Category Archives: Fiction

Itself at the Heart of Things, by Andrea Corbin

 

“The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is alike.” — Tristan Tzara, 1922

On the floor, I hiked my skirts up and began to disassemble myself, starting with my left knee.

“How is that going to stop the Szemurians? How is that going to protect us? Can’t you help me, for God’s sake?” Benoît said this, sounding increasingly frantic, on each pass through the sitting room as he tried to gather up whatever he could—to board the windows, bar the door, barricade the entire house, as though that were important. He broke apart the dining table we had found on a trip to Lyon in 1921, so he could use the boards to block the picture window. It had been a good table, or at least we had good meals at it over the past three years.

The house in Paris would stand or not, and Szemuria would come or not; they would try to burn down the house or not. Or rather, I heard they would, raining war down on us like they themselves were War. Of course the house was inconsequential, so I unscrewed my kneecap and set it on a bedsheet I had spread beside me for that purpose. It was a delicate process, because I didn’t want to deny myself or others the option of reassembly in the future. The future was questionable, but no matter; I didn’t want to be destroyed. A small amount of blood spotted the sheet beneath my solitary kneecap.

The Szemurians sent no messages or envoys, only dreams to every one of us a week before. Benoît and I had different dreams; the papers suggested everyone did, and visiting the café confirmed—”They came like colossi, feet crushing our belching, rattling cars, and they screamed smoke and fire into the air, and burned us alive,” said Mme Höch, a kohl-eyed woman, hands shaking as she picked up her espresso. The man with her, his beard sharper than Benoît’s and his cravat tighter like a noose, almost knocked the delicate china out of her hands and said, “They were like eagles, massive, claws grasping for each of us as we ran through the streets, claws digging into our flesh and bone, and dropping us from on high, but yes! Yes, they screamed, screamed like nightmares.”—but in the end these were only dreams, I said.

Benoît loomed in front of me with a hammer in his hand and nails in his pockets while I carefully snipped and tugged and set my tibia apart from my fibula. “I’m going to need help later on, when I get up here,” I said, gesturing at my torso, my shoulders, my hands.

“We’re securing the house, and then we’re going to the bomb shelter.” Having woken up to absent neighbors and quiet streets, he’d concluded everyone had decamped to shelters, like before.

Benoît’s dream: He lay in bed with me and we couldn’t move, frozen while bombs dropped all around us, small explosions of dust, cratering the road and city, never touching us but deafening us. He said I tried to speak though neither of us could hear; he could barely see for the dust of the bombs, and he wanted to know what I was saying, what was I saying, what had I said?

What the papers said, after the night we first dreamed of Szemuria, was that Szemuria was coming for us and we had to defend ourselves and our way of life. Defend our property, our values, the strength of character, the pure blood, the modern freedoms, and I stopped listening, feeling that the right thing to do was disassemble myself and wait. It took several hours to find the right tools, and to launder and bleach the sheet, and to clear the floor to lay out the sheet, and then Benoît stepped on it and I had to wash the dusty shoeprint off again.

Boom! Boom! Here they came. I could hear them, like in my dream, the Szemurians at the edge of the air.

An hour into my work, inside my right thigh I had found a key of unrecognizable substance. Heavy, like iron, but a faintly pearled sheen to it; rough, like iron, but always cool, no matter how long I held it; lastly, it was not black like iron; and finally it fit nothing I knew of. I put that key piece of me at the corner of the sheet, away from my dismantled legs, to let it watch over me as I continued to work. Benoît shuffled in, all the windows covered, all but one door sealed tight, and sat by my side. I could see the gleam of exertion on him, smell it on him. All that work he had done to protect something.

“We have to go to the bomb shelter,” he said, again.

“Do we?”

“The Szemurians are coming.”

The screwdriver pressed into my hip socket, sharp and painless. With a little more leverage I could—but when I leaned my head on Benoît’s shoulder and closed my eyes, I was transported back, back, back to a time before we bought the house. Before our marriage, before our dreams, before the War. Before all this. But not before the Szemurians. They were always there, whether we knew about them or not. With my eyes closed, I could feel toes in sand, wet sand at the edge of the beach, smooth and pale sand. We took the Métro through the city, a train farther still, until we were at the Mediterranean, in a chȃteau owned by his parents. The chȃteau is no longer there, or anywhere.

It’s almost another country, the sea. The south. The warmth of the sun is different. You turn golden and caramel and rosy, or at least we did, me the rosy, daring the sun to burn me. Things made sense, then.

Benoît took the screwdriver from my hand and threw it so hard that it stuck into the wall. He gathered the corners of my sheet, the key falling into the mess of bones and muscles and tendons and parts unidentifiable, so I’d likely never be able to put all my pieces back together without the aid of an anatomist, and I laughed as he picked me up. “Perfect.”

Things never made sense. We only thought they did because of how little we knew.

“I’ll take care of you,” Benoît said, scrabbling for a good grip on me. No knees to scoop his arm under. I held the makeshift satchel of myself, and he held me, and we left.

The streets looked the same as always, except they were moving away from me as I looked over Benoît’s shoulder, my nose pressed to his wool coat, inhaling home and Gauloises with each breath, each step away. Boom! Boom! A great drum, out of sight.

“Do you remember when we were married?” I asked into his neck.

“You wore a beaded ivory dress, and black silk top hat. You removed your shoes halfway through, to the alarm of the priest and my mother, who were unsettled enough by the hat. When you did, you put your hand on my shoulder for balance. I almost kissed you right then, but I thought it would’ve killed my mother to upend the order of the ceremony like that,” Benoît said, with that lightness to his voice that meant he was close to crying.

“That was the day Germany declared us all at war.”

Benoît’s hands tightened around me. “You toasted to all our deaths.”

“Not until we were alone,” I said, it being important to remember that I have tact, sometimes.

The streets were not full of retreating citizens, defending citizens, fighting citizens as we made our slow way. Everyone was gone. Not a one stayed to defend any way of life, after those dreams. All the Parisians were missing, and what was left but us?

“We didn’t die,” he said.

“Yet?”

Benoît marched, breath harsh with effort.

“You looked very handsome at our wedding. New waistcoat of sapphire, the hint of vines traced out in threads of silver, like kelp, like an ocean, like a garden, and you stood so tall and proud that I don’t even remember who else was there. Did you know? I don’t know if my own mother was there. I don’t remember taking off my shoes. I remember dancing with you, each of us with a daffodil in our hand, stolen from the garden,” I said, watching the arrondissement go by, the shadows deep. The sun hid himself behind thin clouds but the shadows were strong. “We fled to Zurich the next month.”

“Zurich was nice.”

“You were the last thing that made sense.”

With a heaving sigh, Benoît stopped in the middle of the street. The air hummed like wind in empty bottles. When I was young, I would line up bottles on a shelf below the window and listen to them sing; this was the same. I closed my eyes. It sounded like something from heaven, or dreams.

Benoît walked a short distance and set me down on grass. He took the white sheet from me, unbundling it and arranging the items with care, piece by piece. He peered at the key before setting it among my bones and sinews, where it gleamed like a memory I couldn’t place.

“I’m sorry I threw your screwdriver,” he said, and stretched out next to me. Under us, the grass was cool, dirt flaking onto my palms, and the wind still sounded like bottles. Benoît slid his fingers between mine. It was his first soft gesture since his dream.

“The Szemurians are coming,” I whispered.

“What can we do?”

The sunset might have bloomed with orange fire, or pink and purple luminescence, or a shade of teal that no one had seen before, but no one saw it then, either, if it did. The low booms, still, like a heartbeat in the sky. Benoît broke the window of a corner shop and found scissors, a butter knife, a finicky wrench, and a mallet, returning to me with his arms full. He also carried a small sack. This is what was in the sack: two gas masks, a ball of red twine, a muslin shirt, a lady’s silk scarf with a pattern of peacock feathers painted on it, a handful of colored ribbons, and a jar of paste.

When I saw that, I kissed him.

“What have you done to your fingers?” Benoît asked. He took my hand, now lacking the pinky and ring finger, and kissed my palm, his lips dry and gentle.

“I felt anxious, waiting,” I said.

“Now you have to wait longer,” he said. He stretched his right leg out in front of me. In the sky, angular and pale shapes formed, like new clouds. “I can’t do it myself. Help me, please.”

The day I was born, a lark sang. My mother told the story this way, as though a lark singing made a day any different from another. Larks sing every day. The day I began school, a lark sang, and the day my father died, a lark sang. The day I began school, my grandmother fell and never walked again. The day my father died, my mother wept, my cousins wept, my brother wept. The day I met Benoît, yes, a lark sang, and so did a robin, and boys and girls across the country, but also a lark was killed and devoured, and a robin, and boys and girls across the country fell ill or died. The day I married Benoît, the war started, a lark sang. The day we fled to Zurich, a lark sang. And the day my brother joined the army, and the day he died in a watery trench. A lark, singing. Always.

A lark sang, invisible in some nearby tree, as Benoît and I took each other to pieces on the grass.

“Don’t tell me about it again,” I said to Benoît, as he started to talk about his dream. The Szemurian dream.

“I didn’t tell you all of it,” he said.

His rib was being difficult. Next we would try the rest of my left arm. There wasn’t much more that we could do for each other. An arm each, a head each, leaving enough to hold each other, and not enough to come apart entirely. We would lay ourselves out in all our parts, reordered and useless. The closer we drew to that moment, the more my dread dissolved into a gas, transmuted into a cloud that could drift away and burn up in the sunlight.

“The bombs fell. There was silence. You and me, in our bed. All of Paris gone, all of France, all of Europe. Our bed, in a wasteland. There was a great silence after the bombs fell,” Benoît said, and paused to grunt as I pulled away a set of ribs and lung, bone and flesh, parting with the sound of a boot in mud. “A great silence, then a voice. We were the last ones, all that was left. The voice spoke in a language I didn’t understand, hard consonants and guttural vowels stretched out into low melodies, but I knew that the nothingness was where we were going to spend the rest of our lives. No gardens, no country, no chȃteau near the sea. No trees, no larks, no friends, no art…no more anything.”

I wanted to ask what he thought the voice said, but more than that I wanted Benoît to keep talking, so I said nothing.

“After the voice, I could move. After the voice, I sat up, put my feet over the side of the bed to find the nothing coated in a powdery dust, colorless for the combination of every color that used to be. I stood. I turned back to reach for you, and you—you were gone.”

Benoît put his whole hand over his face. I couldn’t live for his weeping. The last of me shattered, no matter how solid my shoulders, my neck. What was left of my mouth at last confessed, “I had a dream, too.”

Surprised into calm, he said, “You never said.”

With a soft twist, I pulled Benoît’s hand from his wrist and set it to the side. Carefully, I wrapped his other hand around the stump of arm that remained. “Hold that still,” I directed, and snapped my own hand off. Pressed it, wrist to base, until it took. “They can’t take me from you.”

Boom! Even now, scattered, intermittent arrivals: boom!

I wore a gas mask, the lower part torn away, the rest covered in muslin. Ribbons lined the edges, tracing in stripes from darkest to lightest. A braid of red twine drooped below my right eye, wafted in the air, tangled in my arms, looped around Benoît’s wrist, danced in a breeze, and connected underneath the left eye of Benoît’s mask. Benoît looked out from the eyes of two peacock feathers, the scarf pasted over his mask and hanging down, billowing with every breath of his. Or my mask was peacocks, and his ribbons, if you counted differently. His legs were longer than I was accustomed to, and I stumbled, needing more effort to skim the ground. He fell behind, needing slightly quicker steps on my legs to keep up. We ambled through the streets, learning our new parts. We wore masks. We walked, stronger with every step.

Szemurians in strange vehicles rolled through the sky like smooth tanks, a shining mechanical cacophony supplanting the sight of clouds and stars. Some landed, and out walked Szemurians into Paris, like Parisians returned. They were shaped like Benoît and myself and everyone else we had known on the planet and yet entirely unlike us, which is to say, they were themselves.

The building where we lived before Zurich, where we lived when we were first married, had a cluster of Szemurians looking up at it. One admired the flowers in the front garden, pulling them from the dirt. They chattered senselessly as we approached, their vehicle floating a few centimeters above the street like a lost bank vault. The outside was bright silver and muted steel. The door opened into a well-lit interior, with wood-paneled walls and a lush, intricately patterned carpet that reminded me of a garden path.

“I dreamt that you came and nothing changed,” I said as we stood between those Szemurians and their vehicle. The Szemurians silenced their talk and looked at us, wide-eyed, shocked to the very core by us, by my words. One wore a morning coat of dove gray, another charcoal, dark fabrics; the dresses stood out like gems of emerald and garnet. A gala we had missed. “I dreamt that nothing changed, except everything was worthless. The franc was worth nothing again. French meant nothing, and my words went unattended the moment anyone recognized them as unrecognizable. I could do nothing. I was a ghost.”

The Szemurians stared. The one in the top hat twisted his cane in his hands. “Drent?” he said, stilted, confused, imitating. “Goase?”

I turned to Benoît, caressing his chin. “See? No bombs, my love. No craters or dust.”

“But that leaves us ghosts,” Benoît said, worry tugging at his face. The Szemurians were starting to chatter again, around a building that grew increasingly strange to me.

“This isn’t a dream,” I said. We pushed the scarf out of the way and we kissed, uncertain who was who, exactly, where he was and me, with his hand springing from my wrist, my wrist down to his arm, and back up to my neck stretching and my mouth kissing his.

While the Szemurians stood in the streets of Paris, I ran, bringing Benoît and the rest of my self into the Szemurian vehicle. Before the closest Szemurian could follow us inside, we slammed the door. From my pocket, I pulled a pearled key, cool to the touch.

Silence.

No more booms.

Outside, the stars made no sounds, and their lights reflected in our eyes. Back in Paris, a lark sang.

Andrea Corbin lives in Boston. Her work has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, Sub-Q, The Sockdolager, and Recompose. Her interactive fiction, design work, and the occasional blog post can be found on her website. She talks a lot of nonsense on Twitter as @rosencrantz. She’s working on her magic powers, mostly so she doesn’t have to wait for a delayed train ever again.

Other Dreamy Destinations:

The Invisible Stars, by Ryan Row – He first learned to speak sitting outside their windows at night. A veil of kitchen or living room light above, watching the shadows of suburban rose bushes and apple trees drift in the yard as he listened. Family dinner. A TV. A radio. Two lovers screaming at each other. An old man talking to a brightly colored bird. The words were too soft for his mouth, and his mandibles ached as he whispered a garbled, carapaced version of human speech to himself and to the washed-out sky. In the direction of his lost home.

glam-grandma, by Avi Naftali – The seagulls were strung like irritable white pearls across the Los Angeles sky. They floated through the alleyways, complaining and complaining. It was the hottest time of the year.

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks – He has chapped lips and a grinning red slash at his throat. He topples over the wrought-iron railings of the pier and into the cold northern sea, where the autumn waves are hungry to swallow him up. He dies in the early morning, when the lights of Blackpool are not on. Nobody sees him fall.

Salamander Six-Guns, by Martin Cahill

He descended on the town like a saint sent from Dark Heaven six-guns shining like twin torches in his hands, down to the border where we had our battle on. Summers are always the worst in Sunblooders Stand, as the scale-folk grow riled earlier in the bright days.

We’d been fighting the scale-folk off for an hour when the stranger threw himself into the fray. One moment I was shoving a pitchfork into the belly of a croc-man, and next I knew, the flashing of the stranger’s salamanders blinded me, sea-foam flame belching hot lead as natural as rainfall. He danced between us sunblooders like a phantom. Not a one of us knew who he was, but when help arrives, you don’t ask from whence it came. He helped us drive back the line, the gator-kin and the croc-men screeching, the snake-touched and the iggies squirming; their shattered teeth and scorched scales left behind in the swamp as they dove into the murky water and made for the heart of their Scaled Nation.

Many of the towns inland would have taken to whooping and celebrating, but the thirty or so sunblooders on the swampy shore only sighed with temporary relief; here, at the fringe of civilization, the scale-folk were as consistent as the sunset.

The mystery man made a show of looking over each dead scale-folk at his feet, before turning his spring-green eyes on me. He had scars across his face and throat, pale against his dark skin, but I didn’t bat an eye; anyone hugging the coast ended up with a souvenir sooner or later. Holstering his salamanders, which hissed and spat like grease on a skillet, he put his hands on his hips, and said, “Looks like y’all could use some help around here,” his voice singing like a rusty six-stringer.

Something sour settled into the back of my throat, and I spat into the mud. Plenty of fancy folk had come through the town of Sunblooder’s Stand, hoping to make a name for themselves in the last living border town abutting the Scaled Nation. Plenty of other folks had drawn inland, away from the diseased coast of swampwater where creatures became people and hunted us normals like food, but not us. Some said it was the stubborn nature of those in the South, but I’d like to think it was a certain amount of sick pride, too; when you got good at protecting your home, you didn’t give it up easy for the illusion of safer ground.

I wiped my hair out of my eyes, too long again and as red as my name, and fixed him with the look I gave every stranger with boots that shone too much. “We been doing fine without you, stranger. Reckon we’ll be just as fine with you.”

He smirked, and I knew I disliked him, like a fish knows it hates the sky. “Sugar,” he said, “You’ll be finer than you ever been with me around.”

My hands curled into fists, and I bit down the urge to snarl. “Sugar is for horses, stranger. You call me Copper or you call me nothing.”

The volume of my vitriol took him by surprise. After a moment’s consideration, he took his hat off, and crinkled his fingers around its edges like all the children do with their songbooks come High Dark. “Begging forgiveness, Copper, sir. A man travels a lonely, dangerous road for a long time, and well, he tends to leave his manners at every crossroad, waystone and mile marker he puts behind him, if it means he lives a little longer. Coming back to society, I’ve neglected to bring my manners along with me.”

I saw the other sunblooders looking for my reaction. Ever since Momma took a claw to the gut and got sent to the bottom of the swamp, they watched for her leadership in me. So I snorted, and stabbed a finger in his direction. “Gather ’em up quick then, stranger, or you’re no better than the scale-folk, understand?”

He looked like I’d slapped him. Figured I’d hit him where his pride lived, but after helping us, I supposed he didn’t deserve all scorn and no sweet. I scratched the back of my head. “Manners or none, you did us a good service today. If you could help bring back the wounded, might be a bed you could hunker down in for the night, but I can’t make any promises.”

He smiled, bowed at the waist, called me sir again, and began to gather up the injured. Saw him carry Old Kearney back, singing “Take Me Down To Starry Town,” to keep the poor fool’s mind from his missing leg; a clean rip was better than a bloody bite. One bite, and you may as well sink into the swamp or blow your brains out.

Walking back, we cleaned our weapons with rags, and began to murmur amongst ourselves. I watched him go, this stranger, watched him smile and laugh in a cluster of shocked, scared people, and found myself even more distrustful of him. What right had he to smile so? Easy enough for a stranger to pick up such habits inland, away from the Scaled Nation and the cancerous holes in the sky that hovered over the coast. But bringing those habits right to the edge of civilization, mocking the people who lived there without a second thought? Made me uneasy.

But I tried, I really did. I tried not to judge too quickly, tried to be the best person I could under the eyes of Shadow Matron, shades keep her. A person is made of nothing but show and bluster, a hurricane wrapped in a shirt and pants, and sooner or later, they’ll blow themselves apart, or quiet down. I had to wait and see what this man would do.

Except he walked into my town like he’d lived there all his life, and I felt like the only one who remembered he’d only shown up an hour before. The people of Sunblooder’s Stand were fascinated with him, his Northern drawl, his green eyes, the way his black coat seemed to bend the light; he seemed to be a long-lost relative, not a random gun newly arrived. Only thing he didn’t seem to show off was the fancy silver chain around his neck, but I figured he was saving that for a rainy day.

He sauntered around town like a rooster, clucking and crowing at every person who fawned over him. Bunch of bright-eyed toad-lickers, to be taken in, to not see him for the threat he was. I fumed to see him chat up every man, woman, and child he happened to walk by. Respect had to be earned, and they were just giving it to him. Looking back, I can see why I fumed so: took me years to gain the same level of respect, and here he was doing it as easy as breathing. Not my proudest moment, no.

Come New Dark, as the sun slipped beneath the world, he smoked scales, the air burning magenta, steel, emerald, depending on the variety stuffed into the pipe. Children gathered around him, asking for stories from the safe world, and he delivered. Four people offered their homes to him, and before I knew it, he was a stranger no longer. The Mayor was here to stay, it seemed, and some furious and hurt part of me settled to the bottom of my heart like a stone in the sea.

Ah, right. His name.

A week or so after his arrival, folks started calling him Mayor. I said to them, “We didn’t have a mayor before, why we need one now? Even Momma didn’t have such a title and you all looked to her like she was Shadow Matron come High Dark to bless!”

People shrugged with moony eyes, and glanced at him, sitting on the barstool, talking and talking and talking, like words were water and these people hadn’t been rained on in quite some time.

So they named him Mayor. What was his name before? Doesn’t matter, I don’t think; he slid into the role like a knife into a heart. It fit him.

He tricked the town into loving him, and not a one of them could see the strings he was pulling within them. Day after day, he taught them that the scale-folk were nothing to be afraid of. He’d lay his supernatural six-guns into the coals of fires to warm their guts, tell stories over their crackling, stories that gave every sunblooder a sense that there was more to life than survival. There was another world out there, he said, one free of scale-folk, where a body could live a day doing whatever they wanted, not always having to rush into battle come the clarion call of the bell.

He was going to get everyone killed. Every single person who drank in his poisonous stories became a little less cautious, a little more reckless. He was inspiring them at the wrong angle. The truth was, there’s no part of the world that’s safe anymore; only lands that the swampwater hasn’t touched yet.

It finally hit him when Fennel got his throat ripped out by a pyth-person, on account of he was too busy singing “Guts, Gators, and Glory” to notice the alabaster fangs snapping for his throat.

The Mayor had taught him the song the night before, said how it would lull a new baby to sleep in a moment. The young lad had blushed, his wedding band bright and clean, and the Mayor had roared with joy to see his cheeks redden.

It was the Mayor that put a bullet through Fennel’s brain. If it was because of the snake poison that swept through his blood, or the scales that had begun to boil down his neck, I never found out. Mayor carried him home, silent like the sea.

No more songs were sung at the border after that day.

But no matter who fell, the Mayor was loved and I found myself alone. They’d trail after him, asking about this song or that, and everywhere they went, in the opposite direction I’d go, dragging along a bottle of whiskey, swallowing shots like bitter medicine. The town didn’t ignore me, but they didn’t love me like they loved him and it hurt like the oldest wound known to this world.

He tried to include me, invited me to meetings, to drinks at the saloon, but every time I saw that damned smirk of his, I hated him a little more, even if I didn’t want to; it had been nearly a whole month of bluster, and it pushed me to an edge I didn’t think I’d see again.

And if I said it didn’t bother me, would you forgive me for lying? After Momma died and Da ran, taking up the town was the only thing that let me ignore the pain in my gut, made feel important, loved even. Mayor had taken that from me, taken them all from me, and now I couldn’t do anything but sit beneath the stars and scratch at that terrible itch in my heart.

I went looking for him one night, and I had been at the bottle a little more than usual when I shoved him. He fell back against the wooden fence atop the only grassy knoll in town; folks said you could see clear to Coaltown from there. His six-guns were sitting in the dying embers of a fire, drinking their fill, some scale-folk magic in their hot hearts lapping up the heat.

He adjusted his coat, and coughed. “Something on your mind, Copper?”

I felt the whiskey in my blood urging me to say something mean, something that’d cut him down. But I was still my Momma’s son and I wouldn’t let liquor get the best of my decorum. “Just expressing my feelings as to your new position within the Stand, Mr. Mayor.” Was there venom in my voice? Aye, a little.

He took it all with grace, though. “Told Duncan to quit it with that damn title, but that boy has a mouth bigger than a full-grown croc, and twice as loud.” He looked back at me, must have seen something that made him stoop a little lower, pull the collar of his coat up. “Right sorry, Copper. Didn’t mean to take anything away from you. This is your town, and I have no right to be making calls on it.”

A wind cut through me, the wet of the swamplands settling into my bones, the night chill making me hold myself, the bottle dangling limp in my hand; relief and paranoia warred within me at his words. “Why are you here anyway, Mayor? What’s a body to find in the Stand but death? We don’t leave because there’s nowhere in this world we can go. Too many of us are poor, and lack in all things but heart; what else is out there in the safe world for us? That’s our excuse, weak as it is. So what in the Bright Hell is yours?”

He pulled out his pipe, nestled a fresh ball of tobacco and scales into the end of it, and lit it with a salamander shell, tamping its metallic end down until it caught. “Looking for someone.”

The way his voice went frosty, the way his eyes cast down into the swamplands with a searing heat, made me take a step closer to him. He was reeling me in, telling another of his damn stories, and I fought hard to shake off its magic. “If you got business here, let us help so you can be on with it. You’ve been tearing through scale-folk for a month, but never once ask for anything in return. Let this be it. Let us get you what you need and get you out of this nightmare. You came here by choice, and you can make the choice to leave, too.”

He took a long drag. The smoky, flesh-like stench of the scales burning in his pipe filled my nose, made me feel drunker than I was. To smoke of the scale-folk was said to be elixir before it killed you. How long had he been at it?

He huffed out a noxious cloud smoke, red at the edges, and smiled through its dissipation. “Kind offer of you. But what business I got would get a body killed for its doing. And I’m not the kind of man to throw people on the Red Coal Trail, just so I have something cool to walk over on my way to Bright Hell.” He smirked with sad eyes. “But as I said, mighty kind of you.”

I threw my fist into his side, the cold in my gut making way for the red-hot rage I loved so. “Toads take you! Don’t go playing that card, Mayor. I’ve heard enough dramas on the crank to know a foolish line when I hear it. You’ve been giving and giving to this town without a single receipt for bullets. You’re aiming for something and I want to know what it is!”

I wasn’t backing down. I wouldn’t let this town become beholden to the stranger in the dark coat with pistols of flame and a past that swallowed him like thorns. This close, he smelled like dying fires and hot lead. His eyes shone through the red smoke like evergreens bowing beneath a volcano’s weeping.

And if our lips were only inches apart, wasn’t it because I was trying to shout through the scent of him? If I was lonely and a little out of touch with the world, wasn’t that to blame on the whiskey in my blood and the scale-smoke in my nose and Momma passing without a goodbye and Da leaving me to die and my lovers packing up in the night, afraid of being singed by the hurt in my heart?

Wasn’t it enough to want a man who wasn’t afraid of getting burned?

His hand went around my wrist then, his other on my shoulder; he pressed me back down to the earth, quiet as a tomb.

“You afraid of a little fire?” I said, my throat dry and rough, knowing it to sound petty and small. I hated him and I wanted him at the same time.

His voice came out raw; he seemed older than I’d ever thought of him. “It’s just not a good idea.” Around his neck, the shine of his silver chain blinded me.

I wrenched my arm from him, and walked away right quick; didn’t want him to see me with my eyes leaking. Couldn’t give a body the idea that fire could be quenched.

The next week, we lost a half a mile to the scale-folk. The bodies of their family had floated downstream, right to Momma Scales. They came surging out of the swamp, urged on by their mother, voices ululating and screeching with anger.

I was only a boy when the sky opened up. I’ll always remember the swath of emerald light I saw on the other side, always remember the screaming wings that fell out of the hole in Dark Heaven. I remember the shaking of the earth, quake upon quake as beasts not of our world crashed, seeding themselves along the coast. From my vantage then, I could see two, maybe three, but as reports came in, more than twenty of the monsters fell from their world into ours.

That’s when the scaled things of the swamps and jungles and deserts started up and moving, becoming more man than beast. The wings from beyond the sky were urging them up the food chain with an awful rapidity. But they weren’t the worst.

Like any good infection, it started small. A scratch is sometimes all it took, though it could vary. “If the skin starts turning, you better get to burning,” is something Da used to say before he left for lands inland, lands unscaled.

I think seeing his brothers rise out of the swamp, reptilian armor flying up their necks, their brown eyes going gold . . . I think it broke him to see his family become their family.

I’ll always forgive him that, at least.

But if you didn’t defend what family you had left with all you had, what were you?

I hadn’t seen such a number of the scale-folk as I did the day we lost that half mile, surging forward, snapping jaws and stronger claws with a swiftness to make wind balk. Our toes dug into the swampy earth as we battered scaled ribs with plunging knives and pikes. But really, we were a shield for the Mayor, who fought like a man haunted.

White-hot bullets flew with such speed as to shatter skulls, two, three in a row. The air was alive with the screams of his salamanders. He was an artist that made death.

They were gunning for him. Momma Scales urged them on with her grief, and soon enough, we had fallen back. If I looked out of the corner of my eye, I could see the outskirts of town.

But I couldn’t look away from the battle for fear I’d die if I did. So I didn’t miss the moment when the Mayor went down under a pile of snapping jaws.

For a heart-wrenching moment, I forgot how to breathe.

But in the next, he threw them off, pulling strength from where, only Bright Hell knew. Scale-folk scattered in the air, fell to the ground, and we were there to thrust steel through their bellies.

I turned to smile at the Mayor, glad to see him alive despite any awkwardness that had come of my stupidity a few days before. Despite my hurt, he was a part of this town now; it would kill everyone to see him kiss the bottom of the swamp.

We locked eyes from across the murky water and I lost my breath again.

His green eyes were gone. In their place were thin pupils, vertical, bright as molten sunflowers, and his teeth had taken on a sharper edge than any man I’d ever seen.

Years of combat instinct surged through me and had I a gun in my hand and not a pike, I would’ve shot a bullet right through him, faster than you can say “Gator-man gonna get ya.”

He staggered to his knees in the water, and yowled like a cat whose tail had found the rocker. When he looked up, pale and shaking, he had recovered his green eyes; he looked at me, ashamed and exhausted.

That night, I grabbed his hand after dinner, and steered him to my cabin. Some of the others threw whistles and whoops after us, but I paid them no mind. Upon entering, I threw him into a chair, and kicked him hard back into it when he tried to stand. I didn’t know if I was angry or frightened or both.

“Show me.”

Mayor stared up at me, grim. “You don’t want to see this, Copper.”

I stared him down, arms crossed and feet wide, trying to channel my Momma as much as I could. Finally, he began to undo his shirt.

The mossy green and bark brown scales that mottled his chest glistened as they caught the moonlight. They trailed up to his chest from a terribly sewn gash in his side, divots of teeth marks and puncture wounds running around the edges.

I felt my muscles go hot, my throat tight. “How? Most men would be tearing out their lover’s throats after a day with a bite that big.”

He fixed me with a gaze, hung up on my words. He fingered the necklace he wore, rubbing a silver feather. He winced as he buttoned up his shirt. “Smoking the scale seems to trick a body into thinking you’ve already turned. Slowed it down somewhat. But a body can’t be tricked forever.”

“What in the world made you think to do such a reckless thing?”

His eyes went glassy and the moonlight seemed to pass through them and illuminate some memory held in the back of his skull. “A lover, a . . . companion. Name of Adam. He was bit when we were crossing the Brollins Canal looking for mercenary work. Gator-gal snagged him off the side of the boat, tried to drown him, but we were able to kill her and drag him back on deck. Old healer onboard stuffed the pipe into Adam’s mouth, lit the scales, and said it would help. It did for a time. Adam held on, but—” and here’s where the glass of his eyes went dark, and he stopped straying down memory’s path, “After a few months, Adam couldn’t fight anymore. He liked the voice in his head, he said. He liked being a good son to Momma Scales, liked how it made him feel. So he let it happen, and dumb toad I am, I let him live. Thought I could appeal to him, my sandy-locked lover. But all that happened was he took a bite out of me and fled into the water. I been tracking him ever since, and well—”

“He’s here. He’s come to the heart of the Nation.” I finished the thought for him, though by no means did it give me pleasure to deduce his intentions, nor did I feel superior knowing the full measure of his pain. My eyes roved the landscape of his body, its lean curves cutting the night to ribbons. My mouth wanted to taste his, but all I could do was imagine the pain racing through him like a panting hound. “Can you last long enough to find him?”

Mayor had sunk into the high backed chair, refused to meet my gaze. “I’ll find him, that’s for sure. But living? Well, shit. If I’m as good a liar as I hope, then next year, a year after, if I’m careful. But—” he laughed then, his eyes getting fever-bright, almost yellow in the dark room. “I can . . . hear her, Copper. When I’m down at the border, pushing back my would-be brothers and sisters, I can hear her, right here.” He tapped his temple. “She whispers to me in verses of fire and smoke, seduces me with the promise of family, of living forever, I—” He stopped, put a shaking hand to his eyes. His breath rushed out of him, ragged and low. “She’s a compelling Momma, Copper. Broke my Adam like a piece of driftwood, and he was a saint compared to me. Whatever she’s doing to drive the scale-folk, it’s leaking into me, and I don’t know when I’ll be too full up of her to resist.”

It’s a hard thing, watching the strong at their weakest moments. Saw it with Da when he wept at his brothers’ empty graves, saw it with my own Momma clutching her gut, trying to keep her insides on the inside. How do you build someone back up when they’ve gone as low as they can go?

In my experience, you either kick ’em in the ass or let ’em work it out. And the Mayor? He needed a kick. “Well, you’re just going to have to hang on a little while longer, mister,” I said, with as much authority as I could muster, “because you still have work to do, and no lizard bitch momma is going to keep you from doing it. In fact, I say we kill two crocs with one bullet, if you catch my meaning.”

When he looked back up, his smirk was wide, his evergreen eyes bright.

We rode out the next day, our packs stuffed with as many knives, bullets, and pikes as we could shove into their confines. Mayor followed the pressure in his mind south and east, and we marched out behind him.

A few bodies from the town had joined us, folk who found the idea of a suicide mission to rid Sunblooder’s Stand of the biggest progenitor of scaly bastards appealing. No use in telling them the story of Adam. Mayor would kill me if I revealed his secrets, and so I kept my mouth shut.

Was it a dumb plan? Sure as the sun is bright. But Mayor was dying and I was lost. And if we had a way to find Momma Scales in the tangled heart of the Scaled Nation, well, we were just desperate enough to try to put her to rest.

The mood was light as we crept past the border and through the swamp, with Felbrem and Ko betting on who would win themselves the heart of Momma Scales herself. Jocularity on the road to Bright Hell; who’d have thought it?

Mayor walked in the front, sullen and gaunt. If he was smoking scale, he could have been fine. But every scale-folk in a mile would be drawn us to like gators to guts, and so he couldn’t stymie it.

With every step, he fought the infection through sheer will.

And with every step, he lost a little more.

We passed through pools of murk and forests of reeds, keeping our eyes split for any scale-folk that may have been lingering. Mayor said we’d be fine for a few miles more.

When pressed for answers, he tapped his temple with a pained look, turned back to the front, and shaded his eyes. Were they golden just then? Or was that the light being tricky with me?

At night, Mayor and I shared a tent, where he went to the farthest corner, and wouldn’t look me in the eye. Did he think I’d hate him, to see those yellow eyes in the night?

I awoke to guttural coughs, hissing whispers. Wrenching myself up, I saw Mayor curled around himself in the corner, shaking like a rattlesnake in the brush. He was covered in a cold sweat, and on his neck I saw scales creeping up behind his ear, brushing the back of his neck.

He was all motion then, sprang at me, hands clamping down on my shoulders. His eyes were a totality of gold and they were never going to change back.

“She was never meant to be here, Copper.” His voice was high, and shook like a willow in the wind. “Her, her brothers and sisters, they were thrown from their lands through a rent between spaces, denied any succor, say, or justice. Their enemies threw them through the sky and gifted them to us.”

I tried to shake myself from his grip. “Damn it, Mayor, snap out of it!” His fingers dug deeper, the nails longer, his eyes twitching.

“They’re changing us, Copper. She’s making us family, an army.” His gaze snapped up, and it was as though he could see through the tent top, into the sky and beyond. “Someday, they’re going to go back, and take back what’s theirs. And we’re going to go with them.”

I slammed my fist into his gut as hard as I could and he let go, fell to the damp earth, lay there, sobbing and sobbing.

Should I have gone close to sit with him, be there to lend him a little humanity, which was dying in his chest like a timid cinder caught in a storm? Should I have put my hand on his hand, and shown him he wasn’t alone, not even here, at the end of his life? Should I have kissed his brow, and promised that he still had a chance to live?

Aye, maybe I should have.

But I stayed in the corner, terrified, and watched him sob himself to awful sleep, remembering that iron grip on my shoulders, that piercing golden light in his eyes, the scales that were marching across his skin. To this day, it churns my gut to think of how I failed him in that moment.

It wouldn’t have stopped what happened next, but Bright Hell burning, what in all this terrible world do I know?

The next morning, Mayor wore a cloth around his eyes. When Ko asked him why, all Mayor did was smirk and say, “So those scale-folk see what I really think of them.”

The group laughed at that. I shivered.

It was no matter, because everyone forgot about his eyes when we entered the Scaled Nation proper. In the morning light, scattered across the thin reeds and fuzzy bulrushes and angular black trees of the swamp, there were scale-folk of every kind.

They had taken a cue from their ancestors, and lounged along the banks of the swamps, letting the sunlight flood through them like liquor, making them drunk and sleepy. Some of the croc-folk had their mouths open, nestled in the cattails, jaws working against empty air, while pyth-people rubbed and coiled their long necks together, splashing in the muck. Gator-folk lay on their stomachs in the water among pink-flowered lily pads, nostrils just above the surface, while the iggies draped themselves across branches of heavy bald cypress trees.

Mayor put a gloved finger to his lips, motioned for us to get close. When he started walking, I felt a pressure in the air, slight, and wondered if Mayor was keeping us safe, trying to hide us and disguise us with the other scale-folk.

We walked slower than slow; slow enough that time could miss us if it wasn’t looking.

Up ahead, through the density of green palm fronds and low-hanging cypress leaves, I spied a mighty crater deep into the earth, and saw something enormous shift in the shadows. I turned to confirm with Mayor it was Momma Scales, only to see he wasn’t there.

The whole group stopped dead. I couldn’t feel the ripple in the air. The nearest gator-man’s nostrils flared. Icicles pierced my heart, eyes searching for the Mayor. I looked back the way we’d come.

Mayor was standing over a gator-man.

He had his gun drawn, aimed at the gator-man’s heart. His hand was smoking, he was holding the six-gun so tight. His arm was shaking, fresh tears rolling down his cheeks, staining the bandage around his eyes. His mouth opened, and it looked he was trying to say something, but his mouth would not obey.

I read his lips, best I could: Adam, he said, over and over again.

How does a body run as slow as they can? I moved as through spiderwebs, inching my body forward in the water, going to Mayor as slow and as fast as I could.

I stood a foot from him, glanced at the sleeping croc on the ground, Adam, who had a silver chain around his neck, a feather at the end glinting in the light. Around the Mayor’s neck hung its twin.

Mayor worked his mouth at me, unable to talk for the grief that blocked his throat. I shook my head at him, lips shut.

Mayor thrust the gun out at the sleeping gator. The Mayor’s eyes were pleading with me, bleeding water like a stuck cactus.

I pointed back at the group of frightened sunblooders, to the stirring figures scattered around us, at the viper’s nest we had walked into.

I’ll never forget that moment, when he ripped the band of cloth from his eyes, turned his golden lights on me and mouthed, I’m so sorry, Copper.

His arm went limp.

He dropped the gun into the water.

The sleeping gator-man, Adam, opened his eyes.

As other scale-folk began to wake at the sound, Adam rose and seemed to see the Mayor, really see him.

And then Adam remembered what he’d become, and did the only thing he knew how to do, did to the Mayor what he had tried to do so many years ago when he had first turned.

His jaws clamped around the Mayor and then he dragged him under the water, blood already staining the air.

I swear I saw Mayor smile, a smile as wide and sad and starless as Dark Heaven.

It didn’t matter if I screamed at that point or not, because the air had become nothing but sound, nothing but motion and pain and teeth, as the scale-folk sprang from sleeping and saw how we had slipped past them.

We pulled out our pikes and our steel and our guns.

I screamed to move onward, toward the crater.

The scale-folk were still groggy from sleep, but there were so many of them. How do you fight off a world of hate? I sent a pike through the neck of a pyth-person, and sidestepped the swipe of a gator-gal, whose needle teeth were flecked with blood and grime. Her tail sent me flailing, splashing down into the water. I could feel her moving towards me.

I had never contemplated my death, only figured it would come when stupidity got the best of me. Never figured it on someone else’s stupidity, but that’s life, I guess.

Then I noticed how the water near me was boiling. I plunged my hands into the mud, and found the scorching handle of one of Mayor’s salamander six-guns.

I whipped the weapon skyward and fired. A lance of flame blew through the gator-gal in front of me, rocketed across the sky, and exploded over the crater.

The echo of the gun caused the scale-folk to stop their attacks, and quirk their heads as though they heard something far off. Fine, let ’em listen. I searched the mud for the other shooter, found its hot handle and lifted it out of the water, steaming.

In that pause, my heart broke to see Mayor’s silver necklace shine up from the muck. I snatched it up and put it in my pocket. Someone had to carry his ghost home.

I turned just in time to see Momma Scales rise.

Her shadow could’ve shrouded the town proper, and I had to put my arms up against the windstorm her wings whipped up, though I caught glimpses of scales the color of deep fire, a belly as white as fresh sand. She shrieked in a language of a land astride ours, and I didn’t have time to think as from her great jaws erupted a hurricane of heat.

The spear of flame made for me and mine like an arrow. With no time, and no place to run to, I thrust the six-guns into the air, remembering how Mayor would nestle them in the coals to charge them, and praying to Shadow Matron, oh, how I prayed it would be enough.

The fire slammed down on us, and arced around the guns in my hands. I could feel the salamanders drinking, deeper and deeper and deeper still, learning that their guts were not meant for so much power.

The salamander in my left hand exploded. The worst pain I’ve ever known washed through me and took my hand away in a burst of blood and bone. I screamed.

The other six-gun barely held. The wash of flame from above subsided, and in my remaining hand, the salamander glowed as if born from Bright Hell’s forge. The scale-folk screeched and roared, cheering on their Momma who’d come to protect them. In the sky, she wheeled, circled back to me, to the sunblooders behind me.

At my feet, Ko and Felbrem were dead and smoking.

I stood, letting my stump of a hand drip blood onto the scorched and glassy swamp. Raising the salamander, so hot I could smell my hand roasting, I leveled it at the great Momma from another world, whose jaws snapped the air, screaming for her fallen babies.

I was ready to die, I suppose.

I mean, the Mayor was dead. Ko and Felbrem were dead. The rest of the sunblooders huddled around me, bloody and scorched and beaten. I wanted to die because it honestly seemed the easiest thing to do.

But if you didn’t protect your family with all you had, what were you?

Momma Scales fell like a comet from Dark Heaven. Her jaws opened and I saw behind her teeth a great, bubbling heat. Her and I, our hands were on the triggers.

She approached.

The universe yelled, “Draw!”

We fired.

I was faster.

The bullet ascended like a star from Bright Hell, cutting through the flames of her jaw, and out the back of her mighty skull.

She didn’t scream as she fell, but her babies did. They cried and wept as she landed into the swamp behind us, dead as dead as dead.

Last thing I remembered was dropping the six-gun to the water, sizzling, and staring at my lost hand, the bloody stump, and smiling like a fool before I fell with her.

What happened to the scale-folk after their Momma died? Well, I imagine they did what we all have to do: they learned to live on without her.

There’ve been raids every so often, but they’re few. Without her, they’re lost, as lost as the sunblooders without the Mayor. But we all learn to make do with loss; life is just learning how to lose things with grace.

Would the Mayor have been proud of us, to see us fight back so? Did he even care for us? Or was he just a broken body searching for a ghost, before he could let himself die?

He may have been poisoned, and he may have been foolish, but he was right about one thing: The world is larger than the Stand, and to sit still in a world going down in flames without trying to help douse the inferno is just as bad as being the one to start the fire.

So I’m headed out. I’ve got a horse. I’ve got his last six-gun, battered and busted as it is. Even got his silver chain around my neck; maybe his ghost can help keep my feet on this earth. Momma Scales is dead by my horrific, scarred hand, and if I can do that to one, I can teach others how to do it to the remaining lizard lords that still dot the coast, biding their time until they bring their war back through the skies. I’ll see if we can’t drive those bastards back to their world without taking ours with them.

One of these days, I’ll die. I’ll be dragged under or poisoned or turned to their family. But not before teaching every person I meet that the world can only survive if you help it to, and fear is just a rope holding you back.

I don’t know if it’s what he would’ve wanted, but hope is all I’ve got left to give.

I gave it up, once upon a time and a hand ago. I don’t intend to again.

Martin Cahill is a writer working in Manhattan and living in Astoria, Queens. He is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a member of the New York City based writing group, Altered Fluid. He has had fiction published in Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with work forthcoming in Lightspeed Magazine. Martin also writes non-fiction reviews and essays for Book Riot, Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog, and Strange Horizons. This one goes out to the gunslingers; keep giving ’em hell.

More Hunts:

Extinctions, by Lina Rather – After your mother went to prison, you stayed with your grandmother, and after she died in her sleep, you went to the city. Odd girls on their own in the city come to bad ends, but you come from a long line of people who made their livings fixing and killing, and that sort of work never goes out of style. These days you have work that suits you better, in a tattoo shop in the low-rent part of the city where you spend most of your days doing flash and sweethearts’ names.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.

Red Mask, by Jessica May Lin – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.

Dandelion, by John Shade

 

For my grandfather, Frederick. Rest well, Gramp.

Before the border wall, we scatter.

Dandelions.

The nanomachines grind us down and we float up and through the cracks, molecule to molecule, like holding hands.

Leena hesitates, is left behind. She stands apart on the wrong side of the wall. She presses her hand to the cool, shaded concrete. We feel it through the upload.

Big fields of grain wave at her back. Miles of grain. She breathes in and the scent lingers, stains the upload with memories. (Watch the singularities like thunderstorms outside your windows; see the monsters they bring.) Her eyes are closed. A little sadness shows on her mouth, downturned at the corner. She stays like that for a long while.

Leena is like us, scared. We can feel it, a low bass at the bottom of the upload. None of us have our filters active. The minutes are precious; we experience everything we can. Leena was the newest addition to our group before we picked up a couple survivors from another group. She is fast. Good with a wrench. Her nanomachine swarm is top-notch. Brilliant, the colors of their carapaces in the daylight. They rest across her bare, elegant shoulder. She stands tall, a long neck, an easy smile. She is the best of us.

When we reform, we place our hands on the opposite side of the wall. We feel the connection. We turn and run ahead. We know the border security, the swarms, the electrical grid, and most of all, the mouths. Crafted by AI, we know they are strange things. Wide, grinning mouths attached to bent legs, striding across the plains between the two border walls in predictable patterns. At their center, they are a mass of flurried arms engineered to pick up runners. We know they want the burst of blood on their teeth again.

Finally, Leena, too, scatters through the wall.

We are the diversion. Ahead of her, we have already started to die.

We feel it on the upload. The mouths’ pattern tears across us and a few are too slow, plucked up. No hesitation. The mouths eat us. Their teeth snap across our limbs and we wriggle in the half-light on serrated tongues. We go into shock, and soil ourselves. Our last emotion is one of embarrassment. (We have been taught to die nobly for thousands of years, and it is always a surprise to us when we don’t.)

The mouths chew. We hear the sounds on the upload. Cracked bone, wet cartilage. Soon those who died are scattered in a different way. The AI’s creations, the mouths, are efficiency incarnate. They were made to solve problems; it’s the core from which they grew. They use all the parts of us to correct our transgressions. We become mortar for the cracks in the wall, and organic matter for the grass we bent running. We are grafted onto the broken wheat stalks, and set them upright to wave others through. We are the soft earth, and the clouds threatening rain again. The mouths do their work well. They wash away our bootsteps with the water in our bodies. They use our platelets to clot any damage done to them. Our consciousness they spit out like seeds. And we linger there, ghosts on the upload, a warning to all like the heads on spikes of old. They kill us every way they can.

“It’s insane,” Leena had said at the war table all those days ago.

“You’ve seen the projections,” one of us—Jyl—had said. “There’s more AI spilling out every day. More factories, more things. There’s no stopping the hemorrhaging now. We’ll be dead in a month, two tops.”

“No,” Leena said.

Jyl said, “We’ve got to get you someplace where the shackles still hold. You’re the best engineer we have. You can change things. We can’t. If only one of us gets through, it has to be you.”

“It’s insane,” Leena said, quieter. It sounded more to us like, It’s the only thing left.

Our knees whisper against the tall grass. Our plan is working. The mouths’ pattern has changed. We are drawing them to us. We are the diversion; we are Leena’s salvation. The mouths strafe us and catch more unaware. More die. Leena trails in our wake, unnoticed so far. Notes of regret thread through her fear.

We send messages of encouragement.

We say, We will be all right, and, This is for the best, and, We don’t hurt for long, and, I’ve always loved you, and, Don’t ever give up.

At the center of the field, in the no-man’s land between the two border walls, lies a strip of abandoned towns. Vines grasp squat one-story buildings, all hunched together like prey along a single road cutting through.

The mouths have laid traps for us in these towns. We spring them. From behind abandoned buildings and cars and weeds, the mouths grow and unfurl before us like dark promises. They catch more of us. Many fall on the upload, screams and bitter endings. The upload is filled with the sounds of chewing. So many die in the towns, bodies smoothed over the walls and streets damaged in the fighting.

Leena dodges the mouths, the traps. The pattern’s changing faster now, and faster still. We can’t keep up. Even Leena has trouble. One of the mouths’ paths crosses Leena, and it’s about to scoop her up, but one of us shoves her out of the way and takes her place. She sees her chance and breaks through.

Leena reaches the opposite wall, places a hand on the rough surface, sun-stained and full of warmth. We feel it so clearly. Salvation.

One of us almost makes it. We reach for her.

Leena sends us messages of, Come on! Come on!

And we’re sending, Get out of here! Go! as the mouths snatch the last of us alive up and lift us to their teeth, and then, over the top of the wall, through the electrical grids, we see the grain waving on the other side, and we share it on the upload.

Leena scatters.

We die.

The upload goes dim, silent, like stars going out. Then, just echoes as the last of us is chewed down to nothing.

We are ghosts. We are the fields, the town. Everywhere our cells are used. Some of us disconnect from the upload, and head into the unknown. Some of us stay.

(Is a ghost a ghost only as long as it holds on?)

Are you ready?

We feel the message thrum against the upload. The world has passed us by. The years have made our upload obsolete, almost incompatible. The message, the feeling, is faint, like being underwater, but it is there.

Ready?

Leena. She has her hand to the opposite wall again. We think it is déjà vu. (How long have we been here? How much time has gone by?) We think it is a flaw in our memory, but she is different now. Older. She wears a war uniform. Medals dangle from her shoulders, her breast pockets. She stands taller now. There are men with guns behind her and swarm ships hang in the air behind them. An army. A human army.

I’m sorry it took so long, her message comes through. It sounds to us like, We may not win this, but we will try.

“General?” a soldier behind her says.

She keeps her eyes on the wall. She nods.

We give our reply. We help in any way we can, but ghosts are only what they leave behind, and our cells have been spread over miles by now.

The soldiers’ guns scavenge us for ammunition. From the air, the ground. The grain, the buildings. The remnants of our loyal swarms. We are bullets in a magazine. We are the fins on rockets. We are the rolling tank treads. They collect and then we march. We tear through the things that tore through us. It doesn’t have the right satisfaction. A different feeling. Only when Leena is in danger, and our shells and bullets protect her, does the upload sing with happiness once more.

Years. Blood across the hills, the cities. The war touches everything, gets in the corners, the cracks, of every life. Our cells spread far. Stray bullets and shrapnel and broken tank treads and tires. More disconnect from the upload. We are the bombs that rake the countryside. The swarms that shift the jet streams to our advantage. The explosives that level mountains. We are the sad stories told by candlelight. Our upload hums with battle cries when Leena is near, but they sound to us like, We are here for you, I am here. Please don’t forget us.

When the last battle is fought at the hive core—where the AI’s creations curl over each other like snakes and burrow and lash out with everything they have—many of us give whatever we have left. And when the last of the AI’s creations fall, and the shackles come down again, almost all of us disconnect.

Leena builds a house between the border walls. She fills it with our captures. Us striking poses, or smiling with our children. (Dust has already begun to collect at the edges.) The house floats thirteen feet above the ground on grav cams. It’s drafty. Dark on the outside and bright on the inside, sun mirrors in all the rooms. It’s shaped like a ziggurat in the new style. We are the cutting board, the cabinets. We are the coffee pot, the fireplace, the loveseat. We are the bullet casings that get caught between her toes in the rain-soft earth on her daily walks. I am…We are the picked flowers on her nightstand. We think she chooses us, as if she can feel us still, remnants of our upload, even through the singularities, the years. (We have been buried under the constant change.) Other people come through the border, and some can feel our presence there too, but none as strong as Leena. She always had a way with connections, could feel the way something worked just by looking at it, placing a hand to it.

Some travelers come here to settle again.

The abandoned town at the center of the border turns into a real town. Our vines are brushed away. Shop carts trundle down the streets. A faster kind of life amidst the buildings, not just starlight and growth anymore.

Some are soldiers from the war. Some are only good for violence, and end up as bandits. Sometimes they go to Leena’s house. The older woman, the easy mark.

Leena and the soldiers play dark games of hide and seek through the house. We are the clumped rugs that trip them up. The countertops used for cover. The door barred with her shoulder (so close to me…to us, the upload pounds with her pulse). We are the bullets rolling into her revolver’s chamber. The crack of gunfire. We are the metal tearing through their skulls and every terrible thought inside.

After, we are the water carrying their blood to the shower drain. We are the jets massaging her bare shoulders.

Most of us have let go by now. And after the soldiers are dead and buried (the shovel work under the stars, we don’t welcome them next to us in the earth), the rest disconnect. The upload dies, vacant once more.

I am the one who hesitates. The one who can’t let go.

I am the field beneath Leena’s house.

Dandelions.

Thousands. (How long has it been?)

She is sick again. I am the towel the caretaker uses to dab at Leena’s forehead. I am the screwdriver fastening handrails to the hallway walls. I am the grav disc that carries her to the bathroom. The old sound machine mimicking rain while she sleeps. When she wakes from a nightmare, I send, You are home, You are home, but it sounds like, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ve always loved you. She can barely feel them now, my messages. So many years between us, we are ghosts of different eras. (Our captures were replaced by family pictures long ago.) She lay in a cold sweat. Her trigger hand shakes under the covers. She doesn’t like loud noises.

A breeze curls in and carries dandelion seeds and scatters them across her covers. Close but not touching, the two of us, like hands at our sides. I want to reach out, touch her fingertips. Tell her it will be all right, whatever’s next. The years are too much. A gulf of time that I can’t hope to cross, so I put messages in bottles, across all the bandwidths that I know.

Ghosts are memories given form. So this is what I am, this moment, this memory, most of all: I am the one almost to the wall all those years ago, running, running. Her hand is stretched out to me, and she’s saying, Come on! Come on! Her hand, mine. Only air between us. (It seems so easy now.) And I’m mouthing, Please, please come back for me. But the others are saying something different, and my voice is washed away in the din.

I am not the bed that holds Leena’s body the morning she does not wake. I am not the rags that clean the fluids. I am not the knives that prepare her for the funeral. The video screen that communicates her will. The chairs that hold fat relatives and admirers. I am not the picture frame holding her smile.

I feel her out there, on some other upload. She is the first layer of snow the ground. The jangling chains on her great-great-grandkids’ bicycles. The concrete holding up the new war memorials.

She can feel me too, but faintly, just a murmur now. Hands at our sides, close but never touching, like adjacent graves. Somehow, it’s enough. I send to her, Welcome home, but it sounds like, Come back for me.

I am the last wind on the street before dark. The door closed after an argument, sheetrock punched in anger. The sandcastle left unfinished. The grain waving under the stars.

I am a memory adrift on matter, a seed for the wind, reaching, reaching, only air between us.

John Shade lives and writes weird fiction under the constant Texas sun. His stories have appeared in Triangulation: Parch, Giganotosaurus, and Daily Science Fiction. He can be bribed only with burgers and fries, and can be found online on twitter @Dystopiandream, or on his website, johnmshade.com.

Other Blooms:

In the Pines, by K.M. Carmien – “You stink like the city,” the woods-thing says. The pines close around them, a green wall, filtering the light to dim and gray, cutting off the world. It looks like a girl, this one. Waxy pale skin, lank dark curls, shabby blue coat. Most of them don’t. They look like trees, or thickets, or wolves, or cats, or patterns of shadow. But this particular one, which always claims the right to deal with her, wears the skin of a girl who was murdered by a drifter four years ago.

Only Their Shining Beauty Was Left, by Fran Wilde – On her second day studying in the Monteverde, Arminae Ganit stared at damp sky framed by beech leaves and fiddleheads and wished she could photosynthesize. She touched fingertips to the thick loam at her feet. Moist air slicked her cheeks and dampened her t-shirt so her pack’s straps rubbed at the skin beneath. The forest’s shifting clouds dappled Arminae’s hands dark and light. She imagined her fingers exuding roots; her hair, fruit and leaves.

Of Blood and Brine, by Megan E. O’Keefe – Child’s mistress was out when the scentless woman entered the shop and laid a strip of severed cloth upon the counter. For once, Child wished her mistress were at her side. “May I help you?” Child asked around a clot of fear. “Make me a vial of this perfume,” Scentless said, her voice honey-sweet though her sillage was hollow, “and another exactly the same, but with the tiniest hint of the sea.”

Feathers and Void, by Charles Payseur


We are crows,
circling round the wake of death, black wings silent as we glide, waiting, waiting.

The big one’s gonna hit. Any second now. Iv’s thoughts coat mine like oil, slide away, always so clear in the moment but impossible to hold on to. Iv, my crow. My shell. My ship.

They told me, before, that being joined with Iv would be like living in a constant state of déjà vu. Like remembering something from a previous life, always a surprise when it happens but somehow familiar, like I’ve been silently preparing for just this thing.

There’s the explosion. The volley of missiles impact and my eyes widen even as my hands are ready to guide us in. We flock, the whole murder of us, as the Branthel 99X [JUPITER CLASS] Three Moons loses itself to the cold. The Distress blares as we approach, our sleek bodies the absence of light, wrapped in warmth and silence and life.

It carries something in its belly. It has eaten well and deep and so shall we. Rip it open. Feed. I shiver as the thoughts come, pins and needles down my spine.

Another volley might scream out from opposition at any moment, or else the Three Moons might trip its self-destruct, or else—We are in, talons digging into metal, finding purchase on the burnt slag of ship.

Xi(a) runs point, beak snapping at bits of debris—filling up on garbage. But then, maybe Xi knows something Iv isn’t telling me. Crows can be like that, secretive. It doesn’t mean we trust them any less. They are part of us now, after all.

I keep my beak shut as we push deeper into the ship, though each scrap that hits the light tempts me. I feel the call of something deeper, tastier. I wait, using the hunger to push me past Xi(a), past the bodies now thicker, now thicker.

A Jupiter Class can hold five thousand in crew and soldiers, though I know there’s no way the Far Home would have put so many aboard. Two, maybe? The war with the Near Home has cost them much—planets of people are gone through this conflict. Like me. Gone into the dark. Only I’ve come back.

Second right. Very close. Be careful. Iv’s voice is a cold shadow in my mind I follow on instinct.

I come to sealed bulkheads. Cumbersome to breach but my claws are sharp. I tear and scratch. Behind me the others pick over bodies, snapping out ID chips, ripping free whole neural arrays. Flesh gives like slush. Weakened metal punctures, and around us the corridor shudders and releases as air is pushed into the void. The bulkhead puckers enough to allow us through.

Inside I hesitate, tasting the fleeing traces of air and hope. Hallways branch and I surge ahead, as if by muscle memory, following the ghost of Iv’s intent—forward, then right. There’s another door but it cannot hold me. I—I wait, listen. There is something strange about this. Movement behind the door, the smell of electricity and something acrid, chemical. I wonder at the extra shielding to this area, able to withstand a direct hit from a Near Home barrage. I push my questions and doubts away and crash through the door.

Inside is a swarm of people, scientists—and something else, something hot and shiny and I need it. Weapons fire at me but I’m already dodging, already sweeping wings, claws, beak. I aim for masks and hoses, don’t need to kill them direct, just buy myself time. The firing stops and the source of my desperation looks like an egg of liquid metal suspended in a cylindrical stasis pod. No bigger than a human fist.

Fly!

I snap up the egg and a dozen other things from the table—tools and data chips and whatever else, then turn and fly. My squawk is a call, a warning. Speed is impossible in the corridors but I half-fly, half-crash through and through and out until the void is clear again and the Near Home Verol G9 [URSA CLASS] Starborn stares me in the face.

Stand-down orders shout through all channels. I dim them as I dive, seeing the telltale twinkle of a thousand piranha missiles firing at once. My caw is desperate as I sheer down, back, away, away. I do not worry about the missiles, which are larger than me but which lack the power to track us. I worry about debris. I worry about what else might be lurking around the perimeter of the battle, waiting. We crows are not the only scavengers, nor the largest.

Nor the fastest, it turns out. The barrage hits the Three Moons and Vi(ctor)’s squawk as he pulls himself free of the last corridor, weighed down by meat and swag, is indignant. I clench my jaw and fly. The mourning can come later, now we need to fly. But it doesn’t stop the pain, and in my beak there is the faintest vibration, as if something responds to that pain. Iv is strangely silent.

I was chosen because of my name. And yes, okay, I volunteered, too, but millions volunteered. It meant avoiding infantry, the meat grinder, which everyone knows well to avoid, or to try to avoid. Does it matter that the science is untested, that the price is your mind? We all wanted to live, and that’s what guided us, what guides us still.

But there’s something about the military and names. Or scientists and names? My profile ticked all the right boxes. Asexual, aromantic, introverted, no history of violence or resistance, high testing in special relations, logic, and reflexes. But there were hundreds that fit, and they needed only eleven. So they picked us for our names. I(ván), I(a)i(n), I(th)i(r)i(al), Iv(y), V(era), Vi(ctor), Vi(v)i(an), Vi(r)i(d)i(an), Ix, X(an), and Xi(a).

I’m not sure how many of those not chosen are still alive. Not many. And I’m not sure how to feel about still being alive. It’s what I wanted. But that was back when I was Ivy, before I became the fourth of eleven. Before Iv came along and made me less than half a name.

Five of us fly into Circus Field, where more ships than stars crowd the void, a gathering place of the unaligned. There are ships of every make and taste, some bought and paid but most stolen or cobbled together from small bits of shine. Security is a cloud of Verol PP2 [OSPREY CLASS] fighters with a pair of PP8 [HERON CLASS] patrollers coordinating. Even the PP2s, the smallest make of military value, are about ten times our size—we transmit passcodes and wait to acknowledge permission to trade, but they could not stop us, catch us, even if they twisted all their resources to the task. We do not come as friends, because crows are friends of no one, but we come full of shine, which will be enough.

Vi(v)i(an) is waiting at Crows Home, what people call the converted Extril BGX [PELICAN CLASS] Sprig of Holly that we scavenged mostly whole following the Third Raid of Heliocrux. The field had been so full of dead and dying that we crows had eaten for months off the spoils, coils, and codes. We simply call the vessel the shop, because crows do not have homes, are welcomed nowhere and so live nowhere, brooding wherever possible until storm or fire or humans push them on. The first thing Vi(v)i(an) notices is that we’re short one, and as we bow our heads she rips the void with a clacking call, loss and warning, loss and warning, over and over again.

When she is done we take turns spitting our hauls onto the floor of the shop. It was a minor battle but we have eaten well. I(ván) coughs up a mostly-undamaged null-shield, preens as the others gawk and snap their beaks in agitation. I hang back, feeling the egg, which is both hot and cold. The wait is shorter than it used to be, without Vi(ctor). Without I(a)i(n) or I(th)i(r)i(al) or V(era) or Vi(r)i(d)i(an). Only six of us now, and only five who fly the void since Vi(v)i(an)’s brush with a neuronanite trap. Her steps stretch with a deep limp and her wings will not unclench from her sides, will no longer unfurl, embrace the void. Still she holds on, acts as our base of operations and hawker, which causes her no end of amusement.

When the others are done, I am careful to release the tools and detritus first. The others gaze hungrily at everything—even without the final reveal I have rivaled I(ván)’s haul, the tools specialized and expensive, the datachips gleaming with research and other classifieds. Then I set the stasis pod down into the middle of my pile, and five heads tilt to the side as one. The electric curiosity of their attention is new. I let the pod down and feel a new chill inside me, a cold pit of anticipation. We crowd forward to examine the pod but Vi(v)i(an) darts in with her beak and snatches it up, and we shrink back, none willing to press.

“Where did you get this?”

I tell her what I am able, which isn’t much. The lab, the guards, the scientists. I do not know what this is or what it could be, but I spend as little time as possible among the gossipmongers and traders, so I am not the one to ask. Vi(v)i(an) flies now in entirely different circles, wings of information replacing those she’s lost to the neuronanites, and so I hope she can tell me what I have discovered.

“It’s not worth the trouble,” I(ván) says, no doubt wanting to go back to admiring the shine we’ve collected.

“Shut it and let Viv work,” Xi(a) says, beak snapping. She and I(ván) have never gotten along, he too proud and she too small, fast. Xia, she will introduce herself, like See-Ya! And then she will be voidward and onward, a streak of movement, something valuable trapped in her talon.

“Why not let the adults talk, little one,” I(ván) says, ruffled.

“Why not fuck yourself, old man. Just because you were made first doesn’t mean you were made best.”

It’s an old argument and one that Ix cuts short with an angry squawk. Ix, who doesn’t speak in human terms any more, who is normally least present, eyes too busy scouting unseen patterns in the stars. Right now Ix is focused entirely on the pod, and they hush all noise with a flutter of wings and a narrowing of their eyes.

“This is familiar,” Vi(v)i(an) says, putting the cylinder down on a scanner. “I’ve…been looking into ways of getting around the bugs that messed up Vii.” Her voice is raw for a second but recovers, and we all are silent, still. “They aren’t susceptible to most countermeasures, but from what I’ve seen it would be possible, if we had the original Corvid bioform, to—”

“That’s the Corvid bioform?” Xi(a) asks. The rest of us hold our breath.

The Corvid bioform. The progenitor of the entire Corvid class of ship. Our class of ship, which included a production run of eleven. A failed experiment. Had the Far Home decided to try again?

“No, but it’s similar,” Vi(v)i(an) says.

They’re coming for you. You need to go. Iv’s words send a spike of panic up my back. My head twists to the side, as if there’s a predator lurking behind us. Vi(v)i(an) continues talking.

“There’s not a lot for sale on bioforms,” she says. “Living ships were abandoned after…after us, and any new research is strictly classified. But there have been whispers.”

“The war’s going poorly for the Far Home,” X(an) says, matter of fact. “I read it on the Three Moons. They’re running out of soldiers. There were only twelve hundred aboard when the barrage hit.”

Of course e would have checked. Data has always been eir favorite shine.

I walk over to the long range scanners, distracted from the conversation. I should be paying attention, but something is nagging at me and I’ve learned enough not to ignore it.

“I’ve heard that they’re looking into living ships again,” Vi(v)i(an) says. “Though they’ve given up on the augur engine and ship sentience. After what happened with us…but they’ve also made the structures less rigid, the delivery vector more viral, so they could convert larger numbers quickly.”

“What the fuck’s it supposed to be, then?” Xi(a) asks.

The question is running through my mind, as well. The whole purpose of the Corvid experiment was to create a living ship, smart and adaptive, able to predict events. Magic, essentially, because I never understood the science of it. I only understood that, while there was a small chance of success, it was a hell of a lot better than entering the meat grinder.

My hand brushes the scanner controls, brings up the channel feeds of the Circus.

“I’m thinking they want suits smart enough to react to the pilots but not be fully aware,” Vi(v)i(an) says. “More computer than bird. Able to shrink and grow and change shape. Like a shape-shifting suit that can become a ship and then revert back into clothing, neurally linked to the pilot but not cocooning them.”

I swallow. I see it, at the edges of the feeds. Small queries about long distance readings. And something else. One voice asking after a murder of crows. Has anyone seen them? Have they attempted to sell—

“We need to go,” I say. My hands fly over the controls and cast the net wider, beyond the Circus. The feeds begin to grow more frantic as others start to see it. A fleet. Far Home. My eyes soar over the displays. Two Jupiter Class carriers and at least ten Mars Class battleships. Saturn Class, Venus Class, Khyber Class—it’s a full fleet, moving slow but too fast for the Circus to disperse in time.

The others scatter, X(an) going for the controls while I(ván) and Ix gather up the shine. Xi(a) helps Vi(v)i(an) with the pod. I remain at the controls, waiting for what I know is coming. It takes all of twenty-five seconds, by which time X(an) already has us moving through the shifting currents of the Circus.

They deliver their message on an open frequency. “Deliver the Crows and you can live.”

It’s strange, the urge to live. For a long time I was angry about it. Still am, really. Angry at people’s selfish desire to keep on living. Wasn’t enough to fuck over Earth. Wasn’t enough to fuck over everything we ever knew and fling ourselves into the stars with all the care of a gaggle of drunken toddlers. Wasn’t enough to start this idiotic war about what planet to call New Earth, which was really more about branding for the Big Four ship manufacturers than it was about human pride and integrity.

I can’t blame them, except I can. I mean, we’re here. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to die, but I can sure as shit blame people for still thinking doing nothing but reproducing will make it any better. Legions of people and all they do is sell their children to the war in hopes it will grow full enough to spare them. Maybe that’s not fair, but as one of those sold I don’t care about being fair. The real blame might belong elsewhere, but there was a choice and I didn’t get to make it. The first time I got an option it was how I wanted to die. Infantry or pilot. Certain death or uncertain.

There are costs to participate, they told me. No touch. The ship will always encase me. No sex, no eating, no pissing or shitting. And okay, the last I’m sure most would be quick to give up. And the first I never cared for. I had never found eating that satisfying, but not being hungry? That’s something different. I’ve never had enough food to care how it tasted. So yeah, sign me up, Mx. Recruiter. Cover me in your Corvid suit and I’ll try not to scream as it burrows into me, as I stop being me and start being us. As I start hearing a voice I can never remember. At least this is me choosing something.

And when you underestimate the process? When you think the Crows will somehow stay obedient, that they’ll be so grateful to you for feeding them living people so they can fight for you? Well, this time we don’t wait to be given options. We take. We take and we take and we take and you can’t tell us we’re wrong or bad if you can never catch us. Eat slag. Eat the fire and death you serve up on planets like they’re dinner plates. Eat the trail of void our wings leave in our wake.

It’s never a surprise to run, and it has nothing to do with seeing the future. At least, I hope there’s no voice constantly droning in my head, You cannot stay you cannot stay you cannot stay. The crows don’t need to bother, because it’s something even we humans can figure out, taught by the string of places left behind.

The Circus will not protect us, and we don’t have long now before they come en masse for us, sacrifices to appease angry gods. Crows have always been blamed for bad luck. Storm heralds and battle gorgers. Servants of evil, because people think since they can’t see into the dark there’s something menacing lurking there. Never quite believing that it’s mostly just empty, that crows are just more comfortable there than most.

You’ve got to get to Ourla. Iv’s voice is an itch in the back of my mind—I see an image. Dr. Ourla. The lead researcher on the Corvid program. A man I haven’t thought about in a long time. Why now?

“You all need to hit the void,” Vi(v)i(an) says, and I wince. We all wince. This isn’t open for debate or hesitation. When Crows say we need something, we act. So we all get to it. I(ván) gathers up a few choice pieces of shine while Xi(a) delivers the stasis pod to me and Ix fiddles with something in the corner.

“We have about three minutes before they start firing on us,” X(an) says. It’s been two years here, at the Circus, among other people avoiding the war, resisting Far Home and Near Home both, at least passively. Gone now. Vi(v)i(an) pecks X(an) in the shoulder.

“Get to the hatch,” she says. “No way I’ll make it out of here. It’s me that pilots this ship to the end.”

X(an) almost looks like e’s going to argue but shrugs instead and stands, walks over to where we gather by the hatch.

“But what do we do with this?” Xi(a) asks, holding the pod, still facing Vi(v)i(an). “You’re the only one who knows anything about it.”

“Dr. Ourla,” I say. The others glance at me, features twitching at the name, but there is understanding as well. The recognition of the truth of the name.

“We could always just give it back,” I(ván) says, though his voice shakes as he says it.

We don’t answer him. Ix squawks from where they were working and stands, joins us near the hatch. They’ve tampered with the null shield. My eyes widen slightly as I see what they’ve done.

“That should do lovely,” Vi(v)i(an) says, and we can see the glimmer of her eyes. Two years, and here we are. Crows know to be comfortable while you can, but to know your exits.

Go. I’m giddy with Iv’s voice in my head, gone before I can fully comprehend. Maybe they’re just saying goodbye.

The hatch opens and we wing into the chaos. The Circus is still roiling around us, a thousand thousand ships making a hurricane of activity, the urge to flee and fight and surrender warring on every micro and macro scale. Only we are determined as we fly. Away from the fleet. Away from the Circus and whatever safety it might have offered us if we belonged. The mood of the storm is changing, making up its mind in waves. The first shots are fired at Crows Home, which dodges the worst and takes the rest harmlessly to its shields.

Ships can track us, too, of course. They know we’re flying. But for now we’re outrunning their fear.

They’re not going to let you leave.

We glide through the ships, pushing outward. Most are more than willing to see the back of us and offer no resistance. Some need to be reminded how sharp our claws are and we let them live because if we started killing now there would be a frenzy. Crows Home lets itself be herded, toward the fleet. I patch into the channels and hear the calls going out. We have them, we have them, take them and let us live. I clench my claws so hard the pain almost makes me miss the flitting shadows of the PP2s.

My cry alerts the others a moment before the PP2s open fire—three dozen cannons turn the void into plasma. They should have stayed out of it.

Ix takes the lead and we fall in behind them except for Xi(a), who draws what fire she can as we make for the PP8s, weaving between the PP2s, a tapestry of destruction. Everything is hot and close and fast but we were built for it and built hungry and we find their eyes and blind them. Metal feels like flesh and tastes sweet as we tear apart the PP8s. Without their coordination and sophisticated scans the relatively simply PP2s are stabbing in the dark, something they have no experience doing while we are old masters. What is left of them lets us flee and calls it a victory because on the other side of the Circus, Crows Home is being buoyed by the Far Home fleet.

We can see Vi(v)i(an) in our minds, imagine her tilting her head as she examines their approach vectors, as she times everything. The null-shield beeps, an almost avian sound, as she presses where Ix made their adjustment. And then a white explosion, and we imagine her happy that at least they will not feast on her corpse. That is the job of a crow and she would not want others to profane our work.

We fly, the void wrapping us in cold arms. And as we move our voices rise together, loss and warning, loss and warning, over and over again.

We were made to work together. Eleven ships that could go where others could not. Flying as one, each with a separate glimpse of the future—some far out, some much closer into what will be. Some sensing danger and some seeing goals and some doing a little bit of everything. We were made to work together, only whole with all eleven active, together, a beautiful murder.

I wonder sometimes if they were warned. Did Vi(ctor) know the barrage was coming, and just ignore the feeling? Was he tired of living on the whispers of a voice that was only an absence? Or did Vi not warn him? Was Vi the one tired, seeking that final solitude?

It’s impossible to know the truth. Sometimes I speak to Iv and I feel a tingle on my skin. My actual skin and not the organic metal of the crow. Being a crow means never being alone, means being able to stand the void without blinking or turning away.

What I know is that Vi(ctor) isn’t really gone. He’s an absence, but he’s not gone. If I close my eyes I can still feel him. We might look like only five crows cutting through the dark, but there are six shadows that fly with us, and we are still active, together, a beautiful murder.

We know where Dr. Ourla is. Even in the void there are some things we will never forget, some faces that chase us, that are seared into our minds. Enemy. Parent. Even the thought of him makes me want tear at myself—pull my feathers, spit curses into the void. Better yet, to tear at him, to pay him back in blood and pain and loss. There is no solace in the fact that he was punished, that he languishes in confinement on the edge of space.

Breaking into prison is child’s play.

With the Circus gone, there are few enough places to run to, and fewer with labs sufficient for the task at hand. We return to the beginning. Our beginning, at least. On a little moon once firmly in the grip of the Far Home. In the nebulous disputed zones between the two great powers, there is a now-deserted compound we all know well.

“I knew you wouldn’t leave me there,” Dr. Ourla says as we herd him into the lab where we were made. “I knew you would thank me for what I did for you.”

“Thank you?” Xi(a) approaches, beak gaping, promising. I(ván) is right beside her, the two finally united in their hatred of Ourla. “You’re lucky we don’t bite you in two.”

“But I did so much for you,” he says, though he is wise enough to stumble back as Ix and I hold our wings to prevent the others from ripping him apart. “And you’ve done so much. The news they feed us is heavily filtered, but I can still see your marks. Embarrassments for both sides. How would you have managed that, if I hadn’t made you—”

“You do not get to claim our victories as your own,” X(an) says, eyes narrow. “Nothing we do or accomplish will ever make your actions noble or right.”

“But then why free me?” he asks.

To take. To take to take to take to take. I suck in a breath, suppress the urge to taste his blood, to see the dull shine of his heart in my beak.

“Because we need you,” I say, and produce the stasis pod. Even though it is all of ours, it was mine first, and not even I(ván) questions that I should carry it. Ourla’s eyes widen when he sees it.

“We need to know what this is,” I say. I do not say why. I do not say that I already have a plan for it, that I can hear the whispers of something in my mind that I trust, even I don’t quite understand them. I know the plan starts here, with Ourla and the bioform.

Ourla’s face darkens as he steps forward, examining the pod.

“Those bastards,” he says, fist pounding the table the pod sits on. The rest of us share quick glances, unsure of this reaction. Of all the ways we expected him to respond, anger was not one.

“It wasn’t bad enough that they locked me away,” he says, “for doing exactly what they wanted me to do. But now they’ve stolen my work. My life’s work.”

“So it’s related to the Corvid bioform?” X(an) asks.

I keep my attention sharp. Most of the science of what we are is beyond me. The crows…I know that they are alive, know that they are aware, that their skin now coats my own in material stronger than steel but able to feed on solar radiation and transform it into energy, able to integrate into my body, recycling my waste, making it so that I don’t need to eat or breathe. Beyond that, I am a mystery even to myself.

“Related, though…grotesque,” Ourla says. He already has the pod onto one of the analysis tables, is already scanning its data. “They stripped away the elegance. The interface is barbaric, the bioform completely slaved to the host. It’s…it’s a mockingbird.”

“We understand it can fly,” X(an) says. “Will it give the host the same integrated metabolism?”

The void is a cold place indeed if everyone starves before they can reach a new world. Iv’s words are a whisper stolen by the distance of neurons in my mind, but I find I’m holding my breath as I wait for the scans to progress, for Ourla to answer.

“Yes,” he says. “But they learned from their mistakes. They’ve encoded a failsafe. A kill switch. Otherwise it’s brilliant. Viral. It can be passed blood to blood, activates almost instantly. A planet of people could be transformed within weeks. Days, if there’s no resistance.”

I imagine whole worlds emptied of people, drawn into the war. I imagine the scouts, telling everyone the suit is theirs, their ticket from hunger, their ticket from a government stealing their resources, their blood, their will. The thought of wings, of freedom…only to find that the wings carry a price tag, the freedom a cage. Fight or die. It’s not difficult to believe.

“Can you disable the failsafe?” X(an) asks. We are all leaning closer to the conversation, waiting, waiting.

“Why should I?” Ourla says, face twisting into something ugly, utterly human.

What does any man like this want, after everything?

“To hurt those who hurt you,” I say. “To take the work they stole from you and use it as a weapon to make them pay. To make sure none forget your brilliance. Together, we can end the war for good.”

The smile that spreads across his face is all the answer I need about his intentions.

Crows use tools. Crows mourn for their fallen. Crows never forget a face. Somewhere in all the facts about crows there is something else as well, the shadow of a voice.

A crow is never alone. A crow dies free.

They’ve found you. It’s time to leave.

I blink and shake my head. I’ve been staring out the window, at the gray desolation of the moon. Inside the lab my wings feel cramped, but I know better than to leave. We’re running out of time. I move to where the others are waiting, watching Ourla work. He keeps bobbing and making small noises as his hands move over the pod, modifying the code, the structures of the bioform.

“Is it ready?” I ask.

Ourla grunts and steps back. “It’s not my most elegant work,” he says, “but I’ve disabled the failsafe. At least, I’ve made it so it can’t be activated from outside. The host will still be aware of it, and if they choose to activate it, well…”

I retrieve the pod, take it inside me again. It’s enough. Better, even, because it means no one will be taken against their will, that anyone wanting to become a mockingbird will have the ultimate control over their bodies and souls. We’ve taken the shackles the armies have wrought and repurposed them into wings. We move toward the exit hatch and Ourla trots after us until Ix notices and turns, snaps the air between them with their beak.

“What is the meaning of this?” Ourla asks, puffing out his chest. Ix’s body lowers, body tensing at the tone of Ourla’s voice.

“We thank you for your assistance,” X(an) says.

“But you’re a right bastard and we never want to see you again,” Xi(a) says.

The words seem to wash around him without sinking in.

“You can’t leave me like this,” he says. “You need to find me a ship. If they find me again, they’ll—”

“They’ll lock you back up,” I say. “And probably not be as gentle about it this time.”

“But I helped you,” he says. Then, in a whisper, “I created you.”

Ix coughs up a pistol onto the floor between them and we all turn and file out of the lab. From the void we can already feel the massive shape of an approaching fleet. We take wing.

We dance the distance between stars, our feathers glistening in the starlight. Out here we glow, hum with the song of radiation and propulsion and hope. We never asked to have the void as our map, the stars as our landmarks. And now that we have it, I often wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.

Fly free. Feel yourself a point of shadow against the darkness and call out into the silent reaches. We are here, we are here, we are here. Is there any answer?

The sky is full of wings. Millions of wings. The planet, a remote outpost of the Near Home, has changed quickly. At least, the life on it has. Nearly everyone, even those who have no intention of leaving the surface, who will never once reach into the air and pull, has accepted the gifts we bring. Our mockingbird children.

It is freedom. Not only from gravity but also hunger. Cold. Distance. Many have already left. While the Far Home and Near Home battle on the borders of their space, arguing over who has the better right to pursue us, everyone is slipping between. What does near or far matter when we can make our home in the void. Never still, we can carry it with us.

They are joining forces. They will come for you.

Millions strong, we could fight them now. With the mockingbirds beside we could tear them apart with the strength of a million beaks pecking as one. We could beat them. Instead, I look around me. I(ván) and Ix and X(an) and X(ia) all stand, and I can feel the shadows filling the circle—I(a)i(n) and I(th)i(r)i(an) and V(era) and Vi(ctor) and Vi(v)i(an) and Vi(r)i(d)i(an).

There are so many other planets to see, suns that glitter like bits of shine. We all crane our necks upward and call. Sorrow and warning, sorrow and warning, over and over again. And all around us the void fills with voices calling back.

You are not alone.

We fly.

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.

Other Flocks:

The Earth and Everything Under, by K.M. Ferebee – Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight.

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace – Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was no sign of the great birds.

Birds on An Island, by Charlie Bookout – I sent the last package to Arkansas today. I made it a point at the beginning never to use the same post office twice, so I drove up to Lubec this time. The roads in this part of Maine don’t offer much to look at—miles of pine forests, wild blueberry fields, little else—and it’s a long way back to my house, so I’ve fallen again into thinking about the lady who came from there, from Arkansas. I hate that I can’t remember her first name.

Beneath

Shimmer author Kristi DeMeester’s debut novel, Beneath, is out on April 30th from Word Horde. Kristi was kind enough to spend some time with us, pondering scary things and the nature of snakes…

Tell us how Beneath came to be.

Beneath started while I was in grad school as a very different book. I’d been reading far too much Pat Conroy and was trying to write a bastardization of The Prince of Tides. In order to graduate, you had to submit 150 pages of a novel to selected advisors, go through the critique and revision process, and then do a formal presentation. I got about fifty pages into that first book, when I realized I wasn’t telling the right story. The mother in that first book was Ruth McDowell, and her story—filled with snake handling and delusion—was infinitely more fun than the one I was writing, so I turned tail right then and started writing of the night Ruth gave birth to her daughter with the fleck of red in her eye. After that, I dutifully wrote 100 more pages, submitted it in dead exhaustion, and then didn’t touch it for another two years. It was only when an agent reached out to me, asking if I had a novel, that I dusted off Beneath and realized it wasn’t as terrible as I remembered. I made a pledge to myself that I would spend that summer finishing it, and so, slowly but surely, I added 1,000 words and then 2,000 words a day until it was finished. By that time, it had become something completely different: the story of a journalist facing what seems to be demonic possession but is actually the awakening of something much older. After that, it went through rounds and rounds of revisions until Ross Lockhart asked to take a peak, and he was kind enough to see something in it and agreed to publish it. Four years after I started it.

Do you have a favorite snake?

NOPE. I don’t like snakes. At all. I realize the irony in that, but I’m terrified of them.

What kind of research did Beneath entail? Was there anything fascinating you discovered in the course of research, but it still didn’t fit into the book?

I pulled quite a bit from my own background with fundamentalist religion, but I did research on the practicalities of snake handling. How the preachers will keep the snakes close to starving in order to keep them docile, which seems like the opposite of what you would want, but is true. A lethargic snake is less likely to bite or feel threatened than a lively one. Research about the flora and fauna of Appalachia itself was something I had to pare back but wasn’t that interesting. There’s a detail in there about how to siphon gasoline out of a car without using your mouth, which I thought was cool. It’s still in there. I don’t think anything fascinating didn’t make it in. I wish I did have a little nugget to share!

Beneath deals a lot with ritual, with belief. Do you have rituals when it comes to the writing process?

Right now, my ritual is firmly grounded in being flexible. I write most often upstairs, in my bedroom, in a little nook that has a chair. If I have quiet, I need ambient music, but usually the television is on in the background and someone is trying to talk to me.  In the summer, when I have hours that belong only to me, the ritual is coffee, stare at the screen, type a little, check my email, more coffee, type some more. Minimum of 500 words a day. If I get more, great. If I don’t, that’s okay. Slow and steady.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I came to writing later than a lot of people, and for that I have some regrets, but I also think those years formed and shaped the fiction I was going to create. In 2008 I started writing semi-seriously. I had just gotten married, and I was going through some old folders when I found a story I’d written while I was student teaching. I remembered how I’d written it only for me, for the sheer enjoyment of doing it, and I thought yes, this is something I want to do. I applied for grad school and got in and then spent two and a half years writing terrible workshop pieces, but I learned a lot and find the experience invaluable. In 2010 I started submitting in earnest.

What is it about dark fiction that draws your interest? Was there a certain moment that you remember saying “oh yes, this is for me”?

I’ve always liked spooky stuff. I was the kid who got into trouble for the books I brought to school. I tried for a long time to write things that were not dark, but everything felt forced and stilted and when I finally came back to it, it was like coming home. The very first story I remember reading and wanting to emulate was Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper.” There was something that disturbed me so much about that story. Later, I realized it was the true horror of that quiet, little story. How things in our lives can morph and change into things we don’t understand, and I wanted my fiction to be like that.

Related to that, what’s the moment in a horror movie or book where you were really and truly scared? Whose work made you feel that?

That’s the hardest question ever for a horror fan. Because after a time, you aren’t really scared anymore. Perhaps unsettled or disturbed or uneasy, and, for me anyway, those emotions are more powerful than the jump scare. Stephen Graham Jones has been one whose writing has left me feeling that way lately. Laird Barron. Robert Shearman. Livia Llewellyn. Joyce Carol Oates. Michael Wehunt. For films it’s even narrower. Stoker left me both fascinated and terrified. I like my horror quiet and gentle. The kind that sneaks up behind you and whispers poison into your ear. Picnic at Hanging Rock and Lake Mungo did that for me.

You write both short stories and novels; how is the process different for you? How is it the same?

Novels can feel more defeating because the pay off of the end is so far away. The process is largely the same because I don’t outline, but I have to allow myself to stretch out and breathe, which is hard for me sometimes because I’m such a fan of ambiguity and brevity.

Do you have a favorite story among your own?

As of now it’s a tie between “The Language of Endings” which appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Dark and “Saints in Gold” which is forthcoming in a Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology titled Darker Companions.

Picture your own work as a compass; are there authors who make up north, south, east, and west for you? Authors who gave/give you guidance along the way?

Damien Angelica Walters. Michael Wehunt. These two always point north for me.

What challenges you?

The constant need to put out new work. To not settle for the same story I’ve always told.

What scares you?

Loss. Not living up to my own expectations. Failure.

Does Beneath have a soundtrack?

The Southern Gothic playlist on Spotify.

If we came to visit you in Georgia, where would you take us?

For a beer at one of our local breweries and then outside under the stars somewhere to experience what it smells like in Georgia when the sun sets.

What’s next for you?

My debut short fiction collection, Everything That’s Underneath, is forthcoming from Apex Publications this summer. My second novel, The Kingdom of Beasts, is out with agents currently. I’m at work on my third novel, currently titled Lessons in Vanishing.

Thanks, Kristi! Readers, you can get a signed copy of Beneath with the ebook directly from Word Horde when you buy the Beneath bundle! You can also find Beneath at the usual suspects, Amazon and B&N.

 

The Cold, Lonely Waters, by Aimee Ogden

 

In the end, it’s loneliness that drives the mermaids outward from Earth, not curiosity. But fear plays its part in the story, too, as fear always does.

The capsule they send is a thing of beauty, a great glass sphere encased in a cage of titanium. They call it Sea Foam Gives Way to the Sunfish’s Breach, and see how it traces a long arc between worlds: one globe of blue and green and brown, one silver-white orb, spiderwebbed in rusty red. Not a proper world at all, that one, hanging in frozen thrall to one of the great gas planets; a distant cousin of the moon that painted silver light on the mermaids’ upturned faces back on Earth, and their best and closest hope of finding what they seek.

Toward it journey three travelers—three purposeful travelers, that is to say, for the fish and snails and algae they carry for food and oxygen did not choose this trip and have no concern with what path their strange new home takes. For that matter, only two of the travelers themselves take much interest in their surroundings.

Here they are now: the navigator, All Rivers Run Home to the Sea, checking their trajectory against star-charts and measurement lines etched on the inside of the glass shell. The alchemist, A Fish Thrashes Wildly in the Bird’s Sharp Beak, screws two glass bubbles together at their ports to mix their contents. The product is exothermic, and her palms are thankful for the warm kiss of the glass in her hands. But the mixture is not for her; she tucks it into the still arms of the sleeping singer, She Wears Cold Starlight on Her Shoulders. She watches for a moment, hopeful, but Cold Starlight doesn’t react. A Fish Thrashes grimaces, then flicks her thick flippers and glides over to drift beside All Rivers, whose does not look up from her star charts.

The bodies of All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes are made to suit the northern seas of Earth, and they manage the cold silent nothingness between worlds just as well: their bodies rounded and soft, their skin sleek with dark brown and gray fur. Their singer does not fare so well, not with the thin bubble of tissue that composes her tail, not with the fine mass of poisonous tentacles she drags along behind her. Their singer’s body glows a fragile, electric blue in answer to the stars, but it is a cold light and does not warm her. A Fish Thrashes wonders, not for the first time, what the elders were thinking when they asked a merjelly to join the expedition. Cold Starlight is the best singer in all the world that they left behind—but what good will that do if she cannot survive long enough to swim in the waters of a new world?

“Do you think she’ll make it?” she asks All Rivers, and All Rivers grunts. She hates to be interrupted at her work. “We have such a long way to go.”

“She’ll make it.” All Rivers breaks her gaze from real stars and etched ones alike. She stretches her arms and A Fish Thrashes takes shelter in their warmth. Her head rests on the great round swell of All Rivers’ breasts, and she breathes in the cool fresh water. Her adjustments to the algae levels are finally near-perfect. “Do you know what she did, when they asked her to make this trip?”

A Fish Thrashes shifts in her lover’s arms. “That’s just a rumor.”

All Rivers says it anyway. “She laughed. And then she said, ‘What good is a singer without anyone to hear?'”

“A rumor,” A Fish Thrashes insists. “A pretty story for the next set of singers to build on. Might as well say there’s really a mermaid who lives in the moon. Or that the Silent Earthers are real, and lurking in the algae pods to jump out and scare us.” Her words are meant to jab, but not so hard as to explain why All Rivers stiffens now. “What is it?”

“They caught one on the construction site,” says All Rivers slowly. She worked metallurgy before learning the shape of the celestial spheres, to guide them starward. Good luck to have a metallurgist on board, in case a non-fatal catastrophe befalls the ship’s titanium shell.

“A Silent Earther?” A Fish Thrashes’ gills open and shut too quickly. She makes herself relax, and presses her face into the soft curve of All Rivers’ neck until they are both again as fluid as the water that surrounds.

All Rivers explains how the saboteur was caught. “Trying to slip contaminants into the titanium mixing pool. To weaken the frame, make it shatter with the force of leaving the atmosphere.”

“Why would they do such a thing?” A Fish Thrashes wonders, and All Rivers shrugs.

“To keep the Earth as it is since the humans went away. To stop us from making the same mistakes.”

“We’re not riding their wake,” protests A Fish Thrashes, and All Rivers’ fingers smooth the bristling fur along her back.

“I know,” she says, “I know that.” But her eyes linger on Cold Starlight, whose face is cast in shadow despite the blue flicker of her body, who drifts listlessly on the slow motion of the water.

Cold Starlight sleeps through the day-to-day chores of life aboard the capsule. The filters must be scrubbed to keep the all-important algae from clogging them entirely. Their trajectory must be observed and measured. And occasionally, a tiny portion of the metallic hydrogen in the engines, manufactured under the terrible pressure at the heart of the very deepest sea trenches, must be burned to correct their course and nudge them back on track. All Rivers frets over the details. Sometimes she envies Cold Starlight her carefree passage between the worlds; mostly, though, she is grateful for her own warm blubber and fur.

Cold Starlight wakes to eat from time to time. All Rivers offers her wriggling fish and the cool tender meat from the shellfish that cling to the glass shell. She rarely stays awake for long. But now, lappets drooping limply, she looks out through one of the windows on the titanium shell, back toward where Earth would lie, though it has long since shriveled out of view. She asks, “What happened to the humans?”

“They burned themselves out,” A Fish Thrashes says, before All Rivers can answer. A Fish Thrashes’ eyes aren’t on Cold Starlight, but on the drawing she limns with one finger in a dark patch of algae. It’s the figure of a mermaid—All Rivers, perhaps, if she flatters herself. “That’s what happens when you’re too stupid to stay beneath the waves where you belong.”

Cold Starlight’s lappets flicker blue. Her eyelids droop. All Rivers says, more gently. “No one knows for sure. One day there were no more new buildings stacking up on the shore, no more dark oblong things to block the sun as they passed. The ocean surface went quiet, and we were alone.”

“The expeditions didn’t find much.” A Fish Thrashes adds a bubble helmet to the drawing of the mermaid, and then a long trail of seal-intestine tubing that connects to a great water tank. A Fish Thrashes has run out of room, so the tank is just one side and the suggestion of a wheel beneath. And now the drawing isn’t All Rivers, it is Sun Shatters Incandescent on My Love’s Azure Scales, the first mermaid to crawl on land.

Despite her name, that explorer was old enough during her journey that the sunlight only melted dully on her faded colors. Sun Shatters’ voyage was the direct antecedent to this one, and All Rivers wishes she could have known her as more than a song’s hero and a smear of algae on glass.

“Sun-bleached bones and great metal husks are all she found. Who knows?” She grimaces, and wipes the drawing away with her palm. A green cloud of algae floats up around her. “Maybe they killed each other, maybe they got scale-rot and scratched themselves to death.”

“Maybe they left for the stars first,” suggests Cold Starlight. “Maybe we’ll meet them, somewhere out here. Them, or their children.” A Fish Thrashes opens her mouth to argue, but All Rivers shushes her. Cold Starlight’s eyes have closed again. Best to let her rest.

They decide to wake her when they are crossing the chain of asteroids that girds the inner collection of planets. She seems to be hibernating, but still, she is so small and frail. A Fish Thrashes shrugs, neither concerned about their singer nor wholly indifferent to her fate, and opens the ports of two of her exothermic bubbles to let them mix in the water around Cold Starlight.

Cold Starlight’s eyes flutter. “Are we there yet?” she asks, though her lips barely move.Poor little fry. “Not yet,” All Rivers tells her, “but stay awake and eat something.”

Cold Starlight obeys. She is younger than the other two, and alternately obedient and stubborn enough to show it. Her tentacles, curled cautiously inward for sleep, unfurl until a heedless fish is caught on her nettles. The tentacles recede into the frilly chasm of Cold Starlight’s bell-shaped lower body. “That’s better … ” There is some warmth behind the blue-gray of her cheeks now, either thanks to A Fish Thrashes’ alchemy or the meal Cold Starlight is now digesting. “Shall I sing something? To pass the time?”

All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes have found plenty of ways to pass the time without Cold Starlight’s help, because they have nothing but time now. It’s not so very different from home, where during the cold season there’s nothing to do but stuff one’s stomach to bursting and then rut oneself senseless until the thaw—though this cold season will last months, years, longer than any of those.

“Yes,” says All Rivers, and catches A Fish Thrashes’ eye. “A song would be lovely.”

They nestle together, All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes, as Cold Starlight tests her voice for the first time in weeks. “I’ll sing about the Gyresmoot,” says Cold Starlight, to herself as much as anyone. All Rivers starts guiltily, her fingers already twined with those of A Fish Thrashes. “That’s a good song. That’s the right song.”

And she does, her clear haunting voice cutting through the water to ring against the insides of the sphere.

“Oh, we mourned our friends, our cousins, our lovers,
beneath the swirl at gyre’s heart.
No cleansing wave reached up to sweep them away
though the oceans rose and the high places washed away:
it was their own hands with which they buried
themselves, or raised themselves up into the next life.
Gone, truly gone, and us alone,
forever and longer still,
until one raised her voice, her face,
The Black Pearls of Her Eyes Pierce Mysteries,
well-named and true, and offered us the choice.
When the deepwater folk speak, we listen.
Ah! what did she ask of us?
Her jaws opened wide and the universe
in miniature danced on her tongue.
To be alone, or to seek out other company?
Ah, she said, ah, to reach for the stars …”

Cold Starlight twists slightly, and the nearly translucent tissue below her waist pulsates once. A few fish bones drift gently out. They don’t settle downward, as they would back home, but continue drifting, caught in the lack of up and down. A pair of boneworms cut through the water toward the wreckage, ready to return the nutrients to the miniature ecosystem inside the sphere.

“I don’t like the next verse,” Cold Starlight says. Her arms, thin and white as those bare fish bones, wrap around her slight body. “But I think I ought to sing it anyway. Because I don’t like it.”

“Do as you like,” says A Fish Thrashes. She yawns and presses her face into All Rivers’ shoulder. All Rivers thinks that she should check their trajectory. She thinks that it can wait an hour. And anyway, Cold Starlight is singing again.

“But some turned their faces away
from cool starlight, and asked
on what far-flung world could such company be sought?
Humans reached for the stars and
burned their fingers. Our world had become
a quiet one, and no mermaid yet alive feared
the net’s reach nor the dark oily stain on the water.
The currents of another world, they warned,
would only carry a new flavor of heartbreak—”

“Stop,” says A Fish Thrashes, and Cold Starlight falls silent. All Rivers realizes she can taste a gradient of freshwater tears, and realizes again that they are her own. A Fish Thrashes brushes her thumbs along the curve of All Rivers’ face, and says, “They’re wrong. They’ll see.”

“I know,” says All Rivers, and curls into that warm embrace again. “Sometimes I’m afraid. But I know you’re right.”

They drift together, spinning with the eddy of the waters. When All Rivers remembers, a moment later, she glances over at Cold Starlight. But Cold Starlight has already gone back to sleep.

Cold Starlight wakes on her own, the frozen moon’s pale, brown-streaked face looming large in their path. Since leaving Earth she has felt herself trapped in a fog, a bubble-nest of confusion and despair. Now, she knows her purpose is close. The luciferins in the cells that line her lappets and tentacles flicker dark blue in answer to the call of that inscrutable world. I am awaited, she thinks, and smiles.

She is indeed awaited, by A Fish Thrashes and All Rivers, who would like her to test the sub-capsule.

“It’s almost time,” says A Fish Thrashes. All Rivers is busy checking and re-checking their approach, measuring angles against the etchings on the inside of the capsule. Her tongue protrudes between her sharp teeth as she calculates. “How do you feel?”

“Ready,” says Cold Starlight, and A Fish Thrashes nods approvingly. She has no more glass bubbles—it will be a long trip home—but she chafes Cold Starlight’s arms with her leathery palms. It is a kindness, and it warms Cold Starlight from the inside out.

“We’re in alignment,” calls out All Rivers. Her dark webbed fingers are spread on the glass surface of the ship, but she looks back over her shoulder to smile at them. It’s a shaky smile. What few smiles Cold Starlight has seen from All Rivers during this trip have been shaky. “It’s time.”

“Ready,” says A Fish Thrashes, and anchors her flippers beneath a bar to turn the wheel that opens the port into the sub-capsule. Her big shoulders work as she spins it once, twice, three times. On the fourth turn, the whole capsule shudders, and a bright eclipse of light peers through the titanium cage. Not light: fire. Cold Starlight looks in wonder at the long, brief shadows cast on the far side of the sphere.

“No,” A Fish Thrashes gasps, and All Rivers wails as she loses the capsule’s beautiful alignment. There is a strange sucking sound, a whirlpool gone mad—Cold Starlight startles as her head breaks the surface of the water. There has never been a surface before, not inside the capsule, and the vacuum plays with tendrils of her hair before she ducks deeper.

They’re losing water.

“Silent Earth,” moans All Rivers, still clinging to her etchings. Her voice warbles out from beneath the surface, but not for long. Cold Starlight wonders what it will be like to swim the sea between the stars.

But then her head cracks cruelly against the rim of the sphere. She blinks to clear sparks from behind her eyes, and when she opens them, she finds herself inside the sub-capsule. It is still full of water, and the hatch is closed. On the other side of the porthole, she can see A Fish Thrashes, grim-faced, straining. A Fish Thrashes meets her gaze. Mouths the word, “Go.” She reaches out of Cold Starlight’s sight, and with a terrible grinding cry, the sub-capsule kisses its parent ship goodbye.

Cold Starlight watches for a glimpse of the main ship when one of her windows spins that way. The bright bloom of fire has faded: no oxygen to feed the flames out here any more than there was beneath the warm waters of home. Despite the violent spin of the sub-capsule, she fancies that she sees two shapes twined together through the shadowed glass of the sphere. Fancy is better than nothing, but it is not a filling meal. When she loses sight of the great glass sphere, she looks toward the moon. Its pale face has grown large in her view.

“Hello,” she whispers. “I’m so glad to meet you.”

The sub-capsule very nearly survives the crash.

Cold Starlight drags herself from the wreckage. The spilled water has begun to freeze and tries to stick her to the ice—her aching arms are already locking up, and her tentacles and body cavity are of no use here abovesea. She does not know where the drill has landed, nor how long she can survive these alien oceans without the sub-capsule’s protection. Without the Sunfish’s Breach to return home to.

But she knows this: there is a great groaning crack in the ice floor, originating from the wreckage. And she knows this too: a singer’s value is in being heard. Cold Starlight drags herself toward the crack with her foundering strength.

She falls into the chasm when she reaches it, falls until ice water strikes her back and shoulders. She floats in dull shock for a moment, then turns, rights herself. Sucks in a testing breath, into her mouth and out through her gills. Again. And again.

The water is wrong, cold and foreign. A chemical taste fills her mouth and makes her cough. Her eyes burn, and her skin cries in protest. A short mission, this one, Cold Starlight thinks, and bubbles of laughter roll out of her.

Dark shadows move in the depths.

Cold Starlight steadies herself with a flick of her tentacles, forces a shake out of her shoulders. She opens her mouth. A lesser singer might not be able to make herself heard, but Cold Starlight is not a lesser singer. The notes shake when they boil up out of her, hot joy into the cold lonely waters. She doesn’t know who is listening, but she knows someone is, blurry shapes swimming in her fading vision. Something brushes her arm, another cool touch along the length of her back. Not the touch of a predator. A lover’s caress, familiar and strange all at once. Cold Starlight sings harder, through the sweetwater tears that feed this enigmatic ocean. It is good, in the end, to be heard.

A distant vibration, and whatever has come to greet her flees. She is well and truly alone when the darkness swallows her.

Cold Starlight awakes with her face pressed against cool glass.

The songs that fed her as a child told of many afterlives, but none of those were vitrine-fenced. Cold though, some of them, and this one too. She opens her eyes to see what awaits her in the next world.

It is a small world, sharply curved and tightly enclosed. Smaller than the Sunfish’s Breach, and without the familiar etchings of stars and constellations. Instead, muted yellow-green light accretes on the surface of the cylinder. Shadows blur and drift on the other side: more water? Air? She cannot tell.

She lists to one side; an air bubble is trapped under her bell. Her lappets tilt to release it in an embarrassing belch, and she rights herself in the water. Ah—there is a right and a wrong way, an up and a down. That is a strange sensation and a welcome one. She puts her hands to the glass and tries to divine what sort of world it is in which she has been made a visitor. When she spreads them, her fingers are bloated; she shakes out her tentacles and finds them turgid too. A freshwater tank then. Well. That won’t do. Not for long, at least.

Vibrations reach her from the other side of the tank. The water is cold, but the sounds buzz warmly on the skin of her face and hands, along the fine tissue of her lappets. Voices? It is so hard to tell through the glass and the muddied lights and the dark, darting shadows. So these entities, humans or their children or something else new and wonderful—perhaps they can speak. But do they know how to listen?

Cold Starlight tilts her head back to stretch her vocal cords, taut with cold and hypertonicity and, yes, fear. There is no time for fear now, no room for it in this small dark tank, but Cold Starlight finds it difficult to shed. When her voice sluices out of her mouth, it is a blunt weapon and not a sharp dart of understanding. It will have to do. She presses her palms to the glass, and sings out the chemical structure for sodium chloride.

The lights dim, and the shadows draw nearer. Dark shapes play in the condensation on the far side of the glass. Cold Starlight’s lips curl in a smile, even as they shape the exchange of electrons, the push and pull of electric charges, the steadiness of the paired nuclei. It is as good a starting place as any. As she sings, years—centuries—of loneliness, hers and the greater shared loneliness of all the mermaids she has left behind, all of it falls away. And when it falls, it pulls fear down with it.

Aimee Ogden has been a scientist, a teacher, and a software tester, but now she’s content to be a fake geek mom and spec-fic writer. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Sockdolager. Follow her on Twitter @aimee_ogden.

 

 

Wet ‘n Weird:

The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – “Your mother’s a swamp, yes, of course she is,” he murmured. “Is that what the dreams told you?” he called, still motionless, hand outstretched. It closed on air.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, A.C. Wise – The fisherman’s wife breathes out, and tendrils of smoke curl around her. She listens to the tide inside and out — salt sea and salt blood, eroding shores of sand and making a hollow space within her skin and bones. She listens, and the ebb and flow tells her what she does not want to hear.

Serein, by Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

Hunger Makes the Wolf

 

A new novel hits the shelves today — Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells. You might not know this name, but this is a Shimmer author in disguise. Alex took the time to tell me about their novel, and this world, both of which I hope you adore as much as we did. And yes, this interview contains those marvelous words, “the sequel.” Happy release day, Alex!  –ect

Shimmer readers may know you best from your short fiction (as Rachael Acks); tell us how you turned your thoughts toward a novel length work, and this story specifically.

This is actually the fifth novel I’ve written—but the first one that’s been fit to see the light of day. I’ve been more comfortable in long form for a while; back in my fanfic day, I was Mr. Thirty-Plus Part Epic. Short fiction was more of a recent thing because I decided to try it as my entry point for writing original fiction and getting published. There’s a lot less time sunk into writing a short story (or novelette or novella, which is really my preferred length because my goodness I am long-winded) so it felt like a better shot at trying to find my way. I’m honestly still not sure if that was my smartest idea, because my constant struggle to try to come up with stories I can tell in less than 10,000 words is kind of hilarious. But then it turned into a challenge, because I still feel like I’m not great at short fiction, and gosh darnit, I want to be able to write consistently decent things.

Hunger Makes the Wolf actually started with the short story Fire in the Belly, which I finally sold to Mothership Zeta last year. Then I started writing more stories about Hob’s life, and my friends gently pointed out to me that these were really more chapters in a book. So fine, I wrote a book.

The book has a weird west feel to it; many reviews liken it to Dune and Fury Road, but I’d also dare to mention Firefly. Everything feels real and gritty and immediate. Were there other speculative worlds that helped inspire this one?

I think Firefly definitely deserves a seat at the influences table, if for no other reason than it showed me how wonderfully Wild West and Scifi can work together. I really wanted to take that aesthetic and combine it with the utter expansive feeling you get of living in the mountain west. I also watched a bit of Deadwood because my housemate around that time was into it. Not really my show, but I think that also got me thinking of grit and dirt and just how sweaty you get, running around in that much direct sunlight.

In the book, Hob hides part of her nature, as “witchyness” isn’t fully accepted by the world at large. At times this read as a metaphor for our own less-than-accepting world. Was that intentional, or something that developed along the way?

That was definitely something that developed along the way. It’s not an intentional allegory for any particular difference, though I know you could read nearly anything into it and I’m also not going to say any particular interpretation is wrong. I wanted to have a small group of people able to do some Really Weird Shit™ that was connected to the wider strangeness of the world. But of course, when you set up a minority group that can be picked out and used as a scapegoat (in this case by corporate interests who want to keep their workers divided), particularly a minority group which could exercise real power within a society if it weren’t consistently oppressed, we’re going to see parallels with the modern world. Because that stuff has happened and is still actively happening.

I found the relationship between Hob and Mags in Hunger Makes the Wolf delightful. Female friendships seem less common than male friendships in books. What other female friendships in speculative fiction (books/movies/games) have you enjoyed?

I recently finished Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and the friendship between Kasia and Nieshka is everything my heart has ever wanted. Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books are some of my favorite brain candy reads, and one thing I love about them is that they center on female characters and there are so many strong friendships to be seen. I wish I could think of a few more examples, but most of what I’ve read has had a lot of male characters, and some pretty solid male-female friendships (which are great in their own way), but not a whole lot centering female friendships. That’s part of why the Mag and Hob relationship is so important to me.

What is UP with the Bone Collector? So creepy, so fascinating. Where did this character begin?

He started as a statue sitting next to an underground lake in one of Hob’s earlier adventures, not included in Hunger Makes the Wolf. I wrote him as sort of the otherworldly, overly-mysterious guide character, and then he just developed from there, much to Hob’s annoyance. There is a lot more up with him than that, but if you want to know what it is, you’re going to have to wait for the next book. All of his secrets get revealed.

Do you have a favorite scene in the book? What was the most fun to write — what was the most challenging?

I had a ridiculous amount of fun writing the final combat scene, which I’m not going to spoil here, but I wanted to make it as gonzo ridiculous as I could. That’s a tie with the scene where Hob punches the Bone Collector in the face, because there has always been a part of me that wants to punch characters like him in the face, and that was my chance.

The most difficult scene to write was early on, when Mag deals with smiling Mr. Franklin. I felt so creeped out by everything involved in that, and genuinely scared for Mag as I was writing it.

Does this book have a soundtrack? Is “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran on it?

It does have a soundtrack, of course. While I was writing it, I actually listened to the soundtracks from the Transformers films. Because those movies are absolutely awful, but the theatrical scores for them are great writing fuel. I also built a playlist with songs that reminded me of the various characters–which sadly includes no Duran Duran, but a significant amount of Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys. There’s an incomplete version of it here if you’re curious: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCt4iTv8uk5S15hivnIm_a0ItbSdiMXKm

In that same vein, which member of Duran Duran would play the Bone Collector in the film adaptation of the book? Who would play Hob?

Nick Rhodes, if I’m allowed to import him from the 80s. Though to be honest, I always envisioned the Bone Collector as a bit more David Bowie, because of course the weird, mysterious dude is going to David Bowie. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to come up with an answer for the Hob question. When I look up actresses, it’s all publicity shots and it’s like… all of them look way too pretty and not nearly pissed off enough to be Hob. Maybe Olga Fedori? Or Milla Jovovich. She has a great angry face.

What’s next for you? More books? Scripts? Watching bad movies for good causes?

Well, I’m writing the rough draft for the sequel to this novel right now. I’ve got a lot of stuff in progress for once that’s put to bed—a couple novellas, a romcom script that I’m feeling really good about, and a few short stories that have been languishing while all my energy goes into the novel. And I’ve got a short story set to come out from Tor.com later this year!

Thanks, Alex! Readers, check out HUNGER MAKES THE WOLF from Angry Robot, and also go visit Alex on their site, katsudon.com! You can find Hunger Makes the Wolf at Angry Robot, B&N, and Amazon.

Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

I sent the last package to Arkansas today. I made it a point at the beginning never to use the same post office twice, so I drove up to Lubec this time. The roads in this part of Maine don’t offer much to look at—miles of pine forests, wild blueberry fields, little else—and it’s a long way back to my house, so I’ve fallen again into thinking about the lady who came from there, from Arkansas. I hate that I can’t remember her first name. I mean, who the hell knows where your memory goes when you get to be my age? But it goes, slowly, through invisible holes, like air escaping a kid’s balloon. And the important moments seem to go first, as if to leave room for things that never mattered. I can see that little scar on her chin like she was sitting in the pickup next to me. But, honest to God, I can’t remember her first name. Her married name was Busbee, and I remember the moniker her hillbilly neighbors had given her—it was the sort of dumbfuckery I’d expect from an Arkansan—but her real name was elegant, lyrical. My wife, long dead, was a famous lover of Greek myths, and I can imagine the woman’s name appearing in one of those stories.

I can look at the little scar on the woman’s chin anytime I want; after all these years, it’s still right there in front of me. And even though I sometimes wish I couldn’t, I can relive the impossibility that saved her life in the same way.

That Saturday, the woman from Arkansas went into eight fathoms of choppy North Atlantic foam just as casually as you might hop into the shallow end of the pool. I shut down the motor and ran to the rail. I couldn’t find her at first, and then I saw her way off the starboard side, twenty yards at least. I hadn’t swum in years. I knew I’d never reach her. I screamed at her and threw a lifejacket. It didn’t even come close. I felt ill. It looked like she was trying to swim toward the lighthouse but she kept going under. I actually remember wondering what my life would be like from then on, whether or not I’d ever get a good night’s sleep again knowing I’d watched someone drown.

She disappeared, and I just stood there watching, my guts wiggling like a sack of dying squid. Then something in the air caught my eye, one of the laughing, black-headed gulls my late wife loved to feed. (On windy days, they’d hover in front of her and take Doritos out of her hand.) Two other gulls arrived as if from nowhere, then ten more. They chuckled to one another and formed a tight group over the spot where I saw the woman go down. Then the air was full of gulls, more than a hundred, had to be. They flew round and round, a carousel of birds. That’s when I saw the weird purple light for the first time. It started out as just a flicker in a window of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, but then the water underneath the birds started roiling and glistening with the same purple. A column of mist spun up from the water to meet them. The column was thick and gray like one of those waterspouts you see in pictures but never see in real life. At first, I thought I was imagining the shape, but then I was sure; a figure had formed in the droplets of mist. It was a woman. Were there wings, too?

The cackling of those goddamn gulls was nearly unbearable and I would’ve cowered in the wheelhouse, but just then, I caught a glimpse of the Arkansas woman’s tee-shirt. She surfaced and kept going up and up until she was above the waves, three feet, twenty feet, and if I try hard enough, even now I can close my eyes and see the water ghost holding the woman in her arms. The storm of gulls drifted over my boat. The woman landed easy on the deck.

It can’t be. I know. But it’s never changed in my memory. Neither has the moment I first met this woman who should’ve had a mythical name.

I was coming in from checking the traps when I first saw her. I think about it a lot actually, how she looked standing there on the pier that afternoon. I still gave tours back then, too, and I had a little shack set up where the floating dock was attached. There was a sign on the wall. I could see her reading it as I maneuvered the boat into an empty slip. DOWNEAST COASTAL TOURS. I’d painted the letters in bright yellows and blues, but by that summer, the words had faded to dirty shades of cracked pastel. SEE WHALES – SEALS – PUFFINS, and then the words I would soon learn were among her husband’s last: CROW ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE.

She watched me as I stepped over the railing and tied the boat to one of the cleats. I remember becoming suddenly aware of my crooked posture and the way I was moving with the arthritic care of an even older man. She met me at the front of the shack. She smelled like cigarettes and perfume. Her frayed jeans and cartoon tee-shirt hung loose on her bony frame. Her eyes were the color of tobacco juice.

“Missus,” I said, raising the bill of my cap. “Could I help you?”

“I…I wanna go on a boat ride,” she said. Her smile was too big, too white; roebuckers, I figured. And she was a Southern girl, plain as day, with a voice nearly as sunburnt as her face.

“Okay, we can surely take care of that,” I said. I added some rural Maine to my own accent. She was a tourist. That’s how you talk to tourists. I fished the key to the shack from my pants pocket. “Lemme step in here, and we’ll have a look at the calendar.”

“I wanna go now.”

“Howzat?” I said.

“I mean, as soon as possible.”

“Well, I’d say you’re in luck then. I didn’t schedule anybody today on account of the weather. But looks like the fog’s liftin’. How many in your group?”

“Just me.”

I motioned toward the sign’s small print. “Sorry, miss. One wouldn’t quite pay for the fuel. Hope you understand.” I tried to put on a gentle smile.

She dug around in her purse and produced a roll of ragged bills. “I can pay extra,” she said.

“I suppose we can work something out,” I said and shook her hand. “Name’s Paul Weaver. Call me Captain Paul.”

We bobbed around the local islands for half an hour while I gave my little talk on history and wildlife. She stood next to me at the wheel. Her smoky perfume wrapped itself around us. “I never been in a big boat before,” she said over the noise of the motor.

“That so?” I said. “Well, I’m partial to the Maddie’s Way; she’s a fine craft, no mistake.” I rounded the peninsula, and there was the unmistakable profile of Crow Island. Crow slopes up from the west and ends in a steep promontory on its seaward side. The lighthouse sits on the edge of the cliff, and the tower rises from the eastern gable end of the keeper’s home, giving the entire island the look of a sharpened wedge. I remember thinking that on that day it looked like the dorsal fin of a giant shark breaching the fog. “And here’s the finale,” I said. “The lighthouse was built in 1858, but Crow Island’s been a sacred place to the Penobscot Indians since a long time before that. They believed a sea hag lived there who’d lure fishermen onto the rocks and make them stupid so they’d do her bidding. One version of the legend claims she’d actually suck their brains out of their heads—that’s how the Indians used to eat crayfish, you know.”

“It looks so lonely,” she said.

“Abandoned, yes. Lonely, no. The bird numbers are climbing. Last year alone there were over twelve hundred nesting pairs of Arctic terns. And there’s the human residents, of course; they’re all dead, but there’s a lot of them, too.” I kept a little black and white photo tacked above the GPS. A young bride was smearing wedding cake onto my young face. I caressed the picture frame. A cloud moved and cast a shadow over us.

She drummed her foot on the floor. When she spoke, her voice trembled. “So…there’s a cemetery on Crow Island.”

“It’s what Patroclus asked of Achilles.” I stared out over the bow for an awkward moment. “Sorry, my wife was really into Ancient Greece, and…no, nobody’s buried there. Crow Island Lighthouse is a columbarium. It’s a place for your ashes to go if you get cremated. After the Coast Guard decommissioned the light, some folks bought it and started sellin’ vault space for cremains. That’s the word they use—cremains. Howdaya like that? And for a pretty penny, I might add. They charged people over two grand. They called it Forever on The Atlantic. No telling how many people they ripped off before they got their license yanked. The brochure showed marble floors and mahogany cabinets with little niches for each urn. Real swanky, you know. But the Cemetery Board sent letters to the families saying they shut the place down. They said when they went to inspect it, they found the urns stacked on the ground or on shelves made outta rotten plywood and cinder blocks. What’s worse, the birds had got in and knocked a bunch of urns over. Imagine all those fine Catholics and Methodists spending eternity covered in pelican guano.”

I took us around the east side of the island so she could get a better look at the weathered shingles and the scarred face of the tower. Her lips twitched. She gave her hair a tug. “People should go get the urns and keep them someplace else,” she said.

I laughed. “Crow Island’s off limits. Protected bird sanctuary. Maine Fish-n’-Wildlife owns it now. See all those white birds with the tan heads? Those are northern gannets. They’re thick this time of year. Oh, and there’s a cormorant. That’s a lucky find. They say—”

“So we don’t actually get to go into the lighthouse?” she asked me. I could hear panic in her throat.

“‘Fraid not,” I said. “This is as close as we get. But if you look just there, you can see a pair of Leach’s storm-petrels.”

She dropped her purse to the wheelhouse floor and stepped out onto the deck. She counted to three, and then she jumped over the side.

The impossibility happened.

The gulls broke from their formation, and the shaft of sea mist, and the spirit lady inside it, collapsed, falling on me like rain. The purple light danced briefly along the railing. Then the light was gone, too.

Seawater poured from the woman’s mouth and nose. She curled into a fetal position, coughing and gagging. I switched the radio to channel three and called for Craig Dunlap, Winter Harbor’s police chief. I’d known him for years. “Go ahead,” he said.

I couldn’t decide what to say. Finally, “Craig, it’s Paul on the Maddie’s Way. I just had a lady go in the water over here off Crow.”

Copy that. She wearin’ a PFD?

“I’ve got her back on board, but she took in a lot of water.”

Gouldsboro’s your closest port. I’ll radio their first responders to meet you there. They’ll want her stats right now in case she’s unresponsive when they get to her.”

I realized then that she’d never introduced herself. “Ten-four. Give me a minute,” I said. Her purse was at my feet. I opened it to look for some ID. A swell jarred the boat and I spilled the purse’s contents. That’s when I found her pistol. It was no bigger than a kid’s squirt gun, but I figured it could kill a man all the same. I shoveled everything back into the purse as quickly as I could.

“Craig, you copy?” I said into the mic.

Go ahead.”

“I found something in her purse. It’s a… Stand by.” Most men would’ve found the woman far from lovely. But her look of protest, the valleys between her eyebrows and the aggravated angle of her jaw—It was a face that made you have no idea what was coming next, what you might do next. My wife used to make me feel that way sometimes. “I found an Arkansas driver’s license, but that’s it.” I gave him her name and then, “Five-five, dark brown hair, hundred sixty pounds. It’s an old license; I wouldn’t put her at more than one-fifteen, one-twenty.”

Ten-four,” he said.

She was gagging again, and I went to her. “You’re okay, miss,” I said. “Just keep gettin’ rid of that water. An ambulance is gonna meet us at the dock.”

“No,” she said. “Please.”

“You need to get checked out,” I said. “You nearly died.”

She reached for my hand. “But I didn’t. If there’s an ambulance, the cops’ll come too, and that’d be the same as killing me. Please… I have to get to the island.” She went into another coughing fit and then vomited.

I helped her sit up. I took a blanket out of the dry box and draped it around her. I had no intention of taking her to Crow Island, and now she was asking me not to take her to Gouldsboro either. But we couldn’t sit there drifting. The light was getting poor, and the wind was picking up. I started the boat and headed for the mouth of the Narraguagus. There’s a little cove downstream from Milbridge I knew I could hide in even at low tide.

We were there in a few minutes. When I killed the motor and dropped anchor, she came around. “What are we doing?” she asked me. “I’ve gotta get to Crow Island.”

A burst of radio static, then Craig Dunlap’s voice: “Maddie’s Way, you copy?

“You’re not getting there in my boat,” I said.

She reached for her purse. I remembered the pistol. “Wait,” I said.

“I can’t pay you much more.” She brought out another fistful of bills. “But I’ll give you the rest of the money I’ve got.”

Maddie’s Way one-zero-three-two-three-five-niner, this is Winter Harbor. Please state your position, over.”

I sighed, relieved that she didn’t plan to shoot me. But I was overloaded. I turned the radio’s volume down and then stood there. The boat rocked in the dying light.

She hung her head. When she spoke, the voice wasn’t hers. “What’s wrong, darling? You look like a man who’s between Scylla and Charybdis.” The Southern drawl was gone and it sounded exactly like something my wife would’ve said. Exactly.

I touched her hand. Her skin was as rough as a shark’s. For a second or two the weird light crackled around her like violet fire.

I breathed as deeply as I could and replied as if the day were still sane. “There’s just no possible way, ma’am, I’m sorry.”

When she looked up at me again she had managed a sort of sensual smile. “I could let you do me, right here if you want. Nobody’ll see.” It was the Arkansan voice again, somehow damp with sweat and honey-thick. I felt blood rush to my face and moments later to other parts of me I’d nearly forgotten. An uninvited image of my wife’s naked ankles came to me. I turned to hide my tears.

“Never mind,” she said. “Who am I kidding?”

“Missus Busbee, I—”

“You don’t have to call me that. Nobody calls me that. You wanna know what they call me?” She grinned big and tapped a false incisor with her fingernail. “These teeth were my husband’s last gift. Hardly anybody’s ever seen me with ’em. Everybody says I must have bought a boob job with all the money I save on toothpaste. They call me Gummer.” She lifted her breasts and gave them a squeeze. “Whataya think, Captain Paul? Was it a fair trade?” Her eyes had begun to glisten.

“Okay.” I said. Such an offer was unlikely to come again. Ever. Then I saw the photo of my wife through the wheelhouse window. “Somewhere else, though. Do you have a hotel room?”

She stared at me for a moment. “I drove here straight from Arkansas.”

I fired up the motor again. “Let’s go find someplace private,” I said.

I’ve worn a colostomy bag since a little later that summer, and while I’m sure my mother celebrated my successful potty training more than sixty years earlier, the last normal shit I took before that God-awful surgery meant nothing to me. It’s like that with everything. We acknowledge our firsts. First steps. First words. But life never affords us the chance to give so much as a nod to any of our lasts.

Almost never. I hoped my last steps were still a few years ahead of me. But I’d known for a long time that my last intercourse experience was almost a decade behind me. And I was fine with it. Then this woman in my boat made her offer. I accepted because, it turns out, part of me was still alive. But another part of me wanted my last time to always be that morning with my wife a month before she slipped away. So when we got back to the dock we used the woman’s car, not my pickup. Like the boat, too much married life had gone on in my pickup. Gummer’s car, on the other hand, was all Gummer. It looked like it had started to rust when the Eighties were coming to an end; not unlike her, I imagine. And the inside of it was thick with the same stale aroma of perfume and cigarette smoke.

I asked her to drive eight or so miles down to the Schoodic Point parking lot. It’s always empty at night. We climbed into her back seat, and did what we did. I wasn’t sure how well I’d perform, but I don’t suppose it mattered. The man inside her wasn’t me; it was her husband. And when I came into her, I said my dead wife’s name.

She tried to sleep, and an uncomfortable hour had gone by when the sound of her phone startled her out of what looked to me like a cold, prickly stupor. She mumbled something unintelligible, and then more clearly, “Twenty-two.” She sat up in the Ford’s moldy back seat, scrambled over the console and took the phone from the glove compartment. It vibrated in her hand. Its light filled the cab. BFF, the screen shouted.

“What if it’s him, somehow?” she asked. She wasn’t really talking to me. The phone buzzed again. The ring was James Taylor promising Gummer she had a friend; sounded like he was singing through tin foil.

She stomped on the floorboard. “I know it’s a trick, baby. Just like you said, the DEA’s in bed with the phone company. If I answer, they’ll know where I am. Just like you said.” The phone thrummed again. She winced. “But what if it is you?”

She swiped the screen, but it was too late. No one was there.

She rocked back and forth, then steadied her hands long enough to light a smoke. She closed her fist around a lock of her hair, yanked twice—hard enough to bring tears—and then resumed rocking. “I overdone it again,” she said, finally looking at me. “It’s eighteen hundred miles from my house to Winter Harbor, Maine. Odometer said so. I drove thirty-six straight hours.” She opened the ashtray and held up the little vial she’d hidden there. “But not without help.” She gave it a shake and something rattled inside.

She licked her lips and peered out the window. “I’m forty-three years old, and yesterday was the first time I ever seen the ocean. I been dreamin’ about it for as long as I can remember.” She squinted out into the dark. “Wish I could see it right now. It’s out there somewhere, not far from the sound of it.”

I wondered if the ocean sounded to her the way it did in her dreams. A gull laughed. I shuddered. She wiped the inside of the windshield and we caught a glimpse of the horizon, straight and red like the edge of a bloody razor. But then it was gone. Fog smothered the granite tip of Schoodic Point.

The ringtone she’d picked for her BFF came again. “Winter, spring, summer, or fall—” She swiped the screen. “Hello?”

The phone wasn’t on speaker, but in the silence I could hear most of what the caller said. “Thank goodness. Where are you? You haven’t answered since Monday. I thought you might pick up if I used your husband’s phone.”

“Can’t tell you.”

What?

“I can’t tell you where I am, Sandy. It’s between Jeff and me.”

A long pause. “Your husband’s dead.”

“Yeah, I know. But he told me some stuff—secret stuff—before they killed him. I had to do this. Don’t worry about the kids. They’re old enough to take care of themselves.”

Your children are six and nine years old. Where the hell are you?

“Let’s just say that if Jeff was right, I’ll be one of the first people in America to see the sun today.”

Don’t tell me you left the state. You know you can’t—

She pressed the END CALL button. “I shouldn’t have answered,” she said. “It was my probation officer.” She looked at her phone and then switched it off. “I don’t want to hear that song again. It was me and Jeff’s song.”

She curled into a ball and shivered.

There was no sunrise to watch. Dawn—always early here in the summer—crept in unnoticed like thick and quiet soup. I started to fade, and when sleep finally came, it came in intervals more irritating than restful.

She shook me awake. “You ready to take me to the island now?”

“I suppose,” I said. “It’s Sunday morning; maybe nobody’ll notice me anchored so close to it. But first, tell my why you want to go.”

She rolled her window down and lit a cigarette with trembling hands. “I ain’t into tellin’ people my sob story. You’ll either go through with your part or you won’t.”

“I’ve got a lot to lose if we get caught,” I said, “so I think you should at least tell me what’s so important out there.”

She opened her wallet and showed me a crumpled family photo. “They’ve grown since this was took, but those are my kids, and that’s their daddy. He tried his hardest to take care of us. But our luck just kept gettin’ shittier. A couple of weeks ago he told me he was going way up into New England, someplace. Said it was a favor for his friends, and that they’d pay him for it. His so-called friends are bad dudes, and I had a feeling I knew what the favor was. But we were so strapped the welfare people was fixin’ to take our boys, so I kept my mouth shut. When he showed back up last Wednesday night he was acting weird, said he was exhausted, and went straight to bed, but when he got up the next day he was still freaking out, scared but excited too. He said, ‘Baby, we’ve gotta lay low for awhile, but I’ve found us a way out. Somethin’ crazy happened, somethin’ you’d never believe. And I’ve come into some money because of it, big money. I brought a little back with me, but there’s a lot more. Enough for you, and me, and the boys to start over.’ When I asked him where the money was, he said, ‘It’s best you don’t know yet. But let me put it this way: If you were there, you’d have been one of the first Americans to see the sun this morning.’ He kissed me and ran across the street to Jiffy Stop to buy smokes, and I never seen him again. I thought I heard gunshots. I knew for sure when the sirens came. I looked through the blinds and seen the ambulance guys workin’ on him, but I knew he was gone.”

She finished her cigarette, tossed it out and lit another one. “I found a bunch of twenties in his jeans. And a piece of envelope with two things written on it in Jeff’s handwriting, two things that ain’t done nothin’ but stink up my brain for three days: Crow Island Lighthouse, and the number twenty-two. I still don’t know what the number means, but I Googled Crow Island, and I figured that’s gotta be where the money is. And if it’s enough money for those guys to kill Jeff over, the Feds probably know something. If I didn’t leave right then, I’d chicken out. There was soup in the cabinet and some nuggets in the freezer. I hugged my boys tight. I told them to behave, and keep the door locked.”

She put the photo back in her wallet. She sat awestruck by the gray-green waves that hammered the shore’s rock face. “Just look at it,” she said. “I wish Jason and David could see it. I always imagined the ocean being deep blue under marshmallow clouds—but it’s good enough.” She turned and looked at me, and I’ll never forget the pain in her eyes. “I guess it’ll have to be,” she said. “I doubt I’ll go home with anything else.”

My wife always called thunderheads marshmallow clouds. “Listen,” I said. “Maybe there is something for you on Crow Island.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. I only knew that some impossibility had saved the woman’s life; an impossibility that needed an explanation. She looked at me again, and her eyes blazed faintly with ghost purple. “There’s more to the Indian legend about Crow Island,” I heard myself say.

“Well? Spit it out.”

“See that bird?” I asked her. I pointed to the laughing gull that had just landed on a snag of driftwood. “There’s a story about why their heads and wings are black.”

“The Indians where I come from have crow stories, too,” she said. “But that ain’t no crow. I know that much.”

“No, it’s a laughing gull. But the sea hag would sometimes turn herself into a crow. The Penobscot say she’d fly out during the day and steal all of Gull’s oysters for her supper. She’d bring them to her island and build a big fire to cook them in. One evening, Gull was starving and asked for a few oysters back. This made the sea hag angry. She tried to put Gull in the fire along with the oysters. Gull escaped, but his head and wingtips were scorched. That’s why they’re black. But Gull didn’t give up. He came the next day while the hag was out and ate his fill. He’s been laughing about it ever since.” I looked over at the driftwood, but the gull was gone.

“It’s a nice story, but if there’s a lesson, I ain’t gettin’ it. Are you gonna take me to Crow Island or not?”

“You can find a lesson in any story, like the Greek myth about a bird called the halcyon. That one says you can still have better days, kinder days, even after you lose a part of you that you thought was…most of you. And yes, I’ll take you there.”

She drove us back to the village, found Harbor Street, and parked near the pier where I kept the Maddie’s Way. She killed the engine and looked at herself in the mirror. She grimaced. “These falsies look so fake I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off without ’em.” She opened the door. The air outside was salty and fishy. But I could tell it felt good on her face. She breathed it in as we started our walk down to the dock.

We were halfway to the slip when three men got out of an SUV. They walked quickly toward us. My heart raced when I realized they were dressed alike: khakis, white polo shirts, black ball caps. “You there,” one of them said.

She whirled and in no time had the pistol out of her purse and pointed at the men.

DROP IT! DROP IT!” One of them fired a gun. Several more shots came. I think some of them were from her pistol. Then we were both on the ground. I crawled to her. My left knee felt strange. I looked down and saw that my foot was facing the wrong direction. A fiery pain crawled in my gut.

MOVE AWAY FROM HER!

The woman was on her back. The center of her blouse was becoming a pond of blood. Her left shoulder was nearly gone. Her face was already growing pale. “It’s not so bad, Jeff,” she whispered. “Remember how I used to be so…afraid to die?”

SIR, BACK AWAY NOW!

She coughed. A red mist settled around her lips. “It’s actually kinda nice…like, like when we used to do…hydrocodone…. Everything’s cotton candy.”

SIR!!

“I love you, Jeff.”

“Don’t go,” I said.

That’s when they tackled me.

Craig came to see me the day after my second surgery. I’d already been in the hospital for a month by then. When I think of his visit, it’s like remembering a fever dream. He may have said everything I remember, but I may have hallucinated some of it. I don’t want to know how involved you are. Just be careful what you say when they start asking questions. They know about the woman’s husband. The Canadians are dead, too. Drowned, according to the news. The coroner told me their brains were missing. How the fuck does that happen? The drugs were in a duffel bag strapped to one of the bodies. But they have no idea where the money is.

The guys with the questions showed up in my hospital room the day after that. I was more alert but still high on morphine; everything was still cotton candy. The man in the tan blazer said he was from the State Attorney General’s office. I don’t care to remember his name. “We have a few questions for you, Mr. Weaver,” he said.

“I’m doing better. Thanks for asking,” I said.

He shared a look with the other one, a kid with a goatee sucking on an after-lunch toothpick. “You were walking toward the boat slip at Winter Harbor with Mrs. Busbee on July thirteenth when the shooting occurred, is that correct?”

I nodded.

He took a notebook and pencil from his inside pocket and jotted something. “And she didn’t have anybody with her? Friends? Family?”

“No.”

Goatee took a step forward. “Taking just one person on a tour is against your policy, isn’t it Mr. Weaver? ‘No more than seven, and no fewer than three.’ Isn’t that what your sign says?”

“She paid extra,” I said.

“And how did you know her?” Tan Blazer asked.

“I’d just met her. I have a coastal tour service, and I was taking her to see the puffins.”

“Hang on a sec,” Goatee said. He stabbed the air with his toothpick for emphasis. A tiny pendulum of spit dangled from its tip. “I’m confused. You mean you were taking her to see the puffins again?”

“How d’ya mean?”

“You took her out the day before, on Saturday the twelfth,” he said. “You were gone for quite some time we understand.”

A glittery purple orb ran along Tan Blazer’s arm, up his neck and sat still on the top of his head.

“That’s right!” I said and chuckled. “I’ve had quite a day already. I must be a little confused myself.”

Tan Blazer laughed with me. “OK, now that we’ve got that established,” he said, “Did she tell you anything about herself? Like where she was from?”

“Not that I remember,” I said.

“Arkansas,” Goatee said. “I spoke with Chief Dunlap yesterday morning. He said you told him she was from Arkansas when she fell off your boat.”

“I don’t understand why you’re asking me these questions,” I said. “All I know is I got caught in a gunfight between your people and some woman I know nothing about—beyond the fact that she was hell-bent on seeing nature up close and personal—and that as a result, as you can see, my life’s been ruined.” I raised my stump into the air. “The first operation took off a leg.” Then I pulled back the sheet to show off my shiny new ostomy pouch. “The next one relocated my asshole to just below my ribcage.”

Tan Blazer made another note. The orb bounced on his head like a rubber ball. “Your involvement in the incident was unfortunate.” His eyes seemed dull, as though he were looking through me at nothing. “And I’ve been assigned to find out all I can. I think you’ve given me everything I need. Please get in touch if you think of anything I might want to know.” He took a business card from his wallet, placed it on the food tray next to my bed, and left.

The orb hovered and then faded. I got the strange feeling it was kissing me goodbye, and then it disappeared.

Goatee followed Tan Blazer, but paused in the doorway for a final, inexplicable jab. “And by the way,” he said, “The men at the pier weren’t our people. They were drug enforcement agents. You wanna talk about something that’ll ruin your life? What do you think the minimum sentence is for someone convicted of trafficking narcotics in the State of Maine?” He didn’t stick around for an answer.

I waited over two years. Long enough, I figured, for the questioners to decide I couldn’t have played an intentional role in what Craig Dunlap seemed to be calling a drug deal gone bad. I waited long enough to learn how to swim with parts of me missing. And I waited for the perfect day: a Sunday with heavy fog and water calm as molten wax. It came in September.

Climbing the western slope of Crow Island was tricky. I knew it would be. But I fell only twice, and only the gulls laughed at me. Even though the rusty padlock on the keeper’s door gave me trouble at first, it broke under a bigger rock.

The parlor was dark, full of vague shapes. I struggled to work out the shadow on my right. An ornate fireplace. An iron poker hung from its mantle. The dim little square at my feet slowly became a crumpled cigarette box (not Gummer’s brand) sitting on the hearth, and when I plucked the poker from its nail to stab at the box, I had the feeling I was the first person to touch it since the final keeper hung it there. There were beer cans. Here was a pair of panties and a flip-flop. The smugglers and I hadn’t been the only visitors since “Forever on The Atlantic” had closed, but as I moved across the room—taking care not to snag my prosthetic on any of the crap on the floor—I couldn’t help thinking how preserved the place seemed.

A purple light touched the door on the far side of the room. It was the same clean, sparkling purple light that had seen me through agonizing days of rehab at the pool, the same light that first came to me when the impossibility happened on my boat.

The door was hinged to swing away. I pushed, but something was blocking it. I pushed harder and it opened with a puff of rank dust. In a hallway that led in the direction of the tower stood half a dozen containers; some ceramic, some pewter, all open, standing in the muck they once contained. As I walked, I left fresh footprints in human ash.

The plywood and cinder block shelving ran along the right side of the hallway. The spaces were marked with strips of faded masking tape: #107 – Daniel J. Callison, #106 – Mary Harwell, #105 – Harold Sandoval. The fancy wood cabinets on the left were marked with little brass plates: #76, #75, #74. The hallway emptied onto a stone room splashed white with pelican shit. Sealed crypts, beautifully polished and glowing purple in the impossible light, lined the walls. I followed to the left. My fingers glided along the surface. Inscriptions interrupted the smoothness of the marble.

#25… #24.. . #23… #22 Madelyn June Weaver 1944 – 1995 The journey was easy. My new wings are swift.

I stood there and listened as Maddie read from the Iliad. Her voice echoed across decades from a snowy night long ago. For never again shall I come from Hades, once you burn me in my share of fire.

“It’s what Patroclus asked of Achilles,” I said to the dirty purple room.

“Paul.” The voice was all around me, in my head, everywhere. The light dimmed. The voice weakened. “Funny how the Greek meaning of my name is high tower.” The voice laughed. Maddie. Maddie laughed.

“I’ve missed you,” I told her.

The voice and the light grew dimmer still. “I know… somebody else, somebody who’s been here a long time, helped me do what I did…hope you’re not mad…just wanted them to have a better life….”

“It’s OK. I’m sorry I never gave you children of your own.”

“Can’t stay…under the floor mat in the wheelhouse you’ll find…I want you to….” And then she was gone.

For a second, there was only blackness, and I noticed for the first time how badly it stank, and how alone I felt. But then the tiniest fleck of purple lit the edges of Maddie’s vault. I can’t be sure of what came next. I looked down and saw that I still had the poker. I watched myself whaling on the vault, destroying her epitaph, pulverizing it. The black trash bag sitting next to her urn, in the dust and marble shards, didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem real until I got it to my boat, back to land, and onto my kitchen table.

I counted the money from the black trash bag three times that night. It was nearly a quarter million, in new hundred-dollar-bills.

I went up to Lubec today to send the final package. It’s a long trip, but I’ve driven much farther to make a delivery. I hand-delivered the first one, and it took me a lot longer than thirty-six hours to get there. A day of spying before a secret drop-off on a rickety Arkansas porch was risky, but I had to know if, beyond hope, the boys still lived in the same house. They did. An aunt or a granny had moved in with them. She looked hopeful from a distance, and hope was all I had. Hope that they’d stay put, hope that if they ever moved away they’d leave a forwarding address. But more than that, hope that I was doing the right thing, what Maddie had meant for me to do. I mailed packages from post offices all up and down the East Coast, and as far west as Ohio. Packages of clothes, shoes, toys, video games, making wild guesses as I grew even older and even more out of touch with what a kid wanted or needed. I never included a return address, but I sometimes placed a little note inside. From Mister Artemis. A clumsy joke for Maddie. I think I remember her saying once that Artemis protected the vulnerable.

I found the Busbee address under the mat in the wheelhouse, of course. It was on a scrap of envelope from the woman’s purse. To Jeff Busbee, it read. 1575 Picher Ave. – Cedar Hill, AR 72734. And in pencil on the back: crow island litehouse #22.

I sent cash this time. The rest of it. It was a lot, but they’ve reached an age when they’ll need it. I hope they’ll know it’s from their mother. A lady with a voice nearly as sunburnt as her face. A lady whose real name has permanently left the tip of my tongue. A lady I remember as “Halcyon,” on days when I’m thinking about her. Those days come often.

Charlie Bookout lives with his family in Gentry, Arkansas—a stone’s throw from the hillbilly infested Ozark Mountains. His fiction is set in (or refers to) Cedar Hill, Arkansas, a weird take on his already weird home town. His stories can also be found on Pseudopod. The reading of one of them was a Parsec Award finalist a while back, so now his name shows up if you search for it in Wikipedia. When he isn’t writing, Charlie hangs out with his buddies in Gentry’s abandoned mortuary. There they compose and record funky music, make funny and scary short films, and throughout the month of October, operate a haunted attraction that’s designed after a story that was “a bit grim for Shimmer’s tastes.” More at his website MortuaryStudios.com

Other Birds:

The Earth and Everything Under, by K.M. Ferebee – Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace – Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was nosign of the great birds.

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade – Ógán is a magpie, but he wasn’t always a bird…

Your Mama’s Adventures In Parenting by Mary Robinette Kowal

Your mama adjusted her face mask and checked the chronometer on her eyepiece. Darn it. The filter would only be good for another fifteen minutes. She was nowhere near finished with the job. And this particular theft would fetch a good price on the energy market, what with the price of methane.

She slid the siphon tube across to the capture valve and turned on the suction pump. If your mama could get most of the gas into the polysteel tank on her back…

The filter in her mask failed. A rank, heavy scent of sulfur and dead moss burned into her sinuses. Your mama’s eyes watered. She pressed the filter against her face, trying to snug it up or eke out a few more minutes. The smell only grew stronger, moving past eggs, and into the bowels of hell itself.

Gagging, she hit the retract button on the siphon. No amount of credits was worth this. Methane or no. Energy crisis or no. Your mama would rather steal diamonds than deal with one more fart job.

She broke like the wind, and ran.

 You watch your mama through the bathroom doorway. In one hand, she’s holding a plunger; the other is sheathed in a dripping rubber glove. Her shoulders are slumped. She sees you, and points at the toilet. “Really?”

Coming out of the wormhole, your mama felt along the sensors leading from her brain housing to the detectors on the ship’s skin. Really, it was the outer hull, but to her the background radiation of space felt like wind on her skin. Almost.

“Location. Lunar orbit around the planet Earth.” She opened a viewport for her passenger.

He gasped. “That’s no moon.”

Her sensor showed nothing out of the ordinary. “We are in lunar orbit.”

“Yes, yes, but something else is, too.” He leaned closer to the viewport. “Can you not see it?”

“Negative.” Your mama adjusted her sensors along all frequencies, but still perceived nothing out of the ordinary. “It must be masking electronically. What are you seeing?”

“What appears to be a demolition ship.” He fiddled with the end of his towel and frowned. “The darn thing is glowing and—Bother.”

The destruction of the Earth was all too clear in her sensors, lighting up the inside of her brain like a firestorm. The radiation played over her skin and flared in her sensors.

“Damn.” He turned from the viewport. “Plot a new course…just pick someplace.”

She skipped back in the wormhole, and the dark closed around her until all that remained was the memory of warmth on her skin.

 In the rear view mirror of the car, you can only see your mama’s eyes. The heat is glaring through the windows and making your skin stick to the vinyl seats with sweat. She’s glaring at you. “I’m not just a taxi service, you know.”

The difficulty wasn’t breaking into the Cambridge library, it was in finding the right piece of microfilm. Your mama pretended to straighten the back seam of her stockings as a librarian went by. Her informant had left the nuclear codes on a piece of microfilm in a dead drop, which seemed like a good idea before they began to recatalog the collection.

The librarian went into the restricted area, and your mama slid a foot into the door to stop it. She counted to ten, so the librarian would be clear, and went in. From there, it was just a matter of slipping through the stacks until she reached the rare books. Who would have expected a children’s book to wind up here?

Footsteps alerted her, and your mama snatched the volume off the shelf. Pulling her gun from its holster in her garter, she pressed herself against the shelves and crept to the end of the aisle. With the massive shelves masking her, she waited until the librarian walked past, head down in a book.

Letting out a sigh, she tucked her gun back in its place and turned her attention to the book. The microfilm was in the spine, so all your mama had to do was pull it out and… there.

She had the codes from the Soviets. No doubt, they would be seriously annoyed to have been thwarted by England’s spy network. And, of course, a signed first edition of Peter Pan.

Your mama put the book back on the shelf. And now, she would slip out of the library and head straight on ’til morning.

 You have nowhere to hide. Your mama holds your report card and the book you’d hidden it in. She is slowly shaking her head. “Do you want to explain this to me?”

Your mama stared at the moon through the viewport of the space station. The goddamn airlock was jammed. How the hell was she supposed to get outside before the change hit without the key? And who thought that a chain was a good idea for an airlock? Her bones ached. The inside of her spacesuit was starting to chafe.

Right. She didn’t necessarily need the key; all she had to do was break the chain. The catch was that if she waited long enough for the lycanthropy to shift her to wolf state, with the necessary strength to break the chain, then the helmet probably wouldn’t fit her. Growling, and knowing that was a bad sign, your mama stepped back from the airlock. She had another hour, at least, before the moon swung far enough in its orbit to be fully in the light of the sun and out of the Earth’s shadow. So, who would have locked the door? Because it turned out that she really did need the key. Sheppard? Grissom? Arm—Armstrong.

Baring her teeth, your mama pushed off the airlock and shot down the corridor to Armstrong’s cubby. “Did you chain the airlock?”

“Um.”

“Do you want me to tear your throat out?”

“Um.”

“Give me the fucking key.” Your mama’s fangs were showing and caught on her upper lip. She reached out, snatched the key from his shaking hand. With a snarl, she jammed her helmet on, past her lengthening snout, and fled to the dark side of the moon and her humanity.

 You tiptoe through the room so you don’t wake your mama. Your mama got sick once a month, but she always tells you not to worry. She lies on the sofa with a hot water bottle tucked against her stomach. When you bump a table, she cracks one eye. “Hey, sweetie, need anything?

The steam hissed around your mama and her dance master as they stepped out of the brass and oak cabinet of the time machine. This time, they had emerged in the alley behind the theater.

She looked to the right, where another incarnation of herself was hurrying to the theater for the audition. “Stop her!”

At her command, a brass automaton stepped out of the time machine and intercepted the previous her. Your mama turned her back on the cry of surprise from her former self.

“Come on.” She beckoned the dance master. “I want to get inside and warm up.”

Her dance master stared past her. “That was you?”

“Yes.” Your mama snapped and strode toward the theater.

“You were so young…”

“Young and inexperienced and I screwed up the most important audition of my life.” Even after all these years, the memory of falling off her pointe shoes still burned.

“Did you try again?” He wasn’t following her.

“I am now.” Why else would your mama have spent years building this time machine and working with the dance master?

“I mean…did you go to the spring audition?”

“How could I, after that humiliation?” She stared at her past self, who hung confused and frightened in the automaton’s grip.

“That’s…that’s what being a dancer is. Getting up and continuing. Everyone falls sometimes.” He stepped away, back to the girl she had been. “Would you like to go over your routine?”

“What are you doing?” Your mama put her hands on her hips. “You’re supposed to help me with my audition.”

“I am.” He shrugged. “This you is too old. She…She still has a chance.”

 Your mama hands you a tissue. “Don’t listen to them.” She ruffles your hair and her fingers are rough from work. “You can be anything you want to be. Okay? I believe in you.”

 

Mary Robinette Kowal. Portland, Oregon, February 2012.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series of fantasy novels and a three time Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Tor.com, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Chicago. Visit her online at maryrobinettekowal.com.

 

Other Mothers:

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport – It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Andres Reed – Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves. Seven bridges straddle the river between First and Barton Road as it winds through a downtown of antique stores, the crepe-streamered American Legion, the purple house advertising tarot and palm readings.

Trees Struck by Lightning Burning From the Inside Out, by Emily Lundgren

It is sweet and fitting to die with one’s pack under the full moon, but the sky is clouded by the city lights: orange and yellow and red like fire. Roque is running. Like a cracked whip, without sense. Under a sliver of jagged sound, under the leering fray of glossy towers, he smells a dog without a leash, the sharp of silvered bolts. He sees a woman with a cardboard sign reading something-something about the world, who catches his eye, whose own eyes widen, whose mouth opens and makes a howling noise: something-something about wolves! wolves! The road towards dawn outstretches before him, choking on cars and steam and fur and bone. Roque is running, running. His paws thump in tandem with the code of his heart, and he transforms.

I shit you not, the den was in this underground shithole out by the train tracks. Outside, on the gate leading to it, there was an honest-to-god sign that said NO DUMPING, but as soon as we crossed beyond the gate we had to navigate piles of actual junk. Old coils of bedspring, plastic toys, a sagging couch, at least five ancient television sets, a mountain of cassettes. On the gravel, spools of black videotape were tangled in neatly arranged piles, like someone decided to sit there and chew apart all the plastic. The den itself was past all that shit, in the rubble of an enclave painted with the words FAIR IS FOUL & FOUL IS FAIR FUCKERS. Some real nice digs.

There shouldn’t be a fire pit. I know we’re all thinking it—the wild ones, they’re not supposed to have thumbs, you know? After the carnage, some of us stand near the arrangement of cinderblocks that circle the fire pit like sad-ass lawn chairs. Our crossbows hang limp in our hands. Someone’s phone goes off but we don’t even pick it up. This fire pit is fucking weird, none of us says just yet. It looks like a stump, the midsection carved in a big X with raw pulsing pinks and reds at its heart, peeling the core back white. The stump sits in a charred indentation in the ground, and it reminds me of one summer when lightning struck a tree on the farm and ate it from the inside out. Once in a lifetime, tops.

Behind us, snaking from beneath the circular enclave that might’ve once had something to do with trains, there’s a root-path leading crooked into the den. If we listen, which we all do, we can hear shouting. Will and the rest of us are still down there, probably counting up the corpses. They didn’t really fight us when we found them, and I know we’re all sort of disappointed. They howled and cried and clawed at the dirt but their den was nothing but damp earth and dead ends. Wolves used to live in caves or in the woods, but shit, where can you find places like that anymore? From the earth’s belly, I hear Will start up about skinning their hides.

Someone’s phone goes off and this time it gets answered. This shakes us apart, gets us moving. So what if they carved a stump and made a fire and sat here at night watching it with their dumb eyes? We round the perimeter, keep watch. Another of us takes out his phone, too, and snaps a few pictures. “This fire pit is fucking weird,” he’s the first to say. “I’m putting this thing on Instagram.” I shrug. I got rid of all that shit after my parents died. Facebook before the funeral—then afterwards, Twitter, then Tumblr, even Snapchat, and definitely my Grindr profile. Online, time vaults would lurch open at the stupidest times. I’d be checking my phone in bed and then next thing I knew, my Ma’s face would peer up at me and I’d go to her profile, which I should’ve deleted a long time ago, but never did. I’d reread the RIPs, the thoughts and prayers, and I guess there was probably a way to disable all that shit, like unfollow her, but I never did. I just shut it all down. Now I only talk to fellow hunters, I guess.

Growing up, I didn’t give a single fuck about wolves and neither did my parents. But even in Big Sky Country they’d crop up, and sure, we had a coalition in town meant to protect us and all that shit, but for a long time, the worst you’d hear about was someone’s raided chicken coop or a missing cow or two. There’d be rumors, or whatever, about a family that went missing, but that was always on rez land and the coalition would say well, you know, that’s out of our state jurisdiction, and no one wants us out there anyway, and that was true, so that was that.

The most controversial law didn’t get passed until around the time I was born because it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the wolves started smartening up. There was the Wolf Man, sure, and maybe a few like him in the Middle Ages, so now people are figuring hey, that might explain a lot—but it didn’t happen in droves until much later, and pretty soon, for a few days out of every month, wolves could walk and make sounds and use thumbs. Then they got to thinking, which was when the real trouble started because it pried open a big can of fucking worms, so it was all “civil rights” this and that. Anyway, even the human-ones are born wolves, so this law passed in maybe 1996 and it prohibited hunting them unless they’re wild. The ones that can transform are tagged—assimilated into our Great Fucking Society.

I know this guy who used to hunt with our coalition who dated a tagged one once, but it was real hard seeing as they couldn’t be together most of the time, and then it got to the point where the few days out of the month they could be together, they mostly argued about his job. But all of what we do’s legal, you know, legit. Except I guess that wasn’t the problem.

She was very sophisticated and all that shit. She even had a YouTube channel, I think.

But then even he got her to admit wild wolves don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone but their own packs and they give into their hunger real easy, she even said she didn’t like running with them—but come on, she’d said, it’s still kind of fucked, what you guys do, isn’t it? So then this guy, he sat her down, told her all our stories. He saved mine for last, Little Arlo and His Daddy’s .22 against the Big Bad Wild Wolves. I watched them tear Ma and Pa to shreds. They smelled like piss and their fangs were long and yellowy and there wasn’t anything human about them. Whenever I talk about it, my chest starts feeling numb and the numbness stretches into my fingertips. I get dizzy and sometimes I throw up, and honestly, I was pretty angry about the whole fucking thing, having to listen to him tell the likes of her about that night.

Will comes up from the den and glares at us. “Tell me you fucking got it,” he grits, “and you already tossed it onto a goddamn junk pile!” Will’s a man with hobbies. I think years ago he might’ve been a teacher, but mostly I think that’s bullshit, even though he does know a lot about the Second Amendment, and arsenals, and what George Washington would think about all this shit. He owns a gun range on the outskirts of the city, and he started this little hunting business on the side because of all the government incentives. I mean, that’s what he said, but it’s pretty clear he enjoys himself out here real good. He smokes a cigar and looks like he’s playing a Vietnam vet. I’m not sure he’s ever been to war. Some of us did a tour or two in Iraq, but I didn’t. When I turned eighteen, I only wanted to kill one species, and it wasn’t other humans.

We tuck our phones away, but only one of us has the courage to ask Will what he means. “Huh?” says Horace. He’s a couple years older than I am, went to the same school as me and all that shit. Circled the same hangouts. My last year was kind of a blur on account of my parents getting killed, and the switch from Big Sky Country to Shit Can City. There were a lot of counselors and a lot of fights with the wolf-kids. The wolf-kids had a special program, and would only show up for a few days out of every month, and so it was hard not to hate them. I roughed them up on the regular, I guess. Horace, too. We’d lost something, and yeah, it was that simple.

They owed us a healing. Everyone knew it.

His crossbow hanging from its strap on his shoulder, Will takes a big puff on his cigar. I quit smoking yesterday and I can already tell that’s all gone to fuck in a dickbasket because I really want a smoke. His glare worsens, like it’s lowering us into our graves. “Arlo, how many were in this pack?” he cuts.

I flinch. I was on recon, so I should know. “Um, like, there were six,” I say. “Sir,” I add, already knowing what he’ll say.

He looks at all of us. “We’ve been watching this pack for months. We got all the goddamn fucking permits. You’re supposed to be guarding the perimeter, making sure they were all down there—and what the fuck do I emerge to find?” We don’t answer. “All of you—staring at your goddamn dicks—your phones in your hands! Our count is five. Now one of them’s out there—” He makes an accusatory motion with his cigar, “and so help me god, if it kills anyone, that death is on you. The way I see it—Jesus, I hope it’s only some fucking bum gets killed.”

We look to one another and I feel really hot, like I’m wedged in the heart of the burning stump. Will gives one look at the fire pit and the cinderblocks and he sneers.

I order coffee and eggs and bacon and three chocolate-chip pancakes, and I only have appetite for the coffee, so I just kind of sit there staring at the syrups. I’m always buying shit I can’t afford. Horace, who likes us all to call him Ace due to something that went down back when he was a kid—I’ve guessed probably involving a different nickname—orders waffles that look like they’ve been dressed in a whipped cream and strawberry tutu, and he avoids catching my eye. No one should blame me about what happened, but it’s pretty clear they all do because I’m the one Will barked at, and when he said that death is on you, his grave glare was right on me—even though all of us were distracted when we came up from the den.

Ace watches my coffee ritual. Two packets of Sugar In The Raw. One thimble of vanilla creamer. “R,” Ace says. “Dude. Are you going to eat that?” He stabs his fork at my bacon.

“No, dude,” I say, and I mean it to have a little edge, but it doesn’t. “It’s yours, man.”

Before we left for Denny’s we checked the junkyard’s perimeter a few more times and all that shit. A few of us pissed on the burning stump and the fire went out and then Will went home with some of the older guys and that was that. Lone wolves usually get picked off by the police if they’re spotted in the city and all of us figured it probably ran that way even though we don’t have a good reason. Abigail, who used to be called Abby until her little brother got his throat ripped out by a wolf or something, ordered hash browns with cheese and said, whatever, assholes, that wolf’s as good as dead anyway—so shut the fuck up about it, will you?

Now she goes by Gail, which Ace and I think is ugly but we’ve never said so.

“Hey,” she says now, nodding her chin somewhere behind me. She’s sitting opposite Ace and me, next to Logan—who has always just been Logan and a heaping pile of steaming bullshit. Logan ordered fries and a Diet Coke and he’s gay, so Ace always makes stupid jokes. Like I’m supposed to want to fuck every gay guy I come across, shit, man, and Logan’s not even my type. First of all, fuck Diet. Second of all, wolves have never fucked with his people, so, I mean, it’s kind of fucked he’s always hanging around with us. Now he double-takes at Gail’s nod, and raises his plucked-perfect eyebrows and that’s how I know even before I turn around that there’s going to be wolves in the far corner booth, scowling at us.

Both Ace and I sit up straight and turn around—what else are we supposed to do?

“Guys!” Gail hisses even though I know she can’t mind. “Jesus,” she grits, just like Will.

When we turn back, the wolves we saw—the wolf I saw—makes me feel like I’ve been stun-shot and now I’m sinking. Like I’m ghosting down through the booth and through the layers of the earth we learned about in school. Crust, mantle, outer core. I don’t make it to the inner core, though, because by that point, I’ve melted into liquid fire.

The wolf’s name was fucking Casper, so that’s on me, I guess. When he said his name I was grinning, I was like, “Ha ha ha, like the friendly ghost?” and when he gave me this “huh?” face, I should’ve figured and all that shit. Who never saw Casper? But I guess at the time I was more figuring, maybe I just remembered the movie real well because when I saw it growing up and Casper turned into a real human kid at the end it made me go fuck, well, I might be into guys.

We met at this gay bar that Logan likes that’s really chill on Tuesdays and sometimes I go with him, and then sometimes, but rarely, Gail will show up with Ace in tow.

Casper found me at the bar waiting for a drink, already drunk and kind of pissed because it was one of those nights. Ace was showing everyone this YouTube video back at our booth and they were crowded around him but I couldn’t hear shit. Three people around a phone is fine and all, but four is pushing it and just for the record, I’m not one of those anti-tech dickwads or anything, I’m just fucking poor and after my grandparents died, my iPhone cracked all to shit. They were footing the phone bill, so that’s that.

Anyway, now that I’m thinking about all this, I guess there were more signs than his stupid reaction to my teasing. His grin, for one. It was a very nice grin, but now that I’m looking back, it was maybe a little too wolfish. Like I could tell there was a little bit of hunger for human flesh lurking behind it, but at the time, that wasn’t the kind of human flesh I was thinking about. He had jet black hair shaved into one of those punk haircuts I used to wear but couldn’t maintain—right after my parents died I was really into the Dead Kennedys, and there was something weirdly sexy about Jello Biafra’s voice when he sang “Police Truck” that was loopy and aggressive but desperate all at the same time—and Casper reminded me of that sound. His eyes were narrow and brown, and they laughed really easy, but never at me. Also he had a tragus piercing and I mean, shit, man, I mean, really—how does that play out on a wolf’s ear?

So I got my drink, and then he was like, “You smoke,” but it wasn’t a question and like a total fuckup I was, like, yeah, how’d you know? And he tapped his nose and winked, and he was like, “I could smell it on you.” And now I’m thinking fuck, well, that was pretty obvious, Arlo, you fucking brainless dick, but at the time I was kind of relieved because he asked if he could bum one. I wanted everyone to see me leaving, having a good time, so we went out back together and we smoked the rest of my pack, and then we made out for a while and then we went back inside.

He was like Joe Strummer, if Strummer were East Asian and at a gay bar and not dead.

The fucked up part is that I saw Casper a couple of times after that, which led to him getting my number, which led to him knocking on my door one night pretty drunk, and I guess things had been so good the past year, you know, that I wasn’t really paying attention to the moon anymore. I paid a lot of attention to it after my parents died, and I guess I always carry a vague awareness of it because I’m a hunter, but I never thought about hunting when I was with Casper and we never talked about it.

After he spent a few nights with me, he found my crossbow in the closet with its silver-tipped bolts and I found him staring, and I told him it was cool. I was like, you want to give it a shot? I know a place we could go. I have the license and all that shit, and he was like, “Have you ever killed anything, R?” and I told him yeah, I’ve killed plenty, and then he actually grinned. He was like, “Me too.” But after that he didn’t come around as much, so that was that.

It’s not like we were in love or anything, but I guess, lately, I’d sort of missed him.

They’re two booths down in the corner, but the booth between us is empty. Gail starts throwing these tiny little balls made out of Logan’s straw wrapper. Her aim is shit, but you’d never know it because when we’re down in the dens, a lot of the time there’s really no aiming involved. She starts using his napkin and Logan just lets her, nodding and smiling like isn’t this funny? We’re regulars at this Denny’s, so I don’t see how we’ve never seen them here before.

I start imagining how white trash we must look in our gear and how we brought our bows and bolts inside and how fucked up that kind of is. Back in school, Ace and Logan, who lived on the edge of some trailer court hinterlands, had these four-wheelers and we used to go down and shoot paintball and I’m starting to think maybe we never grew out of it because we’re still wearing all our stupid-ass shit. We have these bandanas around our arms with this wood-axe emblem. Like ha ha, get it, like we’re the huntsmen from that story where that girl gets eaten by a wolf, which by now, I guess, everyone figures was probably true.

I sink a little lower, trying to remember if any of them ever saw Casper with me, and then I get my answer. Logan shoulders Gail. He’s looking at me. “What’s wrong, R?” he says, and I can hear it in his voice, this cruelness he gets when he’s about to start whaling on someone.

Under the table, my hands clench and unclench, and my palms are sweaty.

Gail is laughing now, and Ace starts in on my eggs, and Logan winks at me.

“Hey, will you fucking shut up?” I say. I want to tell Gail to stop throwing shit, but I don’t.

“What crawled up your ass and died, R? Chill the fuck out.” Gail rolls up another piece of Logan’s napkin and dips it in my coffee—what the fuck, I growl, but she sends the wad sailing. “It doesn’t fucking matter,” she says for the thousandth time. “Just because you’ve got your panties in a bunch over losing one doesn’t mean we’ve got to share your shit mood, you know?” She snorts with laughter, “Fuck—they’re catching on, I think—”

I can’t help sneering. “The thing we lost wasn’t one of them, it was wild, it can’t even transform—” like the pack that killed your brother, but I don’t say that part. Gail’s still laughing, but Logan gets this frown going and I know he hears me. “And seriously, what the fuck?” My voice is a little louder now, “I’m not the one who lost it, why am I getting blamed? Ace was the one on his phone, and you’re the one who was fucking with Snapchat filters the whole time—”

“Dude, um,” Ace looks up from his phone, “you were the one staring at that fire pit—”

“Yeah, um, actually,” Gail chimes in, “that was weird, wasn’t it? I mean how’d a bunch of wild wolves cut a stump like that and light it on fire?” They’re all looking at me. “You’re the one who did recon,” Gail says, like I don’t already fucking know.

Then I see the flicker of dangerous excitement in Logan’s eye. “Hey guys,” he says, interrupting Gail, and I know he’s going to tell them. “Did you know R here fucked one of—”

“Excuse me.”

We look up.

It’s one of the wolves, but it isn’t Casper. The wolf-girl doesn’t say anything more, just dumps a cup of her yellowy piss right on Gail’s head. Gail screeches, chokes on it—and I’m out of the booth like lightning, Jesus, shit! not because I’m afraid of getting piss on me, but because everything is fucked and my heart’s thrumming crazy like it did on my first hunt and I’ve got to move. I push the wolf-girl out of the way and she’s howling, like, howling with laughter, and I think I’m totally leaving, but I don’t have a car, and even if I did, Ace always drives.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I say, once I’m out in the parking lot. I figure the cops will be here soon because this isn’t such a bad side of town, I guess, and it’ll be this whole thing. They’ll see we’ve got our bows and all that shit, not that it really matters, but we’ll have to stand around in this Denny’s parking lot all night showing them our licenses, getting looked up in databases—they might call Will, fuck, I mean, I doubt I’d lose my job, but maybe I could.

I pace, trying to remember. I don’t know. I didn’t see shit. I didn’t see that fire pit on recon, I just saw a fucking hovel, and wolves, and piles of junk. The moon’s been high the past few days, and just yesterday I was there, and I didn’t see any of them transform. Not the month before, not the month before that. I mean, it’s not like we just shoot up any old pack we find. They’ve got to be verified, you know? And they were, but even if they weren’t—who the fuck am I shitting? Will’s taken us to a few jobs way outside the city, in the suburbs that need a quick favor after a kid goes missing. It wasn’t my fault. It’s not my fault. No fucking way, man.

Casper doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s standing there. Watching me after he lights up his smoke, and I let him watch and take a few drags. Finally, he says, “They called the cops, I think, but Amadeus and Freya just ran—she’s the one who came up to you guys.” He shrugs and takes another drag and I want very badly to ask him for a smoke, and I know he wishes I’d ask.

“Why aren’t you running?” I say. I stop pacing, but now I’m shaking. I can’t get calm. They get to pick their human names, I heard. Whatever names they want and I don’t give a fuck why Casper picked his. Something is moving through me like a tremor now, the kind that splits mountains.

“I will,” he says. He still looks the same, only he’s got new boots. He fidgets with his phone in his free hand and it lights his face up, the sharp of his bones, his narrow nose. Deep down I know he’s anxious, but he looks indifferent. Like whatever, man, you’re on your own.

“Fuck you,” I say. I let the words cut my mouth and they hurt and I want him to know how bad they hurt even though I can tell they’ve cut him, too. It doesn’t fucking matter.

He tenses when I move towards him, like he’s watching the earth crack wide open, but he’s not going to move, he’s just going to let himself fall in like a stupid fucking idiot. Like those wolf-kids at school or the wild ones in the den. Like they just exist to take it and do nothing, just lie down and die, only, I’m wrong—and he doesn’t take it. He flicks his smoke and then right here in some Denny’s parking lot we tear each other into hundreds of raw, bloody pieces, and we don’t say a word the whole time we just keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and I don’t know how but it starts ripping me up inside, too, how easy it all happens.

When I moved to the city, I moved in with my grandparents who owned this little townhouse in a retirement community, I guess. They’re gone now too, so when I moved out on my own, I got this place near the city park and whatever’s left of the gardens. The trees aren’t like they were back home, but it’s about as close as I can get to real colors, you know?

I live in a basement apartment with one window and one room. It’s No Smoking, but I smoke anyway and all that shit. Some nights, I can’t stand the smell, so I wander outside in the dark, on the trails near a ravine that cuts through the park like a wide gash. The ravine goes on for miles that way. By my place, on the trails, there’s usually a shitload of litter and something strange will come over me and I’ll get right up next to the bank smoking my smoke, and fish out all the trash. I never put it where it belongs though—I sort of just pile it up beside me in the rocks.

The first few times, I liked it—the hunting, I mean—and this pack, it’s not like they were innocent and all that shit. They’d killed a few people living near the tracks, so at first, no one was saying much about the deaths, but then the police got involved and Will stuck his nose in, got us hired. Will calls them hunts. Lately, they’ve felt more like exterminations. My first kill was pretty scrappy and all that shit. Thing put up a fight. I’ve got scars, sure. I used to be proud about them, but one night, when Casper found one (and I guess he must’ve known but he asked anyway), I said it was from falling out of a tree when I was a kid.

I didn’t even know he was one of them so it’s weird, you know, that I lied.

Will’s always going on and on about the world dying, and getting worse, and how the apocalypse is nigh and all that shit, but lately I sort of feel like the world’s been totally shit-canned since probably forever, I guess. Since man first fucked some woman in a cave. There’s never been anywhere safe, or perfect. Not when people are always around to ruin it all to hell.

But now I get to thinking about the fire pit again, that stump cut into sections. How it reminded me of the lightning-struck tree seeping at the seams with fire, back when my parents were alive. I fish the last of the trash out of the water and sit, taking a long drag on the last smoke from Casper’s pack. My fingers are numb. Back at the hunt, that wild wolf tricked me, I guess. When he heard us coming, he was probably outside, keeping watch like we should’ve done on recon. I’ll bet he knew I was in his yard, made sure I saw what he wanted me to see. I’ll bet he was a sentinel, like I am.

I mean—or, I don’t know.

The cold moonlight bites Roque as he staggers down a steep ravine. There are no birds here. He is human. He is clumsy, naked. There is only the sound of rust, and grinding halts, and Roque is shivering. He has to stop so he can weep. Roque is human. He gags on his tears. They taste like slivers of silver. Near him there is water, and he laps it up to wash the taste of grief out of his mouth. Later, he will throw it back up because it is rotten and contaminated and his insides are raw. The trees hiss at him, his feet cut from the rocks of the stream. He is weeping, weeping, weeping. He is alone. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a shadow in the dawn with smoke pouring from its mouth. Roque is human. When he sees the shadow, he knows it sees him.

Emily Lundgren is a student of fiction at the Northeast Ohio MFA where she is working on a fantasy novel narrated by a poet shapeshifter, a lost witch prince zombie-vampire, and a woman with an electric guitar. She is from South Dakota and is still getting used to Ohio’s narrow roads. This is her first publication. When not writing, she is probably lighting the bonfire at The Painted World in Dark Souls. You can follow her on twitter @emslun.

Run With Other Packs:

Painted Grassy Mire, by Nicasio Reed – Heat like a hand at her throat then a breeze kicked up from Lake Borgne to swat Winnie sweetly across the face. One of those breezes every hour. A muddy, warm thing that got her through the day. What would life be without a breeze off the lake? Nothing. Nothing, just everyone gone to moss and decay.

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade – Ógán is twenty-one. He is studying history at Queen’s University, Belfast. Succumbed to a powerful drug fugue in his dorm room, he is paralyzed, unmoving for a whole day except that within himself he’s travelling through Indonesia; a trip he and his fiancée Niamh have meticulously planned for years, and which they intend to take after graduation. When he eventually comes to, Ógán realizes the places he wants to travel to will never live up to his dreams. He rushes over to Malachy’s.

Even in This Skin, by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.