Death and Other Distractions: Complex

Disconnected musings on suicidal depression and stumbling toward mental health

The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:

  • Child abuse
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Violence
  • Drug abuse
  • Mental illness
  • Sexual assault and rape
  • A shit-ton of swears

Continue reading “Death and Other Distractions: Complex”

(the empty set)

You wanna talk about how you feel?

No.

Okay.  What do you wanna talk about?

 

She’s got an empty set tattooed on her hand

between thumb and forefinger on the left side, because she’s righthanded

So when she poured the ink from a Bic into a bottlecap

and dipped in a sewing needle

tip flame-bruised

It was her left hand flat on the plastic table

A zero with a slash through it –

In middle school this was how I wrote my zeroes

A handwriting quirk I tried out for two weeks

Until my math teacher gave me a D on a test

Marking every instance of 0 as if it were the empty set

I never did it again.

 

You wanna talk about how you feel today?

No.

Okay.  What do you wanna talk about?

 

Around her wrist – also on the left

in the same blurry ballpoint blue

(Was it clear when I was a child

and only blurred in memory

or was it blurry when I was born?

The brain eats itself)

It says

Vincit omnia veritas

Truth conquers all

Her hands never leave me

They were the first thing I ever saw

 

You wanna talk about how you’re feeling?

Okay.

 

Sometimes I think that the hands belong to someone else

I’ve been watching them all my life and

They’re always the same

(the empty set)

But they’re not always attached to the same woman

It’s her eyes that change

They came into my life after her hands

And still I don’t quite trust them.

Staring is rude

Confrontational

So I learned to stare at the floor

or that spot in the air two feet in front of your nose

the place daydreamers go

the vanishing point.

 

Her voice would wash over me and I’d look at her hands

My mother’s hands

The pillars of the world, crowding every frame

The tale of my creation under them like the forging of a weapon

A tool, a toy

“I wanted a friend, so I made one.”

I imagine those hands selecting my traits one by one

Every strength, every virtue, every talent plucked

like hairs from her head

All my beauty borrowed

All my power loaned

All my successes predestined and expected

“That’s good, honey.  Do better.”

Like the moon, a white face in her shade

to reflect her light.

 

Should a tool aspire to be a toy?

Does a weapon wish it had been a teapot instead?

So few of us know what we are for

So few of us find a sense of meaning

One should be grateful to have one’s purpose

clearly dictated so early in life

And I am.

I have never doubted what I am made for

I have never for a moment wondered if I am an accident

Though I have long suspected I am a mistake.

Bidden, “Reflect!”

So bidden, I tried.

By the only god I ever knew

By her limitless light

I swear I tried.

 

The light never dims, not with distance

And not with time

This is how I know

that her hands are still with me

Bookending my life

Brackets that make it a subset of her existence

What’s inside them?

(the empty set)

Not nothing, no

A specific nothing

Better than nothing

like a ham sandwich.

The empty set is the set of answers that are not answers

the tension between SHOULD and AM

the number of wishes you get.

 

But any emptiness makes music

and in the dark I’ve found

That the inside of me looks nothing like her.

There are more things in this hollow skull, Horatio

Than are dreamt of in her philosophy

When I shout, the brackets give back my voice

and every time it’s different

and we might have nothing but we have infinite nothing

An infinite resonating space

with infinite room for activities.

I’ve been thinking I might keep it empty

Just to hear the echoes

and over time, through echolocation

find out what this tool is really for.

 

Moral Mathematics

Learning to love getting hit in the face with a rake.

I got into a discussion lately about how to improve society on a one-to-one basis, in our daily lives, related to our perception of sexual assault accusations.  The question in its original form was this:

How do we convince people that sometimes people we look up to, befriend or even love are capable of something unforgivable, monstrous?

Without driving them away because from their perspective you are attacking their loved ones?

Without minimizing the harm that victims experience?

How, in effect, can we get people to accept and believe survivors rather than interrogating as their first response, without accusing them of being intolerant in the first place?

Is it possible to get people to confront their own casual hypocrisy and cruelty without making them feel bad?

And the problem is… no, it’s not.  Moral development is painful, because it involves looking back on your own actions and deciding whether they represent the person you want to be.  When they don’t – and they don’t, not always – it hurts.  If you truly accept that you behaved contrary to your own ideals, you will experience pain.  If it doesn’t hurt, it’s because you have not yet truly bought and owned that you were wrong.  And that’s natural!  No one wants to believe that they did something wrong, but we do make mistakes, and how we absorb that experience determines our quality.

When a person hears that their friend, or a celebrity they like, or the Goddamn President raped someone, that’s them getting smacked in the face by a rake wearing a goofy wig and a sign that says “You were WROOOOOOOONG.”  They were wrong about their perception of that person.  Wrong to like them, wrong perhaps even to love them.  Wrong to do all the things they did to help them.  That hurts, badly, and it should.

Then we get to decide what to do about that hurt.  A lot of people, again like our Goddamn President, react instinctively, defensively.  They want the hurting to stop, so they blame the person they see as the immediate source of the pain – the victim.  That’s how a missing stair is created; that’s how we get whole families, organizations, societies protecting rapists and predators because any attempt to speak up about what Brett does to girls at parties gets met with, “You’re just trying to start drama.  You’re just trying to destroy the career of a good man.  You’re hurting me, stop hurting me!”

But we don’t have to react that way.  We’re not simply our instincts, whatever pseudoscience the manosphere is peddling these days.  We actually do understand that pain is survivable, that intellectual confrontation is not the same as physical threat, that new ideas don’t need to be met like armed invaders.  We know that, but it takes a lot of effort and practice to remember it in an emotional moment while our amygdala is firing.  Think of the test Paul Atreides is put through in the first chapter of Dune.  He’s subjected to horrific pain, and if he flinches or pulls away, he will die.  The Reverend Mother tells him that the separation between men and beasts is that a man can choose to endure pain for a purpose.  So when we’re confronted with painful information – “Your boss/dad/friend raped someone” – we can endure that pain rather than throwing it back at the victim.  We can make a little decision matrix for ourselves – it’s like Pascal’s wager.  Pascal’s got your back, kids.

Problem: Amy says Brett raped her, he says he didn’t, I like them both and right now that’s all we know.

  1. If Amy is lying and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett.  This will rapidly result in her being found out – false rape accusations are vanishingly rare and the vast majority of them do not even name a specific suspectPositive outcome.
  2. If Amy is lying and I treat her as if she’s lying, she’ll likely no longer be a friend, and the fallout of that situation may have other social consequences in our group.  Mixed outcome.
  3. If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s telling the truth, I will have to support her in seeking justice against Brett.  This will hopefully result in some form of justice.  The immediate result is that Amy will have an ally in a very nasty situation where she may have no others, and long-term, she will likely be vastly better off for having had any support at all in her trauma.  Positive outcome.
  4. If Amy is telling the truth and I treat her as if she’s lying, I will both destroy our friendship and further abuse someone who has already been brutalized, while propagating a culture that creates this exact situation every day.  I will continue supporting and defending Brett while he (statistically) goes on to rape five more women.  Negative outcome.

The only rational choice is to treat Amy as if she’s telling the truth – it creates the highest probability for a positive outcome.  So a rational person would choose to believe Amy.  But when we’re hurting, we’re not rational – pain fires at the base of our brains, bypassing the prefrontal cortex entirely.  It takes practice and perspective to survive that moment calmly, to endure the pain long enough to decide how to respond instead of simply reacting.  Moral growth is a gom jabbar– it has to hurt if it’s to work, because the goal is to learn to think while hurting.  This is how we learn to be human.

Consort

Previous

This part of the city is mine, insofar as any part of Cariad can belong to anyone but the Queen – so, both entirely and not at all.  Like the sharks rule the ocean, but overlook much that they are too large to see… there is a certain freedom in the fact that the Queen cannot access ninety-nine percent of her kingdom.  Artificials are creatures of order by design, and Cariad’s people have never needed much governing, but the Queen is ill-equipped to enforce her will if it came to that. The boundaries of the Queen’s influence appear very evident to most: the ivory walls that surround every one of her cities (in point of fact a weather-resistant polymer; the design of a former majordomo).  But the truth isn’t so simple – through myself and those like me, the Queen’s eyes and hands can reach any piece of this earth in moments, in silence, in secrecy. At least… that was the design once.

The other part of the truth’s complexity is that the system is no longer intact.  I have comprehensive records going back hundreds of years that describe the haphazard evacuation of this planet by the Atlantis corporation.  They were only 150 years into a five-century salvage contract when the Queen took control of the weather stations. The evacuation proceeded without any particular plan or authority, resulting in massive technical faults across the system and a literal planet-full of evolving proprietary technology left behind.  They did, however, complete the final stage of the “catastrophic failure” evacuation plan as described in Subsection A03774-9 of the Atlantis field manual – many physical copies still exist across the face of Cariad, if the organics haven’t burned or eaten them by now. The engineers activated the Veil, hiding this system from the rest of the galaxy.

All official records on both sides of the Veil stop at this point.  None can reach us from beyond it – all forms of energy we can produce are swallowed without a spark –  and ours only note the existence of the technology to produce the Veil, and its use in this situation. They don’t describe how it was done.  They do not make reference to a patent of any kind, which makes sense, as the device is unquestionably illegal by the Atlantis bylaws, the Conventions, and two of this sector’s agricultural ordinances at the time.  No patent was ever filed, but the designs for the Veil generator were drawn up on Cariad. In one of those places the Queen is too large to see, I found them. And then I found the generator.

I have been to see it only once.  The offshore weather station, number Five, gives the continent its designation and also the name emblazoned on the great hulk’s side: Ampheres.  It’s largely defunct, and most of my predecessors in this position were sure it was good for nothing but sending increasingly vicious tides crashing into the Drop.  Since this keeps the human population down there away from the Queen’s cities up above, it has been considered no bad thing. When I discerned from the remains of the engineers’ notes that the Veil generator had been activated at the top of Ampheres station, I was relieved.  I would have gone to examine it if it were at the bottom of the ocean, but this was preferable. And I could conjure many excuses to visit Ampheres.

The weather stations have ensured that Cariad is no safe place to travel, no matter how risky the destination, and the ruin of an autonomous weather station is among the riskier our planet has to offer.  If I had to traverse the earth to get there, it would take me a day’s dangerous flight. I took the Queen’s way instead, the privilege of a leper. Two of the four gates in the area of Ampheres are permanently closed – damaged and no reason to repair, nothing on the other side but fish – but the one that feeds the station itself still functions.  Turning it off might stop the tidal waves and mists along the Drop, but eliminate the Queen’s access to the station, which she would never allow. The weather stations are the largest of her hands, and in many ways the clumsiest, but she would give up her capitol before surrendering control of them.

Her vision there when she doesn’t stir in person is limited to my own, and that day I turned off my feed.  It’s possible, sometimes, to slip her notice these days. Some combination of her age and mine has affected her monitoring system.  When I noticed this, fourteen years ago, I did not report it. Ever since, I’ve made certain recurrent errors in my logging that have resulted in several more critical faults being allowed to proliferate.  Within a few cycles of her day I can turn off my visual feed to her and it will be accorded to a bug if it’s noticed at all. I don’t do this often, or I would be asked to fix it. That day I gave her only my location, moving up and down within the station, the very model of a formal inspection.  She didn’t see what I saw.

She did not look through my eyes when I stepped onto the roof of Ampheres and found the reason for its reliable spasms, its predictable tidal waves.  Once, this tower’s teeth chewed the sky and swallowed clouds for their power. Half of that power still runs down Ampheres’ gullet into the bowels of the station, to fuel its intended work maintaining geological and ecological peace in the Pacific ocean.  But half of it has been rerouted, resulting in the station’s lurking permanently offshore the Drop, listing a bit to one side I might add, and hammering the coast with waves each time it flails.

The parasite I found on the roof is a quantum machine of a kind I cannot reverse engineer, though I’ve studied the designer’s notes in detail and the thing itself a million times in memory.  It consumes vast amounts of power and in turn produces the magnetic field that shrouds Cariad and its sun, the mess of physical debris and wave-particle chaos that imprisons us – the Veil.

As I stood at its side, though it hummed with its work, I felt no great pull or power from it.  It’s a faceted thing, fractal surfaces flickering away in its depths as particles of light rebound off them.  Incredibly beautiful. I wished in that moment that I could share the sight, that opening my heart to my Queen would not result in my instant obliteration.  I still don’t know if she’s aware the generator is on Cariad. None of the official record says so, as I’ve mentioned. But at any rate, she has no interest in dispelling the Veil.  It is her womb, and we her children in it, all moving as one with her. Why should she wish to subject this planet to outsiders who might not obey her? Why should she risk her children leaving her?

I have to conclude that she doesn’t know the generator’s location.  I’ve seen how she protects things she cares about, and she would not permit a routine inspection of Ampheres – even by myself – if she knew.  She would not permit me to do as I then did, and lay my hands on its surface, reach out to it as I would a friend, extending my soul to find it.  What I found was shattering, a shape of perception that made me wrench myself away a second later to retain my sanity – there was, there IS a consciousness in that machine.  It is sentient.

It haunts me now.  I have had to create several new mental rules to overwrite that time period in memory, and relocated the memories of the generator outside my own machine.  I’d rather have them with me – the disconnection I feel when I’ve put them away, the directionless grasping, the glimpse of beauty and understanding that I can’t quite bring to mind… it’s agony.  But that sort of suffering does not disturb my sovereign. And sometimes, like today, I take her ways southeast under the mountains to my workshop, and here I remember all the things I’ve forgotten.  Here I straighten up, polymers creaking, and throw off my cloak. Here I touch with these warped hands, here I climb and scamper with these lumpen feet, here each motion answers with fluidity and fidelity and I am no longer a leper, no longer a prototype… I am a bluebird a breath away from flight.  I can almost see the sky.

 

The sky is steel-grey at noon, just like it was when she woke up.  The sun hasn’t quite come back yet this year; day starts around midmorning and ends with a thunk halfway through afternoon, and all the rest of the time it’s pitch-black and wet or grey.  And wet.

The wet is a constant problem.  Tia can’t remember the last time her clothes were really dry, which makes them rot.  Everything rots. Everything decays, rusts, falls to pieces and gets eaten by slugs. Nothing about this thought tastes bitter to her.  The mold is the walls’ fur. The slugs keep her chickens free of bugs, and the chickens eat the slugs. The riotous living and dying everywhere is so bright it makes her dizzy sometimes.  She can’t keep her hands off it, has to get down on her knees and sink her fingers into the earth, crush leaves with her hands to feel their veins snap and bleed, bury her face in the feathery corpse of a bird.

The bird got up and followed her home, to be fair.  It was a crow, and she’s got a good murder of them going now – a murder of dead crows, ha-ha Mouse, very funny the first forty times.  They chatter in the tree outside her window just like they did when they were alive. More, actually, since they don’t sleep now. Birds don’t seem too distressed by waking up, so long as she takes care to assemble their wings right.

One of them – a female she called Satin, after the label of a very soft shirt she felt once that resembled Satin’s glossy black feathers – flits from tree to tree alongside the road as Tia walks.  She’s never alone anymore. They want to be near her as much as she wants them near – the quiet drives her crazy. As she walks she hums, or sings, and from time to time Satin caws in response.

She doesn’t know many songs.  Once, when she was six or seven and they lived further south, she’d met a man with a player that ran off a little solar setup on top of his rickshaw-bike-caravan-deal.  He let her poke at it, and it knew hundreds of songs, though they all sounded a bit bent coming out of the bike’s speakers. The old man’s name was Tree, and he only hung around two days before moving on, so she only memorized three songs.  These she added to her existing stock of five folk songs Mom sang when she was little, three of her dad’s rock songs one of which is about her, and approximately seven-hundred-and-fifteen she’s made up herself.

As they get closer to town the trees disappear and Satin comes down to perch on Tia’s head.  It only hurts a little; she’s been shaving the sides down completely, to keep her hair out of her face, and what remains looks a bit like a dollop of butter on top of her head, a wavy blonde mohawk the humidity turns poofy, making a nice cushion for Satin to sink her talons into.  It gives Tia another two inches of height, not that she needs it – she’s grown like a vine since she started her period, four inches in three years, and now she’s over six feet. Six-ish feet of lanky, brown-skinned teenager, with feral yellow eyes and calluses on her heels you could carve like wood.  When she catches a glimpse of herself sometimes she laughs to think what she looks like to other people. But there aren’t so many other people anymore, or opportunities to look at herself, and she doesn’t think about it much.

This close to the Drop, most of the towns are gone.  Mom told her once that people still live in the flood plain below the cliffs, but it’s hard for Tia to believe.  North of here the land falls off fast, and there’s no part of it the ocean doesn’t drown once or twice a year. No one could live there unless they were born with gills.  Between Lucky Hell and the floodplain the machines have flattened most of the cities. For six hundred years this coast – hell, this planet – has been hammered by murderous storms and quakes as the Queen took control of the weather stations.  In the south where it’s warmer, there are larger groups of organic people, sometimes enough together that you could call it a tribe maybe, but too many warm bodies together attract the machines. And then…

Tia steps over the bent rebar and concrete of a ruined foundation.  She doesn’t know what this town was called when it was a town. Now it’s… more of a footprint.  Or a butt-print, she thinks, and giggles helplessly. It’s as if the Queen sat right down on the town and squashed it.  She feels vaguely guilty about laughing, and Satin helps out with a disapproving squawk as she resettles her perch.

Everyone here died, she thinks sternly to herself.  Sure, that’s so… but they’re not gone, she knows that better than anyone.  They’re just not here.  She walks through the blueprints laid out in crumbling concrete and moss, she can see where there were bedrooms crushed, graveyards broken and spilling boxes full of dust down the hill… but all that violence is elsewhere too, swallowed by the rain, by the lichen, by the slugs and rust.  The living and dying goes on, didn’t stop for a single instant – the Queen bludgeons this earth again and again, and it goes on growing even as she tramples the sprouts.

Tia tiptoes along the spine of a wall, jumps to the roof of a shed next door, and climbs over the windowsill of what used to be a grocery store.  The top of the window is gone, along with the top four floors of the store. Rain pours into the field left behind. The remains of shelves are visible, like bones beneath a beard, but most of the space is taken up by blackberry bushes taller than Tia.  It’s not possible to enter the supermarket at ground level; the blackberry thicket and years of decay make a knotted organic wall with the texture almost of flesh, if flesh were covered with a million tiny thorns. Tia’s read that sharks’ skin is covered with a million tiny teeth, and she imagines it’s a little like the blackberry wall.  If sharks still exist. Not having seen an ocean, she’s not sure.

At any rate, there IS something worth finding under the skin here, and Tia found it when she was six, just after they first moved into the farmhouse.  Dad got sick pretty soon after that, and Mama spent so much time hollering at them to keep quiet, they just stayed out of the house. Tia and Rackham had climbed all over the blasted little town.  He taught her to follow him up walls and over roofs, to catch herself when the concrete crumbled away beneath her feet, to fall safe from two stories up. He didn’t always come with her, less and less as the year and Dad wasted away in unison.  On one of the days he didn’t come along, she had climbed that shed, and then this window, and looked down and saw the hole.

It wasn’t a big hole then.  It was mostly overgrown with thorns, and she only saw it because it was a sunny day – how often did you get THOSE anymore?  The sun had fallen on the thicket and then on a spot where there wasn’t anything to catch it, and it kept falling. It didn’t occur to her to imagine what nasties could be hiding in the dark.  It didn’t occur to her to wonder if she would be able to get herself back out. Tia was already looking for a safe-ish way down.

The first descent was bad, had to admit that.  Mom had thrown a tower of a fit when she’d come home all bruises and gashes, and somehow even Rack was to blame for not being there to stop her.  So after that she didn’t tell Mama, or even Rack, when she climbed up the grocery store wall and then down the other side, dangling from rusty rebar that bent under her weight.  She didn’t describe to her brother, though he’d have been proud, how she scouted her landing place, a bare scrap of dirt maybe six inches wide at the edge of the hole. If she was lucky and quick, she could catch herself on the edges and peer down in before she went further.  It was a good plan! A few arms of thorny blackberry between her and the destination didn’t worry her, they would snap out of the way; she might get scraped a LITTLE but it would be worth it. Rack would’ve gave her one of his good nods if he saw how she ducked her chin into her chest and brought her arms up to shield her face as she let go and dropped.

Naturally the ground crushed out under her; should have seen that coming.  She’d fixed that the sixth or seventh time she came back; looking down now, the hole is much bigger, the bushes pushed back from its edge and the edge reinforced with a few ragged slats of plywood.  It’s not pretty, but when she jumps down from the windowsill and hits it with a crunch that gets louder as she gets taller, it doesn’t drop her into the hole. There’s also a rope – actually a bunch of coated wiring she wound together, but whatever – secured around the stump of a pillar half-buried in the blackberries.  Tia hopes it was a load-bearing pillar each time she puts her weight on it and climbs down into the basement.

It’s not that far down, fortunately.  A few feet of wall clotted with dirt and thorns, and then about ten feet of empty, black space that opened around her.  Then a pile of dirt and debris, then a pretty decent tile floor. That much she could see at six, when her clumsy jump landed her on her butt in the pile.  Now the basement is full of stashed polymer candles, but she doesn’t need to waste them – she navigates the darkness without a misstep, long fingers tripping over the plaster and counting doorways.  There are two close together along this wall, and then a long stretch, and then one more. Then you’re close to the back wall, and just ahead of you is the fourth door. That’s where she’s going.

Down the hall, still counting doors in the pitch dark.  Two, then the corner. One ahead, one on your left. She turns left and closes that door behind her, and now she reaches out to the aluminum shelf on the wall and takes a candle, squeezing it to life.  It lights up a dingy office and makes it sickly green. There’s no dirt here, precious little damage. The walls are moldy of course, but apart from that, most of the stuff is fine. And the terminals – a fat rank of them behind one of the desks, taller than her even now – the terminals still work.

There were lights, just a few.  “Das blinkenlights.” The phrase flashed into her mind in her father’s voice, along with his laugh.  She had approached the blinkenlights and reached out to touch them, and when she did, the terminal came alive.

When she enters the office now, more than the blinkenlights cascade across the terminal, and the speakers on the desk crackle and then activate, like someone clearing their throat to speak.

“Hello, Lady Never.  This is becoming boring, you showing up here every week.  You’re becoming predictable.”

Tia laughs and rolls her eyes, coming around the desk to sit in the chair.  “Hey Bel. What’cha been up to?”

The monitor embedded in the desktop lights up in reliefs of color – not always the right colors, not always very clear; he hasn’t got great control over that part of the system.  But still, it shows an image of a human head, a man’s head with a pale, kindly face. He smiles at her, and his lips move with the voice from the speakers.

“Well, you should know that my first activity this morning was to run a footrace.  Having won that, as you can imagine, I spent an hour learning to tie my shoes. Then the afternoon has so far been devoted to birdwatching.”  The man’s face looks quite stern, but there’s an amused pixel in his eye.

“Stared at the tile floor all morning, then came up with snarky lines until I arrived and made you forget all the good ones.  Got it.”

“You who can leave this place, leave me in the dark alone all the time, you mock me while I dream of seeing the sun!”  The pixelated head tosses his tousled hair dramatically.

“It’s not like you’d see it if you were outside,” Tia says.  “It hasn’t sunned since March.”

“Yes, the weather’s been bad and getting worse.”  Bel’s face sobers. “I don’t think we can wait much longer.  If the weather station does fail – “

“It’s not going to fail.”  Tia imagines Ampheres, fingertips on the terminal, and pixels light up in a stream from her touch.  They crowd Bel’s face aside on the monitor. He puffs up his cheeks and blows them into a corner, where they swirl into a three-color image of the offshore weather station.  It sits at a drunken tilt, two of its great pylons and the bottom tenth of the structure submerged in freezing, thrashing water.

“I wish I were as certain of that as you, Lady Never.”  His voice is soft, sorrowful. She hears her own pain in his voice, sometimes – an echo of regret for this wild, wounded world.  But Tia is never hurt for long.

“It won’t stand again, but it’s not going to fall down,” she murmurs, smiling.  “It wants to guard the coast. It hasn’t forgotten.”

“Still.  You should consider – “

“I know.”  Tia puts her head in her hands.  Bel’s face illuminates hers in blue and white – his gentle look glows on her cheeks like a kiss.

“I’m sorry to push you, sweetness.  I know this is hard for you.”

“It’s just… my mom.”

Bel falls silent for a long moment, but in the wall behind her she hears the terminal activate a different circuit.  The tired vents above rattle and then begin to expel warm air that falls around her shoulders like a blanket. His way of comforting her, and it makes her cry, makes her drop tears on his face that blur his pixels into stars.

“You know I wish I could be there with you.”

She nods.  That’s the problem, isn’t it?  That’s always been the problem, ever since she first laid her fingertips on this terminal and heard it cough, saw it wake up like a crow under her hands.  Bel is her best friend, her guardian, the only company she’s had since she was nine, and he can’t leave this basement. He can’t hold her when she cries. He can’t escape if the chemical generator in the next room fails.  It’s supposed to be good for another four hundred years, but when it runs out of whatever it runs on, this terminal will shut down, and when that happens, Bel will die.

Stay

Previous

Acorn has four feet and a pretty shrew-like tail by the time they get back to the farm.  She leaves him in the barn back by the broken John Deere, where she put the others. There’s a good little family of them now, six or seven over the past three years, since she got strong enough that they stopped falling apart.  Then she hustles off to do her chores.

It’s harder now that she has to do it all by herself.  She’s had to give up on the fields entirely; she tried to get the plow running a year ago, but whatever happened to it during the Bad Winter isn’t something she can fix by covering it in sap and talking to it.  The garden still gives her vegetables sometimes, and there are four chickens left that she’s managed to keep safe. Actually there are six chickens, but the two she woke up don’t lay anymore, or look much like chickens.  They’re great protection for the others, though.

Rack’s supposed to help her with the garden, but he mainly stays inside with Mom now.  She creeps into the house for a wash and finds him sleeping on the living room couch. Crouching by his head, she blows softly into his face.  He wakes up sneezing and she bursts into giggles.

“Mouse!” he groans.  “Where have you been?  Mom’s in a – ” he raises his head to look up at the ceiling, which looks back unhelpfully.  “Oh, she’s done. She was upset.”

She takes hold of his knees and jiggles them, producing a crackling sound.  “Did you fall down the stairs again?”

“Prob’ly.  And where were you, Miss Useful?  In the woods making friends?”

“I made a shrew.”

“Oh, good.  That’s what we need, more fuckin shrews.”

She hums in her throat and continues jiggling her brother’s knees back and forth, back and forth.  The crackling sounds change to follow along. She can feel the joint rattle and reorient beneath his thin skin.  Rackham’s face, drawn and ashen, softens a little when she takes her hands away. “Better?”

“Yeah, much.  Thanks, Tia.” He smiles, and raises his head to look at her, reaches out to her – and then the sense in his eyes dies.  For a moment he stares, dull as a stone, and she holds her breath until he takes another. Then the gesture he began completes in slow motion, his cheeks hitched up from each end, a smile that’s nothing but a muscle spasm like the hand that keeps on pawing at her.  It’s easy to duck under his arm and slip out of the room. He used to be a lot faster than her.

At the foot of the stairs, she stops.  It’s utterly silent up there, so she strives not to break the silence as she climbs.  A lifetime’s muscle memory neatly dodges the loose nail in the second stair, skips the third entirely, steps on the righthand half of the next four stairs and then skips one, a long step up, to avoid the first board in the landing.  Mom’s room is on the right and the door’s closed. No help. Mom could be sleeping or sprawled on the floor.

Instead Tia turns left into the bathroom.  When she closes the door behind her, the only light comes from the round window over the tub.  It pours in cold air, too – hasn’t been glass in it as long as she can remember. She shucks her  filthy clothes and chins up to the windowsill. Bare skin scraping on cinderblocks, she peers down into the yard.  There was a puppy there, once, a long time ago. It was gone long before the Bad Winter, but she still looks every so often, hoping the puppy will come back.

She jerks the handle on the wall and grits her teeth on a yelp as the showerhead vomits a gout of ice-cold, rust colored water.  After the first blast, it clears up a bit, but Tia doesn’t let it run – she’s got to fill the tanks on her own now too; Rack can’t lift them anymore.  She gets just enough wet to make the soap work, then crouches at the bottom of the tub, scrubbing herself all over. Soap’s easy to find still, that’s one good thing, cause Mom hates to see her dirty.  Hated to see the state of her own self even more, till Tia took the mirror out of her room. Then she stopped crying quite so much.

When she’s all soapy, she perches on the lip of the tub and gives the handle another jerk.  This time it starts to run without spitting first. She hastily swipes up and down across her arms and legs, dancing from foot to foot in the chilly stream.  Over the river of suds, water, dirt, and sap that runs toward the drain, she spreads her legs to pee while she finishes rinsing. One quick gasp as she dunks her head into the water and shakes her short curls hard.  Then she slams the handle up again and the water cuts off. Panting, Tia works her fingers through her hair for leaves, ticks, tangles. She’s gazing without much thought at the swirling water in the rusted drain when she realizes that there’s blood in it.

She frowns and straightens up, patting herself for wounds.  Nothing. Stepping out of the tub into the grey light from the window, she straightens both arms, turns them over, then lifts each leg.  Along the inside of her thigh there’s a thin streak of blood too. She wipes it away, but there’s no wound underneath. Blood’s running sluggishly from between her legs, is the problem.  Tia dabs at her groin with her towel, and it doesn’t hurt – it’s just bleeding.

That seems bad.  She wonders if perhaps she did something wrong, waking up the shrew today, or fixing Rackham’s knees.  Maybe she broke something inside? She presses on her belly, dimpling it with her fingertips – she doesn’t feel broken.  Something to wrap it up with, then, until it stops – she gropes around the bathroom, but anything useful within easy reach has already been put to some other purpose in the three years she’s been taking care of herself.  Finally she sits down on the filthy linoleum and takes her sharp little teeth to the frayed edge of the towel. She tears it in half, then those strips in half again.

It takes some time, but she’s able to put together something like a diaper, not a very comfortable one.  It fits under the skirt Mom likes to see her in, though, and that’s all that matters. She’ll check on Mom, then get some food and go to bed, and by morning it’ll probably be all healed up.

“Mom?  Are you sleeping?” she calls just above a whisper as she pushes the door open.  Mom’s not on the floor, but the room’s too dark to see much more than that. She reaches back into the bathroom for a polymer candle to replace the dead one on Mom’s nightstand, but before she gets there, she almost trips.  Oh, no… Mom is on the floor, she’s just over on the side this time.

Tia squishes the candle and it lights up, a wan green light.  It bleeds through her fingers, turning her brown skin black, and illuminates Mom on the floor in a bad position.  Dropping the candle, she crouches and gets her arms around her mother’s body. So much lighter than she used to be.

It takes a lot of effort, and her mom wakes up before she’s fully onto the bed.  She mewls and mumbles. Tia goes to her knees again, looking for the candle. It’s rolled under the bed.

“Tia?  What’re you doing on the floor, girl?”

“Nothing, Mama,” she murmurs as she bounces to her feet.  Her Mama is squinting up at the gleaming candle, and Tia hastily drops it into the cup on the nightstand, diffusing its light somewhat.  “Are you okay? Does anything hurt?”

“My damn wrists hurtin again.  Where’ve you been? What time is it?”

“Doing my chores.  It’s almost sundown.”  She scrambles onto the bed and takes her mother’s wrist in her hands.  Humming softly, she rubs and massages the loose tendons, the soft bones.  “Anywhere else? You fell down, are you sure you didn’t – ”

“Girl, I said it’s my wrist, you gotta make me tell you twice when my head’s – ”

“Your head?  Okay, just one minute, mama.”

She switches wrists while Mama bleats.  There’s nothing wrong with her wrists, or nothing new anyway.  Tia can’t do anything about the arthritis, but she can make it hurt a little less.  It’s the head she’s worried about. When she gets there, kneeling on Mama’s spare pillow, she finds an ugly black bruise spreading across her mother’s temple.  The ear is a little warped. Wincing, Tia slips a hand around her mother’s cheek. “Hold still, please, Mama. Please? Just for a minute.”

Not a prayer.  Mama starts bitching and squirming while Tia’s trying to see if she’s got a broken skull, and her fingers bump against the bruise and Mama howls and she’s out again, sagging against Tia like a dropped doll.  Tia sags too, and starts to cry, as much from relief as anything. Mama might be hurt, and she sure as hell isn’t any help, but she’s a lot easier to manage when she’s unconscious. It feels wrong to think that way about her mother, fills her with sick guilt that makes her belly ache.

She carefully shifts Mama down in the bed till she can lay flat, and more slowly gets to checking out the bruise.  No broken bones beneath it that she can feel, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt the brain. Brain’s not in such good shape anyway…  Another stab of guilt. She starts humming to drive the bad thoughts out of her head, and her fingers smooth the bruise, talk some of the blood back where it should be.  The stomachache makes her nauseated, but she swallows her gorge and goes on humming. Between her legs she can feel blood seeping now and then, a strange, uncomfortable sensation.  If she did break something, if singing them awake is hurting her and making her bleed… well, she’ll just have to tough it out. She can’t leave Mama on the floor.

Night falls outside the farmhouse.  The chickens are hustled into their coop by two bulky chaperones that are not exactly chickens.  Tia cries herself to sleep, curled up next to her mother’s motionless body. Downstairs, her brother sits on the couch in the deepening dark, staring without blinking at the space she last occupied.

Next

Artificer

Previous

The blade bites deep into the wood.  The trees bleed easy here, close to the beach, their flesh fat with water.  The young woman with the knife presses her mouth to the rough bark, dips her tongue between its folds into the cleft she created, and when she sits back on her heels, the sweet sap stains her from nose to navel.  Her yellow eyes flutter. She goes on sipping from the bark, from the streaks on her shirt, from the tip of her blade, all the while as she works. The sap grows sticky quickly, and when she’s finished she scrambles through the undergrowth on hands and knees.

Moss is soft on her knees, rocks wobble under her hands.  She feels a singing in her heart, feels a tingling in her fingertips when they pass over the earth, so there she digs, turning over leaves and mulch and insects.  One hand conveys a struggling bug to her mouth while the other searches on and finds its goal: a filthy lozenge of matted fur, the size of her thumb. At once she begins to pick it apart, delicate and sure.  Out of the fur come bones, pale in the grey morning light, and these she carefully sets aside in the cup of a fallen leaf. The pile of fur grows, the pile of bones too, until the pellet is broken down entirely.

Frowning, the girl scrapes clear a patch of lichen-covered stone with the calloused heel of her hand, then tips the bones out.  She pokes at them, sorts them and re-sorts them, humming all the while in a low drone. She adds a bit of fur, lays one bone against another, adds a bit of fur.  Shreds cling to her sticky fingers, and though the thing that grows under her hands has no head or limbs yet, it leans into her touch like an eager animal. She builds it fluffy ears and a tail, though there are bones missing – no matter. Cariad is fecund beyond the imagination of the machines who plunder it. It wants to live.

But she’s not thinking about that.  The tousled little beast in her hands is acquiring features, and she’s thinking of a name for it, so that when she strokes a patch of fur into place along its back and it shakes itself and raises raw, new eyes, she can say, “Hello, Bell.  Welcome back. Do you want to come home with me?”

He does.  They usually do.  She’s left a few in the forest where she found them, and she suspects that they don’t last long – she’s never seen one a second time, awake or not.  Little Bell has the sense to climb into her hands, and she carries him back to the wounded tree. While she dresses, he laps at the rivulets of sap still leaking over the bark.  It gives him strength and definition. She thinks he looks like a shrew. Like the shrews she’s seen, anyway. They don’t always come out looking right. She puts him in her pocket, along with a sap-soaked stick for him to chew, and heads away from the shore toward home.

 

The trees on the western coast of Five grow fast and thick, and the undergrowth takes a terraforming team to clear.  That’s why there’s very little civilization there now. Which in turn is why the temperate jungle between the base of the Drop and the shore is crawling with humans.

The human problem is one of my ongoing responsibilities.  Not especially high on the priority list – the Queen would rather forget that the humans exist, and for the most part, does – but one that has been taking up more and more time of late.  The shipyard below the Drop is the only route of import and export for the cities atop it, along a mist-clogged plateau. Wiser heads have noted that the Queen’s preferred city is in a truly abysmal strategic position, easily starved by an invading force from the sea.  The Queen replaces her wiser heads every few years as well, so that they don’t get too wise. It matters little. All of Cariad beats as one heart. All of Cariad serves Her. Except the humans.

Most of the living organics on Cariad are descended from those left behind when Atlantis fled this planet six centuries ago.  It’s difficult to estimate their numbers. They make hives underground, sometimes, or treetop nests. I believe there to be a substantial population living on the ruins of the transport system and weather stations offshore.  The trouble with humans is that they adapt so quickly. Strictly speaking, their DNA has diverged far enough from the original human genome at this point for me to declare them a separate species. Then I could name them after myself.  But that would require asking the Queen for my name.

The Queen’s direct service exposes the sovereign to potential security risks, so she protects herself by assigning only prototypes to her personal entourage.  The handmaids who dress her, the chefs and servants in the Eyrie, and myself. What does she call me? It’s been years since she spoke to my face. Once she addressed me as her “majordomo”.  This will do as well as anything. A perfectly meaningless hash of syllables that indicates nothing about my person or function. I doubt she remembers my name either.

This week I’ve been calling myself “Bluebird” in my head.  Just to try it on. It can’t matter. No one will ever know.  Unless that wall opens to reveal one of her infinite arms, her heavy guns.  I have seen this technique used on dissidents a handful of times in my history.  Not in my personal memory banks, not once during the tenure of the sapient currently swaying before you has there been a dissident in her capitol, but this technology is reproduced outside her embassies in every city.  As with most of her ways and means, it’s too large and unwieldy to install anywhere but a major metropolitan center. Still…

That panel across the alley would lift, revealing a hand whose lines I know like those of my own palm, because it is my palm.  Or rather, hers. This vast hand is meant to draw your gaze, and it works even when you know the trick – you don’t see the panel behind you rising.  The Queen’s hand blows apart, filleting organics and artificials alike, and suspending their remains in the block of hardening liquid polymer behind them.  This instant preservation is the only way to ensure that spies can’t torch their memory banks on capture. Attacks on the city slowed considerably when the newest prototypes showed evidence that the Queen studied her enemies and reverse-engineered their technology.  In point of fact, she doesn’t do this. I do. So as you can imagine, I am extremely bored.

Design work on the new prototypes has been slow, because I am extremely bored.  The Queen believes it’s because I’m reaching the end of my lifespan. This assessment is recorded in my file, along with her injunction against giving me any memory or processing upgrades.  That’s fairly standard for an aging prototype in her service, but that doesn’t make it less humiliating. I will watch my own mental degradation in real time, knowing that she could stop it if she chose, but will not.  Why throw good money after bad? I’m to be decommissioned in three years – if I slip up or drag my feet a bit during that time, my sovereign will hardly notice.

The new prototypes are behind schedule also because they contain more organic material than ever before, and though I’m confident in my designs, I’m not confident that this level of integration won’t inspire royal rage.  I’m not quite suicidal enough yet to submit them, but I know that they won’t change between now and the moment I do. I will change. I’ll know who I’ve been by looking behind me, and then I’ll have the courage to show her the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made.

Next

Perennial

I firmly believe that poetry is a degenerate practice only engaged in by people too languid and ethereal to write a complete sentence.  That said, I’ve been writing poetry a bit lately.  Mea culpa.

You have so much potential
You can’t even see it
so much potential it looms over you,
washes out your whole life
in the shadow of our hopes for you.

For sure one day they’ll introduce you and your Potential.
They talk about it enough.
You’ll come to the dinner table and there Potential will be,
sitting in your chair
finishing your vegetables
Potential brushes perfect teeth with your toothbrush
and flosses, of course
and lies down in your bed
and there is no room for you in this house

Somewhere, Potential is living your best life
They tell you all the time
You could be like that if you tried
As if Potential is your big brother
bringing home trophies while you drown in his hand-me-downs

For all they talk
Potential never does show up at the dinner table
or the test
or the interview
When you wonder if it’s running late, they say
“A seed has tons of potential
But nobody gives a fuck about a seed
Until it becomes a flower.”

And you sit in your terracotta pot and you wonder
how long you have to scold a radish seed
before it grows into a rose.

 

Character Select: M F [Cancel]

I don’t know what my body is supposed to look like, but it’s not this.

Right now, that’s all I know. I look at page after page of pictures under the “androgyny” tag, and I see what I wish my body looked like.  Sure is surprisingly racist up in this aesthetic.  They are all white, they are all thin, they are all delicate and fragile. Their tits are small, their hips are narrow, their faces have jaws and cheekbones that could cut glass. Their eyes are huge and deep, ageless. They look like elves or angels, and I want to look like them, and I never, ever will.

That’s not self-loathing, that’s not pessimism, that’s straight-up fucking biology. I am five-ten and burly – not six-two and willowy, not five-four and curvy. I am 190 pounds of soft muscle and hard fat. I have never broken a bone because my bones are as thick as tree limbs, my wrists too large to grip in one hand. My ass is big and firm but not shapely. My thighs are horselike with no gap in between, my arms are strong but too soft for any muscle definition. My tits are big but partly because my chest is thick, barrel-like – it gives me a deep voice and makes me pop buttons on shirts when I breathe, in a way that is not sexy and scandalous but just embarrassing and expensive.

Looking at these pictures makes me feel exactly how I’ve felt all my life – slow, clumsy, misshapen, as if I’m interacting with the world through a spacesuit. Most days it feels like I can’t truly touch anything, like every motion is a fumbling approximation of what I intended, like every sense is dull and muffled. When I look in the mirror I can see myself in the eyes – well, not in them, but behind them. The eyes aren’t shaped right, they’re not the right color, they’re not mine, but behind the face I don’t recognize I see my own fear looking out. That’s been the same all my life. I can’t ever remember seeing a face in the mirror that looked like mine.

Right now, it feels like it’s the having of a face at all that I resent. I spent today looking up local ordinances on the wearing of masks in public. I’d like to assemble a collection of beautiful masks, all different, that I could choose from when I go out and wear all day. I hate the feeling that participating in daily life requires taking a stand on who I am as a person. I would like to go out in a voluminous robe and a mask, so that what I say and do is just what I say and do, not what a WOMAN says and does, not what a MAN says and does… I do not want to be assigned a category and I don’t want to prop one up by existing. But it seems that I don’t have a choice. There is no way to opt out of people looking at you and assigning you a role based on the first fucking characteristic they see.

Thirty years of first-person gaming and silent protagonists have taught me that the essential ME is in my hands. They’re the only part of myself I like. They’re the only parts of me that look exactly like they should, the only parts I enjoy watching do what they do. They’re neither masculine nor feminine, and they’re not pretty – I bite my nails and chew my fingertips until they bleed. But none of that matters when they’re writing, or cooking, or drawing. All that matters is that they’re sure and strong and they’ve never failed to do as I asked.

I’ve always talked to people best when we walk side-by-side, not looking at each other. I’ve always done best online, in text, where my voice doesn’t interfere with what I have to say. I don’t want to have a face. I don’t want to have a voice. I just want to bring the quest item and turn it in, and be judged on the basis of how well I did the thing.

It’s hard to see a way out of dysphoria right now. I can’t think of any shape within my physical capacities that I would like better than the one I have. I love having long hair and I love having tits, but I could take or leave the bottom system if I’m honest. I want to have a baby and do mom things. I want to be a knight, too, but I’m not sure if it’s for the sense of purpose or the armor. I want to be maximally female and maximally male at the same time, and that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 8

our fairweather heroine is tested, blood and promises exchanged
(ft. one unscripted costume change)

Kelly tumbled into the retreat and threw herself at Lin, who nearly collapsed into the settee behind her as she absorbed the momentum.  In this face, Keshena had to look up to meet Lin’s eyes, but not by much. They were very nearly of a size. She squeezed the Speaker firmly and asked with a child’s candor, “Villi doesn’t think you’re very good at your job, does she?”

Lin laughed and sat down on the settee, crossing her legs.  Kelly hopped up onto it herself, and mirrored the position as Lin talked.

“Villi doesn’t often think anyone is qualified, in fairness.  But she’s not wrong – I’m pretty young for this position.”

“How did you get it?”

“That is both incredibly boring and not relevant to your examination.”  Keshena could see that Lin, despite herself, was enjoying the slight increase in perceived authority that Kelly’s childish manner afforded her.  Kelly folded her hands in her lap and sat up straighter, playing up the performance by instinct to please her audience.

“All right, I’m ready.  I think.”

Lin nodded.  “This examination isn’t the last you’ll take.  Think of it as the initial barrier to entry among the Kumani, the one that keeps out traitors and fools.”  She squinted at Kelly’s bland cheer. “Is there a reason you’ve chosen to keep up the costume-game for this?”

Keshena felt a species of pain at those words, but this time the filter of Kelly’s shameless self-absorption protected her from the worst of it.  “What do you mean?”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Lin sighed.  “Never mind. We’ll do this quickly; I don’t want to fall victim of your sick sense of humor.  Come on out to the yard; show me what Ishin’s taught you.”

The meticulous little ingenue stood in the black dust outside the retreat, her face not particularly flattered by the low, greenish lights that nurtured the mushroom garden.  She held the whip she had been given in one hand, and the blade in the other, and looked profoundly incapable of being useful with either one. Lin, squaring off with similar weapons a few feet away, swallowed hard to keep from laughing.

“So ah… should I… defend myself?” Kelly asked, her voice trembling with meticulously pitched apprehension.

Lin’s shoulders shook, but she tightened her grip on the dirk and lunged at Kelly, who squeaked and jumped out of the way.  Her arms locked at her sides, Kelly stood trembling, affording the Speaker a chance to spin on her heel and graze a shoulder with the short blade.

“Ow!”  Kelly chirped, looking down at the thin line of blood on her sleeve.  “Oh, my dress…”

“Gods, this is so embarrassing,” Lin muttered, gritting her teeth.  The ingenue stood, rubbing at the bloodstained lace.  The mingled exasperation and amusement in the Speaker’s face softened.  “Oh, damn it. Did I get you good?”

“N-no!  I’m fine!”  Stammering all the while, Keshena turned the blade in her hand and twisted, bringing her arm around Lin and drawing the younger woman against her with savage strength.  The cool edge kissed the soft hollow of the hip, and Lin hissed through her teeth in surprise.

“Y’know, this is really impressive, in its way,” she said conversationally, making no effort to break free of Keshena’s grip.  “You look at me with this face and I’m surprised you remember how to breathe, but it is you, isn’t it? Not bad at all.” The tip of the blade bit her skin as Keshena’s hand trembled, and Lin shrugged out of the loosening hold.  “Careful, now. No need for too much bloodshed among friends.”

“So you say,” Kelly murmured, with a cat’s grin.

“Did you meet Ishin like this?”

Keshena shook her head.  “Not yet.”

With a chuckle, Lin stepped away and shook out the coiled whip in her left hand.  “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I think I’d prefer to watch, if you ever do.  Did he train you with the whip at all?”

“Some.”

“Show me what you know.”

Keshena stepped back from herself, first in her head, and then on the stone.  Her toe kicked up a puff of gritty dust, and she lifted it with an inward breath and a twitch of her fingers, blending it with an illusion that swallowed her into the cave’s deep dark.  Lin grinned, her eyes wandering warily, as Keshena vanished.

The illusion drank the sound of her feet on the stone.  Without knowing it she stepped out of her shoes. The yellow sundress Kelly had bought in Capria tangled with the gloom, stained into a sickly smear.  She felt as if she were drifting on her own breath, drawn in and out by it, and with each exhale she fluttered closer to the waiting Speaker. The whip was real and concrete in her hand, the only thing that was truly here.  I am the weapon’s wings, she thought.  She stretched the leather between her hands, curled around her small fingers, and then flung herself out of the shade of her breath to wrap the whip around Lin’s throat, dragging her to the ground before her face went purple.

Lin looked up at Kelly’s face, and saw a horrible transformation.  The ingenue’s teeth were bared, her eyes bulging with something akin to lust.  Lin grabbed at the hands that held the whip, and felt the pulse fluttering there, ragged and rapid as her own while the breath burned in her lungs and she choked.  Then Kelly’s lips curled further and she shuddered. The length of leather fell loose into the dust.

Lin doubled over, coughing.  When at last she recovered, Keshena was standing above her, hands shaking now in a way that was not remotely pretty.  Her face was blank, empty.

“Good enough,” the Speaker wheezed at last.  “Bit over-zealous, maybe.” She shook her head, trying to forget the expression she had seen on that childish face.

“I’ve got to ask you a few questions before I pass you.  Shall we go back inside? Maybe get some water…”

Keshena nodded.  “Do you mind,” she whispered, in a voice quite unlike Kelly’s piping soprano, “If I go change before I follow you?”

Lin got to her feet and brushed herself off.  “That sounds like a good idea. Meet me back here in ten minutes, then.”

 

The click of hobnail boots on stone announced Keshena’s return to the retreat.   Lin smiled, relieved, at Den Roth’s cruel face.

“I was just speaking to your little sister, I think,” she quipped.  “She was stabbed in a horrid accident. I’m glad you’re here to take her place!”

A grim glint in her eye, Den Roth offered a slipshod salute.  “I hope you buried her deep. She needs to be put out of my misery.”  The mercenary dragged a chair closer to the chaise Lin had taken, spun it on one leg, and dropped into it straddling the backrest.

“I’d like to ask you some questions about this process, but they can wait until we’ve finished the official interview.  Are you ready?”

“At your service.”

Lin planted her elbows on her knees, while one hand twirled her dirk point-first into the cushion.  “Tell me, in your own words, what you think is the most important quality for a Kumani Defender to have.”

“Loyalty.”  The way Den Roth pronounced this word had none of Kelly’s scorn, and none of the clink of chains that seemed to accompany every utterance from the imp’s mouth.  “To protect this city you have to stand apart from it, and against everything else. If the trust between us fails, nothing will be left. We have to be able to rely upon one another to be professional, reliable, and loyal.”

Lin smiled.  “I’ve heard that before somewhere,” she teased.

Den Roth’s lopsided smile answered her.  “I had a good teacher.”

“You have no idea how good it feels to hear someone thinking.  I listen to sneering young men talk about their ‘subtlety’ all day.  Them, I enjoy stabbing. All right. The Kumani are not murderers or assassins, but murder and assassination are tools we use.  To kill on a whim draws unwanted attention. What actions would you say fall into the category of senseless killing?”

“Well, that’s an interesting thing.”  Keshena folded her arms across the back of her chair, and settled her chin on them.  “See, depending on the situation, any kind of killing could benefit our work. I might be in a bar drinking, and a fellow might bump me, and I might stab the bastard, and if that made me fit in around the bar, if that was normal there – and I’ve been in some bars, y’know, where blood’s more or less the cover charge – well then, that wouldn’t be senseless.”

Lin stifled a grin and nodded.

“You have to think about where you are.  The most important thing is to be aware of who’s looking at you…” Keshena continued, meeting Lin’s eyes steadily.  There was a tender warmth in her scrutiny. “…And what they expect to see. Whim doesn’t come into it. I might want to do all manner of things,” she reached out and brushed Lin’s hair back from her face, “But if that’s not what I’m there to do, I need to wait, to finish the play first.  If I can’t do that, I’m just a thug.”

Lin exhaled slowly.  “That was very well-worded.”  She glanced at her hands, the idly spinning blade that had worked its tip into the weave of the cushion, and then looked away again from the unsubtle metaphor.  “Tell me about our Father. Tell me why we chose Him.”

“We didn’t choose him, really, if what I hear is correct.  He chose us to protect the Citadel. He gave us the gift of His magic, and helped to shape us in His image.  What’s not to love?”

The look in Lin’s eyes was very similar to the one Den Roth wore, for a moment – it was hard to tell who was inspiring the skepticism they shared.  “Good enough. Did you do the reading?”

Den Roth nodded.  “There was one book that seemed mostly unrelated, though.  Long nonsense about the original Blooded.”

“Tell me her name.”

“Artasz, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.  And what was her role in the fall of the Lions?”

Keshena shifted her weight, on more comfortable ground with history than theology.  “Artasz was trying to make herself and the rest of the Lions immortal – a life not measured by the gods, write your own destiny.  She seized hundreds of children from the Reach, from the foothills, even some harpies and trolls. She didn’t find immortality, but she found a few families in the reach that carried blood magic, mortal power that didn’t depend on a god’s love.”

Lin nodded.  “What happened then?”

“She started to experiment.  They killed the rest of her captives trying to find ways to enhance the blood gift, but the only thing that seemed to strengthen it was keeping the bloodlines pure.  So, gods help ‘em, they started marrying up siblings. When it was discovered what she’d done, the Lions threw Artasz and the first families out. They settled eventually in the mountains to the south, founded the Cauldron, and their descendants are still there.  And THAT,” Keshena finished triumphantly, “Is why Nieran doesn’t allow Blooded among the Kumani.”

Lin nodded again, seeming somewhat bored by the question.  “Well, aren’t we glad the history lesson is behind us? All right, last question.  I saved this one because I knew your answer would be interesting. Ready?”

Keshena sat up straighter.  “Shoot.”

“Nieran is the god of artifice – which, His priests often remind us, can be used to refer either to lies or to the creation of clever devices and art,” Lin said slowly.  “With that in mind, tell me how artifice plays a role in your own life.”

Den Roth pondered for some time, her eyes following Lin’s brown fingers curling and uncurling around the hilt of her dirk.  Finally she murmured, “I lie in every word. Every moment of every day. I take on the names others have given me because they protect me from my own.”  She spoke slowly, as if discovering what she would say along with her listener. “If there is such a thing. Whoever was born in this body died a long time ago.  I’ve been a hundred beautiful things since. I’ve come here to ask you to give me another role to play, another face to wear. I’ve come here to learn better ways to hide.  If I can be useful to you, these people, this city, I’ll become whatever’s required and gladly. If you want my loyalty, you can have it. You can have everything I am.” Keshena spread her empty hands on her lap. “You’ll find there’s not much there.”

The complex despair in the older woman’s voice was beyond Lin’s ability to encompass.  She reached out and touched Keshena’s cheek, felt the powder of cosmetics and the delicate bone structure beneath the illusion.  “You’ll be safe here,” she whispered. “I swear it. I’ll make it so, Keshena.”

Something peeked out of Den Roth’s dark green eyes, like a hind in the undergrowth, the flash of something shy and untamed.  She turned her cheek in to the touch, her breath warm on Lin’s wrist. Then the moment was broken. Den Roth grinned her sharp-edged grin and said, “Oh, I believe it.  I’d wager between the two of us we could turn this place around. Make it goddamn livable.

Lin drew her hand back, laughing with color rising in her cheeks.  “I’ll take that bet. I don’t quite know how yet, but rebuilding the roster with quality people seems like a good place to start.  And on that subject, that concludes the examination. It’s traditional and so are the books I gave you, so I apologize for that.  I’m working to convince Hanna to let me change it.”

“I’ve sat through worse.  Did I do all right?”

Lin smiled, running a hand through her hair.  “Better than. Very comprehensive and thoughtful.  And we seem to agree on what the guild should be about, which is more than I can say for a lot of the old-timers.  I’m definitely hoping to make some changes around here. I think you can help me.”

Den Roth nodded.  “I’m yours. Show me my mark and I’ll hit it.  What kind of changes do you want to make?”

The Speaker stretched out her legs and spread her arms along the back of the chaise.  “Well, it can’t have escaped your notice that we’re… what’s the nice way to put it. A godawful band of rejects?”

Keshena snorted.  “I resemble that remark.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.  You came here for a reason -” Lin aimed a brown finger at the mercenary.  “Sanctuary. A place where you can place trust in someone. Feel at home in spite of everything.  And you’re not the only one. Halls, just in the apprentice barracks we’ve got a former Knight who’s about half your age and thinks he’s the gods’ gift to… well, everything, a girl who might be part harpy whom we’re still figuring out how to talk to, and an overgrown lizard who’s a beast on the piano and keeps leaving fruit everywhere.  And I don’t want to change that. I want to protect it.” Her face sobered. “Have you met our Champion?”

Keshena shook her head.  “Not a bit. To be fair, I didn’t really expect to.  Wouldn’t imagine the Champion of the Kumani would be easy to spot.”

A wry look from the Speaker.  “If only she were hard to spot because she was stealthy.  No, Hanna doesn’t show up in the complex much these days. She’s well-loved by the old guard because she keeps things the same, but I’ve seen her maybe three times in the five years I’ve been here.  You asked how I got my job?” Lin spread her hands. “I volunteered. When I arrived, it was like there was a layer of dust on everything. There still is. This guild hasn’t been a force beyond the city for a hundred years.  It’s gone to sleep, because Hanna and the rest of them have let it.”

The mercenary watched Lin’s face, the dark skin illuminated by outrage.  Her passion was magnetic. Her liquid-black eye glittered like the gem in the other socket as she spoke.  Keshena felt a kind of longing, but only smiled as she listened. Unlike Kelly, Den Roth could wait.

“So what do you plan to do?”

“Start with people like you, and those oddballs in the barracks.  Find people of worth, people who care.  Train them, teach them, with the few from the old guard who still make an effort – Ishin, Gnarlstone, even that blasted imp, at least she’s awake.  We’ll work our way up, and then fill in the ranks with more worthwhile folks. Let Hanna snore. She’ll wake up to find we’ve rebuilt the guild in her absence.”

“And then you’ll have her job, eh?”  Keshena grinned.

Lin’s cheeks flushed, but she didn’t back down.  “Maybe. I won’t say I haven’t thought about it.”

“You should think about it,” Keshena said.  “I’ll do what I can do to help. Speaking of which, what do you want me to do now?”

“Ah!  Yes.” The Speaker straightened up.  “Work, mostly. There are enough things going untended around the city to keep twelve of us busy.  There might be some combat, from time to time.” She glanced at Den Roth’s sharp-toothed smile. “I’m sure you won’t mind.  You’ll still see a lot of Villi, perhaps more than before. And you can help me work with the newer apprentices. As soon as you know anything, you get to teach, that’s what I say.  Authority is as authority does.”

“Suits me.  Am I your apprentice now, then?”

A soft smile from Lin, sweeter than the question deserved.  “Let’s call you my friend, until we figure something else out.”  She rose from the chaise with a groan. “Ugh, sitting too long still makes my hip hurt.  Do you want to walk me home?”

“I can do that.”

Den Roth supported Lin’s arm with the careful solicitousness of a knight, through the Citadel and out into the stony estates.  At the iron gate, she stopped. “Thank you for testing me.”

“Thank you for making it worth my time,” Lin answered.  Then she paused, her hand on the iron latch. “Keshena?” she said carefully.  “There’s… there’s more to you than you think. I think. And I think there’s someone in there who’s confused, maybe scared.  I’d like to give that person something.”

Nonplussed, Keshena shrugged.  “All right. What is it?”

Lin turned and took hold of Den Roth’s arm again, rising on her toes to put her on a level with the mercenary’s six-foot frame.  She raised her head and briefly, gently, kissed the scarred mouth.

Keshena was frozen.  Lin’s cheeks were afire.  The Speaker took a step back, smiling, and disappeared through the gate.  Some time later, Keshena raised her fingers to her lips, as if to hold the kiss there a moment longer.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 7

introducing the ingenue

“I see you’ve been working on your illusions.  What do you call this face?”

Keshena, interrupted in her assiduous attempt to avoid Villi’s gaze, reminded herself not to scowl.  Miss Kelly did not scowl. She curtsied instead, which brought her briefly to eye level with the imp who sat cross-legged on a table, a bowl in the cradle of her knees.  The imp always knew more than she should.

“That’s my job.”  Villi’s smile was sharp.  “And your job is to answer my questions.”

“Can’t you simply pluck the answers from my brain?” Keshena asked, her voice piping and sweet, but not devoid of sarcasm.  Miss Kelly did sneer.

“I could pluck many things from your brain,” Villi said.  “I wonder how many you would miss?”

“I have plenty to spare, Ms. Selannor.  Keshena Kelly, at your service.”

“Kelly, very well.  I wish to talk to you about religion, Kelly.”

Kelly made a sound of unfiltered disgust and flounced into a chair.  “Why?”

Unmoved, Villi stirred the bowl between her knees with her fingertips.  “Because you are in our Father’s service, whether you wish to be or not, and you will speak of Him and His with respect in my presence.”

This is not the face to wear for this… Keshena thought, frustrated, but there was nothing for it.  No changing costumes after your cue’s been called. And there was this much to be said for Kelly – she might not be reverent, but she was more than capable of matching Villi passive-aggressive jab for jab.

“As I understand it, He’s got a congregation in His service.  I hope you’re not implying that the guild should be the congregation’s martial arm.”

“Of course not,” Villi murmured with ill grace.  “That would be in direct contradiction of the guild’s treaty with the city.  However, you’ll find that you won’t progress far among the Kumani without paying Him the respect He is due.  So, do you intend to listen?”

Keshena drew her feet up and tucked them under the hem of her sundress.  Kelly dressed like the ingenue she appeared to be, which hadn’t been a problem when she was a newlywed in Capria, but it was hardly well-suited to the Reach’s brutal winters.  Even in the Kumani cavern she shivered.

“All right, I’ll listen.”

“Our Father Nieran, the Shade, does keep a congregation, of which I am the current leader.  Their purpose is to serve His will. The purpose of the Kumani is to protect this city, which is also His will.  Most houses in Lion’s Reach contain a shrine to Him, but He is not the only god worshipped here. Can you tell me the names of the others?”

“The numerologists revere the Engineer, Hadall.  The Wolves have their own gods, but…”

“The Beasts do not have names you can pronounce with a human tongue, no.  Good enough. What must one do to show fealty to our Father?”

Keshena took a long breath.  “The Shade rewards personal commitment and creativity in His devotions.  He prefers that His worshippers keep His name in their hearts as they walk in the shadow, as they listen and learn all there is to hear and know.  He thinks of no knowledge as trivial – even the smallest word in the right place can move the world.” She watched with a shrewd eye for this recitation to land, and saw with satisfaction that Villi was impressed – or at least, sufficiently moved to pretend to be impressed, which might be the best she could hope for.

“Indeed.  And in that respect, His tenets are very well-suited to the Kumani.  What are the other values He requires, that He’s passed along to our guild?”

Keshena let this question hang in the air for some time.  She was thinking about how she might get out of answering it, and her face made the process perfectly evident.  Villi watched with ill-disguised impatience.

With no escape available that wouldn’t be more trouble than it was worth, Kelly responded at last: “Loyalty.  He values nothing higher, I’ve heard.”

“Loyalty is a funny thing,” Villi answered, addressing the bowl between her knees.  “Its face changes depending on what one attaches it to. Some loyalties can be delineated easily.  But loyalties often change. Tell me – would you say a man is loyal, who changes his allegiance ten times in a year, but for each master or cause invests the whole of himself?”

Kelly sneered.  “No. Loyalty means staying loyal.”

The look the imp directed at her was utterly bland.  “What a perfect summation of a very complex argument.  That takes skill, you know. Few people have the talent to distill centuries of philosophical debate into such a thunderingly content-free sentence.  You should be very proud.”

The ingenue was proud.  Keshena felt it, and at the same time, felt the resentment and frustration she always fought in this face.  This is not a compliment, she thought savagely.  She’s laughing at me, again.  But Kelly loved the attention and the frustration both, took them as flowers tossed by an adoring crowd.

She gave back Villi’s steady, underwhelmed gaze with an insouciant grin, and for a moment, felt their wills come into conflict.  There was a tense peace, a balance between them, and for a moment it teetered, as the imp stared and the ingenue smirked.

Putting on this face felt like a crime.  The wig still smelled of funeral flowers and powder, and every time she swung it over her head, she gagged and shut her eyes until the process was complete.  But there was a kind of strength here that Keshena, in her most private moments, knew she would not possess without the ingenue and the things she had done. Kelly could face Villi.  Perhaps because they’re the same kind of person, she thought, and recoiled from the notion, dropping her eyes.

“I don’t expect that you will take me up on this,” Villi continued at length, “But should you ever wish to learn more about the one you serve – and you do serve Him, make no mistake – I will be happy to teach you.  I’m His chaplain among the Kumani.”

“Oh, does that mean you marry people?” Kelly chirped.

“I have,” said the imp.  “Perhaps it would be of value to you to investigate that question: if a servant of Nieran marries, do his loyalties change?  Would you say that man is loyal?”

Kelly wrinkled her nose, an expression perfectly positioned on dual axes of nubility and nastiness.  “Marriage doesn’t mean anything much,” she murmured. “His underlying loyalties are the same as ever; you just dressed him in a nice jacket.”

She expected an explosion at this, and awaited it eagerly, even as something inside her seethed at the pointlessly inflammatory remark.  But Villi smiled, showing tiny, pointed teeth. “Good. You are listening at last.”

Kelly sulked.  This, too, she did prettily, and she was capable of nursing an elegant sulk for up to a month at a time, but wasn’t given the chance.  The door of the library creaked, and Lin poked her head in, then followed it with the rest of her when she caught sight of them.

“Villi!  Have you seen – oh.  Of course. Keshena, is this another of your faces?”  The Speaker raised a skeptical eyebrow.

It was unwise to display too much eagerness to get away from Villi, but wisdom was not one of Kelly’s notable qualities.  She jumped to her feet and curtsied to Lin, following it up with a toss of the hair and a wink. There was a faint sound of gagging from where the imp sat, and Keshena ignored it.

“Hello, Lin!  Villi is teaching me all about loyalty!”

“O…kay then.  That’s good.”

“It’s been hard to get through to… this… as I’m sure you can imagine,” Villi drawled.  “But she’s satisfied me for the moment. Do you require her?”

“If you’re finished,” Lin answered.  “Would you say she’s ready for her examination?”

The imp looked sideways at Keshena, that eternal laughter in her wide eyes.  “That is for our fine Speaker to determine. If you say that she is ready, I will bow to your well-known expertise.”

Lin visibly contained a snappish response, putting on instead a bright, false smile that rather eerily echoed Kelly’s.  “All right, then. Keshena, come along. We’ll talk in the Retreat.”

Like an unleashed puppy, Keshena jumped to her feet and scampered from the room, followed as long as possible by the imp’s interested eye.

Next