Blocks & Ink: Choose your own protagonist
Explorations in speculative fiction and gender neutrality.
In October 2020, right at the most depressing and uncertain apoapsis of lockdown, I threaded together some writing prompts that had been floating around in my head for some time and wove them into a happy little collection of (very) short stories. I have the printed book if you’d like a copy, but really I just wanted to get them out into the world. So here you go.
I wrote these little prompts and stories as an experiment after reading this, a modern-day riddle:
A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.”
I thought back over years of reading — my greatest pleasure — and how much of my imagination and mental construction of characters had been spoonfed by this kind of gender bias (the surgeon is, of course, the boy’s mother, or indeed another parent of any gender).
I started thinking about how one would tell a story without gendering the protagonists or any of the characters. How this would enable the reader to see not only where their mind was socialised to automatically go, but also free them to read and imagine these characters presented however they wished. In a way, this is a lazy but well-intentioned stab at bettering representation in literature (as someone who identifies as non-binary themself), without wanting to be too prescriptive. Instead of inserting tropes or token minorities and handing you a finished print in a neat picture frame, I’ll just give you the blocks, and you can decide what ink you want to use and what the finished print looks like.
It’s value for money too (“price per read”, and all that, even though I gave this away for free!) because you can always go back to the beginning and think “scratch all that, I want to read these characters totally differently this time.”
I hope you enjoy the stories. I’d love to know what you think, or if there was one you’d read another little chapter of.
With love, Lucy
Borett awoke with awful neck pain, as if someone had tried to wrench their noggin off during the night. Tenderly persevering with constant stretching, they took turns giving each foot respite from the chilly floor as the water boiled on the stove under its plate-cum-lid. The thrum of the citadel seeped easily through the cracks in the window.
“Bor?” A lightness in Borett’s heart.
“Just making tea!”
“Oooh I’ll be up in a m — ” thud “ah!”
“-bloody great urn, ah, um, I have all the mugs, I’ll bring them up!”
Borett singsonged an assent while smiling bemusedly. The motion tasered another little shock up their neck, but Borett’s attention was starting to slip. The unmistakable sound of armoured legs, moving in time, was growing louder.
There is something in the lake. What starts as an almost-unnoticeable swell in the height of the water is betrayed by tiny eddies showing the wake as water slips past its body.
It is moving.
It is pushing towards the boat.
An inexorable rising dares the surface tension of the lake to break — but it doesn’t. Just a murmur of a large, sleek presence in its silent approach.
It is being watched.
“Evanne!” A voice jostled through the crowd, followed shortly by its owner; someone rather shorter and burlier than Mer had been expecting. Evanne’s slender frame, facing the oncoming tumult side-on like a reed in a river of bodies and noise, straightened. Features Mer had come to recognise as Evanne’s only set — a quiet, penetrative concentration — slid simply away as the speaker managed to jostle closer.
I have spent three weeks with this person in the closest of quarters, Mer realised, and never seen them smile. Somewhat abashed, the thought followed — I thought it was beyond them.
Mer watched, fascinated, as the willowy archer and the stranger hugged tightly, wordlessly, for what seemed an eternity. The stocky stranger must have said something, because Evanne was nodding, and squeezed tighter for a moment. A flash of gold in the earlobe — my Gods, how does Evanne know a Knight of Belin?
Returning to consciousness of current events, Evanne motioned to Mercy to follow them and melted into the flurry, new companion in tow. Mer pinballed doggedly through the crowd, mind whirring, trying to retrieve snippets of conversation with or about the northern archer. It came to mind that even if all Mer had heard was true — which wasn’t much — it still didn’t paint much of a portrait. Evanne Bolser was a nobody; no ranking of note, nor schooling, family; as far as the middle-aged Alchemist knew, Evanne was nondescript. A bit dour, even, given that they never really engaged and didn’t know any bawdy jokes. Some skill with the bow was assumed, of course, because meat had been present every evening at wherever they had camped, but Mer had never questioned until now why the archer always walked at the back of the little troupe, and why they had no problem falling asleep even when the sky had been alight with the streaks and shrieks of witch clans hurling acidic curses at each other.
Perhaps I have been wrong. Perhaps the reason I thought there was nothing going on between those ears was because I was never looking at their face in the first place.
Bars whittled wood absentmindedly.
Their thoughts were drifting in the liminal space between concrete events; the glue of emotion that gave reason to life’s mosaic. Sort of like the shit in the proverbial shit sandwich, they mused. Or would that be the spread? This company is like a shit sandwich. You’ve got the two meatheads, separated by a thin layer of spice in the form of their slimy keeper, then me and Asof. We just can’t go together, two bready mercenaries.
Asof… I wonder if I dislike them because they’re not a Guild mercenary, or because… despite our differences… we’re not so dissimilar…
Who do I trust less, someone like me or someone not like me?
The cedar stakes had been shaved to such a slim point they felt gently pliable in Bars’ dextrous grip. Less risk of breaking when you pull them out of bodies to re-use.
They had not noticed Asof crouch down next to them at the fire. Bars was not sure how to feel about this.
“I do not trust the keeper.”
Oh, my… What in heaven’s name is…It was all I could do to cover my mouth, though no breath came. No words could describe the poor creature in the corner of the yard.
Emaciated, unbearably angular, scales missing and cracked and torn, the skin underneath still weeping and crusting. The flesh of its wings ripped, in parts, right down to the spine. My heart lurched at the pain this must be causing it — as if someone sliced down between my fingers, into the palm.
I was rooted to the spot — simultaneously overwhelmed with sorrow and an ache to help this pitiful wyvern, and on the cusp of disgust at such base suffering.
It would have been kinder to kill it.
Its breath was so slight, the dust wasn’t even disturbed. I didn’t even want to touch it; what if I hurt it more?
“Of course, love — you have it,” I smiled, breezing out of the way to give the elven child a closer look.
The baby dragon, mere minutes hatched, was starting to warm up. I bent down to the broken ground where path met undergrowth. From among the debris and the ruined cart, I plucked one of the few flowers miraculously not crushed. A white crocus. I slipped it into my hair and flicked a binding spell over it.
I straightened up just as the child put its hands around the creature, scooping it up like a puppy — only to realise after a few seconds that the heat was unbearable. A dry shriek sounded as the plump, juvenile dragon was dropped unceremoniously on what was left of the wooden base of the cart.
I smirked and neatly sidestepped the child — “honestly, what do they teach you at Benedrassil” — and concentrated on a cooling balm, spreading the fingers of one hand wide, and picking the tiny winged creature up by the scruff of its stubby, elastic-skinned neck. It left a smouldering scorch behind it on the fractured wood.
The dragon, barely perturbed at the change of temperature, nestled neatly into my cool palm, weighing as much as a fat sack of coins with pretty much the same texture.
It’d be nice to take the shell, I thought, but it’s too heavy, and I strolled away with the sound of wails rising in the elf’s throat.
Another fine day.
Oh, Sarenna thought, oh fuck. The rucksack had split right in the middle of the corridor. They are going to find me. The door is still miles away. Hurriedly scooping the small, heavy books into a pile, thoughts racing, Ren’s eyes double-took: clay feet just to the left of the furthest book. A golem. An actual golem. You’ve got to be kidding.
“Here.” Pulling its disconcertingly tepid arms into a cradle.“Hide these.”
Shoving little books into every available crevice, piling them high, wedging them under the golem’s chin.
“Do not let anyone find them.” Finally looking into the eerie place where the eyes would be. Where the soul should be. “Go. Then find me again in one day’s time.”
With the unstoppable, earthen grace of a river moving through sand, it left. Ren marvelled at how little sound it made.
“Of course, love — you have it,” I smiled, gliding out of the way and motioning you into my former stead.
Your warm smile made me float. You moved to the edge of the jagged basin, but left enough room for me to squeeze in alongside. Your chivalrous compromise. The tassels of our long sleeves busied themselves with each other while we started our own silent, focussed incantations.
Streaks of water rose and swirled in unfathomable patterns, before losing surface tension and falling back into the large bowl. The light played off the water, casting innumerable shards of light across the backs of your hands as you teased and coaxed the water into Being.
I could stay here forever, I thought. Just near you.
My sweet Artus, I thought, brushing imaginary dust from your smooth forehead. The slit in your skull where your written soul was inserted all those years ago still held its shape, though the paper was long since decayed. My sweet, kind Artus.
I felt you push words into my consciousness. “PLEASE. STAY. WITH. ME.”
“I will stay with you.”
“UNTIL. THE. END.?”
I nodded. “Until.”
You were never really made for this world. My titanium golem. My best friend.
“Ah, shit.” Borzi straightened, hair catching on the tunnel sides, chucked the unexpected seal to the ground. A scowl darkened their expressive face as the broken pottery clattered amongst the rubble.
Genaad picked it up. “Mm. It’s a bit like the Unen sigil, but a bloody dodgy one if it is.” Holding it up to the faint light proved a futile endeavour. “Shouldn’t we keep it? Just in case?” Borzi sighed. Clambering back to Gen, they rotated the rough-edged ceramic sheet 45 degrees in the Professor’s hands. Borzi’s dusty palms brushed Gen’s fingers and an unexpected sensation jostled to the surface of the academic’s consciousness; calloused hands, but warm.
“It would help if you were looking at it the right way up.” They seemed to be weighing something up. Gen studied the moss coloured eyes, sojourning in another dimension. “You can bring it with you, but we’d need to be careful.” The eyes flicked up to Gen’s, gold flecks catching what little light there was, and back to the jagged tile. “To be honest, I’d rather you didn’t, but I can’t really tell you what to do.”
“Why? Because I’m from the University?”
“No,” Borzi smiled softly, features losing their sharpness. “Because telling people what to do rarely gets them doing it. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
“You know, reverse psychology is a lot less likely to work if you make your subject aware of it.” Borzi looked straight into Genaad’s eyes. It was not a searching stare — pure curiosity, head cocked — yet the effect nearly made Gen lose their balance.
“I’m not trying to trick you, Genaad. I’m trying to help you. You must learn to make your own decisions. There are no books here to help you. No library. But we are bound to each other until we can find a way to break this curse — if that’s what it is — so any decision you make, you know I will suffer the consequences as well. I have lived down here for years… you haven’t. But the only way you’re going to learn is picking a path and committing to it.”
This advice had mixed results.
I got there before Seren did. The understanding dawned in me and I could see they hadn’t yet fully grasped it. I wanted to stop time. But I knew, somewhere, deep in my heart, that this was the right thing. The only way. The true answer.
Seren’s lips parted, unthinkingly, and their features were still. I watched, hearing nothing in my ears of the busy surroundings but a kind of roaring, a buzzing. Then, like a corset whose laces have been pulled tight, the lips closed, the eyes raised, and Seren stood a little straighter.
I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say.
“Ever the faster of the two of us, old friend?”
“But never the brighter,” I smiled. I made the sign for revelation, tempered by the sign for sorrow. “I will miss you.”
Heart pounding so hard it hurt, Erex crouched behind the door, trying to catch a sliver of a breath while not giving away their position. After a couple of seconds the burning in their thighs became too much and they stood, slowly, taking care not to move into the strip of visibility where the door met the wall. Taking a deep, open-mouthed breath, they calmed their mind and thought about how to get back to the dungeon. It was the most likely way out now. Behind closed eyes, the map unfurled from memory, the lefts and rights, the rusting iron, flickering torches, intricately locked doorways hiding secrets the Imperial Guard knew nothing about.
When Erex decided on a course of action and blinked to attention again, there was an amber pair of eyes staring back at them.
“Ereckestra…” Burns perched on the bed, all nine tails splayed luxuriously across the four poster behind. “Welcome home. I see you decided not to announce your arrival.”
“This isn’t my home. I just needed to get the book.”
Burns’ scarred neck and nose betrayed an otherwise impeccable attitude of nonchalant aristocracy nestled in impossibly soft white fur. “Details, details.” The amber pools held the assassin’s gaze, unblinking. “What makes you think it’s still here?”
Erex’s blood went cold.
Every rotation of the little golden sun draws me somehow closer to the hub.
I am not aware of my feet even moving, such is my state of rapture. The model of the solar system rattles good naturedly with every quiet tremor in the real world, its meta counterpart.
I think back to when the tremors started. No explanation could be found for the seismic activity under the tectonic plates; people even reverted to tales of magic and monster and myth. The tremors were the result of giant serpents broiling beneath the earth’s crust; angry deities in a parallel plane.
But the truth was far more obtuse.
The tremors weren’t originating from inside the earth at all. They were from the sky.
“You are a good pickpocket, Berry, and that is true outside of everything else, and no one can ever take that away from you. You will always have it,” Nimian began to add, searching for something inspiring, “like a… congenital heart defect.”
Berry could feel their eyebrows raising at this unorthodox and unexpected crescendo but managed to arrange a collection of features approximating gratitude and sincerity just in time.
“Look,” Nimian concluded, adjusting the heavy rucksack, “what I’m saying — badly — is that just because Ferol got the sponsorship doesn’t mean you’re not worth anything, and it definitely doesn’t mean you should just give up.”
“Thank you,” Berry sighed, trying to look like the well-balanced and understanding professional they completely didn’t feel at that moment. “It’s just such a blow. Knowing that I worked so hard and I have to stay here for another six months. What if this happens again? What if I lose next time as well? At this rate I’ll be the oldest Curn in the history of the establishment!”
“Coming second isn’t losing, Berry; you’re now the most qualified, and most newly-trained, Curn on the entire peninsula. You could always become a teacher.”
A moment passed where Berry tried hard not to let their disappointment and anxiety translate into generalised annoyance. I might be young, they thought, but I know enough to know I’ll regret that… And I’d feel terrible to offend the only person who’s currently still bothering to speak to me. After a deep breath, they asked:
“Why did you become a teacher?”
Nimian smiled at the sea, sun high in the sky. There were gulls squawking concernedly over the narrow entrance of the bay, where the fish traders were returning from the morning’s work before it got too hot. “Let’s go for a walk. I’m hungry.”
“This is a.. An uncommon place, Jedda,” I said, braving a word probably outside their lexicon.
“Is many noise. Noise common,” they growled back, taking no notice of the bustling crowds, their eyes scanning the turrets.
“Is — I mean — do you come from somewhere like this? A big city?”
“Don’t know Bigsitty. Home is Serav. All I know is Serav one moon, two sun, here is other. Like mirror world.” They mimed what I assumed was pages of a book opening away from each other.
“Serav? But there’s — oh — Ceraph?” You can’t possibly be from Ceraph, I frowned. It’s a myth, a story world. Winged horses and lightning you can catch in bottles. But… you’re definitely not from here.
“Oh for — GET OUT! OF THE BIN!” Herdu yelled, continuing though the rumbled dragon had already been startled and slunk guiltily out of the kitchen. “DON’T THINK I CAN’T SEE YOU! SKULK ALL YOU LIKE YOU’RE STILL OVER A METRE TALL, BUDDY.”
Herdu glowered, hands on hips, but Osso was making a valiant effort not to make eye contact and lower itself to the ground as much as possible.
The effect was something like a collection of spiky rocks crossed with a giraffe affecting terrible esteem issues. The pious, grovelling demonstration was ruined somewhat by the banana peel hanging from the underside of its snoot.
Hobble hobble, bit of a shuffle, must make it look like an effort. Maybe stop for a moment and make it look like I have to catch my breath. How do I mime having bunions? I bet all magicians have bunions. I wonder if all that hexing leaves any nasty residue. Maybe that’s what warts are. Oh no — should I have made the warts more visible? This shuffle’s killing me, no wonder old mages are all short.
Vannah exhaled warm chicory fumes into the chilly must of the library. Mornings were always cold in here, as if the air was happy in its overnight stillness and needed the day to persuade it into movement.
Geord was putting books back on the shelves, returning these paper elopers to their only home after a brief fling with some bepimpled undergraduate. Vannah gazed, not really seeing, as the golem picked up each book individually, scanned the cover, and walked to the correct location.
I should really explain about batching and efficiency, Van thought, but Geord seemed quite content. Or at least, not discontent. How happy could a clay golem become? We brought them to life with a wish and a bit of paper, but we don’t create their personalities. Do they create them themselves? Where was the line between golem and robot and human?
The young dragon was like carrying a warm bundle of bony logs. Kierin wasn’t worried for its life, but it had definitely been through the wars. It didn’t make sense; how could its paw pads be so burnt? Isn’t the whole point of mythical creatures that they fit the myth? A little drake like this should be impervious to heat.
But perhaps these weren’t fire sears at all. Perhaps these were magic burns. The dragon made a sad little sound as the striding human gently jostled it to get a closer look at the underside of its front paw. The sound made Kierin’s heart twinge. They hupped the dragon closer and resolved to look at the paws when it was sleeping.
Leaning into the door of the hut with their back and bum, Kierin looked around and wondered where to deposit this leggy, dozey, fire reptile. The bed was the only option really. Shame the sheets probably wouldn’t last.
They put the kettle on for tea and crouched down, dabbing honey with dripping fingers on the dark, cracked paw pads. Antibacterial, it would encourage the dragon to lick out any dirt in the wounds, and by virtue of it keeping the pads soft, hopefully avoid gnawing when they started to heal and got itchy. Most importantly, such unsolicited deliciousness might convince it that Kierin was a friend.
Its breathing shallowed as it drifted away into warm unconsciousness, curled up in the middle of the bed. I wonder what you dream of, little one, Kierin thought as they turned back to the rest of the hut, still in the disarray of this morning’s unexpected departure.
A quiet cleanup began.
The wooden box was not, as Rilly had expected, light.
The weight was also not evenly distributed, meaning that, upon picking it up by the slim metal handles on either side, the young weaver toppled to the left and shielded the box from crunching into the wall. The shoulder they used instead complained immediately.
Getting to grips with how to carry the box, they lugged it over to the window. Two birds were singing to each other somewhere outside, not close, their voices hitchhiking on the breeze that swam through the dell.
Rilly settled down on dusty knees and opened the lid. Atop a hoard of trinkets and papers and tat lay a black and white photogram. Rilly’s heart lurched. Niram’s face. Niram’s smile, the creases around their eyes so familiar Rilly knew them better than their own. It felt like a punch in the chest.
It was that beautiful, dry, spring day, Rilly thought, when you snuck me up to the roof of the library. So warm. We lay in the sun on the roof and watched the drones on their lazy, endless sweeps of the sky, buzzing like great cicadas. I remember laughing as I took this photogram.
It hurt so much to remember that moment and everything that was to come after, Rilly couldn’t find a breath; it stuck in their throat, threatening to become tears.
But something caught their attention and hooked it like a fishing line, straight from the waters of grief to the brisk air of non-comprehension. Underneath the photogram, colours glinted. A badge. Two silver runes on a circle of polished obsidian.
Not a badge — a talisman.
Rilly recognised it at once but couldn’t believe they would find it here, of all places. This was dangerous. A secret.
Something they had left Rilly to find.
“Stop! Please wait there! I need to speak to you!”
The golem slowed, stopped, and turned to Ren, who was relieved not to have to deal with any of the outrage or questioning this type of accostment would have elicited from a human. The golem said nothing, but waited.
“I need the books back. You have to show me where they are.”
“That will not be possible.”
“I — what?”
“I was told not to let anyone find them. You are someone.” The place where its eyes should be glowed a deep, dull ochre. They betrayed nothing.
“Yes, but the books are mine, and I’m allowed to see them, to have them,” Ren countered, flustered, ignoring the bumpy untruths in her argument. “I obviously meant hide them — keep them safe — from other people.”
“Obviously is not provable.”
“I told you to find me though, and you didn’t -”
“The day had not ended. I would find you later.”
“Are… where were you going? Just now? When I stopped you.”
“This I cannot tell you.”
Ren almost stamped their foot, they were so frustrated. It was hard not to feel that the golem was just messing them around, had there been any reason to believe a creature with no soul understood the concept of a prank.
“Will you tell me where the books are when you “come and find me” when the day is up then?”
“That was never agreed.”
“But it wasn’t not agreed. Fine. I’ll just follow you until twelve minutes past seven or whatever time it was yesterday when I caught you.”
Ren wished the golem had answered their question about where it had been going. It turned and melted into the night. Its eyes still burned in the foreground of Ren’s sight as they padded quickly after it.
Scraping, scraping, pushing mud away.
Scooping it out.
The ground was cold and damp, but not hard. The wetness of the earth seeped imperceptibly up from Cirus’s knees.
Down and down and down they dug, firm fingers, earth under nails.
After an incalculable time, it was deep enough. Without waiting, Cirus lifted the little body, still warm, under the head and hips.
Unnecessarily gently, as if to avoid waking it, they placed the silver-haired fae into the ground.
An earthen tomb for your mortal remains, Cirus thought. I wonder where the rest of you has gone.
The two soldiers stood facing each other, phasers levelled at each other’s heads, metres apart. Everything was quiet now but for the ragged breathing and Durn’s shifting, keeping the weight from resting too long on what felt like a shattered ankle. The phaser was starting to shake in their hand, either from exhaustion or shock or the vestiges of adrenaline, but they were close enough aim wouldn’t be much of a problem. Beredophil looked dispassionately down the barrel of the phaser, but said nothing. The effect, coupled with the inaction, was unnerving.
“You could have killed me. At the lake. You didn’t,” Durn started. “Why?”
Beredophil did not move a muscle. They were not moving, but still seemed to be breathing heavily. Durn wondered if the decorated warrior was injured out of sight; internal bleeding or… Brain damage?
“And now you’re doing it again. Forcing me into a corner and then walking away. Why?” Beredophil was sweating.
“Why don’t you just kill me. Now.”
“You have to die!” Beredophil hissed, finally cracking. Their face cracked like a mask into a deranged grimace. “You and your kind. A fucking plague upon this planet. I wish I had never met you.”
There was something about the way they said it; specifically about Durn. A terrible, horrible thought came unbidden to Durn’s mind. Unthinking, the phaser lowered and they looked directly into Beredophil’s eyes. They were glistening not with loathing, but with despair and disgust. At themselves.
“… No. You can’t be.”
I sat in the gathering dusk on the hillside, looking down at the valley below. The river wound its way through, unhampered by the town which had grown like mold on its banks, gradually, in the grave of where a glacier had lain eons ago.
One sun had passed beyond the horizon, but the warm glow of one other lingered. It was not yet cold. For company, I turned my palm gently to the sky and spread my fingers, conjuring a little flame. I closed my eyes and listened to the chirruping of the griffin cubs it would be virtually impossible to find, and the susurration of the long grasses in which I had enveloped myself.
One deep breath followed another, until suddenly my inhalation brought with it an idiosyncratic tang of orange and neroli. I whipped around, searching for you. My heart glowed at sensing your nearness, but I knew something must be wrong. You could not come here. My flame spluttered and died as I cambered to hands and knees and rose jerkily. And then I saw you, half your face illuminated by the last of the dying day. Even at a distance, I could tell your dark brown eyes were happy to have found me.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” you smiled.
And then I watched you collapse.
The amethyst marbles clicked against the cobalt ones in the tray as Morda slid it across the yellowing diner tabletop.
“I think you’ll find my terms fair.”
Ordu didn’t think much of this trade, but kept their mouth shut. This was too important to mess up.
“You know the deal.”
“Sure,” intoned Ordu, and closed their eyes. Passing their hand ever so slowly over the marbles, a feeling like swirling dry ice ticked their palm. They relaxed, and opened their eyes.
Morda was looking unimpressed.
“Did you forget to put yourself in gear, or something? I don’t have all day. You won’t get a third attempt.”
Ordu looked down and felt their stomach drop. The marbles looked exactly the same.
It’s not natural, Seppy thought. It creeps me out. I swear they’re just doing it to creep me out.
The blood on Seppy’s neck and temple was turning cold quickly in the spitting rain, congealing in the centre of the two gashes. They shivered but kept their distance, stepping in the monstrously large footsteps of the Saggitan Knight.
As they rounded the corner, the cliff and its lighthouse, gracefully nestled among crags and the rough, salty air, came into view. Seppy’s anxiety grew, bubbling like a pot coming up to the boil.
Still, their envoy said nothing.
Seven dreams of Forest every night for two years after the accident.
Each time, Seven is chasing them, tantalisingly close to finding them and keeping them safe, but ever so stressfully just out of reach. Thuros marketplace in the early afternoon, the sun striking gold on Forest’s hair as they slip through the crowd with Seven jostling behind; swimming in the sea near the shores of Western Caprica, the juvenile waves slapping Seven in the mouth every time they raised their voice to call out to Forest further out at sea; the library where they had once shared all their secrets and lunches, smacking windows to get Forest’s attention outside but them hearing nothing thanks to the Library’s silencing spells.
Seven wakes every morning exhausted and full of sorrow. It is like losing them again, every night. Then, one night, they dream of somewhere they have never seen. It is a lake, at sunrise, and it is so quiet Seven can hear their own heartbeat in their ears. Forest is standing to their right.
“You’ve come too far,” they say, looking concerned. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Cadran eventually drifted away into sleep after hours of anxiety about being called back into service. They had never told anyone that their wand had broken, and that they had been using one they had stolen from a dozing tramp. After all, no reason for a tramp to have one in the first place. And, more importantly, they had always reasoned with themselves, it wasn’t supposed to be possible to use a wand you hadn’t made “with thine own fair hand, and carried acros th’ Trials”. Cadran should, by all rights, have been caught, so the fact that they weren’t only proved that this was… okay?
Sleep brought no real respite. A night of restless over-warmth and inconclusive, worrisome dreams left them inching into consciousness with much the same strain they had slipped out of it in the first place.
The cherry wood wand was warm in Cadran’s hand when they arrived at the shop the next morning. Twitching the door unlocked through the precise movements required for this particular unlocking sequence — it had taken a lot of practice to imitate Indre’s quirks — they started to set the business up for the day. Thoughts and doubts vyed for attention; had they been careless to allow themselves to be registered in Targen? A job, an address, a practitioner’s licence… had this all been a mistake?
They bustled behind the counter and were surprised to find, on straightening up with a pouch of chalks in hand, that they were no longer alone in the shop. A slim, beige human with a wave of black hair stood in front of them, frowning behind sunglasses.
“Hi… Um, can I help you?” Never a bad start, all things considered.
“I need to find someone. I was told you had a lodestar?” They slid the glasses up on their head, and sitting atop generous under-eye bags were the two clearest white eyes Cadran had ever seen. No pupils, no iris. Just white, like two huge pearls. The kind of eyes that were still hunted in places like Targen.
“Uhh… Yes. We have one. The operator’s only in on Mondays though — I can make you an appointment?”
“No. I need it today. Can you run it? I can pay you.” And they put a neat, carefully bundled sheaf of notes — worn, but clean, and not tattered — on the counter between them. Cadran wasn’t sure why, but they felt the need to acquiesce.
Burzom performed the social niceties in the bustling conference room, barely able to keep the thread of the conversation but acting the part. The Federation scientist’s accent was so strong, and the buzzing of other conversations so loud, that much of Burzom’s responses were guessed; laughing at what they carefully judged was the opportune moment, looking studious and attentive, the occasional nod, elsewhere.
Taking care to appear attentive and intelligent, they were nonetheless managing to keep a weather peripheral eye on the rest of the room, which is how they spotted something amiss. It wasn’t the scythe of Briar Rose at all, but something quite unexpected.
It was Briar themself, incognito.
“Have this finished by tomorrow and don’t waste time on any twiddly bits. Just get it done.”
The workshop door banged on the cutting table behind it as the Regent stormed from Alax’s work quarters, passing a juddering ripple through the workroom. Delicate fragments of metal, aligned neatly for the next stage of fabrication, tinkled onto other surfaces as the more sturdy bounced around to the edges of the workbench.
Alax felt their breathing return, ever so slowly, to normal rhythm. They had not even been offended by the disparaging comment about “twiddly bits” — the Regent clearly had no knowledge of artificing and the centrality of aesthetic — but the concept of turning this around in under a day worried them. The inside of their lower lip was already being absent-mindedly chewed while their brain started whirring into a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
“I knew you’d still be here,” smiled an accented voice from the still-open doorway. Alax could hear the warmth without even turning.
The nomad mage dropped a heavy sack from one shoulder as the two pulled each other into a tight hug. Even tied back into a low ponytail, Peron’s thick, flaxen-coloured hair smelt like a home Alax had always carried with them, tucked away safely in a corner of their heart.
The long table juddered with the excitement of multiple conversations happening up and down its flanks. The pub was noisy but not quarrelsome, and the sound felt like a temperate sun on Ganne’s soul after so many months away from land.
“… So that’s it really. I was dumped out by the cargo containers and then you found me. And now I’m here. I don’t know how you recognised me, I must have looked a right state.”
“It wasn’t difficult.”
Ganne frowned. “What do you mean?”
The special forces soldier drained the glass before staring into it and answering. “I could find you anywhere, Gan. Anywhere in the five realms.” Without looking up, Nesserit swung deftly out from their bench and slipped between punters, empty cup in hand, to find a space at the bar.
Dostran Vendell was not having a good time. Shortly after daybreak, they had returned to their poky attic room after a packed night at the morgue, only to find their window had somehow been smashed by dusty children outside, criss-crossing the street like vagabond lice. It was a small enough hole, easily patchable with something, but that meant less light. Too tired to search for the rock whose trajectory had caused this unwarranted new ventilation, Dostran simply closed the door and sat on the bed. A mixture of exhaustion, incredulity, and a memory of a horror story stopped them from getting under the covers.
Their immune system was evidently not happy. Being a mortician, Dos was an expert in mortality, not morbidity, but even they could feel a nasty allergic reaction had formed where the new rune tattoo had been inked across the top of their chest, shoulder to shoulder. Wondering idly about the obvious change of ink ingredients and whether they should complain, Jessop’s face swam into focus in their memory: “no word of a lie, poor kid swole up like a big balloon. Absolutely full of pus, mate. Dead in 15 minutes. I’ve had cups of tea that lasted longer. DO NOT mess about with rune tattoos in Venly Abbots.”
It clearly wasn’t as bad as all that, but the skin was red and very warm and very sore, even under the wrappings still taped on, and Dos felt achey and rotten. Getting home had somehow made it worse, as if their mind had been holding the inflammation at bay until it had some space for it to fill. There was nothing for it — no energy to stand or eat or even bloody do anything at this rate. They wriggled onto their back and waited for sleep to come.
An indeterminate amount of time later, Dostran awoke covered in a chilled sweat. The clothes closest to their skin were sticky and heavy and getting cold. The pain across their chest was raw, but didn’t feel warm to the touch any more. Trying not to imagine the dirt and dust that was about to get stuck to it, Dos gingerly peeled back a corner of the taped wrappings and tried to squash enough concertinaed double chins out of the way to peek underneath.
They didn’t breathe for a moment. This wasn’t right at all.
Silv turned the small orb over, scrutinising the inscriptions, all fainter than a whisper. The ball was smooth and heavy and mildly cool, but beginning to enrobe itself in the warmth from Silv’s fingers. It felt understated and indescribably precious.
“It looks new.” Doubt began to seep into Silv’s admiring thoughts. “This could be a replica.”
“They don’t tarnish,” came the reply from the depths of the chest, and Silv was brought back to the present where Erdu was rummaging in a preoccupied way through the massive box of weapons. The chest was so big Erdu was hanging over the lip of it, hinging on their hips, head and shoulders somewhere Silv couldn’t see from their perch on the cracked wooden table.
The chest was a hoard of weapons and armour ranging from the mechanically aggressive (blades, bows, garotting wire) to the downright unreasonably magical (fire powder enchanted to burn for thirty days, a 16-ton mace weighing about the same as a cup of rice in the user’s hand and referred to fondly over the decades as both “Siege Destroyer” and “Liege Destroyer”). It was these latter additions that had started to leak into the wood and caused the chest to take on an unusually accommodating topological formation: the more Erdu chucked in it, the bigger it became. The outside was still, by any standards, a fairly large chest.
The inside, however, was positively boggling.
Don’t be stupid,” Potar said, and then, almost to themself, “this type of code is the only language in the universe that means exactly what it says. It’s the truest mirror of reality there is.”
“No. There isn’t a counter argument.”
“But humans aren’t like that! They’re n-“
“Humans?” Potar’s eyes flicked up to challenge Rin’s for the first time in a long time.
Potar’s fingers, which had been tracing lightly over screen in an entirely indiscernible pattern, slowed slightly, still moving apparently of their own accord. “This world hasn’t been human for a long time.” Their eyes slid back to the monitor, shoulders still completely still.
“So why is our language still the same, then? Of course we’re still human, even if we’ve got bits … added on, tweaked.”
“I notice you don’t use the word ‘improved’,” Potar commented, an eyebrow cocked very slightly. “How intriguing.”
Adonis had not changed Rin in the ways they had hoped. Even the electronically-improved hearing, eyesight both short- and long-distance, grip strength, lumbar support from a lightly-coated ribcage and spine. Even the behavioural conditioning to improve nonverbal efficiency, interlingual parsing, and almost totally eradicating the part of the brain responsible for social anxiety. Rin was still the displeased owner of irritating and unexplainable faults like biting their nails when they felt they should feel worried or becoming particularly quiet at what should technically be sundown, though there was too much grit and fume across the sky at any given time to know what point of the day it really was. It didn’t matter, on the whole. The city was in a constant state of churning, meta-industrial life.
Pushing the earlier conversation from their mind, Rin dumped their backpack by the apartment door and walked over to heave open the slim metal block they’d had to replace the balcony door with. Once outside, they looked down at their most prized possession: a jade plant, only four leaves in all, silently soaking up ‘sun’ day after day. It made them laugh to think that once people had called them ‘money plants’, as if money could ever be connected to something more than electronic transactions.
Rin crouched, and considered the little plant; brought it right up to their face, wishing the low- grade orthoptics had a higher degree of focus inbuilt. Their right eye twitched slightly as the lens in the pupil rotated a fraction of a millimetre to focus.
Small, the only thing Rin could bring to mind that was entirely free of metal or electronics or sensors.
It was beautiful.
There was something almost sinister about a thing so beautifully crafted without a maker or a conscious mind of its own. Eerie, like it could out-think extinction just by photosynthesis and slow, unassuming adaptation… all the mechanised firepower in all the world wouldn’t help if plants somehow decided we were in their way, Rin mused, and wondered if this was what they wished for. Their eyes travelled critically over the details of the tiny green thing, the minute veins supplying the immaculately symmetrical, plump leaves, each one still smaller than the distal phalanx of Rin’s little finger, pointing down slightly at the tips like they were sighing silently. Perhaps this was what Potar had meant.
With the unassuming plant cupped in their palm, Rin looked across to the opposite housing block without really seeing, vaguely listening to his messy, excitable, completely socially oblivious neighbour have textbook sex with their new partner. How long before this one finds out they have a vagina made from metal, Rin wondered detachedly. Touted as the utmost in luxury — ‘feel priceless inside and out’ — people with vaginas could upgrade themselves through Adonis to have their insides coated with a fine sheet of what Rin had once been told was actually cast-off ship metal. The ironic thing was that it killed all sensation; his neighbour was faking the entire show. Utterly useless as a socio-environmental adaptation. Rin couldn’t remember when the AddOn military initiative had morphed into something consumers wanted and would pay a lot of good money for, it just slowly became privatised and sold off to unexpectedly bizarre multinational conglomerates. Adonis became the synonym for expensive and unusual personal luxury; why get a diamond encrusted teleport pad when you could replace all your muscles every two years or increase your hearing range to include ultrasonic wavelengths? A constant game of increasingly expensive and morbid artificial one-upmanship.
Of course, this market soon spawned knock-off, pirate versions. Rin’s brother had died getting their immune system flushed out and ‘replaced’. Rin had never known what Aerte had wanted it replaced with, and now could never ask.
A noise like paper tearing quickly behind Rin made them jump. They started to turn their shoulders, the disposable cup housing the little plant falling absentmindedly from their fingers, just as something large and metal and cold made contact with their chin, knocking their head forcibly back. They stumbled. Another blow to the other side of the head and Rin felt electronics crunching under their temple where once there had just been bone. They crumpled.
Small, carbon-alloy-sheathed feet hopped deftly over their sprawled upper limbs and crouched in the shade of the balcony, ensuring no sightline was visible from the hundreds of matchbox-apartment windows opposite this one. Slender fingers pressed various points on the unconscious body, confident they would discover the concealed object they were searching for. Nothing. Shit. Where is it? The eyes registered a brief acceptance frustration before scanning the sparse but clean apartment. Of course. There we are. Unzipping the backpack and extracting the wallet, the lithe hands sifted efficiently through scraps and vintage paper money, notes with irrelevant numbers, times, vintage business cards, before stopping at a card on which was scrawled neatly
HOW I THINK CANNOT BE
SEPARATED FROM HOW I FEEL
After a strangely long period of deliberation given their normal efficiency, this card, and a small piece of grotty paper folded many times with the letters A.P.C. on the front (or, perhaps, the back), were slid neatly into a concealed chest pocket. It was time to go.
On the concrete floor beside Rin’s temple, a pool of blood was forming. The jade plant had fallen close to it, knocked clean off the plastic cup. The dirt and tiny pebbles and crumbled concrete which had once formed its environs now scattered on the balcony, the intruder closed the front door to Rin’s apartment without noticing the slow, organic movements of the little plant. Spindly roots, etiolated from their normal subterranean habitat, began to stretch from the plant towards the blooming liquid life.
Panic rising like a silent tide, from the nausea in their stomach through their ribcage, permeating their diaphragm, ribs, lungs, oesophagus, jaw: it came. Trapped. Trying to escape a group of space soldiers sent to this station to terminate their crew. Now, stuck in a metal coffin.
Their thoughts seemed simultaneously racing and sluggish. What could they do if they could do nothing? There was no one else left on the station. The entire ship hummed only with baseline reverberations as it had done since the dawn of DRK3044’s time.
Suddenly, they relaxed. Panic protocol. The adrenal glands had shorted out as they were programmed to do and dopamine flooded the body’s system. It felt good. This was not a problem. Sliding a hand down the left side of their body, they pulled out the special services DRK advanced issue multi-tool and began clicking parts into place, one handed, close to their chest. They’d be out of this hole in approximately eight minutes, give or take. And assuming they calculated correctly, it wouldn’t matter that they didn’t know which way the floor was.
Twelve minutes later, reinforced rubber soles padding softly back up to the bridge, something stopped them. Visual input processed nonchalantly by their brain caught only by some kind of warning loop, they ceased to stride, and wondered why. Turning a calm head, slowly scrutinising the way they had just come. Everything looked normal. It wasn’t. A section of the wall looked… wrong. Like a thin veil of something intangibly and quietly effervescent coated it. It glistened and moved ever so slightly in a way they had never seen before. It had been a refraction, a tiny splinter of light, shoulder height, that had caught their eye before.
The soldier’s mind was utterly blank. Had they smacked their parietal lobe on impact with the hold’s floor? Hardock at ACIU would have them decommissioned immediately if they presented with any symptoms of mechanical fatigue. Moving gently closer, they came to the lightly glistening surface of the abnormal section of wall. Their face was centimetres from it, but the shimmering whatever-it-was showed no change. DRK3044 wondered if it would have registered any difference had there been heat emanating from their skin, as real human bodies had once done.
They blinked, as they had been programmed to do to put other species at ease, and walked on. There was work to be done.
The radio was still and silent. The loss of my copilot, a sadness too deep for words, enveloped me. Its smothering shock seemed so utterly universal I wondered how I had not just shut down. Breaths still came and went. My heart thudded on, either unaware of or despite its newfound futility.
There was much turbulence. It buffeted and kicked the ship like a clique of invisible bullies, picking on my dear small ship like the weakling it now felt to me. It rocked me with syncopated shoves and bounces, my neck spasmodically jerking to and fro, the harness attempting valiantly to keep the rest of me in place. It felt endless. It felt like nothing. It was happening far away from me; only dimly aware of the cracking and creaking of the ship as it struggled desperately through the intangibility of the forceful space storm.
The thought came unbidden and unexpected to me as I gazed, seeing but unseeing, into the stars. Against all mission protocol and seven years of academy training, I haltingly unclipped the harness, turned off all contact channels, turned off the lights, and left the flight deck, holding onto rails to keep myself from stumbling as the ship bounced. The throttles and buttons held nothing for me now but a sick feeling in my stomach. I could not stay.
Softly coming to rest on the polyvinyl indentation made for my head, the relief was palpable. Soon, I will not have to be awake. This will not be my reality. I will not have been halved so cruelly. Everything, everything will cease.
I entered hypersleep with tears seeping through my lashes. I was gone before the despair could start to close my throat.
I awoke to something I did not recognise. I was frightened.
Notes: A handful of typos have been corrected from the original version. #27 was inspired by an article on grief that I now can’t find, but if you know it, ping it over and I’ll add the much-appreciated credit.