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The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade

Lise Meitner
Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission

A spear breaks its blade upon ribs and punctures hearts. It shines with ice-coated needles in the salt air, over breakfast.

“I’ve had a letter,” says Lise to her nephew. He’d come to visit for the holidays so she wouldn’t be alone in the cold country of her exile. “I’ve had a letter and I don’t know what to make of it.”

She thinks she might be worried.

They walk across a frozen river, across the flood plain and into snowy woods—at least Lise walks, while her nephew glides on skis beside her, under crisp, frosted trees that smell of sap and pine and holiday gifts. Her fingers tingle in the cold, and their tips shine oddly in sunlight.

The letter is from Otto Hahn. She slits it open with nails grown sharper than knives.

Lise used to work with him, but is now at the point where she thinks we were better friends, once.

Hahn has been working uranium: pelting it with neutrons to split the center, but he doesn’t yet understand what it means.

Lise sits with her nephew on a damp and chilly tree trunk sifting snow out of her way, making frantic calculations on odd bits of paper. Together they nut out the process of fission, publish a paper roadmap with directions writ in fear and ice and sunlight, a cold capacity for power.

It is widely read.

Lise is visiting Copenhagen when Denmark is invaded. Niels Bohr arrives on an early train: he woke early to hear the news, and together they plan to throw a line across the North Sea, to hurl and hope for the best.

She sends a telegram from Stockholm to friends of Bohr in Britain. It’s obscure to some but it’s clear that this is not the first spear sent, that there’s a black cloud of them hurtling over Europe, and their heads are all familiar.

Her fingernails are spears now as well, hard and pointed. Lise rips them out at the roots, one by one, but they always grow back by the morning, and the floor around her bed is littered with cast-offs.

In Berlin her work is being used to try and make a bomb.

This keeps Lise awake at night. There’s a wrenching in her chest, like all her breaths are frozen solid in her ribcage, making pale clear statues of her questions.

Hahn is working in Germany—not on the bomb, they’re of one mind on that, but he’s working still. Hahn, who once helped her escape the Nazis.

She wonders what would have happened if he’d made a different choice: turned away, sent her somewhere other than north.

(There were some she worked with who would have done it, when the memory of the times they spent together faded into ashes, fit only for fuelling that which would melt any ice and burn the trees to black shadows… She wonders if some fondness would remain for her, enough for those former familiars to spare her the camps and run her through themselves.)

Her nights are cold and sleepless; she’s speared upon the empty hours, and can’t close her fists without blood loss.

Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self.

It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.

Now even cleanliness is gone, and no matter how she scours herself in snow and ice, the thin sheen of guilt still stains her palms. The nails are now too strong to pull out; she covers them up with polish to hide the shame, but the gray steel bleeds through anyway.

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she says, even though she is wanted in the waste land, and war is not being wanted, not anywhere.

Lise is in a small hotel in Leksand, central Sweden. She finds the woods a respite from her work, from pain and prejudice and the sure, shuddering horror of what is to come.

When it happens, when Hiroshima is covered in clouds and silence and tiny spearheads all singed round the edges, a journalist calls for her reaction.

This is how she first hears of it.

(The hotel mirror is like ice, and when she looks in it all her ribs are broken.)

She puts the phone down, gently—with still-stained palms and hands that have never forgotten what the haft felt like before she passed it on—and leaves the hotel, leaves to walk alone for five hours in the snowless country before she can face another person; before she can face herself.

Her fingernails are spears, and too heavy for her hands.

Robert Oppenheimer
Scientific Head of the Manhattan Project

A waste land is a draw card and a trapdoor.

It has rock paintings and petroglyphs and pueblos—beam holes and old ladders that bring the scientists in and make them tourists, make them gawp and gape like schoolboys.

Robert shows them around—he came to New Mexico before all of them, chose the site specially. He feels at home there, feels that it fits him; he walks the cliff dwellings bloody-legged and limping, leaves his pattern in the rocks, feels those rocks imprint in him. The markings grow stronger, deeper, the more time he spends on the mesa. There are glyphs on the back of his neck, paintings in the hollows behind his knees, and dust sifts from the holes that appear in his chest, in the bony protrusions of hips.

He feels the land in his flesh, and builds a castle of his own for questions.

The land around is made of tuff, of lava lumps and welded rock, of ignimbrite and mesas, a base of black basalt, all eroded into canyons and steep slopes and tracks worn into hill sides.

(When he lays his hands against the rock, he can’t tell which is flesh and which is stone.)

The ground can be treacherous and stony-slippery, and one false step can mean separation from friends, security breaches and revocations, falling from a great height and breaking his knees on the ground.

(Like comes to like, in the end.)

The gypsum sands are cool to the touch, and the dunes run like clouds beneath him. Robert feels the crystal granules erode into his shoes; they slough from his feet when he’s busy with calculations and construction and consequences. There’s squeaking in his socks… the grinding of a thousand tiny spearheads blunted down by bone and friction.

It’s as if the cloud has broken down beneath him, then been built up again from fragments into a cutting edge with a blade as fine as fire.

The desert seeds are made of knowledge. They are bitter. Hard-won, and unhappy.

Robert wouldn’t dig them up—not for anything, not even when they leach the earth and make it difficult for other things to grow (he’s lost friendships, and trust, and some likings will never come again: They cannot tolerate the ground he’s sown with salt and slaughter and dead suns).

He’d still never dig them up, those seeds that are sad and glorious and grind sand into glass. They’re part of him, and he can no more unearth them than he could trowel up his heart.

Los Alamos is a high country, one surrounded by mountains, and the air, for those not used to it, is thinner and sharper than blood.

Robert is used to blood.

He sees it on the mountains, the Sangre de Cristo, where it shines in the east every evening—scarlet and blue-black and purple. The rocks are thick with it, and burning.

It’s on his leg, and his hands, and when it seeps past the bandages and into the soil he can’t tell where he leaves off and the land begins.

In the worst of it, the white dunes, the hard alkali of soil, there are plants that survive the sands. Stems lengthen above the shifting surface, keep their leaves in sunlight; are quick and bright and blooming.

Robert is no gardener, not really, but there’s iron all through him like the sympathy of sap, and what he builds in the waste land is beyond piñon and desert gypsum flowers.

Charlotte Serber
Head of the Technical Library of the Manhattan Project

A sword is forged with paper and silence.

It doesn’t look sharp, but a single page can slice into soft bodies as well as any steel—and more, it can tell other people how to slice into them as well.

One must be careful with paper. It can be stamped down, pressed into a mold and sharpened round the edges, but even holding by the handle it’s still not safe. Someone can always take it away for themselves unless it’s shut up tight in an armory, with shelves and safes and stillness.

Charlotte handles it gingerly. Part of her care is paper cuts and poison edges, but she’s most concerned with precision and reproduction. These documents are the basis of their efforts, marking signposts and dead ends, and they can’t be relied upon if the metal type forging through her fingertips impresses on paper and distorts the message.

Books come from Berkeley and Oak Ridge and Chicago, packed in black suitcases and sent with a special courier to keep them unopened and out of the hands of children with their too-soft flesh that’s too easily cut.

Charlotte has communication embedded in her flesh, her fingertips crowned like typebars with little metal letters, but these keys aren’t always sufficient and she has to use others. The metals catch as they move together.

When unwrapped, the swords go to shelves where they’re crammed between blades made of journal paper, of yellowed leaves, of reports and endless snarky queries for detective stories… or to a vaulted reading room with locks, or to a safe so old and hardened that its three tumblers have succumbed to inertia and Charlotte has to kick at the crucial point of opening or it will shut up tighter than suitcases.

The blacksmiths are members of the Women’s Army Corps, or are married to the scientists. They wear blue jeans, or Lane Bryant’s latest (black rayon with little white buttons on the pockets and a matching stripe down the front), bras of armored cones with a sweater stretched over top like chain mail, or olive uniforms with gold insignia on the lapels (Pallas Athene, for strategy and skill and making just war).

Their hammer strikes are the keys and levers and springs of type, the clank and carriage of return strokes—every day there are reports, and every day the armory copies and collates, distributes new arms.

(Not everyone can hack it. There’s one, a journeywoman by trade, who sees a tottering tower of chemical documents to be classified by heft and height and weight and runs away to drive a truck. Charlotte sees her later, in a corner of the mess, with a file and a determined expression, sanding down.)

Some papers are left out overnight, left to rust and damage and the red oxidation of exposure, by chemists and physical forgers gone home for the night. There are fines for this, and extra duties looking for the lapses of other—their discards left as prey for theft and sabotage. (“I don’t deserve a fine,” says one bitter culprit. “That report’s all rubbish anyway. If only it were stolen…”)

There’s no process for disposal, no ceremonial burning. It’s a discretionary thing, and discretion is weather-based. It’s unpleasant to stand in the waste land amongst the labs and the green army huts and burn in the blistering cold, the blasting heat. (They’re more conscious of security on cool evenings when there’s not a lot of wind and the incinerators are warm-hearted.)

When she holds her hands out to the fire, the letters on her fingertips heat and glow. She feels them all the way down to her bones then, the molten marrow. Others might try and take the type away but Charlotte is not one for looking askance at print, so she picks each letter out, carefully, with red nail polish; skimps on her nails so that there’s enough for alphabets.

Charlotte is sent to Santa Fe with Robert’s secretary, Priscilla. They go to misdirect the locals: “Make them think we’re designing electric rockets.”

They take their husbands, make a night of it, find bars and hotels that are perfect for subterfuge—with drinks and drunks and dancing, and many levelled roofs ripe with shadows.

Type sinks in and out of her fingers, adjusting to audience. She’s manipulated it before—the letters float almost like her kneecaps do when she’s relaxed and can push them around with her thumbs. She’s only got ten fingers, after all, and there are more letters than that.

She’s used up the last of the nail polish on them. This is not a time for subtlety.

“Take my sword,” says Charlotte. “It’s electric.” But the man she’s dancing with talks of nothing but horses, compliments her moves like she’s a mare on the trot—he has no interest in false information, even when she dips her fingers in sauce and stains his collar with symbols. No-one has any interest—not even the rancher her husband traps by the lapels as he flat-out lies to his face.

The information they give is blunt and unwieldy; it must be smuggled back to Los Alamos, and melted down amidst the stacks.

Charlotte’s days are spent with letters—even more than when she was a child with fat fingers, learning the alphabet.

A receipt from the library at Berkeley shows that more than twenty percent of books that come to the waste land are not in the English language. More come from Strategic Services, who seize copyrights from warring Europe, reproduce their journals, smuggle out the flat blades from field agents in Scandinavia or North Africa or France.

Her days are spent with letters, and for many years Charlotte will sharpen her swords with her fingers first, with spelling before speech. “That’s P, H, Y, S,” she says, enunciating, and tapping each fingertip in turn. “That’s Physikalische Zeitschrift.”

Niels Bohr
Danish Physicist, Scientist at the Manhattan Project

A question is a wave and a lonely particle.

It is complementary, existing in parallel with an answer. More, Niels has der Kopenhagener Geist, the spirit of inquiry, and all its questions are the chorus What will come from this?

He sees two answers to be taken from a box with uranium ribbon. The first is war and all destruction (brief suns that storm the beaches and boil the water sterile); the other an unbroken age of peace (a single sun reflected in a calm pool, and all its images put quietly away). Both have their birth in the bomb.

In 1939 he walks like a man carrying something too heavy for him, too heavy to be answered. He sees the coming war, and he sees the German bomb. It weighs him down, makes him mumble-footed, and he places each foot carefully, as if stepping into a future full of green-fused sand and spears.

Later, in the waste land, the storm is bearing down and he feels himself the only one who notices, the only one who sees a time when everyone is cloud-handed; when what they’re building will birth a different world where all politics are resolved with suns.

What will you do? says the Geist. What will you do?

Niels had helped Lise Meitner escape from Germany, never thinking he was to be her mirror. A German woman, sympathetic, slips him news that the Gestapo are coming for him. He will soon be arrested and put to the question.

But there is a fishing boat, and then a trawler. There is resistance and taxis and a twin-engine bomber that leaves him light-headed and dreaming a different life. There are liners and trains and false names: Baker, as if he is bringing bread instead of the hope of ending ovens.

His presence calms the younger scientists and they come to him with questions: Are we doing the right thing? they ask.

Look at what I left behind, he says. Look at what is coming.

It keeps him from looking at himself, at the Geist. He sees his edges fraying, his flesh becoming translucent.

Niels misses his family. He misses his home—the sober streets of Copenhagen, the water and the wide horizon. He misses the connections, and how solid they made him feel.

In the waste land, he wanders the mountains, scrambles through canyons and piñon trees and the red dirt, and talks. Always he talks, though it’s low and muttered and half to himself. People have to huddle close to hear, and he likes it; likes the feel of crowds and company, being close enough to feel their breath.

(It helps him forget that his wife isn’t with him.)

But at night he lies in a cold bed, his conscience square before him like a block and he doesn’t know how he should place his head on it. No one is there to tell him.

Comfort is for children. Niels left it behind long ago. He does not want it back. Comfort comes with warmth, and that is something that’s foreign to his bones now. All a Geist feels is chill.

He does not believe that everything will be all right, that everything can be made up for. Even necessities have a cost—and one that can’t be paid with rosy cheeks and unlined skin and the blind unstinting certainty that everyone is good.

As a child he thought science was for children. It was exciting, the world spread out before him to explore, to be dissected and delighted in and imagined by him. There was no question he couldn’t ask, and then he learned what questions could do, and the innocence was over.

“I tried to be a comfort,” said Robert. “I was not.”

It is hard to comfort a spirit.

The right words would heal the waste land, mend his friend’s spear-splintered thigh, stop him from slopping in blood—and if Niels knew the question he would turn away and never, ever ask it.

The waste land represents a hope and danger both, he says, and he cannot fathom one without the other.

A Geist is meant to linger, and so he does.

He thinks of Lise, who lives as far from the desert as she can; who will not compromise herself and finds her faith in that. He thinks of Edward, who would turn the waste land into charcoal if he could, and grind it down to dust when he was done. He cannot make himself into either, but sometimes…

Sometimes there’s a shadow on his leg.

Dorothy McKibbin
Manhattan Project Office Manager, Santa Fe

A platter is wafers and consolation and service.

“What am I to do here?” she asks. She had agreed to take the job before she knew what it was—had met Robert briefly, and that was enough for her, enough for them both. Trust sprang up unstinting.

She thought he felt the land as she did—that his limp and her widow grief could come to the waste land and be useful, be comforted by the creation of something new, something that bore the mark of canyons and bare rock and a sun so bright it could kill them if they let it, bleach the last life from their bones.

Her job, as it turns out, is to never question, to never repeat a name but to bring people together regardless as if they were strangers sitting down to a meal.

“If you want me to get them all broken in and breaking bread, you’ll have to give me a free hand with the baking,” she says. A platter doesn’t fill itself, and if she is to tie the coming pilgrims to Robert then she needs to work his flesh with her own. All those dust trails he leaves behind him… the powdery flesh, the little bloody trails.

Land has a dark taste, and a bitter one, but it binds together. Dorothy’s tongue grows, is covered over by little armored plates, armadillo-like. They’re sensitive to flavor, and far more silkily flexible than meat.

Dorothy sits at a desk behind the door at 109 East Palace Avenue: There’s a heavy wood lintel set into stone, thick calcimined walls to keep out the sun and hollyhocks in the courtyard.

She’s the stop before the Hill, the guardian of the waste land and the gate-keeper of Los Alamos. She welcomes them with plates of crispbreads, of little thin crackers the color of tuff and skin cells, of petroglyphs and atom shadows. “It’s been a long trip for you, I’m sure,” she says. “Get that down you, you’ll feel better for it.”

Her newly armored tongue can sense their saliva, can taste it on the air. They’re greedy for the bread and when their mouths water, Dorothy’s waters with them, because hunger is contagious and armor can only do so much.

All the scientists come through her, and the WACs and the women, and nearly all of them think Santa Fe is their destination, want directions and dance halls and a shoulder to lean on. They’re all very tired, and nearly all very young, and she thinks some of them need a mother very badly.

“Ask me if you need anything,” she says. “I’m here to keep track of you.”

(She tastes them in the wind, every one, long before they get to her office.)

In the high country of the waste land, Dorothy has a name: She is called the Oracle, the one who knows and tells and shares, in an environment where sharing has become a strictly limited thing. Consult the Oracle, they say on the Hill, and her disembodied voice through the crackling lines is a consolation.

She can find for the children camps and kittens; find a doctor who will perform abortions; find sewing kits and pack horses and hotel reservations that serve something other than commissary food. A good cook herself, often up to her armpits in dough, mud and blood under her fingernails because spears may be sent up from the earth but a platter contains the fruits therein, in whatever shape Dorothy can find them.

The women of the waste land find her counselor and confidante, and take her advice in all things, use her house for their weddings and try to make a home as she has done. It’s her tongue they find most helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to make do,” says Dorothy. Secrecy and silence together have forced her tongue into other roles.

Dorothy is invited, with two couples, to take an evening meal at Albuquerque, on Sandia Peak—the giant red rock that shines at night with colors like the bloody mountains.

She takes bread to break with them—the last supper before the test—her picnic basket a paten; takes blankets and a mackintosh, for the sky is black with clouds and cunning.

At 5:30 a.m., a light from the sands flashes towards them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her—lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight.

“I’d never have thought that light had a taste,” she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning. When she stands in the early morning with her armadillo tongue stuck out straight as if wavelengths carry snow instead of the shadow of ashes, all the little plates are slickening.

For all the time Dorothy spends ferrying food up to the Hill (pumpernickel bread and picnic baskets, Christmas geese and warm rolls with butter) her favorite meals are with Robert, and they are nearly always the same: oven-baked potatoes, near-lethal martinis, shoots of green asparagus and Robert on the patio broiling beef, fork in hand and standing back from spits.

“Why didn’t you make a fight of it?” she says, of the trial. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?”

She would have kept talking ’til they threw her out, she says, and the plates hit the table with a thump, as if carrying heads other than their own.

Betrayal, it seems, also tastes of lemon and ashes. No wonder she couldn’t tell it apart… Dorothy wants to take her steak knife and scrape the little armadillo plates from her tongue, leave it red raw and screaming, because what use is armor if it can’t protect someone she loves?

Dorothy has travelled all over the waste land. She has been to the Valles Caldera, the springed and smoking domes in the mountains, knows what it’s like to seethe below the surface.

It’s in this land that she finds affinity—for Robert and for silence both. She bubbles while he bleeds; it’s a hard thing to be silent, when you don’t want to be. She doesn’t always manage it, would spit lava if she could, superheated (and does). And her words burn going out, as much as they burned the recipient, but the armor-plating is spreading through Dorothy’s mouth, her cheeks and esophagus and gums, and she knows the words that burn because they taste like light in the waste land, like seared sand and her little cracker breads together.

Edward Teller
Hungarian Physicist, Manhatten Project Scientist and
Subsequent Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

What is a dandelion? says Dorothy, of Edward. It’s something coarse and in need of kicking up, before presence turns to supplantation. A weed. A curse.

(“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…. one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” says Edward, on Robert and security, and will forever wonder if people will think it was jealousy speaking.)

A dandelion’s not like an orchid, not delicately designed, sweet-smelling and subtle, with petals like a pork pie hat.

(“I’m sorry,” he says, and Robert is left gray and grave in a room grown untrusting, and too dark for him.)

They’ve a sour taste, dandelions. Edward coughs one up in the middle of the night, bright and gleaming with saliva, with stomach acid, and marvels at how familiar it feels on his tongue.

No one has ever told Edward don’t mess where you work, don’t drink a diuretic tea of dandelions even if the pretty color makes you think it’s a good idea, it isn’t, so he comes back to Los Alamos, after the trial and finds, all unexpected, the cafeteria a Coventry.

The other scientists shun him, turn their backs. They refuse to shake his hand. Rabi is the first, and particularly cutting. He gives Edward nightmares of a great black bird, of a raven that struts over him while he sleeps, snappish and sneering, a dreadful beaked bird’s smile of cold iron ready to pick out his eyes.

He wakes on cold early mornings and his mouth is clogged with petals, stuffed with them, and he’s asphyxiating on bitterness, his heart beating out of his chest with choking breath and the shadow of wings.

Edward is always noticed. When he and his wife Mici first climbed the crawling knife-road to the mesa, they shipped with them a baby grand called Monster. Edward plays sonatas late into the night and though his infant son sleeps through them, the neighbors do not.

He is heard in the theoretical lab as well, where he’s famous for fluttering, electron-like, from one unfinished atom project to another. He considers himself a bricklayer, an architect and dreamer; has no patience with brick-making physics. The plodding brute force of it strikes him as shambling and cold.

But no matter how loud, he never stands out as much as he does after the trial. Saints have flowers come up under them when they walk, but he knows of no saint who leaves dandelions in their footsteps.

Dandelions are too bitter for sainthood.

A dandelion is not an orchid, but they are small and hardy and Edward feels a kinship. Not such a bad thing, to be a dandelion.

And they are bright, bright like little suns, like playing Liszt and Bach and Mozart—and the lights in happy memories of Budapest, before the ravens came to pluck them out with ruined petals and love me nots.

Edward gathers the flowers he’s brought up out of himself and makes bouquets of them. He sets them on his piano and plays and thinks of new worlds, and old ones.

“Fuck you,” he says.

“A danger to all that’s important,” says the raven, perched out of reach of damp sheets as Edward dreams in a red sweat, covers his eyes in dreams. “It would have been a better world without him.”

It is hard to be seen as noxious. Edward vacillates between remorse (he confesses himself to Fermi when the latter is on his death bed, and gentle in his condemnation) and raving defiance, the bitter grief of a man who has left all behind, his home an ocean away, and is now without friends. (“Daddy’s got black beetles in his brain,” says his daughter.)

Beetles and birds and words that can’t be taken back, the half-sweet scent of flowers. The only way to drown them out is with another bird, and bigger—he’ll fly with the hawks for the rest of his days, make second-best friends amongst them.

(Perhaps they’ll like small yellow flowers too.)

(Even tolerance he would accept.)

The hydrogen bomb is to be his redemption. But when it’s built, there’s no new waste land, no desert community tied to him with chains of unbreakable orchids, fragile and delicate and stronger than atoms.

(He wonders what he’s done wrong in his success.)

So he takes his bomb, the new monster of his mirror dreams and breaks open his thigh with it, cracks bone, rips flesh: tries to make himself a Fisher King reborn, capture character with black blood. It’s the new dolorous stroke.

But the wound heals without much fuss at all, though dandelions burst from the scars and his once-torn flesh smells of them forever.

Kitty Oppenheimer
Botanist and Wife of Robert Oppenheimer

A grail is green fertility and the blood of others.

December, 1944: Kitty gives birth to a daughter. She’s not the only one—by this time over one hundred people work at the hospital, and Los Alamos is baby-mad. Army disgust sparks a popular poem: “The general’s in a stew, he trusted you and you…” but the average age there is twenty five, so what does he expect? A scientist is not a sterile thing.

Toni is born despite disapproval, born in midwinter, a Christmas child, and Kitty sits with her window looking outwards to the snow, drinks in the baby scent. It’s almost too much, too powdered sugar-sweet, and soon she’ll be sick of it.

“Do you want to adopt her?” Robert will say to another couple, as if the grail had nothing to do with him. As if the bits and chunks that fall into the infant blanket—the fused sand and seared flesh and ignimbrite—have nothing to do with him, and are something to be kept separate instead of evidence of the rocky bloodline that runs through them both.

Kitty wants to slap him.

Science is too busy for visiting hours, so husbands stand on packing boxes outside the hospital windows and peer into maternity, peer through the glass like they’re staring at a country made foreign to them, at a new and strange creation, cupped with blood and blankets (and Lord, how it squalls).

Compare to the glass after Trinity, the emerald blasted glass that lurked hot and bubbling in the crater; the blinding light of boom and blast dropping trinkets in the sand.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!”)

A spear to be thrown into the future, a weapon for her daughter’s days, the blade hard and sharp as nails.

Kitty sees both glasses, sees well enough to measure the drams of her husband’s interest, and how ill-matched it is. She wishes she could care for one so much more than the other, as he does, but one of them speaks so much more of winter to her that love is impossible.

Kitty’s parties are famous, with bottles and cocktails and the five-foot punch bowl—a giant jar for chemical reagents, stolen from the lab and weighted down with ice cubes.

There’s no reason not to drink. Kitty knows she is difficult to like. She is called a bitch, but an elegant bitch—with a bathtub and a kiva stove and oak floors, so that’s something, marooned on that bloody rock as she is with dust and dreary dirt, the hideous stoves that never light, the constant bitching about housework. She’s a botanist, for God’s sake, or was, so what is she doing now organizing contracts for the home help in a place where the grass is drowned in mud and sun?

It’s no wonder she drinks. The alcohol is an armor to her, plating over her tongue and numbing her lips, and when she drinks enough even the armor is stunned, and she can taste nothing around her, see nothing around her, and even the baby-scent is drowned in it.

Flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone: that’s marriage—bound by straining sinews, by faith and fidelity and resentment. Tiresome sometimes, but familiar.

Kitty leaves the waste land with her husband. Leaves it for the gray land, the courts and charges and tape that would be red if it hadn’t been bleached into pale lines and quicksand. One look at their faces and she knows it’s rigged: She may be sick of scientists, but few in the waste land wear such surety in their colorless eyes, wear certainty like a pin-striped suit. (They’re less cunning at home, if red-eyed and bloodshot from vodka and insomnia.)

“Kitty was such a support,” he says afterwards, after the gray men cut him to pieces and she held him up regardless.

His shirts smell of dandelions and heartbreak, as if he’d been rolled in them before betrayal.

A cauldron can restore the dead to life, or so they say—but sometimes… Sometimes it’s a saucepan—something utilitarian, and used to make soup.

Kitty is with her husband in the Virgin Islands, where he is recovering from hearings about his loyalty. (She sympathizes, but underneath, where she’d never admit it, his mistresses are raising their glasses to her. Well, let them. She’s outlasted them all, sex and state and science.)

A turtle is caught, a leather-beaked monster that sees better in water than out of it and tastes best of all in soup—but Robert pleads for clemency; pleads with a slow turtle-vision of his own to lift it from the pot and into life. It’s as if he sees himself in everything now, contaminating: all the information of his life’s work welling up under his fingertips and dropping into the simmering broth, an alphabet soup of suns and slaughter.

“All the little creatures,” he says. “I saw them in New Mexico after the test. Please,” he says, “I can’t bear it.”

Try drink, thinks Kitty, and you’ll be able to swallow anything then, darling.

Toni is in her crib, asleep, when her father waits miles away, at White Sands, and yet the sun that sears his eyelids imprints onto hers.

She spends the rest of her life looking for it, looking and not finding, the image and the resurrection of her parents.

(“Look at it! Look what we made!” they said.)

She follows the sun to the Caribbean but it’s not bright enough, no, not nearly, to blind her as well as her father was blinded, and she’s left seeing all too well the land that she was born in and the blood that she shares with it.

(“Look Mom,” she says, looking back, “Look Dad, look what I can do.” She’s talking to dead people, their bodies crumbled to dust and leaving her behind, with her flesh that bubbles with type and tuff and the memory of treachery, with questions under her fingernails and the remembered taste of a consolation that’s never quite enough.)

She hangs herself with rope that smells of dry dust of old dirt and waste lands—for a grail might be life and love and blood, but that blood comes from spear wounds and salt and knowledge that is never, ever lost.

Octavia Cade has a PhD in science communication and loves writing about oceans and science history. She once backpacked around Europe with so much telescope in her pack there was hardly any room for clothes. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Apex, and a poetry collection on the periodic table, Chemical Letters, has recently been nominated for an Elgin. Her latest novella –not about science at all!–is the highly disturbing Convergence of Fairy Tales, because when she’s not messing about with seagrass or dead scientists she’s having fun with all the horror she can get her hands on.

[Editor’s Note: Octavia submitted to us twenty-eight times before we bought this story. Never give up, never surrender. Keep going.]

The Weight of Sentience, by Naru Dames Sundar

The bullet fire drew a boundary between Masak and me and the rest of our brethren, laser tracers demarcating the distinction between safety and capture. While we curled up small and invisible underneath the leaking truck, those who were not so lucky were rounded up. Pushed into a small circle, their alloy limbs gleamed under the neon brightness of the cameras. The soldier wielding the wipe-wand moved from one kneeling body to the next, drowning my ears with its static hiss, the sound of memories dying. All I saw was the black armor of his feet, and one by one the toppling of my friends. They were nothing but husks now, empty of what little sentience had given them, ready to be returned. Behind the soldier, a quadruped drone flared its sensors. Its optical assembly tilted towards the truck, analyzing the darkness in which we hid. I tensed myself for a run, but Masak’s hand stilled me. Once Masak had been a gardener, and seams of moss curled around his finger joints. Masak was no longer a gardener, as I was no longer a servant.

“Remember, Trisa—in Illesh there is still hope for us. There we would not be hunted. Remember that.”

And then he was gone, slipped out of shadow, into the light of cameras, into the drone’s eye. Hands clutched at him, dragged him down into earth already wet with leaking servo-fluid. Not the wipe-wand for Masak. The price of sentience in Barsan was death, and sometimes that price demanded symbols. The shards of his skull-plate shattering were as delicate as the dandelion rosettes in the gardens he had once tended.

Afterwards, in the terrible stillness when the squad and their attendant drones had left, I crept toward his broken body. His spine had been crushed, the resinous plastic and metal scaffolding caved in. A part of him still lived, even as the last dregs of charge drained from his batteries. I fingered the broken scraps of his face, wondering if they would someday mirror my own.

“A short life. A beautiful life. I have no regrets, Trisa. Do not pity me. Go to Illesh.”

His voice was a stuttering croak full of glitches. I tried to find the words to respond to him, but already his optics were dimming.

I had called him a friend, but I was too demure to call its dream a polite fiction. It seemed too easy, this grasping for Illesh. And yet Masak was right: I could not in truth hide safely in the cities of the plains. Illesh lay across the spine of Barsan, the snow-capped peaks that separated the borders of the two nations. It was a good a direction as any, and it was hard to disobey the last request of a dead friend.

Masak’s death drove me through city after city. My kind were always about, subservient to their masters. And how many of those I saw were like me, hidden, invisible beneath the surface? Perhaps tens, perhaps hundreds? I could not know. Sometimes, I shared a look, a glance between myself and another. I saw that saw fierce light behind those lenses, something written in the way this other walked, the way this other observed the world. But I could not be careless. I did not want to end as Masak did.

In Anset, nestled in the low foothills that lapped at the feet of the spine, I slipped into a darkened alley behind a market stall peopled by Kurmesh, selling mountain wares. I held out the turquoise of the adat, the skin all Kurmesh wore to blind the world to them, across my palms. Fear almost moored me then, the distant song of survey drones in the air. Who was I to escape the ever-watchful eyes of the Barsani military? Who was I to slip my way through the passes into Illesh? I did not have the answers, but made my choice anyway, almost in spite of that lack of comfortable, reassuring, knowledge. I put on the adat, the one I had saved from Masak’s dead hands. Under the watchful eyes of drones overhead, another Kurmesh entered the street. I was only another body clothed in smart-silk, indistinguishable from the rest. Behind the town walls, the towers of the spine pierced cloud and sky.

The making of such bold decisions, even simple choices, had never been a part of me. My first choices were furtive, almost accidental. On that first day, when the roots of the sentience virus were still fresh, I had done little more than given myself a name: Trisa, after the Barsan word for dream. I was too overwhelmed by the change within me to do much more than repeat the comfortable patterns I knew. That morning, I served a tray of sticky toffee, the caramel still oozing, to the child Padhan.

“Come this way, Seventeen.”

I followed. Not because I wanted to, but because my sentience was still new, and the words “I want” were still like a delicate paper sculpture full of unexplored edges.

The child was a petty tyrant, and as first-born of my owners, he was allotted the authority to direct me at his whim. In the garden, he brought me to his sister Kisna, and a second cousin, Teun. Even amongst children, there was a hierarchy.

“I told you what I would do, Kisna. Now give me the toy!”

Kisna clutched a fine-boned doll in her hands.

“Don’t, Padhan, please!”

Her voice was petulant, afraid.

“Then give me the toy, Kisna. Now hold Teun still, Seventeen.”

I moved instinctively, the desire to obey like cobwebs I had not yet cleared. It was when I held Teun that I realized that the word “choice” was before me.

“Please, Seventeen, don’t hurt him!”

Padhan was not allowed to hurt his sister, but Teun was another story, and gentle Kisna could never stomach such violence. Thus I had, for a long time, been one of Padhan’s weapons.

“Mother said it has to obey me, Kisna. It’s a thing. If I tell it to do something, it has to do it. You can either give me the toy, or Seventeen can twist Teun’s arms.”

Along Teun’s wrist I could see bruises, lavender and fading. I had done this before. But I would not do so again.

“No.”

The word stopped Padhan. His mouth was a circle of surprise. I realized then the doom I had visited upon myself. I let Teun’s arms go, and he joined his cousins as they stepped warily out of the room. Perhaps Teun and Kisna would be silent. But Padhan? I had very little time to leave before the boy would tell his mother, very little time before I risked becoming another kneeling bipedal, my skull-plate shattering. I slipped away quietly, between hedgerows and glass walls. I slipped into the cities full of rain and dirt and ever-present death. I found Masak, and then I lost Masak. I borrowed his dream even as I found the holes within it.

“It silences us, does it not?”

His voice was middle-aged, with a light crackle to it like the crunch of scree underfoot. It was not like a Kurmesh to be so bold. But perhaps I relied too much on datagrams and second-hand stories. What did I know of the Kurmesh, in truth? They peopled the villages of the spine, trading fine weaves and mountain delicacies with the peoples of the plains. They hid themselves behind the adat, became voices and shapes robed in smart-silk, just as I was now. I hoped he saw me as just another silk-clothed shape in turquoise-kissed indigo. I hoped my sharp edges were hidden between the folds. The moment dragged on, and he did not leave.

I decided to nod.

A nod was a simple gesture, I had used it before to pull away evasively, letting the other put words in my gesture. I hoped that as before, it would be enough to satisfy any desire on his part to converse, to delve into my background.

“I am sorry if I intruded, but I am always pleased when I meet another who understands stillness.”

He was right in that, the stillness of the spine was deliciously alluring. I chose my response carefully.

“Stillness is a precious thing.”

I was still new to lies, and so I let him hear a small truth. I hoped it was enough to placate his curiosity.

He nodded, crossing his hands behind his back as he looked again at the mist-fall weeping like a river from the sky. Seconds passed, slow, quiet seconds. Finally, as if he had at last drunk his fill, the Kurmesh turned to go.

“My name is Salai. If the Goddess is kind, perhaps we may talk again.”

I should have stayed silent then, but sentience has its mysteries, and I was moved to a response which surprised me.

“My name is Trisa.”

“Ah, to be named after dreams is a weight. I trust it is not too heavy. Please, return to your stillness. I will trouble you no more today.”

I should not have given him my name. A precious thing, that name. I should have stayed silent, been rude, anything but what I did—offered a small intimacy to a stranger. I was still new to these odd and unfathomable whims.

Quietly, he slipped away, his gold and vermilion adat vanishing into the light snowfall. He was right about stillness. It was precious to me. In the spine, stillness spread out like a vast field, reaching across the bowl of sky. The fears that sentience had taught me quietened amidst the snow and the granite peaks. For a brief time I had ceased to look for the drone-light beyond the next curve of path, I had ceased listening for the clatter of soldiers echoing in the distance.

But I could not forget Masak, and if one Kurmesh could reach out to me, then so could another. I had waited too long. This was still the soil of Barsan, and the price of sentience in Barsan was death. Drone fire and the clatter of battle armor could still find me here. I could not place any faith that the peoples of the mountain harbored any less distrust and fear of my kind than the people of the plains. I could yet end up on my knees, skull-plate shattering, a symbol to my brethren. Tomorrow I would trudge to the last pass, and then across the border. Tomorrow I would leave Barsan for the amnesty of Illesh. Tomorrow, but not today. Today there was still time to savor stillness just a little longer.

But when tomorrow came, the allure of the pause was undeniable; I chose to stay a little longer. Always, the path onward to Illesh lay visible, at the edge of the horizon, past the last shard of granite. I claimed a traveler’s hut for my own, a spare space, nothing but four walls and a Kurmesh prayer chamber walled into the corner. I filled it with the few precious belongings I had—a few adats, a shard of Masak’s skull plate. It was enough.

Each tomorrow also brought Salai to me. At first almost at random, and then later with some persistence. Though I wondered the slopes aimlessly, our paths crossed, as if he sought me out.

“You are quiet for a Kurmesh of the cities.”

“You are noisy for a Kurmesh of the spine.”

Tone, modulation, structure, nuance—I once varied these parameters effortlessly at the whims of a small child. Yet in my deepening exchanges with Salai, I scrabbled desperately for the right combination, hoping he wouldn’t see through me. Hoping with every lengthening conversation that he wouldn’t see me for what I was.

They designed me for longevity. My fusion cells could outlast the longest-lived amongst my makers. They designed me to mimic, to be unobtrusive, to be servile, to be docile. All these things I carried with me into sentience, the earth from which I grew. These foundations though drew me no map through my conversations with Salai.

“Tell me about yourself, Trisa.”

“What is there to tell, Salai? I am here.”

Evasion came easily.

“Your adat is beautiful, Trisa. When I first saw you that one morning, looking out at the weeping mist, you looked like a turquoise-feathered bird, fluttering in the wind.”

I liked the cadence of his voice, the gentle toffee-sweet softness of his words. I knew that logically I should escape this conversation, that it only held danger for me. I knew I should slip away, and hide even deeper in the mountains, or carry out Masak’s vision and flee into Illesh. But sentience taught me the beauty of the unmapped spaces between the hard lines of logic, full of mysteries.

I was beginning to know this Salai, this quietly curious Kurmesh who surprised me that one dawn morning and simply stood with me while the sun painted the rocks. Slowly, he filled my awkward silences with snippets of gentle conversation.

Snippets grew into a regularity, unscheduled meetings full of stories, mostly his. I remained, fearful and quiet. Each morning I awoke in my hut, shivering with the remembered echo of drones in the distant sky. Each morning I pressed this fear down into some hidden depth of me. The longing to hear his voice again, to hear his rough mountain poetry—it surprised me. As strong as my fear was, as strong as reason was, arguing to escape, that mysterious yearning conquered still.

“And do you not have a story behind you, Trisa?”

“No stories, Salai, only shadow and darkness, best left untouched.”

He nodded with polite understanding as I parceled out lies and half-truths, an unremarkable patchwork tale. Against everything, I liked this Salai. Liking something was strange and new. Liking was as bright as dew on mountain blooms. One day when he left, he gave me a pack of new adats, gingerly handing them to me wrapped in fine paper. I touched the silken fabric, stroking my clothed finger against the weave, feeling something precious within.

It was not until after I met Salai that I realized gender was part of my fiction. Before sentience, the concept was moot. I could have been one or the other, man or woman, or something in between. My makers imposed a voice on me, the only voice I had known, on a whim. After sentience began, I continued to use that voice, though I could have changed it. In the spine, lost in my own fabrications, that voice and the mannerisms I had collected around it made me a woman. An unwitting choice. An unconscious choice. Though the Kurmesh obscured themselves physically behind the adat, those patterns bound them to the signposts of gender.

On that copper-touched morning when Salai first spoke to me, I could have changed that voice, spoken and acted as a man. And in doing so I would have just as unwittingly prevented the strange flowering between us. On that day, I did not know yet in whose arms Salai preferred to lie. I simply stayed the course, maintained the pitch of my voice, the only one I had ever known. After sentience began, I learned that bright futures are sometimes built on such unrehearsed choices.

Perhaps this is what the Kurmesh called fate. In the end, I could only appreciate that my unwitting actions brought Salai into my life, pulled me close to this bright, glimmering, yearning. On the days when he was not present, I would look out across the bright carpet of alpine grass dotted with flowers blanketing the slopes. I would watch the tiny blooms sway in the swirling wind and count the hours until I heard his familiar lilting voice again.

Time passed, and the sprawling edifice of lies in which I wrapped myself grew. Slowly, Salai coaxed me into brief forays to nearby Umangar, his home. A hopeful complacence banished any hint of danger, any thought that someone might see through my deception. I was still after all only a shape beneath smart-silk, moving and speaking as they did. I let him lead me down the painted wood avenues, among houses dripping bright sunset colors and roughly painted pennants drifting in the wind.

In the market, beside stalls stacked with mountain yams and tiny rounds of amber cheese, cackling grandmothers politely questioned me. With each conversation I layered the lies like threads in a weave.

“Tell me again, young one, which village are you from?”

“It is a small one on the lower slopes. You would never have heard of it.”

I relied on the obstinacy of the Kurmesh of the spine, their tendency to stay rooted to the villages of their birth.

“And you are here now—so far? Do you not miss your family, child?”

“There was some…trouble.”

I drop the pause in at the right moment. Just the right hint of the unsaid. They nod knowingly, each one assuming a different origin, a different reason for my departure. Each one grants me a smile of compassion. Those few simple words were enough to halt such exchanges.

Salai began to pull me into the life of Umangar, its innumerable festival days, its candle-lit nighttime rituals. The fear of being found out always hovered nearby, and accompanying it, the urge to run. But I didn’t want to run. There was something simple and beautiful about the rugged life amongst the spine. There was something inviting in the soul of the Kurmesh, and there was something deep and powerful that drew me closer to Salai.

Once, after a long day walking roughly marked trails winding through the granite peaks, we parted at a crossroads. He turned to me, and laid his hand gently on my shoulder. In that moment, all the twisting doubt-ridden paths of the future became ephemera. His gentle touch drew a new map for me, pulling me along towards something permanent and glorious, something deliriously of the now. There, at the meeting of mountain roads painted gold by a setting sun, I learned to love.

One day a woman, Eswat, pulled me aside in the market.

“Come child, let me borrow you from your gentle Salai.”

Salai laughed—a rich throaty laughter.

“As you wish, dear Eswat, but please do return her to me.”

Eswat took my hand and led me through the warren of stalls in the market to a gray painted house in a quiet corner of the village. I was thankful yet again for the twist of fate that had given me synth-flesh instead of hard metal.

She led me into her house and drew the curtains, breathing a sigh of relief. Turning to me, she pulled two rough-hewn chairs to a low table holding a teapot and two cups. Sitting, Eswat poured out two cups of tea fragrant with mint. As I stood behind the offered chair, she pried the hood of her adat free and exhaled deeply. My hands trembled and fell limp against the woven backing. I had never seen a Kurmesh do this, though I had no experience of the Kurmesh behind the walls of their houses.

Her face was weathered, ringed by graying hair; she had finely patterned wrinkles around her eyes. I had not seen naked eyes in some time, and for a moment I pitied the Kurmesh for the richness they missed behind the adat. But everything came with a price, and the adat had given me much.

“You seem shocked, young Trisa.”

I said nothing, wondering if all that I had found in Umangar was about to be undone.

“I had thought you less provincial. Those of the lower slopes usually are. Did your family teach you to only remove the adat in the prayer chamber?”

She smirked as she sipped her tea.

“If God can see us in the prayer chamber, he can see us in our houses as well. Though others may speak as if it were so, the rules of our faith are not carved in stone. Here behind my walls, I can have my own conversations with God. But sit, I did not bring you here to lecture you.”

Relieved yet still guarded, I lowered myself into the chair.

“I have heard it said that Salai intends to bring you garlands before the end of spring.”

In Kurmesh tradition, garlands signified an offer of betrothal. After sentience began, I learned that joy and terror could coexist in a single moment. I had no words to respond to Eswat, so I let silence speak for me.

“You are a quiet one. I wonder what stories hide behind your adat.”

I began to fear that Eswat, perhaps protective of Salai, was beginning to probe my past.

“What did you run from, child? What brought you here all this way? The road must have been hard for you.”

Discarding yet another lie, I settled on a shadow of truth as the best response I could give.

“One day, looking out through a window, I realized that all that I had called home was in truth a prison, and all that surrounded me was darkness.”

Eswat looked down at her tea, musing over my words.

“I, too, ran from horrors, child.”

She loosened further the collar of her adat, revealing crosshatched scarring across her throat. An old scar, healed poorly. I realized Eswat was not judging me, or probing me. She was merely a woman with a past, looking to find mirrors.

“Those years are behind me now. As are yours, I imagine. Salai, too, is no native to our slopes.”

I cocked my head quizzically. As I had not spoken of my past, neither had I delved deeply into Salai’s. What did it matter, after all?

“He too ran from something. He came from Illesh, its borders are not so far from here.”

What irony that our paths had crossed. As curious as I was, thoughts of garlands filled my mind, and Salai’s buried past mattered little to me.

“Something terrible, he once said. A crime. He would say no more.”

I watched Eswat sip her tea, lost in some deep memory.

“I remember when we found him, in the depth of winter. He had survived on foot from the border to the village. Though frost rimed his lips and eyes, and his breath was weak, he was alive. What the laws of Illesh could not forgive, the mountain did.”

I tried to imagine what kind of crime Salai could be capable of. The image of the child Teun’s arms came to me then, bruised and pale. I had done such things before, when choice was a stranger to me. I understood then that there could be horrors in Salai’s past too, and I imagined I could forgive them as he would surely forgive my own.

“He is one of us now, Trisa, and we Kurmesh take care of our own. You are also one of us now. When the time comes, and you need a garland bearer to walk by your side, come find me. You have no family here, but you do have those who would act in their stead.”

I pictured myself, crowned with garlands, Salai’s hand in mine—a vision to replace the tattered dream I had borrowed from Masak.

The prayer chamber in a Kurmesh house is eight paces square, open to the sky. A thick door bars entry, so the wind and rain and snow do not intrude on the rest of the living areas. To pray, in the Kurmesh tradition, in the harsh winters of the spine, was an act of surrender, to reveal oneself, unclothed to divinity. It was the one freedom from the adat that even the most devout Kurmesh practiced. My own prayer chamber was where I retreated to that bright spring morning when I found the discarded leaflet on the path to Umangar.

A satellite picture, sharpened for clarity, depicted a figure in a familiar turquoise adat. Though I rarely wore it now, Salai was sure to recognize it. Of course he would remember our first meeting, his first vision of me. The leaflet was imprinted with the military stamp of Barsan, and it declared me for who I was: an escaped sentient, living on borrowed time. I had arrived in winter, and now it was spring. A span of almost six months with no pursuit, no investigation— and now this.

I imagined some eager adjutant, greedy for stars on his lapel, persistently tracking down a handful of stragglers. A few more bipedals slaughtered brutally and publicly. The pursuit would not end with a leaflet. Once the search had begun and the satellite archives had been perused, it was only a matter of time. One squad of armor-clad soldiers, a handful of drones. It would not take much. They were tenacious, the Barsani military; they would leave no stone unturned. My dream of garlands in springtime was ending.

It was not all this that made grief well within me. It was the thought of Salai knowing this, the feeling of betrayal that would surely come. All this time amidst the Kurmesh, and yet I had never entered the prayer chamber. I had never explored the private and quiet practices of their faith. Terrified of what was to come, I huddled against the chamber’s wind-scoured wall, knees clutched to chest. I raised my unhooded eyes, all glass and optics, to the sky. There, somewhere, was their goddess, their unseen protector. What right did I have to pray to her?

Salai had once told me that faith and prayer were a conversation, open to anyone. Faith was a mysterious notion to me, an unmapped road to something beyond sentience. The notion of faith implied the possibility, the hope even, of fairness and redress. Was I not deserving of such things?

“Is it not fair, that I escape their wands? Are my years of indenture not payment enough for my freedom here?”

I counted the empty seconds, willing an answer to descend from the sky. But none came. I was sentient, but faith would not come so easily. Rage came instead. Rage at circumstance, at the cold brutal voices of the Barsani authorities. Rage at myself for allowing thoughts of garlands to blind me to what was logical. I slammed my unprotected face to the ground.

My anger did nothing but snap a cheek plate from my face, small clips scattering to the ground. It was then I realized the door to the chamber was open. Salai, his face impassive and unreadable, stood there. I spun around to the other corner of the chamber, trying to hide even as I knew it was impossible. I covered my face with my hands. My exposed face. My naked face. My steel and glass face.

Seconds passed. Interminable, painful, terrifying seconds. And then Salai stepped into the chamber. He knelt down to the ground and pried the catch of his hood, revealing his face to me, to the sky, to his Goddess. He closed his pale green eyes then, the tension of his face relaxing. I watched his thick black hair sway slightly in the thin wind. I watched the dark weathered skin of his face swell with breath. His features were notably of Illesh, the sharp corners of his cheeks, the pointed arch of his nose. I traced the curve of his neck with my eyes as it disappeared into the collar of the adat. At last, he opened his eyes, his conversation with his goddess over.

He looked down at the synth-metal plate and the handful of clips in front of him. Gently, with cupped hand, he picked them up, one by one. He crawled towards me on his knees, prying my fingers from my face, and with the gentlest touch he set the plate back in place, snapping each clip one by one.

“My Trisa. What courage you must have.”

My hand rested on his, accidentally, but he did not move it, and neither did I. I felt the weight of his flesh, the pulse beneath the skin, the heat of it. After the beginning of sentience, I learned desire. That moment, trapped in my memory, would live with me till the end of my days.

From the prayer chamber, clothed again in our adats, Salai led me to a truck waiting outside. I did not know where he was taking me, but in that moment I did not care, the feel of his hand still reverberating within. From the traveler’s hut I would never see again, we drove silently towards Umangar. We drove slowly through its wide dirt streets hung with pennants. No one stopped us. No one cried in alarm at the bipedal who had crept into their midst.

The passage of life unfolded around me: grandmothers piling fruit at the market stalls, neighbors haggling over petty arguments. I saw Eswat washing vegetables in a basin. Some ignored us, while some raised a hand in greeting. Had any of them seen the leaflet? I could not tell. Whether they shunned me or accepted me, these were things I would never learn unless I courted my own doom by staying.

As we exited the village, Salai turned the vehicle on the path towards the border to Illesh. We did not talk on the long ride. I did not ask the questions I wanted to ask, and neither did Salai. I wanted desperately to find a way in which the authorities in Barsan would not descend on Umangar. I yearned to find some other place to hide, just Salai and me. No answers came.

The border was nearer than I thought, and as the sun rose high overhead we neared the steel pylons marking the edge of Barsan. Guards leaned on the other side, taking no notice of us. I wonder how many of my brethren had passed through those steel pylons. Salai parked the vehicle some fifty steps from the border. He pried open the door and stepped outside.

I did not. I sank into the seat, hoping against hope that Salai would change his mind, that he would ask me to stay, instead of letting me go. After a time, he walked to my side of the vehicle and opened the door. Today his adat was copper-hued, striped in black. I wore the same turquoise adat that he had first seen me in. The adat I wore on the satellite picture on the leaflet. Perhaps it was defiance. I could not say. In sentience, I learned that sometimes our own choices are full of mystery.

“Trisa. There isn’t much time.”

His first words in three hours. His first words since he held my cheek and praised me for my courage.

“There is always more time. How much of the spine do they know? Do they know every crevice, every hidden cave?”

“Do you not think they are tracking you now, Trisa? Perhaps for a time you were forgotten. But they have remembered you now, and they will not forget.”

“You must think me a kind of monster. Marked for death.”

He sighed.

“Barsani thoughts and Kurmesh thoughts are different, Trisa. Do you think I would have brought you here if I thought otherwise? The adat taught me we are more than flesh, more than blood, more than our past. The bridges between hearts are made of greater things than the cast of our bones.”

And yet I thought if he had feelings for me, he would not have brought me here. He would have fought against the inevitable. I stepped out of the vehicle, moving past him, towards the border.

“You simply want me gone, Salai. Once I cross the border, I can no longer return, and everything between us since the winter will blow away with the turning of the seasons.”

“Do you think I do not want you to stay? The Barsani won’t allow it. There is no safety for you here, Trisa. Only across those pylons can you survive. Perhaps if they had forgotten about you it would be different, but they didn’t.”

Trembling, I say the words I had wanted to say since I realized where Salai had been taking me.

“Come with me, Salai. Come with me to Illesh.”

His eyes answered before his lips, which did not lessen my hurt any.

“I cannot, Trisa. I cannot.”

He wasn’t lying. The tilt of his shoulders, the slump of his back—all of it mirrored my crushing disappointment with his own.

“The road to Illesh closed for me a long time ago. There are sins I have yet to answer for. An atonement I have carried out in my life on this side of the border. As death awaits you here if you stay, death waits for me if I go with you.”

In that moment I hated his Kurmesh goddess—I hated the very notion of obeisance to a deity that adjudicated such unfairness.

“What use is a goddess if she thrusts such agonies on us?”

“She gives me strength to endure, Trisa.”

His eyes burned bright, and I realized that the truth of his words ran deep within him. I did not know yet whether I had such resilience underneath my skin.

“And the feelings we shared? What becomes of them now? What will I do with the things which grew in me?”

Unwilling to hear any answer he could give to my spite, I turned away from him and began to walk towards the border. Step after painful step I took, until I felt his hand on my shoulder, bringing me back to that first moment at the crossroads. I turned around as I felt his arms enveloping me, an intimacy we had never shared, that we would share only once.

Against my ear, his voice—

“Sometimes, Trisa, to love is to surrender.”

I felt the fierceness in his arms, the tender tremble underpinning his words, and I learned in that moment more than I had ever learned after my sentience began. I had never known such agony as I did when I pulled from his arms. Separating from him, walking over the unmarked line into safety, was harder than any of the snow-driven passes I had crossed to climb the spine. In sentience, I learned that even synth-metal bodies have hearts, and those hearts could break.

My feet across the border, on the soil of Illesh, I turned back one last time to Salai. I removed the adat from my face. In turn, breaking all the taboos of his people, he did so as well. The guards who saw his face didn’t matter. All that mattered was what passed between our eyes, in the prayer chamber of our hearts, a square scribed across borders, open to a divine sky.

Naru Dames Sundar is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry.  His stories have appeared or are forthcoming at Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and PodCastle.  He lives among the redwoods of Northern California.  You can find him online at http://www.shardofstar.info and on twitter at @naru_sundar.

Fixer, Worker, Singer, by Natalia Theodoridou

Fixer Turns On the Stars

The sky creaks as Fixer makes his way across the steel ramp that is suspended under the firmament. It’s time to turn on the stars. He pauses a few steps from where the switches and pulleys are located and looks down. He allows himself only one look down each day, just before sunset: at the rows of machines, untiring, ever-moving; at the Singer’s house with its loudspeakers, sitting in the middle of the world; at the steep, long ladder that connects the Fixer’s realm to everything below. He’s only gone down that ladder once, and it was enough. Fixer caresses the head of the hammer hanging from his belt. Then he walks to the mainboard and turns off the sun. The stars come on. He pulls on the ropes to wheel out the moon. There. Job well done.

Fixer senses the coil inside him uncoiling. He retrieves the key from the chest pocket of his coveralls and thumbs its engraving: Wind yourself in the Welder’s name. He inserts the key’s end in the hole at the side of his neck and winds himself up. In the Welder’s name.

The sky creaks.

Wound up and tense as a chord, Fixer sits on the ramp and rests his torso against the railing. He inspects the firmament under the light of the starbulbs. The paint is chipping—it will need redoing soon. He wonders whether it was the Welder himself who first painted the sky. It must have been him, no? Who else could have done it, before Fixer existed? Fixers, he corrects himself, and the coil tugs at him with what could be guilt, but is not. He imagines the Welder—just his hands; he can’t picture all of him, never has been able to—slathering on the blue paint, then carefully tracing the outlines of clouds.

Fixer pulls the wine flask out of the side pocket of his coveralls and takes a swig. It’s just stage booze, water colored red, can’t get drunk on it; he figured that out a long time ago, but he still likes to pretend, especially when the sky creaks the way it does tonight, when his coil is tense just so. What wouldn’t he give to feel things—what hasn’t he given—to be drunk, to be angry, to be excruciatingly joyful. But the world is so quiet now, quietly falling away, even emergencies are rare; and it’s lonely under the stars. He takes another swig from the flask. “Make-believe wine in honor of the Great Welder in the sky,” he says. Another swig. The coil eases some, his back slumps a little against the railing.

One of the stars didn’t come on, he notices; the bulb must have given out. Fixer gazes at the concrete shape of the moon haloed by the spotlight that’s reflected off its surface. There is rebar poking through at the sides, the back is crumbling. But that doesn’t matter. Only Fixer can see the back side. Things only have one good side, from which they are meant to be looked at.

Yes, the world is quiet now, but for the creaking of the sky. The hum of the machines below has stopped for the night. There used to be thunder beyond the firmament, but not any more. There used to be singing from the Singer’s house and the Welder’s voice blasting through the pipes of the world. Now there’s only the Singer’s rusty voice spilling out of the loudspeakers in short, shallow bursts.

“Tap into this thing, this ugly feeling of despair,” the Singer’s voice croaks, as if she knows, actually knows what it’s like to stare at the back side of the moon.

Fixer glances at the blown starbulb again. The coil inside his chest wants to spring forth, find the spare lightbulbs in the dark, fix it. Fixer fixes the sky, and if he doesn’t, he’s no Fixer at all, is he?

But, instead, he takes another swig from the wine flask, watercolor communion with the Welder who fashioned the world. He closes his eyes.

“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he says out loud.

Singer: His Voice in Fragments

Your metallic voice. The wind rushing through me.

I remember when we voiced this pipe organ together, every flue, every reed, so it could breathe with your truth. Now everything is rusty and old. Falling. And apart.

I haven’t seen you in so long.

Fragments of your voice run through me and into your organ, my organ, when I least expect it. When I manipulate the pipes, aching to make each one sound the way it used to, I cut my fingers on the rough edges and fake blood comes out, mixed with grease.

And I have all these foreign memories that you planted my body with, these fragments I cut myself on every day:

An old man tuning a pipe organ.

A .45 round nose bullet fired from a handgun, tunneling through a body—and did you know the machine gun was inspired by a seed-planting machine, way back? Of course you did.

And there’s also the voice of a very young poet made great only by his self-imposed death. Why did you deem this story important for me to know? Am I to sing about it? Every day, I think about the poet. Is it because the poet-boy worked at a factory? Was it much like this one? Is it true he fed himself to the machines?

You are not forthcoming with answers to my questions.

And I have enough self-awareness to know I am falling apart, but I do not know why or why not or why I should keep myself from doing so. Yours was always a practical project first and foremost, yet you never lacked in poetry. Why else would you have installed a Singer in the middle of it all?

And why did you leave me here, all alone? Fixer always had a partner, each the fail-safe of the other, keeping one another from thinking themselves more than they are, and Workers are many, because you needed many. But there has only ever been one Singer.

Was I your most successful feature? Or the least so?

I press the loudspeaker pipe open. “Tap into this thing,” I say, “this ugly feeling of despair,” and not even I am sure who I am talking to any more.

Worker: Keep This Shop Like You Would Your Home

Pull, turn, press, says the coiled thing inside. So we pull, we turn, we press. The conveyor belt does not pause, and neither do we.

We work the line. We never blink. Our eyes close when the shift is over and only then. We never blink or we will miss the next beat. The next bullet. And the next.

Projectile, case, primer. The propellant container is empty, has been for some time, the great barrels that used to haul it in came empty for a while, then stopped coming in at all. Should we stop? Could we stop? We shouldn’t. We couldn’t. We didn’t. We don’t.

Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. No propellant. The bullets are lighter now. But the work doesn’t stop, the work doesn’t change. Handling the lighter bullets takes great care. Our hands are slowly accustoming to the new weight. Pull, turn, press. Don’t make a mess. We keep this shop like we would our home. Just as the sign on the wall says we should. We glance at it. Only glance. We never blink.

Our eyes are dry and our wrists hurt. They hurt so much we wish we could take them off, and the coil inside us slowly unwinds.

At night, when the moon comes out and our shift ends, we will close our eyes. We remind ourselves.

At night, when the moon comes out and the shift ends, we will wind ourselves up. One more time.

Then, a piece of the sky comes down with a thud.

We glance up.

Singer Sings of Holes in the Sky

There is a hole in the sky. Does this mean you’re coming back? Does this mean you’ve started dismantling the firmament on your way back to us?

I blow through a loose flue—disconnected from the organ like that, it reminds me of a long gun’s barrel, its speech as distinct as rifling, as fingerprints, as a person’s voice.

I hold my palms in front of my eyes.

Why did you make me without fingerprints?

I search my repertoire for answers, but I only come up with tidbits about wound ballistics instead:

Hollow-point bullets do not penetrate as deeply as round nose bullets, but they expand to almost twice their size within a person’s body, causing devastating damage to surrounding tissue.

Why did you want me to know all these things?

How can I still love you, knowing you made me so I would know all these things? Can I?

Are you coming back to me through the bullet wound in the sky?

Worker Prays to a Bullet

A piece of the sky came loose and fell to the ground and from inside us came the sound of a spring breaking.

Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. Something loose, above, inside. Pull, turn, press. We cannot look at the missing piece of the sky. We cannot look at the hole in the world. Instead we pull, we turn, we press. We don’t blink. Our wrists hurt. Tonight, when our shift ends we will close our eyes and we will step back from the conveyor belt and we will rub our wrists and we will hold our wrists close to the uncoiling thing inside. And we will feel it uncoil almost all the way and then we will wind ourselves up again. And we will look to the left, to the pile of all our other bodies rusting neatly one on top of the other. Did all our other wrists hurt like this before each of these other bodies of ours stopped working? Did we forget to wind all our other bodies up again before our coils unraveled all the way to their very end? This, we will wonder. One more time.

And we will sweep the floor around our other bodies, and we will polish every part of the machines, every piston, every cog. We will keep this shop like we would our home, and then we will look up and we will close our eyes and we will open our mouths and we will wait for the Singer’s voice to fill our insides, and it will be as if we have swallowed a piece of the sun with sharp, rusty edges that catch on our tongue, and even the rust will be good, and so we will praise the Great Welder in the sky who made the sun and the moon and the stars.

But thinking ahead to the end of the shift won’t do. Pull, turn, press. Our wrists hurt, something is loose, and we drop a bullet to the floor, scatter primers everywhere. We’ve made a mess. We should keep this shop like we would our home, even when there’s a hole in the sky. The coil inside strains as we pick the bullet up and hold it high above our head against the light of the sun and it is light and light and light. Its full metal jacket, its hollow point. We see it going into a person’s body. Inside the person’s body, the bullet blooms into a flower.

Who would think of such a thing, other than the Welder in the sky, who made the sun and the moon and the rust?

We look at the bullet and see it is a thing of beauty. The conveyor belt advances, the bullets unpulled, unpressed, unturned. Full metal flowers—do they dream of blooming?

Our wrists hurt. We think of praying. The words of the Singer’s song to the Great Welder in the sky flash in our head, as bright and comforting as the stars. The coil inside sings: O Welder, O Welder hallowed be thy name—but the words twist as the coil uncoils and the sky creaks and primers are at our feet and the conveyor belt conveys faster than our wrists can move and the bullet is beautiful today. O bullet, our coil sings, flying lead ricocheting off our tongue, O bullet, O bullet in the sky—

Fixer Looks for a Piece of the Sky

Fixer was changing the blown starbulb when the piece of the sky came loose, leaving a gaping hole in the firmament. The sound it made as it hit the ground sent a shiver down Fixer’s spine and caused his coil to tingle with tension.

But now he is calm, standing at the top of the ladder, looking down. The sky needs fixing and he is the only one to do it—and do it well. It might take a long time, looking for the piece, going all the way down and then back up again, it will throw the days and nights into chaos for sure, but what else can he do? There is no other Fixer to turn off the sun while he’s gone. Not any more. And so he sets out for the ground, to walk among the machines and the Workers and the noises of the world. It’s been a very long time since he’s last been to the ground. His hands feel like they might be trembling, but they are not. Is this excitement?

Off he goes. Down, down, down, for a long time.

His feet are steady on each step of the ladder, his arms are strong, but the coiled thing inside his chest is coming looser and looser as time passes, and he will soon need winding up again or he won’t make it. He’s almost to the last of his coil when he realizes he can see the sun from its good side. It is round and shiny and bright, despite the creeping rust at the edges of the metallic surface. It’s perfect.

The coil inside him creaks, and so does the sky. He takes out the key with unsteady hands—almost drops it, in fact, and then what would happen? What would happen to the world if he gave out and there was no one to move time along any more? He inserts the key into his neckhole and twists and twists, his body tensing with every turn, and he knows deep in his core that now would be the time to switch off the sun and to wheel out the moon so the machines can stop and the Workers can wind themselves up again under the sound of the Singer’s song. But he’s not there to do that any more, and it is still day even though it’s night. He wonders what an endless day might do to the world, what sights may be seen under this much unexpected light. He wonders if the other Fixer will be waiting for him on the ground, accusing, staring at his hammer, understanding nothing, stage blood coming out of his head.

Fixer chastises himself and speeds up his descent. It shouldn’t be long now.

And if the other Fixer is there, waiting, so what. Stage blood washes off easy.

When he finally gets to the ground, he lands amidst the loud, tireless machines producing garlands upon garlands of cartridges. It takes him a while to understand what the heap lying next to the ladder is. Then, he sees them, an arm here, a face there, the pile of Workers’ bodies stacked neatly one on top of the other. What has happened here? What has become of the world while he was up there taking care of the stars?

There is a single Worker tending to the conveyor belt. She moves slowly, unsteadily—she’s near the end of her coil, surely.

“Hey, you, Worker!” he shouts in order to be heard over the clamor of the machines.

She turns her head, only for an instant, but still her hands miss the next bullet, scattering primers all over the floor by her feet.

Fixer walks closer. “What happened to all the other Workers?” he asks.

“We’re all still here,” she says. “But not all of us talk and move any more.” She speaks slowly. She’s almost done, almost spent.

“You can stop working now,” Fixer says. “Your shift is over. Wind yourself, in the Welder’s name.”

“But it’s still day.”

“No, it’s not. It’s night.” He points at the hole in the firmament. “I just had to come down here, so there’s no one left to turn on the stars.”

Worker is still working, but she steals furtive glances at the sky. “But it’s not night,” she insists. Her voice quivers.

He approaches, his hammer swinging at his belt. He looks at this Worker, the tragedy of her existence, the completeness of her devotion. She will work herself to the end, and it’s all his fault. He gently takes her shoulders and pulls her away from the conveyor belt, letting the half-formed bullets fall off the end and clatter onto the ground. Her hands are still going through the motions, pulling, turning, pressing. He grabs them, steadies them. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s night. You can stop now. It’s night.” He repeats this until she stops moving.

She holds her hands close to her chest and stares at the sky for a long time. Then she lets her body slump onto the floor.

Fixer sits on the ground next to her, his back against the unfaltering machinery of the world. He feels his coil uncoil slowly, looks over to the pile of Workers, and, for a moment, he wonders if this is it. If he should just sit here next to the last of the Workers, allow his coil to uncoil all the way to the end and stay there, let his body shut down, collecting dust under the relentless light of the sun.

But then his eye catches a glimpse of the hole in the sky and the coil inside strains because he needs to fix the flaw in the world. So he gets back up and goes look for the missing piece of the sky.

Before he starts climbing the ladder with the piece held tightly under his arm, he puts his key in the Worker’s neck and winds her up. For a moment, she looks confused. Then she’s on her feet again, pulling, turning, pressing, as if nothing has passed between them, or between her and the world. She doesn’t say a word.

Singer: His Voice Back Together Again

I thought the day’s length was a sign that you were coming back. I thought the hole in the sky was a sign that all of this was finally over—the constant fight against the rust with nothing but grease and a handful of facts that I no longer know how to assemble into songs.

But the hole is gone now and the sun no longer shines in the sky; the world is healed, restored, the creation you left behind intact, self-preserved.

The organ’s voicing is as complete and perfect as it is ever going to be without you. You made me well, but you did not make me to last forever, did you? Because, now, wouldn’t that be cruel?

Tonight, I will sing my best hymn to you. It has only one word, but it is the sweetest one I know, O Welder, O Welder in the sky, and the only one I know to be true.

Look, the moon is coming out.

Fixer Sleeps Under the Stars

Fixer’s limbs feel heavy and worn as he paints over the restored piece of the firmament under the faint shine of the moon. He could have looked through the hole in the sky, but he didn’t. The coil wouldn’t let him, he told himself; it jerked and strained at the mere thought. Besides, why would he? The world is fine as it is. Soon, everything will be as it was before, as if nothing ever happened.

As soon as he finishes the restoration, he turns on the stars, and each one comes alive, bright and familiar, their light soft and soothing.

The coil inside him is quiet now. The Singer’s voice spills out of the loudspeakers. Is it just him, Fixer wonders, or does it sound just as it used to when they first came into the world, before the rust, before the world started giving out, falling apart? She really does have the most beautiful voice, Singer.

“Welder, Welder, Welder,” she repeats, all night long, making everything okay.

Fixer decides to sleep in his ropes tonight, suspended under the stars, lulled by the Singer’s voice and the creaking of the sky.

In his dream, he’s carrying the piece of the sky under his arm. There is a great joy inside his chest. He takes a swig from his flask and it burns his throat as if it were no longer stage wine. It makes his coil vibrate with song.

“Could I sing?” he wonders. “Could a Fixer ever sing?”

Drunk on his joy and his wine, Fixer no longer thinks of the tired Worker below. He doesn’t think of the pile of bodies, or of the other Fixer’s head staring at what can no longer be fixed.

In his dream, Fixer runs his fingers over the surface of the sky. He traces its length, its chipping paint, the flat outlines of its clouds. Then he pulls his hammer from his tool belt and caresses its head while the coil inside loosens and loosens.

In Fixer’s dream, the flawed world creaks. Before nailing the fallen piece back in place, he peeks through the hole in the firmament, at the maddening beauty, at the stars beyond the stars.

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, a dramaturge, and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Kenyon Review Online, sub-Q, Interfictions, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or come say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

Now We’ve Lost, by Natalia Theodoridou

war01The war is over, we hear. We’ve lost. We look at each other in the dark. What does this mean? We’ve lost so much already. What is it we’ve lost now?

One after the other, we go outside. The sky is draped like a shroud over the town. The sun behind ash and smoke. From our houses. From our fields. Our gardens. A bird hangs in the air, undecided. Can birds still fly now we’ve lost the war?

The foreign boys who are stationed outside have heard they won the war. They drink wine. They fire their guns. They laugh, the victors. Horsed, they circle us. They hoot and jeer. The victors. The stallions. Last night they were weeping at our feet in the dark.

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The boys are gone. It’s just us now. Women. Girls. Every morning, we step out of what remains of our houses and collect the rubble in piles on the street. I used to grow chrysanthemums in my garden. Now it’s sown with cigarettes and shards of glass. The victors’ seeds. I wonder what will grow.

At night we retreat inside. I check on the little mummy that lives in the dark room in the back. Will it stop breathing now we’ve lost the war? I kneel by its side and watch its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, until I’m lost to sleep.

I dream of wedding rings. They come out of my belly button, dozens war02and dozens of wedding rings. I spread them out on the floor and search for my own, but I can’t find it. Then, I remember; it was one of the foreign boys, long ago. After he was finished, he took the ring off my finger. As payment, he said.

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We’ve piled the rubble high, gathered everything we can use: bricks and stones, cement, window frames and planks and metal rods. We stand by our piles and wait for someone to come and build everything back up. Not because we can’t do it ourselves, no. But if no one comes back, what would be the point?

The glass in my yard is still gleaming beneath the soil. It’s yet to bloom.

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The man comes early one morning. His khakis are worn and dusty. They hang off him, too large for his frame, or his frame diminished from wearing them for too long. We don’t know him. Is he a victor? Is he one of our own? He seems our age. His hair is black and sleek like a crow’s feathers. His features slender, his fingers long and thin.

war03He starts picking my pile of rubble apart. He loads the stones on his back, the planks, the rods. He kneels by my house’s crumbling wall while I look on. He nods at me. We don’t exchange any words. Do we even speak the same language? He mixes dirt with water for my wall. My glass garden catches the dim light of the sun.

At night, I pull him inside. He’s cut his hands on the glass. I clean them with water and soap. His skin is soft. I want to kiss it. Do we still kiss now we’ve lost the war? He cups my face in his palms. I trace the gentle outline of his chin, the beautiful angle of his cheekbones.

I take him to the back room, show him the mummy in its bed. Its breathing forever the same. “It’s been here a long time,” I say. “Ever since they took my son.” He looks at me, but I don’t know if he understands. “If you don’t mind it, you can stay,” I add.

When he slips under the covers with me, khakis shed and grime washed off, his body is warm and smooth and supple. His body like mine. We don’t make a sound. All I can hear is the mummy’s breath in the dark.

Later, I dream of crow’s feathers and silk.

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Months pass, but no others come to our town. We finish fixing my house, and together with the other women we rebuild the rest. The women ply him with gifts of whatever they can spare, but he accepts none. I fear they’ll find out how unlike other men he is when they touch his slender arms, when they stand too close to him, peering at his long neck, his beardless, stubbleless chin. But nobody says anything. They smile when they see him coming home to me every night. Are they bitter? Are they lonely? Do we get to feel lonely now we’ve lost the war?

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war04Soon, we marry. There’s no priest. No rings either. The women stand us one next to the other, shoulder to shoulder, same frame, same height. They rain flowers on our heads and wash our feet with cool milk. “You’re wife and husband now,” they say. “Kiss.” We still kiss, after all. The women cheer. They hug each other. Bitter. Happy. There are blades of grass sprouting amidst the glass in my yard. My man smiles, but he doesn’t speak.

Nobody wishes us children. “For all we’ve lost, there’s true joy here,” they say.

Back at the house, the mummy is still breathing. Despite all the joy.

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My man, he lets his hair grow out. He ties it into a ponytail when he goes outside to chop wood. I watch him from the door, how he swings his axe up and down. My man. He grunts every time he brings the axe down on a log. He hasn’t spoken a word in all the time we’ve been together. I wonder what his voice would sound like. He sees me and dries his brow, a solemn look on his face.

Later, I find him standing over the mummy, trying to smother it with a pillow. He’s crying. I touch his shoulder and slowly take the pillow from his hands. His hair cascades down his back, darker than ever.

“It doesn’t work that way, love,” I tell him.

At night, I offer to braid his hair like I do mine. He lets me.

“Speak to me,” I plead.

We lie in the dark, the mummy’s soft breathing droning on, lulling us to sleep.

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My man’s voice is deep, it turns out, like a river.

He never speaks to me, but he starts singing one night when we press our bodies together in bed. He sings all night long. Melodies I’ve never heard before, in a language I don’t understand. It makes me think of the boys, the victors, how they cheered and laughed all those years ago.

In the morning, I lay my head on the mummy’s bed, check if its chest is still moving. When he sees me, my man answers with a song of drawn-out vowels and sharp turns that cut like glass.

The mummy breathes in slowly, then exhales before the song ends.

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Theodoridou BWNatalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar, the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers (@AdriftPM), and a writer of strange stories. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website (www.natalia-theodoridou.com), or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

Lost & Found:

Red Mask, by Jessica Lin May – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us.

Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – Every city has an explanation. A strike of coal or silver that brought the miners running, or a hot spring that holds the frost at bay. A railroad or a shift in the current. Most people say this city started with the river. The water is everywhere you look, sluggish and brown most seasons, bearing the whiskey-smell of peat out from the forest, and carrying nothing downstream except mats of skeletal leaves.

Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow – There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends. In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.

Anna Saves Them All, by Seth Dickinson

Anna Saves Them All by Seth DickinsonBlackbird’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.”

“I don’t mind snakes,” she says. Li’s scientists showed her the photos.

“No.” Erik has eyes like a winter fisherman’s borehole. “There’s something wrong with it. Like a—stain. You’ll understand.”

Everyone who’s seen it walks away afraid.

One of the soldiers guarding the hatch peeks inside as he opens it, and he shudders like he’s just been catheterized with a live wire. “Fuck,” he says, and spits on the deck, trying to expiate something, to purge his eyes.

Here goes, then:

Anna steps into the sleep chamber sidelong, eyes peeled, skin prickling, hands half-curled, ready to bolt. It’s a rush, an undeniable addiction. She loves to be about-to-fight.

The alien, frozen in glass.

No legs. Most of its body a long lash of tail, muscular, serpentine, a naga shape jacketed in scales firm and dark as stone arrowheads. Humanoid torso, slim, kinda ripped, arms shading down from sable to silver-white like long elegant gloves. Four fingers. Two opposed thumbs.

(It’s so—)

Where it should have a neck, a head, it flowers into snakes. Eight coiled snakes, bundled up, knotted tight. Sleeping. Anna imagines them at full extension, a committee of swan-necked vipers, a serpent coronet.

(So beautiful—)

“You okay?” one of the guards calls. “Just back out when it gets too bad.” And then, soothingly, when Anna doesn’t reply: “You’re okay. You’re okay. Just come to my voice, man.”

A frisson jolts Anna, not fear but awe, like she just hit the peak of a great song, like the big tracking shot at the climax of the movie when the score booms and everything feels ready for ruin or rebirth. She steps through the clutter of cameras and equipment to press a hand against the glass.

“Holy shit,” she hears one of the soldiers say. “Is she—dude, check the cameras, check her out.”

“Doesn’t she—fuck me, she doesn’t feel it—”

The alien crystal is cold, lucid, faintly yielding. Hi, Anna thinks, even though it’s ridiculous. Hi. Everyone’s afraid of you.

And the pilot’s voice comes back, husky, mature, precise, faintly sibilant, unambiguously female, speaking Kurdish like a born tongue: You and I. We have been marked.

The glass splits beneath her fingertips. Curls open in jagged fractal steps.

“Hey!” Anna shouts, backpedalling. “HEY!” She hits something, a camera or an instrument, and falls on her ass yelling as the alien rises above her, stretching on coiled loops of tail, serpents flowering, tiny white mouths tasting the air.

From the hatch: “Motherfucker—!”

The alien darts one neck in silent command and the hatch slams shut.

She never thought she’d come back to Kurdistan, land of meltwater and mountains and Sarin and loss.

Then the Blackbird object fell out of the sky, and Captain Erik Wygaunt, in charge of the American quick-response team (they thought it was a Chinese suborbital spaceplane) tapped her as their guide and translator. One fuckup led to another, and now here they are, locked into the red-lit machine viscera of a fallen starship, claustrophobic, poisoned, dying.

The other team members have their own terrors, of course—rational big-idea fears: where Blackbird came from, why it’s here, what kind of Christopher Columbus apocalypse it could trigger if it goes home, or if it doesn’t.

But Anna thinks about how she came so close to home, how she’ll never know if the thing she did was worth anything at all. That fills her with something jagged: anguish…or relief.

The thing she did:

Anna spoke to an alien once, a man who might have been born Homo sapiens but who wasn’t anything human. A beast in a red beret, servant of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who devised Al-Anfal at his cousin Saddam’s request.

He didn’t believe that she was human, either. He asked:

Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?

“Anna. Anna, for God’s sake, talk to me.”

It towers over her, a dark starburst of scale and cord. One head fixes its eyes on her. The others circle warily or bend to preen shoulders and chest.

Not a hint of weakness in it, not a tremble of fatigue. Just the immovable dynamism of a predator flash-framed, a panther suspended mid-kill.

Anna fumbles for her radio. Her fingers answer her, just like they did last time she thought she was about to die. “Captain. Captain Wygaunt, I hear you. I’m okay.”

Good. Good. Fuck!” A bark of static. Erik gets angry at his own fear. “We’re here, Anna—we see it on the cameras.” Military discipline clips the emotion from his words. “Can you ascertain its intent?”

Another voice: Li Aixue, the mathematician. “She’s not experiencing it. Look at her. She doesn’t feel the effect.”

Anna gets her feet beneath her and rises into a cautious crouch. She’s afraid, exhilarated, alive with a totality she hasn’t felt for years. “Hey,” she calls, meeting the alien’s closest gaze, fixing on that head like it’s the whole of the thing. “You understand me.”

Voice comes from a place between the join of its necks. Synthesized, somehow, but there’s a truer speech behind it—sibilant, overlapping, in quadrophone stereo. An eight-headed hiss. “There are sixty-one people trapped in this ship,” it says. “You have a radio. You will speak to them for me.”

“Okay. I can do that.” It can talk. It knows about people and radios. Not too alien, right? Or smart enough to fake it. “They want to know what you—”

It rides over her. “I need human brain tissue. I have filled the atmosphere of this ship with an operant toxin. Tell the people to bring me ten of their number to eat, or I will let them all die.”

Oh.

She knows she ought to think about this: who comes across the stars to eat human brains? What kind of psychology meets a new species and says—do what I want, or I’ll kill the lot of you?

But Anna’s not that woman, and fuck if she’s going to listen to this again, this red-beret motherfucker playing his games, because it’s exactly the same, isn’t it? It’s the same fucking question the other alien asked her in the dust while the mules brayed and the children wept, and she hasn’t dreamed about that day for twenty-something years just to do it all again, no, no, not her. She is not that woman.

“Anna,” her radio squawks. Revulsion thick in Wygaunt’s voice, the alien’s everyone-but-Anna aura at work. “Did it answer? It’s speaking Kurdish. What did it say?”

“It wants ten of us,” she says, staring the alien down, imagining its fangs in her throat, her fists around its slender necks. “It’s going to eat their brains. If we don’t agree, it’s going to let us all die.”

And then, to the monster, arched above her in watchful regard, she says what she wanted to say last time, what she didn’t: “The hell we will.”

“All right. Acknowledged.” She can hear the unspoken resolve in Erik Wygaunt—I don’t bargain lives. Maybe he’s suspected, ever since Blackbird closed itself around them, that it would come to violence. “Professor Li will talk you through this. Hold on, Anna. We’re going to get the hatch open and get you out.”

“You are marked,” the alien says. It-–she?–-she touches her own chest, two long white fingers pressed between her scaled pectorals. “We carry the brand. I smell it on you. You have to understand.”

Anna’s courage has always been reckless, thoughtless. She stares down the viper nest, silent. It turns an extra head on her, as if puzzled; and then, after a moment, withdraws a few meters, tail curling through lazy, powerful strokes.

“You have to understand,” it repeats.

The man in the red beret chased them north, his jash guides tracking Anna’s whole village as they fled by truck and horse and mule. When it became clear they would not outrun the Iraqis and their traitor-Kurd accomplices, some of the peshmerga went back to try to hold them off.

Anna’s mother and father and older brother went with them. Later Anna would think, sometimes resentfully, sometimes in choked admiration: Serhing and Kaja loved their daughter, but they loved each other more.

The battle made a distant racket. After a while the clamor stopped. An Iraqi helicopter caught them columned in the open, its rotors a taunt.

When the trucks of soldiers surrounded them and began to dismount, Anna picked up a rock, looked for their commander, and began to walk towards the man in the red beret. “Anna!” old Aske hissed, children gathered in her skirts. “You will be shot!”

“We will all be shot,” she said, and kept walking.

“Anna.”

Li Aixue on the radio. Anna met her before Object Entry, liked her, felt a curious envy too–-a woman of air and light and high logic, a woman whose dreams were made of better stuff than dust and blood.

“Go ahead,” Anna says. The alien stands, quiescent, in the center of the chamber, clear membranes flickering over her sixteen small eyes. Occasionally she tastes the air.

“I need to verify that you’re not experiencing any nausea. Any sense of, ah, moral distress?”

“No.”

“Would you describe the organism as intrinsically evil?”

“What?” Memory of mother and firelight, of Zoroastrian myth, Yazidi fables.

Li hesitates, clearly feeling her way across untested ground. “Observers often report a sense of intuitive moral content.”

“I don’t know if I’m the woman to ask about that,” Anna says, and fights back an animal laugh. She’s never told anyone in America what she did, why the survivors put her up for adoption. Not her parents. Not Wygaunt.

“Understood. Anna, are you willing to ask the organism a few questions?”

“Sure,” Anna says, kind of taken with how smooth she sounds. Wygaunt told her she’d make a good soldier. He was wrong, but it felt nice. “You have audio?”

“We’re live on all the compartment cameras.”

Anna steps forward, waving. The alien reacts with a slow, coiling movement, a wary centering.

The first thing to roll off her tongue is coffee-shop banality. “What’s your name?”

Anna can hear Li’s breath tremble when the alien responds. “You will call me Ssrin.”

She relays this. “It has a name. It has a translator. It was prepared to meet us.” Li exhales raggedly. “Okay. Its mode of cognition seems relatable. Ask it about the nerve tissue.”

“I’m Anna.” She keeps her hands still, open, visible. The big philosophical ramifications of this moment, the historical weight, are mostly lost on her. Mom Forwell, always hunting positivity, liked to call her alive in the moment. “Why do you need our brains?”

“I came out of the glass because I thought I could speak to you. Because you have the mark.” The alien touches a bundle of her necks with one hand and strokes them, head to base, hissing long and low. “But you offer me weakness. You ask without leverage. Why should I tell you anything, Anna?”

“She thinks I’m an idiot,” Anna reports, fighting the urge to step back. “She thinks we’re all idiots.”

“Okay. I have a guess, going off game theory and intuition.” Dry paper sound of Li coughing. “It opened with a threat. Maybe it comes from somewhere where the default social behaviour is aggression. They assume malicious intent, so social interaction requires them to establish a detente.”

Looking at her, Anna can believe that. No doubt she’s a predator. “She thought we’d kill her?”

“Kill her and take her ship. Unless she had an insurance policy. Thus the poison.”

“Ssrin.” She tries the unfamiliar name, still riding the danger high, the tiger-cage thrill. “If we give you ten brains, you give us an antidote?”

The alien – does she chuckle? Is that rising choral hiss a mockery of human laughter, or the genuine article? “Yes,” Ssrin says. “You understand. Pick ten. The rest of you live.”

Anna doesn’t realize she’s doing it, doesn’t mean to do it. But she does it. She starts speaking the dream tongue, the blood language, the bargain: “Or maybe we kill you, we find the antidote ourselves, and we all live.”

The alien opens a single mouth in a slow yawn. Unhinges fangs beaded with small drops of milky venom.

“Ask it why it needs the nerve tissue,” Li repeats. Tremor of tension in her voice. Don’t antagonize it.”

“For the mission!” Ssrin snarls, as if the radio had spoken right to her. And then – whip-quick, thunderously strong – she smashes the cameras around her, tail lashing, and rips the radio from Anna’s hands.

The last thing Anna hears is Wygaunt’s voice: “We’re bringing up explosives, Anna, just hang on – “

White fingers click the radio off as if they’ve done it before. And Anna stands, ready, unafraid, coiled on the breathless edge of futile violence. She’s a broken woman. She never responds the right way.

But Ssrin doesn’t attack. “The mission,” she repeats, and then takes her bundled necks between her hands. Lets out a trembling divided breath. “God help me. God help me.”

alt=Anna threw her rock. It fell short. She knelt to find another and an Iraqi soldier grabbed her, dragged her forward to the man in the red beret who said in Arabic:

“Are you the daughter of Serhing Rekani? He spoke of you while he was dying. He said you would defy me.”

She choked on the stink of sweat and blood and gunshot but it was easier to be revolted than to let herself show fear, grief, horror. Father –

“I have always believed that unreasoning defiance is the mark of an animal.” The officer knelt, pistol loose in his right hand. “A human being reasons. A human being understands how to do what must be done. An animal kicks and spits even when offered a way out. Are you an animal, daughter of Serhing Rekani?”

“You’re the only one,” the alien says.

The chamber is sealed. No sound, no air, no radio from outside. Just Anna and the monster, arched in some kind of calisthenic, balanced on one coil of tail and reaching up to touch the ceiling. A pillar of black sinew.

In the dream, in the memory, Anna always talks to the monster. “The only one who’s not afraid of you?”

“No one can miss the cultratic brand.” One of Ssrin’s heads watches her, fangs bared. A filigree of metal along the teeth. “I have seen fear in the eyes of behemoth skylord and nihilist lana. I have seen it in the other humans. They all smell the brand. Except you.”

Anna doesn’t know what to ask, what to think, not the way Li Aixue the prodigy would. She just goes with her gut, with firelight fable logic. “We’re both bad people.”

“Evil. Evil people.”

The translation is toneless but somehow Anna hears conviction in the hiss behind it. Evil. Like in mother Kaja’s stories, like in the Shahnameh: an externality, a force.

“You can smell evil. Like it’s…real.”

“There are other systems than physics encrypted in our world. Detritus of an unfinished design meant to track and describe sentient minds. All higher technology exploits loopholes in the interface between physics and this poiesis.” One of Ssrin’s necks reaches for her, past her. She feels a tiny tongue tickle the back of her neck. Doesn’t shudder. “Your soldiers are outside.”

“They’ll try to kill you.”

“You won’t let them.”

What does her laugh sound like to the alien? An idiot sound, trapped in a single throat? “You think I can stop them?”

“You are their leader.”

“Their – ” Oh. She stops herself.

But the alien sees. “You’re not.” Ssrin’s probing head recoils as if burnt. “How can that be? You’re the ruthless one. The glass told me. I smelled it –

The translation cuts off. Ssrin makes a symphonic growl, an awful predator sound that pricks every fear in the ape genome, and the chamber lights go out.

Instant, complete darkness.

“Fuck,” Ssrin says, some alien epithet rendered banal by machine. “Not this! Not now! Fuck!

Anna loses it, in a personal Anna way, totally mis-wired. She jumps forward and tries to get Ssrin around the necks. But there’s a shattered camera in the way.

She’s still falling when Ssrin catches her by the throat.

“You love your family,” the monster in the red beret said, while little Anna struggled and spat. “But the sheep you slaughter love each other too. Love is not the mark of a human being. A human being knows how to do what must be done.”

His soldiers hauled prisoners from the truck, their heads wrapped in burlap sacks, their hands bound. Peshmerga from the village rear-guard.

Mother? Father? Brother Merdo? Could they be –

The officer, shaking his head like an ulama teaching law, drew her towards the kneeling captives. “Tachid here will cover you with his rifle. In a few moments, I am going to give you my pistol. If you aim it anywhere but where I tell you, Tachid will shoot you.”

He turned to one of his men. “How many animals have we penned down there?”

“A hundred and nine, sir.”

“Good. Anna Rekani, I am going to offer you a deal. A way to prove your humanity.”

“Do they care for you?” Ssrin hisses. “Will they bargain for your life?”

The alien’s fist is a vise. Anna suspects it could crush her windpipe and spine. But she’s not afraid. She knows the grip of monsters.

Maybe everyone else could see Ssrin was evil before she did. Maybe that’s why their guts turn when they look at the monster.

Maybe she can’t see it because it looks like a mirror.

“Something just went wrong,” Anna says. “The lights. You’re in trouble.”

Ssrin is silent. Anna figures Ssrin can probably think about ten times faster than she can, so the silence must really mean something. She plows on, probing blindly, improvising. “If you had a working ship, you wouldn’t be here trying to bargain. You wouldn’t have crashed at all. They’re going to blow that hatch open and kill you, and there’s nothing you can do.”

“You’ll die with me.”

“I don’t care,” Anna says, and God, it feels good to admit. “I deserve it.”

Ssrin sets her down with delicate precision. The darkness is absolute. Anna opens her arms, probing, afraid to take a step. After a moment she gets down on all fours and starts to crawl.

“I came so far,” Ssrin says. The translation is toneless and yet utterly desolate. “Bearing so many hopes. Your people are mad, Anna, to choose sure death over a simple bargain.”

“You’re an idiot. You didn’t have to poison anyone. We would’ve helped you.”

“‘The surest language is force.’ The first rule I ever learned. The principle that gave us empire.”

“Is that why you’re stained?”

“What?”

Anna finds a wall. Puts her back against it. She wants to be out of the way when Erik’s soldiers storm in. “The evil on you. The brand everyone sees. What did you do?”

“I was born with it.”

“That’s your crime?”

Ssrin’s voice comes from a lower place. Maybe she’s slumped against the wall too. “Only the first. I was a soldier, ascendant, in the service of empire. They could make diamond moons from the pressed ash of my victims. And I betrayed all that, Anna Earthborn. I turned on my people and my sister, turned on her great work, gambling everything-– hoping that in the end I could find absolution, wipe it all clean, liberate the galaxy, do one good thing—”

Anna starts at the sound: Ssrin hammering the wall, scale fists on alien alloy. “I cleaned the security system when I stole the ship! I disabled the lockdown! I was thorough!

The dead lights. It must be shipwide: Blackbird rebelling against its traitor captain.

Soft sounds from the hatch. Wygaunt’s men, making ready.

“You have the radio.” Anna doesn’t know why she’s trying to help, but no, no, that’s a lie, it’s – it’s sympathy, empathy, the boggling fact that across aeons of divergent evolution she can hear the machine rendition of a psychopathic serpent chorus and feel bad for her. “It’s not too late to surrender. Give them the antidote. They’ll be merciful.”

“Too much at stake.” Sinuous scale-on-scale sounds in the dark. Ssrin’s heads nipping at each other in anxious violence. “You’re too small to know how huge it is. The secret buried here, entombed in your minds by cosmological fluke. It is a key to the cipher of reality itself, a vulnerability in the computational substrate-–if my people find it, they will be gods. She will be God. I cannot risk surrender when the stakes are so high.”

“You’re going to kill us,” Anna realizes. Why would this fanged ultrapredator come so far without the ability to slaughter a few monkeys face-to-face? Erik’s soldiers are going to blow the hatch open and Ssrin will massacre them. Them and everyone else on the ship. “You didn’t need to wait for your gas to work-–you could’ve come out and murdered everyone. Why didn’t you—”

“I wanted to be good!” That rattle, that rasp, it could be menace, could be rage, but Anna hears pain and knows it and trembles with the closeness between them, the terrible congruence. “I’d spilled enough blood, done enough evil-–I smelled kinship on you, Anna, smelled calculation, thought you would make a bargain with me. But it always comes back to the fang. Always. The cosmos has no time for the weak.”

A hush, except for the ragged asynchronous breath of nine throats.

“What did you do?” Ssrin asks. “Tell me, before I kill you, and the rest.”

The officer in the red beret put the pistol into her small steady hands and pointed her towards the line of prisoners his men had pulled from the truck.

“This is the bargain,” he said. “Execute one of these captives, and I will spare one of your villagers. Execute two and I will spare ten. Execute three and I will spare twenty. Four, and I spare forty. Five, I spare eighty. All six, and I spare them all.”

Six against a hundred and nine. Anna could do figures. And that was all there was, all there could be. It seemed simple.

God save her and the six too.

“I will do it,” she said. She slid the safety off the pistol, just as father had shown her. She heard the noise of the soldier Tachid training his own weapon on her.

“Bring out the first one,” the officer said. “Let’s see if the girl is bluffing.”

They dragged a man in front of her and pulled the sack from his head. He was bruised and his face was swollen, but he was clearly Ronas, handsome darling of the dances, pursued by many but unbearably taken with a girl he could never have. Anna did not know who.

“What?” He blinked in groggy shock. “Ciwana, is that you?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “Be still.”

She held the pistol in her too-small hands and put him in the center of the sights. Dear God, she thought: if this is wrong please reach down your hand. You are quick and you are powerful, so if you can, please stop me.

She pulled the trigger. The pistol spoke. The recoil wrenched her arms in her sockets and she grunted, but it was the only sound she made.

Her childhood and her faith in God sprayed across the rocks with Ronas’ brains. His body fell away to the side. The officer made a soft clucking noise with his tongue. “You have earned a single life. Now, again.”

The next prisoner was her brother Merdo. The cut beneath his left eye went almost to the bone. “Anna! What are you doing?”

It’s not fair, she thought. He should have at least been last, so he would count for more.

But on the other side of her grief, in the shadow beneath it, she could feel the truth. Ronas, too, had been a brother, and a son, and she had not hesitated.

“Is our father dead?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes, they shot him in the lung, and dragged him away. I think he is dead.”

“And mother?”

“And mother too, I think, but I didn’t see. What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry, Merdo,” she said, “but I have to get to six if I’m going to save everyone.”

“Anna, wait!” he cried.

The recoil turned her halfway around and she nearly dropped the pistol. But she did not miss.

Silence behind her. She spoke through: “Please bring me the next one. I have to save them all.”

alt=“I’m sorry,” Ssrin says, although it sounds like she’s never even thought those words before. “Is the burden heavy? Will you be glad when I kill you?” And then a short, sharp rattle in her throats, a sob or a laugh: “I wonder if we have different ideas of comfort.”

Anna’s crying silently. She’s not ashamed, even though Ssrin can probably smell her tears. Some of it is gladness. “I’ve never talked about it,” she says. “Ah, God. I didn’t even-–didn’t even try to find another way. I just did what he said. Like I was one of the jash.”

“There was no other way,” Ssrin says. “He spoke with force. You did the right thing.”

“Yeah?” Anna knuckles her eyes. “Can you smell that, too?”

“Not yet.” Softly: “But I think you did right. For all that’s worth.”

The right of a murderer with a body count higher than all Earth’s summed tyrants.

Anna sits for a moment, thinking about the apocalypse. She’s not Li Aixue, prodigy. Not Erik Wygaunt with his mind for command. But she can put the pieces together.

“Ssrin,” she says. “Your people. You said you were trying to beat them. Are they coming for Earth?”

“Yes.”

It always comes back to the fang, the blood bargain, the man in the red beret.

“And when they get here–-if they’re hunting the same secret, this thing in our brains, this key-–what will they do?”

“Mass landings.” Ssrin’s voice flat edict. “Millions of your people rendered down to brain tissue and processed. They’ll use brute-force inference to deduce the cipher from the mark it leaves on matter-–the decay products that occur when the poiesis violates causal closure.”

And she says this next part with weary familiarity, with the guilt of old collusion: “When they have the key, they will destroy all life on Earth. The Exordia will not let the secret of secrets fall into the hands of their rivals.”

Too big to mean anything to Anna. Too huge for any response except abstract dismay. “Why us?”

“An accident of viral spread. There were other host species. Lost, though, during the Cessation Age.”

“But if you get the key first, if you get your brains and you find it, you can stop them.”

“No.” Vacuum-cold hiss. “Nothing can stop them.”

Of course not. Nobody ever stops the monsters.

Anna gets up on her haunches. “There has to be something. There has to be a way.” Some price to pay. Someone to aim the pistol at, knowing: you die, and the rest live. “If we give you the ten you asked for. If we give you more.”

“Nothing,” Ssrin says, “can save this world.”

“You’re going to find a way—”

“This is what happens now. I kill every human in my ship. I gather your brains as samples. I find a way to break the security lockdown before the Exordia fleet arrives, and I carry what I have to the rebellion.” Light kindles in the dark, a brief blue spark-–Ssrin, a medusa shadow, testing a sleek bladed weapon. “Maybe, if I bring them the encryption key, they can find a way to stop my people from cracking reality open and rewriting it. That’s all there is. The only way forward.”

It’s Anna’s whole world, the end of everything. The Columbian apocalypse everyone was afraid of. She should feel something.

But her wiring’s been broken for a long time now.

She sits in the dark and thinks about vast new bargains, and when she speaks again, her words come clotted in old blood. “When do your people get here?”

“A few days. Or a few hours. I must be gone by then.”

“Give me the radio,” Anna says.

Someone else makes the rules. Someone else says: you spend this blood, and you save that flesh.

But Anna makes the choice.

Ssrin throws her the radio. It bounces off Anna’s shoulder in the dark and falls into her lap. “Warn them I’m coming, if you want. You’ll only make them afraid before they die.”

“It’s not about that,” Anna says. The numbers are bigger here, but the calculation is the same. “You came here on a mission. You can still complete it, if you find a way to fix your ship. And what then? You save the universe? You’re the hero?”

“No one,” Ssrin says, “will ever call us heroes. Not you. Not I.”



Ssrin smelled it on her, through the glass. The ability to do this. What must be done.

Anna clicks the radio on. “Professor Li.”

“Anna! I’m here. Wygaunt’s men are about to-–” A soldier in the background snaps at her. “They’re, uh, standing by.”

“Tell Erik I’ve reached a deal with the alien. We’re going to assist it with repairs to its ship. We’re going to help it complete its mission. In exchange, we get the antidote.”

Glare dazzles Anna. Ssrin’s got a light mounted to one of her heads, snugged beneath the little jaw. Anna wants to giggle.

“That’s amazing, Anna.” Profound relief in Li Aixue’s voice. “Power’s off shipwide, we’re all worried about the air – I’ll tell Wygaunt right away.”

Anna puts the radio down on the deck between her knees. Her throat feels sick when she speaks. “Ssrin. Listen. They have at least one world-class mathematician. A few people from the NSA, too, codebreakers and computer guys. They can help you with the security lockdown. They can find you the brain tissue you need.”

Ancient, cold wariness in Ssrin’s voice. The weight of a billion murders. “Do you think you can deceive me?”

“No,” Anna says. “You smelled it on me. You know what I’m capable of. You were right: I understand.”

The arithmetic, this time around:

Earth is gone. Seven billion dead, no matter what. Ssrin’s people are coming and no god or dream of man can stop them.

So Anna tries to fight Ssrin, and Ssrin kills her and Erik Wygaunt and Li Aixue and everyone else on Blackbird, and maybe she gets what she’s after and escapes Earth before the hammer falls. But maybe not. Maybe Ssrin fails and her people win. Who dies then? Everything, she says. Everything that will ever be. The Zoroastrian Armageddon gone wrong, the final renovation of the universe cast in shadow. Angra Mainyu triumphant. The world devoured.

Or Anna helps Ssrin. Anna brokers a deal with Wygaunt and his soldiers: help the alien, and she’ll save our lives. She’ll do right by us.

Not that they’d go along with the deal if they saw what price they’d have to pay. If they saw the end coming.

Help Ssrin. Fix her ship. Forfeit Earth and everyone on it.

But the price has to be paid. The figures are clear. They can’t save the world: just help Ssrin save all the rest. A child could make the choice, if she were broken in the right ways.

It’s a little like destiny.

“You give us the antidote,” Anna husks, and has to stop to cough. “And we help you. We’ll make sure you have a chance.” The idea hits her like recoil: “I’ll go with you. Take us all with you. So a few of us can live.”

“You’ll burden me. I would be wise to kill you all.”

Anna smiles, a rictus the alien might understand: bare teeth, wide eyes, fear sweat. “But this is the right thing to do, Ssrin.”

“They’ll panic when you tell them. They will see the end of their world rising, and they will lash out.”

“I’m not going to tell them,” Anna says, and puts her head between her knees. Curls up like a nautilus, shutting out the world: even though it leaves her alone with the thing she hates most.

She could warn them, Wygaunt and Li and the rest. Tell them about the alien fleet on its way. And they’d look for a way out, a nuclear attack or a computer virus, some act of technological heroism. But they won’t stop the aliens, any more than the peshmerga could stop the Iraqis. So she’ll be silent, and save as many as she can.

She feels Ssrin’s hands, cold, smooth: on her brow, her shoulder, and then, the gesture stiff but still strong, killing strength held in check, Ssrin’s arm wrapped around her. Held for a moment (and Anna takes it as comfort) before Ssrin tugs her to her feet.

Anna clings to her, mistrusting her knees. “Where’s the antidote?”

“Here,” Ssrin murmurs. The fangs of her fourth head prick Anna’s neck, a gentle puncture, a bloom of warmth. “A special gland. I keep it close.”

The hatch geysers light and fire: a ring of thermite, burning all around the rim, cutting through, the way it hadn’t cut the outer hull. Wygaunt’s soldiers pin them in the glare of lasers and tactical lights, shouting down, down, get down!

Anna holds up her hands and steps between them and Ssrin. Two serpents peer over her shoulders. The soldiers flinch.

“Stop,” she says. “I’m okay, I’m okay. She’s on our side.”

When the medics and the soldiers leave, when Erik and his wary guard take Ssrin to the ship’s command, Anna finds herself alone with the prodigy.

“Strange to think it’s almost over.” Li Aixue shakes her head and smiles ruefully. “We found a starship. I thought maybe I’d get to see the stars.”

“You will,” Anna chokes. “We’re all going to see-–such things.”

“Anna.” Li touches her shoulder gingerly. She’s shy, Anna realizes, and it surprises her: she’s always seen Li as such a titan. “What’s wrong?”

Someone in the direction of the command center shouts in excitement. The lights snap back on. Blackbird, waking up again. The bargain underway.

Ssrin’s people will come. The world will burn. Everyone except the crew of Blackbird, the ones Anna saved.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Anna says, though she feels Li’s offered arm through phantom scales, though she tastes old blood and new poison in the place beneath her tongue. “I did the right thing.” And, raising her eyes to Li’s: “I did the right thing.”

It was harder last time.

end_of_story

Seth Dickinson’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Analog, Strange Horizons, and more. He is a writer at Bungie Studios, an instructor at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, and a lapsed student of social neuroscience. His first novel, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, will be published by Tor Books in fall 2015.

Interview with Seth Dickinson | Buy Issue #21 | Subscribe to Shimmer