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Bones Are Stones for Building

Inside the stasis gel, I awaken to Mother’s incoherent ravings corrupting my circuits; heart detonating in exponential elevation. My lungs fight to expel the thick gel and I shouldn’t be able to gain consciousness before the rising solar radiation levels announcing morning trigger the gel’s breakdown process. As my body convulses—leftover organics labouring at the task on pure instinct—my cybernetics rush in to sedate and return me to sleep. Mother persists in my mind.

bone upon bonea wicker cradle. Osseous womb. Digbeyondherringbonegenomedead.stemteeth. O, voices, haematopoiesis-tongued. O cavernous voices!

Since co-integrating with her higher functions as a boy, never have I heard her mind so loud or distressed as this. Her telemetry lights up against the displays in my eyelids. I never stop hearing her or the Tower even in deep sleep, but her neural activity wails in my cerebral cortex.

::HEART RATE 123 bpm/EPINEPHRINE LEVELS 140 pg-mL/INCREASED THETA WAVE OSCILLATION:: 

I have no choice but to initiate wake-up protocol. The gel melts too slow to my liking. As soon as my face breaks the surface, the oxygen reacts with the gel in my lungs and evaporates in thick wisps of smoke twirling from my mouth and nostrils. Next to me, my husband hacks, waking up, disoriented from being woken too early.

“What’s happening?” Boril asks, worry and drowsiness in equal proportion.

“She’s falling apart. Again,” I answer as I rise and shake off the rest of sleep and the gel. Pure chaos overruns my mind, but I can find enough concentration to speak to him. “She’s overloaded herself running the calculations for the multiverse engine.”

To his credit, he jumps up immediately and gets dressed, only a step behind me as I run towards Mother’s quarters. The hard-light door winks out into a honey-combed latticework to grant us passage. My feet slap, slap, slapping their unfeeling mercury on floors that absorb the impact and digest it to feed its systems.

“Her deterioration increases exponentially now,” Boril says in step with me.

“I know.” I relegate the Tower’s murmurs and exchanges of data to the background as I wrestle with the screaming alarms as Mother’s distress mounts further.

“She won’t hold out any longer before full body breakdown,” he continues.

“I know.” I can’t think about this. Not when she’s raving in my head.

“Is she any closer to figuring out how to design the engine?” He asks the right question at the wrong time, and I don’t know how to react. How dare you! I cling to the accusation, but minimize it for another time. A time, where I can think.

Cellular death chantsIn the stroma, the soil listens. Waiting! We do what we must!

Her voice obliterates every computation process in my brain for a nanosecond. It’s too short to affect my balance, but more worrisome. What if her next bout shuts me offline? Who will help her?

“I don’t know,” I tell him.

The answer is no. I lie, because the answer to his question means the extinction of the Tower, and it’s always no since she got assigned the construction of the multiverse engine—the impossible commission the High Seats tasked her with. She would run her simulations and calculations, and fail even at full processing capacity during stasis. I would repair the damage in the morning and fail to patch her up. Within a month, her body has weaned and shrivelled. It won’t be long until no medical procedure can save her.

“It’s going to be all right. We’ll not let her go, and we’ll do this as many times as it takes.” Boril senses my fears, he’s good at that, and takes my hand in his. The left one, the one I was originally born with. It has so few sensors, practically insensate compared to my inorganic limbs, but his touch sings in me. Oxytocin rises in my system, and reduces the stress and tension in my body just in time as we enter her quarters. She glows, curled like an embryo, in a gel bubble on a bed of hard light. The silence in her room almost deceives me she’s at peace.

I override Mother’s sleep protocols and initiate waking sequences. The bed beneath her shapes into a stand, which props Mother in a standing position, and the gel thins in great billows. Through the residual gel layers, the Grand Architect glistens under the light, black as deep space pleated with nebulas and interstellar dust.

Synthetic skin and flesh leak red warning lights from her cybernetics as real time data pinpoint hot spots where computing strain has overloaded Mother’s system. Overheating has loosened her flesh around her skull, neck, and spine. It hangs loose and steams up the room; thankfully, no blood vessels have burst. The heat moves its way down to her major organs. Deterioration data floods unbidden and projects how many more patching cycles I can administer before the Tower loses its Grand Architect.

“This isn’t good.” My voice cracks. I can’t do this on my own…“I’ll do whatever I can, but I need the medical core. Cryo-liquid, an auxiliary core, and a new processor.”

“I’ll alert the Head Surgeon. I’ve already started refitting the room for flesh printing and limb refitting,” Boril says. He’s programming at the environment panel at the back wall and the smooth ceiling above Mother distends and lowers down tools and hoses. “Following dire care procedures, convalescence should conclude within ten hours.”

Am I staring at your imminent death as you stare at the Tower’s, Mother? I ask her without vocalizing as I prepare to graft new skin on her face. Sometimes she can hear me this way. Do we have the time, Mother? Is the face I make now the face you made weeks ago, when you received the assignment?

I rerun the footage of that day in my mind again as to convince myself it happened at all. All Millennium Houses were in attendance in the Grand Terrarium Reception Dome. Obsolete royals herded themselves at the Plaza beneath the highest point of the Dome. Their eyes were glued up to the projections of the High Seats. Seven faces, shining bright, formed from the hard-light dome and loomed over the Court as heavenly bodies, cheek to cheek, too massive for their own horizon.

“We are at the precipice of an extinction,” the High Seats spoke in unison. They did so slowly and inefficiently, voices weighed down by the authority of ruling the Tower. “Our resources have depleted dangerously low and Earth is no longer a viable option.”

“But how? I designed the Tower to be self-sufficient.” Mother spoke the truth, incredulous as she was. I have memorized the Tower inside and out, so I knew resources should never have been an issue at all. The Tower could hold out until the heat death of the universe.

“Apparently not,” one of the royals sneered at me and revealed sapphire teeth.

They do so often. Address her when they speak to me. Treat me as no more than a prosthetic in the shape of a person. I held my tongue then.

“That matters not. We wish for you to build an engine. An engine that will take us to another Earth in another universe. This should not be a challenge for the Grand Architect, yes? What is a trifle such as this for a woman of your extraordinary talents?”

The indifferent flattery still angers me. Did you know then that you would fail?

“Yes,” Mother answers and startled I drop the tool from my hand.

Her eyes are empty when we lock gazes. Dirty grey with electronics blinking in patterns. I don’t have memories of the time before her eyes became her drawing tools; a camera that projects her will over the Tower and alters its composition in an instant to meet the High Seats’ functionality requirements. But I don’t remember them as unseeing as they appear now.

I run a performance test just to be sure. ::RESULT Fully Operational::

Yet, they are not the same. There is something wrong in how they look at me.

“Grand Architect! You are conscious!” Boril sounds so relieved, when he hears her voice, and fills the void of our silence with assurances. In a few strides, he stands beside me and takes up the tool I’ve dropped to pick up the work, but Mother pulls her head away.

“Please, Grand Architect. I must tend to the damaged areas now, if we’re to make you better.” He skilfully omits the fact she’ll die, if not.

“All things organic die, Boril.” Her speech slurs from trying to move lips and a tongue that have distended and lost all stretch and responsiveness. “You mustn’t pretend otherwise. I can substitute and preserve this body to the point all my parts are freshly cloned and manufactured, but I’m still organic.”

Boril, flustered, stands with tool in his hand unsure what to do, and I try to coax her to stay still.

“You’re in critical condition. You’ll feel better, when we install new processors.”

Mother waves with a hand and the space reconfigures. The entrance, through which we came, shrinks and thickens into a wall and the ceiling swallows its tools. The light dims and her rooms become cut off from the rest of the Tower. It’s easy to forget how much control Mother has over the Tower. The High Seats might rule it, but Mother is it.

“I said no and I intend to have my will recognized,” she says and takes a ginger step off from her stand. Somehow her skeleton keeps her upright in its half-molten state. “I’ve been dying. You both know it. My funeral has taken a lifetime to complete. But it ends now and you’ll throw the final handful of dirt on my grave.”

Her choice of words perplexes me. These terms are absent in the vocabulary storage we share between each other on a daily basis. Missing amidst septillions of definitions and concepts, archaic and modern. There is it—a private portion of memory that only she possesses. I thought she hid nothing from me. Audio snippets rotate through language archives, until definitions emerge from the time before the Tower, centuries ago when time owned people and not vice versa.

FUNERAL

(n.) a ceremony or service held shortly after a person’s death, usually including the person’s burial or cremation.

DIRT

(n.) a substance, such as mud or dust, that soils someone or something.

GRAVE

(n.) a hole dug in the ground to receive a coffin or corpse, typically marked by a stone or mound.

Definitions cross-reference with historic accounts and meaning arrives, heavy and unpleasant. It does so a full second after the sound travels to my ears—a second too late. Where before we had instantaneous mutual comprehension—an intimate knowledge richer and more rewarding than our shared genomic sequences—now, there’s suspicion and envy. How is it that she can know all there is about me and in me and I have still to discover more secrets about her? I wish to have a secret of my own.

“Oh, son. These are old things I speak of. Forgotten and obsolete cultural practices,” she coos and hobbles towards me to comfort me once she reads my telemetry. “There should have been no reason for me to teach any of this to you. Neither our roots, nor how we became Grand Architects. All these years, I hoped I’d never have to tell you. I hoped I had built all there is to build in this world. The High Seats proved me wrong now, though, didn’t they?”

A series of beeps rings outside the quarters. I receive requests from the medical core to enter, but I can’t do anything. Only Mother can grant them access.

“Please, Grand Architect. Let the Head Surgeon in. She’ll save you. We can upgrade your core—improve your processing power. Don’t give up on us now,” Boril pleads with her.

“It’s not about the processing power, but the planet yielding. For months, I’ve tried to arrive at the design for the engine, but no matter how I approach this, I can’t arrive at a viable prototype. Not until the dreams revealed what needs doing,” Mother explains and walks to the farthest wall in her room at a slow pace. Each shift in her body ripples across her loosened flesh.

Dreams…The ravings that woke me were all dreams. I wonder what Mother must have seen to come to such words, ill-fitting in the Tower as they are. A useless phenomenon—dreaming; yet underneath the logical reassurances, I still mourn its absence in my sleep cycle.

“The truth of the matter is, I’m not meant to build the multiverse engine,” she says and presses her palm against the surface.

“You are, son,” she announces and as she does, space large enough for two caves under her touch. “Come now. We need to trace your ancestry.”

“You’re in no condition to go outside,” Boril tries to reason, both of us closing the distance to Mother. We share a knowing look. There’s nothing either of us can do or say to sway Mother, but still we each take hold of one of her arms. Not so much to suppress her, but to negotiate.

“Please listen,” he begs. I look on, ashamed for not saying anything. All I have on my mind is the certainty my mother is going to die tonight. “I can’t let you die. It’s my duty to preserve you—”

“Until I have completed the engine, yes?” He nods in shame. “Then you have to trust me that I will fulfil my obligation as a Grand Architect, and that entails leaving with Orlin. I won’t let you die, Boril. You believe me, don’t you?”

Mother strokes his cheek and wipes away errant tears streaming down his face. I haven’t noticed when he started crying. After a long minute, Boril lets go of her. Still hesitant he’s committing a critical mistake. It’s not an easy choice to make. I am unsure if passively complying with her will won’t undo our whole existence. We part silently as I take my place by Mother inside the elevator. It comets down from the Tower’s heights so fast, I register the heat index increase. In close proximity, she tells me of our family history—finally.

“Before our great Tower reached the exosphere, before the High Seats ruled humankind as one, people were few and lived in small communities; the land between them raw, crude, indomitable. In a small village ringed by woods, where people feared noises in the dark, three brothers decided to build a great house of stone. So grand as to put to shame all other buildings where tradesmen counted coins and boasted of riches. A building the king himself would honour.”

So begins her story—every second word unfamiliar, alien. Millisecond delays layer atop one another as I run through word banks and archival footage to substantiate what Mother tells me of our past. She decompresses a history the size of a nucleus until it gains mass to inhabit my mind, until I have enough context to understand it. As it grows larger in my circuitry, my sense of scale shrinks and reduces. I suck up all the cubic kilometres I calculate, visualize the space into me, and flatten it to a single plain, where three brothers manipulated the land.

Worked. That’s the term Mother used. Yes, work. Back down the timescale of civilization, there existed a time where matter slept to the touch, where it didn’t jump, galvanized by the desire to take the shape held in one’s mind. Unconceivable to me. The three brothers raised cut stones with firm hands under the sun, laid foundations, and when the skyline ripened red, the first walls stood. All this gruelling work results in what? Walls…Short, dead walls. I can raise walls kilometres high in seconds and they’ll sing in pleasure. I find it preposterous we descend from such a blood line.

“The land rebelled,” Mother continues. “Each morning the brothers returned to see their work undone. They persevered and repeated this doomed enterprise, until the hands that built bled—” Yes, this I understand. I had once bled as a young boy before I had to amputate most of my limbs, “—and the youngest brother, tricked by his elders, travelled far into the deep woods for a solution.

“This was the First Architect. A kind mind. An honest man. One who wanted to improve life for his people, and the one who paid the biggest price for the privilege,” she explains right as we stop our descent and the elevator’s walls dissolve into a yawning darkness.

We have to go outside where there is no more hard light. Where I can’t hear the Tower and the air hasn’t stirred in centuries. Chemical analysis from the air filtered through the Tower’s exterior reveals a hostile environment.

::PM10 LEVELS 780 µg-m3/CARBON DIOXIDE LEVELS 67982 ppm/HUMIDITY 83%::

I ignore the rest. My lungs can survive this. Mother’s, on the other hand…

“I’ll be fine. For what we have to do, time will not be an issue,” she says, breaking the eerie quiet, and hacks as the stale air swirls into the hypoallergenic breath of the Tower. It’s only then I truly become aware of the silence in the darkness.

We’ve travelled farther than the lowest registered accessible point at the Tower’s foundation. The elevator is taking us beyond the lower tip of the Tower, hovering kilometres above the planet’s surface. Calculations confirm it. The elevator extends as a tendril towards the horizontal world—the Flat Empire before the Tower, where inferior designer alloys continue to deteriorate under the weight of time.

As the doors of the elevator open to a darkness unlike that of space, a wall of nothing carves into my feed. The Tower buzzes somewhat distantly as a weak cocoon and the only feed I receive is Mother’s. This hollowness in my head terrifies me. Stepping out means empty feeds—a prospect more terrifying than when Boril, early on in our courtship, took me to the crown of The Tower at the cusp of space.

The crown spread out into wisps of floating viewing platforms connected to the craters of the moon, where he wanted me to go and see the abandoned ruins from before the Tower. Artificial gravity held him firmly on the thin platform, where he bobbed up and down. It’s my favourite memory of him and on especially bad days, when I feel like nothing more than a hollow tool, I replay it over everything I do, on repeat, to remind myself that he sees a person in me.

“Come now, you can do this,” he invited me to step through the opening. He extended a hand clad in a glimmering protective suit which made him look like a constellation come to life. I shook then, unable to set foot outside the Tower.

“What if I shouldn’t? What if I shut down?” I whispered that last part to him because I feared the Tower would hear, and then all would know that I really was the machine they all thought me to be.

“I’ll keep your heart beating.”

“How?” I was not good with flirtation.

“You will have to come and find out.” He was always so self-assured, and I followed his request, compelled and entranced. When obeying Mother’s commands, I lose autonomy and comply before I even register what’s happening. With Boril, I released control and felt it as it happened. And that is the story of our first kiss.

“Breathe and calm yourself.” I hear both Boril and Mother tell me simultaneously as I’m both at the top of the Tower in my past and at its bottom in the present. Yes, I have to steady myself. I remember how he smiled that night on the platform, squeezed my hand when I finally trusted him to venture out of the port, and all the inferior receptors in my skin flared with such ecstatic delight. The Tower hums in my mind still as I both gaze outward into the twinkling galaxy in the past and at the thick, impenetrable darkness. We step out and the floor groans under our weight and once again I am all right.

Lungs filtering the harmful air, I mould my prosthetics until the lean human legs elongate, thighs thicken, and feet expand to lengthen my gait and shift the centre of my gravity so Mother is comfortable as she climbs on my back. She hooks each leg onto the oval flippers I grew for her from my hips and rests on my back.

This is how we proceed in the dark. My eyes illuminate the way with high-impulse lights that ionize the air and hopefully clear the air Mother breathes. Along the way, she continues her narration, which retains the same rhythm. It’s a pulse, I distinguish now that it’s only her that I hear in my head.

“The price the youngest brother paid was a human life,” Mother explains.

“Feed the land and it will stand still. This is what the wise woman living in the woods declared, and tricked once more by his brothers, the First Architect was forced to build his wife into the cold, dead stones of the building with only a single breast of hers uncovered as to let their infant daughter suckle.” As Mother narrates, she feeds me images from some private memory banks, perhaps from the time before she built the Tower and her world resembled this story. I see the meaning painted in my mind, and it disturbs me as it is not my own. It dismantles every single tangible truth I have about how the world works. I can’t believe it, but I sense that Mother wants me to believe and I do my best to trust her. I am the first in my line to have stayed within the Tower never having set foot down here until now. What do I know?

Ache pinpricks my heart for the First Architect. Some days I feel built into this Tower, just an interface with my being completely walled off in code, and there’s only this one sliver of space my husband can reach through with his hand to touch me.

One life—one building. A transaction of another time, another place, but one that has borne a legacy of servitude. A day came when the daughter of this building walled in her father to pay the land at the behest of a king. Once fed, the second architect turned the building into a palace, only to be herself walled in by her own daughter decades later, at the behest of another king, and then another.

A violent hacking fit overtakes Mother. Her frame shakes against my back, light as the outer casing of a protective suit caught in a gust of solar wind. I offer to stop, but she waves me off and pushes my limbs in motion to further our excavation of time and forgotten architecture. We’ve reached an early 21st century construct—a tower. Its greatest tower!

Hah! This pin of reinforced concrete and corrugated titanium, twisted in a modular Y-shaped structure with a triple-lobed footprint. Vibrations from my steps scurry off and down suspension cables, eliciting the faintest high-pitch groans at being awakened from their dilapidation. In the days past, my descent would be cast in golden light from the aluminium-glazed glass panels now mostly missing. As childish as this tower is, it’s nonetheless impressive that it remains erect to this day. A testament to the bargain our family has made with the land.

Inferior alloys and dusty concrete give way to steel and iron and brickworks, then devolve into wood and masonry. In all this time, Mother delineates our unwilling ascension while we make the same journey in reverse. She tells me the name of the architect, their biggest accomplishment, and the name of their era. The names sink into my background feeds, but there are those that demand recognition.

Vesela, Grand Architect LXX—The Moon Tether—The Lunar Colonial Era

Daria, Grand Architect LVII—The Sub-Oceanic Districts—The Continent City Era

Serafim, Grand Architect XXXII—The All-Continental Bridge—The City World Empire

At first, the increments of time are so short. Each lifespan barely scratches a century. Those first commissions from demanding rulers are all petty and in the name of vanity. But then, each new successor makes ever larger strides across history, until Mother built the Tower. It had to be the last thing to be built—a floating world pointed like a beam of light from the troposphere all the way to the exosphere and beyond—if only we had not drained the planet of its resources. Now emaciated, it needs the multiverse engine to live and Mother to die.

As she utters the last word, I take my last step. I don’t know how I made the journey without asking Mother for directions; she certainly provided no navigation. My feet know where to go, tapped into some sensory memory that goes beyond my data bank. Darkness deep as space pools here and I switch to infrared, the light having failed to pierce through the veil of particles—even denser than above. Mother hacks now between every breath, even through the mask I printed her from my shoulder. Grainy images swim, small shapes and chambers that could barely hold a full family present for assembly, much less be used for anything. Our journey concludes by a wall at the lowest level where the stone is sectioned off by mosaic archways as tall as a person. From each slot in the wall gazes out a serious face etched into the stone; my ancestors.

“Do you hear…the voices?” Mother asks, robbed of full sentences by ever deepening inhalations. “They feel…like home. Listen…to them carefully; they’re your…instructions.”

I listen hard, but there’s nothing save for the weight of silence and telemetry counting down to her death.

“My microphones pick nothing,” I admit in shame.

“That’s not…how…you’ll hear them. They’ll come…to your mind.”

“How do you know?” I blurt and wrestle with an onslaught of panic. Shielded by the Tower, I had forgotten what it does to a mind. “Voices, dreams, ancestral memory. That’s not how the world is built!” That’s not how you built me; that, I don’t say to her. What happens, if the line ends with me? If I’m not human enough to access those memories; the people before me will not recognize me as a person in their death.

“Trust me, Orlin,” she wheezes. “Your blood carries power. The land will recognize it when the time comes. Your family will recognize it, too. Whatever narratives the other Families spin, it’s wasted breath. Do not believe their attempt to make you lesser. All they want is our position, our significance in their existence. Now, you’re the Grand Architect and you will build!”

We stand at the spot where the etchings end and the blank wall continues. The image of the Grand Architect’s mother—my grandmother—graces the spot. Mother takes a few moments to trace the outlines of the faded face I never laid eyes on. In the meantime, my arms form into a chisel and hammer, but it takes just a single hit to convert a section of the wall into a cavern large enough to fit Mother. Fine dust spills outward, coating my feet to my ankles. Mother steps in and rests her back against the hollow. Her eyes peer at me and I hesitate.

“It’s all right. It’s where I long to be. I love you, son.”

After I’ve sealed my mother, it takes a while for her to die. That’s the worst part as I tread back—her telemetry screams in my head. I live through my Mother’s death not far into my return and the sudden shiver at the silence as the feed cuts off, paralyzes me mid-stride. She’s gone. Truly gone. There’s wetness around my eyes and the feed from the infrared cameras blurs.

In those seconds, I hold onto my memories—those that keep me separate from her. Those that I have earned myself. All those touches I exchange with Boril. That night on the platform with eyes on the stars and the muted hum of the Tower beneath my feet, the accumulation of morning kisses, the fine needle pricks of sedation I worked into his flesh after his second cybernetics update, the maintenance work he does on mine, when parts of me overheat. I hold on tight to the micro-snippets of life untethered to Mother and I brace myself. I brace myself for the possibility that I’ll be deleted along with Mother’s consciousness and remain as a husk in this forgotten graveyard or that all our shared past, two minds linked as one, will vanish and I’ll be left with only my own starved collection in my head, so I hold onto each moment as to build some kind of wealth, as small as it is. There’s silence where her telemetry used to be. I wait. Nothing happens. I am still me.

I’m alone in my head now without a single system connected to me. I don’t collapse as I feared I would without anyone to keep me whole. But there are also no voices here to soothe or whisper the solution to the multiverse engine. I’m lost.

So this is what it is to be entirely in your head. How can something as small as the mind be so vast and silence so heavy?

I return to my quarters a full hour before waking. My insides ache to find solace in surrendering to sleep as my systems work overtime to filter all the gunk I’ve breathed. He waits in her quarters, where we left him, worried and pale in the face.

“Is she…?” He can’t bring himself to say the words, because he knows what he has allowed to happen tonight—been complicit in this crime—will not be unpunished. The Tower lost its Grand Architect, more so its Mother than mine, and its fate is in uncertainty.

“Yes,” I answer and he embraces me, because that is what one does when they lose a parent—so we have heard, but it has happened so rarely, not many people know what’s appropriate. I do not know what to do with my feelings. What they are in the first place. I let myself be held and feel the exhaustion. Not physical, because I’m never tired, but mental.

“There will be consequences,” he tells me the obvious and I hold onto him tighter, because both of us will be punished. He has forfeited his life because of me, if I have nothing to show for letting the Grand Architect die.

“That is a problem for tomorrow. Before she died, she told me to go to sleep.”

“Then sleep you shall, Grand Architect.” The words hit me. I am the Grand Architect now and that astounds me. I’ve become something so big…beyond organic and cybernetic, and yet, I felt nothing in the transition. Nothing. But I smile to encourage him and we go to sleep finally.

Gel rushes through my nostrils as I press myself against my husband’s back. His warmth feels good against my cheek. I wrap my human arm around him and place my fingers onto his chest. His skin is warm and I take his heartbeat into mine. Drowsiness overtakes me swiftly, but in the half-moment of wakefulness and sleep, voices wiggle into my mind—a different category of hearing all together. Mother is among the chorus, soothing me, and asking me to build.

I smile as I fall asleep and dream.

 

(Editors’ Note: Haralambi Markov is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

 

This Village

You don’t know who we are, but we promise you we are harmless, and we made this village for you. Well, for you and for us, and for all the others that might follow.

Each of us built their own little house. Some are made from hard candy, with gingerbread window frames and a door with a taffy handle. When you curl your fingers around it and pull, it practically melts in your hand. It leaves a sticky residue on your palm that you can’t get rid of for hours.

Not all of us have the same taste of course. Some houses look like little cottages, foreboding and crude. It makes those of us who built them feel like witches. No, we are not actually witches—although baking is a kind of witchcraft. Real witches are as rare as dragons these days. You should consider yourself lucky if you ever bump into either of those. You probably expected us to be old and raggedy looking, with menacing smiles. That’s what people expect when they come here. But our smiles are earnest. And even though some of us are indeed old, some of us are little more than children, and some of us are tall, and some short, some plump, some thin, some are women, some men, and some neither. You get the picture.

Other houses are pure white nougat with a bright blue Turkish delight roof, like houses in the islands around the Mediterranean. Or farmhouses with walls of fried dough and tamarind roof tiles. You see, we come from all over the world, but this place is now our real home, where we feel safe.

There is always a trail wherever you live. You just have to find it. If you peer through an opening framed by two linden trees. If you follow the foam of the waves on a cold night. If you are not afraid to crawl into the long narrow caves that open like mouths on jagged rocks. You will see them. They all lead here. To this village.

And now that you’re here you’re welcome to build your own house right in this clearing. We got all sorts of sugar and pastry; we have chocolate and honey and nuts. Your roof can be a thousand layers of phyllo dough one stacked on top of the other. The trees are heavy with fruit you can turn into preserve to paint your walls. Anyhow, we won’t interfere. We will love whatever you choose to do with the place.

There might be a time later when you wish to leave the village. You can of course do that. Not everyone likes to live on popsicles for the rest of their lives (although many of us could eat a bucket of ice cream a day without so much as blinking). If you choose to do so we’ll all take the house apart with our bare hands and then eat its parts in a great feast, like families do. It’s a farewell ritual to celebrate your new life away from here. The house will come apart easily because it will know you are leaving it. Just like it will be indestructible for as long as you stay.

We will not ask you why you came to our village. We already know. The people who find it are the ones who need it. Perhaps they read about it in a book when they were children and now—nearing the end of their life—they just want this village to be true. Perhaps their family is starving, and the village can feed them. Perhaps someone is chasing them, and they need a safe place to hide. No matter the reason, they are now a part of the village, even if they choose to leave.

We told you before that we were harmless but that was a sort of lie. You came here looking for safety, but someone has followed you, even though you were mouse-quiet when you opened that door and rabbit-fast when you made for the path in the woods. They followed your thrumming heart, your fast breathing, and the crunching of leaves under your soles. At the end of the day, they knew you were about to leave them. People like them always know. They followed you with harm in mind, but the village will find them. We will find them and deal with them. Their arms will turn into branches that will give us shade. From their mouths will sprout flowers. Their voice will be the murmur of the river. And you can stay as long as you want. Because we made this village for you. So you can be fed, and safe, and happy. But don’t worry about it for now. Now it is time to build.

The Kaleidoscopic Visitor

It wasn’t the first time I’d found the stranger in the red coat somewhere no one was supposed to be, but it was certainly the first time I’d found the stranger somewhere it should’ve been physically impossible to enter. The attic had been locked for over a year. When I found the key and opened the door, the dust coating the padlock was clear evidence that it had lain untouched for months and months. But the stranger was sitting on the floor between two storage crates, their knees tucked under their chin, waiting for me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

The stranger didn’t answer for a long moment. Like I always did, I tried to discern their expression, but looking at them was no easy task. At first all I saw was the red silk of their coat, flaring like an ember, and then I blinked and was able to see the glint of rubies and topaz at their wrists and neck. When I tried to focus on their face, individual features pressed themselves against my mind like a dried flower in a dusty book, each one remaining for an instant before vanishing into shadow and being replaced with another. I saw a carnelian earring, then the hint of a solemn frown, then a curl of dark hair.

None of it was particularly masculine or feminine, or at least it didn’t seem that way when presented in fractures rather than as a graspable whole. I’d never been able to figure out the stranger’s gender, although I was fairly sure they were no older than sixteen. It was hard to put my finger on why, but it seemed like they were my age, if such a thing as “age” could be applied to whatever the hell they were.

When the stranger spoke, their words were shaped from the gentle sounds around me: floorboards creaking, cloth rasping, rain pattering gently against the slanted roof. “What do you want?” they asked.

“What do I want? You’re the one in my house.”

“Oh,” they said, soft as a sigh. “I’ll go.”

Then they were gone. There were no marks in the dust to indicate they’d ever been here.

“That’s a really annoying trick, you know,” I said sternly to the empty air. “It’s rude to leave without explaining yourself.”

No response, of course. Now that I was alone again, the attic felt oddly lackluster. The world was bright and electric where it touched them, and after they left, standing in the wake of their absence was close to painful in its staleness.

By now they’d appeared without explanation enough times for me to be fairly sure about who they were. When the Kaleidoscopic Visitor came by, made of shards of loveliness, people went wrong. It was just a rumor, but it was the kind of rumor you heard all the time. The gossip was everywhere, around dinner tables and at sleepovers and in break rooms. It was hard to not hear stories about the bad things that happened to people who confessed to seeing the glint of gems or the flash of red.

Wives packed their bags and left without a word, taking the next train into the city, never to return. Good kids turned rebellious overnight, adopting outlandish hairstyles and unsavory friends, throwing away whatever decent future had been waiting for them. Sordid tendencies revealed themselves, sowing ruin for each household unfortunate enough to be blighted by the Visitor’s appearance. Sometimes it would happen over and over again in the same place until an entire town was upturned, peace and order gone forever, like a field swallowed by weeds, never to yield a harvest again. The changes came out of nowhere, heralded by nothing, save for that the people gone wrong all reported seeing a figure dressed in scarlet and jewels in the corner of their eyes.

I left the attic and locked the door behind me. I went downstairs in a haze. I’d gone up there to fetch something or the other, I was sure of it, but I was too restless with nerves to remember what it was. I hoped desperately that my expression looked normal on the outside.

It was imperative that no one find out that the Kaleidoscopic Visitor had been here. When everyone talked about the people who did insane things after the Visitor came to see them, they always said, well, there’s always been something not quite right about them, hasn’t there? They were all wrong from the start. The Kaleidoscopic Visitor was the catalyst, but if they came to visit you, it was probably your fault.

That all added up, as far as I was concerned. I had no idea what the Visitor was going to drive me to do, but I did know that there was something not quite right with me. It twisted away deep inside. It was an unease that started between my lungs and my ribs and spread all throughout my body, wriggling like a pinned insect at the mention of the nicest, most innocuous things, like the fact that I was almost done growing up. It wasn’t that I was especially attached to childhood—mine had never been all that great. It was more that all throughout my life, I’d known I wasn’t yet an adult, and that knowledge had felt like a stay of execution. Why it was that way, I had no clue, but it had something to do with how being an adult meant being an adult woman. Just thinking about it was like standing on the edge of a tall building: the fear of my falling more a nausea in my stomach than a thought in my head.

Sometimes I would talk to myself when I was alone, just saying I’m going to be a woman to the hollow air. It was difficult. I realized I needed to do it over and over again if I ever wanted to get used to it. I needed to shape my mouth around the words the same way I whittled wood, with steady dedication, movement by movement, cut by cut. I tried to do the same with the sentence I’m a woman now, which was truer, but much harder to say. My teeth wanted to bite down, to stop it from escaping. The rational parts of my mind had trouble understanding what the problem was; it was a perfectly factual, perfectly normal sentence.

The terrible dread worming its way through my body’s viscera begged to differ.

After the Kaleidoscopic Visitor disappeared from my attic, it was days before they found me again. I was chatting with a neighbor on the street who’d been congratulating me on my upcoming birthday. I said all the right things and smiled at all the right moments, and when I walked away from him at first I was walking calmly. But a creeping horror began to itch at my palms and the soles of my feet, and suddenly I found myself running, just running with no direction, nothing but a feverish need to escape.

Before I knew it I was standing in a field, having left the town behind, out of breath and out of road to run down. The smell of burning was in the air. There was ash on the wind, carried from wildfires many miles away. I realized that in my haste I’d dropped my mask somewhere between the town and the edge of the field. That wasn’t good—it was never a great idea to inhale whatever dangerous substances the fires had swallowed up and spat out in its cinders. The sensible thing to do was to return. I should retrace my steps, find my mask and whatever else I’d left behind on accident, go home.

And then I saw the Visitor.

They stood where field gave way to forest, distant enough that they were nothing but a smudge of scarlet to my eye, shifting like a candle.

It would have made sense for me to be frightened. I’d never dealt with so much as a spider without recruiting help, and according to everything I’d heard, the appearance of the Kaleidoscopic Visitor was supposed to be far more frightening than a spider. But the thrill in my gut was not fear, but something else entirely. I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to come closer.

I walked forward.

Their back was to me. They didn’t turn as I approached. As if I were looking with the sight of a dizzied drunk, my gaze slid between their gold-embroidered cuffs and their sorrowed mouth and the tiny sapphires spangled about their hair. I asked the question that had been tugging at my tongue. “Why do you talk to me? I’ve never heard anyone mention you talking. Everyone says you just show up in the distance and disappear before people get close. But I could—”

I made myself stop talking before I said, But I could reach out and touch you.

When they spoke, their words were drawn from the wind-rattle of dead leaves and the distant cicada song. “I didn’t need to talk to them. I didn’t want to. I want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

I saw a flicker of a furrowed brow, a hand fiddling with a ruby-encrusted ring. “You’re not scared.”

“What do—”

“What do you want?”

Last time they asked me that, I took it as an accusation—another way of saying what are you doing here, to demand I defend my presence or my existence. But this time I was too tired, too raw, to be wary, and so I heard the quiet entreaty in their voice and knew it for what it was: an invitation.

“I don’t know,” I said. It was hard to talk, surrounded as we were by hazy, polluted air. A flake of ash landed on my lower lip. “Lots of things, really. Doesn’t everyone want lots of things?”

“Your wanting is different.”

“But all I want is, I don’t know, normal things. Money. Fun. Health. To get a day off from school. For it to rain. For the air to be clear.”

“For the air to be clear,” they said. “You could have that.”

“I mean, if the weather decides to hand us a miracle, I guess.”

“You could have that. That, and anything else you wanted, if you wanted it enough. There’s something else, isn’t there? Something else you desire?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Liar,” they said gently.

“I’m not—”

“I think I need to give you something. Is that alright? If I give you something? You can throw it away if you don’t want to keep it.”

“What is it?”

They reached into their coat and retrieved an object. The thing resisted sight in the same way that the Kaleidoscopic Visitor did, but I could tell that it gleamed both in the manner of metal and in the manner of jewels. Maybe I should’ve hesitated longer before I reached out to take it, but for the first time that I could remember, I let my curiosity get the better of me.

Once I held it, it solidified into something I could see properly: a pair of scissors with a handle studded with garnets, each stone dark enough to rival obsidian.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s what you want.”

“Um,” I said. “Am I…supposed to sell it? For money?”

It was hard to tell, considering their expression came to me in shadowed fractures rather than as a whole, but I got the strong impression that they thought I was very, very stupid. “No. It’s for using, not selling.”

“No offense, but I don’t really need scissors? I’m really sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, I just…I have a pair at home?”

“No,” they said again. “It’s what you want. It’s yours. It was always yours. I just made your wanting into something you could hold.”

Walking back into town, I was twitchy and paranoid, shoulders stiff and gaze shifty. I was hiding the Visitor’s gift in the folds of my dress, but I was convinced that people would see it anyway. The scissors were too real. Too present. The scissor blades were warm as a living creature in my hand. I could swear I felt the metal throb like it had a pulse. The gems set into the handle didn’t want to hide in the cloth. They wanted to be seen. Acknowledged. The knowledge of their longing was clear to me, sharp and crystalline in my thoughts, and I made it all the way back to my doorstep before it occurred to me that those thoughts were coming from outside of my skull, not inside it.

The moment that realization hit me, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I dashed around to the back of the house, drew my arm back, and threw the scissors as hard as I could. They spun through the air, catching the sunlight in its afternoon slant, glowing like a spark or a star. They vanished into the snarl of greenery that lay beyond the border of our backyard. There was another house there, but it had been abandoned for years, its garden left to grow wild until the rosebushes and hydrangeas were tall enough to rival trees. Not even the roof was visible behind the leaves. No one would stumble across the scissors there.

I spent the rest of the day carefully doing normal, unexceptional things. Chores, dinner table conversation. Said all the right things, smiled in the right places. My thoughts were a frantic chorus: No one must know. Hide it. Hide. No one must know.

The chorus only quieted once I was lying in bed with the lights snuffed, eyes open into the darkness. Then it was the Kaleidoscopic Visitor’s words that echoed in my skull. For the air to be clear. You could have that. Did they really mean that I could bring rain to my town or brush the pollution out of the air? That didn’t sound like a bad thing. There had to be a catch I couldn’t see.

Maybe it was my imagination, but my pillow seemed lumpier and harder than usual. Restless, I turned over.

The Visitor was lying in bed beside me.

A scream made it all the way up my throat to the back of my teeth before my jaw snapped shut—the nameless wriggling unease in my guts taking control of my muscles, remembering the meetings between the Visitor and I were a secret I needed to keep. I lay there, heartbeat wild, muscles tensed to run or fight, my face inches away from the Visitor’s. They were curled up under the covers like they were trying to make themselves small. Here in the dark the shadows swallowed the red of their coat and the glitter of their gems, but I saw a flash of closed eyelids, then a flash of the dark, exhausted smudges beneath them.

“Why are you here?” I said in the quietest rasp of a whisper.

“Shh,” they said. Their words were shaped from the muffled sounds that came from outside, the distant rustling of dry leaves from the plants that were steadily devouring the empty house that neighbored ours. “I’m sleeping.”

Slowly, I sat up. I ran a hand over my pillow and felt something hard and angular stuck inside my pillowcase. I glared at the Visitor. “Why do I have a feeling I know what this is?”

They shifted minutely, trying to burrow deeper into the blankets. “I don’t know. I don’t know why you feel things. Why would I know why you feel things?”

I unbuttoned the pillowcase and retrieved the scissors. They pulsed in my hand. “You said I could throw it away.”

“I said you could throw it away if you didn’t want to keep it.”

“You didn’t say it would come back.”

“I didn’t know it would.”

“So, what, this thing going to follow me until I do something with it?”

“It’s following you because you still wanted the things you want, even though you threw their shape away. Why won’t you use it?” Their eyes were still closed. Their voice was now so soft I could barely hear them at all. “Is it really that bad, what you want? Is it so horrible, wanting?”

It was now clear to me that ignoring the Visitor or their gift wouldn’t stop them from springing up in the dusty corners of my life, erratic and persistent as dandelions taking root. That should’ve incited fear or helplessness, but a strange relief was descending upon me instead. Once the Visitor began to visit you, your ruin was a foregone conclusion. If I couldn’t help but end up where I was going to end up, I didn’t have to blame myself for what was about to happen.

I reached inside my pillowcase and retrieved the scissors. “You said I could get rid of the ash in the air,” I said. “How?”

I followed them out of my bedroom and down the hall and out to the backyard, careful not to wake my parents. I stood with bare feet on yellowed grass speckled with ash. A red glow crowned the horizon, heralding the wildfires crawling up the other side of the mountains. The Kaleidoscopic Visitor whispered quiet suggestions, but I was the one who reached up with the scissors, up and up and up, until the blades caught against something I couldn’t see. The unseen connection sent a shiver down my arm, rattling my bones like a struck tuning fork. I breathed in the burning on the breeze. A raw and exhausted longing welled up in my mouth. One day of clean air, that was what I wanted. Just one day. I was just so tired—

“Now,” said the Visitor.

I cut.

The wind roared. The clouds tore like paper, peeling back to reveal a swathe of clear starry night. The shifting of the clouds directly above me set off a cascade of swirling motion that spiraled out across the whole of the sky. I saw a storm gather itself together in the distance; a process that would ordinarily take hours but now was taking only seconds.

I cut again.

A crack of thunder. On the horizon, over the mountains, rain began to fall.

I focused as hard as I could, summoning the heart of my weariness, and cut again. I felt, rather than saw, the separation of the pollution from the air. It was a bright silent singing. Now moving by instinct, I made a dozen more cuts, opening up a dozen tiny apertures in the fabric of the sky for the pollution to vanish into.

When that was done, I hesitated, uncertain, but before I could ask, the Kaleidoscopic Visitor swept their arm and the apertures sewed themselves shut. The Visitor’s fragmented form twinkled as they moved; my perception of their body was overrun with the dazzle of their jewels, washing like a stained-glass wave across my eyes.

I lowered the scissors. There was a sweet cleanness in the air.

No words I could muster would ever be anywhere near sufficient to talk about what had just happened, so I settled for saying quietly, “Wow.”

“It won’t be forever,” the Visitor said. “All storms run out of rain.”

I was about to say but I can just do this again, can’t I, but then I realized the scissors had changed with every cut I made, going from overbearingly, burningly present to mere beautiful object to a glassy, translucent simulacrum of the scissors’ former self, barely visible in the nighttime. At the same time, my longing had steadily quieted. It was still there, but it was easier to carry. The Visitor’s gift, raw overflow of desire that it was, was being used up.

“What should I do with the rest of it?” I said, looking down at the scissors. Now that I knew it could do the impossible—that it could banish the smoke, that it could let me breathe without struggle, at ease and at home under the sky—I knew I had to use the scissors’ last remnant for something that mattered.

The Kaleidoscopic Visitor didn’t answer. I looked up, wondering why, and found that they had already left.

It was weeks before I saw the Kaleidoscopic Visitor again. I kept the scissors next to me all through those days. The object was almost entirely vanished now, nothing but an outline in the air, the faint suggestion of a gleam. I seemed to be the only one capable of noticing it in this diminished form. I took to taking long strolls among the eucalyptus groves that grew outside of town, carrying it in both hands while I walked. I was learning to let it accompany me without flinching away from it. I was getting better at understanding its wordless suggestions. We were fast becoming friends, the Visitor’s gift and I.

Today I was wandering farther than I usually did, searching for paths I hadn’t found before and ready to make my own if I could find none. I came across a clearing with a creek winding through it. The creeks and ponds near my house had all dried up during the drought, but the storms had brought rain, and now for the first time in years the water was flowing.

Somehow I was less surprised to see the Visitor sitting by the water’s side. Their scarlet coat was puddled around them like flame licking across underbrush. I smiled and came closer.

Instead of a greeting, they asked, “Are you content?” Their voice was made of the trickle-sounds of the water and the low hum of the breeze.

“No,” I said, but right now it wasn’t an unhappy thought. The wriggling discontent in my body didn’t feel like an enemy anymore. I’d been becoming better acquainted with it. I was ready to let it be my ally, and so I put the first of its desires into words.

I held the scissors out to the Visitor. “Will you cut my hair for me?”

A flash of a smile emerged from the muddled shards of their form. “How short?”

“Short,” I said.

They gestured for me to sit beside them. I faced my reflection in the water, noting that the Visitor had no reflection at all. They were only a shimmer on the water’s surface.

They began to cut my hair. As they tipped each severed lock of hair into the water and let the current take it away, I thought of whittling wood—moving cut by cut, steady and sure, until what was left had that certain loveliness that can only be forged by one’s own hand.

I said, “So, uh, do you have a name? Sorry, I’m just not sure how to refer to you.”

“Do not refer to me.”

“Okay,” I said quickly. “Sure.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m still not really sure what you—I mean, who you are.”

“I am…other. I am…what you are not. For some, for those who are like you, I am what you are not yet.

By now they’d sheared away enough hair for me to feel the lightness of its absence. “Are you going to leave now?” I asked.

“If I were to leave, it would mean that I was here. To be here, to have a location, I would have to be a thing at a point in space. Space and I don’t sit easy in each other’s presence. We keep poking at each other ’til one of us breaks.”

“Okay, but will you keep showing up around me?”

“Is that what you want?”

They weren’t touching me, but they were close enough that I felt the prickle-warmth of them, the heat of their disjointed, radiant skin reaching me from across the empty air. “I’d like you to visit again,” I said. “If you felt like it.”

“I will,” they said.

When they finished, they cupped what remained of the scissors in their hand—a few glimmerings in the air, emptied of substance—and poured it into the water. The glimmerings transformed into ripples and dissipated. I tilted my head this way and that, memorizing my wavering reflection in the water. My hair was short enough that a stranger might look at me and think man instead of woman.

“Thank you,” I said.

They put their hands on my shoulders and pressed a kiss into the back of my neck. The sensation was fractal, prismatic, bright.

“Good luck,” they said.

When I turned around, there were no gems to trick the light and slide in and out of shadow, nor red to flow and flicker and burn. There was nothing but me and the creek and the trees, struggling toward greenness despite the drought.

 

Ribbons

Monday’s lover tugs at Jan’s ribbon with his teeth. Jan doesn’t yell at the lover to stop. The guy just received bad news from the front—a friend lost to a bomb, perhaps, a sibling blown to bits; Jan doesn’t ask. He tells the lover, instead, to be careful: We don’t want my head rolling off now, do we? We’ve all heard of them, after all, the stories of women taking it off and their heads falling to the ground.

Monday’s lover nods and keeps his teeth to himself. Says he’s never seen a guy with a ribbon before.

What can I say, love? Jan tells him. I’m special.

Jan is a name he chose himself, early on, for it secretly reminded him of Janus, the god of change and passages.

Yes you are, the lover says as he kisses the scars on Jan’s chest, his eyes that lustful color lovers get in the half-dark of his little room. Have you been conscripted yet? he asks.

I’m waiting my turn, Jan lies.

Silently, he counts the days. Only a week left until induction.

The lover tells him the stories of his own scars then, how he got some of them on the battlefield and others in the dark wooded area on our northern border where witches and snakes make your wishes come true in return for a bit of finger or a first-born child. And when he’s done with his own he tells Jan the stories of a soldier friend of a soldier friend and his seven sisters who grew out of a tree in their mother’s garden, one every year, much to their mother’s delight, until their father went and chopped it down with an axe.

Jan only half-listens to him. The ribbon cuts into his skin and the knot at the back chafes his neck, and so he runs his hands up and down the man’s torso to keep them from fumbling with it. He wishes he remembered how he got his ribbon, but he’s found few people ever remember how theirs or their child’s appeared. Was it given? Did it grow from the skin? Was it the result of a deal some ancestor made with a spirit living under the river?

Maybe, if he knew, he’d know how to take it off without losing his head.

And, is that all he would lose?

He’s asked others how they got theirs, but no one would give him a straight answer. Still, he catalogues them in his mind, and runs through them now and then, when he feels the most desperate and lost: One trans woman told him she’s had her ribbon since birth; another that it appeared some time into her transition, overnight and without warning. Some enbies don’t have and never get one. Among those who do have them, some seem to love them, while others conceal them with high-collared shirts and turtlenecks; and then there are those who, as far as Jan knows, are content with loose ribbons they buy at the market. They tie them around their necks some days, then remove them, then tie them again when the mood strikes or the need dictates.

Jan wishes his ribbon would disappear the way that trans woman’s had appeared—and what does it mean for his own manhood that it didn’t?

He hasn’t met any other trans men he could ask. Perhaps, if he just accepted it, Jan thinks, he could learn to be happy. Perhaps that’s what all the other trans men out there have been doing, or maybe they’re just born without ribbons, like most men. Besides, people are getting blown up at the border. The world is burning and I’m thinking about a ribbon? What a selfish, worthless son of a bitch.

He asks himself: Who do you think you are that you can reject this?

Who do you think you are that you can escape?

And yet, in the next breath he dares wonder: Will it feel like a shedding? Like a molting? Will I be naked without it?

When the lover pays and leaves, Jan opens the windows wide to let the man’s smell out. In the light of day, his place looks strange, no longer a low-ceilinged cocoon built of fabric and carpets and hanging fairy lights, but a small, concrete prison, its damp and dirt and ugliness only hastily concealed.

The woman who lives across the street leans against her own window. She touches her ribbon absently with the tips of her fingers, the bright green matching the color of her eyes. People say she’s enchanted, but who isn’t, in this country, this place of animal hides kept in boxes, magic flutes that make you follow the one who breathes into them, veils that descend upon your eyes unexpected and make you see the world different.

He doesn’t always hate his ribbon. He likes the way it makes his neck look longer when he wears a plunging neckline that shows off the dip between his collarbones and the hard-earned flatness of his chest. The way the ends sometimes move in the breeze and tickle the back of his neck. Perhaps, he thinks, he ought to always hate it. Perhaps that is his mistake.

Six days to go and the Painter lies next to him; he breathes in the pinewood scent of her hair, runs his tongue across her neck, wetting her ribbon as she slips her fingers into him and he gasps.

Afterwards, she asks to paint him and Jan tells her okay, but I don’t want to be painted with a ribbon.

She takes a large notepad out of her bag, a piece of charcoal. She has him sit propped up against the peeling green wall. Don’t move, she says, and her charcoal flies across the page in quick, bold strokes. When she’s done, he moves to peek, but she hides the paper and asks for his lips first. Everything must be bartered for around here, after all. He kisses her deeply, the taste of her mouth reminding him of the wild berries that grow along the forest paths and make your tongue tingle if you pick them at the wrong time of day or kill you if you pick them with a false heart.

She smirks and reveals the portrait.

A young man leaning back on an unmade bed. Full lips, a soft jawline, wispy hair. Sharp shoulders, long neck. No ribbon.

Jan passes his fingers over him, ruining his pretty, clean lines.

Wednesday’s lover is a challenge: he just became human again after spending a few years as a bird. Some enchantment or other. A nettle shirt, perhaps, a kiss gone wrong. Jan knows better than to ask after other people’s curses.

The Procurer brings the birdman to Jan’s door, says the man’s family came to find her, and can he be discreet, as if he’s ever anything else. As if he needs to do anything other than be and walk around and breathe for people to notice him: a fake to the haters, a curiosity to the lovers. A lovely freak.

The Procurer is a war vet. This place belongs to her, but she’s happy to let Jan live here. She uses her network to find him clients; there’s no shortage of people lonely and broken by the war among her friends, people who can use a non-judgy companion, or indeed a lovely freak. She ushers the birdman in now, and Jan expects to see one of his arms is still a bird wing, but no, both arms are human, a young man’s arms, a boy’s really. His family and friends think him uncanny, the Procurer says, and he’s finding it hard to adjust. Jan pictures him looking around as if he just woke up from a long sleep, and peering at his loved ones vacantly, as if asking, these people, who are they? Have I met them before?

So they brought him to me, Jan says.

The Procurer nods. They thought, perhaps, you would understand him the best.

When they’re alone, Jan lets the birdman be, and he chooses a high chair next to the shuttered window to perch on and preen his clothes.

Jan takes the bed and stares at the birdman. Finally, he thinks. Someone who doesn’t give a shit about my ribbon.

He drifts off. He imagines what the war is like up close, which he does more and more as the time approaches. Tries to visualize the battlefield, to conjure up what it will smell like, sound like. Sees himself in it. Pictures his body obliterated in an explosion, ripped apart at the seams.

Eventually, they do talk. It’s Jan who coaxes the man into speaking.

What kind of bird were you? he asks.

The birdman looks at him sideways, as if his eyes were still located at the side of his head. He shrugs. Do you think birds have names for themselves?

He’s right, Jan supposes. They can fly. What use could birds possibly have for words? But then the birdman tells him about izkora and tekeli-li and something else Jan doesn’t understand, names the birds make up on the wing and quickly forget and replace with others when the wind calls for it or when they touch the ground, because birds can’t hold onto anything on the ground, and they can never look down with anything but dread. He still has nightmares about that, the birdman says, and he sometimes feels like he’s losing his grip on things, his name and other people’s and the names of objects and verbs, just by being on the ground.

He also tells Jan about the time he flew over to the west and to that magicless country with its cars and its phones and its polluting oil they so desperately want from us now, and he fell in love with a human who captured him and sold him off to an eccentric who treated his birds like people and let them out after breakfast and put them back in their cages after supper, and then the war and then this city.

The birdman forgets his words.

If he let you out, why didn’t you leave? Jan prompts.

The birdman holds out his arms, palms up, thinking about his answer for some time.

Jan watches the way the birdman moves: awkwardly, still clumsy, as if ill-fitting to this life of legs, this featherless existence.

It’s hard to be like this, the birdman says eventually, you know?

Yeah, Jan says. I know.

Thursday’s lover doesn’t turn up. Jan is fond of all his regular clients, but most of all he’s fond of her: of her body, slight like a boy’s, all milky smoothness and bold colors and wild braids and rings through her eyebrows, her lips always painted and her eyeliner glittering like her eyes; of the way she doesn’t ask to be held so much as pushes herself into him, an expert of long-distance embraces by virtue of having lost so many to the war; of the way she talks to him as if he were not strange at all.

Jan retraces the last time they were together in his mind, looking for anything that might explain why she missed their appointment: Did he do something that hurt her? Is she ill? Did something happen to her?

He remembers her being a bit more skittish than usual, a bit more distracted. Perhaps she grew tired of him? Perhaps she just decided to call off their sessions—but then she’d already paid for today. Moment by moment, he replays their meeting again, even more slowly now: the nervous hello, her eyeshadow smudged as if she’d been crying but, when asked, said it was rainwater, and it was indeed raining that day, the clouds rolling in heavy and dark from the west. His breath hitching when she unbuttoned her shirt despite having seen her naked so many times before, the tenderness then, so unlike her. Was she saying goodbye? They lay side by side, afterwards, and he traced her ribbon with his fingers and asked, Ever thought of getting rid of it?

She blinked at him, no never, as if he’d asked the most absurd thing in the world, and that was the first time he realized not everybody struggles with their ribbon—either its presence or its lack. It’d never crossed his mind before that someone could be at ease with it, one way or another; that they were not all fighting and pretending to be something they weren’t. There really are people who don’t think about their ribbons constantly? Who don’t spend days fantasizing about how to remove them?

He wondered, then, what it would feel like to not live his life with this unceasing noise in the background, that deep, dull ache, that dark obsession.

Really? he asked again to make sure.

She said she didn’t mind it at all, and he believed her because of the carefree way she said it. It wasn’t even that she wasn’t worried about her head rolling off if she did remove the ribbon; it was as if she’d just never given it any thought and it’d never given her any pain.

But still Jan wondered if she was telling the truth.

Now he waits for her the entire day, pacing his room, opening the windows and then closing them again. He thumbs his ribbon and then his lips and at night as he gets into his pristine bed he thinks, Jan, what a fool you are, falling for a girl that pays you to fuck you.

Three days left and the Procurer tells him Thursday girl was conscripted. She’d already received the order by the time she last saw Jan but never reported for duty; instead, she disappeared. Some say she defected, others that she turned into an animal.

Jan thanks the Procurer for the information and then thinks that perhaps he ought to do the same: head for the woods once more, strike a bargain, be transformed, then transformed again.

He did try to make a bargain one time. A single year of life without a ribbon, and then the witch could have his heart, his liver, his bones, whatever other gory piece of him she desired. But she felt sorry for him and called it off at the last minute. She said, your head might still roll off, eventually, ribbon or not. You’ll only be giving me things and getting so very little in return.

But no, he could never run away. Reflex tells him this isn’t the way of men, but that’s bullshit and he knows it, so it must be something else that pulls him towards that battlefield; a penchant for self-destruction. A weakness, perhaps, a curse.

He takes the day off. Puts on his favorite jacket, green velvet with brass buttons and pockets he likes to push his thumbs into, and an old-fashioned black cap with a curly feather tucked in its band. He ambles through the city with its beggars and its rich and its poor and its cobblestone roads and its parks and its statues, with its towers that are guarded by dragons and its unsaved queens and its labyrinthine, narrow alleys overgrown with thorns. He ventures into the woodwork district, idly browsing the store windows and their ersatz butterflies, the trapped birds, the magic doors, until he finds his way down to the river. There, halfway across the Bridge of Small Mercies, he pauses and gazes at the slow-moving water below. He spots a green ribbon caught in the reeds of the riverbank, wonders how it got there. Was it bought? Was it torn? Was it given away?

When his mother died, she left him her ribbon. He never found out how she removed it, if it happened post-mortem or if that was the reason she died. He simply found it on his bed, coiled like a tiny green snake. He didn’t want to keep that ribbon, either, but he did learn to cherish it. Mother always said you have to be grateful for the things you have, even if you never wanted them.

The balustrade is rough under his palms, but the water below soothes him in its forever motion. He imagines Thursday girl as a swan, her mighty wings thundering as she takes off over the water.

He thinks of the stories he knows about the river:

that it’s easier to drown in than any other water;

that the water here never freezes on its surface, no matter how cold the winter, but ice forms beneath it; that beneath the ice, there’s a place you can breathe;

that animals find refuge in the river, that they have names in the river’s language which humans cannot pronounce, and that, when the animals die, they turn into people you find along the riverbanks, corpses smiling, and you say, there, that’s someone who lived a happy life;

that the river has seen a lot in its long travels and sometimes it dreams of moving on, rendering the city riverless and dry;

that sometimes, it stretches its long limbs across the entire city, as if to test what it would feel like to go;

that, when it does that, it floods certain people’s dreams and speaks its names, and when that happens you must name your children after it, even if you can’t pronounce the words;

or not have children at all, spare them and the world a curse;

that, when the city is quiet, say at night, you can hear the river breathe.

At night, Jan tries that. Instead of the river’s breath, his dreams are filled with people turning into animals, great big boars and slender-horned antelopes, and with nettle shirts and shedding all his feathers one by one. They float down the river and whoever finds one will be forever cursed. Their skin will grow needles that they will have to use to embroider their children’s eyelids, and then their children will be able to see a future so distant that everything around them will already seem a wasteland, and they will want to travel but only the river will be there to guide them, and the trees naked and dead, petrified songbirds perching on their branches with ribbons caught in their beaks.

Saturday goes by in a blur, and Jan thinks it a tremendous waste, so he decides to work on Sunday, too, because he doesn’t feel like being alone on his last day.

It’s the client’s first time with Jan, and he turns out to be a tall, muscular guy—square jaw, short hair, jacket ripped at the shoulders to show off his big arms, a proper war vet, entirely unremarkable. Jan doesn’t mind. He pulls the man in and makes him sit on the bed to do his usual informal interview; if he’s good at it, the clients never know they’re being interviewed—and he’s good at it. They chat for a while and Jan deems him safe, so he nods and sits next to him on the bed, his hand resting casually on the man’s knee.

So how do you know the Procurer? Jan asks.

The man looks at him, as if he’s weighing Jan as well, measuring his mettle; it makes him squirm a little where he sits, and that’s when Jan perceives the softness in the corners of the man’s eyes, the laugh lines, the subtle tremors of his hands. He must be satisfied with what he sees in Jan, too, because he lies back on the bed and stares at the ceiling, relaxed, as if he’s been in this room a thousand times before and can share with Jan the easy familiarities of old friends.

We were in the same section, the man says. I was there when half her squad was blown up. We were tasked with making sure no one crossed the border…no rebels, no soldiers, no civilians. We were told to shoot anyone who tried to run. And I…

He trails off, closes his eyes, and presses his thumbs against them.

Things were demanded of me that I wasn’t willing to give, he continues. Big, macho guy, that’s all people see.

He returns to sitting on the bed again and looks at Jan, who’s wrapped his arms around himself, hands hidden in his armpits. Are you okay? the man asks. What’s wrong?

Sure, Jan replies, forcing himself to release his hands and let them hang loosely at his sides.

I can go if you’re not feeling up to this, the man says. He pauses, waits a moment, then adds: I need someone who’s okay, you know?

I lost someone, Jan blurts out.

Who?

Jan tells him about Thursday’s lover as he brews a hibiscus tea and pours it into his brightly colored glass cups.

The man drinks his tea as he listens and then he undresses without responding. Jan tries not to stare at his swollen pecs, the deep lines crisscrossing his back and chest, the star-shaped scar on his shoulder blade. He fails. He moves up and puts his fingers on that star, he can’t help it.

The man turns around and grabs his hand. Jan fixates on the man’s ribbonless neck. Thinks, irrationally, how handsome a ribbon would look there.

Slowly, the man brings Jan’s hand to his lips and kisses the fingertips that touched his skin. It’s something else, too, I can tell, he says.

Jan shrugs. My ribbon, he says. Feels tight lately. Tighter and tighter.

Why don’t you take it off?

Jan lets out a laugh. What? Haven’t you heard what happens?

The rolling heads. The necks ripped open, the torsos like chopped down trees standing in their dresses.

I have, the man says. But stories is all they are. You don’t know what will happen.

Other people…Jan starts to say, but the man cuts him off.

Other people are other people. Maybe those women wanted to destroy themselves and that’s why their heads rolled off. Maybe their ribbons meant something different to them than yours does to you. He pauses. Do you want your ribbon?

Jan shakes his head. It’s choking me, he says. I’ll die with it on my neck. It’s a noose.

Okay then. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to understand why you have it or to come up with a rule that explains who else in the world does, or account for everyone else who wants one or doesn’t. You don’t need a unified theory of ribbons to decide yours is not for you.

You’ve given this some thought, then, have you? Jan asks. It comes out harsh, like an accusation, and Jan doesn’t know why. But the man gives him a look—open, unarmed—that makes all of Jan’s brief anger dissipate: his how-dare-yous and who-do-you-think-you-ares. The shame of his reaction, too. He thinks of the birdman then, how Jan was content to let him be the way he needed to be. He didn’t ask the birdman to justify his feelings. Why should Jan?

The man takes Jan’s hand and pulls him next to him on the bed. He smells like fallen leaves and, perhaps, the river. Jan catches himself eager to stay like this for a while, inhaling him.

You know, I met another boy with a ribbon, once, long ago, the man says.

Truly?

He nods.

Did he ever take it off?

He never wanted to, the man says.

Then when they lie together in bed, the man on his back and Jan on his side, he admires the man’s strong torso, the long limbs, the hardness of him. I want him, Jan admits to himself, and I want to be him.

You’re scared you’ll change, the man says, and that’s okay.

I’m scared I’ll disappear, Jan thinks of saying, and somehow he’s sure the man would understand what that’s like, too. I’ve been conscripted, Jan says instead, causing the man to push himself up on his elbows and look at Jan’s face, a dark look in his eyes.

Don’t do that, he says. Run away.

Jan can sense the wound in his voice, the shrapnel buried there.

I have to, Jan says.

Why? the man asks.

Jan pulls him back down to the mattress, a gentle hand on his broad chest. Love, he says. You know better than to ask after other people’s curses.

He lets it go.

Then, Jan asks, What do you want? And the man says, I want to be taken. Make me feel weak.

Jan reports for duty the next day.

When they give him his uniform, he puts it on and stands in front of a mirror. He inspects himself, his slender body clad in dark green, the cap that fits snuggly over his head. He imagines the war: dusty fields sown with poppies and soldier parts, deep underground shelters, sealed metal doors that open into a great body of water.

He looks at his ribbon, lifts his hand to touch its length. Then he holds one end between forefinger and thumb and pulls and pulls until the ribbon gives and the knot comes undone. He tugs once more and feels the fabric slide silky over his skin and then he waits for the other sensation, the rip, the tilt, but the ribbon simply comes away, and it’s fine. Nothing happens. It’s fine.

The Stop After the Last Station

Tito never believed that the stop after the last subway station existed, the place where the world supposedly changed for the better. The one he needs six silver tokens to get to.

Until he does. Until he needs to.

That’s when he boards the subway and travels on it for two and a half years, hurling forward towards a place that he’s only heard of in hushed, fervent stories. Except Tito doesn’t truly believe in the stop after the last station until he’s standing between where the tracks end and the new world begins, wearing the last of his lipstick, with only two aspirins and one shiny token left in his pocket.

The impossibly tall conductor/tour guide/gatekeeper smiles down at Tito.

“I can get you in,” she croons in his ear. She means past the turnstile at the end of the track, which gleams like silver but its edges glint like knives.

“How much?” he asks, mouth dry.

“One token, please.”

Tito’s aching fingers curl around the last coin in his pocket. It’s all he has left. His luggage, his memory, himself have all been lost along the way. It’s been a long trip.

Past the turnstile he sees a respectable road with bicycles and Vespas, a fruit seller and lingerie shop. He smells the engine exhaust and hears the drift of a radio turned up too loud. The world beyond is alive and full of potential, yes, but to Tito, the promise of this new place doesn’t quite cancel out the pang of loneliness and loss in his chest.

“This isn’t what I imagined,” he says, proud that he still remembers that bit at least. “Isn’t it supposed to be better here?”

The conductor/tour guide/gatekeeper shrugs. “For some it is.” She shrugs again and holds out her hand. “Well?”

Tito hesitates. Why? he thinks. Why? Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you traveled two and a half years on this stupid subway for? After all he’s given up to get here, this should be an easy sacrifice, a no brainer.

Except now that he’s standing at the end of the tracks, at the cusp of a new home beyond the turnstile, a new future…

…and he can’t imagine himself in it.

“What if…what if I wanted to go back?” he asks.

The conductor’s gaze is piercing, but there’s a hint of a smile on her lips. “I’m sure we can work something out,” she replies.

A few stops ago, when Tito has two coins in his pocket instead of one, he weighs his options.

“Well?” The conductor/repairman/toll collector looms over him, palm outstretched.

Will you give up a coin to save what’s left of you?

This far into the trip, tokens are rare and precious. The subway car was once packed with people. Now, it’s a bleak and lonely place. Filled with empty seats and hollow places where memories once were.

It’s not just the passengers who are disappearing. Tito’s last remaining possessions are pooled in his lap: two tokens, a tube of Parisian red lipstick, some colored pencils, a bottle of aspirin, a photo of himself and a woman he doesn’t recognize. She’s important, he thinks, so important. But her name is gone like a distracted thought. That terrifies him.

He’s clinging to what he can. He applies lipstick daily like religion and tries to ignore how the ache in his joints feel more like a memory. How transparent he’s becoming. Literally. The subway’s flickering fluorescent lights passes right through him now.

Will you give a coin to save what’s left?

The conductor’s hand is still outstretched. Tito hesitates, though it was never really a choice, was it? He’s traveled this far.

Reluctantly, like parting from a dying limb, Tito forfeits his second-to-last token.

The conductor smiles. Suddenly, Tito’s solid again. Opaque. He’s a little lighter now, maybe, but no longer threatening to disappear.

He exhales and sinks into the worn subway cushions, relieved.

He takes stock of what remains. Counts the items in his lap, his misshapen fingers with their swollen knuckles and then his stiff toes. His joints throb incessantly again, which is annoying and painful, but also a comforting proof of existence. Only now does he notice on the seat next to him, there’s this ugly mauve blanket. Straight, white hairs are caught in the fibers and it smells like apricots. Tito’s hair is black and curly and he smells like too much travel. He understands the blanket belonged to another passenger. Someone important.

There’s a void in his chest where this person should be and Tito wishes he could remember.

So much.

There’s this lanky boy sitting next to him, with long, white hair and thick glasses, wrapped in a mauve blanket. Tito has three tokens in his pocket.

Cal, that’s his name. Tito remembers. Not everything, but more than before. Or is it less? Time’s becoming slippery on the subway.

Cal’s arguing with the conductor/teacher/scheduler. “Why aren’t we there yet?” he asks, and the question is full of longing, desperation.

The conductor is silent, but her expression is sad, like a promising pupil who hasn’t found the right answer yet.

“How much longer, then?” Cal shivers, pulls his blanket tighter, and Tito notices his fingers are completely translucent.

“Who knows?” the conductor replies, with a sigh, and moves on.

The conductor never gives them straightforward answers, but this time, as they watch her walk down the aisle, Cal’s expression is devastating and Tito has to bite the inside of his check to stop from yelling awful things after her.

“I won’t make it,” Cal says, miserably. “Look.” He thrusts out his hollow hands under Tito’s nose. They’re shaking.

Tito doesn’t know what to say. What can he say to a fading friend? So, he puts an arm around Cal instead. The movement feels natural, but also reversed. He inhales the scent of apricots and, Tito remembers vaguely, it’s Cal who is usually wrapping an arm around him in comfort.

“You’ll make it,” says Tito, hoping words, like wishes, come true on the subway.

“No, you’re going to make it. You’re stubborn.” Cal points towards Tito’s lap and in it, he’s surprised to find his dogged-eared sketchbook. He’d forgotten about this.

“Maybe,” Tito says, blushing, as he flips through page after page of half-drawn buildings, semi-formed ideas. But the foundations are there for eco-high-rises and colorful community centers. “Who’s going to like these weird houses, though?”

“I do.”

Tito’s blush deepens. He can’t remember if anyone’s ever told him that before. It feels new.

“I hope the stop after the last station is full of people like you, Cal,” he says.

Cal grins. “Me too.”

Tito laughs. But he can’t shake the feeling of déjà vu. Or that if he doesn’t do something here and now, Cal’s going to disappear. And that is an unbearable thought. So, he fishes out one of his remaining coins and pushes it into Cal’s hand. His friend’s eyes go round with surprise.

“Just promise me you’ll hang on this time,” Tito says.

Cal clutches the token, his pale eyes brimming with tears and hope. “Promise.”

Tito can’t actually remember what happened to his fourth coin. Not exactly. Maybe he traded it? He probably traded it. Everything is bartered and bargained and shared and swapped on the subway.

The car is no longer empty, though it’s not full either. Rather, it’s been staked out by two dozen or so passengers who are lounging, pacing, laughing, drawing, composing, crying, writing. The subway car has become a swirl of ideas and dreams.

At first, Tito watches the others from his seat, not quite confident enough yet to approach the woman who’s painting three seats down or the blues singer with bold makeup.

Cal, on the other hand, is fearless and charming, even though he remembers less than Tito. He travels up and down the car, wrapped in his silly mauve blanket, talking to everyone. But he always comes back to sit down next to Tito. Sometimes with a little more than he left with.

“I forgot about these!” he says when he returns with his own notes, full of stories and cartoons about an albino superhero. “Create the hero you want to see in the world, I guess,” he says, as he flips slowly through the pages, giving his eyes time to focus on each panel, all while wearing a delighted smile.

That’s how Tito finds the courage to talk to the painter three seats down, awkwardly telling her about his unusual building sketches, explaining that back home he was bullied in school for being a nerdy, arthritic teenager. Apologizing as he stumbled over his story, embarrassed for being awkward, far from home, and a little lost.

He’s stunned when the painter doesn’t judge him. Neither does the blues singer, when he timidly asked for makeup tips.

But they ask why Tito’s on the subway.

He almost says I want to live someplace better, someplace that gets me. That’s why he came on this journey. Isn’t it?

“I want to be more than what people think I am,” he says instead, and frowns.

His story’s changing. No, his reasons are changing. No, he’s changing.

The subway is definitely changing. Sometimes it’s a smelly and standard mass transit vehicle. Sometimes it’s a posh, retro steam engine. Sometimes it’s a fish in a river. The transformations are always sudden, unexpected. Sometimes Tito blinks and the subway is new and bewildering. Sometimes he wakes up, looks around, and the sense of déjà vu is so strong, Tito thinks he’s going to be sick.

Once, he tugs on the conductor/engineer/fisherman’s sleeve when she walks down the aisle.

“Haven’t I been here before?” he asks, more desperate than he means to sound.

“Yes.” Her expression’s stern, almost says: Haven’t you figured out that time flows back and forth on the track?

“Okay, so…are we heading towards the stop after the last station?” Tito asks. “Or away from it?”

The conductor gives him a long, piercing stare. Then, she breaks into an unexpected grin. “Yes,” she says and walks away, leaving Tito more confused than before.

This stretch of the trip lasts for months. Years. Time blurs and bleeds together. Tito learns to barter and trade, to apply eyeshadow and mascara while wearing his finger splints. He remembers why he started putting on lipstick: He figured if people are going to stare at him, he might as well give them something beautiful to ogle at. Now, he’s perfected the art.

He spends hours arguing and laughing and dreaming with Cal as the building designs in his sketchbook become wilder, louder, bolder. In quieter moments, Cal talks about his family, who he left behind so he could learn to tell stories.

“I just want to find an art teacher who doesn’t dismiss comics and a literature teacher who doesn’t think graphic novels are for kids,” he says. “Shouldn’t be that hard, right?” Tito nods in sympathy. “I’m lucky, though, my family gets why I needed to leave,” he says lightly, but tears well up and pool behind his glasses. Tito wraps an arm around his friend.

“How about you?” Cal asks. “Did your family mind you leaving?”

Tito frowns. “I don’t think so.” But he touches the picture in his pocket. The truth is he can’t remember who he left behind.

They travel. Forwards. Or backwards. But always together. Tito gets good at talking Cal out of his creative despair and Cal helps sketch in small details, especially when Tito’s tired and every joint in his body is complaining.

Except sometimes he has an arthritic flare up so bad, he can’t even hold a pencil.

When this happens, the conductor/medic/lifesaver always comes by with ice packs and ointment that smells like nutmeg. She refuses any and all payment for this.

“Medical necessities should always be free,” she says, like it’s the most obvious fact.

For the first time, Tito realizes the conductor is a friend too. That she’s been one all along. “I want to be like you,” he tells her. At that moment, in this shifting, changing subway, he can imagine no better life. Becoming anything, everything he wants.

Her eyes soften. “No, you don’t,” she replies. “You’re you. You just don’t know it yet.”

Tito recoils, stunned, hurt.

“Hey!” Cal says, protesting on Tito’s behalf.

The conductor turns to Cal. “Your stop’s coming up,” she tells him.

“What?” Cal asks, confused.

“What?” she says.

She blinks hard, once, and suddenly, the subway becomes a space shuttle and there are stars outside the window glittering like jewels. The conductor’s uniform balloons into an astronaut suit and she gives them a small wave before leaving Cal and Tito shocked and floating weightless above their seats.

They look at each other, stunned. Then burst out laughing.

Later, when gravity returns and Cal’s fast asleep on the seat beside him, Tito studies the picture in his pocket for the millionth time. He can almost remember who the woman is. Her name is just out of reach.

Maybe the conductor’s right. He doesn’t want to be everyone, anyone.

He just wants to find a place where he can be his own weird, stiff-jointed, colorful self.

No, he wants to find a place with people like the painter, the blues singer, the conductor, and Cal, without being in a liminal space.

No. Actually, he wants to stop giving up pieces of himself to get there.

Five coins. Tito gives away the first one so easily. He trades his fifth coin for advice. Which seems silly in hindsight, because the subway is crammed with people now, talking, arguing, smelling of filtered coffee, dishing out wayward guidance for free. Sometimes Tito catches the other passengers staring at him, but for once, it doesn’t bother him. He gives them a warm smile. Sometimes they smile back.

The conductor/mentor/timekeeper is sitting on the seat next to him.

“Can you tell me how to reach the stop after the last station?” he asks, handing the coin over.

“Is that what you really want to ask me?” she asks, taking it with a sidelong look.

Tito hesitates. “Why do you do this job?” he asks.

She raises an eyebrow, surprised, which surprises Tito because he didn’t think the conductor could be surprised. “Because I’m good at it. Also, the subway helps a lot more people than it loses.” She pulls her cap down lower. “Ask me one more. Make it good.”

He fiddles with the tube of lipstick. It’s Parisian red and nearly full, waiting with promise.

“What will I find at the end of this trip?” he asks, unable to meet her eyes.

The conductor breaks into a grin. “That’s the right question.”

“You’re not helpful,” he says, groaning, pulling his head in his hands. In hindsight, he should’ve used that fifth coin to bargain for extra pens, pencil sharpeners, or the foresight to know that he shouldn’t disappear just because he doesn’t quite mesh with everyone else.

“Yes I am,” the conductor says. “Here. Sit here.”

Tito looks up and there’s Cal. His white hair is mussed, his thick glasses are slightly askew, and that ridiculous mauve blanket is slung over his shoulder.

“Hi, I’m Cal,” he says.

Tito sags with relief. “I was wondering where you went,” he says.

Cal frowns, puzzled. “Really? Because I just got on. And that’s the only seat not taken,” he says, pointing to the space besides Tito. It’s true, the subway’s brimming with passengers again, all looking for change.

“Oh. I’m Tito.” He slides over and Cal plops down next to him. “Hey, I never asked, why do you always have that blanket with you?”

“That’s a weird first question.” Cal blushes slightly. “Don’t laugh, okay? But it’s what I used as a superhero cape when I was a kid.” He hunches slightly, as if bracing for ridicule.

“Cool,” Tito says, nodding “What about now?”

Cal blinks in surprise. “Now I’m just always cold,” he replies with a boyish smirk and Tito laughs.

“Think there’s really a stop after the last station?” Tito asks.

“There better be. I paid a lot for my six tokens.”

Tito bites his lip, hesitates, then asks anyway. “But what if there isn’t? Or it isn’t right for us?”

Cal grins, mischievously. “Well, then I’m getting a refund and coming back.”

Relief, like he’s been holding his breath for years, floods through Tito. He grins back. “Yeah, me too,” he says and settles in next to Cal.

He has a long trip ahead.

No, he’s almost there.

On the day Tito exchanges five years of his life and all of his savings for six silver tokens, his mom meets him at the subway. He never believed there was a stop after the last station. Until he did. Until he needed to.

He can’t remember exactly what sent him to the waitress/broker/oracle in the cheap coffeehouse for the tokens. It wasn’t anything original—he remembers that much. Nothing climatic or cunning. But sometimes it’s one slur too many, one cruelty too sharp. Sometimes you need to leave to learn. Sometimes you need to come back to become.

His mom waits for him at the top of the subway steps, biting her lip. He remembers the tube of red lipstick in his pocket. Hers, the one she handed him when he said he wanted to be someone else, anyone else. His mom was a stage actor turned waitress turned nurse. She understood the power in transformation. She hands him a picture of the two of them.

“Mom, I’m traveling. Not dying.”

She nods, but the worry’s still there. “What if you get there, it’s not what you want?”

Tito pulls out the tokens from his pocket. The waitress/broker/oracle called them pieces of himself. Five of them are tarnished. Used. Exchanged and reclaimed. The sixth is untouched.

It’ll take Tito two and a half years to reach the stop after the last station, to figure out how not to disappear. And two and a half years to return again. To learn how to put together a portfolio of all the buildings he wants to design. How to wear blush and green mascara fearlessly. How to find friends and face the world he knows.

“What if it’s not what you want?” his mom asks again.

Tito’s fingers curl around his last shining token. “Then I’ll come back and try again.”

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Stop After the Last Station” is read by Erika Ensign on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 43A.)

Onward

The first time Iris craved love, she had recently learned to coax the equits and drive her father’s carriage. With the help of her father’s beasts, she drove a newly matched couple from the Matching Festival to the residence at the edge of town they would call their home. As they departed her carriage, Iris’s father retrieved their bags. He trailed them inside. Iris gazed after them and imagined what waited on the other side of their door: a stove that gave off warmth, a bed piled with quilts made by village well-wishers, two heated stones to place upon their hearts in the final ceremony.

Iris shivered in the sunset chill. Her father returned. Back at their family home, Iris’s parents greeted one another with an embrace. Iris retired to her room. She was not hungry for dinner. But around midnight she woke to an empty belly rumbling.

Iris met her first love during the Matching Festival. Her sick father had been tasked by her mother with remaining in his bed. He left Iris with the carriage duties. She had ferried her last passenger to the festivities in the center of town when she passed the svelte tan woman with curly black hair waving her down beside a row of chopped-down trees. She stopped the horses and waited for the woman to catch up. As she approached, Iris felt mesmerized by the unhurried way she moved.

“I have missed my ride,” the woman said. She curled her r, as in the southern tongue, like the queen. Iris’s body warmed at the sound. “May I trouble you for one?”

“The festivities will be done by the time we get there,” Iris said.

“They cannot be,” she said. “I am the one who begins them.”

Iris swallowed her embarrassment. She moved to climb from her box in order to open the carriage door, but the woman shook her head.

“If it is all the same, I’d rather sit next to you. I grow bored watching my drivers’ backs.”

Iris nodded. She could not refuse the newly appointed Master of the Build, the woman responsible for updates to the Palace of the Lady Roa. Iris had heard the woman’s name spoken between passengers, something southern. Lady Roa had chosen her because of her connection to Lady Roa’s lands, her knowledge of Lady Roa’s magics. The woman slid in beside Iris and folded her hands in her lap.

“Onward,” Iris whispered at the wavelength her two equits recognized. The massive creatures, their shadows cast long across Iris and the woman, dragged their inflexible bodies forward, their two front claws catching the dirt with each step.

“Fascinating, how selective they are in what they will or will not listen to.” The woman peered up at their white hide, like velvet. The equits’ heads bobbed as they walked. “Fascinating how they were created for work and how long we have gone, making living beings to do our duties, when surely there are better ways.”

“Are you a progress pusher?” Iris asked. She admired progress. She had discussed progress with her equit partners during their passenger-less hours; they had expressed a willingness to move into other spheres of commerce within the kingdom. Many had branched out on their own as builders, carriers of heavy materials. They performed transportation duties only as a matter of tradition and need; the kingdom had not identified better options, and transportation had been the reason the creatures were created in the first place.

“I am,” the woman said. “It is a sore subject, sometimes, between the Lady Roa and me.”

Iris had heard as much; the two were infamous for their heated arguments within the palace chambers.

“Heat’s necessary for progress,” Iris said. The woman nodded. Iris said nothing more as the equits dragged through the rough roads of clawed-up dirt. When she was a child, she had feared that she would one day fall into one of the holes left by the equits’ claws. Now she knew the holes were only large enough to twist an ankle, if one decided to walk the roads instead of travel by carriage.

“Why are you not at the Matching Festival?” the woman said. “You’re of an age.”

“If I knew Lady Roa, we’d argue about progress too,” Iris said. “Societal, in this case.”

The Lady Roa and the townspeople over which she ruled had merged traditions: hers from the southern realms, the lands beneath the kingdom, theirs from the time when the first townsperson built his home. The women and men who chose their mates at the Matching Festival were the ones with the financial means to pay for the privilege. They chose mates from the pool of potentials who would trade their jobs, their meager salaries, for life as a caregiver of house and heirs.

“It sounds silly,” Iris said. “But I like driving the carriage. I like talking with the equits. I like working in my father’s shadow. I don’t think I’d be happy locked inside all day.”

The woman ran her hand through her hair. “We are not all traditional, you know. In the south. Lady Roa comes from a very old family. Sometimes the oldest families are the most reluctant to change.”

“It’s no excuse,” Iris said before she realized that she should not. “My father rose above tradition. He’s allowed me to work beside him. He’s supported my decision not to take a mate.”

“Your father must be a good man,” the woman said. “I meant no disrespect.”

The sound of stringed instruments and horns throbbed through the trees. They had reached the end of the road. A dirt path led through the thicket to the festival ground, which Iris had not visited since she was a little girl. Back then she had watched the line of men and women step forward and pick their mates and had longed to be one of them. Now she understood that life was about these choices, and she had no regrets about the path she had chosen to ride along.

The woman disembarked from the carriage and thanked the equits in a volume they would not understand. They folded into themselves, resting their bodies. Iris waved goodbye to the woman in their stead.

“You’re not coming along?” the woman said.

“I have work,” Iris said.

“Who else is there to ferry?” The woman gestured at the wooded emptiness. “Everyone is celebrating.”

Not only had Iris not been present at the festival for a long while, she also had not been spontaneous since her twisted adolescence when she used to sneak out of school to run with young women and men through the underriver and watch traders disappear below its surface. She missed the twisting in her stomach at both the touch of a girl’s hand on hers and at the curious sight of people disappearing beneath the surface of a river into another world.

“I think I will go,” she said, then told the equits of her plan.

We will be here, they said, speaking into their folded arms. Where else would we go?

Iris laughed. They liked her laughter; their eyes brightened when they heard it. But sometimes, they seemed wearied by the conversations she had with them. Sometimes she wondered if they liked her after all.

As Iris and the woman walked through the wooded path to the festival, Iris shoved her hands into her coat pockets. She had trained herself to speak or not speak as much as a customer desired.

“Does my presence in your city offend you?” the woman asked.

Iris quickly shook her head. “No. Like I said, it’s possible to transcend the desire for tradition.”

“It’s odd, isn’t it? Lady Roa has brought her own traditions from her world. Some of them are disruptive to your traditions. But in some ways, your people and hers? Mine, I mean. We are the same. They work well together. We work well together.”

“I’m not the same.” Iris felt as though she were repeating herself.

“I’ve gathered that,” the woman said. She stopped in the middle of the path. Iris tripped over her own feet as she halted beside her. “I have a proposition. I am to be the first one to choose a match today. It seems that you and me, we are both at a disadvantage in this town. You, because you cannot have both a home of your own and remain a driver of carriages. Me, because I am hated here, and most matches I might choose will wish they had been chosen by someone else.”

“Surely not,” Iris said. “You’re important.”

“I am not one of you,” she said. “And worse than that, I do not live as your people live, and I do not wish to give in to old ways of doing things.”

“You’re proposing that I be your match?” Iris said. The old dream from her childhood flooded back: to hear her match name her, to shake their hand for the first time, to follow them to the home they built for the two of them, to press the warm stone against her heart and take in the smell of her new partner for the first time—if they were a relative stranger to her—or to feel the swell of nostalgia if they were an old friend. Perhaps they would turn out to be someone she ferried once and of whom she took note, admiring their gait as they walked up a path to a door. Perhaps they would be someone who had lived nearby when she was little who had been blessed with a high appointment.

“That is what I’m proposing,” the woman said. She began her walk again, as though she didn’t care for the answer as long as the proposal had been spoken. Iris was so shocked that she didn’t register their stride or their proximity to the festival until she saw before her the ring of tree stumps that circled the grounds. Bright red tents blocked out the sun. Iris heard, in all directions, the horns playing in their cross-directional harmony. She breathed in the old smell of fresh flowers and cupfuls of sticky grain, the sweet scent of the waterberry sauces the food vendors poured over them. Waterberries were not native to the land, but the queen had brought them, and the people had loved them, and new fields had been made to grow them in plenty.

Upon the stage beside the entrance, a man with a wreath of flowers upon his head spotted Iris’s passenger and descended the stage in one fell swoop. He latched onto the woman’s arm.

“It’s past time,” he said. “Come up here.”

As he pulled her away, she looked over her shoulder at Iris.

Iris stood at the edge of the festival. A trumpet sounded two low moans. Before Iris, a line of people formed, while up on stage the line of choosers, men and women from royal or well-respected appointments, had long stood shoulder to shoulder. The ceremony leader placed the woman immediately behind him as he stood in the amplification circle, a ring of the queen’s blood painted upon the stage. Iris didn’t join the line of people waiting to be chosen. She felt frozen to her place, her face hot, her mind blank in the busiest of ways. She heard a buzz in her ears. The ceremony master said his opening, introducing the festival and the tradition of pairing. He thanked the queen for upholding this tradition.

“Even coming from a culture of arrangement,” the man said. Several of the choosers in line smirked. “The Queen has allowed us to keep this, our most beloved of traditions, and has added to it several of the traditions of the south. Here, at this festival, we blend our ways and hers. We become one people.”

The ceremony master repeated this line at every event. Iris imagined it was Lady Roa’s decree.

Finally, the ceremony master bowed to his left, revealing the woman in her waiting place.

“We all know the great Ximena, the newest member of our community,” the man said. “As the newest, as a woman of means, having paid her tithe to the Lady Roa, Ximena will begin the choosing. Your choice, Master of the Build,” the ceremony master said.

“My choice knows her name.” Ximena stepped into the circle. “I await her answer.”

The ceremony master thrust out his hands. “You must say it.”

“Iris,” Ximena said. “Master of Transportation.”

The ceremony master wrinkled his forehead. “There’s no such role. Transportation fits into your purview.”

“You heard what I said,” Ximena said.

The ceremony master shook his head; he was of Iris’s parents’ generation, and he did not hide his disdain for progress. “Iris, do you denounce your job to take this match?” the ceremony master said. “If so, approach.”

“I have not asked her to leave her duties,” Ximena said. “Would you please rephrase your question? She will never approach, asking her like that.”

“Iris, do you take this match?” the ceremony master said, exhaling then pursing his lips until they went white. “If so, approach.”

Iris would never have another chance at romantic love and her life’s love both. She would never have another offer such as this. She felt her old craving return to her belly. She wanted to kiss the woman who stood upon the stage. She wanted to feel a woman’s hand in hers, her body against her in other places. Iris stepped to the space beneath the stage.

“I accept,” she shouted to the ceremony master.

“Then you are matched,” the ceremony master said. “You may join the festivities as betrothed.”

Ximena joined Iris on the ground. She held out her hand to Iris as the ceremony master continued above, calling forth the next chooser. Iris took Ximena’s hand. Her stomach flipped at the touch of her skin. For so many years, she had pretended that she didn’t need companionship of a deeper kind. For so many years, she had deluded herself; she wanted love, romantic and carnal and so close that she hardly knew the line from her to herself.

“I feel as though I have made the right choice,” Ximena whispered.

“Me too,” Iris said.

“Shall we get something to eat?”

Iris smirked. “I can’t,” she said, navigating through the discarded cups strewn about the ground. “I have to drive the new couples home.”

Ximena frowned then smiled in a single motion. “May I help?”

By the time the two finished their rounds, darkness had taken over the sky. Ximena gave her address to Iris, who relayed the information to the equits. Iris’s mother would have heard the news. The results of the Matching Festival traveled quickly, passed from neighbor to neighbor. Iris drove her match to the location Ximena described; the dwelling was a three-story skeleton, stone walls wrapped around a small section on the ground floor. A simple dirt pathway led to a simple green door.

“Not what you expected?” Ximena said as Iris commanded the equits to slow down.

“An unfinished home from the Master of the Build?” she said. “No, not what I expected.”

Parked outside of Ximena’s home, Iris paid the equits their share of profit, depositing the colored stones into their mouths. They swallowed, shook out from their harnesses, and dragged away into the woods. They would return in the morning to ask if she needed their help.

Iris’s hands were caked with dried sweat from holding the bar of her carriage. Her hair was wind-whipped, a mess of tangles. Ximena squeezed her hand. Iris took the first step up the drive. Ximena followed. They entered the door together.

The finished room was sparse: a bed pushed against a far wall and made up with a thin sheet and a single fire ring in the center,

“Wow,” Iris said. “This is old-fashioned.”

“It produces less waste than the gas stoves,” Ximena said.

Iris smiled. She wanted to hear about it, but not now, not when she had just caught a glimpse of the stones waiting by the unlit warming ring.

“Shall we?” she asked.

Ximena blushed. “Please,” she said.

Iris moved toward the ring. She placed her palm along the black soot that formed it and pulled the warmth from her belly. The ring lit red. As she took her hand away, she felt the ring’s heat rising. She placed her stone along its edge. Ximena did the same.

“I promise to be warm as this stone,” Iris said. She pulled a pair of tongs from the bucket beside the fire and removed the stone, shaped like a heart and red now. Ximena lay on her back beside the fire. Iris placed the stone against Ximena’s chest. “Even when it is cold outside. Even when I feel cold inside. To you, I will never show disdain. To you, I will never cause undue suffering.” Iris held her hand on top of the stone until it cooled, watching Ximena’s face as she looked away then toward Iris, forcing herself to make eye contact with the stranger with whom she would now share her home. When the stone stopped glowing, Iris lay against the ground and crossed her hands on her belly and waited.

“I promise to be warm as this stone,” Ximena said. She placed it against Iris’s chest. It did not burn like Iris thought it might but sent waves of soft heat through her. Her skin felt tender where it touched the ground, even through her clothes. “We will learn one another’s weaknesses, but I promise not to exploit yours. I will help you be your best self, as you will help me be mine. I will reveal myself to you and listen when you do the same. We will know one another like a stone knows the river that helps shape it.”

Iris couldn’t help but see Ximena then, her match, the woman who called her name into a sea of strangers.

“That was beautiful,” Iris said. “That wasn’t the traditional ceremony at all.”

“It’s what I learned, from love,” she said.

“Then you’ve loved before?” Iris ached to know that her match had loved but loved no longer, that love had ended for her once, that she had hurt.

“I did, yes.” Ximena removed the stone from Iris’s chest, and Iris sat up and faced her. “I do. Pieces of her will never leave me.”

“I hope you’ll tell me about it,” Iris said.

“When I’m ready to tell about it.” Ximena stood. She helped Iris stand. “Are you hungry? I’ll make us food. A feast is in order, I understand.”

Iris was happy to discover that Ximena had a skill in cooking to rival her skill in making Iris feel seen for the first time in her life. As Iris sat at a table Ximena built and dined on roast root and rooter, a meal Iris’s mother used to make to celebrate the capture of garden-destroying pests by eating, together, the crop and the creature who threatened it, Iris could not stop smiling. In bed that night, the new lovers moved their well-fed, well-warmed bodies against one another until their muscles ached too much to finish. They held hands as they fell asleep.

Iris’s new life was beautiful. During the daylight, she ferried passengers across town. During the dark hours, she sat and ate and spoke with Ximena. They talked about the customs of the places they came from: the otherworldly magic Ximena cherished, Iris’s reliance on treaties with created creatures. Ximena taught Iris how to build, how to convince stones from the forests to join with other stones. Together they raised the remaining walls to their home. Ximena told Iris stories about her work: her clashes with the queen. It seemed they were always fighting, yet Ximena never worried for the future of her position. Iris told Ximena about the people who scoffed to see her working the carriage even after she’d been matched—but also about the children who asked her countless questions about how she’d managed to do both when their parents told them they must choose.

For a while, Iris was happy. Ximena gave her everything she needed, and when Ximena stopped touching Iris as much, Iris figured she had no right to complain or to ask for more.

The cloud took her lungs first. She awoke one night beside Ximena unable to breathe. She heaved. Ximena breathed into Iris’s mouth until the cloud cleared, then held Iris as she shook until the morning. The coughing fits took her on three more occasions before the cloud moved into her stomach. For two weeks, she hardly ate. Then the cloud moved into her heart. One night Ximena held her hand against Iris’s chest and convinced it to keep beating despite her body’s insistence that it stop. The next morning, Ximena slid a plate of eggs beneath Iris’s nose.

“You’re ill,” she said. “You need help.”

Iris didn’t want to admit it, but she didn’t want to die.

“I can go to my mother, get her herbs. She has a whole collection. She sells them to the neighbors sometimes.”

Ximena pursed her lips. “You need more than herbs,” she said. “The cloud comes from within. I’m familiar with it. Lady Roa suffers from similar afflictions.”

“What does she do for it?”

“There is water in the woods at the border of my world. She disappears for a while. She bathes.”

“No one notices that she’s gone?”

“No one notices. It is easy to fool people. Your people don’t want to be governed. They’re happy enough for the reprieve.” Ximena placed her hand on Iris’s. “You need to go there. You need to bathe in the healing waters.”

“I don’t want to leave my work,” she said. “How long?”

“Two weeks.” Ximena squeezed her fingers. “I’ll be less fulfilled in your absence, but I will rest easy knowing you are healing.”

“I’ll go,” Iris said. She wanted to do whatever she could to be the kind of match who lived up to her end of their love.

“Good,” Ximena said. “Now listen carefully, and I will tell you the way.”

Iris took one of her own carriages to the lake at the crux of the river. There she disembarked and bid her equits farewell. Her father was still too ill to work, but Iris’s childhood friend Kereen had agreed to take care of the work until Iris returned; if it became too much for Kereen, he was supposed to enlist Ximena’s assistance in hiring another temporary driver. Iris had asked Ximena not to see her off. She was unsure if she would ever be well, and saying goodbye felt like bad luck when she intended to return in two weeks’ time.

Dressed in her swimming gown, she swallowed the reed Ximena had given her. It came from the lake on the other side of the water and would allow her to breathe on her journey. The reed was a limited resource; few from her world ever gained the privilege of seeing the other side, the queen’s country, the country in which her match had been born.

The air grew thin. She craved the water. She longed to be surrounded by the murk. She dove in and down, and the water flooded into her clothes and her hair and her lungs. It nourished her. She opened her eyes to a world of swaying greenery. Ahead of her, the outline of a cave unblurred. She swam toward it, each water breath weighing her body down until she walked upon the lake floor.

The cave was dark until it wasn’t; green lights flashed on and off deep inside. She reached out to touch them, and they blinked in her hand. They were alive, Ximena had told her, creatures who lit the way of their own accord, no treaties, no long-standing traditions of so-called mutually beneficial relationships. If the lights left, the people of the other world would let them leave. Sometimes Iris felt attacked by talk like this; other times, she agreed with Ximena. She wished there were other ways, easier ways, to continue in the traditions to which her people had become accustomed.

She followed the lights to the end of the cave, where the ground dropped off into a deep hole. She stepped into it and fell. To fall in water was the strangest sensation she had ever felt, as though the weight that held her both did and did not exist. She moved her arms to her sides to slow herself, then stilled them to speed her fall. When her feet landed, they landed softly against new ground. She swam out, guided by the lights, until she saw a surface gleaming below. She swam up. She broke through.

The sticky air was as heavy as water. She climbed out of the lake and onto a shore of white stretching out into a fog. The sand cut her feet as she walked along it. She winced as one of the pieces dug into her heel. She bent and pulled out a piece that stuck; it was a small skull, cut in half, the jagged edge covered in her blood. She dropped the bone and hurried into the fog. Ximena had told her to move in any direction; what she sought would find her, she said.

No noise followed her. No noise greeted her when she finally found the edge of the bone shore. She parted the fog with her body and stepped into a burst of brown: trees in every direction, with a single dirt path through them, red with fallen leaves.

The noise came at her all at once, a whisper like Ximena’s breath in the night. It calmed her. Creatures fluttered higher up than she could see; she caught only the briefest of their movements. Iris walked for a short time. At the end of the wood, she came upon the spa’s entrance, an arc of vines that slithered like river moss. She passed underneath. On the other side, a man appeared. Or he seemed most like a man with his wrinkled gray skin, though his ears were pointed and double the size of her own. He wore a red cloak laced with leaves.

“Iris, I presume?” he said.

Her heart jumped to hear her name. “Did Ximena tell you I was coming?”

“She did,” the man said. “I know just what to do with you.”

If she hadn’t trusted Ximena, she might have run. She had given Iris no warnings about her world, had assured Iris that she would be safe there.

The man turned and walked deeper into the woods. Iris followed. As they walked, the trees thinned. The sound of running water filled her ears. A mountain unfolded before them. The man stopped at its base. To her left, a pool steamed. She looked below her feet, where she now stood on black stone.

“There are three pools,” the man said, gesturing up the mountain. “You will settle in the bottom one this journey.”

“Where will I sleep?” Iris said.

“You will find tents beside the pools,” the man said. “But stay in the water as long as you can. You want the water to soak into your skin. You want the water to meet you in your bones.”

“And food?” Iris held her hands against her stomach. She wasn’t hungry now, but she likely would be soon.

“Don’t eat here,” the man said, “unless you wish to pay a price when you leave.”

Iris frowned. “For ten days?”

The man shrugged, then turned to go. Iris looked at the surface of the first pool. She shivered in a drifting chill, then undressed and climbed, naked, over the black rock to submerge herself. She would be safe, Ximena had said.

She soaked. The water was warmer than any she had ever bathed in. Sweat beaded on her face. She breathed through the steam. She didn’t become hungry. It was as though the water nourished her, gave her energy. As she soaked, she felt a glow move through her then leave, again and again. It was what she’d always thought magic must feel like, exactly like that. She closed her eyes and slept.

The person slid into the water without her noticing. She woke to see them across the pool from her. They had thick brown bark for skin that smoothed when she squinted at them. Their hair was like moss, and it floated from the water to the shore behind them and into the woods beyond.

“You have the cloud,” they said. Their voice was a low hum in her ears. “I was wondering what was wrong with you. But I see it in your eyes now.”

Iris nodded. “I have the cloud.”

“Are you going to die?” they asked.

She shrugged. “I am unsure.”

“My people do not die from it,” they said. “We adapt.” Black mist passed in front of their eyes. They smiled. Their two front teeth were crooked. “Not always well.”

“Are you here to clear the cloud too?” Iris asked.

“I will never clear the cloud.” They passed their hand through the water then held it above the surface. Instead of dripping, the water soaked into them.

She knew what sort of person they were before they told her; she knew they grew from the ground. She knew she was surrounded by their brethren. She knew that in Ximena’s world, trees walked the earth like people. Ximena had told her these things, even as she failed to expound on the treatment that Iris would undergo; she told Iris that the surprise was part of the healing.

“If you’d like to be alone, I can find another pool,” they said.

She shook her head. “No, please.”

The person nodded. For a time, they sat on opposite sides of the pool in silence. Silence was kind. Ximena talked often, of her work, of Iris’s work, of the city. Before long, the leaves shifted and let down the dark like a shade. Iris glanced at the tent beside the pool, but she did not wish to leave the water.

“You don’t have to use it,” the person said. “They don’t know what to do with your people here. So few of us require sleep the way you do up there. On the other side.”

“You don’t sleep?” Iris said.

“Not lying down.”

“My mate sleeps,” Iris said. “She’s from here.”

“Perhaps she does so as a courtesy to you,” the person said.

The idea of Ximena having not told her as much made her stomach jump.

“My name is Iris,” she said. “It’s a flower, in my world.”

“If pressed to give a name, I call myself Root.” They appeared to harden, then smoothed again. “You understand where my name comes from. What ails you, flower in your world?”

“My life is wonderful. It’s more than I ever could have imagined.” Iris felt compelled to say more. “But I rely on one person. One person to fulfill me completely. That’s the way it is, where I live.”

“No person will ever understand you,” Root said.

“You’re right,” she said. “But she’s the only one who has ever come close.” She began to cry.

At first Root watched her, then they spoke gently. “Would you like me to comfort you?”

She nodded. Root moved to sit beside her. “How do your kind comfort one another?”

“Poorly,” she said, and Root wrapped a long arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to them. They smelled like mud, like wet leaves in the fall layered across the earth. When she stopped crying, they left their arm until she asked them to remove it.

They sat together in the water for three days before Root left. They talked very little, but Root touched her when she asked to be touched, pointing to a part of her shoulder or arm that felt lonely. Root’s touch interested her, rough and soothing, like the placement of soaked bark her mother used to lay across her wounds when she was a child romping across woods she was not supposed to romp across. At the end of the third day, Root climbed out of the water without a word and wandered back into the trees.

Alone in the water, Iris entered a trance. She stared off into the woods, first watching for Root’s return, then waiting for the woods to give her answers to the question of the cloud. She felt it leave her body. In her trance, her vision blurred, and she saw what she suspected was the truth of the woods. They were hungry and hurting. They were lonely, just as she was, with only one person in her world to understand them.

Upon Iris’s return, Ximena met her at their side of the river. Ximena pulled Iris into an embrace. Warmth spread through Iris. She felt a flash of Root’s heat on her skin. She reddened as she nuzzled her head into Ximena’s neck and kissed her until her hairs stood on end.

At home, Iris pushed Ximena into their bed and climbed on top of her. She opened her clothes and pushed her fingers against her every inch. Ximena moved beneath her like a river, movements impalpable in their smoothness. Ximena’s skin was like water rippling with shivers. Having been in her world, Iris understood that Ximena’s blood was infused with the magic she used to speak to her tools. Ximena’s voice asked bricks to be bricks, asked mud to dry between the materials with which she built. The world around them moved to their benefit, but the ways she favored—autonomy, wasn’t it called?—meant that no brick would stay brick if it didn’t want to. No creature would pull a carriage because of old paper signed in the dawn of that creature’s existence. And what of her own autonomy, atop her mate? She had been convinced by Ximena too, by her kind words in the forest. Iris swam against her body. Had the choice truly been her own? Iris fired with the force of Ximena’s fingers, her climax nothing like water.

That night in bed, Iris traced the spots where Root had touched her. “Do you really sleep at night, or do you pretend?” she asked.

Ximena laughed. “You learned about the southern world, I see,” she said. “I do not pretend, Iris. I have made concessions to live in this world of yours. I work magic I would have eschewed in our world.”

“You don’t like the equits, do you?” she asked.

“I like them. I am also aware that, had I been the one to shape the systems here, I would have done it differently. You must let living things choose for themselves their fates, and I mean really choose. To give illusions of choice in the forms of contracts signed when these creatures were too young to know otherwise? To bewitch stones into staying put instead of roaming as they are wont to do?”

“Your trees are alive,” Iris said.

“All trees are alive.”

“Yours walk and talk. Some of them, anyway.”

Ximena yawned. “That is a story for another time.” She ran her hands through her hair. “I am happy you are feeling better.”

Iris wanted to pry, but the journey had stolen her energy, and she had not slept, after all, for ten days or more. That night she dreamt of walking in the woods, of passing stones that hid from her behind chopped-down trunks. She knelt at a stump to try to catch a stone, but the stone rolled away. The tree’s roots reached up and grabbed at her. She thought herself in danger until they ran their pointed ends across her lips. She fell into the earth. The root took her underground.

She woke up gasping for air, Ximena sleeping peacefully beside her.

Once Iris had seen the world beneath the world, once she had glimpsed its secrets, Iris could not concentrate on the taming of stone or the driving of equits. One day, she halted them in the middle of their path.

“Do you wish you were somewhere else?” she asked them.

They did not answer right away. Then one of them spoke: Do you?

“Sometimes,” she said.

Yes, said the one on the left. We do as well.

From that point forward, it wouldn’t leave her. They might smile at her laughter, but she smiled at the customers who paid her even when they made rude comments about her working and mating in the same life. She smiled at Ximena when she cooked even if Iris did not like the strange vegetables Ximena brought from the palace. She smiled at her mother even when she asked Iris about the prospect of children, of giving up her work to raise a family, because that was what a grateful daughter did.

“How would it work? To drive the carriage without the equits?” Iris asked Ximena one night when she was not complaining about her latest argument with the queen.

“Oh,” she said as she served Iris a bowl of cooked red fruit with a green speckled rind coated in sweet brown sauce. “There isn’t much to do, not while the queen insists on maintaining her good grace here.”

“What do you mean by that?” Iris asked.

“We learned some lessons in our world,” Ximena said. “By coming here, we’ve been made to regress. I believe it’s a mistake. She wants to be loved by all. She doesn’t think your people are capable of change.”

“She’s wrong,” Iris said. “My father—”

“I know she’s wrong.”

“But what’s the solution? If she allowed it? We need a creature strong enough to pull the carriages. If the equits won’t do it. I mean, that’s why we created them, back when we had more magic and all. If they don’t pull our carriages, who will? You?”

“I don’t have the easy answers,” she said. “But there are always ways.”

“Are there?” Iris thought of the magic she knew, the magic that Ximena taught her. Her people had no need of more magic than it had taken to build their city from the ground up. Magic that, she had been taught, came from the privileged water that had once drowned the land before receding.

Ximena finished her bowl. She wiped down the kitchen counters of crumb and spill. Iris hadn’t touched her food. She tried it now. She frowned.

“I prefer meat,” she grumbled. “Your root and rooter. Would you make that for me soon?”

Ximena pursed her lips. “I don’t like it,” she said. “It makes me sad.”

“And what are we supposed to do about that?” Iris asked. “Are we supposed to ask creatures to be our food and hope that’s been their life’s ambition?”

“There are kind ways to find sustenance, too,” Ximena said.

“So you don’t have a clue,” Iris said. “You have all these things you disagree with. But no idea how to fix them so they don’t offend you.”

“It’s not my area of expertise.” Ximena stood still at the kitchen counter, not looking at Iris. “And the queen won’t—”

“Then what good are you?” Iris stood from the table and marched to the door. She opened it to the air. She breathed it in. The rage inside her subsided, but as it left, she felt her heart stammering in her chest. She clutched it. Her knees buckled. She fell. The cloud. It had returned.

When Iris woke, she was in an ice-cold pool on the other side of the world. Ximena crouched beside her, ladling water from her hands over the top of Iris’s head.

“Hello, love,” Iris said. Despite the fog that drifted from her mouth, she did not shiver.

“I was afraid for you,” Ximena said. “You must have loved this place so much, you wanted to return to it as soon as possible.”

Iris didn’t laugh; instead, guilt rose in her throat.

“You’re going to be okay,” Ximena said. “I was sick with it once.”

“You were?” Iris felt the water seeping in through her skin. Her bones were heavy with it. She saw, around her, the forest, and beyond that, in her mind’s eye, a strange, inescapable landscape. Gold movement. Something she’d never seen before. Something she’d never wanted to see before.

“The queen and I,” Ximena said. “It was after she brought me to your city.”

“And the water cured you?”

Ximena sighed. She paused in her ladling. She leaned back on her hands. “As best it could.” Iris shook her head—she didn’t understand. “Your friend was here,” Ximena said. Iris’s breath caught. “They seemed fond.”

Iris unslouched and looked about. “Did I worry Root?”

“No,” she said. “You worried me.”

“I wish I’d been able to see them.” Iris’s heart tremored.

“You seem fond, too,” Ximena said and smiled.

“We spoke for a long time,” Iris said. “How long do I need to be here?”

“As long as you please,” Ximena said. “I need to return to the queen. Now that you’re stable.”

“Of course.” Iris wanted Ximena to go. Wanted Root to trade places. She was happy that her mate had cared for her, that Ximena’s had been the face she had seen upon awakening, but she longed for that other comfort, the physical touch of a person more otherworldly than even Ximena.

Root did return. They touched hands as Root climbed into the water. They said little. For a day, they sat touching.

“You went away so quickly,” Iris said. “You didn’t say goodbye.”

“I don’t say goodbye.” Root reached into a space between two folds of bark on the side of their body and pulled out a chunk of wood. They handed it to her; it was a carving in the shape of Root. “I regretted not telling you how much being with you meant to me. This is part of me,” they said. “I too thought I would never see you again.”

Iris held the figure in her hands. She looked Root in their eyes as she touched the figure’s shoulder. Root smiled. She moved her finger to the figure’s chest, and Root’s chest expanded with their deep breath. She touched the figure’s belly, its legs, its feet. She held the figure to her naked chest. Root watched her all the while.

After three days, Root took Iris by the hand and helped her from the water. Over the course of those three days, the two had talked about the southern world, about its once-splendor. Root had spoken of the forests and the marshes as though they were speaking of a lover long-gone.

“It sounds beautiful,” she said.

“It was,” Root said.

“What happened to it?”

“I want to show you something,” Root said. “Something you’ve never seen before.”

“You’ve shown me a lot that I’ve never seen before,” she said.

“Come with me,” they said. “This you may not like to see.”

They walked along the leaf-covered ground through the woods. It smelled like fresh earth, a road freshly upturned by the equit’s hulk or like soil in her mother’s herb garden. They walked for three hours on legs weakened from the water’s relaxing cold, foals born from ice. Finally the trees began to thin and Iris heard a distant roar. Root reached for her hand. The ground turned to sand beneath them, and then there were no more trees ahead, only behind.

“This is what happened?” she said. “How?”

“They abused what was living,” Root said, “until there was nothing left.”

“Are there more like you?” she asked.

“There are, out beyond the sands. Settlements here and there. I cannot take you there.” In the distance, Iris saw the sand shift. The mirage showed the shape of a monstrous tangle of roots groaning through the sand. They stood and watched a while longer the monsters made of death.

“Those aren’t your people, are they?” she said.

“Not my people,” Root said, “but not far from them. Sometimes, the living things have had enough.”

She moved to step into the sand. Root reached a hand across her. “It’s poison to breathe out there.”

“Where are all the people like me?” she asked. “Like Ximena?”

“Those people,” Root said, “are dead.”

Back in the forest, at the edge of the river, Root touched Iris’s cheeks. She kissed their hands as they lowered them. She dove into the water with Root’s totem tucked into her bag.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Iris demanded as she emerged from the water, the memory of that haunted landscape burned into her. Ximena took both her hands and looked into her eyes, and as though she saw what Iris had seen, wept. Iris pulled Ximena in, her stomach sinking at the thought that she had been harsh to speak those as her first words. “I’m sorry for your world.”

“I tried to tell them,” Ximena said into her hair. “But that was later, when it was too late. At first, I didn’t know better. I murdered the forests. I poisoned the soil. I harnessed the creatures of fire and water and air. Even the air rebelled. The only part of my world I will ever see again, is what you ventured into. The river. The springs. The trees. The rest is inhabitable only to those like your friend.” Ximena caught her breath and pulled back from Iris. “Did Root return for you?”

Iris buried her hand in her pocket and fingered the totem. “They did.” She blushed.

“I am glad,” Ximena said.

“But why didn’t you tell me?” Iris said. “We have to tell people. We have to stop it from happening here.”

“I didn’t want you to be unhappy,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose you.”

Iris scowled. “You think I’m fragile. You think any bit of bad news will break me. I’m not made of glass.”

“Your people are more like glass than you know,” she said.

Iris clenched her fist in her pocket. Her breath sped up. She wanted to yell, but yelling was not kind. She was supposed to be kind, as a mate, as a daughter, as a provider of services.

“I’m not. We’re not,” she said. “You make comments about us like we’re beneath you. We’re not. In fact,” she said, motioning to the river, “you’re beneath us. You, who couldn’t even keep your world alive. You, who can’t even stand up to your stupid queen.”

Ximena frowned. “Don’t,” she said. “Don’t lash out at her.”

Iris felt sick to her stomach. She turned to see her carriage, her equits, waiting for her. What did they look like when they felt anger? Sadness? She had never known, but they must have felt their share. She couldn’t bear to climb on. She ran, instead, into the woods.

She ran until she could run no longer, then she walked. She passed her hands along the trees. She whispered as though Root were there, I think about you. All the time. Every day. She ached when she entered patches of stumps as far as the eye could see. She walked until her feet burned. She found her home and her mate tossing in bed inside their walls. She crawled beside Ximena. “Who was she?” she whispered into Ximena’s ear. “The woman you loved before me?”

Ximena moaned in her sleep.

“Was it your queen?” she said. But she didn’t need an answer; she knew. “Why didn’t it work between you?”

With heavy lids, Ximena answered. “She wouldn’t have me. She insisted I find a match of my own.”

“I’ve fallen for someone,” Iris said.

“I know,” she said. “Root seems kind.”

Iris’s body shook. “I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” Ximena said. “People love. It’s the best thing that people do. In the south, we do not bind ourselves to one another.”

“But—everyone says—you practice arranged marriage, without any choice whatsoever,” she said.

“Yes, we arrange our marriages,” Ximena said. “But marriage is not the only form of love.”

“Then—Lady Roa. Do you and she—”

“No,” she said.

“Oh.” Iris’s heart hurt. She had hoped that Ximena’s transgressions would give her reason to seek Root once more. It was a brief wish, gone as quickly as it came to her.

“It is okay that you made love to them,” Ximena said. “It is good. I haven’t been here as much as I’d like to.”

Iris shook her head. “I didn’t,” she said. “I was faithful.”

Ximena laughed. “Oh,” she said. “Would you like to find them again? Would you like to see if you two could be together? Would that make you happy?”

Iris’s head buzzed at the thought. Her body hummed. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that more than anything.”

And the cloud of her illness twisted in her yet again, as though it longed to break free.

Root was not in any of the spas, not even the third, which glowed blue and red and green and called to Iris. When Iris asked the spa-keeper, he shrugged. Iris waited beside the first pool for three days before she ventured once more to the edge of the forest. She pulled from her pack the apparatus Ximena had helped her construct: a hollow shoot from her mother’s garden attached to a bubble Ximena had made with her magic. She showed Iris how to ask the air for its assistance, how to read its consent, how to store it in glass. Iris wore the bubble as a necklace and stuck the shoot into her mouth and stepped into the sand.

At first, the sand did not fight back. It wasn’t until she was out far enough to see the edge of Root’s dead forest that the sand shifted beneath her feet. She struggled against the movement below her. She tried to run, but the sand slowed her. The air burned her back through her robes. The air smelled like heat. Ximena had warned her that she might have to fight. Ximena gifted her the sword that hung by her side from the queen’s arsenal; she must, Ximena told her, cut her way through the sand to find Root’s home in the deadened wood.

“I want to do it,” she said. “Even if it’s difficult.”

Ximena had kissed her forehead. “I’m a proud mate.”

The sand gathered. Wind whipped it into the shape of a worm. Iris struggled to hold herself upright. The sand dipped beneath her until she stood in a large hole. She glared through the wind and sand at the worm. It moved toward her. She remained upright and facing it. It paused before her. She breathed with her bubble shoot and held the air in her lungs. She reached out and touched the sand.

“I mean no harm,” she said. “I would not hurt you.”

The sand swirled around her. The wind roared.

“I wouldn’t hurt you!” she yelled, then gulped a breath of her world’s air. “Let me by!”

The sand closed in on her. It pushed her down. She lay inside the wind’s portal. She could see nothing but dark. She did not reach for her sword. She curled into a ball in the sand and let the wind harass her, let the wind beat against her skin. She wouldn’t hurt it. She had made such a promise to the wind and sand. Now she made it to herself.

The wind stopped. The sand settled. She opened her eyes. Before her stood a wood-skinned tangle of char and bone. It moved on mangled roots. It beckoned with one sharp limb then crawled away, toward the burned-up woods. Iris followed.

The air smelled of old fire. The ground crunched beneath her feet as the sand transitioned to ash and wood so burnt that all the moisture had gone from it. She followed the wood creature, unsure where in the burnt-out forest life could sustain itself. The sun still insisted against her skin as she walked, the skeleton trees granting her no shade.

Finally they arrived at a low hill and the entrance to a cave. Iris peered inside. The darkness pooled all around. The wood creature scurried off.

“Wait!” she said. “I can’t see!”

A light blinked on in front of her. It flickered. It moved down into the cave. She reached out for the wall and found it moist and beating like a heart. She meant to grab hold of it, but the wall grabbed hold of her hand first. She let out a small scream as the light floated forward. Iris placed her other hand in front of the first. The wall grabbed hold. She followed the light down, crawling as the wall held her. When she reached the end, the light extinguished as her feet touched ground. The wall let go of her hand. Something else grabbed them. Their hand was as rough as she remembered it.

“You came,” Root said.

“I needed to tell you that I cared for you.”

Root laughed. “I knew that,” they said. “But I’m glad you came.”

She kissed them on their rough lips, and they fell, wrapped together, into the dirt beneath.

Root introduced Iris to what remained of their family: five creatures like Root and ten or so like the wood creature who had led her there.

“This is our tomb,” Root said. “We wait here for death to finish us.”

“Why do you go to the spas?” she asked Root, pressed with them against one of the living walls. “Why try to heal, if you intend to die?”

Root shifted their weight, then whispered, “It is difficult to let go of hope.”

Iris perked up. “Why don’t you all come to my world? I could make sure you were safe.”

A light flashed on before Iris’s face. It blinked once, twice, three times.

“I can ask them,” Root said. “They have been afraid for so long. This is our home. They do not want to leave it, not even when it is a shell of its former self.”

Root was able to convince three of their brothers to follow them into the world above. The others refused to leave, desiring to die with the petrifications of their loved ones. The root tangles did not have the energy for such a journey. Thus it was a party of five who ventured shyly through the river to the north. When they emerged, they were met by Ximena, who embraced Iris before introducing herself to Iris’s guests.

“How did you know I would come back this day?” Iris asked.

“I’ve checked every day,” Ximena said.

Iris approached the equits. She placed one hand on each of their sides. “If you would like to go, please go,” she said. “I will find a way to work without you.”

We have a contract, they said. We cannot abandon it.

“We will write you up a new contract,” Iris said. “One that abolishes the old.” She glanced at Ximena, who nodded. “One that ensures you can do whatever you please.”

One of the equits nodded. We will give you one last journey, if you wish.

Iris took Root by one hand and Ximena by the other. “I think we’d like to walk,” she said. “I want to show my new friends their new world.”

The equits let go of the carriage. They dragged themselves into the woods. Iris led her two mates and Root’s family through the living wood. They eyed the trees with interest, and when they all reached the home Ximena and Iris had built, they did not wish to go inside. Instead, they dug their roots into the soil and imitated the life they had once lived. That night, Iris and Root and Ximena fell asleep with two stones across each of their chests to the sounds of the forest laughing.

Iris found her second love at the edge of a world. While her first love had showed her that nothing worth having required a sacrifice of self, her second love showed her that sacrifice could be worth giving. Iris’s cloud lived in her as it lived in Root, but she would not let it blind her to satisfaction.

The next morning, Iris unpacked. She pulled out the bubble that had once held air. She had filled it with water from the spas. Neither Ximena nor Root knew anyone who had drank the water before. She did not mind being the first.

She swallowed the water without taking a breath. It warmed through her. She asked it for what she wanted, what she had always wanted: strength, autonomy, not only for her, but for everyone who was part of her world and the next.

She loaded the carriage onto her back. She was strong enough, with the water’s assistance, to carry it on her own. She waved goodbye to her two loves. She pulled her carriage along the old roads, ferrying travelers where they needed to go, forging new grooves in the paths.

 

(Editors’ Note: Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Diamond Cuts

The stars were diamond-hard. I reached up and plucked one from the sky. It spat white-hot sparks against my fingertips. I placed it in my mouth and scraped my tongue against its burning edges—it rattled against my teeth. I tasted ozone, iron, blood. I bit down. As it broke, it thrummed both its agony and mine. I spat out onto my hand and held out what was in my palm: shards of glass coated in spittle and blood. My tongue was bleeding. The remains of the star glinted in the cruel light of the others.

I let the moment hang in the air. The audience held its breath with me. It was the catalyst of the play, where the lady—me—realizes that grasping the crackling power of the world around her will always cause her unbearable pain. Once I’d given the shock and beauty of the moment just enough time to sink in, the curtains descended. The first act had ended. I let my shoulders curl inward and trudged offstage.

Maria, director and resident sorcerer, waited for me in the wing, which was odd. She usually chatted with the nobly born members of the audience during intermission. She wore her usual smile, but I knew her well enough to spot the tension tugging at her eyes. “We have a bit of a problem,” she said.

I dug out some ground glass stuck between my teeth with my tongue and spat it out onto the floor, along with a mouthful of blood. The pain was as familiar a part of my daily rhythm as sunrise or nightfall. Before more blood had time to well up from my cuts, I said, “What’s wrong?”

“We’ve had to find an understudy for Elias.”

We didn’t have understudies. It was just me and Elias playing the only two characters the kingdom needed to see over and over. The magic that enshrined the theater gained its strength from perfect, cyclical repetition, so Maria couldn’t switch out the actors willy-nilly. We were born and raised in the chambers under the stage. We would be here until we keeled over under Maria’s sorcery-forged “stars” that hovered above the stage.

“Is Elias okay?” I asked.

“He’s had a slight, ah, difficulty.”

Slight difficulties did not prevent Elias and I from performing. A year ago, a crate of enchanted props exploded next to me right before a show, tossing me into the wall and leaving me with four broken bones. Maria took me by the collar of my dress and dragged me out onto the stage. Her magic kept me upright, but it didn’t dispel the agony.

“What happened?” I asked.

“He fell. Tripped on the catwalk, if you can believe it.”

My heart thudded in my chest. How bad a fall was it, to force Maria to find an understudy? “I want to see him.”

“After your performance. I don’t want you distracted beforehand.”

“I can’t just—it will be more distracting if I’m wondering what happened. I’ll be more focused once I’ve seen him for myself. Please.”

She studied me for a long moment, then said, “If you insist.”

I followed her further backstage. The stage crew, ordinarily bustling, now huddled together in small groups, speaking to each other in low, urgent voices. They fell silent as we passed. Maria led me down a set of stairs that transitioned from metal to the same cold bedrock that the lowest halls were chiseled from. We came to a storage room I’d only been in a few times. The door was ajar. I went to open it, but Maria lay a hand on my arm. “Remember your composure,” she warned me.

I nodded. I pushed the door open.

At first Elias looked like he could’ve been sleeping, but then I saw what remained of his skull and knew that wasn’t the case.

I was still for what seemed like several days, although it couldn’t have been for very long. At some point during that blank eternity when I tried to convince myself that he was dead, and tried and failed to understand what that meant, I realized that Maria was talking to me. She and the rest of the world felt curiously distant. I didn’t register most of her words, unable to think through the buzzing in my ears. My hands shook, but stillness blanketed my mind. Whatever emotions I felt were too strong to be named or felt in full; I knew them only as a pounding in my skull and a wrenching sickness in my stomach.

By the time I became capable of hearing Maria properly, she had given up on scolding me for my distraction and had moved on to a clinical recitation of facts. The crew had found the body during my last scene, apparently, and brought it here where it wouldn’t get in the way. She said the cleanup would be extensive. She told me she’d found an understudy from the audience. She told me to come and meet him.

“No,” I said. There was an eerie calm in my voice.

“We have less than twenty minutes until the intermission ends. We don’t have time to dawdle.”

When I was younger, I hated how she would use the word “we” to pretend that this whole endeavor was something that I participated in for any reason other than that I would be struck dead by sorcery if I tried to leave. At this point I’d grown too used to it to complain. “I’ll meet your understudy onstage, then. What do you want me to talk to him about, anyway?”

“The familiarity between you and Elias, it’s indispensable to your performance. You can’t exactly manufacture that in a few minutes, but it’s better than…” She kept talking, but I stopped listening. My mind was an empty roar. Elias’s costume was perfectly pressed, but his hair looked like he’d forgotten to comb it that morning.

I was surprised when Maria gave up on getting through to me and left, presumably to tend to whoever she’d dragged into this endless, circular nightmare. It was the first time that I could recall that Maria had ever actually left me alone when I wanted her to. It occurred to me that beyond the theater’s walls, mourning was probably allowed to last longer than a twenty-minute intermission; but here, even that amount was a luxury.

The second act started with the lady’s most famous soliloquy, in which she laments the fact that she still wants to grasp the power that threads through the universe, even though it hurts her every time she tries. When I went back on stage, my limbs followed the right movements and my mouth spoke all the right words, but I saw nothing but Elias’s body. I wanted to withdraw fully into the horror of it, but the acrid smoke-scent that hung over the stage—a byproduct of Maria’s work—kept me alert. My performance wasn’t lackluster. I couldn’t remember how to perform badly anymore. But the soliloquy was sharp and brittle, bringing the lady’s distress to the fore, barely touched by the gentler yearning that usually was its heart.

As I gasped out the last line, I loathed how even this bitter grief, both the lady’s and mine, took on a jewel-bright loveliness under the conjured starlight. Everything was beautiful here, no matter how awful.

Now it was time for the lady to suddenly have her epiphany and dash offstage. I found Maria in the shadows, gripping the shoulder of a young man who had to be the replacement. He had blond hair, nothing like Elias’s, and watery, painfully earnest eyes. He smiled at me hopefully and seemed about to say something, but then Maria leaned down and hissed, “Your cue!”

Panic flashed across his face, but he steeled himself and marched outside. This next scene was just him alone on stage: the palace alchemist puttering about his workshop and wondering aloud about what mystery to research next. I watched him perform for only sixty seconds before saying to Maria, “He’s awful.”

“He’s the most talented actor the kingdom has. We’re lucky he was in the audience tonight.”

“Most talented according to whom?”

“It’s true that here we have somewhat… higher standards, but it’s better than stopping the show entirely.”

“He’s enthusiastic,” I noted. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around someone gladly taking up this task. The role of the alchemist was less painful than that of the lady by a large margin, but later on in the play there was a part where the alchemist grinds up a star in his hands so he can look at it through his magnifying lens. It left Elias’s hands permanently scarred and burned. It wasn’t as if the audience didn’t know it hurt; the nature of this theater was common knowledge. Everyone knew how it told the story of how magic was summoned into the world and how by telling it again and again, night after night, it kept that magic pinned where it was. If we failed to put on a show, then the realm would wither and die as its sorcery left it. And no ritual has power without pain. “Are you planning to keep him?”

Maria smiled.

The actor sighed melodramatically and slumped down onto his chair, head in his hands. My cue. I pushed my shoulders back and let myself feel the lady’s desperate hope as I dashed onstage.

This was the scene where she tells the alchemist about the star she stole from the sky and how it hurt her. She eventually convinces him to invent a safe way to access the power that the star-stealing was an allegory for: magic. My performance with the understudy lacked the crackling chemistry that Elias and I had perfected, but at least he already knew the lines. Before long we’d reached the last act, in which the lady and the alchemist learn that for magic to stay in the realm, a sacrifice must be made. The lady does the selfless thing, of course, and gives up her life in order to let the kingdom keep its newfound power. Finally, the alchemist turns her corpse into a crystal statue so that she may forever be filled with light. By that point a solid half of the audience was openly sobbing, like usual. I never had the faintest idea why. They already knew how it had to end.

Maria told me it was customary practice at ordinary theaters to emerge after the final curtain to greet the audience’s applause, but we didn’t do that here. She liked to say that it was because we needed no thanks for our duty, but in truth it was due to how long it took for me to recover after the last act. Maria’s sorcery was skilled, and it ensured that each night I spent an average of an hour frozen in place, lungs entombed in crystal and limbs imprisoned in skin of cut diamond. Most of it wore off by the time the crew cleared the stage around me, but several minutes after that I still couldn’t speak. Rubies spilled from my tongue in place of words. That was why, when Maria came to my bedroom and told me her decision, I could do nothing except listen.

“We don’t have time to train someone up properly,” she said, leaning against the door. “So he’ll have to do. You can help him adjust.”

Did he volunteer, or will it be a surprise when he can’t go past the threshold anymore? I wanted to ask, but couldn’t.

“Good night,” she said.

The first thing I did upon waking was go to my closet and run my hands through the embroidered silks and satins. Then I pulled a dress from the wardrobe and tore it apart with my hands. I went seam by seam. I didn’t cry. I started from the decorated collar and moved down. I took each crystal sewn into the bodice and placed them next to the lamp so they caught the light. I watched the glinting crystals as I worked. It wasn’t angry work or even sad work. I wasn’t sure I was feeling anything at all. Once I had reduced that dress to a pile of scraps and thread, I moved to the next, and to the next, and to the next. Finally I piled the remains of the clothes into the wardrobe and latched it shut, letting it be a coffin for the silken scraps.

That was when Maria came into the room. “You didn’t come to breakfast,” she said, setting down a tray piled high with food.

I didn’t speak to her. I methodically threw the food onto the ground. I poured the coffee out onto the carpet. She watched me silently, then left and came back with another tray. By the time she returned, whatever unknown force motivated me to engage in such mechanical destruction had ceased. I ate.

It was strange. I’d thought I no longer had that kind of destruction in me anymore. When I was a teenager, when I’d just barely grown out of the unknowing love of childhood and realized what Maria was doing to me, I would tear apart my costumes. I knew, even then, that it wouldn’t change anything, but I had to try. I had to. Destruction was a mode of survival. And then that, too, had slipped away from me when I wasn’t looking.

Elias’s replacement was named Sebastian. Over the next year, our acting sharpened to perfection, but the disruption to the cycle still showed in the state of the theater. The sorcery that mortared its foundations wavered. The pipes rusted. The stone began to crumble. But Maria hired stonemasons and metal-magicians to reinforce it and the theater became strong again.

“I didn’t know it would be this hard,” Sebastian said. I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just finished bandaging one hand and moved to the other. He and I were hunched in the shadows that puddled beside a stack of prop crates, out of sight of Maria or the stage crew. I was taking care of the burns on his hands.

In the early days of our acquaintance, I’d refused to speak to him any more than was absolutely necessary, resentful of his attempt to replace Elias and his blithe willingness to embrace the life I’d do almost anything to escape. I watched Sebastian’s slow awakening to the true horror of his new role, and his subsequent escape attempts, in silence. But Elias’s absence was an open wound; it was lonely and frightening to be without allies in a place like this. And when Sebastian’s escapes failed again and again, he knew he needed an ally as well. Eventually something akin to friendship grew between us. By now I’d learned that he had a fondness for sweets, that he’d wanted to be an actor since his sixteenth birthday, and that he desperately wanted my approval.

“Have you ever thought about just not performing?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. My lungs spasmed. I bent over coughing until a ruby the size of my thumbnail dropped out of my mouth and onto the lap of my dress, leaving a small smear of blood. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. “Sorry. Yeah. I’ve thought about it. But we’re wrapped up in the ritual now. Stopping the play would kill us.”

We sat there in silence as the lights from the rest of the theater shut off one by one and the darkness settled into place around us. An awful exhaustion hung over him. He hadn’t yet found in himself whatever it was in me that made me keep going. It was because I hated seeing him like that that I said what I said next, even though I was certain it was doomed to fail.

“If you stop a ritual it destroys everything they’re tied to, the ritual-doers included,” I said, “but you can modify them. I’ve wondered if it’s possible to keep modifying it until it breaks, without immediately vaporizing anything.”

“You can?”

“Well—yes, but this play’s been cycling over and over for about a thousand years now. Even the smallest change would be dangerous.”

“More dangerous than this?” He held up his bandaged hands.

“Yes, actually. You might hurt the audience, not just us.”

Sebastian, ordinarily all waver and tremble, was suddenly hard-edged. “Don’t you think they’d deserve it?”

“You used to be in that audience. You used to come every night.” I hadn’t quite forgiven him for that.

“We should bend the script,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Bend it until it breaks.”

“Maria won’t let you.”

“She can’t stop me.”

I didn’t want him to find out how wrong he was, but I knew I couldn’t sway him.

I was tense, waiting for Sebastian to enact whatever disastrous plan he had devised, but most of the play went by without him abandoning the script. It was only after the lady’s death that he made his move.

The alchemist was weeping over the body. It was time for him to cry out, “But I will make it so that she’ll always hold the light.”

But he said nothing at all. He didn’t turn the lady’s corpse to crystal. The audience muttered to each other in discontent as the curtains closed.

Maria waited for us. A swarm of artificial stars hovered around her shoulders, spitting sparks. They gilded her with a sickly glow. “Sebastian, would you like to hear what just happened downstairs?”

“Why do I feel like you’re going to tell me anyway?”

“The staircase in the east wing collapsed! It’ll take weeks to repair the damage. You seem to have forgotten what is necessary to uphold this fine old establishment. Still. Better late than never, as they say.”

She flicked her hand. Her stars hummed, high-pitched and grating, like a thousand fingers on a thousand wineglasses, and dove at Sebastian. He cried out. The air filled with curls of smoke and a sickening smell. They charred through his costume and burrowed into his skin. She flicked her hand again and they darted back into the air, readying for a second strike.

There was a thick glass pipe the length of my arm by my feet, a discarded prop for the alchemist’s equipment. I picked it up and swung wildly at the stars. I hit one, two, three, and sent them careening against the wall, where they smashed and fell to the ground, lifeless. The glass flared molten where it struck them. I hit two more before the pipe began to melt in my hands. Maria was occupied by guiding the last star in pelting Sebastian, who was in too much pain to fight back. Without thinking, I snatched the star from the air with my hand.

I might have screamed—it was hard to be sure. The burning filled my whole world. It hurt more than any of the stars Maria had ever made for the play. It batted at the cage of my fingers, which were still somehow clenched around it, too paralyzed by pain to even flinch open. Desperate, on instinct, I did the same thing I’d done with every other star I’d held. I put it in my mouth and bit down.

At first: fire. But then blissful coolness, sweet enough to overshadow the familiar sting of the shards cutting into my flesh.

I breathed out, shuddering. Maria frowned faintly as she watched me swirl the shattered piece of the star around my mouth. I glanced at Sebastian. He’d fallen to the floor, eyes squeezed shut.

I spat the shards in Maria’s face.

They weren’t moving fast enough to cut her, but she recoiled as they battered against her cheek and fell down onto her dress. They left bloody smears.

I spat a mouthful of blood at her feet. She didn’t move to stop me as I went to Sebastian and helped him to his feet. With him leaning on me, we staggered down the hall and away from her.

“I’m sorry,” he said to me suddenly.

“For what?”

“When I was sixteen, I came to see the play. It was… you and… him… you were… so bright. I loved it. I kept coming back. I never got tired of it. It was why I wanted to be an actor. I was so excited when Maria asked me to do this. I’m sorry.”

I’d thought I would have more anger in me, when we finally had this conversation, but I couldn’t find any. I sighed. “You never did anything to hurt me. You just watched. It’s—this place turns everything pretty. It’s—fine.”

“I’m not dumb enough to think that’s an excuse for applauding.

“I don’t know. Maybe it is. Figuring that out, that’s your business, Sebastian, not mine.”

He didn’t seem to be expecting that answer.

I woke to halls coated in dust. I stooped down and traced a finger through the white dust layered over the floor, then winced. My hands were injured. Ordinarily Maria’s magic cleaned and mended our wounds to a minimal degree by the time of our next performance, but she hadn’t extended us that courtesy today.

The walls were slowly sloughing apart without sufficient agony to serve as mortar. I was sure Maria would have the damage repaired by noon, but I felt grim delight despite that. I still thought Sebastian had acted rashly, but a sense of inevitability had settled over me. He had broken the script; I had spat star-glass at Maria. We had set our course, for better or for worse.

I went to breakfast. Sebastian was walking and talking, which I thought a small miracle. I was confident the audience wouldn’t notice his wounds. They never seemed to notice any suffering too ugly for them to dig their fingers into. Maria smiled at me and asked me to pass the butter dish. I did.

That night, the lady did not put the stolen star into her mouth but into her pocket. It smoldered against the cloth, but didn’t catch fire. I plucked another from the sky, then another, then another, then carried them to the alchemist intact and unbroken by my teeth. Then I took up the hammer on his work bench and smashed them into fragments of glass and quartz. He gathered up the pieces with a strip of satin I tore from my dress, preventing him from burning himself. And this time, when she learned that someone would have to die for magic to stay in the world, the lady wept and screamed as she died. She never smiled. Her corpse lay dull and without luster under the stage lights as the curtain closed.

I tensed for a fight when we went backstage, but Maria just said, “You realize what will happen if you keep doing this?”

Sebastian said, “We’ll be free of this.”

I said, “I don’t care if the theater collapses.”

“Those things will be a symptom of it, yes, but magic is already draining out of the world. I know you’ve never seen the world beyond these walls, but Sebastian, do you really want to see your home withered and dead?”

“I mean, yes,” he said. “After this? Yes. I do. Why not.”

She opened her mouth to respond, but I spoke first. “No stars?”

She looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”

“You don’t have your stars with you. Why not?”

“It may be an unfamiliar concept to you, my dear, but I was hoping to reason with you. More is at stake here than your comfort. If you’re selfish enough not to recognize that—”

“You can’t make them powerful enough to hurt anymore, can you,” I said. There’s a peculiar joy that lives beyond the point of no return. “Your sorcery’s withering too.”

“If you don’t—”

“What are you going to say? What are you going to threaten us with? There’s no amount of pain that we won’t eventually learn to stomach. What are you going to do, kill us?”

She didn’t answer.

If tonight was the last night I performed, I was not going to be beautiful. I ripped off the tiny rubies and amethysts sewn into my dress and took the golden pins from my hair. I dragged my fine clothes through the dust in the halls until I looked like a wraith or a memory. I put on lip rouge without thinking, then scrubbed it off so fiercely that my skin felt raw.

The lady stole the stars from the sky and tucked them into the folds of her dress, then gave the alchemist a pair of gloves, serviceable and dull, to handle them safely. Something effortless and graceful flowed invisibly back and both between Sebastian and I. We reacted to each other’s movements almost before they happened. We had been stitched together by the play’s repetitions, and when I felt the cycle’s magic wavering, I knew Sebastian felt it too.

As they always did, the lady and the alchemist learned that someone would have to die.

“Someone always dies,” I said. I spoke without rhyme or adornment. I hoped the audience thought my words ugly. “But I don’t think it will be me.”

It was more of a sigh than a snap, the final breaking. I was ready when the metal and stone that held up the stage gave way beneath us. Fear did not touch me. The splintering building and my unscathed body, we made a new circle together, lightning-swift, etching a new truth into the heart of the land.

The sound of cracking split the air—people screamed—we were in freefall through darkness. I saw Sebastian, crushed stardust trailing behind him, and reached out—

I was surprised when I woke up and even more surprised to find that I was unhurt, save some shallow cuts here and there. I was nested in rubble and snapped wood and still cloaked in chalky dust. Carefully, I stood. I looked up. There was something wrong with the ceiling. It was domed and impossibly far away, an infinity of air swimming between me and it. It was broken, too: light poured out of what looked like tiny pinpricks gouged into its surface. I couldn’t see the walls.

And then I realized there were no walls or ceiling at all.

I heard footsteps. Sebastian was stumbling towards me, cloth wrapped around a gash in his arm. “You made it out,” he said.

“Did anyone else?”

“Some.”

“Not all, though,” I said.

“No. Not all.”

I tried to decide whether I was glad or not, but I couldn’t. “What do we do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Anything?”

Thirteen of the Secrets in My Purse

One: My lipstick.

The shade is Heart’s Blood.

Morbid, if you ask me.

I wanted to know if it was really the color of heart’s blood so I bought beef heart and tried dabbing my lips.

Close enough.

I emailed to congratulate the lipstick company on their realism. They did not respond.

Two: My wallet.

When it arrived in the mail, it was stuffed with school photos.

Not from one kid or two or ten. So many my wallet was bursting.

I contacted the store. They said anything in my wallet was a freebie and hung up.

I didn’t know what to do with the pictures.

It seemed like it might scare the parents if I tracked down the kids.

I didn’t even know for sure they were real kids.

I couldn’t throw them out.

I couldn’t shred them.

I put them in a shoe box in my closet.

When I opened my wallet again, there were three more. It makes one every twenty-three minutes.

I keep having to get more shoe boxes.

Three: My keys.

Some of my keys have transformed into other keys.

This is inconvenient because I can no longer get into my mailbox or my car.

One of the new keys is shining gold. I find it suspicious. (The others are respectably dingy.)

Whenever the golden key is near the wrong lock—which so far is any lock—it turns searing hot. As a result, I now have several burn scars on my hands.

If a key can be a jerk, then the golden key is a jerk.

I’d throw it into a dumpster somewhere, but I can’t get it off the ring.

Four: Some other lipstick.

The color is Pomegranate Passion.

I’m ninety-five percent sure I didn’t buy it, but that hasn’t stopped it from being in my purse.

I bought a pair of pomegranates, placed them on the counter, and read them the world’s greatest love poems.

I lit incense.

I played smooth jazz.

When I came back in the morning, the pomegranates were the same shade.

I have emailed the lipstick company.

Five: The pearl from the sacred heart of the Earth.

I keep it in a mint tin.

Six: My passport.

It vacations without me.

It comes home flaunting exotic stamps.

Sometimes it comes home with notes inside. Par example: “Ma petite passport! Restez ici! Tout le France t’aiment!”

Sometimes I can’t read the notes because they’re in other languages.

Sometimes I can’t read the notes because they’re in other alphabets.

I really hate the notes I can’t read because they’re sloppy.

Those people can go to hell.

Seven: The lipsticks considered as a pair.

The lipstick company has emailed back.

“Unfortunately, Heart’s Blood has been recalled while unapproved materials are removed from our factories. Please return your product so it can be given to relatives of the deceased.

“Regarding your other letter, we regret to tell you the homofructal pomegranate population has suffered in the global drought. Try again with heterofructal couplings. We recommend kiwi or yellow pears.”

Eight: The zipper.

It complains. A lot of them do.

The trick is listening past the metal noises of the teeth so you can concentrate on the tab.

Mine says, “Stop!” when I pick it up.

It says, “I hate you!” as I drag it.

It says, “I will have my revenge!” as I set it aside.

I keep having nightmares about zippers.

Nine: The picture of this one kid I can’t forget.

It came from the wallet.

I just couldn’t put it in the shoebox.

I don’t know what it is about her.

The gaps between her teeth.

The mismatched eyes, brown and blue.

The clouding natural hair.

The way she’s looking at the camera.

Like she’s searching for someone on the other side. Like someone on the other side should be searching for her.

Ten: The pear.

I bought fruit to bring home to the pomegranates.

I placed the two pomegranates beside a plum, two bananas, a pineapple and a pear. I considered including a passionfruit, but it seemed like cheating.

In the morning, one pomegranate was still lonely, but the other one had rolled beside the plum. It flushed with the flamboyance of a sunset.

I tried some of the lipstick on it.

The colors match, but I fear the pear has become jealous. I have tucked it in my purse so it doesn’t have to watch the new couple.

Eleven: My compact.

Its exterior used to be shiny, but now it’s smeared with fingerprints and general grime.

I opened it to see if the mirror was still usable.

I stared back at me. (The mirror was fine.)

The me in the mirror said, “Oh, good, I’ve been waiting. Listen. I asked me to tell me something when I saw me.”

I struggled to parse that. “…I asked myself to tell myself something? What are you talking about?”

Mirror me grumbled, “I told me I wouldn’t understand, but I wouldn’t listen.”

“Just give me the message.”

“Check your mail.”

“I don’t have a key,” I reminded myself, annoyed. “It transformed.”

Mirror me threw up my hands in frustration. “Take that up with me, not me.” My hand snaked out of the mirror and pulled the compact shut.

Twelve: The plane ticket.

The next time I opened my purse, the zipper said, “Look for the girl in the photograph.”

I almost missed it because I’m used to ignoring the zipper’s abuse.

I unzipped my purse again.

“She is the rightful holder of the pearl.”

I kept the zipper moving.

“You will find her among the missing children. The others will guide you.”

I jiggled the tab to see if there was more, but it ignored me.

I opened my purse to see what else would happen.

My wallet unrolled, spilling a dozen new kids’ photos I hadn’t moved to the shoebox yet. Its billfold opened. Inside, there was a single plane ticket, economy.

My passport flipped to the destination. I’d never heard of it. My passport had been there several times. A note I’d never noticed before read: “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for the drinks.”

The golden key has acquired a halo.

I’m more interested in the newly appeared, rusty key that used to unlock my bike.

The pear didn’t do anything so I decided to have a snack.

The girl in the photograph giggled.

Thirteen:

I took my advice and went to check my mail before leaving.

I had no idea how I was going to get into my mailbox without a key, but it turned out not to matter.

A package from the lipstick company sat on top of the boxes.

The accompanying letter read, “In appreciation of your dedication to color testing, we would like to request your help assessing the accuracy of our newest product prototype.”

I unwrapped the lipstick.

It was labeled “Adventure.”

It seemed like a bad idea, but I tried it on anyway.

The Perils of a Hologram Heart

We found ourselves once again at the Organ Zoo. While we gazed at the giant livers of extraterrestrial water worms, Arc asked me to tell him about the nineteen nineties.

There was nothing I could describe that I hadn’t described before. I had already told him a thousand times about my highlights, my gelled ponytail and baby barrettes. My wide leg jeans and tight t-shirts. The mixtape I made for my first boyfriend. How sad we were when Tupac died.

Being with someone a long time, you knew how to interpret small gestures. By the tilt of his chin, I knew he wanted to hear about the early internet again. How I logged onto chat rooms looking for friends my own age. He wanted to hear about AOL and I was tired of talking about it.

Instead of answering, I leaned closer to the liver, nearly pressing my nose against the glass.

He cleared his throat and I looked over at him. He had genetically engineered himself to look like someone from my time. It wasn’t surprising that I found him attractive, especially in this era of outlandish appearance mods. To me, he looked normal, but better. A cross between Justin Timberlake and Freddy Prinze Jr. He wouldn’t have been out of place on a sitcom about roommates.

He cocked his head and I swooned despite myself. I wouldn’t ever be able to date someone better-looking. Was that a good enough reason to keep seeing him? Probably not. The downside of indefinitely long lifespans is the inertia that accompanies the surplus of time. You keep putting off the hard thing until later, and there is plenty of later to be had. One hundred years pass and you’re still seeing the same guy you meant to dump after the third date.

Maybe there was someone better for me out there, maybe not. I had little experience dating. Arc was the only romantic partner I’d had since being thawed out.

“I need a new body,” I said, because I did. I had moved on to a display about modified uvulae that were favored by overtone singers. To me they looked like disgusting piles of pink flesh, but the polyphonic tones they produced were quite beautiful.

Arc ran his hand through his hair, frosted at the tips.

“I thought we agreed you didn’t.”

I scoffed and walked over to the next display. It offered a magnified view of the vomerosomes of an inner galaxy pentapod.

The Organ Zoo was run by Them. They had a name, but biohumans could not really replicate the sound of it. And since Their aesthetics and technology governed so much of our lives here on Earth, we didn’t feel the need to try saying it. They were just Them, uppercase.

They were fascinated with what They thought of as the beauty of life. The Organ Zoo displayed Their favorite specimens.

They had brought me back to life, per my own instructions. My cancer had been on the verge of killing me back in 2038 and I had run out of treatment options. Back then, cryostasis was a treatment of last resort. It took 1,700 years and first contact to bring me back. On one hand, I was glad to be alive again. On the other hand, I wondered what had taken so long.

Existence was very painful at first. They had dispatched my cancer quickly, but my organs kept failing almost as fast as they could print them out. Eventually, nostalgia gave way to practicality and they began reengineering my insides. I was part planarian, thanks to the regenerative properties of their cells. My intestines were at least half extraterrestrial, mostly aquatic life, though the exact proportion varied from day to day. My magnetic and electrical impulses were modulated by a hologram that lived in my hollowed-out chest cavity.

Things kept going wrong and the interventions were becoming increasingly baroque. I had to sleep in a special regeneration chamber, room-sized and built especially for me. I couldn’t go off-planet; low-gravity might upset my delicate equilibrium.

Arc had been to distant parts. Had even met the other primitive intelligences that lived nearby. He said they were nothing special. Not as special as the nineteen nineties had been. This was the best planet. And I was the best person on it.

Since my thaw, I had also modded my appearance. I refashioned myself as a cross between Aaliyah and Jennifer Lopez in her fly-girl era. Despite being pretty, the charm of my meat cage had worn off. I was finally ready to go full mechanical.

“It’s time,” was all I said. And that’s how he knew. We had been together long enough that we could conduct all our arguments in shorthand. Every disagreement could be abbreviated into a few words or gestures designed to provoke. Arc crossed his arms. I sighed heavily and abruptly left the Organ Zoo without him.

For once, I didn’t procrastinate. For once, I acted right away. I had the procedure done that night and then donated the body to Them.

I woke up as a Mech. Even though I had asked for it, I was startled by my lack of skin.

“What time is it?”

It was 3 p.m., three hundred years in the future.

“What?” I asked. I could hardly believe whatever sensory organ was processing this information. They communicated nonverbally, assuring me that great care had been taken. Complications had occurred. Medical and legal, both. I was not like the other post-humans They operated on. I was a species of one, with my bespoke organs and heart full of magnetic light. So they proceeded slowly. At one point, several of my organs gained sentience and I was pronounced a superorganism. My liver sued me to stop the procedure.

My new body ached. Perhaps Arc had been right. Perhaps this hadn’t been worth the trouble. I wanted to look him up but didn’t want to fall into our familiar patterns, so instead I booked the first shuttle to Mars I could get.

Waiting for the craft, and in a moment of weakness, I texted him from the spaceport. There was a flight delay and he was nearby, so he came by to see me off. He brought his new girlfriend. He was dating Britney Spears. Good for him, he deserved to be happy.

On Mars, I gardened. Terraforming was proceeding slowly, but why shouldn’t it? We had forever. Eventually it would be green and blue like Earth. In the meantime, I liked it brown and red. It had a desert beauty.

Nostalgic for the Instagram era, I raised succulents. I sent Arc a pic of my garden via ICQ. He responded with an emoji.

I wondered if I was still too close to home. So I ventured farther out. To Europa, to Haley’s Space Station. A mechanical body is not perfect. You still experience pain and sickness, but on the bright side you can get treatment anywhere. I looked sorta like T1000, but not in a sexy way. I missed skin, I missed hair. I could get these as grafts but I kept putting them off. I wanted to look human again, but it was an aesthetic that was only understood by Earthlings and I was far off-planet.

I came back to Oakland for my grafts. I wanted to look old again, but better. Rosie Perez circa 2030. After a dozen years of procrastinating, I called Arc again. He was single, which was surprising. Even more surprising?

“I’m transitioning to mortality.”

“You set a death date?”

“It’s time.”

An endless life had kept him stuck. He said he worked better on a deadline. I spent some time with him and found the changes astonishing. He was calmer, more generous. Patient. And older, too.

He didn’t ask me about the nineties, he asked me about what I had seen on my travels. And I told him. About my Martian cactus garden and how I scuba dived on Europa. On the space station, I studied low-gravity ballet.

In the era I had been born into, we associated age with decline. Death, disease, and the disappearance of beauty. Wisdom was the consolation prize, but only because it couldn’t be traded back for the things you really wanted.

When I had been reborn, I was out of place. I struggled to fit in. New people were hardly being born due to limits on reproduction and most people had all the friends they needed by the time they reached the age 200. I was lonely, always on the dating and friend-finding apps, but only Arc had taken an interest in me. That’s because he was a nostalgist and I was a piece of nostalgia. We stayed together for far too long and had kept each other fixed in place.

Thus we had both missed out on one of the rarest and greatest pleasures in life: watching a person slowly change for the better. What I had been deprived of before, I wanted now. That’s how I knew I had to follow him into the unfamiliar. I, too, needed to make an appointment with the strange and silent land.

I set my death date 1,000 years in the future. And then hesitated and added another 1,000 years to my lifespan, just to be safe. Not yet, not yet, said a voice in the back of my head. What’s another millennium? How do you keep from putting off that most difficult thing? I asked Arc, but he said he was done mansplaining.

“Maybe it isn’t time,” I said. And perhaps it wasn’t. By my count, I was already on my third life. But I wasn’t on my last. He’d developed other interests, but he still thought heaven was the nineties.

“You can’t step in the same time river twice,” I said.

He nodded and I wasn’t sure if he understood or not.

“Never change for a guy” was a thing people said a lot in the nineties but hardly anyone says now. One of the pastimes of the present is modding yourself to meet the exact preferences of your lover. But I had reached for eternity back when hardly anybody tried and I wasn’t going to give it up now. He had an expiration date, which meant our relationship would too. It made him better, it might make us better as well. But as for myself, I would live at least one more life: a life without him. I wanted to hang on all the way to the heat death of the universe, or I wanted to die trying.

“I sense an argument brewing.” And he wasn’t wrong. So we came to an agreement. We would stay together until we couldn’t. We would hold each tightly until it was time to let go.

Pathfinding!

Content note: child endangerment and death

 

1.

When the children are ready, they go in the simulator. There are only ten children left by now, so there’s plenty of scheduling time to go around. They all jump the low bar of the necessary diagnostics: medical, psychological, emotional, physical. If they break in there, the diagnostics assure, it will be along other faultlines than these.

Nobody relays this to the children. Instead they say: we’ve set up a new game for you. But you can’t all play at once. You will have to take turns. They say this with an overblown enthusiasm that reminds 06 of a birthday-party clown she saw once, a lifetime ago, and distrusted even then.

The children will go in singly, and in what’s left of their designated pairs, and if that goes well, in rotating squads of three and four. Building and testing and calibrating the thing took a healthy bite out of the dwindling pile of the Director’s funding, but it’s well worth it for the children’s safety. The Director does not know how to assure the children that they only fear her in the way they fear the doctors down in Medical: a necessary good misperceived by childish naiveté as evil.

She is content to play this role. A fairy godmother, vivid and glorious in her malevolence—until, at some late stage in the children’s story, she is revealed to have had their best intentions at heart all along. The Director savors this eventual revelation as she blinks at the machine’s interface, making selections. SUBJECT. PLAYFIELD. OBJECTIVE. DIFFICULTY. DURATION. She cannot wait to see the looks on their faces when they see what they have become.

The working definition of “ready” is vague. The working definition of “safety” is vague. The working definition of “children” is vague. They go in the simulator all the same.

 

2.

06 in the simulator.

Today is Wednesday. 06 knows today is Wednesday, because Wednesday is 06’s day in the simulator, and here she is. Days otherwise are slippery, like sidewalk earthworms after rain. Hard to hold on to. She has not seen the sun for many sleeps now. The last day she was outside was hot. It smelled like baking pavement, car exhaust, summer heat, scorched metal, old blood. Somewhere, across the city, other children laughed. They sounded younger and happier than her.

06 considered laughing along with them, distant and unknowable as they were, just to see what it felt like. Then almost immediately reconsidered. Instead she picked up the dead mech’s busted pilot module and rolled it down the empty street like a bowling ball three times the size of her. It skidded over a broken barricade and out of sight, leaving her dissatisfied.

She is back there now, in the simulator. The streets are identical. Even the smells are the same. They are being piped into the closed room of the machine, she thinks, or else delivered directly to the smell-centers of her brain by some sorcery the Director has devised. 06 knows better than to put this past her.

The simulator traps the idea of the city the way a seashell holds the echo of the sea. Thus, 06 reasons, if she listens hard she can maybe hear those distant children laughing. If she walks far enough down those broken streets, she might find them. She wants to see what they’re laughing about. What non-event can possibly be so fucking delightful in this non-place.

She walks and walks. She does not find them.

 

3.

There used to be more children, but they do not go into the simulator because they are dead.

Their names were: 01, 03, 04, 07, 09, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48.

The ones that remain: 02, 05, 06, 08, 11, 21, 22, 28, 33, 42.

Their days, like their names, are numbered.

 

4.

They have other names too, of course. They assume the Director must have one also. The Director knows their real names because they had them when they came to the facility, war-orphaned, bewildered, bleeding from the ears or knees or eyes, alone. These people-names went into their files. The Director and her staff use them sometimes, but the newsfeeds do not.

The children are not supposed to use their people-names with each other. So they whisper them to themselves and to each other in the dark, when they think the surveillance is shut down for the night. (It isn’t.)

By day the other children call her 06, just as she calls them 05, 22, 42, and so on, and in this way they are all good children, the kind that get cookies and juice after their weekly trips to Medical. The Director calls 06 Catherine, sometimes Kit. The newsfeeds, reporting on her exploits, her obedience, the success of her metamorphosis, and the wake of her destruction, call her 06. So does the simulator screen. The number floats above her head like a halo. Like something that might fall on her and knock her out, or kill her, but never does.

06 is anyway notoriously hard to kill. That part isn’t in her file. It doesn’t need to be. The fact that her file is still open at all conveys this clear as day.

 

5.

The Director removes the nameplate from her desk whenever one of the children is sent to her office for chastisement. None of them have observed this object personally. For all they know it doesn’t actually exist, and she is exactly as they see her: last name Director, first name The. The aura of mystery this lends her is thick enough to cut.

Half the children are convinced this unobtainable relic is a figment of 06’s imagination, so if it were to be located, vast sums would pass hands, and 06’s pockets would be pleasantly lined for days to come. The children have no money, so their currency is split between the hoarded, the given, the traded, the stolen, and the found. 22, for instance, who couldn’t bluff his way out of a wet paper bag with a map and guide, will owe 06 his entire month’s cookies if she gets her hands on evidence of the Director’s name.

Some think this kind of slick incentivizing is why 06 gets in trouble as often as she does. The Director knows better. 06 is trouble, top shelf, full stop, to the hilt, the whole way down. More, she’s the worst kind of trouble. The kind whose detonation is inevitable, whose trajectory is unclear. She sheds dangerous potential like a virus.

The Director plays the hand she’s dealt. She lets 06 catch sight of the glinting metal of the nameplate, now and again, mid-disappearance into one of the Director’s many locked desk drawers. Intellectually she realizes the danger she is courting. She knows full well that 06 could snap her like a toothpick if she so chose. Carve her up like a radish rosette. She’d be dead before she hit the ground, and she’d hit it in several disparate wet thumps.

The Director fancies herself a sort of modern-day lion-tamer, thrusting the fragile architecture of her skull into the maws of beasts. She wants to see how far 06’s obedience can be stretched before it snaps.

 

6.

The simulator is state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, bleeding-edge, etc. Immersive. Exquisite. Indistinguishable from reality.

These are the promises made to the Director by the assemblage of contractors and sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors she hired, directly or indirectly, first to build the thing, then to program it, then to iron out the bugs.

There are a lot of bugs. Every time one is dealt with, a dozen more spring up in its place.

Under SUBJECT-PLAYFIELD-OBJECTIVE-DIFFICULTY-DURATION, the Director inputs 06/22-URBAN WARFARE-CIVILIAN ESCORT-MODERATE-60MIN. 06 and 22 sneak and dodge and strafe and snipe, lay down suppressive and/or covering fire, take point, hold the line, execute their game plan, devastate the enemy forces, etc.

A person-shaped huddle of pixels whimpers behind the virtual meatshield of their doubled combat stance. Come on, 06 whispers to it, knowing better. It’s okay. It’ll all be over soon.

22 shoots her a look. You know this isn’t real.

They are fifteen years old, which each of them wears differently. 06: defiance, nobility, misplaced nostalgia, surgically precise rage. 22: indifference (false).

Gun in one hand, sword in the other, 06 rolls her shoulders at him. Don’t you miss games?

This gives 22 pause. They’ve been in the facility several years now. Which is to say: forever. Already he is losing so much. A sense of time. A sense of place. A sense of who he used to be. Who he’s supposed to be now. He has dreams, sometimes, that he hatches from an egg like a baby velociraptor. But the dream switches, as dreams will do, and then he’s the egg, and it cracks, and there’s nothing inside at all.

Still, every morning, as he brushes his teeth, the mirror display asks him to rate his quality of sleep on 1-10 scales of: restfulness, pleasantness, refreshment. He stares down the ones, then makes himself blink at the tens, firmly, one by one, before spitting toothpaste contemptuously down the drain. To surrender even this stupid dream to the Director’s scrutiny feels like a betrayal, however obscure. Besides, his frame of reference is fading fast. Does he remember restful sleep? Pleasant sleep? Refreshing? What the hell does that even mean?

If he strains his brain hard enough to hurt the backs of his eyeballs, he can just about recall a real bed in a real house. Or was it an apartment? He can picture a—blue?—blanket, with something printed on it. Robots? Spaceships? Trees? When he tries to focus on the pattern of this blanket, he sees the city burning. Buildings blackening, crumbling, falling as ash.

It’d be a weird goddamn thing to print on a little kid’s blanket. Rationally he knows this. But he can’t rid himself of the conviction that’s been seemingly planted in his mind. 22 shakes his head to clear it. It doesn’t take.

06 elbows him. Simulator fucking with you?

What simulator? asks the civilian-shaped pile of pixels they’re escorting, real quick in the space it takes for 22 to figure out what to reply. Then it explodes, misting 22’s uniform in a fine red spray.

Then it keeps walking, the exploded blood-cloud of it, down a side street as 22 and 06 stare. It walks right up to a mech and runs headlong into its foot, booping against the armor again and again, leaving weird stippled patterns like a sponge dipped in paint.

It strikes them both as oddly pretty.

 

7.

The Director’s team will iron out this bug, and the next one, and the next. The one that sends 21 flying straight up into the air like there are rockets on her boots, and the one that drops 11 straight down into the ground like the pavement’s opened up to swallow him. The one that turns 02 invisible, the one that turns 28 intangible, the one that bursts 06 and 22 into fractal patterns edged with neon light. The one that turns the streets to something like acidic glue and the one that melts their guns and turns their swords to wet noodles and the one that solidifies the air around them, trapping 33 and 42 in it like flies in amber. The one that teleports 05 right off the street and into the mech she was fighting. The one that catches 08 in a death loop for two hours before the techs come back from an overlong lunch and realize what’s happening. They pull the plug and drag him out, pissing himself and shivering. They promise him a whole package of cookies, all to himself, if he doesn’t tell the Director. They needn’t have bothered. It’s several days before 08 has snapped out of it sufficient to remember words. And by then the Director, as so often happens, has bigger problems.

 

8.

Said problems include but are not limited to:

  1. Lack of funding.
  2. Lack of morale.
  3. Civilian protests, growing in recent days both more numerous and more inventive.
  4. Untrustworthy subordinates.
  5. Bad publicity.
  6. Worse dreams.
  7. The children are falling ill.

7a. Very ill.

7b. Two from the final dozen have already died.

7c. Nobody knows exactly why.

 

9.

When 17 died in his sleep six years prior, bleeding out every hole in his head, and the on-duty medic made the 3am emergency call that brought the Director straight to the facility, two-fisting energy drinks in the back of her self-driving car, it was assumed to be an accident. A fluke. Some kind of dirty-weapons mess he might have picked up somewhere out there in the city, had the children been released for duty at that point. A few years later, when the first pairings were sent to the front, injected into the war like a syringe of nanobots into a tumor, this will be a rational conclusion to reach, if not for the Director’s team than at least for the media, which is enough. Standing over the red-soaked bundle on the table, remembering the progression from occasional coughs to nosebleeds to bruising to this, the Director knew better.

How do you want me to write this up? the medic asked carefully.

I don’t, the Director said. Not yet. Keep a lid on it ’til morning. I need to think.

In the morning she didn’t remember the ride home, or unlocking her front door, or kicking her shoes off, or climbing back into bed. She only remembered the dreams. They were the realest and most vivid thing about her day so far, until she rode back into work and 17’s corpse was waiting for her there too.

 

10.

Today, 06 coughs, and the tech buckling her into the simulator harness startles like he’s been goosed. He cannot tell her that he, along with the rest of the Director’s staff, has been tasked with keeping a tally. Quantity and duration of cough. Quality of same, re: depth, wetness, violence.

Ditto bruising. Ditto nosebleeds. Ditto anything else out of the ordinary. 17’s autopsy six years ago, and 38’s the year before last, revealed: massive internal bleeding, cascading organ failure, generalized liquescence. But all this started somewhere. With something innocent. Something like 06’s cough. The cough they all have now. The cough that landed 05 in Medical yesterday, choking up black clots, putting all the staff on high alert.

The children are supposed to be reporting on these things already. This is the entire reason they’ve been partnered, to put extra eyes on each other when the Director and her army of medics and techs and surveillance cameras and security bots aren’t looking. Less, initially, for the reporting of symptoms not yet known to watch for, more for the data that would otherwise slip through the monitoring net. The things that the Director, for all her budget, cannot see. Discontent. Depression. Disobedience. Having an early warning system when one of them starts exhibiting vanguard symptoms—blacking out, or losing time, or suffering hallucinations they might hide from Medical but not so easily from a 24/7 partner bond—is gravy. Nevertheless, somebody dropped the ball on 17 and someone else on 38, and someone else, by the looks of it, on 05.

Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a problem. The Director’s funding campaigns can’t take another hit of that magnitude. The company shareholders aren’t overmuch fond of exsanguinated nine-year-olds. Or thirteen-year-olds, as the Director has learned. She doubts they’ll like 05’s fifteen-year-old corpse any better. They’ll protect their investments. Burn their bridges. There’s a war on, after all, and everyone likes a scapegoat. They’ll close ranks on her like a bear trap snapping shut.

06 is side-eyeing this jumpy tech with bland curiosity.

You all right? he asks her. Thinking of 17 on the cold table down in Medical, a fresh sheet draped over his head like he’s hiding from monsters in bed. Six years ago or sixty, he’ll take this image to his grave.

The tech watches 06 cagily, like she’ll open her mouth and spew blood on his freshly laundered coat. Given how spectacularly 05’s condition has deteriorated in the past twenty-four hours, this is not an unreasonable conclusion.

Allergies, 06 says.

This brings the tech up short. There are no allergies noted in 06’s file. What are you allergic to? he asks, resolving to make a note of it. Mold? Dust? He just stops himself from saying pollen? because it’s not like 06 gets exposed to much of that. His bet’s on mold, really. Some sectors of the lower levels smell like a shower stall that nobody has literally ever cleaned.

Beatifically, 06 smiles at the tech. And, by extension, at the Director, through the grainy filter of the feed. This place.

 

11.

06/22-CHEMICAL ATTACK-THREAT NEUTRALIZATION-DIFFICULT-5MIN.

They exchange a look. Five minutes?

That’s why it says DIFFICULT, the tech says helpfully. Come on, guys. You love a challenge.

22’s left eyebrow raises infinitesimally. He sneaks 06 a solidarity glance, but she’s got her game face on and dialed up to twelve. He sighs. Leave it to 06 to let her seething hatred of this place be overridden by something so fleeting and inconsequential as competitive instincts.

That said. As their lenses interface and calibrate and the playfield boots up on each of their respective fields of vision, the elaborately bored expression 22 is leveling at his loading screen is rapidly revealing itself to be what could charitably be described as questionable and more precisely as bullshit.

I’m gonna destroy you in there, 06 murmurs, barely moving her mouth.

Misplaced adrenaline spikes and settles behind 22’s sternum. He does not want to enjoy this. He refuses to enjoy this. Control, he commands himself. Control. To her he says: We’ll see.

It’s a shared objective, guys, the tech reminds them. No individual mission parameters in this playfield.

Of course, 06 says. My mistake. But below the edge of the observation window, where the tech’s spying eye and the cams and the bots cannot see, she is letting fly a kick at 22’s left boot.

Wordless, her meaning is clear enough. At least it is to 22, who is more at ease in 06’s presence than he is in his own skin. This kick says: Prepare to be annihilated.

Eyes front, he lifts his chin slightly, like a nod forgot what it was doing halfway through. 06, to whom 22’s every streamlined gesture and understated expression is more familiar than the taste of her own teeth, reads this just as accurately: You are, as always, most welcome to try.

The loading bar fills. The world smash-cuts. In they go.

 

12.

Competitiveness or no, partnerly rivalry or no, the simulator has other plans for 06 and 22. Their boots hit pavement and the bugs come out in a swarm. 06 keeps rubberbanding back to the starting zone, and 22 teleports into the side of a building and gets stuck there, randomly glued to the side of its sheer glass face a couple meters off the ground, legs dangling, mortified.

Meanwhile, here comes the chemical attack, as promised. A fleet of drones sweeps in fast and low from the northeast, deploying its payload as its V formation banks between the nearest buildings into the open ground of the street where 06 has stabilized just enough to grab 22’s boots and haul him off the building, laughing her entire ass off at the look on his face.

Clouds of pinkish gas plume out and disperse in the wake of the fleet.

Neutralize threat, 22 thinks. He shakes 06 off and assesses. A dozen drones. Their payload is nearly invisible against the sunset. This alone probably accounts for no insignificant fraction of the mission’s difficulty rating.

No matter. 22 takes the deepest breath he can and holds it. Then he draws his pistol and unloads it into the flame-colored sky. Half of the drones fall, spitting sparks. To his moderate irritation, he sees the other half have already crashed to splinters, courtesy of the pistol 06 is now spinning flamboyantly, like a movie cowboy, before shoving it home in the holster.

Threat neutralized, 22 clasps prim hands behind his back, awaiting extraction.

Nothing happens.

Off to his four-o’-clock, seized by some iceberg of rage she usually only discloses the tip of, 06 begins skewering as many drone corpses as her blade will hold, like she’s picking up litter at the park. Each stab craters pavement. When the sword is full, she waves it at some unseen eye in the clouds.

Is this it? she howls at the sky. Is this all you got?

 

13.

It isn’t.

 

14.

They try to walk their way out. Run their way out. Climb their way out. Dig. There is no off switch for the virtual reality in which they are now stuck. No escape hatch. No ejector seat. 06 yells some more. Nobody comes to rescue them.

Maybe it’s like a dream, 06 ventures. Maybe we can control it.

She gathers her considerable strength beneath her and leaps, then crashes.

Can’t fly? 22 inquires, deadpan.

Can’t yet, she grits, and jumps again. Then again. Then she scales a skyscraper and takes a running leap off that. No dice.

06 stands, hands on knees, coughing, catching her breath. The hell?

Her tone hooks 22’s attention. What?

Look.

22 turns. 06 has got something sparkly in her hand. Sparkly and pink. There’s more on the street, scattered in patterns that almost look like language. 06 toes a drone carcass over and more glitter spills out.

Chemical attack, my ass, 06 says. Fucking bugs.

She scuffs out the mess with the sole of her boot. As the patterns dissolve, a sudden breeze brushes the backs of their necks like a sigh.

 

15.

The Director watches the simulator training sessions, such as they are, from the bug-free safety of her desk. The feed displays directly on the smart surface. She kicks off her pumps, puts her feet up, sips her coffee, and watches as chemical warfare plays out on the faux-mahogany backdrop.

After a minute she gets up, the feed still playing. Goes to the supply closet. Comes back with a surplus box of long-stale peanut butter cookies, which she rips into and dips the contents of, sequentially, thoroughly, into her rapidly cooling subpar company-store coffee. By the time the feed finishes playing and her desktop reverts to glossy auburn grain, her coffee is not only too sweet to drink, but sheened with oil on the surface, like a pond in which something sizeable has died. She sets it aside, goes to replace the cookie box, realizes it’s empty.

Whatever. Lots more cookies where these came from. She has the inventory people buy them in bulk. Each child’s favorite flavor has been immortalized in his or her file, and she’s always made sure to stay fully stocked with all of them. Sugar cookies for 21, peanut butter for 38, white chocolate macadamia for 17, lemon poppy seed for 28, chocolate chip for 11, double chocolate chip for 42, snickerdoodles for 33, rainbow cookies for 06, black-and-white cookies for 08, biscotti for 05, oatmeal raisin for 22, and peppermint candies for 02 who doesn’t like cookies, which suits the Director just fine because she can’t exactly itemize all this in her funding requests and peppermint candies can be bought in ten-pound sacks for the kind of money she finds in her couch cushions.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, the Director’s mother used to say, and surprisingly enough, this handy adage applies to genetically modifying children into superweapons with minimal drama just as effectively as it applies to winning friends and influencing people. For difficult medical procedures, for displays of obedience, for bribes and hush money and incentive and bait, and for germinating the delicate case of Stockholm syndrome the Director is attempting to cultivate in her remaining charges, cookies are an excellent, shelf-stable, cheap, one-size-fits-all solution. Cookies are the Director’s first line of defense.

This, the Director reflects, is yet another way in which the company has outdone the old-time government military. Start with children. Children, if you get them young, are super easy to handle. Most days, cookies will get you most of the way there. And there’s good old-fashioned discipline for the rest.

Belatedly, morbidly, she realizes she should have eaten the biscotti instead. 05’s cookie ship has fairly definitively sailed. Her supply is just going to go to waste now. The almonds will probably turn rancid before the casualty paperwork is finalized. Autopsy report. Incident report. Case file closing requests. Final case report.

The Director remembers how, six years ago, she entertained a fleeting vision of putting a box of 17’s cookies with him when his corpse got brought downstairs and put in its drawer. An offering. An apology. Sentimental, she chides herself, feeling the same notion rise up when she considers 05 down in Medical, her body losing ground to itself one cell at a time. She pushes the idea away.

 

16.

Time passes weird in the simulator. Days and nights swoop over their heads, almost definitely too fast to be real. 06 yells for help. She knocks down buildings. She rips up the street and hurls it in chunks at the presumed dome of the sky. What is wrong with this fucking thing, she rages. Let us out.

She pauses, glances over to find that 22 has planted the silent flag of himself in the mathematical dead center of the street. If his aim is to signal adamancy, 06 won’t give him the satisfaction of any number of snarky comments that leap to mind.

But no. He’s just watching the stars.

What he can only think of as the landscape here is reminding him of something else deep-buried in the flaming wreckage of his childhood. He’s seen, once, a time-lapse video of a starscape taken from the bottom of some kind of canyon. Riverbed, rock walls, the Milky Way stuttering across the visible slot of sky.

Replacing riverbed with eight-lane street and rock walls with skyscraper frontages matches 22’s current locality to this memory with startling accuracy. That, and the transit of this place’s stars is smoother.

My mom read me a story once, 06 says, appearing silent as thought at 22’s side. Some kids were walking in the woods and saw this ring of mushrooms just, like, growing there. This impossible perfect circle.

Improbable, 22 corrects her, still watching the sky. If it were impossible it couldn’t be there.

06 gives him a look. Her eyes flash in the dark like errant stars.

So they step into this impossible perfect circle, she continues, and they’re never seen again.

22 ponders this. Well. By the people telling the story, you mean.

What?

Maybe somewhere else there’s somebody telling a story right now: “Some kids appeared out of nowhere, and they didn’t know where they were, and when we asked them where they came from and how they got here, all they talked about was woods and mushrooms and circles that shouldn’t exist.”

22 pauses a moment, tracking the thought a little deeper down the hole.

I mean. If they could understand each other’s language at all.

He tilts his face back to the false starlight, oblivious to 06’s incredulity. So who has the weirdest story? The people who lost the kids or the people who found them?

Silence. It stretches long enough that he turns to regard her. Distantly he realizes he’s hijacked her story and is about to meet the consequences. Knowing 06 the way he knows the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, he’s aware that these consequences will come with all the quiet devastation of a blade so sharp you don’t feel the cut until you’ve bled out: subtle and exacting and neither more nor less than he deserves.

However:

Trick question, 06 says at length. The kids do.

 

17.

They pull 06 and 22 out of the simulator, blinking and disoriented. Both are shaking. 22 may have peed a little, though he would happily have all his nails peeled off and fed to him in order of ascending utility before admitting this.

What happened? 06 asks, wiping clammy hands on her jumpsuit pants. How long were we under?

The techs raise eyebrows at each other, identically, simultaneously, like two mirrors propped to face each other. 06 wants to wave her hand between them, to break the effect. But her energy is sapped. How long had she spent in there, no food, no water? Her only rest either curled up on the cold pavement or propped up shoulder blades-to-shoulder blades against 22, who sleeps with his sword balanced across his knees and grinds his teeth besides? She can barely move her arm.

One tech makes a note of something. 06 cranes her neck with difficulty but can’t make it out. To her mind, the techs’ murmurs are the aural equivalent of the glitter patterns: significance not yet quite dialed into focus.

Watching 06 and 22 closely, the other tech taps the simulator display.

06/22-CHEMICAL ATTACK-THREAT NEUTRALIZATION-DIFFICULT-5MIN

He watches their gazes track and snag on the end of the readout, where the five minute counter has ticked down to zeroes and now waits, blinking, for a reset.

A shiver passes through 06, soles to scalp, like someone’s walked over her grave. Only 22 knows why.

 

18.

You could fill a very large box indeed with the things these children do not understand. None of them know much at all about the war they fight in, or why, or have met or even know the name of the CEO of the corporation of whose army they are the tactical speartip. They have only the vaguest recollection of how they got here. If pushed, they can bring to mind a white room full of children, still with the bruises and lacerations and broken arms that are their only souvenirs of the houses and high-rises they used to live in before the bombing knocked them flat, with the children and their vanished families inside. They don’t know why so many people cluster on the green, green lawns of the company building, signs in hand, yelling for company blood. (Excellent hearing and vision is part of their optimization, however, and from the rooftop they can pick out the slogans and diatribes word for word, though their freight of history and meaning is unclear. Nevertheless, 06 memorized one of their signs once—WATER-FOR-ALL™ MEANS WATER FOR ALL.—and wrote it on the cafeteria wall in ketchup after a particularly unforgivable punishment. The roof is off limits now.)

And they don’t know why the simulator is acting up. Why the bugs are out in force. Why each mission in there is just one long prolonged multifaceted serialized glitch.

22’s theory: sabotage. Some mysterious benefactor/adversary hacked the machine. One of the angry people with signs out there on the lawn, trying to tear the facility down from within. The simulator is one of the children’s most-utilized learning tools, after all, one of the Director’s most practical diagnostics. Without it, the children might lose their edge. Get rusty. Go soft. Decalibrate. Degrade. Open to eventual attack like so many flowers to the sun.

06’s theory: the simulator itself is attempting to communicate. Its language is just one more item on the endless inventory of what they don’t yet comprehend.

 

19.

During her ten minutes of daily unscheduled free time, 06 signs up for extra simulator sessions. However, she is no 02 or 33 to volunteer for additional instruction, so her abrupt enthusiasm raises plausible suspicion, misgivings that must be allayed before the Director can in good conscience sign off on the request. Here she is, standing at attention before the Director’s carefully nameplate-less desk, ready to state her case.

06 is canny as the day is long and knows a minefield when she sees one. Laid out before her invisibly is the fine line she must walk in order to get what she wants.

I’m sorry to bother you, she says. It’s just—

06 makes herself falter. Pauses a moment so that this apparent weakness can be savored. Ever so slightly, she toes the carpet. The Director prompts her with her eyes.

It’s just… 06 swallows calculatingly. Mia makes fun of me because all my training scores suck compared to hers. She says I’m stupid. Slow. So I—

The Director raises an eyebrow. Mia?

Sorry. 28.

And don’t say suck.

Sorry, Director. My scores are— 06 feigns searching for a word she had locked and loaded well in advance of setting foot over the threshold of the Director’s sanctum —suboptimal.

And you wish to better yourself. The Director smiles wide, priming the trap 06 can smell a mile off.

06 lifts her chin. I don’t like being made fun of.

The Director’s face falls. Oh.

I want more training time, and then I want to partner with 28 next time we spar, and I want to obliterate her.

Obliterate her?

In the match. Make her eat her words.

I see.

To keep talking would be to add more surface area to her argument, more handholds for the Director to grab on and turn it to her own advantage. So 06 leaves it there and waits.

A bit of healthy rivalry might be good for you, the Director says at length. Beyond what you already have with—with 22. Shake things up a little. Competition is, after all, the backbone of the entire social order. She smiles. 05 is a bit under the weather these days. I will schedule you in to her timeslot. Do Saturdays work for you?

06 has four separate replies, all caustic, burning on the tip of her tongue. Instead she snaps to attention and treats the Director to the sharpest salute in her arsenal. She makes sure to smudge its edges ever so slightly, though, just enough to leave the Director confident that 06’s newly-budded work ethic is just the ticket. Its roots and source are immaterial. What matters is how it can be shaped in growing.

Yes, Director. Thank you. I won’t let you down.

You never do, Catherine, the Director lies. Dismissed.

 

20.

33’s nosebleeds are worsening, and the beds of his nails are beginning to ooze. 05 has vanished altogether. The children are told she has been buried on a peaceful hill beneath a blossoming cherry tree. This is flat-out crap. She is downstairs in hermetically sealed cold storage, along with 17 and 38. Within two weeks, 33 will join them. The Director is visited by a recurring dream in which the children are candles on a colossal birthday cake, and she is there in her party hat, blowing them out one by one.

 

21.

22 also dreams. He is chronically unable to tell when he is dreaming. He only knows he has in hindsight, when he wakes feeling less well-rested than before he slept. Even his eyes feel as though he has not closed them, as though he’s spent those hours wandering, staring into the dark for something that refuses to reveal itself.

Tonight he dreams of 06. He often dreams of 06, as she often dreams of him. In tonight’s dream they are back in the simulator. Each enemy soldier they kill opens up like a piñata and money falls out. 06 and 22 stuff it in their pockets and bring it to the Director. They don’t have a crystal-clear idea of how money works, but they do have an awful lot of it, so much in fact that it is overflowing their pockets and fluttering behind them as they powerwalk down the halls. Their secret plan is to use that money to buy the entire building and burn it to the ground. But when they pull the simulator-money from their pockets in triumph, it’s not money anymore, it’s cookie crumbs. These scatter around the Director’s shiny shoes while she looks on disapprovingly.

Then there is a hand over 22’s mouth, and he snaps awake. 06 is standing over him. He blinks up at her, bewildered. The dream still clings to him greasily. On neighboring cots 33, 08, 42, and 11 sleep on. A wet cough sounds in the middle distance. Someone stirs.

22 has not yet figured out how 06 manages to sneak past the sentry bots guarding the respective doors of the girls’ and boys’ dormitories. When he has something to say to her, he walks straight past their unblinking eyes, and lets the Director dress him down in the morning. Stealth is not his strong suit. Resilience is. Adaptability. Strategy. Loyalty. Patience.

When the civilian glitched out and got blood all over the mech’s foot, 06 whispers, and it’s a moment before 22 realizes she means in the simulator. Did the bloodstains look random to you? Or like a pattern of some kind?

He stares up at her in silence, waiting for her to realize she has to move her hand if she expects a reply. He doesn’t wait long. The simulator isn’t talking to us. It’s a box. Let it go.

It’s a highly sophisticated piece of equipment, 06 hisses, affronted, as if she’d engineered the thing herself. Our guns are smart. Our uniforms. The fucking walls. Why not the simulator? If anything in this place should be, it—

It didn’t look like a pattern, 22 tells her, hating himself, because even as the words leave his mouth he’s already unsure if they’re true.

 

22.

For weeks the simulator is on its best behavior. This is infuriating to 06, obscurely validating to 22.

I’m here, 06 says, standing atop a virtual high-rise, virtual arms flung wide to a virtual thunderstorm. She’s drenched and shivering. I’m listening. What do you want?

It wants to run its program in peace, 22 shouts up at her, his face tilted back to the rain. Smugness does not become him, but it’s been ages since he’s shown her up at something. The temptation is delicious.

06 does not elect to dignify this with a response. She lets out a long slow breath, like she’s taking aim, and waits.

The sky opens up and lightning smashes the gravel rooftop inches from her toes. She is sopping wet, standing in a puddle, holding her sword aloft in challenge to the storm. She doesn’t stand a chance.

06 falls like a cinder. 22 leaps and meets her mid-air. Just before he catches her, the world blinks out and the fluorescent light of the facility shoulders in to replace it. 22 loses more sleep than usual that night, wondering whether they exist there still, some version of themselves, one rising, one falling, forever.

Over the next three months the simulator electrocutes 06 four times, drops her from the roof of a building twice, drops a building on her once, and kills her with mechs six times in five different ways. She gets hit with incendiary grenades and burns alive, resonance grenades and slowly jellifies, fléchette grenades and wheezes to death with titanium slivers lodged in her lungs. She breathes in nerve gas and dies via cardiac arrest, breathes in hallucinogen bursts and dies via mistaking the blue flare of a mech’s discharging gun-arm for the fluorescent lights of Medical, breathes in necrotizing nanoparticles and rots like roadkill in the summer sun. She sees the words MISSION FAILED splashed across her retinas so many times it seems to take up residence there, searing neon against the backs of her eyelids every time they close.

She doesn’t give up. That’s the thing about 06, the bright coal ever-burning at the flammable heart of her. She never gives up. Sometimes she wishes she could. But she hasn’t the first fucking clue how.

 

23.

06-ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT-LIVE CAPTURE & QUESTIONING-DIFFICULT-15MIN

06/22-DIRTY BOMB-ANALYSIS & CONTAINMENT-EASY-5MIN

06/22-ANTICORPORATE DEMONSTRATION-NONVIOLENT DISPERSAL-DIFFICULT-20MIN

06-HOSTAGE NEGOTIATION-CASUALTY AVOIDANCE-MODERATE-30MIN

22-AIRBORNE FIREFIGHT-EVASIVE MANEUVERS (HELICOPTER)-DIFFICULT-5MIN

06/22-ROGUE MECH-DEFEND & DISABLE-DIFFICULT-30MIN

06-DOUBLE AGENT-IDENTIFY/NEUTRALIZE-EASY-15MIN

06-HOVERBIKE CHASE-COLLATERAL DAMAGE WITHIN BUDGET-MODERATE-10MIN

06-CORPORATE ESPIONAGE-ISOLATE & INFILTRATE-DIFFICULT-2HR

06-HOSTAGE TRANSFER-UNDETECTED RENDEZVOUS-DIFFICULT-40MIN

 

24.

06’s simulator scores are getting worse, not better, the more often she goes in. To the Director this is faintly baffling. She has the vague sense she’s being handled, but isn’t sure quite how, or to what end. Anyway she has bigger fish frying. 33 went in his drawer earlier this week, and 28’s medical file has officially advanced her cough from occasional/sporadic to habitual/chronic. The Director can barely look at cookies anymore. She has to avert her eyes from the bakery section at the supermarket. It’s gotten honestly that bad. Yesterday she had to make up a story about a gluten allergy to explain to concerned strangers why she was weeping silently over a display of fresh-baked snickerdoodles.

 

25.

Two seconds into 06/22-RIOT-DISPERSAL (ANY MEANS NECESSARY)-MODERATE-15MIN, 06 drops her reflector shield projection and wades out, unprotected, into the fray.

22 cuts a path toward her. Any means necessary. This is virtual, but anywhere else he’d do the same. Work is work, and directives are directives, but 06 is 06. He’d cut a path to her through hell. What exactly are you doing?

Shush. Drop your shields.

This, to 22, is the tiniest bridge too far. He sets his jaw. Not happening.

He glances over and is abruptly staring down the barrel of 06’s gaze. Do you trust me?

22 listens to himself say um. Evidently the dilemma has short-circuited his higher functions.

Drop your shields. They won’t attack. They only retaliate if you engage. I ran this one last week. I requested a do-over today of this scenario specifically because I knew we’d be safe.

That’s what you’ve been doing all this time? All those failures? 22 asks, his voice gone soft-edged with something close to reverence. Whatever 06 is playing at, it’s a deep-buried enormity he knows full well he can only see the edge of, and only because she lets him. You’ve been running recon on the playfields?

06 grins like lightning. Yeah.

Why?

Drop your shields. Then I’m gonna show you something cool.

 

26.

22 drops his shields and the whole world stops. Even the countdown timer in the corner of his field of vision freezes: 00:13:42. As he stares, it ticks down a second, then another. Slowly, slowly. But the rioters, and the bug-helmeted riot cops, still don’t move. Grenades and bullets float mid-trajectory, lodged in nothing. He plucks an armor-piercing round from the air between gloved fingers. Lets it fall. It doesn’t.

Like a slap to the face, all at once, all his suspicions are confirmed. Somebody did hack the simulator. They’re being sabotaged. They’re going to get stuck here like they got stuck before. That stupid story of 06’s goes swirling through him like sickness: so they step into this impossible perfect circle, and they’re never seen again.

He is absolutely, positively, one hundred percent going to puke.

Okay, what— he begins, then realizes he’s lost sight of 06 entirely. No: there she is, poking her head out of an alley up ahead, making impatient come-on-already gestures with the entire upper left quadrant of her body.

22 checks his countdown. 00:13:29. Obviously, whatever this is is utterly insupportable.

And yet. The seconds move so slowly here. He’ll catch up with her if he runs.

 

27.

Of course they love each other. Just not in the way you are probably thinking.

 

28.

He shadows her down one street, then another, then another after that. He has no idea where she’s taking him. He knows better than to waste his breath asking. Even with the weird time-slowdown glitch, even with both of them moving at superhuman speeds, 22’s countdown is displaying 00:10:57 when 06 finally skids to a halt outside a nondescript door.

22 half-expects to see something on this door, something scrawled or smeared or scratched there indecipherably, some meaningless random imperfection which 06 will now a.) erroneously accord significance to, and b.) outlandishly claim to have parsed.

With a charitable lack of ceremony, flourish, or I-told-you-sos, 06 opens the door. A smell wafts out, lush and piercing. To 22, and to 06—and, to be fair, probably to anyone else who’s spent half their life locked in a series of sub-basements in an experimental facility—this smell is indescribable. But it’s the smell of dirt and rot and green things growing.

06 strolls in empty-handed. 22 draws his sword and follows.

 

29.

Trees. A path. Stars. They may as well have walked out onto an alien planet. This green is old and dark, and watches them. Superpowered teenage killing machines or no, here they are insects on the back of an indifferent colossus. The smell in the air is the closest that either of them will ever get to religion.

22 glides level with 06. He opens his mouth to hiss in her ear: this is no playfield, this is a trap, we’ve been compromised, we have to go, we have to go right now—but what comes out instead is a whisper, one part disquietude, three parts awe: What is this place?

What it looks like. Somewhere they can’t find us.

 

30.

You won’t believe me if I tell you.

They’re sitting on a low-hanging limb, easily a foot in diameter, sticking out perpendicular to the massive trunk of a tree 22 immediately misidentifies as a maple. Four feet—two booted (22’s) and two bare (06’s)—swing over the drop.

22 marshals all his innate skepticism, shoves it in a box, slams the lid and sits on it. Try me.

When we used to go up onto the roof. Did you ever look out over the other side? The side away from the lawn and the city?

If he has, the vagueness of the memory sparks no significance now. Rather than admitting this, he waits.

There’s, like, a forest back there. Out past the edge of the city. You can kind of see it from up there.

22 considers this. Had he seen it? Would he have remembered? Landscapes tend to enter his range of notice only tactically. But he’d never been sent to fight in any forest, never had to strategize any skirmish among trees. He chides himself for the blind spot. Then, pride stinging, gives ground.

I don’t recall.

06 has the good grace to meet him halfway. Well. It’s just a little one. Not like this.

She resumes kicking her feet, but she’s gone quiet now. Hesitant. Almost sheepish.

I always liked it though, she continues, her voice so soft that if 22’s hearing were less acute, her words would drift away in the breeze before reaching his ear. That little forest you could just barely see if you stood exactly right and squinted against the sun. I always wanted to walk there someday. But…

She clams up again and stays there so long 22 begins to wonder if a bug in the simulator has glitched her somehow. 00:05:32. 00:05:31. 00:05:30. This is such un-06-like behavior that 22 is at a loss how to address it. Her silence sits there between them like a solid object, a bomb he hasn’t the faintest inkling how to defuse.

00:04:59. 00:04:58. 00:04:57.

I think the simulator made this place for me, 06 blurts finally.

22 clamps down hard on every reflex he has to deride this. Instead he forces a nod. A strangled little do-go-on-tell-me-more sound comes out of him, a kind of noncommittal mm.

I know, I know, 06 says. It’s just a box. A dumb machine. Somebody hacked it. You think I haven’t been wondering these things myself? And okay. Maybe somebody did hack it. Maybe somebody feels sorry for us. They want us to have, like, one nice thing. I don’t know. I don’t care. But the point is somebody, either a person or the simulator itself, put this place here for us to find. Does this look like part of the city to you?

He resists the urge to remind her that there’s a grand total of one (1) building the interior of which they’ve observed in recent memory. On the other hand, 22 has seen some shit in his day, but to suggest he rationally believes there is a door in this city that opens onto some kind of pocket forest universe would be to turn his back wholesale on upward of sixty percent of his most salient character traits.

So he steers toward option C. He lifts his chin fractionally, decisively, at the riot of greenery that surrounds them. I like it.

06 startles up. Yeah?

Yeah.

Some unseen weight lifts from her shoulders. From beside her, 22 feels it go.

Good.

 

31.

06 in the Director’s office, at attention. Her salute is flawless today.

The Director sits at her desk. She’s been swiping through 06’s latest batch of simulator results. 06 and 22 have been in there more in the past twelve weeks than they have in all the previous months since she had the thing installed. 22 volunteering for more practice, that the Director could just about get her head around. But 06?

Come to think of it, she’s never actually witnessed 28 making fun of 06, and her simulator scores were never all that bad. Maybe the long-game time-biding that the Director will go to her grave fatally mistaking for 22’s obedience has been rubbing off on 06.

And well it might. They’re practically joined at the hip, those two. Though the results are undeniable. They’re utterly useless apart, complete screwups really, but together they get the job done with time to spare.

Even in the simulator, these results hold. Though something weird keeps happening, some bug the tech team has been evidently having trouble with. Earlier this week, for instance, the whole playfield up and froze seconds after 06 and 22 zoned in, then dropped the feed entirely, which nobody realized until the timer ran out and MISSION ACCOMPLISHED splashed across the display. Whatever they’re doing in there, the Director concludes, it’s obviously working. They haven’t had a failure in days.

The Director’s been rolling all this around in her mind for the better part of an hour. She doesn’t understand it, but the numbers do not lie.

But—and here’s what she keeps coming back to—she doesn’t understand it. Data she can’t make sense of is a physical itch in her brain.

Hence: 06. Standing in very-un-06-like level silence under the weight of the Director’s gaze. A gaze the Director dials up to eleven, just to watch 06’s bearing wilt beneath it. It doesn’t.

The Director’s nameplate is on her desk today, faced backward. She watches 06 ignore it.

At ease, the Director tells her. Knowing full well how many bets 06 will win if she reaches for that piece of metal and plastic. It’s not two feet from her. She could have it in her hands before the Director has even seen her move.

Leash loosed, 06’s posture relaxes. She does not take the bait.

Whatever else 06 is, the Director reflects, she is a monster, a piece of luck the Director pushes at her peril. Whatever else 06 is, she is a child, and the Director is long practiced in forbidding things to children such as her. Chiefest of which, perhaps, is the satisfaction of her fear.

Do you know, the Director asks her, why I called you in today?

If 06 has something to hide, as the Director suspects, she’ll prevaricate. Play dumb. Certainly the 06 that stands before her is the very picture of innocence. The Director folds her arms, awaiting victory.

I was hoping, 06 says, it was about the simulator.

Against her not inconsiderable will, the Director blinks.

Go on.

The extra training time you let me have. I wanted an opportunity to thank you. It’s been really helpful.

Ah yes. Your rivalry with 28. You’d like to spar with her again?

Further bait. 28 has been in Medical for weeks, rallying and weakening at intervals as her body settles in to reject itself one atom at a time.

A beat of total silence. But only one.

Actually, 06 says, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.

A feeling begins to steal over the Director, a sense that she is irretrievably marching into deep, deep water. She has set up this meeting, not 06. This situation is hers to control.

About 28?

Yes. Hesitation flashes over 06’s features, lingering just as long as it needs for the Director to notice it there. Well. About all of the others, really. But 28 first.

Interesting. Time for the big guns. Speak freely, Catherine.

Pure clean hit of relief, scrawled gratifyingly across 06’s face. Thank you, Director. It’s just. I thought. 06’s posture shifts two millimeters one way, then the other. I’m sorry. I didn’t have this prepared.

Sorry is better. Fidgeting is better. The Director breathes easier, footing found.

This?

This…request. No. This proposal.

The Director raises an eyebrow. Proposal.

It’s just. The extra time in the simulator has really helped me. More than I thought it would, honestly. I guess it’s like …

06’s face performs deep thought. Performs choosing words wisely. Performs resolution.

Like when we go for lessons. We learn more if we review the facts as much as possible. Performs mild chagrin. At least I do.

It isn’t just you, Catherine, the Director says, gentle as velvet. The brain is wired to learn from repetition.

Repetition! Yes! That’s exactly what I mean. I was thinking. If I’m going to beat 28 in a fair match. When she gets better, I mean. 06 smiles. Spreads her hands before her. It’s the most she’s moved since walking through the door. We’re all supposed to work together. To win the war. I don’t want to see any more of my friends killed in action. Like 33, and 05.

The Director, who knows on a visceral, haunted level, what really killed 33 and 05, swallows involuntarily against an onslaught of images that she, for all the money she’s thrown at her therapist, hasn’t figured out how to unsee.

Understandable.

All in a rush 06 says: So I guess what I’m asking for is permission. To bring 28 into the simulator. With me. I know she’s sick, but in the simulator that doesn’t matter. We get killed in there all time. It doesn’t feel like anything. Maybe in the simulator she won’t feel as sick. I thought. I don’t know. It might help her.

This is an attractive possibility the Director hasn’t yet entertained. She thinks of the bodies in cold storage. The empty drawers, each ready with its identification plate. The war of attrition that plays out in the body of the eager girl at ease before her, creeping invisibly toward its tipping point, even now.

And while she’s in there, I can teach her. And after her, if it’s okay, maybe the others?

The Director steels her face. Teach the others. Simulator results or no, this goes against every metric by which these children have been classified. The Director does not say, incredulously: you?

Oh yes. This time 06’s grin is genuine. If nothing else about it, the Director recognizes this. There’s so much in there I want to show them.

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