The Nymph of Salento

You had been swimming, you and he. You wear the water well. Together you went back up the beach. You were laughing, your hair loosed from its braid and dancing. He never stopped smiling at you.

I followed you and your laughter to your hotel. You were staying on the water, the Adriatic steps from your door. I let the waves rock me nearer to the wall; I could not see you, but I could hear you. I listened for hours. Your conversation was probably mundane, but that made it all the more special to me:

Look, another cruise ship is passing.

Can you get the lights for me?

Where did the bottle opener go?

At sunset, like all the other couples, the two of you walked along the wall. You’d redone your braid. I trailed silently in the water below you, hidden beneath reflected gold and dusk. When the cool evening breeze picked up, he draped his jacket around your shoulders. I wanted your place more than ever in that moment.

I could have taken him; he wouldn’t have been the first I’d pried from a partner. But at the end of the seawall he stopped just to hold you, to press a kiss first to your hairline, then to your lips. He looked at you like he beheld you for the miracle you are. I could not hear what he whispered to you that made you smile, but I could guess. Such words have been said to me, but the man who whispered them didn’t believe them, so neither did I.

They were not him. They did not see the miraculous in me – not the way he sees it in you.

When the sea finally darkened to fractured starlight, you took his hand and together you walked back. I did not follow you.

Advertisements

Ambition Unburied

We’re so far down in the Scuttles that not even the neon advertisements reach this deep. The only light comes from the police vehicles and a single icy white streetlamp. The gawkers left hours ago; once the rumor spread that the killer was high on Krimson, people wanted some distance. Eyewitnesses claim the incident began as an argument between two dealers: both used their product to fuel their aggression. The one who got the upper hand ended up killing everyone in the room, then fleeing.

I lean against my car, waiting for the go-ahead to enter the building and begin the investigation. I wish Colin would hurry up; the longer I wait, the more memories creep in. He’s probably dealing with unpleasant memories, too.

Anusha joins me, leaving the crime scene techs to mill around near the entrance. They shoot furtive glances at me; I can tell Anusha is uncertain around me, too. This is only her third encounter with Krimson; I built my career on cleansing the city of the stuff. So I’d thought.

“Still no Colin?” she asks.

“He’s finishing his preliminary.”

She squints up at the seventh floor windows where the crime took place and takes a deep breath. “Taking his sweet time.”

Finally, Colin arrives. He’s engrossed in typing on his tablet, his face bathed in blue glow.

“Detectives,” he greets us without looking up. “We’re ready for the techs. Still waiting for toxicology on our blood samples, but almost certainly this was a Krimson addict. If you’ll follow me, please.”

“Did you work a lot of Krimson cases back in the day?” Anusha asks as we walk.

“Oh, I’m sure Detective Pia has all manner of horror stories from those days,” Colin says.

“You’ve never told me any.” She studies me.

“Yeah, because they’re horrible. These new cases pale in comparison.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“One time I had a case involving a Krimson user who got mad at his neighbor for having the TV up too loud. He concussed himself and shredded his hands trying to break down the door.” What he’d done to his neighbor once he got through didn’t bear repeating. “I’d never seen anything like it before. And that was one of the nicer cases.”

“Then why would anyone bring Krimson back?”

“Easy: money.”

Colin comes to a halt and I nearly walk into him. “Not just money,” he says. With his tablet lighting him from below, he looks like he’s telling a ghost story. “Power. Control. Pia, you and I are among the last who remember what the Scuttles were like when Krimson was at its height.”

I do remember, and I hate it. I don’t understand how Colin can speak about it with such reverence. “Who else has accessed the crime scene?”

“Just myself and the techs, who no doubt need your expertise.” He gestures impatiently toward the entrance.

I look up at the austere concrete facade. “Who took the blood samples?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

I point up. “If you’re the only one who’s been up there, who could have taken blood samples already?”

Colin’s eyes dart. I keep pressing; Anusha tenses, ready to move. “How did they match the blood from four victims and the killer so quickly?”

On the seventh floor, something explodes.

Anusha drags me back; my knee twists and I fall. Glass shards and chunks of concrete rain around us. Dimly, I hear Anusha shouting on her comm, trying in vain to reach the techs.

She doesn’t see Colin running, but I do.

I pull my gun and fire. The shock round sticks in the back of his thigh. His leg locks up and he falls, twitching.

Anusha helps me up. We make our way through the press of cops and firefighting drones toward Colin. She cuffs him before deactivating the shock round, and I pick up his tablet. In the corner of the screen is a timer, flashing zero.

“I’m guessing Anusha and I were supposed to be upstairs by now?”

Anusha hauls Colin to his feet. He snarls at me. “You have no idea how much I lost when you cleaned out Krimson.”

“Clearly you got back in the game. What was this,” I ask, gesturing at the burning building, “eliminating your competition?”

“Making it easier for history to repeat itself. Krimson could have faded into urban legend. Gruesome murders caused by a powerful hallucinogen, or just another night in the Scuttles?”

“While you get rich,” Anusha scoffs.

“I told you.” He smirks. “It’s about so much more than money.”

“Well, now you get nothing.” I gesture toward the cars. “Get him out of here.”

To Your Health

The science officer and her aide came to my office late in the cycle, past 14th hour. Normally I wouldn’t take meetings that late, but there was something stilted and overly formal in Doctor Palu’s request that put me on edge.

I re-read her message while I waited, trying to keep the anxiety in my gut from spreading. Was it the nature of this job to always be worried, or was it just part of getting older? Even on Earth it seemed like there had always been something keeping me up at night, and that was before I had two dozen lives relying on me.

They entered my office exactly on time. Palu gestured to Dom, who was trying to pretend the crate he was carrying wasn’t too heavy for him. He slid it onto my desk with a grunt.

“Doctor, you know my birthday’s not for another two months.”

Palu’s arms were tightly folded. “Open it.”

I stood and took off the crate’s lid. Inside was a dented rectangle of mesh that looked horribly like…

“Is this a water filter?”

“This is the water filter, Jessica.” Palu’s jaw was tense. No wonder her message was so carefully worded: there’d be panic if the contents of this crate were publicized.

“What happened to it?”

“Tell her, Dom. It’s all right.”

The aide glanced at her and cleared his throat. “It was George. He had an idea for increasing efficiency that required putting a special coating on the filter. None of the usual techs were available, so he tried to do it himself.”

“He told me it hadn’t broken the first time he’d dropped it,” Palu said sourly. “Not that that excuses it.”

“And the backup?” I asked, heart pounding. My voice held steady, miraculously – of all the crises a space station could endure, running out of water was the worst.

“Contaminated. Technically that one’s the backup – the original failed during construction of the second ring.”

“That was weeks ago!”

“We don’t have the solvent to restore the original filter. It’s scheduled to arrive on the next resupply shuttle, along with two more filters, but…”

“They’re four cycles out.” I sighed. “What are our options?”

“Rationing,” Palu said promptly. “We have to be careful, though: too conservative and we cause panic, too light and we run out of water before the shuttle arrives.”

“Right.” I stood. My fear throttled down to standard anxiety. “’The water filtration system is undergoing maintenance to improve efficiency’ – it’s more or less the truth. I trust you to establish the ration amounts.”

Palu nodded. “We’ll have the numbers later tonight.”

“What will you do about George?” the aide asked. It was the first time he’d spoken since Palu had ordered him. Clearly George was his friend, and he’d been gathering the courage to ask about his fate.

A brief glance at Palu told me what she would like to do with George. I smiled at Dom. “I’ll have a talk with him. Do you know where I can find him?”

#

George was sitting in the far booth in the commissary. His face was blotchy, his eyes swollen. In front of him sat a can of fizzy grape-flavored vitamin beverage, something concocted by the nutritional biochemists.

“Drowning your sorrows?” I asked.

He jumped. “Ma’am?”

“Drinking. It’s a joke. A bad one, obviously.”

“Oh, no, it’s not open, ma’am. I thought…maybe I should save it.”

I sat down across from him. “There’ll be plenty of water, George.”

“I knew the shuttle was coming,” he said desperately.

“Keep your voice down,” I replied, smiling. The commissary was practically empty this time in the cycle, but it was a small station.

“I knew if something went wrong,” he continued in a no-less-suspicious whisper, “the shuttle would have fresh supplies, and everything would be fine.”

I gestured at the view outside the porthole: blackness, a distant star, and the ochre curve of our uninhabitable anchor planet. “’If something went wrong’ is not a viable experimental parameter up here. There’s too much at stake.”

“I couldn’t – ” George was a smart kid; that’s why I hired him. He knew defending himself was moot and now he ought to listen. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

“Wait to work with the staff next time you have a great idea,” I said. “We have plenty of time for innovation, just no time for disasters. Okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I stood. My anxiety hadn’t disappeared, but it diminished; that was good enough. “Cheers, then.”

 

Photo by Nick Cooper on Unsplash

The Carson Girls

Bee found Beth sitting on the front steps, looking up at the night sky even though there were no stars. She was smoking; she must have stolen a cigarette from Wholenuther. Hortense, their host, looked as though only the purest of water and food had been allowed in her body during the sixteen hundred years she’d been on Earth, so there was no way the cigarette came from her. Wholenother, on the other hand, wouldn’t have missed one smelly cigarette if it disappeared from his jacket.

“You smoke?” Bee asked, sitting down gingerly on the step.

Beth tapped the ashes into Hortense’s rosemary and shot her a glare. Bee shivered. She still wasn’t used to seeing her eyes in another girl’s face. “Since I was your age. Maybe even younger.”

“Why?”

Why?” Beth repeated. “Our parents have been running around the world our whole lives, hunting down magical whatsits and getting into fights with ancient magical beings, and you need to ask why I smoke?” She took a long drag. “Oh, yeah: because you actually saw them occasionally.”

“They never told me about you.” Yet another question to add to Bee’s growing list of things her – their – missing parents never told her. “If I knew, I would have wanted to meet you.”

“They never even told me they had you. I guess I would’ve been, what, four?” She flicked more ashes into the garden. “Let’s see: from age four to six, I was in seven different foster homes; then I ran away and was in an orphanage for a while. Maybe they just couldn’t find me. We’ll go with that.”

Bee knew exactly where she was at that age: with Grandma Susan, before she died, then the Allens. Then her parents had gotten an apartment in Boston when Bee was seven. They’d lived there together, all three of them, for almost a whole year. Then her parents got a lead for another expedition, and it was back to the Allens. Bee had cried for a week.

But she didn’t tell Beth any of this – she suspected it wouldn’t help. “I’d be mad, too,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

Beth grunted and stubbed the cigarette out on the flagstone step. Slowly the icy breeze began to clear the air around them.

“How did you know they were missing?” Bee asked eventually. “Mom stopped writing to me, so that’s how I knew, but if you weren’t in contact – ”

“I overheard some Remnants bragging that the Carsons had finally been ‘brought in.'” Beth pulled her coat tighter around her shoulders. “I questioned them, but they didn’t know much, so I started checking out the Markets. That’s when I ran into you.”

Bee decided not to ask what Beth meant by “questioned.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but…why did you come looking for them?”

“You mean, since they clearly don’t give a damn about me?”

“They do, too,” Bee said stubbornly. “You’re their daughter.” They had to care, didn’t they? They must have had their reasons for separating their children, for keeping each other secret. But Beth was starting to annoy her – she was twenty, an adult, and here was Bee trying to comfort her when it ought to be the other way around. Even Wholenuther had been more sympathetic, and Bee’d had to pay him to help her.

“Guess we’ll find out when I find them.” Beth stood and stretched. “Hortense is probably gonna be mad that I got ash all over her garden, huh.”

“Probably.”

“Ah well. I’ll be out of her hair soon.”

Bee jumped up. “You’re making it sound like you’re going to keep looking alone.”

“Yeah. Duh. No offense, but you’re new to this, and Hortense may be Remnant but she’s just a gardener.”

“But Wholenuther-”

“Wholenuther might be good at tracking his kind, but he’s only going to stick around as long as he’s contracted. I’ve been on my own for a while; I can handle this.”

She started to go back up the steps.

“What about me?” Bee cried. Beth froze, her hand on the doorknob. “We could find them together. We could start to be a family.”

Beth looked back, her expression obscured by the shadows of the porch. “I don’t know what that is.”

She pulled open the door, bathing them both in cozy golden lamplight. Sighing, Bee sank back to the steps.

Beth hesitated again, framed in the doorway. “But I guess I’d like to find out.”

For An Orange

“They still won’t eat the oranges?”

Elena sat with her hands folded in her lap; her host, Princess Kilar, sprawled across her daybed. It was hot, too hot for proper posture – unless it was expected of you. No one expected anything of a princess in her own rooms, but of Elena, a great deal was expected, including some discomfort.

“We aren’t…accustomed to them.” Elena and her family had been plucked out of the famine-riddled countryside weeks ago after the princess learned there was royal blood in Elena’s family. Kilar thought it droll to have distant cousins visiting; Elena could only think of everyone they’d left behind. “The children are daunted by the expense.”

“But nothing is an expense here.” The princess sat up. Elena suspected she was genuinely confused. “Here they can have whatever makes them happy, the poor lambs.”

Someone always pays the expense, she thought. Instead, she said, “So I keep telling them, Your Highness.”

“Eight weeks is a long time to be a guest,” the princess continued. “Surely they must have settled in by now.”

“They’re children; they miss home.”

“Even when at home there was no food? Devastating heat?”

Elena shrugged. “It was home.”

“How curious.”

Ellen thought to challenge her to some empathy, to imagine how Kilar might feel if she had to leave this castle, but she expected the retort would be that the castle was beautiful and comfortable – a place worth missing. So Elena quietly accepted the cup of chilled wine a servant brought for her and sipped.

#

The next day, she came across Rohan and Reza sitting enraptured on the floor before the princess. Kilar had just finished peeling an orange, keeping the peel in one complete ribbon, which she curled it back into a simulacrum of an orange, to their amazement. By the boys’ knees were piles of coin-sized chunks of peel, and a tidy pyramid of peeled fruit stood on a platter between them.

“Look, Mama, she can make a snake!” Rohan pointed at the princess’ hollow orange.

“I made a piece this big!” Reza held up a piece of peel the size of her thumb.

“Well done, Reza, you’re learning quickly.” Elena raised an eyebrow at the princess. “How many oranges have you gone through today?”

“It’s no trouble – there are plenty.” Kilar gestured to a bowl next to her. Even after all their practice, at least a dozen oranges were still heaped inside. It reminded Elena of the solstice feast six years ago at the regional governor’s house, when each family was gifted a bushel of oranges. It was expected that they would gorge themselves on fruit before it rotted; everyone in Elena’s household savored two oranges, then she turned the rest into preserves.

“And how many have you eaten?” she asked the boys pointedly.

“Five!” Reza announced.

“I don’t feel good,” Rohan said.

“Perhaps I should take them, Your Highness.” Elena scooped Rohan into her arms.”I’m sure they’ve given you enough trouble for one day.”

“But I want to learn to make the snake!” Reza’s sticky fingers clutched her velvet skirt and she winced. Somewhere in this castle, someone did Elena’s laundry, and she had no idea who. Kilar had assured her that Elena’s household staff would be brought to the castle, but Elena wasn’t sure she’d ever followed through. It was a hallmark of the royal staff to be as unobtrusive as possible; perhaps Chari was here, watching her former family from a distance.

“The princess has responsibilities to attend to,” Elena said. “Come.”

She looked back to see Kilar disinterestedly separating the peeled oranges into segments, laying them out in rows on their platter.

“So how many did you eat, Rohan?” she asked.

“None.”

Elena frowned. “But you feel sick?”

“I’m not sick at all, Mama.” He parted his vest. Heaped inside his shirt were several oranges – still, mercifully, in their peels.

“Rohan, why are there oranges in your shirt?”

“I wanted to give them to Chari. She hasn’t gotten to have any oranges at all. All Kilar wants to do is peel them.”

Princess Kilar, Rohan.” But she hid a smile. “What about your brother?”

“I let him eat the ones I peeled.”

Beside her, Reza nodded emphatically. “They taste like solstice!”

There had been oranges after that particular solstice, but not nearly as many, nor as sweet. Chari and the other staff wouldn’t have tasted oranges in years.

She set Rohan on his feet. “Give Chari your oranges, then, and my blessing.”

Won’t You Smile

(a filk to the tune of Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, which goes way back!)

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
White teeth shine and she sure looks fine
but she’ll never be your lovin’ lady

Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Won’t you smile, pretty lady
Eyes through the smoke so thick you choke
on the curse you wanna tell that lady

Won’t you smile for me, lady
Won’t you smile for me, lady
She’s gone away where the red scarves wave
taking all us unrepentant ladies