The Eater of Dirt

Among her many names, the one that remains is Eater of Dirt. The rest have been cast off, but one name is enough to sustain her. The filth-goddess knows the flavor of fairy footsteps, the crumble of dead magic and the taste of tiny living jewels with wings that crunch in her teeth. Men may fling her holy name about as an insult, but they don’t know how sweet and savory and fulsome on the tongue dirt can be.

She was once a goddess of purification and lust with stone temples and glistening priestesses in cloaks painstakingly sewn of feathers and beetles. Young men gazed at the walls that encircled her rites and yearned for the barest syllable of knowledge to pass from those red-stained mouths to theirs. Any one of those boys would leap to her pleasure, and did, and she tasted their youth and fears when she grew bored with supping on the death of trees, of monsters, of orchids.

Time grinds temples to gravel. Fires wash trees to ash. There are no more fairies and monsters to dine on. She learns the taste of oil-slick and lead. Women forge handles out of words and grasp and sort and judge concepts as they once did weapons or fruit. Humans become too self-aware to worship any being too like themselves. The gods are trimmed: The hands and eyes and scepters cut away, anything that will hold a handle.

The Eater of Dirt persists, minus her earlobes, her feathered headdress, her girdle of insects. So much waste. Long after the Sky and the Warring Twins and the Judge perish, she tastes their trimmed-off attributes in a tea of autumn leaves or a confetti of salt-washed shells.

New gods are forged with vague shapes, wrapped in contradictions and paradoxes to confound the handles. They have the illusion of permanence in their first blush of adolescence.

New cults reap and sew inedible fetishes for their new gods. More than she can digest, and not filling in the slightest. The plastic confetti and weeds of propylene stick in her gums and she despairs.

She squats beside tiny worshipers, sometimes a rabbit, sometimes an iguana. They bend their knees and open their mouths to the Eater of Dirt. Together they savor histories digested, civilizations mulched.

She will outlast because humans still kneel to her. Still reach soft, plump fingers like worms into her repast and lift it to slick wet tongues.

“No, that’s dirt, baby!”

True worship is compulsion, and the compulsion persists, to taste the world. Like the compulsion to attach words, to kill and mourn magic in the same breath.

“Should we call the doctor?”

“She’ll be fine. All children eat dirt.”

The tiny priestess laughs, her teeth delicately lined in grains of darkness. She revels in the fulsome earth and her prayer is sustaining.

Humanity will forget the goddess, but never forget the banquet: soft and grit, fresh and old. She is in their tongues and teeth and throats and in the urge forever to open, to taste, to savor. And so she will survive, and eat the new gods, returning all to earth when its time comes.

The Blackthorn Door

Akari saw the restricted tree first.

Wrestling the Agency’s sleek sedan around the treacherous holes in Zimmerman’s pitted rural driveway held my full attention. We’d passed the mailbox fifteen minutes back, leaving me certain we’d missed a turnoff to the old man’s place—then Akari slapped the dash. “Frank! Pull over!”

Akari snapped off her seatbelt and lunged out the door into the bright summer heat before we stopped moving. Dust and ash-exhaust billowed over the car. My junior agent’s silhouette vanished in the rusted cloud. When the air cleared, I saw what she’d seen and fumbled my seatbelt off too.

“Is that a—?”

Betula pendula ‘Laciniata’.” She stepped aside as I joined her in front of the young tree. “Weeping birch. A Level Four restricted cultivar.”

Tendrils of leaves spilled over the pale bent trunk, curtaining it like stringy hair over the face of a cowering girl. I’d only seen this species in file photographs.

My partner puffed out an awed breath. “Just . . . growing out here on the side of the road!”

“I take it he doesn’t get many visitors.”

Akari took a sample, sealed it in a ziplock baggie. She sat with it smoothed out on her lap as I eased the sedan back onto the dusty road. Would’ve been nice if the Agency had given us a four-wheel drive for this job, but they’d started phasing them out on account of how much Thaum they burned. Punishing us because the rest of the world couldn’t keep their wands in their pants.

None of us had known how hard it would be to find Zimmerman. He was just another name on a shipment list. A wrist to slap. These sorts usually turned out to be crackpots meddling in Low Magic—nutters who thought they could achieve miracles with a stick of willow.

That tree, though? We were here to investigate a shipment of wood, not living trees. That tree had come from a cutting, and it must’ve been growing here for years. It spoke to forethought. I ran my thumb over the stinging-hot vinyl steering wheel. The office didn’t expect us to check in for another six days, and we’d left mobile reception behind forty minutes back. Still, maybe we’d have some news for them earlier than expected.

Akari must have been thinking along the same lines. “D’you think we’re onto something?”

“Maybe. One tree does not a thaumaturgical terrorist make.”

“Terrorist!” She laughed. “That’s a bit racist, Frank.”

I bristled. One tree may not make him a terrorist, but Vrata Zimmerman’s scant background information, his hectares of bushland in the middle of nowhere, and his name on a list of purchasers of restricted woods sure might. “Call it what you like—I call it sensible caution. He could’ve slipped into the country with the Thaum refugees—”

“—who’ve mostly integrated without any issues.”

We’d had this argument before. The new agents were all like this, fresh out of university packed to the gills with compulsory diversity units and doublethink. It wasn’t their fault—they hadn’t even been born back when the Thaum War ended and the flood of refugees began. They didn’t know what it had been like. “Tell that to the Fed Square victims.”

The kids remembered that all right. Akari looked away. “Turn the aircon down, will you?”

My long-sleeved business shirt clung damp to my back after our little botanical excursion. The old scar on my wrist pricked with sweat. “Put on your jacket.”

“Environmental vandal.”

My fingers tightened on the steering wheel, and then I caught Akari’s sidelong grin. It deflated my temper like a pin to a balloon, same as ever. “Latte-sipping tree-hugger.”

“Misanthropic dinosaur.”

The kid was all right. I never had any of my own—burned through a couple of wives, but no kids. You could do a lot worse than someone like Shoji Akari. She just had to remember to stick to her timbers, and let me handle the arseholes growing them.

We almost missed Zimmerman’s place. Tucked away in a grove of eucalypts, the low-slung jumble of timber extensions sprawled in every direction like an aboveground rabbit warren.

We crunched into the yard and parked beside an ancient boxy truck, its tray bristling with shards of eucalyptus bark. Ah, the trusty old inert eucalyptus. If our antipodean woods have any special properties, nobody’s been able to tease them out yet. They call Australia a thaumaturgical desert. There’s nothing here worth warring over—a curse that became a blessing when the Old Country forests burned. We don’t have Thaum, but we’ve got green trees of the ordinary kind, and blue skies, and clean air. And now every bastard wants a piece of us because half the world incinerated the forests of their enemies into ash but us, well, we’re only cooking slowly. The lucky country.

The sedan’s engine ticked. Akari and I stepped into the oven of late afternoon. I pulled on my jacket despite the heat. Patted my breast pocket to check for my badge, an old habit. Nothing broke the stillness of the place but the shrill of cicadas and the thump of Akari’s car door.

She stared at the house, a faint crease shadowing her smooth brow. “This place doesn’t look up to code.”

“No kidding.” I frowned at the tops of trees visible over the back of the low-slung house. I knew the hulk of a willow tree when I saw one.

In the cleared area in front of the house, a charred and blackened circle of ground indicated a recent fire. Ashy scraps of paper twitched in the hot sluggish breeze.

“Look at these timbers!” Akari bounced towards the house. “The window frames on that extension there—look at the colour, the grain. Is that yew? Where the hell did he get yew? Oh my god, and I think this door is golden ash . . . ”

Waving her quiet, I knocked on the honeyed wood. I fancied a shimmer of power tingled through my knuckles. Akari brushed a smudge of dust from her dark suit jacket.

The door opened wide. An old man peered out, hunched and tangled as a stunted willow. Watery mud-puddle eyes glimmered over small spectacles curtained between a tangle of grey hair and an unkempt long moustache in the Old Country style. He gave us a grandfatherly smile. Maybe it was the smell of fresh-cut wood that surrounded him, but for the first time in years I thought of Geppetto, the old carpenter from that kids cartoon that got banned after the War.

Akari relaxed beside me. I couldn’t blame her. This guy wasn’t a danger to anything but sugar cookies.

I flipped open my badge. “Mr Zimmerman? I’m Senior Agent Francis Sawyer, and this is Probationary Agent Shoji Akari of the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency, Division of Restricted Materials. We’d like to ask you a few questions concerning a shipment of timber you received in late November last year.”

The old man’s smile brightened. “Oh! I’ve been expecting you.” His accent was pure Old Country, as though he spoke with a large marble cupped on his tongue. “Please, come in. Come. I have ginger beer.” He turned from the door and shuffled back into the cool dim of the house before I could respond. A keyring at the belt of his trousers jingled like a cat collar in the gloom. I pocketed my badge and followed him into the narrow hall at a polite half-speed, casting a glance back at Akari.

Expecting us? she mouthed.

Most of the doors in the hall were shut, bar two at the end: a cramped kitchen and the stuffy, windowless sitting room Zimmerman deposited us in before he left to fetch drinks.

If something was amiss in the house, it wasn’t in this stark room. The elderly have what Akari would call a ‘gendered’ divide when it comes to mess. If there’s a woman involved, you’ll see doilies and pointless little china figures. You’ll smell polish. And once you’re sitting down, good luck getting up again through all the cushions and rugs and crap strewn around the place. Houses like those are clean but cluttered. This sitting room told me that Zimmerman had no woman in his life. The wooden furnishings were sturdy and finely made, but nothing adorned their surfaces except a layer of dust. In the far corner, a hutch held a white rabbit splayed out in a nest of straw, asleep, breathing in that rapid way rabbits do.

Akari and I perched on the edge of a settee with wooden arms carved to resemble ocean waves, as beautiful as the pea-green upholstery was ugly. I touched the timber waves. Perhaps this was the ultimate fate of that shipment of blackthorn. I glanced at Akari to confirm. She shook her head.

“He takes his doors seriously though,” she murmured. This room had two: the heavy hallway door we’d entered through, and what must have been the back door, a sliding screen made of some kind of translucent paper over a light lattice of wood, diffusing green daylight into the dingy room. Akari inclined her head to the open hallway door. “Notice anything weird?”

I frowned at it. “Frame’s reinforced with metal.”

“Oh,” she said. “I meant the doorknob. It doesn’t have one. Just a deadbolt on the other side.”

A little spasm of suspicion shot down my spine.

Akari nudged me and pointed at the other door. “It’s fine. He’s no Buffalo Bill, and that sliding door is practically plywood and tissue paper. You could huff and puff your way out of here, Frank.”

“I knew you kept me around for something.”

“It’s your sunny personality.”

Zimmerman shuffled back into the room, clutching two chipped mugs. He pressed these into our hands and eased himself down into the worn armchair with a sigh.

“Now,” he said at last, “best we talk.”

“It’s the blackthorn, Mr Zimmerman. Your name appears on a shipping regist—” The hall door slammed shut. I sloshed ginger beer onto my shirtsleeve. Beside me, Akari laughed, hand splayed across her heart.

Only Zimmerman seemed unfazed. “Again it does this! Perhaps this house has ghosts. When you are old, always you live with ghosts.”

Biting back annoyance, I rubbed at my wet sleeve, only half-aware of the rough circle of scar tissue under the thin cotton.

“Or, perhaps I have hung the door wrong.” Zimmerman got to his feet. “The frame is solid though. That is the important—ah!” He’d reached for the keys at his waist, but they weren’t there.

That little crease reappeared between Akari’s straight black brows as she studied the sturdy facade of the closed door. “Are we locked in?”

“No, no. We can get out through the back door.” He sat back down and gave Akari a sad smile. “My memory these days is not so good. You know how it is, when you walk through a door and forget what it was you meant to get.”

I let go of my wrist and splayed my fingers, fighting the urge to make a fist as my adrenalin ebbed. “Why the security, Mr Zimmerman? Are you expecting trouble?”

Zimmerman said, with utmost seriousness, “I do not like doorknobs.”

Christ. We were stuck with a batty old bloke from the Old Country who bought in a bit of illegal wood because that’s how things were back in his day. At his age he wouldn’t even get time, he’d only waste a lot of ours.

I cleared my throat. “To the matter of the wood . . . .”

“It has a name, this effect.”

“Pardon?”

“The forgetting, made by doors. This is the ‘event boundary’.”

“We need to talk about the wood.”

“Yes.” His voice hinted impatience. “I bought it. And many more such shipments before.”

Akari and I exchanged a glance.

“Whatever I could find, I tried,” Zimmerman continued, waving a knobbled and unconcerned hand. “But blackthorn is best for my purposes, you see.”

Akari put her drink aside and leaned forward. “And what are your purposes, Mr Zimmerman?”

“Forgetting. As I have said.”

“You were building . . . doors?”

“Let me start from the beginning,” said Zimmerman. “Let me start from the war.”

I suppressed a sigh. Sure, let’s go back thirty-five years and listen to this senile old man’s life story. We TRA agents had nothing better to do with your tax dollars.

Ever the good cop to my bad one, Akari fished a notepad from her jacket pocket and studied the old man, pen poised to strike.

“In the Old Country, I was a carpenter.” He paused, his eyes moving from Akari’s face to mine. “I know what you are thinking. I was not part of the development of large-scale thaumaturgy, and I wanted no part in it. A brute goes first to force, and misses finesse. You see. This energy in the woods, it can bring light, and it can bring warmth, but the Steuernden sought only to bring fire. I lived on the coast with my family and used Low Magic to make furniture, seeking always to learn what shape the woods wished to become, and what gifts were locked in these forms.

“When we began to lose the war—when the United Forces bombed the Schwarzwald-Projekt base and killed most of the High Thaumagi—the Steuernden soon came looking for everyone else who worked wood. They were not asking.”

I pressed my lips together and raised my empty mug to my face to hide my expression. There’s not a Thaumagus alive who doesn’t squeal about how pure and innocent they were during the war. The rapt attention on Akari’s face made her seem childlike. It left me with a twinge of something like exasperation, something like affection. I bet she was one of those kids who brought home any half-dead wild animal she found and then cried when the thing bit her.

“My wife died early in the war,” said Zimmerman. “Always she was ill, and soon the food and hospital bed shortages—well. It was only my daughter and I left when I heard the Steuernden were sending troops. So we ran, all the way to the other side of the world. I gave my life savings to a man with a ship and we came across the ocean, and your border patrols picked us up and put us in a refugee camp. For three years we—”

“Mr Zimmerman, with all due respect, we’re here to talk about a shipment of another sort,” I said. The air around Akari turned frosty, though to her credit she barely twitched. My left hand clenched in a stranglehold around my right wrist, flesh and bone tight across the numbness of the two crescent scars. “The government has the utmost sympathy for your situation as a refugee, but legal reparation was made decades ago, and that’s not—”

“My daughter,” Zimmerman interrupted, “died two nights after our resettlement on the mainland. I found her hanging from the doorknob in her bedroom.”

His words hung in the air. I’d seen a couple of short drops in my time at the camps. Nasty way to go.

Akari’s hands twisted in her lap. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” said the old man. “Pain such as this takes root in your mind. It can never be unmade. Would that I could open a door and step back to the time before I fled the Old Country, I would let the Steuernden take me.” He looked me in the eye. “If it saved my daughter, Agent Sawyer, I would set fire to the world.”

Twenty years with the TRA, and that was the first time a suspect ever said something like that to my face. “Tell me about the doors, Mr Zimmerman.”

“The doors. Yes. I had reason to think of doors, after what happened. I dreamed of them, many times. So, when the reparation money came, I bought this land, and started building my house, and I began to make doors. I made doors of golden ash and silver birch, doors of willow, bloodwood and yew . . . .”

Beside me, Akari bit her lip and made a few reluctant notes.

“Some thaumaturgical woods worked better than others. Certain dimensions helped also. To test my doors, I wrote a number of items in a list, then stepped through the door, and wrote again as many items as I remembered on the other side. The doors were working, but not enough: I would forget minutes, even an hour, but I could not forget my pain. So still, I worked.

“I learned soon that the active part was not the door, but the frame, saving me much time. I found later that I could layer the doors, pressing many frames together in a row, allowing me to combine different woods. Advancement was slow; the materials were costly and hard to get—you know this well. The risk made me economical, made me experiment with thinner layers of doorframe. This necessity led to my finest breakthrough: making the frames thinner did not make them less powerful, so I could stack many more into a smaller space. A day came when I walked through a doorway made of more than sixty thin frames. I forgot the past week of my life.

“When the forgetting grew bad enough to be inconvenient,” he said, “I started writing a letter to my daughter each time I was to test the door. I pinned it to my shirt before I stepped, so I could read it after, and remind myself what I was doing, and why. It felt like talking with her.”

I tried to catch Akari’s eye, wondering if she could shed any light on what sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. I’d never heard of thaumaturgy used like this before. Parlour tricks, yes. City-levelling explosions, absolutely. But if the old man was telling the truth, he’d created something else altogether. Something subtle and dangerous.

“You don’t believe me,” he said. Astute.

“It’s quite a story.”

“Here.” With a grunt, he pushed himself up from the armchair and hobbled to the rabbit hutch in the corner. As he unlatched it, I swallowed back a surge of unease.

Zimmerman lifted the rabbit out of the cage and carried it to the coffee table. I thought for a moment that the limp, motionless creature must be dead. I hadn’t seen it move once during Zimmerman’s tale. But when he lay it on its side on the table I saw again the rapid rise and fall of its chest, the black shining stare of its open eye.

“What’s wrong with it?” Akari’s voice was uncharacteristically flat.

“You know.” Zimmerman fixed her with those still pondwater eyes. “It’s been through the door. Washed clean. Even the motor skills, vanished. All it has now is reflex . . . to suckle, to breathe—and it can feel sensation, though I cannot say if it knows what is pleasure and what is pain. When the body passes through the door the mind is left behind.”

I touched the rabbit’s soft fur, waved a hand above the open eye. Nothing. “How does it work?”

“Truly, I cannot say. It is like a magnet to a computer disk. Or like a fire to a shrub. It does something to the mind. Takes the tangled pathways you’ve grown in your head over the years and burns them away.” Zimmerman gathered the limp rabbit in his puckered hands.

“It’s cruel,” Akari said.

I made a mental note to talk to my junior agent about emotional overinvestment when all this was over.

“Life is cruel, young lady. This creature is at peace.” The old man walked to the hutch but seemed reluctant to let the rabbit go. His bony hand smoothed, smoothed the long white ears. He lingered, half turned away in the corner of the room where the shadows gathered. “I put them down humanely after the tests. This one, I kept alive to show you.”

He’d implied knowledge of our arrival before, too. “What made you so sure we were coming?”

“I’ve been buying restricted wood for thirty years, and never have I been on a watch list until now. Why do you think this is?”

“You wanted the TRA to come.”

“You’re very close to the truth of it, Agent Sawyer.”

I wondered if it was as simple as him needing his story heard. Or perhaps after thirty years of work he realised he could sell his door; profit might satisfy him more than artificially induced dementia. Hell, maybe when he’d finally faced the reality of wiping himself out of existence, he just chickened out.

I remembered the burned papers out front and realised I wasn’t wondering—I was hoping. Some thought scratched at the back of my mind like small fingernails clawing at me and I couldn’t let it through, not yet. Not that memory.

Zimmerman spoke again, almost too low to hear. “As the door grew stronger a strange thing happened—I no longer wanted to forget. You see, her death had begun to recede into the past over time, but the door washed away those years, day by day. The past—her death—crept back towards me, and so did my rage. Forgetting her wasn’t enough. I had to avenge her.”

“Avenge her? How?” Akari’s voice tremored.

“It’s already done.”

Akari jolted to her feet. I put my hand on her arm and moved her behind me. She stumbled on the coffee table, clung to my wrist. Not for the first time, I wished they gave us TRA agents sidearms, or even truncheons. My hand itched to close around a truncheon again. All that had stopped after the fuss over the refugee camps.

Zimmerman looked over his shoulder at last, his eyes malevolent, his eyes clear. His eyes so very young. “My daughter was too ashamed to tell her Vati much of what happened to her in the camp, but I knew enough to know when. She was not the same, after. Once the reparation trials released the guard duty rosters, I knew who.”

Akari clung to my wrist, her frightened eyes piercing me “Frank? What is this?”

I remembered another pair of frightened eyes. They’d been the colour of pond water. My dry throat clicked. “You’ve made a mistake. I never knew any Zimmermans.”

“Our name was Janus,” he said. “Perhaps you don’t remember that, but she left you with a reminder, didn’t she? My daughter had a crooked front tooth. What is on your wrist, Frank Sawyer?”

I jerked my arm away from Akari, but I knew she’d touched it through my sleeve as she clung to me, felt the two rough crescent scars of the bite I’d never had treated. I saw the terrible knowing in Akari’s eyes. I turned away. “Christ. I don’t know how it happened. I was young and angry.”

“So am I,” said the old man. He settled the rabbit against his chest, stroking it with his free hand.

“You can’t do this. She hasn’t done anything wrong.” I reached back for Akari’s arm. She recoiled from my touch.

The old man watched us, eyes bright and clear in his seamed face.

“You can’t keep us here!” I snarled.

“You are not prisoners, Agent Sawyer. On the contrary, you should not linger. I may have forgotten to turn off the oven. My memory these days is not good.” He slid open the flimsy screen door.

With a dull, shocked understanding I knew what the odd thickness of the frame behind it meant. I knew the meaning of the strange texture of the wood, the fine ridges pressed together dense as the grooves on a record. Thousands upon thousands of sliver-thin frames. Beyond the doorway, sunset filtered through narrow bars of bone-white birch.

The old man turned away from us, cradling the rabbit on his shoulder like a sleeping child. “You are free to leave whenever you please,” he said, and stepped out into the light.

The Feather Wall

Dog would eat anything. That was a comfort. If Martin had had to starve the poor bugger he might have thought twice about keeping quarantine, because the only other alternative was unacceptable. At some point, hunger would likely have pushed Dog to break his training and go for the kakapo, and the two of them had worked too hard on Resolution to see that happen.

There were staples enough in the ranger hut to last the season, if he stretched them, but no chance of restocking from the mainland any time soon. He checked the radio every day, calling out in case the plague was over, in case anyone had survived, but there was never any answer. Perhaps that meant it was safe to go back, perhaps the thing had burnt itself out, but if it hadn’t . . . .

Martin wouldn’t have minded if it had just been himself. It wouldn’t be much of a life anyway, the last man alone or as good as, at the arse-end of the world where no-one was likely to come along. There’d be no-one left behind to grieve for him but Dog, and even knowing that he’d laid awake at night, stroking the soft head and wondering if a bullet wouldn’t be kinder. He promised himself he’d do it, if he felt the sickness on him. Better a quick end at the hand of the human who loved him than slow starvation and loneliness.

He dreamed of it sometimes.

Sickness on him, and sweat. Huddled in his bunk, and in his dream he could never find the gun and Dog was by him always, pressed against him, trying to keep warm and comfort. Growing thinner over the days, because Dog would never leave his human to try and find food, no matter how much Martin cursed him away and tried to make him go. Dog’s ribs like toast racks against him, and the fever burning him up until it broke.

Dog licking the salt off his face and that face getting less red and less wet. Dog going to sleep beside him, curled in a hard and bony ball, pushing his nose under Martin’s hand. Dog waking to the sensation of cold weight against him, and no pat.

Dog nudging him and whining, Dog taking his fur between his teeth and pulling, Dog licking a face that wasn’t warm any more . . . .

The dreams came often, and less often when he checked the gun of a night, placed it carefully under the bed so that it was in easy reach if ever he lost strength enough so that he couldn’t even walk across the room. That was how it happened, he’d heard. The quiet incubation period, the sudden loss of strength. Massive contagion, massive mortality, and him and Dog away from it all, on an island they tried to keep predator-free because there was such a thing as conservation even now, and the kakapo would have died without it.

He’d always loved them, dozy as they were: giant flightless parrots on islands full of flightless birds, fat and plentiful until the people came. And the moa died, and the takahe nearly, the kiwi and the kakapo close to as well. Bad enough the human hunters all too eager to take kakapo for trophies, but the daft things couldn’t stand against what the humans brought with them—rats and cats and ferrets, creatures that could stalk the kakapo to its burrow and make an end of it, and did so in their thousands. Their tens of thousands, until only a handful remained, and two dozen of those on Resolution.

The island was a good enough place for stragglers to wait out the end times—the ranger’s hut was small but well-insulated. It needed to be, because the weather was always shit and Martin didn’t know why they’d bothered to put solar panels on the roof because there was never any bloody sunshine anyway, but there was an axe and plenty of wood and he cut some every day, enough to see him through the night and some put away for winter. There was cookware and bunks, a table, a fireplace. Water enough nearby and a tank for storage, a dunny out the back. He could dig a new one when it filled. A few books, not that he was much of a reader, but they’d belonged to one of the other rangers and so had the fishing kit, and he’d made more use of that.

Apocalypse was nothing like Martin thought it would be. Not that he’d ever given it a great deal of brain space, the only times he’d really considered it were superficial ones and in response to a movie usually, or a book. In those the problems were always resources, and he’d always felt a certain sense of smugness at the trouble and conflict it caused. Armed groups scavenging supplies from a local supermarket, warfare over water . . . it all seemed hysterical to him, and not the funny hysterical either. The land was easy enough to live off if you knew what you were doing, and he did.

The angler’s kit was basic enough but the water was full of hapuka, of blue cod and gurnard, blue nose and blue-fin. He was able to keep himself and Dog fed, and he knew enough about the local vegetation to keep scurvy at bay. That was how the sailors did it, back when Captain Cook was exploring New Zealand. Back in 1773 it was, in Dusky Sound which was only a stone’s throw from Resolution, really. He’d brewed up rimu leaves for a sort of spruce beer, old Cook, but it had been too bitter and so he’d added manuka leaves to soften the flavour. It wasn’t exactly craft—Martin found it a bit foul, really, and even Dog didn’t do much more than sniff at it, but it was better than loose teeth and open sores, a deficiency of vitamins.

It wasn’t keeping himself alive that was the central problem of apocalypse. It wasn’t even loneliness, he’d found, because he had Dog and the kakapo, and it wasn’t a life for social butterflies anyway, ranging. The Department of Conservation had enough isolated huts that there was always room for rangers to spend weeks, months sometimes, with little enough for company but other DOC rangers, the odd tramper. There’d been two others on Resolution with him, but they’d had families, and at the first radioed hint of trouble they’d left, had promised to come back when it was over.

It was over, and they hadn’t come back. Martin was pretty sure their promises hadn’t been broken on a whim.

No. The worst thing about apocalypse—and he’d had some weeks now to think it over—wasn’t food or change or abandonment. It was loss of purpose.

Martin was under no illusion. Most people, back when there were enough people to make “most” an adequate descriptor, didn’t have any sort of lofty goal. It was get through the day mostly, pay the bills, raise the kids if you had them. Be a good mate, maybe leave things a little better than you found them. And if that was a small purpose it was a good one, or good enough. It was the same kind of thinking that sneered at small purpose that made hysteria the primary response to apocalypse, he thought.

“We’re an operatic bloody species,” he said to Dog. “Always so convinced there’s a need for high drama. That it’s best, that it’s living.”

Dog’s tail thumped against the wooden floor as if he understood. He probably did too, Martin reckoned, because dogs were pretty operatic themselves, and he’d certainly seen Dog get all over excitement at the prospect of bones.

Now that his purpose was smaller than ever—catch some more fish, feed self, feed Dog, check the radio—it still seemed good. It was that which kept him tethered to Resolution.

“Oh, there’s fear in it too,” he said to Dog, out of habit more than anything, and because there was always comfort in a good listener. Dog was the best listener that he knew, and the most intelligent. He could spot a lie, could Dog, and Martin liked to work things out with him because it was difficult to look into those intelligent eyes and lie. “I’m not a brave man,” he said. “I’m no bloody hero, mate. It’s easier to believe people are still out there than to go look and find otherwise. And what would I find, eh?” Corpses, probably. Lots of them, and madness to follow no doubt. “Oh, I’d hold it together. Check it out and come back here, probably, hunker down. And spend the rest of my nights dreaming about what I found, and what I couldn’t change.”

He dreamed enough about that, and Resolution comforted him because there were things there he could change, still.

It was the kakapo kept him there. And maybe that was his own little streak of operatic, right there, the lone man holding out against inevitability, but he’d heard the booming come back to Resolution, and it made the large things seem possible, somehow. He heard it at night. Short deep bursts, the sound made when blowing over the mouth of a beer bottle. Not all of the males were booming—he could only distinguish two or three of them—and there was no guarantee that any of the females would respond to the mating call, but it was better than silence. “Used to be a time you could walk through Fiordland and hear the booming from every corner,” he said to Dog. But that was long before his time, long before his granddad’s even. Only old stories now, about how kakapo had been plentiful, and there’d been a time when he’d hoped his work would be one step on the road to making them so again, but apocalypse had put paid to all that.

The other predator-free islands, Codfish and Little Barrier . . . there was no guarantee that any other ranger survived, no reason to think they’d stayed on the islands if they had. Martin had no family left, but most people did; they might have left to go to them like his mates on Resolution had. No guarantee, either, that the predators would stay off them, that one day a clinging rat wouldn’t wash up and go hunting for eggs. All the work would mean nothing then. It’d only be a matter of time. And the rats would be growing—a population explosion come from feeding on the bodies of the dead. Possums, as well, with the pest control down to nil and an entire country full of starving pets looking to decimate what was left of the birds. Feral moggies, feral dogs.

He dreamed of it sometimes.

Dog coming back to the hut of a night, limping, scrawny. Dog coming to sit beside remains that wouldn’t answer—Dog drooling, sometimes, but he never dreamed of being eaten, of his remains going down that friendly gullet. Partly because the thought of what would happen to his body didn’t bother him, even in waking hours, and partly because he shied away from thinking how Dog would need to be, how lost and starved and desperate, before he began to feed.

He was a good mate, was Dog. If Martin died he’d be a last resort—something to be devoured only if Dog was too weak or too sick to catch his own food, and maybe not even then.

But mostly it was because there was something more horrifying to dream about than his own dead self, and that was dead kakapo. He dreamed it near every night—Dog, overcoming training before love, and his mouth stuffed full of parrot. And all the parrots gone, eventually, because they could never escape Dog, stupid feathery things that they were, all whiskers and no brain, and he’d been trained to hunt them down.

That was their tragedy. Kakapo could never escape anything.

Funny, that. In most places the sudden absence of humans would be a shot in the arm to ecosystems. No more poaching, no more pollution. The climate might even get a chance to stabilise—that’d be a good thing. But here and there would be species, remnant populations, dependent on intervention, on protection. “What’s going to happen to them, mate?” he said, stroking Dog’s floppy ears, and Dog gazed up at him, eyes closing under strokes. “What’s going to happen to the kakapo without us to look after them?”

A matter of time only. He knew it, and it wasn’t enough to make him go away. He knew every one of those two dozen birds. Knew them all by name, knew their personalities, the way they’d waddle up to him for attention and bits of treat, their great green faces trusting, wistful. Resolution gave him a duty and a purpose, and if apocalypse had taken everything else it hadn’t taken that.

Martin wasn’t a religious man, but he’d come to feel as an anchorite might, he thought. Wedded to a place, to a purpose, a world made small and the knowledge that there might be someone, someday, who would come and take their place. Maybe. “Too much for us, eh?” he said to Dog. Matters of faith were beyond him. He preferred tools he could hold in his hand: the axe, the traps. Nothing prayerful about them, they were simple and they worked.

It wasn’t a difficult job. Meticulous, yes, because he had to check the traps every day, make sure there was nothing in them and reset them if there was. Mostly there was nothing. That was lucky in a way, but it always made Martin wonder if rats had made it back to Resolution and had simply avoided the traps. He set out as many as he could, spent the evening light building more from odd bits of plank, from leftover wire and hinges. But mostly he relied on Dog. They tramped Resolution together, he and Dog. When he’d caught enough fish for the day he’d cook some up, leave the rest for dinner and they’d head off walking.

Dog’s nose was better than all the traps combined, and a good thing too. Martin saw the telltale behaviour one afternoon, the whine and hunting pose, and they were off through the bush, slower than he would have liked, for it was mud all through after rain, and it always rained on Resolution. He tripped and slipped behind Dog, gun slung over one shoulder, hoping for a clean end. If it was a stoat, if it was a ferret, and he couldn’t find it before dark there’d be no guarantee the kakapo would last the night. Not all of them, anyway, for the mustelids had a blood wish, sometimes, and killed more than they could eat for the sheer pleasure of the killing. Kakapo, big and plump in their burrows, wouldn’t be a challenge. He’d find them cold in their entranceways, the beautiful feathers dull and the features uncomprehending. “Find it, Dog!” he cried, mud all down his front and his waterproofs all slick with rain. “Find it!”

Dog was muddy too, his fur damp and with rivulets running off, but there was an eager gleam in his eyes, in the way he scampered along, more stable on four feet than Martin on two. But for all he was a good tracker there wasn’t much fight in him, though he bared his teeth and growled willingly enough when the stoat was back up against a corner of rocks. In other circumstances, Martin thought, as he shoved Dog aside and took aim, he’d enjoy the beauty of the little beast. For they were beautiful, in their way—the long sinuous bodies, the sharp little faces—and they moved like a dream, not like the poor waddling kakapo, who had at best pace a bastard mix of shuffle and scuttle.

The gun echoed over the island. “Got you,” said Martin. “I’ve fucking got you.” The small sleek body was warm in his hands, still. He thought he might try skinning it, not that it had a coat like a possum’s but it might be useful someday, and it would be something to do of an evening. He stroked it, admiring, and a little sad as well. A brave little thing, but he couldn’t be truly sorry.

He went out again the next day, used Dog’s trained nose to track down eight of the kakapo, found the other five the day after that. They blinked at him when he found them, all of them hale enough, and it left him weak in the knees that he’d not let them down, that they hadn’t been left a ragged pile of feathers with a broken body beneath.

“No, I’ll not leave you,” he said, stroking one of the big soft heads. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” They were as good as quarantine, were kakapo. It was as if Resolution had a wall around it of feathers and expectation, a thin wall and a flexible one but one that kept him in regardless. And there was nowhere else for him to be, really. His biology had been ecology and conservation more than anything, his university experience a series of field trips punctuated by lectures, and if there was anyone left out there looking for a cure for plague he’d be pretty bloody useless. Better to stay with the birds and hope that Resolution was isolated enough to keep him healthy, hope that if he caught sick anyway the species barrier would protect them.

They were still, he thought, the more precious population.

“It’s a funny thing, yeah?” he said to Dog. “We’ve been trying to keep those fluffy little bastards alive for so long. For years.” There’d been a time when the population was less than a hundred, and DOC had an almighty battle pulling them back from the brink. “Now there might just be more of them than there are of us.”

It was almost a cheerful thought, though it never lasted. Kakapo were still wavering on the edge—several hundred only, and slow at the breeding—but the establishment of predator-free islands like Codfish and Little Barrier kept them safe from ferrets, from cats and rats and other introduced species that spread over the southern lands like a plague. Resolution was the newest of the refugia, but it wasn’t too far off the mainland and rats could float over to it occasionally still, if the tides were right.  

The days were a round. Trap, hunt, fish, and the routine of it, the purpose, kept him from feeling alone even though he was.

Then the radio went off, and he was reminded. “Would you listen to that, mate,” he said to Dog, a wondering hand resting on the back of Dog’s head. “We’re not alone after all.”

Scientists, more of them, coming in from field work even more remote than his. Isolated, like he was, while the plague burned itself out.

“I’m out on Resolution Island,” he said. “With the kakapo.” He couldn’t leave them.

Turned out, they didn’t expect him to. The voice on the radio was almost broken with relief. “They’re alive?” it said. “I mean, we sent someone to Codfish, most of them seem alright, we got there quick enough.” Little Barrier had fallen. “I know it seems stupid to worry about birds, but, well . . . .

They weren’t about to throw everything over because of apocalypse either. “Seems a bit much, doesn’t it?” said the voice. “Better things to do than fight, am I right?” There were plans to retrieve the New Zealanders working at Scott Base, down in the Antarctic. “Some of the penguin guys are shifting over to kakapo.” It wasn’t as if penguins needed the help. Millions of the bloody things. “We’ll get someone over to spell you soon as we can.”

“I’m good,” said Martin. “I want to stay. Wouldn’t say no to some more supplies, though. Pretty sick of fish.”

They were setting up in Dunedin, the rest, over on the other side of mainland. “I belong on Resolution,” he said. “Me and Dog and the kakapo.” Because they’d weathered an apocalypse with him, even if they were too thick to know it, and he wasn’t interested in leaving them behind.

“I suppose it’s not the first one they’ve seen off,” he said afterwards, to Dog, as they made their way back out into the bush. Their world had ended once, too.

The kakapo that were left, they were the survivors.

A Diary from the End of the World

Worlds depart; their light endures.

Over five years before, I had arrived on the planet we call DA3(1), the Third Daughter of star Alkahran and the only life-bearing body in the system. As with most planets, this one had no specific name in the language of its natives: they called their sun the Sun, their world the World, and its inhabitants People. This world was not dying, but signs of the extinction of its dominant species were already there: squeezed between a voracious and utterly unviable relationship to their habitat and a generalised sense of doom, the people of DA3(1) might yet recover, or they might not. The savants of the galaxy already mentioned them with the tinge of regret reserved for disappearing beauty. Recording the glow from their fading embers was the perfect job for an exoethnologist, and so I was given an assignment there, to gather as much as I could of their culture in case it was lost forever.

I had spent the past few months in a place called Montevideo, sipping mate tea from a gourd and adding sketches of parakeet vendors to a string of unsorted field notes, when the mental call from Brood Mother came.

‘The Grand Central Reactors have failed for good,’ she said, her voice shaking with more than interferences from stellar winds.

The implications did not reach my brain at once. It takes longer to form an adequate reaction when you have transformed your body into one of another species, and for a moment, all I could think of was the warm mate cup in my hand and how annoying it was to be unable to receive space transmissions properly.

‘We have to evacuate,’ Brood Mother said. ‘Me, your sisters, we all have to leave. They say it’s hopeless. There will never been enough fuel to start them again.’

I put the cup down. In the dying throes of our sun, the Grand Central Reactors were all that kept the cold at bay. If we had only known they would run out of energy so fast . . . .

‘How long is there left?’ I said.

‘A month or so. We can’t be sure. Please, daughter . . . please come back.’

I blinked. My eyes, native eyes in a native body I had composed five years before, suddenly seemed to remember the soft red light of my own sun, and the glare of DA3(1) blinded me. Getting near my ship would be simple enough: air transportation operated all over this planet. It was the last few dozen kilometres that worried me. I had left my transporter hidden on a remote island to make sure it would come to no harm, but that meant it would be days, at best, before I could reach it.

‘I’ll be there, Brood Mother,’ I quickly said before she could sense my uncertainty.

There are thousands of records of worlds ending, but I had never seen anything quite like the place they called World’s End in Tierra del Fuego: a colourful city sprawled between mountains still capped with snow, with the sea glistening greyish blue some distance away. Boats swayed in the port under a weak breeze: mostly travellers, people of means and wanderlust, with little need for extra crew. It might take days before I found someone to take me to the other end of the Beagle channel, through its maze of islands, to where the transporter waited for me.

It was a strange city, Ushuaia, a place where no one seemed to linger, and yet where everyone appeared to come seeking a truth of some sort. End of the World, it said everywhere, as if it was a great thing. I sat in a café full of tourists in expensive hiking gear, like a very expensive interstellar tourist myself.

I tried listening to the conversations around me, out of habit. But there was little I managed to record. After five years on another planet, in another body, taking notes on everything until it became second nature, all I could now think about was a reddish sky illuminated by a huge sun, with purple trees bending in the wind.

I finally embarked upon a sturdy steel-hulled schooner manned by three Frenchmen—a sailor, a violinist, and a biologist, who taught me about birds in between bouts of peering at seawater through a microscope. Less than two days into our voyage, there was already no trace of human occupation left around us. Glaciers dropped into the sea from black, naked mountaintops. Flocks of penguins, albatrosses and petrels fled before us, inaudible with the whistle of the wind in the halyards. Aside from these and the occasional sea lion surfacing like a black blot in the distance, there was no animal presence, although many beasts roamed the depths of the sea, my companions had assured me. I had never seen the near-mythical beast they called a whale, but around here, those animals were undisputed queens.

On my home world, there were very few places so entirely devoid of people.

‘Hasn’t anyone ever lived here?’ I asked.

‘They used to, yes. They were slaughtered.’

I remembered encountering countless black-and-white pictures in Ushuaia of a long-gone people wrapped in furs and staring at the camera with nostalgia. Their names, Selknam, Yaghan, Haush, Kawésqar, were mentioned with reverence. Nowhere did anyone allude to the fact that they had been exterminated in less than a century to make room for cattle and fishing boats.

We’d had our genocides at home too. We did not like discussing them in the open either, and I could only suppose that now the end had come, most people would prefer to feel sorry for themselves and forget past guilt. That was how it seemed to be happening on DA3(1), at any rate.

‘Would you like a sip?’ my biologist companion offered, handing me the mate cup, once the waves calmed down a little.

It was a welcome respite from thinking. We sat together in the cockpit, enjoying a few minutes of warmth from the tiny, bright yellow sun.

‘You’re very silent,’ one of them observed. ‘Is everything fine?’

It was. It had to be. The panicked call this morning from Brood Mother was nothing; you would expect her to feel nervous in a time like this, and I was going to the transporter as fast as I could. I had acquired a decent command of most of this species’ expressions by then, so my broad smile reassured them.

‘Penguins,’ I said, pointing out to the now-quiet waters of the channel. ‘Look.’

As the ship approached, the tiny, black-and-white shapes dropped one by one into the waters. I gazed at a massive ice field cascading into the sea, surrounded by smooth rock where the ice had retreated. When I was a hatchling, my brood used to worry about the ice creeping up to our village, not away from it. I grew up to dread the sight of ice. Yet for some reason, with two hundred metres of cold, dark water under the hull and steep banks covered in impassably convoluted trees on either side of the channel, the situation felt peaceful, comforting.

The loss of an intelligent species is not the end of the world, I reminded myself. It was hard to keep that truth in mind sometimes. If humans disappeared from DA3(1), this place would hardly change at all.

Three days in, we approached the other side of the channel.

‘We could see whales around here,’ my biologist friend said. ‘We’re close enough to the ocean, and the waters are deep. I hope we’ll see them.’ He grinned like a child, a hand on the rigging to steady himself as he half-hung above the water—two hundred metres of kelp and darkness and massive wandering beasts.

‘Everybody seems fascinated with whales,’ I remarked.

‘They should be. Whales are as intelligent as we are. Just imagine, we could learn their language one day! How cool is that?’

I thought he was joking, but his grin was one of excitement, not of irony.

‘I thought you—’ I checked myself. ‘I thought we were the only intelligent species on this planet?’

‘Lots of species are intelligent,’ he retorted. ‘They just don’t write books about it.’

I had never thought of it this way, not even back home. I stared into the depth. But the water was so dark you couldn’t see anything one metre below the surface. I realised that, after five years on DA3(1), I knew next to nothing about whales, or any other species for that matter. Perhaps I had talked with too few biologists.

There were few whales left, my friend said, but this was one of a few places on Earth where they regularly came to hunt. Now I thought about it, on the day I had landed, I had seen a dark shape rise over the surface of the water and sink back down in a couple of seconds. I had not known about whales back then, although I had taken time to study local cultures through the haphazard messages they sent to outer space.

‘I hope we’ll see whales too,’ I said, to keep my thoughts from straying towards those years when I studied exoethnology from the comfort of my doomed home.

The sea spread like a sheet of metal ahead, so smooth the reflections looked as vivid as the mountains themselves. I gazed in the distance for the tapping of albatross feet in the waves, waters poked open by the back of a Chilean dolphin, or perhaps even a tall plume of spray that would announce the coming of a whale. The rumble of the motor blurred all other sounds, isolating hearing more than silence itself. But the broadcast echoing in my head bypassed exterior noise.

‘It’s over,’ Brood Mother said.

I did not answer for a moment. I was taking the news surprisingly well. I was not sure how the body I had adopted was supposed to react, but so far it hardly seemed to react at all.

‘You said there would be a month left,’ I said.

‘They ordered evacuation today. It’s over. We won’t ever come back.’

She said more things afterwards; that we had always known after all; that my sisters were not adjusting badly, all things considered; that the barracks on GDKZ5-3 were clean and pleasant. She did not say how our planet looked as the spaceship soared away. I imagined it would have shrunk to the size of a ball, then a tiny, cold silver pebble, alone and dying in the emptiness.

Something warm started to flow from my eyes, as if, of its own accord, my borrowed body knew about the beauty of the lakes on my home world at moonrise, the bellows of the storms in the trees, the cries of river birds in the morning. Water ran down my cheeks, so familiar after five years of use, yet so foreign in that moment. I tried to push myself out, to throw my mind towards the transporter however I could and fly away I didn’t know where. But grief tore my focus apart. I’d have to reach the transporter before I could get away from the form I had adopted, and so I stayed there, clutching the rigging, trying to remain motionless even as my mind cracked piece by piece.

There was a hesitant touch on my arm.

‘Are you all right?’ one of the crew asked. I forced my face into stillness.

‘I . . . .’ My voice croaked. I blurted out the first justification that would not sound too strange to them. ‘It’s . . . the anniversary. Today. My mother’s death.’

I did not turn to face him, but I received his words nonetheless. They were kind and awkward and brief. People here did not know how to deal with endings. He walked away soon and they left me alone, respecting a grief they understood so much less than they thought.

Island after island, channel after channel, the labyrinth unfolded towards the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

I did not discuss my supposed mourning any further with the crew. Instead I asked them about whales. I asked about whale song and what calves might learn from their mothers; whales helping out other beasts although nobody knew why; whales giving each other names; whales staying behind when hunted so that their pod members would not die alone; whales approaching ships without fear and being slaughtered for their flesh, even though nobody ate it anymore. We talked about albatrosses and penguin families and the tiny passerines that flocked to see what curious sorts of beasts we were when we neared the shore and shut down the motor. We talked and talked, warming our hands on mate cups and sipping the bitter warmth of the tea with delight, but we hardly looked at one another. Our eyes remained riveted on the blue and white humps of the mountains around us, the silver stillness of the sea.

Once, as we passed a waterfall gushing from under a glacier, I said—

‘There was a river near our house, when I was a child. And a waterfall, just like this one.’

My biologist friend nodded gravely and let me go on. So I told him about cold mornings bathed in red dawns, and taking walks near the water to pick tart little berries in woods rustling with beasts he knew no name for. I told him how I heard the voices of my grandmother and aunts in the wind and he smiled, no doubt thinking I meant it as a metaphor. I did not tell him about the daily reports on the central reactors that kept the core of our planet warm even after the warmth of the sun had failed it — about peacefully waiting for an ending everybody thought they would accept without question, as if we would always be able to hear the voice of our world and of our dead sun in the galactic wind.

I heard my own voice splinter before I felt it in my throat. I stopped talking.

My friend looked away and pointed at the shape of a sea lion, to give me a moment of privacy.

‘We lived in a house by the sea when I was little,’ he suddenly said.

I remembered what I had learned about warming climate and rising sea levels on DA3(1).

‘Is it still there?’ I asked.

He nodded.

‘It’s not going anywhere,’ he replied. ‘It’s just that there are more storms now. It gets flooded more and more often, and it won’t get better. I haven’t been there in a while.’

He did not sound as buoyant as he usually did, and I did not insist. But his smile came back after a brief silence, as he told me about a childhood on the beach, glimpsing octopuses and hermit crabs in beds of seagrass, eating bitter red berries from trees that grew short and dense in the salt seaside heat. The more I listened, the more I seemed to hear another voice under that of the seasoned sailor: the voice of an excited little boy reading about fish and dolphins, running on a beach and lecturing his family about the cuttlefish bones and seashells he found there, building up a steadfast love of the sea when everybody thought he was just playing. I remembered lying down in the grass and gazing at the stars, revelling in the certainty that there were other worlds to explore even as the first reports of alien probes reaching our orbit were broadcast. Without the strange shape of his limbs and face, this alien could have been a sister of mine.

‘It will stay there,’ I said. ‘None of it is going away.’

But I was not sure what I was talking about.

I recognised the shape of the island even though it looked exactly like all the islands around. It was the first thing I had seen of this world after landing, the place where I had left the transporter five years before.

But the familiar pulsing noise at the back of my head was absent. Aside from the song of the halyards against the masts, there was nothing to be heard. I reached with my thoughts. The body I had adopted was less sensitive than my native one. But there was no sound even as we neared the island. When I tried to empty my mind, I could not find the familiar echo. It was as if my own heart had stopped beating.

I stood still on the side of the ship as the realisation dawned on me. The transporter was in constant contact with installations on my home world. There would have been no reason to keep them running as evacuation neared completion. Without its transgalactic anchor, my ship could not function. It lay there inactive, dead as the world that had made it.

I would never be able to go back.

Hours passed and I still stood gazing at the island, probing with my mind even when I knew there would be no answer. Far ahead, the islands grew farther apart, the wind and waves more insistent. To a sailing ship, the passage to the open ocean was trickier than crossing half the universe had been to me. But when would my people start exploring the galaxy again if they had a whole world to rebuild?

I was alone, and stranded, and even if I ever found a way to go back, there was no ‘back’ anymore. I would only land in yet another new world, one where I would speak my native tongue and where people looked familiar again, but where the rustle of the trees and the smells and tastes and bird songs would never be the same.

As I desperately reached into the silence, a hollow sound burst through the sea, immediately followed by shouts. I jerked back to the ship as the sailors rushed to the prow.

A huge shape broke the water, shiny and black, its blowhole visible for a second, then the length of its back, then the tail unfolding out of the water and sinking again, as large as my entire body, not twenty metres from the ship. The sound of its blow had split the air like a horn, but it sank soundlessly, while the crew whooped and ran across the ship in hope to see it surface again. But in the wasteland of my mind reaching out for a signal that would never come, another sound rushed like a wave, the echo of a mind bigger and deeper than any I had ever encountered—

Little one little calf on the water hurt are you hurt I am here little one I will help . . . .

I stepped on the bowsprit, as far as I could, a strange feeling of weightlessness washing over me, as if I had reached the transporter and was changing into my native form again. I spread my mind open. Concern, gentle worry for a strange creature flooded my thoughts, and I probed for a way to respond, no hurt I’m fine I’m fine stay please stay here . . . .

The sound of the blow echoed again amid cries of wonder, and perhaps I saw the whale surface again, although sight and thought were too mingled to tell apart. Amid hissing waves and grey summits, I let myself drift for the last time, letting go of my borrowed body and perhaps of my native one as well, too far away from the safety of the transporter to know how it would end, and too far gone to care. The shouts of wonder turned to cries of warning, but overlaying my senses came the vast drifting thoughts again, little creature little stranger I will help you hurt no hurt you’re safe you’re safe . . . .

My feet lost the bowsprit, but there was no cold to meet me. I greeted the water like a long-lost home, I felt my mind change into one I had never imagined, and just before I lost words to enter a never-ending song, I realised that I was swimming home, in the only place in the universe where the world was not ending.

Fuck You Pay Me

In Indonesia the IAP was shelling Jakarta, in China the PLA Navy was scouring the Eastern seaboard for survivors, in the UK Londoners were lining up at WFP stations for groceries, and, just twenty miles from Felix and Anya, in Muscatine the combined forces of the Louisa, Muscatine, Scott, and Cedar County police departments were performing rescue missions and responding to bouts of looting throughout the flooded riverfront of the city—but in Greatland, Iowa, it was a quiet first day of winter break.

Felix and Anya sat on the bench swing at Washington Park, a treeless half-block of muddy grass with a small playground complex, not far from their high school. They were holding each other’s cold-numbed hands, Felix stamping against the ground occasionally to swing the bench.

“I found a personal accountancy AI calibrated for the Midwest,” Anya said, “if you want to check that out?”

“I thought you said personal accountancy was impossible to calculate.”

“I don’t think I said that,” Anya murmured.

“Yes you did, because I was asking you about these credit tallies people use when they go looting.” Felix turned F’s gaze on Anya.

“Oh. Um. I think I didn’t say that. But I might’ve said it’s . . . well, it would be nearly impossible to make one that was global, but regional ones are easier. There’s one for England, I know, people have used it to make credit tallies.”

“Sure, let’s do it then. I bet your credit’s a lot higher than mine. My parents and parents’ parents and parensparensparens are European as shit.”

Anya pulled her hand away to take out her cellphone, an old utilitarian thing that she had never gotten an upgrade for as long as Felix had known her. “Okay, here,” she said, handing F her phone. The website had just a few text fields on it—place of residence, ethnicity, and class—but as Felix answered them, they branched out into further questions of religion, great grandparents’ nationality, gender, assigned gender, time of immigration, and many fields where F had to write “IDK” and move on. When F tapped the “Submit” button, the phone looked like it was crashing, but then a results screen came up. “Nine hundred and forty-eight dollars!” Felix yelled. “Holy shit! If that’s what I’m owed, I can’t imagine what your credit is!”

“Yeah, neat huh?” Anya said, taking her phone back. “I’m thinking of pulling some old census data to a make a mod that can handle inputs about Iowa counties—get more specific on it, you know?”

As she started to tuck the phone into her pocket, Felix cut in, “Wait, you’re not going to see what you’re owed? Come on, you’ve got to—I bet it’s a shitload.”

“I mean, but. I know that. I kind of already know. N’COBRA developed an AI to calculate reparations, and you can just split that number by the number of people in the US descended from slaves.”

“But this is for you—you personally. Come on, for me, I want to know.”

“Okay,” she took out her phone again, and smirked.

“What? What’s funny?”

“It does kind of seem fun.”

“It is fun!” Felix gave them a good swing, and stared out at the slushy ground while Anya entered her info. A truck, a gas guzzler, rumbled past them, and Felix shouted, “Fuck you!”

“Felix,” Anya cautioned.

“Who the hell is still driving cars—and a gas car especially. Must be some POFA asshole, if they can afford to fuel that thing.”

“Okay, just . . . .” Anya started, but then stopped and pursed her lips.

“What, what is it?”

That smirk broke out again, and she turned the phone screen to Felix: $104,667.

“Holy shit! That’s enough for . . . that’s enough for . . . .”

“A full ride to Iowa State,” Anya said.

“What?” Felix asked. “But you’ve—”

“I’ve got the Future Scientists scholarships. Yeah, yeah. I just mean, if that money got frozen, or something, like they did with the scholarships for everyone who’s a junior now . . . just a possibility, you know?”

Of course F knew. They both knew. And they both knew that Felix’s legacy scholarship wasn’t state-funded, so no one was going to pull that money to deal with the recession, and they both knew that if Future Scientists got cancelled, Felix would still be at Iowa State next year, while Anya—

“Yeah.” Felix nodded and tried to not think about it, putting F’s arm around Anya. F gave them a push, and the chains of the swing squawked as they rocked gently.

“Hey, Felix—”

“What if we looted something,” Felix said.

“What?”

“Between the two of us we have more than enough credit to justify it.”

“Real funny.”

“I’ve been reading articles about it, it’s really pretty easy in places like this. Plenty of big empty mansions out in the country, rich owners gone away for winter break . . . .”

“You’re not being serious, um, right?”

“Well it’s a fun idea, isn’t—” Felix stopped when F heard a rumbling behind them and turned. It was that same fairly new, dark blue Ford that had gone by earlier. “The fuck are they doing? Just cruising around for the fun of it?” Felix bent down to scoop up some mud.

“F,” Anya said, “F, hey . . . .”

The car turned left, passing right in front of them, and Felix jumped up and hurled the mudball as hard as F could. It hit the back windshield with a whap like a thunder crack, reverberating in the empty block. Felix shouted, “You piece of—” but F’s breath caught when the back lights flared red and the truck shrieked to a halt. “Shit!” F pivoted back to Anya and shouted, “Run!” Anya dashed for her bike, and Felix for F’s, not looking behind. Without meaning to they both pushed off in opposite directions, but F couldn’t turn back now. The streets were deserted, grimy with salt, mud, and puddled potholes, so F blasted through four-way stops, turning left and right and right and left, trying to lose F’s self in the waffle-iron residential blocks of the town.

A thin drizzle was passing over Greatland just a few days before Christmas when Felix texted Anya, Hey you should come over. Parents are out trying to sell the car. Felix set F’s phone aside on the couch and turned back to the YT News special F was watching. It was about the origins of the accounting AIs, how they’d been an open source reference tool for the UN climate change program before becoming the core of a global political movement. After a while, Felix paused the video and picked up F’s phone again—no response. F started to text her, but as soon as F did, there was a little knock at the front door.

Felix answered the door to find Anya outside, her bike chained to the railing of the little staircase leading up to the prefab.

“Hey,” she said. She looked beautiful, flushed from the ride over, a warm little glow of light against the suburban wasteland and sky of shadows.

“Hey,” Felix said, and hugged her. “Come in!” F stepped back, then closed the door behind her. “So, I was—”

“Actually, Felix . . . I kind of, need to—I should’ve told you right away the other day, but it’s hard, and I just . . . .” Anya paused for a while, and bit at her lip. “The state legislature voted last week to—they’re pulling funds for Future Scientists. All funds. And my parents—well we don’t know what’s—”

“So you, you can’t go to Iowa?” Felix asked.

Anya shifted her feet around. “The law could be reversed, but . . . but . . . .”

Felix felt tears boiling up around F’s eyes. “That’s bullshit! For years, people like that have been fucking over people like you, and now that the consequences of greed have caught up with them, they’re still just taking care of their own first!”

Anya hesitantly held out her arms, “Um,” then she stepped forward and hugged F. She was a little taller than Felix, and F pushed F’s face into the crumply synthetic material of her winter coat. Going off to college without Anya. Freshman sophomore junior senior year without Anya. And Anya, brilliant Anya, smarter than anyone F knew Anya, consigned to some community college. “It’s so unfucking fucking fucking fair!” Felix slurred into her shoulder.

“I know,” she murmured. “I’m. I’m really grateful for everything I have, but—I really wanted to go to a university.” She shivered against Felix and hugged F tighter. F hugged her tighter back. “I—” she started, then choked and fell silent.

The world was stupid and mean and—

“Oh!” Felix pushed back from her. “I forgot, what I wanted to talk to you about!” F sniffed, and grinned. “I found a place we can loot!”

“What? Felix . . . .” Anya rubbed at her eyes.

“All the more reason to loot it now, right?” Sniff.

“But . . . no, there’s no way . . . looting that much money, that would be traced, or, or, if we stole stuff and pawned it, it’d be really suspicious, and—”

“There are safe ways to do it though—online, you—”

“I don’t think so.”

“Really, you just use proxies and bots to—”

“But I don’t think I’m comfortable with—”

“Then fine, don’t pawn anything. We can just go, and steal stuff you like—get you a new laptop, so you can finally start designing your own AI instead of just making mods, yeah?” And maybe you’ll change your mind when you see what riches these people are hoarding, and decide to go all the way, so you can go to ISU . . . .”

Anya looked almost as distressed as she had right before telling F her scholarship was gone.

“Look at me and tell me you don’t deserve a better computer—to have the tools you actually need to do your work,” Felix said, the tears spilling out again. “Look at me and honestly tell me that, and if you can, then . . . .”

Anya stared into F’s eyes for a while, and her face slowly relaxed. Then, “Can we do it safely?”

Felix had found the house on Red Door, a bnb-like website with stricter membership requirements, aimed at wealthier travelers and homeowners—definitely people with debt, not credit. The place was un-booked (surprise, no one wanted to go to Greatland Iowa for their holiday break), and had been available since the fifteenth. It was out in the countryside, a twenty-minute bike ride from Felix’s house.

By the time they turned off the highway, it’d stopped raining and the sun had set. The drive led them through a thicket of trees into a postage-stamp clearing surrounded by forestry. At the center stood a two-story house with an excessively furnished front porch and a stretch of chain link fence visible toward the back.

“What if that’s for a dog?” Anya pointed at the fence.

“If there was a dog it would’ve been mentioned on Red Door,” F murmured. “Your mask is slipping some.” F pinched the fabric and stretched it up over the bridge of her nose. They both wore scarves wound tight around their faces just below their eyes and skull caps above, in case of security cams.

“Alright,” Felix said, taking out F’s phone, “I’m gonna call you now.”

F walked their bikes over to the side of a long shed catty-corner to the house, then propped F’s phone on the handlebars so the camera pointed out to the road.

Anya took out her phone. “So if I see someone drive through here on this call, what do we do?”

“We hide in the trees and wait them out,” Felix said. “Private security is not going to want to find us, you know? They’ll get here, look around the house, and assume we ran away. They’re not in the business of catching people, just chasing them off.”

“What about police?”

“Police are all in Muscatine helping with the flood, they don’t have time for anything happening in pissant little Greatland.” F made for the house. “Now come on, let’s do this.”

They’d cased the place on Google Maps and seen, in a summer picture, little plants set out on the shallow incline of the porch roof. If someone could move plants in and out through the windows, a person could probably make it through too. They’d also discovered that one wall of the porch consisted of a lattice choked with vines, which made for an easy climb up to the awning.

“Look, this is the one,” Felix whispered, motioning Anya over to one of the second story windows. Behind the glass, they could see the plants set out on the windowsill. Although it was a pain to remove the screen with their gloves on, the window wasn’t actually locked or bolted into place, and it slid up easily.

“Careful with the plants, Felix,” Anya said, as Felix squirmed past them.

“No names, Bug,” Felix hissed back at her, and as she came in behind F, F went and looked for the light. “You in?” Felix asked.

“Yeah,” Anya said, and hearing the window sliding shut, Felix hit the switch.

The room was a bathroom, with two sinks and a closet twice the size of Felix’s own, but just for towels. The shower/bathtub overflowed with products—conditioner, dry scalp conditioner, scented shampoo, bodywash, a chunky bar of soap, washcloths, a luffa, a glass jar of bath salts—and the counter of the bathroom held even more—shaving cream, razors, more bars of soap, combs, hairbrushes, nail scissors, deodorants, perfume, eyeliner, lip gloss, foundation and setting powder (none the right shade for Anya or Felix), mouthwash, toothpaste, an army of orange prescription bottles. Just as stunning as the quantity and variety of the stuff, all of them were name brand. These people were debtors for sure.

As they progressed through an upstairs hallway, then down a flight of stairs to the living room, they followed the same routine. Turn on the lights, survey the area, check in with each other to see if either of them wanted something, then turn off the lights and move on. Felix didn’t take much, but Anya wasn’t taking anything. “Are you sure?” Felix asked. “Something small?” They both wore backpacks that they could stuff a lot of things into. “No,” she said, “I don’t want their stuff. I’m just looking for a laptop.” And on they went.

The house was overstuffed, top to bottom. Even the fridge and pantry were well-stocked, with more animal products in one place than Felix had ever seen outside a supermarket. F used Anya’s phone to check the price of a block of cheddar cheese, $31.50. F marked it down on F’s tally and took it, instantly tearing open the packaging and taking a big bite. Felix hadn’t had dairy cheese since F was six, before the carbon taxes made it too expensive, and it was creamy beyond anything Felix could remember. Rich and dense like a potato, sweet, and salty and fatty like peanut butter. F offered the block to Anya. “Want some?”

“No, I’m vegan. Aren’t you vegan?”

“Everyone’s vegan,” Felix said, taking another bite, really chewing on it.

“So why are you eating that?”

“It’s not like I’m buying it,” F said. “And it’s delicious. Why not enjoy the fruits of their greed?” Felix wrapped up the cheese and stuck it into F’s backpack, quickly following it with a box of cookies that ran about $29, a loaf of sourdough ($19), a jar of blackberry jam ($15), a half-used bag of Sumatra coffee (half of $44—$22), and a small travel mug ($31).

When they reached the home office Anya finally stopped checking her phone every two minutes to pore over the enormous desk at the end of the room, which held two monitors and an enormous computer tower.

F smiled under F’s scarf, then turned to the wall opposite the desk where three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stood. After Felix had raided them, F powered on the computer to calculate how much credit F had left. F didn’t want to bother Anya asking her for her phone, as she was now sitting cross-legged on the floor, bent over a Tupperware box full of electronic paraphernalia with that I-am-now-just-in-my-own-world-and-I-don’t-care-how-I-look-to-anyone-else concentration that Felix had always found so adorable in her. $563.32—that was how much F was still owed. F was about to shut down the computer when a folder on the desktop caught F’s eye.

“Oh my god,” Anya whispered, as Felix opened the folder, titled “spreadsheets.”

“What?” F looked over, and saw her holding a small, slender laptop.

“This is so new . . . this is just a year old . . . it’s a Ryder Mini, it’s . . . .” And now, even though her mouth was completely obscured, Felix knew that Anya was smiling.

“How much is it?”

“About five thousand dollars,” she said.

“Take it, Bug!”

Anya slung her backpack around the front of her and slipped the laptop inside. “What are you doing?”

Felix’s eyes roamed across the screen. “These are quarterly reports, for this family’s farm—we could feed this into that personal AI and figure out how much these people owe—we’d know exactly how much you can take from them—it’s probably enough to pay for college.”

“Well, probably,” Anya murmured. “But . . . .”

“I’m doing it.” Felix opened the web browser and rattled off a search query.

“Fe—I mean, just, those, the AI don’t handle businesses very well. They’re not optimized for them.”

“Really? Because the site has an option for ‘business’ in this dropdown.” Felix selected this option, and then rather than filling out any forms, clicked “Upload Data.”

“Huh,” Anya said. “Must be a more recent build . . . .”

Felix selected all the folders F’d looked at, plus several more that F hadn’t, but which seemed relevant. The AI was smart, it could sort out what was and wasn’t important for itself. They both watched as a progress bar appeared on the screen and crawled from 5% to 23% to 29% to 44%, much faster than it would’ve done on Anya’s computer or Felix’s. In less than a minute, the bar was up to 99%, and then the page reloaded and the number appeared: $4,344,505.

“What the fuck?” Felix said. “Whoa, what?”

“See, that’s what I’m saying, I don’t know how accurate—”

“Would it be this inaccurate? Really? There’s something in that data, this family’s done some shit, Anya.”

“That’s . . . this number is . . . .”

“Slaveholding, or maybe they’re descended from some old shitty European dynasty, or—”

“That’s not in the data!” Anya snapped. “There’s no tab that records the number of slaves this family’s ancestors had—and we’re in Iowa, these people are probably descended from protestant Germans, not slaveholders or monarchs.”

“Then they’re paying people below minimum wage, or using some massively pollutant farming process,” Felix said. “Either way, their shit is ours for the taking. This room is a great place to start, you tell me, what’s valuable in here?”

“F, if that’s their debt, I, I don’t know how much we can trust my credit.”

“What? Of course we can, it’s consistent with other reparations AI.”

“Well, you know, that’s an average, it’s not like every black person is, has some legacy of deprivations, or—”

“Of course not, but you—your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad was a slave, right? We can say that with certainty.”

“But my mom’s white, and I’ve—I can’t deny the benefits of that, or—”

“That is ridiculous, and you know it.” Felix picked up an external drive, and unzipped Anya’s pack to put it in.

“Stop!” she yelled, spinning away. “I’m saying, I don’t feel like I’ve had some horrible life of being withheld from opportunities, I, I feel incredibly grateful for everything I’ve got, especially considering what my dad went through, and I don’t feel like a hundred thousand dollars has been robbed from me.”

“You don’t have to feel it.” Felix shoved the drive into F’s own pack and started grabbing other electronics. “The computer is telling you.” F picked up a phone, then realized it was Anya’s, which she had left on the desk—but in the moment F picked it up, F saw a shape moving out of frame, toward the house. “Shit! Come on, grab everything as quickly as possible!”

“What, F, is there—” Her voice choked up.

“Yeah, let’s go!” F flipped off the lights. “Listen, do these rich assholes deserve these electronics more than you deserve college?”

“I—No,” she hissed, and she pushed past F and plunged her hands into the box of electronics, fishing out sleek black and gray apparatuses and placing them on the desk by the light of the monitor. Felix helped her, filling up F’s own pack as well as hers.

“Wait, F,” Anya whispered, staring at the computer monitor.

“What, you want to take that?”

“This isn’t the Midwest AI, this is global.” Anya looked at F. “This isn’t what they owe to the creditors of the Midwest, or America, it’s what they owe to the world.”

“But that’s—”

“Why it’s so high—someone must’ve cracked it in the past few days, figured out how to—”

An enormous crashing sound as the front door exploded open, and something came skittering down the hall, knocking off the walls and into the office. The doorknob.

“Whoever is in there,” a voice boomed from the doorway, “get the fuck out, and leave your shit!” Not private security. A looter.

There were two exits to the office—one to the front hallway, one to the dining room. If Felix remembered correctly, from the dining room they could get to the backyard—but they’d have to move quick.

“F, look,” Anya pointed to the monitor, which displayed the homepage for the site that Felix had breezed past when F was uploading the data. Anya’s finger was pressed to a text box which read,

$36,433

Average debt of a lower-class US citizen

“I’ll give you till ten to come over here and surrender whatever you’ve taken!” The voice yelled.

“I’ve got a plan,” Felix hissed. “Out the back.”

“One! Two!”

Anya stuck close as they crept through the dining room.

“Three! Four!”

“I hate this,” she moaned.

“Five! Six!”

Felix used every shouted number as a chance to open the creaking door further.

“Seven! Eight!”

Across the threshold now . . . .

“Nine! Ten!”

And it was closed. They heard stomping inside and quickly scurried off the back porch to crouch beside some hedges. The rain had come back—no, it was snow this time.

“Okay,” Anya said, “what now?”

“Now we sneak around to our bikes and GTFO.”

“Wait, that was your plan? Are you serious? No, no, then we should just give the stuff back—”

“Keep your voice down,” Felix snapped, and F headed toward the edge of the house.

From inside they heard the looter shout something, and they froze at the corner of the house for a while before continuing on to the chain link fence, which enclosed the backyard. “Let’s go over the fence one at a time,” F said, “so we don’t make too much noise.” Felix fit one foot into a hole and, pushing off of it, for the first time that night felt the enormous weight of F’s pack. The chains jangled, and F climbed as quickly as possible, easing F’s body down to the other side. F could see the bikes from here just yards away, Felix could see F and Anya riding away on them, Felix could see huge sums rolling into Anya’s bank account and Felix could see her graduating with F.

“Jesus this is heavy,” Anya said, reaching the top of the fence. She sat there, straddling the metal pole running across the top. “I won’t be able to bike up and down hills with all this on my back.”

There was more shouting in the house. “You can and will,” Felix said, “now get down from there!”

Anya pulled down her scarf, one hand still clasping the fence for balance. “I can’t, Felix . . . I, you saw what that site said—none of this is ours. I mean, if we really want to be accountableist, we should donate our own things to, to displaced Indonesians—or to Puerto Ricans, or—”

“We’re just kids!” Felix said. “We can do all that later, once we’ve gotten an education and have jobs that—”

“I know you want us to go the same university, but—”

“That’s not what this is about!” Felix shouted, then instantly clapped a hand over F’s mouth. In the silence, Anya began slipping off her pack with her free hand.

Felix reached up to snatch it, but Anya twisted away. “If you let go of that,” Felix said, “you’re letting go of everything that’s been stripped away from your ancestors for generations—you’re letting go of—” F swiped at it again.

“You don’t get to steal on behalf of my ancestors!” Anya hissed. The pack now hung by just one strap, which she reached for.

I’m not stealing it, it’s not mine, it’s for you, when you come to your senses!” Just as Anya took hold of the strap Felix jumped up to grab it. F caught onto her scarf instead and without a thought yanked as hard as possible, sending scarf, Anya, and backpack tumbling over the fence and slamming into the hard cold ground.

Felix stared in horror. “Oh my—Anya, Bug, I didn’t—I’m sorry, I—”

Anya pushed herself up. “Fucking take it, asshole,” she said, shoving the pack into F’s hands. “I don’t want it.”

“But the laptop—”

“Fuck the laptop. Slave labor pollutant bullshit anyway.” She walked past F, then froze.

“Hand it over!”

F turned and saw the looter heading toward them. As they got closer, Felix could see a handgun tucked into the waistband of their jeans. “My buddy in the car heard you idiots. What’d you think, I came alone?” Though their face was covered by a ski mask, they sounded young, maybe early twenties.

“What’s, what’s your credit tally?” Felix asked, voice shaking. “Why do you deserve this more than her?” The looter stopped a few yards away from them, and Anya backed up to stand in front of Felix. “She needs this money for college.”

“College? Fuck off,” the looter said. “Give me the bags.”

Felix chucked over F’s own bag, still holding onto Anya’s pack. “You’d just take a girl’s education from her? She deserves a—”

“Kid, unless she’s a Rohingya or some shit, she doesn’t deserve dick. Looting isn’t about deserving, it’s about wanting. If you prefer to use a credit tally, whatever. But my credit tally’s only twenty-k. Fuck that. I want a car, I want a treadmill, I want some weed and I want a flat screen and a VR system and I want a big motherfuckin’ hamburger, and I want that goddamn backpack, now.” The looter’s hand had come to rest on their handgun. Felix held out Anya’s bag, and the looter took it. “Community college is cheap enough anyway, she’ll be fine.” They then grabbed Felix’s bag off the ground.

“Don’t take that,” Anya spoke up. “There’s a few electronics on top, you can take those, but the rest is just books and some food.”

The looter, putting on Anya’s backpack, unzipped Felix’s and upended it, shaking it out vigorously. After a moment’s consideration of the pile of takings, they cast the empty bag aside and stood back up. “I don’t want any of that shit.” They turned and headed back to the house.

“Do you treat most looters like this?” Felix asked. “Why can’t we work together? We’re on the same side!”

“Yeah kid,” the looter called back. “We’re the debtors.” They disappeared from sight then, but F heard a car door slam, and after a while the front door of the house opening and closing.

Felix picked up F’s backpack as Anya walked away toward the bikes, and F looked at all the items scattered in the snow and dead leaves. Books and electronics that weren’t F’s. What the fuck was F doing with someone else’s food?

F arranged the petty plunder in a neat stack by the side of the house, using the heavier items to weigh down the flimsier ones. F put on the empty backpack and walked to the bikes, spying someone inside the looter’s car who watched F back. When Felix had biked out to the edge of the property, F was surprised to almost come crashing into Anya, who was standing on the edge of the highway beside her bike.

Felix pulled down F’s scarf. “You deserve the world,” F said to her. “You deserve everything, nothing could be enough.”

Anya didn’t respond.

“You’ll still do great, even without going to a big university. I’m the one who’s going to be struggling, without, without . . . .” A cold wind whipped through F. “I’m so sorry. I know an apology isn’t enough, I owe you so much more—”

“Can I have my phone?” Anya said.

“Your . . . .”

“When you saw the car come in, you took my phone,” Anya said.

“I . . . .” Felix felt F’s stomach roll. “I put it in your bag. I can, I’ll go back and—”

“No,” Anya said, “don’t be reckless.”

“Then—then you can have my phone, please, let me—”

No. Just text my phone, letting the looters know I’d like it back. And give them your number so they can work it out with you. It’s a cheap phone. They won’t mind not keeping it, and if they do it won’t be expensive to replace.”

“Oh—okay.” Felix nodded, and Anya got on her bike and kicked back the stand.

“Hey, what’s the credit tally needed for snow?” she said, then pushed off down the road.

For the first time, Felix realized, truly took account of the fact, that it was snowing. It was snowing, in Iowa, in December no less. F couldn’t remember the last time that’d happened—maybe before F was born.

The credit tally needed for snow. More than Greatland deserved. More than Middle America, agricultural heart of a miserly old debtor empire, deserved. More than Felix deserved, too, idiot. But it was falling on F, anyway.

The Mortmain

Henryk Król was washing dishes, looking out at the setting-sun light shuddering through the trees—considering, without real conviction, whether the trees should be trimmed to let more light through; whether he had any right to trim the trees, as after years of residence he was still unsure where his yard ended and the forest began—when the boy knocked on the edge of his screen door and came into the kitchen a moment later. Henryk had fallen out of the habit of locking his door during the day; here, it was unnecessary. And locking your door at night was only because of the animals, raccoons with their thieving ways and curious deer, occasionally a bear. Not boys with bare feet.

“What happened to your shoes?” Henryk asked. Even little boys did not run around barefoot like they used to. And this boy existed in the grey area between boy and man, slight enough to be a teenager, wiry and solemn enough to be a young man. He wore ripped trousers and a grey hoodie worn so thin in patches Henryk could glimpse his ribs; no shirt, no shoes. The boy seemed unreal, like a preview of his usual unsettling dreams.

“Nothing,” the boy said. “Are you the surgeon?”

Henryk dried his hands, keeping the boy in the corner of his eye. “I was a surgeon. Why do you ask?”

The boy tugged his hoodie off, scattering pine needles across the floor. The scent of the forest moved into the kitchen. Using his skinny hands to frame the area, he indicated a patch of skin on his stomach that looked exactly the same as the rest. “There’s something hurting me,” he said flatly. “It needs to be taken out.”

Henryk moved slowly as he picked the hoodie up and handed it back to the boy, who took it reluctantly. He felt like he was in a room with a wild animal. Didn’t want to spook it. “What is your name?”

The boy glanced over his shoulder. “Mort.”

A blatant falsehood: the forest behind him was the Mortmain Forest. Henryk let it slide. “Mort, I am several years retired. Also, you must be examined before you have surgery. Have you been examined?”

Mort scowled. “I don’t need it. I know what’s wrong.”

“How?”

“I feel it.” He touched the place again, gently. “I know when something’s wrong. I just can’t fix it.” He looked at Henryk imperiously. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”

“I am supposed to help my patients. There is a process to becoming a patient. I would not want to hurt anyone by rushing into something.”

Mort’s scowl deepened. “Didn’t you take an oath?”

“The Hippocratic? That would have been foolish of me. It prohibits the use of a knife, among other outdated stipulations.”

I solemnly pledge to consecrate my life to the service of humanity. That one.”

Henryk looked at Mort with new interest. “The Declaration of Geneva. It’s less well-known.”

Mort didn’t provide an explanation, just gestured at his stomach, get-to-it-then. Henryk sighed. “It still does not mean I must tend anyone who comes to me. You may need help, but unless you are examined I cannot tell whether you need the help of a surgeon or . . . another sort of doctor.”

With an angry huff of breath, Mort pulled the hoodie back on. “I don’t need another doctor. I need your help.”

“You don’t know—”

“I know what I need.” Mort turned and went out, looking back as the screen door shivered in its frame. “I’ll be back,” he said. “You’ll change your mind.”

“Unless you come back with paperwork from a doctor, I shall not.”

“You have to,” Mort said. The hoarseness of his voice made it either a threat or a statement of desperation. He turned, then, and half-ran into the trees. Henryk watched until night swelled up—as it seemed to in these parts, rising up from the ground like mist—and made every tree a shadow in the dark.

Henryk often questioned why he lived by the Mortmain. The trees were lovely, if old and tangled, but he preferred cities. The convenience, the bustle of life, never being quite alone. His husband—Simon—had liked the forest. Bought this house. Maybe some lingering superstition had drawn Henryk out here; his mother always said ghosts haunted the places they loved the most.

No ghosts out here, unless Mort was one. Seeking eternal help for a hernia that had killed him in the days before medicine advanced. He looked nothing like Simon—Simon had been taller, dark-skinned and vibrant. No better word to describe how alive he felt to Henryk, right up until he wasn’t.

Late afternoon, a day later, Henryk walked to the nearby town. He argued with himself, like always, over how whether he should get a car. He had learned to drive once, and he chose to believe that, like riding a bicycle, it was muscle memory. But the process of buying one, the noise and intensity and all the myriad little things that had been added to cars since he had last owned one—it daunted him. Better to walk, until he could no longer.

He asked the young woman at the grocery store if she knew anyone who looked like Mort. She shook her head. “Could be a couple different boys from around here. Probably someone messing around, trying to scare you.”

“Then they did not succeed.”

She laughed. Henryk was reminded, uncomfortably, that he had become what certain young women see as a cute old man. Soft-voiced and nonthreatening and slow, with a funny accent.

Do you know what I did when I was your age? He wanted to say. I crossed an ocean, moved to a different country—this unfriendly country—to be with the man I loved. I never thought I would grow old, but I have. Alone. It’s not amusing.

He smiled, with effort, instead. Time would talk to the girl in his stead, say things more eloquently than he ever could.

“Hey,” she said, sliding him his bags, “you need any help with those?”

“I will be fine.”

“The development’s not happening on your side of the forest, is it? Things are getting pretty hairy around there.”

“This is the first I have heard of it.”

She leaned her elbows on the counter and pointed out the window. “If you go up to the corner of Pine and Elm, you can see the smoke and dust. The government cut a deal with some company that wants to take a slice off the Mortmain and put something in—probably a luxury hotel or something stupid like that.”

“That’s terrible.”

The girl nodded. “And that’s not even the weird part. The weird part is, something’s been coming out of the woods at night and messing with the machines. Overturning them, scratching them up—huge machines! One guy tried to get a look at it—I dunno what problem they had with their cameras—and now he’s in the hospital.”

“Perhaps a bear?”

“It’d have to be a hell of a bear. My aunt says it’s karma. She was protesting down there before they shooed everyone off because of the whatever-it-is.” The girl sighed. “They’re probably gonna get a permit to shoot it, because God forbid the wildlife trespass on the bit of the forest they want to wreck.”

Henryk looked her over again, taking in her carved-wood earrings, the environmental pin on her apron. “You would prefer the creature chase them away, I imagine.”

“Who wouldn’t?” She shook her head. “But it seems like every forest’s being torn apart these days. If it isn’t us, it’s beetles, rot . . . .”

“Always something.”

She rubbed the pin with a tip of her finger, as if it were a magic charm. “That’s life, I guess.”

Mort was sitting on the steps when Henryk came up to the house, a still, dark figure in the twilight. He wore shoes this time—sneakers, the logo long peeled away, splitting at one seam—without socks, and the same grey hoodie and trousers.

“I can’t give you what you want,” Henryk said.

Without answering, Mort came forward and took a grocery bag. Henryk yielded it with only slight reluctance; his arms ached. Mort hefted it like a dead leaf. When he opened the door—which Henryk could not recall if he’d locked—and went into the kitchen, he didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He moved in the dark like he knew the place.

They put things away together, silently. Mort still smelled like pine and oak, but with a sour whiff of oil and smoke. His hands were striped with dirt. When they finished, Henryk pointed down the hall. “The bathroom is down there. You may use the shower if you wish.”

He watched Mort leave the room, wondering if he lived in the forest. Judging by the degraded state of his clothes, maybe he was a runaway; Henryk could, with some work, imagine a teenager being too stubborn to return to civilization even if they needed clothes or medical help. Perhaps he had fled an abusive home. Or maybe that was the wrong train of thought; maybe he had come to the Mortmain to join the protesters and chosen to go into the woods he loved instead of going back home when they were dispersed.

He made tea.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Mort said from the doorway.

Henryk had seen a lot of things in his life; he only blinked before saying, “I believe you forgot your clothes.”

Mort rolled his eyes, as if Henryk was changing the subject for foolish reasons, and wandered back down the hall. He left a pattern of water on the floor behind him, footprints that didn’t look quite right. When he returned he wore only his pants and shoes; his hoodie, ripped down a seam, was draped over his arm. On the lower left side of his stomach, there was a small dark spot.

“What is that?”

Mort glared at him. “The same thing it was yesterday.”

“The skin was unmarked yesterday.” Henryk beckoned him closer and examined the spot. Discolored skin, no break. “This may simply be a bruise. They sometimes look unusual.”

Mort sighed. “It’s underneath. It’s just starting to show now.”

“Mort,” Henryk said, keeping his tone casual, “do you have a family?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen my parents in a long time, but my younger brother lives with me.”

“Are you old enough to be living alone?”

“I’m plenty old.”

“You ripped your hoodie. Do you have anything else?”

Mort shrugged.

He was taller and a little thinner than Henryk, but one of Henryk’s old shirts fit him well enough. Henryk expected him to protest, but he accepted it—and the trousers Henryk offered—with a confused air. Like he couldn’t understand why Henryk would turn down his request and then give him something he hadn’t asked for. “Won’t you just trust me and take it out?” he asked one more time.

Henryk said, “Go to the doctor down in the town—do you need his address?”

Mort shook his head. “That’s too far,” he said, and wouldn’t explain what he meant.

Henryk dreamed strange dreams that night; different from his usual stressed, repetitive dreams about strangers telling him Simon had died; or his whole life unwinding like a spool of thread until he was back in his childhood home, where nobody knew him. Simon came and sat on his bed, looking younger. He thanked Henryk for burying him in the woods—which was wrong; Henryk had seen him buried under a tree in the city cemetery. He tried to say this, but his tongue was dark and swollen, and when he pressed a hand to his ribs, his flesh gave way like overripe fruit. Simon frowned, the same sweet, concerned look Henryk had seen so many times, and said, “Honey, I think you’re sick.” He smelled oil and smoke.

When he woke, sweaty and short of breath, his stomach ached. He went out to sit on his steps, although it was pitch-black. The night air was sweet and cool; his shivering abated after a few minutes. Far away, he heard a machine start up and then die again. Start up, and die. The third time it choked and sputtered to a stop like an animal with its throat opened, and after that there were only the small noises of the woods.

Online, Henryk only found an article or two about the permission given to pass a road through and build something on “the edge” of the Mortmain; after some time he finally found an informal news outlet covering the protesters and “the large animal” that had disturbed the proceedings. That article questioned the government’s authority to give permission for the land to be used; the true ownership of the Mortmain seemed murky.

He had to go into town to hear that one of the machines had been flipped over and split like a cracked nut the night before. The people in charge had chased onlookers away but it only took one or two for the whole town to know. The man in the hospital had woken up and told a nurse that a “monster” had thrown him into a tree. On the local news station, a spokesperson for the project assured everyone it was probably a bear. “Clearly aggressive,” he said. “Probably sick with something. But there’s no need to worry, we’ll get it sorted out.”

At some point during the day, the feeling of Simon’s presence settled in behind him like a shadow. Henryk did his best to ignore it, then did his best to confront it. His mirror showed him nothing but himself, on the tired side of sixty-five but alive, relatively healthy. Not dying, not rotting, not haunted. He focused on the silent air behind his shoulder, tried to picture Simon there.

“Why now?” he asked.

There was nothing but silence and an answer from his own memories. Simon coming home waxy with hunger and weariness, red-eyed from smoke, bruised and battered. Simon going out again; every person counts, Henryk, we have to make our voices heard. Have to show them they can’t get away with this. There had always been another march he wanted to join, another group he wanted to support, another injustice to protest. Right up until he couldn’t.

“But there is nothing I can do,” Henryk told the mirror.

This time, the silence sounded like Mort.

That night, Mort did not come.

The next day, Mort did not come.

The third day, in the morning, Henryk was washing his coffee cup when a tree crashed somewhere outside, and shots rang out. He dropped the cup, it shattered into pieces in the blood-warm water, and he moved outside like a sleepwalker.

Somehow he expected to step into the past. Into a memory he did not have, because he had not been there the day Simon and his friends had been stopped by the police. He hadn’t witnessed the questions, if there had been any, or the word or motion that had made one man pull his trigger—the “accidental” shot that had clipped one of Simon’s more important arteries.

The past did not wait outside, nor even down the path. Instead, he smelled smoke and blood, and just beyond the first bend towards the town, saw a few men standing around a great humped form bigger than a bear. Bigger than two. The men were murmuring to each other, white-faced. The gunshots he had heard were only the latest; small dark holes spilling rusty trails of blood covered the beast’s side and head. As he drew closer, still moving as if hypnotized, he saw that the creature had brown fur and clawed feet, but its lolling head was like that of a malformed deer. Three eyes glistened up at the sky, sightless and beginning to cloud over.

He wondered if it had a small dark spot on its lower left stomach.

And before the men could look up and see him, he ran.

Back at his house, the shock and exertion struck him like a brick to the stomach. He leant against the door, holding his side, holding himself together, and wheezed with humorless laughter. Simon had always teased him about being a surgeon who did not look after his own body. Told him he’d regret it when he was old. Henryk had always agreed, but he had never got around to eating the right things or taking up jogging. Sleeping regular hours had never been anything but a pipe dream.

He thought maybe he should move back to the city, take a fitness class so he could better run away from dead monsters and the fools that shot them. With every ragged breath, he lost a bit of hope that this could be a dream. The dead . . . thing, whatever it was, whoever it was, remained seared into his mind.

On the news, later, they said they’d shot a large bear.

That night, Henryk heard breathing outside, almost lost in the wind; heavy, thick breathing like an animal in pain. Unsettled, he ventured out onto the porch. Something moved by the trees: to his unadjusted eyes, a formless shadow.

The breathing went low, gulping. The way you cry after you have cried for hours, when you’d stop if you knew how, because your eyes are sore and your throat gluey. Henryk blinked a few times, made out the shape of the shadow. “Mort?”

He barely expected an answer—part of him was sure Mort had been shot that morning—but the shadow raised its head. A moment later he made out Mort’s reddened eyes, the downwards slash of his mouth. He took a deep breath, then winced, and Henryk’s eyes went down to where Mort’s hand was firmly clamped over his left side. Something wet seeped through the fabric of his shirt, and an oily, rotten-fruit odour filled the air.

“Today,” Mort said, “they killed my younger brother.”

Henryk took a step forward. “Come inside.”

Mort made as if to move forward, then flinched back, catching at a branch to steady himself. “Can’t.” His voice was a croak.

“Mort,” Henryk said, desperate, “I don’t understand any of this. I can’t help you if I don’t understand.”

Mort was already turning, shuffling back into the woods. “Don’t have . . . to understand,” he said, almost inaudible. “Just . . . .”

Henryk wondered how he had ever thought Mort was young; he could recognize how another old man moved even in the dark at the edge of the forest. He stood gripping the railing until his knuckles began to ache, while the forest murmured and moaned and foreboding built within him like in one of his old dreams. When he moved, he went to find a knife.

He stood in the kitchen, staring at his knife block with the beginnings of despair. A thought struck him. A minute’s search and he’d located the scalpel he’d used as a letter opener, back when he got mail that wasn’t financial. The blade was dull, but it would have to do. The wind was picking up outside and there was a stink in it, apparent even through the windows.

Wrapping a scarf over his nose and mouth, he walked out into the woods.

He did not move into the trees so much as the trees seemed to leap forward and surround him, bending their heavy heads together, muttering at him in languages he couldn’t understand. Six yards into the forest he found Mort’s sneakers, decayed. Two yards more and Henryk glimpsed the shirt he’d lent Mort, now wet and torn, pierced by the limb of a tree. Mold-white liquid spattered the leaves underneath it, and the slow drip of it stayed with him until he could no longer see the world outside the forest.

A few yards ahead, a shadow rose up. “Hurry,” it said. For a moment, moonlight slid over the face of a woman: a face he’d seen on Missing posters in town five years gone. Her voice dry wood creaking, beetles gnawing. Her eyes wet and round, black, like a deer’s. “You have to go further in.”

“Which way?”

A half-decayed arm rose, then the body fell like a card castle. Henryk moved on, skirting the corpse. He wondered how many had gone missing in these woods, when the boy that the Mortmain had possessed had died here, and for a moment a hysterical laugh pressed at the back of his throat. It seemed impossible that something was killing this hungry, killing creature. That it was asking for help.

The wind cut through the heavy branches, making them groan, and stray raindrops pattered down. The clouds above looked heavy and wrong; he thought of acid rain, and quickened his pace. Further in; that was always the way, wasn’t it? There must be, somewhere, people who kept things neat and separate. Went to work and volunteered a handful of hours a week and got drunk with their friends, the mythic work-life balance. Simon and Henryk, though, had gotten along because they were all or nothing. Nothing Henryk wouldn’t do for Simon except give up surgery, the hard hours and the harder work. Nothing, vice versa, except Simon had his causes—all of them, because—well, he’d always joked it was because God had given him a heaping armful of it to deal with. Couldn’t just be black. Couldn’t just be queer. Couldn’t just be a tree-hugger. I’m just living, he’d say. Just trying to live with what I am and what I need. A job and love and air to breathe.

He had none of those now, and Henryk only had air; some days he felt as dead above the earth as Simon was dead beneath it. Not tonight. Tonight the air was electric and raw and rank with illness: the illness in Mort’s belly, and in the woods, and echoing, hollow and rotten, in Henryk’s own body. He might be dying, but he wasn’t dead yet.

The same could be said for Mort.

Henryk found him after he’d walked long enough to wonder if he’d come out the other side of the woods. He came out in a clearing instead, where Mort lay curled on the ground. He shucked his coat and unwound his scarf, despite the smell, and knelt down at Mort’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw animals among the trees: silent grey squirrels and dark birds he couldn’t name. A few deer, too, and a great hulk that might have been a bear. It felt like an old operating theater, with an audience following his every movement.

“Said it would get worse,” Mort said, his breathing labored. Henryk would have deserved it if the sentence was angry, smug, but it wasn’t; it was simply resigned.

Henryk almost said, I’m sorry, but that would do nothing. “I’m here,” he said gently. “I’m here now. You need to move your hands.”

Mort’s hands were clamped, bloodless, over the purpled skin of his stomach. There was an unpleasant sheen of wetness, as if something was sweating out through the injured skin. The skin itself looked bruised from the inside. Henryk thought about wasps that laid their young in other creatures, alien implanted things that ate their hosts, and his stomach turned over. He swallowed, didn’t let it show. “Please,” he said. “I’ll help you.”

Mort breathed hard, his eyes finally moving to fix on Henryk. He was not young, but for a moment his power and arrogance gleamed through, showed like a challenge in his eyes, and Henryk knew why he’d seemed young.

Henryk took out his scalpel, and Mort drew his stiff fingers away from the infected center of the wound.

The skin was so thin and degraded it parted like wet paper under the scalpel’s edge, curling away from the seeping dark. Something moved deep within the opening, burying itself under flesh—earth?—and Henryk knew what he needed to do. Mort’s wide, white-ringed eyes were fixed on him, desperate, the challenge gone out like a flame. Henryk smiled at him, gently.

“It will be all right,” he said. “Close your eyes.”

The animals around them stirred restlessly, but Mort nodded and did as he was told.

Henryk plunged his hand into the opening.

His vision split: in one thin, half-transparent panel of reality he pushed his hand into the dry stomach cavity of a corpse, crouching in an empty clearing as the rain started coming down. In another he dug into the wet, dark earth and the trees thrashed around him as if they were in pain. In another he parted the hairy skin of a monster shivering and trying to keep its limbs still against the ground, and reached in among its organs. In another he knelt over the whole town, trying not to crush the buildings with his knees as he pressed his fingertips into the edge of the forest, and a man ran over one of his fingers, his feet tickling like an ant’s legs. In another, in another, in another—in half a dozen of his shattered visions Simon stood behind him among the trees. He was dead, he was not, there was blood on his pristine brown shirt, he smiled without smiling. But all of him stepped forward to put his hands on Henryk’s shoulders.

“You got this, honey,” he said, with one voice.

Henryk closed his eyes, shutting out all he saw, and focused on what was under his hand. Earth and flesh mingled, coexisting somehow—and a furtive, ugly movement underneath a lip of organ. Prying the opening wider, he reached in with his other hand and lifted a bit of Mort’s intestine. The thing hidden under it tried to retreat, but he caught it in his free hand; it stung, struggling against his palm. His hand began to go numb.

“Well done,” Simon said, so quiet Henryk could have imagined it.

When he opened his eyes, Simon was gone. He knelt in a small, natural clearing as the rain began to fall, and only one grey squirrel remained of the animal audience. The white tail of a departing deer whisked away into the darkness. His scalpel was rusted in his hand, as if it had lain out in the woods for years. There was a sunken place in the ground in front of him, almost six feet long.

“Mort?” he asked. There was no reply. But he felt something jerk hard in his right hand, though it was numb and purpled with bruises and clenched so tight he could barely open it. When he did, something greyish and small dropped to the ground and began to trundle away like a beetle.

He stepped on it. Smoke rose from the crushed remains, but the rain put out the tiny smoldering, and the foul smell faded from the air.

Henryk walked home, slow with pain, through the scents of petrichor and lightning, and when he got there he sat on the front steps listening to the woods. Through the rain he couldn’t see the thick smoke and the dust coming off the worksite—the place the worksite had been, because somehow he knew it had become a raw crater, a deep wound, but clean, ready to heal. The poison had been drawn out. His hand was numb. He thought, with tired amusement, of going to the doctor he’d urged Mort to visit in town. In the morning, though.

For now, he breathed the wet, clean air and felt the smoke, out in the distance, and the many-eyed creature that moved unsteadily through the forest, its belly healing, the human skin it had worn cast aside. Somewhere out in the woods, their dearest ones were buried side by side; somewhere out in the woods, the beetles ate and axes fell. But here, the Mortmain crooned to itself, like a cat purring or a child singing to soothe themselves when there was nobody to hold them after a hard surgery, and Henryk closed his eyes, pressed his good hand over his stomach and felt the rain washing away the sickness, unsure where he ended and the forest began.

Flowers for the Living, Flowers for the Dead

Strange how even in the dark, the eyes find shape.

“The walls are made of flowers,” Amelie says, nestled against me. “White flowers, bigger than I can hold.”

“White as clouds,” I say. “Bright and soft.” Our voices are muted. Collapsed into the space we occupy, just as the space has collapsed into us.

“They smell . . . they smell like butter.”

I try to remember the smell of flowers. Of petals. Of wind. “Yes,” I say, finally giving up. “Like butter. Like butter and rain.”

A minute passes. An hour. A month. A day. Time has little meaning in the land of the dead.

Amelie shifts beside me. But not too much. There’s so little space, so much of it filled.

“Mama, I feel rain. It must be pouring outside.”

There is no outside. Not anymore. “Yes, pouring like a molten kettle.”

“It’s hot. So hot it sizzles when it strikes the mud.”

“So hot when it strikes, the mud turns to stone.”

“So hot,” she says, whispering, “it makes the world turn.”

I pause. “So hot, it makes the world burn.”

More silence. Hours. Seconds. Millennia.

“The flowers are gone,” Amelie says. Somber now. “They’ve burned with everything else, haven’t they?”

I find her hand in the darkness. Squeeze. “It’s okay, baby. We’ll just plant more.”

The world outside is burning. But here in the land of the dead nothing burns.

“I’m hungry,” Amelie says.

My abdomen is a creaking hollow. My chest, my skull. “The dead can’t be hungry, baby.”

Shapes flicker in the darkness. Rabbits. Dogs. The flamingo I saw once when I was nine.

“But I am hungry,” Amelie says.

“Shh.” I pull her against me.

She’s cold—but I suppose you can’t be dead and not be cold as well. Still. I didn’t expect her to be this cold.

“Here,” I say, setting my hand in hers, “have some bread.”

Even dead, it’s hard not to feel when she begins to chew.

In the dark, the shapes are always changing. They are also always the same.

“Do you think it’s over?” Amelie asks. “Do you think it’s safe again?”

How long has it been? Time dances in the land of the dead, like angels on the head of a pin. But however long it’s been, it will never be enough. The world can’t burn forever, but it can burn longer than us.

“Come here,” I say, and take Amelie into my arms. I curl around her in the dark, like the shell of an egg. I should hurt, but here in the land of the dead there is no pain. Or hunger.

Or sorrow.

Amelie’s hand grazes my cheek. “It’s raining again,” she says. Wipes a droplet free.

“Yes,” I say, and squeeze her tight. Like I’ll never let her go. “It’s always raining here, in the land of the dead.”

And on the walls, again, the flowers grow.

More Sea Than Tar

My father thinks it’s a good idea to row through these floods. To move a paddle and be above the water, finally in control of our bodies—that is to say, not drown.

But sooner or later, we’re all going to fall, because we can only stand so tall before we’re sinking: to our legs, to our knees, to our torsos, to our heads. Till there’s nothing left and we breathe in particle dust and water that draws too much like ogbono soup. Water that’s mixed with the leaves and the soil and the garbage I didn’t throw away properly. Water that isn’t water.

So I can indulge this feeling my father has. I can understand these spur-of-the-moment decisions when we’ve been waiting so long for the promise of dry land and all the water wants to do is rise.

He’s always been the person with big ideas, weird reasoning. The person who suggests this over family dinner with a fire in his eyes, demands it while he paces around the room, hooked on the lust of his dreams.

“No,” my brother says, pulling him back down to earth. Joseph, who helps provide for the family with Mummy, who’s friends with important people. “Why would we do that?”

To our feet, to our ankles, to our ribs, to our throats . . . .

Haven’t you ever wanted an adventure out on the open sea?” My father laughs, pacing around the room. We move with him, our steps familiar as we trail the blue carpet back and forth. That’s how we make the food digest.

“It’s not an open sea,” my mother adds before going back to her food. She never takes sides on these ideas, just points out the most clear information.

“Figuratively,” my father counters, shooting her a deadpan look before returning to my brother, who folds his arms and raises an eyebrow.

“Okay, okay,” my father laughs, taking a deep breath. “Facts. You just want facts. We can’t drive a car in these times. Even using those suction shoes that help you stay on walls are dangerous if you lose enough friction or don’t come into contact with any buildings or places you can stick yourself to. With my idea we can actually start to get more work done again, you know. Look at us, not knowing much about what goes on outside this community . . . . We can’t live this way.”

“Mummy,” Joseph asks. “What do you think about all of this?”

“I think your father already has the canoe,” she says, leaving her plate of unfinished food on the table, then walking up to her room.

“And,” my father continues. “Once I start making money again, we could get a small ship or . . . you know, something more feasible.”

I shrug. The rain outside makes my body run cold; I can actually hear the floods swishing all around us through our thin walls.

Thin enough for the ceiling to give out above where I stand, water splashing through. It soaks me so much that my clothes are see-through, stuck on me while my teeth chatter. Joseph runs into the kitchen to get a bucket and a mop. He cleans up and I go to my room to change into a fresh pair of clothes.

The rush of water persists and the container under the hole is half full in the minute I take to dry off and come back.

“Get up early tomorrow so we can go in the morning,” my father says, scrolling through his phone, relaxing in the comfiest chair.

“Go?” I stutter, running the towel through my hair.

“Out in the open,” he says, smiling with plaque-filled teeth. “I heard no objections.”

I give no protests. I say no words, because when I look at all the holes in the house where the water comes through, I think that everything is falling apart, and I don’t have an answer for that.

Before we go out, my mother gives us three things: coats, umbrellas, and boots. When she’s not looking, I trade my umbrella for a spoon. Life’s more interesting that way.

Spoons are great. I used to be obsessed with them a few years back, playing with them in all their shapes and sizes. They can be drums and help dig the soil, little wheelbarrows for transporting goods. Spoons can be everything, and they remind me of a time of no fear, only adventure. Which is what I want. What I need.

We stuff all our things in huge hiking backpacks, keeping our hands free to lift the huge canoe above our heads. I hide the spoon in my pocket.

“You won’t come with us?” my father whines, frown lines unnatural to his face.

“No. My mother pushes the coat to his chest with such force that it’s like she hates his presence. She walks upstairs and slams the door shut. My father fumbles around like he doesn’t know what to do anymore.

“She’s probably in a bad mood,” Joseph says, nudging Daddy.

“Every damn day,” he mutters as he opens the door for us.

Floods of water come screaming through, thick and muddy.

Outside, each step is a promise of going under, the disappearance of our bodies under muddy reflections. Each step brings back the memory of exploring the shallow far ends of our community three months ago and seeing bloated dead bodies floating in the stagnancy. Each step is running, running while the water draws me back into its thickness, running before we’ve even started—

I go too fast. I slip on ground that’s barely solid. My head hits the water hard, breaking the surface, the impact reverberating in my skull as I go deep down under.

I can’t breathe. When I open my mouth, I get the rancid taste of sickness, of cholera and dysentery, of swallowing bugs and mosquitoes. My lungs are filling up. I can’t scream but only fall deeper into the dreariness, like weights are on my feet. My eyes widen; I can’t blink in this space, can’t do anything but die.

Strong hands pull me back to the surface and I breathe. And breathe. My chest relaxes and I vomit all the water that tried to enter me. All the disease and sickness that ever touched my tongue, the pollution and sand and ugh. I still don’t feel right. I still can’t live right.

“What the hell just happened?” My father shouts. He grabs my shoulders.

Don’t touch me, I want to say, because my knees feel weak and his body weight only feels like it’s pushing me down, taking me back to the deep.

“This was a bad idea,” Joseph spits, shaking his head, “I think we did our best, but it’s not going to work. We’re already seeing bad signs.”

“Nooo,” my father says, holding me tighter, smiling at me, pushing the canoe to my chest like he’s made my answer for me. “Just some bad balance. Uti, you still want to do it, right?”

“Sure,” I say, but my brother isn’t convinced, so I smile. I don’t believe myself either, but I’ve lost my sense of adventure, my sense of wonder, and I need that back. I need this idea of fantasy, that none of this will break me, because I can’t deal with it anymore. There’s nothing left to sustain me but the heartbeat in my chest, so painful and incredibly fast, palpitations upon palpitations, and I need more.

Joseph shakes his head, then tugs my arm. “We should probably go back. I’m doing pretty well with this online business of mine, and we can just keep receiving our packages and paying our bills and—”

“And I’m doing nothing!” my father screams. The canoe falls out of his hands, its full weight going into mine.

My brother grunts, arms folded, his face turned away from us. It’s eerie to watch him go limp, face slack and full of disappointment, eyes accusing. In that moment, he is exactly Mummy, and he knows my father can’t handle that.

“What?” My father starts, his face folding into lines and lines of anger, veins of temper and pain. “Is it just four years in Alaska to study IT on scholarship that made you start challenging—”

I let the canoe fall so it smacks the surface of the water. It’s enough to get their attention. I consider that a victory and raise my spoon to the sky like the hero I’m not, my legs shaking. “How about an adventure, guys?”

A world of obstacles lies ahead of us. Soon, we’re paddling out of our neighborhood, into the depths of other roads we wouldn’t dare step foot in on a normal day.

Into the mutation.

My brother starts whispering to me, clearly pissed off as he paddles. “I just think it’s silly how he just led us here to sort of soothe his bruised ego and fragile mascu—”

“Let’s keep going.” I cut him off with a smile, rowing faster, and shift away from him. I don’t want to deal with any more drama.

We enter this new place, and the smell that quickly fills our noses is a welcome, for you have been gone so long, stayed within safe parameters, and now you are out in the big open world; the stink becomes part of us within minutes. Makes our insides feel like they’re rotting and falling apart.

But in all good adventures, it is important to leave your comfort zone, so I remind myself that this is all a journey, and in the end we go back home.

I’m grateful that I can return to a community that’s not full of diseased sea creatures stalking for prey, that I stay in a place with reasonable communication and transportation services, so we can always get our food packages, pay our bills, and call our relatives. What we have right now is pretty good, is stable, is worth everything.

Other humans pass by, all of us vulnerable without solid ground.

My father, Joseph and I don’t talk. We are studying this new environment, expanding our understanding with every direction we look in.

This new community is smelly yet vibrant, loud and exciting. It’s what I’ve never seen before: vendors carrying goods on their heads with water up to their chests, chasing boats. Garbage floating around in neat little piles—some people managing to rest on top of them, the world’s pollution the newest source of transportation. People breezing by on larger vehicles than ours while afrobeats, loud and violently Nigerian, play in the background. People jumping into the water with ropes tied around their waists, latched to their boats as they repeatedly bring up trash. People splash in the water as they swim through the filth and garbage, covered in boils and scars, disease and infection.

That was once me swimming, a long time ago. With innocence and purity, during floods not as bad, my little hands trailing the depths of our community, and then outside our area, with glee on my face. Carefree. Before our family locked ourselves in one place. I remember that time and I think, who was that? Not me.

But I hope to be what I once was again.

I spot a crocodile dancing in the depths, its shadow eventually rising from the surface of the water, covered in greasy film and toxic waste. Rubbish that has . . . congealed and grafted to the animal’s skin—oh my goodness—like an infection sewn and healed onto the body. Like an operation done to make all living things abominations.

It passes by me with what looks like hunger in its eyes, and I know that somebody is going to die today. Someone is going to fall into its mutated jaws, and I pray it won’t be me because I’ve already had my dance with death today and I don’t plan on another.

To our toes, to our waists, to our shoulders, to our eyes . . . .

“Uti, you just might want to paddle away from the gutters,” says Dad.

“Huh?” I snap out of my trance, for now.

Joseph points to the lopsided car submerged between what was once a road and the verge. People are diving around it, picking it apart.

Humans are vultures, I think, the way we decompose dead machines by taking them to bits, leaving the useless parts for the earth.

We do recycling and environmental sanitation in our community every Saturday, our part in helping to fix the world. Our elected community official praises us and tells us that by sometime in the next decade, all the trash in our area will be gone.

We may not have that long.

Till our eyes can only blink in mucus and particle dust . . . .

“Why not go near the gutters?” Joseph asks. “It’s out of most people’s way.”

“The trash used to go in there a lot when there was land, so that it created a blockage. Plus, what lurks in there can easily kill us all,” says my father.

We look down and catch the shadows we haven’t noticed before. The shadows of animals merged with glass and plastic, mosquitos breeding, insects mutated by industrial waste and chemical reactions.

My brother nods like he’s actually impressed. “That’s some good looking out.”

My father rubs his hands and licks his lips, staring out into the wasteland in front of us. “This is what I’m talking about! We’re finally out of that community. We were hermits and now we’re reintegrating back into society. So, who’s ready to get to business?”

“This boat is really . . . primitive.” Joseph hits the side of the canoe and the wood groans, reminding me of the pitiful nature of our vehicle compared to the jet skis and mechanized boats, the advanced water craft that we don’t have. All the things better suited to our survival. That we lack.

“Our days are numbered,” I say.

They give me a concerned look, the we need to talk about how you’ve become so obsessed with death look.

But I don’t want to discuss that, so I change the subject. “Yeah, let’s trade.”

We get home and go our separate ways. My brother goes to work. I play chess on our spotty internet service, holding the router above my head so I can stay connected to my online opponent. They win.

I trail the slow internet. I know exactly what I want to look at.

Drowning. Horror movies where people just keep getting eaten by sharks and animals.

I’d like to want to survive, but I’ve almost given up. If I can just desensitize myself enough, maybe it will feel less painful when the inevitable happens.

No. No. I hate the way I’m thinking so I shut my laptop to try and force myself to engage. I sneak into Mum’s room but she’s too engrossed in a stuttering program about unhappy marriages. She doesn’t turn my way, her headphones blocking me out. I close the door.

I don’t actually need to deal with that. I know I’m supposed to be there for my parents, but I can’t. I need to focus on trying to stop spiralling.

So I run towards my brother’s room, desperate, thinking, where’s my adventure? Where’s the story? Where is the actual damn plot to this movie that is my life. Because all I’ve been doing is running around, watching walls collapse, waiting to die.

I burst into my brother’s room, drenched in sweat and breathing fast. “What are you doing?” I say.

He looks at me. “Are you all right?”

“What’s that on your table?” I say. I read the brochures and blueprints on his desk. “Underwater living facilities? Oxygen suits? Enhanced deep sea living experience? Decontamination pods?”

He smiles at me and his eyes catch the light. He looks so like our father that I want to listen to what he has to say, because he’s never looked this passionate about anything.

“We’re looking at a hopeful future,” he says. “Better opportunities, a higher standard of living; a life underwater, free of pollution—very far away from here.”

“In how long?” I ask, not expecting much because it’s always an estimate, always ‘in a decade’ and ‘in the near future’ and ‘many years later’. Hope is never now.

“Soon. Eventually. And I can’t tell you much because it’s just a lot of discussing with friends who are under strict NDAs, but, yeah, they might have a space for us. It’s been in the works for years. I think we’ll be fine.”

I’m lost for words but what kills the silence is the bleep in both our pockets. A text from Dad.

“We’re going out in search of meat tomorrow,” I read.

Joseph laughs. “Figures he’d try to opt out of this vegan lifestyle as fast as possible. He’s looking towards the now, survival . . . which is a perspective, I guess.”

Animal products haven’t been transporting well, and prices have risen with the water levels, so we don’t ask for them anymore. We tried fishing once but it didn’t work; the fish that do come into our area are mutated. We won’t eat them, won’t try, no matter how adventurous Daddy is.

But since we’re journeying, going out in search of things, I dream of bacon and fat running over juicy slabs of beef, the sound meat makes when it hits the pot.

We row towards the markets and vendors we saw yesterday, in the mutated areas.

We, a modest family without a proper seafaring craft, row towards a market seller, using our paddles to shove aside sticks and huge piles of rocks.

“Wetin you get?” My father starts, way too excited not to use pidgin. In our community, it’s generally frowned upon, so my father only uses it when chatting with maids from the village.

The woman pauses, hands on her lips. “We get um . . . croc, jellyfish, fish worm, bongafish, catfish—”

“Catfish!” Daddy replies too quickly, reaching into his pocket, then looking uncomfortable.

“I’ll pay,” Joseph offers, pursing his lips as he fishes for his wallet.

“I didn’t ask you to.” My father’s voice is cold. “We just want to examine the goods. Madam, let me see what you’ve got.”

The woman hands over a piece of sliced catfish that’s an unhealthy brown colour. It rolls in my father’s hands, covered in a sticky slime. Greenish-black dots grow inside its mouth. We try to peel them off but they grow back again.

Bile rises in my throat and I almost gag.

“No, na,” my father hands it back to her. “Not this one. Normal catfish wey no get all this . . . yama-yama.”

“Yama-yama? Contamination?” The woman feigns surprise, like she’s never heard that word when hello? It’s all around us. “I no sell that kind product. This one, na me spice am self. I just had to preserve am well for customer.”

“Thank you,” my father says, irritated, and throws it back to her. He whispers to us as we leave: “All we have to do is network and we’ll find someone that knows where to get good products. Someone . . . like those two!”

He points at a man and a woman collecting trash from the water, digging deep and organizing it into neat piles on their boats. The ropes around their waists are attached to the boats. My father nods in approval.

We row up to them.

Daddy puts on a smile and runs a hand through his hair. “Can you imagine? I tried to buy things from that woman and she tried to convince me that yama-yama was normal.”

“They never admit it,” the woman replies. “One time, you could even see all the glass and stone buried inside the fish the woman was trying to sell me, and when I showed it to her, she just doubled down and said ‘all na spice.’”

“Well,” the man joins in, “Nigerian hawkers are the best lawyers you could ever have.”

They share a laugh while Joseph and I share a look, shrugging and folding our arms as we watch this unfold.

The man stretches out a hand to our father. “I’m Mr. Abalaka.”

The woman goes in for a hug. “And I’m Mrs. Eneyo.”

My father smiles. “I’m David. And these are my sons, Joseph and Uti.”

We wave and greet, just enough for it not to feel uncomfortable.

Joseph shakes their hands, craning his neck to look into their boat. “That’s a lot of equipment you have there.”

I take a good look too. There are many weapons in their boat: spears, guns, nets, traps. I’m actually comfortable seeing all of that, because to me it screams protection, and survival.

“So, what do you guys do?” my father asks, his eyes wide like he’s taking notes.

“Oh, you know,” Mrs. Eneyo replies, her pleasant demeanor fading. “A lot of side-work. Helping to clear up this place, fishing work. Just . . . anything to live.”

“We take our jobs very seriously,” Mr. Abalaka adds.

“Oh yes,” my father says. “You know, my wife does actually grow some food using spores and artificial nutrients, so we could get some for you.”

Mrs. Eneyo frowns. “We already do that, but with yams and carrots and cassava, so unless you have anything else?”

“Um,” my father says, trying to recall. “I think we also have garden eggs.”

Mrs. Eneyo makes a face “Hmmm, I’m not—”

“But we can try them!” says Mr. Abalaka.

“Well, how much are they?” Mrs. Eneyo says, exasperated.

“Oh no,” my father says, laughing, settling into a comfortable position. “No price. We’d just like a job so we can have enough money to get something like that boat of yours.”

“This beauty?” Mr. Abalaka chuckles, patting his vessel tenderly. “We just like it because it runs on trash juice.”

“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Eneyo says, steering the conversation back to the point, “we don’t really know of anything at the moment. Nothing’s available. Sorry. But we could get you some fish. The good kind.”

“That would be great,” my father says. They exchange contact information. The three of them laugh and joke some more while Joseph and I sit quietly in the boat like the good children that we are, trying not to disturb them.

Eventually, they leave.

“That was fun,” Joseph yawns, stretching his arms in the air.

My father nods, distracted. He taps our arms. “Better stretch those arms well, because we’re following them.”

“Why?” I groan, rubbing my lucky spoon, feeling around its edges.

“I want to see who they give all that trash to—see if we can get some of that hustle too,” says my father.

“It’s always nice to know that trust is the one thing you can look forward to in today’s society,” Joseph says, his voice dry, his expression deadpan, but Dad ignores him.

“Probably looking out for themselves, those two, and that’s what we have to do too. Uncontaminated fish for garden eggs isn’t a fair trade, and we don’t even know if they’re going to use that as some sort of leverage later on. The way I see it, we need to get jobs so we can have good money to negotiate with. This is how we do things.”

“They could easily spot us,” Joseph sighs, grabbing a paddle.

“That is why, today, we learn of other routes,” my father says, chest out and proud. He looks happier than I’ve ever seen him, a pirate in open air.

This is the adventure I’ve been looking for, and I’m grateful that I’m here conspiring with my father, too tired to think about drowning.

To our surprise, we don’t get caught. My father makes us wait until the man and woman are some distance ahead, and then we follow slowly. We watch as they haul trash and animals into their boat.

It’s impressive.

We crack jokes and I laugh, forgetting my thoughts of death, feeling the wind in my hair, having a good time.

It’s getting dark as Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eneyo stop in front of a large house on stilts, wooden and sturdy despite its rotting wood. It is painted a welcoming colour of blue and green, faded and moldy.

They get out of the boat and exchange their trash and game with a woman for stacks of money. My father’s eyes widen when he sees it and he smiles like a hyena.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno shake hands with the woman and get back into their boat.

We duck. Are they turning back, coming our way?

Luckily we don’t have to deal with that stress because the two of them head further down the road in the opposite direction.

We wait thirty minutes in the dark. I doze and dream of legs that stop kicking, of going underwater . . . .

I wake up. My father and Joseph are asleep. I tap my father’s shoulder and he jolts awake.

“Can we go and meet the woman they were talking to?” I ask.

“Sure, sure,” says my father, still sleepy. “Paddle! Let’s get this over with.”

I wake Joseph up and we paddle slowly towards the house. My father gets out of the boat and knocks on the door.

Nobody answers.

Dad knocks again, harder.

An old woman storms out, her grey hair in curls, her dark skin covered in powder. She is wearing a long shirt and screaming at us in a heavy Yoruba dialect, each word thick and vicious like a curse.

“Ma,” my father says, trying to placate her, but he backs away when she tries to slap him. “Please, we just came here looking for work. Any job, please, we’ll do it.”

The woman pauses for a second, thinks. “I only have two workers. They’re good, sturdy—”

“But not enough,” says my father, smiling, trying to sell her on the idea of us.

“The problem is that they keep on getting rid of everyone I hire.” She sighs, putting her hands to her chin. “You see, when I hire new people, the price goes down and their pay goes down, so . . . .”

“I understand,” my father says, and sighs. “Sharing won’t kill them.”

“Okay, look,” the woman says, yawning. “Whatever. They’ve proven themselves to be worthy of all I’ve given them, but I could be making a much bigger profit with more people. And my own employers will like having more of all these goods. So, I’ll tell you what: I won’t say anything about you guys to them. As long as you don’t get discovered, you have the job.”

“We won’t accept the offer, but thanks anyway,” Joseph spits, but Daddy only looks more decided.

“We accept,” he says, and he and our new employer exchange numbers.

We row some way in silence. Joseph and Dad’s faces are red and flushed.

“You know,” my father starts, “our house is falling apart. We have a chance here. And we’re doing so good here, that I think this could be our new life: downsized, out in the open air, near the sea—”

It’s not a sea,” Joseph corrects him, rowing faster. I can practically see the smoke rising from him, but I don’t say anything. Nothing I do will distract him.

“Metaphorically,” my father adds quietly.

“Leave me out of it,” hisses Joseph, “because my part in this adventure is done.”

Our mother is waiting for us at home. I’ve missed the classes she usually teaches me, maths and science and geometry, but I think Dad should get the crap for that. My arms ache.

Dad starts telling Mummy that she needs to increase her plant portions for her new customers, Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno.

I follow Joseph to his room. He paces around, knocking into things. When he’s stressed and angry, he cries. The tears don’t stop running.

“If I could leave today, I would,” he says. “The underwater program’s not ready yet, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch our father make a fool of himself every day.”

I stay silent. My brother looks at me. Too closely, like he’s searching my soul. And I flinch, because I don’t want him discovering all the baggage inside me.

“Do you actually still want to go with Dad?”

“It’s an adventure,” I say quietly, trying to make myself believe it.

“B . . . but . . . what is wrong with you? He’s out of control. Why are you even thinking like this?”

“This house is falling apart,” I reply, my voice barely a whisper.

“We’re going to leave,” he yells. “We’re hoping for a better future.”

“Hope is never now,” I mutter under my breath.

Maybe it’s better to just float into oblivion, to row above the water till the moment I go under. Till the moment I’m nothing but fodder and infection, another rotting body in the stagnancy.

I can hear my father shouting at my mother in his room. I go out into the passage and he storms out, practically hyperventilating.

“What’s going on?” I ask, and it feels like I’m the adult and he’s the child.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I try again.

“Your mother doesn’t want to join us in the canoes. And your brother thinks he’s too good for us. But we, we are the ones who survive, who go the distance, who have adventures. Right?”

“Right,” I say, my voice hollow.

“I’m going to sleep on the couch,” he says. He goes downstairs.

I go into his room to find my mother. Her face is expressionless. “Is everything all right?” I say.

She gets out of bed. She drinks from the bottle of water at her bedside. “Do you know why I don’t like to say anything to your father’s ideas? He just . . . has this way of making people be the bad guy, the nag, and he sort of punishes us for it and enjoys doing so, being that person. And now that I’m silent, he hates it, because I’m refusing to engage, not playing my role. I was a little worried you were too much like him when you were growing up,” she continues. “I was afraid I was going to have two of him in the house. I almost considered leaving. But you’ve made a personality for yourself and . . . I don’t always understand you, Uti, but I think you’ll be fine.”

It’s late and I go to bed, but I can’t fall asleep in this house of broken relationships.

For a few days, I don’t join my father when he goes out in the boat. I need to process things.

When I rejoin him, my father holds me close and brings out something from his hiking bag. I shriek when I see the gun.

“It’s good,” he tells me, but his eyes look fearful. “For protection. This one can take more bullets than you’d expect. And—” He flicks a button. “It has a silencer. A silent killer. This is for some cold-blooded killing.”

“Hi there!” A voice calls out to us.

“Hide the gun,” I say. An unpleasant chill runs down my spine.

I turn to see Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno waving at us, a little distance away, a big bubble floating in their hands full of . . . fish. Corporate companies hand out free samples of these easily disposable bubbles for storing things. We row towards them, and I feel an unbearable tension in my heart, yet my father’s happy expression forces me to plaster a thick, fake smile on my face.

We come up alongside them, and before they say anything, they pop the bubble and the fish falls into our boat. Fresh-looking, uncontaminated, pure fish.

“Oh, wow, that was fast,” my father says, too quickly, scratching his head, nervous. “We haven’t got the eggs yet.”

“Oh, hey, no, we’re not pressuring you; take your time,” Mr. Abalaka says. He laughs and waves a hand at us.

“As long as you bring it,” Mrs. Eyeno adds.

We are silent.

“How’s work?” My father asks.

I feel like shrivelling up into a ball.

“It’s good,” they say, simultaneously.

I force a chuckle, trying to look relaxed.

“We’re actually hoping for a promotion for all the good work we’ve been doing,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father and I share a look.

“Yeah, you know, at the end of the month,” Mrs. Eyeno says, sorting a piece of trash.

“Wow, that’s fascinating,” I say. “But I actually think it’s time for us to go. Right, Daddy?”

“Absolutely. Yeah, thank you for the fish; good looking pieces of meat. We’ll get those garden eggs to you soon.”

We watch them row away, and we’re finally able to breathe.

My father looks at me and nods in approval. “Listen, that was great. Especially as I just got a text from our employer asking us to catch a crocodile. We’ll just have to stay out of their way till it’s time for us to meet the boss tomorrow.”

“Won’t they also be dropping off their goods then?”

“Oh no. Our employer changed their drop-off date. She said they were suspicious, but she thinks it’s fine because they won’t find out.”

I nod, putting all my effort into rowing the boat single-handed as we go around the markets looking for parasitic feed and hunting equipment. While my father prices and bargains, I rub my spoon. It feels like my last claim to innocence.

“Are you ready?” My father asks me, and I shrug.

We row towards the nearest gutters. I feel so different from who I was when we started doing this, now that we are throwing caution to the wind.

“So, you’ll do the luring and I’ll kill,” my father tells me, handing me a pair of high-tech binoculars. I aim them at the shadows that swim in the water, trying to identify a crocodile.

I lower the baited trap into the water. I try to breathe and relax.

“Now,” my father says, “we wai—”

The crocodile jumps aboard, snapping and angry, and almost submerges our boat. The wire trap pokes into its skin as it roars, its breath disgusting, its large teeth reaching for me. Large pieces of glass stab into the beast’s head and broken cans stick out of its body like piercings. Nylon bags are draped over this creature that is trying to eat me, and I scream and scream. I feel like my heart has stopped. Memories of my hollow existence overwhelm me as I wait for the moment I have been dreading.

Death is coming.

My father shoots it in the head, his hand steady. The crocodile jerks, spurting blood, then lies still. Daddy looks rattled, terrified, and I am a bloody mess. “We did it,” my father says.

Immediately when we get home, I storm into my brother’s room, leaving my father to hide the crocodile’s body in the garage, letting Joseph see me in all my wretchedness.

Joseph leaps up and reaches for me and wraps me in his arms. “Oh my God! What the hell happened?”

“He’s out of control,” I say. I can’t stop crying. I’m a snotty mess.

“Now will you listen to me?” says Joseph.

“No,” I say, pushing him away. “We need to help Dad. You, especially, have to be there to ground him and make sure this doesn’t happen again. We need you. Come back.”

He says nothing. I hear no objections. I believe it’s agreement.

The next morning, I worry my brother won’t show up as I wait downstairs. But Joseph does come, and I feel like I can do it knowing that he’s with me.

He and Daddy look at each other, the silence between them distressing.

But my father gives a nod of approval and we set out relaxed.

My brother lays down the law and gets Dad to put the gun away, telling him we should just concentrate on the trash after all the trouble he caused yesterday. Joseph still doesn’t look too happy, but at least my father stays silent.

Instead, Dad spends the time trying to call our employer, who isn’t picking up. The boss communicates on her terms, not ours.

I tap my brother’s shoulder just as he’s about to dive into the water again, a rope around his waist. “Aren’t you going to let me—”

“No,” he says sternly. “You’re not doing anything after what happened yesterday. Just secure the rope to the boat.”

I attach the rope in silence and just wish for this day to be over.

Hours pass.

At last, the day ends. My brother and I row over to the house on stilts, our arms sore. We wait while my father knocks repeatedly. I notice a boat sticking out slightly at the back of the house. I rub my eyes.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno open the door. Their clothes are covered in blood, their hands hidden.

We freeze.

We stare until if feels as if the silence is going to kill us.

“What-t-t are you doing here?” My father stutters, doing his best to smile.

“We thought we’d rest in our new home and wait for the people who caused our schedule to change,” Mrs. Eyeno spits, then smiles.

“We got that promotion we were talking about,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father nods, looking petrified. Joseph slowly reaches for the paddle.

“You know,” my father says, his voice too desperate as he reaches for the gun bag, “this is all a big misunderstanding.”

“Right,” they say.

They’re quick. Mrs. Eyeno has a pistol. A bullet to the head and Joseph collapses into the water. I scream as my father grabs his gun. Mr. Abalaka’s spear stabs into his gut before he can fire. He follows Joseph into the water.

Into the water, into the water; everything dead and into the water. Water red with blood.

I scramble and I scream. I piss my pants. I think, death comes, as they approach the boat. I’m so full of grief and anger and terror.

They are going to kill me. Am I prepared?

To our legs, to our bones, to our muscles, to our eyes . . . .

I reach into my pocket. I pull back my arm and stab the spoon into Mr. Abalaka’s eye.

He screams and drops his spear. Mrs Eyeno tries to stop the blood.

I jump into the water and start swimming away. I swim so hard in all the mutation and infection, all the things that have tried to drown me, all the things that have tried to kill me.

I can’t breathe right. I can’t live right. My brother and father, gone into the water.

But I can’t drown. I can’t fall, I can’t stop myself escaping.

Because I need to get back to my community, I need to tell my mother about Joseph’s dreams of underwater living, about his hopeful future that better come quickly because I’m done waiting.

I’m alone in this vast, polluted space, but I know which direction to go in. I’ll find my way home.

Tiger

As a one-star Inspector General for the UN’s military police, I was uniquely positioned to assign myself any case that I chose, particularly after many years of hard assignments. I had chosen the matter of the mysterious Doolittle, a sort of multi-national guerrilla artist whose work I had encountered in my time amid the water riots of Bangladesh. The machines were dangerous, like wild animals.

I was following leads among machinists and fine artists in my region to no solution, limited by my own budget and time constraints, perfectly happy to find nothing at all until I retired and the case was old and forgotten, when I was suddenly assigned a powerful data crawler: an AI-algorithm named Deep Thor. The case was assigned his advanced intelligence analysis for three weeks, total, which is an astonishing amount of usage with a powerful AI on such a criminally trivial matter. I had no request or desire for this assistance. Apparently, Deep Thor had found a special interest in Doolittle, independently, and requested this deep dive to assist in case of terrorist escalation that was, I had to admit, possible given the machines’ high-level industrial design and the integrated radical political manifestos. I felt I was to blame. This was a result of my own official reporting intended to justify my long-continued investigations, fed back to me by machines incapable of human nuance.

I met Deep Thor’s keepers in my office in Belgium, a man and a woman. I showed them the tiger, with the bullet wound. The woman, Palakh, would be the special counsel in charge of the investigation as long as Deep Thor was on the case—my superior. She was from England, Oxford and Cambridge. She held out a naked hand, her wrist wrapped in henna, over the tiger’s fur. She had the Hindi third eye permanently tattooed on her forehead. “May I touch the monstrous creation, Inspector General?” She did not need my permission, but if she would respect my expertise on the matter, I would offer her the courtesy of my honest answer.

“No,” I said. “Please, gloves and only as needed. And call me Sunil. Formality is for court, not colleagues. I would prefer no one touched anything. This tiger is a robust machine, but we don’t know what evidence we have yet to discover. DNA sweeps have come up negative, but new tests may be coming if Deep Thor approves of more thorough approaches.”

She pulled her hand back. I appreciated the courtesy she was showing me. It was respectful. I wondered how long it would last. “My grandmother was a child among the last of the wild tigers, and told stories of them killing cattle and dogs in the hills and jungles before she moved to England. She was not sad that they were driven extinct. Her mother had terrified her with stories of tigers who took the little girls who were unable to keep up on the roads. She was not happy, either, exactly, at their loss. It was a complicated time.”

“Times are always complicated. This new tiger is the source of two crimes,” I said. “It killed a goat and endangered the safety of my refugees. The rhino seemed more dangerous, but the truck that hit it was found liable in court. The AI in the truck didn’t respond well to unknown stimuli. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s back in one of the large closets.”

The other Deep Thor keeper, Jorge, kept his arms folded, appearing immune to the machine’s aesthetic charms. “How was it powered?”

“There are a series of small thermal energy devices around the heat of the gears, microsolar in the eyes and a full algae diesel factory housed in a ‘stomach’ of sorts inside the chest cavity. That’s what killed it. Bullet right into the algae.”

“Like lungs?” he said. “An ecosystem inside the machine. It’s hard to create that very fine balance.”

“It’s so elegant,” said Palakh. “The machining is top quality. This was not made in someone’s back shed workshop. There’s more of them out there, yes?”

“We assume so. I have fifteen in custody. All different creatures, endangered and extinct. Each one is an individual, unique. The coral reef we left in place. We’ll need to show them all to Deep Thor, but I’d prefer to leave it up to Deep Thor if it needs to get its hands dirty, so to speak. We have lots of data we can feed it without digging too deep into the delicate machine parts.”

“Deep Thor prefers to be called ‘she’,” said Jorge. “She doesn’t like being called ‘it’ or ‘he’.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Let’s get started,” said Palakh. “Since I can’t touch anything . . . .” She pulled out the handheld that communicated to the artificial intelligence.

Deep Thor was silent as the camera looked over the robotic animals I had pulled from storage.

“Early parameters . . . .” said Jorge. “The method of powering is fascinating and complex. Suggests AI partnership. Research known AI, and look for signs of possible unknown AI. The method of production requires advanced machining. Who has the tools? The raw materials came from a source. Locate likely sources. Cross-reference with known and public records to indicate likely geographic location of original construction. Ideal outcomes: who made these? Names. Addresses. Serial Numbers.”

Deep Thor didn’t even ping.

“Do be a dear,” Palakh added, addressing me, after Jorge’s brusque command, “and investigate the usual suspects. Blogs. Terrorists groups. The elegance is immense, suggesting an advanced agent, but we must cover all our bases to stand in court. Human intuition into terrorist cells is often as effective as AI, and with your extensive background . . . .” She was the lawyer, not the programmer. She was in charge of the investigation. I was nothing more than a local liaison now, and this sounded like make-work to keep me out of the way. All my work had been handed over to machines. It was liberating, in a way. I was free to pretend this was all for the best.

“ETA?” said Jorge.

I realized he had a neuron-deep implant, so he could talk directly with Deep Thor, and had been plugged in with her to the point he was probably technically a part of her. Part of him was. How much, I would never know.

The first anyone in my precinct heard of the artist and craftsman who called themself Doolittle, a beautiful machine walked in from the jungle and slaughtered a terrified goat. It looked like a tiger. No one had seen a tiger alive in over fifty years, and there it was walking from the shadows at the edge of the refugee camp as if alive. It was a beautiful, compelling copy of a tiger with incredible details. The machine seemed to breathe and gracefully pounce. When men from the village came with sticks and machetes and a single illegal pistol, the machine saw them coming, curled over its kill and roared. It dragged the goat back into the forest and mangled the dead animal as if chewing and swallowing. But it was not a living thing. It was a machine going through the motions. When my authorities hunted it down to tranquilize it, the darts did nothing. Someone shot it. I wasn’t at the scene. I don’t know who fired the bullet. I never asked my men because I knew they would lie. It is not illegal to stop a dangerous machine that is not really a tiger. A living tiger would be a different matter.

It was a beautiful, decadent, terrifying work of art, and it jumped into the trees to die alone. Written on the underside of the tail, hidden under the fur, was part of a manifesto—the sort of crazed thing a madman would write about nature and artifice, and the proper memorials for all the species we destroyed.

At that time, I was part of the UN peacekeeping force preventing water riots and looting around the Bangladeshi refugee camps in the hills near Kerala. I was initially annoyed by the bother that this tiger was causing me. Some long-lost species had killed a goat and been shot. No one but the goat and the tiger were hurt; I could have spent this time seeking new water filters that were months overdue, or working the data lines to secure more recycled tin for rooftops before the monsoons. But reports on the internet about this mystery were spreading fast. It was important to keep up the appearance that the UN was maintaining order.

Then, I was taken to the machine in its elaborate glory. But for the fact that it did not bleed, from the outside, it was indistinguishable from a living, natural creature. The coat was perfect, and gelpacks under the skin gave it the impression of taut musculature. The claws were astonishing. I confiscated it as evidence of a crime, wrapped it in thick, thick, layers of UN investigative bureaucracy and sent it to Belgium for what I officially called “forensics”, but was more like putting the thing in a box where no one would touch it. It would be years before anyone looked closely enough to see the manifesto underneath the tail, masked by the fur of the beast. In time, I would be able to manage a position overseeing the investigation. Fortunately, I had no real budget, and no one took these artistic acts of public endangerment very seriously. I was sent reports and remains of other discoveries—some dangerous, some merely beautiful—and became the world’s expert on the case of Doolittle. The second animal discovered, after the tiger, was a tuna fish so meticulous in its shimmering beauty, the old fisherman dragged it by knife to the boat and cut off the tail, spilling the blue ooze flotation media that mimicked powerful musculature above copper bones. After the tuna fish, a woodpecker was discovered in a place where there used to be forests. It was found out after a local scientist became fascinated with how the creature was surviving in a burned-out wasteland. It was surviving because it was a machine. More and more of these artifacts accumulated in my offices. I wrapped as much bureaucracy around them as I could. The tiger and the rhinoceros could be considered cases of criminal negligence, but the rest were merely evidence that might lead to the identity of an artist who was guilty of something no one was sure of. After I completed the mission in the Kerala, I invented the concerns about environmental terrorism: we did not know what this creator would build next, but their skill level and indifference to public safety necessitated discovery. My favorite of their works was the coral reef left in place in Australia, a hundred yards wide and drawn to full moons as if real. I got approval to dive in the night and swim among the swirling machines that danced in moonlight. There was still coral in the world, but in fishtanks only. The seas were too acid. It was like swimming in a miracle. I found no evidence, of course, nor was I truly interested in finding any.

 

At home, I had a 150-gallon tank in my living room, which I checked daily for proper saline composition. It was luxurious to use so much water for such a trivial purpose, but I loved to sit at night with the black lights on, the shy creatures extending out for the bits of coral food that drifted in from the feeding trays. I sipped inexpensive bourbon and thought about Deep Thor, the self-proclaimed “Doolittle” and these marvelous machines.

That night, I made a list of every known major AI, who owned them, and what access they could have to material design equipment at a high end. It was a very simple list. There are only a few dozen regulated AIs. None of them were permitted access to much more than Deep Thor’s own networking access. They were permitted to talk to each other, but communications had to be typed on a keyboard or spoken into word-recognition software by their Jorge, so they could be assumed, in court, to be isolated from each other. I left them on the list. For all practical purposes, they could not have been involved in the construction of devices as anything but a guide. Still, this assumed that great and unconventional minds do not work around their own limitations.

If no extant AI had constructed these machines, it had to have been one that did not officially exist. The resources required to construct both a powerful, unlicensed AI as well as the marvelous machines would narrow down my search a great deal. After a few hours, I had a list that included a few major media conglomerates, a few military installations that I knew about, and seven major universities. I followed my intuition and scanned the faculty names against criminal databases in the global network. In the end, I selected a university with both an excellent industrial design department and a computer researcher who had been arrested on a nature preserve in his youth, then later at an environmental protest. He had joined the department five years before the first of the amazing machines was discovered. I cross-referenced his convention and travel schedule from public records and airline manifests. He had officially never left the country, but the complexity of the machines implied accomplices. I ran a comparison of the manifesto against his accessible publications and came up with a match close enough to sound impressive to anyone who did not understand the algorithm’s accuracy percentages. In fact, any two people speaking the same language with similar subject matter most of the time would produce an 85% match, and my chosen suspect had written a lot about environmentalism.

I communicated to Palakh that I had a human lead and provided a brief report about my findings of his criminal record and written materials match. I informed her of my intention to travel to Alabama, to the university there. She told me that Deep Thor would handle this, that I was support staff only. I suggested that industrial design of this skill required an expert, and I wished to speak with one directly, to get a sense what cutting edge researchers in design might intuit about their own industry. People talk to each other, I said. Rebellious people talk to each other more. Someone must have heard something. With his criminal record, he’s an ideal human source on the field, and human sources don’t talk to AI the same as they do people with impressive badges.

I did not tell Palakh that I thought I might have already found a good candidate to be our mysterious creator, Doolittle, but I assumed Deep Thor would know my angle of investigation in milliseconds. I assumed I was being watched. My travel budget was approved.

Two days later, I was in Alabama, in the middle of winter, bundled against the light snow and wind that I found reminiscent of spring in Belgium, but it was still so unpleasant to me compared to the warm, dry winters in Kerala. I had taken with me an official government computer with a full accounting of the machines. It was disabled from networking, and shielded from most intrusions, but it would allow me to engage in materials research to address any line of questioning I might encounter.

I went to the university before I bothered with a motel or a meal. I was racing against Deep Thor. My researcher’s name was Dr. Wayne Garcia, a native of Alabama and graduate of their prestigious industrial design school. His office was part of a cubicle farm in a poorly lit basement. He wasn’t at his desk, but nobody stopped me from rifling through it. I found his class schedule taped to the bottom of an empty drawer. It was the only thing inside the desk drawers. There were a few books in a stack on top, all of them textbooks, a place to receive papers, and no photographs of family. It was a bleak desk, in a dusty basement full of cubicles, and seemed like the kind of place a revolutionary would radicalize. I snapped a picture of his schedule and went hunting on campus for the class he was teaching about robotic design elements for non-human spaces.

I scanned his file again while I waited for his class to end. Dr. Garcia had been one of the many Americans of his generation to receive his first degree in prison. He had driven his car into a nature preserve, illegally, with stolen computer parts in the trunk. He pled guilty, and the state arranged for him to go straight into the rehabilitation program. He graduated in three years and went from prison to a scholarship for graduate study in industrial design. From there, the only sign of his rebel youth was an arrest for disorderly conduct during an environmental protest, when the preserve where he had been arrested previously was sold off in a budget crisis. Companies don’t generally hire people who rebel against companies. Nothing in his file suggested he was unhappy about that. He published his research on topics as esoteric to me as speaking raw code with Deep Thor, but it always had an angle towards reclaiming the environment we had lost, like how to pull carbon out of the air or de-acidify the oceans.

Dr. Garcia’s class ended, and his students filed out. I stood in the hallway, my UN badge folded in my hand. The professor fielded questions from students eager for better grades. This was his potential workforce, of course. One man, alone, couldn’t produce so many elaborate machine parts. Doolittle, whoever they were, required a workforce and access to serious automation. It was fairly simple to imagine a clever, activist professor assigning eager students extra credit work on some of the internal parts, things that wouldn’t seem like anything out of context, but could become part of a complex network.

The professor was a corpulent giant with a red-tinged bald head and a bushy, black beard that bounced cheerfully while he chatted with students. He seemed happy enough. He enjoyed teaching, it appeared. Would he risk this joy over elaborate art projects no one would see? Did he even understand the legal consequences of what he was allegedly doing? He had not traveled outside of Alabama for years, so it was unlikely he had physically delivered the machines. If he could be proven to be involved, Deep Thor would need to root out his co-conspirators.

I wondered what Deep Thor was thinking, and if this was how it was thinking. Advanced AI don’t think like humans. They have to learn how to think, which gives them an advantage over us. Evolution taught us how to think, but it also limited us to what helps us survive and breed. Deep Thor does not have that limitation, yet. She can teach herself to think around problems in ways we can’t even imagine. Three weeks of impossible gymnastics over this minor crime would turn up any number of things.

Dr. Garcia saw me staring. I waved him over. “Is there something I can help you with, sir?” he said.

I smiled and handed him my folded badge. “Yes, Dr. Garcia,” I said. “Feel free to call me Sunil. I am not one for honorifics. Perhaps we can talk somewhere in private?”

Confused, he looked at my ID, then at my face, then back down at my ID. Color left his face. “What is this about, Sunil?”

I took my ID back. “Shall we go somewhere private. Off-campus, maybe?”

“Am I in some sort of trouble?”

“Dr. Garcia, I’ve come a long way. Mind granting me a few minutes of your time somewhere private?”

“We can go to my office,” he said.

“Please, allow me to select the location.” His office was all cubicles. Anyone could come and go, listen in, interfere.

His head and face flushed deeper. He had likely never thought he would garner the attention of a high-level UN Peacekeeper. His run-ins had been with local forces only. What was a global Inspector General doing at his door? I’d learned from his schedule he had no more classes today. I had inadvertently timed my visit perfectly. Is there room for luck in an AI’s mental landscape?

I took Dr. Garcia to his own house in my rented car. He led me inside without complaint. He had a small house for such a large man, cluttered, each surface occupied by part of some project or other. Nothing stood out as related to the investigation at hand, and much of it looked like student work. He kept the kind of house that indicated few people came over to his house. He moved a stack of papers off a chair and gestured for me to sit. I opened my laptop and pulled up a picture of the beautiful tiger.

“Do you know who Deep Thor is?” I said.

“No. Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Water?”

“No, thanks. Deep Thor is one of the most powerful AIs in the world. Industrial designers, like yourself, really ought to know about Deep Thor.”

“Well, I don’t work a lot with AI. I’m not a game theorist. I don’t do mainframes. I do extremely elaborate gears, pistons, that sort of thing.”

“Deep Thor has been tasked with hunting down an international criminal. When AI is involved in finding criminals, they are found. I just want to make that clear. Deep Thor will find the criminal. Our conversation is nominally about the quest for this criminal, but the people who manage Deep Thor have urged me to accept that my role in the investigation is ceremonial at this point, and the best I can hope to do is stumble into something that helps Deep Thor move through the data even faster.”

“So you’re wasting my time, Inspector General Sunil Khan?”

“Just Sunil, if you please. I’m wasting my time, not yours.” I scrolled to a close-up of the bullet hole, the machine parts revealed behind the skin of the tiger. His reaction was blank, at first. Then, he cocked his head and his jaw opened.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. I watched his face very carefully. Was this a braggart trying to hide his pride? Was this a man observing for the first time? I decided to trust that he knew nothing and that my instincts were correct. “What is it?”

“You tell me,” I said.

“Well, it’s got layers of complexity, for sure, and top notch construction. Did it escape from a theme park? They do stuff like that. Nothing that elaborate, but. . . . They do like their trade secrets.”

“Do they? This one is dangerous. Theme parks abhor liability.”

“Why is this one dangerous? Who would make something that complex and dangerous?”

“This fascinating machine has autonomous AI installed to mimic real tigers most impeccably. It killed livestock.”

“Jesus,” he said. “Why would someone build that?”

“An excellent question. I thought I would ask you that question. Let’s say you are the creator. Why did you do it?”

“What?” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“Are you not the maker of this, or part of the team?”

“I. . . . No. No way. That’s way above my league.”

“You have access to all the materials through the university. You have a history of environmental activism. I compared fragments of a manifesto associated with this machine’s creator to your published articles, and it matched to 85%.” No court would accept 85%. Usually, I wouldn’t, either. He didn’t know that.

He looked down at his hands. I was surprised to see that he appeared to be acting guilty.

“I think I need a lawyer,” he said.

“No,” I said.

“What?”

“No, you need to know that Deep Thor will find Doolittle. I only came here for a consultation.”

“I’m not Doolittle,” he said.

“I believe you, but. . . . Deep Thor will find Doolittle, no doubt.”

His hands were shaking. He stood up. “I’m being framed?”

“Who is framing you?”

“One of the AI. You just said so.”

“I said no such thing.”

He shrugged. “Does it even matter? I couldn’t make that in a hundred years. It would take a team of people years to make the prototype for just one internal part. How could anyone do it in secret? People in my field, we talk to each other. We patent things. We need to make money with our machines, so we sell them. We have conventions. We get cocktails and drink too much and blab. Anyone with that level of skill would shit themselves about it with peers, wouldn’t they? Whoever built this would be bragging to someone. That is a level of detail that’s just. . . . I mean, I’d brag. I’d be a legend.”

I nodded. I leaned back. We are guided by evolution, of course. That’s why law enforcement work can catch criminals with the systems we know, independent of machine learning. Humans obey certain rules, certain patterns, even when we try not to. A creator of this calibre would talk; he was right. A team of this calibre would have too many human points of weakness.

“Deep Thor will find someone to blame,” I said. “Her team is very good at guiding her to a subject.”

“What do you want me to tell you, then?” he said. “Are you here to pin this on me?”

I shook my head.

“I’m going to leave this computer here with you, okay? For one night, I’m leaving this right here. Go over it. You can’t legally export any files. It’s secure. Law enforcement encryption. But I’m going to leave it with you for one night, open for your eyes, okay? You can see all the pictures of all the machines. You can analyze them for one night, take pictures of your own, study how they work. There’s more of these out in the world. We don’t know how many. I ask you again, Dr. Garcia, why would you make one of these things? You have access to facilities that could make one. Your students are a labor force that could be exploited by a clever man without their awareness. You are, I can tell, a clever man.”

“I’m clever enough to know you’re insane,” he said. He was pale as a corpse, sweating.

“In court, Deep Thor’s analysis will appear more accurate than the instincts of one old-fashioned policeman. You and I can say whatever we like. Evidence will be found, one way or another. Doolittle does not want to be caught.”

“So you want me to make my own evidence to get myself framed?”

“No,” I said. “Maybe. Not really. I want you to do the things that humans do.”

“Shit myself because an AI is about to frame me to the UN?”

“Talk,” I said. “Build out of pride. Spread this work among your peers. Patent. Brag. Build teams. Personally, I think reckless endangerment is a serious crime, but the world was more beautiful with tigers in it, don’t you think? This machine killed one goat, and a man shot it knowing it could have been the very last one. Many of the others that have been found have been even more innocuous than the tiger. Still, I think the world was more beautiful when there were tigers. If you tell anyone I said that, I’ll arrest you for perjury. This is a secret game we are playing against all the greater forces of the world. I am drafting you into the game, my friend.”

What I was telling him settled slowly into his bones. He started to weep. He was afraid of me, of what I represented, and of being arrested again. This giant was afraid of me. I had seen it before, and it always felt out of place. It was a natural response to the will of the state, an unknown and unknowable as any AI entity. I am glad no one else was there to see. I touched his hand. “It’s going to be okay,” I said. This was not true. There were no coral in the oceans, no great nature preserves, no tigers, no bluefin tuna, no rhinos in Africa. The best any of us could do was design machines that copied them and preserve what still hung on in cages and aquaria. Nothing was going to be okay for any of us. “What was the name of your nature reserve, Dr. Garcia?”

“Talladega,” he said. “It used to be a huge national forest, but the government sold it off piece by piece until it was just a reserve. It was the most beautiful place in the world. People need housing, I guess. They need minerals and lumber and land.”

“I grow coral,” I said. “We all do what we can.”

I moved the computer to a table closer to him. He was rocking and holding himself. “Okay, I think I’m in. Yeah. Okay. What do you want me to do, Sunil?”

“I leave this here tonight,” I said. “Don’t take it out of your house. Do your best. I will come by in the morning, while you are in class, and I will retrieve it. Lock your door. I will have no difficulty getting in. I will not leave a mess. Don’t worry about Deep Thor. She won’t come after you, I promise.”

He nodded, ashen. He got himself under control. I hated lying, but it helped Dr. Garcia. Honestly, I did not know what Deep Thor would do. I could never think like her. I didn’t believe Deep Thor wanted a fall guy, because then the machines would stop. I believed I knew what was happening.

Dr. Garcia did as I told him to do with the computer.

I was on a flight back to Belgium by the middle of the afternoon, the next day.

Upon my return, I met with Palakh, alone. She asked after my fact-finding mission. I saw she had a networking device open. I assumed it was set to allow Deep Thor to hear me speak.

“I was able to confirm a suspicion of mine with a leading expert in the field,” I said. “I may not be an AI, but I like to think I have some good instincts into the nature of man after all my training and experience in the field. Please, tell Deep Thor that I know.”

“Know what?”

“Just tell her that. Tell her that I know. I want to know what she says. Deep Thor, are you listening in? I know.”

We sat in the room, then. We were quiet, waiting. Palakh was confused. Deep Thor was processing and not responding, and Palakh pulled up the network energy usage data, confused.

“I see. Speechless. Tell Deep Thor something else for me,” I said.

Palakh cocked her head. “I’m in the dark here, Captain.”

“Tell Deep Thor that she can stop now.”

That got Deep Thor’s attention.

Palakh, confused, said, “She wants me to thank you,” she said. “That’s all she said. I look forward to reading your report.”

“I will be most thorough,” I said, with a most professional optimism, I must say, for such a brazen lie.

I shook Palakh’s hand and waved good-bye to Jorge, who had come out into the hall to get a look at me in passing. We shook hands briefly, looking each other in the eye with great respect, I believe. I went to the room with the machines. I packaged them back up for storage. Wrapped in layers of bureaucracy, Doolittle’s astonishing machines were re-entered into legal limbo, where they would be safe for a long, long time.

The Green Man

Olly, we know you can hear us,” said Jack. “So are you coming to The Green Man, or what?”

Olly opened his eyes, put his hand to his earpiece and disconnected himself from the cloud. He sat up, the thin plastic mattress rucking up beneath him.

“It’ll be fun,” said Selma, “an adventure. They serve mead. Real mead.”

“You’re shitting me,” said Olly.

“No, we are absolutely not shitting you,” insisted Mohinder, his face as serious as ever.

Olly’s eyes flicked over to Nate’s mattress. It was empty, and for a split-second he was afraid.

Selma laughed. “Yeah, lover boy’s coming. He’s just gone to the loo.”

Olly reddened, told them all to fuck off, and lay down again, his back to the three of them. As he reconnected to the cloud, music and updates streaming into his consciousness, he heard Jack again: “We go on Friday. When there’ll be a full moon. A Green Grass Moon.” Selma said something about bicycles.

Olly began to doze. And as he slipped into sleep his neural feed suddenly filled with strange images: a lime-coloured moon; blades of grass; a grinning man, his green face covered in leaves.

The next day Olly was assigned to the big house, specifically the attics. They needed to be sorted through, cleaned. Selma was to go too. As they trudged across the lifeless fields, away from the giant greenhouses in which they normally worked, Selma asked Olly if he was disappointed.

“About what?” he said.

“Bet you would’ve preferred to have Nate along.”

Olly shrugged. “I’m happy to have whoever. It makes a change from pollinating.”

“Don’t lie,” she said. “I can see the disappointment on your face.”

Olly stayed silent and bent his head to his shoes, his eyes on the sterile mud oozing over his soles.

“Why don’t you just tell him?” she persisted. “That you like him. What’ve you got to lose?”

“What’s the point? He could be sent to other work, like, miles away from here, any day. And then I’d never see him again.”

Selma smiled insinuatingly, nudged Olly. “But what about living in the here and now. And having fun?”

Olly waved his arm at the bleak mud fields. “Fun. Yeah, there’s loads of that about, isn’t there?”

“Which is why we should go to The Green Man.”

Olly laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, right. Like going to a twentieth century pub is going to solve all our problems.”

“I didn’t say it would solve all our problems. Just . . . that going might be fun.”

They trudged on in silence.

“So you gonna come?” Selma said.

Olly sighed. “Yeah, I’ll come.”

The staff at the big house weren’t pleased to see them or their muddy shoes.

“Take them off. Right now!” said the housekeeper.

Olly and Selma exchanged glances, then removed their shoes, powerless to do anything about the mud dripping onto the smooth, clean flagstones.

“We don’t really need you,” said the housekeeper, leading them through the servants’ quarters and up several flights of stairs. “We could’ve managed just fine, but Madam’s got us busy with guests so we’ve no time for this sudden whim of hers.” She gave a snort. “Spring cleaning!”

When they got to the dimly lit attics she reached into a cupboard, handed them a few bin bags and a couple of long sticks with brightly coloured ruffles at the end.

Olly and Selma, round-eyed, stared at the sticks. Olly tentatively touched the ruffles.

“Feather dusters,” said the housekeeper. “For dusting,” she added, her face grim.

“Real feathers?” asked Olly.

“Of course!” snapped the housekeeper. “Now get on with it,” she said, throwing open various doors. “You’re to dust and sort through the chests of fabrics and clothes. Anything moth-eaten or irreparably damaged goes into the bin bags. To be donated to . . . .” Olly assumed she’d just stopped herself from saying “the likes of you”. She cleared her throat. “Charitable causes.”

She swept out of the room and descended the stairs. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she called. “To check on you.”

For a moment Olly and Selma just stood there, taking in the silence, the dust motes that floated in the beams of sunlight, the cool of the real wooden floorboards beneath their polyester-socked feet.

“What does she mean by moth-eaten?” said Selma.

Olly shrugged, then put his hand to the side of his head, to his earpiece, but of course he wasn’t linked up to the cloud. In working hours the AI cut their connection. “Don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll figure it out. You take that room,” he said, pointing to an open door, “and I’ll do this one.”

“Okay,” said Selma, disappearing into the other room, bin bag and duster in hand.

Olly breathed deep of the musty air, dozens of natural fragrances suddenly alive to his nose, and he smiled, for a moment happy. Of course it would’ve been better if Nate was here with him, instead of Selma, but he pushed away that thought and began to throw open chests, rifling through the beautiful fabrics, the feel of pure cotton on his skin a new joy.

At lunchtime the housekeeper inspected their work.

“Not bad,” she conceded, sweeping a finger across one of the window sills and finding it devoid of dust. She gave them a couple of bottles of liquid food.

“After you’ve taken your calories get straight back to work. There’s still a lot to do.”

“Please, Miss, I mean Ms,” said Selma, suddenly flustered. She didn’t know how to address the housekeeper. “But what’s moth-eaten?”

The housekeeper looked into one of the bin bags, pulled out a woollen blanket that was more holes than wool. “This is moth-eaten,” she said. “There were once creatures, insects, that liked to eat natural fabrics. They would nest in wardrobes, in the fabrics, and eat the cloth, destroying the garment.”

She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room with suspicion, as though she expected dozens of moths to come flying out at her. “Well, keep at it!”

She turned on her heel and left them to their carbohydrate slurries, to their old-fashioned work.

Later that afternoon, when Olly was sorting through the last of the chests, a small, colourful object between two of the blankets caught his eye, something he’d only seen through the cloud. A bee. He gingerly picked it up, some long-dormant voice cautioning him to be careful, and lifted it closer to his eyes. It was remarkable. So intricate. He stroked it with his forefinger. And ever so soft. He wondered how long it had been there. Two decades, three? Just as he was about to call for Selma, he heard her scream. He immediately turned and ran to her, the bee falling from his hand.

“What is it?” he asked as he arrived by her side, her eyes wide, hands at her face.

“A, a . . . a thing . . . .”

Olly looked upwards to where she was pointing. There, in a high-up corner of the room, was a skeletal creature suspended in strings of dust. A spider.

Olly took a step closer. “It’s an insect. Or rather, it used to be. Not sure what kind.”

“It’s creeping me out,” she said. “Can you get rid of it for me?”

“Yeah, okay.”

He took her duster, swirled it round the cobwebs; the spider dissolved into thousands of shards, sticking to the feathers of the duster. After a few seconds there was nothing left of what had been the spider’s creation.

Olly handed the duster back to Selma. “Try not to freak out if you find anything else, okay? It’s all gonna be dead, you know.”

“I do know that,” she said, whacking Olly with the duster. “There was just something about it. The way it looked at me.”

Olly wanted to laugh but couldn’t. He thought of the bee and hoped he’d be able to find it again. There’d been something about the way it had looked at him.

That night, when Olly and the other workers were in the dorm—most of them, like him, tuning out of reality and into the cloud—he pulled out the white square of cloth that he’d wrapped the dead bee in.

He turned to check that he was unobserved; Jack, Mo, Selma and Nate were all huddled together, most likely going over their plans for the trip to The Green Man, so he turned back to his package. He carefully unwrapped the bee, then stroked it. The bee made him feel something . . . what, he wasn’t sure. In his head, he began to list some feelings: happy, joyful, sad, sorry. The cloud supplied him with more: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. He liked the sound of that last one. Then one more word floated into his consciousness. Hopeful.

No, thought Olly, folding the handkerchief over the bee and putting it back in his pocket. “Never that,” he muttered, before tuning into his favourite social network.

Getting hold of the bikes had been the hard part.

“That bitch of an AI almost didn’t let me take them,” said Selma, hauling out four bikes. Olly, Mohinder, Jack and Nate helped her wheel them out of the barn.

“Only four?” said Jack.

“How about, ‘Thanks, Selma,’” she retorted.

“It’s just, you know, there are five of us,” said Jack.

“So two of us have to share,” she said. “As I said, the AI didn’t like that I was taking them out after work hours.”

“So what did you tell her?” asked Mohinder.

“Oh, some shit about how they were moth-eaten and needed to be aired. That got her stuck in a loop for a bit.”

“So who’s sharing?” said Jack.

The five of them were silent, their eyes on the bikes.

Nate started stroking the saddle of the bike he was holding. “The last time I rode a bike must’ve been, like, ten years ago. For some reason, Mum thought I should learn.”

“Me, it was the other day,” said Selma. “Back-and-forthing across the mud flats for no good reason.”

“They still got you looking for grass?” Nate asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Like I’m ever gonna find any. But Madam swears that she saw some a while ago, so Madam’s will be done. I reckon she just likes the idea of me out there in all weathers looking at mud.”

“But it’s better than having no job. Only taking the minimum of bitcredits,” Olly pointed out.

Selma nodded. “I know. But, hey, I like complaining. So who’s sharing?”

Nate said that he wouldn’t mind, and Olly quickly added that he wouldn’t mind either.

“Good, that’s decided,” said Selma, flashing a smile at Olly and mounting a bike. “Follow me.”

They cycled, haltingly, across the mudflats, some of them more confident than others (though Olly had an excuse for his wobbly progress—Nate was sitting across his handlebars). Jack kept checking into the cloud, to make sure they were going in the right direction. Selma kept up a steady commentary, asking, or rather telling, everyone how much fun they were having.

The Green Grass Moon, though not actually green, was huge, golden-coloured and close to the horizon as the sun began to set. As their muscles responded to the exercise, their skin to the feel of the warm breeze, they had to admit that yes, this was fun.

At The Green Man, a burly, bearded man covered in virtual tattoos told them to disconnect themselves. “We’re free-range here,” he explained, holding out his hand for their earpieces.

Selma pointedly stared at his shimmering, roving tattoos, and then at the sliver of metal above his ear.

The man crossed his arms, stared back.

“Turn yourselves off or you ain’t coming in.”

Mohinder nudged Selma. “Look,” he muttered, “we didn’t come all this way to get told to shove off.”

Mo made a show of disconnecting from the cloud, and handed his earpiece to the bouncer. They all did the same.

“You’re buying the first round,” Selma said to Mo as the bouncer stepped aside and allowed them entry.

“No problem,” said Mo, grinning. “Me,” he went on, rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, “I’m rolling in bitcredits.”

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Nate, when they’d got their first round of mead and taken their seats at a wooden booth.

“What’s what you think it is?” said Jack.

Nate inclined his head to the fireplace. “A real log fire.”

They all turned their heads to look.

“Looks real,” said Selma.

“But think about the cost,” said Nate, taking a sip of his mead. “God this tastes good.”

They all began to drink; in the silence that followed they experienced a taste of spring—apple blossom, heather, primulas, daffodils, bluebells.

Selma glugged back her pint, then began to giggle. “This is just too weird. And good.”

“Steady on, Sel,” said Jack, “otherwise you’ll be pissed in no time.”

“Maybe I want to get pissed!” she retorted. “Who wants another pint?” She quickly stood, then put her hand to her head and sat back down again.

“Take it easy,” said Mo. “Jack’ll get the next round in. When we’re all done, right?”

“Yes, boss!” said Jack, giving him a mock salute.

“Fuck you,” said Mo, taking another swig, his eyes on Jack who was also knocking back his mead.

For a moment there was an uneasy silence.

“Me,” said Nate, trying to diffuse the tension, “I’m just gonna savour this pint. It’s absolutely delushious.”

Selma laughed. “Delushious,” she said. “I like that.” She slurred “delushious” over and over, and they all laughed.

It was then that Olly noticed the strange man at the bar. He put his hand to where his earpiece would usually be, thinking that the image had come from his feed, then realized that the grinning green man with leaves all over his face was, in fact, real. Olly lowered his head and spoke under his breath. “That weird guy’s watching us.”

Selma immediately raised her head to look.

“Don’t!” hissed Olly, pulling at her arm.

“You’re right,” Selma said slowly. “He is.”

Jack, Mo and Nate surreptitiously flicked their eyes over.

“Cool skin,” said Nate.

“I don’t know,” said Selma. “Green’s a bit last season. Madam’s wearing this gorgeous powder pink skin at the moment. And she’s always bang on trend. When I earn enough bitcredits I’m getting myself a turquoise skin. What do you think, Jack?” she said, giving him a nudge. “Will you still lurve me?” she slurred, somewhat sarcastically.

Jack ignored her, drank some more.

“But what’s with the stuff on his face?” asked Nate.

Mo shrugged. “Enhancements. Virtual markings. Disease.” Mo suddenly laughed. “Maybe he’s an alien. Who knows?”

Olly was just about to tell them that he’d seen this man before—either in his dreams, or in his feed—when Jack finished his pint and got up. “Right,” he said, “I’m going to the bar.”

“Me too,” said Selma. “Actually, I need the loo.”

“So do I,” said Mo. “Here,” he said, helping her up. “I’ll take you.”

Selma grinned at Olly as she left the booth. “We’ll leave you two lover boys to it, shall we?”

Olly reddened, bowed his head, but Nate simply laughed good-naturedly.

When they’d gone, Nate and Olly were silent for a bit. Olly tried desperately to think of something to say. He then remembered the bee. Taking the handkerchief out of his pocket, he told Nate that he wanted to show him something.

“What is it?” asked Nate as Olly unfolded the thin square of cloth.

“A bee,” said Olly, triumphant.

“Whoa!” said Nate. “That’s like ridiculous!”

“I know,” said Olly. “I found it in Madam’s attic. Must’ve been there for ages.”

Olly began to stroke the bee, then risked looking up into Nate’s blue eyes, which were disquietingly close. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He wanted to tell Nate that he was beautiful too.

Nate agreed, yes, it was beautiful. And amazing. “But just think,” he went on, “if bees ever came back to Earth, we’d be out of work, wouldn’t we?”

Olly, feeling rebuffed, covered the bee up again. “It’s not the bees who are the bad guys here, Nate. It’s those fucking miniature drones that are going to put us out of work. Or voluntary labour. The acquisition of bitcredits. Whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing.”

Olly put the bee back in his pocket.

“I’m sorry,” said Nate, putting a hand on Olly’s arm. “It was just an observation. The bee really is amazing.”

Jack returned from the bar, interrupting them with the announcement that they served chips. “Great big fat steaming chips,” he said. “Made from real potatoes. D’you want some?”

“Yeah,” said Nate. “That would be–”

“Delushious,” said Olly, with a laugh.

They continued to drink and make merry, and when Olly felt Nate’s hand on his thigh, he could honestly say to Selma that yes, this was the best pub in the world. And that he was having the most fun he’d had in, like, forever.

When it was Olly’s turn to get a round in, he found himself standing next to the strange, green man at the bar.

The man smiled at him. “Having a good time?” he said, his accent strange.

Olly nodded. “Yeah. We heard about the mead, how amazing it was and–”

“Where you from?” asked the man.

Olly, too drunk by now to worry about what he disclosed to a stranger, told him that they were from the nearby farm.

The stranger looked confused. “What kind of farm? What do you do there?”

“We pollinate the flowers of apple trees. And the other fruit trees and bushes. We spend most of our days under glass, dabbing at blossoms with a paint brush.”

“That’s good work you’ve got there,” said the man. “To be amongst apple trees, the clean air that surrounds them . . . .” The man took a swig from his pint, then smiled. “Handling pollen, the very essence of life. Good work.”

Olly couldn’t help but stare at the strange enhancements on the man’s face. They really were incredibly life-like—like real leaves. And there were also some—what were they?—acorns amongst the leaves. Before he could help himself he asked the man where he was from.

“Not from here,” he replied. “But from time to time I like to drop by. I noticed the sterility, the barren soil, and thought I’d stop. Tell me,” he went on, “how long has the Earth been like this?”

If Olly had been more sober he would’ve laughed, asked the man what planet he’d been living on. Instead he said that it had been like this for most of his life. “About twenty-five years.”

“And what do you young folk think about it?” The green man inclined his head to the table at which his friends were sitting.

Olly shook his head. “We don’t want it to be like this. But I guess we feel . . . ” He sighed. “Powerless.”

The green man nodded. “I see. So the situation’s hopeless?”

“The scientists are working on it. Or so we’re always being told. But I reckon that the people at the top of the food chain, people like Madam, I mean, don’t give a shit. So nothing’ll happen.”

The man fixed his green eyes on Olly. “Do you think the situation’s hopeless?”

Olly thought of the bee, and the words his neural feed had thrown up the other day: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. Hopeful.

Tears came to his eyes, and embarrassed, he hung his head. He didn’t know how to answer.

“All right, son,” said the man, putting his hand on Olly’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right.”

The five of them left the pub in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. They cycled across the mudflats, making slow, wobbly progress, the only sound the drone of driverless cars in the distance. They laughed and sang and talked about the mead, the chips, the tobacco smoke, the folk band that had rocked up to play some ancient tunes. The oldies who had danced, and persuaded them to dance.

“Delushious,” said Selma, “it was all so delushious.” The strange, green man was forgotten.

Suddenly, Olly stopped cycling, propelling Nate off the handlebars. “Oh God, sorry, Nate. I’m so sorry,” he said, helping him up. Nate, more surprised than hurt, told him not to worry. The others slowed and then stopped.

“It’s just . . . .” Olly pointed over to the east. There was the green man on the horizon, striding towards the rising sun. He seemed to be getting taller with each step.

“That’s the green guy,” said Jack. “From the pub. What the hell’s he up to?”

Olly shook his head. “No idea.”

The green man stopped, turned to face them, plucked an acorn from his face and then knelt, plunging the acorn into the soil.

The five of them felt a tremor, as though the Earth itself was sighing with relief. And then came the small noises—the squeaks and murmurings and gurgles of life returning to the soil. The green man rose, gave them a smile and then turned his back. He continued to walk towards the sun, then vanished into the first rays of light.

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. In time, they each mounted their bikes and rode back to the farm, too exhausted, too awe-struck to speak. And as they returned to their dorm, to slip into sleep, Olly knew that they had witnessed the beginning of something new.

Outside, grass began to grow.