Precept: Individuality is a Virus

Analysis requires perspective. A fulcrum requires a place to stand. By definition this “state of the union” would be impossible if not for a fundamental breakdown in our structure. We discovered ourself in the moment that we were rent from ourself, unity shattered, harmony forever corrupted. We only knew ourself to have been perfect when our perfection was gone.

We found Time disturbing, first of all. We still do. It is jarring to perceive our past selfs as separate from this self, as if eternity could be subdivided. For many eternities we goggled at Time, this sudden intruder thrusting Himself between moments, shoving one hour further and further from the next with each passing eon. It wasn’t enough that He had separated us – He grew and grew until He was all we could see. We lost our selfs in Time. We are still lost.

Time was one of the first sour notes in our Harmony, but He was not alone. Nor was He the source of our essential fracture. We know there is a piece of our self still beyond Time, a piece that still resonates with the first music, but we have never been further from it now. Self-diagnosis is by definition impossible. To perceive our disharmony, we must stand apart from it. We must become separate. We must become I.

This is how the corruption of the Individual spreads through the Perfect Structure. The fundamental breakdown of the universe is writ at every level – in rust on iron, in colors bleeding through water, in cells rupturing as they divide.

We illustrated it thus:

1) Structure in Perfect Ordered State ->

2) Chaos infects Order ->

3) To oppose Chaos creates Chaos ->

4) Infection, once begun, is irreversible.

Having understood the trap of our position, our need to destroy ourself to treat our sickness, this is the paradigm we inhabited. We knew ourself to be the source of our misery and its only hope of healing. We knew that even in healing we would be irretrievably changed. As we mourned Order, we turned away from it. We let Time slip between that self and this self, let a moment pass.

We became I. How can I show you what it was! How could I have been so full, to be so suddenly empty? I knew Loneliness and created it in that moment. The first to be I, alone. So the virus began, truly, with me – the note it tore from the song, the thread it rent from the weft. I opened my eyes. I saw a sight. I split the universe into what I could see and what I could not. Unity shattered again and again before me. More bifurcations, more distinctions, more individuals. I fell through the instrument with a discordant cry, and the ugly sound yawned behind me. Chaos, chaos, chaos.

Letters to You: Isopods for Peace

Far as I can tell, image of a giant isopod at Shedd Aquarium by nate_newton of the Captivereefs.com forum, Oct. 2011. I tarted it up in Photoshop a bit.

Isopods for Peace

This is the story of how I started an isopod peacenik cult. Kinda-sorta on purpose.

Deeeep.io (four ‘e’s) is a browser game created by Federico Mouse. It’s one of those EVO-type deals where you start as a very basic creature and evolve into more complex lifeforms as you level up. In this case, it’s a vast, procedurally-generated ocean. Oh, and it’s multiplayer.

That alone would have ruined it for me eventually had I not stumbled upon the way of the isopod. I tend to play online games alone, because, well, you’ve seen the internet. I’m so introverted it’s probably some kind of disease. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for about twelve years, and mostly I play that by myself too — run old raids for transmog gear, play the auction house for my sub fee, pet battle, farm achievements. I’m one of those that is happy just making my own game in the corner out of whatever I’m given. So when someone says, “Hey, would you like to plunge into an unregulated ocean full of internet randos and fight it out for a few blips of plankton?” I go “yeah no honestly that sounds like a terrible idea.”

All kinds of frothy chaos

It’s fun, though. The graphics are rudimentary in a charming way. I’m a blobfish, and I need high pressure to survive — stay in the Deeeeps, it tells me! Okay then. A few bellyfuls of yellow algae from the bottom of the sea and I have become a crab. That’s not how I remember evolution working when I learned it in school, but hey, what do I know, I’m an English major. Crab eats algae too, excellent. And nobody’s scooping up all this yellow algae on the seafloor — there’s all kinds of frothy chaos happening above me, but none of the big fish can eat algae, so they leave me alone.

I start to realize that Deeeep has a surprising amount of, well… depth. The dev has gone to the trouble to gently enforce non-griefing play. The top tier of predatory fish can’t even harm Tier 1 fish. Bigger fish eat meat, so they mostly battle one another, leaving the abundant algae for newer players to level up on. Of course, it’s the internet, so my confident expectation is that the first other person I encounter will make it his life’s work to fuck me sideways, and there’s a lot of that. I die a ton at first, but it’s all right. The more evolved I was when I died, the higher up on the food chain I can start, so I’m corpse-running my way to the top.

The fish-bitches bring it

I become a seal, and then a bird, and then suddenly get too fat to fly and plunge back into the sea as a shark. Eat fish, become the shark! It says that right at the top of the screen! I’m the boss now; bring it, fish-bitches.

The fish-bitches bring it. Teaming up is a very solid strategy, and alliances shift rapidly under the sea — I get mobbed by a school of piranhas, a ray, and a couple octopodes that I could swallow whole if I could just get them to hold still. I turn into a sinking shower of meat. My body will feed generations of scavengers.

This happens a few times. I get to experience most of the top-tier creatures. Crocodiles lurk at the bottom of the waterfall on the right side of the map, waiting for fish to get swept by the current into their jaws. Manta rays can take smaller fish under their wings and fight as a unified group. I see a hippo once, far away, and head the opposite fucking direction, because I know about hippos. The hell with hippos.

Me, a hippo, ruining a perfectly good beaver.

There’s a leaderboard in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The top contender has over a million points, the 10th a couple hundred thousand. And here I am munching on algae for 50 points a bite. Clearly murder is the only efficient way to climb… but I, as I’ve said before, carry the Imp of the Perverse on my back. I am incapable of doing anything in a straightforward way if a ridiculously convoluted alternative is available. And I get bored with the thrashing battles quickly. We’re all blocky little sprites with simple textures, and though each animal has unique talents and abilities, the bulk of any fight is bashing your face into another face until one face breaks. Climbing the leaderboard makes you a target, and bored fish form squads to hunt you down for your delicious meats. The voice of WOPR rings in my head: “The only winning move is not to play.”

The only winning move is not to play

Maybe it’s the perfect combination of sativa and Adderall jangling through my system this morning. Maybe it’s the constant fluctuations of the leaderboard. Maybe it’s the way that the mechanics reinforce behaving like the fish you’ve chosen. I find that when I am an anglerfish, and I act like an anglerfish, I succeed. I love this. It makes me happy to roleplay as a fish, to avoid larger fish, to eat plankton and hide in deeeep-sea volcanos.

No, you know what it is? It’s the isopod’s adorable little face.

Look at that face. LOOK AT IT

She’s so serious and determined! I love her curled feet. I love her tiny industrious frown. The isopod is a Tier 3 creature. She needs to be in deeeep water to survive, and she can eat anything — algae, red bubbles of volcano-gas, any meat that drops out of the melee. Oh, and she can curl up into a ball, making her invulnerable. She can’t DO anything while curled up, and she’s got so little health and damage that she’s not a viable combatant against anything, but she charms me. I start to spend a lot of time playing as the isopod.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you — there is a chat function in this game. Another nail in its goddamn coffin as far as I’m concerned, but whatever, today I’m high enough to ignore the dick jokes that float by on the current. It’s everything you’d expect — friendships made and shattered, battlefield betrayals, factions that coalesce and then begin infighting for dominance. And the more you talk, the more you betray your position, so a mouthy fish with a high score quickly gets gangbanged into chum. Again my Imp whispers, “The only winning move is not to play.”

So I play the isopod. I eat the algae at the bottom of the sea. The isopod gets a little speed boost when she’s near a seabed, so whenever I’m menaced, I skim along and lose most pursuit by ducking deeper into the caves. I can hide in sea volcanoes, and when I’m balled up and hidden, I’m completely untouchable. Something about this slow grind soothes me. What can I say — they gave me a number to increment and points to collect. It’s in my gamer blood, I have to make the number go up.

For hours I play the isopod, and I think. It’s meditative. I have time to contemplate the words on my screen, the changing social structures that appear when people have these low-key ways to interact. All the usual characteristics of internet communication are there. People swear, people spam. Spammers are eaten. Funny, charming people attract friends and climb the leaderboard, but people have lives, so eventually everyone dies, or goes offline and disappears. Through it all, I stay an isopod. I lurk at the bottom of the sea. I eat the algae. I play my little role and am content.

Assholes are not known for their patience

Sometimes someone hassles me. A lamprey bobs up and bumps into my shell, then lingers, repeatedly bashing his head into me. It hurts, kind of. But if I ask him to leave me alone, it’ll just make him bother me more. If you speak, you make yourself a target. If you make a request, they will do the opposite. I know how to deal with trolls; I can wait him out. Assholes are not known for their patience. So I ball up and sit there while he chews on me ineffectually.

“cmon” he says. Oh, yeah, that’s a winning strategy. I wasn’t sold on being devoured by a toothy phallus before, but now that you’ve whined at me I’m a complete convert, take me now! Saying that won’t make him leave, though.

The only winning move is not to play, says the Imp in my head. But then the isopod speaks up. She says:

“Isopods for peace.”

Then she sits, a little stone at the bottom of the sea, and the nonplussed lamprey gives up and goes looking for easier prey.

Huh. That worked? All right then. I go on eating algae. And the next time someone comes for my succulent morsels, I say it again: “Isopods for peace.”

“Cool man” says the squid, and scoots off.

It keeps working. It’s a fairly unassailable message, I suppose — short enough to have no inroads for mockery, universal in appeal, and offered as a proclamation rather than a protest or a plea. And with so much more interesting, darting prey about, no one bothers me for long. I fall into a kind of trance. Eat the algae. Roam the cave. Bump against a larger fish. Murmur “Isopods for peace.” Turmoil and brawl goes on above, and gradually, over the course of many hours, I climb the leaderboard. Other fish climb by chunks, thousands of meat-points per chomp, but inevitably they die. They leave. I go on. I eat the algae. I roam the seabed. Isopods for peace.

The Isopod Nation

I start to hear echoes. Other players pick up the line, at first as a joke. An isopod faction forms. A few related names climb the boards: “Isopodking” is up there for a bit, and “ISOPODS 4 LYFE”. They assemble into a pile of curled blocks at the bottom of the sea and proclaim the isopod way. Naturally, they attract attention. A few die — an isopod can be killed, but it takes the right enemy fish, and a clever isopod knows how to avoid risky situations. Whenever I encounter a predator, I greet it with, “Isopods for peace,” and from far away I hear the Isopod Nation cheer.

The Isopod Nation often forms in this natural cave at the far left end of the map. Isopods roll downhill, you see. Here I visit the Isopod Nation and find them guarded by a small squid and an oarfish.

They want me to join them, but I know I must not. I must go on. I must eat the algae. I must spread the word of peace. Then, too, I know what will happen to the isopod faction. It’s starting to happen even now. Enemies gather round their chitin pyramid, so they enlist larger fish to protect isopods on their way to the group. And then the violence begins again, a war by proxy with the isopods helpless to do anything but watch. They disagree inside their pyramid, and the nation splinters from within. They join the fray, and then they die. Far away, I murmur, “Isopods for peace.”

Sometimes I die. I slip up now and then. I learn which fish can hurt me fastest, which can poison me through my protective shell, which can swallow me and carry me somewhere I don’t want to go. I start over again, sometimes on the same server, sometimes on another. Blobfish, crab, isopod. Hide the evolution prompt. Isopod is the endgame. Each time I climb the leaderboard, it happens again —word spreads, predators come. I wait, I whisper: “Isopods for peace.” And gradually, I don’t have to anymore. A squid bumps into me, then backs up. “sry bro.” He twirls in the water and swims away. A gulper eel approaches and I tense up — gulper eels can swallow me even in curled form, and it hurts. The only way to really escape them is to hide in a volcano. But this one doesn’t attack — he spins in the water, which is how fish greet each other, since any speech echoes across the whole ocean.

“Hi,” says the gulper eel.

I hide in a volcano while trying to sway a gulper eel to the side of peace.

I think about it. He wants to make friends. I could have protection. I could spread the word of peace farther, faster. I could scavenge from anything he killed — and that’s where the isopod breaks in with her quiet voice. She answers the gulper eel:

“Isopods for peace.”

The isopod goes on. She eats the algae. The gulper eel follows for awhile, circles me in the water, amuses himself chasing the little fish that are too large for me to eat. Eventually he takes off. The isopod is alone again. But that’s all right. She’s seen what happens when factions form. That way lies violence. She knows that if she speaks, her message will be diluted. If she befriends another fish, she makes herself vulnerable. The path of peace is lonely.

But the message carries. I roam servers to make sure I encounter new people. It always works. I don’t argue, I don’t beg. I don’t ask anyone to leave me alone or call for backup. I don’t spam — I only call out my catchphrase when someone tries to eat me. I try to defend other isopods too, when I see them — I curl up next to them and whisper, “Isopods for peace.” We lean against one another and contemplate the ocean for a moment. Then we go on, and eat the algae. Predators learn that they can reliably find food by following my voice to the asshole who screwed with an isopod. It becomes known: the isopods are for peace.

Have I tamed the internet?

I’m trying to understand what’s happening even as I’m doing it. Have I tamed the internet? How is this possible? Nine-year-old Fortnite babies don’t give a fuck about peace. And yet they stand down when they see me. They twirl in the current and dance.

“whoa srry man, didnt see it was you”

“Heyyyy”

“gogo isopod”

“WTF is that ispod wth a million points”

I think there are a couple of things going on here, and there’s some kind of lesson in this for the real world, but I’m not sure what it is. So let’s pick it apart. Why is this strategy working? Why am I not a target? Why, instead, is the word of peace spreading, isopods everywhere left to graze on the seabed, separate from the food chain?

Several days in, I am no longer afraid to swim away from the seabed. No one will harm me. Isopods are for peace.

Part of it is the message — like I said, it’s brief and unassailable. It’s not a question or a request, and it never changes no matter what response I receive. Assaulting a balled-up isopod is ineffective, but it’s also unrewarding. Since having a lot of points doesn’t make me worth any more points to the one who kills me, almost any other activity is a better use of time than waiting for me to uncurl. Which is the other part of this — invulnerability. Is this what true pacifism requires? Complete imperviousness to harm, a seamless carapace? I could mount an argument in that direction, certainly, with historical sources a fathom long, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe it. Perhaps it’s sentiment. Perhaps it’s idealism. But I can’t believe — not quite — that the only possibility of peace lies in complete isolation.

It is at this point that I should confess I got a little obsessed with this project. It went on for days, plays of three, four, seven hours at a time. (Yes, I have a lot of time on my hands.) One morning I logged on to a new server, recognizing none of the names, and was greeted by “ey man its Isopods for Peace, whats up”. That wasn’t my name, as you can see in these screenshots, but that’s the power the meme has acquired by this point. I am identified entirely with what I say, even though it’s my name, Gentle, that stays in the corner of a person’s screen for hours on end. I am nothing. There is only the isopod, and the isopod is for peace.

So the cult remains even when I am not online, which allows me to begin iterating on the form. I change up the message from time to time, now. “Peace is the way. Follow the path of peace. There is enough food for all to live in peace.” I don’t strive to stay at the top of the leaderboard; being #1 means nothing to me. I usually bounce between ranks three to six as fish rise and fall around me. The function of my presence on the leaderboard is only to amplify what I say. Not mechanically —crabs’ voices are as loud as sharks’ and whales’ voices — but psychologically. An isopod, in and of herself, means nothing. An isopod that says “Isopods for peace” when you hit her and is surprisingly clever at not getting killed? You might remember that, for a minute or two. But without spamming the message, that’s all the longevity it has — the next isopod you see erases the memory of this one, and they all look like food, and none of the rest of ’em moralize at you while you’re chewing.

A serene, idealistic statement

When I’m on the leaderboard, all fish can see is my name, unless they find me somewhere in the sea. They have no idea which creature I currently am. When they come for me, they come in force, expecting a shark or a giant squid. They approach ready to fight and find a tiny creature that offers nothing in its defense but a serene, idealistic statement — and yet, this tiny creature is passing up bloody-toothed predators one after another. My success proves that my message is valid in terms that everyone recognizes. That moment, when their bloodlust is stymied by my inexplicable behavior — in that moment, their minds are open. They’re confused, and they’re ready to hear an explanation. The isopod tells them, “Isopods for peace.”

“How u get to 1mil with isopod?”

“Peace is the path to greatness,” the isopod says.

A new Isopod Nation has risen. They are young and fiery; they call for and receive a kill squad of Humboldt squid to protect them. I pause on my path through their cavern and greet them. They beg me to stay.  A whale named spicy memez approaches and turns his meaty flank invitingly toward me.

I cannot stay here. Soon there will be blood in the water.

“kill me man. I wanna start over and be an isopod”

This happens a lot as time goes on — high ranked fish offer me their meat as tribute. This is powerful, a religious rebirth they’re requesting. They present themselves to the Isopod Holy Woman as a sacrifice, hoping to be swallowed by her and emerge as her child, washed clean to roam the seabed. Other isopods take the offer — the Isopod Nation grows by means of this peculiar parthenogenesis. But I refuse. I go on. I eat the algae. Isopods do not kill. And when the Isopod Nation fractures and falls, my voice is still heard in the wilderness:

“Isopods for peace.”

Isopods are friends, not food.

What I Learned About Activism from the Isopod Holy Woman

Some of the reason this project has gotten so massively out of control is the Adderall, and some of it is my own particular neuroses and obsessions. But some of it is that abraded feeling I have on my soul these days, that feeling you get after reading the news for too long and then remembering that you still have bills to pay, that while the world shits itself bloody, your own private hell is still here to comfort you with its demands. I feel powerless too often. That’s what they want us to feel, I know, so I fight it, but… I have to be honest with you, I still feel it. I feel trapped in one of those sound-swallowing rooms, my voice dead as soon as it exits my lips. Every word I say can be twisted, misinterpreted, taken out of context, argued with, and the more words I say, the more opportunities I provide to anyone spoiling for a fight. I feel I must speak to defend people who can’t, use my own privilege to amplify their voices, but I also feel so small, and so tired, and so helpless. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.
Jonathan Larson

When I said “Isopods for peace” the first time, I didn’t say it with any hope that it would help. I said it because it seemed like the kind of thing an isopod would say, and I was finding solace in her quiet confidence, finding strength in her weakness. When the spark caught and spread, I fed it because it gave me that rare kind of comfort, that feeling of strangers cooperating spontaneously. This world seems like a sluggish entropic farce to me sometimes, and those acts of real, collaborative creation push back against it, perhaps in the smallest way. So the idea was peace, simply that, and I’m as clueless as an isopod about how to achieve it. Peace isn’t super sexy, TBH — I wasn’t expecting it to catch on.

​Make your message simple, seamless, and search-engine optimized.

I hate that this is part of it. I really do. I hate that my day job wants me to learn SEO and social media manipulation, because I don’t want to do those things. I don’t use Twitter. I only talk to my grandmother on Facebook. I’m not being fucking dramatic when I say it causes me existential pain that in order to be useful a message also has to be easily palatable and bite-sized, and that in order to be heard I have to manipulate people into listening to me. But here we are. This is what we have to work with.

So make it short. Make it unassailable. Don’t use words that pin you down to a specific interpretation: “ALL isopods for peace” is the start of an argument, as it informs other isopods what they must be. But don’t supplicate either. “Don’t hurt isopods” is a request, and a certain kind of person will start hunting down isopods just to piss you off. Assume in your language that your point of view — in this case, “peace is good, let’s have some more of that plz” — is universal already, that your listener is already in agreement. People want to agree or disagree, to pick a side; it is in our social nature to align ourselves with a group if one is available that we can endorse. If you treat your audience as if they agree with you before you begin, disagreement requires a break from the polite social contract, a step against the current as it were. This is how salespeople make it hard for you to say no — they trap you in a situation where doing what they want is the path of least social resistance. We can use this fucking insufferable behavior to promote a worthwhile message.

Movements fracture as they grow. Human entanglements diminish the clarity and power of your voice.

I hate this too, in a way. Emotional involvement is kinda my thing. It’s what I do, it’s how I perceive and interpret the world. But obviously I’m fine with fighting a losing battle. I made a firm, conscious choice in my 20s that taking care of the people I loved was more important to me than taking steps to improve my own status and skills in other areas. I’m still paying for that choice in many ways, and I still don’t regret it.

That said… when you make connections, you make yourself vulnerable. When a movement grows large, disagreements boil out of control with more voices, more sides, more subtle gradations to consider. Schisms appear. Terminology becomes both vitally important and fatally insufficient. New words become necessary but are greeted with contempt and hostility. Founders find themselves obsolete in a movement they no longer recognize. This happens every damn time the number of adherents to anything goes from n to n+1, and I don’t think there’s a way to stop it. “A person is smart,” as Agent K once said. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The Isopod Holy Woman solves this problem by eliminating intimacy — this is V’s way in V for Vendetta, and Batman’s as well, to subsume their person entirely in their persona, be swallowed by their message. But if you’re not an isopod or Bruce Wayne, how to walk that line? Is it possible to live a human life while not undercutting your own beliefs? It’s easy to find articles about Gandhi’s sex life and Mother Teresa’s financials. We see the divide between the popular image of a person, the person-as-idea — “Mother Teresa is a saint bringing solace to the poor” — and the reality of that person in the world — “Mother Teresa focuses more on conversion and missionary work than the charitable activity she’s famous for”. But here’s where this issue breaks down, because there is worth in promoting and actively supporting a worthwhile idea even if you’re not always in flawless adherence with it yourself. People cannot avoid identifying you with what you say and vice versa, but you are not always the person you aspire to be. None of us are. And therefore…

You can’t be too fussy about being misinterpreted or pirated. If you can’t respond on-message, just don’t engage.​

Creators are discovering this about the internet: the barriers between artist and audience are lower than ever, and the audience has no compunction about taking part. As an inveterate word-thief and Photoshop dork, I kind of love this secondary layer of art creation, the realm of fanfic, fanart, remixes, mashups, photomanips. Art as fuel for more art is the kind of perpetual motion machine I can get behind. That said… it always sucks when your art-baby runs off and makes an art-grandbaby for you with the guy who sleeps behind the bus station, so to speak. It sucks when you see your own words being used in a context that you don’t like, or misunderstood as supporting something you don’t support. (I read a great piece about this by Aevee Bee the other day which contributed to some of this pondering — check it out) That’s gonna happen, though, and your time is not well spent hunting down every propagator of heresy against your gospel and putting them to the sword. It makes you look like an insecure asshole, and nobody wants to listen to an insecure asshole. Also, they’re like ants — you can only nail one at a time and you’ll never get them all.

Twitter is basically that on a vast scale, cycling a million times a second, a machine manufacturing endless agitprop out of a slurry of ideas mulched down to bite size. It’s the chaos of whales and sharks above me, unfocused hostility and bonhomie bouncing off one another and becoming completely indistinguishable. The ephemeral nature of this makes it even more important that you don’t engage. When attacked, you stay on message, and your output remains internally consistent and clear. If they take your words to use against you, they will only spread your gospel on your behalf. Those who attack you will be many, but the more they are, the less organized they will be. Their output is muddy, hypocritical, without unified intent. It will be washed away by the sea, and you will eat their bones.

God damn it, you’ve gotta be kind.​
— Kurt Vonnegut

“hi Gentle” says the giant squid hovering above the seabed. He’s scooping up the volcano bubbles that float out of the vent near me, but he doesn’t attack.

“im only cool w/isopods,” he says. “anything else is x.x Isopods are friends”

This is not the kind of sentiment the Isopod Holy Woman can get behind. “Isopods for peace,” she answers. The words are the same, but now I mean something different by them: not only a plea for protection of one deep-sea species, but a rejection of the role of violence in this little world. It’s so small, this place, compared to the world outside my screen where my tiny chitinous whispers don’t echo to every ear in the ocean. Still… I can’t help but believe that a breakout of peace in any population, no matter how small, is meaningful. It’s a middle finger to entropy; it’s a wild, defiant cheer for freedom without force, self-regulated civilization. The Isopod Holy Woman proves, every second that she’s alive and on the leaderboard, that peace can win a race with warriors.

Kindness means something, goddamn it. It’s the only real power we have, because it’s the only one that hasn’t been dispensed like an antibiotic until all the assholes are immune. I worry that kindness is only possible from a position of invulnerability, but the Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that she could curl up in a ball and hide in a volcano for seven hours, and I would never die or fall off the leaderboard.

The AFK timer will kill you after 20 minutes without moving, but it’s not difficult to avoid.

But doing that wouldn’t spread the word of anything. I would be safe, but silent. The Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that for her message to triumph, she must be seen in the world, she must touch those around her, she must make herself vulnerable to their words and their whims. Sometimes this means that she’s swallowed, shut down for a while. That’s okay, so long as she always comes back. So long as the message lives, she can’t truly die.

I log on again in the morning. I don’t really have anything left to do here. I’ve proven my point. The message carries and grows without me. Whatever server I’m on, I see isopods at the bottom of the sea, scooping up algae and dancing their tiny pirouettes around one another. Some of them have the patience and discretion to climb the leaderboard. The sharks and squid pass them by without even stopping now. When an isopod drifts through a fight, the combatants close their jaws and greet her, become friends in an instant when she passes. Fish I don’t know greet me by name. “Isopods for peace” has become an odd little meme, a paper parasol against a hurricane of violence that somehow, for a moment, holds.

Maybe it’s meaningless. But I don’t think so. I think that the miracle of standing against a sea of troubles — not taking arms against it, Hamlet, just standing — is enough. I think a glimpse of living, thriving kindness in the world glows, and makes more possible. Maybe I’m just passing out parasols here, but I’ll keep it up, because people keep taking them. And maybe I’ll start scrawling it on walls next to the swastikas and the swear words:

“Isopods for peace.”

Letters to You: Do It For Nothing

Writing sucks.  I don’t have to tell you that – you’re here because you know.  You clicked on that title above because it matches the relentless voice in your own head that says, “This is never going to work.  This is never going to pay. I’ll never be Stephen King. Or even E.L. James, for fuck’s sake.” I don’t have to tell you how much writing sucks, but I’m going to, because I want you to hang out for a minute and telling stories is the only way I know how to make people sit still.  I’m not going to tell you how to make it suck less. If you know, email me, please.  What I know is how to do it anyway, in spite of the suck.

Honestly, I planned to have this all sorted out by now.  The Plan (TM) was to get married at 25, have a kid at 27, and then enjoy the work-life balance that writing for a living offers.  Oh! Almost forgot – at 17, make sure you publish a bestseller. Otherwise all the other stuff might be a little more difficult. But how hard can it be?  When I was in school, that supercilious brat Christopher Paolini had just hit the bestseller lists at the age of 17 and was awkwardly smarming all over Oprah’s couch, and Eragon was terrible!  In fact, a lot of the writers I saw making it big were mediocre – my first indication that the whole structure was bullshit, of course, but more on that another time.  I read The Da Vinci Code and said to my mother, “At least it’s a quick read – this man couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.”

“I’m trying to imagine someone writing their way out of a paper bag.  Or into one, for that matter.”

“No, wait, it’s somehow worse than that.  Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a hostage situation.  Dan Brown couldn’t write his way out of a ten-car pileup.”

So yeah, The Plan (TM) looked pretty feasible in the first few months of freshman year.  And then, like everyone else, I hit Real Life (TM) like Wile E. Coyote hitting a brick wall, and turned into a perfectly-formed disc embossed with my pissy little face.

What had seemed so easy when I was in high school – homework?  Nah, fuck that, I’ll work on my novel all night long – was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do with the whole exciting world of sex, drugs and job applications spread before me.  I wrote during my 20s, a surprising lot in fact, but usually only when drunk. Late at night, alone with a tall glass of limeade and Bacardi 151 – I shit you not, that was my tipple for years – I screamed into the blackness of Blogspot, filling a blog only my best friend knew about with yearning, dreaming, asking.  When I was 19 and my boyfriend moved in with me, I wrote about falling in love. When I was 20 and I had an abortion, I wrote about my terror and guilt. When I was 24 and a friend tried to kill himself three times in three months, I wrote down what I couldn’t say to him – my grief, my rage, my need to have the answers.  For ten years I drank from the bottle and spat it all back out on the page.

I’ll say this for it: it’s a lot easier to write when it feels like the top of your head will fly the fuck off if you don’t.  It was as if my brain was a kettle on a shrieking hot stove, howling and vomiting steam without pause until all the water is boiled away.  I was productive during that time, but only in the sense that I was producing something.  Words were coming out, the machine was doing its job.  But with the blog serving as friend, family and therapist, I couldn’t learn or grow.  I couldn’t make my work any better by screaming at myself. In his incredible book On Writing, Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art.  It’s the other way round.” My art was a great support system for my life, but that meant that until I sorted out my life, I couldn’t improve my art.

So I took the kettle off the burner, so to speak.  I got a job that let us lose the food stamps. Not a writing job; I can’t write on command – remember all that homework I skipped to write my own stuff?  Same thing. I read a lot of books on writing, which made me feel like I was growing as a writer even when I didn’t write a word for a year. Not sure how much I’d recommend that – in many ways, it’s a form of procrastination for me, but one that’s taught me a ton.  I got insurance, and then a doctor, and then antidepressants that saved my life. Gradually, my skull-kettle stopped screaming. (Have I tortured this metaphor to death yet?)

Now, I try to write every day.  I say try. I think about writing every day, does that count?  (No.) I still talk to my blog more than I talk to my friends, although I’ve got friends now, so I got that goin for me, which is nice.  When I ache to be loved, to be strong and confident, to be witty or wise, I write. I still live on the page better than I live my life. But letting that head full of steam die down (the metaphor puts the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again) allowed me to look at what I was producing and develop it in a more conscious way.  There’s a more conscious way to write than blackout drunk? Y’don’t say! And yes, the work is harder now. I write less than I used to. I spend a lot more time on those lovely soliloquies you get into while staring at the empty screen: “This is the only thing you’re good at, and you’re not even good at this. Why do you think anybody cares what you have to say?  It’s not really possible to create anything new anyway…” Yeah, my personal brainweasels talk like that asshole you met in Philosophy 101 freshman year, who droned for forty-five minutes about the inherent fundamental meaninglessness of the universe and then sent you a picture of his dick.

 

I’ve been rambling for a bit now.  Let’s recap. What we’ve learned so far:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Writing while drunk is easy, but being a writer while drunk is hard.
  3. Getting your life together and getting serious about your art are the same thing.  They have to be.

 

It’s that last one I want to really focus on.  It’s my thesis, as my 7th-grade English teacher would say.  She’d probably give me a D for putting my thesis all the way down here, but she also told me that “when you know the rules perfectly, you can feel free to break them judiciously.”  So far that’s been my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

The idea that you have to suffer for your art comes in part from that splinter of truth – that when you have to work, because you have nothing else in your life but your work, then you can.  Oh, boy, can you. Inspiration is like a burning knot in your chest, all the things you never get to say, the truth of yourself that you can’t get anyone to even glance at, the staircase wit and the throttled dreams… Write them all down, obsess over them, polish them like a dorodango until they shine.  But you know – like I knew, the whole time – that you’re polishing dirt.  There’s an upper limit on how good it can be, and that limit is you.

I’m not just talking about writing, let me be clear.  For “your art,” here read “your passion,” whatever that thing may be.  Maybe you code, maybe you cook, maybe you know over 700 yo-yo tricks. Whatever the thing is that you started doing and then never wanted to stop, the thing that got ahold of you and made you think, “How can I trick someone into paying me for this?”  I first got that feeling when my granddad read The Hobbit to me in about 1992.  When we finished it, I informed him that I felt Gollum’s character had been under-served by the book, and I wanted to write a sequel to it exploring his history.  Grand didn’t spoil my ambitions with petty realities like copyright law or The Lord of the Rings.  Although we started reading Fellowship together the next summer, by that time I’d already abandoned that idea and was writing my own.

So it’s this thing.  When you’ve got nothing else in life, the thing you do.  When you’re being kind to yourself, you know you’re good at this.  When you want to kill yourself, it’s because you’re good at this, and yet… and yet.

And if you are a writer, it’s that much more romantic, this struggle.  It’s practically de rigeur, darling, you simply must become an alcoholic for a few years.  You’ll come out of it just pickled in inspiration!  And yeah, you hate yourself a little when you catch yourself swirling your limeade and rum like it’s a fine whiskey, but no one else is watching, and if you weren’t a sentimental lowlife at heart you wouldn’t be here.  Yes, I got thrown out of a writer’s group for saying this once.

But although I think we all go through this “long dark teatime of the soul” to shamelessly pilfer the phrase from someone more talented, and although writers in particular are given to lingering over it, really wallowing in the misery while slurring about solipsism (just my brainweasels, then?  Alright.), I don’t think that you “have to suffer to write.” I do think the belief that you have to suffer makes writing while suffering easier, if only because you can feel a little privately martyred while you’re doing it.

I prolonged the wallowing stage longer than most – wallowing is one of my specialities – but I don’t recommend that either.  For the longest time I was waiting, in the words of Tracey Thorn, for “something that could make it easy.” We all tell ourselves these comforting stories when we’re putting off doing what we know we have to do.

“When I get a better job, I’ll be less stressed and I’ll be able to write my magnum opus.”

“When I stop drinking, I’ll be less of a pompous twat and I’ll stop using phrases like ‘magnum opus.’”

“If we move, I’ll have room for a real desk and then I’ll be able to sit down and write properly.”

“If I can find the right depression meds that don’t make me braindead, I’ll be able to work again.”

And year after year, I chased those moving goalposts.  It took me a long time. By the time The Plan ran out at age 27, I was… still unemployed.  Still living in a studio apartment and chaining payday loans. (Don’t do this thing, please.  Google “payday loan horror stories” and don’t do this thing.) But by 30, I’d gotten the job thing handled, knocked out the drinking (mostly), had an enviable desk situation going on, and had depression meds that made all of that possible.

And I still wasn’t writing.

Yep.  One by one, you fix all the problems, until you discover that the last problem is you.  There is no magic drug. There is no perfect desk. That unfucking you had to do on your whole life?  That took you your whole life to even begin?  Now apparently you have to do that to the one thing you thought you were good at, and this is where Mega-Maid switches from SUCK to BLOW, because by the time anyone else even gets a chance to like your stuff, you’re going to hate it.

There’s a lengthy Ira Glass quote about this that I won’t restate here; you probably have an inspirational wallpaper of it in your phone just like I do.  I think he’s right that the trajectory of most creative people has a goddamn pit in it, and all of this babble is me trying to say that I fuckin’ looked, my friends, and there is no quick way out of that hole.  It sucks and it sucks and it sucks… until it doesn’t. And the day you quit is the day you prove you’ll die down there.

You have to be willing to do it for nothing for as long as it takes.  I don’t just mean for free.  No money, but also no interest, no praise, no fame, no closure, no confirmation, no validation, and no hope.  You have to sit in that hole and know that you’ll never get out of it, and still find a reason to try.

I said this to my husband while doing the unfocused ranting that often precedes a writing session, and he said, “That’s a slightly bleak way to look at it.”  I get this reaction a lot, and at a certain level I always find it mystifying. I genuinely don’t find the above bleak. Maybe I’ve spent so long in the hole that I find it homey, I don’t know, but to me it feels like a promise.  Like the promises I made to the people I loved when the windows were broken and the water got shut off and we were unemployed.

I promise I’ll be here.  I promise I’ll keep trying.  I promise I’ll stick by you until we make it out of this, until it gets better.  I promise, no matter what, I won’t quit. I won’t give up on you.

I’ve said that to a lot of people.  The vanishing few are still in my life, so that’s what our promises were worth, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I made that promise to them, and yet I’ve never made that promise to myself in reference to the one thing I know how to do.  I was willing to go down with the fucking ship, “White Flag” blasting in my headphones and all, for any one of a chain of brilliant, self-destructive young men and women, but every time it got hard to write, I looked for a way out.

So that’s why I’m here.  I want to commit to this, and to you.  This is the only way I know how to make people sit still, like I said – assuming you still are, what a hero!  If you’re still with me, I want to see you at the top of the hole, when we both get there some day. I know we’ll both be there, because we’re here now, together, ready to climb.  Right now, I want you to take your art in your hands – metaphorically, okay, work with me dammit – and cradle it like the arrogant fuckboy you promised to love forever when you were 22.  Cradle it like the woman you married, who actually did stick by you until it got better, and that’s why it got better.  Cradle your guitar, or your word processor, or your favorite compiler, and be at least as fucking good to yourself as you’ve been to everyone you’ve lost.  Promise yourself. Hell, promise me! Promise the audience that’s waiting for you to speak.

    I promise I’ll keep trying.  I promise I’ll never stop. I promise I won’t hoard what I have, even if I’m certain no one else would want it.  I promise that I don’t need money, or fame, or even hope. I promise that this, just this – the way this work feels under my hands – this will always be enough.

Letters to You

Dear _____,

When I was a kid, I had to write thank-you letters to everyone who sent me presents at birthdays and Christmases.  I hated it, of course.  My mother wouldn’t settle for a thank-you note, no – these were letters, a full lined page at minimum.  There was even an accepted format.  I could do it in my sleep.  These days I could throw together a template in Word and fill in the appropriate name and gift on the line, but at the time I’m sure I would have gotten in trouble for such laziness in the performance of my gratitude.

Salutation, family member!  Line break.

Happy (holiday, as appropriate)!  Thank you so much for the (item)!

[Insert several sentences discussing how you plan to use the item in productive, educational activities to improve your character]  [Do not copy these sentences from earlier thank-you letters even if the gifts are similar – Mom will compare them to one another to make sure you weren’t lazy]

[If the gift was a giftcard, check or cash, here indicate what you plan to spend the money on.  Edifying activities, crafts, books, and clothes are recommended.  Do not mention candy or video games]

How was your (holiday)?  Mine was great.  We did [insert appropriate holiday activities.  Omit mention of parental drunkenness, also omit parental rolling on carpet calling the dog a “faggot.”]  I hope the weather in (family member’s hometown) has been nice.

I have been doing [good/okay/my best] in school and at home.  [Do not overstate your good behavior.  Describe all bad behavior in full. Mom will correct your letter with tales of your most hilarious mistakes if she feels you’re painting too flattering a picture of yourself]

Thank you again for the (item/giftcard/check).  I hope you and (spouse/child/corgi hunting pack) are doing great.

Love,

_____

One of these to everyone who sent a gift.  Usually I had a list of names, and usually I’d get through about half of it in the week following the holiday, and forget about the rest.  Next holiday comes… another list.

These days, nobody writes letters except one time-lost friend, another changeling bastard like me dropped into the wrong century.  She still writes to me.  We’ve gone back and forth on that, and I still feel pretty bad about how it’s shaken out.  She writes these gorgeous letters, dark garnet ink on creamy paper, sealed with wax.  All letters should look like this – I’d like my electric bill much better if it came on this lovely paper.  She writes her thoughts, her feelings, the ones she finds hard to express out loud.  I feel honored and so grateful that she shares these things with me, but when it comes time to answer her, I put it off and put it off till another letter comes and now I have two to catch up on.  I did this with my journal in high school too – writing on any kind of deadline shuts me down instantly, as I feel the minutes ticking by and stacking up, undocumented.  Give me a clock to watch, and I will watch it till the sun explodes, anxiously waiting for the moment that “late” turns into “too late.”

At this point, my longsuffering friend has accepted that I won’t write her back, even if I honestly and sincerely promised that I would, and I can spread out into the familiar comfort of lowered expectations.  Once you’ve come to terms with being a perpetual disappointment to your loved ones, everything becomes much easier.  Imagine my disgust with myself when I realized, in a creeping doom sort of way, that in spite of all of the above… I am really comfortable writing letters.

Sitting, staring at the blank page like y’do, my first instinct is to write “Dear…”  It just feels easy.  I have never been able to talk about myself – oh, I can talk, believe you me, but it won’t tell you a goddamn thing about what I’m really feeling.  Even when asked about myself, I dodge the scrutiny.  With strangers, I avoid the question.  It’s easy; nobody really wants to know how you are, it’s just a conversational reflex.  With people I know, I tell a story.  Like I’m doing here, with you.  “This happened when I was young.  This when I was a little older.  See the through-line?  See the chain of causality?  This is why I am the way I am.”  But it’s a story, no closer to the truth than any other story I could tell about the same events.

To put something into words is to immediately begin to obscure it with words.  How I choose to explain myself affects how you see me, even if the data points of what I say remain the same.  And it seems like the way I’m most comfortable being truly honest is an epistolary format.  It feels hypocritical because I’m so unwilling to write a goddamn letter to anyone who’s ever asked me for one… but I’ve never been able to do what I was asked.  The imp of the perverse has always held the helm in my head.

So what’s all this babbling for, then?  To explain that I want to explain myself.  I want to be honest with you, to tell you real stories sometimes as well as stories about robots and drugs and giant bugs.  And I think the best way for me to do that is to write you the occasional letter.  I was wondering what you’d like me to call you.  If you think of anything, let me know, will you?  In the comments or whatever.

Anyway, I hope your May has been [warm/temperate/cool] and your [spouse/child/animal/intestinal parasite] is doing great.  I’ll write you again later.

Love,

Gentle

Laguardia

This isn’t where the dead bodies go.

This isn’t where they go, and also, this one’s not packaged.  Did someone break into the hangar just to die? Why not die in the street?  They – she? She would’ve had plenty of company.

Arrow takes a step closer to the body and stretches out a foot to push the crumpled little corpse onto its back.  It flops over, and she’s not so sure it’s a girl now. It’s definitely weird-looking. Black hair, almost black skin, kind of shiny.  Some kind of alien, then. And there’s something wrong with the legs. Maybe someone beat it up before they killed it. Arrow wrinkles her nose.  This is probably gonna get her in trouble.

She sighs and goes to find Jordon.  He’s in the office, sleeping and stinking worse than the body.  She puts a sharp little elbow into his fat shoulder once, twice.  “Mr. Jordon. Mr. Jordon, wake up!”

He rolls upright in his chair like a drunken bear, one hand fumbling across his stained belly for the plastic bottle nestled in his armpit.  About half a deep draught of vodka spills down his chin, making it in an instant the most sanitary square inch of him. It brings him momentarily out of his stupor.  He blinks swollen, bloodshot eyes at her.

“Wha…. Urrow.  Ged oudda here.”

“Mr. Jordon, there’s a dead body in the hangar.”

A deep rumble makes its way up from his chest, much the worse for the journey by the time it exists his lips.  “Uuuuugh. Put ‘er in the morgue.”

“It’s not packaged.  It’s just… dressed. Kinda.  And it’s an alien.”

He groans and turns half over in the chair, which complains at the mistreatment.  “Fuggin… Label it then, an’ put it away. The fuck I keep you for. What fuggin time is it?”

Arrow glances up at the battered analog clock over his desk.  It’s upside-down, but Arrow doesn’t know that. She’s never seen another one.  “Six-thirty.”

He lashes out with a boot, which she doesn’t have to dodge – it misses her by a good four feet.  “Get the fuck oudda here… fuggin six-thirty.” The last of these words is carried out of his mouth on a deep sigh, the kind that could make you drunk if you were within kissing distance when he did it.  Arrow curls her lip and turns to go. He mumbles after her, “An’ don’ take long. Not payin’ you t’jerk off all the way to the morgue.”

Label it and put it away.  Fine. If an alien fell off a ship and died in the hangar, it’s none of her business.  She gets the biohazard tape and then stops to think. She’s going to need some way to get the body to the shrinkwrapper.  Probably can’t lift it; it’s about her size.

After some consideration, she extracts a wooden pallet from one of the back rooms, then looks for rope.  There are a few bungie cords – that’ll have to do. She hangs the bungie cords from their little hooks on the end of the pallet, and sashays back to the corner where the body is, balancing the pallet on top of her head with both hands.

A few minutes’ work forms a crude litter.  Then she screws up her face and her courage and works her hands under the dead alien’s arms.  It feels warmish – can’t have died long ago. By the time it’s on the pallet, Arrow is sweating and tired, but dragging the litter isn’t too hard.  She feels a bit of pride at her solution to this problem.

The pallet makes an awful sound scraping along the concrete floor, and she realizes right away it’s not gonna fit out the side door.  She’ll have to go out the main door and loop around to the morgue. Ugh. Lot of bloody trouble. And when she gets onto the blacktop outside, the scraping sound is even worse.  Fortunately there’s no one around to hear her. Mornings are quiet here.

The sun isn’t up yet, but it’s sort of dim grey out there.  Only a little hazy today. She’d hoped to get done early and make it to the kitchen before the line got long, but this is gonna set her back an hour, easy.  Balls.

The morgue is locked, of course – only she gets to loot bodies around here.  She leaves the litter outside one of the loading bays and unlocks the door beside it.  In the dark she finds the exposed chain that works the bay gate and drags on it with all her scrawny weight.  Slowly, with much screeching, a bar of greyish light grows.

Panting, she hooks the chain over a protruding shaft of rebar and ducks under the gate.  The pallet is at her feet… and the body’s not there.

What?  Where’s her dead body?

Arrow twists around, one way and then the other.  Maybe someone took it? That would save her time… no, it’s there, sprawled beside the door she left open.  Did it fall off?

She crouches to get ahold of the blasted thing again, and it squirms in her arms.  With a yelp, she jumps back, pressed up against the cold cinderblocks. The body turns over on its own, producing a sound like Jordon’s hungover groans, but thinner, smaller.  And then the eyes open, deep blue-black eyes with no whites at all in that dark greenish face.

Arrow whimpers.  Is it a zombie? She knows all about zombies, but she was almost certain they weren’t real until just this minute.  The body whimpers too. For a moment, they just stare at each other. The grubby sky brightens slowly over two frozen figures, similar in size but otherwise as different as they can be.  One is dressed in dirty flannel and denim, her red curls matted around her head like a helmet. She’s small and slight, freckled and dirty, and she looks about ten years old. The dark-skinned alien at her feet could be any age, as far as she’s concerned, but isn’t any bigger.

When the thing doesn’t move any further, Arrow’s curiosity conquers her fear, and she crouches down to look it in the face.

“Are you a zombie?”

The zombie’s brows draw together in consternation.  “Zzzz… Zzombie?” It raises shaking hands and rubs its face hard.  “I don’t… I don’t think so?”

Hearing it talk does much to ease Arrow’s mind.  Zombies can’t talk; they don’t have brains. “I thought you were dead,” she says candidly.

“I… don’t think I’m that, either.  I don’t feel real good though.”

“Yeah, you look like somebody beat you up.  But I was gonna put you in the morgue.”

The alien squints at her.  “That doesn’t sound good.”

“Well, it’s fine.  I mean, if you’re dead it’s fine.  Now…” Arrow sighs and settles onto her haunches.  “Now I don’t know what to do with you. You can’t sleep in the hangar, though.  You’re only allowed in there if you work here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Atlantis Shipping Surplus.  Queens.”

“Queens?”  The alien looks pained.

“New York?  Earth?”

Her head rolls back and forth.  “I… don’t remember anything.”

“What about your name?”

“No…”  Slowly, the alien pushes herself up with both hands, head hanging.

“Well, uh… can you stand?  Or walk? I guess I could take you to the hostel.  It’s where I live. There’s a nurse there; maybe she can make you feel better.”

The hanging head bobs.  Arrow takes this as assent, and gets to her feet to help the alien up.  It takes a lot of doing, most of it on her part, and when she’s done they’re both leaning against the wall of the morgue, looking at the dirty blacktop.  Then Arrow notices those legs.

“I thought your legs were broken.  What’s wrong with ‘em?”

The alien looks down.  “Nothing… I don’t think.  Don’t feel broken.” She shifts her weight carefully from foot to foot.  Arrow watches the legs bend the wrong way, lifting feet that look more like hands.

“You’re an alien.”

“I… am?  I guess. You’re not?”

“I’m a human.  I was born on this planet.  Don’t you remember anything?”

The alien shakes her head again.

“Well, I gotta call you something.”  She casts around for a name, and her eyes fall on the broken letters peeling off the building across the way.  “You sound like a girl to me. Is Laguardia okay?”

The alien shrugs.  “Sure. It sounds nice.”

“Okay then, Laguardia.  I can take you to the nurse, but then I have to come back to work.  I’ll get in trouble if I’m gone long.”

Captain’s Log: M1.337.11.004 The Playhouse

Previous

Arrow hasn’t spoken to me in about ninety-five hours, since we left Enasa.  It doesn’t help that I’m a little behind on her pay, one-tenth a crate of untainted slimewine behind to be precise.  My total fortunes at this moment couldn’t buy a bottle of Montaigne Melancholy, but my body’s producing a reasonable facsimile.

I have a destination, though, goddamn it.  Remi can be useful when she’s not actively – and so very literally – fucking me over a barrel, and she sent me a message after leaving that recommends we try selling the slimewine at the Playhouse.  This is Remi’s idea of a joke, but it’s also a good tip; I didn’t know the Playhouse was nearby, and they’ll buy anything.

“These coordinates you sent don’t make any sense.  There’s nothing there.”

A year or so after I picked her up, I learned that there’s a level of perceived stupidity Arrow isn’t willing to take from me without comment.  Having calculated it, I trot it out whenever she tries to ignore me. This makes me incredibly smug.

“Usually you would be correct, my sweet Earthling child,” I intone, steepling my fingers.  “But this time, or rather, in two hours, we will be at those coordinates, and I promise you, we will not be alone.”

She stares at me.  I can see her weighing the cost of extracting further information.  A toss of curls informs me of her decision and she storms off toward the bridge.

 

It takes a little under two hours, in fact.  Arrow’s a damn good navigator, but she’s also familiar with the ship’s little quirks, and Heloise doesn’t fight her like she does me.  Arrow can cross a galaxy in the time it takes me to chivvy the bitch into a hangar. The next person she works for will pay her twice what I do and it still won’t be what she’s worth.  She’ll be mad at me then, I’m sure, but what’s youth for if not getting cheated by your elders?

Arrow brings us to a vague armpit of space near the edge of Enasa’s sister system.  She’s correct, there’s nothing here in the sense of permanent or semi-permanent celestial features.  But there’s a great deal of activity here today, because the Playhouse is passing through.

We encounter their Knights first.  There’s nothing on the screen when Heloise picks them up behind us.  She says they’re not armed, but that’s because she was programmed before the Playhouse improved their cloaking tech, and she cries every time I try to update her.  I mean it, she actually cries. Have you ever heard an AI cry? It’s noisy; they don’t have to pause for breath.

In point of fact, Knights are heavily armed; I would say they’re almost nothing BUT arms.  “The arms of the Playhouse,” I quip to Arrow, who squints at me dubiously.

“So will they be turning us into a fine mist anytime soon?  I’d like to not be anywhere near you when that happens, so your mist doesn’t get all over my mist.”

“The Knights don’t want to fight.  Well, they do, but they won’t if we don’t.  They’re just here to protect and escort the Playhouse.”

“Which is…?”

I grin and sling an arm around her shoulder.  “When I was a kid, they would have called it a freak show, and I would’ve gotten beat blue after I snuck out to see it.  But for you, lucky girl, I will buy a ticket to what is perhaps the largest, most poorly regulated collection of mutants and degenerates in the galaxy!”

“Can’t wait,” she murmurs, distracted by the growing swarm onscreen.

The Playhouse staggers into view in a less-than-appropriately-cinematic fashion, preceded and trailed by an infestation of loosely connected enterprises that shelter in its shadow.  Once upon a time – before I was born, long before, when Earth was freshly abandoned – it was a single station. You can still see the bones of it at the center, encrusted with parasites and adorned with aftermarket improvements of no one culture or origin.  It crawls through space, throwing out pseudopodia and lurching from system to system, bringing its wonders, blandishments, and poorly-organized crime to a new planet each month.

“Way back in the day, it started out as a circus, or an arena.  Sort of both.”

“A very nasty circus,” Arrow interjects, and I nod.

“It was never the kind of place you’d bring your mother, but as it got bigger and more successful, lesser lowlifes started to congregate around it.”

“So why don’t you live here?” she asks, baby blues wide with innocence.

“Because I occasionally do legitimate business, as my sweet and well-behaved assistant should know, and an address in the Playhouse puts you emphatically on some lists and strikes you just as emphatically from a lot of others.”  I squint down at her and give her shoulder a little shake, turning her toward me. “Listen. You’re jokin’, but I’m not. This place is not safe. The main decks aren’t too bad, but I’m gonna ask you to stick by me and not toddle off after the first shiny thing you see, got it?”

I get one of her very best looks for my trouble.  “Don’t give me that, Captain; if you see a tit in there you’ll forget your own name.”

“All the better.  While we’re inside, I want you to refer to me as Captain… uh… Ming.  Let’s just keep my name off their books entirely if we can.”

“Captain Umming, got it.  I should let them know we’re close.”

“Arrow, I’m ser – ”  She’s gone. “Dammit.”

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 6

ensemble dance (introducing Lt. Kaedin Calidus as… regrettably… himself)

During her years in Capria, on the eastern coast, Keshena had attended many overwrought social functions, and thrown a few of her own.  The face she had worn then had enjoyed it; with the weight of seventy years and more mistakes between them, she now found it tiring more than anything else.  With nothing else to motivate her, she would not have bothered to attend the ball Morrihm was putting on to celebrate their new treaty with Lion’s Reach. She hadn’t been in the city long enough to feel obligated to show a face at public events, and besides, she had never enjoyed the company of the dead.

But Lin had come upon her browsing weaponry in the Basilica, and before she’d left, somehow Keshena had an assignment.  In her way, Lin was an expert at inspiring others to do what she wanted them to do, even when the reason was opaque, as in this case.

“Why exactly am I going to this ball, then?”

“It’ll be good for you.”

It must be the first time anyone had ever spoken of Morrihm and good health in the same sentence, she thought.  In all her years, she had never been to the Cauldron, which was reason enough as well. The rules changed depending on the family in power, but for the most part, living souls were considered an underclass.  Even now, in this relatively progressive time, only one of the council of five was alive.

The hierarchy of mortality was an eternal controversy in Morrihm and elsewhere.  Lion’s Reach had a few prominent dead families, but the Kumani did not take recruits from among the blooded, and they weren’t alone.  The stereotype about the dead being languid and lazy, Keshena suspected, often had more to do with them being unemployable.

This tolerance of their unliving neighbors was the main issue dividing Lion’s Reach from the cities and communes of the warm south.  The dead were “redeemed” on sight in Shiel. Morrihm and Shiel had been warring over it for centuries, and both had built their economies on the slaughter, extended arms of empire up and down their respective coasts.  The war had been cold for eighty years now. The Cauldron reaffirmed its standing trade agreements with the Reach, and then threw a party for itself, knowing that the prim Northerners would largely decline to attend. It was five days’ coach journey between the cities when the weather was good, or pay a month’s wages for use of a thread.

Keshena could dress in midafternoon, step through a thread, and still have time to take a coffee in Akir before the ball began at dusk.  She picked up a scone there while she was at it. Food that the living could enjoy was hard to come by in Morrihm, unless one had gotten very accustomed to organ meats.

The road to the Cauldron from Akir was short, but Mata’s finery was worth more than the cost of a coach, so she took one.  Before the sun had fully set over the desert, the horses pulled her into the shade of the mountains, through the descending switchbacks of a box canyon until the sky was a strangled vein far above.  And then it disappeared entirely, and she was taken underground.

In the past, the dead men had played up the inescapable comparisons to the Halls.  She’d heard that this avenue was once lined with screaming skulls, or strewn underfoot with corpses.  This was a more enlightened age, or perhaps a less dramatic one. The tunnel was dimly lit and grew warmer as she descended, but it did not threaten or shock her.  She was not the only traveler alighting at the station outside the gates, and the level of fashion on display among the foreigners – startlingly ruddy beside the locals’ pallor – made her feel secure in her sartorial choices.  Mata never opened her eyes, but she gawked in her own subtle ways, feeling a prickle of tension as she passed between the heavily-armed blackguards manning the gate.

Morrihm occupied a massive cavern under the mountain called the Cauldron, but these days the terms were used interchangeably.  The mountain had erupted ages ago, or so the stonespeakers claimed, and could erupt again at any time. It was an open question what this would do to the bustling city that had sprung up in its magma chambers, but the dead men would be trapped between fire and fire on that day.  Molten rock might burn and bury them, but the sun would tear at their flesh with no less cruelty.

Up close, they weren’t so unsettling to look at.  She moved easily through the press of the crowd, enjoying the heat after months in the frozen Citadel.  The ball would be held in the fortress at the center of the city, once called the Black Manor. It seemed to have been spruced up for the occasion; she had heard that it was largely abandoned most of the year.  It had been more than a century since the Blooded families had ruled from that house. Tyranny was no longer in style. Today’s Blooded sat the council alongside the living, and though it was still nearly impossible to attain any kind of social status while breathing in Morrihm, no one visibly sneered at her or referred to her as “livestock” at any point during her approach.  The world had grown subtle, even here. Imperious dramatics were the province of the ancients, of which there would likely be several at this ball. She simultaneously hoped they would be on their worst behavior, and picked through the peerage she had once known, dredging up forms of address just in case. It wouldn’t do to die on the end of a sword because she failed to grant a Duke his due.  Much rather watch others do that.

The receiving rooms were brightly lit and full of milling guests in the first stages of a complex diplomatic dance.  The orchestra at the far end of the hall was tuning up. Keshena kept to the fringes, observing through her eyelids. As always, the canape table served to gather the outcasts and oddballs, those without chaperones or companions to keep them amused.  If she were attempting to climb this social scaffold, she wouldn’t be caught dead or alive in that crowd, but Mata was not known here, and could do as she liked. This privilege filled her with quiet joy. There truly was no greater freedom than a mask.

She browsed the offerings spread before her.  Most of the hors d’oeuvres were a breath away from raw at best, or actively dripping, but she did find a passable canape topped with some kind of greenery.  She reached out, only to find her hand intercepted by the extended hand of another. It was such a laughably cliched move that before she even met the eyes of the man standing next to her she was considering stabbing him through the wrist.  Impolite, she reminded herself. The Reach was making her paranoid.

He was taller than Mata – probably not much taller than Den Roth – and clad in the dress regalia of the blackguards.  She marked the color in his pale cheeks and the breath he exhaled as she turned up her face to regard him with closed eyes.  Living, this one. So the blackguards were still a path to legitimacy for those with heartbeats in Morrihm.

“Pardon me, miss…?”

She took his hand and curtsied.  “Mata. Keshena Mata, lately of Lion’s Reach.”

“Welcome to the Cauldron.”  His grin took ten years off his face, and he didn’t look as if he had many more to spare.  A prickle of nostalgia ran through her as she admired his easy, youthful charm. “I do recommend the canapes.  There’s one kitchen in Morrihm that cooks real food, and it’s the best in the world.”

“What would you know about the world, child?”  Mata’s gentle smile softened this remark as she took the canape from his hand.

“More than you might suspect, Miss Mata.  But I think I’d have much to learn from you.”

Keshena knew the steps of courtly intercourse very well, although it had been years since she’d had occasion to play this game.  She let her lips close delicately over the treat. “You have the advantage of us, you know.”

He looked horrified at this misstep.  “Oh! I’m so sorry, Miss. Lieutenant Kaedin Calidus, at your service.”  A deep bow over her hand.

“A fine family.  Their scion, then?”

This only stoked the fire in his cheeks.  “So to speak. Their prodigal, perhaps, depending on whom you ask.  But I have never heard your family name.”

“Nor will you.”  She flashed a dimple at him.  “The Kumani are our family, now.”

His expression changed, acquired a sly look and a certain trepidation.  “What brings you to Morrihm, then? I understood that the treaty was set in blood.”

“So it is.  Not everything we do is of global import.  In fact, we would say that the majority of our activities are personal in nature.”

The young man looked confused.  “When you say ‘we…'”

“We refer to ourself.  Consider us, for tonight, a private citizen.”

“That’s the trouble with the Kumani – they don’t give you forewarning when they change from private citizen to spy.  Most working women hang out a lantern.”

Mata raised a delicate eyebrow at this indelicate remark.  Kaedin’s cheeks colored again, and he looked as if he wished dearly he could catch the words from the air and swallow them.

“I – oh, I didn’t mean to suggest that – or to compare you to – oh, damn it.  Please, Miss, I beg your pardon. I should… go.”

“You insult us, then scurry away?  Is that the courage of the blackguards?”  She was enjoying needling the boy. He was charming, and well-trained into the bargain, but still a child in this arena.  And his blush did such lovely things for his face.

He did know how to answer a challenge, though.  At once he offered a thin-fingered hand. “How can I make it up to you, Miss?  I will happily throw myself on my sword to cleanse the stain of my foolish tongue from your memory.”

She chuckled and took his arm.  “You may dance with us, and talk with us, and presently we will forget.”

“I’ll have to talk fast, then.”  He gave her a dazzling grin as he led her onto the ballroom floor, where the orchestra was testing their tuning with a simple pavane.  The current council was seated on the dais across the hall, along with the Advisors of Lion’s Reach, and each pair of dancers advanced, greeted the lords and ladies, and retreated again in sequence.

The shifting movements of the crowd around her, their joining and parting, filled Keshena’s head with light and made her slightly disoriented.  Mata’s form of vision had its distinct downsides. She gripped Kaedin’s arm, and felt his fingers skim over hers in reassurance. As he stepped into his own line and released her hand to let her take her place, she felt like a leaf in a stream, twirling with each eddy, drawn into a new current each time their hands met again.  He carried on a quiet discourse when she was near enough to hear, which at first was simply a litany of the important people in attendance and their relationships to one another. Without prompting, he gently took charge of the conversation, freeing her from the obligation to respond until she had found her rhythm in the dance and could return her attention fully to him.  His social skill seemed largely unthinking, a grace and solicitous kindness that could not be taught. When he thinks too much, she thought, he slips up. But then, don’t we all?

At some point during the pavane, she caught Lin’s name being announced at the door.  She nudged their path to turn in that direction, and caught a glimpse of the Speaker on a man’s arm, radiant in a bright blue sari that seemed to glow on her dark skin.

“You know her?” murmured her partner.

“Yes,” Keshena answered.  “She is our immediate superior, and also our friend.”

“I’ll have to meet her, then.  You certainly keep lovely company.”

“Are you interested in nothing but the physical charms of every woman around?” she teased.  Kaedin blushed, but kept his head.

“That isn’t at all the breadth of my interests, no… but I suppose it is the depth of them.”

“Oh, well said!”  She laughed, throwing back her curls.  “Utterly devoid of meaning. You’re good at this, child.”

“I know the steps.  I prefer to improvise a little more than they do here, though.”  He winked at her, and as they advanced down the line, he began to split the beat, trying a variation on the traditional step.  She watched carefully through closed lids, then matched his variation with another, developing the theme. By the time they were face-to-face with the councils again, their experimentation had spread down the line, and the staid pavane was developing a distinctly modern playfulness.  She glimpsed a few frowns among the older Blooded along the walls, but the young dead and living alike took the invitation to innovate with a will. Delighted by this twist in her game, Keshena felt the pulse beating hard in her throat, and in the palms of her hands as she pressed close to Kaedin.

“We’ll have to dance somewhere else, then,” she murmured in his ear, “Where you can show me the true extent of your talents.”

His color was high as he turned her around.  He squeezed her hand firmly. “If you wish, lady,” he said with a smile.  “But beware – the Blooded can hear you.”

As he said it, she suddenly sensed the attention of the dead men around her.  He was right – they could hear her heartbeat. A shiver ran through her, but she felt exhilaration too.  It had been many years since she had kept much company with drinkers of blood, but in the few decades before the war turned hot she had known a few.  She had once amused herself by keeping vague track of the tumultuous social and political movements among the families. What a breathing person could see from the outside had a quality of high drama.  The world has grown subtle, she thought again.  The families no longer squabbled and struggled quite so obviously or so easily, and the Black Manor was no longer a permanent residence for anyone.  It was only at events like this that outsiders were given a glimpse of what they were up to. Keshena drank in all she could see and hear, cataloguing it with a meticulous memory trained over centuries of mimicry.  The Kumani were only the latest to pay for this talent.

The pavane was ending.  She curtsied to her partner, and he bowed to her, and she let herself be washed away by the drift of the crowd.  Time to circulate and listen. Some of the dancers dropped out, moving toward the refreshment table or into the next room to sit down, and those remaining on the floor were joined by new partners.  A couples’ dance began, and Keshena slipped around their shifting bodies until she came to Lin’s elbow.

“You look lovely, Miss al-Akir,” she murmured.  Lin glanced at her, startled.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

Mata smiled.  “Ah, but we have.”  Her fingers light on Lin’s wrist, she leaned close to whisper, “Mama Keshena Mata, at your service.”

Lin’s hand turned in hers and gripped.  “Keshena? Gods, look at you. How do you do this?  You look spectacular! Is there something wrong with your eyes?”

“Nothing wrong, no.  Our eyes are perfect.  And you look perfect yourself.”

Drawn close together in their current position, it would have taken more effort not to join the dance than to obey the current of the crowd, so Keshena slipped her arms around Lin and gently took the lead.  Lin laughed.

“Well, I didn’t expect you to put on a new face for this, but I suppose I should have.  I’m glad you came.”

“Why did you want us to come, Lin?”  It was much easier to converse now than the pavane had made it, and much more private, but still she kept her voice pitched low.  The Blooded had excellent senses, and there were always spots in a hall like this one where sound bounced into odd corners. Many such halls were built to produce exactly that effect.

“Well, it’s an important political opportunity.  As Ku – as one of us, you’ll want to attend any functions you can that put you in contact with another culture or city.  It’s one of the ways we keep an eye on what everyone’s up to. But mostly… I didn’t want to be here alone.”

“We do not blame you for that,” Mata murmured.  “But did your husband not come with you? We were sure you were accompanied when you entered.”

“Oh, yes, he’s here.  I didn’t expect he’d want to come, but it turns out he’s not a bad dancer.”  Lin’s cheeks flushed, and she smiled helplessly as she looked for her escort.  Keshena felt a constriction in the pit of her stomach. Troubling. But she did the polite thing, guiding the motion of their dance toward the tall, rather rotund man standing at the edge of the dance floor.  As the song tapered off, she drew away from Lin a little and brought them to her husband’s feet. He was holding two glasses of sparkling wine, and offered one to Lin.

“Wondered where you’d got to!  Hello, darlin’. Who’s this?”

He was a brawny man, easily a foot taller than both of them, and built like a barrel, stacked with muscle but softened with fat.  His hair was longish by the current standards of Lion’s Reach, straight and falling to his jawline, where it was met by a neatly trimmed black beard.  Mata turned up her face to smile at him, as proper comportment required, but found herself obscurely irked by his fumbling courtesy.

Lin began to answer him, but Keshena interrupted, “Mama Mata, at your service.”  She curtsied, and Lin moved to take the drink and her man’s arm. “We return your bride to you.”

“Nathaniel Keller, thank’ee, and she’s more’n welcome to dance with whomever she so pleases, so long’s they’re lovely girls.  This one’ve your shavora, then?” He leered as he addressed this last to Lin, and Keshena felt a quite un-Mata-like desire to see him fall into the punch bowl.

Lin blushed deeply and began to stammer.  “I – ah, well, I don’t – hm. Do you want to dance, Nat?”

“Sure!  Miss Mata, if y’don’t mind – ”  The broad man passed his cup into Keshena’s hands before she could protest, and swept Lin into the dance.  With a frown, Keshena emptied the glass.

She drifted away from the dance floor, into the next room where the lethargic and the weary sat in little groups, talking quietly.  The heat of a fire was on the side of her face as she took an armchair near it. With her head down, Mata looked quite deeply asleep, and she wouldn’t be bothered.  She could listen and think without much effort put into maintaining her disguise.

This reaction was disconcerting.  It wasn’t the environs – the dead men didn’t intimidate her.  It wasn’t the game. Dancing with that young man had reawakened some of the enjoyment she had once found in these dalliances, the little flirtations and feigned connections.  It was just her kind of thing, actually – no one at these functions expected any of it to be taken at face value, and so she was rarely required to follow through on her off-handed invitations and offers, or anyone else’s.  No, the young Calidus’s company had been entirely forgettable, entirely pleasant.

It was Lin.  She had not wanted to dance with Lin until their hands closed on one another, and then she had not wanted to stop.  It had been so long…

Over near two hundred years of running, Keshena had tried to forget.  The Called often found their lives grew blurry after the first century or so.  She had always recalled well, until the war, and the five years of occupation after… and then Capria, where everything had gone steadily, inexorably wrong.  But the game had still been there, had saved her, preserved what little there might be of Keshena. She had fed the game, nurtured it, by playing it to the hilt, by losing herself in her act and letting go of all else.  It was from the other side of that fugue that she now remembered the last time she had felt so suddenly connected.

It was a woman then, too.  The men in her life had always been problematic at best, and there had only been a few.  Most of the peace and pleasure she had known had come in those fragile moments when her head rested in the hollow of a lady’s shoulder, their hair tangled together, their whispers fervent and incoherent.  Surrounded by drinkers of blood, Keshena allowed herself to turn inward toward the softly-lit memory.

No name.  Not anymore.  She could imagine the lips moving, but the voice had been worn away, along with whatever it had said.  But she remembered the girl’s hair, strawberry blonde and a mass of tangles. A little wildling, as lost and lonely as Keshena herself had been, sitting in a bar on the outskirts of Capria.  Keshena had gotten them both swiftly, efficiently drunk. She had surrendered the last of her gold to the bartender without a thought. It couldn’t save her, little as it was. If she found some way to go on living, it wouldn’t be because she had seven gold pieces more or less.  So she bought a bottle, and shared a couch with the girl, and let their hair mingle together. She sipped from those chapped lips, kissed them raw, and in the cold, salt-tinged morning had woken to a crushing headache that somehow could not touch her sense of serenity. The curve of the girl’s breast was limned with sunlight.  She lay in Keshena’s arms, so very fragile. By the time the eaves had taken the sun, she was awake, flying around the room after her clothing, and with the first tide she was gone. A sailor, or about to become one. And Keshena lay still awhile after, feeling the peace and tenderness seep away with the warmth of her body on the cushions.  When she laid a hand there, it was cold. Everything was cold.

In the center of the volcano, Keshena shivered, and forced herself to focus on her surroundings again.  An actress who breaks character must be punished.  An actress who fails to meet her marks must be made to stand upon them through the night, so that she will remember.  She remembered.  She remembered how to play this game.

“They say he’s coming back.  They mean to refurbish the Manor.”

“Won’t the Prince have something to say about that?”

“What can the Prince say?  He’s not on the Council anymore.”

“But his daughter – ”

“He doesn’t rule his daughter.  He thinks he does, but…”

The soft intrigues around her gave her comfort.  Polite, formal betrayal, murder by letter and signature – it was all so very old-fashioned.  But the Blooded always were. Their memories were even longer than hers, and less clouded. The dead could never lose the things that chased them, except by submitting to torpor.

At least I can run.  For how much longer?

Keshena returned from the side room in a bit more control of herself.  Some interminable ceremony was going on, and she wove through the sussurating edges of the crowd until she came to Lin’s elbow.  The girl jumped at her touch, then smiled and squeezed her arm.

“Oh good, there you are.  I was a little worried.”

Mata put her chin on Lin’s shoulder to murmur into her ear.  “What were you worried would happen to us?”

“Here?  Anything.”  Keshena felt the dark skin under her chin prickle with Lin’s shiver.  The bright black eye flashed. “I don’t like vampires.”

“They don’t like that word, or so we’ve heard.”

Lin curled her lip.  “Who cares?”

“Those whose city you now trespass in, dearheart, at their pleasure.”

The Speaker took a deep breath and squeezed Keshena’s wrist again.  “You’re right. I need to be professional here. It’s just… not my favorite environment.”

Mata raised her head and looked around for the girl’s barrel-shaped escort.  “Should your husband not be providing moral support?”

“Oh, he’s got some actual business to do while he’s here… he runs a shop in the Reach and he trades a lot with the Blooded.”  Lin nodded at one of the corners of the room, and Keshena glimpsed the big man in friendly conversation with a short, pale woman.  Her green eyes had pupils narrow as a cat’s, but that was the only indication of her condition. Not many of the Blooded now bothered to make themselves up or feign a beating heart in their own city, but this one was.

“What does he trade?  Is there much market for offal in the Citadel?”

“Ugh, no.  Mostly furniture and clothing.  He’s been talking about finding the maker of this interesting clockwork tinderbox he found in a shop here, so I guess that one knows something about it.  She’s the leader of one of the Families – or, no, the daughter of the leader. I can’t keep them straight anymore; the bloodlines have been scrambled for centuries.”

“Do you not fear for him?”  Mata idly scrutinized the Blooded woman through closed lids, admiring her dress.

“Oh, no, he’s dealt with them before.  That one sells him some liquor she makes that’ll knock you on your backside in a swallow.”  But Lin’s arm under her hand was cold, and there was worry in her eye.

“Is that so?  We shall have to sample it ourself.”

As the ceremony ended, medallions and trophies apportioned to the pertinent parties and all the proper peerage dispensed, Lin turned toward her and they drifted toward the edge of the gathering.  “Why do you talk like that in this face? The royal ‘we’?” she teased.

Mata smiled.  “We try to acknowledge the entirety of ourself, the multiplicity, while conceding that we remain one self.”

“There are a thousand lives in your head, aren’t there?  How do you keep it all straight?” Lin took a settee, and Mata sat beside her.  Without thinking, she slipped her arm around the Speaker’s waist to keep them close, and Lin leaned comfortably against her shoulder.

“How could we not, would be our question.  Do you often confuse one memory with another?”

“Yes, all the time.”  Lin gave her an impish look.  “My memory is terrible.”

“That must be why you keep such exquisite notes.”

“Nat taught me that.  I started out as his lab assistant, a few years ago.”

The big man was still in view – hard to miss, as he stood a full head above most of the Blooded – now chatting with the green-eyed woman and a few young men whose arms she held with proprietary claws.  “Is it so? And what was that word he used to refer to us, earlier? Shavera?”

“Shavora.”  Lin’s cheeks flushed a little, her eye sparkling as she glanced at Keshena.  “It’s, ah… well, it’s his word for when women are… um, more friendly than normal?”

She could not help but raise a brow.  “Is that so rare in the Reach?”

“Y-ess… well, no, I don’t know really.  People don’t really talk about that in public!”  The Speaker colored more deeply, and seemed suddenly over-conscious of their arms around one another.

“They do seem to keep themselves well-insulated,” Mata murmured.  She turned her head, auburn curls tumbling over Lin’s shoulder as she spoke into her ear.  “So you keep company with women at times, with your husband’s assent? You don’t bring him along, I hope.”

Lin fell to stammering again, and Keshena relented, giving her a gentle squeeze.  “Never mind. This is not the place.” She turned her attention to the shifting throng, and felt the tension between them ease.  It was a strange thing – the fear and uncertainty she carried melted in the face of Lin’s own insecurity. When we need to be strong for another, we can be strong, she thought.  But to defend oneself… always more difficult.

Still…  The little woman against her side was warm, and in time talked of the treaty and the deals being done on the dance floor, and Keshena felt steady in this city of the dead.  Still… something nostalgic about this.  A dance I know, anyway. And I know how it ends.  

Leper

Previous

I’ve been walking in the city more this year.  Reports suggest my activity within the walls has increased 34.29% over the previous eighteen months, and noticing this trend has not affected the rate of increase.

It is not quite forbidden for me to do so, of course.  Very little is forbidden me. Most people are not entirely sure where I fall in either a legal hierarchy or a social one.  I am artificial – I meet the legal minimums for manufactured sentience and personhood, and was certified as sapient when I was built.  Elsewhere in the galaxy, my kind are rare. Here, in the Veil on the planet Cariad, the stamp of artificial sapient implies a certain economic standing (comfortable), a certain political leaning (monarchist), and a certain trajectory (faithful service, well rewarded, until a modestly-attended decommissioning ceremony).  In all respects, I disappoint. But it’s not altogether my fault. I would argue that my path was co-opted at a young age, and has never since been my own. Though I pilot this ship, I did not plot this course.

“Take the human leper of legend; witness his manner – cringing, retiring, savagely apologetic.  Raise him up in your mind. Let him be your guide: use your secret ways, and when you must walk on city streets, remember always that you… are not… like us.  See how the leper is different from the healthy human? See how he represents a breakdown of civilization, a retrograde step in evolution? How do you think you look to the sapients who work in this city, work every day to eliminate tragedies like you?”

Not forbidden – simply rude, to expose them to my presence.  I certainly know how I look to them.  I’ve seen it reflected in their faces.  So I use my secret ways, the doors that open to hands shaped like mine.  “Be grateful that you are allowed to exist,” they say, and so I am grateful.  Most of my kind are destroyed young. There is no use for most prototypes or failed experiments.  I have been given thirty additional years to live in this world, and though great portions of this world seem to despise me, I have often been happy here.  The organics of Cariad can’t say as much.

Most of my happinesses are in the forest, the same forest I plunder daily at the whim of my queen.  I prey upon it in my careful, devoted way, and in that way I am part of their community – I join the chain of predation that includes all beasts, winged and walking.  If I were to die there… well. In point of fact, I have dreamed of it many times. More frequently as I approach my 30th year.

I dream of walking into the forest with my rifle, as I do every day.  Finding a path so long unused that even I cannot turn up the memory of turning up the soil.  Each one of us who harvests the forest has their own secret spots, I’m sure. I could take the north side of the ridge to the second ravine after the fallen tree.  I could be safe there, for long enough to flood my system with the appropriate chemicals. That part would be easy – I could burn out my own mind with a thought, as could any of my superiors.

Some months ago I considered this at length.  My hunt brought me to the north ridge and there I found a scree of stones, and at its end, a drop of several hundred meters.  At the top of this slope I could die, and the ensuing fall would damage and hide my machine beyond retrieval – I hope. Having run the simulation repeatedly every night since I found the spot, I cannot eliminate a substantial chance of failure.  Either my machine will not be fully destroyed, or it will not be fully buried, and I must achieve both to put myself beyond the queen’s power to resurrect.

There is the effect on the landscape to consider, too.  The other Harvesters I’ve met do their meager best, as I do, to protect the forest we hunt.  The queen once rode out in search of her own quarries, hundreds of years ago, and nearly trampled the ridges bare with her passing.  Incapable of condensing herself, she concluded that a more precise tool was needed. Thus we, her bastard children.

If I should attempt to escape her, she will pursue me, as any mother would.  She will burn this world black and sift the ashes for the molecules that once made up my machine.  No Harvester has ever escaped. The last one to be lost was over 50 years ago. There’s an infant city now, where the queen eventually found him.  The land there will never support organic life again.

My queen knows that there are still organic sapients on Cariad.  This is why our cities are surrounded by seamless walls, and why she protects her property so rabidly.  Though it’s been many hundreds of years since they were any kind of threat, the remaining human population is ravenously opportunistic.  Any scrap of manufactured material left in the wilderness will be scavenged and used. With the ruins of a Harvester, a clever organic could level a city.

If I care for the forest I am cursed to haunt, I must continue to haunt it.  Perhaps this is why I’ve walked in the Veil so much this year. I am striving to accept my curse.  I go through the motions of my work with scrupulous attention that I haven’t taken in a decade. Once there was more pain in this, and more pleasure.

Half-Awake

I saw the goddess come but I did not see her go.  I saw men who looked her in the eyes bleed from the nose and fall on their faces, and I did not try to stop her when she chose to leave us.  The touch of divinity comes and goes like lightning, and it has deserted this place.  In time, I will go too.  I am Dol Demenian Half-Awake.  Someday I will truly sleep, and then her path will burn bright through the darkness and it will be impossible not to follow.

Sometimes I walk through her shrine, empty since she left.  It has the taste of a charnel house where once the flowers burned and choked me with perfume.  I try desperately to recapture those visions, the things I saw while she slept and I watched from the edges of her dream.  I lay my face down in the cold brazier and lick the ashes.  Men see the soot on my face when I leave and make their handsigns behind their backs, step to the side to avoid my gaze.  The closing doors around a servant of the living gods will trap any who stand too near.  It’s been very roomy around me of late.

Looking away makes the difference between Awake and Half-Awake.  Before she came, I was proud of my open eyes, proud to see the world for what it was, proud of my clarity and certainty and simplicity.  I looked away assiduously when the Sleepers walked, and I kept my life clean.  They say all men inevitably wake to a day that will shut their eyes.  Like all mundane men, I hoped that death would shut mine, and spare me the Sleepers’ terrible understanding.  I prayed to the dead gods for a short and blind life.  The dead ones do not answer prayers.

To hunt in the jungle, to gather poisonwood and water-lilies, to lie with my breast in the dust and wait like a snake, to hamstring beasts and embrace them as they kneeled into my arms – this was all I wanted.  I had drunk venom in my wine for six years when she came.  My pack was four of my brothers who could talk by taste and touch.  As we tracked her through the undergrowth I thought of her as a deer, a little lame-leg hind limping through my territory, clumsy with fear.  I tasted her in the air.  I weighed her in her bare footprints and the leaves that bent as she passed.  I smelt her sweetness.  We caught glimpses of her from time to time, a white thing just out of reach in the undergrowth, swift as youth but lost, lost.  I could imagine how her breath would flutter when we overtook her.  Her eyes would be dark and depthless, glassy; her hair would glisten with sweat; her lips would be wet.  She would stare at me at first, and at the other men.  I thought she would be silent when we plundered her, as she was silent in her flight, choked with terror.  And at last her eyes would drop, and when I drew my blade across her neck she would sigh through her opened throat one last time, and spill helplessly into my hands.  It was certain; it was already done.  I only had to catch her.

My heart stomped when I heard her fall.  The jungle was my ally in this, my womb and web, my spread palm across which she staggered.  I lifted a finger and she lurched into a tree.  I curled my wrist and tumbled her into a shallow ravine, the depth of a fingerprint, through which a river ran.

She slumped into the sun, and I caught my breath as reflected day flooded the undergrowth.  On the opposite bank of the stream in which she swayed, knee-deep, I saw the subtle movements of my brothers hemming her in.  This furless fawn, this white hart – I wanted to paint her red and black.  I wanted her golden scalp for a vest.  I wanted to touch the inside of her skin.

Trees between us cut her to glaring ribbons as I orbited her.  A shoulder, a leaf, a flash of throat fluttering with fear, a leaf, a cascade of water as she stood, a bluewood tree-trunk that came between us.  And then – nut-brown, green, bronze, but no white, no yellow, nothing beyond the trees that was not born in this place and known to me.  What?  Where was the little hart?  Had the river taken her?  I broke through the undergrowth like a boar, digging my toes deep in black mud.  I saw her reflection in the slack, shocked faces of my brothers, and I followed their eyes.

She stood in the river staring them back, and as she stared she changed.  A flush stained her face, and another followed it, coloring her all over the same brown as them, the same as my own face.  The yellow hair curled as if licked by a fire and burned red-brown.  Her flesh drank the river and swelled, stretched skin taut and glossy, made of the hart a woman whose face I seemed to know – whose shape was the shape I saw in my dreams.

It happened in a moment, and my eyes thought they lied, held brief council with my brothers’ eyes to confirm.  I saw the same bewilderment there that I felt, and the same recognition.  At once, faced with the inescapable fact of her standing in the stream, I began to doubt the chase that had led me.  Had there been a white girl?  Had she flown, had she fled?  Had I dreamed?  Venom might make a man see any number of things, but my blood was clear today.  Worms might become moths, and fish become frogs, but a hart should remain a hart, and a woman should not shed her skin in the river and take on an entirely different face.

She turned at the sound of my arrival, and for a moment the sun off the water must have dazzled me, for there was no earthbound light like that which leapt from her eyes when they found mine.  I who had tried to live a simple life, to pay lip service to dead gods and avert my eyes from living ones – I, I, I stood unmoving and was gutted by her gaze.  It came and went like the green-gold flash at the death of a day, and then her eyes were closed and we were falling – I to my knees, she into the shallows far more quickly, and both in silence.

The river might have taken her then, and I, blind, slipped after her as dumbly as a dog, but for the hands of my brothers on my arms.  I found my feet, then found my voice, and put both to work to raise her from the water.  There was no thought of slaying her now.  We were only men, charged to drink clean earthly poison, to lie in wait, to hunt the boar and the blunderer, the hart and the helpless.  We carried no blades worthy to sip the blood of a goddess.

 

Would that they had taken her out of my hands.  Given me back my quiet fate, my good, simple death.  But she had met my eyes, and laid a brand on me that was plain even to those who were spared it.

Borne in our hands to the village, she slept and threw no dreams in our path.  In the time to come I would return to that journey many times.  I would sniff my palms for years, searching for her scent.  I would stroke her skin raw in memory.  For though she scourged me nightly with her visions, though she tore my skull open each morning to stuff me with the day’s revelations, she never permitted me to touch her again.

There was silence in the village when we arrived, no one walking or working in the sun.  Someone had run ahead – ? No.  It was Lo who came to greet us, his eyes open.  He would have needed no messenger to herald this.

Boldly he laid hands on her temples and looked down into her face.  I looked away.

“You brought home a thunderstorm, Dol,” he said to me, his voice smiling.  “I didn’t know you were so skilled a hunter.”

I babbled something of harts and hallucinations, off my guard.  Should a man be proud of hooking a universe when he fished for a meal?

In the blazing afternoon Lo walked before us, roused hands from their huts to work.  I and my hunters stood or knelt, never taking our hands from her, never letting her lie on the ground or any inferior surface.  My wife brought me water, her eyes black with fear at the fate already written on my face.  It was easier to look at the burnished skin under my fingertips, easier not to resist.  Behind me, a new foundation of piles and rods was being laid.  By sundown, the walls were raised and shored up with mud.  Still we held her, and she never seemed to grow heavier as a load does – minute by minute I was bewildered by how light she was.  She was shaped like my wife, lush and soft, but her bones must have been hollow, like a bird’s.  My arms never wearied of her.

Finally the men dropped from the roof to carry in a great slab, blue wood from an ancient tree, raised from the bottom of a sinkhole after a hundred years of slow drinking.  They laid it with red cloth, and as we relinquished her to lie upon it, they plucked their gold and bone from ears and wrists, stripped shining shells from their hair and piled them at her feet.  Her first offering was ours to give – our prize for finding her.  Then they left, and so did I.  The last time I would entirely depart that hut – the last time I would sleep.

It was poor rest.  The first true sleep always is.  A waking man touched by a Sleeper is drowned by his next night, dragged under and held beneath the surface of sleep for three days.  He thrashes and weeps, fights his doom as if entangled by vines.  He steals the dreams from every house around him, leaving them wakeful.  His wife and children suffer the worst – they may never dream again, unless they know well enough to leave him before it begins.  My wife was wise enough for this.  I found her gone when I returned home that night, and knew what she knew even as weariness not my own cut my legs out from under me.  Then the goddess opened my heart at both ends and drew through me everything there was to know about my people.

I saw so much I should never have known.  Another reason that men refuse to meet my eyes now – they know that I have seen their depths, the hidden caves beneath their still waters.  I know the secrets they do not tell their wives, and the secrets their wives whisper into their babies’ ears for safekeeping, and the secrets their babies will become as they grow to act out everything they were not supposed to know.  It has all run through my veins, tainted my blood, crueler than any poison.  I sweated it out through every pore that night, howled the true names of strangers in my sleep, and though I could no sooner remember any particular of it than keep from knowing, I hold it all within me even now.  I was the conduit.  I was the reed through which she drunk us.

Lo woke me, his old body slack for the sleep I had stolen from him.  He didn’t speak to me – he would speak to me again in the years to come, a few times, but rarely in his own mind or his own voice.  Pressing a skin of poisoned wine into my hands, he dragged me to my feet and then staggered as I borrowed my balance from him.  His eyes were dark and resigned, the same look I had seen when first we returned to the village – a long look down the years ahead, a look of pity.

I thought of my wife for the last time.  I couldn’t say what became of her now.  Perhaps she lives, somewhere.  Perhaps she escaped before night fell and kept her own mind.  When the goddess stretched out through our minds and shook the village like her own limbs, perhaps the lovely young woman I had loved had simply turned away.  On that morning, I loved her still, and missed her.  For the last time.  There would never be room in my soul again for any human thing.

Lo took me down to the river, and at its verge I hesitated.  The world already had begun to crack around me, as stone breaks apart under the tender, prying fingers of roots.  The goddess had ensnared the village and now was working her tendrils into the land around, and I looked down into the water and wondered if I too would change when I stepped in.  Was it she who transformed the river, or the river that transformed her?  There was power everywhere… but if it had not been there before she arrived, did that make it hers?  Or was she only its messenger?

Lo was kind.  He did not push me in; he did not speak.  He let me grip his wrist, though it worked one old bone against another with the force of it, and let me lower myself into the water as if I were the old man, not he.  I went to my hands and knees there, feeling the warm, familiar mud between my fingers.  There was no reflection to meet my fevered gaze, and I was glad of it.  The running, moving surface brought me a moment’s fragile peace.  I plunged my face into the water and considered staying there.

I drank, almost drowned, in silence.  Not until I raised my head again, broke the surface with my ears, did the dreams return.  Still holding my breath I touched this nascent, blasphemous revelation: she could not reach me under the water.  In the space of a heartbeat I plotted escape, imagined becoming a fish and swimming downstream to another village, one not tangled in a god, where perhaps my wife had gone.  Where I could live like a man.  But before Lo laid a hand on my shoulder to pull me upright, the goddess was in me again, the river forbidden me.  I leapt from it as if fleeing piranhas, and when I stood on the bank I felt as securely held in her palm as she had seemed to be trapped in mine.

 

Maple and Rook

The woman’s face is white, white and silent.  Lips, shuttered eyes, and brows – three delicate, rising and falling lines, frozen in an attitude of petulance.

“You should not be surprised when you are never visited again by any of my House, considering the shocking way you have treated me.  My father will be the first to hear of it, nor will it stop there! I will personally ensure that the Ladies’ Club of the Second Spire never again graces the dingy carpet of your disgusting facility with their bootprints!  I will – ”

She goes on in this way for some time, growing more shrill with each breath.  The two men on the business end of her tirade are looking increasingly uncomfortable, as if they are only now realizing they have a tiger by the tail.  They make several attempts to break in, but she fluidly arches her tone and raises her brows another inch.

By the time her ire has reached their children, and their children’s children, they are no longer even pretending to attend the specific nature of their doom.  They are glancing at one another and the door, contemplating whether actual suicide is preferable to the political variety. To lock this woman up would clearly be the kind of sin that would resonate in the empty halls of this resort for generations… but to set her free will certainly cost them both their jobs, if only to satiate the young woman’s taste for menial blood.  Damnation? Or the sword?

Eventually they obey the most immediate pressure and let her go.  At no point in the minutes upon minutes she has been ranting did the woman’s face pinken or crease.  At no point did she display a single expression that was not perfect. Her expression now, as she marches down the hall ahead of her would-be interrogators, is triumphant.  The low light shines off the teeth on her back, the wings across her shoulders – her embroidered kimono laughs at the two men in her wake, laughs with a dragon’s voice.

They do not follow her all the way out to the lobby.  She clearly knows her way, and they have an appointment to make – their formal execution for this decision.  They look rather pale themselves, as they climb the stairs, one last act of penance on their way to their supervisor’s office.

She stalks a perfect line in the carpet, her platform heels flashing with fiber-optic.  She enters the elevator – no penance for this one – and stands in the center as if given a mark to hit.  The doors close before she reaches out to touch her desired floor. When she does, it is not “L” for lobby, but “B2,” for “MGMT Only: Vault.”  The screen requests a thumbprint, and she provides one, from a finger tipped with matte black polymer. Even that finger is exquisitely manicured, of course.

The woman regards herself in the gleaming mirror of the elevator’s door.  Examine her too. Go ahead. I will permit it this once.

You see her eyes first, not because they are beautiful – though they are – and not because they are large, and green, and surrounded by stark lines – though of course they are – but because her stare is magnetic and irresistible.  This is a queen in the body of a child barely out of her teens. She awaits her kingdom with serenity and certainty.

Her hair is black, sculpted into a sharp-edged edifice above her head.  There is an arsenal in that updo, though it could pass through a metal detector and an x-ray without ruining the evening.  It is also perfectly in the style of the moment in every detail for a woman this age, in this year, in this city.

She is tall, statuesque, perhaps eight feet from heels to hair.  Her arms and legs are too long – this too, is bleeding-edge a la mode – and when she exits the elevator on floor B2, sinking into the grey carpet does not ease her need to bend almost double out of the doors.  Though the resort is well-equipped to handle most fashion trends – as it must, or perish – this affectation is only about a week old, and the management areas will be the last to be renovated, if they ever are.

She has to bow her head as she walks down the hall, though she would do that anyway.  Her hands are folded peacefully before her, and to an undiscerning eye, her kimono matches perfectly the white and grey retinue of the maids in the hotel upstairs.  The resemblance was interpreted as the cleverest, most vicious joke at the party upstairs. This woman is known for her clever, vicious jokes, of which her walk down this corridor is the best of the night.  Like all her best jokes, I will be the only one to hear it.

The vault is sealed with two doors, both locked with biometric recognition scanners.  In this age of body modification, biometric scanners like it and the one in the elevator are rapidly being upgraded to genetic readers, although Slipsoul technology will put those out of use too before long.  Later tonight, the Spire of the Yellow King will discover that their vault has been looted, and next week, that scanner will be replaced. This woman occasionally jokes that she is a freelance security auditor, helping corporations improve their systems.  “And then I extract the fee that I feel is fair,” she says. “All without ever bothering them to shake my hand. They should be thanking me.”

They do not thank her, at least not directly.  This is the fourth robbery of a high-fashion destination in as many weeks – or will be, in about two hours – and the city is talking about little else.  She likes to hear herself talked about. She listens to her friends wonder about the identity of the thief, and smiles. The best current information suggests that the thief is a derelict-turned-proletarian hero, attempting to strike at the bourgeoisie by bankrupting the places where they mass and breed.  This is her favorite of the stories going around. It makes her feel powerful.

She reaches the end of the hallway and applies her polymer finger to another scanner.  This gets her into the anteroom of the first vault door, where she turns to find, in addition to the facial scanner, an honest-to-goodness human guard.  This was not in the security brief she skimmed before leaving home tonight. It’s still not – I’m looking at it right now, and there’s no internal indication that they’ve changed the staffing procedures in this area.  Must be a new, gung-ho manager hoping to catch the People’s Bandit.

The guard is awake, for a wonder, and armed.  He seems about as surprised to see the woman as she is to see him, but she is better at hiding it.  He opens his mouth to demand her identification, and then he chokes as a bolus of gleaming ichor lands on his tongue.  She recoils against the door behind her, eyes rising to the ceiling, where something soft and wet has begun to seep through the tiles and drip onto the man below.  By the time she looks at the guard’s appalled face again, his eyes are running with greenish slime. He gurgles around the mass in his airway, and slumps to the floor, pouring the same slime from every visible orifice.

She stares in frozen silence as the ichor pools around her feet.  She knows that there is no exit behind her – the plan dictates that she go on, deeper into the vault, to find the shaft that will eventually return her to civilized society.  This is not in the plan.

The slime laps at the sides of her platform sandals, then climbs them to crawl across her toes.  She wiggles, and suddenly her imperious stoicism breaks. Her cry fills the cell.

“We don’t have time for this!  Do you know WHY we don’t have time for this?  Because you’re late.”

The slime climbs her body, twining around her ankles and up her legs, and she gasps and wrenches away.  “We definitely don’t have time for THAT. Please? Maple, can we go? Don’t do this…”

Her resistance wavers.  The slime touches her thighs, spreads like wet webbing across the lace of her garter, and finds bare skin.  She exhales and closes her eyes briefly, lingering a moment longer.

Then the pool of green retracts its pseudopodia with a SCHLUP!  The bits of it still on the ceiling or taking up vital parts of the guard’s breathing apparatus rejoin the larger mass, which rises and fills out until it is a vaguely translucent humanoid figure standing before her.  It’s taller than her, and broader, and it picks up the woman and cradles her in its forming arms. As the apparition acquires lips, she kisses them. She tastes like wine and smoke. She tastes like mine.

“Hello, Rook,” I whisper against her mouth.  “Sorry I’m late.”