A blue tercel clatters up to where the dark sits lodged beneath the narrow tunnel. There is a reek of cow turd and new frost in the air, and a pulse in the stillness when the car door opens and slams shut. Francis slips the keys into her pocket and waits. Heat billows from her glass mug. There is coffee, running in generous amounts, down her gloved fingers. Irritated, she clamps one hand over the other. They are both shaking.
She squints hard at where she knows the drab wash of earth to be, cinches her jacket collar tight about her throat, and lets out the rattling, steaming breath she has been holding for seconds. Mile after mile of blacktop spools off beside a field that is sprouting the beginnings of ice. She reminds herself that cold and fear are temporary things. She tells herself that it is the twenty-first of November; she tells herself that she is going home.
Francis flings her coffee mug into a roadside ditch and walks away. Just before entering the tunnel, she takes her keys from her pocket and hurls them—clink!—into the ditch, as well. Off come the gloves; she braces her wet palms against the icy wind as if it were a solid thing. She can feel the lines beneath this earth. They run the circumference of it, crossing and colliding without end. They are alive as much as she is. If she tries, she can break them into components: systems, organs, tissues—till the thrum of their atoms becomes a roar. They are a grumbling, whispering leviathan, binding one world to the next, and sealing tight the passage between them.
She blinks. The bright, sickly yellow of her eyes cast amber pinpricks into the gloom. She is changing, growing stronger as she nears the place of her crossing. Francis is, slowly, returning to what she was, and she will not be back this way.
A man waits for her on the other side of the tunnel, propped up against the young birch that keeps a rambling mess of wooden structures and farm equipment from spilling onto the pavement. He is nervous: she will hurt him—badly—if he has crossed her, and he knows this. What he does not know is that she is nervous, too.
Of course, she sees no reason not to be civil. First impressions and all. She holds out her hand, which has finally stopped quivering. The fingers have grown thin and gnarled, and—most important of all—steady. A clear and tentative determination fills her chest. Delicately, she grasps his limp, frigid hand and shakes it enthusiastically. “You,” she says, “are Nort Bakshi?”
He is silent for a long time. Her eyes, ever-sharpening, still cannot make out his expression in the dark. After awhile, he wheezes, “Yes.” The word explodes, painfully, from between his lips. It is followed a fit of heaving coughs. He vomits; blood soaks his chin, and splashes thickly upon her exposed wrist.
Francis lets go of his hand and rests her palm on where the hood of his oversized sweater begins, right at the hollow of his throat. The fabric there is filthy, and smells of river water and brine (he has, her contact says, been hiding out along the banks). She bunches it between her fingers, anyway, and pulls him close, throat closing against the reek of him. She puts her head to one side and squints.
“My,” she says, “you do look a little peaky, yes?”
His face and neck are riddled with lesions. They are jagged, sprawling blotches, carnival red in the places where skin cells still grow and divide, blue-black where those cells have shrivelled into decomposing patches of grey. His mouth looks puffy and tender, and is garnished with rings of thick yellow blisters. What hair he has left is oily and lank; the heavy stench of infection radiates from his scalp. Francis grits her teeth and brings her face inches away from his. A netting of veins shows thinly through the skin of his cheeks, red with the rupture of blood cells.
“You can get me home, right? Even…like this?” She swallows against her own rising bile: his breath is repulsive. “How long have you been sick?”
“I told you,” he slurs, “I’m not sick.” He sounds, of all things, irritated at her persistent cynicism. “I rot. Every twenty years. I—”
“Can’t die. My contact mentioned it.” She hesitates. “So it’s true then? You’re…renegade artificial intelligence.”
“Hey.” He grimaces, exposing the broken incisor that clings to his gums. The flesh there is buried beneath a legion of sores. One of his eyes, she notes, is black and lively in the freezing autumn moonlight. The other is a socket that the night has stuffed full. “He said it, not me.”
“Mr. Bakshi.” She tilts her head decisively. “Only two things don’t die: between-world creatures, and robots created by the Guild. You don’t look like a between-world creature.”
“Yes, but we’re not here to discuss that, are we?” Exhausted, he falls with a thump against the dappled birch, content to dangle by the fistful of collar that she has of him. “You wanna go home.” His shoulders heave. He drools blood again, hacking and snorting as it spurts through his nose. “I can do that for you. Our deal: your…contact has kept you informed?”
She regards him for a brief moment. His name is a byword to her and her ilk: geomancers, witches, dabblers in aether-card magic, between-chemists, and those who, like Francis, have fallen by mistake from one world to the next. He sells them what they need: miniature universes in dark jars, illegal drugs, exotic animals, strange technology, magic, sex, passage home.
Nort Bakshi is, in sum, a criminal in the eyes the Guild that created him. Their dogs are close at his heels, and the rumors that stream unceasingly through the underground say that they will kill any who would look twice at him.
Francis hesitates. “I,” she says, “have been kept more than informed. No worries, Mr. Bakshi. I know exactly what you need me for.” She tugs off her jacket and throws it across his quivering shoulders, snapping the buttons in place over his sweatshirt. His trousers smell of urine and feces; she turns her head away as she helps him stand. He clings to her hard, his fingers twisting together strands of her hair and bits of her shirt.
“Good, good.” His voice is a brisk and spiky rasp. “So, how long?”
“How long what?” They are limping away from the farm, past the narrow metal partitions that separate the cow tunnel’s path from the highway. Dead and dying brambles unfurl about their feet. Stripped first of flowers, then of berries, they rustle, naked and bitter upon the swell of the wind.
“Don’t be stupid.” Nort’s words converge around his swollen tongue. “How long you been here, and why?”
Inwardly, Francis balks. She considers ignoring him. The Guild’s dogs cannot extract from him something that he can never even guess at. But, as the empty highway seeps into view, glutted with moonlight, she realises that there are too many like her for the Guild to number, much less name—too many exiles from this world or that, who bribe magicians like Nort with money and promises of safety and protection in exchange for passage home. Telling half-truths might not hurt.
She breathes deep. The air rolls, stiff and cold, into her lungs. Fall tugs winter in its jagged wake. They pass a broken telephone pole, wrapped snugly in a coat of leafy vines gone bright red. They are close now, and the proximity of the gash is changing her. As her cervical vertebrae crack, rearrange themselves, lengthen and multiply, she watches Nort. A tooth loosens. Absently, she wiggles it with her tongue.
In the end, she tells herself that this life is ending, and there are—almost—no holds barred. She stops wiggling her tooth and says, “Twelve years. My first crossing was…an accident.” A sudden wave of pity engulfs her. Whether it is for herself or for him, she does not know.
“You’re not human.” He stumbles, panting, over a break in the pavement. They pause for a moment, two ghostly smears hunched over a silver road.
“And you’re not female, white or freckled.” Francis shrugs them upright again. She twists her arching neck to glare at him. The connective tissues between the vertebrae stretch with the motion, and collapse when it ends. “Anything else, genius?” The tooth falls out, trailed by a few drops of blood. The skin of her gums heals instantly, and ruptures again a second later. She feels a sharp itch as a long, spiny tooth pushes its way into the cavern of her mouth. Her tongue, grown whip-thin and impossibly long, lashes at the tooth experimentally.
“Not what I meant.” One of his feet has stopped working, entirely. It scrapes against the asphalt as she half-drags, half-carries him past a screen of empty fields and distant mountains, the peaks of which wink slyly with the lights of tourist towns just beginning to nestle into snow. “Know you’re not human. A cliff-harpy, then?”
She purses her lips, considering. She turns her head and spits out six molars and two dogteeth. The enamel spines burst through her gums, quick to reclaim their old home. “River-harpy,” she says, quickly, and releases him to the care of a broken fence post. It is all that is left of the barrier that once surrounded the shadow-webbed house sitting just behind them, on the edge of the field.
This is the place of her crossing. This forlorn little house, straight out of a chintzy horror movie or a children’s book. Its white walls are almost entirely black, and it peers at them through a pair of broken windows. In the summer, it is cradled tenderly by parasitic vines and brambles and leaning saplings—all green things, climbing to the light. In the winter, the green things turn crisp and brown, and curl snugly about the walls to ride out the onslaught of snow and ice. Nobody lives here. Once or twice on her walks, she has seen an sad, mastiff-like dog, dragging its arthritic bones onto the old couch that has been left to rot on the house’s porch. No humans, though.
The house is peaceful in its ruin. She was not afraid of it at her crossing. It sheltered her. She has never been afraid of it since.
He stumbles against the post, swings once around it, then gets his arms wrapped firmly about the splintered wood. His one good eye glitters sharply at her. “Can’t be,” he said, and spat. “River-harpies—stripped of their geomancy three centuries ago. You shouldn’t…be able to…even sense the lines. Much less move between them.”
That is a different, less important story. “I was a scientist,” she says, derailing his line of thought. Her voice is flippant, but her palms, where the flesh has not yet hardened into bony appendages, are sweating. “Botanist. One of those hotshot nestlings that left home for a university in the Empire.” She pauses, and bites her lip. The spine-teeth draw blood. She wants to vomit words; she wants to tell this ruined, decrepit half-man half-corpse everything that has happened between the twenty-first of November twelve years ago and now.
Some small voice whispers to her to shut up. She has said enough; she should retreat back into what she has left of secrecy. Instead, she says, “I was smart and bored and stifled. When I was done at the university, I headed research for an international pharmaceutical company. The Empire shut us down pretty fast, when they found out what sort of experiments we were doing. There was a price on my head. I was trying to—escape. That’s when I fell between the lines.”
Half-truths. Francis had been doing research for them on the Guild’s aether-system, feeding them, paycheck by paycheck, information that could have ruined the Guild at the time. It was their dogs that had come for her, not the Emperor’s witches.
She had been dispensable, in the end. Broke, sick, abandoned by the organization she had served with near-zealotry for half a decade, with the Guild’s dogs closing on her as sure as they were closing on Nort.
Into the silence that follows, Nort cackles. “So—you’re a fugitive? Why, Francis,” he gasps three times, and keeps on laughing. His razor-thin shoulders quake. “I’m thinking you’re better off where you are.” His mouth twists into a grimace that is both ominous and condescending.
Francis feels suddenly offended. What do his opinions matter? Why should they? There is money waiting for her in a secure account, ready to be wired to a bank in the floating kingdom at Pi-lona, where the thieves and murderers, the rapists and swindlers go to disappear. She sees fit to live on the fringe of her world, so long as she can be in the fold it, too: that is all that matters.
Softly, she coos at Nort. The vibrations are warm and pleasant in her throat; they fill her mouth and spill like yards of fine cloth between her bared teeth. “Mr. Bakshi,” she says, “you’re not holding any aces; don’t pretend like you are. You’re a fucking kingpin in the interworld black market. Your own Guild wants you deactivated.” She sneers. “I don’t know what went sour, but you don’t want that, do you? You’re…afraid of it, inasmuch as a machine can feel.”
“Careful,” he says. His voice is toneless, but his eye glitters warningly.
There is a sudden heaviness in her pelvis. Spasms, like menstrual pains, as the muscles there grow massive, thick and dense. “Nort. You’re not strong enough to make this crossing alone. You need me.” The joints of her knees begin their migration up; her leg muscles atrophy, and give way to cords of giant, spring-like tendons. “I don’t know how someone as powerful as you got yourself into a…situation like this. I don’t care. But you do want out, yes? Then don’t. Piss. Me. Off.”
She stands six feet tall now, with her ostrich-like legs accounting for most of her height. She flexes one of them—thump—against the unyielding ground. Her eyes are awash with amber; her clawed, skeletal hands twitch as sensation rushes into them. They are sensitive to temperature, to every turn and eddy of the air about her.
Nort looks upon her with grudging fear, then with a friendly sort of scorn. “You coward,” he says. “Twelve years away from the otherworld. No courage to start…” he gasps and coughs, “…again. Rather go back to living in that garbage bin behind the warehouse, eh?”
“I want to go home, you sanctimonious asshole.”
He laughs again, this time, gently. He holds his arms open to her, offering her his stinking, oozing, crumbling body. “Then let’s get it on. Francis, you animal, you.”
There are voices in the north, past the stables, where the trees graze the riverbank. Hurriedly, Francis crushes Nort between her spindly body and the fence post. Somebody is yelling for somebody.
“Guild’s dogs wouldn’t be that loud,” Nort says. The smell of him is almost incapacitating. “Probably a bunch of drunk kids.”
“Liar,” Francis hisses. “Why should they be quiet? The Guild’s dogs know you’re half-dead.”
“Whatever. Going to…need your real name.” His blistered mouth sneers. “Your harpy name, if you please.”
“Iidana,” she says. The word is a harsh whisper. Her hands are shaking again. “Get on with it!”
He braces himself against her. His fingers knead in agitation at her shoulders, trailing bruises, then blood. Gravel and dirt slide beneath his torn sneakers; he smashes his face into the hollow of her neck and mumbles her name.
The earth shudders. Paint peels on the delapidated old house behind them; the lone, broken fence post curves and bends against physics, against logic. He trembles and grunts, ecstatic—he is a fish, and this moldering away of one reality into another is his water.
Francis feels a sudden and inexplicable doubt.
The night is splattered with spurts of dark red. Does the man never stop bleeding? She sees the skin upon his sore-riddled neck shudder and crawl. She grits her teeth as golden cords burst from his arms, through the sleeves of her jacket, and bind her to him in a welter of painful heat and light, amidst a cacaphony of voices from the beyond-worlds. They look like gilt extensions of the veins that thread his body.
Then, Nort writhes, and the golden lines that lash them together seep quickly into the ground, where they anchor themselves. They corkscrew around the lines that bind and seal the worlds, and, slowly, slowly, begin to…coax them.
Reality melts. Light sprawls softly from nowhere, again and again. With each burst, there is a trembling of the lines. They jerk, taut and excited. Francis can feel the hiss and crackle of electrical impulses, running from node to node beneath the ground. They are carrying the very simple message of Nort’s straining will: change, change.
Colour drains from the old house, the curving fence post, the clinging, withered vines. Her sensitive bone-hands take readings of the velocity of time. In little, self-contained pockets, it speeds up, slows down, stops, or reverses. The dwarf-mallow at their feet sprawls, orgiastically, into rose and green. The stiff and heavy ring of the waxing moon wans. The field behind them grows icy, then sodden with late winter, before blooming with blueberry bushes laced with spots of early summer sunlight.
Outside of their flickering bubble of un-reality, a voice cries, “Here!” The word tumbles and hisses towards her, eerily magnified.
Symbols appear, etched in charcoal black on the walls of the house, on the earth that spreads beneath it, upon the face of the flickering moon. They cast their shadows on Nort’s hollow cheeks. His one good eye gapes vacantly at her. He is the sum of this flux now. His consciousness has given way to a mindless stream of chemical symbols and mathematical statements and witch’s runes—information flickering back and forth between this plane and that. The worlds touch. They exchange data like bodily fluids, like words, like gestures or glances; they speak to each other without sound.
She has read enough about Nort’s magic and how it works to understand that, as the equations are affected by input from the lines, the lines are also affected by the nature of the equations. To move between the worlds, a dream-sharper must alter the lines by manipulating one or more equations. This takes energy. Nort, too weak to part the lines, himself, is relying on otherworld equations to recognize that Francis does not belong here, and to draw her—and him—back towards them.
Only, he is taking far too long.
Through the ebb of rot and rebirth, and the flow of the lines, snaking over and parting from one another, Francis touches Nort. Her hand is white and bloodless. A tremor runs through his jaw. He drools vacantly at her for just a second, numbers and letters skittering across the whites of his eyes. His face twitches and jerks; he begins to speak in other voices, other tongues. She knows now what is wrong: the lines have seized and probed him. They are trying to assimilate what they cannot comprehend.
“Nort,” she says, tentatively, breathless at the feel of a prickling beneath her skin. “Nort, can you hear me?” Irridescent, semiplume feathers explode in a wattle at her throat. They spread like flame on oil down her narrow chest, terminating at her groin, where her genitals are slowly re-making themselves.
He hyperventilates. He sucks desperately at the air, taking in one ragged breath after another. With a cry, he comes back to himself, is lost to the twist of a golden coil, and comes back to himself again. His face puckers in disbelief. “I can’t do it,” he wheezes. “I can’t even hold…lines open long enough for crossing.” He twists and struggles, fights for control of himself, but the numbers and symbols cloud his eye again, and he convulses, and is still.
She opens her mouth and gapes at him. She wants to deny his admission, to urge him on, for her selfish will.
The Guild’s dogs are almost upon us, she tries to say. I want to go home. I want to wake in the middle of the night to the light of a red moon falling through my window slats. I want my science to be beautiful and useful again. I want, oh, I want, I want.
Only, she cannot return to these things, or to New Dera, where the stars rise and set upside down.
Perhaps this is her home now. Perhaps it has been, for twelve long years.
There is a half-written paper on the effects of alchemic symbols on the growth of plants atop her oakwood desk at home. It is a foreign, impossible science from a foreign, impossible place. The scattered sheets and runny green ink have been transfigured over time. The light of this world’s sun, the glow of a fluorescent lamp by night, the perpetually unfinished mug of tea that towers over it, have seeped into the work. They have made a comrade of an alien thing.
Nort sighs, unseeing, unthinking. Through the howl of wind and rain, she squints at where the light of a late otherworld afternoon peeps through a pulsing mass of lines.
The house that she has rented in this world will grow dusty and ruined, or be sold to some new and callous owner who is ignorant of Francis, her ghosts and her memories.
This is unbearable.
The golden threads are beginning to fray. Nort’s control is ebbing, but only pain will cause him to fully disengage. With a great surge of relief and despair, she plunges her spine-teeth into his shoulder and shakes him like a wolf with a rabbit in its jaws.
The effect is unsettling and instantaneous. Nort yelps, tearing away a mouthful of flesh and fabric. He lashes out, backhanding her hard enough to break her nose. They tumble to the cold, wet earth together, and the leviathan begins to retract its golden tentacles.
Some of the mutinous cords coil back into Nort’s body. He whimpers and jerks. The strands move sinuously, with an unnerving slyness. They are retreating because it suits them. Their little wriggling motions put Francis in mind of parasites taking refuge in their host.
From somewhere close by, a cell phone rings. Somebody answers it. A woman’s voice says, “Yeah? Yeah. We’ve found him. No, Oliver, one person would have been enough.” They are lurking around the corner of the old house, waiting for the sediment of reality to settle again.
The slit of sunlight disappears, leaving behind an impression of warmth and summer, stamped tenaciously onto this chilly November night. With an ominous groan, the mass of lines parts. They sigh and whisper collectively. They sink placidly beneath the earth; they curl into ribbons of steam; they are shifted into non-existence by the cutting wind.
Francis looks blearily around. The moon is as it was. The fence-post is upright, the shrubbery is dead and brown, and the soil is lonely without crops. The last scrawled equation becomes its inverse, and is drawn from the wall of the house and into the backsliding tangle of lines. It takes with it her name, and the knowledge that there is an otherworld creature where there should not be.
Mile after mile of blacktop spools off beside a field that is sprouting the beginnings of ice. She picks herself up. She reminds herself that cold and fear are temporary things. She tells herself that it is the twenty-first of November; she tells herself that she is going home.
Gingerly, a shadow pokes itself out from behind the tattered house.
Nort is livid. He gasps and trembles. He curses at her in every language that means something or other to him. Of all of the deals he has ever made, of all of the bribes he has ever taken, she supposes that he has never been betrayed. Most otherworld creatures live in secrecy and fear, filled with dread as their old features molt away, and they become like the creatures that inhabit this world. Most otherworld creatures are too desperate to default or double-deal.
Francis is not most.
She sees him from a great distance, and thinks to herself that they would never have made the crossing, anyway. The shadow lopes cautiously into view. It is followed by a stream of shadows—men and women, dressed in scarves and jackets, trying to warm hands that are already sealed from the cold by gloves. They look like friends out for a late-night walk.
Nort tries to flee. He is like a half-crushed insect, pitiful and grotesque. He lurches to his feet, flailing for balance and coordination. He cracks his forehead against the ground when he falls.
One of the shadows detaches herself from the group. It is a red-haired girl, who steps forward and bends to hook her arms through Nort’s. She lifts him easily to his feet. “Jesus,” she says, turning to her comrades. “It would’ve taken just one of us, eh? Wasted himself on the crossing.”
Nort struggles feebly; the girl restrains him with ease. “Caleb,” he says suddenly, and hacks. “Where the fuck is Caleb?”
There is a rustling, then a pause. Finally, a dark-skinned man in a greatcoat shuffles uncomfortably and says, “Here, Nort.”
Francis looks away as Nort begins to plead. There is something obscene about the way his words run together, the way he cries out like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum. And she realizes, quite suddenly, that their theories are probably all wrong: no piece of artificial intelligence, Guild-made or not, would ever be able to simulate desperation like this. No machine desires life the way that a human can.
The realization disturbs her. Instead of begging for mercy, instead of lying or fighting or pleading her way to freedom, she says, “What is he?”
The man in the greatcoat makes a noise. It is disgust, or remorse, Francis thinks. He turns his head towards Francis as Nort begins to scream and sob. Tossing his car keys up and down, he looks at her through narrowed eyes. “That,” he says, matter-of-factly, “is none of your business.”
There is a click as somebody cocks a hidden gun. A voice says, “What in hell are you doing, Caleb? Shoot her or take her in, don’t chat her up.”
Francis shivers, and says nothing. The man sighs and gestures south, to the cow-tunnel through which she came. “We didn’t touch your car,” he says. “My supervisor will be here in ten minutes. He won’t hesitate to take you in.” He shrugs suggestively. “Your business is not my concern. You have ten minutes. Run.”
“Caleb!” The dissenting voice is an outraged squawk now. “You heard what Perii said—”
“Perii,” the man in the coat grates, “is not here, and in her absence, you listen to me.” He swivels on his heel and looks, for a long time, through the dark, at the faceless mutineer. He turns to Francis, who realises suddenly that her heart is beating far too fast. Loudly, he says, “All you were buying from him was passage home—right?”
He breaks six feet. His dark eyes are almost level with hers.
Dumbly and desperately, she nods.
“And you have not made payments yet?” He leans towards her. He has, she realizes, been drinking. His breath reeks of coffee and gin.
She shakes her head, no. He relaxes visibly, hunches his shoulders and shoves his hands deep into his pockets. “Run,” he says again.
She does. Nort’s outraged squeals follow like a persistent child at her heels. “Bitch, liar, she’s trafficking drugs, she’s an aether card-sharper, she’s…”
“Shhh,” somebody says. “Everything will be all right.”
The wet smack of metal breaking bone silences him.
© 2019 Justine Rosenberg