Ivy

This story was written in 2011 for Wanderlust Stories, a locative storytelling platform. You were meant to unlock each new scene on a smartphone as you stood in the types of places described in the story: a club, a diner, a parking garage.


1. Music Venue

You were just about to leave when you saw her. Your friend already ditched you for somebody they’d just met, and anyway you were flushed and sticky from too much dancing, and it was really getting to be too late anyway, and then—

She is alone on the dance floor, eyes closed and moving as though she were the only one here. And she might as well be — nobody else seems to notice her, even though her tats and her vinyl pants and her choppy hair are screaming for someone to look at her. 

Her ink is impressive: dark sleeves of chains and barbed wire covering twining ivy, artfully faded away. They reach up to her shoulders, then under her tank top. You wonder how far they go.

She opens her eyes. 

She sees you watching her.

*

She stops dancing and stands where she is looking back at you. Her eyes are steel ringed by thick black eyeliner. You try to look away, but find your eyes pinned in place. She doesn’t smile.

After a moment, she walks over. An acrid scent curls into your sinuses, something industrial, but it is gone before you can identify it. “Do I know you?” she asks you. “You seem familiar.”

You shake your head. 

She sizes you up, and you can’t help but feel she’s found you lacking. Still: “You here with anybody?”

“Not anymore.”

“Come outside with me for a smoke.”

You shrug, noncommittal, but all the same… 

You follow her outside.

*

She pulls a clove from a tattered pack and lights it, then takes a long pull, staring up at the sky. There are no stars tonight. It’s been a long time since you’ve seen stars.

You search for at least the glow of the moon hiding behind clouds. When you give up, you find that she’s been watching you. “I do know you,” she said. “You don’t remember, do you?” She still isn’t smiling.

The smoke curls around you. Something about her and the night and the scent are tugging at you, but you might as well try to catch the smoke.

“Don’t you remember who you are?”

You do, of course — who doesn’t know that? But suddenly you doubt. 

“Let’s get some coffee and talk.” She walks away without looking to see if you’ll follow. 

And of course you do.

 

2. Diner

The coffee here is corrosive and dark as old motor oil. She takes it black.

The diner is brighter than the club, at least, and now you can see the red rimming her eyes, the grease in her hair. When she was dancing, she might have seemed celebratory to the casual eye, but now she looks like someone who has been abandoned by joy.

She looks out the window. There are no passers-by. “You are like me, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

She sips her coffee and won’t meet your eyes. “I — I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong.”

There is a voice in your head telling you she must be delusional, but there is another one, a deeper and more desperate one, that wants to hear her out. 

“Tell me what you mean.”

*

“If I have to tell you,” she says, “then I — I wouldn’t know where to start.” She is hoarse from bitterness. “You just have to remember.”

She pulls out another cigarette, ignores the dirty look from the waitress. You spot a poppy blossom on her skin, indistinct and covered with black barbs. And then you do remember, at least something small.

“Those leaves used to be greener,” you say, nodding at her twining ivy. “And those chains — those are new.”

Her eyes grow a a little wider. “Damn, I knew it. You are one of us.”

You’re still not sure there’s anything to this, but: “I want to remember more. Can you help me?”

She nods slowly. “I haven’t met anyone else in, in years now. But it’s been even longer for you, I guess, if you’ve forgotten… everything.” She pulls a few dollars out and leaves them on the chipped table.

“Let me take you somewhere,” she says. “Maybe then.”

 

3. Parking Garage

“Here. This is where you were from, once.”

How could you be from this expanse of cement, painted lines, faint oil spots? This isn’t the sort of place that people are from. Definitely not.

“You have to remember.” Her voice is infinitely sad.

But this place used to be wild and green, for all it’s been overtaken by steel and concrete. Just like her. Just like—

And then she throws away caution and artifice. She unfurls her wings. And that’s when you understand what she is. 

Once they might have had feathers or iridescent scales like a butterfly’s, but now they are mechanical things of broken glass and half-corroded copper wire. “Look at me,” she says. “Trying to fit in to a place I never belonged. Can’t you remember?”

Those wings are beautiful. The thin illumination from the streetlight sparks and shatters off their edges.

Memory flickers just out of focus.  You reach for it.

*

This place used to be wild and green, just like her. Just like you. Memory of tens of thousands of years gone by crash into you at once, memory buried under a sarcophagus of asphalt and agony.

You remember what it was like to be a spirit of this place, and you remember a time before loneliness. And then, and then…

Trees came down, and stone went up, and brick, and then metal. The things that sustained you, the earth and rain and sky, were poisoned or no longer enough. One by one, the others of your kind died or left or changed.

And then there was only you, and your only choice to change, too.

You remember shedding your whole being of pine, birch, oak, and then—

*

—Like a hermit crab, you took a new form of steel and plastic and concrete. A metamorphosis like the world had never seen before, creatures of the wild becoming creatures of the industrial age. But it was too late for you to find the others of your kind; they had scattered into the world of men, beyond hope of retrieving. 

So you lived ages on, and you forgot the eternity that had gone before. Until now.

You say her name.

Now, for the first time, she is smiling. “We don’t have to be alone anymore,” she said. “Not now that we’ve found each other.”

Do You Know Where Your Reagents Come From?

The smart spellcaster knows that how your reagents were raised and harvested has just as much of an effect on quality as your own skill in the arcane. You're a responsible magicker; for the safety of your family and the world, you avoid boxed charms, newt slurry, and Class IV hexes.

But for the the more wholesome sundries — eye of newt, tear of unicorn, tanuki fur — why, those you think nothing of picking up at Crowley's or Imugi*Mart on your way home. And why should you be concerned? The labels tell the story of how these animals are kept, on comfortably sunny rocks, sweeping meadows, or eerie forests, just as nature intended.

I'm here to tell you that this child's picture-book version of farming is far, far from the truth — and the reality is harming you, your family, and ultimately even the world.

 

THE DARK SIDE OF FACTORY FARMING

It turns out that supplying an enormous and urbanized population with all the trappings of modern life has come at a very heavy price — a price you may not even be aware you're paying.

The bulk of the damage is borne by the creatures whose parts we use so thoughtlessly. Newts, salamanders and toads crammed together in unlit and unheated wooden crates, given only a minimal dampening to keep them alive; unicorns kept in narrow stalls and tended by sexually active adults; ravens and owls with their wings clipped, never allowed to so much as see the sky, except in the rare case that they must be killed by the light of a full or new moon.

And while some animals are used in their entirety — newt slurry, while disgusting, at least makes the most of each newt's death — there are reports of creatures such as the bunyip harvested for their tusks, while the rest of the animal is simply incinerated or placed in an industrial waste dump.

The abuses are so extensive, so horrific, and so pervasive that it takes the breath away to learn of it.

Take the tear industry, for example. We were all raised on storybooks of wise sorcerers spinning tales for a magical creature in order to induce and harvest tears from a unicorn, basilisk, dragon, yeti, or the like. Modern high-efficiency practices are not so gentle nor so kind. There are tear farms across the nation that hold intelligent creatures captive and in agony, solely for the purpose of harvesting a never-ending flow of tears. Floors made of spikes, rotted food, routine daily whipping or burning — these and worse have all made their way into the factory farmer's production process.

When those tears dry up, they temporarily improve conditions to give the creature hope again — a move that sometimes induces tears yet again — only to throw the poor beast into new and worse conditions once it's persuaded that its ordeal has ended. 

When an animal has become deadened to its own pain and can no longer be relied upon as a plentiful vessel of tears, sighs, or blood, only then is it slaughtered and rendered into its component parts. Is this a practice you want to be a party to? 

 

CONTAGIOUS HEXES AND AURA POLLUTION

Even if you don't have compassion for the plight of animals raised and slaughtered in these awful conditions, perhaps a more self-interested argument will sway you.

The truth is, many intelligent magical creatures are capable of issuing a death hex when they're slaughtered under imperfect conditions. In particular, unicorns are notorious for cursing their butchers unto the seventh generation. Under today's massively industrialized slaughterhouse conditions, an estimated 9% of unicorns are able to complete their death hex. That dark energy doesn't just disappear. 

Slaughterhouse workers fight a hard battle in getting employers to pay for appropriate protective measures — and not all of them do. Effective and safe neutralizing charms are expensive and must constantly be replaced. (Modern attempts to create a golem capable of taking these jobs opens an even larger worry about how easily such a workforce might be militarized.)

But slaughterhouse workers aren't the only ones who suffer the effects of a successful death hex. Did you know that the halo of even an incomplete hex lingers in every part of the unicorn's body? In one study, 45% of the unicorn hair sold in a major retail outlet still carried potentially harmful hexing residue; as much as 2% carried enough residue to instigate a potentially fatal reaction in a vulnerable individual. 

Meanwhile, the less-desirable parts of the unicorn — meat and viscera not commonly required as spell components — are often ground up and fed to basilisks and other domestic animals. In turn, those creatures are rendered up for their various parts… still containing a dangerously high quantity of hex energy! Some morally flexible manufacturers have even been caught feeding fully hexed unicorn meat to their livestock. Just because it's illegal doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

This latent hex energy is already having a real and serious effect on public health. We've all heard the breathless reporting about rising aura pollution in recent years. The developed world is enduring an epidemic of darkened auras suffered by even very small children. Toddlers who have hardly learned to walk or talk have been recorded possessing souls just as tainted as a career thief's might have been some hundred years ago. 

There's an increasing body of evidence that those auras are darkening from persistent exposure to hex residue. The worst hexes are caught and neutralized before they make it to store shelves, to be sure, but drip by drip their negative influence is seeping into every one of us.  

The government considers this an acceptable risk — just a trade-off for being able to provide a large population with the curative properties of unicorn horn, or weave unicorn hair into judicial architecture so that evil-doers are incapable of lying on the stand. 

But is a unicorn's death hex a risk you're willing to take for yourself and your family? Will you really chance that your children's souls will be devalued in the wider marketplace solely for the convenience of popping into Imugi*Mart for whatever you need? 

 

THE DAEMONIC VEIL

Everyone learns in grade school about the Daemonic Veil — the natural phenomenon that prevents our world from being overrun by bloodthirsty daemons from other dimensions. But did you know that factory farming is one of the biggest culprits in erosion of that barrier?

The cumulative effect of global suffering was proven to be the root cause of the holes in the Daemonic Veil that began appearing at the poles in the late 1970s. And animals raised and slaughtered in inhumane conditions do indeed suffer and erode that Veil, to a degree previously unknown throughout history.

For every 3.87^38 cubic poena per square mile emitted by a given population, the Daemonic Veil is thinned by .04 metric céng each year. This may seem like a tiny amount, nothing to be concerned with. And that's exactly what Piercing deniers want you to think.

But the risk of piercing the Veil is real, and the danger grows stronger every year. Last year, gremlin infestations were up throughout the world by nearly 7% — the highest in recorded history. And while an event like the Fairbanks Apparition is a statistical anomaly by anyone's measure, the incidence of "once in a century" apparitions has reached a frequency of once a decade or more, particularly closer to the poles. In New Holland, the apparition rate has grown so high that public health officials have begun an extensive campaign encouraging everyone to wear protective charms and garments at all times.

Some daemonology experts predict that the Veil could be completely gone by 2135, and the nightmarish fusion of our world and the Other will be complete. Other experts claim that's a much too conservative number, and the Piercing could occur as soon as 2063.

Either way, the time to act is now. A typical heavily industrialized farming operation can output a whopping 150^38 cubic poena per square mile, which means only one such farm eats away nearly 20 céng per year. We owe it to our children, our ancestors, and for necromancers, our own post-death eternity, to do all we can to stave off the fruition of this looming hellscape.

 

TOWARD SUSTAINABLE MAGIC

Given this awful state of affairs, you may wonder if there's any way at all to ethically continue using magic at all. Nobody wants to harm animals, contribute to the onset of the Piercing, or suffer from a contagious hex. But how are you supposed to live without the benefit of modern magical conveniences like service golems, weather control, or phylacteries? The answer is: you don't.

There are a number of approaches taken by progressive magickers looking to improve their own lives, and in turn the world.

* Veganism. Vegans refuse to use any reagents using animals or their byproducts at all. Blood, bone, scales, tears — the vegan magician eschews them all, preferring herbal substitutes. But no amount of belladonna, garlic, or mandrake can ever completely replace the efficacy of something as ubiquitous and satisfying as newt's tongue or phoenix feather. 

And the practices involved in farming even herbal reagents can carry its own consequences. The salting required to bring mandrake crops up to today's levels of productivity renders the land incapable of supporting life for as much as fifty years. The over-harvesting of nightshade and subsequent dwindling crops have meant skyrocketing prices. And the well-known side effects of an over-reliance on garlic have been well documented.

* Chemists. Some casters go even further, and won't use anything derived from a living creature. It may at first seem like quicksilver, saltpeter and moonlight aren't enough to get by in the modern world. The scope of what today's chemists can do with only inanimate ingredients may shock you.

Some chemists have developed intricate and astonishing recipes to replicate everything from the most basic cantrips to ore elaborate summonings and enterprise-level arcanum. In some cases, chemists have even created tremendous new spells with never-before-discovered effects. In some ways, chemists are currently advancing the art of the possible more than any other group. One chemist in Albu-qerqi has even developed an all-chemical fireball that can be cast from miles away, using a deceptively simple apparatus fashioned of crystal and metal.

* Foraging. Yet another approach is not to use an ingredient unless you've harvested it from the wild your own self. But while this is an appropriate practice for the bush witch and the hermit sage, it simply isn't scalable or practical in an urban environment. Not that that's kept it from becoming a hot trend!

Why, there are reports from Bera-qli that some neighborhoods and wilderness areas are so overharvested by so called "foraging casters" that many a family's phoenix familiar has gone missing, the occupants of local graveyards complain no shrouds are left to thieve, and the blood oaks are dying from sap loss. Not to mention that dragons have begun charging draconian fees for the scales and teeth they've shed, where once they might've gifted those to a friendly and appropriately obsequious spell caster.

* Sustainable farming practices. The solution, though, is none of these. Large-scale farming is here to stay. Our civilization and economy require it to function. But that doesn't mean that we can't clean up our act.

I'm calling in you to contact your representative to the Council of Nine to request legislation regulating farming practices, and eliminating the worst of abuses. Support the proposal put forward by Councillor Avvaiyar to place strict limits on poena emitted by farms. Let your local Adjunct know that you are in favor of a proposed Subcouncil on Ethical Harvesting. Make your voice heard. To be silent in this hour is to be complicit.

It's true that we may feel the pinch of higher costs as we browse at Crowley's. Sustainable and humane farming practices are more work-intensive, more time-consuming, lower-producing, and hence more costly. But when the Piercing comes, or when your own child discovers their soul is worth only pennies at best, would you count that as money well saved?


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Bone and Blood

The fairy ring was broken. One edge simply bled away, as if the fairies had grown bored of sprouting mushrooms and moved on to more exotic revelries. 

Mari circled around it, fascinated. She held a stick in one small hand, preparing to knock over one of the little whitecaps to see if anything in particular would happen.

"Come away from there," her mother called sharply. "Come help me."

Mari waved the stick halfway, looking to see if her mother was watching. She was. Mari abandoned her mushroom-destroying plan and used the stick to dig at the lucky patch of wild turnips they'd found instead.

Her mind strayed back to the fairy ring and the pretty mushrooms, though. "Are they good to eat?" she wondered out loud.

"The fairies will get angry if you try, and they might eat you," Mama said. "They love nothing more than eating the bones of little children, you know." She leered at Mari, teeth bared and nose wrinkled up.

Mari stuck her tongue out to show how not-scared she was. The motion reminded her of something much more important than fairy mushrooms. "My tooth is almost out," she said proudly.

"Show me." Mama looked closely as Mari demonstrated, her shoulders back and belly stuck out with satisfaction.

"Losing your first milk teeth, rabbit," Mama said. She rubbed at a smudge of dirt on Mari's cheek. "How very big you've grown." 

Mama's voice was wistful. Mari threw her arms around her mother. "Don't worry, mama, new teeth will grow in. Bigger ones!"

Mama smiled then, a rare and precious thing. "I know it will," she said. "Now go get a little of that chicory, and let's get home again before it grows dark."

 

At home, Mari's sister Yulia was waiting for her, feet skipping impatiently all around the cracks between their paving stones. "Come see, come see!" she shouted across the field. "The peddler is here, he's here, he's here! Come on, Mari!"

"Can we go, mama?" Mari clutched at her mother's apron.

"Go on, but come home in time to help with dinner." Her mother shooed her away, and the children shot pell-mell down the road and into the town's square.

The peddler was there, indeed, basking in the attentions of a crowd of would-be customers. The paint on his cart was faded and cracked, the donkey patchy and turning white around the muzzle, but this did nothing to take away from his magnificence.

Padraig, the peddler himself, was a dusky man with a broad nose and a broader smile. He seemed to hold a hundred conversations at once, and he was the master of every one: "Yessir, that's real silk all the way from Aegypt. No ma'am, I only have the one hatchet today, but she's a beaut, well worth the price. Why yes, little lady, that ribbon would look fetching in your hair!" 

Mari squeezed her way closer to the cart to get a good look at the peddler's wares for herself. There was a doll, pretty but no match for her own Honeypie. A wooden horse on little wheels, painted red and yellow; little Yulia might like that one. There was a flute, too, shining silver like a fresh-caught fish. She wiggled her loose tooth thoughtfully. 

The peddler caught her looking. "Good choice, miss," he told her. "It makes music so sweet it could even soften a fairy's heart!"

Her interest quickened at the mention of fairies. "Why would I want a fairy's heart to be soft?"

He winked at her. "To grant wishes, of course."

Wishes! That sounded like something she should investigate. "How much does it cost?" The donkey looked at her balefully over a mouthful of straw. 

Padraig named the price: one silver coin. Mari's shoulders drooped. "I don't have any money."

And with that admission, Padraig's attention moved on: "Ah, sir, you'll take the red dye? A cunning choice, but I need a little more than…"

The flute gleamed bright and pure, just like she imagined its sound to be. Ideas took root in Mari's head and began to grow together into a shape: wishes and music and fairies. 

Maybe, she thought, there was a way for her to get the flute after all. Her hand moved slowly up. It crouched on the sill of the cart, near where the flute rested. She waited for Padraig's back to be turned. She grabbed the flute, elbowed her way past Yulia, and fled for the forest as fast as her little legs could carry her.

 

The sun wasn't down yet, not quite, but the shadows were long and the trees looked more frightening when she was alone. Still, she found her way to her destination without much trouble. 

She raised a foot and carefully, slowly, she stepped into the fairy ring. Nothing much seemed to happen. A leaf drifted down from the canopy.

She pressed the flute to her lips and began to play. At first she couldn't make any sound at all, and then only a sort of breathy whistle. Finally she coaxed a single shrill squeal out of the thing. A rabbit darted away, startled by the unearthly sound.

Darkness fell. "Be careful, little egg, or someone will wake you mightn't wish to speak to." The voice was cool, like a mountain brook tumbling over rock.

Mari jumped. When she whirled around, there was nothing behind her but a shifting place that seemed a little darker still than the golden twilight outside of the fairy ring.

"Are you a fairy?" she asked, wary.

"If you've come looking, then you've found one, little egg. But tell me, why have you come to visit, when just a few hours gone by your mother told you fairies would eat your bones?"

"She was just joking," Mari said. Then, less certainly, "Wasn't she?"

"Hmmm. I wonder."

Mari clutched the flute in both hands. Suddenly this didn't seem like such a wonderful idea after all. But it was a bit too late to turn back. "I want a piece of silver," she announced into the darkness. "To pay for my flute."

"Silver." The silence was long. The first cricket of the evening began to pine for his love. "Done." 

The pocket of Mari's apron grew heavy. She reached in and found a cold disc of metal where nothing had been before. 

"And now… what will you give to me? I wonder."

Mari stumbled backward a few steps, but found herself still somehow in the fairy ring. The circle was closed, now. A shiver of unease raised the hair on her arms. "What do you want?"

A touch of icy air caressed her cheek. "Blood and bone, blood and bone. You should have listened to your mother, little egg."

Mari cried out and threw herself to the ground, trying to throw herself out of the circle. The edge didn't seem to move, but when she opened her eyes, she found herself in the center of the circle all the same. The impact had knocked her loose tooth free. She fished it out of her mouth. "Here you are," she said, defiant. "Blood and bone. Now let me go!"

"This is not enough," the fairy said. Finally Mari found its face hidden in the folds of darkness surrounding her. Its eyes were black as the sky and deep as despair.

"You didn't say how much," Mari said staunchly. "A deal is a deal."

There was a rustling, like a flock of birds all taking flight at once. The world grew lighter around her again. The sun was on the wrong side, and brighter than it should've been. Blinking against the dawn, Mari stumbled toward home again to make her sins right again.

 

Time passed, and Mari's adventure was forgiven, if not forgotten. Her mother gave her a long, steady look when the next tooth fell out, and the next one, but didn't say anything. Mari kept those teeth in her pocket, little pearls of her own making. 

One night, Mari's little sister Yulia came down with a terrible fever. Mari huddled in the corner as her mother lay wet rags on her sister's forehead and murmured soothing platitudes into her ear.

She'd seen such a fever before. They all had. It had taken Mari's father away from them, three summers before. At last Mari's mother pressed a few precious coins into her hands; Mari knew it was all the money they had in the world. "Go find the herb-woman, little bunny," she said. She gave Mari a lantern to light the way. "She'll have a tisane, or a poultice, or — well, she'll know how to help. Be quick!"

Mari ran all the way to the herb-woman's home. It was a stone cottage surrounded by gardens filled with yarrow, sage, and monkshood. She pounded on the door, then darted to the shuttered window next to it. "My sister is sick, we need you!" she called.

The woman threw the shutters open. She was a fearsome thing with thorny gray hair and one eye squeezed nearly shut. She sized up Mari. "Sick? She's caught the fever, then, I reckon. You brought money?"

Mari fished the coins from her pocket and displayed them.

The herb-woman sniffed. "Not enough for this time of night! Come back when you have more." The shutters boomed shut.

"But you have to! She might die!" Mari shouted. She banged on the closed shutters, then on the door. No answer came.

Mari trembled, thinking about her sister in a patch of new-turned earth next to where their father rested. But what could she do? She began to trudge back home. She dropped the coins back into her pocket for safekeeping. They clattered as they fell, metal against metal; metal against bone. Her teeth were still there.

She stopped dead in her tracks, and then veered off into the deep of the forest.

 

This time Mari knew better than to step inside the ring. She circled it, trying to think of a way to summon the fairy. Last time, she'd had the flute, but now —

She shook the contents of her pocket like a child's rattle. "Are you here?" she said. Her challenge seemed too small, measured against the night. She took the teeth from her pocket: two of them. She took one and tossed it into the center of the fairy ring.

The feel of the darkness around her changed. It grew colder and deeper. She felt something like butterfly wings brush across her calves. 

"A gift. How generous you are, little egg." The voice was as she remembered, wind rushing through autumn leaves.

"Did you want more?" Mari crossed her arms to keep her hands from shaking.

"…Yes."

"I'll give you another tooth," she said, "and every other one besides, once they come out on their own. For silver. The same as before."

The fairy made a low, hungry sound, wind howling through a hollow tree. "I wonder. A thief like you, and a mischief-maker. How do I know you'll honor your bargain?"

Mari twisted her skirt in her hands. "When my teeth fall out, you can come and take them," she said. "Even if I don't come back here."

"Into your house?" The darkness pressed closer.

"Y-yes, if you have to."

"Leave them under your pillow for me."

Mari swallowed. Her throat was too dry. "I will."

"More. Give me more!" The cold plucked at Mari's pocket where her other tooth still rested.

"And the silver?"

"You'll have the silver." Air hissed in her ear, a hundred snakes slithering over a hundred rocks. Mari's pocket became heavier.

Mari felt for the new coin. It seemed about right, fat and heavy like the last. She held the tooth up in the palm of her hand. A whirlwind whipped up around her, and for a moment she saw that face again, with fangs like knives and burning eyes.

She dropped the tooth into the fairy ring and ran.

 

The herb-woman wasn't difficult to persuade, once she saw the silver piece. She packed up her bag of remedies and rushed to see to Yulia with as much tutting and concern as if she had come out of kindness. By morning, their cottage reeked of bitter leaves, wood smoke, and worry.

Yulia's fever broke by nooning. Mari spooned broth into her mouth while their mother napped; the herb-woman gave a final half-toothed grin and went on her way. All was well again, or as well as it had been to begin with.

But that night, and for many nights after, Mari couldn't sleep. She saw eyes and fangs in every shadow, waiting to devour her bones.

 

Another tooth came loose. Mari did her best not to touch it, not to move it, not even to eat with it. Her mother noticed her one-sided chewing, and asked if she was suffering from toothache.

Nothing stopped the tooth's treacherous progress. Finally one afternoon it simply fell out of its place. Mari spent the rest of the day rolling the thing between her fingers, testing its sharp edge. When night fell, she placed the tooth under her pillow and curled up next to Yulia, eyes wide and heart racing. Beside her, Yulia's breath was slow and soft.

At midnight, the darkness grew deeper and colder. Mari heard a fluttering laugh like an owl swooping on a mouse. After a time, the cottage fell silent again, and the night seemed less heavy.

Mari felt under her pillow. The tooth was gone, replaced by another piece of silver. She breathed, for perhaps the first time in hours, and at last fell into a sound and dreamless sleep.

 

Years passed. Mari grew tall and strong. She came at last to her final milk tooth, and this one she tugged at and twisted until the pain stabbed white and the tang of blood covered her tongue.

Finally, finally, she was at an end to the bargain. She placed the last tooth beneath her pillow. She closed her eyes and waited, tense as a drawn bow, for midnight to come.

The fairy came and took her tooth. But this time the darkness did not pass. She heard a rustle beside her, rain falling on ice. A feathery touch glanced over her, then moved onward, toward where her sister lay.

It stilled when she sat up. "We're done," Mari said sharply. "Now go from here." Yulia stirred beside her, but did not wake.

"I wonder," said the fairy. It stirred the bedclothes again. "You invited me into your home. You offered me bone. But I am still hungry, and this one is younger and sweeter than you."

Mari's chest was tight like iron. "You can't hurt her," she said.

"You promised blood and bone for silver," the fairy said. "I will give you all the silver you could wish for, and in return I will take my fill of bone."

Still asleep, Yulia turned away from the sound and covered her face with her hands.

Mari placed a protective hand on her sister's shoulder. "I don't want your silver anymore!"

"You should have thought of that before, little egg." She saw the fairy's face smiling, a terrible thing like death itself. It crept a little closer to Yulia. Its breath smelled like winter.

"We'll —we'll give you bone," Mari said. "Every sliver of a tooth that comes out of her head until she's grown."

"More," the fairy said.

"Not just Yulia — my children, too, when I have them."

"More," it breathed.

 "More — we'll give you the teeth of both our children, and our children's children, from now until the end of time. You give us the silver, and we'll keep feeding you. Forever. But not — not if you ever hurt anyone. Not a single hair on any child's head."

The fairy paused in its slow advance toward Yulia, a single claw poised delicately midair like a tear glistening before it falls. "Forever."

"Forever," she nodded firmly. "But for now, you have to leave."

Yulia stirred again at the sound of her voice. It echoed loud in the room; the fairy was already gone.

Mari stayed awake staring into nothing until morning came, though nothing else disturbed her sleep. When Yulia awoke, Mari gave her the very sunniest smile she could muster. "Have you ever heard of the tooth fairy?"


This story was funded via Patreon. If you enjoyed this story and you'd like to see me write more free fiction for the web, please consider becoming my patron! And thank you.

Habit

For one shining moment on her two hundred seventy eighth birthday, Neria Ciao was the most important person in the world. That was the day her level-500 Seelie Huntress ascended into the Keep of Eternal Silence to do battle with Zirnitra, the Black Dragon of Sorcery. 

It was a difficult fight; she used every hard-won trick and trophy she'd ever earned, spent all her potions and salves, used up her last precious Wish and cracked her lone Egg of Eritanus. Her heart beat faster; her muscles burned; sweat trickled down her ribs from beneath her breasts. She nearly died four times, saved only by luck, timing, and an incredibly rich supply of Sacred Essence of Golden Lotus.

In the end, it was all worth it. Zirnitra went down thrashing and wailing. It fluttered its wings once, twice, struggled back onto its hind legs. It collapsed again. Spears of light pierced through the spaces between its scales and then consumed its husk from the inside out.

Neria Ciao was the first to ever defeat it.

She posted the video of the fight before the dragon could even respawn. Predictably, her views and comments went wild. "Incredible!" "Great work!" "Never thought I'd see someone take down old Zirny!"

She even got a personal congratulations from the Vanished Lands dev team in Finland, who, it turned out, had checked in to watch her battle as soon as Zirnitra's health dropped below thirty percent. That had only happened twice before. 

By the time she went out to treat herself to birthday cake, she'd received three hundred million views, forty thousand messages and comments, nine hundred interview requests, and alerts that her name had appeared in four hundred news articles.

Not all of this feedback was positive, of course. Usually her systems would filter out the worst of it — the vitriol for its own sake, the jealous rage, the troublemakers looking for any soft target. 

One, from a stranger, slipped through her filters because it wasn't offensive. Not… exactly. It troubled her all the same. "You have all eternity before you," it said, "and this is how you choose to spend it?"

 

"Forget about it," Kanus told her. "You did an amazing thing today. You should celebrate!" He signaled to a drone for another round of drinks. 

The restaurant Neria had chosen for her birthday party had seated them in a rooftop garden. Terra cotta tiles painted with vines and flowers paved the courtyard, and potted trees lined the patio's low walls. Their boughs were filled with jewel-like fireflies, modified to have enormous wings and soft blue-white lights. 

"I know." Neria watched a firefly crawl around the edge of her empty glass. "Just… do you remember what you thought it was going to be like?"

"Mmmm." Livia tapped at her chin slowly. "I used to think that I would change the world. Read to the blind or help to clean up polluted rivers or something."

Kanus snorted. "Why would you need a person for that?"

Livia smiled politely. Kanus was some decades younger, and didn't really understand what it had been like. "There was a time when machines couldn't do those things." 

A boy with a wide smile came over and stood by their table, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. He couldn't have been more than forty-five; an infant, really. "Are you Neria Ciao?" he asked, breathless. 

She nodded, glowing a bit from the warmth of his regard. "Yeah, I sure am."

"Congratulations," he said. "I just… wow, that was incredible. And — oh! Happy birthday!"

"Thank you." She inclined her head graciously. 

"You're such an inspiration. It's so great to meet you." The boy fluttered, overcome by his own enthusiasm, and then returned to his own table. The heads of his group all bowed together as he shared the video of his short conversation with them.

Kanus smirked. "Looks like you have a fan club now, Neri." He took his fresh glass from the back of a drone, then handed Neria's to her as well. "I'd say that's a sign you're doing something right. What are you so worried about?"

"It's just — got me introspective. Maybe it's hit me harder because it's my birthday."

Livia patted her hand. "You can still do everything, Neri. You have all the time in the world."

Neria sipped her new drink, something fizzy and radiant peach. "I was going to read all the classics," she said. "And learn to… I don't know, keep bees or something. Calligraphy. Sewing my own clothes."

"So the thing I realized was this." Kanus leaned forward to jab the table for emphasis. "When was the last time you regretted not doing any of that stuff?"  

"…Never, I guess."

Kanus leaned back again and cradled his glass against his sternum. "Well there you have it. There's no need to keep any of that in your brain. You're just romanticizing the obsolete skills of the past. Let it go!"

"He's right, Neri. You're making yourself unhappy for no reason." Livia bobbed her head. "Now come on, we have a lot of celebrating to do. Who wants pastilla?"

 

The next morning, Neria checked into The Vanished Lands for a quick victory lap. The dev team had erected a monument to her outside the causeway to the Keep of Eternal Silence. It captured her at the moment of victory, bloody and defiant, the cracked Egg of Eritanus sparking in one hand. 

It was magnificent. 

Gifts had come in overnight, too. Soon she had as much gear as she had before she'd entered the dragon's lair, if not more. Each item was accompanied by a kind message telling her she was inspiring, delightful, amazing. Would she like to join their guild, or their team, or just hang out sometime? She sorted through these, declining almost every offer as politely as she could.

Then she traveled the world, from the dim glow of the Sea of Twilight to the craggy peak of Mount Ironskein. After a few hours, the shine of victory wore off. She'd done everything she could in the Vanished Lands. She knew every inch of terrain. She'd bested every villain and won every achievement. The work of fifteen years was complete. At least until they released some new region or event.

She set aside her glasses and stared up at the ceiling. She felt empty. It was time for a change. 

 

She booked three weeks at a monastic retreat in the Napa Valley. Network access was heavily throttled there, and intermingling with other guests strictly forbidden. It was isolated, but not ascetic. The accommodations were more than comfortable, and meals and other needs were provided by drone. The idea was to clear her head and get in touch with her inner nature through a strict regimen of exercise, simple food, and quiet contemplation.

Neria had visited just such a retreat to celebrate her hundredth birthday. She'd hated it so much that she'd left after only two days. But now… well, now she was much more mature. More likely to benefit from the experience. 

She pressed her head against the window of the car on the way there, watching the setting sun flicker through the tree trunks. She'd paid a little extra to have the car to herself. Neria felt it was more in keeping with the spirit of the retreat to arrive in solitude, already primed for contemplation. She'd even already killed her network connection.

It was really boring.

Boring, Neria thought, must be good for the spirit. She did her best to meditate on the orange of the sunset, or the feeling of her body pressing into her seat. She counted heartbeats. She thought about turning on the network again, but resisted the urge. Her sense of her own purity grew by the minute.

By the time an hour and a half had passed, she felt herself a paragon of virtue. Why did she think she'd needed three weeks? She was already more than half—

Sound. Impact. Dust. Something hit her nose, cheek, knee, shoulder.

Neria sprawled blinking and disoriented. Was she right side up? No, not quite, she was skewed sideways, somehow. Slowly she realized that the car's impact system had gone off. What had happened? She struggled to put the images together into something that made sense. There had been a rumble, a fall, the car had veered sharp to the right, and then it hit… something. A tree? Another car? How could that even happen, though?

She clawed aside a half-deflated airbag to see outside the windows. The front of the car was crumpled against a rock face along the side of the road. 

"There has been an accident. Stay where you are," the car told her. "Help is arriving soon."

Neria's hands shook. She was so far from civilization, so far from help, but… it could have been worse. She wasn't hurt, she didn't think. She trembled. The worst was over. All she had to do now was wait. She tried to turn on her personal display, then realized it was missing from her ear. She spotted it fractured into three big pieces by her feet.

She waved on the car's display instead. Help would arrive in thirty minutes, it said. The screen flickered, then updated to say seventy minutes. Three hours. Nine. It finally settled on fifteen hours. But… that had to be wrong. How could she be stranded for such a long time? She wasn't as far away from town as all that. She forced a refresh, and then again, but the number stayed pegged at fifteen.

She scanned the news. Ah, that explained it: earthquake. And this earthquake had been quite bad, it turned out. There were more than a few transit accidents like her own, some might even be deadly. Barbaric, she thought, that a person might die in a car accident even now. She spent a moment lost in the unfathomable horror of accidental death.

Fires raged, too, and there were a not-yet-counted number of injuries. The worst news, though, was damage to infrastructure. Several of the old fiber lines had snapped in the quake, limiting network capacity. Worst of all, the regional power receiver had shifted in place, so no new energy could come in. Everything was running on backup until it could be repaired. 

Not everything had a backup. An alert went out: avoid using critical network and power capacity for any non-essential purpose. Then the car's display blinked out. 

She hadn't felt so alone in — she couldn't even remember.

She was also hungry, she realized. Ravenous, in fact. Alas, Neria hadn't brought a snack; the retreat was supposed to arrange for a meal to welcome her. She thought longingly of the cider she was missing, the biscuits, the dried lamb, the rambutan compote. It would have been delicious.

If she could make her way to the retreat, she could probably still eat it. She waved at the car display again to find out how far a walk it was. It ignored her. Well.

Well.

No map and no directions, so no walking to the retreat. She didn't know the way back home, either, even if it was close enough to walk. 

She was on her own. Fifteen hours in a car with no display and no food.

But people hadn't always relied on such technology. Even she hadn't, not in her younger days. So her next steps should be simple enough. Find something for dinner, start a fire, shelter in the car, wait until morning. Like camping. She'd been camping before, as a child. How hard could it be?

She tried the door, then gasped with relief when it opened easily. She clambered her way out and stood, shivering, at the edge of the pavement. She breathed in deep, fortifying herself with the cool evening air. 

She'd earned all of the achievements for wilderness survival in dozens of separate games over the last century. She'd passed through the full-feel total immersion fad, the hyper-real skill simulations, she'd mastered tens — maybe hundreds! — of crafting minigames. This would be a piece of cake.

The sun would be gone soon, though, and she had nothing to light her way when it was gone. Best be quick. There was a stand of shrubs not too far off — probably the berrying kind. Upon investigation, though, the bushes were all sticks and thorns and a few brown, curled-up leaves. The next bush was the same, and the next one.

Everything she knew about survival in the wild, Neria discovered, was wrong. Berries didn't really twinkle at the edge of her vision; as far as she could tell, there were no berries. The birds didn't reliably hover over the very best mushrooms. She couldn't tap against an oak tree to make the acorns fall down.

It was all lies. And it was getting dark, and colder. 

Her eyes stung a little. She pressed at her forehead with her knuckles and took another deep breath. A fire. She needed a fire. 

She collected a few sticks and made a circle of rocks on the pavement. She took two of the larger sticks and sawed one against the other. Neria had heard that you could make a fire this way. She could swear she'd seen it in a video before. Something about the heat of friction?

Not a lick of flame, not even a curl of smoke. Her sticks splintered to pieces, eventually. She picked up a fresh twig and stared at it, trying to work up the steel to try again. The muscles in her forearms and biceps burned from the unaccustomed effort.

A too-familiar sound came from the tree line across the street: the rustling of leaves as something menacing passes over them. She looked up. A pair of eyes glowed yellow from the darkness. 

She screamed and retreated into the car. She slammed the door shut behind her. She would be hungry, and she would be cold, but at least she would be safe from predators there.

It probably wasn't a bear, anyway. Maybe a dog, or a coyote. Maybe just a raccoon. But better safe than sorry; animals could have terrible diseases.

She stared up and out at the sky. She could see the swirls of distant stars and galaxies jumbled all together, freed for once of the dim orange glow that veiled them. She hadn't seen the real sky like that since she'd been in the double digits, except in satellite photos.

It was almost as lovely as the night sky in the Vanished Lands. Almost.

A memory came to her, unbidden. When she'd received her first extension treatment, back when she was a youthful and naive sixty-three, the doctor had asked her how she planned to spend eternity. "I'm going to learn everything," she said. "Salsa dancing, and fencing. Gardening. I'll learn to be totally self-sufficient — so I can handle any disaster, any emergency at all. I'll read all of the classics, and maybe write some of my own. I'll build a house with my own hands. I'll help the less fortunate — I'll have therapy — I'll climb mountains. I'll go everywhere, know everything. It's going to be amazing. Living in the future is amazing."

The doctor had smiled briefly. "Sounds like a great plan." He had sized up the injector, then pressed immortality into the veins of her thigh.

What on earth had she done since then? Was any of it worthwhile?

 

She spent the night shivering in that hazy space between sleep and waking. It was cold in the car, and damp. Time passed by without her. 

The car display powered on by itself sometime in the gray of early morning. "Help is arriving," it said. "You may now exit the vehicle."

She pulled herself outside to find a new car waiting for her. She crumpled into it. There were bloodstains on the seat cushions shaped like smeared handprints. She averted her eyes and tried not to touch those places.

"Do you need medical assistance? Shall I take you to a hospital?" The car's speaking voice was calm, but under the circumstances Neria felt it should have been a little more concerned about her.

Neria briefly considered carrying onward to her retreat. "No, just take me home," she said.

 

When she crossed her threshold, Neria had never before been so grateful for the soft give of the carpet, for the air scented with green apple and green grass, for the lights that woke as she drew near and the oven that had chai and peanut noodles already prepared for her.

A new personal display was waiting for her in the maker, too, fabricated the instant it detected the failure of her last one. She slipped it on, and slipped back into the comfortable embrace of her friends.

Thousands of new messages, of course. Many asking after her safety in the disaster. She posted a quick response to let everyone know she was fine and home safely, and with quite a story to tell later, once she had recovered from her ordeal. She skimmed what had happened to her own friends in the aftermath of the quake, then pushed it all aside to catch up on later. Few of them, she thought, could possibly have had as harrowing a time of it as she did.

There was also one new message from the Vanished Lands. To celebrate Neria's achievement, they'd released a sprawling new game update. After the death of Zirnitra, the world had changed. Magic no longer worked the way it had. New lands had appeared and old ones dissolved into mist. Strange new creatures had crawled from deep below the earth.

Her hand hovered over the start icon. She should brush up on basic survival skills. Car repairs, foraging for food in the wild, maybe orienteering. She should learn maps and escape routes, so the next crisis wouldn't catch her so ill-prepared. She should. It would be wise.

But not yet — she could do it later. She pulled at the icon, and the Vanished Lands appeared all around her.

She had all the time in the world, after all.


This story was funded via Patreon. If you enjoyed this story and you'd like to see me write more free fiction for the web, please consider becoming my patron! And thank you.

Sinterklaas

With thanks and/or apologies to Sam Skyes.

We all know the old story: that there is a loving, kindly old man with a twinkle in his eye and a jolly laugh. At Christmas, he creeps into our homes under cover of night to leave gifts for our children. 

In return we leave him treats — milk and cookies — that his hunger might be sated.

Few remember why.

***

Sometimes, in the darkness, he watches the small ones slumber, limbs loose and mouths soft. He did thus in the time before, when he was himself, when he was not yet paying his penance. 

Sometimes the small ones wake with sleep still heavy on their lids and wonder full in their hearts. They run to him with squeals of unfettered happiness, for they have seen magic made real. 

They are not afraid.

But if they knew the way his mind lingered on the beating veins in their throats, just as another's eyes might linger on their charming round cheeks, they would not sit upon his lap so readily. They would not press little arms around his neck, they would not wriggle toward his ear, they would not sigh in confidence all the things their tiny hearts desire.

It is at these times, when the smallest ones are so close, so vulnerable, so luscious — it is at these times that he suffers most. It as at these times that he remembers.

***

Once he was a demon. (He is still.)

Once his visage was horns and scowls, terror personified. (He has been cursed to look otherwise, for it is truly a curse to look other than yourself.)

Once he loved children, the delicious, smooth-skinned children, with their soft necks and pillowy bellies. Not for their laughter, no, but for the rich tang of their blood rolling over his tongue and the tender give of their flesh beneath his teeth. (He loves the children still. In his way.)

They called him Krampus and told one another dark stories in which he justly devoured only the naughty ones, only the ones who brought his attention upon themselves. (This was never true.)

But one child, a nursling pious and bright, cried out to heaven when Krampus came to her, his teeth bare and tongue ravening. An angel appeared to them, fiery and wrathful. The burning angel raised her sword and laid it gently on the demon's brow, and then, and then—

***

Now every day is Christmas for him. It is a sheer and impenetrable stretch of time that never moves, never changes. The cold is always with him, the ice. The suffering. 

He lives only one day in a year, yet on that day must deliver an unending litany of small joys to all the children of the world. His labor is torturous, ceaseless and impossible; he envies Sisyphus the king's lesser punishment. 

Sinterklaas watches the children, he thinks of them, dreams of them, more even than they dream of him. He sees love in their eyes and not terror, and year by year, his rage grows. 

He hates them. He is hungry. And vengeance is sweet as the blood of children.

Circular Logic

This was originally posted in March of 2008. At the time, I was interested in the possibilities of telling stories with technologies that didn't obviously lend themselves to such a purpose. So: A story in a Google Calendar.


Note: If you're having trouble getting the calendar to render any dates, click through to the public calendar and then change the display mode to 'Week.' This is the only way I've found to get, ex., Safari to render accurately. Also, if you're unfamiliar with the Google Calendar format, be sure to... well... click on the events and read their descriptions.

Shiva's Mother

Even at four years old, Deborah is a builder of life. Other children create mechanical terrors to wade through their knee-high wooden cities, block towers crashing down as they pass. But Deborah crafts a doll of Lego, alternately cradling it and crafting a menagerie of strange and wondrous siblings that live in her imagination, and then in her hands, too. She hums lullabies as she works.

"Just play with one of your normal baby dolls, honey," says her father. He is using the same voice that he uses when she spills her milk or gets her dress dirty. "We didn't spend all that money so you could ignore them. What kind of a terrible mother are you?" He takes the doll Deborah made with her own hands and breaks her into dozens of parts.

Deborah mourns, as any mother would.

Her own mother comes to her later, bearing the pieces that were once a baby in Deborah's eyes. "It's all right, Debbie, we can fix her." Mother is wearing the face she wears when father yells at her, and her voice is hushed so that father won't hear. Her words, though, bring quiet rebellion. "You just keep playing the way you like," mother says. "It'll be our secret."

Deborah is not good at keeping secrets. Father discovers her dolls. There is an argument after bedtime, as Deborah lies awake, her pillow stuffed around her ears to try to drown the sound. But then Deborah's mother is there in the dark, hugging Deborah tightly, mascara smeared down her cheeks. "We're going to go live in a different house, sweetheart," mother whispers. "Without daddy."

At fourteen years old, Deborah loses her mother to uterine cancer. Her father takes her to Mexico during the summer so they can "become closer." Deborah spends her days on the beach. Sometimes she sifts the sand for tiny shells, marveling at the craftsmanship of their creator. Other times she watches the tumbling waves and despairs at the fragility of life; surely a design flaw. She fills the ocean of her mind's eye with other, better life: the strange and wondrous animals of her imagination, all undying.

When she returns to school, she begins to study biology.


 

At nineteen, Deborah walks into the sacred halls of the university research lab scrubbed and wide-eyed as any kindergartener on the first day of school. She gawks at the racks of glassware and the rows of refrigerators. She snorts at the computer screens, amber letters on a stark black field; antique equipment, unworthy for such a temple to science as this. 

She is studying the curious intersection of physics and chemistry from whence biology was born. She wants to create life in a bottle.

The dream of science is, for her, the dream of a better world for her children, though she is young and yet has none. Deborah imagines a world where there is no hunger, no disease, no death. She dreams of a post-scarcity culture even as she subsists on ramen noodles — ten packs for a dollar — and works under a very important expert in the field who pinches her rear when nobody else is in the room. 

“A pretty girl like you doesn't belong here," he says. "You ought to be home giving some nice young man a dozen babies."

She smiles as politely as she can muster and tells him the babies will come in time, but first she has work to do. She watches her schedule carefully so that she is never in the lab with him alone. Still, his eyes weigh her down, make her hands and feet clumsy as though she were made of clay.

The work, though, oh, the work is worth the price of the snowdrift of many small indignities piling around her knees. She labors at creating a primordial soup, trying to replicate that first moment when mere molecules became greater than the sum of their parts. She carefully mixes and measures and records, then mixes again. She dreams at night about the chemical formula of that miracle soup, and trembles when she wakes. 

Many of the trials result in deadly poison. She is reverse-engineering the golem, she thinks, trying to find the name of God by misspelling the name of death. 


 

Deborah meets Anthony in the student union one chilly spring day, waiting in line for a cup of coffee. Anthony is awkward of limb and of speech, hiding behind a curtain of dark hair. He buys her the coffee and walks her to the lab. He, too, is a graduate student, in the same program as she. She says that it is surprising they have not met before. Her tongue stumbles over itself, but he seems not to notice. 

"I've seen you, but I couldn't think up a way to introduce myself without coming off as... kind of creepy," he says. They laugh together, one nervous at the confession, the other nervous at how it might be received. They drift into safer, easier talk about the research, and self-consciousness melts away. They linger outside the building clutching their paper cups for warmth, talking with spacious gestures and reckless voices about work and science and dreams for the future. She shivers, unprepared for the cool air, and is surprised to discover that today she is reluctant to return to her solitary work. 

At last they part, but agree to meet again for coffee the next day. And then the next. Coffee turns into lunches, which turn into working dinners. They sprawl in the lab long after everyone else has gone home, chopsticks shoved into cooling white cartons of lo mein, dreaming out loud of the world they might create.

They are there together when Deborah first spots the result that means success. One test run has resulted in delicate strands of RNA, an organic molecule that means an organic process has taken place. She shrieks and dances. Anthony spins her around and kisses her. He isn’t handsome, precisely, but he is funny, and he’s passionate about the work, and about her. The kiss is just exactly right.

The very important expert in the field rushes a paper to publication. He leaves Deborah uncredited. This cruel betrayal leaves her questioning her future. She considers filing a complaint with the dean; such a move might label her a complainer, a credit-whore, and potentially unemployable. She weighs leaving the university. Ultimately she does neither; Anthony persuades her to labor onward in silence.

This soon proves to be for the best.

The tiny strands of RNA are unreproducible, as it happens; they are contamination from improperly sterile glassware. Their peers in science disapprove with both force and volume. The very important expert in the field retires at this disgrace. Deborah feels some petty measure of joy, despite the blow to her program's credibility, and to her own.

The other result of that test, however — their kiss — proves perfectly reproducible and scientifically sound. It keeps them sane as they conduct further research, write page after page of dissertation, wrestle formatting and data alike until they at last they have both contributed their new bricks for the edifice of science.

As graduation looms, Anthony and Deborah spend a week in Jamaica, lying in the retreating surf with fingers entwined. They speak, as ever, of the future: the careers they might build, their hopes for travel, for hobbies, for children. They see the clouds go by, watcher and watched alike in languor.

“We should be together like this forever,” Anthony says. He squeezes her fingers to show he means it, and then clarifies: “Deborah, will you marry me?”

Her heart pounds. She agrees. The happy couple are cocooned in a tangle of invitations and caterers and inconsequential family squabbles. On the other side of the wedding, they find that their careers are waiting after all, despite the breath of scandal tainting their program. Anthony finds a stable job in a private biopharmacological research facility. Deborah steps into a government-backed nanotechnology program.


 

Deborah’s new task is repurposing biological processes to create useful nanoscale robots; she holds the same dream of creating life where there was none before, but now by intent rather than chance. She learns the manifold secrets of the carbon atom and its many moods and guises, and dreams at night of its strange geometries. 

Deborah and Anthony buy a cozy house in a quiet neighborhood, one with good schools and green parks filled with children playing. They decide the time is right to make a family.

At work, Deborah’s team makes wild leaps of achievement: They create a nanoscale machine that takes graphite and stitches its layers together to make it diamond. She has not created life, but there is nonetheless some satisfaction in creating a novel tool. The process of manufacturing such a robot is terribly inefficient, of course, and there is therefore no practical application in industry; still, this modest success attracts the notice of eyes attached to deep pockets. Grant funds flow toward her program. 

The family, however, is not so easy to create as success has been. Deborah bites her lip each month and dreads telling Anthony that they have failed again. Months pass, a whole year. Anthony is unconcerned, because after all sometimes these things take a while. But one morning Deborah finds a gray hair growing just an inch back from her forehead. She is startled to discover another, then another, signs that her body is as traitorous to her will as all mere flesh ultimately is. She decides that time is not on her side, and takes matters into her own hands.

She goes to see her gynecologist, who sends her in turn to a reproductive endocrinologist, who prods her and draws many vials of blood and performs ultrasounds. She returns for her results on a bright, blue-skied Wednesday, hoping that today she will learn which miracle drug could make her into a mother. She returns home red-eyed and overcome by grief for the children she has not had, and now will never bear.

Anthony frowns at her. “Tell me what the doctor said.”

She repeats the tale she has just heard: Asp-like science biting the breast that nestled it close. It is the story of her own mother, once equally desperate to bear a child, and the miracle drug that would keep Deborah safe in her mother’s womb. It is this same drug ensuring that Deborah herself would be forever sterile.

She quietly suggests adoption. There are so many children in the world who need a family to love them.

“We could,” he says. He holds her tightly and strokes her hair. She is comforted that all will be well, after all.

Three months later, she is served with divorce proceedings as she works. She stares at the papers, the type smearing because her eyes are unable to focus. Deborah runs them through the shredder, enjoying the quiet buzz as the machine does its work eating her problems. When she comes home, the house has been stripped bare of all of Anthony’s belongings, and no small number of hers. She lies in the dark on the threadbare carpet in her empty bedroom, staring at the empty ceiling, clutching her empty womb.

She returns to work to do another test run. 


 

Soon Deborah is running her own program, this time with military backing. She is no longer allowed to discuss her work casually, but it hardly matters, as she has nobody to discuss it with. She is made of nothing but work. She stays overnight in her lab very often; but sometimes, rarely, she escapes at night to the beach, and floats in the warm waves like an infant in amniotic fluid.

Her tiny machines grow into ever-more complex shapes, dazzling intellect and investors alike. Gradually, she coaxes them into becoming the devices the military desires: Eaters. She makes dozens of eaters, with dozens of appetites. For plastics, for proteins, even one to consume steel. In a fit of whimsy, she gives them the names she had once thought of bestowing on her children: Jack, Iris, Troy, Ella.

She watches news on the tiny television in the break room. Pakistan and India are strutting and howling at one another, as are China and Taiwan, and there are rumors of old Russian nuclear devices on the loose in Sudan. She wonders that she had ever wanted to bring children into this world, without first tearing the old one down.

At night she dreams of her children — the ones made by her mind, and not her body. Her eaters consume the world and remake it in their image, evolving over time from simple mechanical devices into a new kind of life, one completely apart from any mere human taxonomy. She wakes from these dreams with a sense of desperate purpose.

The problem with her eaters, as with her diamond-weaver, is one of manufacturing. Ideally, her little creatures could build or birth descendants on their own. She muses to herself that such a creature, an eater that breeds, is precisely the life in a bottle she has always wanted to make. Carbon on its own will never do. She calls on her early research with RNA, scouring old data and memory for a beacon to light her way. She finds it. One stunning night, she creates a molecule that eats its neighbors and makes another of itself; and then another, and another.

These creatures are trapped by the glass walls of their container, unable to consume the silica. She tests them for robustness, and for appetite; she feeds them rich syrups made of sugars, or emulsions of algae. She freezes them into ice and heats them into steam; they are at least as hungry and sturdy, she thinks, as any living microbe, and more so than most. Deborah is at last filled with a mother’s joy, the joy of creating life where there was none before.

She feeds her eaters seawater, and they consume that, too, and wait hungrily for more. She thinks about Shiva, Devourer of Worlds, and is proud that her offspring are so mighty. She knows she should report her findings, but she is reluctant to share the news. 

She keeps a glass tube full of her children in the pocket of her lab coat. In the light of the moon, she stares at them, swimming in their infinite innocence. They are invisible to her eyes, and would be deadly to her touch, but they are all that she has in the world. It is enough, she thinks. 

One day in the early autumn, she receives a visit from the grant supervisor. The lieutenant-colonel, a bony man with a majestic overbite, rubs the end of his nose with a thumb and forefinger and utters his terrible words. “I’m sorry, Deborah, but I’m afraid you didn’t pass the most recent psych evaluation. We’re going to have to remove you from the project.” 

Deborah grasps the edge of her desk and sways from the shock. Dark spots swirl in her vision.

The lieutenant-colonel’s glasses focus all of his pity so it glares straight into her eyes, blinding her. A trick of the optics. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It can’t be helped.”

She clears out her desk under the guard of a Marine who does not make eye contact with her. She excuses herself to visit the ladies’ room on her way out, and the Marine kindly obliges her. She leans against the sink and stares at herself in the mirror. She is pale, she thinks, and the dark circles under her eyes speak of exhaustion long ignored. But none of that matters anymore.

She takes a glass test tube out of the pocket of her lab coat. She will surely be searched on her way out, and she would never be permitted to keep her children. She opens it. She drinks.


 

Deborah stands on the beach, looking out toward the sun. The clouds are stained by the setting sun, peaches and pinks that fill her with easy serenity. The tide comes in and foam swirls all around her ankles, cool and reassuring. When the water retreats, it eats away at the sand under her toes, sinking her deeper and deeper into her own footprints.

She presses her palms against her belly, where her children are growing, dreaming their quiet dream of a new kind of world. She closes her eyes and smiles.

It won’t be long now.

 

 

About Shiva's Mother

I posted this story here as the result of a Kickstarter campaign I ran in late October 2011 (more on that here and here.) There is an open thread on my blog to discuss the story, should you feel so inclined. My deepest thanks go out to every one of my altruistic, noble, and extremely attractive supporters. 

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