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Give the People What They Want

The precinct’s interrogation room had the same atmosphere as all such rooms: stale coffee mixed with flop sweat and the tang of blood. There were no windows, and the cliched one-way mirror was replaced by hologram cameras that transmitted an exact 3D replica of proceedings into a room of detectives and lawyers. But the single light still hung over the table, and the suspect still looked nervously at the cop facing him. No matter how far technology advanced, there was no substitute for good old one-on-one intimidation.

“All right, Mr. Barber,” Detective Long said, tapping his chin. “Tell me what happened last night.”

“I don’t know,” Barber said. He was about thirty, heavy-set and wearing the rumpled uniform of a security guard, its front liberally splashed with blood. “Honestly. I was doing my rounds checking the transport rooms, and it was just… there,” he finished with a desperate shrug.

“So you didn’t turn the machine on?”

“No!”

“Your fingerprints were all over the switches.”

“My fingerprints are all over everything.”

“Uh-huh. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, that the security video files for that area have been corrupted and can’t corroborate your story?” When Barber didn’t answer, Long continued. “We have forensics analyzing the machine’s logs. They’ll eventually figure out what happened. You’ll save us a lot of time, and you a lot of grief, if you tell me up front.” He leaned across the table. “Where did you go? When did you go?”

“I didn’t go anywhere,” Barber said.

Long sat back.

“But…”

“Yes?”

“I can tell you who did. And why. But you have to give me something in return.”

“Such as?”

“I walk.”

Long considered this, then said, “I’m listening.”

The Owen Corporation logo marked the otherwise plain, smooth door set into the faceless concrete wall. To get in or out the front door, you needed to pass the latest in security: a state of the art retinal scan, a metal detector, and a vigilant guard. But the back door, through which trash went out and supplies went in, was still mostly analog. Sure, the lock had a soft female voice that talked you through using the long outdated fingerprint pad, so it wasn’t accessible to just anyone from the outside. But to open it from the inside, it was just a matter of pushing a metal bar. One that squeaked and clanked.

Barber stuck his head out into the darkness. The space between the back wall and the security fence was bathed in shadow, since the security light had “mysteriously” gone out. He hissed, “Get in here!”

Holden slipped out of the shadow cast by the dumpster and through the door. She grinned at him as the door closed behind her.

The hallway within was dry, cold, and industrial. The light above them was also out, leaving them in shadow. Barber kept glancing down the hall toward the illuminated area, but no one appeared.

“Thanks,” Holden said, fumbling with her gear.

“You know how to thank me,” Barber snapped.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Your favorite color’s green.”

Holden touched her phone to Barber’s, transferring the agreed-upon sum.

“Is the machine warmed up?” Holden asked.

“Of course it’s warmed up,” he said. “I know the routine.” He tugged at the starched collar of his security guard uniform, designed to mimic a cop’s look without the actual authority that went with it.

“Damn, man, what bug crawled up your ass?” Holden asked.

“The unemployment roach, if we get caught. I like this job.”

“We won’t get caught. In ten minutes I’ll be gone right back out this door.”

Barber kept watching the hall. “You better be. Come on.”

The Owen Temporal Temp company was a nation-wide chain of employment agencies specializing in using time travel to ensure their clients had extra staff before they even knew they needed it. It harnessed the tech that, back in 2069, had nearly destroyed the world by inadvertently connecting time periods, with no way, at first, to shut down the links. That meant that Temporal Temp, like all such industries, was closely regulated and monitored, with multi-level safeguards to prevent another similar incident. Which, in effect, just made it more expensive to use on the sly, not necessarily more difficult.

Holden always smiled when she read about the horrors of those days, because 2069 also marked the year her particular niche market had opened up.

Barber flipped on the lights in the transport chamber. It resembled an old-style recording studio: a control booth with a glass window that looked into a big, empty room. The walls were covered with dark padding, a special woven alloy to absorb the vast energy released when the portal was used. In the middle of the room was what, at first glance, appeared to be a free-standing door in a metal frame.

“You got the settings for the right season?” Holden asked. “Getting there at the wrong time of year would be a waste.”

“I’ve got the settings,” Barber muttered. He flipped switches and the control board came to life, dials and buttons aglow. “This has to be the last time,” he added. “If they do a full audit on this machine, I’m toast.” He poked her in the shoulder. “And I’m taking you into the toaster with me.”

“Relax,” Holden said. “It’s not like we’re doing any harm.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

She gave him a knowing little smile. “You could always go into business with me.”

“I am in business with you.”

“No, I mean, full time. As a partner, even. You can’t imagine how much money there is in this stuff.”

“I think I can.”

“Do you disapprove?” she said, with a skeptical arch of her eyebrows.

“I still can’t believe people pay for this.”

“For everything that exists, there’s someone who wants to see it.”

“And pay money for it?”

“You know it. So you’re really not interested?”

“Can’t spend a fortune when you’re in jail.”

Holden snorted. “Jail’s just like any other thing: enough money in the right places can make it go poof.” She popped her fingers apart to illustrate.

Barber said nothing. He waited until the proper dials showed the proper readings, then nodded at the chamber. “Off you go.”

“Think about it,” Holden urged as she opened the door into the chamber. “I’ll see you in a minute.” And that was the literal truth: no matter how long Holden spent in the past, she would arrive back exactly sixty seconds after departing. That was a major factor in making these surreptitious trips possible.

The hairs inside Holden’s ears buzzed with the static charge in the air. She put on the respirator mask and double-checked the equipment in her bag, its lining designed to shield the items inside from the energies of time travel. Chief among them was the transponder that would bring her back to this room a minute from now.

The countdown clock mounted in the frame of the free-standing door lit up at 10. Holden put her fingers on the handle, and at 3, she pushed the portal open and stepped through.

In the control room, Barber watched his own countdown indicator, which began at 60 and ticked off the seconds until Holden’s return.

For centuries prior to the development of time travel, scientists disagreed about the level of oxygen at the end of the Cretaceous. Some said it was significantly lower than contemporary levels, some higher. As it turned out, the difference was negligible. Cretaceous air was as easy to breathe as the modern stuff.

What wasn’t easy to take was the Cretaceous pollen. Flowering plants had just evolved, and like teenagers discovering masturbation, pollenated wildly and seemingly at the slightest provocation. They called the allergy attacks brought on by this the “cycad flu,” and once you got it, you had to pretty much write the Cretaceous off your itinerary, which is what had happened to Holden’s previous partner, Jules. Luckily cheap respirators stocked with special filters handily blocked the pollen, and had so far protected her.

But there was no protection from the humidity, on par with New Orleans in August. The joke was that fish evolved to walk on land because with all this moisture in the air, they never noticed the difference. Holden’s clothes were light, but covered nearly all her exposed skin, since Cretaceous mosquitoes were almost as vicious as the black flies in contemporary Michigan.

She pulled her motion detector from the bag and slowly pivoted. Dinosaurs were all around her in the thick jungle, most of them small and quick. In the distance she heard the bellow of something much larger, but that didn’t worry her.

Then the screen displayed a collection of hits ahead. She smiled beneath the mask. That was her quarry.

She followed the signal through the forest that, as always, made her take a winding, indirect route. Weeds and grass hadn’t yet evolved, so the trees grew tall and so close together she often couldn’t fit between them. Luckily, stomping on plants and insects did nothing to change the future; it turned out that history was, for the most part, self-correcting, and if this particular crushed butterfly wasn’t around to evolve into human beings, then the one on the next plant would take over. It got a little trickier the closer you got to the present, but prehistory was acknowledged as a pretty safe playground. In the temporal sense, at least.

When she knew she was close, she put away the motion detector. She took out her phone, with its high-def camera app. She held it at arm’s length until, coming around an enormous magnolia trunk, she saw her quarry.

Crouching, she began to film.

She had no emotional investment in this subject, unlike her customers. She believed in the ancient saw, “Don’t get high on your own supply.” She knew other suppliers who had, unfortunately, shared or acquired their buyers’ tastes, and most of them ended up in the bellies of things that soon died from ingesting the unfamiliar meat. Holden often wondered if secretly, it hadn’t been the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but the futuristic e. coli bacteria in the guts of some moron who went up against a T. rex. 

On the screen, she watched the velociraptor mating orgy in the clearing ahead. Tails whipped through the air as partners changed, and high-pitched, bird-like cries rang out. It was a seething mass of feathers, claws, and teeth, with an occasional glimpse of the massive toe talons used both for killing, and for digging into the hides of mates. To Holden it was one of the least erotic things imaginable, but since the Breach of ’69, a small community of men—it was always men—had sprung up who found it unbelievably exciting, and were willing to pay for the privilege of jerking off to it. That image always left her a bit nauseous.

It also left her so preoccupied that she failed to notice the motion detector indicate something moving behind her. So she jumped at the trilling chirp, practically so close she could feel the sharp breath that carried it.

She knew that sound, all right.

She turned slowly with the camera. A male velociraptor, its mouth open and its eyes half-closed, trilled at her again. They were smaller than the movies, videos, and virtual shows had presented them, but not significantly less lethal. This one’s head was about eight inches from snout to back of skull, and the feathers around its neck stood up at right angles to its skin. It was so turned on by the pheromones in the air that it would tear through anything, including Holden, to get to that sweet, sweet, lady raptor lovin’. Which is why she stayed very, very still. She’d seen a horny raptor knock over a full-grown Edmontosaurus before.

She kept the camera at arm’s length. The danger was real, but so was the chance for a real score. No one got this close to an aroused raptor and lived to post the video.

Still recording, she scrolled through her apps until she found the one she sought. She opened it, hit play, and her phone immediately trilled back with the sound of another male raptor. Hopefully the one in front of her would interpret her outstretched arms and camera as the head and neck of that male, and go around her to reach the fun. That was one option.

The other was, of course, to challenge her. Velociraptors were pack hunters, with a complex hierarchy. They tended to put all that aside during mating season, but you never could tell.

Until it was too late. As she knew it was when the raptor rocked back on its heels, arched its neck and tapped its long attack claw against the ground.

Holden licked lips gone dry even in this humidity. She wasn’t given to idle panic, but sometimes panic was the right response. She had no weapon, and there was no chance of either outrunning or overcoming this randy bugger bare-handed. She needed to call for retrieval, but there was always a delay while the two time periods linked up, and that was plenty of time to be ripped to pieces.

She tapped the “flip” button on her phone, and when she saw her own surprisingly calm face on the screen, turned the phone over in her hands so that the raptor now saw itself.

That brought him up short. This new raptor mimicked his every head tilt, and when he leaned closer, so did it.

Keeping the camera in one hand, Holden found her retrieval stick with the other and hit the button.

The male raptor no longer trilled, but instead began to growl. Challenge accepted.

The air around Holden shimmered.

The raptor jumped.

“The raptor came out right behind her,” Barber said. “It slid on the tile, and started ripping up the padding on the walls. I went in there and shot it before it got loose.”

“And this Ms. Holden?”

He shook his head. “When I looked up, she was gone. I haven’t heard from her. And I never contacted her, she always came to me, so I have no idea how to reach her.”

“Was she injured?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did the footage ever show up online?”

Barber scowled. “Fuck, man, I’m not into that stuff. Fossil porn is for the real weirdoes.”

Long leaned back. After a long silence, he said, “Ever since the Breach of ’69, people have been terrified of another one. This wasn’t anything like that, though, was it? This was just a petty crime that got out of hand.”

Barber hung his head. “Yeah. I guess. But we had a deal, right?”

“You asked for one. I never agreed.”

“Hey, that’s not fair!” Barber cried.

“I think you should talk to your lawyer now, Mr. Barber,” Long said as he stood. “It’s late, and I’m going home.”

Two hours later, Detective Long sat in his study, in front of his personal 3D terminal. He softly muttered the web address, and waited for the screen to light up. When it did, the website name, Dino Hub, blazed out into the air before him, and behind that, its logo of a grinning T. rex with a lolling tongue and a massive erection. He quickly filled in his user name and password, then went immediately to the latest listing. The highlighted link said, “NEW: Velociraptor mating orgy.”

He jumped when the door rattled. “Honey, are you okay?” his wife called. “I heard you come in, but you didn’t come up and say hi. Why is the door locked?”

“Just finishing up some stuff from work,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t crack with excitement. The 3D image of the orgy hovered in the air, waiting for him to order it to start. “You know… going over some new files.”

“Okay. See you upstairs.”

When he was sure she was gone, he sighed, tucked in his earbuds and murmured, “Play.”

The Cook

The first time I see her, it’s just a glimpse. I’m standing in the inn’s common room and the other warriors straddle chairs and call for ale. While some reach for a serving wench or boy, cheeks to pinch, a life to grasp—my stomach growls a monster’s growl. I should be slain; the growl is that fierce. I smell the roasting lamb, the unmistakable sneeze of freshly ground peppercorns, and garlic, but it’s all hidden behind the kitchen door.

A woman swears and laughs and swears again from that kitchen, and a boy comes out balancing trenchers of bread across his arms. Behind him, I see her wipe her hands across the measured curves of her hips. The back of her head is covered in short dark hair. She picks up a silver knife before the door slams behind the boy and the bread is at my table and I have thoughts for nothing else. But when I’ve stuffed myself to bursting, I hear her laugh again, and I’m not sure if I’ve imagined it or not.

After my companions and I have reveled away our fears for tomorrow’s campaign and some of them have passed out onto their tables, I rise to find my own bed.

She stands at the door of her kitchen, leaning, arms crossed beneath her chest. Her forearms are thick and knotted like braided dough. Her blouse is half unbuttoned, leading my eyes down the V between her breasts. The sheen of sweat, like condensation, makes me thirsty. She’s watching me—probably all of us, but I prefer to imagine that the sly smile is just for me.

“Gods’ blessings for the food,” I say, tipping my head.

“Come back alive,” she says. “There’ll be more.”

Her voice is delicious.

I come back alive.

She hands me my meal personally. There is no meat; war has ruined grazing and bloated the prices. But there’s butter, and rosemary, and warmed carrots that crunch when I bite them, and small roasted potatoes, skin crisped but flesh so soft that… I have to swallow tears. My friends hoot and cheer and pound the tables with their—blessedly—finally—empty fists.

I meet her that night in the kitchen. She has cleaned, but it still smells like yeast, that fermenting precursor to everything I’ve missed for months. A thumb of pale flour streaks across her dark forehead. Her hair has grown into short dreadlocks since I’ve been gone. She flings the rag over her shoulder and takes me by the hand. Pulls me closer. Leads me to her workspace. I am delightfully confused. When she bends me over and presses my breasts to the tabletop, I am delightfully afraid.

I’m not prepared for the dough-maker’s fingers, her fists, her forearms, the heels of her palms in the knots of muscle on my back as she pounds and stretches away the marching, the swords, the crouching, the shields, and the dead.

When my groans diminish to whimpers, and my whimpers slip to sighs, she lets me rise. My muscles sag with languor and I slump against her table. We stare at each other, two women alone in a kitchen with no intent to cook.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’ve skin the color of caramelized onions?” she asks. She brushes my scarred hand with burn-calloused fingertips. My hand. I imagine onions gone soft, brown and sweet, almost burnt.

With a scandalized laugh, I fall in love.

And so I stay with her, in the inn, for the next month. I never go hungry.

I am not so lucky the next time we leave.

Fewer than half of my companions return with me to her inn, and I, I can’t even turn my head or nod because of the jagged slice from my lower neck crossing to my left breast. The stained bandage is a foul butcher’s apron.

“I’ve got bread knives could do worse,” she says. But the tremor in her voice, and the way her eyes skim my lean, broken form, tell me that even she is unsure.

She delegates the kitchen to a younger woman not yet grown into her shoulders, and leads me to her room. She lays me down.

When she comes to me, her hands are cleaner than I have ever seen them. She unwraps me like a parcel she has waited too long for—uncertain she wants to see what’s inside. The smell assaults us both, and the battlefield stitching is an insult to precision.

She examines me like a piece of meat, and treats me as such:

First, she wipes me clean and pats me dry, humming under her breath, silent only when I wince. Then she leaves, and several minutes later, returns with a bowl of fresh herbs. Lavender, its scent covering something almost as foul as I was. Comfrey. I close my eyes as she presses them against my wound. I imagine her in her kitchen, chopping and tearing them, mashing them to paste, forearms rigid, forehead wrinkled in concentration. She is humming again.

I open my eyes and she smiles, then rewraps me. She nods, satisfied, but her lips are tight, twitching.

When we kiss, we taste salt.

The Howling Detective

At his desk, Ken idled with a Polaroid picture and muttered a few confused curses. He had been staring at it for hours, finding something obvious and dismissing it as far too strange, refusing to appreciate it.

“What’s that you lookin’ at there?” a coworker said over his shoulder.

Ken turned it over and slid it between the pages of the newspaper on his desk. “Nothin’,” he grumbled. “A scrap o’ nothin’ from my pockets.”

“You was starin’ at it like a treasure map just now.” He couldn’t remember her name—Ruby, Rebecca, something; a temp passing the rest of her fortnight in the office by breezing through data entry in the mornings and taking longer lunches in the afternoons. “That ain’t really nothing.”

“Don’t study it.” Ken cleared his throat, sliding the thing out between the sheets and into a pocket in his messenger bag to disappear. He had already seen enough of it. More moments with it wouldn’t make it shift into something more understandable.

He had taken a photograph just outside his front doorstep in the middle of the night. He read up how to rig a DSLR to capture motion-triggered photos, and then set it to keep watch over the outer face of his home, hoping to catch himself walking out one night. He needed to be sure of the past few mornings waking up barely clothed, covered in dew or dirt, sitting on the living room couch when he remembered being in bed early the nights before. It wouldn’t help him much, but it would give him a little bit of closure.

What stepped out of the front door last night had fur and claws, and it dragged a seven-foot coffin behind it by a chain wrapped around its centre. And it wore the same tattered track pants he woke up in that morning, even though they were whole and brand-new the night before.

Ken’s heart wouldn’t stop beating since he saw it. He just assumed he was sleepwalking. He didn’t expect to see a lagahoo.

Stranger still was the coffin. It had a name—do coffins typically come with copper name plates at their heads? He didn’t know. But bearing one wasn’t what confused him. It was whose name it was—one that was unavoidable for days, a spectre of a name, hovering over the pages of news reports and between the lips of taxi drivers and neighbourhood gossips.

Ken’s hand trembled. Marlon Claxton, carved in steel. “What did I do?” he whispered.

The camera picked him up going west. He feared the worst; he knew that in that direction, beyond the boundaries of his neighbourhood, there was a bamboo grove with only a river separating it from the streets, extending for acres and acres up a lonely hill before ever coming back down into civilization. A perfect place to hide a body, if one was inclined to hide bodies in his sleep.

He needed to check.

To know for sure whether he had just committed the murder of the year.

Trinidad Newsday, Tuesday October 10th 2017

OFFICER SPEAKS OUT ABOUT CLAXTON’S BODY FOUND

Constable Roy Hunte of the San Juan Police Station kneaded his thighs with his wrists as he sat, shaking his head at me. “I feel like I make a mistake, miss,” he said softly into his Rituals paper cup of coffee.

I asked him to clarify: “You mean, about the Claxton case?”

“What? No.” He cleared his throat. “About coming here.”

His tension never dropped throughout the interview. After several months dedicated to the disappearance—and later, the murder—of Marlon Claxton, he knew the case intimately, answering each question with confidence. But his guard never fell. In fact, as he began his description of the murders, it would have been easy to assume that the scene was what truly still haunted him.

“Two bodies were found at the scene—in Jason Parris’ house. The first was that of Marlon Claxton, who had been…” Hunte’s voice shuddered for a moment, and he took a sip of coffee. “Claxton had been assaulted with a cane stalk, and was found covered in dirt on the floor of the garage. Would have died from massive blood loss and ruptures to most of his vital organs. And next to him was Parris’ body. He seemed to have been assaulted in the garage, and bled out from multiple cuts across the entirety of his body consistent with many small, curved weapons.”

When he was pressed to explain, he sighed over his cup. “I mean small, curved weapons. Like them special knives you could buy in any shop—karambits or whatever. What everybody keep saying, ‘bout claws or whatever? Was entertaining for a time, but then you get to realize that it ain’t goin’ and do your investigation no favours to charge a stray dog for two murders.”

Hunte admits, though, that there were other possibilities. “A staging did come to mind. That somebody did want to do this radical, symbolic thing. That who killed Mister Parris was the real monster, or whatever—I ain’t know. But even that ain’t make no sense. Mister Parris was the monster, after all. We just couldn’t prove it.”

Ken bought a small bottle of caffeine tablets from a pharmacy on the main road later that day, just a stone’s throw away from his house. He decided at least in the early moments of the afternoon, he may as well get a small nap, the only rare sight of perfect sleep he’d had in a while. And then, when his watch beeped tinny at the strike of six, he shot out of bed, took a shower and a pill, wrapped a rusty spade in a sheet of black plastic, put it into a small bag with a bottle of water, and ventured westward from Carlisle Street into the dark, cold woods.

His breath was curt, and the tropical night was chillier than usual against his skin—not a condition of the temperature, but of his own fear. It was nonsensical to expect, and yet, Ken expected the whole thing without doubt. That thing was him, and something was in that coffin, and he had hurt a child in the way he had been hurt, and now he had to find it and make sure.

That was the part that felt the most alien to his mind. He knew what happened to children when they “disappeared” in Trinidad—they really ended up in a barrel or in a river or both, because the damage done to them was impossible to conceal. He had read a half dozen or more of those stories in the papers before the year was through, and each one turned his stomach.

What cruelty lived in his unconscious night-time mind, then? Why did it don a wolf mask, how and why did it grab a child who lived and studied in the West all the way to his Five Rivers home so he could destroy him once in the way he was destroyed multiple times?

A good forty feet from the river, his cell phone flashlight casting shadows against the stalks, he could see a patch of raised dirt before him—barely a half inch, but somehow obvious. It seemed new when he got closer, a shifted shade of clay from the rest of the soil. And… he could smell it. Not like death… like saltwater? And pencil shavings, and sweat, other things he could make out but not identify the sources of.

He took the spade out, and when the tip of it broke the ground, the scents rose up even stronger, overwhelming his senses. He literally reeled, falling back on his backside with dizziness.

Then he saw the dog. Some feet away, hidden in the shadow of a tight bunch of bamboo stalks, tail wagging as it stared at him. It waited for a beat, and then it let out one single bark in his direction.

Ken crawled back. He didn’t really like dogs, a result of a minor tragedy in his youth. But this one seemed to like him.

He tried to ignore it, still piercing the earth to find whatever was freshly buried there. It was an hour, but only because he was more eager about this than he would be about any other gardening project. But “eager” wasn’t the word.

When the tip of the spade broke dirt and hit something with a thick, wooden thud, Ken held his breath. For a long beat, he stared at the dirt in the dark. Then, he hurried to clear the rest of the dirt, scraping with the spade until he could clearly see a black panel of wood beneath the soil.

The dog came closer as he hauled the coffin out, Marlon’s copper-embossed name gleaming in the moonlight. It was definitely not holding a body, but that didn’t stop an unfit, slightly pudgy man like Ken from heaving under its weight. The dog was neither amused nor frightened by it. It hit the dirt on its side, and its doors swung open to reveal—

Ken leapt back and gasped, still expecting to see a child. Instead, he found randomness. A blood-stained shirt that smelled of rum and tea. A small jar of brown sugar, turning darker and darker under the scarce light of the moon until it shifted totally to black. A gold watch which, after a blink, became a pressed striped shirt, and then again a new pair of grey loafers, and back again, over and over in a way that Ken barely even noticed or recalled. An English Literature textbook, the Oxford Reader of Shakespeare’s Othello, surely with something special inside that Ken would never get to inspect. All of them a kind of figment, there for his touch but not themselves—the book like cloth, the cloth like smoke.

The dog faced Ken dead centre and howled. It felt familiar to Ken’s ears, less like a sound and more like a message, even an instruction. It made him feel a little dizzy, sent his heart beating faster from something separate from fear.

He glanced at the watch.

Wait. He squinted at it in the dark. Ent I see that watch somewhere?

“It was almost evident that Parris had hurt the child,” Hunte said. He practically repeated it throughout our conversation, in so many words. Even after he was no longer on the record, he swore it with the confidence of a man who refused to think himself mistaken. “Down to how he speak to reporters when he was out on bail—you ever see a man so brazen to talk to the news after coming out of a police station? To say ‘It’s a shame they wasted their time trying to ruin my reputation when they have a kidnapper to catch’? To say ‘It hurts my heart to know that the poor, beautiful boy has gone missing, I hope he finds his way home safely’? Don’t take me for no fool. Just listening to the man was enough.”

Of course, the evidence and Hunte’s hunches were at odds. “We couldn’t find a shred, obviously. We didn’t know where he did pick up the child, or where he was keeping him. His car was conveniently getting a full clean the one day we come with the warrant to inspect it. But it never did seem out of the ordinary to anybody else. Just… coincidences being roadblocks to the investigation.”

The media latched on from the early points of that investigation, on both sides of the divide. “Allyuh paper self was running yuh little Ask-The-People segments on page nine, where people did keep saying, ‘Why the police have to pick on the man so?’ What, you ain’t remember? And the usual ranting on the next side, too—’Hang ‘im high! If that was my child, I done slit he throat and leave ‘im in the street!’ But even the news itself. Everybody was rushing to tell me that my unit was incompetent. But we was trying we best! We just couldn’t make the conviction.”

More disheartening still, for Hunte, was Parris’ threats of legal action against Hunte and his division. “Of course he must call it ‘harassment’. It was his last opportunity to embarrass me, to rub my failure in my face. At that point, my superiors tell me to back down. And the trail went cold after that, so… what else was there to do? It wasn’t like we had any new leads.”

Ken’s eyes stung the next day, and yet, he bit down on another caffeine pill without even the vaguest hesitation. Throughout the day, the smallest fragments of questions would flutter about his mind—you know about two monsters now, but do you know which one you’re looking for?—and he refused to face them.

The internet had a lot of things to say about the teacher that everyone accused. Jason Parris was so guilty that Ken wasn’t even the first person to ask in the comments of newspaper websites where he lived. But that first person did ask, and then there was a first person to look, and then there was a first person to confess that the briefest of digital investigations proved that, no matter the nice watches and above-average cars, he lived at the end of a quiet street in D’abadie in an unassuming off-white two-storey house with a creaking gate and lacquer flaking off the windows.

Ken didn’t have a car. Ken had maxi-taxi fare, and a bottle of caffeine pills, and a desire to understand something, and he decided he’d go on the hunt for the simpler thing to understand.

Ken lingered in the shadow of a tree at the street corner and waited, trying to maintain his focus as the corners of his eyes started to sting. At the edge of his eyesight, he noticed the lights in the dining room come off, and he lingered for a few moments more, until he was beyond sure that whoever was inside had gone to bed. Then, the work began—he made for the house, clumsily scaling the outside gate and thanking God that there were no dogs in the Parris yard. Even with his rattling, no one seemed to stir.

He made right for the back of the house, to the garden he could barely make out under the light of nearby street lamps. He squinted, resisting the urge to reach for his phone flashlight to make the search easier. Nothing seemed immediately out of the ordinary. He dreaded that he would have to risk discovery entering the house to find it.

He took a deep breath and knelt there, hoping his eyes would acclimatise, and then he saw something. The entire segment of soil beneath the garden was a fresh brown, maybe weeks since it was turned. And… Ken’s nose burned, full of the smell of congealed blood and rotting flesh and the maggots that swim in it, and beyond that, pencil shavings, and salt, and blood-copper.

Ken put his hand through the dirt, reaching all the way down until he felt something more solid than sand. He pulled out a fistful of soil, then another, pushing out plants and reaching as deep as half a forearm into the garden until he knew that he had a small limb in his grasp, and he pulled.

When the entire thing was struck by the dim orange lamplight, Ken resisted the urge to scream. He could barely tell that it was a real boy at all. The tip of a cane stalk protruding from his wide-open mouth, caked in something ruddy and hard… Ken dropped it and clasped his hands over his mouth, fearful tears wetting his eyes.

He dialed the local station right then and there, perhaps in the hope that the report would stave off his fear and rage. “Hello, police? I calling to make a tip. Jason Parris’ garden—if you didn’t check yet, the body was there. I know—I in the yard right now. Don’t ask me how. But the Claxton boy’s body here.”

In that moment, seeing the boy’s face swollen and broken, there was this illogical urge to let it out in a sound, more than a mere scream, a kind of prayer upward to the full and dazzling moon for guidance, or deliverance, or strength, or rage—

Ken could keenly hear the jingle of a pair of keys, and then a stern voice. “Hello? Who’s there?”

He turned to see the back door’s curtain drawn. A pair of eyes, barely caught by light, gazing at him.

The voice raised. “Who the fuck is you?”

Ken bolted. Back out to the front, over the gate in another awkward jump, hearing the man’s footsteps through the wooden floors of the house—how I could tell that from here? Ken thought as he ran—to the front porch and then out to the gate, behind him until just a metre or two into the street. Ken kept running. Maybe Mr. Parris would just make a trespassing report, dispose of the evid—

Ken heard an engine. He hadn’t even noticed the man’s beloved fancy car wasn’t parked outside the gate. He couldn’t outrun that.

And Jason Parris wouldn’t let him.

The collision put Ken between a speeding Jaguar and a nearby tree. The impact broke things that he was immediately too unconscious to notice, and his consciousness faded with only the touch of blood rolling down his face, and the still-growing desire to let out a nasty howl, to speak this moon-language he did not know he knew…

When pressed about the call on that fateful night—an anonymous tipster who claimed to have witnessed Parris place the child’s body in the soil beneath his garden, Hunte replied initially with a sigh.

“You know how many people used to give we them calls? ‘I see Jason Parris leave the body in he car,’ ‘I see Jason Parris drop him in the beach water up by Toco,’ ‘I see Jason Parris chop something up fine-fine-fine through he kitchen window, it must be the boy.’ We does get so many calls ‘bout Parris. Not ‘bout Claxton, mind—’bout Parris. Everybody does feel that they know somebody definitely committed a crime once it on the news. Just because they see the face so often, and we all want somebody to pay for something that nasty, we need something. ‘I know it’s Parris. I see him do—’… do anything.”

Long after our interview ended, I posed the notion that Hunte couldn’t see the irony of those words at all. “But I know Parris did do it. It’s because I couldn’t tell you how I know—that’s why you could trust me. Me ain’t makin’ up a body or a burial site to blame nobody. I knew it was Parris, and I just knew. That’s all. Those two things are not the same.”

In the distance, the long note of a howl slowly stirred Ken awake. When he fully found himself, a dim yellow light shone overhead and swung slowly, shifting the shadows in the room.

“What you was doing messing around in my yard, man?” a voice said coldly. He knew the voice from enough television news interviews, enough hollow denials of blame. But his vision was too hazy to make out the face among the blurred silhouette. After a beat, he noticed himself—wrists bound in rope, hung over the garage floor by a ceiling beam.

“I’m sorry,” Ken slurred. “I did get lost, and a dog was following me, and—”

The shadow rushed toward him, dipping low and swinging its arms toward his stomach. A trickle of blood spilled out from his lips; only then did he realize that he had already been bleeding, bruised all over his face and cut all over his sides.

“Everybody want so badly to prove something that they willing to trespass on my land, eh? Why? Everybody need to have somebody to blame that bad?”

Ken coughed, feeling the thick red against his chin. “But I already see it, hoss. You can’t lie ‘bout it again. And it ain’t my business, so you could just let me go and I—”

Ken knew he was being struck with a tire iron now, catching it in the light just before it struck him in the jaw. “What body, man? You seeing things in the middle of the night, or what?”

Ken took a breath. “I saw him. The boy. In the garden. If I going and die anyway, I ain’t have no intention of hiding it. And I wonder how long it going and take for you to hide me.”

“Hide you?” Parris laughed, leaning in just enough for the garage light to glow menacing against his face. “You ain’t look like anybody missing you, man. And since you ‘seeing things’ in my yard, it’s only right if I want to stay out of trouble that I get rid o’ you, then, ent?”

Ken’s shoulders tensed in fear, and with the fear came pain. He winced, glancing at his arms to see how badly injured he was. Instead, he found arms that he swore didn’t resemble his own. They were covered in far more hair than he was used to or even comfortable with, and despite their deep, long gashes, they appeared to be bigger than before, too. He tightened his fists, wishing he could shake his bonds loose, feeling them strain under his pressure.

The howl grew closer. Ken clenched his jaw, and that stung too, but he clenched even harder, holding back this deeper and more painful urge to cry out to the unseen moon for help, for release, for more rage, rage, rage deeper and hotter than he knew—

The howl outside sounded in his head like it was right beside him now, and Ken couldn’t resist. He closed his eyes and his head rolled back and he let out a long, low note to the sky, and to him it sounded like thank you, thank you for telling me what I really was, and giving me something to kill, and he wanted to bite his own lip but the desire only made both the inside howl and the outside howl so much louder to Ken.

Before Jason Parris could exclaim, Ken’s ropes had already burst. He wasn’t even trying to break free at that moment. It barely took enough of the new thing he had become. When he glanced down at himself again, he was even more hirsute, less of a man and more of something he couldn’t recognize. At the ends of his limbs were slowly-growing talons, each as long as a man’s finger, and they seemed to sing to him for blood. And by the time he had heard the song, he couldn’t even focus on his own body any more. It was a new thing, asking to destroy a destroyer, and that’s all he knew.

He heard Jason scream, and felt it, too. Could smell it—sweat and expensive cologne and urine and cigarette ash and cane juice, cane juice still all over his fingers after so long. Ken snarled, felt the joy of snarling, his eyes widening to gaze more of his prey.

The rest happened as if his new body was still not himself—far faster than he could notice, and yet with an unavoidable grace. He could still feel the glee of the man’s arms rending from the rest of him, of his wails in the night for God to come give him security. Ken wondered whether Marlon got a chance to scream, whether Parris screaming now was more torture or less than he deserved.

But then it was over before it began, in a passing cloud of blood that burst against the garage floor and pooled in the rightward corners. Ken howled again, this time not being asked by the moon or by another hound, simply singing again to the sky. Thank you. Thank you. It’s done.

The high took too many minutes to dim for him. Even when he could find the thought to run back home, he still relished the scent of raw monster-meat against the concrete. Then, finally, it struck him. Shit. He could acutely hear a light flicker in the main house. He willed his claws to come down, and they wouldn’t.

So he scraped through the door, three long cleaves putting a hole big enough for him to drag his fur and fighting through, and he galloped back into the night, up the lit midnight street and into nothing. He could head home, he thought. Maybe avoid the rare prying eye and fall into his bed in this shape, hopefully don’t break too much on the way.

But soon enough, he wasn’t even thinking about being unseen. He could only think of the blood. The pool of what smelled like villain, bittersweet and abundant, still enough on his talons for imbibing before finally falling to sleep.

“Yes, I know this ain’t police work.” Hunte wouldn’t stop wringing his wrists at this point, gazing down as if this was his only true failure of the Claxton investigation. “I know we have no right to be glad in a man’s death. But I can’t lie to you, miss-lady—Jason Parris did get what was comin’ to he in the end, I am sure of it. I for one not sad that he dead. The body was there. All of the evidence we could still spare—whatever wasn’t ruined with Parris’ fresh blood—did all confirm it this time. Parris was a nasty man. We just couldn’t prove it ‘til somebody kill ‘im.”

Hunte of course understands the importance of bringing Parris’ killer to justice. “I and all call the man a hero, but you not supposed to be taking justice into your own hands so. I have a job to do, and that means I have to find this person, too. It hard—the same problem as before, no reliable evidence yet, just dog-hairs—but we have faith. I have faith that I must find the man. And I can’t lie, I will shake he hand before I put him in cuffs. I have no shame about it. But he have to pay. He ain’t no hero, in truth. Just because he kill one wicked man don’t make nobody a hero.”

“I ain’t have no time for no nancy story, though,” he added, referring to the recent spate of murders matching the same description as Parris’. “I mean, I am an officer of the law. And when you working as long as me, you does come to learn that there is such a thing as monsters. I see enough o’ them. A monster did this, too. But I ain’t believe in no lagahoo.”

Ken faded back into a man, but he never got to sleep. He wasn’t sure if it was yesterday’s pills or yesterday’s power that denied him calm, and he didn’t really complain until it was six o’clock in the morning and he really wanted to feel rested before work.

He was still covered in blood. His sheets stank of the stuff. He burned it all in a metal drum outside, took two cruel showers, scrubbed himself near raw. But the smell didn’t go away. And he didn’t want it to.

Before his usual bus stop, he met a dog he swore was familiar to him. Maybe a hazy delusion that his sleep-deprived self had the night before? The thing bowed to him and wagged its tail. Ken gazed at it and felt like they were sharing a silent language. He wanted to say something to it, and the sound felt in his head like one long, low thing that kept all of its meaning in its tone. Thank you.

Days passed since, and every other night Ken slept a little better. The news had stopped lingering on the death of Marlon Claxton soon enough—as soon enough as the news can without giving up on free drama—and the internet swam with people who didn’t even care how Jason Parris died. As far as they were concerned, the Lord worked in mysterious, violent, saw-toothed ways, and praise the Lord.

Three weeks later, Ken found himself damp and shaken in the middle of the morning again, pajamas torn, feet muddy.

He set back out to the woods later that evening, sighing at the trek but holding back a sly grin. When he got to the coffin’s hiding place, someone else’s life glinted on the copper name plate. Another regular of the page-threes in the papers, also missing for longer than anyone deserved. Another victim calling their name out to him, begging for vengeance silently.

Ken slowly put his right hand into his pocket, felt a small bottle of caffeine pills rattle. The sound of it was like a deep scream against the night. Thank you.

The Date

What drew me to her? It was the way she walked down the street that caught my eye, how people parted in her wake. It was the way she swayed, how the sun played off the velvet gleam of her exoskeleton. It was her glass-sharp grace, the snap-quick turn of her head that told you she’d take whatever she wanted.

People scurried out of her path, but I stepped right into it. There was a tense moment when she glared at me, and I wondered if she’d bite off my head, but I managed to ask her out to dinner. To my surprise, she accepted.

I wasn’t usually so forward—too much, too fast, and people bolted like gazelles. But she was no gazelle.

It was my first time, dating a woman like her. There were generally two ways such a date could end: a chaste kiss on the cheek with a weak “call me sometime?” or a wild romp that ended in decapitation. For someone so dazzling, I’d take my chances.

I cared about looking appealing to her, and it made me second-guess myself, throwing on outfit after outfit. I didn’t pick that red dress, the lacy “unwrap for a good time” number. I selected something casual and black, loose and unrevealing, which said: “I’m chill. I don’t need much, don’t take much, don’t need you. I’ll give you only as much as you give me, and nothing more.”

I ditched the silver stilettos and opted for sensible flats, in case I had to run.

She’d chosen a high-end steak house, dim-lit and wood-paneled. The maître’d was poised and proper. When we strolled in, he greeted my date by name. I couldn’t grit my teeth right to pronounce it, so she asked me to call her Anna.

From the side-eye the roaming waiters were giving me, there’d been other dates here. I sniffed for lingering hints of cleanup bleach, and found none. No recent deaths, at least.

They attended to us immediately. Our waiter asked after drinks, then skipped straight to the main courses. You didn’t leave a woman like her hungry and waiting.

The waiter kept his hands carefully folded near his chest, as he addressed Anna. “What will you have, Madame?”

Anna gestured for me to order first, casually waving a barbed arm. The waiter pretended he hadn’t flinched, and smiled at me. “And what’s your pleasure, Miss?”

I scanned the menu in panic, looking for something small and innocuous. Most men disliked it when I showed more hunger than they had—a big, bloody steak on a first date meant there’d be no second. “I’ll go with the Caesar Salad.”

“Really now,” said Anna. “Who do you think you’re with?” She was large and lethal, green and sleek, stunning. She snatched the menu out of my grasp, and as she did, the spines on her arms grazed my skin. I suppressed a shudder of longing.

“Porterhouse for two,” Anna said, staring down at the waiter. “We’ll take it black and blue, and you’d better not overcook it. No salt.” She spoke slowly, tossing each word like a stone down the darkest well. The waiter, and everyone around us, was riveted with fear. It made my heart skip. With a polite bob, the waiter scurried off, rushing our order to the kitchen.

No small talk. We sipped our red wine silently, appraising each other. Our steaks soon arrived on a wood slab, seared dark on the outside, cold and raw within.

“Well,” said Anna. “What are you waiting for?”

I took my fork and knife, cutting myself a dainty slice.

Anna laughed at me—a sound like metal scraping asphalt. She gripped the steak between her barbed arms, ripping a hunk off the bone. She set upon it with her mandibles. No one dared look in our direction.

“Dig in, darling,” she said. “I’m not afraid of your appetites.”

So. I’d not done a good enough job of hiding what I was—it was peeking out through the edges. I chewed my small bite and swirled my wine, watching the red rings it left. “Well. They all say they’re not afraid, at first. Then they decide I’m a little too much for them.”

“There’s no such thing as too much.” Anna clicked her mandibles. “My, what a tight little box you keep yourself in.”

She looked at me intently, trying to decide if I was prey. Her eyes filled her face, massive jade moons. Part of me was small and fluttering; it wanted to flee, to bolt for the door. But the other part—the one I took pains to strangle and drown deep—rose slowly, like a stone island rearing from the sea.

For the first time, the very first time, I felt seen.

There was no need to pretend to be something I wasn’t. Following Anna’s lead, I shunned fork and knife, grabbing the meat with my hands, gnawing, teeth scratching bone. Fat and red juices ran down my chin, dripping off my wrists.

Anna was smiling. It wasn’t in the twist of her mouthparts, but in the tilt of her head and antenna. “That’s more like it. See how easy it is, when you’re not afraid of making anyone uncomfortable?”

The restaurant had gone dead quiet around us, but I didn’t care. I waved for our check, and with the same hand snuffed out our candle between my thumb and forefinger. It hurt, the bite of hot wax and scorching wick, but the pain ran down my spine deliciously, making everything sharper.

“If you come home with me tonight,” I said, “will you turn around, and chew off my head?”

“Darling, just don’t leave me unsatisfied. And don’t ask me for promises I won’t keep.”

It was all I could do not to grin. We walked out into the street holding each other close, like lovers, like raptors, and I was in love.

The Utmost Bound

… and this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
Tennyson

The check-in chime in his headset: on time, annoyingly on time, as usual, waking him as they came around the curve of Venus. “Aphrodite-1, this is Honolulu, do you read?”

Faint washes of static through the words, three months of interplanetary travel and a scant handful of minutes away by radio wave. Again: “Aphrodite-1, Honolulu, do you read? Over.”

“Hi, Hawaii,” said McBride, pushing the headset mike a little further from his mouth. He was used to the delay by now, the measured pauses in conversation while the signal made its way across twenty-five million miles of nothingness. At first it had been disconcerting; now he barely even noticed. “Weather okay down there?”

“Just dandy, since you ask, Commander, but it’s time for the morning report. How’s Little Buddy doing?”

McBride yawned and keyed up the monitors, one by one, waking them into life: you didn’t waste juice out here on instruments you weren’t actually using. The cabin lights dimmed slightly as the displays came on line. “Little Buddy’s reet and complete at last report,” he said, scanning the data, and typed in the downlink command to send Honolulu everything the rover had been up to since the previous infodump transmission. “There you go. Still trundling west over Lakshmi Planum as we speak. Temperature’s—let’s see—still holding at 469 C, pressure 93, no significant changes in atmospheric makeup. Yellow sky. Ugly as shit.”

Honolulu laughed, a tinny little sound, rasping with distance. “Keep your personal aesthetic impressions out of the record, Commander. Okay. We want you to go north today—there’s a couple of anomalies we’d like to get a closer look at. Stand by for transmission of coordinates.”

McBride flicked a couple of switches. “Standing by, Honolulu.” He looked back at the monitor showing the live camera feed from the Aeneas rover. While he and Artanian slept in their cocoons, Aeneas—which had been Little Buddy ever since it had unfolded from the lander-capsule that had taken it down through the killing atmosphere of Venus and looked around, tilting its multi-lens camera probes in a remarkable imitation of interest—had made considerable progress across the Venusian highlands. Even so, the view was predictable. Blank yellow sky, the color of a dehydrated man’s CUVMS piss-bag; distant half-imagined mountains; grey-green-brown slaty rock and soil. McBride knew it was mostly basalts, but it looked a hell of a lot like sedimentary layers half-shattered and worn away by the kind of freeze-thaw cycle you got back on Earth, where water was a thing.

Behind him Artanian stirred in her cocoon, unzipped herself, yawned hugely. McBride could hear her spine cracking as she stretched, a series of little pops. You got used to it after a while: with no gravity squashing you down in any particular direction, the discs between your vertebrae expanded. You stopped noticing that it hurt.

“What do they want us to do today?” Artanian asked, coming to join him at the console. The conversation between them was part of the morning ritual: the conversation meant they were still people, out here in the black.

“Want us to head north. Some kind of anomaly to check out. I bet you six bacon cubes it’s another fuck up on the radio-topography survey, like the last few times.”

“Interference bars,” Artanian said, and sighed, plugging her headset in to take over talking-to-the-ground duty. “Your turn to get the coffee.”

Aph-One wasn’t bad, in terms of crew comfort, compared to some of the tubs McBride had flown: the same basic layout as the old Apollo and Orion command modules, a truncated cone with its curved heatshield snugly settled into a service module containing oxygen and hydrogen tanks and electrical equipment. It wasn’t very much more spacious than Orion, even with the deep-sleep pods tucked underneath the crew couches to maximize the available room, but what space there was had been designed with comfort in mind; all the research on long-duration missions agreed on the significance of this factor.

In other news, water is wet, McBride thought, floating down to the left lower equipment bay to retrieve a couple of coffee tubes. Keeping two humans in a space roughly the size of a smallish SUV for months at a time was difficult even if they spent most of the transit in deep-sleep, and when you were all the way out here anything that made the experience slightly more comfortable was of vital importance.

Like the coffee. NASA had earnestly made an attempt to cater to their individual preferences, so the tubes marked C and CRMP—everything was titles, not names, Commander and Command Remote Module Pilot—contained two distinct kinds of terrible instant coffee, to which one added pre-measured lukewarm water from a dispensing gun. McBride didn’t have a lot of emotional lability—it was one of the reasons he’d made the cut for this mission—but sometimes, thinking about real fresh hot coffee, he found himself getting uncomfortably nostalgic for the green hills of Earth.

They were in a high orbit, far above the edge of Venus’s horrible atmosphere. The spacecraft spun slowly on its longitudinal axis to maintain thermal control, ensuring that no part of it got too baked by the sun or too chilled by the lack of it. Below them, though, on the wretched hide of the planet, the Aeneas rover had to deal with what effectively constituted hell. Ninety-plus atmospheres of pressure, temperatures hot enough to melt lead, baking-dry atmosphere of supersaturated carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid—all the place lacked, McBride considered, was a couple of demons with leathery wings and sharp-spined pitchforks.

It was why nobody had ever tried to land on the surface. Instrument packages, sure, back in the 70s and 80s. Cleverly designed machines that could withstand an hour, maybe an hour and a half of concentrated torture, but nothing more vulnerable than that. The Aeneas mission was the first time anyone had attempted to put a rover on the surface and keep it alive—the nominal duration was one week, but they were almost into their third now, and Little Buddy was still going strong. You had to hand it to the people in design and engineering: once the funding finally started to trickle back in for space exploration, it hadn’t taken them long to figure out how to get shit done.

“Hey,” said Artanian, above him. “Come look at this.”

McBride floated back up to join her, handing over the coffee tube. “What’s up?”

“Look.” She pointed at the monitor showing the video feed. “What is that thing?”

He clipped his harness into the anchor-points under the console so he could stay put without hanging on to anything, and typed in a couple of commands. On the rover’s visible-light video cam, the weird object looked like a twisted chunk of rock, indistinct in the distance, standing alone in a flat stony plain. Through Little Buddy’s more sophisticated scanners, though—

McBride swore, staring at the monitors. “That’s not rock. That’s some kind of metal,” he said. “And it’s big. What the hell is it? There isn’t supposed to be anything man-made on this part of the surface.”

“None of our stuff landed in this area,” Artanian said quietly, glancing over at him. “Closest thing is the Pioneer Venus north probe, and that’s a long way east of here.”

This hadn’t been included in their training protocols: something that had no right to be where it was. McBride rubbed at his face. They were here to make discoveries.

“Take us closer,” he said. “The Russian landers aren’t supposed to be on this continent, either, but that’s the only other option I can think of.”

The only acceptable other option.

Artanian flipped up the safety cover on a small joystick hand-controller and typed in the command that would override Little Buddy’s remote guidance programming and give her manual control. Neither of them spoke as she drove, the picture on their monitor tilting crazily as the rover’s wheels negotiated the uneven surface.

McBride could remember training in the simulator, back home, watching as she guided the boilerplate mock-up of Aeneas over a fake landscape, wondering if NASA planned to throw any virtual little green men at them to see how they’d react. Now he wondered what the psych assholes would make of this situation.

“It’s just a probe,” said Artanian, not taking her eyes off the screens. “Got to be. I mean, maybe the Russians sent more of them, without telling us?”

He wasn’t so sure. The thing looked too big to be a probe. As she guided Aeneas closer he took over the job of focusing its multiple scanners, trying to make sense of what they were seeing. It was hard to make out details while the rover was still bumping over rocks and soil, but McBride thought it looked oddly familiar—a kind of round lumpy shape, canted to one side, with something sticking up at an angle from the top of it—

All at once the outlines made sense, clicked in his head: just like looking at one of those garbled Magic Eye pictures and suddenly being able to see the hidden shape.

“It’s a lander,” he said, not quite sure whether to be relieved. “It’s a fucking Russian lander. One of the Veneras—you’re right, they must have sent another mission, one we never heard about. See the remains of the helical antenna? And that’s the aerobrake disc underneath of it. The whole thing’s leaning over at about twenty degrees.”

The USSR had sent a series of probes to Venus between the sixties and eighties, ten of which had survived landing and transmitted data from the surface. Some of them—Veneras 9, 10, 13, and 14—had sent back pictures more or less identical to what McBride and Artanian had been seeing through the rover’s eyes for weeks now: yellow sky, dark friable rock. The landers themselves were immediately recognizable, consisting of a spherical titanium pressure hull supported above a landing ring by shock-absorbing struts; a flat disc-shaped aerobrake surmounted the hull, and above that a cylindrical protuberance housed scientific instruments and the helical antenna used to transmit data. The antenna and aerobrake together looked a little like a giant metal top hat. Cooling pipes stuck out of the side of the spherical pressure hull and extended upward through the aerobrake hat-brim. They were ugly and also unmistakable, and McBride was pretty sure he was looking at the remains of one right now. One that the Soviets had never talked about, unlike the rest of the Venera program.

“Hang on,” said Artanian, “I’m going around to the other side, I think the surface is a bit smoother. I should be able to get in pretty close.”

He didn’t reply, watching the monitors. She drove carefully in a wide arc around the thing—it seemed to have sunk partway into the surface, which was interesting and slightly unnerving, what if Aeneas fell through a goddamn lava tube, how were they ever going to explain that one to Hawaii—and drew to a stop.

The shape of the lander was blurred by time and decay. The remains of the thermal control pipes had melted, drooping into an unrecognizable mass, and half of the aerobrake was simply gone. A slick of unpleasant matter around the base of it probably represented the melted remains of long-dead electronics. The instruments mounted on the landing ring were nothing but a snarl of twisted debris, and all of it—the entire metal surface, all that remained—was furred with a blanket of mottled, multicolored salts: corrosion products formed by reaction with the chemicals in the atmosphere.

And something was wrong. Artanian stopped the rover, looked at him, her eyes wide. He could see white all the way around the brown irises, and felt the little hairs on his arms rise in a wave. Something worse than the incongruity of this spacecraft’s presence here where no spacecraft was supposed to be: the shape of it, the thing itself, was wrong.

“It’s too big,” she said. “The hull’s too big, the proportions are all off. No Venera lander ever had a pressure-hull that size.”

“No Venera lander that they ever talked about,” McBride said, still staring at the thing. “All the rest are well-documented history, people write books about them—but not this one. Take us closer.”

Her mouth tightened, but she reached for the joystick again. McBride realized he was gripping the edge of the console hard enough to turn his nailbeds white, and made himself uncurl his fingers, watching as the wreck on the monitors grew nearer. Artanian eased Little Buddy slightly further around the curved base of it, more blotchy yellow-grey-blue salt deposits visible—

“Stop,” he said, too sharp, too loud, but she had already stopped, seeing it a split second before he did: a round, perfectly regular gap in the corrosion. A smooth surface, perhaps pitted and scratched a little by the decades of windblown rock particles, but still clear enough to see through.

A viewport.

A hull much bigger than it should have been, with a viewport.

Artanian’s fingers moved on the controls almost by themselves, telescoping the rover’s neck boom, bringing its head closer, and McBride absolutely did not want to look any further but found he could not turn his face away as the camera peered past the surface scratches, through three inches of—it must be sapphire, he thought, or at least quartz, the kind of thing you’d use on a deep-sea trench submersible’s windows—and into the darkness inside.

At first it was simply darkness, before the camera’s sensors adjusted themselves, and McBride had time to think oh thank god, there’s nothing in there before they got focus back.

There was something in there. An amorphous, lumpy shape, thick-furred with salt deposition. All the surfaces inside the spacecraft were covered with the stuff; if there had once been instruments, controls, switches to flip, they were long gone, vanished into the merciless hunger of the planet’s atmosphere. McBride stared at the monitor, eyes wide, as the autofocus shifted itself again, and a recognizable curve emerged: part of a ring of metal.

“Oh fuck,” said Artanian. “Oh God. Fuck. That’s a neck ring.”

“Titanium,” he said, still staring. “That’s probably all that’s left. Maybe the wrist rings, too, somewhere in there. And the hose fittings.”

On the curve of the ring, just at the front, where the suit’s helmet would have locked into place—melted, corroded away to nothing now—they could still faintly see the letters CCCP.

“Get us out of here,” McBride said, in a voice he didn’t recognize. “Christ. Get us out.”

Not since his very early days in the training program had he felt actively claustrophobic in the confines of a spacecraft, but McBride was fighting down the powerful urge to open a goddamn window.

Artanian had driven the rover away at its top speed, just on the edge of recklessness, until a rise in the terrain obscured their discovery; until all they could see in any direction was once more nothing but grey-brown rock fading into the featureless yellow haze of the sky.

She powered Little Buddy down, putting it in sleep mode, replaced the safety cover over the hand-controller with self-conscious deliberation, and turned to face McBride—who had his arms tightly folded against that mindless instinctive urge to crack the hatch.

“Do we tell them?” she asked.

McBride stared at her. It was actually a pretty good question. They could, if they chose to, erase the entire recording of the day’s excursion. They still had a good three hours before Honolulu would be expecting a downlink. They could erase the whole thing, and spend the rest of their lives keeping that awful secret, so that it would die with them, and again no living human would have to bear the awareness he and Artanian felt now, the stomach-dropping horror of it, of knowing that someone had been sent here, here to hell, and had died here, and had been here all along—was still here, in molecular form—

McBride squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to see the picture in his mind. The very clear picture. He knew what atmospheric entry felt like, all of them did, he’d juddered and blazed his way down through Earth’s rind of air a grand total of four times already, but that had been in the sure and certain knowledge that at the end of it the hatch would open on air, on clear air, on a world that wasn’t actively trying to dissolve him. Whoever had ridden that misbegotten Venera down through this atmosphere would know what waited for them. Know, and be entirely powerless to alter it in any way.

(Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do, he thought inanely, a flicker of crosspatched reference.)

He knew what that long-ago cosmonaut would have seen, through the thick conical pane of the viewport; all through the long, agonizing process of descent there would be nothing at all but clouds, deepening and deepening in color the further they fell, from a pale gold to a sick and poisonous orange-yellow. There might be lightning, cloud-to-cloud discharge, just a flicker of brightness through the haze. He could imagine the spacecraft creaking all around them as the pressure built steadily up—God only knew what they’d used to cool the thing, the other landers had been stuffed full of lithium nitrate trihydrate and recirculating coolant gas but you couldn’t do that with a person

Coming out of the clouds there would still be a kilometer or so to fall before they struck the surface and came to rest, canted to one side, the single viewport staring south-southwest across the barren highlands of Ishtar Terra, and McBride thought of that, of that yellow sky, the blank emptiness of it, the grey-green-brown rock and soil fading into the distance; thought of seeing that with his own eyes, and not the distant camera of a mechanical device. His own eyes, through a small hole, looking out at hell. Knowing, knowing entirely, that he was dying and in a short time would be dead, and wondering in what manner that death would come; would the seals crack and the crushing ninety atmospheres of pressure collapse the hollows of his body, break his bones, render him into viscous fluid that would boil rapidly away to nothing, or would he roast to death first as the cooling failed and the tiny spacecraft’s cabin inevitably reached thermal equilibrium with the 870 degrees outside?

Would he have had any words to relay back to the men who had sent him there?

“Oh God,” he said, a strengthless little spurt of sound, and opened his eyes. Artanian was staring at him, and he realized he’d never answered her question.

“What—” she began; he cut her off.

“The Torre Bert recordings,” he said. “The—fucking lost-cosmonaut hoax shit, those Italian guys who claimed they heard people dying in space, way back in the sixties—what if—”

“What if they were real?” Artanian finished for him, as if realizing it at the same time. The color drained from her face; in the harsh sunlight from Aph-One’s viewports she looked suddenly old. “What if the signals they heard were real?”

“And what if there were more transmissions,” McBride said. “More that never got heard, after Radio Moscow shut them up in 1965—shit, we have to tell them, you know we do, it’s—I can’t keep this. I can’t carry this kind of secret. It’s too big.”

He was appalled to hear the unsteadiness in his own voice: he sounded just like the kind of hysterical idiot who couldn’t take the pressure, washed out of training in the second week. Artanian was looking intently at him, and McBride registered with a kind of angry misery that she was concerned—fuck, he wasn’t supposed to do this, falling apart wasn’t an option. He took a deep breath, reaching for calm. “I can’t do it,” he said, “and I’m willing to bet you can’t, either.”

“I could, for a while,” she said. “I think. But I’d—talk in my sleep, or something. It’d find its way out. It’s like—this wants to be told.”

She was right, and that, too, was awful; the thought of a hidden secret somehow developing its own sentience, crawling out into the world any way it could. “We’ll tell them,” he said, “and then it won’t be our problem, anymore. What happens next is…”

“Also not our problem,” Artanian finished. “This is our job. It’s what we’re for.”

That helped, a little. You did the job that was in front of you.

McBride cued up the program that would transmit Little Buddy’s data over the hundred and sixty-two million miles to Earth. He paused for a moment, looking out of his viewport at the vast curve of Venus, creamy-pale and deceptively inviting, its swirls of cloud offering no hint of the unspeakable conditions below, thinking again someone was sent here, here to hell, nor are they out of it—

And as he pushed the button, as the telltale lit up, as the transmitter told its secret in a stream of binary across the void, he thought: how many more were there, and how far did they go?

Sorrow and Joy, Sunshine and Rain

You weren’t born so much as you flared into being, surrounded by a multiplicity of tongues and the sloshing sway of the mother waters. Had you been a human child, you would have wailed. Instead, your birth-song was the death rattle and prayers of these chained humans calling, together, a plaintive babble for release, for justice, for rescue from their status as confined chattel. They called to you—created you—to be their justice, their retribution, their rescue. This much you knew.

As fresh as you were, you weren’t enough to answer their call. You were still a soft blob of wishes given form, and you needed to harden. All your senses screamed that this was a world where nothing soft would survive. Everything crashed together in the dark, eyes and expectations and the stench of bile, and the feedback was stronger, faster than you were developing. Unable to respond, you folded petals of nascent power over the softly glowing ember that you were. Fear and sorrow were your swaddling. As you sank into a black sea of unconscious nothing, tendrils of familiar consciousnesses brushed against your nascent form. Each one was burdened with some purpose. Your natal form could only perceive their messages as nonsensical murmurs, but their touch sent visions of ancient memories shuddering through you.

Of course, there were others like you. There had always been others like you. Human mystics and priests liked to pretend that you had existed since time before time, that you had borne witness to this fertile rock as it was birthed among the paradox of cold and chaos. But in truth you were shaped by them, mothers and kings and beggars and thieves, your purpose confined by the depth of their vision and determined by the collective human will, fueled with the collective human spirit. Your kind grew fat or wasted away by their supplication and idolatry.

And so you came to be, surrounded by the descendants of the first humans to tread along this rock, neither the first of your kind nor the last, but a singular multitude. You were no longer a tumbling cloud of incoherence, but a solid knot of warmth, filled with purpose. You peeled back the protective folds of power and found yourself surrounded by the bodies of those who had appealed to you before, their skin bloody and dark, the sparks of their lives snuffed out. This was not a new violence, you sensed, and sorrow at your slaughtered kin welled inside you. You reached for rage but it was crushed by an enormous rolling press of disappointment. If you had eyes, you would have shed tears.

And yet.

You could not let yourself be overcome by emotion. You flattened and swallowed the disappointment and disgust, stacked it low and tight like the bodies that had once surrounded your birthplace. Instead, you dreamed of rage.

Your people were suffering.

Each lash that split their flesh, each assault on mind and body, each oppressive soul slight sent razor-sharp waves skittering through you. You needed a body, something of the flesh to connect you to this earth and your people, or else you would find yourself ascending to freeze and shatter in the impartial void past the Earth’s tethers.

You were listless when their cries reached you: two of your people, ancient and gnarled, crying out for peace—and justice—for their dying kin. The dying one was young, her brown skin flecked with blood and mottled with bruises beneath her shredded clothes. Only the barest scraps of life clung to her. Around her, the women burned incense and filled their wooden cabin with wails and supplication, but the gods they prayed to were long gone. You were their succor now.

The elders shivered and quieted when you lay yourself across the girl’s body, flowing into her wounds and filling the hollow spaces in her joints. She was a bloody ruin beneath the skin as well, but her body was young and her muscles were hard from work. Each of her wounds bore a story that you needed to unravel to fuse her shattered bone, knit her torn tendons, smooth her ravaged skin. Her wounds told of the searing bite of the whip, the low bubble of the branding iron, and of something much more horrible, something that started as bodily harm but sank deep, deep into the spirit. Sorrow, sadness, and pain. You drank deep of these sensations within her body, then pulled her back together. Afterward she glowed inside upon feeling the life return to her limbs.

You weren’t counting on the hunger. Healing her had been taxing and, without thinking, you consumed those blossoming scraps of life, smothering her with all the sorrow that you had accumulated. Her dying light stoked the soft flames that you were.

The girl’s elder-kin squealed when you took your first breath through her lungs, praising a resurrection. But when you opened your eyes, the women recoiled at the sight of you.

“You are not our baby,” one of the elders said, power in her voice despite her thick white hair, frayed muscle, and ashen brown skin.

I came at your call. Your voice vibrated through the girl’s flesh—this was your first time perceiving yourself in this way and you nearly destroyed the girl’s body in shock.

“You aren’t who we sought.”

What did you seek?

“Justice. What are you?”

You whispered an ancient word that crept into their roots, naming yourself as what you knew yourself to be, something… akin to justice. The two—your people—stared at you with eyes wide and bright like they had just been faced with the confirmation of a long-forgotten myth. They shared a look, then dropped on their bellies and prayed, genuflected, moaned hymns in your name. Bone-deep sorrow, your companion since birth, sluiced out of you, replaced by merciful, burning rage as your new worshippers laid their hearts bare.

I hear, you assured the two elders. Their gazes burned and you bathed in their expectations, all three of you surprised at the glimmer of a hope for justice in your chests.

For a few moments after awakening, you explored the warm, moist, low country night, testing your legs and your sight. You had expected your people’s tormentor to be some sort of many-toothed giant bearing whips made of lightning; you were not prepared for him to be just another human. His opulence was a shield, and his estate was the land itself. The size and grandeur of his home was offensive when compared to the squalor and violence that was your people’s reality. Giant or no, your people wanted justice. More than the elders, you could hear others, their whispers, their prayers, their cries for freedom. These supplications prickled at you, leeches squiggling beneath your host body’s skin.

Your first footfalls inside the tormentor’s home were tentative—you were still not used to the intricacies of walking. The smooth wooden floor groaned beneath your body’s bare feet, but each step increased your drive and by the time you gained the tall wooden stairs to the second level of the home, you were nearly flying. Some of the others, soon to be your worshippers, snoozed on the floors or hid away inside small rooms, exchanging whispers. The ones who were awake followed your ascent with eyes that glistened in the dark, and for a moment, you could feel the thread that connected these to those first among your people, those who had called you up and given you this insurmountable purpose.

But you would not fail. Here, at least, was an opportunity for justice.

He was seated at a desk when you found him, a glass of smoky-scented liquid in one hand, a sheaf of papers in the other. He spat his drink across the room at the sight of the face you wore.

“What in the world?” He choked. “You’re supposed to be—”

You were atop him before he could finish. Your power was lightning searing the depths of his mind, tearing at his consciousness. Scraps of his wailing thoughts revealed the truth of this age: men such as this had enormous perception of themselves, complete confidence in their superiority, and deep assurances in their own power over your people; according to human laws your people were his, body and soul, to do with what he wished, and he had not created a being like you to empower him in this—no protector, no god. In your shock, you released your hold on his consciousness.

No more sorrow, you growled at him in a voice borne of the heat of space and the void and the fury of the people of the earth itself. His gaze met yours for a moment and knowing the truth of what he faced—no longer the body of the woman he’d owned, nor the soul. Rage came to you easy now. You recalled the memories of each wound that your girl’s body had worn in near-death, and the tormentor’s flesh ruptured in great yawning jags, exposing raw muscle and bone and even deeper, his knowledge that there would be no justice, no reparation for this assault. You inflicted the same wounds on each member of the tormentor’s family that you could find inside of the house: his partner, his children, his mother, and as you stood over their bleeding forms, the rage bled from you in a memory of fire and death. Something else rushed to fill its place, something that bore the same ashen taste as—

No more sorrow, you repeated to the elder women while wearing their deceased daughter’s/sister’s/niece’s/lover’s face. You were nearly depleted. Your rage had burned you hollow and you were having trouble keeping your feet. Both elders stared at you with disgust etched on their black faces.

“We just wanted our baby back,” one ashen-haired elder said. “Not all of this.”

The other squared her shoulders, but her lips trembled. She hooked her fingers into those of her partner, and squeezed. “There are horrors everywhere, but we can’t let our baby be one of them.”

Outside, someone whooped at the sight of their former owner’s ruined body. Those gathered began to praise the one who had delivered them from this instance of bondage. Power flowed into the core of your essence, setting you into flux. Rage warmth made you unfurl like a flower exposed to the sun. What sweet flame.

I answered your call.

“You aren’t who we called. We asked for justice, not… whatever you are.” The elder was an ancient mountain with deep roots, each one soaked with a lifetime of crushing sadness. The three of you stood watching each other amid the thumping of feet and murmur of hurried voices outside. An exodus neared, promising to be ebullient with divine joy—and only more sorrow lived here, too much sorrow, generations of it, all ensured by those like the ones who owned your people, carried along in the deep crawlspaces of your people’s lives and spirits. You grabbed hold of an ember of rage, breathed anger—anger at the system that confined your people, anger at your people’s meekness, anger at those like you for letting this persist—upon it.

No more sorrow.

You shared your rage with them, briefly, a blazing pinprick that kindled in their bowels and crept outward, consuming them totally and fully. The elders kept their fingers intertwined, even through the smoldering ruin that reduced them to little more than ash.

Ash could feel no sorrow.

You wore more of your people’s bodies. A soldier. An orphan. Teachers and politicians and murderers and witches and twins and the near-dead. Your people. Your mothers, your fathers, your cousins, your children, your loves. You lost many days sulking irritable and despondent in underground tunnels after consuming glots of concentrated sorrow from your people. They had given you limited purpose but your will was your own, and with will you could smooth the edges of purpose, shape it to suit.

You smothered the life spark of a midnight-skinned, thick-limbed porter with the sorrowful power radiating from your core, and used his legs to abandon the steel-girded hubs built by your peoples’ oppressor—your oppressor, using the hands and strength of your people—and retreated to the outer lands. Shrines still dotted the hills and forests in the wild spaces outside of cities, shrines that had once been centers for worship and learning and love that were now forgotten and left to rot but still bristled with remnants of the power they’d once possessed. You found one of stone and wood that still carried some whiff of the protector who had lived there before. The wafting of unclaimed memory and power settled onto your body’s lips, and you took it in, enjoying the quick flare of awareness. You willed a low flame into existence, called out to the others like you, and settled in to wait, turning your purpose over and over inside yourself like a precious gemstone, studying its depths and facets.

Others like you have always existed and you found that they, too, liked to clothe themselves in mortality. The first to respond was Greyhoard, who found inconsequential things that were lost: buttons, coins, dreams. He was ancient, but not powerful, and secured his existence through guile and remaining unremarkable.

“Humans,” he snorted, lips greasy. He had chosen the face of your people’s oppressor: a squat, pale body with limp brown hair. He’d covered himself in dreary, unassuming clothes. You wondered if he shared similar beliefs to that of the face he wore. “Humans are simple. Help them feed, help them rut, and help them hide from the truth of their existence. Everything else, they’ll give you easy.”

“Those who called me, for the most part, refuse to hide from the truth of their existence,” you said to Greyhoard as he sat picking dead skin from his stolen toes. “It is reality for them, and lends itself as much to sorrow as to the desire for justice.”

“You’re overthinking this, newblood. Working too hard and now you’re as anxious as they are. Who cares whether it’s sorrow or something else? We’re not here to serve them, despite what your insides are telling you. We’re here to survive despite them.”

“So I should just ignore their pleas?”

Greyhoard smiled at what he assumed was your naiveté. You wanted to shrink into yourself. Sudden hatred flared inside of you.

“Don’t ignore them. That only leads to your death, and we’re here to survive. Give them what they want. Short term. Doesn’t matter the consequence. You’ll get their adoration, and then when things go bad for them they’ll be at your altar again.” A memory of wounds and flame. You knew the truth in this. “Don’t play yourself stupid. Your people can forget you on a whim. Search yourself for Kaotid, and remember him.”

You ground your body’s teeth and did as he suggested. The memories swirled inside of you, insubstantial for a moment before forming into more solid dreamstuff: Kaotid, wearing the bronze skin and muscles of a warrior-priest clad in golden armor, his sword sharp enough to cleave the heavens. Kneeling before him was a legion of countless warriors, armies from every nation, their spears and swords glittering wet with the blood of their enemies. Then, abruptly, the image dissolved and reformed. Now you gazed upon an old beggar, slumped in the refuse of some nameless metropolis being ravaged by the bombs and gases that humans used to slaughter each other. The beggar was thin to the point of breaking. His gray hair lay in dirty knots on his head, and his skin was ashen and dry.

Someone else was there, you could feel them pulsing as if they were standing right next to you, and then they appeared: first as an ancient idea more than form, creeping up from humanity’s warlike past… winged, earthy, jade-skinned, armed with weapons that sang a deadly song… then as a well-muscled, dark-haired woman standing with the shadows of a new era of warriors at her back. These warriors were armed with machinery, with algorithm, and they sang this new deity’s war song—a distorted thing of equations and chemical receipts more complex than death itself.

She waited what seemed like an eternity as Kaotid lay there, forgotten, murmuring, lost in his ancient dreams. This was Ananina, who turned the gears of war in Kaotid’s place. The old warrior’s chest tremored as he took his final breath, but before he could disappear Ananina knelt and scooped great handfuls of his dissolving form into her mouth. When she stood, nothing of him remained.

“You see,” Greyhoard snapped, jabbing a finger at you. “You can be gone from this place just like that—”

You weren’t conscious of wrapping your body’s meaty hands around Greyhoard’s throat, but you were committed and it was impossible for you to back away from it now. Killing his stolen body wouldn’t destroy his ancient presence, but if you consumed him, you could take his power for your own. Your essence knew this, and reacted. Whipping, jagged tendrils of raw black power tore from inside of you, slashing past your body’s soft skin and worn clothes as if they were clouds of vapor. Greyhoard struggled, pressing against you with his own power but you smothered him with wave after wave of concentrated sorrow, the bone-deep sadness that was the foundation of your people’s existence. He squealed, surprise radiating from him and you nearly lost your hold on him as you remembered the first time you had done this, long ago.

Greyhoard was a canny one, and hadn’t survived this long without guile; but you were rage now. He attempted to jettison his power, to let it dissipate into the sky and bury the spark of his being deep within the earth, but your tendrils ripped his power to shreds and you drank it in. The world’s color deepened, the atmosphere closed in around you, the sun felt as if it was searing your body’s skin. You crushed what remained of Greyhoard in an onslaught of raw, sorrowful power.

As you finished your grisly work, the air shuddered—the weight of acknowledgement settled on your shoulders, singed your body’s remaining skin. Greyhoard was no more. His power was yours. You were blown back by momentary shock—billions of humans struck with an irrevocable realization: the total, ongoing absence of a presence that was suddenly so very essential.

You reached out to those humans in your care and touched them with your newfound strength. For the first time in a very long while, they found something that they had struggled to keep close to their breast: they found hope for justice. For that thing they had once thought lost.

Your newfound power wasn’t enough to crack the chains that bound your people.

You needed more. 

So you killed.

Rubenite was a keeper of curses and malcontent. You stalked him for an entire human lifetime before you blindsided him as he was destroying a mosaic to a minor lord of cities. Rubenite took his time, cracking one stone at a time. You pounced as he cracked the 938th stone and tore him to pieces. His dying curses nipped at your stolen heels.

Next was Eolora, who stewarded order and calculation. Consuming her opened your mind to the possibilities of strategy, planning. She died with advice on her lips, and you heeded, gifting a large swath of your people with the minds of war generals and the rhetoric of divine philosophers. You filled them with a breath of fire and darkness and hoped that it would not consume them even as you felt the flames inside of you pulling, stretching, and scorching your consciousness.

Your power was legion by the time you confronted Hissar, who carried the secrets to wild, free, all-consuming love. You swatted them aside with no effort.

But not even legion was enough. You needed more.

Brother Nox was feared as the King of Murderers, well-worshipped and grudgingly loved. His profile was massive, and he had endured since the first glimmers of immorality appeared among humankind. But he was also known as a kindness: the knife across the throat of the injured calf, the snipping of life support systems from an elder sick unto death. As you entered his sanctum—a small bookstore in the shopping district of a city that positively stank of humanity, you knew what true, deep, eternal power tasted like, felt like. You hungered for it.

A small, jingling bell hanging from a ribbon announced your entrance into Nox’s bookshop. There would be no stealth here.

“You come to kill me, newblood?” Nox called from among the stacks of books. His voice was strong and supple. A subtle aroma—frankincense, sandalwood, and something unfamiliar—filled the air. Carvings and statues adorned the walls of his shop; some of them whispering to you in a language you’d long forgotten. Somewhere in the depths of the books, a clock ticked. You found it ominous. Soft music—your people’s music—full of the joy and love they held in their souls despite the reality of their existence, suffused the space. In the far back of the shop was a counter built of sturdy wood, wood rubbed down with an oil that pushed back against your questing power ever so slightly. Shadows bubbled in the air behind the counter.

You had taken the body of a young sprig of a schoolteacher, and you formed her hands into fists. The sweet, spicy scent in the room cloyed your head, dulled your power. The whole world swayed, reminding you of your birth atop the mother waters in the belly of a floating graveyard. Nothing good would come of looking back. You flashed flame, quick, to clear your mind.

“You knew I was coming.”

“Duh,” Brother Nox said, stepping from the thick darkness. He wore the flesh of one of your people. You didn’t know whether to be angry or honored. “Have a drink with me. Maybe we can talk this out instead of killing each other.”

“I don’t need to drink,” you said, finally.

Brother Nox burst into laughter, his body’s white teeth shining against his almost-black skin. He wore a dark purple silk shirt and charcoal gray trousers that looked to be of expensive make. His shoes were buffed to a sheen, and silver rings glittered on his dark fingers. He wore his hair cut low and tapered near bald around sides and back, and when he smiled his violet eyes crinkled at the corners. You wondered how he kept his body so intact.

“I enjoy conversation. You can come at me now and I’ll crush you right there where you stand, or you can talk with me and we can see where we end up.”

When Nox said “crush” his power flared a bit and even though you were legion you stumbled and conceded. Brother Nox would be no easy kill, and your people would not benefit from a dead protector. He offered you a chair, and you sat.

“What’s your name, newblood?”

“I don’t have a name.” You felt no pain admitting this. “But my purpose is near to Justice.”

“Justice is what lead you to killing Greyhoard, Rubenite, and all the others,” Brother Nox murmured. “You do know that kinkillers are subject to immediate eradication and consumption by the entire host. A host that started massing right after you killed Rubenite. I suppose I oughta let you know that they’re on their way here as we speak.”

Of course they were. Nox was no fool, you knew that now. But you could not turn back, not now. “They’re no match for me.”

“Newblood, I could turn you into a grease spot right now, and each one of these folks on the way is at least a match for me. You lost this one.”

“I don’t care. I have to help my people.”

Nox stared at you for a moment. A tea kettle whistled, breaking the silence. Nox rose, disappeared behind a door. After a moment her returned, bearing two cups of tea. He placed one cup on the floor by your feet and took a seat across from you. The tea smelled of grass and spring, and he sipped from his cup, his eyes never left your face.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he yelled abruptly. His volume startled you, and the defensive spikes that sprouted from your body shattered your chair into splinters. He scoffed. “You’re not helping your people like this! You think you discovered kinkilling? We all got the urge. You do it secret, in private. You do it to those new, like you, folks who don’t have much in the way of power. But you’re out here killing folks who’ve been here ten times as long as you, and in plain view no less. Stupid. All you’ve done is take your people’s protector away from them.”

“What else am I supposed to do?” You didn’t mean to whisper. “I had no guidance, not from you, not from them. They are dying. No, they are being murdered.”

“You murdered a fair number of them.”

“I do what I do to serve my people, to help my people.”

“You sure about that?”

“I am bound to their will. How do you suggest I help them if I am not strong enough to defeat the very thing that is killing them? And how do I get power except by taking it?”

“You wanna know what’s funny? They think we’ve been here longer than them, that we’re made in their image, but you know the truth. We rely on the humans—even though we ain’t much better than them. We’re all struggling for whatever little piece of power they’re willing and able to give up. We’re supposed to be separate from them, but some of them seeps into us, and some of us into them, just because of how we are, how we are together. Ain’t no wonder that we petty and murderous and selfish. Truth be told… Justice, we all kinkillers in some way or form. Don’t make what you did less stupid.”

You lowered yourself to the floor, retracted the spikes sticking from your joints. “You don’t know anything about me, Nox.”

Nox shook his head. His chair groaned as he leaned back and crossed his legs.

“My body and I are partners. We’ve lived together since he called me up, before anyone ever got the idea to chain up his great-great-great grandchildren and ship them across a lonely ocean. We’ve seen what you’re talking about. Lived it, even, probably the same way as you from time to time. It’s a motherfucker, no doubt.”

“So how do you deal with it? With the sorrow? With the rage?”

“Ain’t no how. You just deal.” Nox sipped his tea again, sighed in appreciation. “What they did was so smart, I wish I had thought of it. Rather than calling up one of us, they just built the bones and filled it with hate and contempt and self-righteousness, then made it so that the flesh on those bones would never, ever run out as long as they existed and no one rose up against them. They infected other people with their view, made ‘em carriers that fueled their power. Imagine how different shit would be if we had thought to do that.”

“We can’t. Only they can do that.”

Nox studied you for a moment, his eyes shining. “Well shit. They said you were stupid.”

“I am at a crossroads. I need power to fulfill my people’s purpose, but the power that my people give to me is not enough. I cannot deliver justice, not like this. Not like me. How do you live like this? I feel so powerless.”

Only the ticking of his old clock, the smell of his incense, the squeak of his shoes, the glow of his half-smile filled the silence. He watched you closely. You could hear boots and hooves and power slicing the air around his sanctum, could smell the electric stench of violence. You sank to the floor and held your teacher-body’s head in her hands. Some long lost biological memory of hers sent your eyes welling with tears, brackish water sliding down your face.

Nox leaned forward, eyes limned with lavender flames. “It’s too late to fix it. You’ve forgotten what you came here to do, and the host is going to strip everything you took.”

“It’s not even that I’ve forgotten,” you manage. “I never knew the truth of my purpose from the first.”

Something in Nox’s eyes softened. He looked down at his hands, closed them into fists, and studied his dark skin. You could sense the conflict inside of him, could hear the whispers of a conversation that was on the verge of debate. A few seconds passed, and when he looked up at you again, his eyes were different. Hard.

“Ten thousand years together and you’d think we could agree on something.” He sighed, leaned back in his chair. “My partner has a soft spot for his great-great-great-great grandchildren. Me, I think you’re dangerous. I’m just glad that you got Rubenite out of here. He was constantly in my shit. But you know, I didn’t mind Greyhoard. He had it partway right with that shit he would talk about giving humans joy. He looked at them, you know, and saw inside their hearts so that he could give ‘em just the thing they wanted. He’s a sneaky little ass, but that’s why he’s never gonna really go away, why he’s been around for so goddamn long: millions of folks keep him in their heart and believe you me, they notice when he’s gone.”

Nox was watching you again with that flat, dark gaze of his. At once your body’s chest tightened like you had unlocked some long-buried secret knowledge, some formula that one of your ancestors had passed down but only remained as a glimmer of possibility to you.

Sorrow and joy, sunshine and rain. Justice was equal parts of all, not the entirety of some, and the people’s hands would see them through.

The host burst through Nox’s ceiling, opening the interior of the sanctum bare to the night sky. Debris rained around you, clattering to the floor but now you knew and there was a chance, just maybe, for you to make things right.

Nox looked up toward the ceiling and cursed. “Goddamnit Ananina, you’re gonna have to pay for my goddamn roof! You hear me?”

You wracked your body, searching for the roots of the sorrow, the roots of the anger that had held you prisoner since you’d come here. It was part of you, it was you and that was why it was never far. But you had never thought to look at the other side of yourself, of your people’s pain. You’d never looked at their hearts. When you closed your eyes, you flew through the centuries and lifespans of your people, back to that ship, where your people had called you into existence, bound to their will, directed by their whim sustained by their thoughts.

In one breath, you released the power that you’d stolen, letting the remains of it—and the spirits attached to it—fly off in search of your people.

Ananina reached you first. She was majestic, fierce, powerful, sensual, and earthy. She had changed appearance again, this time wearing body of a thick-hipped, brown-skinned young woman clothed in a red tracksuit and trendy running shoes. Her knotty brown hair was combed up into a pompadour, something fashionable young women of the day wore. Raw crimson power latticed her skin. Her war-songs—and her admonishment—were delivered in Portuguese with a Candomblé backbeat that blew everything around you to smithereens. You wept as her weapons tore into you.

It was in those moments that you remembered. But this time, you remembered truly. You remembered the sorrow that you had consumed in the beginning and you remembered the people who carried it. Even now you tapped into the deep flow of sorrow surrounding where you were: the general sadness of your people in this city, criminalized and rejected for generations.

Forgive me, my people, you said to them. I did not see you for what you truly were. But now, now you must build. Only you can do this.

The host had landed—Xemarin with his hawk-wings and his sixteen halos that raked you with chaos. Tumuli pounded you with all 88 of their mechanized fists. Countless others among the host ripped and tore at you in a savage, primal display. The irony of their punishment was not lost on you. Though they assaulted you with claw and blade and raw, hateful power, you were gone. You had remembered the first lesson, and reverted to that tiny ember of purpose. You were gone and they could not touch you.

Instead, you dreamed.

You dreamed of sorrow. Of regret. Of rage and fear and joy and hope and the fullness of possibility amidst the violence that surrounded you. Of a near-yet-far future where the giant who had secured his footing with the bodies and bones and life of your people had been brought low and slaughtered. Tiny lights blossomed in the infinite darkness of your cocoon. Your people, searching for you. Searching for justice—for the means to a just life, clear and pure and free.

At Cooney’s

Down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, there’s a little bar called Cooney’s. It’s an old bar, with a tin ceiling and carved-up tables and a floor you don’t want to look at too hard and no air-conditioning to break up the historic atmosphere of stale beer and dusty upholstery and unwashed hair. No windows and an incredibly unreadable sign make it hard to find if you don’t already know it’s there. Ask the bartender and he’ll tell you it was a speakeasy back in the days when you could go to jail for buying or selling a drink. There are rumors about hidden storerooms and secret doors for quick getaways in case of a raid but nobody knows where they are anymore. It’s 1968, you know? Letting it all hang out is what it’s all about, man.

Whatever Cooney’s was, it’s a folk club now, a cut-rate Village Gate, with a sound system almost as old as the slipper-shaped glass light fixtures on the walls. There are a couple of house acts, and an open mic three nights a week. Artists and NYU students go for the music and the 50 cent beers and the 75 cent shots of the whisky that roughens the throat of anyone dumb enough to drink it before stepping up on the corner stage that’s been there (the bartender says) since before the Civil War.

It’s May, right before finals. I’m sitting with Grace and Michael at our favorite table in the extreme back corner, listening to them argue about music.

Michael’s a folk singer. Not aspiring: a folk singer, period. As he always says, “A singer is any guy who sings like Bob Dylan,” after which Grace says that Bob Dylan sounds like an old man with throat cancer, which makes Michael mad, because Dylan is his god. Right at the moment, they’re arguing about folk music and jazz.

“You’re an activist,” Michael is saying. “Why don’t you appreciate protest songs?”

“I appreciate good protest songs,” Grace says. “Even you can’t call that good!” She jerks her chin at the stage, where a guy with a big peace symbol around his neck and a bigger one painted on the back of his jacket is singing a song about the horrors of war.

Michael bristles. “What’s wrong with it?”

“First of all, it’s phony as shit. I bet he doesn’t even know which end of a gun the bullet comes out.”

“So your point is that only soldiers get to sing about war?”

“My point is that putting in a bunch of gross things about napalm and bones sticking out isn’t songwriting. There’s no art to it. And the tune is crap.”

And so it goes. Four years ago, when we all met in Freshman English, I thought Grace and Michael hated each other, until I figured out they just like arguing. It’s like ants wriggling their feelers—a social ritual to show they belong to the same tribe. As far as I know, I don’t have a tribe, or at least not one I’m down with, but I dig being on the edge of other people’s tribes. It helps me feel less like Nowhere Girl.

The phony war song limps to its close. A few people clap, not very enthusiastically. Even when she hates something, Grace always claps. She’s kind-hearted like that. It’s one of the reasons I love her.

It’s a hopeless love, I know. Grace is self-assured, cool, and incredibly smart. She’s Black and I’m not, which doesn’t matter so much to us being friends, but would make dating hard, even if I were a guy and political and all the other things I’d have to be for her to love me. She’s beautiful, with her warm dark skin, her long fingers, her exuberant Afro, her eyes that glisten when she starts talking about something she’s passionate about. She’s passionate about a lot of things: civil rights, women’s rights, the Fair Housing Act, The Jackson Five, Billie Holiday, really good beer, and American Lit, especially the Harlem Renaissance. Not guys, as far as I know, although that could be because classes and protests take up all her time. We’ve been friends since Freshman year, and I still don’t know whether she doesn’t have a love life because she’s too busy or because she’s not interested in guys.

I might ask if I weren’t afraid she’d guess why I’m asking and hate me—or worse, feel sorry for me.

A weedy blond guy steps up onto the stage, repositions the mic, hits a buzzy D-chord on a banged-up nylon string guitar, and launches into “We Shall Overcome” in a hootenanny-hopeful bray.

“Earth to Ali,” I hear Grace saying.

“Sorry?”

She shakes her head, grinning. “It’s cool, man. I was just telling Michael that his man Dylan didn’t invent poetic protest songs.”

Michael sighs. “Come on, Grace, everybody knows—”

“Shut up, Michael, I’m not talking to you. You’ve read my thesis, Ali. What do you think?”

I think I don’t like this conversation. Yes, I’ve read Grace’s thesis. It’s on Afro-American Folklore and Song in the Harlem Renaissance, with a focus on Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and a handful of songwriters, including Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington. It’s really cool—edgy, original, real. It made me go read Mules and Men and listen to a lot of jazz, which I ended up liking a lot more than I thought I would, given my taste for what Michael calls “that irrelevant old folky shit.” I don’t know what’s irrelevant about love and violence and poverty, but I do know that arguing with Michael is an exercise in frustration.

“Billie Holliday wrote ‘God Bless the Child’,” I say.

“Chicken,” Michael says, accurately, and turns back to Grace. “That’s one example. One! Dylan’s written dozens.”

“Well, if good equals quantity, then how about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake?”

“So now ‘hi-di-hi’ is protest?”

“Sure it is,” I hear myself saying. “Just because it’s hidden doesn’t mean it’s not there. And one thing Dylan and those jazz guys have in common—”

“Besides writing songs everybody loves,” Grace interjects.

“—is that their songs have roots in traditional folk music. And,” I glare at Michael, in case he’s going to interrupt, “traditional folk music is all about resisting injustice and the man.”

I hear my voice rising and stop short, embarrassed. Michael snorts and Grace says “Right on!” smiling at me in a way that makes my ears tingle and my heart do a paradiddle.

The peacenik hits one last slightly off-key chord and mooches off the stage. Next up are two girls, looking shy and excited and really young. The small, catlike, preppy one has a big, shiny, acoustic guitar. The willowy Joan Baez wannabe in the brand-new granny dress is looking at the mic as if it might bite her. As they start to sing “The Water is Wide,” the catlike one’s harmony overwhelms the willowy one’s melody until she pulls herself together and sings out in a sweet, slightly breathless soprano.

The water is wide, and I cannot get o’er
And neither do I have wings to fly.
Build me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

I wish.

By the last verse, they’re really into it, their voices blending strong and sure, the catlike one finger-picking like mad, the willowy one swaying as she sings. They sound really good together. My eyes prickle and I look away.

When the song is over, Grace claps enthusiastically.

Michael says, “You think they’re lezzies?”

I stop clapping and take a gulp of my beer to hide my face, in case it’s showing anything. Grace says, “Shut up, Michael.”

“The guitar-player’s kind of dykey-looking, you know? And they’re holding hands.”

“They’re, like, fifteen, Michael,” says Grace. “And you’re a dickhead.”

I wish I’d said it. But I can’t, because Mommy’s daughter has a hard time using words like that. More to the point, I’m probably a lezzie myself and I don’t want Michael telling me (as he definitely would) that I just need to get laid by the right guy, because the right guy doesn’t exist. My parents don’t believe in lesbians outside of Ancient Greek poetry, and I don’t know any personally, but I’ve looked up Sexual Perversion in the Encyclopedia Britannica and read The Fox and seen The Killing of Sister George, and what I’ve learned is that they—we—are either sick or tragic or eager to get straightened out. What we’re not is happy. I mean, Radclyffe Hall, who was a lesbian, called her book Well of Loneliness. And those girls? Well, girls hold hands sometimes. Maybe it’s just a phase.

A bearded guy in a bandana steps up to the mic and launches into “Universal Soldier.” Michael gets up. “I’m bored out of my gourd. What say we blow this joint, catch whoever’s on late at the Café à Go-Go?”

Grace stands, the long fringes of her buckskin jacket brushing my shoulder. “Sure. You coming with, Ali?”

I love you, I think. Kiss me, and I’ll follow you anywhere. “Not tonight,” I say. “I have a heavy date with George Eliot and my thesis.”

“Bummer, man,” Grace says. “Good luck!” She salutes me with a peaceful “V” and follows Michael out of the club.

I cover my face and watch the blood-red play of the candle on the spaces between my fingers. Chicken, I think. Uptight, chickenshit wimp. I should just get it together, get over Grace, kiss Grace, tell Michael I think his songs are even dumber than his opinions, burn my bra, go to a demonstration—do something, anything.

What I do, sadly, is cry. I fight it, but the tears keep coming. Probably nobody notices, but just in case, I mutter “Gotta pee,” to the world in general, and wiggle between chairs and tables and guys with hair as long as they can grow it, my own hair hanging over my face.

Besides the ordinary bathrooms, Cooney’s has an extra one out in the back alley—a real historical facility, like an updated outhouse, with one of those johns you flush by pulling a chain. Mostly, it gets used in summer, when they put out a few tables and ferns in the alley and call it a beer garden. It smells kind of funky, but at least nobody’s likely to come bother me. There aren’t a lot of places in New York you can be completely alone in, and right now, that’s all I want.

As long as I’m here, I pee, because beer is beer, even when you’re having existential angst. Then I cry a little, but not for very long. I should go home, work on my thesis, just accept that there’s no world where I can have what I want. No matter how much I hate Mommy’s rules for how a young lady should act, I’m always following them.

There’s graffiti all around me: GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT! FLOWER POWER (surrounded by flowers). ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE (surrounded by hearts). WHAT IT IS! QUESTION AUTHORITY!

I root around in my shoulder bag and find a ballpoint, pick a relatively clean spot and write two lines from the ballad the two high school maybe-lesbians were singing.

Build me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

While I’m writing, I feel like it’s the most revolutionary, most significant couplet in the world, blazing across the grotty wall as if my Bic were a wand of fire. When I’m done, I feel kind of sick, maybe from the smell, so I wash my face, open the door, and step out into the dark and rain. Just my luck, I think, and make a dash for where I think the door is, crashing into a bunch of trash cans I don’t remember seeing and wondering how long I’d been in the bathroom and feeling panicky about not having paid for the beer in case Cooney’s is closed for the night, which they must be because the back door, when I finally find it, is locked. Shit. I feel my way down the wall to the street, start to turn right, and retreat again, my heart pounding. Because everything about the street is wrong—the light, the signs, the shops, the parked cars, the clothes on the passers-by. It’s messed up. I’m messed up. Or hallucinating, which would be weird, because I never smoke since I found out weed makes me talk too much. Maybe I fell asleep in the john and hit my head?

I take another look. Boxy cars with big front grilles, iron lamp posts with round white, moon-like globes, girls in cloche hats and guys in fedoras like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, only with less rain and no music. Only the smell is familiar—wet pavement, car exhaust, garbage, Italian food. I go to get a smoke out of my shoulder bag and discover that I’ve left it in the outhouse.

That’s when I really freak out.

Sometimes I go all rabbit-in-the-headlights when I lose it, and sometimes, like now, I run around like a headless chicken. When I finally make it to the outhouse, I jerk open the door. Except for one dim light, the pull-chain john, and a massive stink that wasn’t there before, it’s empty. My bag is gone, along with my wallet, my keys, my notebook, my copy of A Fish Dinner in Memison, and, worst of all right now, my cigarettes.

Shaking, I retreat to the trash cans and start to go through my pockets. One Bic lighter, Kleenex, a mangled pack holding—oh, boy!—a slightly bent Virginia Slim. I light up and take a fierce drag. It’s time to think.

I read fantasy. I know weird shit happens. It doesn’t happen to me, though, and that kind of stuff is just in books, anyway. However, I often have vivid, unpleasant dreams, usually involving men chasing me up steps that get narrower and narrower or into dark alleys full of stuff I keep bumping into. This, I reason as the cigarette gets shorter and I get damper and colder, is just a jazzy variation on a familiar dream-theme. Soon this night’s bad guy will show up, and then it’ll be horrible for a while and then I’ll wake up. The alley and the weird old-school vibe feel real, but then my dreams always do.

Right on schedule, a big, black van pulls into the alley. The motor cuts off, the headlights switch off. I hear doors open and see two bulky silhouettes appear against the street light.

Here we go.

I turn and run, full tilt into the brick wall at the end of the alley. It hurts. This surprises me, but not enough to keep me from scuttling to the back door and banging on it. A narrow panel opens and I’m looking into narrow, suspicious eyes. “Vinnie?” a hoarse voice asks.

“You gotta let me in,” I gasp, and then, because apparently I listen to my mother, even in dreams, add, “Sorry to bother you.”

The panel slides shut; I hold my breath. The door opens and a man looks down at me—solid, muscular, his hair pomaded, his shirt and bartender’s apron snowy against his pale brown skin. His dark eyes take in my bandana, Indian cotton shirt, embroidered jacket, striped bell-bottoms.

“This some kind of gag?” he growls. “You with the circus or something?”

“Student,” I say. “NYU.” I glance over my shoulder; the van’s still there. I hear banging and shuffling. “Please, man, can I come in?”

He frowns thoughtfully. “You sober?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Keep your yap shut, follow orders, and maybe there’ll be a nickel in it for you.”

“Yes, sir.”

The man gives me a half-smile. The shuffling gets closer and a sharp voice barks, “Who’s the kid?”

I turn and see a scrawny little man with a big cigar, jumpy, jazzed, one hand tucked threateningly in his jacket front. Behind him, two beefy guys in boxy suits and fedoras are lowering a wooden crate to the wet pavement. It looks heavy.

This isn’t happening, I tell myself firmly. This isn’t real.

“Just some clown needs a nickel,” the bartender says.

“You know I don’t like strangers, right?” There’s menace in the little guy’s voice. “Strangers make me nervous. And you don’t want me nervous, do you, Sal?”

The bartender rolls his eyes. “The kid’s okay, Vinnie. C’mon. You gonna talk or you gonna deliver the goods?”

I shiver as Vinnie chews the cigar, checks his watch, shrugs. “Relax, boys. The clown and Sal will take it from here.”

The next few minutes shimmer, disorienting and convincingly dreamlike: the long hall, stark in the glare of the clear, unshielded light bulbs, the thick tough-guy accents of Vinnie’s men, the way their jackets drag at the pocket or bulge under the arm are like every gangster movie I’ve watched with Grace when I ought to be working on my thesis. I feel like an extra, shuffling awkwardly down the hall, my shoulders and neck pulled taut by the weight of the gently-clinking crate, trying to match my steps to Sal’s. We dump it in a dingy room lined with shelves, then go out and pick up the next crate and the one after that, ten or maybe a hundred times, until finally, Sal is handing Vinnie a roll of bills, the goons are gone, the door is shut, somehow I’m still on the inside of it, flexing my cramped fingers and thinking I’ve never actually hurt this much in a dream before.

Sal studies me thoughtfully.

“You’re a Jane.” It’s a statement, not a question.

I slide a glance at him. “My name’s Ali.”

Sal smiles. “I know—none of my beeswax. Well, Ali, whaddya say to a sandwich and a beer?”

“I don’t have any money,” I say. “I can’t pay for it.”

Sal sighs. “Of course you can’t. C’mon.”

So I follow him. I think about asking whether I still get a nickel, but I don’t. I should be panicked about being broke, but this is a dream, right? How much does a nickel buy in a dream? An apple? A beer? A ticket home?

The hall is familiar—I even recognize the official bathrooms from 1968, the ladies’ stenciled with a flower, the men’s with a rooster. The bar is completely different, but that’s no surprise. The dominant theme is red and gold, with a polished mahogany bar and red plush drapes everywhere. The crowd’s all got up in tuxes and slinky silks, with bright red lipstick. The only things that haven’t changed are the pressed glass lights and the corner stage, where a slender Black dude is crooning “Someone To Watch Over Me” while dancers dip and glide in steps I haven’t seen since I quit dancing school.

“I gotta be off my nut, bringing you in here,” Sal mutters. “Keep your head down and your yap shut, and maybe nobody’ll notice you’re crashing.”

I hunch my shoulders, feeling like a sore thumb as he herds me through the tables, pushes me onto a stool next to the wall, and disappears behind the bar. Before long, a beer and a sandwich appear at my elbow.

“Eat up,” Sal says. “You can sleep in the storeroom if you want. Just for tonight, though. Cooney’s ain’t the Bowery Mission and Miss Stevie ain’t got time for no stray dogs.”

I try to thank him, but my throat’s suddenly tight with gratitude and shyness. But Sal is looking over my shoulder at whoever is smelling of vanilla and the woodsy, earthy reek of an expensive cigar. “I like stray dogs,” a smooth voice says. “This seat taken?”

It could be a come-on, it could be a dig: in either case, I don’t react. I pick up the sandwich and take a deliberate bite. It’s corned beef, salty and rich and fatty and possibly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

The creep with the cigar slides onto the stool beside me as the band launches into “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

“Evening, Ronnie.” Sal’s tone is resigned.

Ronnie. An old-fashioned name. It goes with the black wool sleeve and starched white cuff, the long hand and heavy gold signet resting on the mahogany bar. I take another bite and chew.

“Evening, Sal,” the smooth voice says. “A Ward Eight, as per usual. What’s the puppy drinking?”

Sal is pulling out oranges, whisky, grenadine. “Nothing.”

“Looks like beer to me, and it looks like the puppy isn’t drinking it. Smart puppy. Mix it a Manhattan. I’m buying.”

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” recedes behind the rattle of the cocktail shaker. I look up at Sal, a rabbit in the headlights. He pours a pinky-orange stream into a martini glass. “I didn’t think a poor sap down on his luck was your type,” he says.

“Maybe tonight, it is,” Ronnie purrs, and then, dead serious: “Don’t be a wet blanket, Sal.”

There’s something in Ronnie’s voice that makes me feel slightly high. I think of Grace, sturdy, compact, intense, mercurial, overwhelming and remote as the Pan Am building, and lean away from the black wool sleeve, which has somehow inched closer.

“Hey, puppy,” Ronnie says. “What’s your name?”

I draw a deep, cigar-scented breath. The voice pushes and pulls at me. I want to answer, but I won’t. Not talking to creeps is a New York survival basic.

“Shy?” Ronnie pursues, “Or do you object to the company? Aren’t you one of the short-haired girls and the long-haired boys?”

A feathery touch strokes the length of my hair. I jerk my head away. “Get lost!”

“There!” Ronnie exclaims, delighted. “You can talk. Come on, puppy: look at me. I want to see your eyes. I want to know what color they are. Five’ll get you ten they’re brown, like pansies.”

I hesitate. Screw it, I think. This isn’t real anyway. What do I have to lose? And I turn around and look right at him.

Ronnie’s face is lean and high-boned. Light from the little candles on the bar glistens in his short, slicked-back hair, gleams in the heart of the gold-mounted ruby decorating one long forefinger. His eyes, squinting through the smoke of a thin brown cigar, are hazel.

“Pretty,” Ronnie says approvingly. “Grey or pale blue—it’s hard to tell in this light. Good bones, nice neck.” A pause, a slow, thin-lipped smile. “May I have this dance?”

I take a gulp of the drink that has suddenly appeared in front of me, and choke a little, because it’s strong, man. “I’m not a guy,” I say when I recover.

“I know.” Ronnie leans close. “What are you so scared of, puppy? Me, or yourself? Or don’t you like to dance?”

As it happens, I do like dancing. It’s just, I’m used to the kind of dancing that’s doesn’t go anywhere, you know, like pigeons displaying in the spring. I’ve even danced with Grace, though I’ve never touched her.

“Sal said I should keep my head down,” I mutter.

“Is that’s what eating you!” Ronnie waves an airy hand. “Sal doesn’t run this joint. Come on, puppy, and I’ll introduce you to the queen of Cooney’s.”

With a helpless glance at Sal, who is mixing cocktails at the other end of the bar, I let Ronnie pull me out of my corner. As we edge around the dance floor, I keep my eyes on my boots, ostrich-fashion, thinking This isn’t happening, this isn’t real while “I Want To Be Loved By You” swirls around me to the rhythmic shuffle of dancing feet, the rattle of cocktail shakers, the susurrus of tipsy conversation.

We come to a stop in front of a pair of gold-sequined T-strap shoes, size gunboat. “Miss Stevie,” Ronnie purrs. “I’d like to present a friend of mine.”

The T-straps shift. Clove-scented smoke tickles my nose. “Your friend got a name?”

Ronnie squeezes my hand. “Say hello to the lady, kid.”

I look up and catch my breath. Miss Stevie is breathtaking. Poised and glorious, she sits at the center of her own personal scene, armored from throat to ankle in a sweep of gold and scarlet sequins like a glittering snake. Everything about her is artificial, from her red hair to her red mouth to the long, red talons tipping her blunt fingers, but somehow she’s the realest thing in the room.

I bob an instinctive curtsey my mother would be proud of. “How do you do, Miss Stevie? I’m Ali Levine.”

Miss Stevie laughs. It’s an impressive laugh, deep and tectonic, rolling through the sequins like a wave. “Miss Ali. Or is it Mister?” Her smile is shrewd, considering. “Take a word of advice from a girl who’s been playing this gig for a year or two, bunny. If you want to be a fella, be a fella. People like to know what they’re looking at.” She draws at a cigarette in a slim holder, lets the sweet smoke plume from her scarlet pout. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, tiger.”

Ronnie bows. “I live to amuse, my queen.”

Miss Stevie waves her hand. “Geddouttatown.” The audience is over.

As the vocalist croons “It Had To Be You,” Ronnie pulls me onto the dance floor, slips one arm around me, takes my hand, and starts to fox-trot.

Suddenly, I’m fifteen again, my feet moving slow, slow, quick-quick in time to the dancing teacher’s clapping. “Not bad,” Ronnie says approvingly, and changes direction, like he’s trying to make me stumble, but this is not that kind of dream anymore. My feet pick up the rhythm and my body relaxes into the music, moving around the floor in obedience to the gentle pressure of Ronnie’s hand on my back. I’d liked dancing school, though I’d hated the boys—sweaty-handed, resentful, scowling at my flat chest while I gazed over their greasy heads, counting out the beat. Luckily there were never enough boys, so I got to dance with the unpartnered girls a lot, Fred Astaire to their Ginger Rogers. I remembered holding them lightly, respectfully, temporarily self-assured, and maybe a little turned on.

I glance at the smooth face so close to mine, flex my fingers on a heavily padded shoulder. “You’re a girl dressed as a guy,” I say, wondering how I hadn’t known right away.

The lean cheek bunches. “And you are a girl dressed like a vaudeville act.” Ronnie pulls me in tight, lips against my ear. “I like variety,” she murmurs. “I’ve got closets full of beaded dresses, silk camiknickers, furs, the whole girly works. Come home with me and I’ll dress you in silk and satin, pin up your hair, paint your face, wrap pearls around your neck. And then”—a sigh fills my ear, soft and tantalizing—“I’ll take it all off.”

Her breath is warm, her voice like damp velvet. I shiver, my eyes on the couples gliding past, bright-eyed and flushed, absorbed in the music and each other. Ronnie’s lips move to my mouth, and somehow we’re still dancing as we kiss, slow, slow, quick-quick. It’s intense, trippy, like being higher than I’ve ever been in my life. This isn’t real, I think regretfully. It’s not happening. It’s too good to be true.

A shrill voice screams “RAID!” and the moment falls apart, kiss, music, everything all dissolving into screams and jostling, panicked bodies. My hand is cold, my body alone in space: Ronnie’s gone, vanished into the chaos. If she says goodbye, I don’t hear it.

Before I can even take it in, hard hands grab my arms from behind, spin me and shove me towards a clump of dressed-up, shouting dancers penned behind a grim blue wall of cops. I shut my eyes, think, This isn’t real, this isn’t happening—but I don’t really believe it.

Outside, it’s raining again, cold as an open fridge and lit like a gangster film. A rough hand boosts me up into the paddy wagon, and I collapse onto a long bench. Beside me, a guy in a tux is crying. A girl in a fringed dress reaches across me and pats his black wool knee. “We’ve been through this before, Betty. You know the drill. Keep your pecker up, and we’ll be home before dawn.”

“I know.” Betty pulls out a spotless handkerchief and blows moistly. “Thanks, doll. It’s just—I’m sick of this shit, Rose.”

“Yeah,” Rose says. “We all are.”

I think maybe I should move, let them sit together. But we’re packed in like sardines, the paddy wagon has started to sway and bump over the cobbles, and as soon as the door closes, everybody starts talking about the raid, even Betty. They talk like being busted is a familiar pain, like a bad hangover, the price they pay for letting it all hang out, even in a speakeasy. They complain about the cops and why they hadn’t given Miss Stevie the customary ten-minute warning. Has she missed a payment? Has the price of vice gone up? Is there a new Captain at the Precinct? Has somebody been getting on the old Captain’s tits?

They stop bitching when the paddy wagon stops. The door opens and we all climb out onto the sidewalk in front of a big Beaux Arts building with “Eighth Precinct Police Station” carved over the door. I don’t recognize either it or the block. It’s like I’m in some other city, some other world. I shuffle with the others into the front hall, which is painfully bright, high, and ugly. Shouts and sobs echo off the marble and plaster walls, hard and flat as punches.

“Name?” the desk sergeant barks as each prisoner faces him. “Address? Anybody you want to call? Fine’s fifty clams. You got the dough, the magistrate’s down the hall to the right.”

One by one, I hear them answer, Doris and Suzy, Betty and Rose, John and Reggie, Walt and Gene, of Greenwich Village, of Madison Avenue, of Washington Heights, of Westchester. Some of them—the ones with fifty bucks in their pockets—are escorted to the magistrate’s court for speedy processing. Bored-looking cops handcuff the others and hustle them off to the left and out of sight.

Finally, it’s my turn. I step up to the desk and mutter, “Ali Levine.”

The desk sergeant is plump, doughy, red-faced, right out of Central Casting, Grace would say. “Address?”

“I don’t live in New York,” which isn’t a lie, because I don’t, now.

“A comedian, eh? Har Har. Where you live, then?”

I shake my head. “Vagrant,” he says, scribbling. His blood-shot eyes weigh me up briefly, roll in disgust. “Mahoney,” he shouts, “Search this one.”

Mahoney steps forward—tall, beefy, bull-necked, freckled. “What for, Sarge?”

“Anything—dope, booze, somebody’s wallet. Freak like that, there’s got to be something.”

A shiver of panic goes through my bones, as Mahoney hustles me into a small room off the main corridor. There’s a window in the door and a table with a chair on either side of it, like a cafe of the damned. I clutch my jacket around me. Grace gave it to me for my birthday. It’s got purple and blue psychedelic flowers on the sleeves and back, a little wonky because she embroidered them herself. Sometimes, I sleep in it.

“Make it easy on yourself, pal,” Mahoney says. “Take it off and hand it over.”

It’s at this point that I realize some dumb-ass part of me has been hanging on to this isn’t happening, convinced that when the shit really hits the fan, I’ll wake up to a circle of concerned faces, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. But when Mahoney, impatient, yanks Grace’s jacket from my shoulders and turns out its empty pockets and I’m still there, pats down my bell-bottoms and I’m still there, grabs the hem of my shirt, and I’m helplessly, horribly, still there, I slap at his hands and yell: “Leave me the hell alone! What are you doing? I’m a girl, you pig!”

Mahoney isn’t impressed. “Sure you are, freak.” His fist smacks into the side of my mouth, cutting my lip, grabs my Indian cotton shirt in both meaty fists and rips. The cloth tears with a sharp zip. Mahoney lets go and I clutch the flapping rags around me, quivering and raw as a shucked oyster.

My jacket lands at my feet in a flowery heap. I look up uncertainly. Mahoney’s broad face has gone scarlet; his eyes are on the handcuffs he’s detaching from his belt. I bend, jaw throbbing, pick up the jacket, slide my arms into the sleeves, fumble at buttons that don’t want to button. I hardly even react when Mahoney snaps on the cuffs. He leads me, almost gently, down a long hall. This is happening, I think. I’m in jail. I don’t know what to do.

At the end of the hall is a metal door, which opens to Mahoney’s shout. The room beyond is a brightly lit chaos of iron bars, bodies, and noise, dominated by a drunk baritone singing “Danny Boy” off-key, punctuated by loud requests to shut it and/or fuck himself.

A grey-faced cop slams the door behind us. “Is that the last of ‘em?”

“It’s a Saturday night, Zeke. Whaddya think?”

Zeke gives a weary chuckle, reaches for the ring of keys dangling from his belt.

“It’s got tits,” Mahoney says helpfully. “I checked.”

“Wouldn’t want to make a mistake.” Zeke selects a key. “Not with this crowd.”

Mahoney shoves me inside and Zeke shuts the door with a clang and a click. I rub my sore wrists, aware of dozens of eyes on me, sizing me up, judging me.

A voice separates itself from the din. “Hey, kid! Siddown already—you’re making me nervous!”

I squat, draw up my knees, try to take up as little space as possible. “Not in front of the door,” the voice instructs wearily. “Whassa matter? You dumb or something?”

I scoot sideways and back, lean against the bars. My ears are hot, my face aches and stings. Someone says, “Poor little bunny,” as if they almost mean it. Across the cell, a woman begins to scream hoarsely that spiders are crawling on her face. I close my eyes. Chicken, I think, Wimp. Do something—the old, useless litany. But really, what can I do? My mother’s rules for young ladies don’t cover holding cells and women fighting with invisible spiders.

I know I’ve really hit bottom when I miss my mommy .

The screams fade into sobs and a woman’s voice, murmuring soothingly. I open my eyes. Women—maybe forty of them—are bunched on the wooden bench running along the dirty plaster wall, their faces stark in the harsh glare. The ones around the screaming woman are more Black than white. Some are wrapped in filthy coats; others sport ratty velvet wraps or headscarves and aprons. The Cooney’s crowd huddle away from the others, set apart by their bright dresses, their feathered headbands, their tuxes and shiny hair and patent leather dancing shoes. The vocalist has his arm around the piano player; two sequined girls are holding hands. At the end of the bench, shoulder pressed into the bars, I see a solitary figure slumped, elbows on knees, head drooping, waiting for the night to pass. The white shirt and brown arms belong to Sal, but it can’t be Sal, because Sal’s a guy, isn’t he? Not in Cooney’s, I think: not necessarily. And more to the point, not in the Eighth Precinct women’s holding cell.

Sal’s been nice to me. I imagine going up to him—or should I say her?—and saying something sympathetic. But what is there to say? “Hi”? “I’m sorry you got caught”? “I thought you were a guy”? No way, José! Probably Sal just wants to be left alone. Probably she—he seems more right, though—doesn’t want my sympathy or my thoughts or my company. Probably I should do what I always do, and keep my mouth shut.

Except that he saved me from Vinnie and the thugs when he didn’t have to. Except that he looks alone and sad. I know what that’s like.

I stand up, step over the woman who called me a poor little bunny. My heart is pounding, my jaw hurts like shit, my mouth is dry, but when I open it, words come out. “You shouldn’t be here,” I say. “None of you should be here. It’s not fair.”

The women on the bench smile sourly, tell me the world’s not fair, in case I hadn’t noticed, and would I sit down and shut up, people are trying to sleep here. Sal ignores me, like I was a pest like Ronnie. I don’t know why I keep talking, because I’ve already got my foot in my mouth, but I do. “I know it’s stupid, but I just wanted thank you, Sal, for letting me in and for the sandwich and everything. It was really nice of you, and I appreciate it.”

Sal sighs, fumbles in his pocket, pulls out a handful of loose change, selects a coin and holds it out. “Here’s a dime, kid. Now leave me alone.”

I put my hands in my jacket pockets and keep going. “I, I really admire you, Sal. I think you’re really brave—dressing like you do and working at Cooney’s and, yeah—” I trail off.

Sal gives a snort that might be a laugh. “Says the kid with the long hair and the striped clown pants.” He glares up at me. “You’re just an accident waiting to happen. Flowers on your jacket? You off your nut?’”

“Where I come from,” I say, “everybody dresses like this.”

The look Sal gives me is pure disgust. “You’re pulling my leg, right? You’re a queer bird, you know that, kid? I know you’re just trying to make me feel better, but really, I’m jake. Miss Stevie’ll be around tomorrow morning first thing and bail me out.” He takes in my swollen face, the torn wings of my shirt. His face softens. “Looks like you’re the one could use some cheering up. I tell you what. Lie down, get some shut-eye. I’ll make sure nobody messes with you. And take the damn dime: you might need to make a phone call.”

I take the coin, stuff it in my pocket, and crawl under the bench. The floor is cleaner than I expected, though no more comfortable. I’m still in jail, essentially broke, and lost in the past, but I feel oddly calm, even happy. I’ve got Sal on my side. Maybe he’ll get Miss Stevie to pay my fine, take me back to Cooney’s where all of this started, where maybe it can end, if I’m lucky.

But what if I’m not lucky? What if I’m stuck here in nineteen-twenty-whatever? Will anybody miss me? By which I mean will Grace miss me, because my parents will, I guess. I mean, they are my parents. And I’ll miss them, too, even my mother, who wants me to be normal. Except, what is normal anyway, in 1968, with the times a-changing and everybody talking about revolution? I’ll never know, if I get stuck here, never know what might change if I got up the nerve to march for something, switch my major, drop out, tell Grace I love her. On the other hand, if I’m here, I might dance with somebody—not Ronnie—cut my hair, get a job, save up for a tux or a mini-dress with sequins. In either case, I’ll grow up, learn who I am and what I want. I’ll live. Which is more than I was doing before all this happened.

Thinking about Grace makes me think about the two high school girls. The water is wide, all right—wider than ever. Suddenly, my heart hurts so much with missing her that I feel like I’m going to die. Softly, I begin to sing.

There is a ship, and she sails the sea;
She’s loaded deep as deep can be,
But not as deep as the love I’m in.
I know not if I sink or swim.

I’m sure I won’t sleep, and yet I must, because something like a switch flips in my mind, from drifting to knowing. The world smells of dust and concrete; a chilly breeze strokes my cheek. I hear traffic, chugging engines, clanking metal. Above me, male voices are wondering, loudly, who the hell I am and how the hell I got in. I open my eyes to a forest of boots and brown workpants. Turning my head brings a canopy of faces into view—black, brown, white—wearing identical bright-orange hard hats and expressions of concerned curiosity that explode into questions: Are you okay? How’d you get in? Don’t you know this is a construction site, ferchrissake?

Groggily, I push myself upright, rub my face, wince, explore my cheek and lip. They’re swollen, sore, and raw.

“Jeez, girl, what happened to you?” one guy says. “You get mugged or something?”

“Here,” says another, and a thermos cup of milky coffee appears in my hand.

I take a sip. It’s sweet, scalding hot, and strong enough to stand up on its own. “Um, I hate to sound like a bad movie, but where am I?”

An older man, black, heavy-set, squats down beside me. “Mercer, just off 4th. Listen, honey, are you sure you’re okay? You need medical attention? That lip looks pretty bad. Maybe we should call the campus police.”

There’s a new building going up on Mercer, I recall. NYU strikes again, tearing down beautiful old buildings and putting up boxy new ones. I shake my head. “No, I’m fine. Thanks, though.”

They help me up, gentle, uncertain that letting me go is the right thing to do, but impatient to get back to work. The older guy shows me out onto Mercer Street, shuts the chain link gate, and locks it. I stand on the side-walk, staring wide-eyed at yellow cabs passing and long-haired students of both sexes hurrying to class. Mostly, I can tell the boys from the girls, but not always. Suddenly, I wonder what Sal would think of 1968.

The shadows say it’s early morning, the leafless trees and brisk air says it’s early spring, but there’s nothing to tell me what day it is or whether the night I just lived through was real. It certainly felt real, feels real still, perhaps even more real remembering it than when I was going through it. Yet what evidence do I have? The torn shirt, the sore lip, the grime streaking the embroidered flowers on my jacket, could all be signs of a rough night that ended in a mugging. Which I don’t remember. But would I?

And then I realize I have to pee and should probably wash my face before I go back to my apartment and my roommate, check out the damage. The guard won’t let me into Loeb Student Center without an ID, so I duck into a busy diner, slip back to the bathroom, and lock myself in. My reflection looks even more grotty than usual—red-eyed, bruised, smeared with tears, snot, and grime. I grab a paper towel, wet it, press it to my lip. I feel like shit warmed over. If I had any money, I’d get a cup of coffee, some breakfast, maybe even call Grace and see if she’d come get me. Once more, hopelessly, I check my pockets.

A coin rolls into my fingers. I pull it out, lay it in my palm.

A Mercury head gazes off to the right, sharp and bright, “In God We Trust” engraved below the chin. It’s a dime, dated 1928. Sal’s dime. My payment for helping take delivery of a shipment of prohibited booze. My proof that last night happened, that I saw what I saw, did what I did, kissed who I kissed. I smooth it with my finger. It can buy me a cup of coffee, a banana or an apple at the corner shop, a small bag of potato chips, or a phone call. “You might want to make a phone call,” Sal said. Well, I do.

There’s a public phone by the restrooms, the wall around it scrawled with phone numbers and peace signs and physically improbable cocks. The dime slips into the slot, clunks, triggers a dial tone. I dial and the phone rings—once, twice. On the third ring, there’s a click.

“Hi,” I say.

“That better be you, Ali!” Grace’s voice is strained, furious. “Where the hell are you, man? Your roommate said you hadn’t been home all night! I’ve been flipping out here!”

My lip pulls painfully as I smile against the receiver. “Yes, it’s me. I’m really glad you’re home.”

“Where else do you think I’d be, shithead? I was worried, man! I was about to call your mother!”

“Oh, God, Grace! I’m so glad you didn’t.”

“Me, too.” Grace pauses. “You okay, man?”

“Yeah. Um. I’m at the Greek diner.” My pulse flutters. “Listen, Grace, could you meet me here? I could use some breakfast and I lost my wallet.”

“On my way,” Grace says.

“Wait—I need to tell you, just so you don’t freak when you see me: I’ve got a fat lip. And Grace?”

“What?”

I love you, I think, but it’s not something to be said over the phone. “Never mind,” I say. “I’ll tell you when you get here.”

(Editors’ Note: Delia Sherman is interviewed by Julia Rios in this issue.)

I Built This City For You

Hello.

Is this your city?

No, no. We understand. It is not a city yet. It is merely embryonic. Conceptual. An idea to which your bones are laced, the sinews that tether the tendons of your dreams. It is only a city in waiting, a city mid-birth, a city breathless, inexorable.

But you desire a city, do you not? As much as you desire her to stay. That is why you contracted us. We will make it real. We cannot do anything less.

The door oils shut, noiseless save for a click like teeth welding shut. Arguments are for the cold of the London evening. Not mornings, threaded with smog and commuters, faces already ragged with stillborn ambitions, the foghorn moan of cars in transit. You don’t argue in the morning, not when you could have tangled under the duvets, your fingers twisted together. At least, I don’t think.

Rain silvers the maze of side streets and foot paths as I race down to the subway. Down long steps into the Jubilee. Down into the belly of a train as it writhes through the dark, where I stop between a girl with acid-jade hair and a man that stinks of long roads, pores steaming with memories of the Arizona desert.

My phone display ignites. I look down. Three separate messages, ominous in their brevity, their absence of sender:

We.

Are.

Present.

Who am I?

We represent the Company.

Unlike the Dime Store, who will slice costs like wrists, we will not shortchange you. Unlike the Corporation, we believe in a personal touch. We are the Company and we care. Cities are our meat, our breath, our marrow. We will do everything to make your city the best it can be.

It smiles.

It. Not she, not him, not them. It. The Company representative is mannequin-smooth, sterile as detention centers. Its face declares “human” but only barely, only because porcelain can’t palpate meat or blink pale eyes, won’t wet a lurid red mouth with a flick of a tongue too vibrantly pink to be real.

The smile lengthens.

I furl my hands into fists.

The Company always knows. Half-remembered warnings like worms in the back of my mind, eating holes into my bravado. I hold my breath and try to staunch the thump of memories. What disconcerts most is how under the inhuman facade, there is nothing but a visceral warmth, a kindliness that has no right residing in so cold a face.

I shiver. Behind me, the subway exhales and voices swill together into a crowd of noises, indistinguishable from one another, like a breath rattling in an old man’s chest. At least four trains have come and gone, disgorging their contents onto the lip of the platform, but not a soul has passed through here.

“How much will it cost me?”

It doesn’t hesitate. There is no malice at all when it whispers: “Everything.”

Everything.

Everything you are, everything you have been, everything you could be, every possibility and every truth. All of you, every bit of is and is-not constrained within the reality of you, forever and ever. It will cost you everything.

But it will be worth it.

We promise.

Give us everything and in return, we will build for you a metropolis to rival London, to shame New York, to close the thousand coruscating eyes of Tokyo in defeat. We will make it jagged with skyscrapers if you like, a hundred Shards to perforate the sky, or charmingly rustic like the Portland of her childhood nostalgia, sunset-laced and sweet with foreign spices.

Ask, and we will give it post-colonial architecture and clear streams, festoon it with food carts and festivals, with historic pubs and green parks crawling with sublime, slender bodies.

Demand, and we will populate your city with your beloved dead or make it splendid with People of Potential. Make it into an immigrant paradise untethered to borrowed hate. Give you a crystalline cage to put your little sweet bird. Oh, yes. We know everything about you, A-ni-sa.

Everything for your everything.

We—

“How?”

Blood, rank as terror, wells on the cusp of a lip. I run my tongue over the taste, let iron drown the memory of its voice stroking my name.

The Company representative cups its smile like a frightened child.

“Pardon?”

I breathe, slow and long and deep.

“How’d you know? My city. How’d you know I wanted—wanted to make it for someone else?” The words come staccato-short. “I didn’t tell you anything. You weren’t supposed to know.”

“A good business knows everything about its customers,” replies the Company representative, eyes and mouth round and hollow.

It grins, fat with a rapture hallowed in cathedrals no human could ever walk. “We can do anything you desire. You only need to pay.”

A snap of its wrist. A parchment longer than I am tall unwraps from seemingly nothing, slithering across the concrete floor. I barely keep from jumping, look down instead. Words squirm over the paper, rearranging into a labyrinth of clauses.

“You may read this at home,” says the Company representative, gracious, inhuman. “We have all the time you need.”

I scan the assembly of letters and sub-headers, the myriad lists enumerating exceptions, numbering nuances, delineating the exact dimensions of what is being offered and not.

Everything. The Company representative’s voice croons inside my head. Everything for your everything.

“And Sara wouldn’t have to pay anything?”

“Not a memory, not a wisp of breath, not a nodule of lymph.”

A chill bloats in my lungs, evoking the panic of a half-recalled drowning. I swallow, but it does nothing to cleanse my throat. In the recesses of my mind, images of Sara come alive. Laughing, crying, begging, shouting. A thousand possible variants, a prism of memories.

I push them down, down beneath a stratum of arguments and philosophical disagreements and pleading and please, please, please stay, Sara, I can’t do this without you, you have to

I’m done, Anisa.

I swear I’ll do better this time. I’m the worst. Stay. I promise.

I’m done. I need to go home.

Ancient conquerors placed nations at the feet of their beloved. Surely, if I did the same, if I bent the world into some place better, Sara would love me again.

“Was she very beautiful?”

I exhale and blink. “Sorry?”

“Was she very beautiful? Your Sara?” My skin burns at the way it coils about her name, like a lover’s mouth clenching around a finger. “She must have been to drive you to this, to give your everything for her everything. Although, we wonder—what did you do? To her?

“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”

I regret my words instantly. The delight that blooms on its countenance nauseates, a slit cut through the caul of its borrowed humanity. I swallow again, taste bile and blood, and turn my eyes to the contract. Everything for your everything, echoes the Company representative’s voice. Everything because you’re my everything, I think, rolling the image of Sara’s smile in my mind until it is only embers, only dust, only dark, endless and roiling like the viscera of the sea.

“Normally, we would request that you sign with blood. But this time, a kiss.”

I falter. “What the fuck?”

It does not answer, does not smile, does not express any motion or noise that could be construed as acknowledgment. The Company representative only stands there, head cocked, eyes blank as cold glass.

“A kiss.” It repeats, a hissing noise that loses itself in the scream of a passing train. “It was all just a kiss, wasn’t it? You and Sofia? All a fumbling of drunk fingers and shy smiles? All just kisses?”

I shiver. “Let’s just get this over with.”

There is no warning, only an almost imperceptible displacement of air, like a sigh broken midway, before I discover the rasp of the Company representative’s tongue between my lips, granite-dry. Not pleasant, but strange, a taste like salt, metal, and pale, sticky notes of caramel.

And—

Sssh.

It will hurt.

But only for a second, a sliver of time too small to measure, too inconsequential to name. There will be pain, volcanic. But it will be nothing compared to the hallelujah of new beginnings.

Yes.

Do you feel it? The concrete scaling the stratosphere of your skull, the alleyways mapped to the cartography of your veins, the spires. Ah. How charmingly anachronistic, A-ni-sa. We underestimated you. We did not know about the mythologies you carried in the tomb of your ribs, the flat of your imagination. We suspected, but we did not know that your soil was so rich, so lush.

Close your eyes.

Asphalt is always hot in the beginning, but its scalding caress will not last. Savour it, if you can. The way it burns through your textured humanity, the way it fits across your thoughts, dark as nightfall. Oh, you are so fortunate. We cannot begin to describe our envy. In hours, you will be a goddess.

Deep breaths, little wonder. Soon, you will no longer need them. Instead, your lungs will consume hope, will expel the weak. You will be the death of the worlds and the beginning of lives.

You are so, so lucky.

Generations will build themselves into the architecture of your intestines. And when they die, when they are replaced with better iterations, their bodies will decompose into your ambrosia. You will be eternal. Beautiful.

Are those canals? Oh, us. How avant-garde.

We are so glad that you contracted our services, instead of those of lesser caliber. The Dime Store wouldn’t even begin to understand the complexities of your graffiti, or the haze of spices floating from your weekend markets. No, they couldn’t appreciate. Never, never, never. Not even the Monolith could fully appreciate the beauty of the dawn as it runnels across your rooftops, butter and slithering rose, droplets of carnelian, shot through with white.

Oh, do not cry, precious thing. It will not hurt for long.

It hurts.

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts—

Breathe.

It hurts so much.

Breathe deep.

At some indeterminable point or another, the Company representative’s droning reassurances transmute from noise to truth. I wake, gasping. The air is ice, so pure and so clarified that it ignites new paroxysms of agony, sharper than the torture of transformation, but no less profound.

I—

Panic trills through the cobbled stones of my city, seismic, enough to dislocate a conclave of pigeons, but not to injure buildings still wet with afterbirth.

I—

No. Us?

With a laugh that resounds like a gale, rattling the wooden slats in the historic district, I realize there is no pronoun to encapsulate the shape of my new being. I am reborn, reformed.

Disparate.

Immobile.

Alone.

Rooted to the earth, no more able to walk than I am able to speak. How—how am I going to bring Sara to my borders?

Anger flashes hot and espresso-dark, a bitterness that colors my walls to grey.

It lied.

The Company lied. This was not what I wanted. How am I supposed to give this city to Sara, if I can’t even find her? Furious, I scratch at the dirt outside my limits, but it is no more effective than firing spitballs at a truck. Nothing.

You lied, I shout against the silence of my throat.

No.

We gave you what I want.

A city of your design.

It is everywhere, nowhere. Its voice is a noose of syllables, a texture in the air, echoing between the carefully partitioned shop lots, the heritage spots that will one day teem with tourists.

How the hell am I going to win her back if I can’t even contact her? I demand petulantly.

A pang of caramel, sickly.

Then:

“You only had to ask.” The Company representative emerges from the massive double doors of my only cathedral, white teeth bright in its opened mouth.

Disgust ripples at the memory of its lips, the lukewarm slab of its tongue probing my throat.

We demand that you do.

We?

“You are already regarding yourself as a collective. We are so proud.” It sighs gauzily. “But yes. Oh, yes. We will find her. We will find Sara. We make no promises if she will be amenable, Anisa. But we will bring her here.”

And then in the time it takes for an electric impulse to dance between neurons, it is gone.

Soon after that, I am gone too.

I stir.

Sara?

She jolts at this caressing of her name, remade into a sensation, rather than a pairing of vowels. I shake oblivion from myself, turn surveillance cameras onto her, black and gleaming like beetles.

Sara stands ramrod straight, footing sure, unshakeable. Her hair has been strangled into a decorous black plait; only a few curls escape their confinement, softening the switchblade panels of her face. Her eyes are afraid.

My longing to hold her, comfort her, sings through rusty hinges, through doors left ajar, a sound like a heart close to breaking.

Sara.

This time, she recognizes me.

“Anisa?”

In another district, a park blooms out of season, abattoir colors against neon-green.

“Oh my god.” Her face sags with realization. “Oh, my god. Oh. My. God. What have you done to yourself. Fucking hell, Anisa. I don’t—why?”

I wanted to show you—

“Show me what? Show me that you can make dumbass mistakes? You’re—I don’t even know where to start.”

I did this for you.

“I—” The words tangle into a snarling cat-noise, even as she knots fingers in her hair. Sara slumps to the floor. “This wasn’t the way. I know you love me. But that doesn’t mean everything else didn’t happen. I’m tired. I’m tired and I need to go home. Just for a little while.”

Let me be that for you.

“We tried that. You stopped being home a long time ago.”

Only because you wouldn’t let me. Look, this is better than London, isn’t it? You can dictate the rules here, decide the paradigms. You could eat in any of the stores and no one, no one’d ever look at us twice. This place can be everything you need. I built this city for you, Sara.

“For me?” Her voice loses volume. I watch through a thousand eyes and a million windows, eager to decipher pleasure in her expression. “This is for me?”

Yes. I built it all for you. Everything we’ve ever loved, everything you’ve ever exclaimed over. I remember all of it. I know you don’t believe me, but I listen to you. I do. And this city, this city is proof

“Anisa.” Her voice aches like an old scar.

I just want us to be happy.

“Anisa.”

Fog rolls through my streets, coiling about her legs.

“Anisa. You have to stop.”

Please.

“Do you—do you expect me to live here? Alone?”

No. With me. As long as we’re together

“Anisa, I love you.”

I still.

“I love you, I do. But I don’t think this is going to work. We’re—I can’t do this for you. I mean, this city—this city is what I’m talking about.”

What?

“This is everything you’ve wanted. Not me.”

I—

I am everywhere, and nowhere, dispersed into a conglomeration of parts, neighbourhoods and boroughs, chased by the grief that writes itself as jagged, thick-lined paintings on the bare bricks of my poorest districts.

Sara.

Hold it together, Anisa.

If I just hold on, if I just keep fighting, it would be okay. That is why we’re here. That’s why I’ve done this. And if she would just listen, she’d understand that we were meant to be together, that we were always meant to be together, that it is as much her destiny to love me as it is mine to love her, and we cannot, will not, should not be apart and—

“This is—this is everything you taught me to appreciate, and it’s beautiful. But it’s what you want. And that’s always been the case. It’s always been what you want, and I can’t—I just can’t. I have to go.”

The word is a sledgehammer, knocking down my world, drowning out the subtle warmth of her. Dimly, I register Sara’s shape, small, breakable, wholly mine for this moment and perhaps only this moment alone, eyes fixed on a sky gone grey.

Why

“That really was our problem, you know? Not the damned city. Not the immigration stuff. Not even that stupid fucking girl. It’s just that you never listened.”

I’m sorry—

Sara barks a strange, exhausted laugh. “I’ve heard that so many, many times before.”

I’ll change.

“No.”

“I have to go,” She says, so softly, so gauzily, like the words weren’t breaking me apart. “And we both have think about what we’ve done and the mistakes we’ve made and we move on. We go on with our lives.”

No.

Refusal is exhaust fumes and the rage of commuters, scorched rubber, the distant whine of the ambulance.

No.

I yank the streets from their stones, anguish salting them with hail. I build new intersections, new turns, new alleys, new places to go. Innumerable diversions, countless eateries. Sara will never want for anything in my borders.

I ignore her shriek of terror, the sounds that spill from her mouth, even as I lift myself into skyscrapers. Higher, higher. All she needs is time. Time to understand, to love me, to accept that we are meant together, meant to always be together.

I built this city for her. The least she can do is stay.

(Editors’ Note: “I Built This City For You” is read by Erika Ensign and Cassandra Khaw is interviewed by Julia Rios in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 17B.)

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time

I’m trying to piss against a wall when the vampire bites me. Trying because drunk-me can barely hold a glass, much less maneuver a limp prosthetic cock.

My attacker holds me like he did on the dance floor, one arm wrapped around my chest, this time digging into my ribs. I struggle against his supernatural strength and the slow constriction of my lungs. Through ragged breaths, I inhale the Old Spice on his thick black hair, where he bows his head to grip my neck.

The sting of his fangs barely registers and what does shoots straight to my cunt—can’t help it. If I knew he weren’t going to kill me, I’d relish the shock and pain, loss of control. I kind of do, anyway. His venom numbs my neck but I can still feel the strong clamp of his jaw. Like a new piercing, my body screams to reject the intrusion. I want to stay awake—stay pressed between his cold hard body and the cold hard wall. I want him to touch me, reach between my legs. I want to stay alive.

But the wall discolors; the red bricks spot with gray until they fuzz over and dull. My last thought before passing out is how weirdly validating it is that this cis gay guy targeted me, when I was too scared to even piss inside the bar’s men’s room.

My phone blares like there’s a Red Alert. I check the alarm. Oh right. I signed up for that Open Life-Drawing class at the community center. At 9:00 a.m. After half-priced vodka night. Optimistic.

When I sit up, the full weight of my headache settles into my skull. I press a hand against my forehead to ease the pressure, but end up squinting at a dimly lit room. Not any room I’ve slept in before.

The only light blurs from down a narrow hallway. Windows the size of cinder blocks line the top of each wall, but neatly hemmed black-out curtains fill them and glossy Ikea tchotchkes sit in front of those.

I’m in a guest room, I assume. At the very least, I’m on a hard futon surrounded by throw pillows and machine-made quilts. I’m still dressed and—I lie back and shove my right hand down the front of my briefs—still packing. Just a little damp from my adventures in peeing outside.

“You’re alive.” A familiar man leans against the threshold, holding a mug that says “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my evening blood.” on the side. His skin is pale, but not pallid. His pose casual, but precise.

“Barely,” is all I can think to say. Did we fuck? I don’t usually go home with strangers, much less drunk, much much less with vampires. I have fantasized about it, though. Maybe I finally did.

“How do you feel?”

“Hungover.”

His chuckle resonates in his mouth, not his chest. The young ones react fairly human, still drawing air into useless lungs for huffs and sighs and rolling laughs. This one is clearly making an effort for my sake but is too old to get it right. I give him a seven out of ten.

I’d feel a little better if I could remember his damn name, though, and I don’t know how to ask without also revealing I don’t know how I ended up in his guest room.

“It’s Andreas,” he tells me. “And you’re Finley.”

“O-Okay. I mean, I didn’t—” I trip over explanations of why I forgot his name before reminding myself I still haven’t asked.

Scenes from last night force themselves on me; I watch them more than remember them. Drunk fumbling, a cold alley wall, and the rigid clamp of a jaw—his jaw, Andreas’s. The mix of pleasure and fear that slices through me isn’t a memory.

“You bit me,” I say, because he hasn’t danced around mystery, either. My grand accusation comes out as, “You’re not supposed to do that.”

“I was hungry,” he says, calmly. Like the obvious result of hunger is biting someone.

“So, go to a blood bank like you’re supposed to.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Yeah, because it doesn’t hurt people.” I pause. “You’re not still hungry, are you?”

“I’m not going to bite you again, if that’s what you’re asking. I—” This time, he pauses. “—do regret what happened.”

“Good.” I shake my hand out to stunt the tremor that seizes it. Nausea brews in my gut, dizziness behind my eyelids. I press the heels of my hands against my temples. “You don’t happen to have any Ibuprofen, do you?”

“No.”

“And we didn’t fuck, right?”

“No.”

“Great, then I’m going to head home—”

The next second, the futon dips and he’s beside me. He presses a cool hand against my burning forehead. “You’re not hungover,” he says. “You’re dying.”

His words impact me like news of a foreign tragedy: I know they’re bad but struggle to connect on a personal level.

“And it’s my fault.” His hand tenses before he pulls it away.

I flop back onto the futon and stare at the cream-colored ceiling. A fan spins overhead; the moving air ruffles Andreas’s shiny hair, an illusion of life.

I don’t want to die.

“You don’t have to.” Andreas replies to my thoughts again.

I didn’t know vampires could do that.

“Only the old ones.”

“Would you let me die in peace?” I shout over the pounding in my skull.

His shrug is too precise, like his shoulders are tied to a wooden toy’s pull string. Up, down. “If that’s what you want.”

“Thank you.” I want to cry—try to cry. Before I started testosterone, I’d cry reading Bridge to Terabithia or watching a made-for-TV movie. I liked crying, the catharsis of it, the physical purge of sadness.

Andreas brings his mug to his lips. The blood doesn’t stain his white teeth; the fangs leave tiny dents in the ceramic where he bites down.

I should be crying. He’s expecting me to because I’m a warm-bodied, emotionally-invested human being whose tear ducts can’t resist the impulse.

But they do, at least regarding my own future. Won’t make that Life Drawing class. Won’t ever see my work on a billboard or a book cover. Won’t exhibit, won’t—who knows what else?

Andreas interrupts my efforts. “Or I could turn you.”

“Into a vampire? Aren’t we supposed to apply for that?”

“I won’t tell if you don’t.” His smile doesn’t wrinkle his old skin.

The decision between anything and “or death” should be easy. But if I want to eat without killing people—and I will need to eat—I’ll have to register with the Federal Vampire Commission and explain myself and risk getting in trouble and getting Andreas in trouble.

Maybe he deserves it. He fucking bit me without permission.

But vampires who break the law, who feed from un-certified donors, who steal blood bags, or drink without asking first, are put on the Blood Offenders Registry, which is basically a hit list for corrupt cops and stake-wielding bigots. And if they survive that, the second strike is euthanization.

The system is fucked. No government lackey is going to hear out a gay trans guy who was illegally turned into a vampire. All I know is I don’t want to die before I’ve done anything with my life. Designing in-store signage for Sears does not count. Just ask the half-finished paintings in my living room.

I run my tongue over the smooth, flat line of my teeth for what I assume will be the last time. “Turn me.”

The hangover feeling doesn’t go away. Not the spins or the sticky pain of thirst.

Andreas’s venom curdles any food left in my stomach. He deposits me in the bathroom the instant before I vomit. I clutch the toilet bowl until my knuckles whiten and the whiteness spreads through my hands and I can feel it in my face. Until I can only dry heave.

My throat stings with stomach acid. “Can I have some water?”

Andreas presses a sports bottle to my lips. “Swish and spit. Don’t swallow.”

I bite down on the plastic nozzle and drink until there’s nothing left. My sensitive teeth rip through the thin plastic, tearing up the empty bottle. My canines ache the worst, like I’ve jammed them into ice cream for too long or just had fillings put in. Or both.

“I told you not to swallow,” Andreas says only moments before I prove him right with another retch.

“You can’t drink water?” I see vampires drink all the time.

“No, you can’t drink water. Your body is purging its fluids.”

“What about after…”

“After you’ve turned? Sure, you can drink water. Might want to wait a couple centuries before putting anything more complex in your body.”

“Like what, Diet Coke?”

“No, Diet Coke you can drink after a couple years. I meant your mother’s homemade meatloaf.”

“Oh.”

What’s the last thing I ate? A slice of pizza and burnt French fries. Not the last meal I’d have chosen, but King’s was the only place near the bars that served food all night and I was nervous and hungry.

“Just kidding, your mother will be dead by then.” Andreas sips from his mug. He waits for his words to settle then smiles. “That was a joke.”

“Thanks.” I imagine her funeral. My dad going home to an empty house. Eating across from an empty seat in the kitchen.

Still no tears. Maybe it won’t be much of a change becoming a vampire. Andreas doesn’t look like he cares much about anything.

“Do you want to call her?” he asks.

“No.” That answer’s easy. She told me she felt like her daughter was dying when I came out. She got over it, eventually, but I don’t want to put her through a literal death after that. “I do need to call the HR department at work, though.”

“I think they can wait until you’re done vomiting,” Andreas says.

I push myself to my feet and flush the toilet. He doesn’t understand how this works. I do. “I can’t lose my job on top of all this, okay? When everyone I love is dead—or when they decide they don’t want a vampire in the family—I won’t have a support system. So, where’s my cell?”

It’s dead, ironically. Andreas plugs it into the wall beside the sink and I spend another hour in the bathroom alternating between ready-to-talk and ready-to-vomit. When my fingers finally steady and I can lift my head long enough to call, HR doesn’t believe me.

“No, I can’t come in. I was bitten by a vampire. I’m dying!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hall,” says the HR officer, whose name I cannot remember because I’m so, so thirsty. “Like I said, I don’t see an application on file for medical-vampirification, which you’re required to submit ninety days in advance for paid leave. Now—”

“I couldn’t submit an application because I didn’t know. It just happened.”

“We can offer you six weeks of unpaid leave, Mr. Hall.”

“But—”

“That’s the best I can do. I’m sorry.”

“Fine. Thanks.” I hang up and squeeze my phone in my fist.

Andreas rests his hand perfectly still on my back. It doesn’t twitch or clench or rub; it just lays there like a paperweight, reminding me of his presence. He wasn’t beside me while I was on the phone but he’s here now, always now. I wish he hadn’t been there in the alley.

A gross conflicted feeling creeps over my skin. Why am I even here, still?

Where else am I supposed to go? I’ve already decided against Mom and, now that I’m thinking about it, any other human. A more scrupulous vampire would report me to save their own neck; a less scrupulous one would break mine.

This is Andreas’s fault.

“You’re right,” he says. “This is my fault.”

“I hate when you do that.” Read my mind, I think, because I know he’s still listening.

“Sorry. It’s centuries of habit, but I can stop.”

“Good.” Didn’t expect him to say that. “I mean, thanks.”

We sit in silence for a minute that feels like an eternity. I’m going to have one of those ahead of me: an eternity. Like it’s a tangible thing I can hold in my hands and squeeze. Like a blood-soaked heart I can wring dry.

“I’ll cover your expenses for the next six weeks.” Andreas leaves before I can pretend to object.

I don’t die—not yet.

I unravel myself from the quilted cocoon Andreas wrapped me in. I need air, still. Not much, but enough that my chest rises and falls automatically. I sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose, hoping for a moment’s relief from my perpetual dehydration headache.

The bathroom rug warms my feet as I sit to pee. No prosthetic is worth fumbling with while my body ejects all its fluids. There’s not much in my bladder, but I ease the pressure. Blood spots the toilet paper I toss into the bowl. I go cold. I dab another square between my legs, hoping I’ve started pissing blood. The other option is not an option.

And then it is.

I haven’t menstruated for three years. This shouldn’t be happening. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I bite down on my knuckles, forgetting my growing canines. Blood beads on my punctured fingers when I pull back.

Andreas doesn’t know what to do with me—not really. I need a doctor. One who can explain my reanimated uterus.

I clean up and pop on the pair of sunglasses Andreas left on the side table. He hasn’t let me outside, but it’s not like the door’s locked and I’m still human; I won’t spontaneously combust. I assume.

The thinnest line of light shines between the tiny windows’ blackout curtains: daytime. I’m officially on “unpaid leave.”

A bottle of sunscreen rests on the front windowsill and I slather the white goop on my face and hands before pulling on a hooded North Face fleece from the closet. To think I expected a cape.

“I need to see a doctor,” I say.

The receptionist stares at me over the counter, over cooling coffee, and square computer monitors.

“I don’t have an appointment with mine, but I’ll see whoever.”

He nods his head quickly, the rest of him unmoving, like a bobble-head doll.

“Great. Do I need to fill out a form, or…”

He pushes a blue lined paper across the counter to me. I sniffle and wipe at the cold drip from my nose. Blood stains my sleeve. Dammit.

“Thanks.” I grab a pen and sit down.

Four other people share the waiting room. Two read over a pamphlet on lesbian healthcare. One shoots cartoon pigs on her phone. The last just watches me over their acid wash jeans and under their knit hat. They pull their legs up tight against their chest when I pass, never taking their eyes off me. They still watch when I sit beside a corner table, push all the gossip magazines to the side, and try to flatten my form out.

It’s pretty standard.

Name: Finley Hall

Legal Name: See above

Age: Twenty-six

Gender: FTM/trans male

Pronouns: He/him

Species: Human

Technically, true. I haven’t died yet. Just because I can’t eat Dad’s homemade crab cakes for another couple centuries, doesn’t mean I’m not me, still. I wonder if I can freeze some…

Are you an existing patient at Centre Street Clinic? Yes.

If yes, who is your primary care physician? Dr. Lisa Perez.

What is the reason for your clinic visit today?

I bite the cap of my pen. My teeth hurt, but I can’t stop chewing. And I don’t know what to write—nothing I want to tell the receptionist. I settle for: Bleeding.

Understatement of the century.

When I return the form, the receptionist pretends to have been drinking his coffee; he grabs the handle with such force, the black liquid spills over the edge and stains a pile of blue forms.

The person who was watching me doesn’t stop when I sit back down.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

I relish that edge in my voice. The gritty feel, condescending tone. Andreas never sounds like that. His voice is sea glass, smooth and translucent. Mine is a year of throat-clearing, congestion, and cracking.

The waiting patient loosens their hold on their knees and raises their chin. “You’re bleeding.”

“I know.” I wipe at my nose, but there’s nothing.

“No, I mean on the chair.” They point.

Fuck.

My cheeks muster up all the color they can find—hopefully enough to suspend menstruation.

“It’s okay. I won’t tell or anything.” They motion for me to stand, then toss a magazine over the spot. “The clinic will probably just throw the chair out anyway. No use blaming someone for it.”

“Thanks.” I want to smile, but the gooey feeling between my legs—knowing that I’m bleeding out and there’s nothing I can do to stop it—stops me.

I’m halfway to the bathroom when a nurse calls my name. “Finley! Finley Hall?”

“Yeah.” I hold myself together while I walk, Andreas’s fleece wrapped around my waist, steps small to avoid any further leakage, arms clasped in front of me—as if anyone really walks like that.

“I’m Ashlynn, Dr. Treggman’s nurse. Why don’t you follow me on back and I’ll get you started. How does that sound?”

“Fine.” I nod and follow her back, even cooperate.

She makes me get on the scale.

“Wow, you’ve lost nine pounds since your last visit—two weeks ago.”

Takes my blood pressure.

“Fifty over thirty. That—that can’t be right. You’d have to be…”

And my temperature.

“Um, okay, this—I’m going to get Dr. Treggman.”

She backs out of the exam room, keeping her eyes on me until she’s safe on the other side of the door.

I lean back on the patient table. Its white paper crinkles beneath me. Dr. Treggman walks in just as I’m peering at the crotch of my jeans to assess the situation.

“Finley, nice to meet you.” He sets his laptop on a wheeled table and sits on a short black wheelie stool and wheels himself and his laptop over to me. “I’m Dr. Treggman.”

I nod.

“What seems to be the problem?” he asks all while peering over his glasses at the form I gave the nurses. “Bleeding?” Then he looks over his glasses at me. “Would you like to be more specific?”

“I got my period for the first time in three years, today.”

“You’re on Testosterone Cypionate?”

“Intramuscular injections.”

“So you know, then, that people who have taken steps to medically transition are on the restricted list for vampirification.” He stares at me over his wire-frame glasses and old plasticky laptop. Slowly, his lips purse. “The nurse gave me your stats. I’ll have to report this. I’m sorry, I’m required by law.”

I squeeze my legs together and lean forward, trying to appeal to his human side while I still have one. “Look,” I say softly. “I need help, okay? This is the only clinic I even feel safe coming to for trans stuff.”

“Mr. Hall, this isn’t trans stuff, this is vampire stuff. And there’s a reason the two don’t mix; we don’t have conclusive studies on how vampirification affects atypical bodies.” He starts typing, again.

I’ve seen the Federal Vampire Commission’s list of atypical bodies. It’s trans and intersex folks. Disabled and neuroatypical folks; the F.V.C. even provides a list of prohibited surgeries and medications. Never mind those who can’t afford the required physical exams and application fee. And heaven forbid you’re a woman of childbearing age who “might want to have kids someday; how can you be sure you won’t want to?

“As I’m not versed in vampire anatomy—” Dr. Treggman’s words buzz like a fly in my ears. “—I hesitate to make any recommendations—”

I clench my hands into cold, white fists and punch them down on top of Dr. Treggman’s shitty laptop. His tan, hairy arms tremble where they stick out from the keyboard. I lean over the wheelie desk and bare my growing fangs. If I breathe deep enough, he smells like dinner.

I lean my full weight on the shattered laptop, crushing him in a hand-sandwich between layers of circuits and plastic.

“Finley.” His voice is hoarse and shaky. “Finley, please, you’re hurting me.”

“Finley!” Andreas’s sea glass voice turns my head.

“What,” I ask, slowly, “are you doing here? You’re supposed to be asleep.”

“Good thing I wasn’t. You need to let the doctor go. He’s just doing his job.”

“You know how many doctors I’ve met who are just doing their jobs?” The one who asked if I was really, really sure, because I didn’t seem very masculine. The one who suggested psycho-sexual therapy as if my kinks disqualified me. The one who told me no cis gay men would want to sleep with me.

“I know.” Andreas snakes an arm around my waist and pries me off the laptop.

Dr. Treggman squeaks relief and Andreas looks into his eyes and says, “You will wait quietly.” The doctor slackens, suddenly unconcerned about his injured hands or the one and a half vampires fighting in his exam room.

“I can’t go like this.” I gesture over my un-reproductive organs.

“So, buy some new clothes. Here.” Andreas thrusts a few bills into my hand.

I hate that he’s so easily solved my problem. I want to stay angry. I’m still angry. I’m still bleeding. “How did you know where I—”

“I can smell you.” Andreas taps his nose. “Now, I’m going to convince the doctor not to report us for this mess. You will meet me outside.”

“I didn’t even think you could go outside at this time. I thought I’d ditched you.”

“Yeah, well I’m old and soon you’ll be young, so don’t ditch me for a few more centuries. You have a lot to learn.”

My “Ugh!” is a bratty growl as I slam my fist into the doorframe and leave. If this is my life, now, bring on death.

Andreas meets me in the back alley and pushes me against the brick so hard it cracks. Notably, I don’t.

“What were you thinking?” he asks. “Are you trying to get us euthanized?”

“I was thinking you don’t understand how my body works and I needed to see someone who does.” I try to pry his hands off my shoulders but he’s got millennia on me. I haven’t even managed to die, yet.

“Dr. Treggman doesn’t know more about vampirification than I do. Besides, if you’re really concerned, we have vampire doctors.”

“Any trans ones?”

“What?”

“Do you know any transgender vampire doctors?” I ask slowly to drive home my point.

Andreas’s lips twitch, revealing a flash of white. I wonder if he has emotions or only teeth.

“Didn’t think so.” This time, I brush him off easily. “You’re welcome to feel doubly stupid, by the way. Turning someone without an application—a someone who also happens to be trans. It’s not even legal!”

I get halfway down the alley before he says, “I thought you smelled different. Not enough to deter me. Actually, not bad at all. Just different.”

“I’m flattered.” I suppose that’s the vampire equivalent of “Wow, I’d never have guessed you were trans,” or “But you look so normal.”

I put my borrowed sunglasses back on and pause at the shade’s edge. “Let’s go home so I can die, already.”

Andreas catches my shoulder before I can step further into the sunlight. Smoke rises from his hand before he jerks it away.

“I thought you were old,” I snap, still unable to control my temper.

“I am.” Blisters swell on his otherwise unblemished skin. “Just because I don’t catch fire wearing SPF 70 in the shade, doesn’t mean I can lie out on the beach in June.”

I cross vacations off my list of future plans. A list that seems to shrink every hour.

“Look, Finley, don’t let this ruin your last day.”

I walk backwards across the line of light, watching Andreas grow smaller. He doesn’t offer any more wisdom. He doesn’t even stay.

Don’t let this ruin my last day. It’s not really my last day. My last day was pizza and burnt French fries, strobe lights and pulsing bass. Drunk pissing.

I stand at the top of St. Paul Street and watch cars fly past. They disappear between skyscrapers and the orange glow of sunset. I should care that this is my last sunset—at least for a few centuries.

I cared when it was my last night with breasts. When I faced losing erotic sensation. Never arching under the hard pinch of rough fingers or the wet suction of a man’s lips. I didn’t want the mounds, but I had them my whole life. And, then, I didn’t.

I cared before my voice dropped. When I faced losing my ability to sing. “Most guys can’t,” the Internet said and no voice coaches worked with trans men, only trans women. The drop was sudden and uncomfortable. I strained and pushed to sing The Kinks and The Beatles and cried when I couldn’t. I hadn’t lost my ability to cry, yet.

I care that this is my last sunset.

The sky is black and blue when I show up on Andreas’s doorstep. His bandaged hand and heavy eyelids are my fault. He glances at the back of my canvas and my small kit of paints and brushes, as if he expected more.

“I probably won’t see another sunset like that.” Not that I have to justify my time to him. He probably expected I’d visit with family or friends, vomit up a last ditch attempt at a favorite drink or meal. Maybe I should’ve. Too late, now.

“No, you probably won’t.” Andreas steps aside so I can set my things in the guest room and kick off my shoes. “Ready?”

“Yeah.” I roll up my pink and orange stained sleeves. “I’m ready.”

Andreas leads me into the basement. It’s unfinished. The rough cement floor cools my feet; the air chills my exposed skin.

“You don’t have to take off your clothes, but you should,” Andreas says.

“Why?”

“Death is messy. You don’t want it sticking to you.”

“Fair.” I don’t ask for further details. Despite stabbing myself with a needle every two weeks and going through surgery, I’m not particularly good with gross body stuff. Surprise-menstruation was enough to last me an eternity.

I leave my shirt and jeans in a pile, half-folded. Andreas lifts up a metal hatch, exposing soft, freshly tilled soil underneath.

“No coffin?” I ask. Vampires aren’t exactly forthcoming about their reproductive process. Secrets are power and they’ve already given over so much to humankind.

“No,” he says. “Just you and the earth.” His cheeks flush with recently-drunk blood. He’s jealous. He stares at the loose dirt like a lover he wants to wrap himself around.

“You can join me. If you want.”

Andreas shakes his head. “You don’t want that. You want to be alone. Trust me. There’ll be other nights.”

I don’t tell him I don’t want to be buried alive and alone. I don’t want to taste dirt. Don’t want it matted in my hair, packed up my nose—the crumbs rolling up into my brain. If I’m barely breathing, does it even matter?

Andreas offers his hand. I let him help me into the earthen grave because no one’s done anything like that for me since I was a girl.

I sink a few inches when the dirt gives beneath my weight. Andreas’s grip tightens to keep me from falling. Mine tightens with hopes of pulling him in with me. But he doesn’t stumble, doesn’t follow. When he lets go, I clasp my hands in front of me.

“Lie down.” Each of his words is a nail in my imaginary coffin.

I dig myself a space, lie down, and close my eyes. When Andreas pushes the first mound of dirt over my feet, I panic. But my body’s not setup to panic, anymore. I have no racing heart or nauseous stomach. My deep breaths mean nothing. I suck air in, but it sits there until I push it out.

“Relax.” Andreas covers my legs next. He doesn’t pack the soil tight. I assume so that I can get out. I hope.

He unclasps my hands and lays them out beside me. Even corpses get to hold themselves in death. But I’m left exposed to the dirt Andreas piles on my chest and over my arms. Over my neck and ears.

I blink up at him, nothing but a pale face amongst black-brown soil. A waning moon in the night sky. Andreas bends and presses a soft kiss against my lips. It doesn’t mean anything. I almost wish it did. We don’t love each other, don’t long for each other’s touch or look forward to some eternal romance. I didn’t even pick him. He bit me. I didn’t get a say beyond turn or die.

Andreas climbs out of my grave and disappears from view. When he returns, he’s holding the wooden handles of a dirt-filled wheelbarrow. “I’ll be back for you.” And with that, he dumps it over my face. I feel him pat its cold weight over my head and body. Hear the squeaky hinge on the metal trapdoor and its bang shut.

Dirt fills my mouth when I scream.

Starving.

Starving and dried and thirsty.

Thirsty and hungry are the same. My body is a desert. I swallow bits of dirt with the rush of blood I suck down. The source is hot against me. Hard against me. My jaw is rigid, eyes wide on those of the man who feeds me.

“Finley.” His voice is underwater. My name ripples to the surface.

He rips the source away. I lunge after it, but he pins me on a cold cement floor. I run my tongue over the sharp line of my teeth and cut it on my fangs. They taste like him. My wandering eyes settle on the source. The source has a name. His name is Andreas.

“Finley.”

That’s my name. I know because I chose it.

“Finley, can you hear me?”

I cough up dirt and blood. Spit it on the cement. “Yes.” My voice is smoother, darker, fuller.

“How do you feel?” Andreas asks.

“Starving and dried and thirsty.”

He smiles with closed lips. “Let’s get you in the shower and some blood in your system. How does that sound?”

My answer is a low growl—one that’s conceived in my chest and born through my throat. I chase the feeling with another. Andreas pulls me off my feet and into his arms as if I am his pet. I press my nose against his shirt and sniff his blood through the layers of cotton and flesh.

He sets me on my own feet, again, in the shower. It’s big enough for three, no curtains blocking us in. Showerheads hang from the ceiling, raining hot water onto our cold bodies. Andreas rips his clothes off and tosses them into a sopping heap on the rug. I’m already naked—I forgot.

Starving.

I feel every drop of water that strikes my skin like a match tip catching fire. Mud rolls over my muscled arms and unsticks from the dark curls between my legs. I’m not bleeding, anymore.

Andreas offers his wrist. I latch onto his neck, instead. His laugh resounds through my jaw. The blood jostles, choking me for a moment. I pull back and crack my neck, let the rush settle in.

Nerves in my chest prickle to life—nerves that died under the knife years ago. I squirm where Andreas slides his hand down my back, where he rests it under my ass and squeezes, pressing our bare bits together.

When I bite him again, my teeth light with as much pleasure as my cunt—more, even. Like there are nerves in my new fangs.

“There are,” Andreas says, confirming my thoughts. “And it’s so much better than sex.”

My body pulses with blood like that first rush of testosterone. Andreas doesn’t taste like one person. He isn’t a varietal vintage. He’s the blood of everyone he’s drunk. Like the house blend, I drink him until he stops me.

I know it’s blood; I can taste the iron. But it recalls words like silky and juicy, the swirl of red in a glass, and roll over the tongue.

“Enough,” he says with fangs exposed.

I didn’t expect the lust part of bloodlust, but Andreas looks different with my undead eyes. I can see the lines of severity in his expression, the flare of his pupils, feel his subtly shifting muscles.

I reach between us and grab Andreas’s erection, rub my blood-engorged clit against it and moan. “I want you,” I say.

“You want blood.”

“I want both.”

Andreas smiles. “I’ll give you both.”

We fuck with my forehead pressed against the slick tiled wall, Andreas’s mouth hovering against the back of my neck. Even amidst the steam, his breath is hot, tongue strong and wet. I want him to feed on me again, like that night in the alley. Only this time we both want it and it is so much better, this way.

His cold fingers shock my nipples hard, rolling and pinching them. In only a few hours they’ve regained the sensitivity they lost under the knife, two years ago.

With his other hand he covers my mouth. And while I relish the bondage, the stifling of my growls and moans, I know it’s an offering. I sink my teeth into his wrist and draw the color from him.

While his blood rushes through me, turning me, resurrecting me, Andreas pushes his thick cock into my cunt. I steady myself against the wall while he lifts me with one arm—the arm not lodged in my mouth—and thrusts.

It’s not long before he comes, trembling inside me; his body pins mine to the wall. I’m so close, so full, probably saturated. Andreas reaches between my legs and rubs my clit. I close my eyes, lick the wounds on his arm, rest my weight on the full feeling in my groin.

If he weren’t propping me up, my orgasm would knock me to the shower floor. It radiates through my blood stream. It wakes me up.

Andreas has to rip his arm away from me. “Careful,” he whispers in my ear. “Your body is adjusting. You don’t want to be sick, again, so soon.”

He rinses us off, takes my hand, and together we lie on the shower tiles, their orange-pink marbling a farce of sundown. I rest my face against his pec, over his juicy heart, and kiss the skin. Andreas chuckles and holds me there while the water pounds over my blissed out body.

“I’m still hungry,” I say.

“I bet you are.”

“When can we hunt?”

“We can’t.”

“Why not? You did.”

Andreas flips his body on top of mine. “I’m old, Finley. Too old. I’ve followed human history for millennia. I’ve met believers and skeptics. Warm beds and pitchforks. Somehow, I never expected assimilation.” He relaxes onto his side, rests his head on his hand. “Never expected to go mainstream.”

“‘I’m Andreas. I was a vampire before it was cool,’” I say, mocking him.

His smirk is sharp and quick; I almost miss it. “You think you’re going to be the vampire that breaks the rules. That fights the normalization of our culture. That doesn’t register with a government that’s existed as long as my last haircut.

“Your laws don’t really matter to me. But for some reason I went along with them. I figured, why not try something new? Live in the open for a change, make friends, furnish an apartment, get a hobby.

“Wasn’t so bad at first. Bagged blood is like your Diet Coke. Not as good as the real thing, but you get used to it—so much, sometimes, that you get a sugar rush if you revert.” Andreas traces a finger down my jaw, over my neck and chest, swirling it around one of my swollen areola. “I wanted to hold a live body in my arms and feed while it wriggled against me, struggled for the life I sucked hot out of it.”

I squeeze my legs together and rock my hips while lust washes over me again.

“You like that.” He smiles.

“I do.”

“We can’t feed on humans.”

“But I get it, now.” I sit up straighter. “I feel—”

“Forget how you feel, now. Remember how you felt, then,” Andreas says, squeezing my hand with a strength I can almost match.

Remembering back a few days ago seems impossible, like seeing into someone else’s mind. But I close my eyes and use the white noise of the running water to go back. Even then my human memories feel like facts rather than experiences. “I was angry that you took my choice away.”

“Right. Remember that, even if you have to write it down, every morning.”

“Okay, but what if we get a donor—a certified blood donor—whose choice it is to give us their blood?” I bat my eyelashes.

Andreas leans over my chest and licks my nipple. “I’ll consider it.”

I moan and arch up to meet his mouth.

His lips brush my sensitive flesh while he speaks. “When you prove you can control yourself enough not to kill anyone, I’ll consider it.” He sucks the hard nub between his teeth and presses his fingers between my legs.

Control myself. Just once I’d like to control my own damn body.

We feed on blood bags, together. Andreas “convinces” my landlord to break my lease early and without penalty—just like he “convinced” Dr. Treggman not to report us—so I can move into the guest room. He buys me a real bed and a mug that says “Blood: it’s not just for breakfast, anymore.”

During the first week, we eat and fuck. I’m still not in love with him—don’t expect to be—but he lets me feed on him in the shower to ease my bloodlust.

I stumble out, naked and wet, still unsteady on my changing legs. My muscles thicken and shape the more I drink. My facial hair fills in thick and dark where it was patchy before: a fine, perfectly groomed layer on my cheeks and neck. I always thought vampires looked like more beautiful versions of their human selves, though I can’t imagine a duller Andreas.

“Stop staring at yourself in the mirror,” he teases.

“Stop staring at myself?” I rub a towel over my hair. It rests shiny and perfect without any help. “I’ve never been happy with the way I look until now. And I’m not supposed to stare?”

Andreas’s smile is so subtle, I’d have missed it with human eyes. He lifts me onto my new Ikea bed.

“Can vampires cut their hair?” I ask, diverting Andreas’s mouth from its intent.

“What? Why? You just said—”

“When we were talking earlier, you said our government was as old as your last haircut.”

“We can make small changes over long periods of time. If you cut it all off, it would grow back while you slept. Mostly, I was being facetious. Bit of vampire humor.” He glances at my hair. “Why, you weren’t thinking of changing… anything, were you?”

I wasn’t. Not really. But knowing I can’t? What if prosthetics or surgery become so advanced—I’m going to live to see that. Doctors will be able to grow you a dick using stem cells or someone will invent a CyberCock that pairs with a brain implant. In a future where trans people will be able to customize their bodies, I won’t be able to. Mine will reject and revert. Beautiful but stagnant. No implants, no surgeries. Not even a haircut. This is why trans people aren’t allowed to undergo vampirification.

It’s still better than dying.

Will I feel that way in a hundred years?

“Finley?”

“Uh, no, not planning to change anything. Sorry.”

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Just…” I focus on the body I have, on the things I can control. Like my current arousal. “Just get back to it.” I force a smile when I recline. The smile sticks.

The particleboard rocks under the force of our weight, knocking over the canvas I leaned against it. Andreas dives between my legs and sucks on my clit. It’s grown like a satisfied tick. And I’m hornier than I was during my first six months on T.

I twine my fingers through Andreas’s shiny curls and hold his face against my crotch. He’s happy to oblige, trailing his kisses over my abdomen and up my chest. Ever since I turned, I can’t get enough of his mouth and fingers on my nipples. I missed them. I missed them and now they’re back, healed by his venom.

He pulls away, leaving my slick, wet chest cold and exposed.

“Don’t stop,” I whisper.

Andreas looks between my chest and my face then back to my chest. “Something’s wrong,” he says.

“What? Nothing’s…” I pat the bare skin and wince. Tender dimples of breasts poke out. “What’s happening to me?”

Andreas swallows a hard lump in his throat. “Your body. It’s—I don’t know.”

I skitter back until I hit the headboard, until I can’t run any further away from my own chest. “Make it stop,” I say. When Andreas doesn’t move, I shout. “Make it stop!”

He hisses at me for silence.

“Please,” I whisper. “Please, make it stop.” Something warm rolls down my face, red drops splatter on the growing mounds of my chest.

Andreas growls as he rips the covers off the bed and flings them into the air. The colorful cotton drifts slowly to the floor between us. He bites his bottom lip leaving a thin red line that drips down his chin.

“I have an idea.”

“What?”

“I’ll be right back.” But before he can get too far, he turns back. “Don’t move.”

I shake my head. “I won’t.”

I can’t and I don’t.

I stare at the pattern on Andreas’s manufactured quilt. The colors are intense, even in the dark. Red too bright for blood. Yellow too clear for the sun. A sun I won’t see again until I’m god knows how old, and only then from the shadows.

The quilt doesn’t warm me like I wish it would. My body’s cold now. It used to be warm. Testosterone runs warmer than estrogen. I stopped wearing a sweater to work. Wonder if I’ll start, again.

The door clicks shut. Andreas appears in the doorway; he slows to a human pace mid-step. I can see the change, now. It looks like slow motion. How slow must walking feel to him after so many years.

“Drink this.” Andreas crawls onto the bed and wraps an arm around me. He rests a blood bag against my lips.

I push it away. “I’m not hungry.”

“You’re hungry for this. Trust me.”

I purse my lips before accepting the bag. My fangs pierce the thick plastic so easily, I have to concentrate on not ripping it open over the mattress.

“How do you like it?” Andreas watches me.

I don’t like when he watches me. I look inexperienced—I am, but that’s not the point. Andreas makes vampirism look casual, like a lifestyle. Like vegetarianism.

I carefully back off the bag, long enough to really swallow, to run my tongue over my teeth and let the blood absorb into my body. My temperature rises. A warm euphoria radiates from my skin, swarms my brain, swells between my legs.

“This is good.”

Andreas smiles.

“What’d you do to it?”

“Vampire venom enhances what it finds: clear voice, luxurious hair, firm muscles—”

“Remaining breast tissue; I get it.” I grit my slippery teeth. “What did you do to this?”

“Injected it with testosterone.” He looks thoughtfully between me and the bloody bag. “I didn’t think, when I drained your blood, that I’d depleted any hormones you may’ve injected. Most humans’ bodies keep producing whatever they need.”

“Mine doesn’t.”

“I know that, now. Thought I’d reintroduce what you need. Steer your new vampire body in the right direction.”

“Not bad, Dr. Andreas.”

I crush the bag against my mouth and suck it dry. The plastic crinkles until it’s raisin-like in my hands. A drop spills over my chin and tickles my neck. Andreas leans over and licks it away.

I growl and toss the empty bag onto the floor, accepting Andreas’s mouth against mine. He avoids my chest, though I feel the mounds press against his shirt when he climbs on top of me.

I wake up horny. Andreas sleeps beside me, still, his hand draped over my chest to protect me from it. My consciousness stirs him. When he flexes his hand, it brushes my side and I push it away. It’s too much. I can’t stay in and fuck away the bloodlust for the rest of my life.

“Hey.” Andreas props himself up, eyes only half-open. He stares at my body. “They’re gone.”

I look. I don’t want to, but I have to, and he’s right. The area’s not as hard and defined as it used to be. Andreas gently touches the puffy skin. I gasp. The air feels strange in my lungs, like a lump in my throat.

I quickly expel it and sit up. “I need more of that blood.”

I burn through T like a bodybuilder. My old dose is not going to be enough and Andreas warns me against trying to visit a human doctor, again.

“They’ll report you. They’ll report me!” He follows me to the front door.

“Why do you even care?”

I pull the door open and storm into the night like an angry teenager. Heat builds under my cold skin. Cis people are all the same: human or vampire.

Andreas grabs my arm gently, by his standards. I pause out of respect—and rather than dislocating one of our shoulders.

“Is it so wrong to want to feel normal for once?” he pleads with me.

I see an ancient monster against canary yellow walls, glossy wood floors, and ergonomic furniture. He tried. He’s still trying.

“I’ll be back.” I leave, running as fast as I can, which is still not faster than Andreas, but hopefully fast enough to lose him and his questions.

Normal. I slow to an acceptably human speed outside the Center Street Clinic. It’s closed. Obviously. Nothing discourages new vampires from visiting like hours that end before sunset. Perfectly legal. Perfectly gross.

I watch patrons drinking in the bar next door, while I walk around it and into the alley. I’ve yet to ask Andreas how long until my body can handle alcohol. Seeing how fast it absorbs hormones, it’d probably take a lot of booze to get me as drunk as the night we met.

I race up the fire escape and crack the glass with my elbow. The clinic is empty. At home in the dark, I easily navigate the clutter of chairs and narrow hallways in search of the pharmacy.

A sign stops me: “Ask about subsidized hormone therapy, today!” Center Street is a good clinic. What kind of asshole robs a pharmacy?

Me. I’m the kind.

There are dozens of bottles of T, here. They’ll know if I take one, so I might as well take what I need for the next six weeks. The clinic can order more.

I load the little boxes into my backpack, grab some needles and syringes for good measure, and climb back out the broken window. Halfway down the fire escape, I consider that Andreas would have found a less obvious and destructive way in.

I jump from the second floor, landing on wobbly feet in the alley. Drunk blood wafts past me from the bar. I hurry away from it, so I won’t be tempted to rip a beer out of someone’s hands—or the jugular out of someone’s throat.

I still smell the alcohol when I pass the gym. Fast-pumping blood, still hot from working out, burns my nostrils. I drag my tongue over my fangs, imagining how one of these late-night meatheads would taste.

“Hey.” A solid, wide-jawed man nods at me. “You’re out late.”

“No.” My razor teeth show through my smile. “You’re out late.” I hear his heart pump faster, smell his adrenaline spike. I bet he tastes even better turned on.

He runs a hand through his sweat-slick hair while he swaggers towards me. He lowers his voice. “I’ve never fucked a vampire, before.”

I press a hand against his abdomen and linger on the over-developed muscle. “You’re subtle.”

“Wasn’t getting the feeling I needed to be.”

“You don’t. Come with me.”

Andreas isn’t home when I-still-haven’t-asked-his-name and I get in. I sit my backpack carefully on the bench in the foyer then kick my shoes into the middle of the hall.

“Bradley,” the man says between kisses. “My name’s Bradley.”

“Finn,” I say instead of “I didn’t ask.”

“This your place?”

“Something like that.”

He peers down the hall into open rooms as I pull him into mine. Probably wants to know what a vampire’s lair is like. Apparently it’s like the inside of a Swedish furniture store. Sorry to disappoint.

Bradley tugs his shoes off and leaves them behind the bed. He smashes his mouth against mine—a move I assume is sexier to someone who can’t literally bite his face off.

But I go with it. I relax. I let him push me against the mattress—even pretend he’s pinning me there. His sweaty shirt sticks between us when he pulls mine off over my head.

“You feel like marble.”

Big vocabulary for a gym rat. “If that’s a problem, I can put my clothes back on.”

“No, no, no.” He kisses down my chest. “I like it. It’s just… different. You’re cold.”

I snake my hand down the front of Bradley’s drawstring pants. He’s already hard. My hand glides easily over his sweaty cock.

He moans against my lips. “You want that? Want me to warm you up?”

As cliché as his lines are, his arrogance gets me wet.

“Do it,” I say, helping his clothes off. I accidentally rip his tee shirt. His pants slide off unharmed. His swollen cock bobs near my face and I fight the urge to suck it. Bad idea, teeth.

“Hey, you should know…” I trail off. I could kill him and I’m still afraid to tell him our genitals don’t match.

“What? This your first time?”

I shake my head.

“Afraid you’re going to hurt me?”

“No—well, a little, but I—I’m trans.”

“What?”

“I’m transgender.”

“You have a dick?” He pulls my briefs down, throwing me off balance.

“Excuse me!”

“Are you kidding? I find the only fucking gay vampire with no dick?”

“Didn’t think I’d need one for what you planned to do.”

“I’m not putting anything in your pussy.”

I tense up at the word. “Please don’t call it that.”

“Whatever.”

“I have another hole, in case you missed it.”

Bradley shakes his head and reaches for his clothes. “I’m not into girls.”

I grab his arm and flip him onto the bed. “And I’m not into transphobic douchebags, but I’m hungry so I’ll make an exception.”

My fangs lodge easily into his neck. My tongue slides over his salty skin and I overwhelmingly realize why Andreas bit me. I can’t even blame him.

Bradley doesn’t taste like Andreas, though. He tastes like steroids and adrenaline with a hint of alcohol. He doesn’t fight me or he stops fighting me. His heat floods my veins.

The front door clicks its quiet, controlled click shut. Andreas’s eyes meet mine in the dark. He doesn’t speak. He walks slowly, at human speed even though no one’s around to judge him, and kneels at the foot of the bed.

“He smells delicious,” Andreas says.

I swallow a mouthful of Bradley’s thick, heady blood, then pull out. “Want to share?”

Andreas kisses me, his tongue flicking against mine for a taste. He licks the corner of my mouth, cleaning me up. I’m a messy eater. I’m a monster.

“No thanks,” Andreas says. “Once was more than enough.” He bites his wrist and lets his blood drip into Bradley’s wounds.

“You didn’t do that for me.”

“You’re not even close to draining this man, Finley.”

The effects on Bradley are instant; the ragged holes in his neck stitch themselves back together. Seamless.

Bradley opens his eyes on Andreas’s.

“You and Finley had a good time, but it was a one-time thing. He’s not really your type.”

“Yeah,” Bradley says.

I roll my eyes.

“Why don’t you head home and shower off that gym stench,” Andreas says.

“Good idea,” Bradley agrees, robotic.

When the jock’s dressed and gone, Andreas says, “Get what you need?”

I stretch my jaw and crack my neck. Slide my tongue over my teeth to get the last of the taste. “Mostly.”

“Let me help you.”

Help me. How is an old cis vampire supposed to help me when he doesn’t understand the first thing about my body? My eternity?

I ask, “Do you have any nails?”

Andreas leans against the threshold, sipping blood while he watches. His skin is pale, but not pallid. His pose casual, but precise. “Little more to the left,” he says. “There. That’s it.”

I walk backwards until I bump into him. He hands me the mug and I take a sip. “Not bad,” I say.

My last sunset hangs over the bed. With my new eyes, I see the thick texture of paints where the colors blend and my brushstrokes overlap like waves. Apricot, wine, and goldenrod blur together, each clearer and more real than anything printed by a machine on one of Andreas’s quilts.

“Small changes over long periods of time, you said?”

“Yes,” Andreas says. “Why?”

“Just making sure.”

I imagine what a real sunset will look like when I’m old enough to experience one. If they’ll still exist or if smog will cloud the skyline. The only thing that won’t change is me, my body, my canvas. “What about a tattoo? You know, to remember.” Blood drips from the corners of my eyes.

“Possible. It’ll hurt, but possible.” Andreas tightens his hold on me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” I resolve. “Haven’t cried this much since—before, you know. It feels good.”

“Since before I turned you?” he asks.

“No,” I say. “Before I turned myself.”

The Red Secretary

The ride out past Sorintov Station to the monument the soldiers held hostage was bumpy and hot. Every time the sun sank below the horizon during one of its ten daily sunsets, Arkadi welcomed the cooler air, and the quiet. The world always felt more real in the dark. Arkadi sat in the back of an open lorry, smoking a cheap imported cigar while the wind tugged at the crimson kerchief covering her mouth. She ruminated on the last negotiation she had made with desperate soldiers. It had ended the same as most of the others.

The lorry kicked up red dust that settled into the creases of her skin, the folds and scars that mapped her hands after a decade servicing oil rigs at the bottom of the world before she was called to this second occupation. The dust gave her rough-cut clothes a rusty patina, the same patina of the refugees and violence clean-up crews that scurried out of the lorry’s way as it grumbled up the through the striated foothills of Jenavah. The guts of the world were laid bare here, exposing their secrets in an honest way that no person could: spidery veins of yellow, pink, blue-grey and a peculiar shade of aquamarine that Arkadi had only seen once before, in a painting of the sea. She tipped open her blotting pad and sketched out the layers of the territory with a charcoal pencil, but only succeeded in smearing more red dust over everything, including the name of the monument on the other side of the hills: the Red Secretary. She closed the notebook, adjusted her kerchief, and turned to see how much farther she had to go.

From this distance all that was visible of the Red Secretary were three twining spires jutting into the crimson sky, so high that the tops were not visible. Arkadi’s research on the facility told her those spires were high enough to touch the outer atmosphere. They were pretty things, though the prettiness was a secondary characteristic. The spires had a far deadlier purpose. That was likely why the soldiers had taken the thing. Arkadi flipped through her notebook again to review her notes. By all counts no one had been in contact with the rogue squad yet, or received a list of demands, though all frequencies were being monitored.

Now that the war with the enemy was over, not every soldier embraced their contracted end. Some ran away and tried to blend in and forget their crimes of violence and pray to the gods that history would forget them. The government sent Justicars after those ones. But for the more dangerous ones, the soldiers trying to make a statement by blowing up someone or something in protest of the fate they signed up for when they enlisted, the government called in Arkadi to negotiate.

This was her sixty-first negotiation with rogue soldiers.

The lorry rolled to a halt. Arkadi popped up over the driver’s cab to see what had stopped them. A massive fissure cut through the road ahead; the searing length of the tear rose halfway up the other side of the rise, opening a weeping wound in the multi-colored rock like a knife through a layer cake.

Arkadi jumped out. Her boots sent up a puff of dust. She walked with the driver over to the fissure. A gaggle of military engineers waved at them from the other side. The engineers had deployed a temporary bridge, but it wasn’t big enough for the lorry.

“Far as I go,” the driver said. She was wearing gloves, but she didn’t offer a hand. There were still enemy-seeded contagions going around, so touching wasn’t encouraged.

“I don’t blame you,” Arkadi said.

“Keep your hands clean, you hear?” the driver said. “I don’t want to haul your body out with theirs. I’m coming back for you, and them.”

“Clean as a summer storm,” Arkadi said. She stepped onto the inflatable bridge and stared straight ahead, though her stomach lurched. Neither the driver nor the soldiers needed to see her hesitate, not this close to the site.

The soldier on the other side of the bridge held out a gloved hand to help her, but she did not take it. Soldiers tended to be the most contaminated.

“I’m the situation leader,” the soldier said. “Revlan Te Mossard.”

Arkadi reassessed her. The soldier was a slim, short woman with a shaved head. She wore no mark of rank; the enemy had neatly identified and eliminated the highest ranking officers early on in the age-old conflict that blighted the world every three hundred years. Officers and ground troops groomed and dressed identically now. Ranks were tattooed onto forearms, which could be easily covered.

“Arkadi Te Avalin,” Arkadi said. “You have a vehicle to take us up to the Red Secretary?”

“We have a temporary base set up over the next rise. That’s as close as we can get.”

“They take out the road?”

“No, they fired on us. Missed and hit the road.”

“Casualties?”

“One of my squads and three negotiators. So I hope you’re better than your predecessors.”

“I was supposed to be their backup. Things should have been a lot further along by now.”

“Now you’re point,” Revlan said.

When a negotiator was called in, it was protocol to have a secondary and tertiary backup to provide relief and help hash out strategies. Arkadi had never been alone on point before. The next closest negotiator was out at an open market negotiating a crisis with another AWOL squad. There would be no help arriving anytime soon. She considered telling Revlan that, but thought better of it. The more confident she played this, the more confident Revlan would be in her, the more confident Revlan’s troops, the more help she would get. Round and round, the same old game of bluff and hustle.

Revlan led her up over the rise to a shallow valley where a temporary base had been set up to observe the activity half a mile distant at the Red Secretary. They had put up bubble barriers to protect them from assault, and Arkadi noted two contagion sensors blinking in the distance between the camp and the Red Secretary. There were great gouts torn up in the grainy terrain all around them; the soldiers had clearly been trying to blow them up from the Red Secretary, with little success. Dogs barked from a temporary kennel near the medical tent. A big beefy woman fed the dogs tentacle fish heads from a slop bucket. When the woman caught Arkadi looking, she narrowed her eyes at her.

“What are the dogs for?” Arkadi asked Revlan.

“We used them to sniff for explosives,” Revlan said, “just in case they had mined the area. Came back clean, though.”

Inside the command tent were three more soldiers; shaved heads, crisp uniforms, sleeves rolled down over whatever ranks were tattooed on their forearms. The oldest addressed her first. “I’m Maradiv,” he said, “the intelligence officer here.”

“Not so intelligent,” Arkadi said, “if three negotiators are already dead.”

He didn’t blink at that, which told Arkadi precisely what he thought of negotiators. “Is there a communications officer?” Arkadi asked.

“Had to be evac’d. Dysentery,” Revlan said.

“Tactical team?”

“Just below the hill. They can be in place in about three minutes. Two if you can give us a distraction up there that lets us get a closer position.”

“Perimeter?”

“Perimeter’s secure,” Revlan said. She tapped out positions on the map, which puffed up into a misty, three-dimensional version of the terrain. A chill rode Arkadi’s spine at that bit of enemy magic. She didn’t like how much of the enemy’s little trinkets they had gotten comfortable using during the war. It would all have to be destroyed soon, no matter how pretty or useful. “We have snipers at these locations, but the facility has no windows. We can only take them out if they come out.”

“They don’t have hostages, do they?” Arkadi asked.

“No hostages,” Revlan said, “as far as we know, but you should verify that. We want the facility intact or we lose access to the weapon, the Red Secretary itself. Worse, explosives will make the site unstable and likely blow it and us all to the seven hells. There’s a huge methane deposit under the facility. It’s what powers the whole thing.”

“No ways in or out offsite but the front door?”

“There’s an emergency tunnel that comes out three kilometers to the east. We caved it in. They’re sealed in place.”

“How are we dealing with surrounding civilians and media?”

“It’s handled,” Revlan said. “It’s a remote area, and as you saw, they already took out the main road in, which we have covered. There was no homesteading permitted inside the facility fence. But I have drones up doing recon, just in case.”

“I saw a media drone on the way in, shot down.” The drones were all enemy magic, too: whirring, blue gobs of light that flashed in and out of the spaces between things, but they could be disabled. Figuring out how to disable them had been a great boon during the early years of the war.

“Like I said, it’s handled.”

“No communication with the base yet?”

“That’s why you’re here,” she said. “We keep trying all the frequencies, but it’s dead quiet up there.”

“You sure they’re up there?”

“Those guns didn’t shoot themselves.”

“I’m concerned they’ve had almost sixty hours to stew with no contact from us,” Arkadi said.

“Not for lack of trying.”

Arkadi flipped open her notebook again. Her notes were written in shorthand, and her handwriting was so poor it may as well have been in code. “You’re certain it’s this squad, though, Fourteen Yellow Hibiscus?”

Maradiv cleared his throat, clearly eager to sound useful. “All of our intelligence has that squad going AWOL four days ago just outside Sorintov Station,” he said.

“No killing at Sorintov, though,” Arkadi said.

“None,” Maradiv said.

“How friendly are your dogs?” Arkadi said.

Revlan raised her brows. “The ones outside?”

“You have other dogs around?”

Maradiv said, “What do you want to do with them?”

“I want to bring one with me.”

“What, back across the road?” Revlan said.

“No, to the Red Secretary.”

“Combat dogs are very expensive,” Maradiv said.

“So are crisis negotiators. I need your most submissive, well-behaved dog.”

Revlan sighed. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s easier said than done.”

“I’ve said it.”

Revlan said, “Go talk to her, Maradiv.”

“Couldn’t you—”

“Go.”

Maradiv went, and Revlan went after him. The other soldiers in the tent tried to make small talk with Arkadi about the drive up, and she obliged. She could chatter about nothing with the best of them. Arkadi waited a full rotation of the sun before she finally went out to see what the issue was. Revlan was coming up just as she went out.

“One dog,” Revlan said. “I told the dog trainer we’d go in and save the dog first if you both get shot.”

“Fine,” Arkadi said. She followed Revlan out to the kennels and the beefy woman Arkadi assumed was the trainer. The dog standing next to the trainer was a big six-legged senior with a heavy gray muzzle and silver mantle.

“Remember my hands aren’t clean,” the trainer said. “I have no moral reason not to shoot you if this dog doesn’t come back.”

“Thank you,” Arkadi said. She pulled off her baggy coat and vest and tossed them next to Revlan.

“You have body armor on?” Revlan asked.

“Under the shirt, sure,” Arkadi said, “but best to look as lean and unarmed as possible when I approach.”

“You really are just going to walk out there like the others?” Revlan said. “Are you stupid?”

“Not like the others,” Arkadi said. “I have the dog. Soldiers don’t shoot dogs.”

“Yeah, but you aren’t a dog,” the trainer said.

Arkadi snapped her fingers at the dog. “Follow,” she said.

The dog loped alongside her. She envied his ignorance. She felt the gazes of the soldiers behind her, so she stepped a little bolder, a little faster, until she cleared the top of the rise. She held out her arms, palms facing the Red Secretary.

From the rise she had a clear view of the monument. And, presumably, the soldiers inside had a clear view of her, too. She advanced, calling for the dog to heel. It was big enough that they certainly weren’t going to miss it. As she walked she saw the blasted holes in the dirt from the previous barrage. Great beaked birds took flight from the tangled bits of human carnage left behind. Arkadi made out a torso, a mangled hand, but looked away before she saw the faces. The nightmares were worse when she saw faces. She couldn’t imagine what the soldiers dreamed about, if they still dreamed at all.

The great hulking doors of the Red Secretary grew larger and larger as she approached. She had not realized how massive they were, as if constructed for some great beast or abhorrent giant. She spotted the milky eyes of the surveillance net ringing the compound just above the main door. She addressed those eyes.

“I’m Arkadi Te Avalin,” Arkadi said, already a little impressed to have gotten so far, “the crisis negotiator for Sorintov province. I’m just here to make sure everyone is all right and see if you need anything.”

Her shadowy reflection gazed back at her from the false outer eyes of the compound. The sun was heading back down again, the sixth time it had done it that day. “I’m going to put my arms down now,” she said, because they were trembling hard. Her reflection in those unblinking eyes showed a fearful bird of a woman and her baffling dog companion, but that ridiculous tableau had kept her alive for longer than the others. She relaxed her arms, but kept her palms open.

“Does anyone in there need medical attention?” she asked. “If you’re hurt, I can help.”

She listened to the sound of the wind, and the light huff of her own breathing. The dog sat next to her, its big purple tongue lolling, head cocked. Dust covered her boots and stained her undershirt. She tasted coppery chalk.

The door shimmered. Her stomach twisted; maybe the body armor would hold this close, maybe it wouldn’t. The door went transparent, but all she could see on the other side was darkness.

Then, a voice, “What’s the dog’s name?”

Her first rule in a crisis negotiation was: never lie. Spinning the truth was fine, but one lie, if caught out, could ruin all the trust she had built with a hostage taker. The dog having a name would make it—and, by extension, her—more human and sympathetic to this hostage taker, but she had not thought to ask its name. But she could not lie.

“I’ve been calling him dog,” Arkadi said. “But I know he has some other, fancier name.”

“He’s not yours, then?”

“Could I see your face?” Arkadi said. “I’m happy to answer, but I like to see who I’m talking to.” She pressed her palms toward the door again, fingers splayed. “I’m not armed—”

“I heard you the first time.” Something shifted in the darkness. Arkadi thought she saw the outline of a boot, just a blacker shadow. Was the soldier on point wearing a camouflaged power suit, one of the ones engineered with enemy magic? She had been told those were all taken out of commission at the end of the war.

“I’m here to help,” Arkadi said. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” he said. The shadow flickered again, and she finally saw a dim form squatting just to the left of the door. The suit was definitely imbued with enemy magic. Interlocked scales reflected the darkness, glimmering only faintly in the light from the open door. Arkadi saw the oily sheen of a contagion blast screen over the doorway. Even with the door open, nothing could get in with that shield still up, except maybe an interrupter weapon, but that would certainly risk a methane explosion. She needed to get him to take down the shield.

“Did you have a dog?” Arkadi asked. “Before the war.” She already knew the answer, because if he hadn’t she wouldn’t be alive right now, but she needed him to engage with her.

“My town got blown up,” he said. “Early on.”

“I’m sorry,” Arkadi said. “My mother died early on, too.”

“I don’t care about your mother.”

“I care about yours,” Arkadi said, and that was true. “Tell me about her. How many mothers did you have?”

The door went opaque again, cutting off her view inside. She gazed up at the milky eyes. “All right,” she said, “I won’t talk about your mothers. I’m a negotiator, not a psychologist. I’m only here to help. What can I do for you? You need food? Medical—”

A high-pitched whine electrified the air. Arkadi crouched low and put her hands on her head. The dog barked and tackled her with its front paws, shielding her from harm as it had no doubt been trained to do for its handler.

Dust clogged Arkadi’s nose. She huffed dirt.

The wailing ceased.

Arkadi tried to heave herself up, but the dog would not relent. She managed to get out a breathy command, “Off!”

He obliged.

“Listen,” Arkadi said, still lying on her belly in the dirt. “Nobody else needs to get hurt. Please don’t do that again. All I would give you is a slap for breaking and entering, if this was up to me. Negotiators understand the risks, you know. It doesn’t have to be any bigger than that. I want to see you all get what you want and walk out of here. But I need to know what you want first.”

The doorway flickered, went transparent. The soldier had moved closer. The suit made the soldier look alien, genderless, which was part of its purpose. The enemy had feared them all far more in these bulky, shimmering suits than in anything else. They feared the suits more than heavy weaponry. Heavy weaponry wasn’t human.

“Don’t lie to me,” the soldier said. Arkadi was uncertain of the soldier’s gender, but about sixty percent of their fighting forces were men, so it was a skinny young man she pictured behind the suit.

“I will never lie to you,” Arkadi said. “You can call up anyone you like and check up on me. Ask about Arkadi Te Avalin.”

“I heard your name the first time.”

“What’s yours?”

Silence.

“Are you the right person for me to talk to,” Ardkadi said. “I’d like to help however I can.”

“I’m the right person,” he said.

Trying to read someone when you couldn’t see their face, their eyes, the tiny microexpressions that gave away their intent, was always frustrating. Even their voices were garbled by the suit’s air filters.

“Just hoping to help,” Arkadi said. “I want to make sure I get your story. There are people down there who don’t care how this ends, but I do. I can talk to them.”

“All the weapons need to be destroyed.”

“Like the Red Secretary? It will be decommissioned again. Go back to generating power, that’s all. There are other people who are going to take care of that. You don’t need to.”

“And in three hundred years, when the enemy rises again?” the soldier said. “It will be turned back on. We’ll start this all again.”

“That’s the way the conflict goes, yes. But destroy it and you’ll destroy this whole province. There’s methane under here, did you know that? Not only would you deprive the continent of power, but you’ll kill everyone in this province.”

“What does that matter? My end is the same no matter how many die.”

“Is that why you and your friends are out here?” Arkadi asked. “You think there’s no reason to go on? Don’t you want a consecrated death? Doing this… There’s no honor in the afterlife if you do this.”

“There’s no honor in any life for what we’ve done,” the soldier said. “They told us our whole lives that violence was an abomination. And then they trained us to be abominations. Where is their reckoning, the reckoning for the state?”

“They will perish too, in time,” Arkadi said. “Everyone who did violence during this cycle will walk freely into the incinerators.”

“Or get pushed in by Justicars.”

“Would you rather walk or be pushed?” Arkadi said.

A grunt. Something like a laugh, difficult to discern through the respirator. “It’s dumb sending in negotiators to talk to soldiers,” he said. “You’ve done no violence. Your hands are clean. You’ll be here, after, rebuilding this world we saved, so you can destroy it all again in another three hundred years.”

“Is that why you killed the other negotiators who came up here?” Arkadi asked. “You feel we’re complicit?”

“The whole country is complicit,” he said.

Arkadi understood the true gravity of the situation, then. “I have to go now,” she said. “Dog’s hungry. I’m hungry. Are you hungry? I can bring you something in a few hours, if you want me to come back? It’s up to you.” Dusk was settling over everything. She didn’t want to make that walk back among the gouges in the ground and mangled bodies in the dark. And she certainly didn’t want to stay out here until the next sunrise in an hour.

“Leave the dog.”

“If I leave the dog I’ll need something in return.”

“Then go. You’ll get nothing from me.”

“Before I do,” Arkadi said, “I want you to know that even though you’re holding this building, and some people got shot early on, I know lots of unexpected things happen in these kinds of situations. It’s confusing. There’s a lot of panic. It happens. But you let me get up here. You’ve kept cool and calm since then. That counts for a lot. Let’s work together to get you all out safely now, all right?”

No response. Arkadi dusted her trousers off and rose slowly. She gave the dog a pat. She raised a hand to the soldier, as if they were old friends. “If you want, we can talk again. If not, they’ll send someone else up here, probably. But if you request me,” and she dropped her voice, “if you request me, me and the dog can come back. And I can bring you something. Anything you like?” Arkadi stared again at the faceless suit. Nothing.

Arkadi turned, patting the dog again as she did, to remind him that even if he didn’t care about her, shooting her might upset the dog. It was tough to turn her back on him, but it showed trust. She felt his stare, anticipating the bullet.

“Butterscotch candy.”

“Butterscotch candy,” Arkadi said, and she knew which of the soldiers this likely was, then, because one didn’t develop a taste for butterscotch anywhere but the southern continent. “You be here in an hour to talk again, and I’ll work on getting that. All right? And you can feel free to contact us any time, you know. We’re monitoring the frequencies. You can talk to me whenever you want. But I’ll do my best to get that for you.”

The soldier nodded. It was enough.

Arkadi tensed as she walked away, and forced herself to loosen up. Confident, carefree. People asked her often how she did it, putting herself in front of people who wanted to kill her and dozens more besides, but it was just like theater. She played the part of somebody confident, somebody smarter and greater than herself, and she became that person.

When she crossed back into the confines of the camp, the first person to run up was the dog’s trainer.

“Mavis, come!” the woman barked, and the dog lopped over.

“Mavis was a hit,” Arkadi said, but the trainer just frowned at her and strode back to the kennels with her charge.

Revlan met her at the command tent. “Anything?”

“I’m alive,” Arkadi said. “The dog’s alive. Nothing’s blown up yet. He wants butterscotch candy. But I figure you were listening in.”

“How many in there?”

“Don’t know,” Arkadi said. “Only saw the one. But based on our conversation and how things went down, I suspect it’s the only one.”

“What did he say?”

“Just get him some candy.”

“You were out there an hour and that’s all you have? Candy?”

“Better than you’ve done,” Arkadi said. She jabbed a finger at Maradiv, who was lingering just inside the command tent. She recognized his nervous hands. “Get me some candy.”

“That will take days,” he said, moving away from the tent. “Maybe longer. Does anyone on this continent even make it anymore?”

“You’ll find out.”

Revlan ushered Arkadi back into the command tent and said, “Perhaps I haven’t communicated the gravity of this situation.”

“It’s been communicated,” Arkadi said. She pointed to the squiggling lines surrounding the Red Secretary. “I think you took out the rest of the soldier’s squad when you blew the escape tunnel, if they were ever there in the first place.”

“How can you possibly know that? I was monitoring your communication. He said nothing to indicate—”

“She’s alone,” Arkadi said, pulling out her notebook. “I know which soldier this is, and she’s very green. She opaqued the door before she turned on the canons. She did that so she didn’t have to look right in my face as she did it. If there was someone else operating those defensive weapons, they wouldn’t need to put that kind of distance between me and them. She had no demands. She said there were no hostages. She’s alone.”

“You have a plan, then?”

“There’s shielding on the door, but I can get her to turn it off, maybe for a few seconds only,” she said, “but I need that dog again, Mavis. And I need at least two excellent snipers in place.”

“We already have snipers—”

“Excellent ones,” Arkadi said. “They should only fire if they have a clear kill shot when she opens the door. If they don’t have a clear kill shot and she lives, we’re all dead, along with the rest of the province, because she’s going to slam that shield back up and go blow up the whole site. So they better be good.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“About what?

“If you’re wrong that she’s alone?”

“Then we’ll certainly all die, whether your people are good shots or not.”

“I’ll have a squad ready to back you up once the door is open and shots are fired,” Revlan said.

“That’s nice, but probably not necessary.”

“I’ll get them as close as I can,” Revlan said, “but you’ll have maybe two minutes on your own between the kill shot and their arrival. Stay down and stay out of the way. They’ll go in and clear it. Remember to keep your hands clean. We’re short three negotiators now, and we don’t need you consigned to the fire with the rest of us if you do violence.”

“We’ll all go to the fire eventually,” Arkadi said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I know my limits.”

“Good,” Revlan said. “When are you going back? It could be a long time before we have the candy.”

“I need her to sit until sun up in an hour,” she said. “She says she has no hostages, but she doesn’t need them. The Red Secretary is her hostage, and she knows it. You still have people on the frequencies?

“I do.”

“Have them reach out to her across all six channels every ten minutes or so. If she starts feeling lonely I want her to hear a friendly voice. Have them call me up if she calls in.”

“What are you going to do for an hour?”

“Take a shit. Then take a nap.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I almost got shot out there,” Arkadi said. “It’s a wonder I didn’t shit my pants.”

Revlan escorted her to the lavatory pits and the temporary showers, and she took advantage of both. Arkadi waited until Revlan was gone before she gave in to the shakes. They were bad this time, so bad her teeth chattered. The first time it had happened was a year into the ceasefire, when she had talked a soldier down from killing a couple of government people in Yorusiv. The soldier had killed one of the hostages outright, just as Arkadi had arrived. She really had shit her pants that time, just as the soldier was coming out. He had raised a weapon to the head of the last hostage he was taking out with him, and there Arkadi was, five feet from him with no way to stop him from killing the hostage, killing her, and then killing himself. Negotiators could talk, but they weren’t allowed to maim or kill unless they wanted to end the war in the incinerators with the rest of those who had had to deal out violence during the war. At best, she might have been able to disarm him. But there wasn’t time to think. She had done everything right, talked him down, told him how it would go, but people were unpredictable. Rogue soldiers especially.

Arkadi found a cot in the med tent and threw her arm over her eyes and let her mind gnaw away at the problem of the Red Secretary. She needed the shield to come down, and that meant giving up the dog. She pulled out her notebook again and doodled in the pages next to her notes on the squad. One of the soldiers she had researched was a rookie kid named Soraya Te Kovad. Had grown up on a farm: pack of spotted gizzles, pack of ostriches, pack of dogs. Family farm blown up early in the war. They had lived in a suburb of Kovaaya. In Kovaaya, most people worked at the candy factory. Butterscotch, of course.

It was easy to know a kid on paper. Arkadi had gotten to know each of them in doing her research, but it was always jarring to meet them in person. She imagined them all very differently in her head. Seeing the kid walk out of her head and into the world was like watching a dream come to life.

And now Arkadi would have to be complicit in the death of that dream.

She must have slept, because Revlan woke her.

“They’re on frequency four,” Revlan said.

Arkadi followed her to the command tent. Maradiv and another soldier were there, huddled near the radio, which was spitting red sparks and blue auroras from the tinny cups affixed to its exterior. Arkadi wondered if the enemy magics like this would eventually just die out on their own, sputtering into the ether like these things.

“She’s here,” Maradiv said.

“What’s happening over there?” Arkadi said into the radio.

“Need you to come back up with the candy,” the soldier said. Her voice sounded tinny, far away. Definitely a bad radio. It needed to be recharged.

“Still working on getting you that candy,” Arkadi said. “We’ve only had a couple of rotations of the sun since—”

“Bring the dog up here,” the soldier said.

“I told you,” Arkadi said. “I need something in return.”

“I’ll talk to you, then,” she said. “Up here.”

“I need a show of good faith,” Arkadi said. “I’m here with all these good soldiers down here. Now, I know you were overwhelmed when those first couple negotiators showed up. Split-second decision, right? You felt you were in danger. But you haven’t hurt anyone else since then, and that counts for a lot. You talking to me and the dog—the dog’s name is Mavis, by the way—that counts for a lot. If we can end this now, that’s going to count big.”

“I’m not coming out.”

“Just a good show for these people,” Arkadi said. “I know you’re hungry. I expect you grew up pretty hungry there outside Kovaaya. You have sisters, brothers, who worked in the factory? Or could you spare any after all that work on the farm?”

Silence. Spitting sparks.

Arkadi waited, though Maradiv and Revlan looked increasingly concerned. Arkadi had pushed her hand when she was well away from the defensive guns. Not that it mattered if the kid blew the station. But Arkadi didn’t think she was at that point yet. A lot relied on gut feeling, as a negotiator. Too much.

Then, from the radio, “I’m sorry.” It was difficult to judge the tone. Did her voice break? Had Arkadi struck a nerve?

“I’ll bring Mavis up there,” Arkadi said gently. “You and me and Mavis will work this out, all right? We are in a good place. You’ve handled yourself really well, Soraya. I’m coming up.”

Arkadi strode out of the tent, heading straight for the kennels. The trainer saw her coming and put her meaty hands on her hips.

“Alive,” the trainer said.

“My goal is to bring everyone in alive,” Arkadi said. “Including the dog. But if I don’t get the dog, we all die, all blown up to bits. Understand?”

“I nursed this dog from my own tit.”

“I’m sure that’s a euphemism. I understand.”

The trainer grunted at her and called Mavis over. The big dog rambled to Arkadi’s side. This time, the trainer knelt next to the dog and said something to him that Arkadi did not hear.

“I have to go,” Arkadi said. “There’s an unstable soldier up there.”

“Go,” the trainer said.

Arkadi called Mavis after her, and they began the long trek across the rutted ground between the camp and the Red Secretary a second time. The sun was high in the sky, and the wind had died down. She never thought she’d miss the wind, but as she sweated it out under the heat, miss it she did.

When she arrived at the doors this time, palms out, the door went transparent immediately.

The soldier stood dead center in the doorway this time, stance wide, just a few paces from the entrance. She shifted her weight from side to side, the only indication of mood that Arkadi was going to get.

“This is Mavis,” Arkadi said. “Mavis, this is Soraya.”

“How did you know my name?” Soraya asked.

“I know your squad, remember?” Arkadi said. “I want this over as much as you. I want you to go home. Come on out, and I’ll ask if you can ride out with Mavis. Mavis hasn’t hurt anybody, and you’ve cooperated well since I came up here. That counts, remember? I’m going to put in a good word. Sometimes it helps.”

“I want to burn everything down,” Soraya said.

“I know,” Arkadi said. “Some days I do too.”

“How will you go on living with that?” Soraya said, “Once all the rest of us are dead?”

“I don’t know,” Arkadi said. “I’m still not sure how long any of us are going to survive the peace. Funny, isn’t it? You go all this time fighting the war, thinking it will get you, but it’s the peace that’s killing us, isn’t it? I don’t want peace to kill you, Soraya, not after the war tried so hard to, and failed.”

“How does this go?” Soraya said.

Arkadi spoke slowly, softly, “You turn off your suit and kick it to your left. I’ll walk ten paces back here with Mavis to give you some room. You put your left hand on your head and use your right to turn off that blast shield over the door. Be sure you’re not carrying anything in either hand. Just go slow, slow, slow. All right? When the door’s open, you drop to your knees. Keep your hands out. You’re going to see some soldiers coming up the hill to meet us, but that’s all normal. They’ll have weapons drawn, but that’s just protocol. None of them wants to hurt you. These are kids, you understand? Some haven’t done violence to anyone. We can still save some of them. But you’ve got to help. They may handle you a little roughly when they secure you, but I promise, no one wants to do violence to you. Once you are secure they will take you back down the hill with me and Mavis and we’ll have some of that butterscotch candy if it’s in yet, all right? I want to make sure this goes just right, so go ahead and repeat that all back to me.”

She did.

Arkadi nodded. “Great, all right, go ahead.” She started to back away, ensuring that the snipers would have a clear shot once the shield went down.

Soraya powered down her armor and released it. The whole glittery mess of it retracted down into itself, pooling around her feet. Underneath, Soraya was a skinny wisp of a girl in a soiled tunic, all lanky arms and legs and bony knees. It was clear she hadn’t eaten well in a long time, far longer than she and her squad had been on the run. Feeding the soldiers during the war had been difficult enough. Trying to feed them without the help of the enemy food trains they had ransacked all during the war was even harder. There were blackened circles under her eyes, bruising her already dark skin. Her hair had grown in a little, but didn’t yet cover all the scars on her skull.

Arkadi had known the girl wasn’t more than seventeen or eighteen from her research, but it was clearer, now. She wasn’t a monster or an alien, outside of the suit. She was just another terrified, exhausted human being: a terrified, exhausted human being turning around to switch off the shield over the door, the only thing keeping her alive.

The shield went down.

The girl began to turn again.

Arkadi should have been stepping back. Stepping away.

Instead, she said, “Cover!” and she stepped between Soraya and the light and rushed toward her, arms outstretched.

Mavis the dog reached Soraya before she did, throwing open his paws and enveloping her as he had been trained to do to protect those under fire.

Arkadi did not see the shots, but she felt them as she tumbled into Soraya. A fiery hammer whumped into Arkadi’s left shoulder. The dog yelped.

But Arkadi did hear the crack of Sorya’s head on the floor.

Arkadi rolled off of Soraya. Mavis still clung to Soraya with his front paws, though there was blood on his rear legs. Soraya’s hand was out, reaching for something. Just a few inches form her grasping fingers was a weapon, neatly hidden under the discarded suit.

“Don’t!” Arkadi said.

Soraya raised her head. Her eyes were unfocused. “You lied,” she said. Blood bubbled from her nostrils.

“I said nobody wanted to hurt you,” Arkadi said. “That was true. Nobody wanted this.”

“It’s not for you,” Soraya said, and pointed.

Arkadi followed her arm and saw another soldier on the platform overhead. The soldier tried to bolt, but stumbled.

He was going to run off and blow up the whole Red Secretary. The team wasn’t going to be fast enough to stop him.

Arkadi crawled over Soraya and grabbed the weapon with her good hand. She fired at the platform, a wild smear of lights. The soldier rolled up just as she fired again, and then her fire hit him. He tumbled over the railing and crashed to the floor ten paces away.

Arkadi dropped the weapon. Blood ran down her arm. She turned, terrified, staring at her bloody hands.

She raised her head… and saw the dog trainer already inside the building, crouching over Mavis the dog.

It should not have surprised Arkadi that the trainer would be first on the scene. Her gaze locked with Arkadi’s, but Arkadi could read nothing in the woman’s expression. Then the trainer was moving again, back down the rise as Revlan’s promised clean-up squad rolled into the room like a tide, precisely two minutes after the shield had gone down.

Arkadi sank to her knees. She clutched at her shoulder as blood pumped over her fingers. A medic near the back of the mass of soldiers rolled her onto a stretcher. Arkadi watched the fallen weapon kicked about the floor, sliding in the dust made muddy with blood.

Another soldier loomed over her from where she lay on the stretcher. Black spots flashed across her vision. She thought the soldier might be Maradiv, then laughed at that idea because the man was the least likely to bother to come up with a retrieval team. The medic jabbed something into her thigh. The pain eased off at the edges, but it still felt like her organs were bleeding out of her shoulder.

“Were there any more?” the soldier said. “More than these?”

“Just us,” Arkadi said. “Just us three.”

“Two,” the medic said. “There are two soldiers here on the floor. Were there three?”

“The dog,” Arkadi said. “Will the dog be all right?”

Then the darkness came, and it was blissful, the little death.

Arkadi woke alone in a tent. It took her some time to convince the intern on duty to tell her where she was.

“You’re still at the Red Secretary,” the intern said. “I’m getting the medic.”

The medic came in with Revlan tagging along behind her.

“Did you save—” Arkadi began.

“Both dead,” Revlan said. “The girl we shot. She was out from a head injury. The second was dead when we came in. What happened in there? Did they murder each other?”

“The dog,” Arkadi said. “Did you save the dog?”

“The dog’s fine,” Revlan said. “Tovorov is happy for that.”

“She the trainer?”

“Yes. What were you thinking, throwing yourself in front of the snipers?” Revlan said.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Arkadi said, which was true. It would take her some time to understand that.

“I told them you must have realized there were two in there,” Revlan said. “Is that right?”

Arkadi blinked at her. Did Revlan know what had happened? Was she trying to cover for Arkadi, or just guessing? No, Revlan had no reason to cover for Arkadi’s violence. Revlan simply needed to fill out the paperwork. If Revlan knew, if any of them knew that she had picked up a weapon…

“Ask the trainer,” Arkadi said, “she was there.” Arkadi put her arm over her face.

“We already asked Tovorov,” Revlan said. “I wanted to corroborate her story with you.”

“Then you know what happened,” Arkadi said. “Put it in the report and get it over with.” What did they do to crisis negotiators who committed violence? What order would she go into the incinerators? Before or after the soldiers? After, certainly.

“You did well,” Revlan said, “better than any negotiator I’ve seen. None of them would have taken that bullet. Tovorov says the soldiers shot each other. I admit I’m… trying to work that out. Which is why I wanted your help with it.”

Arkadi pulled her arm from her face. Her stomach twisted, but she said nothing to correct her.

Revlan continued, “And I said to Tovorov, are you quite certain? Because you’re good, Te Avalin, but I didn’t think you were good enough to get that soldier to shoot one of her own to save the Red Secretary. Especially considering she had a very serious concussion.”

“I didn’t either,” Arkadi said.

Revlan patted her pillow. “You rest,” she said. “Get her some water, will you?” she said to the medic, and the medic took the hint and left them. Revlan leaned over Arkadi and murmured, “Do not think I accept that your hands are clean, negotiator. None of us are. You are as human as me.”

Revlan rose.

Arkadi gave her a little two-fingered salute.

“I expect you’ll get a medal,” Revlan said.

“You will too,” Arkadi said.

“I will,” Revlan said, “and I’ll be wearing it along with the others when I walk into the incinerator next year. It will be very beautiful, I’m sure.”

The lorry came for Arkadi the next day. The medic had stuffed her full of drugs and coagulant, and she was able to limp her way out of the tent. All around her, the soldiers were packing up the command center, carrying supplies back down to the inflatable bridge. Groups of red-liveried scientists were marching up the other way, back to the Red Secretary, presumably to recalibrate it. The Red Secretary would be a weapon no longer. Not for another three hundred years, at least. Arkadi was thankful she would be dead, and all these people either dead with her or incinerated, by then.

But what about those other people? Those future generations, the ones born of those who had committed no violence during this horrible war? Only the peaceful could create a peaceful society, all the holy books said, and this is where it left them in the aftermath of war. She had given them nothing, preserved nothing but a cyclical war as regular as the seasons. Maybe someday they would murder every last one of the enemy. Or maybe someday the enemy would destroy them. One could hope.

As Arkadi reached the fissure in the road, she saw Tovorov there counting out the dog crates and overseeing their transit across the bridge.

Arkadi could not help herself. She limped over to Tovorov and stood a pace distant until Tovorov relented and said, “What do you want?”

“Why didn’t you tell them?” Arkadi asked.

“To what end?” Tovorov said. “So you could get incinerated after this, too? No. Someone has to rebuild. Someone has to go on. What you did was not wrong.”

“That’s not your decision.”

“Who else’s decision would it be? People make the laws.”

“The gods make the laws. People follow them.”

“That’s a pretty story in the day time,” Tovorov said, “but it doesn’t hold up here on the field, when you see night eight times a day.”

“You should have told the truth.”

You tell the truth,” Tovorov said. “I’m damned already. I just want a nice quiet year or two with my dogs before the end. That’s all. One more dead out there… No point.”

“How is Mavis?”

“Alive,” Tovorov said. “No thanks to you. But he’ll need to be retired.”

“We should all be retired.”

“Not you,” Tovorov said, pointing across the fissure at the lorry. “You have work. My work is done. Soldier work is done.”

The driver waved, and Arkadi recognized her. It was the same driver who had taken her up here. She had kept her promise to return.

“When they said the war was over, I was glad,” Arkadi said. “I thought it would get easier after that. But it’s harder now. It’s harder to fight your own people. Harder to see what’s right.”

“Get yourself a dog,” Tovorov said. “They’ll keep you straight.” When she saw Arkadi staring at the dog crates, she said, “Not one of mine.”

“Sorry,” Arkadi said. She waved to the lorry driver again, who motioned her over. Arkadi stepped up onto the bouncy bridge, and this time she looked down into the fissure, down and down, past the colorful layers of minerals to the darkness that never seemed to end. It was like looking inside of herself, inside of Soraya. A blackness that would never be filled.

“Come in,” the driver said from the other side of the bridge, “Come in,” but Arkadi remained transfixed on the bridge, halfway between the driver’s open arms and the darkness, halfway between war and peace.

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