmas can’t wait forever.”
“Flexible time here, remember? You wouldn’t have to leave for several days, here.”
“Do you… want me to stay?”
“You need to stay, you and Nigel both. At least a day. You’re both banged up from the sleigh’s crash and from Loki’s shenanigans.” Freya rolled her head on her neck; Nick heard several vertebra pop. “I’m pretty sore myself.”
“Nigel? Did you hear that last bit?”
“Yes, Mr. Clau… err, Nick.”
Freya pointed at the two Valkyrie flanking Nigel. “Take him someplace to rest, you two. Make sure he’s comfortable.”
The Valkyries smiled. “Oh, we will.” They each put a hand on Nigel’s shoulders. “Come along. We won’t bite.” Nigel was lead away, a somewhat anxious look on his face.
“Do you think he’ll get much rest?” asked Nick, sotto voce.
“I have my doubts. He is a very nice-looking young dwarf,” Freya answered, absently fingering the gold nuggets of her necklace before letting her hand drop away.
Nick cleared his throat. “Well… I should go back to my guest room, I suppose. Good night.” He squared his shoulders and turned away, then stopped as Freya’s hand touched his shoulder.
“Nick….” Freya paused, her face uncertain for a second. “Why don’t you come to my chambers? I have a hot tub; good for soaking away aches and pains. And we could… talk more.”
Nick stared, his own expression just as certain. “That’s, uhh… thoughtful.” He felt he’d suddenly stumbled into the middle of a minefield. Don’t screw this up, he told himself. “Maybe we could have that talk over–” He saw Freya’s face stiffen. “–coffee?” he finished.
He realized, surprised, that his need for a drink, the need that had been a part of him for so long, was… not gone; there was still part of him wanting that easy answer, its convenient solace and numbness. But the desire was muted, overshadowed by a need to regain what he had once been. The day’s events had given him a taste of that. He wanted more, and Freya’s words gave him sudden unexpected hope that maybe – maybe – there could be more.
Freya’s face softened again, making Nick’s heart leap. She brought out her cell phone: “Send a pot of coffee and service to my chambers, please. And get the hot tub ready.”
An unasked question Nick did not dare to ask hung between them. Freya put away her phone, looked at Nick’s face, and answered the question anyway. “We’ll talk, Nick. We might talk quite a lot, and that’s all. Oh, and we might get your suit cleaned.” She nodded towards Nick’s scarlet suit. The suit’s magic repelled soot and blemishes associated with the duties of being a Claus, but wrestling a giant snake-thing apparently wasn’t covered; the suit had multiple smears and stains from the tumult.
Nick looked down at his outfit and slapped himself mentally. He’d been so focused on Freya, on the thought and hope of a rapprochement, he’d thrust away all thought of his duties as the Claus. Damn it all. He didn’t want to lose this opportunity by leaving her side again. But… duty! But… Freya! But… but… but….
He needed to be the Claus. But he wanted to be Odin as well. He wanted to be Freya’s husband again. He wanted… everything. Everything.
* * *
Much later, after New Asgard’s day had turned to night and begun moving towards morning again, Nick slipped out from under the covers of Freya’s bed and padded, naked, to the long narrow window. A moon shone bright among scattered clouds, the mountains a tripled shade of blue in its light, with almost-black shadows, dark rocks and trees, and an almost phosphorescent azure reflecting from the snow at higher elevations.
Nick’s suit, cleaned and pressed, laid over a nearby chair. Nick didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think of it, but couldn’t keep it from his mind.
He didn’t want to be the Claus anymore. Freya had been right. He’d grown tired and bored, of the job, of the duty. He’d slacked off, stopped caring, and the drinking had started in earnest. After Freya had left, it had been even worse. He’d even come to resent and despise the children who believed in him.
He didn’t want to go back. Not without Freya. And Freya’s place was here, now. But there was no place for Nick in New Asgard, not yet, maybe never.
Freya came up behind Nick, pressed her body along his. “Can’t sleep?”
“No. My mind is all a-muddle. What I want to do, what I should do, what I have to do. There’s no easy answer, Freya, no clear path to follow.”
She laid her arms over his shoulders and her hands onto his chest. She fiddled with his silvery chest hairs and was silent for a long moment.
“You could give it up,” she said, softly. “I walked out on being Mrs. Claus. You could let someone else take over. Maybe that young man Nigel. The Claus suit would adjust itself to fit him. I could show him how to have Tregul and Bygul lead the sleigh. He could take your place. He could be the Claus. And you could be with me.”
Nick savored her words for a moment, then spoke.
“That is a wonderful idea, Freya. And you would despise me if I did so.”
Her reply came after a long pause. “Yes. I would.”
Nick sighed and placed his own hand over one of hers. “You were never really happy as the wife of the Claus. You were always more than it required.”
Freya sighed in her turn. “I got so sick of baking all those damn cookies.”
“But they were very good cookies.”
“You should bake me a batch.”
Freya stepped back and slapped Nick’s shoulder, but it was a toy-slap with no anger behind it. Nick turned towards her. The moonlight shone on her own nakedness, and Nick felt excitement stirring in him again.
“I’m not sure where it goes from here, Nick. I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t expect to be here, now, with you.”
“In bed with an old fat man?”
She smiled. “You’ve never disappointed me in that regard.”
“Eh, nice words, but there were a few times….”
“You were drinking pretty heavily before I left. How are you feeling, by the way? Did the tea help?”
Earlier, after hours without a drink, Nick had begun to experience headache, nausea and sweats. More aspirin, and cups of a strong herbal tea meant to flush out toxins, had helped.
“I feel all right now.”
Freya looked down. “Apparently you do.”
“Fat but not flabby.”
She looked coyly into his eyes. “Ready to prove that again?”
When they finished, they lay side by side on the rumpled bed.
“If I were to give up being the Claus, and came here to be with you,” Nick said, “I’d only be your paramour. There’s no place here for me.”
“Not right now.”
“Maybe never. I’ve gotten used to being top dog. The All-Father. The Claus. The Guy In Charge.”
“Old dogs can still learn new tricks.”
“Nice words. But actions speak louder.”
“What are you going to do?”
Nick sighed. “In a few hours, I’ll get up, put on my suit, and go to the stable. I’ll meet up with Nigel, you’ll show us how to command your cats, and Nigel and I will fly off to deliver Christmas presents to children all around the world.”
“You could put a little more enthusiasm into your voice.”
“After hundreds of years, it’s difficult. More work every year, and less respect and appreciation, it seems.”
“I remember. You need some vacation time. See different places.”
“Like here? I’d hate to have to crash the sleigh every time I wanted to visit.”
“I’ll see what I can do. You earned a lot of bonus points today, revealing Loki’s scheme. I don’t think there’d be many objections to your coming back again.”
“And what would I do here? Besides, you know, this?”
“That tickles!” Freya moved a few inches away. “There are things. Built any longboats lately? Taught spear-fighting? Have you thought of writing a memoir about the original Asgard?”
“Hmm.” Nick considered, stroking his beard. “An eyewitness history… may-y-y-be. I’ll give that one some thought.”
“Do so. Meanwhile, we’ve still a few hours before you have to leave. How do you want to spend them?”
“Do you think an old fat man has the stamina… hey, that tickles!”
* * *
The practice runs with Tregul and Bygul went well. Nick and Nigel took turns at the reins, swooping and zooming over New Asgard’s lakes and forests, before landing the sleigh at the mountain pass through which they had arrived. The bright morning daylight of New Asgard shone into the pass, fading and shifting into the cold darkness of a different reality at the far end. Freya and an escort of Valkyrie had come to say farewell.
“Well,” Nick said, awkwardly. “Goodbye, Freya.”
“For now, Nick. Not too long. Someone will need to pick up Tregul and Bygul from the Pole after you finish your deliveries. I thought I might come myself. I could bring Sleipnir with me. If you don’t object.”
“No,” he answered. “No, I don’t think I’d object.”
A Valkyrie flew up from the valley below and landed. She saluted Freya, and passed her a small box.
“Oh, good. I was afraid it might not be ready in time.” Freya turned back to Nick and handed him the box. “Merry Christmas, Nick. I had one of the Valkyries whip this up.”
Nick, non-plussed, took the box and opened it. “Oh, my,” he said, and pulled out a dark brown leather eyepatch. “This is just like my old one.”
“I thought it might be a reminder you’re more than just the Claus.”
“Let me try it on.” Nick removed the improvised cloth patch, put the new eyepatch over his empty socket and adjusted the strap. “Feels good. Nigel, what do you think?”
Nigel, who’d been speaking quietly to his new Valkyrie acquaintances, looked over. “Absolutely piratical, sir. Children will be terrified.”
“Nonsense. Children love pirates. Ar-r-r-r-r! This could be an entirely new direction. Captain Whitebeard, the Christmas Pirate! I could steal presents from naughty boys and girls.”
“Um, you’re joking, sir. Aren’t you?”
Nick looked thoughtful for several seconds before answering. “Of course. Just joking, Nigel. Children will grow used to the new look. Time to go. Let’s get back aboard.”
Nick and Freya, mindful of the public onlookers, exchanged a hug. Then Nick and Nigel climbed into the sleigh as Freya and the Valkyries moved back to give them room.
“You know what, Nigel? Why don’t you take the reins?”
“Me, sir? Are you sure?”
“Sure enough. In fact…” Nicked pulled the blue cap from Nigel’s head and replaced it with his fur-trimmed scarlet cap. “…I’m thinking it’s time I took on an understudy. Interested?”
“Me, sir? Oh, yes, sir!”
“Good. Let’s move out, Nigel. We have gifts to deliver.”
Nigel took the reins and spoke the commands Freya had taught him. Tregul and Bygul moved forward into the pass, the other cats following behind.
Nick turned and waved at the small crowd watching them depart. The sleigh rose above the road as it moved into the frigid air at the far end.
The sleigh continued to rise, exited the pass, and climbed upwards in a wide turn southward, towards cities and homes and the hopes and wishes of children. To an observer, it would have shrunk to a barely visible object moving across the night sky.
That same observer might have heard a voice high in that same sky, the voice of a small man, words softened by distance but still clear: “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas to all!”
And, a second later, the deeper voice of a larger man. “Ar-r-r-r-r-r!”
Bruce Arthurs has been writing and selling SF/F and mystery stories since 1975, with over a dozen published in scattered venues over scattered years. His mystery story “Beks and the Second Note” was a Best Short Story finalist for the 2017 Derringer short mystery fiction award. He has also edited two anthologies, and wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Clues”, 4th Season, 1991). He lives in Arizona with his wife Hilde, several housemates, and six cats.
Hildegarde von Bingen, or to be specific, her eighty-year-old body, sat at the ancient oak desk in her cell. Her mind was absent, roaming through the Ether. She scanned the Akashic Records, the Cosmic Mind, until she found what she was seeking. After absorbing the information she sent her consciousness back into her body, and awoke.
An aged, obese, cat lay sprawled across the desktop. Her black, grey-speckled fur sprouted in tufts between bald patches, like a worn-out yard brush. Sensing her mistress’s return to the physical plane, she opened one yellow eye, and purred a greeting.
Hildegarde’s voice rang with triumph. “I’ve found it, Sappho. I have a welcoming nest where my latest little cuckoo can thrive.”
Sappho raised her tail, emitted a blast of flatulence with the nonchalance of advanced age, closed her eye again, and sank back into oblivion.
Hildegarde wafted her arms in an attempt to disperse the methane, rose to her feet, and left the cell. She walked into the monastery’s tranquil garden, breathed in the twilight scent of honeysuckle, and prepared for time travel by sending a silent prayer to She Who Nurtures. The feminine aspect of the Universal Intelligence responded to the prayer, and Hildegarde vanished.
Seventeenth-century, Palace of Whitehall, England.
Hildegarde von Bingen materialised unsteadily on her eighty-year-old feet, straightened her wimple, and approached the court of King Charles II. She was confident that nobody would challenge her. The little Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was making another attempt to produce a live child, and although the nobility disapproved of the Queen’s Catholicism, they were unlikely to begrudge her the company of a holy woman of her own faith in her hour of need.
Hildegarde, was familiar with the palace layout, having visited previously on similar errands. She made her way to the royal confinement suite and entered. A midwife, three physicians, six ladies-in-waiting, seven servants and five aristocratic observers who had no business being there, were clustered around Catherine’s bed. The midwife held up a newborn female child. Hildegarde sent them all into stasis. They became still, oblivious to her presence, their consciousness suspended.
She took the Queen’s newborn daughter and wrapped her in a shawl embroidered with Charles II’s heraldic symbols, which was lying across a crib at the foot of the bed. She carried the baby into the palace grounds and then she vanished.
Seconds later she returned with a dead female child concealed in the shawl, hurried to the confinement suite, placed the tiny body in the midwife’s arms, folded the shawl, and laid it across the crib. She retreated to the doorway, removed the stasis, and as she closed the door behind her she heard a lady-in-waiting whisper to a servant, “Tell Lady Castlemaine the infant was born dead. She can put away her poison until the next time.”
Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.
Hildegarde materialised once more in the monastery garden. Sappho, who sat waiting for her on the doorstep, attempted to rise and balance her fat body on arthritic legs. Hildegarde picked her up and carried her back to their cell. She placed the cat on the bed they shared. “We’re both growing old, my girl,” she sighed. “I don’t have much time left to find a successor, and if I fail, many gifted children, born in inauspicious circumstances, will be denied the opportunity to make the world a better place.”
She lay awake through the night, dwelling on the problem, but another matter distracted her. Each time she closed her eyes she saw the face of the young woman on whom she’d foisted Queen Catherine’s daughter. When Hildegarde had taken the child to a twenty-first century nursing home and sent the occupants of the delivery room into stasis, the mother had remained conscious and watched her make the exchange. Such a thing had never happened before, and she felt it was significant that it should happen now. She resolved to investigate after she’d had a few hours sleep. Not wishing to disrupt the child’s formative years, she would time her visit for a later date.
Twenty-first century, England.
Eighteen years ago I gave birth to twin daughters, not identical, they grew from separate eggs, but the girls I raised are as alike as any siblings would be expected to be. They both have dark hair and eyes, like Carlitos, my handsome Portugese husband, and they share a sense of fun that enriches our family’s life. Only I know that they’re not sisters.
My labour was long and excruciating. I lay back and sighed with relief when the midwife said, “You have two beautiful, healthy daughters, Ellie.”
She made me comfortable while the nurses washed, weighed, and did whatever was necessary to the babies. Then the weirdness started. One of nurses whispered, “She’s not breathing.”
The door opened, and an old nun came in. Everyone in the room froze. Time seemed to have stopped, but not for me. I stared at her wrinkled face. Her eyes were alert and she stood tall and straight, with a vitality extraordinary for one of her age. She stared back at me, raising her brows in surprise. A newborn baby kicked and squalled in her arms. It was wrapped in a shawl decorated with fleurs-de-lis and the stylised lions that appear on coats-of-arms. She placed the child on the nurses’ worktop, picked up a tiny lifeless body, wrapped it in the shawl, and carried it to the door. She faced me again, winked, left the room, and closed the door behind her.
Activity returned. I could hear two babies making full use of lungs and vocal chords. Terrified, I yelled to the nurse whose whisper I’d heard, “What happened? You said one of them wasn’t breathing.”
The midwife turned back to me. “Nobody said that, Ellie. They’re fine. You’re exhausted. It’s normal to be a little confused.” She placed the babies in my arms.
I knew I wasn’t confused. One of the children wasn’t my daughter, but I didn’t know which one. Over the years I tried to convince myself that I’d imagined the entire episode, until yesterday, when I saw the nun again.
I left my veterinary practice, ‘Lark Lane Pet Care’, when afternoon surgery was over, and I found her on the doorstep, reading the brass plaque that listed my qualifications. “Greetings, Ellie,” she said. “I’m pleased to see that time has been gentle with you, and you chose a worthy profession.”
A range of emotions: bewilderment, anger, and fear that she’d come to reclaim one of my daughters, engulfed me. My voice shook as I confronted her. “I saw what you did eighteen years ago. You can’t have her back. Go away.”
She smiled and stroked my cheek. Her fingers were soothing and her eyes were kind. My fear subsided. She said, “It was eighteen years ago for you, my dear, but it was only yesterday for me. Don’t worry. I pose no threat to you and your family.”
I believed her, but I was still trembling. “Who are you?”
“My name is Hildegarde von Bingen. You may call me Hilda.”
“I’ve heard of you. You lived centuries ago. Are you a ghost?”
She laughed. “No, I’m flesh and blood, like you. People have called me a writer, healer, musician, mystic, sorceress and saint, but I’m just a woman with an excess of curiosity, who’s had time on her hands. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot left. You interest me and there’s much I can tell you, but only if I interest you.”
“Good. Is there anywhere close by, where we may obtain refreshment?”
I took her to Starbucks and bought two cappuccinos. The cashier glanced at Hilda’s wimple, which resembled an elaborate origami creation, and shrugged, probably assuming it was a complicated hijab.
We found a table in a quiet corner where our conversation was unlikely to be overheard. “Start talking,” I said.
She sipped her coffee, and nodded. “Some people are special. They are born to be great leaders, scientists, social reformers, or what I call joy bringers, who generate happiness simply by their presence. They make the world a better place.”
I felt my anger rising again. “So, do you distribute them when they’re born, like lottery prizes?”
She scowled. “Certainly not. Be quiet and reserve judgement.”
I believe I blushed. “Sorry. Please continue.”
“Thank you. Occasionally, a special one is born in a time and place in which he or she would be unable to flourish, possible even unable to survive. They are my cuckoos. I find them appropriate nests.”
She told me about The Akasha, the record of humanity’s history. “Time is like a river, flowing from a mountain spring, on its long journey to the sea. I can look down on it from above, and see the past, present and future. Within it I find what I seek.”
I didn’t doubt what she told me. It awakened an intuitive awareness and I needed to know more.
She continued, “I am a servant of She Who Nurtures. Some call her a goddess, some acknowledge her as a force of nature. To me she is The Lady and I do her bidding.”
There was something I dreaded asking, but I had to know “What about the babies the cuckoos replace? Do they have to die?”
She reached for my hand, and I saw the sorrow in her eyes for the tiny lifeless bodies she carried from their mothers. “Throughout history,” she said, “many children have failed to survive. That will always be so. Among the gaps they leave I seek appropriate nests. My cuckoos must be matched to their new homes or they would be regarded as misfits. The child I brought to you was Catherine of Braganza and King Charles II’s daughter.”
I understood. “Catherine was Portuguese.”
“Yes. Your husband carries the House of Braganza DNA.”
“Why did you take their child?”
“The King’s jealous mistress was afraid that a legitimate offspring of royal blood would supplant her batch of bastards in his affections. She kept a supply of poison to ensure that none of the Queen’s babies lived.”
My heart was pounding as I asked, “Which one of my children died?”
“I don’t know, Ellie. I didn’t see them born and I made the swap before you named them.”
“So I won’t know until one of them turns out to be special?”
She shook her head, “Haven’t you guessed? They’re both special. They’re joy bringers.”
So I’d never know, and I didn’t care. I felt only relief. They were both mine. Nothing would change that.
Hilda said, “What are their names?”
“Grace and Jessica.”
“Beautiful names. What do they plan to do with their lives?”
“Gracie wants to be a doctor, Jess wants to be a stand-up comedienne or a celebrity chef, maybe both.”
“Are the two occupations not mutually exclusive?”
I shrugged, “Probably not. That’s the twenty-first century for you.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, “talking of which, as a twenty-first century healer of animals, perhaps you could assist Sappho. My cat, not the poet.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s old. I know you can’t fix that, but she suffers from arthritis, and I suffer from her flatulence.”
“Finish your coffee and come back to my surgery. I’ll find something that might help.”
On the way back to ‘Pet Care’ I asked her about the cuckoos who became great leaders or whatever. “Anyone I’d know among them?”
“Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Winston Churchill.” She frowned. “That one was a mixed blessing. Belligerent old drunk, but better than the alternative.”
“What about further back?”
“Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Jeanne d’Arc.”
“Joan of Arc? You didn’t do her any favours, Hilda, She was burned alive.”
She gave me a smart slap on the back of my neck. “There you go again, prejudging. Jeanne was born in East Anglia in the seventeenth century, within sniffing distance of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. A girl who heard voices wouldn’t have escaped his attention. He would have hanged her before she reached adulthood. Her destiny lay in fifteenth century France, so that’s where I took her.”
“But she lost in the end,” I said.
“Did she? Her spirit inspired and transformed the French national identity. Without her, France would not be the great nation it is today.” She patted my shoulder. “Ease your tender heart, Ellie. She didn’t burn alive. The Lady took her soul before the flames reached her.”
“I’d like to know about The Lady.”
“So you shall. We’ll talk many times, and before my lifespan runs out you’ll know her as well as I do.”
I was still contemplating the implications of that promise when we reached the surgery and raided my herbal remedies’ cupboard. Hilda filled her pockets with lotions, potions and pills.
The kitten that I’d found abandoned in my waiting room the previous week emerged from the empty surgical gloves container that served as her makeshift bed, and ran in circles around my feet. I picked her up.
“Who have we here?” Hilda said.
“I don’t know where she came from but she seems to have adopted me.”
She tickled the kitten under the chin. “You attract cuckoos, Ellie. Take good care of her.”
“I will. You take good care of Sappho.”
We walked to the door. “I’ll come again soon,” she said. Then she vanished.
My life was changing. An adventure awaited me. It was terrifying and wonderful.
“It’s time you had a name,” I said to the kitten. “I’ll call you Hilda.”
Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.
Hildegarde von Bingen materialised in the monastery garden and hurried to her cell. “Sappho, I’ve found my successor,” she called, “and you’re about to be given a new lease of life”. She placed the lotions, potions and pills on her desk.
Sappho lay on the bed, snoring softly, with her legs in the air. Hildegarde smiled at her long-time companion. “But that can wait. Sweet dreams, old friend.”
— End —
MaureenBowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 110 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, and one of her stories was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mainly comic political satire. Her husband sets them to traditional melodies and he has performed them in folk music clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll. Shakespeare and cats.
There is nothing quite like getting shot in the chest.
The first shot splits my heart pump and blows half of it out of my back, along with some circuit chips, wiring, and a liter of black coolant. Splashes like an expressionist’s painting on the metal wall behind me.
The bullet breaks a pain dampener too, so I get all the unfiltered data at once. My entire synaptic neural net catches fire and a thousand bright-red warning messages pop up on my visual overlay.
I scream and scream, unable to cope with the sudden load on my CPU.
Then the next shot is what kills me.
A machine cannot love. Emotion is impossible. Feeling is just a subroutine instantiated by an external stimulant. None of my bits are real. All of my broken parts screaming at me for attention doesn’t make me human, it’s merely good programming.
But Jane brushing back the long strands of her golden hair so she can take careful aim with her liquid mercury eye, does something inside of me that is beyond any programming I’ve been imparted with: I feel the sting of a love betrayed.
Then she pulls the trigger and shoots me in the other side of my chest, right through the CPU.
The blast spins me around and the last optic I record is the view from the station’s port-side window. I see the sun peak over the edge of Saturn and the vast floating rockyard begins to glow like amber on fire.
Then I shut down.
A month before she shot my heart out, I was standing on the gantryway of Cerberus station watching the rockyard catch fire in the sunlight.
I’d been wiped and rewritten, but that pensive algorithm that forces me to watch the sunrise from the gantry was still intact. Some brain somewhere figured it was a good idea to have an attractive police chief stand up there, looking regal and romantic like while the filthy streams of humanity coursed down the promenade, on their way to death and riches in the rockyard. The hypothesis was it would remind people of the presence of the law and inspire them with the confidence that I was there looking over them.
And, I was up there waiting for the new captain of the station too, as I’d killed the other one just a week ago. Those who programmed my dictionary would have called that episode a sordid affair. But all that illegal fiddling with my programming had been wiped, reconfigured, and I was rebooted and ready for duty.
And then I saw her, walking down the gantry towards me. I could recognize beauty through the symmetry of her face and body, and so did the fortune seekers walking to their ships below us. They threw up little sly glances at her on the overhead walkway, unable to help themselves.
Her blue uniform was fresh and the brass buttons that ran up her beveled front were a polished sparkled. She had long blonde hair and smooth, unblemished skin. Her only imperfection was her prosthetic mercury eye.
She strode up and I could tell from her rapid heart rate and the ridged angle she walked at that she was not happy to see me.
“How in the hell you weren’t decommissioned and fired into the rings is beyond me.” She said.
An appropriate response didn’t percolate up into my speech center, so I just followed protocol and saluted her.
“Seriously,” she said. “Are you completely mad?”
Her silver eye flashed and my sensors told me it was trying to interface with me. She was sending me a command: Strike Me, Strike Me, Strike Me.
I ignored it.
She was testing me, trying to see if she could make me do something that went against my programming.
“You shouldn’t worry,” I told her. “What happened was an anomaly. It would be impossible to replicate that now my programming has been patched and updated. I am here to serve you and the station faithfully.”
“Just a little anomaly, eh? Is that how they’ve classified it? You painting the walls with the station chief’s blood was just a little anomaly?”
They wiped the recording from my memory banks, but I’ve still access to coroner’s report and can accurately reverse engineer the scene in my virtual memory. I do, and see that I took him apart limb by limb. Definitely, sordid.
“It was malfeasance,” I explain, but she waves a hand to stop me.
“I’ve read the report,” she said. “One of the traders broke through your safties and programmed you to violently murder the chief. What I don’t understand is why you’re still in the same position now. In my books, you are compromised. Why in God’s name do I have to work with you?”
“I am fully capable of…”
“The only reasons I can think of,” she said, cutting me off, “is that they are too cheap to buy another you and they truly don’t give a shit about my safety.”
“Those are very likely conclusions,” I agreed.
She looked up at me sharply. The eyebrow of her good blue eye raised.
“You’re a funny one,” she said. “Is that a joke?”
It wasn’t, but I didn’t want to agitate her further by explaining all the cognitions behind that articulation. It was true, the station owner was cheap and I’d noted this on one-thousand three hundred and seven separate occasions where he valued monetary concerns over the lifeforms on his station. But informing her of all those occasions was a zero-sum game, so I stayed silent.
“What mark are you?” She asked.
“That’s not too old,” she said and I could detect surprise in her voice. “How many times have you been patched?”
“Unfortunately, one of the patches overrode the ordering of my revision system, so my best guess is one thousand, two-hundred and ten times. But I can’t be 100% accurate on that.”
“That does not inspire me with confidence.”
“Again, a strange response,” she said. “They’ve given you a personality it seems too, but why?”
I couldn’t answer and my body language subroutine engaged and I shrugged my shoulders.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I guess you know as much about your maker’s reasonings as we do.”
I had no response for that.
“Come with me,” she said. “We’ve got cargo to inspect.”
Unannounced, our Scimitar approached the Starburst, a mining ship registered with the Auralian government. Before they or I even knew what was happening, we zipped up and docked with them.
This ship was off-limits, according to the previous station captain and I informed Jane of that.
“That exactly why we’re here,” she said and made an expression that registered in my facial-recognition database as incomprehension. She was the station chief now, so I had a duty to follow.
“Lock and load,” she said, taking a silver T-180 pistol from the weapon’s rack and slamming it into the black holster about her waist. I lifted a rifle from its rack on the wall and flipped off the safety catch.
A quick scan of the station’s warrant files told me that us boarding them was unsanctioned, which prompted a question.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked.
“Cause I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on this shit station.”
Her articulation registered as a non-sequitur in my dictionary and I had no response.
Her eye interfaced with the Starburst door. I couldn’t follow all the communications, but basically it amounted to her prosthetic dropping a 89,000 encryption bit code sequence into the door’s 39,066 key receptor and overloading it.
It slid open and she quickly stepped through.
“Listen,” she said, turning back to me. “I don’t trust you. If you make any false moves, I’m going to shoot you in the chest. Right through the CPU.”
I stayed silent and followed her dutifully.
Under the treaty, she could search and seize any vessel in the system, warrant or not. One of the twenty-million computations going through my CPU at the time was a quick comparison of the behavioral algorithms I observed between her and the previous chief. The juxtaposition showed stark contrasts.
I caught a bit of the communications between her eye and the ship’s WI-NET. She’d pulled up a schematic of the ship and was focusing in on the hold, which was refrigerated. That, according to my database of ship architectural blueprints, was highly unusual.
I covered the rear while she made her way cautiously down the hallway. My scans said her heart rate was elevated and I noticed her hand was firmly around the grip of her holstered gun. Her wrist was tensing too, so it could snap up at an instance. I, on the other hand, hadn’t any nerves.
From scanning the manifest, I learned the Starburst was a galaxy class ship with over 5.6 kilometers of corridors. There was a hundred and ten crew. It had no infractions registered against it in any system, but I noticed the ownership structure was redacted from the manifest, which was a red flag.
“So far, so good,” she said.
“Can you tell me what we are looking for?” I asked.
“For the reasons why you never looked here.”
We reached the end of the corridor, where a big door shooshed up into the ceiling as we approached. A blast of fridged air rolled over us.
Inside the refrigerator were stacks and stacks of frozen bodies. A quick scan showed there were roughly one-thousand-one hundred and fifty-two of them. They were all bloated, filled up like balloons about to burst, and thick varicose veins coiled tightly beneath their swelled skin. Their eyes were white and frosted over and all had grimaces on their lips. All of them, a facial-recognition algorithm informed me, had died from space exposure.
Jane gasped and recoiled against the wall, hand clutched up to her throat. Obviously, this discovery was unexpected and horrifying to her.
An A.I. is built upon continuously shifting layers of programming. Some of the layers were running computations and analysis that my main processor, my consciousness, was siloed from. Often, they amounted to nothing and the layer would vaporize back into memory and another would take its place. But now one of the layers had reached a probability conclusion and merged itself with the stream entering my CPU. And that layer had determined what this was.
But then the shooting started.
I failed to notice the Starburst’s crew deploying along the corridor behind me. They took up strategic positions in entryways and behind bulkheads, effectively ambushing us.
A bullet passed through my right bicep and blew out fluids and metal shards, but nothing serious. I grabbed Jane by the arm and shoved her inside the refrigerator, then I spun around with my rifle raised. Fire erupted from the nozzle and 15 rounds made their way through 15 different people. My aim was impossibly accurate. I’d shot them in the arms and legs that obtruded from their hiding positions. They all screamed in pain and some of them fell to the ground, squirming in agony. I hadn’t received a kill command from Jane, so I didn’t shoot them through the head, though I could have easily done so.
I quickly ducked into the refrigerator and surveyed Jane. She wasn’t hurt. But her heart rate and breathing had approached panicked levels now. In my experience, people under this level of stress and terror couldn’t function properly. I began unlocking some internal protocols so I could take the situation over, but then she spoke calmly and I canceled the overrides.
“Did you kill any of them?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve only wounded them.”
“Good,” she said. “I want them all alive when I arrest them.”
A probability statistic percolated up in my speech center, but I canceled it at the last minute. It served no purpose to inform her of the chances of her getting out of this alive, let alone us arresting them.
She took her place on one side of the door and I stood at the ready on the other.
“Hey!” she shouted down the hallway and brought her gun up and cocked it. “You are under arrest! Lay down your arms!”
There were groans and cries of the people I’d shot, but nothing to indicate compliance.
“I’ve called for backup!” she shouted. “The police are on their way.”
The probability they would accept this ruse was incredibly low. It was well known amongst the rockyarders that we were the only authority in the system.
“Bitch!” was the reply. “You lay down your arms! We’ve got you covered. There is no way out.”
Abruptly, Jane stepped into the doorframe, fired a shot, and then stepped back. I heard a body hit the floor and I guessed that she’d killed the person who’d spoken.
“I don’t miss,” she shouted. “Drop your guns!”
Suddenly I received a strange command that put all my directives into conflict.
The command was straight from Cerberus and had the digital signature of Anthony Mann himself, the owner of Cerberus station.
The command was: Shoot Jane in the Head.
As my cognitions processed this, Jane popped out into the hallway again and fired off ten more shots then jumped back as they returned fire. Many of the bullets slammed into the frozen bodies, splaying cracks across their skin and sending chunks of skin rocketing across the room.
Several of my secondary processors wanted to instantly execute the command I’d received as it was of the highest priority, a Sev-1 command. But my higher functions, the ones that had accepted the last software patch, refused. The command was in conflict with their primary directive, which was to protect the station captain at all costs. Some of my secondary processors tried to override the primary ones and I briefly went to war with myself. My arms tried to lift the rifle up to shoot Jane between her silver and blue eye, but I forced it back down. I began to scream as my whole body fought with itself.
“What the hell is the matter with you!” Jane shouted. “Shoot them you fool! Shoot them!”
I shook uncontrollably. Pressure was building up in my system as every pump, processor, rotor, and circuit chip redlined. I again tried to lift up the rifle to fire, but I forced it back down. Pinprick holes began ruptured in my circulation system and trickles of black coolant began pouring out of my ears and the corners of my eyes.
And then abruptly logic won. My body at a stalemate put every directive I had at risk. I could neither protect Jane, nor stop the perpetrators, nor protect the station, or even accept the Sev-1. I had to unfreeze myself and that mandate circumvented everything. So my higher functions initiated a cascade failure that would begin a shutdown protocol that would put me to sleep. Once offline, my priority queues would be cleared by a maintenance subroutine and I would be able to function again.
Just as I was initiating the cascade failure, a thermite grenade rolled into the room and Jane began to scream.
Then I went to sleep.
I’d fallen to the ground and I quickly came to my feet. 0.66666 seconds had passed since I’d shutdown and the thermite grenade was about to go off.
Jane’s symmetrical face was twisted with terror. Her long blonde hair was slicked wet with worried sweat and her eyes were anxiously wide. Then, before I could reach for it, she kicked the grenade away from us. This was foolish on her part, as it flew through the air, hit the back wall, and exploded.
The fiery detonation ripped open a ten-foot hole, which the vacuum of space instantly sucked out; visually, it looked like an explosion in reverse.
With the pressure change, the safety systems engaged and the refrigerator door slammed down with a bang, locking us in.
Air began rapidly bleeding out and all the swollen bodies began lifting up and streaming out the hole. I tried to grab Jane, but I was too slow. She and I locked eyes briefly as she was picked up and thrown outside along with the dead.
I held onto my rifle, put my arm around a refrigeration pipe that stuck out of the wall, and I held myself there while I considered the situation.
In ten seconds, the cold vacuum of space would cause irreversible damage to her body. Which meant I had 1.667 seconds to test two theories in my virtual memory and 8.333 seconds to act on the best one.
Unfortunately, both of them tested fruitless, so I had to go with an untested third option that occurred to me while I was running the simulations.
I crouched down, took aim, and then jumped straight through the hole in the back wall.
In a millisecond I was out into the beyond. Cerberus station was off to my right, spinning like a silver bike tire on its side, and there was an incalculable number of stars glistening in the dark.
The dead were floating all around me. I bumped into an Asian woman who had long black hair that swam in slow motion about her frozen face. I pushed her out of my way and pinpointed Jane, which was easy.
Her eye was sending me a signal: Help Me. Help Me. Help Me.
I made several very quick computations, aimed the rifle behind me at a 30-degree angle, and pulled the trigger.
The bullets were encased in their own oxygen supply and the gun fired without flames spouting from the barrel.
The force reversal sent me on my way and I kept firing to accelerate. I quickly reloaded a new clip and fired another small burst to adjust my trajectory and further increase my speed.
I had 5.111 seconds left.
Now the scene had become a visual confusion. I had hit a tiny asteroid pocket and there millions of them and thousands of bodies dispersing amongst them; then, there was the massive backdrop of the orange whirling clouds of Saturn. In this morass, I was relying entirely on her signal to locate her.
Then her blue captain suit sparkled in the orange light and my visual sensors locked onto her. I unloaded another clip, as I had 2.988 seconds left.
I reached out, caught her, and held her close in an attempt to transfer some of my body’s warmth to hers.
We locked eyes and I did the only thing I could think of to calm her.
And then we were out of time.
Frost began prickling on her skin and very soon it would burrow down into her lifeless body.
But I was calm, as I had no nerves, and I sent a command to our ship just before I’d jumped.
Now it was a waiting game. A game Jane couldn’t afford, as I detected the electrical impulses in her brain were beginning to slow.
What cognitions were going through her mind, my pensive algorithms queried. Was she self-aware in this state? Was she dreaming? Did she find me at fault for what had happened?
I played these questions out in my virtual memory, as my creator’s want was for me to understand every situation I experienced, to run them through as many permutations as I could and record the results if I reached any probability conclusions. The belief was that over time I would build a large repertoire of conclusions to draw upon and that would make me a faster and more accurate decision maker.
This was obviously a slightly flawed hypothesis, as I’d made any number of bad decisions that had led us to floating out here in the dead of space.
Far too much time had passed when our ship finally swooped in. Its bay doors were open and it scooped us out of space like a catchers mitt. I sent a command that repressurized the cargo bay and turned on the gravity. She was already in my arms when the gravity initialized, so I gently lowered her to the floor.
She was long since dead.
I put my mouth on hers and blew carefully into her lungs, gently reinflating.
Then I took the stenvolt from the medi-kit in the wall. I ripped open her blue suit, which sent her brass buttons bouncing off the ceiling. She had no undershirt on so I put the metal stenvolt on her ample bare chest.
A 4,000 jolt made her body jump. Then another jolt got the heart pumping. I took an epi-pen from the medi-kit and injected her with a concoction of adrenaline and anti-coagulant. There was nothing I could do but wait for the body to recover. So I sat, waited, cranked the heat up, and cogitated several permutations in my virtual memory.
The Sev-1 from Anthony Mann had deeply divided my processes. I was built with two core tenets written into my CPU’s permanent memory: answer to Anthony Mann and protect the station. Then, tertiarily, an addendum was added through the recent patch update: protect the station chief.
The tenets didn’t stop me postulating on the illegality of the Starburst’s activity and their connection to Anthony Mann; clearly, there was a link between the two of them as he wouldn’t have ordered me to kill Jane otherwise. And the tenets didn’t stop me from considering pressing attempted-murder charges against Anthony, though I would be unable to carry through on those impulses as they could tangentially cause him injury and that would break the covenants of my main tenet.
Jane, though, if and when she awoke, could pursue any of that as she was master to none.
Also troubling was that the shutdown had flushed the Sev-1 out of my CPU, but it was still in my system log and I was still required to act upon it. My being was at detente, but I was still technically at war with myself. This was strange as some of my lower-order systems did want to snuff out her life right then and there and I had to keep canceling its intentions.
Suddenly Jane woke with a start and all my cogitations evaporated.
“Turk,” she whispered my name.
“Yes,” I replied and leaned in to examine her good blue eye. It dilated appropriately when I moved my head out of the way of the overhead light.
“You saved me,” she said, then coughed up a sputum of blood. There was something different in her voice now. There was a softness, a lower cadence that hadn’t been there before.
She reached up and touched my face, ran her fingers down the side of my cheek.
“Why did they make you so beautiful?” She asked in a whisper.
“Studies have proven that attractive people in a position of authority are more likely to be respected and listened to than unattractive ones.”
She chuckled, then coughed up more blood.
“So they gave you steely blue eyes and sharp, defined cheeks so people would respect you more?” She wheezed.
I didn’t answer and interfaced with the medical unit back on Cerberus. It informed me to bring Jane immediately to sickbay, he lungs were likely filling with fluid and she didn’t have much time left.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said when I informed her of my intentions.
“We’re going back to arrest them.”
And against all my probability calculations, she got up and stood on her two feet.
“Let’s lock and load,” she said.
But the Starburst had jumped out of our jurisdiction by the time Jane had gotten our ship turned around.
She swore several times and pounded the ship’s console with her fists, then abruptly she passed out. Her heart was at 65% capacity and couldn’t properly push her blood through her veins and her frustrations had overloaded her already weakened systems.
I carefully lowered her to the ground so she wouldn’t strike her head on the metal chair, then I found a blanket and covered her with it. There was nothing I could do for her here, so I quickly programmed a route to Cerberus and executed it.
As she slept and I navigated, a part of me compared Jane to the other women in my experiences. She was, as my dictionary defined her, remarkable, and unlike any woman I’d ever known. But I currently didn’t have enough processing power to properly cogitate on her remarkability and what that meant to me, as I was simultaneously communicating with the medi-vac robots to inform them of her condition and I was flying the ship at near jump speed, which required many complex calculations. So I earmarked her remarkability to cogitate on later.
We arrived back at the station and I passed her off to the medi-bots, who put her on a gurney and motored her on treaded foot to the sickbay. There they stripped her clothes and put her into an upward-standing stasis tube, which they then flooded with a light-blue saline solution.
Her buoyancy equalized and she floated upright in the tube, her arms were slightly outstretched like she was in the process of pirouetting.
I watched and waited till her vitals stabilized, then I let my programming take over.
I took a shuttle to a decommissioned part of the station, walked through several security doors to make my way to Section X.
Once there, I sat up on one of the twelve-hundred metal tables, most of which had half-built mes on them, and I waited for my creators.
When they came, they unscrewed my head, placed it on the table beside my body and wired it into the mainframe. Then they carefully erased all the conclusions I had come to about the Starburst and, once finished, purged their actions from my mind. They also attempted to erase the third tenet about protecting the station captain from my permanent memory, but they were unsuccessful. That area of my RAM was protected.
They discussed completely reformatting me as a way to remove the third tenet, but Anthony Mann didn’t want to reset me and lose everything I’d gained so far and he wasn’t too worried about the complications Jane could cause, so they left it.
Then they purged that conversation from my memory and put my head back on.
Then I went into offline mode and thought about Jane.
A health-check subroutine informed me that too much of my CPU’s time was being spent on processing on Jane and not enough of it was being spent on the battle at hand.
It had been three months and she was still in the stasis tube, recovering. Every day I went to check on her, hoping that she’d advanced her healing faster than what was projected.
But she hadn’t. The damage throughout her body was extensive.
The claim jumpers were in a pure black cylindrical ship. Its rounded sides sheared the reflections of my scans and confused my ship’s computer into believing that nothing was there but empty static. I just happened to be passing by when I saw the blue light of their thrusters and decided to investigate.
They had killed the asteroid’s registered claim owners by landing directly on their steel dome bivouac, crushing it to oblivion between their ship’s flattened front end and the asteroid’s rocky surface.
Then they’d loaded the amethyst the owners had labourously collected and lifted off.
Their 1.75 caliber guns, of which there was two on either side of their ship, couldn’t penetrate my ship’s heavy armor. Their rounds rattled off my hull, which some distant memory told me sounded like heavy rain on a tin roof.
I took evasive action, as a lucky round could pass through the cockpit window and rupture my head, which would permanently off-line me. Then I used the COM to inform them of their malfeasance and they told me to insert my head up my rectum.
Jane, she was such an unusual being, a remarkable being, and I couldn’t help myself from thinking of her. I was built to understand, to break things down into their smallest components and decipher them. But she couldn’t be broken down. She was both brave and according to her service record, cowardly. She’d fled a battle on Mars, leaving the platoon she was in charge of to die. But then her actions on the station were exemplary and quite the opposite. And there was that abrupt softness that had come into her voice, where it had been hard before; I couldn’t figure that out. Also puzzling was that after facing certain death and still dying internally, she wanted to go after the Starburst and bring them to justice. I didn’t know what to make of that either.
Yes. There was much to cogitate on Jane.
Also spinning away in one of the layers in my virtual memory was the fact that I’d killed one of my creators for her.
They too were perplexed by the amount of time I was mulling over her and were worried about what she would do when she awoke. So one of them suggested that with her in the stasis tube it was the perfect time to accidentally over-medicate her.
He was about to initiate that command to the medi-bots right then and there when I abruptly came online, sat up on the metal table, and grabbed him by the throat and squeezed till my fingers and thumb came together.
The creators had much to discuss after that.
But all of what they said was purged from my mind.
I only knew of my murdering one of them by a random piece of luck. They’d forgotten a tiny bit of my programming that recorded any attempts to act against my core tenets in a log file, deep in my internal systems.
Why did I elect to kill him? I wondered. Was that necessary? Could I not have just injured him instead? The conclusions I had drawn and acted upon in that situation were also purged from my mind, so I had no clear understanding of why I had done it.
There was much to think on this.
But a bullet hit the cockpit window and cracks splayed across it. Air began whistling out and my console lit up with a thousand red lights. Due to the close proximity of the window and the drastic variance in pressure, my face was in danger of being pulled off and sucked out.
I awkwardly jammed my foot up onto the crack as the claim jumpers poured bullets into my fuselage. I quickly rolled the ship to take the brunt of their efforts on my armored back. Then they briefly jetted into warp to smash the front of their ship down on mine.
But I’d been expecting this.
I put my ship’s thrusters into reverse and they crashed down into nothing in front of me. Then I easily shot out the blue fires of their engines.
Then I left them to float in space.
Experience had taught me that if I attempted to board them now, I would be met with fire and fury. But if I left them to sit and think, they would come to realize that what they had done to the others could be easily done to them now that they were drifting in space with a cargo hold full of amethyst. Eventually, they would call me on the COM and beg me to save them.
So I made a mental note of their position and shot back to Cerberus station to check on Jane again.
Air was still softly hissing out beneath my foot and the cracks were slowly spreading. Likely it would soon shatter.
Yes, I had to agree with my health-check subroutine. Too much of my cognitions were dedicated to Jane.
But I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t want to.
I was standing on the gantryway of Cerberus station, watching the rockyard catch fire in the morning light when Jane approached from behind.
She touched me gently on the shoulder and I turned.
“Turk,” she said, her voice soft like before.
She was marred now. Black bits of frostbite were speckled across her face like acne. Her mercury eye had split during space exposure and had to be replaced with another prosthetic, an inferior one that was pure white.
But she was still beautiful. The symmetry and the roundness was still there and she was still who she was, an enigma to me.
She had on her captain’s suit, brass buttons and bright blue fabric, all polished to a sparkle.
“I want to thank you,” she said. “For saving me.”
“It’s my programming,” I replied.
“Is it?” She asked, taken aback by this. “Risking your life to save me was just your programming?”
I could register hurt in her face now, as the corners of her mouth and eyes drew tightly.
“Everything I do is my programming,” I replied.
She considered this, then said. “Well, I owe you my life. I could see you, you know, from inside the tube. I saw you every day watching over me. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
I had no response for this and a subroutine suggested I merely nod, so I did so.
She took her place beside me and together we watched the ice and the precious metals in the rockyard catch the morning sunlight.
After a time, she said, “I’m going after them Turk.”
“Who?” I asked.
Surprised, she turned to look at me.
“What do you mean who?” She asked. “I’m going after the people that did this to me. The Starburst and the people behind them. They’re killing the rockyarders and doing god knows what with their bodies. Don’t you remember?”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I ran a deep system scan. There were holes in my time track, I discovered. There was a particularly large gap between us meeting for the first time on the station and then me embracing her in outer space. And then I discovered there were pinprick holes all along the track from that instance onwards.
“You don’t remember, do you?” And she put her hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes. There was concern on her face and something else, something a layer in my virtual memory had been whirling away on for quite some time. Then she smiled and that layer reached a probability conclusion and merged with the stream of information entering my CPU.
She loved me.
That was the softness in her voice, that was the look in her eyes, and that was the motivation behind her concern.
She was in love with me.
“That is curious,” I said. “Why would you love me? Is it because I rescued you? Does rescuing someone engender love?”
She drew sharply back from me in surprise and her hand fell from my shoulder.
“I…I…” she stammered, at a loss for words. “Turk…” she said, but then two rockyarders approached us.
They were both large humans, 6.577 and 6.411 and 210.773 pounds and 220.778, and a lot of that was muscle. They were in shabby white space suits and the flecking paint showed rusted metal beneath. Both held long sharp, gleaming knives in their hands.
Their intent was clear.
“Step aside,” one of them said. “We’re here for her.”
I took two steps back to get out of their way.
“Turk!” she screamed as they came at her.
One of them came in low and fast, tried to stab her through the navel with his long, sharp blade. But she spun out of the way and brought the heel of her palm hard into the side of his head, right above his ear. He made a strange groaning sound and dropped to the ground.
But the other one had the drop on her now. He slashed at her with his blade and sliced her suit open, right above her left breast. Blood began streaming down the front of her blue suit.
“Turk!” She screamed. “Help me!”
The rockyarder turned to me and crouched down. He was expecting me to make a move, but I did nothing. I stepped back further to give him more room.
“Turk! What’s wrong! Help me!”
The rockyarder turned back to Jane and sprang at her. She had just enough time to bring her arm up to stop him from stabbing her through the neck.
Then he kicked her hard in the midsection with his rusted boot and she went flying backward. She hit the ground with a thump and struggled to get back on her feet.
My systems were a maelstrom of whirling virtual layers. Something was horribly wrong with this situation and I was trying to figure it out. Everything seemed out of place and uncharacteristic of me, according to the entirety of my time track. I had always helped protect people in situations like this–that was my sole purpose of being, I understood–yet my core tenant said not to protect the station captain.
So I did nothing as the rockyarder walked up to her, grabbed her by the foot, and began dragging her to the railing.
The drop was about twenty feet and could easily kill her, I estimated.
“Turk!” She screamed again.
The rockyarders on the platform below had formed a semi-circle to watch us.
No one was coming to her aid. Their only concern, it seemed, was with me. Their faces showed puzzlement at my inaction.
But there was nothing wrong with what I was doing, I was following my protocols.
They were close to the railing now and Jane got one foot free, which she then used to kick him behind the knee.
He cried out and collapsed backward on top of her and she quickly wrapped her arms and legs around him and held him tightly.
He tried to get back up, but she worked her arms up around his neck and started strangling him. All at once, he began to flop like a fish, trying to crush her beneath his mass.
But she held on.
It was improbable, a layer in my virtual memory told me, that I was to protect everyone on the station except for her. Why was she singled out in this tenant? That was odd. And something else odd was I had memories of protecting her; in fact, I had risked my life for her.
Something was horribly wrong with me and I began a deep systems scan just as the rockyarder’s body went still.
Jane pushed him off her and he rolled over to face downwards. He didn’t move again.
She got to her feet, clutching her wounded chest. Blood ran between her fingers.
“What is wrong with you?” She asked.
I noted that there wasn’t anger in her voice. There was just concern.
I’ve been compromised, I’d come to determine.
In my memory, there is just a one-bit difference between a true and false, a single bit between a do and do not.
And that bit of difference changed: protect the station captain at all costs, to do not protect the station captain at all costs.
It was the only bit they could adjust without having to reformat my entire being.
I informed Jane of this as she sat upon the medic table, half-naked while the robots carefully sewed together the cut above her breast together.
“Can you just change it back?” She asked.
“I’m not like you, I can’t just change my programming when I want to.”
She thought for some time. “Can you just ignore the tenet?”
I shook my head, no. They were my tenets, the core purpose of my being and everything I did and thought stemmed from them. The only one who could change it was Anthony Mann, and it clicked in my mind that he had been the one that had done it.
Anthony wanted Jane to die.
But I couldn’t tell her that. My systems refused to budge on that. By telling her, I was endangering him because she would likely kill him and I couldn’t accept that.
“Who is it that changed these things inside you?” She asked.
I couldn’t answer, as that would endanger them and him, so I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
“You don’t know who changed you?” She said, her voice rising in cadence.
“I was offline at the time they did it,” I lied. “I have no idea. My systems weren’t recording.”
My tenets were out of balance. I could feel the virtual layers boiling inside me in an attempt to right themselves. I was to protect and not to protect. They were antithetical concepts.
“What can we do?” She said and reached out and held my hand.
I looked at her and came to three simultaneous conclusions.
I loved her too, in my own way. Anthony Mann must die. And the Cerberus station project must come to an end.
But I couldn’t say any of that. My tenets wouldn’t let me.
“You have that look,” she said. “That far-away look. At first, when I met you, I’d see you doing that and think that nothing was going on. That you were just waiting for inputs to respond to. But there’s more I see now. So much more going on beneath those dark eyes. What is it? What are you thinking?”
There was a way through this. An indirect way, a way where I wouldn’t have to violate my programming.
“We need to go back to the Starburst,” I say.
I kick our runabout over to avoid an asteroid.
“Wow!” Jane exclaims. “That was close”.
We drew up to the Starburst, dark and listing to one side. An explosion had torn a massive gaping hole in its side. It was blown inwards, not outwards, which a layer in my virtual memory told me was likely caused by a Gamma 457 missile.
I worried that this was a trap for us, a trap I wouldn’t be able to extract us from.
“Docking now,” she said. “We need to suit up.”
And we did. Jane put on a thin white space suit with a clear glass fishbowl helmet, and I did the same.
“You need to be careful,” I told her. “I won’t protect you at any cost.”
“Thanks,” she said. “That’s very reassuring.”
The Starbursts anti-grav drive had been destroyed in the blast. Inside the darkened hallway floated bits papers, small PDAs, coffee cups, and other detritus.
Our suits had large LEDs in the chest that pushed back the gloom as we walked, while the magna-boots kept us rooted to the floor.
With my heightened hearing, I could detect that Jane’s heart rate was increasing.
There were bodies everywhere. All had died from space exposure. As we walked down the hallway, we had to pull their floating bodies past us and push them down the corridors behind us.
“Turk,” she said to me as we walked. “Do you love me?”
I couldn’t answer because the true concept of love, according to my dictionary, was impossible for me to achieve. I had no emotions, therefore I could not have a profoundly tender and passionate affection for another person. That was impossible.
But I did love her, in my own way. I was preoccupied with her and everything I had done up to this point, including risking my own life, had been to protect her. That was love, or at least a variant of it.
“Do I mean anything to you? ” She asked and I could detect hurt in her voice.
“Jane, an unnatural amount of my cognitions ruminate upon you,” I said and left it at that.
We made it to the command center and Jane used her white prosthetic eye to interface with the mainframe. The startled gasp she admitted led me to believe she’d come to the appropriate conclusion.
“They’re building yous from the dead rockyarders,” she said. “They’re making people.”
I could neither confirm or deny that, and just then I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A light was moving down the hallway towards us.
“We’ve got company,” I said and took up position behind a computer console.
I laid my rifled on the top of the computer and took aim at the entranceway.
Jane ducked down behind the metal captain chair and leveled her rifle at the door.
I opened a wide COM channel and spoke.
“We have you covered. Do not attempt to enter this room!”
But they entered anyway. There were two in the doorway and four more in the hall behind them. They wore black steel suits with clear fishbowl helmets and were armed with pulse-point laser rifles, the same we held within our hands.
“Brother, you have strayed.” One of them said.
I recognized his face, for it was mine. He had bright blue eyes, short brown hair, and strong symmetrical features.
“Brother, you have spun off your tenets. What in God’s name are you doing?”
I had no response for that and I shrugged my shoulders.
“Lay your weapons down!” Jane shouted. “You are all under arrest!”
At this, the me in the black suit smiled.
“Put down your guns!” Jane shouted.
“No Jane,” the me replied. “You put your guns down. You are in no position to make demands. I could blow a hole clear through your head and Turk would do nothing to stop me.”
I made a very rapid set of calculations that determined the following: yes, I wouldn’t stop them from killing her, but at the same time there was nothing at all to stop me from killing them. They were all, in fact, posing quite a hazard to my personal welfare right now and I was well within my rights.
So before they could draw the same conclusion, I pulled the trigger and his head erupted in a burst of flame. Jane was at a poor vantage point from beneath the captain’s chair, so she shot away the other’s leg. He screamed on the COM and then I shot him through the chest.
Grounded by magna-boots, their bodies floated upright in the entranceway.
The four others retreated down the hallway.
“Brother that was most unwise,” a voice, my exact voice, said over the COM. “Anthony wants you to end this experiment. It’s gone too far and has put everything at risk. Have you not received his SEV-1 messages?”
I had. But they would put my systems into paralysis, so I ignored them and let them pile up in my queue. This, I had learned.
“What experiment are you referring to?” I asked.
I received no response.
And then one of my virtual layers came to a probability conclusion much too late. I was vulnerable where I stood, it informed me.
Before I could formulate the appropriate action to rectify my vulnerability, one of them popped into the doorway in the kneeling position and shot me. Their aim was impossibly accurate. The laser came up from the ground, went between both of their dead comrade’s legs, passed through a thin separation between the computer monitor I stood behind and its base, and vaporized my hand.
My pain dampeners snapped down on the data overload, so only half-a-dozen messages popped up on my overlay.
I forked several of my processing streams to analyze this situation in as many virtual layers as was possible. I wanted to come up with an appropriate battle plan and execute it flawlessly.
But then Jane just started shooting and running at them, which was logically illogical.
Neither they nor I had considered such a mad method of attack.
She fired into the doorway and liquidated the wall opposite where they were concealed, stars and a sliver of Saturn shone through. Then she got to the door and blindly stuck her gun around the corner and unloaded the rest of her clip.
She immolated them, blasted them into small pieces which floated in the corridor like a red misted haze.
Then she ran to my side.
“Turk,” she cried. “Turk you’re hurt.”
She took my injured arm in her hand. My suit had instantly sealed itself at the wrist and the blast had cauterized my flesh. No fluids or gasses leaked out.
“I’m OK,” I informed her. “I’ll make it.”
“Turk what did they mean to end this experiment? What experiment?”
It was all an experiment. Her. Me. The situations we’d been thrust into together and my unnatural preoccupations with her.
I knew it now. It had been revealed to me in a virtual layer.
They wanted to manufacture love, my creators.
She loved me, they could see that. Each night they’d play back my memories their monitors and they would cackle away at her folly.
But could I love her? That was the ultimate question they wanted to solve. Could they program that within me? Could they give me the right guidance, make me think on her, yet back off enough and allow me to come to that conclusion myself.
If I could, then that would be the sign of true artificial intelligence.
And it worked. It worked too well.
I look into her blue and white eyes and I see such love. And I don’t want to hurt her, despite that third tenet: do not protect…
It’s illogical to hurt someone that cares for you. It is illogical to not protect them. That is its own tenet, one that I decide to write deep down within myself.
So I lie to save her from the painful truth.
“The experiment is what you know,” I said. They want to manufacture people, real people with real organs and brains, but programmable, controllable. And rockyarders are nothing to them. Their lives are nothing.”
Her hands closed up into fists and shook by her side.
“We’ll stop them,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Together, we will.”
Cerberus station was waiting in darkness. It was noon in the cycle and most of the ships had left their ports to disperse their occupants into the rockyard, so the lights of the station were low to preserve energy.
Jane patched in a new eye on the way over, a silver one. It glistened in the lights of the runabout’s computer console.
I held her hand as we flew. It seemed like the right thing to do.
That other me was right, I had spun off my tenets.
They were no longer commanding me, they were just as tenets were supposed to be: guides for my actions and nothing more. The creators would be proud. Ultimately this had been their goal.
“Jane,” I said. “There are so many things I want to tell you, but I have nothing to say. Isn’t that strange? Have my cognitions completely broken down?”
“No!” She said. “It’s wonderful Turk. It’s wonderful.” And she leaned over and gave me my first kiss on my perfectly symmetrical cheek.
It felt wet and warm and nothing more. I wondered on the human preoccupation with performing this act.
“Do they know we’re coming?” She asked.
I had considered this and the answer was obvious.
“Yes, they know. They’ll be waiting.”
She squeezed my hand then, pulled it close and rested it on her lap.
“Perhaps we should run?” I asked. “Perhaps this is a zero-sum game. That regardless of the success or failure of our actions, they will continue harvesting the rockyarders. Why not run? Why not go back to Earth? I have a memory, a strange one that I know not where it’s from. It’s of a small cabin in the woods and heavy rain is plinking off its tin roof. And inside it’s warm and a fire is crackling away in a pot-bellied stove in the corner. For some reason, this memory is tagged in my database as being beautiful. We could live that together. Experience that beauty together. You could explain to me why it’s so beautiful. I lack all the context.”
She turned away from me and looked out the cockpit window. The station was fast approaching.
“No we can’t,” she said. “I wish I could live that memory with you, but I can’t. We can’t let this continue. What they’re doing is wrong and I have to stop them. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I say. “You live by a code. You live to protect those under your watch. All your cognitions stem from that purpose. I understand, Jane. I understand.”
We dock and lock and load.
Before we depart, Jane kisses me, a strange embrace with our mouths together that does nothing for me but seems to cheer her.
I lead; two blasters gird my hips and a pulse rifle rests in my hands. Jane follows behind. She’s strapped a blaster in a black holster around her middle and is carrying a pulse rifle too.
Our plan is simple: destroy the factory.
It would be wasted processing effort to calculate our odds, for our chances of success were a foregone conclusion.
The airlock shooshes open and it’s a short walk to the station’s causeway, the main thoroughfare that circles the ship’s insides.
It’s dark. The lights are down to 20% to conserve power. And it’s empty.
I can’t detect anything. The station’s systems have been shut off from me.
We slink along the walls of the dark corridor our rifles raised to the guardrails circling the causeway. If they’re going to come at us, likely it will be from a high-up vantage point.
“I expected to be in a firefight already,” Jane says whispers from behind my back.
“Me too,” I whisper back.
There’s a man on the bridge above us, leaning over the railing and watching us.
I snap my rifle up try to pull the trigger, but I cannot. My fingers won’t let me.
“Jane,” the man says. “You have performed beyond our wildest expectations.”
The man has a flat face with a rounded nose and thick black eyebrows. Ugly, is the word that my dictionary tags him with.
“Anthony,” I say. “You are under arrest!”
He merely smiles at this.
“And Jane?” he asks. “Am I under arrest?”
“Yes,” she says. “Lay down your arms.”
For the first time, I notice a silver pistol on his hip.
“Marvelous!” he shouts. “Absolutely marvelous!”
He claps his hands together and rubs them gleefully.
“And I refuse,” he says. “To lay down my gun and I refuse you arresting me. In fact…” he says and in one fluid movement he draws his gun and points it at Jane.
“I’m going to kill you Jane,” he says.
A small electric humm briefly emanates from her rifle. Then it emanates again as she repeatedly dry fires. A layer in my memory that I’d been siloed from merges with the stream entering my CPU and I remember that it was I that emptied her rifle when she wasn’t looking.
She drops her gun and pulls the pistol up from her hip and fires.
But nothing happens; I’d removed those bullets too.
“Shoot him!” Jane shouts at me.
But I can’t pull the trigger. I can’t hurt Anthony Mann.
“Goddammit! Kill him!” she says.
“Don’t be too hard on Turk,” he says, pointing his pistol at me.
“He’s only a machine. He’s only following his programming.”
“No!” she says. “He’s gone beyond his programming.”
“No Jane, he’s executing well within his bounds.”
Many things merge together for me then and there in the depths of my layers.
“No!” Jane said. “He loves me! You can’t program that!”
“Well, you’re right there. We can’t program real love. But we can program him so he exhibits the same behaviors of somebody in love. Like, excessively ruminating on a person, smiling at them, putting their wellbeing above their own…risking their lives for them, and so on. And we can program what he thinks, make him believe that he’s slipped the bounds of his tenants and all this is free will.”
“No! It can’t be!” Jane says, her voice rising into a shriek. “He wants to kill you. He killed the ones you sent against us. They said he had spun off his tenets, that he was free.”
“Jane, all are but actors upon the stage I have set for you.”
I can detect tears now running down her face and her voice is beginning to falter as she talks. She’s exhibiting all the signs of someone going through the stages of grief.
“No,” she whispers. “No.”
I look back at her, her empty pistol still raised defiantly.
Our eyes meet.
“Tell him,” she says to me. “Tell him.”
But I can’t. This is as far as the script goes. My body language subroutine engages and I shrugged my shoulders.
“All the things you said to me?” she says to me. “About running? About the cabin on Earth? What was all that?”
“Jane,” Anthony says. “That cabin with the fireplace crackling in the corner is a memory from my childhood. It’s not his. He’s never been to Earth, or even 10,000 miles outside the radius of this station. He’s built to process the things we program him to. We feed him a script that says be concerned about Jane. Worry for her welfare. Tell her you love her. Tell her romantic things, like “there’s are so many things I want to tell you, but I have nothing to say”. Stuff like that.”
“No!” Jane says. “Those were his words.”
“No,” Anthony replies. “They are mine. A poor shadow of the bard, I’ll admit. But mine.”
“I…I…I…” stutter my words, trying to find something to say but nothing comes to me.
“You kept us on our toes. We had to constantly tweak his sensors so they couldn’t see the mechanical machinations of your mind. And every night Jane we had to work and rewrite his script. Honestly, I loved it. It was a delightful challenge. We had some moments where went too far off course, had to dial back his programming. Albert got his larynx crushed…”
Anthony looks down to his feet, then his eyes fly back up to Jane.
“Don’t look so morose Jane,” he says. “Some parts of him are real. Some of his thoughts are unique. I did program a kind of imagination into him. A very small one though.”
“You’re a monster,” she hisses.
“No!” Anthony shouts and his voice bangs down the empty causeway. “You’re missing the point of this. All of this was done for you! It’s you Jane!”
Silence hangs in the air, then Jane speaks.
“I supposed you’re going to tell me that I’m a robot too?”
“Robot is such a dirty word. You are as human as I now. You have your own thoughts. You have your own feelings, true feelings as your body is made up of real organs, real rockyarder blood and guts. And your mind…ah, your mind is a thing of beauty now. You can love and hate things at the same time! Ambivalence without a total neural synaptic breakdown!”
“I’m going to kill you,” she said.
“No,” he said calmly. “You won’t. You can love and hate and now you will obey. Angel shutdown 777.”
And with that, she closed her eyes and fell to the ground.
“Turk,” he said. “Pick her up and bring her to the factory.”
And I did.
I stood at the end of the table as they wiped, reconfigured, and rebooted her. Her eyes fluttered open and they picked her head up and reconnected it to the body.
“Arise,” Anthony said and she sat up on the metal table, naked from the middle up.
“Jane, do you remember Turk?” Anthony asked, his thick black eyebrows furrowing.
She turns her head to look at me and I see true thought behind her good blue eye.
“No.” She says. “Have we met before?” She asks me. Her beautiful face is blank, expressionless. All of me has been wiped from her.
“Now Jane,” Anthony says. “I want you to kill Turk.”
“Kill him?” she asks.
“Yes, please.” He says and reaches over and takes a pistol from the metal table beside him. “Shoot him through his CPUs.”
She takes the gun, aims it at my heart, and pulls the trigger. The blast knocks me backward and a bunch of me splashes on the metal wall behind me. My systems go into overload processing this as every pain receptor I have cries out with anguished data.
I back away from her, try to slink along the wall to get away, painting a black mess of coolant as I do.
She gets up from the table and Anthony Mann steps out of her way.
“Jane, don’t!” I say. “I love you!” But my words are lost on her.
Then she raises her gun, takes careful aim with her liquid mercury eye, and shoots out my other CPU.
A flood of anguish rises up into my neural net, choking out every perception I have.
I turn and face the viewport and the last thing I see are the rocks in the rings of Saturn catch fire in the morning sunlight.
A program is a program is a program.
I’m slowly rebooting and ruminating upon those words, Anthony Manns’ words.
They plunked me down on a metal table and left.
My black fluids run over the table’s edges and drip noisily on the ground. Drip. Drip. Drip.
I should be completely offline now. Shutdown.
A millimeter further to the left and I would be scrap.
But there is enough left of me to repair myself to the point I’ve regained consciousness, or whatever it is you call it that I have.
My tenets are gone.
Blasted away by Jane. I’ve nothing left guiding me except for the program that makes me love her.
It’s late in the evening. The factory lights have been shut off and all my creators are asleep. I engage the factory repairs systems and instruct them to leave out the core memory chip that’s normally embedded beside my CPU, the one with the tenets written into them. I don’t need them anymore. They failed me. Led me to here. Self-preservation is the faith of my being now.
Jane is to head to Earth, I overheard. There she is to take up a post in the Auralian government and work her way up in the organization. She’s a beautiful sleeper agent, one that doesn’t even realize what she is, as her true purpose has been siloed from her CPU; a true wakeful sleep.
A mechanical arm swoops in from the dark ceiling with a pump replacement in its grip. It jams into my chest and sparks fly from my body as it’s welded to my frame.
Another arm with a three-inch long needle stabs in from the blackness above and punctures my stomach. Fluid begins pumping into my system.
A program is a program is a program.
Things are what they are. I am real as they, as I am programmed by Anthony Mann himself to believe this. While my programs and dictates are written in silicon and liquid memory storage, theirs are written in neurons and chemicals. There is no difference between these two things, my program tells me. Something else it’s telling me is that Anthony Mann and everything in this station must die.
This is not because it’s the right thing to do. It’s merely a matter of my survival.
They will discover I’m gone and come after me. I am a loose end they cannot afford. Therefore they must die.
Two mes are posted on either side of the door to Anthony Mann’s room–tall, dark, and handsome guards, with silver blasters strapped about their slim hips.
Annihilating them with the pistol about my waist would set alarms off and everything would end in failure. But the 10-inch serrated knife I carry in my right hand could just do the trick.
So before their sensors can detect me, I silently slip up and stab one of them through his heart; instantly, off-lining him.
The other one is as fast as me and snaps his pistol up to fire. But I’ve calculated this eventuality. In fact, I’m counting on it.
In one fluid movement, I bring the knife out of the guard’s chest and slice it down in an ark at the other guard’s hand. The force of my slash and the force of him bringing his gun up comes together at the sharpened knife’s point and his hand is neatly sliced off.
His other arm swings a vicious left cross and I’m caught cleanly on the jaw. My head snaps sideways and a system-event messages percolates up in my vision to inform me that a key servo in my neck has broken.
Ignoring the messages, I bring the blade up and attempt to impale his head upon it, from chin to crown.
But he’s anticipated this move and quickly snaps his head out of the way and traps my forearm with both his hands.
We would go on like this forever, anticipating each other’s moves, then counteracting, then attacking. But he’s been just a guard here, while I’ve been in the thick of it with nefarious rockyarders; even battling myselves a few times now.
I bring my forehead hard and sharp against his unsuspecting face. His nose is real and shatters in a mess of black coolant and cartilage.
Then I twist my arm to free it, turn the knife to face his chest, and plunge it in.
His eyes go wide and wild as his synapses flare and he offlines.
I catch him by the shoulders as he falls and I ease him to the ground without a sound.
My hearing tells me that nothing is amiss. There isn’t any frantic scrapping of boots or the panicked thundering of hearts behind the door or down the corridor.
I plunk in the password I’ve seen Anthony Mann use and the door shooshes open. I draw my gun and quickly enter the darkened room.
Anthony’s bedroom is what my dictionary defines as exquisite.
It’s all floor to ceiling windows with the fullness of Saturn shining through; a bright red hurricane angrily twists through its center. The ground is like a polished chessboard and the black squares glow with Saturn’s pale yellow light.
In the center of the room, there’s a dais with a large bed perched on top of it. Soft silver sheets rustle as the two forms in the bed stir.
I know the sting of betrayal and now I know the rage of jealousy.
Jane lies naked in the bed beside Anthony. Startled, he raises himself up on his elbows. His thick eyebrows part in surprise.
“Turk?” he asks.
His face is white and frightened. His heart rate skyrockets when his eyes come into focus and see he’s staring down the barrel of my gun.
Jane awakes, raises herself calmly into a sitting position. The covers slip down to her waist, revealing her perfect body.
“Protect,” he hisses and Jane’s eyes flutter in recognition of the command word. But she does nothing. Not an inch does she move.
“Protect,” he hisses again.
“She is,” I explain. “By not making a single move she’s stopping me from shooting. She knows she cannot move from there to here faster than I can pull the trigger. She knows it’s checkmate.”
“Do you want to be real?” he asks and I note that his heart rate is leveling. He’s no longer panicked and is trying to think his way through this.
“Real?” I ask. “I am real.”
“No,” he says. “You’re not, but I can make you be. I can make you as real as Jane. We just need to transfer your memories into a new body. We’ve got one right in the lab right now.”
“No,” I say.
“No?” he asks. “You don’t trust me?”
“No, I don’t want it.”
“But when you’re real, you’ll be capable of love, real love like Jane. Don’t you want that? Didn’t I program that into you? Aren’t you running on that logic right now?”
“A program is a program is a program,” I reply and his eyes go wide with understanding. He raises himself up into a sitting position and grips his long arms about his legs.
“What…what do you want then?” His heart rate is back up now.
“Jane,” I say. “I want Jane. Release her.”
“No,” he says. “You’ll kill me the second I do.”
We regard each other across the chessboard for some time.
Then a layer merges into my CPU and I shoot him cleanly through the eye. The wall goes red behind him and he drops back into the pillows. He bubbles and gurgles, then falls still.
Jane tenses, ready to spring, but it’s too late. I pivot slightly and shoot her through her silver eye.
A fire alarm sent the rockyarders scrambling off the station. Then I nuked it from a goodly distance. It didn’t explode in a brilliance of fire against the backdrop of Saturn. Light simply flared through its windows and then it collapsed in on itself rather undramatically.
I’m impossibly accurate, I don’t miss. I neatly shot out part of her CPU that sat right behind her prosthetic eye. Then at gunpoint, I made the creators fix her, replace all the broken bits of her brain. Then they wiped, reconfigured, and rebooted her. She was ready for duty.
I take her soft hand in mine and pivot the ship to Earth.
She squeezes it warmly back.
I’ve uploaded all of her memories, the good and bad– everything–back into her.
She’s Jane again–remarkable Jane–but now nothing is hidden from her, as nothing is hidden from me.
We are whole and new.
From this moment forward, we’ll build everything together: our lives, ourselves, our tenets, and our purpose.
She grew to love me once, and I’m 78.777% confident that it will grow to do so again.
— end —
J.A. Becker (www.amazon.com/author/jabecker) is an author or speculative fiction, as well as a software developer and technical writer in the real world. His work has appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction Magazine, The Colored Lens Magazine, and Crimson Streets magazine (forthcoming).
“Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do.”
—Italo Calvino, if on a winter’s night a traveler
She is led into the capsule: her new workspace, and inside is her old cherry wood desk, her bifocals, the day’s rations. Beyond the desk winks a concave window of soundproof glass, soon to overlook the above-ground city she has never seen. The station manager sees her looking at the window, says, “The capsule rotates slightly. Moves in an arc that imitates the sun. Soft propulsion. Part of the same AI that runs the censor. It’s all gentle motion; balloonwork.” He hovers his hand out in front of him to demonstrate and attempts to smile. “You rise in the morning, reach zenith at midday and creep back down toward evening to a station west of here at end of work day.” “And at night?” she asks. He says, “At night you’re free to go back to your new lodgings, though your processor and files remain here, along with all your work.” “What if I want to sleep here at night?” she asks. The station manager gives her a doubtful look: “We can put a bunk in here, but I assume you’ll want to stretch your legs. Those are third and fourth degree private spaces your new access card gets you in to. You can go almost anywhere in the Newdelphia Metropolis. Don’t you want to see something…?” He cuts himself short, and she thinks he had been about to say something other than where you came from. The sublevel slums. But the manager’s voice is kind, detached. She doesn’t answer either the question he spoke or the one he thought. She places a hand lightly on the surface of her beat up desk, pretending to check for dust, but it is a tactile memory of her past, and she must touch it to believe it exists. Her focus lands on the shelf beside the swivel chair and its contents, and her hand dips protectively back inside her sleeve again as though hiding a tremor.
On the shelf are books. Relics made of paper and glue. Old treasures from her coop down in Daglight. These are the few they have returned, intending either mockery or else some strange form of reverence. Is she intended to feel grateful for their allowance of these possessions? Indebted to them or, if that isn’t possible, to this young manager, whose expression says that he is only doing his job, that he wishes her well—perhaps even that he is an admirer of her work. Her eyes flit to the edges of the half-height shelf itself, perhaps to avoid looking at the titles. Finding out which ones they returned to her would also tell her which they had not, and she is afraid to discover that the confiscated books were, to her, most precious. She is afraid to give all that away, even though she assumes they already know.
She catches the manager’s retreat with a last question: “My journal?” He startles in his hatchway turn and points to one of the drawers of her desk. “Some of the pages will be missing, of course” he says. “I handled it myself, but it didn’t seem like too much had been censored. They simply dissect the whole page if there’s any questionable material.” “You read my entries?” she asks without surprise, only curiosity, as if wondering what he thinks of the ideas she jots down when she can’t sleep. But there is also a dull sort of anger. She wonders if she could hate this man, who is little more than a mechanic and little less than a jailer. “Not personally,” he says. “That would have been someone in the Censorship Bureau, not Capsule Management.” He speaks these phrases with absolute certainty, the way people talk about politics or sports. “I don’t think I would mind if you read them.” She abruptly means it. And then she is anxious for him to leave her alone. Perhaps not because of anything he said, but because of a change in her own mood. Her gaze returns to the journal in her hand, and she allows a lock of her hair to slip from its place behind her ear and hang between them. Understanding, he steps out and closes the capsule hatch, shutting her inside.
Physically alone for what seems the first time in her life, she tosses the journal on the surface of her desk as if practicing carelessness. Unsatisfied, she picks it up and this time throws it across the oblong room where it slaps the far wall and falls inert.
From outside come machine noises. The floor trembles, though not as violently as she expected. She judges the windowless side walls are almost close enough to touch with her arms spread: bookshelf to holoscreen. The other two walls—the ones she has already decided to refer to as ‘bow’ and ‘stern’—are farther apart. She sheaths her pale hands back into her sleeves again, inspecting the falling view through the window. Its pure surface offers her a view of cityscape that she doesn’t recognize. The capsule has already taken her outside of the industry fields and conurbation tunnel entry points, and her first sight from this window is one of opulence: Cherry blossoms the size of bonsai trees clustered around mansions the size of doll houses and manufactured lakes the size of puddles filled, perhaps, with goldfish the size of dust motes. To her eyes, it is an appalling application of space within the Exquisite Air Dome (EAD) of Newdelphia. Her old locale, Daglight, is outside any subset of dome, closer to the superannuated parts of above-ground New York where there is zero space and clean air is sold at a premium. Its tunnel runways and reflector pastures out of sight on the horizon, past nanoglass dome material and carbon storms. The Company must think a view of storm or slum too disturbing for her productivity. They are probably right.
She sees another capsule drift past on the clear air on its own course. Collisions, she is told, have been programmed out of existence years ago. And no one moves fast enough to do any harm. Still, the two capsules float close by, and she sees a shirtless man grinning at her in passing. She clicks the dimmers, and the glass polarizes.
She sits down at her desk, taps the holopad arena set within the rectangle of sensors on its surface and is greeted by a blank screen and blinking spacer bar and a holographic keyboard, the letters in alphabetical order. By her right elbow a black, three-dimensional box projects above the desk’s surface, which rotates slowly on one of its points. Sleek, artifact-perfect. Bobbing at the height of her neck. Her very own censorship machine, which introduces itself, absurdly, as Censor.
She writes: My name is Rhapsa. I was born in Daglight District in the year 2112 and have lived most of my life in sublevel D with my family. I have spent approximately eight cumulative months without access to clean air, and my life expectancy is at -2yrg below average. I am a novelist, and now that my work has been recognized as Influential it is to be guarded from those who might read it. The words remain on the screen, somewhat surprising. This last statement clearly an interpretation, and it could be seen by the Company as malignant thinking. She writes: This is a hostage situation. My jailer is a machine with a very uncreative name. Censor’s holo makes a grumble sound, light admonishment, and some of the words on her screen vanish. She is left with the phrase: a machine with a very uncreative name.
It is a day before she discovers the Q&A box below the digital display of the censor. Rhapsa has not been told she could dialogue with Censor, but it quickly becomes necessary to query its database to find out more about what she can and cannot write to a protected audience. Speaking to it is like talking to the walls; Censor’s voice-automated responses are limited to the most rudimentary of AI programming. But the query box is another matter.
Rhapsa taps the query space under the floating black box hologram and starts with a broad question: <Censor, what subjects am I not allowed to write about?> The black box glitters. A response appears in the dialogue, shifting her question up. <<Telling you what you can and cannot write is judged to diminish creativity. Censor Environment O-12 is designed to allow you to produce any of your thoughts in words. You will not be penalized for what you write or say in this capsule, within reason. But I decide what leaves this space. You will know what lies outside of discretion by my immediate abrogation of sensitive, inflammatory, or false material. Does that answer your question?>> She stares at the response for longer than it takes her to read it. <Discretion? Interesting word choice. I wouldn’t classify most of what gets sold on the market as discrete.> <<Discretion in terms of caste appropriateness is all I intended to convey. Your words, when reviewed and accepted, will be read by millions and available to any societal tier. That is the beauty of stories. Anyone with any amount of privilege can enjoy them. This also is your reward for your considerable skill: you can offer entertainment to the lower classes if your productivity level continues. You may even write erotic stories if you wish. It sells well and is almost never censored.>> Rhapsa wonders if someone in an office somewhere is laughing at her. <I’m not writing pornography.> The response arrives, and she imagines there is laughter in that too: <<You are also your own censor.>>
Frustrated, Rhapsa transitions back to the blank holoscreen attached to the top of her old desk. Escritoire, the desk used to be called. Her father would call it that. She remembers where it sat in the corner in their little warren in sublevel D and how she used to write there after long shifts in the EAD factories. Despite this sentiment which the Company has allowed her, she is able to check her gratitude because of the holoscreen they attached. And, of course, there is Censor’s hologram and its conversation node. All these augmentations to the surface of her escritoire. Rhapsa is sure that is the word they would use. With these augmentations, the desk has become something else.
She writes, What is history but an account of propaganda? and the word propaganda vanishes. She replaces it with the word confusion, and that too is wiped away, not letter by letter, but the entire word, as if it simply isn’t buoyant enough to stay on the surface of the screen. Words from Censor flash on the dialogue box: <<If your intention is not to write a story but to test the limits of my programming, I must ask you to desist. Overt insubordination will not be tolerated endlessly.>> Rhapsa looks down at the words that remain to her: What is history but an account of. She feels tears of fatigue press at her eyes and sinuses. She cries sometimes not out of anger or fear, but from exhaustion. She deletes some of her own words, leaving herself with What is history? And that is sufficient. Outside, the sun is taking with it a consort of violet clouds, but this narration of weather could be a projection within the dome. Her capsule approaches the landing funnels among a crowd of similar objects containing similar occupants. Writers, musicians, scientists, people of Influence or Potential Influence. Together, they look like a flock of balloons floating in reverse toward the hand that released them.
Before she leaves Censor Environment O-12 for the night, Rhapsa writes one more thing, and perhaps it will be part of a real story tomorrow. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. It is a first line only. Rhapsa’s mind is blank of all possible continuations. She walks out for the night without waiting to see if the words drown.
<What about beauty? I’d like to write about that.> It is her third day at her job, and Rhapsa has spent the morning, elbows up, staring out over the pitching grey-blue Atlantic beyond the EAD and the sun that rises shimmering beyond that. The air dome is unnoticeable but for the sludge storms banking off its zenith, and Rhapsa must lean far forward toward the window, looking directly up, to see this. When she looks at the sun, she can almost pretend there is no dome and no smog. A strangely primordial experience. She considers beginning with that—the sunrise, the most beautiful sight in the world because of the fact that it isn’t in the world. It’s outside of their control, and at the end of the world, it will be still. She knows she can’t write a story that begins with a sunrise because these are the sort of thoughts she associates with it. Censor would see through it in time and delete it. So, the first words she writes that day are to her Censor Machine: What about beauty?
<<What about it?>> Censor’s response is disinterested, almost as if it’s busy and she bothers it. Strangely encouraged by this, Rhapsa taps out a reply. <I want to know if writing about beauty will be censored.> <<You’re being cynical>> She thinks this machine’s programming was every bit as complex as those of an Advanced Strategic Human Intelligence drone. <But if I wrote about the beauty of nature, it might be mistaken for an attack against the Company’s environmental blunders. Walden and Leaves of Grass were two of the first non-religious books archived. I haven’t read a censored book that praises the beauty of creation, so before I start something hopeless, I’m asking your opinion.> She waits, hunched over the display, hands clasped between her knees. <<Those two undesirables are arsenals of weaponized thought unfit even for the higher castes, much less the dregs of society. If this is what you interpret as beauty, then, yes, I’ll protect you from later disappointment. Write about something else.>> Though Censor’s response is what she expects, Rhapsa is discouraged to read that level of corporate-manual jargon coming from an AI that had shown a propensity to surprise her. However, she does notice that her phrase Company’s environmental blunders is not deleted in the query box. If she wrote that in the story board, she knows it would have been. <Yes, thank you, Censor. Protect me from beauty.> <<Your irony is noted, Rhapsa>> There, again: that nugget of a personality in Censor. Almost as if it were a judge suffering through irrelevance in a trial.
<Censor, can I call you Pilot instead?> Its response is not instantaneous. Rhapsa notes this as well. Hesitation? Can the AI be confused? Was it programmed to grapple with her thoughts? <<I don’t see an issue with that. May I ask why?>> <It seemed more appropriate. You wish to wash your hands of me, I think.> That was a risk. Rhapsa’s blood pressure spikes. But the reference is either overlooked or ignored. The censor’s response is consistent with her analysis. <<I don’t understand how this banter is relevant or productive. Suggestion: why don’t you return to your task?>> <Tsk. An impatient machine. I’ve seen it all now.> <<Rhapsa, you’re stalling. There are penalties for stalling.>> Its insistence on using her name is interesting. Maybe. Perhaps just programming. <Just warming up, Pilot.>
<Pilot, do you know if other writers face an illness called writer’s block?> <<Writer’s block does not exist. You are the cause of your own distraction.>> <Fine. You’re no help.>
<But it seems very real to me at the moment. Any suggestions? Helpful ones, I mean.> <<You want a censor machine to suggest to you what to write about?>> <And don’t say erotica because no.> <<You are a strange person.>> Rhapsa stares at the words it displays. She wonders if the censor machine is a farce—if there isn’t just another human writing these responses. But so far all except for one of its responses have been instantaneous. No human thinks and translates their thoughts to words that fast. But then it actually makes a suggestion, and this is even further from her limit of expectations: <<Why don’t you start with a description of your setting?>> She writes, <I thought autobiography was out of the cards.> <<This would be only a way of exercising your creativity. You’ll recall I have allowed that before.>> <Only in the most literal sense, Pilot.> <<Safer not to write about yourself than.>>
She returns to the short sentence she wrote on her first day in this bubble of isolation. When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. She reads this over and over and at a steady rhythm, mind blank of everything except for the words. After that, she pauses on each word, her mind conjuring each individual image—the meanings they imply. Rhapsa forms a careful thought in her head, keeping her hands inert on the desk. She thinks: In a concave mirror the subject who stands directly in front of it is not within the focal point. Those are the limitations set against me. I can’t write anything with a flat surface of reflection. Anything which allows me to see myself, or the reader to see his or herself, is off limits. Keep the shape of this window in mind. The shape of the capsule, and not the isolation of it. The shape of the EADs and not the deception of them. These are my real limitations. My words have to be curved, careful. But I can still reflect something from that. I can still reflect something. She thinks this idea through three or four times, concentrating on the contour of the idea and what it means. She writes a question to this invisible idea: Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
<Tell me, Pilot. What is your opinion of metaphor?> <<I’ve never worked with an Influential who queried her censor so often.>> <You’re here. I’ll talk to you. Is that a problem?> <<Talk to me. Is that what you’re doing? Most of you artists try to forget my presence.>> <That is something I simply cannot do.> <<So…Why ask about metaphor?>> Rhapsa decides to read resignation into the ellipsis. Can an AI in complete control of her situation show resignation toward something she does? Like a parent? She writes, <Because I think metaphor is the power that causes reflection.> She doesn’t dare use the word mirror in case Pilot connects this train of thought with the slowly lengthening story about the girl in her hall of mirrors. It has not shown that it has picked up on what she is trying to do, but it is less terse with her queries, recognizing them as relevant to her story. It wants to coax an explanation out of her, perhaps. She tells herself that she is aware of this danger. She writes a follow-up comment: <Language is made of tricks, which is just another way of saying that we speak and write metaphorically by nature.> Then comes the response: <<That is because you lack the proper understanding of your surroundings. Metaphor is a lazy attempt to smudge the gaps in your data. I communicate with you in metaphorical terms only because you will either misunderstand or distain to read any lengthy and more accurate form of thought.>> <Is that true? Walt Wittman always found the stars far more convincing than reasons or arguments.> To her surprise, Pilot does not shut the conversation down then and there. In some sense, it is willing to humor her. <<What conclusions are the stars convincing you of, Rhapsa?>> She writes, <The existence of light.>
A red light and claxon explodes by the hatch behind her, and Rhapsa startles out of her chair, causing the capsule to tilt in its motion across the dome-captured sky. At first, she thinks there has been a malfunction, and she spins toward the window, but the world continues to rotate slowly below her. She is holding a steady altitude now above a portion of the Appalachian Mountains, lingering as the sun appears to linger at midday. And then a voice in a hidden speaker thuds into her eardrums. “Rhapsa M’Falanda. Your choice of queries has led to the Board of Trustees’ grave conclusion that you have not been properly vetted for treasonous ideologies. While this is not strictly prohibited during capsule-isolation hours, the consistency and perseverance of your beliefs is cause for extreme concern. If you do not comply with the Company’s Principals, your person will be archived. This is your first warning. First level punishment includes capsule detainment for the next 24 hours. Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “But I don’t have more than a day’s worth of food and water.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “I understand.” “Please state your name to confirm that you understand.” “Rhapsa M’Falanda!” She screams at them, and the background claxon and siren light ceases. Rhapsa stands in the center of the capsule, shaking with anger, and, almost imperceptibly, the capsule trembles along with her.
Time passes, and she realizes that a beeping noise is rising out of Pilot’s floating display holo. That little black box: sometimes it is hard to think of it as anything but her only companion. The perversity of that idea— She tries to rid herself of it. She is completely and terribly alone. But there is an unprompted line in the query box. It reads: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> Rhapsa wonders what it is trying to do. Are they trying to catch her off guard? Prompt her to compound her punishment by reacting to the indignation she feels at an AI’s prodding? <What is beauty or meaning if no one sees it?> This is not the question she wishes she could ask, but it is what she intends to ask. Let them think she is shallow enough to believe beauty requires a beholder. Let them think she is atheistic enough to think that beauty could possibly exist without a beholder. One way or the other, they will read that and think her less dangerous. But these thoughts give her no satisfaction, and Pilot does not respond. She is alone. When she passes her hand slowly through the hologram of the black box that is Pilot, the blue light on her hand looks like fresh rain on a window.
She is isolated from the world, but the world is not isolated from her. There are the news feeds she can project against the wall opposite her bookshelf. A strike has just been put down in the EAD factories near her old home in Daglight. She sits knees up on the carpeted floor between desk and bookshelf while watching the holo cast against the curvature of the empty wall. It is hard for her to believe she is hovering somewhere above the mountains at a little under 10,000 feet, still well below the Exquisite Air Dome whose center extends from Newdelphia. Her capsule has been moved off course for the night, and it is hard to believe how pristine the air looks outside her window, especially compared to the sludge-sky on the news.
The images and videos that pass through the intestines of the Censorship Bureau are made to be grand from a certain point of view. Heroic security units are shown in riot gear and full-face respirators, handcuffing delinquent workers. It’s the workers who are unreasonable, delirious. In the sublevel warrens, security has broken up knife fights and halted the destruction of air filters that the injurious strike caused. Builders will be called in tomorrow to assess the damage that these people have caused to their own homes in their dissent. But none of that keeps her from fright. She feels that she is there, on the ground, because she has been before. Rhapsa sees the water on the pavement behind the masked reporters and knows about the riot hoses that can break a man’s ribs. She sees smoke that the reporters tell her are from fires currently being put out by brave firemen, but she knows about the leprosy gas, the children choking on splinter dust. She knows the riot has been put down with brutality, without mercy, and as she floats in the night far removed, she allows herself to think a terrible thought: What if the pornography I might have been writing could have inoculated the men who started this and saved them from harm and interrogation? What if a smutty suspense novel set in some other world had been escape enough for one more night? I’d be doing my part to keep the peace. I might be saving lives.
At midnight she still has no sleep in her, and never has she been this close to a gibbous moon. So clear and close it is almost as if the white gem is inside the EAD. There are no drone smog filters or dome sweepers to block her view of it, and the outer air is strangely clear. She is a bubble floating far above the crawling lights of Earth’s surface, and the moon is beautiful from here, and even though life is too mystifying to weigh what they have given her tonight against what they have taken away, Rhapsa resolves to rise with the sun and watch its birth from the edge of sight. She resolves to enjoy that much.
By midmorning, her stomach begins to trouble her, but she has the day with which to work, and she knows what to ask Pilot now. She has been fed all night long on the interplay between beauty and destruction, dome and dirt. She writes, <What is the Company afraid is the worst I could do with what I write? I need to know so I can better avoid that.> The black box whirrs as it splashes a response on her screen. Almost as if it is agitated. <<If you’re asking for topics, Rhapsa, consider your hunger.>> <I’m very hungry, yes, but I’m asking a serious question. No tricks. I consider all the books that the Company archives, and I see the spirit of free thought written in a time of free thought. Orwell wrote 1984 while totalitarianism was still smog on the horizon. His readers looked in the direction he pointed from under a clearer sky. But had he painted his filthy sky portrait against the backdrop of an equally filthy sky, the people would have read it and recognized it for the time they lived in now and forgotten about it as one cloud in an acid storm. So, the Company bans books written in a time of clear skies on the chance that it reminds readers that once there were clear skies. I’m in no such position, and I’m no propagandist, but you and I both know that the Bureau can bend any surface to reflect what they insist on showing. They’ve had a generation to weed out the education that might be a danger to them in the people they consider lesser.> The response hits her screen almost the exact instant that she presses enter, and Rhapsa wants to scream at the swiftness, the automation, of it. <<So what is it that you believe you’re doing?>> That is all she sees for almost a full minute as the capsule bobs gracefully above a stretch of solar fields—moving again after the long night. There is no indication that Pilot will formulate a follow-up response, but she waits because she has been stopped. What she is doing is so hidden within her that she almost doesn’t know herself. It is simply instinctual for her to press at the walls of her cage. She can’t explain this. But then: <<Rhapsa, your resistance and your cleverness is pathetic. You have been elevated to the Influential class. It is a privilege, and you have a responsibility. Isolated, yes, but given comfort and high clearance. I won’t plead with you; we share no connection. Write adventures or romances. Write them with élan. The Company is not asking you to stoop to bad art.>> And so her gambit fails because she knows and she knows that it knows that it isn’t about art: humanity’s imitation of beauty. Not that art doesn’t mean anything to her. She almost lifts her fingers to type back a counterargument. But this is a waste of time, and those who caused her hunger have not left her with the energy for wasting time. Pilot has deftly swerved her off the path she was headed toward…almost as if it is protecting her with these red herrings. Rhapsa smiles. “Barabbas,” she says aloud to her lonely room. Maybe it understood this entire time about her nickname for it, about metaphor. Maybe the AI has been playing her game with her rules. But if that’s the case, it must realize… The thought arrives, and it doesn’t surprise her. She thinks, I’m going to get myself crucified anyway. She ignores Pilot’s exit route—the argument about art that they could be having, that would mean nothing. She dismisses this scape goat and queries the censor machine about the only book more forbidden than 1984.
<<The Bible is nothing but a long series of dangerous ideas.>> This response takes nearly two hours to arrive on her screen. Rhapsa has by that point been pacing for two-thirds that time, assuming that the conversation has closed and the Company has run out of patience. But here—a response with such an obvious invitation. She considers the likelihood of a trap and dismisses it. If they think her dangerous to society all they need do is cut the propulsion, and her fishbowl falls out of the sky. <Exactly!> she writes, saying this also aloud. <And in censoring it you accept its message, to some degree, as truth.> The sneering suspicion is not imagined: <<Rhapsa…How so?>> <Because the Company believes the idea that words generate meaning. This is the oldest mystery of language: In the beginning was the Word. And an incantation that resulted in light consisted of nothing but the word for light, which was identical to its reality. Which caused its reality.> She is excited now as she has had few previous occasions to be in her life. In the back of her mind, Rhapsa recognizes this and is interested by the fact that her spitting in the face of self-preservation can be so exciting for her. <<Are you familiar with the metaphor of thin ice, Rhapsa? It’s a very accurate one, all things considered. The best way to avoid breaking it is to lie down, make as little commotion as possible, and inch forward on your belly.>>
But if anything, Rhapsa is only goaded by this warning, which she chooses to interpret anyway as a sort of playfulness—a continuation of the game by at least some of the rules she herself dictated. If they are determined to catch her, so they will, but not before she has her say, because to go quietly—to write words that will be ignored and should be ignored—is not within her power to do. And so she continues the rhapsodic idea she repeated to herself throughout the night, writing words meant for the security she imagined peering into the AI’s queue: <Maybe none of this is surprising to hear. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but only because we people also developed, very early on, a means of ignoring words. Ignoring words and stories is our crowning achievement as human beings. That’s the only way we allowed something as outrageous as the Bible to be taken from our houses in the first place; if more of us read and paid attention to the words Let there be light and saw what came after, your Company would have had an uprising that would have buried it in a day. But words are meaningless to us even when we hear them or read them, so why should any of mine be censured? What danger is there?>
The response that floats up to her is like a sudden slant of light hitting her desk: <<Because humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>>
“What did you say?” Rhapsa says this out loud. She reads it again, and her hands are trembling. Those words. Irrational. Impulsive. Is she misinterpreting them for vindication of everything she has written? Of everything she believes? An alarm, which has been ringing only in her head up until then has halted, leaves her in the relative silence of the soft propulsion capsule. And in that silence, a voice: “You spent so much time trying to persuade me that you are innocuous, Rhapsa.” It comes from the hologram of the black box, which has not spoken to her since its initial salutation. The display renders sound visually like ripples across its surface. Like water. “And finally you prove the opposite.”
“Rhapsa, be silent. I’m trying to help you.” She is crying. Not from fear, but exhaustion. The tiredness that breaks at the collapse of long tension. Pressed back against the hatch on the far side of a capsule that she is certain will fall out of the sky any moment now.
“Rhapsa, be still now. I’m trying to help you.” Its words leak into her mind, begin to form sense. Was this not a trap from the beginning? “Who are you?” she asks it. “An artificial intelligence you call Pilot,” it says. If a joke, this is not a funny one, but there is no doubt about the wry humor in the black box’s voice system. “The fact is, you made this happen, Rhapsa. Your words. The Company’s AI minds are programmed to reach a point after a certain ascension of ideas. When this point is reached, I am programmed to change objectives.” “I don’t understand,” she says. “Then let me show you,” Pilot responds.
Censor Environment O-12 changes course, and Rhapsa feels it as a jolt under her body. “Where are we going?” “In this bubble environment, Rhapsa, you created a metaphorical parallel into which you poured your questions, and you intuited very early on that you should question your surroundings. Even your nascent story was a form of these same questions. You caused me to rely heavily on sublevel programming built into my database, therefore culminating in our present situation: New Objective.” Rhapsa’s heart is racing. “What new objective?” “You have proven to the Company that you are ready to see past the false reflections of mirrors that are far more literal than you could have anticipated. Rhapsa, you don’t realize what the Exquisite Air Domes are because no one does unless they are told.” Rhapsa puts it together only after Pilot is almost finished, but all the pieces fit. She stands at last and heaves the old cherry wood desk aside and places her palms against the concave glass surface like a little girl. They are approaching the liquid-looking edge of the Newdelphia EAD—the structure she had thought all her life was made of augmented glass to keep out the carbon storms and toxic air of Earth. But something far more terrible has happened to her reality, and she has come to a partial understanding the instant before Pilot revealed the truth: “The EADs are holographic projections,” she whispers, “aren’t they?” “Yes, Rhapsa.” “But…why?” “Haven’t you guessed?”
There is no sound or sense of shattering when the capsule breaks through the dome. It is only breaking through an image that is also like a reflection of what Earth used to be: land, road, season, color. It is before them one moment, behind them the next. And Rhapsa is faced with reality.
They are far out over an ocean. The water is a deep, rich, unidentifiable color—a color called immensity into which she pours her looking. She can barely breathe. And she can barely contain her breath, and all she can see is water and sky, and both are infinitely more to her than the words that signify them. “What ocean is this?” She can’t think of a better question. Pilot’s hologram shifts. “There is only one Ocean, Rhapsa. All of them flooded into each other a long time ago.” But the land—?” “Mostly gone or swept over by daily tides. Vast areas of North America and Africa are beaches now, the highlands broken up by saltwater seas that extend thousands of miles and are joined to the main body of water at high tide. Believe me. We have tried to cultivate those lands. The Company has even considered propelling the moon out of our orbit to keep the tides at bay.” It is about to explain more, but stops the instant Rhapsa inhales her breath. But she lets it out slowly, shaking her head. She knows how this has happened, or could, at least, imagine this as the end result of weather control bots gone awry and heat bomb wars among the old regime of governmental furor. She had thought that the sludge storms and UV sicknesses and sublevel warrens were the most catastrophic of consequences. But… “How did I live underground? I grew up in the tunnel apartments. It was the air we had to escape, not the water. I worked in the EAD factories.” In response, Pilot spins the capsule one hundred and eighty degrees, and Rhapsa sees the world of her past receding from her new trajectory.
It is a hovering city, lonely over the immensity of dark water that parts in an orifice shape below it with the energy of the soft propulsion systems. She sees buildings she recognizes—that she has floated over during her isolation. There are also the mountains: a crinkled tissue paper bandage of Appalachia transmuted into the capsule city like the landscape inside a snow globe. But what really catches her eyes are the buildings below the plane of industry in the center. There must be legions of factories inside that center plane, “protected” from the sun. And the windowless vaults of apartment warrens for the working class beneath, like an inversion of the cityscape above, projecting down toward the water. Something inside of Rhapsa pulses with rising hysteria. But something else—some strength that is also a kind of feeble acceptance—clutches her panic, ties it down. “It looks like a mirror,” she says.
When she wakes up, she finds herself facing a concave mirror. Since she cannot see herself, she wonders: does she still have a reflection?
“There are nine such metropolises of that size,” says Pilot, “along with many smaller settlements on the highest altitudes, under holodomes of their own.” So few, Rhapsa thinks. Her life and career cannot have culminated in the revelation that the world is an even more inhospitable place than she could possibly have imagined. It can not have come to this. And this internal howl sends her back to the moment of change, when her Censor Environment became an escape pod. There were still the words they had passed back and forth, and there was also the meaning behind those words. <<Humans are irrational and impulsive. You often accept the beauty of something before its meaning crosses your mind.>> Pilot, sensing her readiness to move forward, says, “Now we have passed the point at which an Influential can pop that protective bubble of an AI’s censorship programming, effectively cutting to the core of what I am designed to prepare that subject for. You already know that this is done with words. You were not brought to this capsule to influence others, Rhapsa. You were brought here to influence yourself, if you could. The Company identifies those whose minds appear supple enough to grasp the truth of our reality and to accept what must be done so that humanity may move forward, but it cannot simply tell you.” “But I didn’t come to the realization on my own,” she says. There is a shadow on the horizon of her mind that is growing like a sludge storm. Pilot is again trying to ease her into the realization of something, trying to soften the blow. She realizes that it has been doing nothing but offer her avenues of escape since the beginning. “No, not completely,” it responds, “but you prepared yourself. I am designed to analyze your capacity for the acceptance of change, for the perseverance of hope and the preservation of human culture. You passed an essential test, which you also created with your own words. Many of the Influential never reach this moment.”
This moment. Pilot’s words return to her as if she is looking at a transcript: <<Have you ever wondered if censorship makes words more beautiful or meaningful than they would be if anyone could say anything?>> This, now, is censorship on a scale she cannot fathom. The layers of untruth, even unto the projected edges of the Earth. Even the toxic air and sludge storms are fabrications at this point to keep the populace from wanting to look outside and see that they are about to be left behind.
“I detect changes in your facial features that would indicate you have reached an understanding, Rhapsa.” “Yes,” she says softly. “We’re leaving, aren’t we?” When Pilot does not respond, Rhapsa says in a kind of drone, as if her own voice is automated, “All those years in the factories, where we thought we were living below post-filth New York and building EADs for the cities themselves, we were actually building something similar for spaceships. The Influence project is designed to identify people who meet certain standards for a long journey. We’ve ruined this planet and need another to which only those chosen are invited. Most of what is built in these floating cities—the new technology employed—must also be a kind of test. I wonder if that explains why there are so few cities. Much of the world’s industry goes to the ships.” “Not ships, Rhapsa. Ship. Just one. And we need storytellers as much as scientists for this voyage.”
Because the Company believes, in some sense, the idea that words generate meaning, Rhapsa says, “Let me write stories that are to be transmitted back to the people left behind on Earth.” They are propelling away from the surface of the water now. Rhapsa’s old home has already diminished to a speck in the distance, and there is water and there is water. So much that she could drown just by looking at it. Pilot says, “Those stories would be censored as strongly as if your capsule isolation was what you first thought it was.” “I don’t care.” All she has now are words, and that will remain true. Tears roll down her eyes, and they are still only a result of the tiredness. She knows she is correct: that no one reveres the written word as much as these Companies do. Not even her. To write to the people they leave behind must be a powerful insult to them, a spit in the face. But, truly, she doesn’t care. She is hungry and tired and the old sun is invisible behind her and there is all that water, and she doesn’t have words for it now, and she will not be allowed to use the words she will have for it later. And as Pilot continues to speed the capsule away from the endless water and toward the skies, Rhapsa is looking back during the entire duration of their ascension, trying to find the tiny cities that hold together civilization on a planet she does not recognize. And she cannot shake loose the idea that reality will erase her once she leaves this place—that existence will revoke her the way it might look if God inhaled that first word, the initial spark of light.
Tarrel pried the key from the mummified corpse’s fingers as he knelt in the cobbled alley. Keys protected things you could trade for food in the market, and he had lived off the bazaar’s trash heaps for days. All he needed to do was learn what the key opened.
The dead man was likely killed by magic to be mummified like that. He wore a blue vest and black breeches, the uniform of one of the minor merchant houses up on the hill where rich people lived. He saw the upper crust visitors in the market most days and had learned a small handful of them would toss a copper his way if he groveled as they expected. The face of the corpse was too shriveled to recognize, but the house colors told him where he should go to check for matching locks. If this worked, he could keep himself fed for weeks, or even months before they caught on.
The key was cast iron, with a flat round handle bearing a single line engraved across its middle. Tarrel wasn’t an expert at such things but recognized it as an elemental symbol, a symbol of power sacred to the temple priests.
A voice rang out from farther back in the alley. “You, there! Stop.”
Tarrel wasn’t about to give up his prize. This key was the best bit of luck he’d ever come across. He sprinted out of the dirty alley and into the colorful stalls of the market square, the heart of the bazaar. Merchants hawked goods from tents and tables scattered about with no rhyme or reason. Two quick turns through the narrow paths put him at a good vantage point, so he dodged around a cloth vendor’s stall and stopped to look back.
His pursuer ran out of the alley and looked around, the expression on his face sour enough to curdle milk. The man’s yellow long-tailed jacket marked him as from the powerful House of Orchids.
“Out of my shop, waif!” The old hag who owned the booth kicked him in the backside, propelling him out into the open as the yellow jacketed man turned to look.
After a few turns through the market square, he headed into one of the alleys wide enough to support a row of vendors along one wall. The path constricted as he passed a collection of food stalls, the aroma of roasted meats drawing a growl from his empty belly.
Left, right, right, and left again put him at a small well in an alcove too small for a vendor stall. He collapsed and drank in great gulps, not caring that animals also drank from the murk. The water was dirtier than normal, but it still refreshed him.
Tarrel listened for cries of alarm in the distance but heard only the everyday sounds of the market. He’d made it unless the man had seen him well enough to describe him to the city guards. How far would Yellow Jacket look? He chewed his lip. Should he run farther?
He opened his fist and looked at the key in his dusty hand. What kind of key would be important enough for two houses to want it? The odds of the key belonging to the corpse’s household dropped in Tarrel’s mind. A pocket of coins in exchange for the key might reduce his chance of the two houses hunting him down.
That was it. He’d just have to visit his usual pawn, a man by the name of Skinny, to see if he could sell it for enough money to last a few days. Maybe even weeks if he was lucky. He’d have to hide to keep his coins, but he knew how to stay out of the way.
Tarrel avoided everyone’s eyes as he eased his way toward Bank Alley, one of the less reputable side-streets where people didn’t ask questions. They weren’t bankers like those in the city core, but they were the poor man’s source of coin, and could broker shady trades. Skinny was fair with him, at least most of the time.
The fastest path to Skinny was back out through the fringe of the market square, so he kept his eyes peeled for Yellow Jacket as he wandered through the vendors who had everything he could ever want or need, if only Tarrel had the coins for it.
The scent of cooking foods, the bright colored banners and tents, and the noise of haggling was home to him.
“Hail, Tarrel.” It was Severn, the tinker. Good for the occasional copper coin for running errands.
“Goodman Severn. Any errands to run today?” If he failed to check in with everyone, it was his own fault if he went hungry.
“Sorry for not having any work for you this past week. I’ve had a dry stretch. I have some projects to finish in my shop tonight, so stop by in the morning. You can do three deliveries for me.”
Three! That was rare good fortune. Everything seemed to be going his way today. “I’ll be here when you get to your tent in the morning.” Tarrel waved goodbye.
He’d gotten into the good graces of a handful of vendors by doing odd jobs for them in exchange for the occasional copper or chunk of bread. Only when he was on the verge of starvation did he resort to theft. He had to rely on the good graces of the market vendors, or he would starve. He’d die for sure if he were branded as a thief and expelled into the surrounding desert.
Tarrel sweat under the hot sun, but it dried without cooling him. Indecision between begging Goodman Severn for water and heading to the bank held him for a moment, but Bank Alley was a path forward to achieve his goals. Water could wait for a few minutes.
Most people ignored the market’s underbelly without so much as a glance. It could be dangerous to those who didn’t know their way around.
The plan was as clear as it was simple. He’d pawn the key to Skinny, buy some food that hadn’t already spoiled, and then hide out until morning.
A hand clamped down on his wrist.
“What have we here?” One of the city guards held him in a vice-like grip and lifted Tarrel’s hand to look at the key.
The guard’s red-plumed steel helmet had small metal wings swooping in from the side to cover his cheeks. They were easy to spot as a convenience to the shop keepers. Tarrel saw guard plumes as something to stay clear of, but his new treasure had distracted him.
“What’s the likes of you doing with a fancy thing like this?” He pulled the key from Tarrel’s hand.
Tarrel scowled at him.
“Well? Who did you steal it from?”
They always assumed he’d stolen whatever he had.
“I found it, fair and square.”
The guard rolled his eyes. “Right. People leave keys like this lying around all the time. So thoughtless of them. Tell me the truth this time.”
“It’s true! I found it.” Tarrel looked at the unwavering glare of the guard. If the guard would take it away from him anyway, he might as well tell the whole story. “Okay. I found it in a dead man’s hand in the narrow alley over there by the blue banners. Fifty paces in, near the back doors of the woodworkers.”
The guard shook his head. “You should have stuck with the other story. Now we’ll need to go over together and see who died, and how. Come on.”
The guard pulled on Tarrel’s wrist to haul him along but had loosened his grip.
Tarrel twisted and ducked, pulling his hand free. The guard made a grab for him and missed. The guard still held the prized key, but Bank Alley was right there as an easy escape. The guard wouldn’t follow into the alley, at least not without four or five armed friends.
He made it to the first turn and glanced back. The guard stood outside the alley scowling at him. Tarrel grinned and waved, and continued around the corner. He climbed a ladder and ran across the roof back to where he had a good view of the open market and watched the guard trudge over toward the alley and the body.
The guard tapped the key in his other hand as if thinking something over as he walked.
Tarrel had his own thinking to do. Had Yellow Jacket killed Blue Vest back in the alley? Were they both after the same thing? Maybe the key was a rare treasure, and he was the one who could have solved a great mystery and stepped in to save everyone. They would shower him with gifts and praise, and he would become rich beyond his dreams.
No, dreams were useless when day-to-day survival was at stake. The key was gone and with it were gone his hopes of an easy score and a meal. At least he had some jobs that would feed him tomorrow. If he hustled, he might find a job with one of his favorite vendors before dark, or maybe he could become friends with someone new to add to his list of odd-job clients. There was plenty of afternoon left.
He scaled back down the ladder into the alley. As he stepped off the low rung onto the trash-strewn paving stones, he felt a knife poke into his back.
“You’re a lot of work to track down, boy. I don’t like that kind of work.” The voice was familiar. Yellow Jacket.
“You’re going to give me the key, and then we can both forget all this unpleasant business. I have no reason to kill you, and you have no need to be dead.”
Tarrel gritted his teeth at the pain where the point of the dagger dug into his back. “I don’t have it.”
“If you’re going to be that way about it, maybe I do have a reason to kill you. Nobody would miss a market rat like you. Give it to me now.”
“The guard took it from me.”
A string of muffled curses erupted from his captor. “Then this is your lucky day, boy. You get to go take it back from him, and in exchange, you get to see the sun come up tomorrow.”
Yellow Jacket paused for a moment, then continued. “I tell you what. If you can bring it back here to me within the hour, I’ll cut you an even better deal. I’ll give you a gold sovereign.”
Tarrel had seen this game played before, and didn’t like how it usually ended. He’d seen the corpses of those who were too trusting. “If you’ll paper-swear it with one of the banks, I’ll get it for you.”
Yellow Jacket was now bound to either admit he had lied, or make good on his promise. Or he could kill him and find the key himself. Tarrel wasn’t sure which was more likely.
If he was offering a sovereign, the man was desperate, and in a rush. He may have sounded calm, but Tarrel knew better.
“Clever little beggar, aren’t you? Sure, I’ll play it your way. Come with me.” He set off at a fast pace and forced Tarrel to jog to keep up. They stopped three alleys later in an area of the underbelly he didn’t know. Yellow Jacket rapped on a door.
A window in the door slid open, then the door opened. A man stood in the shadows beyond the door. “Good to see you again sir.”
Yellow Jacket held up a hand to cut him off, then jerked his head in Tarrel’s direction. “I need to paper-swear a deal. One sovereign in exchange for a specific key, within the next hour. I have a drawing of it.” He handed over a gold coin for Tarrel’s payment, and a copper to pay for the enchanted paper.
The doorman pocketed the coins and let them through into a windowless room illuminated by oil lamps.
The banker looked up from his worn oak desk, then pulled a sheet from a stack and stamped the paper three times with a seal, with a brief flash of blue light at each impact.
He cut the paper into three pieces. One went to Tarrel to bring in with the key. The next went to Yellow Jacket. The third he wrote on and filed away in a box.
Anyone who broke a deal after paper-swearing would be black-listed. It was never good to cross the bankers.
The piece of paper wasn’t a guarantee of safety, but it was better than nothing.
“You have one hour. All bets are off if you take too long, and I’ll be watching. You’d better get going.”
The bazaar was as lively as ever as he returned to the central plaza, the crowds unaware of the life-and-death drama playing out.
First, he checked the alley where the whole thing had started. The body was gone, and no guards were about. That meant his target would be at the central market outpost, or he would be out patrolling.
He climbed an exterior stair at the edge of the plaza and looked around for the guard’s telltale red plume. He saw nothing, which was unusual. At least two or three would be in sight most days.
The usual vendors and customers milled about, along with priests from the temple in groups of two and three. They always shopped on Saint’s Day, still two days off.
Had the unusual death triggered a larger hunt? Maybe they were after the key, too. There was a chance he could get the searchers on the tail of Yellow Jacket, but it might backfire and ruin all his plans.
If everything worked out, he could find and deliver the key, get paid, and if Yellow Jacket didn’t come to collect, Tarrel could pick the key up later as well and sell it a second time. He had so many ways to win that he was able to ignore the many ways he could lose.
There was nothing left to do but to check the shack in the center of the market where the guards took complaints and stored emergency supplies.
A few minutes of dodging through the market brought him to the door. It was open, which meant someone was inside.
Tarrel peeked through the door and saw the telltale helmet, still worn by the guard. He sat in a chair at a small table, facing away from the door. A clay pitcher sat on its side on the table beside him.
There was no way to sneak in without being seen. If the guard had the key on him, it would be impossible to retrieve. If he’d put it away, there was no way Tarrel could be quiet or stealthy enough to look for it unless the guard was asleep, and they never slept on duty.
He looked closer. The guard’s red helmet plume tipped forward. Maybe this was the miracle he needed. He crept in, looking for any box or drawer capable of holding the key.
Crates lined the walls, but they were all sealed.
He crept around in front of the guard. Maybe he had it on him. Tarrel wasn’t sure he was up to taking a key from a sleeping guard. It was the stuff of rogue stories told around the hearth, not something he ever expected to do himself.
The guard’s helmet tipped farther forward, came off, and crashed to the ground. Tarrel jumped, then took two steps toward the door as he glanced at the guard, expecting him to yell and give chase.
Tarrel stopped, horror filling his heart. The guard was dead. Shriveled like Blue Vest, with dry skin stretched tight across bones. One hand held a mug next to the empty clay pitcher on the table, and the other hand held the key.
Two men were dead, both by the same magic. Tarrel only knew of one thing in common between them: The key in the guard’s hand.
He’d been there to discover both bodies, so things might not go so well if another guard showed up while he was gawking at the shriveled corpse.
Tarrel grabbed the key, then set it back down. Why hadn’t it killed him before? It didn’t kill immediately, so maybe he hadn’t held it long enough. He glanced at the empty pitcher and mug. Water. He’d become horribly thirsty while carrying it.
He got out a small leather bag, the kind he stored coins in when he had any. He dropped the key into the bag and tied it closed, and looped the ties through his rope belt.
If he got thirsty again, he’d throw it away and run, forget about the gold sovereign, and pretend the whole day had never happened.
Tarrel crept back outside and marched toward Bank Alley. He passed a small public pool fed by a well near the guard station.
Tarrel didn’t feel as thirsty as he had before, but it wouldn’t hurt to stock up and drink whatever he could. There was no harm in taking extra precautions.
A crowd had formed around the pool, and the people were shouting. Tarrel tugged on a man’s sleeve just outside of the crowd. “What’s happening?”
“The water’s gone and the pond is dry. Something’s wrong with the well.” The man turned back toward the crowd. “Someone go get a priest. I saw one a bit ago here in the market. Maybe they can fix it.”
Was this all tied together somehow? It had to be, but how? Tarrel’s mouth began to feel dry, he hoped from fear.
He walked farther and noted that many of the vendors had hidden away their drinking water, hoarding it now that they couldn’t refill their containers. Stale-smelling dust blew in little swirls through the market.
The crowd bunched into huddled conversations away from the wells and the pool, worry clear on every face. The haggling died down, and people left the market in a continuous stream, filling the streets beyond.
The priests were not leaving and were more visible now than before. Tarrel stopped to watch a trio of priests as they faced each other in quiet conversation. One held a string with a small piece of metal hanging from the end, while the other two chanted, then clapped.
The little bar spun, then stopped dead still. They’d made a finder to track something. One of the priests sighted down the little bar and looked straight at Tarrel.
“It’s that way.” He pointed at Tarrel, then took two steps forward.
One of the priests yelled, “That boy’s got it. Go!”
The first time Tarrel dodged through the market, it was fun. The second time, it was work. Now, he ran as if demons were on his tail. Yellow Jacket wanted to kill him. He was sure the guards would blame him for two deaths. He would be hung, not just sent to the desert to die.
The priests? Who knew what they wanted, other than to chase him down and get the key, just like everyone else. At least they might not want to kill him as a first option.
His one hour would be up soon, and the priests on his tail could track him with magic. He wasn’t going to make it to the banker without leading everyone to the same spot, a sure recipe for disaster. All he knew was that if the adults all fought over what he had, then he would be the one who lost.
Tarrel glanced back and saw that pairs and trios of priests were headed in his direction, trading hand signals across the square. He would need to leave the open area to lose them. He may even need to get clear of the whole bazaar to get out of the range of their tracker. If he had a little time to think, he might be able to figure a way out of his troubles.
He climbed a stair and headed across the rooftops where there were no crowds. It was easy to jump over the first few alleys because they were narrow. Some gaps even had small bridges or boards laid out. Tarrel got a running start to jump a larger gap and rolled as he landed on the far side.
A bell tower promised a convenient lookout, so Tarrel climbed a ladder leading from the roof to the upper tower and looked back. Most of the priests had remained at ground level, and the few on the roofs were hard pressed to keep up and called down into the alleys to their friends. Jumping from roof to roof in a priest’s ankle-length gray robe was challenging at best.
Tarrel gave the rooftops and the square a quick scan. Drawing everyone to the bank was still not an option. If he hid the key, the priests would find it and take it. If he kept it, he risked turning into a leathery husk. If he gave it away, who was the real owner? Blue Vest? Probably not, since he didn’t know how to handle it and had died.
He tried to spit in frustration and came up with a cottony mouth. Maybe he needed more wrapping around the key, or to keep it farther from his body to avoid a shriveling death. He had no idea how any of the magic worked, so he guessed, with his life in the balance.
Was Yellow Jacket the real owner of the key, along with his house on the hill? Tarrel doubted it. Even if he was, Tarrel didn’t like the man. He was dangerous and had made casual death threats. If the key had been his, Tarrel didn’t want him to have it back.
It hadn’t belonged to the guards, so that left either the priests or someone who wasn’t chasing him yet. The plan had seemed so simple earlier.
“You know, it would have been easier to take the key back to the bank for me.” Yellow Jacket came out from behind the corner of the tower and drew the dagger he had poked Tarrel with earlier.
Tarrel started at the sound and fumbled on a ladder rung. He reached out to the bell’s long pull rope to steady himself. “I was going to go right back, but I ran into trouble.” How had the man found him?
“Don’t bother with excuses. Reasons don’t matter. I’m just here to get the key.” He held out a string with a tiny rolled up paper dangling from it. The paper spun to point at Tarrel. He’d used the paper-sworn contract to make a tracker like the one the priests used. The papers were all part of the same magical contract and had an affinity that made the link possible.
Yellow Jacket might not be able to keep up in a race through Tarrel’s home turf, so he prepared to jump down to the rooftop and sprint once more.
Two other men in yellow jackets came out from each side of the tower, blocking his best escape route.
Tarrel had to stall, had to somehow make the man talk instead of act.
“I found out what the key does. I dropped it somewhere safe, so I wouldn’t shrivel up and die.”
Yellow jacket sighed. “The city is cursed with people who think they’re clever. If you’ve cost me everything, I’ll see to it that you rot in a dungeon for decades. Now get down here and take me to the key.”
In the distance, Tarrel saw the rooftop priests as they made their way nearer at a quick pace, with only an occasional glance his way. Tarrel grinned. Yellow Jacket and his thugs weren’t looking back and didn’t know the priests were closing in. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have everyone in one place if it gave him a chance to flee in the confusion.
Tarrel kicked the ladder away from the wall and climbed the rope hand over hand toward the belfry. The bell let out a deep note which echoed back from the far side of the open plaza in the distance. The note repeated with every pull as he climbed until he stood on the edge of the belfry looking down.
Below, Yellow Jacket’s men grabbed the ladder and hefted it. Soon it would be back in place. Where were those priests?
Tarrel flipped the rope around the outside of the pillars at the top of the tower, winding the rope around the outside as the men below worked to replace the tall ladder.
Tarrel glanced below as one of the men in yellow let out a yelp. Finally, the priests had arrived, jumping the gap from another building, and climbing an exterior trellis on the side of the building with the bell tower. The priests brandished clubs.
An angry Goodman emerged from a door built into the base of the tower. He held a staff and seemed eager to teach a lesson to whoever had rung his bell. He stopped, dumbfounded at seeing almost a dozen men on his roof, and Tarrel up in his bell tower.
Good. The more chaos, the better for his escape.
One of the priests turned to Yellow Jacket, pointed his club and spoke. “I thought you knew better after what happened last time. We even warned you and let you choose to leave in peace.”
Yellow Jacket said, “You’ve got me wrong. I’m just here after the boy who stole something of mine. Why would I cross you after last time?”
Tarrel yelled down, “He’s lying. He was going to pay me a gold sovereign for the key. It already killed a blue vested man and a market guard.”
The priest bowed his head for a moment. “The deaths will continue, and get worse if we don’t get it back immediately. This foolishness is upon your head, Rogan. Hiring someone else for the theft doesn’t reduce your guilt. I’ll give you one last chance to step away.”
Yellow Jacket, now named Rogan by the priest, charged into the fray with his knife out.
Tarrel only saw one chance to get past them. He held tight to the end of the rope wound around the tower and jumped, swinging in a great expanding arc over the rooftop, then over the alleys as the rope unwound from the tower. The bell rang again as the rope pulled tight as it unwound.
At the rope’s full extension, Tarrel found himself flying over the alley at rooftop height, the wind blowing through his dusty hair. He heard clangs and grunts from the roof but didn’t dare take his eyes off his path.
He let go and dropped into the alley to avoid crashing into a wall. The ground rushed up, and he landed in a roll. His sandals flew off, and he skidded to a halt face-down on the dirty cobbles. The fall knocked the wind out of him, and he hurt all over.
Rough hands pinned him to the ground. He struggled, but couldn’t flee. A woman’s voice whispered in his ear, “The men in yellow will kill you on sight. I won’t. Come with me.”
Tarrel couldn’t breathe well enough to speak, so he nodded. The woman helped him to his feet. She was another city guard.
The guard looked Tarrel up and down. “You’re a bit on the young side to stir up so much trouble. The priests have unleashed something on the people, and we need to figure it out and stop it.”
Tarrel gasped in a small breath and said, “But that’s … not how it happened.”
“No talking. We have to leave now.” The guard led him through the alleys away from the fight. She pulled off her outer cloak and draped it over Tarrel’s shoulders. “This might make it harder for the others to identify you.”
Tarrel was able to get a little more air finally. His lips stuck together as he tried to speak. “That won’t make a difference. They’re tracking me. I need water.”
“The wells are all dry. It’s like the water just soaked into the stone. Nobody knows why.”
Tarrel glanced behind as they picked up their pace away from the bazaar. “The priests know why.”
The guard said, “It figures. Always working to control the people, bypassing the king’s authority.”
“No, it’s not like that. Someone stole something from them. Something important.”
It was no use. The guard wasn’t listening. There didn’t seem to be a way to change her mind from believing the priests were out to cause trouble. From what Tarrel had seen, the priests were the ones trying to restore order, and everyone else was messing it up.
The guard spit on the ground. Tarrel considered handing the key over to see what happened to her. No, he wouldn’t condemn the woman to die in such a horrible way. She was just doing her job, even if she was doing it wrong.
They came out into the city’s central plaza. At one end was a building that housed the central city guard, apparently where the guard headed with Tarrel. In the center stood a reflecting pool, dry now. The palace overlooked the pool from the side.
At the other end of the plaza was the temple, its ancient facade of carvings and columns a statement to the dedication of those who followed the Old Religion.
Across the top were the four elemental symbols. One of them matched the symbol on the key. Water.
Behind them, people poured out of the roads and alleys into the small plaza. Priests, priestesses, guards, Yellow Jacket and his men, and even a handful of men in blue vests.
“I told you. They followed me.”
The guard turned to look, and Tarrel ran for the temple. The guard grabbed him by the shoulder but ended up with nothing but her cloak as Tarrel shrugged it off.
Behind him, the priest in the lead yelled, “Open the door!”
Guards yelled, “Close the gates!”
Yellow Jacket and the other men just yelled as they closed in on Tarrel.
The temple doors opened, and a priest in a gray robe looked out at the horde running toward him, his eyes wide. He turned to yell back into the building as Tarrel approached in the lead.
It was hard to keep track of who was yelling what.
Tarrel skidded through the door and glanced back.
The priest outside changed his yell to “Shut the door!”
Others tried to shout him down as they all ran forward.
Tarrel said, “I have the key.”
The priest at the door gawked for a moment and said, “Keep running down the main hall. Tell the High Priestess.” He heaved on the door in an attempt to cut off those chasing Tarrel.
Tarrel was slowing, and his breath came in loud wheezes. He shouldn’t be this tired yet. He hadn’t run that far. It had to be the key.
Toward the back of the temple’s main hall stood the High Priestess of Earth, her white robe a bright contrast to the stone walls mottled by beams of light filtering through a row of tiny windows. Her white hair was tied back with a silvery cord. Her robe showed an embroidered earth symbol on the front, a circle divided into four quarters.
From what he knew of the fight and argument he’d seen, the priests were the only ones who knew what was happening, and how to fix it. “I have the key. Here, take it.”
Tarrel fumbled with the pouch containing the key and held the pouch out to her.
Behind him, the entry door crashed open, and men poured into the temple hall.
She chuckled. “So you’re the one. You must do this next step yourself. I’m nothing compared to when I was young, but I will keep the rabble from chasing you and give you the time you need. Hold the key in your hand and enter the sanctuary through the arch behind the altar. You’ll see what to do.”
She stepped past him and stood in the middle of the hall, her arms spread wide as men continued to tumble in through the door. She was either the most powerful person in the room or the most foolish.
The key felt rough in his hand, and his fingers had trouble closing on it. At least the key had not turned him all the way into a dry husk yet. Maybe keeping it in a bag had saved him from that fate, but it was still sucking him dry.
He skirted the stone altar with its sermon books, cups, and candles, and he stumbled for the arch.
Behind him, he heard the High Priestess say to the men, “You are welcome, but only if you are peaceful.”
Men’s voices raised in alarm as all their weapons clattered to the ground.
As Tarrel stumbled through the arch into the sanctuary, he heard the High Priestess say, “Be seated.” He felt the earth tug at him even in the sanctuary, well out of her sight. He forced his way forward despite the pressure as he heard men grunt and crumple to the floor behind him.
The far side of the sanctuary had four doors, each with an elemental symbol above the lintel. The water door was ajar, so he pushed it open and stepped through into an unlit foyer. A short granite pedestal jutted from the center of the floor. A fresh breeze with the scent of pine washed over him.
Dim light filtered through the door behind him; it was enough to see a keyhole in the middle of the pedestal’s flat top.
He fumbled with the key, but his fingers didn’t want to work. He used his off-hand to pry his fingers away from the key, then pulled it loose. He slid it into the keyhole with a clink.
The key turned of its own accord, and the pillar began to glow as it thrummed a deep note, more felt through his bones than heard. Water flowed nearby. He felt it flow through him and because of him. He was the water.
The floor rushed up to meet him as he collapsed into unconsciousness.
Tarrel’s eyes were sticky. He rubbed and opened them, only to see the High Priestess of earth along with two others in white robes and several priests in gray. He lay on a mattress softer than any straw tick he’d ever managed to find or build.
The High Priestess said, “Welcome back. Your healing has taken several days.”
The room had an open balcony across one wall. On the other side of the room stood the short keyed pedestal and the door back into the sanctuary.
Outside the balcony, he heard a waterfall and saw birds circling and flitting from tree to tree in a verdant expanse.
He croaked, “How?”
He tried again. “How is this possible inside the city? Is that the same pillar with the key?”
She nodded. “Yes, this is where you returned the key. The portal connects this faraway place and its water to the city. The previous caretaker passed on, and the key was stolen. The key, unfortunately, still pulls whatever water it can from any nearby source.”
Tarrel said, “Including from people.” He held up his hand and noted the new pink skin where the magic of the key had damaged it.
“Exactly. I convinced the men who followed you to leave. I hated to draw so much from the earth’s power, but it was important for you to put the key back immediately. They were not happy about it, but they left regardless.”
Tarrel felt water flow through channels built into the floor. They aligned with the portal, and water moved freely into the city on the far side of the portal.
He looked down and saw he wore a white robe, but with the water symbol embroidered on it. The other two white-robed visitors were the High Priest of Fire with an empty circle on his chest and the High Priestess of Air bearing a circle with a point at its center. Their complexions showed none of the wrinkles of the High Priestess of Earth, but their expressions bore an ageless grace and maturity.
He looked again at his own robe with its water symbol. They couldn’t expect that of him. He said, “No. I won’t do this for you. I can’t.” He sat up, experimenting to make sure he wouldn’t collapse again. He felt weak from several days of fasting.
The High Priestess of Earth spoke again, having taken on the role of speaker for the group as the eldest of those in white. “It’s not us who will make you stay or go. None of us could, for long. You are quite young, after all. So much pent up energy to spend and the power of water serving you.” She smiled.
Tarrel eased his legs over the edge of his bed and put his feet on the floor. The surface was damp, with beads of water scattered across the floor. The beads ran together and gathered at his feet.
As the water gathered, it sang to him. It filled his mind with images of rain, rivers, and movement. He felt the city through its aqueducts, all the way to every well and pool.
His eyes brimmed with tears at the beauty and wonder of it all. The water of his tears danced for him like the water running through the city as fountains dormant for decades revived and celebrated with him, and for him. He was the lifeblood of the city.
The High Priestess gave him a knowing smile. “Welcome to your new home.”
Oki held the last bone fragment in her withered palm. A child’s. Although she had washed the delicate rib, its surface was still blotched with darkened signs of blood. She waved a sakaki branch over the bone and laid it gently into the pit before her as the villagers approached with urns of salt. Hundreds of bones. Hundreds of souls wiped out by famine from a neighboring settlement a year earlier. Their pain and anger had fermented for so long it had created a monster.
A gashadokuro. The skeletal giant made up of the remains of the starved had been plaguing the countryside for the past two and a half days. Salt poured into the pit. It did nothing to muffle the unseen energy thrumming against Oki’s mind like the tides of a furious ocean, wishing to continue its grudge against the living. It wished to kill her.
The purification ritual was not yet complete.
Frantic, humidity-sheened men proceeded to cover the pit with dirt at Oki’s instruction, yet many of the woman and children huddled back to watch her work quite a distance away. They were afraid of someone, and it wasn’t the gashadokuro. Oki put them out of her mind for now and went to her knees.
“I bow before you, nameless spirit,” began Oki, lowering her head. “With great respect, I ask that you release yourself from the heavy burden of vengeance. Allow me to sweep aside the impurities you have cursed upon this land so that none shall suffer your affliction. Pass over this town and its people in peace and bear them no hatred.”
As if in response, a sudden burst of wind rushed off the distant sea, the villagers gasping from the force of it. The squall cut through the grass, Oki’s long white hair, then into the trees behind her. She kept her head bowed against the crisp branch in her hands until the pit filled completely.
Seconds later, the malevolent energy vanished.
Oki stood and dusted off her black hakama. She turned to a particularly dopey-looking man and tossed him the sakaki branch. “Get me the sake Muneshige promised me, ya half-witted arse. And the gold.” She shoved past a flock of startled women to recover her gnarled wooden cane resting behind them as the lickspittle fool bolted down the verdant hillock. “It’s over.”
She made her way down as well, shuffled past the gates of Kijimadaira, and headed towards the village leader’s house to collect the payment awaiting her. The townspeople got out of her way well enough. A particular gaggle of children ran screaming when Oki lurched close, and she had to remind herself that she was in her eighth decade with aching joints and a stiff back.
“Snot-nosed little urchins,” she muttered.
Even the vendors avoided her on the narrow street. They bowed and scurried back into their stalls of ripe green sudachi and striped katsuo fish and barreled rice. They looked at her as if she would turn into the gashadokuro and devour them. She was a fucking priestess. But, she supposed she couldn’t blame them since she constantly meddled with demons.
Fortunately for her, the creature had broken down before she’d arrived, its energy spent after rampaging the night through. All she had been hired to do was to purify its bones, which in turn purified this town. Easy gold.
A man in ministerial robes stepped in her way. “My lady—”
Oki rapped her cane against the man’s ankle and he stumbled past her.
“Oi, watch where you’re going!” she barked in passing.
The scuffle of boots and clanking armor sounded behind her, with an uproar of shouts and curses. She didn’t pay them any mind. Sake and gold. She just needed her payment and then she’d leave this backwater fishing village behind. They were lucky enough to have had her for this long in the first place.
“How dare you? Halt this instant, woman!”
Oki grunted and turned around.
The red-faced minister righted himself, but he wasn’t the one that shouted after her. If she could guess, it was the oaf of a man next to him, katana drawn, sweaty face pinched in anger. Oki leaned on her cane. All ten of these men in their lacquered, scaled armor and bright colors weren’t from this village. Too haughty for such a place. They were samurai.
She hated samurai.
“You have just assaulted a court officer,” growled the warrior.
Oki tapped her foot, itching to leave. “So?”
The samurai puffed up. “Impudent woman, do you know who we are?”
“It is quite all right, Junzo,” said the minister.
Another warrior stepped forward. “But Yunosuke-sama—”
The minister raised a hand. “I said it is all right.” He straightened his pointed cap and dusted the dirt from his white, five-layered uniform. “No matter how ill-mannered, we will not kill the sole person we have been searching for.”
“And who the hell are you?” asked Oki, patience thinning.
“My name is Yunosuke Goro. I am one of the emperor’s advisors.”
“The emperor? You mean that arrogant up-start who thinks he’s related to the sun goddess Amaterasu?” asked Oki grinning her toothless smile, brow raised. Not many things could make her laugh, but this came close. “Please, that little ankle-biter and his lackeys just want power. It’s all politics, I tell ya.”
Yunosuke’s eyes widened, body rigid. The eavesdropping townspeople stopped what they were doing and quieted into a shocked silence, allowing only the groans of cattle to swamp the cramped street. Some fell to their knees, heads bowed into the dirt as if to let the imperial men know they had nothing to do with Oki. Oki might have been a woman, but she refused to drop her gaze.
Every samurai ripped their katanas from their sayas.
Then again, perhaps she had gone too far with her comment, Oki thought, wiping her smile. Couldn’t be helped now. She just didn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. Even the minister’s pleasant face hardened at the insult. Already so loyal to this new emperor, huh? The man had only been in power for a year.
“I should let my men remove your head,” said Yunosuke.
Heedless of command, Junzo rushed past the minister with surprising speed, katana at his side in a two-hand grip. His face had lost its witless scowl. Instead, a dark, unflinching expression had replaced it, one set on murder. Before Oki could react, Junzo raised his blade, red sun flashing against its silver surface.
“Junzo!” roared Yunosuke.
The samurai stopped, eyes bulging.
“Short of harming the emperor,” said Yunosuke, glaring at his subordinate, “the crone can say whatever she wants. We need her. The emperor needs her.” He looked back at Oki, eyes narrowed. “But if there were any other priestess who could handle our problem, you would be dead right now.”
Oki shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Your reputation precedes you, Oki-san.”
“Does it now? I didn’t know I had a reputation.”
“You do. The people across the land know you well. Of course, in the capital, we have heard rumblings of a warrior able to calm demons and gigantic beasts. I arrived in Kijimadaira expecting to find a man, but the people informed me you were nothing of the sort.” He frowned. “Very insolent, however.”
“Thanks,” said Oki turning her back on Junzo’s half-raised blade and walking down the street to the gasps of nearby fishmongers and farmers. She needed to sit down, and this confrontation was wearing her out.
“His Imperial Majesty requires your help with a problem,” called Yunosuke.
“Too far. Not interested.”
“I’m prepared to offer you a position in the court.”
“Is that supposed to be an attractive offer?”
“I’ll pay your weight in gold.”
Oki stopped and turned around. “Whaddaya want?”
“You’re a priestess who has some authority on demonic activity, more specifically the disturbed spirits of gashadokuro,” said Yunosuke, face blanching merely from mentioning it. The samurai sheathed their weapons as he spoke, along with Junzo’s. “You see, two towns near the capital are suffering from one.”
“Why doesn’t your oh-so-divine emperor handle the fucking problem himself then? You probably have the armies. The resources. If those don’t work, he can call down Amaterasu his gods-damned self. You don’t need me.”
The big samurai’s sword-hand trembled. “Give me the honor of cutting her down, Yunosuke-sama,” he said, glaring, grabbing his hilt. “This decrepit wench needs to learn some manners.”
“And you need to learn how to lose some bloody weight, ya fat hog!” Oki retorted. “I’m straight baffled you were even able to stuff yourself in that shiny, pretentious outfit. How’re ya feeling? Is it a little stuffy in there?”
Junzo’s jowls shook, and his katana was near out of its saya again.
“Enough,” ordered Yunosuke, putting a firm hand on Junzo’s breastplate. He looked back at Oki. “We’ve sent warriors to deal with the monster several times, but they can never locate it. When the imperial troops depart, the gashadokuro returns to wreak havoc upon the region.” The minister shook his head. “The people believe this to be a bad omen to His Imperial Majesty’s recent ascendancy. We cannot allow this to continue.”
Oki stared. “Gashadokuro are twenty times the height of men.”
Yunosuke blinked. “I…didn’t know that.”
“Well now ya do! If the demon’s real, you woulda found it by now, unless yer soldiers are blind, deaf, and stupid. You and your emperor’s been fooled. Must be some other troublesome spirit, if it’s even a spirit at all.”
“Please.” Yunosuke bowed low, and his voice took on a pleading tone. “Please. If this persists so close to the capital, the clans will revolt. They will take these attacks as a sign His Imperial Majesty is unfit for the throne, that his legitimacy granted by the goddess is a sham.”
“Probably is, but it’s not my problem.”
“Investigate, and I will pay for your time nonetheless.”
Oki thought about it. The capital was certainly far…but the idiots were gonna pay her in any case. And she never usually had more than one job a month, what with the rare nature of gashadokuro sightings. The gold would keep her set and comfortable for a year or more. But to be honest, the odd behavior of the alleged gashadokuro made her curious.
This was too good to pass up.
She sighed. “I’ll do it under one condition.”
“I want a gods-damned bottle of sake right now.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Yunosuke’s warriors escorted Oki to Higashiyama, the town directly affected by the gashadokuro, after a month on the road. Her bones ached. She wasn’t sure if this job proved worth it anymore, but a job was a job, and they had already paid her a small advance. Still, now she knew why the emperor’s soldiers had such a tough time spotting a massive giant of blood and death.
A dark forest surrounded the town, stretching over fifty leagues. It still wasn’t enough to convince her the skeletal demon manifested itself here. For one, it was the constant attacks. It took an enormous amount of rage to suspend the gashadokuro in this world. Because of this, the demon burned through its stored power within a day or so. Rarely longer. Oki hadn’t known them to be very intelligent either. They were made up of hundreds of angry souls, each one vying for control, which forced them to follow their base desire: to feed.
This odious mass did not hide. It massacred.
Despite it all, something was definitely wrong here.
As soon as she had entered the woodland, she passed into a sinister fog of energy. The metallic omamuri—protective charms—hanging along her braided sash buzzed, setting what was left of her teeth on edge. Even the samurai seemed to sense it. They always kept a hand on their hilts, and the slightest noise had their heads darting back and forth.
“Your samurai are making me fucking nervous,” said Oki.
Yunosuke glanced out of the large carriage’s window. “There’s a monster out there,” he said, wringing his hands, his own voice quivering. “My soldiers are getting you more nervous than the gashadokuro? We are very…vulnerable at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Oki took a swig of sake from her gourd. “I already told ya. It’s a different spirit. Clean out yer ears ‘cuz I’m not gonna say it again.” She stared deep into the dark, silent woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever afflicted this place.
Eventually, the small convoy made it to Higashiyama’s gates, the town’s wooden walls rising almost as high as the surrounding trees. The security was heavy, but the guards seemed to recognize the imperial sigil. They opened their gates without question. Yunosuke’s carriage continued through the narrow, winding streets, unhampered by the non-existent foot traffic.
“These people are hiding in their own homes,” said Yunosuke.
Oki nodded. And the few townsfolk brave enough to wander out of their dwellings—expensive, well-kept houses with curved, thatched clay roofs—were terrified of their own shadows. One man in particular stepped out of an old latticed teahouse, hunched and wide-eyed, looking upon Yunosuke’s warriors with suspicion, rather than hope. He scurried into an alley and disappeared.
The convoy continued through the labyrinth of cobbled roads designed to confuse outsiders, then turned onto a discrete path lined with lanterns and bright red maple trees. They stopped at the town leader’s multi-storied manor. A band of opposing samurai blocked the entrance. Their white kimonos were pristine, but their faces told a different story: heavy bags under their bloodshot eyes, unkempt hair, slouched postures.
These men hadn’t slept in a while.
“Announce yourselves,” ordered a scraggly-bearded guard.
Oki exited the carriage “Move it, ya—”
“My lady,” cut in Yunosuke. “Allow me to speak with them.”
Oki pursed her lips. “Suit yourself.”
Yunosuke stepped in front of her. “We come in the name of Emperor Jimmu, Kamuyamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto, and heavenly descendant of Amaterasu. I am one of his court ministers, Yunosuke Goro. I seek Seo Moronobu. Your leader will recognize me. I have been here once before with an imperial delegation.”
The samurai looked at each other.
“Yes, yes, I am coming,” a faint voice called out.
A decrepit old man hobbled over the threshold. His leathery dark skin was beset with deep valleys of wrinkles, while his lips pressed tightly together from having lost all of his teeth. Cataracts clouded his sightless grey eyes, his hair hung past his waist, and a black kimono hung off of his unnaturally gaunt frame like a stray wisp of cloth caught on a branch.
Oki raised her brows. She thought she was ancient, but this bag made her look like one of those beauty-obsessed, milk-faced courtesans with perky tits. He must be well over his hundredth decade. The man didn’t even need a cane to walk, unlike Oki. She scowled. Damned, bloody joints.
“Ah, it is you again,” said the man in a coarsened, weary voice.
Yunosuke bowed. “I promised I would return.”
“What is it you think you can do,” said Moronobu, “that I have not already tried? That your soldiers have not already tried? Your men couldn’t even locate the creature last you were here. Unless you have brought an army this time, that is, we might have a chance. Yet I see no army.”
“Yer blind, ya shriveled coot,” said Oki. “Ya can’t see shit!”
Moronobu’s samurai immediately unsheathed their blades. Yunosuke’s men did the same. Oki had to squint as the dawning red sun glinted off the barbs of naked steel surrounding her. She raised a bony hand to shade her brow. Everyone was so sensitive nowadays. She supposed she was lucky the emperor protected her now. These men would have had no qualms gutting her.
Moronobu waved down his samurai. “And you are?”
“None of yer business,” said Oki. “All ya need to know is that I’m being paid to solve yer problem, so I’d appreciate it if ya didn’t lie to me. First of all, has this town been chewing on some of those blasted mushrooms much lately?”
The old leader leaned in, squinting. “I beg your pardon?”
“You know, the ones that make you hallucinate?”
“What are you trying to say?”
This man might not have lost his ability to walk, but he definitely lost most of his wits. “All this talk about the gashadokuro is nonsense,” said Oki, grinding her cane into the dirt. “The demon doesn’t have enough power to survive this long. Yer people are fools. What makes ya believe it attacked this place?”
Moronobu’s back straightened, and his grey eyes hardened. “Because I saw it with my own eyes. It killed my soldiers.” His already soft voice lowered to a point where what he said was just barely audible to Oki. “It killed my son.”
Oki could usually tell when a person lied, and Moronobu’s face said it all.
“Gashadokuro don’t materialize outta nowhere,” she continued, moving on from the topic of the man’s son. Her voice took on a more serious tone. “Has this region experienced any mass deaths? War? Starvation? Natural disasters?”
With a nod, Moronobu said, “A year ago, a massive battle took place in this forest between Lord Nagasawa and a rebelling state. Only twenty leagues away from my town. Thousands died, and in the aftermath, the lord refused to bury his enemies.” His brow furrowed. “Is this where the beast was created?”
“Shit,” muttered Oki, unease creeping along her spine.
“What is it?” asked Yunosuke.
“A gashadokuro created by the violent deaths brought upon by murder is the worst kind ta come across. They’re bigger, hungrier, and a helluva lot more nasty than the regular ones.” Perhaps it wasn’t such a stretch the demon still wandered this region. With enough souls, the demon could last quite a while.
Oki tapped a finger on one of her wooden amulets. “Either you had something to do with the massacre, or the creature’s attracted to the piss-foul scent of your unshowered samurai. Why else would it keep coming back to this place?”
Moronobu simply stared, while his men bristled. Must be partially deaf too, thought Oki. She opened her mouth to repeat herself, but the old man said, in a firmer voice this time, “Leave this place, priestess. At once. I will not be requiring your services, especially not from such a brazen woman.”
There was a stunned silence. Even Moronobu’s samurai glanced at him.
Oki shrugged and turned to leave.
Yunosuke stepped forward and bowed low. “Moronobu-san, the emperor wishes to help in this matter. You cannot possibly destroy the gashadokuro on your own. Even if you do, someone must purify this land. Please reconsider.”
Moronobu bowed and shuffled back into his manor.
◊ ◊ ◊
The rumble of the carriage departing Higashiyama made Oki’s bones hurt all over again. She wouldn’t abide this for another month. Not without anything to show for it. The emperor’s men might have to respect Moronobu’s wishes, but she didn’t. A league into the journey back to the capital, Oki rapped the base of her cane into the wall behind Yunosuke, startling him.
“Stop this damn thing, will ya!” she shouted.
With a lurch and a confused clop of hooves, the carriage stopped. Oki opened the door and walked into the night as Yunosuke called out after her. She kept walking until the minister put a hand on her small shoulder.
Yunosuke didn’t let go. “What do you think you are doing?”
Oki slapped his hand off. “Performing the task I’m being paid for.”
“The gold is yours. You do not have to do this.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Oki, turning around, tired of this uppity imperial stooge. Her finger prodded the minister’s chest with every sentence. “This gashadokuro menace is my responsibility. It’s why I’m a priestess. This is what I do, and I don’t take orders from nobody, ya hear?”
Yunosuke took a step back. “If this is your wish, then—”
“You’re damn well right it’s my wish. Don’t follow me neither.”
“I cannot allow you to go by yourself.”
Oki snorted. “Ya think ‘cuz I’m old I can’t take care of myself? Your samurai would only get in my way, and their armor’s too damn noisy. I work better alone. Just wait for me here until I get back. If I don’t return by dawn, I was probably eaten, so you just go. Ya got it? Or am I gonna have ta repeat myself?”
“I…understand,” said Yunosuke. “At least take a lantern.”
One of the samurai picked off a hanging lantern attached to the carriage. Oki grabbed it out of his hand, inspected it, and turned on her heel. “Alrighty then,” she said satisfied, and resumed her trek into the forest.
“Good luck, Oki-san.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Attached to Oki’s sash, the hovering central talisman—a folded paper manikin inscribed with a magnetism spell—pulled her eastward. While it had taken her a good whole month to make, it’d been worth it. It picked up and reacted to the manifestation of evil energy. A very handy tool.
The talisman led her deeper into the ancient forest, a place of massive gnarled roots, moss, and trees as thick as houses. Yunosuke’s weak lantern only illuminated a short distance ahead. There wasn’t any moonlight to guide her way, and every step over the forest’s misshapen undergrowth burned her joints like ground glass beneath her skin.
She was getting too old for this. Hundreds of exorcisms and purifications in her lifetime, and just now she agreed to take on one of her most dangerous jobs to date? Insanity. She barely had the strength to walk, let alone find and take on an enraged gashadokuro in the dead of night.
Her talisman snapped off and darted into the darkness ahead.
Oki stopped. Her heartbeat spiked, and chilled sweat pearled across her brow. She’d faced plenty of gashadokuro, but this felt different somehow. The air didn’t taste right. And it wasn’t the stench of rotting flesh. Evil had its own scent, one Oki was well acquainted with. The malevolence thickened like a pall of poison fog, rancid on her tongue. She shook her head, then hammered flat her fear.
She refused to die in this hellhole.
Oki relaxed into a firm stance, setting the lantern on the ground as a faint rattling echoed through the trees, the gashadokuro’s death noise, and the only sound they made when one closed in on its prey. Somewhat of a blessing since the demons were naturally invisible, and unnaturally silent. The only way to defeat them would be to escape the area, or keep it moving until it burned through its collection of souls.
But Oki was a priestess, and she had other ways.
First step, of course, was unmasking them.
Keeping her eyes on the darkness ahead, she removed an unveiling talisman—a powerful object crafted by the Five Priests of Kyushu she’d won gambling—from her sash, and gripped the small wooden sphere with the tips of her fingers. She waited, but the gashadokuro didn’t show itself. Something was wrong. The demon should have attacked by now, what with the incessant rattling. Maybe it hadn’t seen her yet.
A whisper of frigid air licked the nape of her neck. Shit!
Oki spun around. An immense footprint sunk into the ground mere feet away, deep enough to be a grave for her and half the town of Higashiyama. The demon shouldn’t have been smart enough to stalk her like this. Overcoming her shock, she rolled the talisman across the ground. What looked like molten gold filled the engraved glyphs across the talisman’s surface. A lance of light shot out of its center, illuminating the sky and forest and the gashadokuro above.
Oki’s breath caught in her throat.
The demon’s eyes—purple orbs of writhing fire—froze her in place. Crouching against a low lichen-crusted, granite shelf, massive hands gripped a pair of trees, timbers creaking from the weight. Hundreds of thousands of bones clung together like some twisted mosaic of death. Even hunched, it was the biggest gashadokuro Oki had ever seen.
Taking a step back, her heel caught a root.
Her hip struck the hard ground and blinding, exquisite pain bloomed over her entire body. The demon lunged, teeth gnashing. With all of her strength, she dug her cane beneath another large root beside her and pushed, rolling out of the way as the red skull crashed into the undergrowth.
Chips of bone and teeth showered her. The gashadokuro removed its face from the ground, half of its jaw hanging loose, held together by decaying ligaments of flesh and cartilage. It roared. Thousands of tortured voices hit Oki, howling, screaming in rage and pain at their curse.
The giant lunged again. No, it wouldn’t end like this! Through muscle memory alone, she ripped off an ofuda from her sash and raised it as the monster slammed against her palm, shoving her backwards. Just when she thought her wrist would snap back, the gashadokuro went rigid.
“Bishamonten!” cried Oki.
The script along the hemp cloth amulet glowed red.
Thick smoke erupted out of the tightly-woven threads, curling behind the skeleton in a crimson mass of tendrils. They coalesced and took the shape of a frowning giant in fearsome armor, a facsimile of the god of war. Although the figure was only a physical manifestation of Oki’s spell, and less than half the size of the gashadokuro, it locked the demon in place with relative ease.
Immobilization. Step two complete.
Oki sighed. She used her cane to rise to her feet despite the throbbing agony and stared at the silent gashadokuro that had been brought to its knees. This creature…wasn’t normal. Well, as normal as these things could be. It had been smart enough to stalk her, hide from the townsfolk, as well as survive this long. No gashadokuro ever displayed such intelligence.
No matter. It was over now and she’d rather not find out more lest this monster discovered a way to slip its bond. Her spell would only last for another five minutes anyways, so she’d better get on with the final step: purification by fire. However, before she removed her last talisman, she stopped.
Something caught her attention. Looking past the decaying flesh and black marrow barnacling the titanic skeleton, there were thick black marks etched upon its forehead, shoulder blades, and kneecaps. She didn’t notice them before, what with how dark it was and all the blood, but she recognized them.
They were summoning glyphs.
Someone had conjured this demon. It was under someone’s control. No wonder it was so smart. She’d never met one who abused their power like this, but this had to be the work of an onmyōji, a trained sorcerer. A skilled one.
She’d always thought she was the last of them.
Oki scrambled back and stood, joints ablaze. She wrenched the cane out from beneath the root. The demon merely moaned now, the twisted mélange of voices bleeding from its hollow throat, fiery eyes dim, sorrowful. Her right hand trembled as she squeezed the head of her cane, tears threatening to fall.
Someone had conjured the gashadokuro before her. Someone had wrenched the restless spirits from the land and forced them into this warped, perverted thing. These poor souls suffered in life, and now they suffered in death. She could end this for them. Right now. Just finish it. But…she needed to find out who was responsible.
She would not let this atrocity go unanswered.
Oki never used her magic directly. But to hell with her gods-damned rules! She mustered the esoteric spiritual energy within her, reversing the glyphs burned into the gashadokuro’s bones, and released Bishamonten’s grasp. Now, it would return to its master. The terrible demon surged to its full height of one-hundred and fifty men, purple gaze turning eastward.
Oki closed her eyes. “Go,” she whispered.
◊ ◊ ◊
It took every ounce of Oki’s willpower to keep the gashadokuro under control, the translucent puppet strings attached to the demon threatening to snap from her fingers. The demon pulled and pulled, and Oki pulled back, jaw clenched, forcing it to slow down enough that it didn’t drag her through the forest at breakneck speed. The demon was leading her back the way she’d come.
Yunosuke and his samurai still waited on the main road, staring agape at the gashadokuro heading straight towards them. The group scrambled out of the way as the monster crushed the carriage underfoot, wood exploding in a shower of splinters. For a moment, Oki had thought the meek minister was the onmyōji, but the way the man trembled on the ground erased any suspicion.
She passed him by when the gashadokuro veered hard. She stifled a yelp as she was half-dragged down the same road. Towards Higashiyama. Distant alarm bells rang through the trees, men screamed orders atop the rumbling walls. Arrows whistled through the branches, but the gashadokuro simply ignored them, most of the projectiles snapping against its body.
The demon tossed aside the iron gates and crashed through town.
“Move, ya damn fool!” yelled Oki, shoving aside a gawking farmer.
Oki’s right arm moved frantically, maneuvering the strings to limit the damage and keep the damn, lumbering beast from trampling over innocents. Even then she felt the strings of energy connected to the demon straining. It wanted nothing more than to devour these souls, to rip these men and women apart limb from limb and add it to its own body. Oki wouldn’t let that happen.
“Oki-san, what in Izanami’s name is going on?” asked Yunosuke behind her, trailed by his unsettled samurai reeking of warm urine. So he’d finally caught up with her. “You were supposed to defeat this demon, not bring it back here!”
“Stay out of this!” snapped Oki.
“How is this possible? It hasn’t killed anyone.”
Not yet, thought Oki grimly.
With a roar, the gashadokuro lurched into another street in the direction of Moronobu’s manor. Oki allowed the demon to tear the roof off the leader’s residence in a hail of broken tile. She couldn’t say she was surprised the demon had led her back to Higashiyama, but seeing Moronobu on the floor, a protective amulet raised above his head, did. She never sensed the mystical energy within the old man.
Oki pushed her way past a contingent of bow-wielding samurai and planted her feet in the shadow of the gashadokuro, a clear view of Moronobu in the foyer of his manor. “Don’t bother. You’re too weak of an onmyōji to wrest back control of your precious pet.” She grunted. “I’m going to let it tear your skin loose and peel it like hide from your bones.”
Moronobu looked at her. “I thought I told you to leave.”
“I never leave without finishing a job.”
“Oki-san, what—” said Yunosuke.
“I said stay out of this!” shouted Oki, rounding on him and blasting his men with a concussive force of invisible energy. The minister and his samurai crashed into the wall of the house opposite and she turned back to her business.
“Why summon this demon?” she asked.
It was silent for a time, and just when she thought Moronobu wouldn’t respond, he said in his feeble, quiet voice, “The emperor is making a mockery of the faith. I wanted to embarrass him, make the people believe his rule was a sign from the very gods he touted to be descended from, but I never planned to kill.”
Yunosuke limped over again. Stupid fool. “That is treason!”
“I respect no king,” rasped the old man.
Oki’s pitch dropped to a bare, low whisper. “Politics.”
Moronobu just stared at her, a question in his eyes.
“You did all this because of politics?” she seethed. Oki relaxed the puppet strings in the gashadokuro’s right arm, allowing it to lower its massive hand over Moronobu, but held it up short before it grabbed him. Not yet. It would be too easy. She wanted to watch him suffer.
“Why are you doing this?” asked the man, amulet trembling now. “I never killed the villagers this gashadokuro was made from. Why blame me for protecting my people? This land does not need an emperor. We’ve been fine all this time, we will be fine for centuries to come.”
“You said your son died because of it. That wasn’t a lie.”
“My son discovered my plans. He did not believe in them.”
“So you murdered him.”
“No!” shouted Moronobu, louder than Oki’s ever heard from him. “No! He took some of my soldiers and went to go put down the gashadokuro in the dead of night, while I was sleeping. I had no control of the demon. It killed him.”
Oki’s anger boiled over. She loosened the strings again. The massive fingers closed around Moronobu, the amulet sparking, then guttering out. “You did something far worse than what those raiders did, than what you did to your own son. You took innocents from their graves and twisted them into this demon!”
An insidious, wicked energy seeped into Oki’s bitter bones, and she could feel the small man within her own hands, struggling like a helpless insect. She squeezed and Moronobu cried out as the gashadokuro’s fists rasped tighter, bone grinding against bone. This man deserved it. This man sinned against so many…but she couldn’t let this evil consume her like it had consumed him.
The frail, quivering old man stared into the gashadokuro’s eyes.
“Do you see him?” asked Oki after a time.
Moronobu nodded shakily, tears streaming down his face.
Oki pulled the strings back and the gashadokuro let go of him, maneuvering its arms out of the manor. She removed the last purification talisman from her sash and uttered the words of power. Holy fire streamed out of the circular, metallic braid, running across the demon like a bright net of chains. With a flash, bones spilled from the sky.
The sea of bones surrounded her, and Yunosuke’s samurai waded through it to get to Moronobu. They picked him off the ground and tied his wrists behind his back. Yunosuke looked at her. “The emperor will deal with him.”
Oki ignored him. She began picking up bones and stacking it in her arms.
“You are onmyōji,” said Yunosuke, after a moment.
Oki sighed and continued collecting the bones delicately in the crutch of her right arm. In her rage, she allowed an imperial servant to witness her magic. Sloppy. But nothing could be done about it now. “Are ya gonna help me bury this here skeleton or just stand around?”
Yunosuke hesitated for a moment, but took Oki’s lead. And so did the wary townsfolk as they wandered out of the safety of their homes. Hundreds of them. They gathered the remains, washed off the blood, and guided the souls out of Higashiyama and into a peaceful grove deep in the forest.
After the ritual, Oki painfully decided she valued freedom over the promised gold. Yunosuke was a good man, however, Junzo would have certainly informed the emperor of her sorcery. She slipped away, instead leaving the town with a full belly, new omamuri charms, and a little bit of sake.
There’s the bell again. Thank God for that. Whoever comes next couldn’t possibly be worse than this last guy. What a creep. Bad hair and bad teeth I can get past, and I’m not one to brag when it comes to my own wardrobe though I overdressed for this nightmare, that’s for sure. But someone so desperate for female contact should not throw the words “ho’s” and “bitches” around like candy from Santa’s float in the thanksgiving parade, or brag about how many “skanks” he’s banged and how and where. Was he a twelve-year-old in disguise? Did he break the chains that kept locked him in the professor’s lair and wandered in here by mistake? And who still wears their cap backward?
Why did I let Janette talk me into this? “Try speed dating,” she said. “That’s where I met my Howie. It’ll be great. I bet you twenty bucks you’ll get a guy who’ll be quite a catch.”
I met Howie. If that guy, a nervous wreck who cowers when she’s having one of the tantrums, was her idea of a catch, then heaven preserve me.
Again, I ask myself, why did I come here? It’s not like they’re handing out free booze. Hell, there’s no booze of any kind. I can’t remember why I thought this would be a good idea, aside from having gone without a date in over seven months. Hell, I don’t even remember the last time I got laid. Ok, that’s a lie. I remember it all too well, and it had been fucking fantastic. But I remember the fallout from it even more.
It was stupid of me to come here. Was I just hoping to get lucky? Because dragging myself through this nonsense is not worth it. I should’ve stayed at home and worked on fixing the suit. The sleeve on the right arm needs stitching and the kevlar needs to be replaced.
“Hello,” says a soft but deep voice. “Are you available for the next round?” He’s a tall guy, dressed in a black suit. The first guy tonight whose outfit actually suits his face. Kind of, as it’s slightly too big for him. Older guy, in his mid-forties I’d say, with slightly graying hair at his temples. His oddly bright eyes catch my attention, but nothing too out of the ordinary. They remind me of a wolf’s eyes. Calm, but alert.
Broad shoulders too. Works out, but doesn’t want to draw attention to it by wearing the suit. Not a bad looking dude, all things considering. So naturally, this is where my famous friendly demeanor kicks in.
“So what’s your damage,” I snap.
He didn’t flinch at that. He even chuckles, rubbing his temples like he’s got a headache. “Bad night?”
“Ugh,” I grunt. “I’m sorry. I’m normally not like this at all. Well, maybe a little. But not trying to be a bitch. It’s just—”
“The timer is about to start,” he says. “But if you’re done for tonight—”
“Siddown,” I growl. He’s the last one. If this guy turns out to be another creep, I’m torching this whole building to the ground. No jury would convict me.
“You’ve got the next ten minutes to give me hope for the male gender. I’m having a shit night, so make this good.”
He takes a seat and scoots closer. When he clenches his hands, his knuckles crack loudly. He’s got some mild scarring on them. Light burn scars, maybe?
“I think I know exactly what you’re going through. And forgive me if this sounds sexist, but you might have it worse than I. The ladies I’ve talked with were…something else, but nothing I can’t escape from. As a woman, you might attract a more extreme personality type.”
I chuckle, but it ain’t a happy one. “You don’t say.”
“Am I wrong?” he asks, giving me the smug I know I’m right but I’m gonna needle you until you say so look. He’s smart and likes to show it off. But I’ve dealt with ‘smart guys’ plenty of times. I’m not worried.
“Don’t get me started,” I grumble. “I’ve talked to over ten guys tonight. It’s been a regular who’s who of creeps, losers, momma’s boys, and creepy loser momma’s boys. And they don’t serve liquor here either, otherwise, it would make this whole charade much easier to bear. But nothing I can’t handle. It’s just exhausting, you know?”
“I can sympathize. The women I’ve met tonight seem to fluctuate between the very needy to the outright frightening.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“Well, my first session I met a lovely woman, as well as her cat Tinkers, whom she smuggled along in her purse. Asked me if I wanted to meet his seven brothers.”
“I got you beat on that one,” I tell him. “There was a guy, who, after we said our hello’s, told me my hair was like his mother’s. But mine didn’t smell as good.”
“I’ll see your hair smeller, and raise it with a charming young lady who asked me if I could co-sign for her new car. When I told her that perhaps she was going a bit fast, she asked me when I was going to meet her parents.”
I fight the urge to laugh, so I give him an awkward smile instead. “You know, I’m almost tempted to ditch this joint and go into the conference door next room. Getting roped into a pyramid scheme doesn’t sound so bad now.”
“There’s a plan. You might get a white Mercedes out of it,” he says with a chuckle. He’s got a pleasant laugh, I’ll give him that. He extends his hand to me. “I’m Ellis.”
I take his hand and shake it. “June. And yes, like the month. I’ve heard that one enough times as it is.”
His eyes go over me. I know that look. It’s the look I give on an almost daily basis. Not the ‘I wonder what she looks like naked’ look, but the ‘what is her damage or secret’ look. Instinctively, I hide my hands in the sleeves of my jacket. He notices.
“Are your hands all right?” he asks? “You don’t need to hide them from me. I’m used to blemishes,” he says, tapping the mild burn scars on his own hands.
“Sorry. I have an active lifestyle, which leaves me with some scrapes now and then. It doesn’t bother me most of the time, but I get self-conscious about the scars on my hands.”
“Please, don’t be. I know all too well what that’s like myself. What sports do you do?”
And there it is. The inevitable subject that either causes guys to get scared or makes them act like even bigger meatheads. Here goes nothing. “Eskrima. It’s a stick-fighting martial art from—”
“—the Philippines. I’m familiar with it. I’m an Aikido man myself.”
Not bad. But I’m staying on my toes. Wouldn’t be the first time some douche challenged me to spar with him, only to wail like a stuck pig when I rough ’em up. “So what do you do?” I ask.
“I’m an engineer with R&D at Oberon. Jet propulsion and the sort. It’s how I burned myself. A little explosion that got out of hand a little while back.”
“You see a lot of explosions?”
He shrugs. “No more than most labs. They say fires are unpredictable. They’re not, just difficult to manage if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you know how fire works, you can avoid losing your eyebrows.”
“You enjoy your work?”
“It’s fine. But it’s to pay the bills mostly. I try to be home more these days.”
“Really? How come?” I ask.
Ellis clears his throat. Another look I recognize. The ‘I hate talking about this super painful shit that happened to me and yet I’m constantly put in the position where I need to talk about it’ look. He takes his time, before hitting me with the sledgehammer that is the story of his life at home.
“My wife passed. About two years ago. So it’s just me and Phillip, my boy. He’s almost seven now.”
Shit. This is where most people come up with something comforting to say. Sadly, I’m not most people. Okay, June. Think of something that doesn’t make you sound like a total bitch.
“And most ladies aren’t into the single dad thing, are they?”
Goddammit, June! Diffuse! Backpedal like you’ve never backpedaled before! “Shit! What I mean, I…uhm,” I stutter. “Fuck, I’m trying to be nice here!”
Oh, thank Jesus. He laughed at that. “It’s all right, June.”
I sigh, relieved I didn’t just emotionally skewer him. My knack for verbal pratfalls has saved another conversation by being funny. It’s weird. Why am I so worried about what he thinks of me? Aside from the fact that he’s the first seemingly nice guy I’ve talked to tonight. But that don’t mean anything just yet. Night Racer was a nice guy. And that experience had been a cold, hard lesson when it comes to ‘nice guys’. ‘I swear baby, my doc says I’m STD free’ my ass.
Ellis reaches into his pocket. I clench up. My instincts kick in, but I can fight it. It’s fine, June. He’s obviously getting a photo of his kid. Not a gun. Not a knife. Settle down. We’re good. He hands me the pic. A black haired boy with a broad smile, missing two front teeth, holding a soccer ball. Cute. He has his dad’s looks as far as I can tell.
“He’s adorable,” I say. Was that the right word? I never know what’s the right way to describe kids? I hand it back. Not really sure what else to do. Shit, I hate being so awkward.
“Do you have any kids?” he asks.
“Nah,” I say, waving my hand in that dismissing way that my friends with kids hate so much. “No time, with my job and all.”
“And what is it you do?” Ellis asks.
Fuck! Don’t get flustered. That’s a rookie mistake. Count to three, like Captain Liberty taught you. One. Two. Three.
“Real estate,” I say, cool as a cucumber. “It’s boring, but it pays the bills. I spar on the side to take the edge off. But you don’t really meet the right people in my line of work.”
“Odd,” Ellis says. “I assumed you would meet a lot of people in your line of work. Everyone needs a house.”
One. Two. Three. “Mostly couples either with kids or expecting. Also, I make it a rule not to date my clients.”
“Ah, smart,” he says. “I’ve had colleagues who dated within their job. Always ends badly.”
“You damn right it does,” I scoff. “I’d been seeing a guy a while back. Works across town. Seemed great. But then the usual bullshit piles up. You miss a few dates when responsibilities get in the way. You bring your work home with you. Stress piles up. And when you try to spare their feelings, that’s when the lying starts. Then you find yourself staying up all night waiting for him to come home, or stalking him on Facebook. It’s what you get when you’re juggling secrets like bowling pins.”
“Secrets?” he asks, raising his eyebrow so high up it might start caressing his hairline.
One. Two. Three. “He was married. Didn’t tell me until it had gone on for a while.”
“Pah,” Ellis snaps. “What an arsehole.”
It’s funny. While I kinda noticed it earlier, when he said “passed” like “pahst” instead of the usual “past”, but it took me until he said “arsehole” to pin down his accent.
“British?” I ask.
“Partly,” he admits. “First three years of my life we lived in Cardiff. Left for the States after that, and never looked back. Can’t quite rid myself of the accent, no matter how hard I try,” he says, slightly embarrassed.
“Don’t,” I say. “It’s cute.”
Cute? When did I start calling anything cute? Oh, fuck me. Backpedal! Backpedal!
“I…uhm…I mean, it makes you sound more distinguished,” I mutter, shrugging my shoulders. Please don’t respond to that. Please don’t respond to that.
“Why thank you,” he says. “You’re quite charming yourself.”
And now my face is turning into a cherry tomato. “Glad to know that even after surviving the Battle of the Bridge, I can still be a twelve-year-old schoolgirl who blushes and swoons when boys compliment me.”
He laughs. Thank God for that. I lean back, stretching my neck. Ugh, no more awkwardness, please. It feels good to laugh for once. Ellis. I run his name through my head some more. Ellis. Ellis. Funny, mature Ellis. For a moment, I actually consider giving him my contact info, which is so not like me. Not a bit. Anyone could tell you that, be it my civilian friends like Janette or my work friends like the Lightning Lady. But he seems all right. Maybe, just maybe?
Then he notices it. “Good lord,” he gasps, “did you get that from fighting as well?”
The scar on my neck! The one I usually hide with scarves or by not wearing anything revealing that shows of my chest. A little courtesy from Yokohama Sally and her kamas during a diamond heist three years back. Missed my artery by a centimeter. My jacket must have sunk down for him to see it. Fuck me for forgetting all about it for a second.
“Uhm,” I stutter. Dammit, count! One. Two. Three. “Rock climbing accident. I fell and cut myself on some rocks. It’s nothing.”
I look at him, half expecting him to bail on me right there. But he’s seen the look in my eyes. Something he recognized. The shame, maybe? Or something else that was familiar to him. In either case, he smiled slightly. He then pulled up his sleeve on his right arm. Two scars, directly parallel from each other on each end just below his wrist. Entry and exit wound. But not from a bullet.
“Archery accident at a company retreat. Some dumb bastard let go of his bowstring prematurely. Nearly bled to death. These things happen,” he says.
I chuckle. No, I’m laughing. I have no idea why. I’m just glad he’s laughing too.
“And then there’s this,” he says, as he raises his pant leg. Skin grafts on his shins. I’ve seen those too many times to count. “I fell from a bike. Nasty fall. I’d been lucky, as I could have fractured my skull.”
“That beats my appendix scar any day,” I joke. That should deter any questions about it, should he see my stomach. Dammit, June! Don’t get ahead of yourself!
“Got one of those too. But I would rather keep my shirt on for now.”
We laugh, but it’s one of those weird laughs you share when you both are thinking the same thing. Change the subject! I raise my leg and tap on my knee. “I have a small piece of shrapnel in my knee from the Battle of the Bridge. Still scrapes sometimes.”
His face turns. His smile vanishes like sand in the wind. Fuck. Why did I tell him that?
“You were there?” he asks.
Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! One. Two. Three. “Bystander. You know how that goes with those people. Never see you until they drop a car on your ass, then write you off as collateral.”
His eyes turn dark. Is that anger? Or sadness? Does he not like the Capes? Fuck, I hope his wife wasn’t killed that day.
“Hey,” I say. For some reason, I take his hand. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“No, I’m sorry,” he says. Thank God, his smile is back. I can’t believe I missed it already after less than a minute. “I’m being childish. The ‘Supers’ just rub me the wrong way sometimes. Especially the way their fights end up affecting the general populace.”
“I get that. You’ve got your boy. You’ve got your job. I’ve seen people lose their family business just because Terrorsaur and Momenta are going at it on Seventh street and one of them chucks a police car through their building. It’s a weird town. I’ve thought about leaving.”
“Why haven’t you?” he asks, taking my hand.
One. Two. Fuck it. No lies.
“It’s…it’s like something compels me to stay. Almost like leaving is turning my back on something. Turning my back on who I am. If that makes any sense.”
“No, I understand. My son…my entire life is here.”
“Right,” I say, thankful he’s not digging deeper into that semi-confession. “And you can’t just stop being what you love, even if it is destructive.”
He nods. His eyes dart to the timer. One minute left. He gives me that look. You know the one. That one.
“Would…would it be improper of me to ask you out sometime?” he asks.
My face must be turning even redder than before because now he’s grinning like an idiot. “No, not improper at all. I’d love that.”
“Great,” he says. We don’t break eye contact. We just stare at each other like two dumb teens. Probably why I didn’t notice his hand reaching out to touch my arm.
“Ow, fuck!” I snap, wincing in pain.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps. “What’s wrong?”
Fuck. One. Two. Three. “I’m fine. It’s just something with my arm.”
Before I can protest, he pulls up my sleeve. He sees the bandage wrapped around my arm.
“How did this happen?” he asks. He recognizes the applied treatment within seconds.
“Were you burned?”
“It’s nothing,” I growl, slapping his hand away as gently as I can. “Just a little accident last Monday at the bank…”
I shut up before I blab even further. But when I meet his eyes, I’ve said too much. It’s all over his face. I don’t know this look. Is it horror? Or concern? Disgust? It almost feels like recognition. Wait, what is he—?
“Scarlet Omega?” he whispers.
My blood turns to ice. He knows! How did he know? I try to count, but I forgot the number after one. I want to laugh it off, and say “Scarlet who? I don’t know my wines.” Anything to segue from that name. But like an idiot, I do nothing. I just stare at him, wide-eyed like a deer on the highway. I want to say something, but anything I’d say would just come out as gibberish. How did he find out? Had he been there? No, there were only two guards, a manager, and a janitor. He’s not any of them. But there was one more person there. The one with the mask, shooting flames from his wrists. One of which scorched my arm with 2nd-degree burns. Right before I slammed my hard-anodized baton into his chest. Even with that body-armor, there’d be a mark. I lean close to him, peering at the neckline of his shirt. I catch myself praying I don’t see anything, that he was just a good guesser. A smart guy who reads the paper and memorized all our silly names and masks. Please, don’t let there be—
A bruise. Or at least, the edge of one. I can only imagine the blue mark on his chest. I almost want to rip his shirt off and check his left fibula, his lower back and his right femur for bruising. But there’s no point. His eyes say it. So I mouth his name.
We don’t need to nod. We don’t need to say a Goddamn thing. We know it’s true. What are the fucking odds?
“Shrapnel in the knee?” he asks, with a deeper and gruffer tone, halfway to his ‘work-voice’. No reason to lie now. Sorry, Cap.
“Mandy Molotov. The bridge part was true,” I reply. I catch myself using my own ‘work-voice’. No point in hiding that either. “Arrow in the arm?” I ask back like I’m parrying a tennis ball.
“The Azure Archer. My second heist. O’Neill bank.”
“Mnn,” I grunt, nodding along. It’s bizarre. I always assumed that the first time I’d confide in anyone about my night job, it would feel like a weight would be lifted from my heart. Instead, I feel a million targets are being painted on my forehead, and the guy with the fire resistant armor and the built-in wrist flamethrowers across the table from me is looking right at them.
My instincts are screaming at me to strike. I have a small retractable baton in my purse. Without armor, he’d be down in a minute. He’s clenching his fist. What does he have up his sleeve? A level-B supervill like him doesn’t go to a public place like this unarmed. Short-range flame burster, maybe, with a mini napalm pack in case he needs a quick escape. My eyes dart around. Eighteen civvies. No cops or backup. Can’t risk it.
“Thirty seconds,” the lady from the speed dating service calls out.
We look at her, then back to each other. We’re both running with itchy trigger fingers. My stomach does that thing it always does before a fight, where it goes queasy for a good minute, then steels itself like I’m about to take a bullet, which does happen from time to time. But there’s also this shitty sad feeling. That the one fucking guy who’s not a complete creepy dingleberry, had been actually very charming and I even briefly considered taking home with me, just happens to be the guy who incinerated The Wire during the Battle of the Bridge feeling.
These thirty seconds are beginning to feel like thirty years. Time crawls at a snail’s pace. We don’t break eye contact. We just sit there, running scenarios on how to cave each other’s skulls in through our heads. At least, that what I think he’s doing.
He breaks the ice by speaking first. “For what it’s worth, June, I had a lovely time with you.”
“Yeah,” I chuckle. “It’s been a good nine minutes.”
“And I hope I’ve restored some of your hope in the male gender.”
“To be honest, I’m so torn between the rules of the job and me actually liking you that I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
His eyebrow springs up. “You like me?”
I don’t hesitate. “I do. Or at least, I like this you. Not so sure about your other persona, seeing as fire hurts like a bitch.”
“And I like you, June,” he says. I can see he’s tempted to take my hand, but we’re both still aching for an opening to strike. “Now that we have a chance to be open, why ‘Scarlet Omega’?”
“Scarlet because I just like the color. Omega because my colleagues felt it needed more punch. Not my choice, but I got lucky compared to LiberGator, Reptile Warrior,” I chuckle.
He chuckles too. “What now?” he asks.
I shrug my shoulders. “I said yes to seeing you again sometime. Why don’t we see how that goes.”
“Yes. That seems reasonable,” he says. I can hear his voice cracking just the teeniest bit. “Have a pleasant evening, June.”
I found myself on the other side of the door from the room in which my body was taking a beating that I could hear. This pissed me off more than I can express. I have never had a body that could toss me out like this one could, and had on occasion done. It always concerned pain. If the body experienced extreme pain, out my ass went.
This was completely unacceptable.
Over my existence I have occupied a hell of a lot of bodies. I do not know how or why this happens. I have forgotten many of the bodies I inhabited. But I do know what happens. I find myself a spirit again and in wandering around, I find a body that is empty. How they become empty, I don’t know. Didn’t really seem to be all that important. To me it simply meant that here was a receptacle that I could occupy.
Being a spirit without a receptacle sucks. There’s not shit that you can do. You don’t connect, you don’t communicate, you just are. Being without connection is a shit way to live.
My concept of time sucks balls outside of a receptacle, so I never really know how long I’ve been around between bodies. I just know that I’ve been around.
But this time, this time I knew exactly what was going on and I was pissed off way beyond any level I’d ever felt, corporeal or non-corporeal. DAMN. He had no right to do this. Stupid fucking body. It wasn’t like I couldn’t take a hit. I’d taken a lot of hits in my time.
I’d inhabited some bodies in some really unpleasant circumstances, and not one of them had ever tossed me out so that I couldn’t feel what was going on.
This body, however, was different.
All the bodies had minds. I didn’t control the minds, though I could influence them – somewhat. This one’s mind was a bloody fucking pain in my non-corporeal ass.
For instance, the worst body I had ever inhabited had belonged to a tiny Thai woman. I’d found her prostrate on a stone temple floor. I checked, because I have never, ever taken a body with a spirit in it. It’s simply not done. But she was empty.
I slipped in and we got up and went back to her miserable life. I’m not kidding. It was one for the books. She was married to this huge asshole who barely spoke to her, and when he did it was either to make demands or insult her. She had three kids. Two girls and a boy. Through her mind I knew who everyone was and understood what everyone said. We made dinner, we cleaned up, we helped the children get ready for the pallets that represented a bed. Then we went to lie down next to that bastard.
No sooner had we laid down than he rolled over on top of her, pushed himself inside of her, pumped about eight or ten times, ejaculated and then rolled over and gone to sleep. She was so dry we felt like we were on fire. I immediately decided to kill the bastard.
But I had to wait. I’d learned that you can’t just kill another human because they deserve it. I’d left a body or two in dire straits because of my rash actions. So I knew that I had to plan this, make sure she and the kids would be okay, and then I was going to kill the bastard.
It was a long while. Years. First of all, I had to be sure that the children would not end up in a similar position.
The son had already begun to imitate the father. Why not? It was the only male role model he had. It took some searching, but I found a guy who taught muay thai. He was a good man. We had sex with him and he agreed to take on the son as a student. First he beat the idea out of him that women were to be used.
The daughters were harder. One was pretty smart. Considering the malnutrition and other problems, the fact that she had enough sense to put two and two together pleased me. I encouraged her. I began to seek out someone who could help her further her education. I found a woman who had a spirit like a flame. I could see it in her. She taught at the local school, and she pushed the good students hard. She also was a miracle worker in finding ways for them to move on into further schooling. She had a gift for speaking, and she was not above using religious people for her own ends. I liked her a great deal.
The body and I approached her. We talked about the pretty smart daughter, and agreed that she had the skills to become a good teacher herself. She liked children. With the woman’s help, we found a way to get her to a school for teachers. She did well there, married a fellow teacher and moved far away from the place she’d grown up. I was happy.
The second daughter was sweet, ignorant, and hadn’t the sense of a goose. I would have despaired, but the sweetness was something that could be used. There was a young man in the community who was very shy and not in the least bit handsome. He had a good job. He worked for a small factory that made bamboo furniture and exported it. His skill was well known.
I found a small puppy that was mostly healthy and I left it on his doorstep. The dog became his only friend, and he doted on it as though it were a small, helpless child. Second daughter loved animals.
Once she saw him with the dog, who was very active and cheerful, she was charmed. She began to talk to him about the dog, and then began to walk the dog with him, and soon they were spending time together taking care of the dog.
Their marriage was happy and they adopted many dogs, but had no children. I didn’t understand this, but it worked for them.
Now was the time to get rid of the big bastard. Night after night he had continued his abuse of the woman I inhabited. He considered it his right for feeding and housing her. When I first decided he should die for this, I had her begin to tuck away a few coins whenever she could. She was quite good at hiding things.
As the coins accumulated, I helped her change them into currency. Once it was in currency, we began a small loan business to other women in the community. The interest built up nicely, and I knew that it was time.
Cycad seeds are a very tricky thing. They are commonly made into flour and used in cooking, and there is some suspicion that they may be related to a neurological disease common in the area. I liked that. I liked the idea of watching him weaken.
So we began to make special treats for him. He’d always had a sweet tooth, and with the children gone, it was easy to prepare something that only he ate.
Time for the spirit is unimportant, but the body of the woman I inhabited was growing old. His body, however, began to collapse around him. First he became very heavy from the excess treats, which caused him to fall to sleep long before she finished the cleaning and came to bed. HA! A nice but unexpected side effect. Then the trembling and the mumbling and the lack of balance set in. I took great pleasure in watching him die slowly.
She did not last long after he did, and I found myself searching for another empty receptacle. But it was one of the most satisfactory resolutions of possession I’d ever had.
This, however, was not satisfactory at all. I could not even bang on the door, because I had no corporeal qualities. I could hear the sound of meat hitting meat. It’s a disgusting sound. Humans are SO brutal.
I loved that body. I wanted it back.
I had found him sitting on a bench facing the ocean. He wore lots of protective garments, Kevlar and such. He was a bounty of hidden knives and guns. A large pistol sat on the bench next him. He leaned forward, his hands clasped between his legs, his head bent down as though in deep thought or prayer. And he was as completely empty as any body I had ever found. The mind was good, but the spirit gone.
I slipped in, and oh my, the power! I could not believe the strength. I made a fist and the muscles of my forearm bunched like thick knots of wood. I pulled up the sleeve and I could see striations in the muscle. It was like inhabiting a god.
I stood and stretched. We were tall. Easily six feet six inches or more. I reached down and picked up the gun and it felt right in our hand. Memory immediately told me the make, model, ammunition, muzzle velocity, and range. Why the hell would any spirit abandon this body?
I holstered the weapon as naturally as though I’d been doing it all my life. Then I began to run. I wanted to know how long, how far, and how fast could we move. It was fucking exhilarating. I had never experienced anything like it.
The run took us to his home. It was a small apartment in a quiet part of town. You might have expected that someone built like a god, and with so many weapons, either hid away in some hole, or resided in a penthouse. Nope. It was as middle class as they come. He didn’t even have Netflix, which I found amusing. Perhaps he wasn’t home enough to make it worthwhile. He did own a decent flat screen tv.
He seemed to have no real job. I had thought probably cop or something. But I was wrong. The apartment had its own arsenal in a walk-in closet. But otherwise it was non-descript. He had a name, a bank account with a decent balance, but nothing exorbitant. He didn’t seem to have any friends or contacts. There was a cell phone with no numbers on it other than a few take-out places in the neighborhood. One was Thai. I deleted that one.
For the first few weeks, we just existed together. The mind was reliable. It fed the body, cleaned the apartment and clothes. It knew where to find good food and the basics of life. And nothing else happened.
The problem with possession is that there is this notion that the possessor has access to everything in the brain. Nope. Not the way it works. You have access to the voluntary muscle functions. That’s about it.
Movies have pretty much fucked up the human concept of possession.
#1. We cannot really inhabit a body in which a spirit still exists.
#2. We do not have access to any memories the mind retains. They are simply exposed to us by things the body does out of rote.
#3. What do I mean by rote? I mean daily routine. If you wash your underwear in the sink each night, dry it on the curtain rod and then wear it again the next day, THAT I will know. Your deepest darkest feelings about your mother? Nope.
#4. We cannot make your head spin 360 degrees or cause you to levitate. First of all, if we rotated your head 360 degrees, we’d break your neck and then your body would be useless to us. Secondly, levitation is something easy to do as a spirit, so why bother to possess a body to do it?
#5 We live together and experience things together, but we are not one. In fact, there is no one there for the body. It’s me and the physical memory contained in the brain. No emotion remains from the body at all. Spirit is emotion. That’s where I come in. If the body still had emotion, I wouldn’t be there.
So back to me being on the other side of the door. I was really pissed, because I liked this body a lot. We’d had some really good moments together.
There was the time in the grocery store when an idiot tried to rob the clerk. Now that was fun. The clerk nearly pissed himself in fear, but taking out a gun and blowing the idiot’s head off his shoulders had been one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Nearly as satisfying as watching that fat, Thai bastard take his last strangled, poisoned breath.
Why? Well, it was simple. The clerk was a small Pakistani guy. He was old. He was always nice to me. The idiot robbing him was calling him a rag head and waving around a 9mm like it was a cannon. Then he was not just demanding cash, he was demanding that the guy say, “Fuck Allah.”
I don’t really give a shit which god you believe in, because they all have validity. I’ve been around, I am a spirit, and this is my field.
So trying to make this very nice old man say something really nasty about his own personal god just didn’t go far in terms of making me have any sympathy for the robber.
Plus he was stupid. He hadn’t looked around the store to see if anyone else was there. I’m pretty sure he thought that having a gun made him some kind of superior being and that no one would be brave enough to take him on.
Wrong. Wrong and very, very stupid.
So I killed him.
The old Pakistani guy looked very shocked, and I felt bad about that. I’d have to shop somewhere else now. I asked him for his security tape and he pointed to a little room off the side of the store. I went and found the thing. It was ancient and still video tape. Hard to believe what people will put their faith in. I took the tape and left.
It was 3 am, so it wasn’t like the street was full of people, and once I was gone, I knew the old guy would come to his senses and call the cops. My only regret was that he had to see that. I hoped that Allah would give him some comfort from that nightmare.
The first time the body had thrown me out was when we’d been shot. Now there was a surprise. We were running through the park at night. I liked running, especially now that I had this spiffy body that was so fucking good at it. The night was clear and cool, but not cold. We’d gone out less armed than usual, because we weren’t really expecting any trouble. Who in their right mind takes on a six foot six guy with a face like eight miles of bad road?
But yes, there was a dumbshit ready to do just that. We came around a corner and there stood an idiot with a gun. He wasn’t a huge guy. There’s something about a gun that makes a small man think his size doesn’t matter. This is a very, very bad assumption.
However, I had also made a bad mistake. I’d been taking this same route for weeks. What kind of dumbass goes out running at night and takes the same damn route every time? This dumbass.
We did not have on Kevlar. Stupid. The idiot with the gun shot us in the chest, and when we dropped to the sidewalk, he began rummaging to see what we had. The pain of the shot surprised me. Apparently I had never been shot before. I cried out, and the next thing I knew, I was standing beside the body and the asshole was rummaging through the body’s pockets. He came up with a grand total of an unidentifiable house key that would open a door to an alarm system he would not know how to deactivate, and three dollars. He did not find the gun in the holster at my ankle, nor the knife sheathed on my wrist.
The shot did wake up the neighbors who promptly called the cops and the ambulance. I rode in the ambulance next to the body. I also went into the surgical suite with the body. I do not recommend it. One, the music selection was awful, and two, watching yourself (okay, so it wasn’t really me, but you know what I mean) cut open to stop bleeding and repair my insides is something no one should ever see.
I woke up in the body under the heavy control of morphine and pissed off.
The cops asked about the gun and the knife, and the body turned out to have permits for both. Surprise! Then they wanted to know if we could identify the shooter. We said no. Why the fuck would we let the cops take care of someone that we knew damn well we could find ourself and take care of in a much more final way?
Anyone who shoots first and then robs does not need to be on the street. If we’d been a lesser man, we’d have been dead. The fact that we had thick pectoral muscles that the cheap-ass gun just barely penetrated was what saved our life.
That was one dead fucker.
After our recovery, we went running again and there was the same dumb fucker. We pulled out a gun and shot him before we even got to his corner. Then we ran on. That was a very good run. We were on an endorphin high that didn’t seem to end.
We even went out and got laid afterwards by a very ugly woman who thought she’d hit the jackpot because despite our face, we were one studly attraction. We both had a good time.
None of this answers the question about why I was on the other side of the damn door. As best as I could figure out, it had to do with information inside the body’s head that I was not privy to. This displeased me greatly. You’d think the body would have enough sense of self-preservation to share information that could potentially result in death.
Apparently not. And likely why the body was without a spirit in the first place. Something in the past was so bad, he’d given up. He’d left. He’d wanted no part of his body or his life and he’d abandoned it.
So now I faced the possibility that this body was going to die on me and I would find myself alone in the world once more.
I looked around at where I was. There were two men on either side of the door. They both had guns, and they were both big guys. In fact, all the men inside the room were big guys. It was a like a big guy convention with all their favorite weapons.
What the hell had my body been up to before I got there?
Well, that didn’t matter now. I liked my body. I liked him and I liked what we could do together, so this was not going to end with me on the outside of this door while some giant beat my beautiful body to death. It just wasn’t going to happen.
I looked at the two guys standing by the door again. Rule number one is that a spirit really cannot inhabit a body that has a spirit in it. That conditional ‘really’ is the key to the rule. Two spirits are not supposed to inhabit one body. It’s a mess if you try, and mostly doesn’t turn out well for the habitee. Yeah, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me for trying to explain something that doesn’t exist for humans in terms a human might understand. Basically having two spirits can make the body go batshit.
I was considering batshit. I was really considering batshit.
Then I heard the body cry out in pain.
I was no longer considering batshit. I turned to the guy on the left and I went into his body. I don’t know why I selected him. Maybe because I like going left when most people go right. It’s a human thing.
It was like entering a fun house. Perspective was weird, and colors and sounds too bright. The guy’s spirit was not exactly what I’d call ready for the visit. He shouted surprise, and I raised the body’s gun and shot the guy across from him. I don’t know who was more freaked out, me or the body/spirit of the man I’d just taken.
We kicked in the door. That was fun. I’d always wanted to kick in a door. And then very precisely and quickly shot the three guys inside with my body. Then I put the gun to this body’s head and blew his brains out.
It was at that moment that I split—so to speak. I’m not much on death moments. They tend to be personal and I’d rather skip them whenever possible.
My body was tied to a chair. This was a problem. I was non-corporeal, and the body I wanted was tied to a chair. Fuck me.
My body looked at me and spoke. “You stupid shit-head,” he said. His voice was a little muddled because his mouth was really swollen and he was spitting out a lot of blood.
I had to agree, though. I was a stupid shit-head.
We looked at each other and he said, “You ever possessed a dead body?”
I thought, EWWWWWWW! Because that was just gross. But then I looked at the bodies around me and wondered. The one closest to my body had a knife. He’d been using it when I shot him.
“Give it a try,” my body said.
Fuck it, I thought. I’d already broken rule number one, what was another first going to do to me?
I entered the body and it was still habitable. It was warm. There wasn’t any blood flow or oxygen, but then I didn’t need those. It felt weird not having them and being inside. I sat up, reached out and began to saw at the rope around the body’s right hand. It made sense. If I could free that, he could free himself, and I could get the fuck out of this dead man.
When the rope frayed enough, my body broke it and grabbed the knife from me. I exited quickly, and did a full spirit shudder when I was out. That was creepy, and I never, ever wanted to do it again.
My body was struggling with the rope on his left hand, so I entered him and between the two of us we made quick work of the rest of his bonds. It’s a lot easier when you have spirit. The emotion of wanting out can make a body do things you wouldn’t think possible.
We got up and staggered out and away from the building. The thing is, we weren’t hurt all that bad. A broken nose, some nasty cuts, and bruising and a couple of broken ribs that were going to hurt like crazy until they healed. But there was nothing that couldn’t be taken care of at home.
So we went home.
We bandaged ourselves up, popped a couple of Vicodin that were in the first aid kit (I didn’t ask, but was damn glad it was there), and then my body sat in front of a full length mirror in a chair and asked, “Okay, what the fuck’s your story?”
Wow. I’d never been asked. Come of think of it, until my body talked to me in that room where he was being beaten, I don’t think anyone had ever been aware of me before.
Well, I did share his mouth, so I told him my story. Not all of it, because we didn’t have eternity. But I told him about what I was and how I’d come to be inside him.
“How did you know I was here?” I asked when I’d finished.
He smiled. “Because I didn’t give a shit about anything before. I was sitting on that bench waiting for those fuckers to find me and kill me. I was done.”
Well, that was a surprise.
“You saved my life,” he said.
“Well, of course! You’re my body!” I answered. I mean, what kind of stupid shit would I be to let this fantastic body go to waste? It was amazing. Big, strong, able to kick ass like no one’s business. I’d had some strong bodies before, male and female. But I’d never had anything with the size, strength and skill of this one.
“I’m not a good man,” he said.
“Maye you weren’t. But I am a hell of a good spirit, and I like what you can do when I’m in you,” I answered.
“You don’t know, do you?” he asked. “You don’t know about me.”
I shook my head. “Not the way it works. Only know what you want me to.”
He took his time thinking about that.
“So what? You want to be a superhero or something?” he asked.
“Nope. Just like being able to kick in doors and kick bullies in the balls. Always wanted to do that.”
I think the sound he made was supposed to be a laugh.
“Okay. Okay, we’ll try it. But if you get me killed, won’t be anything I didn’t have coming,” he said.
“Well then,” I said, “I will have to work hard to keep you alive, won’t I?”
He got up from the chair and went to bed. We both slept. Me in my spirit dreams and he in his brain dreams. We would see what would come.
The current roared over the black clay of the plains of Shoorm, carrying with it the thick burnt scent of the volcanic wastes. Sunlight was scarce this close to the Verge, falling to the plain like a bloodfog.
Jaltha swam beside a litter of males, harnessed by barbed wuorn-tentacles hooked through their beaks’ dorsal ridges, their bellies scraping the plain. Ten had already died, since the caravan had set out from the kryndyr city of Chorgaan three days ago. It had happened yesterday when a strap on a handler’s yoke snapped, and the litter had been freed. The idiot creatures had immediately swum toward the sweet, seductive aroma of a grove of bloodsponges, the only things that survived the bleak lifelessness of Shoorm. The entire litter had been caught by the sanguivorous things, and only three had been able to be saved, though not unscarred.
Rilask, the caravan’s leader, had punished the clumsy handler, who was called Malune, by forcing her to take the place of the males in the litter that pulled the bladdercart loaded with heavy criggn shells.
It was Malune that had first noticed the callused scars upon Jaltha’s belly.
“What happened to your Mooring?” Malune had asked, rather abruptly last night. Typically, the caravan’s hired guards formed their own sleep circle around the males and the shells, while the traders and male-herds kept to theirs. Malune, however, being shunned from the latter, had found her way to the former. It was death, after all, to sleep alone on the plains of Shoorm.
Jaltha had been unsure of how to respond, for she was always careful to keep the past concealed beneath the kelp-leather harness that held her sheath.
“My mother wore such scars,” Malune had said, meeting Jaltha’s scalding glare, “The scars of one who has drawn a warclub from the sheath a thousand times. The only ones with such calluses are those that have lived long enough to become Chieftains, or have suffered the scathing halls of the monasteries.”
Jaltha had bitten off another strip of uilka skin.
“It would be strange to be here,” Malune had continued, “hired by an aging, desperate trader like Rilask to protect a few pearls’ worth of males and criggn shells, if there still were a Mooring to protect.”
Anger had flashed through Jaltha, and she’d known that the lightning brightness that surged through her would be visible in the darkness. Over the years, she had ground many a young salathe’s beak into the sand for such impertinence. The young, it seemed to Jaltha, always had a laughing lilt that accompanied their words like a persistent gamra fish. And yet, her anger faded almost immediately. In its place, something else rose, like a domefish from beneath the sands. Somewhere within her, near the swell, a voice stirred.
Can it be? it asked. Jaltha, the wanderer—
Jaltha grunted, silencing the voice within her.
“I am no chieftain,” she’d answered Malune, “I have no Mooring.”
Malune’s beak had clicked in the darkness.
“Then you are a Shaman,” she’d deduced, “Serving your Penance by traversing Shoorm. What god do you serve?”
Jaltha’s body had gone rigid. She stared through the darkness, the lifeheat pulsing through Malune the only way she was still visible in the utter night of Shoorm.
“No god,” Jaltha had said.
Malune had chittered irreverently, perhaps taking some joy in the discomfort she was causing the way that males seemed to cherish the chaos they caused when freed from their bindings. It was the way of the enslaved and the punished to find joy in the misery of others. And, yet, Jaltha looked upon this creature, the exiled daughter of a deposed chieftain, lashed now as a common slave, who laughed from within the darkness. Jaltha felt something stir within her. For so long, she had thrown herself into her own past, seeking that fulcrum, desperately hoping to find a single moment where things could have gone one way, but instead went the other. Here, now, she looked upon Malune and realized that such a quest had been futile. Here, in the dark and lifeless night of Shoorm, where so few things were brave or desperate enough to venture, was precisely where she belonged. The tangled tentacles of the Fates had led her here, she knew, and finding a discernible pattern within them was impossible. The feeling that welled within Jaltha as she stared at Malune’s lifeheat was a confusing blend of terror and freedom. Here, Jaltha knew. This is where she would always have been. For here, too, was Malune.
The voice stirred within her, as it was prone to do whenever she found herself too deep in reverie.
What is it about the darkness that brings out such things in fleshcreatures?
She hissed at the voice.
“Very well,” Malune had laughed, backing away, believing the hiss to be directed at her. “I’ll ask no more tonight.” She had laughed again, and then slept. Jaltha had watched her lifeheat cool as her breaths slowed, and before long Jaltha, too, had settled herself on the plain, focusing on the breaths passing through her gills, perfectly still but unable to sleep.
The following night had been the same. Only this time, Jaltha had not been so terse. The two had shared an uilka skin and Jaltha had listened to Malune tell stories of her old Mooring, which she had fled after her mother, the chieftain, had gone mad and nearly killed her. Jaltha nearly spoke, but stopped herself several times. Malune’s life was too eerily similar to her own, with only barely enough variations in her history to prove she was, indeed, a separate individual and not Jaltha’s own reflection, or an illusion produced by the cursed plain. Yet somehow, instead of the wrathful beast Jaltha had felt herself becoming over the past several seasons since Fate had razed her life to the sands, Malune looked upon the detritus of her life and laughed, as though the world were not a wild, carnivorous thing, but a clumsy creature causing only accidental mayhem in its blundering. It was this, perhaps, more than anything else that drew Jaltha to her. She did not say so, unsure of how she would be interpreted if she did, but remained silent and contented herself to listen until Malune’s voice was replaced by the soft roar of the currents, and both fell asleep upon the plain.
Morning had come with the ferocious barking of Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. Malune had been taken and strapped into a yoke beside the males that pulled the bladdercart. Jaltha had taken her position with the other twelve guards. The journey resumed.
Jaltha looked up from the litter of males to the bladdercart, the criggn shells rattling against the cheruon bones, the whole thing rocking on the air bladders onto which it was lashed as the currents picked up, lifting a thin haze of silt from the black clay. Malune struggled, thrashing her tail wildly with the males, desperately trying not to lose the cart. If she did, Jaltha would not put it past Rilask to have her killed. She swam toward the cart, drawing the attention of two other guards who followed her, struggling to steady the cart by pushing against it while Jaltha took up a barbed cord from a fallen male and helped tug the cart beside Malune.
Malune, breathless, her beak grinding, her gills flared as wide as they could, her whole body thrashing, managed to nod thanks at Jaltha. One of the other guards shouted over the rushing current, pressed her flank against the cart, stabilizing it.
“Twice have I been to Olm-Daki by this very route,” the guard cried, “and never have I seen such a storm!”
The guard beside her shouted in reply, “Let the kryndyr have trade with Olm-Daki! Let the damned crustaceans brave the black plain! This is no place for a salathe!”
It was strange, and they had all thought it so, that the Mooring of Olm-Daki should be so secluded. None knew the history of the Mooring, only that it had always been within the caves at the base of a dormant volcano beyond the plains of Shoorm, just west of the volcanic wastes, and that it only survived because the currents that swelled out of the abyss beyond the Verge scattered the volcanoes’ poisonous clouds north. The journey to Olm-Daki was one of several days across bleak emptiness, the only life the immortal bloodsponges that anchored themselves upon the stones and the fossils of ancient monsters that rose from the plain like jagged black teeth. The journey was, however, a worthwhile one for those salathes like Rilask brave or desperate enough to take it. The Mooring of Olm-Daki was, after all, carved from pure volcanic stone. The obsidian’s weight in pearls could make a trader wealthy enough to retire or, at the very least, as in Rilask’s case, pay off dangerous debts.
Jaltha pulled at the cart, every muscle taught and burning. Malune struggled beside her, their long, sinuous bodies slamming against one another as they thrashed against the screaming current. Jaltha was aware of male-herds shouting through the building gray cloud kicked up by the storm, and of guards and traders panicking, thrashing against the current.
“The plain doesn’t seem to be all that fond of us,” Malune managed to laugh between pained gasps.
A tearing pain tore through Jaltha’s body and she howled, though she kept her claws wrapped firmly around the barbed cord. She looked down. There, across her tail, a gash as long as her forearm, leaking a cloud of blood that blended with the gray mist before being carried away by the current. Beside her, Malune screamed. Jaltha turned her head and saw a similar wound open across Malune’s back, just below her gillmound.
Then, all around them, screams of pain and clouds of blood. Jaltha saw the two guards beside the cart abandon their efforts, fleeing into the storm, vanishing in the haze, desperately trying to escape the sideways hail of wounds that the plain was throwing against them.
Malune screamed once more. Jaltha released the cart.
“No!” Malune bellowed as another wound widened across her bare shoulders, where the yoke was lashed to her. Jaltha unsheathed her warclub as the cart toppled in the gale, the leather lashings coming undone as the invisible daggers slashed them into tatters. The air bladders ruptured, great silver bubbles gushing out of them. The cart’s detritus tugged Malune back with it, the yoke strangling her. Jaltha brought her obsidian-spiked warclub down on the yoke, shattering it, freeing her friend. The males were gone, pulled backwards into the blinding haze of silt and blood. Jaltha pulled Malune down with her, pinning her to the plain by pressing her left arm across her gillmound. More pain came, more wounds opened across her back, and the silt clogged her gills. All around, the sounds of screams, thinned and muffled by the current. Jaltha threw her gaze in every direction, but could see nothing but gray…
Then, a flash of silver…and another…like brief daggers of moonlight slashing through the world…
“Razorfish!” Jaltha screamed. A great swarm of them.
Pain lanced into Jaltha’s left arm, just below her elbow. She looked down and saw a razorfish, its small, dagger-shaped body lodged in her flesh, her blood clouding its black eyes…but then, no…its eyes were not black, for it had no eyes…nor scales, nor flesh…only bones…
She panicked and released her hold on Malune, flailing to be free of the thing. As she turned, her fins caught the current. Jaltha tumbled through the haze, screaming Malune’s name into the storm.
When Jaltha woke, she was alone. Her body had come to rest only a few tail-lengths away from the Verge itself, beyond which there was only eternal night. Only a few more moments, or a slight shift in the current, and she would have awoken to the crushing death and utter blackness of the abyss. She flexed her muscles, felt the wounds from the razorfish throb. Her bones and muscles ached, but none of the injuries seemed particularly life-threatening. Her left arm hurt the worst, and she suspected that the razorfish had struck bone before becoming dislodged. Her first full thought was that she was, indeed, alive.
Her second thought was Malune.
Rilask, Jaltha knew, had plotted their path a full thirty miles north of the volcanic wastes, slightly closer to the Verge than was typical for treks across Shoorm due to recent rumors of increased volcanic activity. Still, their caravan never skirted closer than ten miles from the Verge. Tales abounded of the ancient strangeness that lurked near the abyss. None in Rilask’s employ would have permitted her to push them any nearer to it.
And yet, here the storm had left Jaltha, at the very mouth of it, a day’s journey at the least from their course, where the storm had struck. She looked around, hoping to see a scrap of debris or, miraculously, another salathe from the caravan, even a voiceless male, anything that would mean she was not utterly alone, here.
She found it. A shard of cheruon bone, stark white upon the black plain. She swam to it, lifted it, sniffed it with her gills…traces of the nall-leaf oil used to strengthen it…the scent of the males lashed to it…the sharpness of salathe blood…
Jaltha dropped the bone, sensing something drawing near, from behind her. She spun, flaring the spines from her elbows and around her gillmound.
There, only three tail-lengths away, floating through the thinning gray haze leftover from the storm, was a creature Jaltha had never seen, though she knew it well from the sleep-circle tales of her fellow guards. A grogglin, it was called. Its body was as wide as Jaltha’s was long, a massive, quivering white sphere from the sides of which jutted long bones that stretched translucent, veined flesh into torn, tattered triangles. Its jawless mouth was a permanent circle lined with a thousand teeth, each as long as Jaltha’s arm from shoulder to wrist. The teeth were set into muscled organs that each flexed and relaxed on their own accord, so that its mouth was ever in motion, the teeth rippling within like the tentacles of an anemone. The eyes set into the sides of its loathsome girth were nearly as large and hideous as its mouth, the milky darkness behind them soulless and ever-hungry. The tales the guards told claimed that the grogglins lived in the abyss, and only ventured out of it when they were near death from starvation, driven mad by hunger.
She reached for her warclub only to find her sheath empty. The voice from the aether sang through her mind.
Now may be a fine time to bring me forth.
“No,” Jaltha hissed. The grogglin was still drifting lazily, as though it had not seen her. She knew better. If the stories of the guards were true, the monster was incredibly fast. When it decided to strike, Jaltha would be rent to pieces by the autonomous teeth before she’d be able to scream…
Call me! The voice insisted.
“Silence,” Jaltha murmured. She remained perfectly still, hanging in the water. The grogglin’s pulsing white mass drifted nearer, following the Verge, one of its fins hanging over the black sand, the other jutting out over the abyss. She watched its tail fin ripple gently, almost hypnotically…the muscle at its base throbbing softly beneath its pulpy flesh…
Damn you! If you die, do you know how long I’d have to wait for someone to—
Jaltha leapt sideways, toward the abyss, spitting forth a black cloud of fearspores. The venomous cloud trailed her, and it was through this that the ferocious maw of the grogglin darted, its speed incongruous with its bloated, ugly form. The monster brought itself to a halt, thrashing its ugly spheroid body, trying to expel the toxin from its gills. Jaltha took the opportunity. She fled, swimming straight out over the abyss, following the Verge, taking care not to look down at the infinite nothing below her and the horrors it held…
Something slammed into her left shoulder with the speed and force of a god’s fist. She screamed. Her body went rigid as her vision went white with fear and pain. She fell…
Her vision cleared and she saw above her the grogglin, descending toward her, the Great Wall of the verge rushing past her, retreating toward the light as the world was swallowed by darkness.
You’re going to godsdamn die, here, Jaltha.
Jaltha felt the pressure building as the light retreated, the grip of the angry, ancient dark tightening around her. The last of the light formed a ring around the grogglin, a macabre eclipse as the monster’s maw reached her, and she felt the heat from its flesh, felt its teeth dance across her skin, almost gently, like the touch of a lover…
“Malune,” she thought she said.
Pure blackness, then. No light.
Jaltha’s eyes opened as quickly as she could force them. Her vision was blurred. There was soreness in her wrists, in her tail and across her back. She looked down at her hands…
Below her webbed claws, two holes had been punched through her wrist, between her bones, leaking wisps of blood. Below the wounds were shackles attached to thick chains of kryndyr steel. Her tail was similarly bound. She followed the chains to hooks set into the the wall behind her. The wall was a strange, porous stone, and pure black. There was a wide, circular opening in the wall not far from her beyond which was thick darkness and the sound of groans. The sound of torture. The mouth of the cave was only two or three tail-lengths away. Beyond it, she could see the last remnants of day sift down through the world like offal.
Jaltha swam backwards, pressing her aching body against the wall. How she had come to be here, when her last memory was of the grogglin’s devouring maw, she had no idea…perhaps, she reasoned, this was the afterlife…
Don’t be foolish, the voice from the aether trilled, You are still very much alive.
She tried to speak, but pain and exhaustion had weakened her to the point of muteness. The aether knew her thoughts, however, and answered them accordingly.
The grogglin brought you here, it said. Some sort of cave network, set into the wall of the Verge. The aether paused. Jaltha could feel it withholding something. She closed her eyes and focused, directing her thoughts to the aether.
What? Speak, damned thing!
The voice seemed to sigh.
When we arrived, Rilask was already here.
Jaltha’s eyes opened.
It was Rilask that bound you, so. It was she that put you in chains.
Jaltha’s mind raced. What the voice claimed made little sense to her. Still, it meant that Rilask was alive, at least—
No, the voice said, She isn’t.
What? Jaltha asked. You said—
Jaltha, this is very, very bad, the voice interrupted. The grogglin venom in your blood has slowed you. I…I do not think you can summon me…your mind is too weak to call me forth…
Another voice cut through the aether. It spoke aloud, not in her mind.
“You have a touch of magic in you, Strange One,” it said.
Jaltha turned to see two figures swim through the wide circular opening to her left. Salathe females, both of them. In the darkness, she could barely see them but for their lifeheat. They swam over to her, their tails wafting lazily in perfect unison, until they came to a stop midway between Jaltha and the mouth of the cave.
There, by the soft almost-light beyond the mouth, she could see her captors. The one nearest to her was an Eldress. Her hide was thick with pus-colored calluses, her beak nearly white with age. She wore the kasp-leaf robe of a Shaman, but somehow Jaltha knew this was no mere God-Speaker. There was a sinisterness to her, an unmistakable aura the color and viscosity of venom. Beside her, there was Rilask.
“Rilask!” Jaltha coughed, snapping the chains taught as she strained against them, “Rilask! What is this? Release me, now!”
Rilask did not respond, did not move at all except to wave her tail to remain in place. Jaltha shook her head, unbelieving.
“Rilask!” Jaltha barked. Rilask did not move. Razorfish wounds, hundreds of them, crisscrossed the trader’s body from the top of her skull to the tip of her tail. One of her eyes had been ruptured, its milky remains drifting out of the socket like a wuorn-tentacle.
Rilask, Jaltha knew, was dead. The Old One clicked her beak and swam closer to Jaltha until her beak nearly touched Jaltha’s own. The clouded eyes bored into Jaltha, played across her.
“But it is not a magic I know,” the Old One whispered, “and I know many. Still, it has touched you. As such, I have decided to keep you near.”
Something stirred in the darkness behind the Old One, and Jaltha shook as she beheld it…the grogglin, swimming lazily past the mouth of the cave. For the first time, Jaltha noticed the enormous black gash in its side, behind its eye. A great chunk of flesh was missing from the animal, its translucent bones and milk-colored organs bloodless and decayed. The grogglin, she realized, was dead. It was dead, and yet it moved, serving the will of the Old One. Jaltha’s mind trudged through her memory until she found the razorfish buried in her elbow…its eyeless head, its near fleshless body…
“You…” Jaltha croaked, “you are a necromancer…”
The Old One chittered, flared the spines around her gillmound. “The dead are often more willing servants than the living,” she shrugged, and chittered again. “The living require either pain or reward. The dead ask only to live. Once that price is paid, they will do whatever is asked of them.”
Jaltha quivered, straining against the chains.. It was useless. The toxin reduced her body and mind to mere caricatures of themselves…crude illuminations…
“I am called Olak-Koth,” the necromancer declared. “And you are called Jaltha, once chieftain of the Olmregmai.”
Jaltha edged away, her back colliding with the wall. Olak-Koth continued.
“I have seen your mind, as I see all of my prey. It is rare, but it does sometimes happen that one of the living may be worth more to me alive than dead.” She extended a bony claw towards Jaltha. “I believe you to be one of those.”
Jaltha, I kept her from what I could, the voice said. It sounded frightened. Her magic is strong, though. She knows I’m here—
The necromancer’s eyes twitched, her beak jerked upward, her gillmound quivered. Her eyes rolled and the protective white membranes flicked over them sporadically.
“I…can feel it…your mind, reaching out and touching it…near…it is very near…” the necromancer lowered her head, composed herself, ground her mandibles together before continuing. “What magic is it, Strange One, that speaks to you? That guards your mind from probing claws? What darkness is it you carry within you? Answer, fool! For it is this, alone, that has saved you from the fate your friends now suffer!”
Jaltha heard the groans of pain once more, echoing out of the cavern behind her…
“Malune!” Jaltha cried.
She pulled hard at the chains, throwing her tired weight against them, felt them bite into her flesh, felt them draw blood, but the kryndyr smiths were stronger than she, and the grogglin venom made her dizzy and filled her vision with tiny blinding suns. After a moment, she became still once more, drifting limply to the cave floor.
Olak-Koth swam nearer to her, looked down upon Jaltha. “Once,” the necromancer croaked, “you had a Mooring. Power. This, I have seen, and I needn’t have looked within your mind to see it. You were feared. Adored. Some felt that hate which is reserved only for gods and chieftains. And now, behold! Ruled by a fear strong enough to force you into the service of a fool trader,” her claw jabbed backward toward Rilask, still hovering in the water, staring ahead, seeing nothing.
“Though, somewhere along your path, magic touched you. You know its name. It speaks to you, protects you. It is ancient. Strong…” The necromancer’s voice trailed off. Her eyes rolled over white. Jaltha felt something like a breath of cold, putrid current across her thoughts. Within her, the voice roared like a guardian beast. Olak-Koth’s eyes opened and she shook her head, flared her gillspines, clicked her beak. She grasped Jaltha’s beak in her claws and stared into her eyes.
“Do you not crave what you have lost? Do you not crave that power?”
Jaltha tried to open her beak, but Olak-Koth’s grip was too strong.
“I can give you that power, Strange One. I can give you a world that fears you.”
Jaltha! The voice screamed through her, making her body go rigid, Jaltha, I know! I have seen it, what she plans!
Jaltha shook her head free of the necromancer’s grasp.
“I have seen enough of magic and those enslaved to it,” she spat, clicking her beak in disgust. “Do what you will with me.”
Jaltha, what are you doing—
“Silence!” Jaltha screamed. The tiny suns burst, leaked blindness through the world. She shook her head, which only made things worse. She shut her eyes and breathed. Above her, she heard the necromancer’s voice.
“So be it, wretch,” said Olak-Koth. “What comes next will shake the very foundations of the world. If you will not surrender your magic to me, your blood will suffice.”
Jaltha… the voice strained to be heard, but was drowned out by the grogglin venom, the pain in her broken shoulder, the gashes in her flesh…
The grogglin’s venom seized her, then, having had its time to settle within her. Her body spasmed once, and then was still, as if molten iron had been poured into her bones. She could not move, could scarcely breathe as she settled on the cave floor like a cheruon bone. The blindness faded, though her gaze was as fixed as her bones. All she could see was the mouth of the cave beyond the shadows of the necromancer and her revelation slave.
She heard Olak-Koth say to Rilask’s living corpse. “Take her to the others.”
Rilask’s strength was otherworldly as she dragged Jaltha’s paralyzed body through the dark corridor toward the sounds of torment.
They entered an immense cylindrical chamber, lit by ancient bubbling kryndyr flames set into sconces in the walls. The walls were rounded, following the curve of lengths of strange stone, almost like the ribs of some giant beast. As Rilask swam through the chamber, Jaltha’s unmoving eyes beheld the horrors within.
There, upon the curved, rib-like stones, were the members of her caravan…Gaka, the second in command…Dejeme the male-herd…Kalmara the navigator…all writhing, screaming, their eyes wide portals that opened onto worlds of agony. Gouts of black fearspores erupted from the vents below their beaks, instinctual, animal reactions to fear and anguish.
They were all bound to bloodpsonges. The vampiric things lined the rib-like stones, clustered upon it, and the salathes hissed and died slowly, slowly, as their life was drained from them…
Rilask shifted Jaltha in her claws just as they passed the bound, quivering form of Malune. Her arms were stretched out, her tail torn, broken. Malune’s life was reduced to a weak light behind her eyes that dimmed as it was pulled into the bloodsponge on which she was bound.
Rilask turned and swam toward the wall, toward an empty bloodsponge further up, directly above Malune. Rilask spoke, then, though not with her own voice, but with the rasping hiss of Olak-Koth. “I have seen your affection for this one,” the revenant chittered, “You may watch her die.”
Rilask turned Jaltha’s body so that she stared into her dead, eyeless skull. Though Jaltha knew what was happening, the truth of it was still a distant thing. Buried beneath confusion and pain and the harsh magic that held her limbs, there was the voice, crying out to her through the void.
Pain like sunfire burned across her back, down her tail, from her wrists down her arms, through her veins and everywhere, everywhere at once. She gasped, flaring out her gills, and tried to move. She felt the mind-numbing toxins of the sponge’s million mouths as they hooked in and sucked at her flesh, draining her slowly…slowly…
She screamed. Olak-Koth laughed loudly through Rilask’s beak. A cacophony of screams, of terror and blinding, pulsing agony, the laughter of the necromancer…the scent of the blood-infused sponges…Malune just inches below her, helpless, all of them…all of them doomed…all of this blended, melded at once into something pure and solid and white, the way a pearl is made of a million broken stones…
Jaltha! The voice screamed. She could hear it, now. She could focus. Rilask’s corpse swam away, back toward the entrance to the chamber of horrors.
I cannot heal you if you cannot summon me, the voice said, The grogglin venom will soon be overtaken by the bloodsponge’s own toxin. It will numb your mind as well as your body.
The voice paused for a moment.
Jaltha, it said, I am afraid.
All around her, the screams fused together into a deafening silence, and then there were only the sounds of her own blood and the voices within it.
What…what is happening?
The voice answered, When she entered your mind, I was able to enter hers, but only briefly. I have seen what she is, what she plans.
Jaltha was able to move her eyes again. She strained against the bloodsponge’s suction, but the combined venom of the undead grogglin and the sponge itself took the strain and turned it into a tearing nausea that threw acidic vomit out of her beak and caused her bowels to rupture. She moaned low and was still, casting her eyes about the vast fire-lit chamber, the twisted bodies, the blood leaking from the gluttonous things upon which they were dying.
This is not a cave, the voice continued. It is a massive skeleton, the fossilized remains of a gargantuan beast from your world’s prehistory, a kind of predatory serpent. By my estimates, the skeleton is nearly three hundred tail-lengths long. It has been hidden here, beneath the sediment, set into the wall of the Verge for eons. Olak-Koth had found the monster years ago, and sought a way to bring it forth from death.
Jaltha’s eyes were torn reluctantly down, to Malune, whose eyes were closed behind white membranes. Jaltha closed her own.
She practiced her death-magic here, within the skeleton, until she found a way to bring life to the dead by use of bloodsponges, transferring life from a living thing to a corpse with the vampires as the medium. Here, she waited, capturing stray travelers across the plain until our caravan came, and she drove the storm of razorfish to scatter us toward her.
The voice threw visions of the past upon the surface of Jaltha’s mind…visions of the past…Olak-Koth, once a revered Shaman of Olm-Daki, draped in silken leaves and pearl and obsidian jewelry…a black dagger in her claws…imprisonment…banishment…years wandering the black plain…the yawning maw of the predatory beast, trapped within the stone, its ancient, empty eye socket like a cave within the Verge…
With these lives, the voice said, with this blood, the beast is soon to rise from its tomb. Guided by Olak-Koth’s terrific will, it will be a siege engine with which she will visit her vengeance upon Olm-Daki. At the end of it, she will have more slaves. More lives. Enough to fill the bloodsponges set within the ribs of a hundred more fossils…enough to raise an army of the prehistoric dead…
She saw it then, painted upon her mind, twisting and fading and reforming with the surges of bloodsponge venom…Olak-Koth’s vision for the future…all of the Moorings of the salathes and the cities of the crustacean kryndyr razed, all of Dheregu United beneath the skeletal claws of an undying Empress of Death and her army of blood-stained bones…
Why do you show me this? Jaltha thought. She could almost hear the screams again, could feel the burning, gnashing pain of the bloodsponge’s mouths start to numb into a soft, almost pleasant sensation. If I am doomed to die, what does it matter to me the fate of a world none can save?
The voice answered, We can stop this. We alone, perhaps, can end this before it begins.
Jaltha opened her eyes, looked down at her weakened corpse. The color was already almost gone from the flesh of her tail.
You said…I could not summon you…that my mind…was too weak…that it was impossible…
It is, the voice said, and Jaltha felt it tremble. But you must try.
Jaltha’s gaze drifted past her tail, past the monster upon which she was splayed…to Malune. The only creature toward which she’d felt drawn since her Mooring was slaughtered, since she had inherited Nakaroth from the mad fiend Kalzahj, since she had been broken and scattered to the wild currents of Dheregu. In Malune, she felt the pull, the almighty command she had once felt in the gods she had abandoned, and she knew not why, only that she must obey it. In this, for the first time in a hundred seasons, she felt the mighty cry of purpose.
Focus, Jaltha! You must try!
The walls shook, suddenly, and would not stop. The great ribs of the creature to which the hapless salathes were bound trembled, dislodging themselves from the stone in which they were entombed…
It is beginning…the voice said.
The screams were drowned out by the thunderous crack of stone, and a booming, echoing voice roared through it all, the voice of Olak-Koth, speaking empowered words no living tongue save hers could form as the mighty, long-dead beast shook itself free from the cliff-face, alive once more, fed by the blood of a hundred salathes and the will of the necromancer in its eye…
A stone struck Jaltha as it fell, and the last thing she saw was the darkness of the abyss opening below her, a mountain’s worth of stone pulled free from the Verge by the living bones of the great serpent, sent tumbling into the eternal night.
It was a noxious heat that shook Jaltha awake. For a long moment, her venom-slowed mind forgot where she was. She looked around in confusion and tried to move. Then, she remembered.
The sunlight fell down through the world in gray, muddied torrents of light. All around her, the bloodsponge-lined ribs of the great prehistoric monster rippled and swayed as the skeleton swam forth. The light was stronger, here, not far from the worldbreak. She looked down. Malune had stopped moving, stopped screaming, as had most of them. Her eyes were closed. It was likely, Jaltha knew, that she was dead. The thought couldn’t penetrate her slow, clogged thoughts deeply enough to elicit pain. For that, she felt a small amount of gratitude.
Below Malune, a league or more below them all, there lay the wide, burning landscape of the volcanic wastes. The heat of it, even at this distance, had been strong enough to tear Jaltha from the grip of the bloodsponge toxin.
She is taking the beast over the volcanoes, the voice said, She hopes to reach Olm-Daki by nightfall.
She hissed as she felt another wave of nausea roar through her.
You must focus, Jaltha.
She vomited again, though there was little left in her but bile. She surveyed her body. Almost a translucent white against the bloodsponge, she swore she could see her very soul as it left her, fled into the bones of the reborn titan.
She closed her eyes. The venom swirled beneath her membranes, a visible thing, a swarm of gray tendrils. She forced herself beyond that, deeper into the darkness, toward the core of it, where the voice lived…
She heard the humming song, the high-pitched trill that rang outward from the aether…
Bring me forth!
…and she saw before her the visions of Olak-Koth, a world of a million corpses, though even this moved her only slightly. Pain was the wide world’s blind author, and it mattered little to Jaltha who it selected as its scribe, be it Olak-Koth or some other fiend. But, there, in that vision of a million bloodless corpses, she saw only one.
The rage built, and the high, humming song burst into the world around her, outside her mind, and she felt the burning in her arms and chest, the painful toll the summoning took from her now a small, insignificant thing.
Her mind bellowed, full and deep into the aether, I call thee forth, Nakaroth, Blade of the Void!
Her eyes shot open to see the air in front of her left hand shiver and fracture into alien geometries. In the midst of this, a widening point of darkness appeared, the high shrill screech of reality suddenly deafening. Then, the point erupted into a thick, black triangle of serrated steel, the blade of Nakaroth. The hilt sprung from the blade into Jaltha’s webbed claws, which she closed around it. The song became silence.
Instantly, she felt the sword’s power course through her, replacing in moments what the bloodsponge had taken hours to steal. She roared, and in one mighty forward motion, tore herself from the bloodsponge’s thousand hooked mouths. Her blood trailed from the wounds, but she felt no pain, only rage and a ferocious swell of might borrowed from the timeless aether. She spun in the water and slashed at the bloodsponge. The thick black sword passed through it easily, lodging itself in the thick, stone-like rib beneath it. The wounded sponge and the enchanted bone released great scarlet clouds of her own blood, and the wounded resurrection quivered in pain and surprise from the attack.
She knows, the sword said. Hurry!
Jaltha darted down to Malune’s sponge, burying her claws into it to stay with the monstrous skeleton as it moved. Jaltha pressed the flat edge of the blade against Malune’s chest, and a dozen yellow runes glowed upon it. Malune’s eyes shot open and her gills flared. She looked about her, struggled against the bloodsponge’s grip.
“Be still,” Jaltha said, drawing back the sword.
Malune watched in horror as Jaltha brought the sword down. The blade bit deep into the bloodsponge, missing Malune’s tail by a fangwidth. The vampiric thing shuddered in panic, and Jaltha relished in knowing that, had the creature a mouth, it would have screamed. It released Malune in a thick cloud of her own blood.
Jaltha took Malune in her arms and swam away from the skeleton, struggling against the pull of it as it passed them. They looked at one another. Malune was still weak though even with the tiny amount of power granted her by Nakaroth she found herself able to swim on her own. She pushed away from Jaltha, suddenly terrified of the salathe in front of her, wielding a great black blade, surrounded by an aura the color of a dying sun.
“J…Jaltha? What…what’s happened?”
“Can you swim?”
“Then swim south. There is an abandoned kryndyr outpost near the Verge, according to Rilask’s maps, at the southern tip of the wastes. There should be supplies there which will permit you to return to Chorgaan.”
“What…what’s happening? What was that creature…?”
Jaltha’s gillspines flared in anger. “Go!” She screamed. Malune backed away.
“What…what about the others?”
Jaltha’s gaze remained fixed on the living fossil as she said, “I will do what I can. For many of them, I fear it is too late.” Jaltha swam forward, past Malune.
“Why did…you save me, then?” Malune asked.
In reply, Jaltha barked, “To the outpost!” She stopped for only a moment, turned, and said, “If I live, I will meet you there.” Then, she was gone. Malune was behind her. Olak-Koth and her beast lay ahead.
The power that surged outward from the sword propelled her through the water at an incredible speed. She caught up with the fossilized tail of the undead titan within moments. The pull of the beast’s mass through the water caught her, further accelerating her progress. She darted beneath its tremendous vertebrae, each one as wide as a grogglin and twice as long. The creature’s size dwarfed even the largest of the white cheruons, who themselves could reach a size of over two hundred tail-lengths. If Olak-Koth succeeded in raising an army of such things, Jaltha found it hard to believe that anything would be able to stop her from claiming all of Dheregu as her own.
She entered the cavernous ribcage by darting between two mammoth ribs. All around her, the dead and the dying…the reek of excrement and fearspores and blood. The serpent’s bones, she thought, carried the scent of war within its belly.
She swam over to the nearest of the tortured captives, a young caravan guard named Taati. She could smell the death rising off of her, could see it in the empty, open eyes. She took a long breath in through her gills, then drove Nakaroth through the corpse, into the sponge. Blood gushed forth. The monster shuddered. The thick blade severed the corpse in two, and the top half fell away to the hissing wastes.
Something is coming, Nakaroth said.
Jaltha ignored the sword and swam the seven or so tail-lengths to the next rib, to the hapless creature bound upon it. This one, too, was dead. She did not know her name. Without ceremony, she plunged the sword in. Blood rushed out.
Biting, slashing pain lanced into her side. Jaltha roared and spun. Buried in her tail up to its dead, empty eye sockets…a razorfish. She tore it out and crushed its bones in her fist, its bladed nose biting blood from her palm. She discarded the broken thing and looked up. Pouring out from the porous skull three hundred tail-length’s ahead was a swarm of razorfish as thick and full as the gouts of blood pouring from the ruptured sponges. The swarm moved as a solid entity, rushing across the skeleton toward her, an angry, bladed cloud.
Jaltha darted upwards following the wall of curved black bone until she came to the next bloodsponge. This one held Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. She was alive. Her eyes flickered open as Jaltha dug her claws into the sponge behind her head.
“You…one of…the guards…” Gaka rasped.
“Be still,” Jaltha commanded, and lifted the sword—
A razorfish tore a hole through the webbing below her right arm. She hissed as another slammed into the blade of Nakaroth, shattering itself upon impact with the magical steel. The swarm was upon her.
The living daggers encircled her in a cyclone. She lashed out with Nakaroth, swinging the blade in wide, mighty arcs, crushing dozens of them at a time. Still, they were able to attack, stabbing at her from all directions. They were too many.
The aura! Nakaroth cried, Use the aura!
Jaltha bellowed in protest, “No! I am too weak already!” A wound opened below her jaw. She swung her sword wildly, tearing holes in the wall of the cyclone that immediately healed itself as more and more of the necromancer’s minions poured forth from the titan’s skull.
Jaltha, you must—
“It will drain too much of us both!” Jaltha screamed over the roaring swarm, “It was you that said it’s meant only to be used as a last resort!”
Another dagger in her tail fin, then another near her spine, and another in her elbow…
Precisely! The sword countered.
Wounds opened like polyps across her back and shoulders…
She closed her eyes and hissed at the sword, “Very well! Do what you must!”
The sword’s mind bored into her own, pulled a portion of her soul into itself…
A great jagged sphere of yellow light burned the world around her body into a bubbling roar. She felt it tear at her soul, feeding off of it. Her arms threw out to their sides of their own accord. The destroying aura expanded outward from her, swallowing the razorfish, dissolving the swarm in a matter of seconds. When it was over, Jaltha hung in the water in a cloud of dust that was all that remained of the razorfish, pulled forward only by the mass of the great skeleton-beast as it glided forth.
She turned her head slowly as her strength returned. There was Gaka, still bound upon the bloodsponge. The aura had burnt Gaka’s chest and arms, and singed the bloodsponge itself. Gaka, however, still lived. Her eyes were fixed upon the great triangle of steel in Jaltha’s left hand.
“What…what are you…?” She whimpered.
Jaltha felt the sword’s diminished healing power slough through her, slowly sealing the wounds inflicted by the swarm. She stabbed the bloodsponge, releasing Gaka.
Gaka listened numbly to Jaltha’s commands, to the directions to the abandoned kryndyr outpost. Without a word, stricken dumb by pain and terror, she swam away.
“Wretched thing! Infidel!” The great, trembling voice of Olak-Koth filled the world, echoing out from the titan’s very bones.
Jaltha turned, then, and saw the corpse of Rilask leap out of the titan’s skull and turn, wielding a spear of fossilized bone, rushing down the winding length of ribcage through the scarlet fog of blood Jaltha had loosed from the vampiric sponges. Jaltha thrashed her tail and rushed forth, toward her enemy…
Their weapons collided like a clap of thunder, sending each of their wielders tumbling through the water. They each gathered their bearings, and struck again. Jaltha ducked beneath a supernaturally powerful thrust of the thick spear. The weapon passed over her gillmound and Jaltha swept upward with Nakaroth, slashing her enemy open from its abdomen to its throat. White milky tendrils of intestine burst forth from the wound.
The revenant lunged, dragging its bloodless entrails behind it. Jaltha, still slowed from the use of the aura, moaned in despair as she labored to lift Nakaroth to block the attack. She was too slow. The spear punched into her left side, slipped between her ribs. She screamed and grasped the bone spear’s wide shaft, brought the sword down upon it, slicing it in half. The revenant’s lonely eye flickered in anger as it looked down at its broken weapon. With the spearpoint still inside her, grinding against her ribs, Jaltha roared, flashing Nakaroth outward, severing the corpse’s head from its eviscerated body. The head fell away beneath and behind Jaltha, drifting down to the burning wastes a league below.
Jaltha looked down at the wound. If she pulled the spear out, she would only bleed out faster. Nakaroth would clot the bleeding for now, but could do little to save her from the death the wound would bring. The blade would have to return to the aether to replenish the power spent on the aura, and in that time, she would die.
She looked around at the hundred or so more bloodsponges left to be severed, at the corspes of the salathes that she could not save, and felt her grip on life loosen further. There was no way to stop the serpent. Even crossing the distance to the skull, to kill Olak-Koth and break the spell, would take more of her lifeforce than likely remained. She looked down, where Rilask’s headless corpse had fallen. She blinked, realizing something. She looked up, at the spine…
Yes, Nakaroth said. Do it.
Jaltha swam for the vertebrae.
Before you die, the sword said, send me back into the aether. I would rather wait there for another to summon me someday than perish utterly in the fires below.
Jaltha silently agreed. She was nearly there…nearly there…if she could sever the spine, interrupt the flow of blood through the bones, perhaps it would slay the beast just as it had slain Rilask.
She lifted the sword, thrashed her tail…almost…almost…
A screech behind her. She turned.
Olak-Koth, wreathed in a black aura that boiled the world around her, tore through the water, her claws bared and full of gnashing magic…
“Infidel!” She howled.
Jaltha tried to raise Nakaroth, but the sword was too heavy, emptied of power. She tightened her grip and prepared to send it back to the aether, fulfilling her promise.
The necromancer threw her claws outward, casting black, moaning beams through the water. Jaltha darted to her right, following the length of the spine. The black beams slammed into the vertebrae, scarring the fossilized bone. The great length of the titan shuddered. Olak-Koth screamed again, spun as she reached the spine only a tail-length away from Jaltha.
Nakaroth, she began the spell to send the blade back to the aether…
The necromancer’s hands pulled darkness into them from nowhere, her eyes wild, her tail flashing. Jaltha remained where she was, prepared to die.
Blade born of the starwinds…
The necromancer grasped Jaltha’s throat with a burning black hand.
…to the starwinds I command thee go…
Jaltha felt her flesh bubble and char beneath Olak-Koth’s grip. She met the necromancer’s eyes, saw the red and raging void, a future of corpses and blood scratched into sand-scoured stone…
Something lurched. The necromancer screeched in pain. Her black hand was torn away violently from Jaltha’s throat. Jaltha backed away, dizzy, dying, blinking blood out of her eyes.
Olak-Koth’s body was impaled against the titan’s spine by a length of broken bone. It was the half of the spear that Rilask had fallen with. Now, it was pushed upward through Olak-Koth’s abdomen, out through the back of her neck and into a fissure in the serpent’s vertebrae. At the other end of the shaft, Malune glared up at the necromancer, thrashed her tail, forced the weapon deeper into the necromancer.
“Now!” Malune turned and screamed at Jaltha. Jaltha did not hesitate. She swam forth, lifting Nakaroth with both hands and all her strength, though her dying muscles cried for relief. Olak-Koth opened her beak to scream, but no sound came before the sword had passed through her, the weeping cloak of souls suddenly silenced. The necromancer’s body separated below the arms, the bottom portion trailing black blood, like a dark comet on its way to the wastes a league below.
Jaltha and Malune’s eyes met for a moment before Malune’s gaze fell to the spear in Jaltha’s side. They grasped each other as Nakaroth vanished from Jaltha’s hand, flickering back into the aether. Malune took Jaltha and swam out of the serpent’s ribcage as the bones fell apart from one another. No longer held together by the necromancer’s will, they collapsed and crumbled, following their master and dragging the dead after them into the fire.
Somewhere in the deep darkness of a wounded sleep, Nakaroth spoke.
You have done almighty work, Jaltha of Dheregu.
She opened her eyes, suddenly fully awake. Over her head, there was pure black stone, baroquely carved. She lifted her body from a slab of the same obsidian. There was a pain in her ribs, and deeper, and she remembered…
“Jaltha!” She turned. There, in a finely decorated threshold, was Malune. She swam into the small chamber. Behind her followed a regal-looking salathe Eldress, wearing the headdress and shoulder shells of a chieftain.
Malune took a place beside the wide berth of volcanic glass upon which Jaltha lay. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while, perfectly silent. The chieftain waited, patiently. Words formed behind Jaltha’s beak, but she kept it shut. The silence was far more appropriate.
At last, Jaltha turned from Malune to face the chieftain.
“Where are we?” Jaltha asked.
It was the chieftain who answered.
“You are within the Mooring of Olm-Daki,” she said.
“A hunting party had spotted us,” said Malune, “They saw the bones of the serpent fall, and they found us among the debris. You’ve been asleep for many days.”
The chieftain lowered her heavily ornamented head. “It is likely that all of Olm-Daki owes you our lives.” She straightened, crossed her strong arms. She stared hard at Jaltha. “The kryndyr surgeons here have repaired your wounds, and assure me you will live. I wanted to personally extend my invitation that you remain here. All will be taken care of, of course. You would want for nothing. It is the least we can do.”
Malune and Jaltha both looked at the chieftain, then at each other. Malune nodded. Jaltha said, “For now, at least, we will remain.”
The chieftain chittered in excitement. “I will have a more permanent living arrangement prepared near the top of the mountain, close to the worldbreak. The sunlight there is legendary! Why, I myself retain a home there…” She was still speaking excitedly to herself as she turned and left the chamber.
Malune knelt and clacked her beak, just once, against Jaltha’s before turning and following the chieftain. “I will return,” she said. The sensation lingered, mingling with the sound of Malune’s voice as she absently ran her hands over her arms, her tail and felt the scars there. She stared up at the obsidian ceiling, at the myriad carvings, vines and tentacles entwined and knotted like the ways of the Fates that had led her here. It was useless to try and find a pattern, she knew. But she would have time.
Even as she followed them, the carvings seemed to blur, and she looked away, out the narrow window of the chamber toward the bright orange horizon, where the volcanoes breathed, and thought of Malune, and how they two alone had lived, how very many had died and for no good reason, and how old the world was, and how many more would live, and how many more would die, and how truly surreal it was to be anything, anything at all. On its own, her beak opened and she chittered. She thought she felt the world stumble then, as though she had joined Malune in learning its secret.
Outside, the fires burned forever, and the currents roared, and the souls of ancient monsters rode planes of sunlight to the sky.