Relics from the Battlefield by Sophie Sparrow

Milky eyes stare out over the place where a battle has been, from above an ancient nose that seems twisted out of joint. Their owner registers the wails and moans and whimpers of the dying, but barely, as if they were birdsong or the sound of rain heard from inside shelter. She does not take interest in games of politics, not anymore, she hasn’t the energy. But this, the aftermath, still draws her in, because old habits die hard.

It’s a poor show though, today. Not much more than a skirmish. Not how she remembers.

She picks her way past bodies, over limbs, looking for trinkets. Something pretty or meaningful, or interesting, something she does not already have.

A bright glare on the ground reflects the sun. She bends to investigate, fingers curling in anticipation. A silver coin, of a kind she does not recognize. She picks it up, squints at it. It is too uniform in shape, too regular, a little too rectangular. There is no image on it, no human face, no symbol of heraldry—just a name, and some text whose meaning is unclear to her. The chain the coin hangs on is long enough to be worn about the neck. It is a decoration than, possibly a piece of jewelry? This seems perhaps the most logical explanation but does not quite feel right. This is the problem—-new and interesting is rare but unsettling. The world changes, and sometimes she can’t keep up. She casts the not-coin down and shuffles on through the blood and grime, uneasy.

She knows war, knows it intimately, knows the machinations that precede it and the chaos that comes with it, the hasty treaties and reversals of loyalty that so often conclude it. She has survived, after everything, is the last of those like her. She endures, still, when the rest of them are gone. For what? It’s better than oblivion. She has seen so much, and yet this battlefield seems strange to her.

A soldier lies at her feet, glazed eyes staring at nothing, a trickle of dried blood running down his temple to clot in the hairs of his chin. He is, like the others, wearing cloth that looks like dappled sunlight that falls through leaves. It is perplexing—how can it protect a body better than the thick wool and hammered metal she has seen before?

She remembers the armored sons of kings who came to her, begging for control, for mastery of armies, for the power to sway minds and make battles end the way they wanted. Some she turned away, knowing they could never pay her price and live. Not money, but the parts of their souls they needed most: the capacity for happiness. For connection. The ability to see the sun set without knowing fear. If the weight of that destroyed them, what victory would that be for her? Better to know they lived and suffered.

A gentle moan, a whimper, surfaces somewhere to her right. She does not immediately see the source, but something about the sound of it stops her. It sounds…different. And she can’t place why. She hobbles towards it, curiosity sharpened.

The noise is coming from a young woman, injured, armed and clad like the men. About her neck: another shiny not-coin. She carries one of these strange contraptions that look like no more than a foreshortened, misshapen piece of plough, but kick like mules and spit death like hail.

The crone bends to the earth where this strange soldier lies. She thought they kept their women guarded. Locked behind walls of stone. Safe from spoilage. The ones they cared about, anyhow, yet here is one that has been sent to war and permitted a weapon. She is clearly no camp follower, no hanger on, no villager met at battle’s end by a horde of men drunk on power.

She remembers (against her will) what the other old ones did to her, in the time before. Split and used. Broken open. Plundered. She spits out a chunk of phlegm, feels better. She is the last. She has endured. Like this soldier, who still breathes, still whimpers though she does not seem aware of anything, while the dead and fly-blown lie beside her.

The old one has built conquerors, seen empires rise, and watched their fall. She knows the topography of war. Every crevice, elevation, fault line. But she has not seen the likes of this before, must have slept longer than she realized before the scent of battle drew her to this place where blood leaks into the land.

Something surfaces, a glimmer of a feeling she recognizes but cannot identify.

The shaking, shivering body’s over her shoulder before she knows it, and she’s shuffling off again, hardly slowed at all by the extra weight. This is not the kind of burden that makes her drag. Dead men and the almost dead block their path occasionally; she kicks a few of them, for good measure. In case they forget.

She turns and passes through a sliver of air, emerges thousands of miles distant. A cave, a crevice in the rock, somewhere dark at the edge of things. Remote. She likes it, it suits her needs.

The walls of the cave are lined with little ledges, hewn by time and sometimes magic. On them sit her best trinkets: the toe-bone of a once loved but now forgotten saint. Seven metal scales ripped from the mail-coat of a king as he lay dying, a king she thinks they still sing songs of. A lovers’ ring, wrapped round with a lock of auburn hair. She does not know what happened to the lovers. There is a portrait the size of an egg, delicately painted on a piece of ivory, and a device she believes is supposed to measure time—each number engraved on the face to indicate a year, perhaps. But why do they stop at twelve? She could find out easily, but on reflection does not care.

This new kind of trinket is larger than most she has salvaged. It breathes, has a name, for the present still lives. She lays the soldier down on the sandy floor of the cave, swaddled in blankets. Wipes her forehead. Does what she can for her wounds. Prepares a broth for when she wakes. The glimmer feeling resurfaces, and now she can name it. It is “pity.”

This soldier has known pain. She can read it in the lines about her eyes, slight, but present. In the furrow of her brow. In each wisp of hair that trails about her face.

She makes a decision in an instant that has, she sees it now, been brewing for centuries. She will give this woman the knowledge of years. Memories that will not be her own. The keys to unlock minds. Secrets of blood. It is a gift that may not be welcome, but it is what she has to give. It is power, it is a double-bladed sword. What use does she have for it now, anyway? The world has changed, and she is tired, spent, forgotten. Just as much a relic as the objects she hoards so closely.

The old one curls herself down on the sand next to the soldier and fills the cave with a grayish-silver glow. She crumples, shrinks, and relinquishes her hold on breath. The glow diminishes, dies, just as the young one begins to stir.

•••

Sophie Sparrow writes fantasy, horror, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and has work forthcoming in Mad Scientist Journal. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Birmingham, speaks Russian and French, and has worked in the film industry. Catch up with her at www.writersophiesparrow.com.

Lifetime Guarantee by Kevin Holton

It was November Seventeenth, and my pancreas was no longer under warranty. I’d climbed the fire escape to the roof of my New York City apartment, listening to sirens in the distance while I contemplated what to do next. Wasn’t like I had a lot of options. The automated text came in this morning, six AM sharp, waking me from one nightmare to another:

Alert: Organ compromised. Failure imminent. Seven days remaining.

It was worse than The Ring. There was no one person to blame, no spectral horror on the line. At least Samara could be placated. Replicate the evil video tape, and she’ll let you go. Me? I was screwed. Prometheus Technologies could not be bargained with, and it didn’t grant favors.

“Hey,” Karen said from behind me. She was notoriously quiet. Even the rusted steps leading to the roof refused to groan from her slight weight. “What’s going on?”

I handed her my phone. It’s hard to tell someone that you’re about to die. Really hard. When I first got a cybernetic pancreas, I thought I’d avoided all the messy complications of diabetes. No more almost-died-in-my-sleep low blood sugars, no I-might-have-to-go-to-the-hospital highs, no future risk of neuropathy, no blindness, no complications. The P-55 was supposed to be my ticket to a normal life.

President Wilhouser’s “Unabridged Commerce Law” apparently ruled otherwise. Corporations were now free to use and abuse planned obsolescence however they wished—including the intentional failure of synthetic organs to generate more sales.

“Oh,” Karen whispered.

“Yeah.” I couldn’t look at her.

She sat down next to me. An arm draped around my shoulder, pulling us together as she rested her head on my shoulder. Her breath clung to my skin like she could keep me by her side if she breathed me into her, held me in her lungs, spread me out into her muscles, her brain, her heart. I curled an arm around her waist, tilting my head to rest it against hers.

“There’s a solution, right?” she probed.

“Maybe,” I lied.

Ordinarily, she’d call me out. You’re a bad liar, Caleb, she’d tease. Karen didn’t say a word, just hugged me a little tighter.

“I’ll call the union rep. See if he can do something.” We both knew that would be a dead end. My health insurance used to cover one synthetic organ every three years. They’d traded down to five in exchange for espresso machines in every break room. I couldn’t get my own, due to my pre-existing condition, so I was stuck with whatever work decided was appropriate.

Until then, there was no sense in dwelling. I’d had my alone time, and now we’d had a moment to be apprehensive and naïve together. Disentangling ourselves, we eased back down the fire escape, my fingers numb from the cold. Karen had the good sense to make coffee before going up to the roof. I gratefully wrapped my hands around the mug she poured for me.

“So how’s your novel going?” I asked, in need of a change of subject. She wrote historical fiction. It was a booming field. On our first date, I asked why people loved it so much, and she said, The more alien our future, the more we cling to the familiar past. That was the moment I decided to marry her.

“Pretty good. Almost to the… conclusion.” She avoided the word ending.

We talked about her project for a while, skipping breakfast. Karen never really ate much, and I’d lost my appetite. The conversation took long enough that we briefly forgot my rude awakening and started to laugh. A few hours managed to slip past us when I caught a glimpse of the time.

“Nine-thirty,” I pointed out. “I should probably make some phone calls.”

The laughter left her eyes. “Okay. I needed to shower anyway.”

Once she was out of earshot, I called Pheobe, my HR rep. As a lifelong workaholic, she spent eight to ten hours a day on duty, seven days a week. Didn’t matter that it was Saturday. On the second ring, her sharp voice cut through my speakers.

I explained the situation. She listened. When I finished, she said, “Sorry. Nothing we can do. We won’t be able to even consider renegotiating benefits for a few months. Anything else I can help you with? Workplace dispute, maybe getting an ergonomic keyboard?”

A faint sipping echoed through to me. “How’s your coffee?”

She hung up.

This had happened to other people, though. Calvin Hess, from accounting, had said something about facing transplant troubles last week. Synthetic organs were expensive though. Even he didn’t have a way to cover his replacement. You’d figure a heart would get a more reasonable warranty.

There was always a chance I could just drop back to insulin shots, or maybe a pump, but leaving in a failed synthetic ran the risk of pancreatitis, or sepsis, or a slew of other horrible, painful conditions that’d require hospitalization. Then, on top of the removal fee, I’d get a hospital bill as well. Calvin didn’t have that option. He was also one of the most determined and stubborn people I know. If anyone found a workaround, it was him.

I called him. No response. That didn’t mean anything. He never answered his phone.

Karen stepped out of the shower just as I was putting on a sweater. “Going somewhere?”

“A friend’s house,” I said. “Someone who might be able to help.”

A glimmer of hope flashed in her heat-pinked cheeks, though it quickly darkened. “I guess your HR people couldn’t do anything?”

I shrugged. “Couldn’t, wouldn’t… don’t really know. There’s always a solution. I’ll find it, promise.” Giving her a quick kiss, I left, quickly making my way outside. Calvin’s place was only a few blocks away.

•••

We weren’t close friends, not by my definitions, anyway, but he’d given me a spare key to his penthouse. Like all fancy top-floor moneybags, he had an elevator that opened directly into his living room. Calvin was good with money—it was why he became an accountant—and managed to live luxuriously despite being frugal. I chalked it up to the fact that he was single with no kids. Plus he didn’t drink, smoke, eat meat, party, or do anything social.

I got on the elevator and waved the keycard over a scanner. The penthouse’s button lit up, so I was on my way to his sky-bound home. I spent the ride thinking of what exactly I wanted to say to him, but when the doors opened, I forgot every intended word. Gagging and hitting the button for the lobby, I raised my arm and buried my nose in my armpit. Body odor isn’t the most pleasant scent, but it masked the current olfactory assault, and I was grateful for the fact that I hadn’t showered.

The smell lingered until I stumbled out into the lobby, coughing and trying not to puke. The reception staff gave me a concerned look, with a concierge asking what was wrong. I guess, since Calvin rarely went out for fun, and often telecommuted to work, they hadn’t picked up anything unusual. Without addressing them, I pulled out my phone and called the police. When someone finally picked up, I said, “I need to report a dead body.”

The staff gave me a wide berth after that call. I stumbled outside, head swimming from the stink of putrefaction. It was good, I suppose, that I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

I sat on the curb, waiting for the police to arrive. Cold cement chilled me through my jeans, but my attention was elsewhere. All I could think about was a billboard plastered overhead of a smiling, happy couple. Next to them were the words, “Prometheus Technology, where all your organs come with a lifetime guarantee.”

 

•••

BIO: Kevin Holton has published fiction, poetry, and non-fiction with companies like Siren’s Call Publications, Crystal Lake Publishing, Mighty Quill Books, Radiant Crown Publishing, Pleaides, Rain Taxi, and The Literary Hatchet. When not reading and writing, he can probably be found working out, meditating, or talking about Batman.

Space Bike Zombies FTW by Ingrid Garcia

Up in Space Station Zebra, Boyd voiced his displeasure about the new arrival. “A dewy-eyed babe thinking she can do a dangerous job.” His blond curls rippled in sync with his shaking head. “Women like her shouldn’t be in space.”

Women shouldn’t be in space?” Tameka said, “So what the hell am I doing here?”

“Not in the salvage team is what I meant,” Boyd back-pedalled under Tameka’s fierce stare. “You, Grace, and Asunción are invaluable members of the space station, of course. But, the salvage team should only be men.”

“She’s a private contractor,” Patrice said, “not officially part of our team.”

“She goes into space with us to perform salvage operations. That counts.” Boyd wouldn’t have any of it.    “That’s progress for you,” Tameka said, “What’re you gonna do about it?”

“Demonstrate that she doesn’t belong.” Boyd flashed a mischievous smile. “Starting with a good old hazing.”

“Don’t let Asunción find out,” Tameka said, “she doesn’t like such ‘antiquated antics’.”

“Come on; we’ve all been through it,” Boyd said, “It’s as old as human exploration. In the old days King Neptune visited newbies crossing the equator, now the Space Alien visits those rising above geostationary orbit for the first time. It’s tradition.”

Tameka and the others nodded, and quietly acquiesced.

•••

Yo-Sung Lee drifted alone in Hangar 18 and waited for instructions. A variety of space drones sat on the end of electromagnetic sticks, ready to be deployed at will. Still, the hangar was mostly empty, probably in anticipation of salvaged goods. In her insulating space suit, inside the massive hangar, she felt both cold and claustrophobic. The emptiness seemed pregnant with a presence.

An eerie glow encompassed the edge of her vision: deep purple, sinuous, swaggering, gargantuan tentacles.

Abrupt changes washed over her: eyes turning inwards, face a whiter shade of pale, tense muscles, expression dead. It was instant zombification of her senses.

She kicked off against the nearest wall, launching herself at the Cthuluesque eidolon, grabbing two four-legged space-drones from their sticks in the process. Yo-Sung slashed at tentacles with blinding speed, dodging the gnashing teeth of an oversized beak, going for the weak spots of the giant squid. She found a weak spot, and as she kicked both her feet straight at the creature’s humongous eyes, they passed through hitting the ceiling hard.

Her helmet filled with boisterous laughter. “You’ve escaped Ptholo the Space God for now,” Boyd jested, “but, he’ll haunt your newbie ass forever.” While Boyd enjoyed his prank, the others were secretly impressed.

•••

Space Station Zebra tracked Chaos satellites that monitored the onset of Earth’s extreme weather events. These satellites revolved in intricate butterfly-wing shaped orbits requiring complex launches, which often failed. Enter Boyd’s salvage team to recover the expensive machines.

Boyd’s boys were daredevils, but their handheld thrusters had a limited range. Underestimate their power reserve, and they would become a lost satellite. However, Yo-Sung had developed a thruster with a longer range in the shape of a space bike, using herself as an extra power source.

It was a long stick with a saddle on one end, pedals in the middle, and a two separate ion exhausts at the other end. Through a generator in the hub, pedaling produced an ion stream that could aim in all directions through the dual exhaust, enabling the space bike to go ‘down’ without directing the ion thrust beam through Yo-Sung.

Yo-Sung’s space bike was untested in a true gravity-free environment: ClimateTrack—Space Station Zebra’s owners—sponsored her trip into space to do tests in co-operation with Boyd’s salvage team.

Out there, it was devilishly hard. Boyd knew this and relished her initial awkwardness.

She was clumsy, and the self-learning algorithms in the space bike’s interface needed time to interpret her gestures right. The efficiency of her design initially worked against her: even as she pedaled slowly, the generated ion thrust pushed her hard. In combination with the jittery interface, it made her zig, zag, and stutter like a crazed puppy on acid. She needed a couple of hours to herself, but Boyd wasn’t having any of it.

“Over there dummy; there’s a satellite. Show us how you pick it up, space zombie.” Her surgical strike at the projected space squid had earned Yo-Sung her nickname.

She went for it. It was unfair: she knew it, Boyd knew it, everybody knew it. Yet, nobody challenged Boyd’s authority. Jumping out of a stuttering spiral, she went in its general direction. While her aim was right, her control over the space bike was still bad, and she overshot the target.

Defeated, she recognized the boisterous laughter over the radio. Boyd overtook her with a few quick firings of his ion thrust guns, and, with an elegant movement of his grappling hook, reeled in the satellite dummy. “This is how we do it at Boyd’s daredevils,” he said, “and I don’t think you have the right stuff.”

•••

Despite Boyd’s obstructive behavior, Yo-Sung—with the assistance of one of Boyd’s boys who wanted to remain anonymous—did get some exercise time when Boyd was asleep. As her mastery of her space bike increased, Boyd countered by giving her ever more complex exercises, which she, never giving up, eventually completed.

At some point, Boyd had to allow her to tag along at an actual satellite recovery. Quite a risky one, at that, as it moved towards the inner Van Allen belt. Their remote-controlled space drones didn’t work in there, so they had to salvage it before it entered into the fierce Van Allen radiation.

Boyd’s boys—Yo-Sung was told to keep her distance—tried to catch it with the space drones at first, but the increasing radiation wreaked havoc with the control signals. It was now up to the humans, as time was running out.

In a complicated maneuver, one ‘pusher’ had to direct the wayward satellite towards two ‘brakers’ who reduced its speed with cushioning nets and a ‘grappler’ to take it home. Boyd, the pusher—the riskiest part—tried to position himself between the incoming satellite and the invisible belt (whose proximity transmitted through a Geiger counter-like interface). He had to be fast: going there quickly, then braking at the last possible moment, when his braking thruster failed halfway through the stopping maneuvers. With his other thruster depleted, he drifted helplessly towards the belt.

Yo-Sung—who despite Boyd’s orders had positioned herself near the grappler—watched in disbelief as nobody intervened.

“Somebody—anybody—save him!” Yo-Sung was both desperate and exasperated. No volunteers came forth. “Nobody?”

“He’s beyond reach; our thrusters can’t go that far,” someone said, “Chasing him would mean two people dead instead of one.”

“On top of that,” another said, “in case you didn’t notice, Boyd was just as bad to us as he was to you. Who would risk his ass for him?”

“I will.” Yo-Sung’s eyes turned inwards, her face deadly pale, her reflexes quickening to blinding speed. Pedaling furiously in full-on zombie mode, she went after Boyd with an acceleration that defied belief. “She must be generating over half a kilowatt to go that fast,” someone said in awe.

As she rapidly approached Boyd, both their Geiger counter interfaces clicked with increasing frequencies. Yo-Sung either had to abort, or get a deadly dose of hard radiation, unless there was a third option.

She kept speeding towards Boyd, but as she closed in, she rotated the thrust end of her space bike towards the Van Allen belt, positioning the dual exhaust pipes such that they functioned as a reversed umbrella. The frantically spiraling exhaust of ions acted as a makeshift radiation shield. Miraculously, it seemed, the Geiger clicking slowed down. By carefully adjusting the exhaust pipes, Yo-Sung could also perform a braking maneuver to reel Boyd in.

Bumping into each other, they embraced for maximum grip and moved out of the danger zone like love-locked bats out of hell. While they were heading towards the safety of the cushioning nets, she fainted from exhaustion, missing the massive cheer of release as they hit the ropes.

•••

“Double swipe with your right hand to go Galactic West,” the instructor said, “Otherwise, you’re doing fine.”

“Can we keep going for another hour?” the trainee said, “I want to use it for the operation tomorrow.”

“Fine, I suppose. Will you let Tameka join? She handles her space bike fantastically.” Yo-Sung cast Boyd a weary glance.

“Of course I will.” Was there a demure quality to Boyd’s voice? “I was a dick. I learnt my lesson.

•••

BIO: Ingrid Garcia tries to sell local wines in a vintage wine shop in Cádiz, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time. For years, she was unpublished. But to her utter surprise—after years of receiving nothing but rejections—she’s sold stories to F&SFPanorama and Futuristica 2, and has just had a poem published at Ligature Works.

Imperfect Solution by Marie DesJardin

He had no heart. Whatever he’d once had in that department had been shot out in the attack that had taken his manhood along with everyone he’d ever cared for. All that remained was a mechanical heart, mechanical hands, mechanical eyes that searched the data, over and over, seeking for its next target.

“Most were soldiers already,” Admiral Brandt said over his shoulder as he entered the surveillance room. “The mind’s intact and preserves all its strength of purpose, while the biomechanics enable them to continue their mission with minimal food and sleep. It’s the perfect solution.”

The pair paused near his station. “This is Captain Harris, one of our chief trackers. Captain, Mr. Phillips is from the public relations department.”

He turned, saw yet another colorless voyeur in the relentless string of observers.

Phillips gazed with fascination. “It’s good to meet you, Captain.”

Harris stared, then returned to his work.

The visitor murmured, “Can he hear me?”

“Of course! Captain Harris is merely focused on his task.” Admiral Brandt peered at the screen, then straightened. “Very good, Captain. Carry on.”

As they moved away, Harris caught the whisper, “The skin looks almost real.”

“3D printing,” Brandt said proudly. “We can restore almost any appendage right off the field. I can show you some charts…”

The closing door snuffed their whispers. Harris’ gaze never left the screen, where a network of dissipating heat trails dispersed from the smoldering shell of a school bus. Patiently methodical, he followed the next trail in the series.

This track led him to a man standing on a dirt street, outside the open door of a hut. His clothes were dusty from the journey, but he smiled. In his arms, he held a white cat, its head rotating in pleasure as he scratched.

Mechanical hands twitched. Slowly, a mechanical finger stroked the air, remembering the softness. No hands anymore, no heart. No heart.

He waited until the man put down the cat and went inside. The heat trace showed his movements behind the wall. No one else there, just the man and his rainbow image.

Harris waited until the little cat wandered around the corner. Only then did fingers twitch; the hut exploded in a bloom of orange flame. Firelight flickered against unfeeling eyes.

People ran from neighboring huts. Futilely they threw sand upon the flames, rushing in before skittering back from the conflagration. He remembered similar heat searing his own skin, the desperate acts that he, too, had undertaken, just as futilely, back when he had a heart.

He navigated the targeting system back to the bus. One last heat trail to follow. One more target to deprive of hands and skin and heart.

The heart was key, of course. It was the seat of all love, all longing, all rage. The mind held onto these things, remembering the love and the rage when it could no longer feel them, when all that was left was the memory of the heart. It was almost enough.

The trail led to a village in celebration. It took a while to identify the perpetrator among the men dancing in the street, but trace particles gave him away. He danced with his arm about the shoulders of a boy—his son?

He swallowed. Here was the recipient of heart, the object that Harris no longer had. The only way to stop the love and the rage was to stop the heart. It wouldn’t stop the longing. It would never stop the dreams that played mockingly behind unseeing eyes. It was an imperfect solution for a world devoid of warmth and softness and touch.

He waited until the boy—someone else’s boy—was safely away. Then he reached again to do all he had left to do, with all that he had left.

He had no heart. He had no heart.

His finger moved. The screen flickered against his eyes.

One day, the memory of heart would fade. Then mechanical hands would undo all the genius that these admirals and makers of skin had wrought with their hands of flesh. But for now, today, he swallowed unseen tears down the back of his throat.

•••

mariedesjardin-headshot

BIO: Marie DesJardin writes science fiction, fantasy, and alternative history in Denver, Colorado. Works range from humorous to dramatic and include flash fiction, novels, and screenplays. Credits include Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Apokrupha, Compelling Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds Magazine, Story Quest (contest winner), and a humorous science fiction novel, For the Time Being. Marie enjoys travel, animals, and hiking in the mountains when they’re not on fire.

Night of the Lurking Moon by Alexis Henderson

The moon child, Hala, stood in a squat clay shack on the cusp of the Tanzanian wilds working a mound of bread dough with the heels of her hands, throwing her whole body into the movement as though it was the rough beginning of a ritual, a moving of the spirit. It was near nightfall and the fat sun hung low in the sparse summer sky as the moon rose, bright and gibbous. On the cot behind her the boy sat, singing a lullaby.

Hala gazed through the open window and across the dead yard to the plot where her mother was laid to rest years prior, and watched the long shadows lapse across her grave. Before the sickness took her her mother was favored, blessed by the spirits. She was not moon touched, like Hala and her brother, but she could speak to the spirits in their own tongue, and read the words of gods. She knew, and had always known, what there was to know about the world, and she held all of its secrets and evils in her mouth like the memory of a song half forgotten.

Sometimes in the dark of the night when the boy, still a babe, slept soundly between the two of them Hala’s mother would whisper the world’s secrets into her ear. She spoke to her of dark delights and the men that roamed the shadows, combing the plains for all of the good things the gods kept from them. She spoke to her of haints and the witches who bound them with the dark craft, told her the tales of gods and God and the magic of the moon and sun and the bright scatter of the shifting stars. She spoke to her of pain, the hunger that burned in her belly like a hot coal. She spoke to Hala without saying anything at all.

In the days before her death, her mother told her stories of her own kind. She spoke to Hala of moon children, a race of pale skinned white haired men and women like her and her brother, born with the moon’s magic in them, true as blood. She told Hala about a man of the moon, white skinned and white haired, who was found limbless on the open plains, and left to the vultures. There were murmurings of the men who killed him, hunters who harvested his arms and legs and took them west to the witch king who paid them thousands in return. There was talk of the dark craft, talk of spells and shadows, soothsayers who practiced in the westerns wilds; whispers of witch work and snatchings, children of the moon like Hala and her brother who were maimed and slaughtered or taken in the night never to be seen or heard from again.

Or so the tales were told.

Behind Hala the boy stood, chewing a bit of burnt bread. A men’s shirt hung over his shoulders loose, the frayed hem touching the tops of his knees. He was barefoot, dirty, his blonde kinky hair matted with mud, his face traced with sweat that slipped down his cheeks like tears. His lips were chapped and bloodied.

“Tell me a story,” he said.

Hala drew the shade across the window. “There are no stories to tell.”

•••

Hala did not consider herself particularly magical. She had no power to heal the sick or speak

in the tongues of spirits. None of the haints or wild gods came to visit her in the night. She could not see the future in the flames of a rising fire, or command the water to surface in drought times. Hala couldn’t call rain from the clouds or bring food to their table with a plea or a prayer. She had no say over the world, no power to wield the way her mother did.

All she had was the boy, the shack, and the meager reap from the red clay dirt.

She had the flesh and bone she was born to and little else.

•••

That night Hala slept on the cot, the boy tucked into the crook of her waist, listening to the whisper of the rolling high grass. The wind rustled through the shack’s thatching and the air was heavy with heat. The bright cast of the moon shafted in through the windows and the night birds sang the songs of slumber.

Hala drifted, drawn into the grey tide of her dreams, losing herself as she slept. She saw her father on his deathbed, tearing at his bandages and binds. And then her mother perched atop a wooden stool plaiting her hair in front of a mirror. She saw her brother grown into a man, the spirits dancing all around him, saw shadows reel about the walls, saw snakes and lions walking on human feet.

Then she woke, to a sound like the whistling of crickets, and saw a faint shadow slip past the window. She rose to find her mother, looming in the threshold, the white moonlight about her shoulders like the pale covering of a shroud.

“The witch’s men are coming,” she said in a scraping whisper that filled the shack like a rising wind. “You must take the boy and run. Take him to the sea.”

Hala’s heart slipped into her belly, thrashing. In the corner of the shack the boy pulled at his sheets, mumbling gibberish, snoring.

“The moon is up,” Hala whispered, her voice thick with sleep. “We’ll be seen.”

Her mother skimmed across the room, moved to the foot of the bed and stood above them, faint as a shadow.

“Go to the wilds,” she said. “Go or the hunters will come for you. They will give your bones to the witch king.”

•••

Hala woke with a start, roused the boy at once and dressed him, packed their belongings in a canvas sack. She took the book of stories—the only inheritance left by her father—and a length of wooden beads, two of the bread loaves she baked that morning, a waterskin half full, a length of cloth, copper coins, and a steel knife with jagged teeth.

They walked the plains hand in hand, picking their way along the rugged trail that cut through the rolling high grass. It was a long path, a thin one, that weaved through the wilds and often lost itself, swallowed by the shrubs or fading into the red Serengeti dust, and disappearing entirely.

“Where are we going?” asked the boy, stumbling along the path.

“To the city.”

“The city on the sea?”

“Yes,” said Hala. “That one.”

“Why are we going?”

Hala pressed through the brush, thorns pulling at her clothes, and held the bramble branches back away from the path, so the boy could pass unscathed. “Because all of the good men are there.”

He was quiet for a moment, tripping over the tops of his sandals as he trudged along. “Where are all the bad ones?”

“They’re here,” said Hala. “They’re coming now.”

“For us?”

“Yes. For us.”

“Will they catch us?”

Hala clutched the boy’s hand tighter. “No,” she said. “Not tonight.”

•••

They walked on, picking their way through the brush, wading through the high grass that rolled like water with the breath of the streaming wind. Hala’s belly ached with hunger and her tongue was thick, her mouth sour with thirst. She paused to sip from the waterskin, then let the boy drink his fill as she scanned the black wilds behind them.

The plains were loud with the noise of the night. Flies swarmed around her head and hummed in the thrush that grew along the path. The wind stirred and whispered. In the distance she heard the sounds of beasts or men she didn’t know which, and her heart beat like a feral thing clamoring to be free of her, hot fear licked through her limbs like blood.

“I’m scared,” said the boy in a whisper. “I’m scared.”

Hala said nothing. They walked on.

Down the narrow cut of the path they went, between the trunks of the wild palms wading through the sweet grass. A heavy fog hung above the plains, churning and swelling as they walked as though the spirits of the Serengeti had stirred to life and taken form.

Then there was a howl, the call of a beast, and a clear, keen light broke through the black. Hala turned, saw the hunters in the distance, catching glimpses of them as they moved through the grass shouting and murmuring in a tongue she could not speak. The bright cast of their flashlights speared through the brush and split the darkness. One of them, a tall scrawny figure more tree than man, caught sight of them and loosed a yell like the scream of a hyena leashed.

Hala caught the boy by the hand and they ran, fled, tearing through the wilds feet slapping the dirt, the grass blurring behind them ripping at their clothes as they passed. They ran like the wild things, like the spirits from the half-world. Fleeing, blinded by the black, they flew.

When they could run no more Hala pulled the boy into the fat shadow of a baobab tree and squatted low to the dirt, the boy crouching breathless at her side. A slick of sweat slipped down his temple and fell along his jaw, dangling like a jewel at the dip of his chin. The moon spread its fingers through the tree’s branches, pale light breaking through the leaves and dappling the dirt.

In the distance there was shouting, the clash of falling feet.

Hala turned to the boy. She said, “You will ask the spirits for mercy and they will hiss and spit and whisper and when they do you must answer them. You must. Do you understand me?”

The boy shook and cried.

“Tell me if you understand.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

Hala took the pack off her shoulder and slung it over his. “Then run. Go to the grass and run. If you stay low they will not see you. They will not catch you if you run fast.”

“What about you? Where will you go?”

“I’ll follow you,” she said. “I’ll follow you wherever you go but right now you must be brave and go without me.”

The boy wept, took hold of her hand. “I can’t.”

“Yes you can. You must.”

“But you’ll find me?”

“Yes I’ll find you but only if you go,” she said and she pushed him towards the swelling

grass. “Go now.”

The boy faltered, the pack hung heavy at his shoulder.

“Run,” she said, she pleaded, and the boy took a half step back and was gone, disappearing into the darkness of the rolling plains, swallowed by the black.

•••

Hala stood alone on the wide stretch of the Serengeti, and called for the hunters to come for her and they did, emerging from the rolling grass and onto the path, armed with axes and blades, black machetes as long as her forearms. All of them looked alike: tall, black and spare, their clothes hanging loose, like laundry strung to dry in the branches of a tree. The tallest of the three, a man with a face like a wood-carved skull, edged towards Hala, knife in hand. When he spoke his teeth flashed white in the darkness. “Are you alone?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m alone.”

“There are no others?”

“No there are no others.”

“I thought I saw a boy.”

“There is no boy,” said Hala.

The man laughed. He asked no questions. “Drop the blade.” Hala nodded, obliged him, stooping to stake her knife in the dirt. “Did the spirits send you?” She asked.

“No,” said the man, and he drew nearer, his machete slung low. “The spirits did not send us.”

“Then why have you come?”

“To harvest,” said the man. “To take.”

“What have you come to take?”

“What you have,” he said. “Whatever you have to offer.”

“I have nothing,” said Hala. “I have nothing to give you.”

The men gazed at her, squint eyed, through the bright cast moonlight.

“Nothing is enough,” he said and the beasts set upon her.

•••

The boy heard a cry that echoed across the plains, splitting the night in two. The pack slipped from his shoulder and hit the dirt and he cried out to the spirits, screamed to the gods, but they did not answer, they did not heed his pleas as Hala said they would.

The plains were quiet. The wind moved, silent, stirring the high grass.

Crumpling to the ground, he shook. He wept.

•••

Hala lay on her back, smiling at the pale face of the moon, letting blood. The spirits whispered all around her, her mother among them, wandering the jungle like a shade, a shadow, whispering stories into the wind.

Hala gazed into the black of the night sky and saw the moon open its mouth, bare white teeth as sharp and keen as the fangs of a jaguar. Then the moon spoke to her in her mother’s voice, told her the stories of beasts and men, stories she had never heard before and would never hear again. As the black gathered round her the spirits stirred and quickened. The night flies hummed and whispered to the screams of the soaring birds. Hala saw her mother break from the belly of the plains, and emerge from the grass moving like cloth caught in the grasp of a violent wind. She hovered for a moment by the edge of the path, then fell to Hala’s side.

The gibbous moon lagged overhead. Her mother whispered a story in her ear.

Hala saw the spirits rise, then nothing at all.

•••

The boy, the moon child, emerged from the swell of the high grass, the pack hanging heavy on his shoulders. Across the rolling Serengeti he saw the city, and the wide stretch of blue sea beyond it gleaming like cut glass. Dust moved with the breath of the wind and the low-sung moon slipped into the rolling water and disappeared.

Over the lapsing plains a red sun rose.

•••

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BIO: Alexis is a college student and writing tutor. Her short story “Sin Eater” was published in the literary magazine Beorh Weekly. Her short story “Baby Doll” was a Writers Digest Annual Writing Competition honorary mention and was later published in the Spring 2016 Issue of the Literary Hatchet.