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Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light, by Malon Edwards

You keep running even though you know you can’t escape the fifty-foot-tall Pogo. But you were built for this.

You are taller than all of the girls and most of the boys in your Covey Four class. Your legs are longer. Your steam-clock heart is stronger. Your determination is unmatched. Even against the rocks they throw. Even against the insults they hurl. Even when they entimide you and chase you home after school every day, all because your mother could not save their friends.

They have not caught you yet. And they never will. Because you will not let them.

But you are trying to do the impossible here. You are trying to outrun the Pogo, a kakadyab, an ugly, hideous entity no timoun has ever escaped. Not even your best friend, Bobby Brightsmith. And he knew the chant to send it slinking back into Lake Michigan.

Yet, you are confident. You have just rescued Bobby. You hacked his writhing, tentacled body off the Pogo’s scaly, diamond-shaped face with your machete, Tonton Macoute. You wrapped Bobby’s slimy, bloody snake-form around your torso. And then, you ran like you have never run before.

Kounye a la, your lungs burn, your legs are wobbly, and your steam-clock heart is going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in your chest. It has never beat this hard. It has never beat this fast. You can feel the overdrive of its tiny springs. You can feel the rotating thump of its miniscule cam.

You are worried.

You have one more block to run before you make it home. You’re almost there. When you arrive, you can ask Manmi to look at your heart. After all, she did design and build it.

But when you round the bend leading to your street, you see, through the gloaming of the half dark, a shadowed figure standing in front of your house. You stop. Or you try. But you can’t. Not at first. You have underestimated your own determination.

Your momentum continues to propel you forward. Only a meter or two. Your arms flail. Your legs give way. You skid across the hard, uneven cobblestones.

Your hands and knees press against the cold ground, bruised and skinned by your fall. It is in this position you heave—sèl fwa, de fwa, twa fwa—before you retch sticky, ropy bile that turns invisible in the weak light of the gas lamps when it hits the dark cobblestones. The gas lamps have never been this dim before. Not on your street. Not on Oglesby.

Your mother and father made sure of that when you moved to La Petite de Haïti in Chicago from La Petite de Haïti in Miami. They do not mind giving a few more pièces de monnaie to the Lamplighters Guild. They want you, Michaëlle-Isabelle, their ti fi cheri, to feel safe, especially on your walk home from school within the heavy shroud of the half dark. They want their patients to feel welcome when they visit, pandan jounen an, during the day, and a leswa, at night.

But this is not welcoming.

It is not safe.

It is not comforting.

And this is all because of the man standing in the middle of the street in front of your house.

You are certain the shadowed figure is a man. A woman would not participate in this awful game. A woman would not play jwe lago—hide-and-seek—in the darkness between the downcast lights of the gas lamps, clothed in shadows, hoping you find her. She would not even consider the notion, knowing an eleven-year-old girl would be walking home by herself in the half dark.

An plis, you have never seen a woman radiate such malevolence. It is apparent in the way this Shadow Man holds himself. It is apparent in the way he stands, hunched and menacing. You are quite certain you will never, in your lifetime, see a woman adopt this evil, wicked stance.

The Shadow Man is, as your mother would say, pa bon ki nan kò l. He ain’t no good.

Epitou, as if to confirm this, you hear the Shadow Man say, “Ah, ti chouchou, I thought you’d never come home from school.”

And he says this in your father’s voice.

You are a smart girl. You should not be surprised your father is the Shadow Man. Not if you had been nosy when you were living in La Petite de Haïti Miami. Not if you had been paying close attention. Not when it was just you and him.

You look confused. Allow me to remind you.

Your mother was called to La Petite de Haïti Chicago by the old and wizened Lord Mayor himself, John Baptiste Point du Sable. He enticed her with anpil lajan (more money than you or she had ever seen) and the title Surgeon General. He needed her to help him combat the polio outbreak in the city-state.

He wanted her to build steam-clock hearts for the children whose sweet flesh hearts had been withered by the disease. He assured your mother he had people who could implement an assembly line production to churn out the mechanical hearts faster.

He was desperate. Eighty percent of the children in his city under the age of twelve were stricken with polio. Limbs and organs, but especially the heart had no chance. He did not want one more timoun to die.

You were sad to see your mother go, but you are more your father’s ti chouchou than your mother’s ti fi cheri. An plis, you and he would join your mother in Chicago as soon as she stemmed the tide of the polio epidemic there.

Those were fond times for you, despite your mother tending suffering, faceless children one thousand three hundred miles away. Your father laughed a lot. He let you do anything you wanted. He had no rules.

Save two: Go to school every day, and don’t leave your room until daybreak after he tucked you in for bed.

Ah. You remember now. It has been three years past, but you remember. I see it. M ka wè recall in those big, beautiful brown eyes of yours. But you don’t know.

Not yet.

You take three steps forward. You are hesitant. You are tentative. You are wary.

You refuse to believe the Shadow Man is your father.

And yet, your father’s rich, melodic baritone has just slipped across the cobblestones and through the half dark from him over to you. This was the same comforting voice that wished you fè bon rèv—beautiful dreams—after he pulled the covers up to your chin each night in La Petite de Haïti Miami.

You do not think about how he did not do this often for you in Chicago. Soon after you two arrived, he disappeared.

In La Petite de Haïti Miami, you told yourself it was the coziness of your father’s voice that made you stay in bed until the sun painted the horizon with soft strokes of morning warmth and fun, and not the dark shadow that skittered across his face before he turned, left your bedroom, and closed the door behind him. But you cannot lie to yourself in La Petite de Haïti Chicago.

“Do you see what he is holding?”

Bobby’s husky voice startles you. The last time you heard it he was screaming as you cleaved him off the Pogo’s face when the Pogo crouched down to eat you.

You squint into the half dark, but you cannot make out any details. You believe the Shadow Man to be tall, trè wo, but the half dark plays with your eyes and the light from the gas lamps. The half dark is a tricky thing. It is a dangerous thing.

But you already know this.

You realize Bobby’s eyes, as small and black and beady as they are, can see far better than yours in the half dark now that he is one of the Pogo’s face tentacles. Was one of the Pogo’s face tentacles.

“I can’t tell,” you whisper to Bobby, hoping the Shadow Man does not hear you. “What is he holding?”

Bobby slithers around your ribs, across your chest, and up to your neck, leaving a trail of coagulated black blood, but not as much as before. He wraps himself around your throat, like a scarf, and tugs you forward, another step or two. His touch is cold and slimy, but gentle.

Enpi, you see it. The Shadow Man is holding a gunny sack.

Once, and only once, did you leave your room after your father had tucked you in for the night.

You were a bit of an odd child then. The dark did not scare you. But you were more of a curious child. An intrepid child.

When you think back upon that night, time has dulled your memory. You are no longer sure if you truly saw a shadow flit across your father’s face. The thought of it does not bring you unease. Not much unease, manyè, since the more you think about that night the less defined that memory is.

It does not make sense for such a malevolent cast to have been upon your father’s face. That comforting voice you know so well is also playful, always hinting at an oncoming laugh. An infectious laugh. A belly laugh. A laugh you associate with your father more than anything else.

An plis, as you play that night through your mind over and again, for what seems to be the thousandth time, you only remember being eksite. You only remember the flip-flop thrill in your stomach as you disobeyed your father and got out of bed.

The house had been dark. It felt empty. It felt lifeless. You and your father had said so the night your mother left for Chicago. But the night you sneaked out of bed something was different.

You knew where you were going: to your father’s side of the house. You knew the route to his office by heart. It was forbidden to you, one of only two such areas in the house. The other was your mother’s office.

Your parents barred you from their professional space because they thought you might play with the sharp, stainless steel instruments. They were concerned you might open the dark bottles of medicine or uncap the flat tins of unguent, and smell and drink and taste.

You were curious, but you were not foolhardy. Except for this one time.

You made walking through the darkness a game. If you bumped into something, you lost a point. If you stubbed your toe and cried out, you lost five points.

That did not happen, though. You knew that house like you know the lines on your palm—every turn, every corner, every hallway. You arrived at your father’s office with all of your points intact. Your glee did not last long, though.

The gunny sack was in the middle of the floor, knotted tight. Something was in it. It bulged. It moved. It seemed to be stained dark and wet in places.

You could not tell by the sputtering light of the kerosene lamp, but the dark and wet looked like blood. And that’s when you heard it: the whimpering, the crying.

Someone was in the gunny sack.

You gasped. You heard the sloshing of water in next room. In your father’s bathroom. He was in the bathtub. He was washing off the blood. He was the Sack Man. He snuck into houses at night and carried naughty children away. You were sure of it.

You heard sloshing again. Louder, this time. Your father was finished bathing. He was getting out of the bathtub.

His bathwater would be pink. Its warmth would have dissipated. He would be cold. He would want to warm up. He would want to eat. He would want a full belly. He would walk back into his office any moment now. He would eat the child in the gunny sack. And if you were still here when he stepped again into this room, he would eat you, too.

His daughter. His only child. His ti chouchou.

So you turned and ran back to your bedroom. You did not lose your way. You did not make a wrong turn. You did not run into a wall. You did not stub your toe.

You jumped into your bed. You pulled the covers over your head. And you never got out of your bed again after dark.

“I’m not a naughty child, Papa.”

You say this to your father from quite a distance away. You still cannot see his face. You do not want to see his face. It may not be the face you remember.

“Ah, ti chouchou, I know you got out of bed.”

Your father’s voice has its familiar playful tone, as if he’s admonishing you with a smile. You believe, if he is smiling, his teeth are long and sharp and dripping with saliva. Not like the teeth you remember.

“Papa, you cannot eat me. It would not be right.”

You do not want to cry. You refuse to cry. But you have never been so scared in your life. Not when your father went missing after you came to Chicago. Not when you liberated Bobby Brightsmith from the Pogo. Not even when you saw the gunny sack in your father’s office three years ago.

“Come here, ti chouchou. Come closer.”

“Wait.”

Bobby’s whisper is close to your ear. He uncoils from around your neck, glides down your left shoulder, and twines himself around your left arm. His severed end rests in your palm, and his mouth latches onto your bicep. He bites down, hard, with his many small, needle-sharp teeth. You cry out.

“Don’t worry,” Bobby whispers. “If your father eats you, my poison will kill him soon after.”

You do not have much time, so you move forward and halve the distance between you and your father. You can see his face now. It is lean. It is gaunt. He looks as if he has not eaten in days. Weeks. This is not the hale, handsome father you know.

“Pa kriye,” your father says. “Wipe your tears.”

“I’m not crying!”

You have never screamed at your father before. Not in anger. But it is true; you are not crying. Yet, you are close. Your eyes burn with tears. You refuse to let them fall. You do not want to show your father or Bobby or the half dark just how afraid you are right now.

Instead, you reach behind your head, between your shoulder blades, and slide Tonton Macoute from the sheath you sewed into your knapsack. Your father gave you this machete. Your father taught you how to use this machete. And if he tries to eat you, your father will die by this machete.

“Pitit fi, eske ou sonje—”

Your father switches to English. You have always thought he sounded unlike himself in that language.

“My beautiful little daughter, do you remember when I gave you Tonton Macoute?” You nod. “Do you remember what I told you?” You nod again. “‘I give this to you so you will always remember and I will never forget.’ Do you know why I said that?”

He does not wait for you to answer. Your father bares his teeth, and in two quick strides he is standing over you. He is as tall as the street lamps. His empty gunny sack is slung over his shoulder. His teeth are as long and sharp as you imagined.

“Well, it’s time for you to remember, pitit fi, because now I am the Sack Man, and I have forgotten my daughter.”

The Sack Man lunges at you, his hands wide, holding the gunny sack open to swallow you whole with it. But your father taught you well. You are faster. You unleash three swift Rising Butterfly strikes with Tonton Macoute and rend the gunny sack to shreds.

The Sack Man is surprised by your ferocity. But you do not pause.

You sidestep the Sack Man as he tries to snatch you up with his thin, gnarled hands. You let him go by you. As he does, you step into Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, whirling to gather momentum. Your footwork is precise. As you complete your turn, facing the Sack Man again, you disembowel him with one vicious slice.

Your father falls to the cobblestones. He holds his intestines in his hands. He looks small. He looks frail. He is dying.

And so are you.

Your legs give way. You collapse next to your father. Bobby’s venom is swift and powerful. The cobblestones are cool against your cheek.

Enpi, the half dark gathers above you and your father, coalescing into an opaque, full dark cloud. You cannot see this, for your eyes are now closed as you lie dying, but black, wispy tendrils of the half dark rush from every part of the city-state to be here. To be here with you. To be here with your father. To be a part of this cloud.

To become one with me.

For the first time in the three years since I have arrived in Chicago, I can see the half-light of dusk. I can see the evening as it truly should be, for the half dark no longer obscures it.

La Petite de Haïti Chicago used to look this way, especially now, especially in winter. Enpi, I arrived, and I did not save the children of Chicago. I could not save the children of Chicago.

It was not my fault. The Lord Mayor’s assembly line production was flawed. It churned out defective steam-clock hearts. Those hearts—my hearts—killed Chicago’s children with their brittle springs and their wobbly cams.

And so, the half dark descended. And with it, came the Pogo. I was distraught. My despair was great.

This must be a shock to you, finding out your father is the Sack Man, and your mother is the half dark. But the Children of Night are drawn to one another.

Sometimes, the results are horrible—like the Pogo.

Other times, the results are lovely—like you.

But never did I think the repercussions would be catastrophic—like this.

But this I can fix.

Do not be alarmed; that cold you feel entering your nose and your mouth is just me. Just the half dark. Just La Sirène de la Nuit, healing you, removing the poison.

And do not worry; your father will be well. I will get him a child. A sick one. A dying one. One whose heart is flawed.

That is what the half dark does. That is what I have been doing here. Your father will heal once he has eaten. His strength will return.

You may not like this. You may hate your father for who he is. You may hate me for who I am. But you are of us. You are a Child of Night. And now, you have found your way.

The people of Chicago do not love your father and me, but they will love you. You are brave. You fight well. Their children will no longer be terrorized by the Pogo.

But you will not be able to save them all.

Do not fret. Pa enkyete w. Do not worry. Do not feel guilty. You cannot help this. You are not like me. You cannot be everywhere in this city at once. You must sleep. You must eat. You must go to school.

Tandiske, you will save enough of them. Mothers will thank you in their bedtime prayers. Fathers will commission machetes from the local blacksmith for their precious ti chouchou. Children will chant your name out on the schoolyard. You will become their champion.

So get up. Pick up Tonton Macoute. Go reclaim another tentacular child for her mother. Go fight your monster.

Malon Edwards

Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature  people of color. Malon also serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.

More Shadow Men:

The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards – Something moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me. I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

Cantor’s Dragon, by Craig DeLancey – Georg Cantor waits while his wife Vally pulls at the heavy door to the Nervenklinik. The crisp air smells of leaves and wood smoke, but as they pass into the white-tiled halls disinfectant envelops them. The nurse comes and introduces herself. Cantor says nothing. He has not spoken in a month. He rarely even focuses his eyes. The nurse leads them down long passages. Their shoes snap at the marble floor. After many turns, they stop at a white door that opens to his room: a narrow bed covered with taut white sheets, a comfortable chair facing a window that looks out onto a lawn edged by waving oaks, a round rug on the cherry floor.

The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – Three months ago, Peregrine had started sleepwalking. He said his night’s mind was always full of abandoned taxidermy shops, and tea brewed from obsidian dust and anise and silkworms. But his waking mind was full of these things, too, so they hadn’t worried Ebb. It was something else—other—that was making him anxious. After a month of the sleepwalking, he’d started to wonder what Peregrine wasn’t saying. He could tell when his lover was holding back; it was their nature to know each other. When he realized Peregrine was keeping something he couldn’t have, Ebb knew it had to be wrong. Invasive.

Suicide Bots, by Bentley A. Reese

The car won’t go faster. Why won’t it go faster? It needs to go faster.

We’re laughing. I grind my foot against the gas pedal. I stand half off my seat and lay into it. I scream at the gas. The gas is no good. The gas needs to go faster. I hear plastic snap and the pedal breaks under my foot — we go a wild two-thirty. We fly across the road. The Mustang’s engine punches out of the hood. A steaming, choking monster, it wants us to want it. I wanna ride it. I want to ride the engine screaming and burning into stupid oblivion. I’ll rut the world so it remembers I existed. So I remember that I existed.

We’re laughing.

bots01I look over at the woman in the passenger seat. Her face is red. Greasy tears streak her cheeks and make her a rubbery craze. She’s got the smile of a starved shark. I like it. I love it.

“What’s your name?” I ask her.

“Jane,” she says. Her face scrunches. “I think.”

I reach across the gearshift and we swing between two roaring goliaths with big, bulging wheels. Horns, they horn at us. I horn back. I beat the wheel and spit before shaking Jane’s hand. Hello world, we’re here! We might be alive! Are you alive too? Let’s find out. Tumbler tumbles in the back seat. He laughs. We laugh too. The radio plays a retro remix of “Lies of the Beautiful People.”

Jane’s hand is small. I notice she’s missing two fingers. Her index and pinky look up at me from her lap. I shake my head. Stupid fingers just won’t stay on.

“Nice to meet you, Jane. I am Jones,” I say. I am Jones. That’s all I am. Just Jones. Just a name. I’ve only been me for a day. Before that, I was wire. I lived dead, piled over workbenches and surplus boxes. Now there’s fake skin over my wires, and discount dollar eyeballs in my head. Man, those were the days, those days before living. Everything wasn’t so fuzzy when I was nameless.

Outside is fuzzy. I roar and cut off a double-decker bus. Jerk hard and we careen through a cackle of rusted cars. Some are just dead on the highway. Some are moving and they hate us.

“What are we doing?” Jane asks. She looks over her shoulder, suddenly lost. One of her eyes is green, the other a spark-biting blue. “Where are we going?”

“We’re robbing a bank,” I say, which is an algebraic answer. Robbing a bank is all we can do, and ever could do. We have guns. There’s one in my coat and one on the floor under Jane’s feet. I don’t know how they got there. I don’t know how we got here. My memory is only so good. We are going to rob a bank though. That’s firm in my mind. Firm like the grip of the steering wheel. Firm like I can dig it with my nails.

bots05Go to West Jenny Avenue 2268, America’s Business & Finance. Take everything. Take all the money. Return to Coordinates 90.3 by 27.12 North of New Chicago. These words, the only meaningful words in my head, burn hot.

Jane wears a wig the color of corrosion. She looks sort of human. Her skin is all junked though. A big seam has opened up along her neck and on each side of the tear she’s a different shade of pink. The word Armitage is stamped onto her collarbone. She did her makeup terminally wrong. Her eyes twitch in unison, then skitter along separately, each eyelid conflicting grays. She’s preposterous. Glorious. Cement-veined and hungry.

“I think I love you,” I tell Jane.

Her smiles returns. An afraid smile. “What are we?”

I shrug, gripping the wheel tighter. “We’re something.”

Tumbler coughs behind me. I steer with one arm and turn around. The road swerves and sways. It doesn’t know that it’s facing the wrong way.

“What’s your name?” I ask Tumbler. I don’t know Tumbler’s real name. Tumbler has no face. It fell off and now he’s lying on it. His head is all wires. Snaky and slithering, they make a skull of charcoal with black, manic eyes. Tumbler laughs.

“What’s your name?” I ask again. He says something about spare car parts and apartments for sale in the stratosphere.

“Living street level isn’t safe in today’s modern age of taking,” he proclaims, his voice female and distant.

“What’s your name?” Jane says, with her chin perched over her headrest.

Jane keeps asking. Tumbler keeps gibbering.

“What’s your name?”

“Back to Freddy the Friendly Robot for the morning forecast.”

“What’s your name?”

“Homicide on 5th Avenue. Two men and a woman stabbed to death. Automated police have put the perpetrating human to sleep.”

“What’s your name?”

“A lot of people these days ask me what you can do in this polarized economy, and I always tell them the same thing. Invest. Invest in robots.”

I tick. Something in my wires flips over and squirms into place.

“Tumbler is broken,” I say. Tumbler gags. He drools black fluid from his mouth and eyes. I nod sagely, refocusing on the road. “Too many screws in his bolts, I bet.”

“I bet,” Jane agrees. She continues to watch Tumbler, her eyes swollen round.

The traffic starts to choke the road. The world slows us, confines us. We shrink into the cells of a thousand groaning tires. Humans — maybe — appear as the gaping highway devolves into streets and sidewalks. Skyscrapers, some half-made and covered in spidery construction bots, replace the scraggle-necked trees and gray grass of the highway. We enter a universe of moving, speaking things with big pink brains in their skulls, all under the chorus of honks and dancing litter.

We come to a rusty gate resting between two mountains of barbed wire. A checkpoint into the city proper. Two cars stop ahead of us, their exhausts fuming black and their engines panting. There are big robots around the gate. I try to count them. A couple dozen — or more. A few of the robots march down the rows of cars, while the rest make a wall on the sidewalks, trying to keep back the foot traffic. There are humans on the sidewalk. A lot more than a couple dozen. They want inside the city too. Hundreds of them, dirty and angry.

“I don’t think the chop shop made Tumbler right,” Jane says from her perch over the headrest. She blinks. We look at one another and remember where we were made — that we were made. In a sweated-out basement, by a man with a bad complexion and one arm. Well, one arm made from flesh. His other arm was a big, rusty claw strapped to his shoulder. He was so clumsy with that claw.

“I don’t think the chop shop made any of us right,” I tell Jane.

The car ahead of us is let through.

bots02A metal finger clinks against our glass. There’s a robot outside, waiting patiently for me to lower my window.

“Good afternoon, sir or madam,” the bot says. “I am Automated Law Enforcement Officer NR17. You may address me as Nagger or by my given serial number.” Nagger stands eight feet tall. One of his arms is a belt-fed machine gun. Three eyes wink at me.

“Hello, Nagger.” I extend my hand. “I am Jones and this is Jane. We’re in love.”

Nagger looks at my hand, then looks up. He doesn’t have a face, just a slate board of metal with six holographic eyes.

“Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle, sir or madam,” he says. His voice is nothing but numbers. I check to see if my hand has dirt on it. It doesn’t. I slide it back into the car, licking my nose while I squint at this cousin of mine.

“I apologize for the inconvenience, sir or madam, but Checkpoint 16 has been installed to protect the lives of New Chicago’s citizens. As by mandate of Mayor Lionel Marks in Subsection Bylaw 003: No bots, industry AIs, automated service pets, or human-based androids are allowed past this checkpoint without an organic attendant bearing the proper certifications. Any non-organic entity violating this mandate will be dismantled upon discovery.”

“Oh my,” says Jane. She sits herself properly into her seat. She glances at the automatic pistol lying between her mismatched sneakers.

“Ah.” I dip my chin behind my collar. “Good thing we aren’t bots then!”

Stink-eyed children, naked and screaming, run through masses of wrinkled, weathered faces. Hoods everywhere. What is a word to describe these people? My memory banks crank and push the adjective to my lips, but then short-circuit and burn the inside of my skull. I burp in surprise, a little electric grunt. Nagger’s eyes blink and spiral along his slate mask. What does he see right now, I wonder. I refuse to let my own mind stop me. What are these humans? What are the purposeless? Vagrants! Oh joy. Vagrants. Vagrants, and aren’t they mad.

A gray-haired man at the front of the crowd carries a sign reading Robots Don’t Need Burgers. Nearby, a stout woman swings a Give Us Back Our Future sign. When did we take their futures? We don’t have your futures. Trust me.

“Do you consent to a five-second scanning process? Unless your body reads as over thirty-percent nonorganic, you will be allowed entry. Consent so I may begin scan.” Is someone home in there? Knock-knock.

“What if I don’t consent?” I ask my new friend.

“Consent, so I may begin scan,” is repeated in response.

Jane grabs my wrist.

“Ask him how many fingers he has,” she tells me.

“I’m not asking him that.”

“Well, then ask him how many fingers humans have.” Jane looks at her hands. She has black and silver nails. I think she might be about to laugh. Is it a laugh when you don’t want it to be? “I really hope humans have eight fingers too,” she says.

“Consent, so I may begin scan.”

A steaming semi-truck blasts its horn behind us. We’re taking too long. I scream inside my head. We’re stuck. No moving. No moving. What is this? My gun hangs heavy in my coat. I feel it press against the wires where my heart should be. Do I want a heart? I don’t think so, not for what I’m about to do. Tumbler starts singing from the backseat.

“Nagger, do you have a best friend?” I ask. Two lights wink. I notice a McDonald’s advertisement on Nagger’s chest that has partially flaked off. “Do you ever think about what it’d be like to have real, warm skin?”

“Consent, so I may —” I shoot Nagger in the face. I pull the trigger, my gun still in my coat, and it belches right through the leather, exploding everything. Jane starts shooting Nagger before I get off a second shot. Her face doesn’t match the violence. Just stupid and blank. White lights pop and vanish. Nagger moans electric, trying to back away. He’s smart enough to moan. Smart enough to run. Oh, why did he have to be smart enough to run? A few bullets bounce off Nagger’s armor, he’s built for punishment after all, but one of Jane’s rounds tears his brickish head right off. Nagger seizes, trying to live one more second, and then falls on his back.

I hit the gas and we ride crazy. Jane starts to laugh because she doesn’t know what else to do. Tumbler plays a song out of his mouth, singing about the lies of the beautiful people. The wheels burn the asphalt. We hit the gate as the other automated enforcers behind us open fire. People stampede, flooding the sidewalks, and trampling each other and their makeshift tents built around the gate.

The gate doesn’t budge. It’s too old and stubborn. I grind my foot on the gas pedal’s stub. A bullet zings off the windshield frame and through the glass. Jane shoots over her shoulder at nothing in particular. A bullet rips my ear right off. Do I feel it? Maybe.

Tumbler grunts like an angry coil. I look back. One of his arms has been blown off, either by the enforcers’ bullets or by Jane’s. Black fluids and wires spill from the wound. Tumbler just keeps singing. Through the window, I see two more automated enforcers approaching. I consider the possibility that we might become dead, or deader than we are now.

With a grudging squeal, the gate bends. An airy space opens up between the hinges. In the rearview mirror I see a vagrant tackle an enforcer. The vagrants are running toward the gate. Some of the enforcers start shooting into the crowd. I keep my attention on the gate. Finally, it gives, flinging open. My neck snaps back as the car launches forward.

I keep us rocket-loaded, whipping down the roads until we find a steady scuttle of traffic. We sink in. The people inside the gate don’t seem much better off than those outside. No one follows us. Do they keep people and robots out just so they have a place to say they’re kept out of? Our front bumper is caught between the car’s axle and the road, and Jane points out that we’re sparking up the place, but I don’t think it’s important. Down here, at the bottom of all these skyscrapers, in the dark, nobody is watching.

Ten minutes later, Jane and I smoke cigarettes across the street from America’s Business and Finance. We smoke because there were cigarettes in the car’s glove box. Our lungs are plastic bags. We don’t feel the nicotine. We enjoy the pretending. The air’s cold. At least I like to think it’s cold. It looks cold.

bots05Tumbler has gone to park the car one block down. He insisted, silently mind you, that he do so. He’s not as crazy as he acts. Not really, and I suppose even his craziness still has those words burned deep: America’s Business & Finance. Take Everything. Take all the money.

Jane finishes her cigarette, looks at the glowing nub pinched between her nails, and proceeds to swallow it. I do the same.

“How do we know anything,” she says conversationally. “We’re just a day old. How do I know a cup is a cup? Or a turtle lives in a shell? I’ve never held a cup. I’ve never seen a turtle.” Jane’s wig is half-cocked. It obscures her discolored eyes. We almost blend in, if only the suits moving around us would walk closer.

“The man who made us copied and pasted off Wikipedia,” I tell her. “He stuck a USB in the back of my head, when I was just…waking up? He had a couple thousand links open on his computer and dragged them into our noggins. I don’t think he thought we’d be able to get this far without knowing some stuff about the world.”

“Hmm.” Jane seems to think this over while she bites her lip. “Probably why I can name the atomic number of uranium, but don’t know how to tie my shoes.”

I give a noncommittal nod. Tumbler limps to us through the crowd of humans with my coat hiding his missing arm. I smack him on the shoulder in something that might be admiration, but is ambiguous even to me. The three of us are together again. The humans all look at us with sticky, staying eyes. Go away, eyes. We’re just like you. We’re trying to be just like you.

bots03“Nuh-uh,” Jane argues a moment later as we cross the street. Her voice is like running a stencil blade over a chalkboard. Her coat, all fake mink fur and torn in a few places, drags along the concrete behind us. She has only one sleeve. “I have very specific memories. I bet they had some sculptor make my memories. I flew a plane once, straight into a glacier. I made love on a picnic table — and some guy with a machete cut me to death. Everything was so red. So alive.”

“Movies,” I say. “Our lives are movies.”

I remember drowning at the edge of a dock quite vividly.

“Is this any different?” Jane says. She gestures at the skyscrapers rising through the smog. I look down at my hands, snap my left pinky off and put it in my pocket. I feel nothing.

“It isn’t,” I tell her.

The bank is busy. People fly up the steps on long stalks and twisting limbs. Most wear suits. Three bored human guards loom at the doors. A hovering security bot with the bank’s insignias stamped all over its cylindrical body soars over them. Armitage has been branded along its metal chest. Lens-like eyes cover what I assume to be the bot’s head. We wait for it to steam away down the sidewalk toward the East Entrance.

Something — an emotion maybe — tingles as we march up the steps.

Tumbler walks behind us. “All two thousand residents of the isolated town Nicolet, in northern Wisconsin, were discovered deceased this Thursday. The tragedy appears to have been caused by contaminated drinking water an estimated three months ago, but was only brought to national attention after the town’s finance and industry bots began malfunctioning…” Tumbler has his face back on, pulled on like a mask, but slightly off-kilter so only one of his eyes can be seen. He was supposed to look older than us, but the stretch of the rubber makes his face young and sweet. More real.

One of the human guards raises an eyebrow as we approach.

“Hold on there,” he says. He steps in front of Jane and me. “You folks look awf—awfully out of place here. Mind if I ask your business?”

“Sure,” Jane says. All cheer. She leans in close, squinting at the guard’s face. “Mind if I ask you how you got such pretty eyes? I love eyes.”

The guard blinks. He does, in fact, have beautiful blue eyes.

“What?”

“My eyes don’t match.” Jane frowns, pointing at her left eye. “I think that’s really bad. I wish I could have eyes like yours, that fit right.”

“Jane is right, you’re very lucky,” I say. I wonder if my eyes match. I don’t even know what color my eyes are. I hope they’re green. No, gray. I hope they’re gray.

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to step back,” the guard says with fright and discomfort dripping off his lips. Jane stands quite a bit taller than him.

“Really though,” Jane says. “I love your eyes. I need to take them.”

The guard tentatively reaches for his gun. Jane moves faster. She grabs him by the temples. She sucks out his right eyeball with a slurping noise. He makes a big fuss about it with laughing and flailing. I shoot the other two guards, both in the head. It’s just a thing. I can’t risk doing it any other way. I don’t want to take these things, these lives, but what choice do I have?

The suits run just like the vagrants did. Jane sucks out the guard’s other eye and smiles, red-toothed. The guard rolls down the steps, his skull skipping along the granite. Jane is all green and red. Christmas colors.

I look down at my pistol. It gleams black in the smog sun. It too, is a thing of parts and metal. Just like me, it’s not very good at giving. The doors stand heavy and wide in front of us. Jane and I eye each other. I am Jones. I need to move forward.

We go into the bank running.

I reload and speak at the same time.

“Get out or I start shooting.”

Inside, every one stands frozen, looking toward the doors. At my commands, the fifteen or so robots and mechanical servants walk outside, but the humans stay in their poorly assembled lines. I shoot a few in the legs and one in the bowels. They fall and laugh in heavy, rasping breaths.

“Get out, please,” Jane says. She waves.

I wave, too.

The humans begin moving toward the door in a rushed panic. A boy stops in front of me, his parents squalling behind him. He has big, wet eyes and a chocolate bar in his fingers.

“Hello, I am Jones.” I shake his hand. “Now give me your chocolate bar.”

When the bank’s empty, we face off with the clerks behind the counter. Two of the clerks are women and one is a very humanoid bot. They look at us from behind electrified bulletproof glass. Alarms sound. Red flashes down the blue-kissed walls. My brain tells me we have five minutes.

“You’re wasting your time,” one of the humans says over an intercom. She has red hair that looks acidic. “You’re the third group of suicide bots to hit us in the last six months. You know we’re basically a charity, right? You’re robbing a charity. We give money to grounders so they don’t smash robots. Once the cops dismantle you, they’ll track down your thug creator.” She taps the glass, smiling like a monster. “Not getting in here any time soon.”

bots05Jane walks up to the counter and grabs a bunch of bank pens, stuffing them into her coat. While I’m pretty sure money is our main goal, our orders said take everything. Tumbler pulls a panel off the wall and tucks it under his arm. He says, “I am the rocker, I am the roller, I am the out-of-controller.”

A pair of round, broken glasses lay on the floor. I pick them up and fit them over my nose while Jane tears chair legs off stools lining the window. The glasses do not make the room any prettier. They do not make the blood on the floor any less dark.

“Run while you can,” the bot behind the counter says, her expression blank. Jane answers by emptying her gun’s clip at the barrier. Bullets bounce and ping everywhere. None go through, but one flies back and blows through Tumbler’s leg. We laugh.

I walk up to the barrier and lick the glass, pressing the flat of my tongue against its smoothness. The redhead watches me, her brown eyes wide. She does not have pretty eyes. Those are fearful eyes. I wonder what they see. What’s looking back at them?

“I’m going to introduce myself after I come through that glass,” I say.

She points at her watch with a sneer. “Cops will be here in three minutes.”

“Jane.” I turn around. “Grab Tumbler. I have an idea.”

Tumbler drops an assortment of bank fliers and staplers. Neither he nor Jane asks questions. They trot over, all giggles. For a second, I reconsider. I watch these two: Tumbler trying to smile, his single visible eye alight with glee, and Jane favoring her right arm, hiding her less-fingered hand in the confines of her coat. They are so… something. Maybe we are worth more than this taking business.

bots05Inside me, the hot words resurge, ripping up to the surface with claws and teeth. They scream, TAKE EVERYTHING. They remind me what I am. They say all there is to know. Take, take, take. Jones cannot exist without those words. I am Jones.

“Tumbler,” I say. I put my hands on his shoulders. He’s taller than me. Am I short? “We’re going to use your head to break through the glass.”

Tumbler grins, stretching his goofed-up face even worse. He is a nightmare.

“In Heaven, all the interesting people are missing,” he says with the voice of a 19th-century philosopher. Jane takes Tumbler’s arm and I grab the base of his neck. We run toward the glass at full speed. Release. Tumbler crashes into the barrier. Hysterical. The whole wall shudders and little tendrils of lightning shoot about. Tumbler’s head fumes black smoke and his synthetic hair goes alight. We help him back to his feet and go at it again. And again. The clerks watch us with gaping mouths. Tumbler waves us back. We let him finish it himself.

Tumbler grips the lightning sparked wires over the glass and smashes his head over and over against the barrier. Electricity crackles through his body. Murderous rain falls as the barrier gives. Tumbler goes down with the barrier, in a heap of mad clanks and clashes. Jane dances to the sounds. She shoots at nothing and, running out of ammo, keeps pulling the trigger. Clink, clink, clink. We are noise.

bots04I step over the counter and Tumbler’s twitching body.

“I am Jones. My name rhymes with bones.” I extend my hand to the redheaded clerk. She looks at me incredulously, but takes my hand. Her fingers have no grip, but they do not fall off.

The other human clerk, an old, wrinkly woman, starts laughing. She doubles over, crouching under the counter. She gestures for the redhead to join her, to step away from me.

“Please, God, don’t hurt us,” the wrinkled one says.

I blink.

“My name isn’t God,” I say. “I am Jones.”

“Bring us the money,” Jane says. She straightens my coat from behind.

They do. The redhead, the less broken human, trots away from me. She speaks to the bot clerk, and then both of them go down a corridor toward the vault, returning a minute later with two full satchels. I open one up and see something that fits the description of money. Rectangular sheets of paper that worth more than me, worth more than Jane. I hand the satchels to Jane, and return my attention to the clerks.

I torque my head, point at the wrinkly clerk with my pistol. “Why is she laughing? What’s so funny?”

The redhead glances from wrinkly to me, and then back again. One long, painted-on eyebrow rises high on her forehead. “She isn’t laughing,” she says slowly. “She’s crying.”

I keep my pistol trained on the wrinkly woman. She continues to gargle. There aren’t any bullets in my gun, but she doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know anything. What makes her not a ticker and a tocker? How are her codes different than mine? Everyone in the world is just a ball of reactions, dead things putting on airs.

Grimacing, I shake my head. “I don’t understand the difference.”

We leave the bank in a hurry, with Tumbler supported between Jane and me. Satchels full of money swing at our sides and I hold my empty gun with my teeth. The street waits for us, a dead gap before a tsunami storm. We have twenty-two seconds before the first responders arrive.

We reach the Mustang in a hot mess. Our good old Mustang. The vintage, beaten thing was made in 2032, so it’s probably older than the man who made us. We throw Tumbler into the back seat with the bags. We drive, slinging around street corners. Fender benders. Horns. The smell of rubber burns our noses as we back up.

I take us out the same way we came in. The gate is still down. But, the vagrants slow us. All those dirties have been flooding in ever since we broke the gate. The vagrants climb over parked cars and stab the suits. Claw out their eyes. They ignore the sirens and alerts from the automated towers. I run over a few suits and a few vagrants, hop-skipping them under our car as we go. The automated enforcers have stopped doing their job. About five or six have stepped away from the main street. They stand in a circle around something. I realize, as we get back onto the highway, that they were standing around Nagger’s corpse.

As we drive, the burning words quiet. All we have left is the giving. Handing the money over to our creator. The thing is, I don’t know my creator. How much can you owe someone you don’t know? I know Jane. I know Tumbler. I only know them.

“What happens tomorrow?” Jane asks as I drive. I suck in my lips. I don’t think there is a tomorrow. We aren’t long-term projects, just hazardous grenades thrown into an industrial fire.

Our maker did not make us for our own sake.

We have no way to judge the coordinates. My brain, the clunky thing, leads the way. It takes us far from the city, the highway, and the rusted cars. We go onto unpaved roads, through black trees, empty suburbs, and dark skies.

Something in my mind is hungry. I feel it noshing on my wires. It’s a worm, no, a wire: a wormwire. The burning words fade, but as they do, I lose an important part of myself. The words were my skeleton. I need them to keep me solid. Without them, soon I’ll just be a slaughter of parts. I am not a freedom machine. My inner me, my brain, is eating itself. Is that why the clerk called us suicide bots? Am I killing myself by fulfilling my creator’s wishes? When the burning words go out, will there be a Jones left?

My foot slumps heavy on the gas. We pick up speed and break one-eighty. The gravel kicks, we fling up-down in our seats. Tumbler rambles as we go. “We’re here at the Supreme Court’s preliminary hearing of Old York vs. Armitage & ARMA Affiliates, where Armitage’s alleged leakage of defective bots to private contractors will be addressed. By the end of the day, Tom, we will finally have the answer as to whether bots can be legally viewed as pers —”

I swing us tight around a curve. The bumper clips a tree and we almost spin out, but I crank us even and keep us going.

“Where are we?” Jane asks, her voice afraid.

I look over at her. Her mouth is covered in red.

“What’s my name?” I ask her.

Jane blinks. “I forgot.”

Nothing but shells. I give Jane my hand. She takes it. We stay that way. The Mustang plummets down the road. We are at terminal velocity, heading for an uncertain place.

The coordinates take us into a town half-eaten by the trees. I slow, dragging the Mustang’s wheels to a crawl. Close now. Nighttime. The exact coordinates lie in the ruins of a baseball field. The floodlights have fallen, hidden in a forest of grass. The chain-link fences have been run over and trampled. An empty stadium watches us stop outside left field, where lines of gravel still fight the weeds.

I spot a car under the bleachers. An electric lamp balances on its hood. Men stand around the car. I tap my fingers against the steering wheel, trying to think of something.

One of the figures in the lamplight waves us over.

“Is this it,” Jane says, her voice hopeful. “Are we finished?”

My head is empty. I search for the solidness of the words — Return to coordinates — I scramble for them in the chaos of my wires — Go to America’s Business—I need their warmth, but they slip from me —Take all the — I need something to hold on to, something to tell my existence that it needs more. More time. More air. More me. I don’t want to shut off. I don’t want to be finished.

I have to make my own burning words.

I grip the wheel tighter, the leather tearing under my fingers. My wires snap and fry inside my head. The burning words are finally silent. Utterly extinguished. But inside my head, I am not alone.

I smile so wide my skin splits apart and my teeth breathe the air.

I stand half off my seat and lay into the gas pedal. The Mustang screams to life, kicking black smoke from its hood and sparking hot along the grass. Jane squeaks as she’s flung back against her seat. Tumbler tumbles to the floor.

We careen across the field.

The men in the lamplight start moving all frantic. I can’t hear them, because I’m laughing. Jane’s laughing too. We’re all laughing. Little pops of light erupt from the figures. Our windshield explodes. They’re shooting at us, I think.

We hit one of the men. We stick him on the bumper and carry him into the other car. Everything goes red as the Mustang’s engine explodes and the man’s guts open up. The back of our car comes up fast and —

I blink. I’m staring at a black canvas filled with flakes of gold.

I’m sitting in the bleachers, the Mustang’s steering wheel still clutched in my hands. I turn it left and right. The crash threw me up here. I flew straight out of the windshield. A big spike of metal rides out my chest. Someone laughs down in the wreckage of the two cars. I listen for a while, until the laughing begins to quiet and take on a desperate tinge.

Limping onto the grass, my boots aren’t on my feet. I’m missing a foot too, but I miss my boots more. The laughing comes from a man sitting in the passenger seat of the minivan we crashed into. Most of it is smashed now, backed into the side of the stadium with its engine shoved into its driver’s seat — and its driver.

I walk up to the man in the passenger seat. He has blood all over him from a wound in his forehead. He’s trapped, but one of his arms hangs free from the tangle of metal. He tries to pull himself out. I watch, turning my head to one side. His arm is metal and rusted. I recognize the bloody face. This man, I think, is the one who made me. My father. I touch the gash in his head with one finger. It’s quite red. His skin, though, is unharmed. His face looks clean, compared to the rest of him. I love his skin. It looks so warm.

“Hello,” I say, because that is what you say. “I am…”

“Please, please help —” My father cuts off, wincing in pain as something metal pushes deeper into him. I watch him laugh harder. Gush red. I wonder what comes out of me. I look down at my chest. Down at the spike running through where my heart should be. Black liquid dribbles out.

I don’t give red.

My father looks up at me. He has gray eyes, very afraid. Very humorless. He says something again, but like a whisper. I think he’s trying to speak. Trying to ask me to give. Give anything.

Jane crawls around the car, her hands covered in blood. She holds a pile of fingers, with rings still on them. We smile at each other. Her legs are crushed. Her back flattened. We’ll have to take her some new legs.

“My name is Jones,” I say to my father. I reach out, caressing his cheek. “And I really like your face.”

 end-of-story-novbenBentley A. Reese is a fiction writer and English student at UW-Madison. He enjoys writing genre fiction of all kinds with a particular fondness for horror and sci-fi. Fresh on the publishing scene, Bentley’s work was recently featured in the 2015 Edition of Midwest Prairie Review as well as Encounters Magazine. Drop him an email atbareese@wisc.edu

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All the Colors You Thought Were Kings, by Arkady Martine

kings-header

Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’ll take you away. She’s down by the water, her belly kissing the sand and her skinny landing-legs stuck out like a crab. You and Tamar watched her land, stayed up half the night like babies staring at their first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of Tamar’s balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two have been full up with starstuff for as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by yourselves. Now you’re almost home.

Home for you will be the Imperial battlecruiser Vault of Heaven, destroyer-class, star-conqueror and peacekeep. You’ve had your marching orders for three months, and you’ve spent every spare minute accessing all the file and ‘fiche on her you can scrounge clearance for. You practically live on your records-tablet when you’re not out with Tamar, so no one’s minded you taking a bit of time to fall in love with your own personal piece of the Fleet. The Vault of Heaven‘s an old ship, a proud ship, refitted top of the line just a year ago. You’re for officer’s training and then command, your geneset finally writing you the ticket you’ve always known it would. Tonight the shuttle takes you and Tamar and every other crèche-spun kid old enough to have passed the entrance exams up to the Empress’s very own flagship.

Tomorrow there’ll be ceremonies and presentations, and then your nanite horde will be calibrated for shipside on live broadcast for the entire Fleet to see – another cohort of kids full up with starshine micromechanics, bound to service and obedience, gone off into the stars. You’ve been dreaming about it since you could read. You want it so much you’ve spent the last three months feeling like your chest is going to burn out from longing.

The night after tomorrow, though. You can’t let yourself dream about that.

Under the drape of your overjacket, snugged up to your spine like you’re its best lovecrush, are the disassembled pieces of a sniper rifle. Nestled right at the small of your back is the lead-shielded explosive heart of an electromagnetic pulse bomb.

The overjacket’s the best overjacket you’ve ever had, orchid brocade in stiff heavy folds that split at the breastbone into six panels, done over in mother-of-pearl and sequins that echo the lightswarm of your nanites. You had it made specially. No way you were going up to space in last year’s couture, you said at the tailor’s, and you meant it, only you also meant you wanted to look enough the louche crècheling that no one would think to check under your finery. You’re Elias Akhal. There’s only one geneset in the Empire purer than yours. No one would ever suspect you’re anything but the Fleet’s man, hungry for your own ship and a starfield as big as any ocean you’ve ever swum in.

You wish so much it were that simple. You also wish it weren’t true. You’d like it if you could ever feel all one way about a thing.

When you turn round from staring at the shuttle, there’s Petros Titresh and your Tamar, coming down the beach like a picture out of a storyfiche. She’s done up in gauzes with gold bangles in her hair, but he’s a steel-gray bore: overjacket buttoned to the chin and his skin unlit, sparkless and smooth like stonework. Petros never ate his nanites; the way he tells the story, he stormed out of his crèche in a stubborn fit of ideological purity instead of making himself into starlight. Sometimes, when you and he stay out talking in the city until the dawn alarms sound, you get drunk enough to almost understand why.

Now he walks in careful tandem with Tamar, his hand trapped in hers, her regard pinned to him like a medal he never won nor deserved. Tamar can have anyone she likes, is the problem. She’s not just Akhal like you – she’s real Imperial cloneflesh, sister and twin right down to the cell with the Empress Herself. She hasn’t been a mirror for you since you both hit puberty, but the lines of your face and hers are the same: razor cheekbones and full mouths, the nose that every Fleet officer shares. Her eyes never darkened from gray; that was the first clue the crèche-keepers got that they’d spun an imperial clone instead of another Akhal. Today Tamar is bare-armed beautiful in the light coming up reflected off the waves, all muscle through the shoulder from how much she’s practiced with spear and neuroparalyzer net.

Tomorrow the Empress Herself kills her, or your Tamar kills the Empress and takes the Imperium for a prize. They’re not just otherselves like you and every other Akhal, they’re cloneflesh, they’re the same, there’s only ever allowed to be one of them. The law guarantees it.

Even barefoot in gauze, your Tamar looks dangerous. You could die of pride if you weren’t half planning to die of something else first.

Petros stares at the shuttle like you’ve been staring at it, goggle-eyed and hungry. “It’s not very big,” he says.

“That’s because this one’s just for this crèche, direct to the Empress’ flagship!” Tamar’s all foam-bubble excitement. You glow just hearing her.

“I know,” Petros says. “Only the best genesets, sent straight into the maw of the Fleet for our compulsory brainwashing and a celebratory gladiatorial death game! I am going to have so much fun I can hardly begin to describe it.”

“No one’s going to notice you, Petros, your bit’ll be easy,” you say, which you mean to be a comforting sort of comrades-in-arms gesture. From Petros’s expression it sounds to him more like you were enthusing about the benefits of sticking his head out an airlock.

Tamar ruffles his hair. Petros flinches, and so do you, your heart flopping in your chest like something from the deeps dragged out and drowning in air. Tamar can take anyone up to the Fleet with her on just her say-so. Even if he’s outside the law, no starstuff sparks ready to tear his flesh if he betrays the Empire, Petros Titresh gets his berth on the ship. That’s the part of your plan that’s all Tamar. She says to every horde-riddled adult: this Titresh is my servant; I want him, he comes with me.

On your good days, you believe that pile of rotten sharkmeat. This isn’t a good day. You’d rather you three were trying to smuggle him in the luggage.

“Two hours left,” Tamar says. “Last day on the beach. You boys ready?”

It’s your beach, yours and Tamar’s. Her balcony in the crèche looks down over it. It’s also the safest place for three kids to plan treason. The surf covers ambient sound pickup, and hardly anyone but you two’ve got the arm-strength to climb down the cliffs to the shore alone. When Petros comes along one of you brings a rope to help him, and he’s not a weakling. He’s just not an Akhal.

“You got the –” Petros starts to ask, his hand shaping a trigger and a stock in the air, and you interrupt him.

“Of course I do. Yours and mine.”

Petros gives you a short nod, stepping into the waves towards the shuttle. He gets the hems of his trousers soaked. “Everyone else I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing is either half-drunk on the prospect of basic training and eternal servitude, or hiding out in a skep hoping that not showing up for conscription day won’t make their nanites disassemble them,” he says contemplatively. “I guess I’m ready.”

Tamar splashes him. When he yelps, she says, “You’ll be fine.”

“I will not,” he says. “This is such a brilliant disaster of a plan.”

Next to Tamar, blazing like a comet, the moonlight shrouds him; he’s near invisible, his head bowed and his shoulders hunched up to his ears. He’s probably wishing he was down in the city, yelling at kids with visible asymmetries about changing the world. He’s a mess. You could hate him for it, but hating Petros makes you tired.

“Only a disaster if it doesn’t work,” you say, and you make yourself sound coaxing and gentle and like you believe it.

kings01“It’s going to work,” Tamar says. “If I win that duel – and you’re going to make sure I win that duel – I’m legally Empress and I can retroactively pardon the three of us. And then we can get started on making real changes! For everybody. We just have to get there. I need you.”

You are going to be sick to your stomach. Maybe you can blame it on never having been up in space before. The laser-housing for your rifle is digging a hole next to your ribs, under your gorgeous overjacket. You can’t forget it’s there and you aren’t sure how anyone else is likely to fail to notice how you’ve got most of a sniper rig in pieces all attached to you. Especially if you get sick all over yourself. Retroactive pardons. The fuck are you three doing.

“I know,” says Petros. “You can’t do it without me. Got to have an invisible kid to carry the bomb. We’ve got two hours, right? I’m taking a walk.” He trudges into the surf, heading east down the shoreline. Tamar watches him go.

You look around the beach that’s been a truer home than even your room in the crèche, and think: I am never going to see this place again. You don’t know if how empty your chest gets is because you want to be gone or because you’re saying goodbye. Then your Tamar is finally looking at you and you forget all about yourself.

She smiles like she smiles on the bow of a skiff right before she fires her speargun, high-tension and brighter than midday. She gets her feet wet coming over to you, and then she reaches out and fixes your collar. It’s the first time in six days she’s touched you, and she doesn’t even notice how you go shame-struck still under her fingertips.

“Elias,” she says. “We’re really doing this. I’m so nervous! It’s great.”

You nod. “We really are,” you say. She lets you go and dashes toward the pier and its boathouse.

“I’m going out one last time! You should come with me!” she calls over her shoulder.

The shadow of the pier swallows her whole and you go running after.

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You meet your first shipside adults when the shuttle door gapes open like the belly of a gutted fish. The adults are tall and beautiful and they glitter, their lips and eyes full to bursting with nanite sparks. You can’t spot their geneset from just looking; it’s not one that gets spun in your crèche. They move like sharks, like they’ve forgot how to be still. When you line up to board, they take samples of your blood. Fingerprick test: one officer with a clipboard, one officer with a little needle-machine, making sure each kid is what they say they are.

Tamar gets a wide eye and a bit of snide subservience when she comes up imperial on the fingerprick, ushered to a seat right in the shuttlefront with the best view. She is simpered at while she goes. She takes it like the princess she’s always been, like she couldn’t care less for propriety. She introduces Petros while they check the dull hue of his blood. She introduces you: and this is Elias Akhal, we were crèchesibs together. The adults look you over, then, take your measure like they understand all of what you are. You twitch the panels of your overjacket into place and stare them down until they dismiss you as just one more sparkstruck kid caught in Tamar’s wake, and don’t you wish that didn’t sting.

You sit in the seat facing her and Petros, strapped in against acceleration. Your back’s to the view so even when you break gravity and the dizzy pressure of atmospheric escape shoves your lungs into your stomach, space stays a mystery. You watch it reflected in Tamar’s horde, starlight particles flowing restless in her cheeks, a hectic flush. About then everything goes topsy-turvy and you have to spend some time once again not spewing your guts onto your overjacket and ruining everything. Petros has got no such problems with weightlessness. His mouth gapes open at the view, and you’ve never seen him look so much like he might cry from seeing something good. Whatever else is wrong with him, refusing the horde and all his bullshit talk about geneset equality, turns out the kid is made for space. If you weren’t working on remembering how to breathe, you’d add that to the list of things Petros has taken away from you without ever knowing he took them.

Gravity reestablishes when the shuttle docks, but you don’t have time to adjust before the officers unstrap Tamar and take her away. You panic for the first time. The other kids are filing out of the shuttle and onto the flagship and all you do is scramble to your feet and say “Already?” like you are the most ill-starred fool in an awful romanceflick.

Tamar comes over to you all in a rush, gets close enough that you can see how wide her eyes have gotten. “Don’t worry yourself, Elias,” she says. “I’ll see you before sunrise. And you’ll – you’ll see me sooner, promise you’ll watch?”

There is nothing in your life that ever prepared you to say goodbye to Tamar Akhal. You haven’t got a single clue as to how. “I promise,” you say. “I’ll be right at the front—”

She leans in close. You think for a minute she’s going to kiss you, let you drink up how her mouth tastes exactly the same as yours. Tamar takes you by the shoulders instead, her fingers a bare inch from where the barrel of your rifle pushes against the nape of your neck. You tell yourself you don’t care and know you’re lying.

She presses her forehead to yours. “And take care of Petros for me.” She isn’t smiling; your princess is as serious as a cull. The other thing you haven’t got a clue about is how not to do what she asks of you.

“Just until you get back,” you say. Petros is staring at you like your geneset spelled for three heads.

“Heir,” says one of the officers, reproving, and she lets you go all at once, stalks over to them with her head high.

“Let’s go,” Tamar says, “I want to meet my predecessor already,” and then her escort’s got her and she’s gone.

“Fuck this,” says Petros. You agree. Then he does something you do not expect: he grabs your hand and holds on. You wouldn’t admit it if he asked, but you’re glad.

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You wait an endless fifteen minutes before your escort arrives. He’s Akhal like you and not much your senior; looking at him is like looking at five years from now. Turns out your shoulders aren’t going to broaden much more but your face’ll settle into cheeks that could cut glass. Mid-twenties seems fantastic. You hope you live that long, but you’ve got your doubts.

Your escort doesn’t give his use-name, just hands you a records-tablet stuffed full of paperwork and grins your grin back at you, says welcome aboard, little brother. You manage not to stammer when you thank him, even if you’re shot right through with nerves. If anyone’ll notice your smuggled sniper’s kit it’ll be your otherself, trained up and true loyal.

You think: You should guess that you’re lying, you should guess that you’re committing treason right in front of you. You keep not guessing. Maybe you’re defective, and that’s why you’re capable of marching down a spaceship corridor behind a person who is supposed to be another part of you, and you can keep a secret from him. It’s horrible to think about. You’re proud of your geneset. You’ve always been. You don’t want to be so different from your otherselves that you’re opaque to them. (You also don’t want to be dead. You wish that mattered more to you right now. You’re so bad at this.)

Petros is dragged along in your wake, which is a better situation than a lot of the ones you three considered back on the beach. There’s no records-tablet and no fleet assignment for a kid who isn’t full up with nanites, and your otherself makes a note and promises Petros that he’ll have a whole fleet-compatible horde delivered for installation posthaste, considering Tamar’s gone and vouched for his usefulness.

Petros thanks him. You didn’t think he had the capacity to lie through his teeth. You’re learning all kinds of things now that you’ve come to space.

You and Petros are left in your assigned quarters. They’re tiny, an eighth the size of your rooms at the crèche, but not half bad otherwise: desk and little couch and a threadbare pretty carpet over the metal floor, single bed nestled under a huge viewport, and there’s your first real look at space. Space is a brighter black than night down planetside, a sharper distance studded with starlight that puts your horde to shame. It goes on and on and you are utterly dumbstruck, staring, records-tablet forgotten in your hands.

Over your shoulder, Petros says, “Come on, Elias, it’s just stars,” but you know better; you saw his face on the shuttle.

“Don’t you want them?” you say. You think it must be written into your geneset, the way you’re falling into the pinpoint lights.

“You are lovestruck for giant fusion reactors,” says Petros, wryly, “and I am twenty minutes from having a horde stuffed down my throat like oh accidentally missed my appointment and fucking the plan completely. I like the stars fine. Space is – great. Brilliant.”

You turn around. Petros is perched on the corner of the bed. He shrugs, crosses his arms over his ribs.

“They’re awfully gorgeous fusion reactors,” you say. You’re trying. You are, you’d swear to it in front of Tamar, even. “I’ve been waiting such a long time to see them.”

“I swear you Akhal are all space-mad.”

“Just because I love what my geneset might spell for me to love –”

“Doesn’t mean you don’t love it true, and doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Come on, Elias, how many times have we had this argument?”

“Enough times that I thought we were done,” you say.

“Maybe we were done while it was hypothetical.”

You want to turn around and look at the stars; you wish Petros would stop making you doubt your own desires. “I’m not giving up on the plan,” you say, “just because I’m happy to be here.”

“If you don’t do your half, I’m the one who is going to get spaced,” Petros says. He gets up and paces a short arc across your quarters, door to desk to bedside and back again. “You’re the safest of the three of us if you drop out. Nothing Tamar’s doing is even illegal. I set off an electropulse bomb and fry everyone’s nanite horde in the middle of the succession duel, and you don’t get out your smuggled rifle and snipe the Empress, I’m an anti-Fleet seditionist and you’re an innocent Akhal bystander. You get to moon over the stars for-fucking-ever-and-ever, just like you’re doing right now. You have a future in the Fleet. Your otherself just walked us here. So forgive me if I am suddenly having doubts about your commitment to the cause.”

kings02“And here I thought we were comrades,” you say. You feel as if your spine is liquid fire, spreading into your lungs and your tongue. “I guess I oughtn’t expect anyone who refused his nanites to be capable of comradeship.”

Petros’s cheeks go that dull ruddy shade that isn’t like anyone else’s fury, and he grabs your shoulders as if he’s about to shake you. You twist away and he snatches at the collar of your overjacket, so you swing at him. He ducks, yells something completely incomprehensible, and lunges for you. You shove your knee in his stomach, which doesn’t help at all, and the two of you go tumbling to the floor in a heap. The trigger-grip of your rifle slams into your left kidney and you make a high-pitched wheezing noise.

You shout at him. “Stop! If you hit me I might explode!”

This is true. It is also the funniest thing either of you have apparently ever heard. You find yourself with your forehead pushed into Petros’s shoulder, the both of you sharing an ugly bark of a laughing fit. You still feel miserable and furious and you still want nothing of the last ten minutes to have happened to you, but you can’t seem to stop the spasms of your gut and your lungs; you are practically gasping by the time you manage to raise your head.

“You’re kidding, right?” says Petros.

You get up on your knees and finish the job of shucking your overjacket. Petros exhales hard when he’s got a clear view of the pulse rifle, barrel curved to your back and disassembled trigger housing and scope taped low around your hips. You have to shove your shirt up to your collarbones to unstrap the electropulse bomb. The air of your quarters is clammy on your ribs.

“I used to snipe swordfish at four hundred meters, Petros,” you say. Your voice is a quaver and an embarrassment. “This isn’t even going to be hard.”

“You and Tamar have had your brains replaced with a kid’s infofiche history,” Petros says, but he’s helping you pull off the tape. The backs of his fingers brush your stomach and your nanites flock to the warm traces of touch, glittering afterimages rising on your skin. If he’d been full-up with a horde, he’d light up too. You’re selfish enough to wish to see it.

“She gave me this rifle, y’know?” you say to Petros, trying to cover that you’re blushing so hard your nanites cast a shadow. “When we were just kids. She bought it off a courier ship down for repairs, that winter I introduced you to her. Spent half her money and all of mine and said she thought I should have it. Started out being too big for me to carry, let alone shoot.”

Petros helps you slot the fuel cells into body of the rifle. “I always thought you were kind of an idiot,” he says companionably, as if he hadn’t tried to punch you five minutes back, as if he wasn’t putting together your sniper’s rig, “and your politics have got the complexity of a two-year-old who’s still dubious about sharing.”

“And yet here we are,” you say. You hand him the electropulse bomb. He turns it over and over in his hands, his unlit thumb brushing over the pressure pad of the trigger.

“It’s a public succession duel,” he says. “When did you two decide that you’d settle for nothing but the purest high-grade treason?”

Quite suddenly you don’t want to explain. You’re shy of it; you think he’ll laugh at you, and somehow that’d be worse than when he wanted to punch you for being yourself.

“Wasn’t Tamar’s idea at all, to begin with,” you say.

“No? Come on, Elias, you’re gagging for Fleet Command, have been since you were knee-high. Can’t have been you.”

You shrug; you kneel so as to fasten the rifle back under your overjacket, in three parts this time. Four seconds to assemble it the rest of the way. You’ve practiced, alone in the sand, watching the horizonline instead of your hands, faster and faster.

“When I brought it up,” you explain, “she said I didn’t owe her that much, that she could take care of herself. I even took her out on the quay and shot seagulls off the rocks so she’d know what kind of aim I’ve got. But she told me she wanted a fair fight.”

Petros laughs, that same bitter barking. “Nothing fair about fighting the Empress in a duel to the death when you’ve not even gone through basic training yet.”

“Maybe I should have said that.”

“What did you say?”

You’d shoved the butt of your rifle into the sand and leaned on it, looking out over the sea that’d belonged to you and Tamar both. The wind had blown your hair twining with hers and you remember you’d felt like a photograph. You’d said to her, I’m not yours, I’m not flesh of your flesh, but like fuck I’m going to watch you die and then bow my knee to your murderer. She’d looked at you like you were breaking her heart.

What you say to Petros Titresh is: “I told her that I read my histories. There’s never been an empress who won the throne fair. And then she said I sounded like you.”

He slides the bomb into his pocket. He gets to his feet. “I should go before they find me here and dump me full of nanites,” he says. “The explosion’ll be on my count. Two hundred seconds from the opening of the duel.”

You nod.

He sticks out his hand. Gingerly, you take it, and he yanks you to your feet. “Elias,” he says. “Don’t miss.”

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The arena is sand, starlit, a huge jewel set in the belly of the flagship. Every coliseum-style seat is full but yours, rows and rows all the way up to the edges of the shieldglass dome that covers the whole thing. There’s at least ten thousand Fleet soldiers here, more sets of faces than you’ve ever seen in one place. You wonder if anyone’s left to drive the starship.

There are tunnels underneath the arena, and somewhere in one is Petros Titresh, alone and invisible and carrying a bomb. No horde in him: You and he left your quarters before any adult could show up with a nanite wafer to dissolve on his tongue. Technically you suppose you’re AWOL right now, but if anyone asks, you wanted to see the succession duel, and who wouldn’t. Petros isn’t AWOL so much as he’s a ghost. He peeled off from you twenty steps down the hall, and now you suppose you have to trust one another. You suppose also that you do.

The starfield above the arena goes on forever. You can’t look at it for dizziness, can’t think about it else your directions slide all out of phase. Gravity’s a spinning fiction and you know it. You wish you could’ve shot at something less important a couple hundred times to make sure you’ve got your trajectories calculated right. There’s only so much the scope of your rifle will do for you. More than half of sniping is the sniper’s eye and the sniper’s will.

Those, and hands that don’t shake.

The three parts of your rifle are tucked up under your arms with your overjacket back on to hide them. Petros pronounced you the very picture of someone with better genes than sense before he left you alone, so you figure you can smile at the other new Akhal innocuous enough. There was a time when you’d’ve been more than eager to chat them all up, shove and maneuver until you sorted out whose geneset had spun truest. Now you sit as tall and still as you can, playing like none of them are worthy to talk with you. They’re crowded into the seats beside yours, a jagged little clutch of mirrors, bright black eyes in your face eight times over. You all glow the same. None of them are dressed as pretty as you.

This is the quietest you’ve been in your entire life.

When the whole arena goes dark, there is nothing but the flicker of ten thousand nanite hordes, echoing the sudden press of the stars. You are going die of loving them, you think, they are lodging in your chest like your horde was actually made of light.

In that glimmering dim, the Empress rises from the center of the sand. She is flame-bright, some of those stars settling like a thousand tiny crowns in her hair. She’s got the Akhal face and Tamar’s gray eyes and there isn’t a spare inch of flesh on her; only sternness, only regal command, effortless in a way that makes you want nothing but to get on your knees. It’s all a show, you tell yourself, it’s light and smoke and mirrors. In her hands she carries neuroparalyzer net and a spear that doesn’t look like a prop of office; its point is a savage glint.

Your Empress lifts the spear to the starlight. The roar of the crowd resonates in your bones.

“Welcome,” she says, her voice amplified and enveloping the whole arena. “Newest members of our Imperial Fleet. On the occasion of this night I offer you my personal congratulations. You are the purest, the brightest, the best genesets spun of your cohort. And tonight – tonight, the stars are yours.”

Tonight the stars are yours. It isn’t that you weren’t afraid before. It’s that now you’re afraid you’ll break your own heart when you shoot your gun. You don’t much want Petros to be right about you, star-struck, blind and betraying; you want there to be a third option where you get to keep how you feel right now and no one has to die.

Your Empress dips her spear. “In recognition of the achievement of your adulthood, the light that you carry within you will now be joined to the light which burns in me, so that we may all be subject to the same law.”

Your mouth dries and you flush hot. You are already burning, your veins humming as each tiny machine hears its new instruction. The law of the nanites is the Fleet’s law; if you act against the interests of the Fleet you will be disassembled, devoured for carbon and water and reused in some more appropriate capacity. There is only one free man on this ship now and it isn’t you: it is Petros Titresh, down in the dark under the arena with his nanite-disabling bomb.

Then your Tamar walks out onto the sands and even the nanites stop mattering to you. Next to the Empress’s glory she isn’t small but she is stark, all in black, none of your girl’s usual frippery, no gauze and gold wrapped around her narrow waist. She carries spear and net like they’re part of her arm. Somehow she is smiling. You hate yourself for thinking even for one minute that you’d regret defending her.

“Predecessor!” she shouts. Whatever amplification the Empress is using picks her up too, makes her sound like a struck bell, right at your side where she belongs. “I greet you and I challenge you, predecessor, for command and for the Fleet!”

You imagine, in the dark, Petros starting his count, down from two hundred. You start yours.

“Do you?” says the Empress. She sounds infinitely gentle, kind and a little sad, like she’s seen a dozen challenges and, regretting every one, spilled them red onto the sand. “On what grounds do you make claim to our stars, little sister?”

It’s a script. A show. One hundred forty-eight.

“I am flesh of your flesh,” says Tamar. “Your blood is mine! Your life is mine! Your stars are mine!” Then she squares her shoulders and jerks her chin up. You know that set of her, all stubborn and annoyed. “Also by the right of the law, predecessor, I claim you incompetent to rule – you misuse us.”

The Empress pauses. You go cold, staring at the shine of her nanites and the brighter shine of her spear, knowing the script is trashed. You keep counting – one hundred thirty, one hundred twenty-nine – all the while wondering if you’ll even have time to take your shot. Then the Empress laughs. When she laughs she sounds exactly the same as Tamar.

“Child,” she says. “So will you.” She dips her spear in some kind of salute.

Tamar doesn’t wait. She’s flying through the air, all of her behind the force of her spearthrust, aimed perfect at the Empress’s throat. Your breath freezes in your lungs.

The Empress moves, faster than you can see, a blurred glow that snatches Tamar’s spear from the air and wrenches her brutally sideways, tosses her like a cracked whip through the air. She lands on the sand – you wait for the sickening thump of splintered bone (eighty-two seconds) – but Tamar rolls, gets to her feet. She still has her net. You’re panting. You suck at the air like your body thinks you’re breathing vacuum, every cell straining sympathy.

Sixty-five. They circle each other, slow. Tamar’s spear is a dark line she’s landed too far away from, and she heads counterclockwise toward it. The Empress throws her net, its weighted edges spinning, the filaments crackling with paralyzing electricity. It sends Tamar ducking backward, dancing away from her weapon. Your girl is fast. Faster than you, faster than anyone you know, but the Empress isn’t even breathing hard yet. Tamar tosses her head back, bares her perfect teeth –

Thirty. You haven’t got time for watching this.

You drop to your knees. You’re up front and all the other Akhal kids are all on their feet, screaming with the crowd, ignoring everything but the fight below. Four seconds to snap the rifle together – you lose one in fumbling the stock free of your overjacket, twenty-three, twenty-two, the barrel balances perfect on your shoulder. The scope settles over your eye. Your fingers flip each laser cell alight, curl around the trigger easy and gentle.

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Tamar feints for her spear, makes a leap toward where it’s lying and when the Empress starts forward to bat Tamar away, Tamar changes direction, closes in, just her net in her hands. It is the bravest thing you have ever seen Tamar do, and Tamar is the bravest of all the kids you know.

Fourteen. In the entire universe there is only you, and your target, and Tamar. Tamar’s arm, the bunched curve of her spine, how they block where you need your shot to hit. Your fingertip feels raw against the triggerpull, every millimeter of your skin telling you how much pressure, how much tension you need to apply.

The first time you shot this rifle it knocked you over and Tamar had to pull you out of the dune where you’d landed on your ass.

The second time you shot it, braced proper like you’d looked up in your military manuals, you’d blown a hole in the side of a cliff deep enough for a grown man to hide in.

The Empress closes her fist in Tamar’s hair and yanks her head back. You think of the veins in her throat, the curve of her collarbones. You think that hit or miss, you can’t watch her die and never could. You wonder when your nanites will notice that you’re brimful with treason. Is it now, as you sight through the scope? Two. Is it now, as you breathe out, as your finger squeezes, one, as you wonder if Petros has the count right, now, the sound of the gun louder than the crowd –

The back of your hand is a blaze of white; you are lit up like a thousand stars, electrical arcs between your fingertips. You feel your muscles lock; you shake, you are empty of everything but desire and you know you’ll die of it, know it is the fuel that renders you up for consumption, and in knowing, understand you haven’t missed. Tamar is empty-handed on her feet and yet the Empress has no chest. It is all blown clean. Nevertheless the two of them have the same expression: a surprised triumph fading to serenity. The Empress crumples, a slow fall. The white glow of your nanites crawls up the inside of your eyelids. You wait for the oblivion of seizure.

The world goes dark and shudders. You think it is dark only for you, that you are gone, devoured. You lie on your side with your cheek pressed into the barrel of your rifle. You are alone. There are no lights under anyone’s skin, not yours and not your otherselves, the whole group of you stunned silent.

You think, marveling: Petros. The bomb. Every nanite disabled at once. You are not going to die after all.

To turn your head is agonizing, but when you do, the vaulted starfield roof still gleams. Your stuttering heart keeps beating.

You leave your eyes open. You wait.

 march-endofArkady MartineArkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a Byzantine historian. In both roles she writes about border politics, rhetorical propaganda, and liminal spaces. She was a student at Viable Paradise XVII. Arkady grew up in New York City and currently lives in Uppsala, Sweden. Find her online at arkadymartine.wordpress.com or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

Other Tales To Put in Your Eyes:

Shimmer-21-ThumbnailAnna Saves Them All, Seth Dickinson  Blackbird’s pilot waits, vitrified. Nine days since the ship closed around them and with the poison killing them hour by desperate hour, Anna decides she wants to see the alien once. Erik Wygaunt warns her, like Li Aixue before him: “Go in with an empty stomach.” 

Shimmer-22-ThumbnailCaretaker, Carlie St. George A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.


Shimmer-23-ThumbnailOf Blood and Brine
, Megan 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.

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks

The Dead Man

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.

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The Detective

The Detective saves the chocolate flake for last. The wind flicks drops of ice cream into his beard as the Ferris wheel takes him higher and higher above the pier and the waves and the town. It reminds him of shivery afternoons with his parents, how they bribed him with an ice cream to be good for just a few hours more. He licks around and around the flake until there is almost nothing left.

The Detective tries not to look down. The sand is greyish yellow and the water greyish brown. The height gives him a funny feeling in his stomach.

He has found clues; a ticket stub from Pleasure Beach, a smear of sweet-smelling ice cream. He seals up the clues in little plastic bags. However hard he tries he cannot hear any echo of the dead man’s last words on the wind.

The Detective has brought his dog with him. The dog is called Napoleon, for no particular reason. Scruffy, indecipherable, a dog that knows its own mind.

The Detective and his dog stand beneath the Ferris wheel and look over the railings at where the dead man fell. Blood stains the wooden slats of the pier. The tide is still in, but there’s been no body pulled from the sea. The Detective tries to imagine plunging into the cold depths. He tries to picture the dead man beneath the waves, looking up at the white moon of the wheel. But all the Detective can see is himself in the water.

He rubs the scar that stretches from just below his left eye to the corner of his lip; although he grows a beard to cover it up he can’t forget it’s there. His scar is from the Assassin’s knife. It itches when he is worried.

“Come on, let’s be off,” he says to Napoleon, who looks relieved. They go back home to their tall, thin house, where the Detective cooks an elaborate meal he shares with Napoleon, who has grown into something of a gourmand. That night the Detective dreams about the sea seeping into his bedroom through the carpet, about coral rattling like bones beneath his bed. In the morning there is salt on his lips.

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The Assassin

The Assassin sits at her kitchen table and cleans her knife. When she is done she throws the knife high in the air and lets it fall. She throws it ten times, and ten times the knife lands point down in the wood of the table. She fights the urge to press the point into her finger, to see the smooth red pearl well up.

She tidies her living room and remembers to call her mother, who asks if she’s found a nice man yet. She runs a bath and reads a novel, the heat curling the pages. Afterwards, she moisturises. The Assassin has skin as smooth as silk.

That night the Assassin dreams about sand dunes, stretching away as far as she can see, the Marram grass scratching her knees, whispering something she can’t quite hear. She wakes with sand crunching between her teeth and sand mites on her pillow.

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Interlude with Seagulls

Herring gulls circle, their wings white against the dirty sky, their eyes hungry, watching the town below. From up here Blackpool is always quiet, the houses neat as a toy town, the sand smooth and the sea still. Only the cries of the gulls tear through the air like a warning of danger below.

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The End of the World

The Detective orders half a pint of bitter in the End of the World. The barman gives him a look. Through the pub windows the Detective can see the Ferris wheel on the pier. He scratches at his scar.

“Do you know this man?” he asks, placing a photo on the bar. It’s from the CCTV camera in the pier arcade, and shows a man in a long coat, collar pulled up, face grainy and indistinct. The Detective thinks it makes the man look dead already.

The barman looks at the photo. “Seen him about,” he says.

The Detective takes out his notebook and pen. “Got a name?”

He likes to find out their names. Especially when there is no body, when a name is all that is left.

The barman shakes his head. “We don’t ask questions here.”

The Detective writes this in his notebook and underlines it twice.

He sits at the bar all afternoon, feeding pork scratchings to Napoleon. Everyone is keen to help with his inquiries. He has six different names for the dead man before he has finished his second drink. Tommy, Charlie, Stefan. A builder, a taxi-driver, a school teacher. Luca, Antonio, Oliver. A hard man; a loner; a miser.

“He was a gambler,” says the Barmaid. She cries into the Detective’s glass and tells him the dead man was kind.

The Detective seals the tears into a little plastic bag. When he examines them later he finds that they are genuine. He takes out a tear and places it on his cheek. It is cool on his skin.

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The Barmaid

The Barmaid’s name is Anya. The men who come to the End of the World tell her their stories. She pulls them pints of dark ale and they tell her all the ways that their hearts are broken. They tell her about all the bruises and all the black eyes. There is a pain in the Barmaid’s stomach that twists and twists as she pulls down the tap handle.

Speaking softly, the dead man told her he had lost something precious, that he’d lost it at cards. He had a look in his eyes that Anya recognised. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said.

At night the Barmaid dreams about flying.

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The Casino

The Assassin is playing roulette in the casino. She wins and wins, turning each chip in her fingers, trying to feel its luck.

She has been pushing her luck for a long time and she wonders when she will finish winning. When the Detective walks right past her she sighs and places another bet.

The Detective is trying to find out what the dead man lost at cards. The casino is tight-lipped.

“We are not in the habit of divulging secrets,” says the Manager, a man with many secrets. The Manager knows what precious thing the dead man lost at cards, because he keeps it in a safe in his wood-panelled office. The dead man lost his luck. He went all-in against the house and lost everything. Now his luck is wrapped in velvet in the dark of the Manager’s safe. Sometimes the Manager takes it out and holds it to his ear to hear the pulse of the dead man’s luck beating in time with his own heart.

“‘I am sincerely sorry that we cannot help you further,” says the Manager. His expression is entirely sincere. When asked the dead man’s name he says it might be Karl or Patrick or Dmitry. The Manager cannot be expected to remember.

The Detective doesn’t gamble. He doesn’t believe in luck.

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The Illuminations

All along the promenade, down the Golden Mile, lights hang between street lamps and in great tableaux three storeys high. A million bulbs light the October night, outshining the autumn moon.

Tourists drive by with their car windows open. Couples walk arm in arm, shivering at the strangeness of eating ice cream at night.

The Detective looks for clues in the lights but they do not reveal the dead man’s name.

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Breakfast at Sam’s Cafe

The Assassin orders kippers because she likes to see if she will choke on the bones. She thinks it strange that she has never once had a fishbone stuck in her throat.

She sits at a table by the window, where she can see the marks her elbows have made on the Formica over the years. As she finishes her coffee she runs her fingers down the handle of the knife hidden in her coat. Sometimes she thinks she can feel the shine of the blade.

She checks her watch and looks out the window. The Detective walks by, so close that she could tap on the glass and he would hear it. The Assassin reaches out a finger. She thinks that today the Detective will turn his head and look in. Today has the feel of a special day. She places her finger on the glass and waits.

The Detective does not turn. He walks by, looking out towards the sea. The Assassin leaves her finger on the glass and when she takes it away there is a fingerprint, perfectly formed.

The fingerprint is still there when she leaves.

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The Pleasure Beach

Remember, the Detective found a ticket stub. He gets in free to the Pleasure Beach when he flashes his warrant card. In Blackpool the dead come to the Pleasure Beach to ride the Big Dipper and the Ghost Train, leaving ghostly screams in the air when the Rocket loops the loop. The Detective rides the Log Flume and when he raises his hands at the final plunge he feels the cold touch of ghostly hands twining with his.

When he shows the dead man’s photo at the Pleasure Beach he is told that the man is called Lars, Kevin, Simon. Recognized by everyone, the dead man is given a different name each time.

The Detective looks through hours of CCTV footage, watching the dead man move through the park, sometimes looking straight into the camera. The Detective begins to think that the dead man is watching him back.

Just as the Detective is about to give up he sees a face he knows. He leans closer to the screen and scratches at his beard, feels the raised skin of his scar beneath his fingers. Remembers.

Something twists in his stomach. Fear, he thinks. Then he thinks; relief. It has been a long time but the Detective knows where he has to go.

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The Fortune-Teller

On the promenade, in the Fortune-Teller’s caravan, the Assassin turns over the last card on the flowery tablecloth. The Fortune-Teller sees the card and goes pale. She shuffles the cards and makes the Assassin pick another one. The cheap gold bangles on her wrists shake. The Fortune-Teller is adept at lying but today her face betrays her.

The Assassin laughs. She pays twice what is asked even though the Fortune-Teller tries to press the money back into her hand. Outside the caravan the Assassin leans on the railings and looks out to sea. She breathes in deeply. She buys fish and chips and shares her chips with the seagulls and when it begins to rain she turns up her collar and sits in a bus shelter.

The Assassin waits for the sun to go down.

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Confrontation on a Rooftop

The Detective and the Assassin face each other on the rooftop of a multi-storey car park. Rain whips at their faces. The lights of the Illuminations glow beneath them, making the night sky a murky orange.

A flash of lightning picks out the Assassin’s knife.

“I’ve called for back-up,” says the Detective, raising his voice above the rain.

The Assassin laughs. “You never call for back-up,” she says. In the lightning flash, her smooth skin is white as bone. She takes a step toward the Detective. The Detective takes a step back. His scar itches. He is so tired.

“Who was he?” he says.

The Assassin says, “He was just a man who lost his luck. He was nothing special. They never are. Some people win, some people lose, and that’s how it is.”

Thunder rolls.

The Detective shakes his head. “I don’t believe in luck.”

“Really?” says the Assassin.

A bolt of lightning strikes Blackpool Tower.

All the lights in Blackpool go out.

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Interlude with Full Moon

There is a different darkness when the sea reflects nothing but the moon. The seagulls lift their heads from beneath their wings and look up, their eyes full of silver.

In the End of the World the drinkers lift their glasses to a man whose name they can’t remember.

In the casino, the house loses at last.

At the Pleasure Beach the ghosts watch their reflections in fun house mirrors.

The Illuminations, unilluminated, reveal bone and wire behind the lights.

The dead man lies beneath the waves looking up at the watery moon.

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The End

Watch. The Detective and the Assassin are outlined against the sky. There is blood on their clothes and a knife lying between them in a pool of moonlight. But for the ragged sound of their breathing, there is no sound. The Detective and the Assassin watch the other’s every movement.

One steps away from the knife.

The other steps toward the knife.

They do not take their eyes off each other.

A last flash of lightning, and one figure picks up the knife, sending ripples through the moon. The one who picks up the knife must be the Assassin, because the Assassin must always have a knife. In the moonlight the Assassin’s beard is tinged silver-grey and his scar is a dark raised line. He looks older than he is. He tucks the knife into his belt.

The other, knife-less, buttons her coat. The Detective always has her hands in her pockets and a thoughtful look on her face. In the moonlight her skin is smooth as pearl.

They nod to each other. Then they walk in different directions, into the Blackpool night. This is the ending, the final scene. Moonlight, and a rooftop. And beyond the rooftop, the sea. But it is also a beginning. Another story is starting.

The Detective looks for clues, for chance and lost luck. When she loses at roulette she touches the soft skin of her cheek and smiles when she feels it is wet.

The Assassin looks for a barmaid who weeps real tears. He sits at the bar with his half of bitter and his dog curled up on the floor. He listens to the Barmaid’s stories and offers to buy her a pint. He tells her a story about a man falling from a Ferris wheel, a man with many names and no name, a man who lies beneath the sea and keeps his secrets to himself.
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sarahbrooks

Sarah Brooks grew up just down the road from Blackpool, then ran away to China, Japan and Italy. She wrote her PhD on Chinese ghost stories, and now lives in Leeds, where she teaches East Asian Studies. She is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and has had work published in Interzone, Strange Horizons, and Unlikely Story.

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