Even photons feel gravity. Light bears you down one massless particle at a time.
In the Before, news was printed on paper. I assemble a lantern of forgotten warnings, fasten my candle inside. It rises against the weight of probability.
[Oh hey there. I don’t usually do guest posts but the fabulous Robin Quackenbush had nowhere to stash this, and rose to this week’s challenge so what could I do? With no further A-do…]
I was eating my pixie stick when it happened. All ready to take flight, I just needed to finish the last granules in the pink and white swirled paper straw. My wings glittered like stardust. I even wore a long floaty dress so I’d look pretty when I finally decided to glide gently to the ground, far, far from here. I tipped my head way back and tapped on the side of the tube.
My brother yelled it from the kitchen, and I looked just in time to see a mostly full gallon of milk sailing through the air at my head. I dropped the straw. The sparkly sugar-sand, my last chance at escape, scattered across the floor. The jug crashed into me, the side split wide, and I got doused with milk.
“OGRE!” I screamed.
My mother ran around the corner, just as my brother disappeared down the steps to the dungeon. “What did you DO?” Her eyes were red as I’ve ever seen them. I must have been adopted. Her scaly, warty skin looked nothing like mine. That thought I had real parents somewhere, that missed me and loved me and looked like me, was the only thing that kept me going at times. “Go down to the basement and get the mop. And rinse yourself off.”
She was still grumbling, complaining about tight budgets and how expensive dragon milk had become as I went down the steps. My brother was waiting for me. “That was for last week,” he said. “The remote control.” How could he even remember that? But then I thought back to it. He said he wanted it, and I said no, and his eyes started glowing. He towered over me, smelling like raisins and cabbage, blocking my view of the magic picture box, and he said, “I will remember this,” before pushing me off the couch–I mean, the servant’s cushion.
Remembering that, I felt something inside me crackling, right at the base of my neck. Maybe it was the pixie stick starting to work its magic in me, but I got so angry that it…changed me. I could feel my eyes glowing. My face. My cheeks. Burning. I charged at my brother, and his toothy grin changed to open-mouthed shock. He ran up the stairs. He was running from me. I could feel the sugar-magic flowing through my arms and legs, and pure rage glowing inside, searing my belly like hot metal. I pursued him. And in that moment, I flew.
The carpet is white; it shows every footprint.
This is why kids are not allowed in here.
This is why we do not use this room.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Behold: the knife, the fist.
The carpet is white; it shows every footprint.
The fragile line of knickknacks on the mantel is our last defense:
Soldiers arrayed against enemies unnamed.
This is why kids are not allowed in here.
Chairs stand untenanted
and dust is the only meal served on these plates.
This is why we do not use this room.
I probably don’t have to tell you the whole thing was Pete’s idea. If you’d seen that boy tailing around behind us growing up you’da thought we were an after school special or something, letting the gimp-leg kid play with us, but the truth was, all our best games were Pete’s idea. He’s the one who knew how to build a log-dam in the creek to make the swimming hole deep enough to jump. The one who knew how to install a can of nitrous for dragging, before anyone else. We were nothing but Pete’s arms and legs, and that’s the truth.
When Pete found Minda he didn’t stop having ideas, he just had a new partner to help him make em work. Me and Joey, we never minded. What woulda been the point? We all loved Minda and her quick easy laugh. Besides, she was always first into the swimming hole even in snowmelt. She’d’a killed us.
So when she got sick, it was killin Pete.
“It’s that cancer,” he said, two cans of Natty Light on the ground already between his feet and the third on its way. “Doc, he can’t do nothing. They found it too late. Won’t give her no more medicine for it. I mean, he give her some. But it ain’t enough to stop the hurt. I ask him, what’s she gonna do, get addicted? But he says he can’t prescribe no more’n he did. She’s gonna die, Marsh, and she’s gonna die in pain.”
Well, that wasn’t gonna happen. Not with Pete on the case. I could already see that mind of his working on the problem.
He laid it out for us over barbecue, the women sipping sweet tea on the porch with Minda all bundled up even in oven-hot July.
“The hospital pharmacy gets their deliveries on Friday morning. When you go to the pharmacy they say they gotta make up your prescription, but that’s a lie. My cousin says them pills Minda needs come already made up, it’s just counting em into bottles that they do there. Now, the pills come in by custom courier. The driver’s got a gun, but he’s alone. So getting the pills, that’s no problem.”
“Yeah, but how do we get away?” Joey asked, glancing over at the women. “Lee’s pregnant again, I can’t get busted. Judge said they’ll throw the book at me next time, I’m what they call a ha-bit-chual offender.” He drew the words out, heavy with scorn.
“That’s where you come in.”
We talked that plan back, forth and upside down and none of us could put a hole in it by the time Lee brought us down watermelon and pie, so it was on for Friday.
“Remember,” Pete said, yanking the stocking down over his face. “All we gotta do is make this look good.” Joe, in the back with him, nodded. Pete had arranged us some paramedic uniforms, and mine itched like hell and tugged at my crotch as I tried to look like a regular ambulance driver.
We was idling by the curb when the delivery truck came in. That driver, he didn’t know what was up. Never even broke out his gun; had the strap over the grip the whole time, right up to when Joe stuck his own gun in the guy’s ribs and walked him back to the truck.
Them pills wasn’t anything big or special. Driver even showed us which ones they was, once Joe explained the situation to him real good. The whole carton wasn’t any bigger’n a liquor crate. We left the driver in the back of the truck, a thousand dollars tucked into his fist and his wrists tied.
Like I said, it was all going according to plan when I hit the lights on our faked-up ambulance to get the hell out. I’d ordered those bulbs myself, off a catalog, and Joey installed em. Lots of folks go jacklighting out here, or light their trucks with a big old light bar. Got me a box of all colors, so the red and blue wouldn’t stand out. Shipped em to Joey’s garage.
You know, kid, you’re okay for one of them Legal Aid guys. Think you could get Joe some time off for the baby, and for his ‘medical condition?’ I mean. Colorblind, that’s a condition.
“You have the mind of an accountant and the eyes of a scavenger,” Wulfgang had always teased him. Now Jack can’t help himself: he counts tentacles. Adds up the way they wrap around the cargo hold of the torn derelict. Calculates the irredeemable damage to the Waxwing. Wonders what the value of five human lives is, the multiplier of the unnamed ensouled aliens aboard the mystery ship. Wonders what his own life is worth, in the dark, alone.
That’s when fire breaks across the sky, or what would be the sky if this were a planet, if Jack weren’t holding his breath trying to make his tanks last.
Saurian engines, his accountant’s mind tells him, still trying to wrap itself around the expense of a transparent hull. The gate generator there is Human. Some of those weapon systems are Odacovan cutters. Other systems are unrecognizable. That hyperdrive is as much a mystery as the new ship itself.
So are the weapons, the cannons that are reducing the tentacles and the rift beyond them to drifting ash, space echoes. Magitech, if he had to guess; conventional weapons don’t close holes in reality.
You can’t brace yourself in zero-gee, drifting, but Jack tries nevertheless as he taps up against a fragment of hull. He can’t even tell if it’s his own.
The hatch to the newcomer’s airlock opens and there is a humanoid form in a perfectly respectable human-made spacesuit there. The shape kicks off, scattering ash and leaving behind an uncoiling tether. And finally, the transmissions alight on the Waxwing‘s old comm frequency. “…how about this channel? Can you hear me?”
It hadn’t been a good day for Her August Imperial Majesty’s Ship Waxwing even before the explosion.
There weren’t a lot of good days for the Waxwing at all if Jack was being honest. Systems failed more often than not, the gate generator took a full forty seconds to spin up at full power, and the bunks had been designed by a sadist no matter which race you imagined trying to sleep there. But this – he looked to his left, trying not to notice the drifting remains of five of the Waxwing‘s six crew members – this was the absolute beyond. He tapped the throat seal of his suit, wondering how much oxygen was left in the tank.
A second tentacle reached through the rift, blotting out stars.
When we sang together, we wove notes like silk
I find myself these days caught chanting children’s rhymes instead: red
sky at night, rose rose red. Find myself singing my own lonely lullaby.
Do you sing to her, our daughter? What lullaby
do you weave her from bronze and brass and silk?
what sheets do you lay her between, white or red?
I know what color our blood is together: the red
stained your hands, turned your scream into a lullaby
I woke alone, surrounded by white, hoping for the edge of your skirt: among cotton, silk.
No white sheets here, no green coverlets, but I would still sing you a red silk lullaby.
No absolution lies here with the dead;
Exoneration molders in its grave
And amnesty is just another name
This tomb bears neither epitaph nor name
But stands its vigil silent as the dead
And lonely marks a long-forgotten grave
Upon the moor a council stands as grave
As anyone who calligraphs his name
To call to mind progenitors long dead.
The dead lie easy in their barrow-grave; the living bear the burden of their name.
Angus O’Sonnell doesn’t believe in coincidence where family is involved.
It’s what he told Jack when Kyna was taken, what he said when they found out who Renee’s father was, and what he said again today, pouring two kilos of cocaine into the base incinerator. Two kilos of the same augmented drug that Renee’s father was tracking down when he got himself killed.
All of which is good. No, great. It’s great. It’s totally fine and Jack’s sure it will be fine and all work out well. Not that it’s any of his business. Not that he should care. It’s Renee’s family, and he’s not a part of that. She told him as much.
Like he didn’t know that already. Like it was going to be some kind of surprise to him.
Still, he watches her. Because Renee needs a guardian angel and he may be no angel but he’s damn good at guarding. From the little stuff anyway. The things he knows and she doesn’t, like that you can’t talk to outlaws like a citizen and get respect, that sometimes you need to hit first and hardest to prove you can.
Renee’s brother, he of the two kilos, probably knows. And his woman definitely does. They recognized each other, Jack and Dalisay, the way siblings do. They had the same parents, after all: the state and nobody.
But Angus, Angus is the guardian angel they need. Pete Lance may be out of second chances with his old boss, but Angus starts with second chances and moves on to thirds. And it’s not weak, no matter what it sounds like when Jack tries to explain it. Angus just has the power to do that, the confidence to let a potential enemy at his back and believe he’ll survive it and his family will. Jack’s not strong enough for that. He’s proved it time and again.
“Pete’s lucky,” Jack says to Kyna, when she asks. He hangs his coat on the rack. Between them Katie tracks a toy car back and forth, back and forth. The wheels clatter on hardwoods. “He’ll get a shot at straightening himself out. And Renee, she’s mad but she says they’re family, you know?”
Kyna’s arms are strong around him. “Not like the two of you are.”
In the end, it’s all just luck, isn’t it? Jack’s birth family and Dalisay’s, or Renee’s and Kyna’s. Old hurts, everywhere, old scars. Some too deep to name, to the bone and heart of him. Scars that Kyna opens and reopens with her words until they ache and bleed and – finally, a little – begin to heal straight.