Jeanie in a Bottle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Valerie Lunt


Photo Credit: Inayaili de León Persson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The cement was cold beneath her hands. A common block wall—or so it appeared. Jeanie knew better. Even her recon team with their most advanced scans could not get a read through the material. A special power hummed through it, almost pulling her in before she pushed.

She felt her heart speed up, her breathing shallow. This was the best part of the job, the part she’d been doing before she had a job. The part that got her the job in the first place. And what a job it was, taking her into some of the most wonderful rooms in the world. Rooms most people never even knew existed and fewer still had seen. Treasure rooms. Vaults. Mind-blowing technology. Government secrets. She’d seen them all. That’s not to say she was always successful. One time she’d found herself in a near-vacuum, unable to breathe, her tissues swelling painfully in the sudden lack of atmospheric pressure. She’d been discovered before she could make a second attempt. And, she tried to keep this under wraps, but the greater the distance of solid material, the tighter it squeezed. One day she might just try something too big and end up stuck, her dead body (or essence—she wasn’t exactly sure how the process worked) adding to the very defense she was trying to penetrate.

Still, that was never going to stop her. “What have you got for me this time?” she whispered, a smile teasing her lips. She pressed herself against the wall and willed herself into the room beyond. A whirlwind of color, a pressure that seemed to force her very molecules apart, an odd catch on her mind, and she was through, materializing into the most disturbing room yet.

“So you’re the invisible girl.” The voice jolted her out of her shock.

She looked around. No one was there. And it’s not like there were many places to hide.

“Look who’s talking,” Jeanie said, trying to mask her fear. “Or rather, I would look, but…” Her eyes raked the disconcertingly familiar walls for any sign of a microphone or camera.

The voice seemed to smile when it spoke next. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself. Most people thought the stories were just a myth.”

Jeanie should go; she’d been discovered. It wasn’t good to have a reputation when you were a spy, especially a spy with a super power.

But instead, she lingered, reaching a hand out to an old wooden bird, a child’s toy. A distinctive scratch mark caught her eye and she pulled back. “How are you doing this?” she asked, her voice betraying more fear than she would have liked.

“Ah, do you like it? We made it especially for you,” came the disembodied voice.

“You know me?” She looked around again for a hidden lens or transmitter, but there was nothing out of place. Everything was just as she remembered it. (And just as pink.)

“We do now.” It was smiling again.

Jeanie walked over to the window. Lacy pink curtains draped to the sides. A walnut tree waved its arms lazily, its leaves filtering the sunlight. This isn’t possible, Jeanie thought. She unlocked the familiar latch and pulled it up. But when she tried to pop the screen out, she met more wall. Wall, said her fingers. Wide open space, said her eyes.

“Don’t be so cocky,” Jeanie replied, angry now. “So you replicated a room.” Down to the very last detail. Even the smell was the same. But there was no reason to say that.

“Oh, is that what we did? It was just a byproduct. The room was created as you… walked in.”

Jeanie frowned at a stain on the floor. Her dog, Puddles (named for her regrettable lack of potty training) was responsible for the well-known spot. She’d always thought it looked a bit like a koala bear. But then there were her shoes, sitting brand-new in the corner. Those had been worn out by the time they got Puddles…

“It’s taken from my memories?”

“Very good. Your most vivid ones from childhood.”

As Jeanie continued to examine, she noticed other anachronisms there as well. Things were in their most memorable state, pieces of the room she’d grown up in, but mixed in a way that, all together, had never been. A lace doily hung over her old dresser, a picture of her grandmother on top. She’d put those there after Grandma had died—after getting rid of the old carpet.

“You scanned me?”

“Yes.”

That would explain the strange catch on her mind on entering.

“As I said, this place was built for you.”

Jeanie felt partial relief. So they hadn’t somehow been watching her since childhood. On the other hand, they probably hadn’t gone to all this effort just to get her youthful ideas on room decorating, even if Strawberry Shortcake was making a comeback. They must have set up fake intel to draw her in. Her feeling of exposure heightened. She really should be going now.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” said Jeanie, one hand back on the wall, “but this isn’t the intel that was advertised.” And with that, she pushed.

The wall didn’t meld. She didn’t move. She tried again.

“It won’t work,” came the voice. “You were stuck the moment you came through. It knows the way you enter, your vibration signature. You can never pass it.”

Jeanie tried again, this time in the exact place she’d entered. Nothing. She was hitting a wall, for the first time in her career. She pushed again, then screamed in frustration, punching the wall for good measure. It left her whole arm stinging but didn’t make so much as a dent in the wall.

She tried to calm down. “So you caught me. It won’t last. You’re not the first to try. Nothing can hold me! I can’t be kept anywhere by anyone!”

“There’s a first time for everything,” came the patronizing answer. “Try not to live so much in the past.” It laughed. “Ha ha! Get it?”

Jeanie got it. But, as much as she wanted to, Jeanie couldn’t punch that person anymore than she could punch through the walls. Instead, she tore up the room, trying to find a weakness. She threw the old rocking horse at the fake door and crashed the lamp against the wall. Nothing. Literally, nothing. Nothing broke or even chipped. Not a scratch appeared on the wall. Everything seemed stuck in the state they’d been created in. Forget those. She’d use her hands, feeling for a door—they’d have to have a door if they wanted to run more tests on her—or did they intend to keep her here until she starved?

“There’s nothing you can do,” the voice said again.

“Now that is never true,” she muttered. There was always something you could do. She kept feeling all along the walls, trusting her fingers instead of her eyes until finally she found something, a microphone. “See?” she said, smiling. And she smashed her elbow into it.

It wouldn’t break.

Laughter.

“Okay, you’re really starting to annoy me!” She took her knife out and tried that. No use. She went back to kicking the walls, ramming them with her shoulders. If there was an electrical component to them keeping her in, maybe she could jar it long enough to break through.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” said the voice, its tone disturbing with its utter lack of worry. “I’ve got some scans to see to, after all.”

Jeanie didn’t know how long it was before she finally gave up. She sank down on the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, exhausted. She really ought to bring explosives with her on these trips. There was no team coming to rescue her. They could not risk their connection being discovered with this one. That was their understanding anyway, before she came in and found out it was a trap.

Absently, she fingered the hole in her bedspread, then pulled her finger out when she became aware of the old habit. Tears pricked at her eyes. She blinked them back and held on to anger instead. Who were these people, adding such a personal humiliation to her capture? Had the scan really needed to work this way? In either case, it felt too much like treating a child with a tantrum. Stay in your room until you calm down! Mommy needs to run some tests. Except, her mother had never been able to keep her in her room. Hers wasn’t the safest gift to have as a child. How many times she wandered off onto the streets… Her mother had had to sing her to sleep most every night to keep her from leaving.

She leaned up against the wall, that impenetrable wall, and hummed one of her mom’s old tunes. Slowly, her heart calmed with the tune. I just wish I could see Brody one more time. The thought surprised her. No time like impending doom to clear up your love life. She pictured his hair, blowing wildly in the wind of the chopper. He was always flying. She could almost feel the vibrations of the helicopter now just thinking about it.

“What are you doing?”

Jeanie jerked up at the sharp interruption. Panic. That was panic in its tone. Hope flared and Jeanie realized the vibrations weren’t just her imagination. Could this be? Might the very same tactic her mother had used to keep her in now serve to get her out? Pressing herself firmly against the wall, she hummed more purposefully, the music thrumming not only in her chest and body but in the wall itself. But still, she wasn’t getting through.

The voice scoffed. “Well, maybe you should try a funeral dirge next. We’ve gotten all we need from you. Let’s see if you can materialize your way through acid.”

It can work, thought Jeanie. She’s desperate; I’m on the right track. Sprinklers sprouted from the ceiling. Ignoring them, Jeanie focused, feeling for the right vibration within her, within the wall. Yes! There it was! She hummed the low tone, disrupting whatever cancellation system they had in place to block her, causing it now to resonate in a helpful way.

Acid fell, the first drops sizzling on her hair, her skin, but Jeanie didn’t stick around for more. There was someone she needed to see.

After she threw out her old Strawberry Shortcake pillow, that was.

pencilValerie Lunt, a native Arizonan, always loved writing, although, for several years she confused that with hating it. Thankfully, she got that sorted out in time to choose English as her major at ASU. She just finished writing her first novel (YA fantasy) this year and is wrapping up her second. Email: valelunt[at]gmail.com

Little Big Man Speaks

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robert Walton


Photo Credit: Jerry and Pat Donaho/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Hector?

Yes, Marsha.

It’s hot.

Yes, Marsha.

It’s beastly hot!

Yes, Marsha.

We could skip the next stop, Crazy-something-or-other.

Crazy Horse.

Whatever.

He was a Lakota leader.

Whatever.

They lived here.

Look at George Washington’s nose. The sun is hitting it just right.

The Black Hills was their sacred place.

Just think of all those little men chipping away up there for years.

Marsha, I feel a little dizzy.

I never knew George’s nose was so big.

I think I’ll get off the bus, get some air.

The father of our country!

I am weak. The hoop of our nation is broken. At the center of the world, the holy tree is dying.

Hector, where are you going?

A dream of power awaits me. White Buffalo Maiden awaits me.

Hector! Come back this minute!

I stand beneath the holy spire and sing to the powers. Thunder beings, I climb to you! White Giant, I climb to you! Morning Star, I climb to you!

Stop! Those rocks are loose!

Hoka hey! I climb!

Hector, come down from there!

I am Lakota! It is a good day to die!

Hector, come down this instant!

The powers are with me! I am one with the rock.

Hector! You’re hundred feet up!

A spirit floats above me, wrapped in a buffalo robe. His eyes are covered with blue ice. He opens his mouth to speak, but his mouth is filled with blood.

Driver, do something!

Crazy Horse! Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, you made the hearts of the Lakota grow big when you were near.

Get help!

In the Moon of Making Fat we leaped on our ponies and fought the Wasichu soldiers. Long hair led them and they wanted to kill our women, our children, but we rubbed them out.

Call the rescue team!

The dust was like a thunderstorm. The bullets fell like raindrops. The big, gray horses screamed when the arrows pierced them. I drove my lance through a soldier. Another turned to shoot me. I put my six-shooter beneath his chin and fired. Then I saw you on your pony, Crazy Horse, dead Wasichus under you. Burning dust hid the sun.

Yes, Ranger Murchison, he just got out of the bus, walked over there and started climbing.

Pahuska led them but we rubbed them out!

No, Hector’s never climbed anything before in his life.

I climb to you, Crazy Horse. The cracks and holds hide from me. I must hunt them as I would stalk deer. My fingers are arrows. They pierce the hiding cracks.

He’s almost on the top. Do something!

Crazy Horse, the victory was ours! We rubbed out the Wasichus together, but the Wasichus are like the blades of grass on the prairie. We cut down hundreds; thousands chased us through the long summer. Grandfather Winter came and the children cried. They had nothing to eat. The Wasichus took our ponies; the Wasichus took our guns. We went with them to the fort, even you.

Get a helicopter!

They came for you during the Moon when the Calf Grows Hair. A hundred soldiers with guns watched you. You did not fear them though you had no gun. Your courage made them fear. Their eyes were round and yellow.

He’s climbing again!

Later they came to move you. I came with them, for I felt uneasy in my heart. They took you through the darkness to the little prison with iron bars. You saw where they meant to put you and you cried out. You pulled out your knife and made to attack all those Wasichus. Their guns with the long knives on them shone in the starlight.

I can’t look!

Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, I did not want you to die. When you raised your knife high, I seized your hand. We struggled. Though I am larger than you, as an old bull is to a yearling, your strength was equal to mine. I held your hand high, but I could not move it. A Wasichu soldier moved behind you. His eyes were yellow in the dark, yellow, yellow. His cap fell off as he thrust at you with the long knife on his gun. He stabbed it into your back. I felt it pass through you. Crazy Horse, I mourn for you!

He’s going to fall!

I mourn. The rock flies above me like a cloud.

I’m going to sue the government. There should be big fences to keep people away from those rocks.

Hoka hey! I hear you, Thunder Beings. Come to me now. Fill me with your power! Help me climb the holy spire! Hoka hey!

My God, thunder and lightning and rain!

Ha! Thunder power fills me! Winds lift me! My arms burn no longer, for cool rains wash them. I climb. Hand over hand, I climb. I thrust hard and leap into the storm’s heart. Lightning is my sacred path.

He’s on top!

I stand and raise my hands to the powers. Thunder Beings speak with voices like mountains falling. Their blue fire covers my hands, my arms.

Duck, Hector! Lightning!

You step down the lightning path to me. You are covered with blue fire. The ice is gone. The blood is gone. You sing:

The light river is my way. Behold!
The light river is my way. Behold!
Blue light flows around me.
I have come again. Behold!

Crazy Horse, you are here. Forgive me.

Ho, Little Big Man, do not be sad. It is beautiful on the other side. Soon you will come home with me.

I see the white hailstones leap up from the rock. Their babies’ faces smile with joy. Crazy Horse, the Wasichus promised us this land for as long as grass grows and water flows. I feel the Thunder Beings cross their mighty arms in the clouds above me and listen in silence.

Little Brother, the grass grew and the water flowed for eight years only. They came after the yellow metal that makes them crazy. The earth is our mother, but they cut her with their plows. They built their iron roads. They poison the rivers, the streams, all of the waters. Where can a human being now find water to drink that will not turn his blood black? Nowhere.

I feel maiden fingers of wind touch my breast.

They killed the buffalo, used none of the meat, and the power of our people spilled like buffalo blood into hot sand. Our young men drink the Wasichus’ whiskey; their lives are dust. Our young women flee from here and never learn the songs of their grandmothers. The earth cries under their burning wheels. The earth cries!

Crazy Horse, hear me. I held you when the Wasichu knife drank your life. If you had lived—

No, my brother, do not think this. I could not stop the white men. Nothing stops them.

Then why have you come here? Why have you called me?

Even when the knife went through me, I knew that you were my brother.

He held out his hands to me.

Know this! I hold your vision. Its fire is wisdom.

He opened his hands and on them lay a small sun.

A great change comes. The earth shall heal; the air shall be clean; the waters shall shine clear again. New snows will fall. Hear me!

The Wasichus will be rubbed out?

No, there must be peace between all. Even the Wasichus will become our brothers.

Crazy Horse, brother, how can this be?

Little Big Man. The Wasichus looked too closely at the things they could make. Their eyes became sick and blind to the earth, to the Great Spirit. Their eyes are withered now like leather that has lain for a season in the sun.

They will I never see.

No, soon they will see again. Soon they will know us. Our children’s children will help them to heal the wounds they have made. Then they will honor us.

How?

You will do this. Hold out your hands, brother.

I hold out my hands.

Take this fire.

The fire passes over my palms, but it does not burn. It is cool and soft like new snow first touching the earth.

It is a vision. Take it to the Wasichus. Show them clear light. Let it heal their eyes. Peace will come then and the world can become clean. Go now, my brother-friend.

I turn from him and step to the cliff’s edge. I cannot climb down while holding the vision in my hands.

Brother, ride the lightning as I have done. The Thunder Beings will carry you back to the world of men.

I look up. Two white beings grasp my arms with fingers like talons. I think that their touch will burn, but it is cool and gentle. They lift me. Blue light surrounds us.

No! Don’t jump, Hector! Somebody, stop him!

I soar! I see Wasichus below and their wagons with no horses. In light I am coming, behold!

Hectoooooooooooor!

The Thunder Beings mount the sky on wings of light. The light in my hands rushes over me. I am covered with light.

Hector?

The light fades.

Hector?

I raise my hands to the Six Powers and give thanks for the vision they have sent.

Hector, are you alive?

I give thanks to the Great Spirit.

I think you fell?

I thank Crazy Horse, brother-friend, for this vision.

It must have been the helicopter. Thank God for the helicopter!

I feel great weariness. I must eat. I must drink good water.

Oh, my God, Hector! It’s the rescue squad.

I will I take my vision to all the far places in the world, to all human beings, but first I must rest.

Hector, the helicopter is landing! This is embarrassing!

White Buffalo Maiden welcomes me.

pencilRobert Walton blogs at Chaos Gate. Email: dragonlemontree[at]sbcglobal.net

Sister’s Pact

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Clarissa Pattern


Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Scott/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Do you think Mr. Grece is really a necomanner, Avice?”

My little sister’s hand felt a little more sweaty, a little harder to hold onto, in my grip.

“Necromancer. The word is necromancer.” I was trying to maintain the body language of someone marching forward with purpose. Which is difficult when you’re creeping more sideways than forward in the not-quite-black shadows before dawn, following a man who you’ve never said more than ‘Good Morning’ to before.

I took a deep breath, determined to maintain my role as big sister. The one in charge. “His name is pronounced Gree Ce.”

“Gracie,” she said. Her voice was quiet by her standards, but, oh, at a time like this it was still too loud.

“I know you could say it properly if you wanted to. Why do you persist in pretending that it’s adorable to not be clever, Beatrice?”

My eyes darted around everywhere as if they were expecting someone to be following us following him. Which was not complete paranoia. After recent events there were less than six hundred of us left. Five-hundred-and-eighty-eight. Everyone watched everyone else. We have to look after one another, they said. Are you dangerous? Could I kill you if I needed to? they thought.

And then he’d arrived. Or he’d always been here. But no one knew anyone who knew him. But no one could remember anyone who’d lived in the old End Cottage before him.

Beatrice’s singsong chanting bled through into my thoughts.

“Gracie Grecco Gracie Greasy Grecco…”

“Stop that!” I squeezed her hand in mine. Too tight. I knew and regretted immediately that she was hurting, by the fact she didn’t yell out, or whine. She stood up a little straighter and stared ahead.

It would have hurt her dignity to acknowledge her pain by an apology, instead I said, “We need to stay focused.”

“You believe he is can do… those things?” A visible tremor went through her body.

It surprised me that Beatrice who, when it suited her, could already swear in curses that made me blush, carried the village superstitions that talking in any detail about black magicks would damn your soul.

I didn’t tell my sister that she was asking the wrong question. That all questions were wrong. Because it was too late. It couldn’t benefit us to know what he’d want in exchange for raising the dead. It couldn’t make this journey any easier to be certain of what his necromancy involved. It would make it worse.

I knew in my heart that this cold morning shivering in pursuit of a stranger, with my sister’s hand in mine, could be the last moment of paradise for me.

“I explained to you. You know, that there are very precise rules about when you can approach a sorcerer and ask a favour.”

“Da says they’re just made-up stories to make life seem more interesting than it really is.”

“Well, we will ask Mr. Gre’ce and then we’ll know for sure, even if nothing else comes of this night.”

“Where is he?”

“Who? Where’s who?”

“The skinny Gracie man.”

I looked around desperately.

“You’ve lost him. You’ve lost him,” she said with real glee.

I managed to stop myself slapping her. “This was our chance. This was our chance. Don’t you understand, you stupid little girl?”

Something tapped me on the shoulder. It was definitely a something. I was slow to turn. Nothing there. But when I looked back at Beatrice, he was standing next to her, and he was holding her hand. I didn’t remember letting go.

“Perhaps your chance is still alive if you are a clever little girl.” His voice belonged to midnight, a sound that you hear waking from a nightmare in the darkest hours, something that you know you heard but you pretend was just imagination.

Before this moment I was certain we’d exchanged greetings before, the same as with any neighbour, but now it was as if I’d never heard or seen him before.

“We were following you,” Beatrice looked up into his face. “Did you know? Avice says we have to approach you at the exact right time to ask you our favour. If that’s right, can you change that time to after lunch. It’s too cold and too dark now.”

I wondered how she could gaze into those pale eyes without flinching.

“Were you going to the graveyard to dig up bodies for your magic? Or are you making an undead army?”

A second ago Beatrice would not have spoken such things aloud to me. Let alone someone worse than a stranger. Something had happened. And I’d missed it.

“Neither of those things,” he replied.

“You are a necromancer though, aren’t you? You do do black magicks, don’t you? I hope so, otherwise there’s no point us being here.”

“If you listen to the stars they always lead you to exactly where you’re meant to be.” In the shadows I caught a glimpse of what might have been a smile on his face.

I took a deep breath. Or rather I tried to take a deep breath. The cold night air did not touch my lungs. I felt for my pulse. There was nothing. On the outside I moved like normal, on the inside everything was completely still.

“What have you done?” I demanded.

“What do you wish me to do?” he replied.

I opened my mouth to scream at him to make me breathe again. But no. I had more restraint than to lose myself in front of a necromancer. I had to have. This was the moment. He had asked me what I wished for. The wording had to be perfect. Anything less than perfection would be… unthinkable. But I couldn’t think. All the words I had perfectly formed and polished and cared for and preserved awaiting this moment, all those words had turned immediately rotten and maggot ridden in his presence.

“My Daddy is dead,” I blurted out.

He yawned.

“I mean our father has passed. The… the thing that happened. He was one of the ones that got struck.”

He tilted his head. “So it was not a natural death.”

“Dad says all death is natural and nothing to worry about,” Beatrice piped in. “Dad knows…”

“She talks like he’s still alive, ignore her, she’s too young to understand,” I quickly interrupted her. “We need him back.”

The man clearly winked at Avice. She grinned back at him.

“Why not your mother?” The man turned his pale eyes on me. I almost preferred him winking at my little sister.

I swallowed. Except I didn’t. My mouth was dry as if all the water had been sucked out of me.

I had to say it. Nothing else would do. “Girls aren’t safe alone in this world. There’s people that’ll hurt girls if they think you’re not protected.”

He laughed, hearty and joyous. Beatrice giggled along with him. “I prefer women who know how to look after themselves, not ones that quiver in fear.”

If there was any water left in my body tears of rage would sting my eyes. “I don’t care what you prefer, just name your price and bring my father back.”

He continued to laugh, but his eyes flashed serious for an alarming moment. “What you are asking me, child, is against the universal laws of all land.”

“You don’t care about things like that, you are the scum who crawls along the bottom of misery and feeds on grief and deprivation.”

He shrugged the pointed bones of his shoulders. “You’re right, Avice, I don’t care.”

He walked away. With Beatrice happily skipping alongside him.

If I was capable of shouting, the whole world would have heard my cry.

Before the early morning mist swallowed them, Beatrice turned back and spoke in a voice of midnight wind. “The price has already been paid. Dad says he prefers being a ghost, but don’t worry I’ll talk him into returning to you.”

I fell to the ground and waited. I wouldn’t smile yet. But I was so lucky, there was no certainty that he would actually want the little brat. I had succeeded. I did smile.

pencilClarissa Pattern only exists when she writes. She writes through the night. Through the day she’s an essence in the mist of dreams. Her writing appears in books, online, and in little places where you’d least expect them. Email: clarissapattern[at]hotmail.com

The Garden

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Mark Neyrinck


Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Drew Brayshaw (CC-by-nc)

Plants, logs, and even trees whose roots gripped masses of earth raced each other down the brown, soil-laden river. The forest throbbed in the bright, humid air with the sounds of insects, birds, and whatever else the warm weather had brought from the South.

Eve had not needed a pelt on her morning stroll for over a month, it was so warm. She rested for a moment on a rare dry promontory of the trail next to the river, after managing to pass a particularly deep patch of mud.

Suddenly, her uneasy feeling became tactile. The ground was shaking; deep cracking sounds were all around. The ground supporting her began to slide. The river was breaking it off.

Almost before she was fully aware of the situation, her instincts had carried her waist-deep, back into the patch of mud she had so carefully circumvented. She watched the ground she had been on moments ago, carrying several small trees, break off and crumble into the river downstream.

When she returned to the village, she immediately called a meeting of the Council, but stopped first at home to wash off.

“Sorry,” she said to her husband, who had flinched when she entered the yurt. She must have been quite a sight, covered with rich, sun-caked mud, her eyes unusually ferocious.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, putting down the spearhead he was whittling.

“The Melt,” she said, softening the mud on her arms with some clean water. “It’s going too far. The river trail I have walked for so many years is now impassable. The river nearly carried me away with a chunk of earth this morning.”

“Oh, no, are you okay?” He moved the bucket of water closer to her, and helped her wash off.

“I’m fine. But the glaciers are not. The mammoths are not. I’m even afraid for the village; the river’s too close now.”

“You want to move the village uphill from the river?”

“For a start, yes. But the Melt needs to stop.”

“That is not for us to say.” His face tightened.

“Isn’t it?”

“We cannot question the Yahweh’s actions,” he said. His mud-cleansing caress slowed to a crawl.

Her eyes flashed. “We must get rid of it.”

He pulled his arms away, and whispered urgently. “It knows even our thoughts.”

“I’m not convinced of that,” she said.

“How many times have we discussed this? You know that without the Yahweh, we all would have frozen to death generations ago. And we owe so much else to it…” He gestured to the bucket of fresh water from the well, cleaned by the magical device the Yahweh had given to his grandfather. He then pointed to the magical hearth, so crucial in the winter. They had barely needed the hearth last winter, though.

“Yes, it seems so. But our tribe has survived horrible winters before. And it has been five generations since it saved us from freezing to death. Supposedly. How are we to know how bad that winter really was?”

“Do you accuse our ancestors of lying?”

“No, but truth has a way of evolving.”

He squinted at her, and sighed.

She grimaced, and whispered, despite herself. “The village up to the north. It was building its own fires, making its own tools. The rockslide that destroyed them was no accident.”

“If the Yahweh did that, all the more reason to be quiet. We are happy. We have not struggled for many years.”

She huffed, flaking the last of the visible mud away. “Adam. Maybe you’re content. But every time I bring an interesting creature home for study, it dies within the day, of no apparent cause. It’s so frustrating.”

“Our village has prospered…”

“Prosperity is subjective. We don’t have time for this argument. I called a meeting of the Council, and we can discuss it with the rest of them.”

“You might have told me that earlier,” he said, rising to change into his heavy formal cloak, despite the heat.

*

“I’m going for a walk,” Eve said after the meeting, as the Council exited the village’s large communal yurt, toward their respective homes. She squeezed her husband’s shoulder in conciliation. “Thank you for promising to try communication with the Yahweh.”

He smiled. “Anything for harmony, and for you.”

She turned away, toward a mountain trail. “Anything for” her, indeed. His concern for her was genuine, she knew, but even in trying to reassure her, he said “harmony” first.

As usual, the Council decided on no major action. But this time, they promised a major effort to repair the river trail. And, finally, Adam was going to attempt communication with the Yahweh. He was acknowledging that the situation had become important. Why would it only commune with him? Maybe it was not just the elected one that could commune with it. But that possibility could not be tested, since representatives from all the villages guarded it strictly. No one but each village’s elected one was allowed near it, and women were not even eligible for that role.

Eve had not scaled this mountain trail since last summer. The changes were even more dramatic than along the river. In her parents’ time, no one ventured up here, onto the giant ice mass. Now, though, only a few glaciers were visible. It was true, the location that supposedly the Yahweh had indicated to build the village was quite safe, not downhill from any rock or ice fields. But the river grew ever closer, and was almost as deadly. She had worked out that even next year, the rising, moving river could threaten the village. Thus far, the Yahweh had apparently volunteered no recommendation to move the village, but she had insisted that Adam bring up the topic.

She was not quite as nimble as she had been as she had been as a child, when she had carved this trail into the newly uncovered ground. The landscape was now a bit different on each hike. There were some new tricky spots, but she managed them. The trail even smelled different than before. New meadows were sweet with wildflowers. She had to admit some of the changes were good. But there was too much, too fast.

She reached an area where even last summer, there had been a glacier. Now, there was no sign of it. There was no trail through the new ground, so it took all her concentration to make her way through. Jumping across a gap, a loud hiss startled her. In her focused rock navigation, she had nearly trod on a snake, the venom on its fangs glistening in the sun. She backed away slowly, and made her way on an even higher route.

She reached a giant outcropping of red rock, also apparently uncovered just this year by the glacier. It was one of the biggest rocks she had ever seen, many times bigger than the village’s communal yurt. She decided to climb it, even though it had few handholds on its round, strangely smooth surface. It was as big a challenge as she had hoped.

At the top was a charming baby tree, maybe an apple tree. Delighted, she looked all around. This was perhaps the highest elevation she had ever reached on this trail. She could see almost the entire river that had nearly swept her away that morning. It sinuated all the way from its glacier-fed source to the horizon. She could see a distant mountain range that she had only seen a handful of times before. She could see maybe to the end of the world.

Satisfied, she began to make her way down the outcropping, when, for the second time that day, she heard a deep cracking sound, and felt the outcropping shift under her. She quickly determined a safe way off the outcropping, and landed nearby, with only a couple of scrapes. The round, giant rock outcropping seemed to remain intact, but she could see a few small rocks from its base tumble down the mountain.

Barely having recovered from that shock, she saw a short sequence of flashes of blue light below. Several seconds later, she thought she heard a corresponding clap of thunder. Squinting, she made out the source of the light, which she had not noticed before: a large silver dome. Was that the Yahweh? She had heard stories of unrighteous people throwing rocks at the Yahweh, in the form of a silver dome. According to the stories, the rocks had become blue light upon impact, and the blue light somehow destroyed the assailants. She had not been destroyed, as far as she could tell.

She looked in wonder at the giant rock that had nearly taken her down the mountain with it. A fissure, which apparently she had made, had developed between the rest of the mountain and the outcropping. She wondered what would happen to the Yahweh if the whole, huge rock had tumbled down the mountain, instead of just a few tiny pieces of it.

With enough adventures for the day, she made her way home, as tranquilly as she could.

*

It had taken a several-day pattern of nagging, and abstaining from nagging, to get him to go, but Adam at last had gone to commune with the Yahweh, and now returned.

He was looking at the floor. Not a good sign. “I raised the two important issues: the question of moving the village farther from the river, and whether the Melt was still necessary. It was the most aggressive I have ever been in a communion, and I sensed irritation about my audacity. It did not address our concerns. I tried all manner of offerings. I’m sorry, my love. There hasn’t been what I would consider a successful communion for over a year.”

She had never seen him so emotional; there was distress, fear, and even anger. And toward her, there was only love. She gave him a long hug. “That’s a shame.” The frequency of successful communion was low, but she had thought the urgency was as high as it had ever been. She noted that his words had seemed carefully chosen. “Did it say anything else?”

“As you know, often its messages seem to have nothing to do with what we find important.”

“What happened, Adam?”

She thought she could even see tears in his eyes. “I did have a vision. I saw you, casting red stones at it. Then, you perished in blue flames. I have never seen a particular person in a vision before.”

She snarled. “Am I correct to think that it was threatening me?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“And you think that’s ok?”

He was shivering in anger. “No, I don’t.”

“Will we do nothing, then?”

“What can we do?”

“How about a hike, to clear the mind? I know of a place with a great view. We might be able to shake free a solution.”

pencilMark Neyrinck is a cosmologist in Baltimore, MD. He likes to write creatively sometimes, as a break from scientific writing. Email: mark.neyrinck[at]gmail.com

Parole

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Matthew Boyle


Photo Credit: StudioTempura/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: StudioTempura/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“…there’s only one rule, and it’s not a hard one to follow.”

Ellie nodded, smoothing out her scrubs. She looked past Mr. Fletcher, at the dark, filthy grime beyond the portal, at the endless hallway filled with enormous eyes and shivering, gaunt bodies. She swallowed.

“Miss Williams?”

“Yes. Yes. I’m listening.”

“Good,” Fletcher said, sniffling once. “Because this is important. You have 10,000 hours of service to complete. It should take you about three years. There’s only one rule you must follow. If you break it, we’ll send you straight back to your cell, where you’ll live out the rest of your sentence. Which, in your case, will be about 48 hours.”

Ellie clenched her jaw. “I know my own sentence. Let’s get this over with.”

She tried to walk past the enormous guard, but he seized her jaw. He leaned over her and frowned. She cringed, hating herself for it.

“No, little girl,” he said. “I don’t think you do understand, so let me explain it to you one more time. We don’t care if you kill anyone; most of them are going to die anyway. But it’s very important that they think you’re a medical professional. If you admit to anyone that you’re not a doctor—if you so much as whisper the words ‘I’m not a doctor’—we’ll know. And it will violate the terms of your parole. They need to believe you’re there to help.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “You mean it’s important they think our government is helping.”

Fletcher stood back up, unconcerned. He folded his hands behind his back and looked at nothing in particular.

“There’s nothing anyone can do, Miss Williams. As I said, most of them are going to die anyway. Sending actual medical personnel would be a waste of resources and training. All they really need is someone to give out blankets and change IVs.” He smiled. “You can do that, can’t you? Needles shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you?”

“Fuck you, coward,” she said, and immediately regretted saying it. She stepped backwards, but Fletcher just let out a short laugh and turned his shoulder towards the portal. He nodded in its direction.

“Dr. Williams.”

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked at floor rather than look Fletcher in the eye. She brushed past him, and then walked through a pool of rippling blue into another world entirely.

 

One Year Later

Ellie leaned against a wall, wishing she were asleep. It was two o’clock in the morning, and the sounds of the hospital were muted. The hallway was filled with beds, IVs dripping into the arms of the sick, a forest of poles reaching towards the ceiling. Ellie folded her arms over her clipboard and stood back up.

Her anklet only counted hours when her full weight was on her feet.

“Please, doctor, there must be something you can do?”

She looked at the broad-shouldered man, tried to remember his name, and failed. She pasted on a professional look of sympathy instead.

“We’re doing everything we can, sir. We’re keeping her comfortable and hydrated. At this point, it’s just a waiting game.”

The man stared down at his thick-knuckled, grimy hands and shook his head. “That’s what you said about my daughter.”

“Sir, I will do everything I can.”

The man lifted his shaggy head. “Yeah?”

“Absolutely.”

The man whispered thank you and turned away, walking over to his son’s bed, just one among many. He said “thank you” again and again as he stood there, as if afraid any kind of silence might change Ellie’s mind. Eventually, she turned and headed towards the on-call room, walking through a sea of quiet coughing.

The people were sick with bacterial meningitis, Earth A strain. For ten years, scientists had known how to travel between parallel universes. At first, it was an exciting discovery for both sides: meeting alternate versions of history, people, and reality. But soon it was discovered that the biology of both Earths was just a little bit different—not much, but enough to turn illnesses from one world into death sentences for the other.

Travel between worlds was immediately restricted, but it was too late. On Earth B, where Ellie was stationed, bacterial meningitis spread like wildfire—95% of the infected died. The WHO of Earth A would likely have responded, but by then they were dealing with an aggressive complex-strain rhinovirus, a common cold from Earth B. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the meningitis nightmare, but it was bad enough to be fatal in almost 20% of all new cases. In only a short time, Earth A cut down medical aid to Earth B to a pittance.

And then, since it didn’t matter who they sent, they just started sending convicts in lab coats. Medical parole, it was called, and all you had to do was pretend to be a doctor. They simply did a few tests first to make sure your biology was close enough to Earth B’s so that you wouldn’t die right away. The tests were shit, of course. Most of her fellow convicts had died already. Sometimes, it seemed everyone in this world was dead.

Ellie entered the on-call room and sat on the lower bunk. She rested her head in her hands and began to quietly cry, saying over and over the same thing she said every day, desperately trying to break whatever rule kept her over here.

“I’m not a doctor,” she sobbed. “Please, I’m not a doctor. Please God, I’m not a doctor. Get me out of here.”

But, like always, nothing happened. And, as always, she remembered back to that sniffle Mr. Fletcher had had when she left her own world, and she wondered if there were any rules left to break anymore.

pencilMatthew Boyle is an adjunct English instructor who has worked at many community colleges, small private colleges, and small writing centers throughout the northeast United States. He writes quick stories in between classes and when traveling to classes at other institutions. It’s a nice way to relax, even when you’re writing about the end of the world(s). Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com

My Funeral

Alexander Pawlowski
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze


drunk ghost
Photo Credit: miss line

I had never seen my home so busy in my entire life and so quiet all at once. Guests were slowly moving from room to room, softly speaking to one another and sharing their condolences. I knew them by sight if not by name. Family friends most of them.

They’d brought casseroles, a strange tradition that I never quite understood, and some had brought soups and drinks. I suppose it’s a small kindness, to bring something of little value to a wake. Anything big would be out of taste and we’ve all found comfort in food at some point. I doubt it brought any comfort now, however.

Everyone gathered there knew better than to speak to me: a lingering ghost. If my heart grew too heavy, I would not be able to move on. Yet, by simply being there, I made it so much harder for myself and for them to let go.

Guests had taken it upon themselves to clean the house and bursts of magic flashed as stains and dust were cleared here and there. It was mostly just busy work for those who didn’t know what to do with themselves.

“Eva, I’m so sorry.” Marie-Lupus, a woman with the strangest name, burst in by the front door and latched herself to my mother. “I just got back from my vacation and my phone has just been filled to the brim with this horrid news. I am sorry I was not here earlier. Maybe if I had stayed and watched over Anna I—”

“No!” My mother said, all too loudly, eyes turning toward her. She added softly, “No. Do not blame yourself. It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone and if you had been there you might have been hurt. I was her mother; it was me that should have—”

“No, no. Shh.” Marie-Lupus rocked my mother back and forth. “Don’t say anything, ifs and buts will only make the pain worse.”

My mother let herself be comforted, her pale hands limp at Marie-Lupus’s side.

I should have left the house when I died, I knew. Seeing me only made things worse. I couldn’t, I thought, or maybe I wouldn’t. However, I could not see my mother in this state much longer and hastily made my way outside.

It was a bright afternoon, the sun and sky uncaring of the reigning chagrin down below. It was a good day for a get-together but the circumstances were certainly less than ideal. Chairs floated about as guests helped my father set up the yard for their final goodbye to me.

It must have been killing my father inside. No father should plan the funeral of his child. Horribly enough, it should be the other way around.

“That man is keeping everything inside,” commented Beau Lemieux, an immigrant from France I had only met twice. “I would be horrified if my own father shed no tears for me.”

“Hush,” said Barbara Pines, an old friend of my mother’s. “I have known Charles most of life and let me tell you that man is barely keeping it together.”

And how right you are, Barbara, I wanted to say.

I knew every crease, line, and wrinkle on my father’s face and most of them he earned from a lifetime of smiles and laughter. His stoic face was probably for everyone’s benefit, maybe more for mother than anyone else. This wake had to be done and he was going to hold it together until the last guest left before he dared break down and sob into the night.

His eyes turned to me accidentally and we locked gazes for a moment. I smiled, hoping it would be enough for him to know it was all going to be all right. The flicker of anger in his eyes startled me.

“Charles, I—”

A familiar voice spoke out from behind me and my father suddenly appeared directly in front of me. His fist flew and hit the man behind my shoulder.

It was Tom Livington, an old man who had been my teacher for over ten years. Nearly everything I knew of magic, I had learned from him. Most guests there, including my parents, would say the same. Tom’s nose ran with blood, and tears mixed themselves in. He lay still, flat on his back, not caring to defend himself against my father.

“How dare you show your rotten face here, Tom. We trusted you!” Father spat.

“You have no idea how I blame myself, Charles.” Tom’s voice was slow and steady but grief-stricken. He had known me for my entire life and taught me for ten years of it; he might as well have been family.

“Nowhere nearly enough, you worthless hack.” Father’s teeth were clenched, his body very still aside from the slight tremor on his head. If a man’s rage could cause spontaneous combustion, I knew my father would have at that very moment. “You said she was ready to practice on her own. You said it was safe, that she was talented and smart. Well look what happened, Tom! Anna died and it’s your fault!”

Tom made no reply, his gaze never daring to meet my father’s.

“Charley, leave the man be. You know there was nothing that could have been done. These accidents happen.” Uncle Barley put a hand on father’s shoulder.

“Not to us.” My father shook his brother away. “We should have given her more training; she wasn’t ready to practice by herself.”

“One of the most talented in her class and nearly seventeen. There was no reason not to let her. Remember how we practiced in our days? We were barely twelve and had no clue what we were doing. Hell, remember that time when—”

“So we should have died, not her!” Father stomped away and went back inside the house. Barley helped Tom to his feet and conjured out a white kerchief.

“Don’t worry, Tommy,” Barley said as he dabbed the blood off Tom’s nose. “He’s just grieving.”

“I know. We all are,” Tom whispered, tears freely running down his chin.

More people gathered about Tom and gave him all the comfort they could. Most had been his students at some point and cared for him well. I wish I could have comforted him, too. I knew it was not his fault, though, and him blaming himself hurt me more than I thought possible.

That old saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ spoke volumes at that very moment. You meet so many people over your life and each of them showing you something new about the world. It was at that moment I realized how close of a community this group of people had been.

Over at the rosebushes, Barbara Pines pretended to be interested in the blooming roses. My mother’s friend who disliked nature for being dirty and squealed at the mere sight of a ladybug. I barely remembered her; it must have been three years ago when she taught me how to magic away dirt and stains from clothes and carpets. I don’t believe I even thanked her and thought it was a silly trick though I ended up using it more than I could count.

Crowley Small, a tall man ironically, was practically my second uncle. When I had needed a babysitter, he had been first in line to take care of me. When I needed help in school on projects he would stop by and help if my parents could not. If I was ever sick, he came and took care of me while my parents went to work.

I glanced over at Tom, now sitting on the porch stairs with a bloody cloth pressed against his nose. A dear old man, I had always liked him from the first days of school. I wondered if this was the first time he had lost a student. He had taught me everything I knew about the world and magic and I had worked hard to make him proud. It’s a shame things ended this way. A terrible accident. I wished he did not blame himself.

“Let me see, please.” Tom suddenly said as my Mother appeared in the doorway, Marie-Lupus at her heels.

“Tom, I—” Mother began.

“I need to see the place, Eva, where Anna died. If she died because of something I taught her, because of homework or practice, I could not live with myself. I don’t want to see that place but neither can I calm myself thinking I’ll never know.”

It was then I noticed the bags under Tom’s eyes. Poor man must not have caught a wink of sleep all night, spending it twisting, turning, pacing as he tried to convince himself my death had nothing to do with him. I was sorry to see he hadn’t managed to.

“Just past the trees, there.” My mother pointed toward the wild woods at the far end of the property. “She always liked practicing around nature. Said her powers were more in tune there than anywhere else.”

Tom nodded before rising. “Thank you.”

I walked beside him as he made his way to where I had died. He gave me a few glances but his eyes were soft rather than disapproving. I really should have been doing my best to interact as little with them as they did with me but I couldn’t. Not yet.

“I—” He mouthed a few words, unable to say what he wanted. “I know better than to speak to the dead. No good comes out of it. We all wish we could though; it would be nice to have just one last moment. Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to relive the memories in my head.”

That cheating, darling old man. We all knew the risk of my heart growing so heavy that I could never move on from this earth, but still his words spoke to me of his love for me and that gave me some comfort. Even if he had never addressed me, it was nice to be spoken to. Death is a lonely thing.

We stopped at the small clearing, my home still visible through breaks in the trees. It was there that I did most of my magic practice, safe and far from anyone who could get hurt if something went wrong.

Tom gave me a weary look before closing his eyes and studying the remnants of my magic. It was artful the way he did it, precise and delicate, absorbing more knowledge in seconds than most could in an hour.

I knew he wouldn’t find anything. Nothing had gone wrong. I just forgot something and I still couldn’t remember what. It’s strange, knowing you killed yourself without knowing how. I almost wanted to laugh at how absurd it was.

“It collapsed,” Tom said, as his eyes flickered open. “A simple containment field to keep magic confined within it. It’s not even harmful. Unless…” He looked at me, wanting to ask questions but did not. “I don’t know why it collapsed. I’ve seen Anna do it hundreds of times and never has it been done wrong. Even if it had, the odds of death are astronomically small. Did it drain every drop of power from you so fast your mind simply shut down? Could such an impossible accident have taken you from us?” Tom shook his head and started walking back toward the wake. He had found his answer; the universe had conspired against me.

Is that what happened? The universe decided my time was up and killed me in the most unlikely way? How did I even mess up such a simple construct? Had I been in a hurry or perhaps I got lazy? No, that did not sound like me but I must have. I’d done something wrong and here I was a ghost that caused so much grief and pain.

As I returned to the yard, all the chairs had been set in rows and most were occupied by the many guests. Tom sat alone, looking forlorn, and Barbara Pines was sobbing uncontrollably. At the sight of my body, I supposed.

There, on a table covered by a white sheet, I lay with my hands crossed. My mother had dressed me and washed and brushed my hair one last time. It must have been so hard for her. If anything could prove her love and strength, it was how peaceful, clean, and elegant I looked in my white dress. If no one had known I had died, they would have thought me asleep.

My mother approached and looked at my body. She moved slowly, as if not really believing what was happening. No one could blame her.

Everyone waited for her, as she caressed my face one last time. She was going to give me my eulogy, a terrible role for any mother. It should always be the other way around.

“It should have been me,” she said plainly before turning to face the crowd. “What mother would not give her life or anyone else’s for that of her children. We here are all witches, warlocks, wizards, and everything in between. How hard could a time travel spell or a resurrection spell be? Her soul is still with us, I’m sure you all noticed.”

No one but my mother dared look at me.

“But if we have any wits at all, we’d know such things cannot be done without consequence and if any of us sacrifices for her another would sacrifice for us as well—a never-ending cycle of death and grief.”

No one said a word, eyes glued to my mother and her tear-stricken face. I took a step forward but stopped, unable to believe what I was hearing. I wanted to beg her to stop and try to remember the good things.

“The worst of it, is that now I see her dead face here in this coffin and her face staring at me at this very moment. I know she can hear me, and I know she could speak if she chose to. But, Anna has always been a smart girl.” Mother’s tone softened. “She loved school, she loved to learn, and she had a big heart. She would not want us to grieve in anger or to do anything stupid and dangerous to get her back. She understood the costs of magic well and knew how to be careful.”

A few heads nodded in agreement.

“We may never know what happened or why my poor lovely Anna had to die. It was a terrible accident that will be with us for the rest of our lives but I hope she knows that despite our anger, grief, and questions that our hearts will heal though the scar they bear for her will always be remembered fondly until we join her in the heavens.”

It felt like a weight had been lifted over everyone. Her words were brimming with tears and the love she bore for me shone right through everyone that had gathered. Father looked over to Tom and smiled. Tom nodded at the solemn apology.

“Horrible things happen and this horrible tragedy struck home for us. Despite the anger and sadness, I hope my beautiful daughter Anna can rest in peace knowing we will always treasure the memories of her.” Mother’s eyes looked to me and so did everyone else.

I nodded and smiled at them all as I made my way down to my body and with each step felt light and warmth engulf me. Despite my fear of losing my family and their harsh actions earlier today, my mother’s eulogy for me made everything clear. Though the sadness ran deep that no one, even I, will ever understand how or why I died, they would continue to love one another and treasure the life that I had with them.

I found peace the moment they made theirs.

pencilAlexander M. Pawlowski is a Canadian-based writer with years of experience in editing and proof-reading for published and unpublished writers. He writes stories where characters move the plot along rather than the story moving the intrigue. He believes a story is as captivating as its characters and strives to show the good and bad of humanity as they deal with themselves and their environments. Email: alexander.m.pawlowski[at]gmail.com

A Small Miscalculation

Amelia Diamond
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver


Silvery Cube_wb43_6527
Photo Credit: Klaus Riesner

Over the weeks she would occasionally review Mala’s lengthy apology, turning it over in her mind, looking for an emotional response that never came. She should feel hurt, angry, sad, something, anything—but the words that told of the end of their love may as well have been pebbles or leaves or dust. She would come home to her tiny ninety-first floor studio apartment with the bed still out and unmade and the sink full of dishes and stand at the windowscreen, which was always set to show a view onto the beach. Not the bright sunny white sand and crystal blue breakers beach, but always an inhospitable stretch of beach near San Francisco, low grey-blue sky, dull brown sand and jagged grey-brown moss-covered boulders with the smudged dark blue of rain on the distant horizon. As a teenager that beach had been a place of safety and solitude where she could pretend for a little while that the world wasn’t falling apart, that she wasn’t falling apart. She’d sit on one of the many uncomfortable damp rocks and look out across the sea, letting her eyes defocus until everything became a blur of grey light and white noise that she could fade into and, for a few precious moments, become nothing at all.

That was where she’d first met Mala, although it was several years later that they fell in love. Mala, always so curious, had come to that least-friendly of beaches to take samples of the rocks and the seawater as it broke on them. It was a science fair project, asking whether the increasing acidity of the seawater was causing increased erosion of the rocks that in so many places along the northern coast prevented large sections of land from slipping into the ocean. The boulders on the beach being more easily accessible than the sheer cliffs she was really interested in, she had come to that particular stretch of coastline to collect data.

Mala’s curiosity was boundless, even then, and she’d nearly forgotten to collect her samples for fascination with the strange girl she’d discovered meditating on a tall rock whose base was encrusted with barnacles. She looked like she had always been there, like she was a rock herself. Even her skin, pale brown dusted with damp grey sand stretched over prominent sharp bones, matched the surface on which she perched.

Their conversation lasted until the sun was low. Michelle helped Mala to gather her samples and they said good night. After, on the walk home, Michelle realized she had spoken more to the wiry intense girl than she had spoken to anyone in a very long time.

Now that beach was one of the many places that were not safe for people to visit. It had been at least thirteen years since Michelle had felt damp, dirty sand under her feet. She’d been in LA when it all went down, so she’d ended up in Bunker Hill, at first as a temporary resident until it became clear that there really wasn’t anywhere else she could go. So she spent her days monitoring surveillance footage from twenty-six simultaneous camera feeds, watching for anything important. Her knack for spacing out was very helpful; being completely unfocused made it easy to follow all twenty-six feeds without being so focused on one that she’d miss anything on the others. She was considered quite good at her job and was a semi-official supervisor and on-the-job-trainer of other employees.

She spent some evenings organizing and attending munches, strictly vanilla social gatherings for the local kink scene, including one specifically for trans* and gender non-conforming people. She was involved in a rope bondage club that met regularly to practice various knots and bindings on each other. She spent a lot of time on her computer, watching at a distance the lives of her remaining friends and family, some of whom she’d most likely never see in person again, watching cartoons from when she was a kid, and reading depressing and infuriating news articles. And, until a year ago, being with Mala.

There was a time when she’d practically been a celebrity. The wondrous Mala Desai, probable savior of humanity, greatest mind of her generation, inventor of the materials and techniques that made possible the nanotech with which Bunker Hill and so many other arcologies had been created. When an Indian-American lesbian did what no white man had managed to accomplish and halted the collapse of civilization just in time a great many figurative heads exploded.

Michelle, as her androgynous mixed-race girlfriend, was the icing on the cake. Mala always told people that Michelle was her muse, which was sweet but untrue. Mala was her own inspiration. People would occasionally ask her what Mala was really like in person. She’d always give the same answer: “Mala makes me care about things I’ve never noticed. She’ll get interested in something and suddenly it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. You can’t help but go along with her and end up in this place where everything is wonderful and new.” Mala’s personality was as powerful as the ocean and as good for making Michelle disappear.

Mala had ended the relationship suddenly and quite publicly with no explanation. Her reasons became clear one month later, when the President made the announcement. Our efforts to change our ways, to halt the march of climate change and ocean acidification and soil erosion and water pollution and overfishing and all of it had been in vain. A heretofore unknown set of chemical processes had been discovered occurring deep in the ocean, like an alarm clock set by some ancient god with a horrid sense of humor. It was a rapidly spreading set of reactions made possible by the increased temperature and acidity and decreased salinity of the ocean. The seawater was removing more carbon from the atmosphere than before, a discovery that was initially greeted with hope. But then it was noticed that the water was releasing large amounts of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic gas. It was soon discovered that the reaction would continue indefinitely, not reaching equilibrium until long after the atmosphere became too toxic for humans to survive.

Some people were moved to heroic action. There were companies working on giant fans to buy a few more years before the toxic gas sterilized the city, developing ways to make it possible for the fans to survive the intense storms. A space tourism business created a contest: The first person or organization to produce a truly usable design for a permanent orbital colony would receive ten million dollars and a guaranteed spot on the colony after it was built. An artist built a digital clock nine stories tall showing the countdown until the current estimate of when the air would be unbreathable in this part of LA. It was the same all over the world.

Some people dove headlong into hedonism. The munches were suddenly much more popular and needed much more supervision. Every day on the bulletin boards near all the elevators there were new fliers for all sorts of parties and events, most of them involving various combinations of music, alcohol, and sex. Others chose self-destruction. Deaths due to drug overdoses quadrupled. And there were suicides, of course. Some clever person had written IP next to the ‘R’ button in all the elevators; ‘R’ for roof of course.

The giant clock said there were at least two years left. Most people just continued with their lives. Michelle was one of these.

The day the letter had come had been a satisfying work day in which she had alerted authorities to two muggings, an attempted rape, a theft of several candy bars, and a potential heart attack. She sat on her always-unmade bed, comfy on a lumpy pile of blankets. It was five months ago today that Mala had dumped her on TV. It was three-and-a-half since the Announcement, as everyone called it. She opened her laptop and signed in, username Serafine, password SaltPoint. On those rare occasions when she really focused on something she’d tilt her head forward and squint slightly and rock back and forth. Her rocking would have been undetectable except for her shoulder length braids. She maintained them, perhaps unconsciously, at exactly the right length for the frequency of her gentle rocking to set them swinging in a way she found pleasing when she noticed it at all.

Still in her work clothes, comfortable grey linen pants and blouse, Michelle briefly scanned her new emails. There was one from a name she didn’t recognize, apparently a real person. She opened it, read it, read it again, and looked past the screen at her beach, at the ocean that would kill her. Then she read again:

Michelle— I wanted to tell you why I had to let you go. I’ve been writing and rewriting this for weeks. I guess you have a pretty good idea about why we can’t be together anymore. I’m not really allowed to have a private life now. Just work work work and save the world again. Really, they won’t let me see you. Too distracting. They forget I was distracted by you when I figured out how to make arcologies work. But no, there’s more. I needed to protect you. They’ve been talking on the news like it’s a naturally occurring process. It’s not.

Do you remember that first time we met? That science fair experiment? While I was working on it I had an idea about maybe being able to use ammonium chloride from undersea vents and fertilizer runoff to produce sodium carbonate which would help pull carbon from the atmosphere and counter some of the acidification of the ocean too. But I couldn’t see any way to make it work so I just kept it in the back of my mind all these years. With the nanotech we’ve been developing recently it started to seem possible. Imagine if we could have outdoor farms again! No more Category 7 hurricanes. Trees on the hillsides, no more mudslides and flash floods and having to stay inside every day. Imagine if we could go back to that beach in real life.

Last year, June 13, we started our first experiment in a saltwater tank up on Floor 118, and it worked. Michelle, I swear it worked beautifully for months. So we released them, little nanotech robots, I call them chembots. It was very exciting, we shot them out into the ocean with a rocket. And it seemed to be working, with the weather it was too hard to actually get out on a boat and check of course. But the experiment was working so well! Until I popped up to check on it and the whole room smelled like almond extract and my research assistant nearly died.

I don’t know what went wrong. I was sure I’d thought of everything. Can you believe that? I guess I’m the only person who could outsmart me. Of course we’re supposed to spend every moment working on it. It’ll probably get worse, the chembots are made to reproduce and disperse. The truth is, there’s no way to stop it. I think and think and I can’t imagine anything that could even begin to help without being just as bad. Sooner or later it will come out that I did this and I can’t subject you to what will happen when it does. I love you, always will. Wish me luck.

Mala

Michelle sat, doing her best to not exist, until her phone rang. It was Samantha, a good friend who’d moved in for a week to keep Michelle company after Mala left her. Samantha wondered whether Michelle might be interested in seeing a movie this evening with her and her friend Cadence. The movie was predictable and dull and starred some heartthrob white male actor doing dangerous things so he could have sex with some hot white woman who only had three lines. But still, feeling annoyed and marginalized was better than feeling nothing. She went home with Cadence, a petite and fiery woman with green hair spiked in every direction, who lived down on the thirty-ninth floor. Her windowscreen showed a futuristic cityscape of gleaming chrome skyscrapers with sleek curving silhouettes stretching up to the sky. There were flying cars and a park with mushroom-shaped structures covered in fruit trees and grapevines and with benches circling the stems. People walked past on the sidewalks, outside, the way they used to, wearing shiny plastic-looking clothes in bright garish colors or billowy black dresses with hundreds of LED stars. There were even huge video billboards with beautiful Japanese women smiling and holding up objects that might have been kitchen appliances or futuristic weapons while katakana text scrolled across their faces.

Cadence, wine bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other, saw Michelle staring. “Do you like it?”

“What’s it supposed to be?”

“City of the future. Loosely based on Tokyo.”

“Oh. Do people still live in Tokyo? It must be really bad there.”

“Yeah, got a couple friends there I talk to on the interweb. They have a few arcologies. Not as romantic looking as those sexy skyscrapers and no flying cars. I guess there never will be. I guess this is all the future we’re gonna get.”

Later that night as Michelle dissolved into sleep she heard quiet crying. With an effort she came back to herself, remembered where she was and all that had happened and who was lying next to her. She snuggled close to Cadence’s back and wrapped her arms around her, narrowly avoiding being poked in the eye by Cadence’s hair. Cadence immediately rolled over and pressed her face into the space between Michelle’s shoulder and breast. Her warm little body quivered and twitched while she sobbed. Michelle stroked her hair with her free hand and didn’t say anything. She felt every tear as they rolled down into her armpit. Finally Cadence’s shaking stopped and her breathing became deep and slow. Michelle continued to hold her, long after her arm went numb, wide awake for the first time in a very long time.

It was nearly a year later that the secret got out. Riots are difficult in arcologies, there just isn’t any single place with enough room. But groups of violent, angry people wandered around breaking things and getting into fights. Three days later Michelle heard the news that Mala was dead. She’d either jumped or been thrown from the roof. Up until then Michelle had held onto some hope that things might actually work out. The giant fans were up and running, the orbital habitat was under construction, the arcologies were all being refitted to be completely sealed from the outside, with air locks and sealed tunnels connecting to other nearby arcologies. None of those were real solutions, of course, but they were buying time for Mala, who had never been defeated by anything. Michelle knew that without Mala there was no hope. Everyone knew it.

Then Michelle was summoned. She was to go to Level 214, a level which was not accessible to ordinary citizens. When she pressed the button in the elevator, red-and-gold where nearly all the others were blue-and-green, her retina was scanned. The doors opened onto a wide open area with real windows. There were groups of people and equipment in bunches throughout the vast space. A man in a black suit looked up when the doors opened and came over, a grim expression on his gaunt face.

“Miss Deveaux. Welcome. Thank you for coming. I’m Chris Klein, CIA Operations Director for Bunker Hill. Please come with me.”

Chris Klein led Michelle over to a window. She had never seen so much glass in one place. The view was toward the ocean. They were well above the scattered dark clouds that were out on this unusually clear day. Across the ocean the sky looked like a bruise, purple and swollen forever in every direction. Looking down, she could see the outer wall of the massive stepped pyramid she shared with 200,000 other people. Michelle was offered a chair and Chris Klein sat next to her, both facing the magnificent window. Michelle shivered. The room was quite cold. She wondered for a moment whether there even was such a thing as a sweater anywhere in all of Bunker Hill, where the air was always perfectly conditioned to match a normal September day in LA.

“I’m going to cut right to the chase, Miss Deveaux. Just before Mala Desai committed suicide she made this.”

He held up a metal cube that looked like tarnished silver. It looked to be about six inches on a side. He offered it to Michelle, who took it and nearly dropped it. It was much heavier than it looked. She turned it over and over but there were no markings on it. “What is it?” she asked.

“We were hoping you’d know. She left a note. All it said was, ‘Give Michelle the cube. She’ll know what it means.’ So here’s the cube. Are you sure you don’t know what it is?”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea. We hadn’t spoken in a long time.”

“You of course understand how urgent it is that anything at all made by Miss Desai be understood and in our hands?”

“Yes, of course.” She made to hand back the cube, but Chris Klein held up a hand. “Keep it. She wanted you to have it. We’ve been trying to get it open and we’ve gotten nowhere. There are more important things for us to be working on. It’s yours and it could be it’ll only do whatever it’s supposed to do for you. It probably is just a sentimental thing, though; everyone knows she was crazy about you. But if it turns out to be anything other than a big shiny cube, you call me immediately, night or day, you got that?” He handed her a business card printed on thick plastic. “All right now, get out of here. Thanks for your time.”

Riding the elevator down, Michelle examined the strange cube. It seemed solid. Mala had always liked giving Michelle enigmatic little gifts and watching her try to figure out what they were supposed to mean. When Michelle got home she put the cube on the little table next to her bed and sat facing it, leaning on the windowscreen. She focused on a point somewhere in the distance and let her eyes relax, let everything blur into pure texture and let the cube slip unfiltered into her mind. Eventually she returned to herself with no new insights and gave up for the day. The cube sat by Michelle’s bed for six weeks. She mostly ignored it, only occasionally wondering what Mala had meant to say to her. She preferred to lose herself in her daily routine and the cube was somehow jarring when she really paid attention to it.

One Saturday evening Cadence stopped over. They hadn’t seen each other or spoken since that night when Cadence cried herself to sleep in Michelle’s arms. Time was running out and neither wanted to sleep alone any longer. When she came into Michelle’s apartment she picked up the cube and sat down at the foot of Michelle’s bed, next to the windowscreen. “What the heck is this?” she asked as she turned it over and over.

“A very strange gift, I guess. From Mala.”

“Oh.” Cadence stood to put the cube back and to hide her discomfort at being reminded that she was planning to share a bed with the ex-lover of Mala Desai, the woman who’d doomed them all.

“Stop!” Michelle’s barked command startled Cadence into dropping the metallic cube. “Sorry. Please pick it up and then hold still, right there. Please.”

Cadence did as she was bid. She was watching Michelle’s burning brimming eyes, so she didn’t see the windowscreen, where Michelle walked into view carrying the cube and bore it into the water, carefully placing it so that it touched one of the larger boulders. Something greenish began to flow out of the cube as the large boulder seemed to glitter. Then the scene ended and the windowscreen again showed the empty beach.

Michelle stalked up to Cadence and kissed her hard. “You have to go. I need to think.”

Cadence placed the cube back on the table and stalked out, suppressing the desire to break things on the way.

Why would Mala have done it this way? If she found a solution why wouldn’t she just tell the people she worked for? It didn’t make any sense. It couldn’t just be a simple solution, there must be some reason why she wouldn’t have trusted her superiors with the cube. Michelle brought it close to the windowscreen again and watched the scene play out, looking for more information. Then it occurred to her to turn on the volume. Like most people, she normally kept her windowscreen muted. This time, as the scene played, she heard Mala’s voice.

“Trade one apocalypse for another. The problem with our nanotech is that once it’s released, if it spreads there’s no easy way to stop it. These will disassemble the chembots and cannibalize the metals to make more of themselves, maybe even before everyone dies. But of course after that they’ll disassemble other metal things. You can imagine what that means. I’m sorry to give you this choice. Maybe it’s better for us to die than to have to face this. It’ll only work for you. I trust you to make the right choice, if there is a right choice. I love you. Goodbye.”

Michelle switched the channel on her windowscreen to show what she’d see if it were a real window. The sky was dark, low swirling clouds to the horizon. Rain fell in a torrent like a waterfall, nonetheless blown sideways and sometimes even back upwards as the wind gusted. Something large flew by, possibly one of the few cars that hadn’t already been blown away. Huge bolts of lightning again and again struck the many tall metal towers that emanated like porcupine quills from the Hollywood arcology, leaving blue-white afterimages in her vision. It was a typical day in LA and a long way to San Francisco. She guessed she was going to need a raincoat.

pencilAmelia Diamond has worked as a gardener, environmental and agricultural consultant, energy auditor and environmental activist. She produces electronic experimental noise music, occasionally performing live with one of several bands. Mostly she works as a mom of two along with her partner of 14 years. She has been telling stories her whole life but only recently began writing them down. Amelia frequently publishes short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com

 

 

Something Wicked

Jill Spencer
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold


Double Double Toil and Trouble...
Photo Credit: Jeff Hitchcock

“Reenact a scene from Macbeth so that the class better understands and appreciates the play,’” Ailana read from the assignment sheet Ms. Cummings, their English teacher, had distributed in class. “I like that one. What do you think?” She looked at her two best friends.

Eva, who was barely five feet tall, sat at the oversized kitchen table Ailana’s mother had imported from Italy. With her freckles, big green eyes and curly red hair, she looked like a child. Or an elf.

“I don’t know,” Eva said. Just thinking about getting up in front of the class made her queasy. “I was thinking… a board game maybe?”

“Board games are for partners, not groups,” Fern told her. She had already memorized the assignment sheet.

“We could ask Ms. Cummings for an exception.”

Fern pushed up her glasses and frowned. “Yeah, but if all three of us do a two-person project, you know she’ll make us sign contracts for a C or a B.” And Fern wanted an A.

Cummings was the toughest teacher at Great Mills High School. Nobody required as much from students as she did. Making an A in her class was something to boast about in college application letters and scholarship interviews. It was a real accomplishment.

“What about the Shakespeare Festival then?” Eva asked.

Fern shrugged. The festival was a huge project. According to Ms. Cummings, no team had attempted it since 2011. It would be a tremendous amount of work, but if they did it and did it well, Ms. Cummings was sure to be impressed.

“Okay.”

“Host the Festival? Really?” Ailana, who had been staring at the assignment sheet throughout their discussion, slapped the paper onto the countertop and rolled her eyes. “Do you two honestly think that Joss Carter and his douchebag friends would help us? Because they’d have to, you know. Hosting the festival would mean getting everyone in class to cooperate.”

And those assholes never would. Because of her.

Ailana picked up the tray she’d loaded with goodies from the refrigerator and set it on the table with a bang. Just thinking about Joss made her angry. The oversexed bully had picked on her since sixth grade.

At eighteen, Ailana was a knockout—tall, blonde and as long-limbed and lanky as a model. At twelve, she’d simply been the prettiest girl in class, and like lots of the boys, Joss had had a crush on her. But he’d been pushy about it.

Really pushy.

Fed up with his behavior, Ailana had finally confronted him after school one day, explaining in no uncertain terms that she did not appreciate his “attentions,” which included nasty texts and inappropriate touching in the hallway. Besides, she told him, she liked girls, not guys. He understood that, right?

Wrong.

The harassment had gotten worse. For almost six years she had endured the taunts of Joss and his loser friends. Just a few more months till graduation, she told herself, and I’ll be free. But deep down, she feared she never would be free. People like Joss were everywhere.

Fern set one of the bottles of mineral water she’d fetched from the refrigerator in front of Eva. She also gave one to Ailana, along with an “I’m so sorry” smile.

“Right. I hadn’t thought of that,” she told her. “No wonder nobody does the Festival. Oops! We forgot the crackers.”

Fern disappeared into the pantry. She spent so much time at Ailana’s house that she knew the kitchen almost as well as her own. She certainly liked it better. It was big and expensive, with granite countertops, an enormous center island and state-of-the-art appliances. Best of all, Ailana’s mother, a successful doctor, stocked it to bursting with gourmet food and drink.

It was the complete opposite of the drab kitchen in the rundown townhouse where Fern lived with her mother. That kitchen never produced anything beyond dinners from a box. It was also where Fern regularly met a depressingly long line of “uncles.” She usually saw them the morning after, scrounging in the fridge for a cold bottle of brew, dressed in nothing but jeans or the boxers they’d worn the night before.

“No worries,” Ailana told her. “I’d forget Joss, too, if I could.” She accepted a box of sesame crackers with a smile then looked from Fern to Eva. “I really do think we should do a performance. I mean it, Eva!” She smeared a sesame cracker with goat cheese and handed it to her friend. “Just imagine! Act IV, the witches’ big scene—not all of it, of course. Just the start, that’s all! We’d be incredible.”

Ordinarily, Ailana would never push Eva to do something that frightened her. God knew Eva had spent enough of her life feeling scared. But after reading about Wicca online, Ailana had ordered several books on the subject. She’d read each one, studying them, and she was convinced that becoming witches would do all three of them a world of good. They could connect with the natural world, find their own power and use it to improve their lives. Ailana’s eyes went to the dark mark on Eva’s neck. It was the size of a thumbprint. Ailana knew that teachers assumed it was a hickey, but she and Fern knew better. Eva didn’t have a boyfriend. She’d never even been on a date. But she did have an overbearing, hypocritical pig of a father, the Reverend T. Tom Patterson. If anybody needed more power it was Eva.

And a little more juice wouldn’t hurt her or Fern either.

Of course, saying, “Let’s join a coven!” sounded crazy, even to her. And Eva and Fern weren’t ready to hear it any more than she was ready to say it. But playing witches—three powerful, influential witches—could be a way to start a conversation.

Ailana twisted the metal cap off her water, enjoying the lemon-scented spray of fizz against her face.

“It’ll be fun, I promise!” she told them, her eyes on Eva. “We’ll be disguised so well, no one will be able to tell who we are. Thick stage makeup, fake noses, hairy warts, shaggy wigs. They won’t really being seeing us! They’ll be seeing the Weird Witches, bitches! Come on, what do you say?” She took a drink. “Eva? Please? ‘Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.’”

At “hairy warts” Eva had begun to smile. By the time Ailana chanted “toil and trouble” in her booming b-wah-ha-ha-ha voice, she was laughing out loud.

“All right, all right, all right! Let’s do it then. I’m in.” She turned to Fern. “What about you?”

Fern, who was eating red peppers stuffed with mozzarella straight from the container with her fingers, grinned back at her.

“Absolutely.” She popped the last pepper into her mouth. Her day planner, flipped open to the “notes” section, was in front of her. A pen was in her hand.

“So… we have three weeks starting today,” she said. “Who’s doing what?”

*

“Dyke bitch,” Joss whispered as Ailana walked past his desk toward Ms. Cummings, who was sipping coffee by the podium at the front of the room. Fern stood next to her, talking a mile a minute.

“Will you keep my glasses for me?” Fern was asking her when Ailana reached them.

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” Fern rubbed her sweaty hands against her pants and grinned. Her excitement was palpable. “This is going to be the best presentation ever!”

“I believe it,” Ms. Cummings said. Her eyes went from Fern’s face to Ailana’s. “You girls look incredible.”

Early that morning they had met at Ailana’s house to do their makeup. In the guest powder room that was larger than Fern’s bedroom, they had affixed prosthetic noses, chins and foreheads with spirit gum, applied putty and face paint and then liberally added coarse black hair and warts.

“Wait till you see our teeth!” Fern told Ms. Cummings.

Ailana had ordered them online. Fern’s and Eva’s were called “Purdy Mouth,” a creepy jumble of short and long square teeth that fit directly over their own.

Ailana was already wearing hers. They were called “Cannibals.” She smiled at Ms. Cummings. “Our wigs are really cool, too!” Ailana had also purchased them online. Eva’s actually had a bird’s nest in it.

Ailana was still laughing at Ms. Cummings’s shocked expression as she and Fern headed for the bathroom where Eva waited for them with the rest of their costumes.

Ailana carried the ingredients for the potion in an Igloo cooler. If Ms. Cummings knew what was in it, she would really be horrified. So would Fern and Eva for that matter. The thought made Ailana smile.

“God, girl. Even without my glasses, you look hot!” Fern exclaimed.

Eva stood in front of the full-length mirror by the stalls, pinning her wig into place. Except for her small stature, she was unrecognizable. Her body, her face, even her gray hair was as twisted and knotty as an old oak tree.

“You’re an Ent!” Ailana laughed.

“A witchy Ent.”

“Come on, we don’t have much time,” Eva answered.

The choir director at Eva’s church had given her three old robes, which she had sown strips of tattered cloth to and dyed black. Then she’d aged them using razors, Borax and sandpaper. She pulled Fern’s and Ailana’s cloaks from a shopping bag and quickly helped them into them. Then she affixed their wigs.

“Now for your hands,” she said. She had already aged her own with putty and makeup, and glued on black fingernails. “But first I have a surprise.” She pulled a funky looking witch’s hat from the bag. “For you,” she said, pinning it to Ailana’s wig. “I made it myself. And for you,” she told Fern, pulling a crocheted spider web from the bag. She pinned it into Fern’s hair. “Another Eva original.”

Standing before the bathroom mirrors, the girls cackled in delight as they admired themselves.

“We’re perfect!” Ailana whispered. “Absolutely perfect.”

Eva was the first to come to her senses. “Shit! I still have to do your hands,” she said. “Come on, hurry! We don’t have much time.”

Ten minutes later, they floated down the hallway to the classroom.

Fern, whose job it had been to design the set and block the scene, had requested that Ms. Cummings ask the class to move their desks into a U with a “stage” in the center. She’d also arranged for Selena and Robin, two girls in the class, to work the lights, sound system and fog machine for them. Fern had borrowed all three from her mother’s latest boyfriend, a drummer in a local heavy metal band. He’d also given her dry ice, which she’d placed in the bottom of the cauldron that morning.

Fern had thought the cauldron would be the hardest prop to find, but Eva had immediately volunteered the black iron pot from the Senior Citizen Center where her father “ministered” twice a week.

“They make apple butter in it every fall,” Eva had told her. Eva volunteered at the Center regularly, not just because her father insisted, but because she liked doing it. Old people were fun.

“It’s huge!” she told Fern. “And it has its own giant stand, so it hangs over the flames just like a real witch’s pot.” Eva laughed. “You know what I mean. Anyway, I know Mrs. Jackson will let us borrow it, no problem.”

Eva had been right. Not only had Mrs. Jackson, who managed the center, let them borrow the pot and stand, but she’d enlisted several old men to deliver it to the school where it now sat center stage in the classroom, shrouded in fog.

“I almost forgot!” Ailana handed a black pouch to each of them. “Your ingredients.”

Eva and Fern didn’t know they were real. During the last three weeks, Ailana had discovered that with enough money and the Internet, she could buy almost anything. And what she couldn’t buy online, she could get on her own.

Her mother had been delighted when she’d offered to help out at the Women’s Clinic. She’d been even happier when Ailana had asked to accompany her on her shift at the hospital. She’d barely noticed when Ailana had wandered off after a few hours to “scavenge” for ingredients.

“They’re numbered,” Ailana whispered, referring to the bags and bottles that she’d placed in the pouches. “Just toss them into the pot in order.”

The girls nodded and looked at each other, excitement in their faces.

“This is it!” Ailana said. “Ready, witches?”

“Ready!”

Fern cued Selena and Robin. As they entered the room, the lights dimmed and the music started.

“Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d,” Fern croaked.

“Thrice, and once the hedge-pig whin’d,” Eva howled.

“Harpier cries, ‘Tis time, ‘tis time.’” Ailana’s harsh voice, so unlike her normal voice, vibrated throughout the room, making the students shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Even Fern felt a chill of apprehension. It all seemed so real.

The girls joined hands and began circling the cauldron. As they spoke their lines and tossed in the ingredients, the pot crackled and shook and smoked. An earthy odor filled the room.

“Cool it with a baboon’s blood,” Eva sang out in the high, quavering voice she had used throughout the scene. She emptied bottle number ten from her pouch into the pot. A cloud of red smoke emerged, flattening itself and widening until the entire ceiling was covered.

Fern caught Ailana’s eye. There was only one more line left. They’d done it.

“Then the charm is firm and good.”

On Eva’s words, Ailana threw her entire pouch into the cauldron. Fern looked at her in surprise. That wasn’t in the script.

Screams and a sound like thunder filled the room. The floor shook. A thick, gray mist filled the air.

“Ailana?” Eva called, peering through the mist.

All was quiet except for the hush of running water. The classroom was gone. The girls stood in a clearing by a river. Glowing red smoke curled from a cauldron much bigger than the one from the Senior Citizens Center.

“Where in the hell are we, Ailana?” Eva sounded scared. Ailana’s witch face didn’t look made up. It looked real. She touched her own face with a gnarled hand. It was real.

“The better question is, ‘What in the hell did you throw into the pot?’” Fern shouted.

Ailana stared at them both, the beginnings of a smile forming on her lips.

“Where are we? Do you know?” Eva looked at Fern.

“We’re in Acheron. At least that’s what Hecate called it in Act III.” She looked at Ailana accusingly. “In other words, we’re in hell.”

*

St. Mary’s County Teenage Girls Disappear in English Class

POSTED 9:25 PM, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2015, BY BOBBI MATTINGLY

ST. MARY’S COUNTY, MD. — Three St. Mary’s County teenage girls have been reported missing under unusual circumstances.

Deputies say three teenage girls were reported missing at about 7:00 p.m. Thursday.

Eva Paige Patterson, 18, of Mattapany Road, Lexington Park, is 5’ tall, 100 pounds with auburn hair and brown eyes. She may be wearing black leggings, a pink sweater and boots.

Ailana Adaire Guy, 18, of Rosecroft Road, Lexington Park, is 5’10” tall, 125 pounds with blonde hair and blue eyes. She may be wearing jeans, a green sweatshirt and orange tennis shoes.

Fern Cliona Fenwick, 17, of Knockeyon Lane, Great Mills, is 5’4” tall, 145 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. She wears glasses. She may be wearing khakis and a white top.

At the time of their disappearance the girls were dressed in witch costumes that included black robes, gray wigs and heavy stage makeup.

All three attend Mills High School where they are seniors. Patterson, Guy and Fenwick were presenting a project in English class when they disappeared.

“We thought it was part of the presentation,” English Teacher Cassia Cummings said.

According to Cummings, when the girls did not return to class, she notified a vice principal, who later contacted the girls’ parents.

Investigators believe that the girls staged their disappearance from the classroom using dry ice. How they subsequently left campus is still under investigation.

No foul play is suspected at this time.

“We’re hoping it’s just a senior prank and that Ailana, Eva and Fern return to their families soon,” Principal Arnold Cooper said.

On Friday afternoon a statement from the principal was posted on the school website. In the statement Cooper assured students and parents that the girls’ disappearance is an “isolated incident.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office at 301-485-7007.

*

“I told you I was getting the ingredients for the potion, remember?” Ailana said.

She’d turned her back on Eva and Fern, and was staring out over the river. She didn’t want them to see her face. She wasn’t sure that, even with her new appearance, she could disguise the joy she felt.

“Yeah, but we didn’t think you were getting the real ingredients,” Eva said, sounding more puzzled than angry. Like Ailana, she was more curious than distraught. And strangely hopeful.

“‘Finger of a birth-strangled babe’?” Fern quoted. “Ailana! Why in the hell—”

“For authenticity?” Ailana turned. “To make our project the best ever?” She looked Fern in the eyes.

“Oh, Ailana.”

“I added my own secret ingredient, too,” Ailana confessed. According to her research, bergamot ensured prosperity. “It wasn’t… creepy, just an herb. To make our project successful. I didn’t know it would turn us into real witches.”

Although now that they were, she couldn’t help feeling… free. And more than a little curious. If they really were the Weird Sisters then they must have their powers. And if they did, they could move through space and time. They could see into other people’s minds. And they were wise enough and powerful enough to influence evil men toward their bad ends.

Ailana thought of Joss and his creepy friends. And Eva’s father.

She looked at Eva and smiled in wonder. Eva knew what she was thinking. Exactly what she was thinking. She could read Ailana’s mind. And Ailana could read hers.

Giggling, Eva raised her arms, rose into the air and began to twirl.

“Secret ingredient?” Fern shouted as she paced along the riverbank. “Something wicked, that’s what you added to the pot.” Fern groaned. “What did we need a secret ingredient for? We already had great writing! Shakespeare, for god’s sakes! The magic ingredient for success was already in the spell. Did Shakespeare have to write that in stage directions? No, he probably thought it was obvious, because it is! The magic, the poetry, is in the words and the rhythm. If we’d just followed the script, as written, we’d be getting an A right now instead of standing around in Hell!”

“Or flying around in hell,” Eva called. She stopped spinning and now circled the air above them. “If you ask me, Ailana added something wicked good!”

She landed next to Fern and put an arm around her shoulder. She knew that Fern, being Fern, had had her own strict plans for the future, including college, grad school, a high-profile job and clawing her way to the top. And being Fern, she hated having her plans ruined.

“I know you’re upset,” Eva sympathized. “And I’m upset for you, but… just think about it, Fern! We’re witches. Powerful witches. And I don’t think we’re trapped here.” She took them both by the hands. “In fact, I know we’re not!”

Eva raised their arms and the deafening sound of rushing water encompassed them for a breathless moment.

“There we are.” She dropped their hands and looked around her. “We’re in… a fen, I think it’s called.”

Ailana bared her cannibal teeth and laughed. In the distance, she could hear the sound of Hecate’s leathery wings flapping toward them.

“We’re the Weird Witches, bitches!” She raised her arms and rose into the air. “Yeah!”

“The Weird Witches!” Eva shouted, joining her.

“Oh, fuck it,” Fern muttered. “Why not?” Rising into the air, she joined hands with her friends.

“To the Weird Witches!”

pencilJill Spencer lives in Maryland with her husband Dennis and her life coach Duke, a stumpy-legged dog with personality plus. She teaches English part-time at a local community college and is currently working on her first novel. Email: spencer.jill[at]yahoo.com

 

Get Carter

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Lorraine Nelson


Tunnel Sillhouettes
Photo Credit: Jonathan Sanderson

Carter ran until he thought his lungs would burst. His footsteps thudded against the packed earth, sounding like a muffled heartbeat. His nightspecs lit up the dank, cavernous tunnel with an eerie green glow. Far behind him, he could hear a soft, steady hum.

The trailbots were after him.

Carter picked up his pace. No way they were going to catch him. No way they were going to take him back to GenMed. No way. He’d rather die than go back there. His legs churned, eating up the ground under him. Despite his exhaustion, Carter permitted himself a small smile of satisfaction.

He had done it.

After two years of planning, he had finally escaped the GenMed Facility, also known as the Body Shop. The government scientists not only cloned humans for sale to whoever needed unpaid labor, they also used some of their clones for experiments. Horrendous experiments, where clones had their arms and legs removed, to be replaced by animal parts; where brain matter was sliced and diced in order to manipulate personality changes; where animal–human hybrids were implanted in female uteri. Carter had heard stories where sometimes these fetuses would grow enough to tear or bite their way out of the womb. Despite the sweat pouring down his face, soaking his shirt, he shuddered.

No. He was not going back.

The tunnel banked right, and Carter skidded into the turn, his nightspecs picking up the strange, phosphorescent glow emanating from the hard, mud-packed walls. It was through Malachi, a fellow inmate of GenMed, that Carter had heard about the Underground Railroad. It seems that hundreds of years ago, white people in New Cambria, which was then called America, went over the seas to enslave a whole race of people. The black race. Malachi called them his African forebears. They didn’t succeed in enslaving everyone, but it turns out they enslaved thousands over a period of years. They didn’t treat them none too well either. Malachi said his great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had told him stories that his great-grandfather had told him, about how these enslaved humans were treated like property, were beaten and starved, the women raped and their resulting offspring sold off, never to be seen again.

Carter shook his head. Amazing that hundreds of years later, mankind still hadn’t changed. People were still being enslaved. Still subjected to all kinds of atrocities. Only now, it was the Cyborgs, those infernal half-human, half-machine tyrants, who ran the show. Humans were just cattle to be rounded up and used for cheap, disposable labor.

And, of course, experimentation.

But not him. Not Carter. Not anymore. He flexed his right arm where, just the previous day, one of the scientists had lasered his arm off just below the elbow because someone had noticed Carter’s hand shaking when he performed some delicate repairs on a gene splicer. Carter’s mouth tightened as he recalled the agony of the hot beam slicing through flesh and bone. The Cyborg hadn’t bothered to use a pain diffuser. There was no point wasting it on a full-blooded human.

Whatever it was he did to Carter’s arm, when he fused it back again, the shaking was gone. Ironically, he’d made it that much easier for Carter to manipulate the last few alarms before making his escape. Carter’s fists clenched. It was supposed to be their escape. His and Malachi’s. But something went wrong when they were working on the last set of alarms. Somehow, Carter didn’t know how, the guards were alerted. The alarms he was working on all went off at once, and around the facility, titanium doors and windows started sealing off all the entrances, one by one.

There had been no time to waste. They’d made a run for it. Except Malachi couldn’t keep up. He was just too old. They could hear the metal footfalls of the guards clanging off the sleek metal floors, getting closer and closer with each breath. Carter had grabbed the old man, practically hauling him off the ground as he ran. Just a few more paces, and they’d make it. He’d delayed the shutdown in this corridor for a few precious minutes, but time was rapidly running down. Beside him, he could hear Malachi’s ragged breathing.

Almost there. But the guards were almost upon them. Once they turned the corner, all was lost. They’d turn their light-pistols on them, and both him and Malachi would vaporize into nothing more than a pile of ashes.

He’d turned to Malachi, a remorseful grin on his face. “Guess we’re not going to get the chance to use that famous Underground Railroad your ancestors used, buddy. Sorry about that.”

Malachi turned his dark, soulful eyes on the younger man. “I won’t, but you sure will. Goodbye my friend. And as my great-granddaddy used to say, “Godspeed.”

Before Carter could react, Malachi wrenched his arm away from him, and ran back down the corridor, screaming maniacally, “Come and get me, you tin-plated freaks of nature.” He threw an impatient look over his shoulder, his dreadlocks bouncing. “What are you waiting for, you idiot? A goodbye kiss? Go. Go.”

And Carter went. He ran as if there were no tomorrow. He ran until night became day, and the North Star disappeared. And when that happened, miraculously, there was someone there, in the ruins of the Old City, to feed him and give him a place to sleep, and to guide him to the next safe house. That first day of freedom, Carter shut his eyes, curled up in a ball in a corner of a dilapidated factory, and tried to erase the memory of leaving his old friend behind. It’s here, Malachi, he said silently. It does exist. The old route under the night sky. I followed the North Star just as you said. Met my first good Samaritan, who assures me there are others along the way who will help me, just as you said. The Underground Railroad still stands, silent and strong and ready to help anyone seeking asylum.

A sharp pain in his side brought Carter up short. He had been traveling for more than a week now, using the North Star as his guide. And always, along the way, there were people to help. He was underground now, in a series of tunnels that his last Samaritan had said were built as a physical extension to the Railroad, when the Cyborgs gained control. This portion of the route became too dangerous to follow above ground. People who served the Underground Railroad were being caught and killed, so these passages were built in secret. They still followed the North Star, he said, but below ground.

Carter leaned against the tunnel wall, welcoming the cool, damp feel against his over-heated skin. He listened for the sounds of the trailbots, but couldn’t hear anything. Either they had given up, which was highly unlikely, or they were recharging, which didn’t seem possible either. He couldn’t think of any other reason why they wouldn’t be following him. Well, he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to keep moving. He had no idea how far he’d run, only that he couldn’t go much farther. His entire body was screaming out for rest, for water, for food. Hell, he’d even take that synthesized crap the Cyborgs ate.

Carter pushed away from the wall, setting out at a steady jog this time, instead of a full-on run. His legs felt as if they were on fire. His feet felt slippery and hot inside of his work boots, each step a plunge into red-hot coals. He didn’t want to see what the soles of his feet looked like. He kept going until he keeled over, unable to move another step. He lay there on the cool, packed earth, relishing the feel of it beneath his cheek. This is fine, he thought. I’ll just stay here. All I need is to close my eyes for a few minutes. Five minutes. That’s all. Then I’ll be able to go again. Just five minutes. That’s all. Carter’s eyelids fluttered.

Then snapped open.

Someone was there. And whoever it was, was looking right at him.

Carter sprang to his feet, his heartbeat accelerating. What the hell—? He stared at the creature in front of him. It was a relgat. It had to be, with its ghostly-white skin, a smooth small head, huge bat-like ears standing straight up, and large yellow eyes that took up almost its whole pointed face. There was no room for a nose on that face, so it had three small pinpricks in the shape of a triangle, where its nose ought to be. Its mouth was the only thing that looked almost normal, by human standards. The whole creature, from the tips of its ears to its paddle-shaped feet, if you could call them that, stood maybe five feet high, tops. Carter felt like a giant next to it.

“Hel-lo,” it said, raising a right hand, all four long digits extended in greeting.

Carter stared at the pads of its fingers. They were disc-shaped and looked like suction pads.

“Can you speak?” the relgat asked. “Are you simple? Too much cutting in your brain by the Cyborgs?”

“What?” Carter blinked. The thing spoke perfect English. He shook his head. What was he expecting? Broken English in a foreign-sounding voice? Malachi would be disappointed in him. “I’m… I’m Carter,” he said. “Who—?”

“Ahhhh, Carter. Yes. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“We?” How many of these things were there, for shit’s sake?

In answer, a young man, a boy, black like Malachi, stepped out from the shadows. He touched a hand to his cap, and soft light flooded the area. Carter winced and removed his nightspecs, squinting at the light.

“Hey,” the boy said, by way of greeting. “We’ve been waiting for you. I’m Padraig. And this,” he gestured at the alien, “is Sycamore.”

“Hel-lo again.” Sycamore’s hand went up again, his face splitting in what Carter assumed was a grin. Inside his mouth, short, sharp teeth gleamed against his pearly-white skin. Carter suppressed a shudder. Whatever those teeth ate, it sure wasn’t fruit.

Padraig and Sycamore? Terrific. “How old are you?” he asked the boy. In his opinion, the kid was way too young to be involved in something this dangerous.

Padraig lifted his chin. “I’m twelve,” he said. “And if you want to get out of here without being caught or vaporized, you’ll follow me. I know these tunnels blindfolded.”

Carter held up his hands, stifling a grin. “Hey, no problem. I believe you.”

Padraig stared up at him for a second, then nodded. He and Sycamore exchanged a look, then turned back to Carter. They appeared to be waiting for something. A sign of some sort? A secret password? Carter rubbed the back of his neck and smiled at them, thinking that if this wasn’t a dream, it had to be one of the goofiest encounters he’d ever had.

“So? What now?” he finally said, acutely aware that at any minute he would hear the hum of the trailbots behind him.

“Where’s Malachi?” Padraig said.

Carter felt the blush to the roots of his hair. How could he have forgotten to tell them about Malachi? The old man was his only friend at GenMed for the past three years, and already he was getting used to being without him. What was wrong with him?

“He… he didn’t make it,” Carter said thickly. “He used himself as a diversion so I could get away.” His throat closed up, and he snapped his jaw shut, afraid he was going to start bawling like the incubated babies on the third floor at GenMed.

Padraig said nothing, just stared at him with those young-old eyes that looked as if they’d seen everything life had to offer. Finally he nodded, turned away. “We’d better get going. We still have a long way to go and it won’t be long before the trailbots are fixed.”

Sycamore turned, his long loose robe swishing behind him as he trotted after the boy.

Guess that explains why I haven’t heard them behind me for awhile, Carter thought, watching the twosome glide silently down the tunnel. Taking a deep breath, Carter started after them, thinking this must be the oddest trio that ever walked the earth.

For a long, long time, they walked in silence. Carter considered whistling, but dismissed the idea instantly. In these tunnels the sound would reverberate like a sonic drill. But, speaking of tunnels—

“So, can I ask you something?” Carter said, catching up to Padraig.

The boy nodded, casting him a sideways look.

“What do you know about these tunnels? I mean, the Underground Railroad was just a name for the people and safe houses along the route who helped the escaped slaves back in the old days, right?

“Right.” The boy looked straight ahead, his stride never faltering. Carter had to hand it to him. This was one tough little kid.

“So, whose idea was it to build these tunnels?”

“Padraig shrugged. “Who knows? They’re here and they’re handy, so why question it?” He glanced up at Carter, frowning. “Why do grownups have to question everything good?”

Carter laughed. “I suppose that is a fault in grownups, kid.”

“Don’t call me ‘kid.’ My name’s Padraig.”

“Right. Padraig. Sorry.” He heard a sound like water gurgling down a pipe and glanced back. The alien had his mouth open and the gurgling sound was coming from deep within him. “What’s with your friend?” he asked Padraig.

The boy shrugged, but a tiny smile flitted across his face. “He’s laughing at you.”

Carter raised a brow, but refrained from comment. It seemed both the boy and the alien had a sense of humor. Who knew? “One more question,” he said.

Padraig nodded, his dark, solemn eyes watching Carter carefully.

“How come the walls in this tunnel glow? It’s a little… unsettling.”

“My dad told me there are microscopic creatures that live in the walls. He says they emit their own light. They live and die in the darkness, so nature compensates by imbuing them with their own light source.” He smiled at the surprised expression on Carter’s face then, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face. “Those are my dad’s exact words,” he said. “He always used big words when he spoke. He… he was the smartest man in the world.”

“Sure sounds like it,” Carter said, then lapsed into silence.

A long while later, when Carter’s stomach started growling, Padraig called a halt. “We’ll stop here for a bit,” he said. “Have something to eat.”

At the mention of food, Carter’s interest piqued. He glanced at the small bag slung over the boy’s shoulder. Didn’t look like it held much. Well, whatever he was offered, he would take it and be grateful for it. He watched as Padraig took out three small bowls, a packet of some sharp-smelling pellets, and four long water tubes. He handed one to Carter and Sycamore, put one aside for himself, and emptied one into equal portions in the three bowls. Then he split open the bag, dropped a handful of the pellets into each of the bowls, and stirred them into the water. Right before his eyes, Carter watched as the mixture thickened and grew. A cold dread began in his stomach, and he raised his eyes to Padraig, willing the boy to tell him it wasn’t what he thought it was.

It was.

Padraig passed him a bowl, a wide grin splitting his face. “Symplon,” he said, his serious tone belying the delight on his face as he watched Carter grimace. “The food of the Cyborgs.”

Carter accepted the bowl with a muttered “thank you.” His eyes slid to Sycamore, who was already dipping his elongated fingers into the greenish-grey mush and shoveling it into his mouth with a resounding smacking sound. If Carter had had any food at all in his belly, he’d have hurled.

“Eat up,” Padraig said, sitting cross-legged, as he dipped his fingers into the swill. “It shouldn’t be too much longer before we’re back above ground. We can pick up the original Railroad trail again without any problem, once the stars come out.”

Carter grunted as he bent to his meal.

For a while, the only sounds were the soft slurping of fingers, interspersed with the smacking sounds coming from Sycamore.

“Gooood,” the alien said, setting his bowl down and beaming at the others, his enormous yellow orbs shining in the darkness.

Carter wanted to offer him his own food, but the thought of walking for hours on end without the possibility of more food kept him from doing that. As repulsive as it was, at least it was nourishment that kept him alive. And for that, he was immensely grateful.

“So,” he said, glancing up at Padraig and Sycamore. “How did you both come to this pretty important job? A boy and an alien? There’s got be a story there.”

Padraig’s chest swelled noticeably. “You’re right,” he said, licking his fingers. “It is an important job. My father was the contact, the Samaritan. I used to go out with him when it got dark, on nights we knew to expect someone. Sometimes we’d wait in the tunnels all night and no one would come, and we’d know they’d run into trouble, got captured or killed.” He sighed. “On those nights, my father was always so sad.”

He looked at Carter, his eyes shining. “I could actually feel him wearing it, you know? His sadness. He always felt so sorry for the ones who didn’t make it this far north.”

Padraig set his bowl down, licked his fingers one last time, and sat back against the tunnel wall. “Then he got sick. Remember when so many humans got sick and died? My dad said the Cyborgs had a cure, that they had a cure for just about everything, but they didn’t care about us. He said they thought we were inferior beings, because we weren’t as strong as them, or as smart as them, and that we had such short life spans anyway, so what difference did it make to them if we all died?” Padraig sniffed, dragging the back of his hand across his nose. “Then my dad got sick, too. He… he couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and he’d send me out there when we knew we were getting runners. He told me it was dangerous work and he didn’t want me out there by myself with those trailbots around, but that people were counting on us, and we couldn’t let them down.” He sniffed again, and Carter held his arms rigid at his side to keep from giving the boy a hug.

“Then he died,” Padraig said softly, staring at a point over Sycamore’s shoulder. “My dad died and it was only me. I was the only one there to help those runners. So, whenever a message came through that someone was on the run, I went out by myself and met them.” His eyes met Carter’s, wet with tears. “And that’s how come I met you.”

Carter swallowed back the lump in his throat. He wanted to swoop the kid up in his arms, hold him tight and tell him he’d take care of him, that he’d be his surrogate father, but somehow he knew the kid wouldn’t agree to that. He glanced at Sycamore, who was watching Padraig with wide, mournful eyes. That’s his surrogate dad, Carter thought. The alien takes care of him. I’ll be damned.

“And you?” Carter asked, clearing his throat. “What’s your story?”

Sycamore turned those huge, unnerving eyes on him. He smiled. “When we arrived here all those years ago, humans were so suspicious of us. Even when we proved that all we wanted to do was trade, they still hated us. The Cyborgs were the ones treating the humans badly, but because they were still partly human, they were not as feared as we were.” He looked at Padraig. “I was working for a gen farm, splicing pig and cow DNA together to create a new breed of meat, when one day there was an accident. The genetic modifier I was working on was unstable, and it exploded. It destroyed half the building. Some humans died, and I barely made it out of there with my life. The only reason I survived was because my skin is so tough. If I were human, I would be dead.”

Carter watched as Padraig reached over and squeezed his hand. The gesture was so simple, yet so endearing, Carter’s heart twisted.

“The farmer went for his light-pistol,” Sycamore continued. “So I ran. I ran for days without stopping. Then I found these tunnels. Quite by accident, since they are so well hidden. I hid out in them for days, and when I finally wove my way around, there was Padraig, waiting.”

“Well, I certainly did not expect to see a young human pup in these tunnels—” Sycamore paused, and cocked his head at Padraig. “Come to think of it, I did not expect to see a human pup at all, so it was very much a surprise when I came upon him.” He smiled at the boy. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘Waiting for you.’ Then he turned and led the way out of the tunnels to the home he shared with his father.”

He smiled at Carter. “And I have been there ever since.”

Carter stared back in wonder. “How long have you been with him?” he asked.

Sycamore cocked his head again as he contemplated Carter’s question. “Two years, he said. “I have watched him grow centimeter by centimeter.”

There was a short silence as Carter digested this information.

Then Padraig stirred, yawned and got to his feet. “Time to get you on your way, Mr. Carter.”

“Just Carter,” he said, rising and stretching.

They walked again, for so long that Carter wondered what year it was. He didn’t want to ask how much longer it was before they’d emerge into open air again, but he was starting to get seriously claustrophobic. He’d gotten used to following the North Star. There was something comforting in that. It was always there. Constant. Eternal. It would always be there to guide people to freedom and safety, and he wanted to see it again, to reassure himself it would be there to guide him the rest of the way, however long it took for him to reach safety.

These thoughts were chasing themselves around his overtaxed brain, when Padraig spoke.

“We’re here.”

And the next thing Carter knew, he was back outside again, back in the fresh air. Back to the sound of insects humming, to the cool night air kissing his damp skin, to the soft breeze ruffling his hair. He wanted to spread his arms wide and laugh out loud. But of course he didn’t, since both Padraig and Sycamore were looking at him curiously.

“We’ll accompany you for a few more miles,” Padraig said, “until we meet your next contact in the Railroad chain. Then we’ll say goodbye.”

Carter nodded, his eyes on the young boy who was older and wiser beyond his years. He would miss him. Both of them actually. Without a word, he turned and followed them through the woods, the North Star pointing the way in the clear night sky.

Carter could not believe the beauty of this vast wilderness. Where he came from, there was nothing but sterile white buildings, and once he ran for his life, nothing but cities in ruins. He had not known a place like this existed. He took a deep breath. Even the air smelled sweeter here.

When their contact stepped out from behind a tree, smiling at them, Carter sent a silent prayer of thanks to his old friend, Malachi.

pencil

Bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature; Master’s degree in Mass Communications. Grew up in many different countries. Publishing history: Public Relations newsletter editor. Articles for local newspapers. Newsletter editor for regional writing organization for three years. Wife. Mother of two. Volunteer. Reader. Sci-fi geek. Email: lloneriter[at]yahoo.com

Save What We Can

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Kate Lansky


night-orchard
Photo Credit: Jeremy Hiebert

Tiba let out a gusty sigh and leaned back against the rough skin of an orchard tree. She could taste weather in the air, sweet and pungent. Gran had always said it was the voices of leaves singing up to the sky in anticipation. Most nights that heady scent would make her smile, the way it reminded her of Gran. Tonight, it just made her antsy, made her skin itch with worry. She wanted to get going before the rain hit, get back into the tunnels outside of town and on her way to safety.

She eyed the village, its dark buildings silhouetted by pooling light from streetlamps. Her Source should’ve been here by now, and in her experience these things had to move fast. Too long standing in some farmer’s orchard—even in the middle of the night—only resulted in you getting caught and some poor child getting dead.

Maybe I should just go. She tried to rub the night chill from her arms, gave up, resisted the urge to pace and settled for fiddling with the strap of her pack. It was special made, heavy leather lined with silk and spells all meant to keep her safe from the cargo she’d pick up tonight. She didn’t bother glancing at it. She knew how stained it had become over the years, blackened by a hundred and more such journeys. It was getting so she couldn’t hide the stains anymore, and she knew the spells laid into it were beginning to fade. She could feel them, a rustle and buzz in the back of her head. That scared her more than anything—she hadn’t always been able to hear them. A few more runs like tonight and a contact would report her, get her safely retired across the border. It wasn’t safe, carrying too much for too long. It got to you, eventually. And when it did, it was best not to be on this side of things. So you saved who you could any way you could, then got yourself out before the border guards could read you full. Tiba was pretty sure it was starting to get to her.

She forced her thoughts away from that eventuality, bringing herself back to the dark night, the cold wind, and the approaching storm. Much as she burned to leave, she kept thinking of that child and how they’d die if she did—cut up to bits on a surgeon’s table while they tried to figure out what made the poor thing tick. So she stayed, eyes steady on the village even while her mind raced ahead. An hour or so walk east of town to the old, unused section of mines, hopefully beating the moonrise. Then it was four days walk through winding tunnels, traveling through the places where man-made and natural caves kissed, passing beneath town after town until she was just a day from the border. She’d wait for a contact there, and they’d take the package on to safety.

She missed her tunnels, though she figured most folks wouldn’t understand that. But she’d been walking them for almost fifteen years now, and she knew them better than her own skin. Those tunnels were the one thing that let her be the most successful runner on record.

For just an instant, the lamps caught two figures in their yellow light: a tall, lean man, his face lost in the shadows of a brimmed hat, and a young woman in a full blue dress, pale hair loose like a child’s. Then just as quick they were transformed into dark silhouettes, lost against the darkness of the buildings. Tiba narrowed her eyes, watching as the two shadows angled toward the edge of town and the road leading to the orchard. Her Source had finally arrived.

They weren’t quiet, though they were trying to be. Even at a distance, Tiba could soon hear the heavy whispering of skirts and underskirts and the sharp clipping sound of shoes on the cobblestone road. The low murmur of a man’s voice hovered low in the night air. If the girl spoke, it was too soft for Tiba to hear.

By the time they reached the orchard fence, they’d resolved into more than shadows. Tiba could make out the man’s face, etched with the first lines of age. He came at a hurry now, half dragging his daughter down the road. Her skirts kept tangling around her legs as she tried to keep up, turning her run into a series of trips and stumbles. They paused, the girl straightening up and smoothing the fabric down, the man glancing around before unlatching the gate and swinging it open. Weathered metal screamed in protest and the two froze like startled deer before the man once again grabbed her wrist and pulled her along, leaving the gate standing open behind them.

Tiba watched them come, the way his head swung about as he glanced warily back toward the village and peered between trees. When he was near enough, Tiba stepped forward. The man jumped, briefly shoving his daughter behind him and making the poor girl squeak in surprise. Tiba’s irritation flared, then just as quickly faded. The man must be terrified.

“It’s all right,” she said, pitching her voice low. “Leth told you about me.” She didn’t offer a name, only stood there with her hands out and empty, waiting for him to react.

A few heartbeats later, his shoulders finally dropped, all the tension fleeing on one heavy sigh. “Oh, thank god.” He tugged his daughter out from behind his back, took her by both shoulders, and held her before him.

She was young, Tiba realized. Maybe only nine. Younger than most Sources she’d pulled empty. But it came on people different ways and different days, Gran had always said. Showing her surprise would only make these folk worry, so she smiled a little down at the girl, taking in the way her white-knuckled fists gripped at her blue skirts, the way her lips pressed thin, the way that even trembling and scared, she met Tiba’s eyes straight on.

“This is my daughter. Please, fix her.”

Tiba kept that smile firmly in place, though it felt a bit more strained now. He’s scared, she repeated to herself. Just wants her safe. “Of course,” she said between her teeth. Then she turned away before the smile could crack and fall away, leading them back into the orchard until the lights of town were little more than stars shining in at odd angles between dancing leaves. The storm was coming up fast.

There was a small tool shed here, and a chopping stump beside. Tiba leaned over, quickly dusting the little curls and chips of wood away, then motioned the girl over. “Sit her down for me please.”

Neither moved.

Tiba was about to step forward and push the girl down herself when the child spoke.

“Father says they’ll want to kill me. The Law.” Her eyes were fixed on the bare dirt in front of her, though Tiba knew that wasn’t what she was seeing. “Is that true?”

Tiba knelt down in front of her, plucking the girl’s small fists away from worried skirts and holding them in her own hands. “Your pa tells you right. They’d kill you if they knew what you’ve got in you—and they’ll kill you after, if they ever learn what I took. You can’t ever say a word.” She felt the girl begin to shiver, her fists trembling in the curl of Tiba’s palms. “I know that’s scary as anything you’ve ever known, child, I do. But I can promise you, as long as you and your pa never speak a word, nobody will ever know. There’ll be no sign on you, nothing to give it away. It’ll be the worst, most dangerous secret, but it’ll be a secret.”

“If we don’t… do this? What if I hide it?”

Tiba saw the man twitch at this, felt his distaste at the idea. After all, they were here to fix his daughter. He didn’t like thinking of this thing as a part of the girl, as something that’d leave scar inside once it got pulled out. She wondered if he’d let the Law take his daughter if there were no fix, if the only other choice were running for the border. Not for the first time, Tiba was glad she wouldn’t have to find out. It was just about impossible, getting a person across the border illegally.

“You and your pa won’t be able to hide what’s in you much longer. That’s just not the way it works.”

“And… will it hurt?”

“Like the devil,” Tiba answered, not even flinching. She wouldn’t lie, not to a Source.

The girl watched her for a long minute until her hands went still in Tiba’s grasp. Finally she pulled her hands away and sat, nervously smoothing her skirts again. “I guess I’m ready.”

Tiba swung her pack down beside her and opened one of the outer pockets. She pulled out a red stone, hardly more than a large pebble, oblong and pierced at one end. A red string looped through it, matching the stone’s color perfectly in the dark. She let it drop, swinging for a moment at the end of its string, rocking back and forth between them. Then its swing changed, tugging toward the girl like gravity had somehow just shifted.

“I need you to swallow this.” Tiba held the stone out, edging closer to the girl so it seemed to float above her lap. She lifted her hands, caught up the stone, closed her eyes and shoved it into her mouth. Tiba let out a little slack on the string, but kept a grip on the end as the girl swallowed it down.

When the girl nodded, Tiba tied the string to a little loop necklace she wore and turned to her pack one more time, this time digging out eight gold rings. She slipped them on one by one, whispering the words she’d been taught so long ago. The words, like her bag, seemed to carry extra weight these days, strengthening the low hum in the back of her head. Then, with one last deep breath, Tiba leaned in and hit the girl’s hand as hard as she could. The child jerked away, coughing around the string in surprise. Her father stepped forward, but Tiba glared him back.

“This is where it starts hurting.” She turned back to the child and began to beat her in earnest. She moved up the girl’s arms, one by one, all the way to her shoulders. Then up her legs, from toes to hips. Then top of the head down, slowly pulling all the currents of her hands together over the girl’s stomach and the place where the little red stone would sit. Alternating palm and back of hand, she worked at the girl’s belly like a ball of dough, beating it down. When the girl’s soft whimpering started, she ignored it and began again.

The girl’s father turned away, pulling the hat from his head and worrying at the brim.

By the third time through, the girl was going pale under the red of her beaten skin and the whimpers turned to crying. When Tiba slapped her face, her hands came away wet. On the fifth pass, the girl began to shake. Tiba didn’t pause as she called the girl’s father over, didn’t break concentration as she ordered him to hold her down.

“Tighter,” she said on the sixth pass, as the girl’s shakes strengthened, making it harder for Tiba’s blows to land right.

On the eighth pass, the child’s shaking became violent. Her head cracked back into her father’s chin, and they both tumbled down from the log. Tiba followed, not even waiting for the father to crawl out from under the girl. She kept beating her, starting a ninth pass and finally concentrating entirely on the girl’s torso until the child went suddenly still.

“You’ve killed her.” The man’s voice was soft and dangerous as he pulled himself free.

“No. You asked me to pull a part of her out, and that’s not an easy thing, but it’s all I’ve done.” Tiba stood up, untied the string from her necklace, and began to pull. The girl coughed and choked as the string came up, thick with black tar down its whole length. Her mouth gaped wide and all sound stopped as the stone came free at last. It hung like a dark moon at the end of it all, looking too large to have come out of the poor child.

Tiba held her breath and stepped back, watching the pendant swing a bit, watching for a hint that it might still be pulling toward the girl. But it hung straight, and Tiba let out her breath. “She’s safe now. Take her home.”

The man eyed the awful tar hanging from Tiba’s hand and didn’t say a word. He just nodded, turned away, and scooped his daughter up into his arms. The child groaned and shied away from his touch.

“Don’t let her go out until the bruising goes down. Just tell folks she’s sick, if they ask.”

He didn’t look back at her, though Tiba caught his slow nod. Then he walked back through the trees without so much as a thank you.

Tiba held the string and stone as far from her as she could and leaned over to fish a pair of heavy leather gloves—metalworker’s gloves—from her pack. She slid them on one by one, flexing her fingers inside. She slowly peeled the tar away, pulling it from the string and rolling it up into a ball bigger than both her fists together. Finally she dumped the whole thing into the leather sack and peeled off her gloves, tucking them in another pocket along with the pendant. Then she leaned back and took a long, shaking breath. The girl had been strong. She didn’t think she’d ever had to do nine passes before. Eight once, a few years back, and she’d heard more and more runners having to do seven, but never more. More than anything, Tiba wanted to lean back against the stump behind her and rest. Just close her eyes and rest her aching hands. The girl was safe.

But the magic isn’t, Tiba reminded herself, glancing at the pack and remembering what it held. The magic won’t be safe until it’s across the border. Tiba forced herself up, shouldered her pack, and started walking just as the first drops of rain began to fall. Time to get back to the tunnels. A contact would be waiting for her on the far end soon, wondering why she was late. Unlike Tiba, they might not wait. So she sped up her steps, trying to ignore the warm weight of her pack and the musty smell of it, the way the magic inside curled around her spine and slowly nibbled at the buzzing spells.

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Kate Lansky has done a lot of things in her life, but writing is the only one that seems to stick. She currently lives in Chicago, IL with a small menagerie of beasts, a husband, and a son. Who might as well count toward the menagerie too. Email: Katelansky[at]gmail.com