The end of you all, regretfully. (But don’t worry, we’ll do better next time.)

The thing that looks like a human stands in the pathology lab behind the visiting politicians, wearing a suit and watching the show. It’s one it’s seen before countless times; rarely does it pique interest. There’s only so much you can observe of humanity before you start to see not individuals but patterns, not events but sequences. Like kata, the thing thinks, trying to find a way to explain its own thoughts.

This time it pays attention. The drama before it all seems very poignant, hyper-real. The thing knows it’s just the impending death that makes it feel that way. It feels, for a moment, a crushing self-doubt. Is this really the only way? So many people! But that’s the problem, in the end. So many people eating and shitting and building and fucking, making more and more people. Even they see it.

Not these ones specifically, though. Although perhaps these ones most of all, the team the thing has constructed from the first idea on up. Here, at the bottom: the scientists hover off to one side while their manager kisses ass with a dignified face. The scientists barely conceal their contempt for their leader; he’s nothing more than a marionette to them, put in place to keep the non-science flowing smoothly. They are pure, devoted to comprehension. The thing’s goals made perfect. The thing in a suit loves them best and regrets their deaths most of all.

In the middle, the manager acts as though the entire laboratory belongs to him, as though he has cleverly trained the scientists to produce such dreadful wonders as are being described. The politicians, to him, are just the source of the money. The manager the thing once would have felt contempt for, but now sees as an essential component here; a filter of sorts, devoted to accumulating waste and filth so that the project might remain uncontaminated.

In turn, the politicians view the manager as a well-behaved monkey who has been employed by the politicians, who feel very much as though this whole feat of bioengineering is their idea. The thing in a suit shudders. The hazards of age. It looks at the politicians with distant sympathy; they think themselves the power in this room, the heights of this little pyramid. But then there’s the thing in a suit. The politicians though are the contaminants. the thing in a suit is sorry that the scientists must be in the same room as these others, these things which float to the top of every human society.

The thing in a suit thinks about politicians for a moment. A biology metaphor seems most apt, considering the lab they’re in. Are they excrement, pushed out of regular society and shunned behind layers of guards? Are they an infection, rejected by the body but determined to spread themselves? Are they like humanity in this sense, devouring all until they destroy what they most wanted? They still think themselves in control.

The thing eyes them. They came here to receive a briefing on this project. They are suitably flattered by their access to such a secret endeavor, alarmed by the safety measures they’re passing through, and their little minds are spinnig wildly as they try and determine the best way to use this secret information. All so the thing can get into this room which it made in the first place. The thing is the one which has driven this entire play, the director, the manipulator… It can’t continue the train of thought. Instead it thinks gloomy thoughts about its own delusions of control, and wonders if somewhere, something is whispering to it. The thing glances furtively around the room, but sees no-one else. Still, it could be true.

Not that this changes anything. One can, after all, only operate within the reality one perceives. Speculation about the unknown is an excellent beginning for learning about the universe, but a terrible method of determining one’s everyday actions. It’s true that the world people see and smell and touch is just the tip of the iceberg; when science discovered infrared and ultraviolet, x-rays and neutrinos, the thing in a suit was delighted. At last, it thought, at last we begin to perceive the real world!

But the price was steep. Society wasn’t stable enough, there were continents discovered and resources and unintended consequences of development. It was time to stop for a while. The world couldn’t support the systems necessary for this progress, for peering into the secrets of the universe. It was time to take a break, roll back the clock, give the ecosystem a few thousand years to recover. They could always start fresh with the people, but not if the whole world turned into a smoking ruin. Time for an end. Which was why the thing in a suit was there.

The thing in a suit pulled the small envelope from its pocket and eyed it doubtfully. The scientist who’d developed the stuff had no idea what use it would be put to. Magic, the thing thought sadly. It didn’t really understand the lecture it had received on how the stuff worked. The thing sighed and considered how much there was left to learn. A few thousand years and it might actually catch up enough, understand enough of the science that had been developed by this civilization to manage the next civilization with a bit more success and a bit less pollution.

Still, one didn’t have to understand one’s tools to know how to use them or have confidence that they would work. It carefully opened the envelope – one of the scientists, noticing, began to open her mouth to object – then the thing in a suit scattered the powder onto the air. The humans reacted with some surprise, turning, looking at the thing. For the first time really; the thing was so very good at going unremarked. Then their expressions changed, they turned a bit red, and they fell over.

The thing stood there and waited until the last human fell over before walking over to the sealed door. There were a lot of doors between it and its goal, but it had designed the program in the first place, after all. It wasn’t difficult to get what it wanted. It put the vials in its pockets and walked out. It left the building silent behind it, the entire population lying on the floor or ground like surprised shoes hastily dropped by their owners.

In the end it all went flawlessly. There was a response to the deaths, of course, but not one that was quick enough to matter. By the time the government sent in properly equipped emergency personnel and determined which corpse was missing it was done. That’s not to say it was instantaneous; nobody died right away. Just because a vial is removed from seven layers of safety containers does not mean the contents will escape immediately. The vials remained safely sealed for the week it took the thing in a suit to drive to the nearest major city, change into a spectacularly clean chef’s uniform, and begin preparing the grandest meal it had ever envisioned for the social event of the year.

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My eye!

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Kitty-girl

Her name changes as we know her. In the bar with the lights and the heavy beat and the stims and the slows and the dancing which might as well be fighting or sex, her friends call her Flossy, which King says is a nickname for Florence. What sort of parents give their kid the name of Florence? Humbert says it means flowering or in bloom. She’s not flowering. It’s not a right name for her. She has brown eyes and I don’t remember what color her hair was, but it was different every time I saw her, right up to the end. She stole my black leather jacket that first night. She was wearing it the next time we saw her.

She was slumming it, her and her friends. We all knew that, King and Maho and poor little Humbert and me. She was in charge of her little group, and she was a little rich girl, and she wanted a little rough. So she dragged her friends downtown with her, and went to the clubs. But the clubs weren’t dirty enough for her. All the little rich kids came to the clubs. We were practically a tourist industry, us not-rich boys and girls. King hates it, it makes Humbert happy, fuck only knows what Maho thinks and me… I used to think, they’re using me, it’s only right I should use them. Now I’m not sure anymore.

She came to the clubs and we met her. I don’t remember her friends except Mel, who I see every week at the sanitarium when I visit. She’s just leaving as I’m coming in, and we nod at each other. Nobody else visits. I looked at the log once. The others, her other girls – I think one had rainbows on her cheeks for a while, and another liked to drink these glowing green drinks that smoked, like they were toxic or something. But I don’t really remember them.

She stole my jacket. That’s how we met the second time – they, she and the girls, were leaving the club early just as we were getting there and I saw her wearing it. I yelled and they laughed and ran, and we chased them, and we caught up at another club. This one was a little seedier. I grabber her wrist and she swiped her nails at me, scratched the hell out of my face. I didn’t let go – too surprised that an uptown rich girl would do that. She looked up at me, her head tipped back and her eyes full of something with electricity and sharp edges. We went and had drinks and danced. I called her Kitty-girl, and she liked that.

She kept the damn coat. I think her mother still has it, somewhere; she only wears paper robes in the sanitarium. I never asked her mother for it back.

Kitty-girl was more than a name; she had some cat DNA. More than a little; more than most, and a lot of folks have cat in them. It’s a popular sequence. Her parents, all the rich folks, they can do the designer genes in their kids. Started a couple dozen years ago, now all the rich kids are part something-or-other. They’re all geniuses and athletes. Cat is a popular one; the eyes, the joints, the muscles. You can tell, looking at someone, what they have in them. It won’t last – as folks get mixed up in a few generations it’ll all be a muddle – but right now, you know when you look who has a little bit of beagle in their nose, a little bit of weasel in their spine, a little shark in their joints. Humbert’s got some naked mole rat in him. He was really drunk when he told us that. He’s gonna live maybe two, three times as long as us.

So she had cat. But sometimes I think she had more than that. Can’t quite tell, not now. I’ve looked at wildlife encyclopedias, I’ve thought about taking a sample and getting her sequenced, but nothing in the books quite fits and I can’t bring myself to pull out her hair.

She’s like a drug herself. She wants to party. She wants to see it all, know it all, do it all – she’s fierce and bright and only as big as a twelve year old, but she says she’s twenty. Still living with her parents, just like the other rich kids. Family estate; she calls it a compound, tells us about the walls and the guards and the dull dull parties. Tells us how to break in and how to break out. We laugh. Downtown boys like us don’t break in or out of houses up there, not where the air is sweet and green things grow. I think she’s a little disappointed in us.

We don’t want to disappoint her. So we take her and the others on a tour for the next three weeks, them coming down to meet us at the Wavelength late in the evening and us taking them other places, other bars and private rooms and stores. Kitty likes me, then she likes King. He calls her Flika. I look it up; it’s part of an old show about a dolphin. I don’t tell her. She likes Maho, she likes Humbert. Maho and King fight once, words (King wins) and fists (Maho wins) and Kitty, she laughs and laughs and takes Humbert into the other room. King and Maho get drunk. We hear Humbert call her Pixie Queen, and we hear her silver laugh. I take Mel up onto the roof, and we lie back and look at the city lights. She tells me she’s seen stars before, on a sailing trip. I’m not sure I believe they exist.

Kitty owns us all. We’re her pets. In two weeks she spins us around. We party for her, dance for her, fight for her, do everything for her. She’s our little queen on tiny spike heels, grinding herself into our slum and making the dirt look like platinum. We live for her. Then we kill her.

Not really. She’s not dead. Might as well be, though. And it’s not on purpose. It’s an accident. It’s not even our fault, not really.

It’s all our fault. It’s her fault. It’s her parent’s fault. Who the fuck lets their kids run around with folks like us? Who lets their kids come down and do all the stims and slows and trips and drinking, then lets them come back again and again? But we should have known we weren’t enough for her, the way she got us into fights, the way she flirted with the worst stuff she could find. We tried to say it was the cat in her, but it wasn’t. It was just her, and we should have known.

The bazar comes through every month or so. It takes over a street, runs for miles and miles. It sets up as soon as the streetlights come on and breaks down before the sun comes up, and all night long everyone comes to pay for what they need. The lights are sparkling, the merchandise is shiny, the sellers are carnival barkers, hawking their wares in sing-song voices. Rainbows shimmer off the puddles and it smells like rotting garbage and ozone. Old tech and experimental stuff and broken stuff and illegal stuff, pieces and parts and things you can’t identify. Some of the tech needs to be fed on blood, some of it shits diamonds. I don’t know what half of it does, but we took Kitty-girl there because we were loosing her and we knew it, knew we had to up the ante, had to bring her new dark things to explore or she’d leave us for someone worse. And we didn’t want her to leave, not even when she crawled out of Maho’s bed instead of King’s, or when we caught her naked in Humbert’s room and he refused to say what they’d been doing. She had us all wrapped around her little claws.

She left us, all right. Her crew, her friends – they left first, going back uptown, not showing up the next day. Mel was the last; she stuck it out the longest, kept trying to keep her friend out of trouble. But in the end she didn’t show, and that night was the first night Kitty had us all to herself, and we were drunk with it. With her attention, her flickering laughter, the way she tipped her head down and looked at us from under her eyelashes. She had lavender hair that last night, with pink bits. She’d done her nails and lips pink too. I remember that.

She was dancing in the room we shared, in the living room on the table. It had a glass top, and Humbert was lying underneath it, looking up at her with rapture on his face. King was sitting in the recliner smoking and watching, and I was getting some coffee. I’d stopped drinking for a little bit, trying something new, trying being sober. Mostly. There was whisky in the coffee, but no drugs. Maho was lying on the sofa pretending to be asleep. I don’t remember who mentioned the bazar. It wasn’t me. It couldn’t have been me. Maybe it was Humbert. Someone said it, though. “It’s bazar night.” And she perked up and looked at us, her eyes bright and her skin so pale and King told her about it in his rich voice that could sell hawks to mice, and I had a feeling. Just a little feeling down at the bottom of my spine that this was bad. But I shut it up because she was wearing my jacket and a tutu and tall black boots, and she looked at me like she was excited and like I was the only one who could say yes or no. And I could never say no to her. So we went.

When I saw her face when she saw the bazar it was like Christmas. She clapped her hands and bounced in place and laughed, as though we’d rolled the bazar out just for her like a magic red carpet. It was beautiful, then, and I smiled and thought, it’ll be ok. We’re here, we won’t let anything hurt her. And we wouldn’t. That night we were her escorts, her knights, her bodyguards and slaves. We picked her up so she could see into the blacked-out tanks of custom jellyfish, we kept people from bumping her in the crowded street, we bought her drinks that sparked and sticks of meat that sang softly as she ate them. We poked through buckets and boxes of old hard drives, ribbon cable, enhanced neural network implants, batteries that chattered to each other in clicks and snaps, lobster that mournfully computer pi to a hundred thousand places while they ate their own tails. We looked, and walked slowly down the strip, and then we met Alan.

He had the most magnificent mustache, I remember. His eyes were black and gleaming, and he wore a striped robe. His stall was a pale yellow tent with grimy edges, and everything was a dozen years old. There were bottles, and tubes, and little LCD screens, and he had an old dentist’s chair sitting there with a mini MRI in a box next to it. Kitty girl, she was paying attention to Humbert, so when he poked a collection of junk and asked what it was, she heard Alan answer.

It was a time machine. Broken, of course. Not a literal time machine; this one took you to places that had never been, dreams that had never existed. It took you back and forwards,high and low, out and then back in; and as Alan spoke I could see the excitement in her eyes, and feel the dread in my stomach.

I tried to distract her. I pointed out the stall just down from us, where they were growing glowing moss and real fairies in terrariums. But she was uptown, rich, and they’d probably had and thrown out a dozen nicer pets than the cheap knock-offs we had down here. She listened to Alan, and she got a look in her eyes, and she decided she wanted it. And nothing would do but for her to get it right then.

Even the fact that she’d have to shave half her head didn’t dissuade her. She sat in the chair while Alan shaved her head, and we stood there blocking anyone else from coming near his shop but he didn’t care – she’d paid him an insane amount right then and there, and we had nothing that would compete. It was fast, what he did, his hands flying. He put on white gloves and swabbed her scalp and used the laser cutter, so there wasn’t even any blood, switched on the miniMRI and moved his hands with expert care as he popped the tubes in slid the casing over her ear. The status screen he just dropped there, and it slid its legs down into her scalp and snuggled itself down and I felt my stomach turn like I was gonna puke. So I looked away, shut for a sec, and that was when he switched it on and she screamed.

Just once. Then it was a moan, and we all knew that moan, but it was deeper and longer and it trailed off in a sigh. Her eyes went wide then slid shut, and she slumped there in the chair, and for a second I thought she was dead.

Humbert went nuts. He had Alan up against the side of the tent screaming at him, what did he do, how did he undo it; Maho had a knife out, King was moving over to her but I beat him to it. I checked her throat and yeah, there was a pulse. And her eyes were moving behind the lids. King saw me and then he turned, grabbed Humbert and picked him up off the ground. Shook him, told him Kitty was fine.

It was a lie. We did everything we could to wake her up, but she just lay there. Alan said it was how it was supposed to go, that it was perfectly normal; but he looked a little nervous, and we smelled it. When we asked when she’d wake up he dodged. Then he called bazar security on us, and they came to escort us away. Bazar security is nothing to sneeze at; they wear robes over bodies that don’t move like humans, and they’re twice the size of any of us. Maho wanted to try and cut one open. He said it right there in front of them, his eyes wide and shining with unshed tears and rage and fear. King talked to him, took his arm, walked him. I carried Kitty in my arms, and Humbert followed along practically on my heels, his eyes never leaving her face.

The guards left us at the edge of the bazar, and stood there; they weren’t go gin to let us back in. So we brought her back to the room and lay her on the couch and tried to figure out what to do. None of the hospitals we could get to would be a damn bit of good; they specialized in abortions and overdoses. This might conceivably be an overdose, but we agreed it wasn’t one the hospital could help with. Sometime around then Maho vanished; he grabbed his stuff, put it in a bag and left. King watched, and stayed until dawn, but when the sun came up he took off too. Only Humbert and I remained. Humbert, he spent the whole night crouched by her side, eyes on her face, tears running down his cheeks. He wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t leave her side. I hadn’t realized how much he loved her. So I was the one who called Mel.

She came down on her own, took one look at Kitty and called Kitty’s mom. Mel was looking different than when she’d come for a party. Now she wore a nice skirt that decently covered her knees, a blouse that had more than two buttons, and a jacket. Her shoes had never touched anything quite as nasty as our carpet and her hair was straight and dark. I barely recognized her.

Kitty’s mom came down in a dark silver car that didn’t have a spot on it. It moves quietly instead of rattling and didn’t seem to care what it crushed, it never changed the smooth ride. I watched it from the window. Her mom came out the same as the car: smooth, silver, elegant, crushing everything before her. She took one look around the room. Mel bowed. I stayed by the window. Medics trailed her like pets, then swarmed Kitty’s still body, hooking up more tubes, waving more wands, muttering in a strange language.

And then they were gone. When they picked Kitty up Humbert wailed like a broken thing; Kitty’s mother waved a hand and amebic touched Humbert, and he collapsed blank-eyed on the ground. I moved then but Mel stood in front of me, bowing, and I couldn’t punch her, and then the whole crew was gone. I went around Mel but they were really gone; down the stairs and out the door, and no way I could catch them. When I got back up, Mel was gone too, and only Humbert remained on the floor of our room.

Two days later he was gone too and I was the only one there; a month later, I left, and I haven’t been back since. Someone else must live there now.

I called Mel. She didn’t take my calls at first. She was mad at us, at me. But I left messages and messages, and finally she left me a text telling me where Kitty was. In a sanitarium in the upside. So I went to visit.

She’s not the same. The first time I saw her after, when I walked up to the pale sandstone building across the rubber-coated driveway and checked in at the heavy wooden desk, after they walked me down the elegant corridor and into the room with the mint-green walls and the beeping life support machine and saw her wearing the straightjacket, it was almost like seeing a different person. The color was nearly out of her hair. It was silvery-white, like an old woman’s, but showing something darker at the roots. The ends still had a little pink on them. Her makeup was still there, smudged and dark, making her eyes look bruised. Or maybe that wasn’t makeup. Her eyes were still brown, but she didn’t see me, and she didn’t talk. She smiled a little, and bit her lip like she was seeing something that she wanted to touch. She twitched a little in the straightjacket. Then she shifted, eyes wide, and she was someplace else.

It’s like looking at reflections on a puddle of water, looking at her face. Watching the expressions change, hearing her make little noises. Like the weather, or city traffic seen from the roof of a tall building. It moves and it doesn’t care about you at all.

I tell her hello, and I tell her what I’m doing, and sometimes I get to tell her I saw Humbert wearing a business suit and working as a manager at a club, or King dressed in carnival colors standing in front of an audience, selling them Othello. Once I had to tell her about Maho’s corpse and the gang fight, and how his liver was in some kid and his heart was keeping an 80-year-old pensioner alive a little longer. I told her about my job as a courier, how I got to see all sorts of people and places. I tell her I cary a gun and how I’m working my way up, getting trusted.

She never wakes up. She opens her eyes, and moves, but it’s got nothing to do with where she is. She giggles and laughs and sometimes she says stuff, slurred stuff, but her eyes don’t focus and there’s no scratch in her claws. They keep the stuff in her head from getting infected and they keep her fed and they clean her up, and her mother never comes to visit. I went to her house, once, jumped the fence and snuck up to look in the windows. It cost me a kidney to get the tech to do it but I did. Her mom has a new kid, a little boy who looks like he has no cat at all in him at all; beagle, and maybe some black bear, but nothing fierce and wild.

She was always gonna leave us. Sometimes I think taking her to the bazar was the best thing I ever did, sometimes I think it was the worst. How can you know? At least she’s still alive, in a way. If it wasn’t the bazar it would have been something else. She was going down, as far as she could go, and if she’s caught up in a net now maybe it’s for the best, right? She might even be happy. And maybe they’ll find a cure for her in a few years, and she’ll wake up and look at us and see us.

I can believe any lie I want to, dammit.

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LittleD

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House of the Dead: Gatekeeper’s Son

Martin stood in the doorway. Behind him was darkness, before him the late afternoon and his father on their only horse, riding off without looking back. He still wore the black. Despite the rich light, the flickering shadows cast by the dancing tree leaves, the birdsong – despite these summery joyous things Martin felt as though the world were like a bit of seaweed on the shore, limp and dark and full of potential danger. He turned his back to the sunshine and looked into the living room. Aunt Maureen stood beside him, hands at her sides, squinting after her brother. She looked down at him, shadows from the sun making her eyes unreadable. Her fingers lifted, brushed his hair, dropped. “Just us now, little gatekeeper. Just us for a little while.” She turned and stepped back inside.

 

They left the door open to let light and air into the house. The windows and doors remained open all summer, letting the air through. Despite the occasional drunken bumblebee’s foray onto the landing or spider’s proprietary interest in their corners, it was worth it. The house of the dead was a welcoming place, with white walls and no dust bunnies, all the rugs beaten regularly and all the halls swept. There would be no musty smell here, his mother had used to say.

 

Martin found himself thinking of her idly as he stepped back inside. There wasn’t really anything else to do. Being gatekeeper wasn’t a heavy job, not physically. You made sure the doors were open when they needed to be, from dusk to dawn. You kept the house. You guarded the passage and made sure nobody teased it or crossed it unnecessarily. Martin would be staying awake nights, now, and sleeping days; he’d be walking the house with the small stout cudgel, and oiling the guns. He knew how to take them apart and put them back together and could shoot an apple off a fencepost while singing the Whisky Beer and Wine song, at full volume, with his grandmother clapping along.

 

His mother had worried a bit about the guns, he thought. He couldn’t be sure anymore, not since she was gone onwards, but from the vantage of twelve he could see that she’d been tense those times when he was sitting there with his father, oily rags strewn about and the smell of the grease and spent gunpowder seeping into their fingers while they scrubbed everything with a little brush and bits of old rags. He still couldn’t work the press to put the powder into the bullets, but his father had handed him the keys to the lock and shown him the already-made supply. There was more than enough to hold off a small invasion. Enough to kill half the own, if he didn’t waste any bullets. Martin felt a little dizzy and ill at the thought.

 

Almost nobody else had guns, not in this town. Out in the wilds everyone had them, and in some of the rougher towns they were common, but this little fishing village not a day’s ride from the district capital? There were no wolves here, just the black foxes; there were no great bears in these woods, just little nut-brown smallbears who’d rather strip the berry bushes and bolt up a tree than try and take on a person. Even their criminals tended towards the sort who stole a ribbon from a market stall for a girl they knew, or smuggled kegs of illegal plonk from up the coast where they brewed it stronger and cheaper (and without the same taxes) than down here. The gatekeeper was the exception, and now Martin was the gatekeeper.

 

He walked slowly to his room and lay face-first on the bed, burying his nose in the pillow. He spent a good half-hour feeling sorry for himself, and crying; then he spent another half hour planning. And then he was done. The sun had slipped down, dropping a beam in through the window and made a warm spot on his leg. He sat up and looked down at where the black trouser was in the light, little dust-motes dancing clear against the dark background. Then he got up and checked the watch.

 

It was summer, and the sun wouldn’t be down for hours yet. Plenty of time to go into town, deliver the letters to the folks who’d need them, and get some books from the library; he’d be awake all night, every night until his father got home. You could only walk around so much. Some whittled, some knitted; Martin had every intention of keeping up his studies. What was better still was that he could, more or less, study whatever he wanted at his own pace instead of sticking to what the teacher gave them. He was sure to miss some things, but no matter – he could always catch up later. The important thing was, he now had hours and hours and hours of free time to read.

 

He got up and tromped downstairs. His aunt, sitting by the window with her fingers full of yarn, looked over at him. “Tackling the town?” she asked, a faint crease between her eyebrows, and Martin stopped and had some second thoughts. But the letters had to go, and while he was going into town he might as well make one trip of it; after a moment he sighed and nodded. She nodded back slowly, and stood, letting the yard-knots fall from her fingers. When they slid free they seemed to disentangle until they lay neatly in one loop on the sideboard. She lifted his father’s black bag from the floor by her feet and handed it to him. When he took it, it was far heavier than he expected; it felt full. Startled, he almost dropped it. They both looked at it curiously, and then at each other; with a conspiratorial look, Aunt Maureen took it back from him and they headed for the kitchen table.

 

Inside were two books bound in dark leather – one was a log book of the tides, the other was a book of mathematics far enough advanced that Martin’s eyes nearly crossed at the tiny symbols. Not his level, that; he set those aside carefully. A small pewter flask was determined to contain rough grain spirits, of the sort no-one would drink but which were useful for soothing bug bites and disinfecting scratches; a small pot of herbal ointment which stank of fairy-spear and sharpgrass, a smell Martin had always associated with his father. For keeping the bugs away at night, Aunt Maureen said, and set it aside. There was a flat brass astrolabe, which they agreed they’d seen around but not recently; there was a case which turned out to contain white chalk, and another which contained several neatly trimmed sticks of charcoal. There was a wood-framed light grey piece of slate which looked to have been scrubbed more than once, useful with both the white chalk and the black charcoal. There was a small collapsable telescope of polished brass which Martin had never seen before but which Aunt Maureen swore once belonged to their grandfather’s father. There was a small packet of beef jerky. And tucked into a side pocket so small they nearly missed it was a small painted miniature of Martin’s mother.

 

In the end he took out everything except the picture and stacked it neatly on the sideboard; he slung the empty bag over his shoulder, tucked the three letters into the side pocket. Grabbing the broad-billed black hat from the stand by the door, he stepped out onto the road. He felt nothing like himself. He had a job, and it was important, and the world looked different. The world was measured by the sun, now, and told to him by the silver watch. He could hear the ticking whenever he listened for it.

 

For a few steps, coming off the porch he felt odd, disjointed, self-conscious. The watch thumped against his breastbone with every step he took, a muffled noise that kept rhythm with his footfalls, like a second heartbeat. He jammed the hat down onto his head and walked slowly. Fifteen minutes there, twenty to deliver the letters, half an hour to get the books, twenty back, and still two hours for dinner before he’d have to check the rooms and open the doors and Aunt Maureen would take her post. The walk went faster than he wanted, and before he was ready the town was there before him, sloping up to the bluffs on his left and down to the harbor on his right.

 

He wondered, before he got to the houses, if he would stop or freeze up or be laughed at. When he got there he found out that he could keep going, head up but hat brim down, black clothing and silver watch like armor, and walk through the town. No-one laughed. At first he kept his eyes down, staring at the grey cobbles. They were square, and old, and had rounded edges. He wondered if they had started out with rounded edges, or if years and years of horse-hooves and cart-wheels had broken the edge-bits off, making them smooth, like beach-stones? After a bit he raised his eyes up. He couldn’t see much from under the brim of the hat, but that was ok; it gave him a comforting sense that they couldn’t see his face either. Even though he could hear the shocked silence and mutters as he passed a few folks on their way home from their day, it felt curiously elsewhere, and he was untouchable. The silver watch ticked, and he listened. He heard “small!” and “son” more than once; they didn’t matter. He stumped along.

 

The first letter went to the gravedigger. His name was Paul, and the letter was written in simple block script, sealed with an impression of the watch. The wax had been white, but the silver left it grey, as though tarnish had rubbed off in the impression. There was no tarnish on the watch, though, that Martin knew very well. When he knocked on Paul’s door Paul was still asleep; he kept night hours too. He opened the door with his eyes half-squintched, blonde hair mussed and sleeping shirt untucked. He had massive, muscular arms and a massive muscular chest, and the expression on his face could never be called anything but slow. He blinked blearily down at Martin, then blinked again, then made a “huh” noise. He took the letter, looked at it blankly, then looked at Martin.

 

“This tell me your da’s gone and you’re gatekeeper?” he asked, and Martin nodded, startled. Paul nodded back, more decisively. “Aw’right, then. You take care now, and come ask if you has any problems.” Paul held out his hand, and after a moment Martin shook it; then Paul was closing the door and Martin was standing there. He blinked a bit, then shrugged and go moving. It wasn’t like he had any reason to stay and chit-chat, anyways.

 

The second letter went to the messenger service to be carried to the district capital, Meridian. They were a day’s ride south, a massive port city bustling with trade and foreigners and who knew what else; they were the destination for all the fish caught and all the furs trapped and all the spare grain their little village produced, and a source of endless low-key mockery to the village folks for their airs, graces, and crowds. He stood in front of the message desk, face blank, while the message officer peered at him for what felt like ages before shrugging and taking his letter. The message officer ran his finger over the seal, and nodded, and Martin stood for a long moment before he realized that that was all; it was done. Then he turned and stumped out.

 

The third letter went to the office of the mayor. By the time he got there the sun was behind the tallest of the buildings, and the cobbles of the road were cast in blue shadows. The mayor himself was gone for the day, but his secretary was there; the thin man was just locking up the office when Martin appeared at his elbow, all in black, pale little face and black eyes making the man jump. He laughed and put one hand over his heart, and opened his mouth to say how Martin had scared a year of his life away; then he saw the silver watch, and only managed a strangled noise. Martin handed him the letter and left him gawping. There was still the library to get to.

 

The library was attached to the school; there was a connecting hallway along one side, but they were really two separate buildings which shared a wall. The librarian and the schoolmaster didn’t always get along; the schoolmaster felt the library was there for the school, and was constantly trying to dictate that the book funds should be spent on schoolbooks. The librarian felt the library was for the town, and refused. It had nearly come to blows in a few times in the town meetings. What swung the decision in favor of the librarian were the three hundred years of precedent in place throughout the duchies, and the fact that he purchased plenty of the farces the mayor’s wife liked to read.

 

Martin was firmly on the librarian’s side. When he dreamt before he slept, sometimes, lying in his bed with his eyes closed, he thought how nice it would be to be a librarian. To order the books, and put them in order, and read and read and read. He never could; he’d be a gatekeeper; but it made a nice fairy-tale. The librarian had a soft spot for him in return for all his reading, and would make sure to set aside the stories MArtin liked, and suggest others he might want to try.

 

The librarian looked up and saw Martin in the doorway, the broad brim of the hat making his silhouette look like a squashed city official. Then Martin took the hat off and stepped inside, blinking in the gloom, and the librarian recognized him. He took in the clothes and the watch, and a shocked “Oh my” slipped out before he could stop it. Then he stood and came over, and half-knelt so they were on the same level. “Mar – Gatekeep Martin, whatever has happened?” His distress was evident. Martin blinked at him. The librarian had never shown any real feeling over anything but the books. It took Martin a long, confused moment to work out that the librarian was worried something had happened to Martin’s father. Martin reassured him, with some relief himself, and wondered then what everyone else thought of his sudden appearance. It hadn’t occurred to him that people would assume Martin’s father was dead, or injured; although the truth was bad enough, he merely said his father was away on gatekeeper business.

 

The librarian’s relief was evident. Martin smiled. It was nice to know his father was liked here; he hadn’t realized that his father and the librarian had known one another, but he supposed it made sense. He browsed the shelves of books, taking some tales of the far-off lands down; there was a new book on the northerners, and a classic he loved written by the captain of a ship that traded with the far islands. But gradually he moved to books he’d never considered before: books on the seasons, and the movements of the sun and stars, and a book about sailing that discussed the wind. He wasn’t sure why, but they seemed connected to him, and maybe – for the first time – a little interesting. The librarian’s eyebrows climbed when he set them down on the desk, but he nodded. “Appropriate things for a gatekeeper,” he said, and when Martin asked why he shrugged. “Unseen things,” was all he’d say, and Martin wondered again about someone who lived in a house crammed so full of things to know.

 

The sun was low in the sky, casting the buildings as long black shadows that extended from their low black outlines. They seemed a city made from darkness built on the solid stone of reality; for a moment Martin thought of the dark world on the other side of the door, and wondered if the souls of the dead lived in a city made form shadows of the real world. Then she shrugged and put on his hat. The sun was low but it was still enough to get in his eyes and make him trip going down the stairs, if he wasn’t careful. He had no desire to start his first day looking undignified, books and bag and hat and watch scattered at the feet of the library.

 

He was halfway down the steps when someone came running up, panting and tall. Martin squinted up when the person stopped in front of him, blocking the light. He couldn’t see who it was until they leant over, resting their hands on their knees, and peered rudely under Martin’s hat.

 

“Mayor?” he asked, in surprise. The man was definitely the mayor, even if his jacket was a little askew and his head was bare. He stared at the watch on Martin’s chest instead of at his face, and Martin began to get annoyed and a little frightened. Eventually, at last, he lifted his head and looked at Martin; when he could see the Mayor’s expression he began to get really worried.

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Living In The House of the Dead

Here’s the thing about growing up in the house of death: you grow up strange. You don’t wear the Right clothes, you don’t go the the Right functions, you don’t place importance on the Right things. How can you? How can the proper seamstress, the fashionable park, be important when the parted  souls stream towards your house every night from hundreds of miles around, drawn like moths to the warm glow of the light you hang by your door? When your grandmother sits, rocking gently in the creaking old chair on the front porch, taking down their names and any last words in her crabbed old handwriting on the notepad by that same light? When you sweep the grave-dust from the steps in the cool morning air, and watch the sun come up, and the ravens greet you courteously as they pass – how then can it seem important to ensure that your shoes have the Right number of hooks and loops?  


 

Martin is twelve when Grandmother finally dies. They’ve known for ages now, in the house of death. They know everything about death here – when, and how, and who, and why. Grandmother has known for nearly a year that her time was coming up; earlier in the week she told her son, cook me a lamb roast on the mid-week, boy, and everyone understood. Her last meal was her favorite; she never ate it anymore because the rich greasy meat disagreed with her digestion. At the end it was the time for an indulgence, though, so they sent Martin down to the butcher’s in the morning. The butcher laughed and asked what the celebration was; Grandmother’s dying tonight, Martin said factually, and the butcher paled and signed against luck, and gave him the leg for half the cost. 

 


 

They all dressed formally in fashions long since gone, that night; the elegance of the dead house was impecable when the circumstances demanded it. They sat to a feast by candlelight, with grandmother at the head of the table, her pink scalp shining through in the candlelight but her eyes sparkling at the sight of such a lovely dinner. The lamb roast sat center stage on an ancient silver platter, covered in garlic and rosemary and salt; peas with mint in a porcelain bowl, chopped boiled potatoes with butter and cream. They passed the food and talked and replayed old memories of grandmother, and held hands, and cried a little, and grandmother sat and ate a few bites of the lamb with a blissful expression on her face. After, they sat in the living room and she told them stories of her childhood, of her parents and the death house and the town. 

 


 

And when the time came she closed her eyes, and Martin lit the lamp because she was the oldest and he was the youngest, and she stood up out of her body and smiled at them. She patted Martin on the head gently in passing. She was tall and straight and beautiful, nothing like her old crooked fat little body now lying slumped and slack-jawed on the couch. Martin hadn’t known she had such thick dark hair. She looked a bit like his father, with a strong proud nose and a firm chin. And she had nothing to say to them, so Aunt Maureen, in her careful script, wrote Grandma’s full name down in the little notebook, and then they all stood and watched her pass down the stairs into the dark cellar. 

 


 

There were two doors the dead took, once they came into the house: straight up to the attic or straight down to the cellar. Martin had asked, as they all asked at least once, what the difference was; and his father had shrugged and said, I don’t know, boy. None of us do. In some dead houses where there was no cellar and no attic, the dead would go to the kitchen door, or the bedroom; in the oldest villages where the dead house was just one room, the dead went to the chimney and the window. It was always two, and you could never tell from the life the person had lead which one they’d choose. They never seemed uncertain, though, they never questioned or dithered over which was which, and they never seemed sad; just patient, anticipating, and already very far away – as though once they’d said their name and what they had to say, all their attention was on something else. Martin’s grandmother was no exception. Her form vanished into the darkness of the cellar without a trace. No-one in the dead house went into the attic or the cellar at night. They just opened the doors, and lit the lantern, and let the dead do what they would. 

 

When she was gone they sent Martin to hang the lantern on the porch as usual, and Aunt Maureen to sit in the rocking chair and take the ghost’s names. There were a couple early birds waiting by the door, but they were patient. Everyone would be seen before dawn. That was how it worked. Then Martin came back in and helped his father with the body, and they carefully wrapped her in old white sheets and put her on a plank and laid her out in the kitchen. Martin, in the dark with a normal lantern, was sent jogging down the dirt track to the village to let the burial man know. He was a young man, new to the job and so not as strange as he would grow to be with age; handling the bodies was apt to make one just as weird as handling the souls, Martin’s father had said of the old burial man when Martin complained he was alarming.

 


 

The next day was a rest day, which was a misnomer because they spent half the day cleaning the house and doing chores. The other half was the best, though, and Martin wished that lazy afternoon would last forever; for the day after was school. Martin hated school. Not learning; he adored learning. If he could have spent all his time in the library reading he would have, and never interacted with another person his own age. Books were the words of the dead preserved for all time. They were familiar, kind, and never bullied or ignored him; they were always there. Martin’s father would not allow him to remain home, though, and insisted that a part of school was learning to deal with those called his peers. Martin called them other names, if only in his head. Martin’s father would not tolerate insolence to anyone.  

 


 

Squiddy was the only one in school that Martin could get along with. Squiddy was the third son of a fishing boat captain. His father was, variously, a privateer, a spy, a rum-runner and a respectable businessman; sometimes he was lead actor in the local theatre guild, sometimes he was sought after by the captain’s guild for owing too many months of back-dues. Sometimes he was in the far reaches of the sea, bringing back odd and colorful things. Squiddy lived in a ramshackle old house on the point of the coast filled with madness. He had four sisters and a younger brother, bringing the total of living children to eight; Martin knew, but never spoke, of the three infants who had passed his door from Squiddy’s house. The family who lived in the house of the dead never spoke of the dead where it was not welcome. 

 


 

That day was fine and sunny but not hot, with a wild wind that made the schoolhouse eaves mourn and the leaves dance. It was a poor day to be in a classroom gazing out the window at the blustery celebration, tall grass shaking it’s head in the field, clouds chasing their tails across the sky. Martin scowled out at the shifting sun, thinking on a day like this he should be running up the slopes past Squiddy’s house to the open fields high above the ocean cliffs, trailing a kite that the wind would steal up until it was barely a dot in the sky. He should be lying back on a red and black checked blanket with moth-holes smelling of camphor wood, eating a piece of hard white cheese that would crumble in his fingers and leave crumbs on his shirt, and soft brown bread with molasses… the sharp sting of the teacher’s ruler recalled him to the classroom, and the splintery edge of the seat under his right thigh where it had broken years ago, and the snickering of the other students. He scowled deeper, and hung his head so his bangs would cover his face. Soon his aunt would insist on cutting them to match the other boys. Of the children here, only Squiddy and one his brothers had longer hair, and they were all as curly as sheep; they tied it back with bright ribbons like girls, and laughed about the teasing jokes. Squiddy didn’t care what other people thought. Martin envied him that. 

 


 

The day passed slowly until noon; then a shadow in the schoolroom doorway, and Marin sat up suddenly from his slump. It was his father, tall and wearing sombre clothing. He was the only one in the family who wore the traditional garb; he was the only one required to, for he was the gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper was supposed to be serious business, always. Martin would someday be gatekeeper. He would be expected to dress in the same sort of black shirt and trousers, to wear the black boots and keep the silver studs covered in black enamel so that no light ever gleamed from them, to wear nothing that shone except the silver watch – and that must gleam like the moon, so that all who saw it would know that time was passing. The gatekeeper, whenever anyone asked, must tell them the time. The watch never left him, not at night, not in the bath, not with a woman or if he fell down a cliff. Martin both envied and dreaded his father’s watch. 

 


 

His father caught his eye and jerked his head; Martin stood immediately and grabbed his books. The teacher rose and opened his mouth to protest, but caught sight of Martin’s father’s profile and swallowed. Martin felt a moment of disgust. His father was gatekeeper, not Death itself; but people always treated him with a sort of fearful contempt, as though death had rubbed off on him. As though he smelled like corpses and piss instead of lamp-oil and cloves. He dropped his head and walked from the classroom, only shooting Squiddy a glance – Squiddy had his eyebrows up, and mouthed something at Martin, but he couldn’t catch what it was and didn’t dare stop to ask.   

 


 

Martin’s father was silent all the way out of town, as they walked in the sun through the town’s cobbled streets. The wind up from the sea tried to snatch Martin’s hair off his head. It was strange to be out and about on a weekday, instead of locked up in the school; there were people out running errands, people out by the market stalls buying and selling, people stretching nets from frames in the mending square, the whiff of salted drying fish left behind as they passed the last house before the track to the dead house. Martin didn’t ask, all the way out; it wasn’t wise to talk in front of those who didn’t serve, as they might misunderstand. Misunderstandings were common enough without fueling them by idle chatter, grandmother had said. 

 


 

“The cellar door is burnt open,” said Martin’s father without preamble when they got to the turn-off to their stretch of dirt track. Martin stared up, squinting against the bright sun that cast his father’s face into silhouette. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. Had the kitchen caught fire? But then the house would be burnt down… how could just the door burn? His mind constructed scenarios involving the wind and an ember from the fire, somehow turning the corner without catching the rug and embedding itself in the cellar door… his father spoke again. He seemed upset, and that was something Martin had never, ever seen. “Something came out and ran off, and I’ve got to go looking for it. It’s dangerous for things like this to happen. We can’t have them out and about.” Unsaid, but appended to the tail end of the statement anyways, was the family motto: There are rules and reasons for everything. 

 


 

Martin was shocked cold. He stumbled to a halt. His father, turning, rested his large hard hand on Martin’s shoulder in comfort; but it wasn’t much comfort at all. The gatekeeper kept the gates, and held the watch. Neither gatekeeper nor watch could ever leave their post, not alive. It was a rule. It was inviolate. His father could not leave. His eyes were drawn to the silver watch, that shone coldly even in the golden afternoon. He swallowed. 

 


 

“Martin,” his father said, then hesitated. That was something else he never did. cold light from the watch slid into Martin’s eyes, making his brain sluggish and muddled. The words his father spoke next, though, shattered the cold:  “Martin, we need to dig up some blacks for you from the attic. There’s no time to call up a spare from another district… I’ll send a message, and someone should come, but there’s no telling how long it could take. And I can’t wait, not on this. You’ll need to keep the watch.”  

 


 

Keep the watch? Wear the black? His mind reeled. He’d known, of course, that he’d wear them… someday. Some time in the future, when he was tall and hard and his father was old and silver, his father would tell him to get some blacks from a trunk in the attic, and he’d know it was time, and they’d have dinner like with grandma…. some time decades into the future, when he’d had a life and been to the city and maybe beyond. Not now. Not like this. But now, today, in the sun with the wind that made the birds struggle to fly in place and sent the grass flat on the hilltops and far off rumbles of thunder… now, today, he was walking up the steps to the porch, and up the steps to the attic where he sneezed violently from the dust, and opening one of the old trunks that sat there. The attic was full to the brim with stuff. Old stuff, mostly; the history of the town, the history of the house, the history of the family. Things brought from other houses stored up here until someone came to claim them, clothes from family members long gone, all smelling of age and dry heat and camphor. And the chests of black. Blacks in all sizes and styles. Black dresses, black boots, black cloaks and shirts and vests; black hats and socks and scarves, and stranger robes that covered the face completely. It took them close to an hour to piece together a suitable outfit, Martin stripping down to his skivvies in the attic, standing barefoot on the boards. He was relieved to learn that his underthings didn’t need to be black; but they must never ever show, his father said, and Martin nodded his head. 

 

 

 

Then downstairs, and wearing the itchy camphor-smelling clothing (he’d wanted to smell camphor today, but not like this) standing in front of the lantern his father took off the watch-chain and clipped it to Martin’s breast pocket. Martin felt the weight of it fall on his chest and it felt like a weight directly on his heart. His father looked strangely naked, and smaller, standing there without his watch. Martin felt sick. 

 



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Instincts

Meow, said the cat, eyeing the sparrow on the patio railing with intent eyes.

Oh, stuff it, the sparrow replied. You’re alone, don’t be an ass.

Well, fine. I was just staying in character. The cat twitched his whiskers, turned his head and took an offended lick at his shoulder before sitting upright, tail curled neatly around his front paws. Now, what’s so important?

Molly’s gone missing, the agitated sparrow replied. Can’t find her anywhere. Her homing beacon is completely silent.

The cat couldn’t frown, but he went very still. That’s not good, he replied. Her beacon should be able to withstand anything.

Tell me something I don’t know! the sparrow cried out. His feathers fluttered in the breeze.

Calm yourself, the cat said sternly. The sparrow crouched, head down in shame. Notify the others, fly a pattern looking for unusual activity – both human and other. Anything that could destroy her or block her signal. And we have to prepare for the possibility that we’ve been discovered.

The sparrow straightened. Gods. I didn’t want to, but you’re –

Now, sparrow.

Ok. You’re right. I’m off.

Sparrow took off into the sky, wings flickering against the sunlight. Cat sat perfectly still for a long moment, eyes half-closed, composing both himself and a message to be burst-transmit. After a long moment, he sighed and stood. He stretched and walked slowly down the stairs.

He stood for a long moment at the base of the stairs, looking down into the living room, before walking slowly over to the couch and hoping up onto the cushion next to the jeans-clad leg. A small hand came down and idly rubbed the fur on his head; he began to purr softy. He curled himself delicately into a donut, head resting against the warm leg, and settled in for a nap.

Jen laughed softly and looked up at her fiance with a fond smile. “He’s such a little lap cat. Look at this! Not five minutes and he’s here, snoozing.”

Bob glanced over and snorted. “He’s useless, Jen. This place could be infested with mice and he’d never do a thing.”

She put on an affronted face. “I’ll have you know, just the other day he caught a bird. I found feathers everywhere on the front step!”

Bob blinked. “Seriously? That fat old thing? How on earth did he do it, anti-gravity? I swear he gets heavier every time he steps on me. No way he’s jumping up and grabbing a bird out of the sky.”

“No clue,” Jen admitted. “But he did it.”

“It was probably injured and on the ground, and he just dragged it over to you,” Bob said before turning back to his book. Jen eyed him with disfavor, then bent her head to mutter to the cat.

“You just ignore him, he’s being a mean old grump. I know you’re a fierce warrior at heart.” Her fingers found the sweet spot behind his ear, and the old cat’s purr stepped up to a deep rumble of pleasure. And deep in his belly, the tiny bird’s transponder gave one last pulse and failed.

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