Excerpt for Modern Mythology by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Modern Mythology


a short story



Copyright © 2015 Keanan Brand

All rights reserved.

www.penworthypress.com

originally published in Awethology Light

October 2015




I believe in everything until it's disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it's in your mind. Who's to say that dreams and nightmares aren't as real as the here and now?” 
―attributed to John Lennon, but who knows?


MODERN MYTHOLOGY


I slide behind my other self and smile. There are many of me. We are equidistant, fractured, slightly askew. Today I am professional me, dispensing information, smiling, laughing at inane chitchat, refusing to feel the pinch of my high-heeled shoes or the odd gummy-dry sensation of lipstick worn too long.

The hotel lobby is polished, vast, filled with light and the constant hum of voices. Hotel Aspyrion rises higher even than the engineering marvel that is Don’Ayghel Ionic Energy, and from the roof one can see across the city to where a dark smudge is all that marks the Hinterland and the edge of civilization.

Travelers claim to have been to the Hinterland, but I am never sure if their stories are true or simply a modern myth. Here There Be Dragons.

Yet people who have been to the Hinterland then come home to Spectra tend to wander back into the wilderness, and rarely return to the city a second time. Some returners who remain in Spectra either are so frightened they eventually live out their days in a hospital, or they build their homes on the very edges of the city and tell their stories in books, songs, bars, coffee shops, and there is a melancholy to them, as if the returners wish they could leap their own invisible walls and find whatever they left behind in the Hinterland.

The round clock hanging above the reception desk reads four o’clock. Name tag gleaming in the ambient light, a young woman in an elegant grey suit and a string of pearls approaches, greets me with a smile as robotic as mine, and immediately takes over my duties.

Out of sight of customers and supervisors, I pull off my shoes and hobble on aching feet to where my single-seat craft hovers in its mooring.

Air-sea-land craft overtook automobiles sometime in my parents’ childhood, just as the crano-aural transceiver implant overtook the telephone and many other sources of sound communication.

My implant is on permanent “off”. My mother’s transceiver is always busy. She cannot talk enough, but I find most speech unnecessary. That’s no impediment to our time together, because Mother will fill the void whether I’m listening or not. She has friends so numerous I cannot recall their names or faces, especially since my accident a year ago, and Father has so many business acquaintances his transceiver is rarely out of use. It is modified, in fact, to allow the transmission of great quantities of information, and I sometimes wonder how he can keep such massive wads of data in his brain. No wonder there is so little room for remembering anything—or anyone—else.

Stepping into the craft, I sink into the cushioned seat and close my eyes. The city is a mass of noise, grinding my ears, berating my stillness. I touch a small sphere. The glass shield hisses shut, sealing me in silence.

After a few moments, I open my eyes again, lean forward, and tap a screen to plot my route through the city.

I flinch as something slaps against the left shield.

It is a crude map, and behind it is the shape of a hand, fingers splayed to hold the paper flat.

It probably isn’t really paper, though we still call it that. When my grandparents’ grandparents still lived, a synthetic reusable material was invented to replace all plant-produced fibers used in the manufacture of papers. That’s why there are so many trees now, the eco-scientists say, and so few environmentalists.

My heart lurching back into normal rhythm, I click the release toggle and hear the mooring lines snap away from the craft.

“Wait!” The voice is sharp, with an elderly quaver. “Wait!”

I want to go home, change clothes, collect all my selves into one being for a few hours. Yet I hesitate.

“Please?” The map moves aside to reveal a vaguely familiar face. An old man from the lobby.

I let the craft settle back into its slip, and open the shield a little.

He squints as if trying to find my name tag, but it is in my locker in the personnel lounge. “Professor Quarlton Pathington Shinnegal.”

He offers his hand, and I shake it briefly before withdrawing once more behind the half-open shield.

“You were not in the hotel lobby.” Professor Shinnegal tilts his head like a curious bird, his squinched-up eyes examining me. “You stood there, but you were elsewhere. I’m always looking for someone who isn’t there.”

Who are you looking for?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” His voice sharpens again. “Someone who isn’t there.”

“Listen, Professor, my shift is over, and I really want to go home—”

“This is home.” He thrusts the map at me. It waves in his trembling grasp, but I can see the rough shapes of trees and mountains, and curving lines that might be rivers or roads. “This is where you’ll find what’s lost.”

He pauses as if this is significant to me.

“But I’m not looking for anything.”

“No?” Again he studies me.

“No.”

“How long has it been since your soul went missing?”

I tap the sphere; the shield closes. Professor Shinnegal stumbles backward as my craft lifts smoothly from its slip and enters the stream of traffic.

All of my selves, except the lethargic or distracted ones, burst into simultaneous complaint. I try not to listen, but a few voices push through the clamor:

“We were poor representatives for Hotel Aspyrion.”

“Speak for yourself! I don’t represent anyone.”

“You didn’t have to be so rude. It’s not like we’re in a hurry to keep an appointment. We could have listened to him.”

“We don’t owe him anything.”

“Who does he think he is?”

“I’ll tell you what he is. He’s crazy!”

“He wants something from us, and it has nothing to do with that map.”

“He wants nothing from us but the truth.” This self is intelligent, observant, apt to see what all my other selves cannot. I trust her, but I do not always understand her. “Truth is what we fear.”

What? Fear truth? I’m a fairly honest person. I think.

I negotiate the bobbing, hovering traffic along the metroway—although craft are equipped with wheels, they are rarely used except when the solar panels fail—and veer toward a tall, elegant building with a blue glass façade. After mooring my craft in the slip beside my balcony, I wait a few moments while the security system scans the vehicle and identifies me as the legal occupant of the locked apartment.

The shield slides back with a gentle sigh, and I step out of the craft and onto the balcony. Locks snick open on the apartment door; the glass glides silently aside. My feet sink into the deep carpet, and tension eases in my neck. Tossing my purse on to the kitchen counter, I pile my earrings and watch beside it then turn toward the bedroom to deposit my shoes.

Anchored by a wooden carving in the shape of a twisted tree, Professor Shinnegal’s map lays on the dining table.

Tapping my finger on the bone behind my right ear, I activate my transceiver. “Scan residence.”

The emotionless asexual voice of the home security system replies, “All secure.”

“Display security log.”

A holographic block of text hovers in front of my right eye. There is no record of anyone entering or leaving the apartment between the time I left for work this morning and my return two minutes ago.

“Scan objects on dining table.”

With a soft whir, a line of white light passes back and forth over the paper and the figurine. “Antique paper. Fibrous content. Linen. Tree pulp. Unknown ink. Archaic writing form.” The security system pauses as if thinking then continues to scan the carving. “Aboriginal motif. Ash. Hand carved. No correlation to items in Spectra Museum of Ancient History.”

But how did it get here? “When did the objects appear on the security grid?”

The holographic report reappears before me. Lines of text and numbers scroll so quickly they are only blips and flashes—until they come to a sudden halt: a year ago. Surely it doesn’t take a year for a girl to notice what’s sitting on her dining table. Maybe the system needs a tweak. Been a while since operations were upgraded.

“Scan objects for fingerprints. Cross-reference with police database.”

Now blue, the light broadens to include the surface of the table. “Fingerprints found. Jaysha Don’Ayghel.”

My prints.

The voice drones on, but I’m staring at the carving and only hear phrases: “…accident report, 23 March…14 June…left university…revived on scene…”

I turn off the transceiver, leave my other selves standing around the dining table, and go to my room.

Like uninvited guests at a formal party, old sturdy boots made of synthetic leather lurk behind the rows of designer shoes neatly shelved along one side of the closet. Shedding my suit, I pull on faded jeans and a holey T-shirt stretched and stained past redemption, then rummage for socks. I find orange ones, at odds with the fire-pink shirt, but—in a blaze of fashion defiance—I put them on with the boots.

I sit on the edge of the bed for a moment, sensing I have done this before, and not very long ago. Shaking off the feeling, I begin packing a suitcase. Bypassing my selves still arguing with one another, I go to the bookshelves, pull down a few volumes, and tuck them among the folded garments. I toss in toiletries, no makeup; paper, writing utensils, no computer. I look around for other items to pack: a few framed early family images, a couple leather-bound books, an antique flute my grandfather gave me.

The flute is ivory, made from elephant tusk. I have seen pictures of elephants in books, and the skeleton of one in the museum. The flute is older than even the experts can tell, its finger holes no longer perfectly round, its sides concave from the touch of unknown generations of players.

There. The suitcase is full.

I pick it up, bracing for the weight, and grab my purse. Then drop it again. I leave the watch but take the earrings, stuffing them into a pocket of my jeans.

“Pardon.” I lean between two of my selves to grab the paper map and the wooden carving.

My selves stand staring at me, transparent faces concealing neither thought nor emotion.

“Where are you going?” one demands.

“Wait for us!” commands another.

I slam the balcony door shut, locking it just as the selves run to catch me. I almost feel the shudder of their impact. They press their faces, soft and translucent, against the pane.

“Goodbye.”

Why do I say that? It is an archaic farewell, deriving in ages past from a religious saying, wishing the departing one to go with God’s blessing. Nevertheless, I say it again. “Goodbye.”

I secure the suitcase in the hatch of the craft, step aboard, and release its moorings. Giddy and daring, I lift my hands from the controls and let the craft go where it will, and I laugh.

What do I fear? Being alone? Misunderstood? Unliked? Unloved? Unemployed? Homeless? Dead? Forgotten?

I am already forgotten.

I smooth the map, tracing its crude lines with my fingertip. The unknown. That’s what I fear. But I also fear existence. I want to live. I want to believe. I want to know.

I want to be known.

A siren wrenches my attention from the map. Red lights flash. A police horn blares. “Jaysha Don’Ayghel, you are hereby ordered to cease acceleration and withdraw from the metroway.”

I look around. My craft is bobbing along in the wrong direction. Others are swerving, ducking, leaping to avoid mine.

With one glance at the police craft and another at my energy gauge, I tap in a code. My craft spurts upward then forward, hurtling toward the dark rim of the Hinterland that I cannot yet see but know is there.

The police craft follows, and the message repeats, ordering me to cease acceleration.

My skin tingles. My heart surges. I cannot stop smiling. I zoom past my father’s building—Don’Ayghel Ionic Energy—and wave at the topmost window where I imagine my mother is lounging in the penthouse, her transceiver humming with gossip.

Goodbye.

The Hinterland rises across my vision in a leafy arc. Freedom.

The bright orange bars on the energy gauge falter then fall. My craft bucks—decelerates.

The police craft looms behind me. “Jaysha Don’Ayghel…,” and the police bot drones the message again.

My dizzy excitement plummets like my craft, and I fight to stay aloft, ahead of the grapnel line that will bind me to the police craft at any moment. My fingers fumble as I type codes into the computer, engaging the auxiliary energy cell and slicking the bottom portion of the craft with a thin layer of lubricant to discourage the grappling hook.

Something bangs against the hull and slides across the hatch. The craft jerks sideways. My head slams into the shield. Blood slurs down my face.

If I release the hatch to disengage the hook, my suitcase and belongings—the trappings of myself—are lost. If I don’t release the hatch, freedom is lost.

There is a jolting pause as the towing action of the police craft opposes my craft’s forward motion.

With the auxiliary energy cell wide open, I set a course for the Hinterland then release the controls. I unlock a small toolkit, unscrew the panel between the hatch and the forward pit, pull the suitcase into the tiny space of the pit, then brace myself and switch the toggle that controls the hatch door.

Propelled by the sudden release and the surge of power, the craft tumbles forward, end over end. My stomach roils. My head spins. Wind tugs at me. The old map is sucked through the gaping hatch. The carved tree—I don’t know where it is.

Contorting around the suitcase and the seat, I grab the control sphere and tilt the craft upright again. The police craft resumes pursuit.

Trees delineate, rising in gilded green spires and umbrellas against the western sun. Towers and metroways become less frequent, and the city crumbles at the edges until it flattens, populated with old-fashioned surface dwellings and other small buildings so ancient they seem held up by little more than memory.

“Jaysha Don’Ayghel, you are hereby ordered to decelerate immediately and await arrest in the name of the Spectra Judiciary and Civilization Loss Prevention Unit. Repeat, decelerate immediately!”

My craft scrapes along the tops of trees. Wiping blood from my eyes, I plead, “Up! Up! Up!”

It obeys. I am borne a little higher, perhaps by a sudden wind now tossing the tree branches.

A wide circle opens in the green expanse. I look back—it is the last time I do—and see the police craft hovering as if in indecision, but there is no human pilot at the controls. At the bounds of its power, it wavers, turns, still blaring its orders at me. The words become a decreasing whine on the wind.

Trees surround my craft, pummeling and tossing it like a ball in a game. I wedge myself between the seat and the suitcase, cover my head with my arms, and wonder why I chose today to die.

The sensation is familiar. Have I been in a headlong fall like this before?

There are no splintered selves, however, to rail at me—to chide or sneer or question—for this is a doom of my own choosing.

My bones jar with every crashing bounce of the craft rolling awkwardly across the clearing, punching holes in the earth, cracking the shields.


* * *


I waken in twilight. My head rests on the suitcase; my feet dangle from the hatch. The control sphere is a fractured lollipop on a tortured stick, thrusting at a broken angle from the torn padding of the seat back.

“Ah!” A pleased expression on his face, Professor Shinnegal peers down at me. “You brought the tree!” Reaching through the hatch, he plucks the carving—perfect but for purple stains—from my tangled hair, and wipes the ancient wood across his sleeve. “We’ll have you out in a moment.” He disappears.

The craft rocks upright. My heels drum the ground as my body launches forward. I control nothing.

“Wait, lassie!” Burly arms hold me upright then gently draw me from the broken craft. They belong to a dwarf with a luxurious beard and a merry smile.

A warm hand touches my forehead. “Not as bad as it looks,” murmurs a soft voice. “More blood than injury.” Rosy light forms a nimbus around an ethereal creature, tall and graceful, bending over me. “At last. Welcome, Jaysha Don’Ayghel, to the Hinterland.”

At last? Have I been expected?

My head aches, my body screams, and my eyes burn, but I smile—I think—even as darkness reclaims my vision.


* * *


The morning is alive with sounds I cannot name. The city roared, but the Hinterland whispers, and each new noise is soft and clear.

Timid breezes poke their heads through gauzy curtains, stirring the sunlight. I lean against the headboard, sip blackberry tea, and marvel that I have just been served breakfast by a goat. She’s a kind old nanny with a ruffled apron and soft brown hide. Her name is Gerta.

I hear her rattling about in the kitchen below, bleating instructions to the household: Bertrand the dwarf must go cut more wood for the cook fire; Elsa the elfen housemaid is dispatched to beat the rugs; Professor Shinnegal is off searching for mushrooms, but he’ll be wanting his tea when he returns, so Liam the dray horse must purchase honey from the neighbors (who are, according to Gerta, a flitter-witted collection of fairies).

I close my eyes. Yes, perhaps I dream. Perhaps I still lie in the wreckage of my craft. Perhaps I was arrested by the police bot and am adorning my jail cell with boundless mad fancy.

Perhaps I am dead.

If any of those possibilities are true, I am in no hurry to return to reality. Opening my eyes, I drink the rest of the tea, eat every piece of toast dripping with butter, and spoon up all of the strawberries floating in thick cream. None of the half-organic, half-synthesized meals in Spectra’s finest restaurants could ever compare to this. No, indeed.


* * *


Days pass. I am given chores that will not overtax me while my head heals and my muscles unbruise. One afternoon I stop to look closely in a mirror, and see a purple blotch on the bandage around my head. The rosy woman from the clearing must have put something herbal on the wound.

I feel at home here. I hang pictures, shelve books, drape clothes on fat wooden pegs. Professor Shinnegal has given me the carven tree. I move it around the bedroom, searching for just the right place.

He sits with us at supper and tells an amusing tale: The centaurs challenged the satyrs by the brook, but it was all in good fun. Just a bit of rope-tugging to determine if two legs are better, or four. The dryads judged it a draw.

He has yet to tell me why I am here. I think I know. A niggling unease scratches at the back door of my mind, but I refuse to invite it in.

No one questions my presence nor asks when I will leave. Sam—once a robotics engineer in the city, but now a farmer—sits with me on the veranda in the evenings, teaching me to play simple tunes on the elephant flute. In turn, I teach Bertrand to read from my leather-bound books of old tales, illustrated with once-vivid prints whose colors have mellowed in the past hundred years.

Sometimes rain falls, sometimes a storm raises its fist, but for me all the days are bright.


* * *


Gerta sits at the kitchen table and sips a cup of blackberry tea. Though quite deft with her dainty hooves, she drinks it through a straw made of reed. I savor crumb cake while she tells of a new village springing up half a day away and ponders the rumors of a great desert waste west of the Hinterland, and of a wide water beyond.

“They call it Pass Iffick,” Gerta pronounces the words with a wavering carefulness. “They say the water tastes of salt.”

“An ocean.” My fork chases the last bits of buttery cake around the delicate china plate. “I learned about oceans in school, and there is a whole wing of the Spectra Museum dedicated to their study.”

“No!” she bleats. “It’s true?”

I nod. “Man has explored the deeps, but not the greatest depths.”

“Pshaw!” Gerta waves a hoof in disbelief. “Next you will be telling me Man has been to the heavens.”

“And beyond.”

She props a foreleg on the table, leans her chin on her hoof. “What wonders you must see, living in the city.”

I smile. “But there they do not believe the wonders I see here.”

“But so many of them have visited the forest! Surely they have told others?”

I clear away the dishes, pour Gerta another cup of blackberry tea, and stir in a generous dollop of honey. “Professor Shinnegal—does he often bring people from the city?”

Gerta sips the tea and does not quickly reply. “He seeks people who aren’t there. He gives them maps, but each must choose to follow. Your map brought you here.” Her warm brown eyes study me. “But you do not have to stay.”

“Why do people return to the city?”

“Some find the quiet too frightening, too humbling. They cannot connect with themselves. They choose separateness. Some go mad.” When she shakes her head, her ears flop.

They cannot accept what they know to be true, so they go mad trying to say it isn’t. I know that kind of insanity.

“They must be about business that eats their time but never their discontent. Who can be happy thus?” Gerta bleats a sudden laugh. “Listen to me! I am a goat. All my kids are grown, so I pour my words into any willing ear.”

“Jaysha!” Bertrand bursts into the kitchen, and Liam ducks his head through the door. Twigs and leaves populate the dwarf’s red hair. A fiery weal marks his cheek. “Men with strange weapons set upon us near the clearing. They wore this.”

He hands me a sleeve made of silver-bronze fabric, thin but strong, its colors changing until it echoes the kitchen and my palm. Only the patch near the shoulder remains distinct: three twined circles encasing the portent-filled initials that mark my father’s company—D.I.E.

“We ran around a bit to lose ‘em”—Bertand is still catching his breath—“and met up again by the bridge over the brook.”

“They are looking for you, Jaysha,” Liam whinnies low. A bloody cut streaks along his powerful neck and down his chest. “Do you want to be found?”

No. I do not. Yet I cannot bring trouble to this house. “Lead me to the clearing.”

Liam gently noses the bandage still wrapping my head. “I will carry you.”

We bear as our only weapons Bertrand’s blunted pitchfork, my flute, and Gerta’s nutcakes.

All sign of my wrecked craft is gone. The clearing is empty but for a flutter of white. Bertrand kicks aside the rock that anchors it then stabs at it with the pitchfork and lifts a piece of synthetic paper, folded into a square, addressed to me.

Even as I open the letter, the tall woman encased in a rosy glow steps from the trees, followed by Sam and a handful of ordinary folk clothed in garments the colors of the forest. Behind them emerges a small herd of unicorns, a winged horse, two griffins, and a clan of dwarves aswarm with Professor Shinnegal’s neighbors, the flitter-witted fairies.

The rose woman approaches. “Jaysha Don’Ayghel, do you wish to remain?”

Looking past her, I see Sam’s somber face. He does not help me—no nod of the head, no quirk of the brows—but I see in his eyes a guardedness, as if he wants to say something but is afraid. Afraid of what?

I look down at the letter. My father’s strong handwriting commands me return to Spectra for proper care. Mother worries. Doctors think I may have done permanent harm this time.

“Sam?”

After a small hesitation, he steps nearer.

“Have I been here before?”

He seems relieved, his shoulders easing a little. “Almost. You crashed on the edge of the city last year. The story was that you were ill and lost control of your craft.”

“But that’s not true.”

He shakes his head.

I touch my forehead. “This purple patch. It’s smaller every time Gerta changes the bandage.”

“Because you’re healing, dear,” she assures me, but Sam replies, “It’s the replacement fluid that keeps the biologic alloys healthy. It’s like blood, produced by the living metals we used to reconstruct the bones crushed in the accident.”

“The metals heal themselves?”

“Just like human tissue.”

Disconnected images flicker through my mind, as halting as the earliest black-and-white moving pictures stored in the museum’s vault. I remember. My father has a research contract with the Spectra Judiciary. About making more human-like police bots. And repairing the human officers injured in the line of duty. I remember the crash.

Liam shifts his hooves. I lean forward to rest my head against his neck. His mane tickles my cheek. I struggle to keep my eyes open.

“Jaysha?’ Panic salts Sam’s voice. He shakes my shoulder.

“I was at the museum, studying. Student intern with Professor Shinnegal. Curator’s assistant.”

Sam nods. “And your field?”

“Ancient cultures. Customs, religions, mythologies.”

“Aye, ye did.” Bertrand gestures with his pitchfork. “He said ye knew more than the so-called scholars.”

Sam’s callused hand cradles my face. “Stay with me, Jaysha. Stay awake. After the museum closed one evening, you went to the research center. At your father’s company. What happened there?”

“Dissecting. Centaurs.”

“Went a little crazy, remember?”

I nod my head against Liam’s coarse hide. He is warm, and smells dusty.

I remember the impossibility of what I saw—a storybook creature, cut open, spread gruesomely on a sterile table—and how poised my father seemed, telling me to be calm, to go home. It was just an experiment, a half-man, half-horse clone rendered from genetic material gathered from the museum and an old DNA databank. It was nothing but a test of the process by which biologic alloys could be put to a variety of uses—not just the production of new human body parts or even new species, but also the generation of a constant energy source.

Just imagine, he said, if energy and tissue could perpetually reproduce itself!

Then he put guards at my apartment—just in case I experienced another “episode”—and sent them with me to the university and the museum. My friends were forbidden to be alone with me. I lost them or Father paid them off, I am not sure which. Then the university expelled me for cheating—an unsupported claim—which meant the museum would no longer employ me. Working at the Hotel Aspyrion was bland, routine, numbing. Soon even Father’s guards were gone. I was alone.

That’s when the selves arrived, one by one, haunting me. Yes, I remember going mad, and I remember the moment sanity returned. I tried to escape to the only place where being forgotten was my own decision.

“Jaysha,” the rose woman asks once more, “do you wish to remain?”

Yes.

“Jaysha!”

All these people saying my name—

I hear gasps, hear the hard pound of boots and the distinct click of weapons ready to fire. I raise my head. The woodland creatures huddle around Liam and face outward.

My father strides across the clearing. He wears a pristine grey suit: collarless, double-breasted, fastened with jewel-like buttons, and tailored to his trim form. Flanking him is a quartet of men in medical smocks, masks over their mouths and noses. They carry small white boxes. Behind them, two other men carry a stretcher with long white straps that buckle together in the middle.

They bring unwanted guests. My abandoned selves rush toward me.

Professor Shinnegal steps in front of them—and everyone stops. Every one.

His arm fully extended upward—he is much shorter than my father—he waggles the tree carving before my father’s face. “Recognize this, Mr. Don’Ayghel?”

Father swats the figure aside.

“It sat on Jaysha’s desk in the Spectra Museum. Before you took it away and accused her of delusions when she went looking for it. Remember?”

Again, Father pushes it away, annoyance on his aristocratic face. “Jaysha, who is this little man?”

Sam lifts me from Liam’s back then steadies me with an arm around my shoulders.

I ask, “Are you not even a little surprised, Father, to see so many fantastical beings gathered in one place? And alive?”

He looks around, smiling. “What beings?”

His men chuckle, even the ones in the chameleon armor, their positions betrayed by their boots, goggles, and weapons that remain black though their bodies reflect the colors of the woodlanders.

He reaches out a hand as if to summon me to him. “It’s the new injury, coming so soon after the last accident.”

“Then why the guns, Father? Am I dangerous? Is the professor’s carving a bomb? Is Sam a human weapon? What about this?” I draw the flute from where it hangs inside my shirt.

Bertrand rumbles dryly, “Nay, lass, it’s Gerta’s nutcakes. They make fine rocks to hurl at men’s heads.”

The woodlanders laugh, and Father’s troops tense.

“Why are you here, Father?”

He frowns at me as if at an idiot. “You are living proof that biologic alloys work.”

I had hoped he might say something else—I miss you, or I love you—but that is the mad fancy. That is the dream.

He flicks a hand, and the men in smocks move forward.

Sam tightens his arm around me.

Like large gnats, the fairies are a parti-colored swarm, surrounding the doctors, pestering the guards; little bloody bites appear on the men’s necks, faces, and hands. My father disappears behind a pastel cloud.

Sam lifts me onto Liam’s back once more, then turns Gerta toward the forest and gives her a push. “The trees!”

Guns fire, animals scream. A unicorn, bleeding along his flank, skewers one man’s hand—then, with his iridescent horn, flicks the guard’s fallen weapon into the undergrowth. A winged horse soars above the clearing and intercepts an approaching troop carrier, his rear hooves cracking the shields. Centaurs and satyrs run to meet another small carrier landing on the perimeter of the clearing. They attack before the troops can exit the craft, but bows and arrows are little use against body armor and superior weapons.

Hot bursts of gunfire whine overhead and around us, but Liam does not waver from his stand behind a thicket. Gerta stamps her hooves and mutters. I am helpless, and I hate it.

Then I remember the elephant flute. Its imprint, stark white and bright red, is pressed into my palm. I know the frequencies may not mesh, but I tap the bone behind my right ear, turning on my crano-aural transceiver then putting the flute to my lips.

I play the melodies Sam taught me, bright airs and melancholy ballads, all my breath behind them until the volume inside my head pounds against my skull, pulses behind the wound. Still I play. The flute feels warm, alive to my touch.

The mercenaries falter. Their weapons tip downward. They clutch their heads, fall to their knees, pound frantically at their transceivers. It is enough to give the woodlanders the advantage, and they take it. In moments the troops are disarmed or dead, the medical men bound and shunted aside.

My selves disintegrate and disappear.

Suit torn and bloody, Father stands swaying in the center of the clearing while Sam binds his arms behind his back.

I lower the flute, turn off my transceiver, touch Liam’s neck. His great head nods once, and we emerge from the thicket. My head aches and I struggle to keep my spine straight, my chin up. Liam halts before Father, who glares up at me with a look of mingled hatred and despair.

“I died, didn’t I?” Truth jolts through me—memories of bright lights, constant pain, voices blurred past understanding. “I was dead, and you used me as an experiment.”

He looks away.

“How much of me is real?”

My father sneers. “Ask Sam.”

Sam steps forward. “Jaysha—“

Tears sting my eyes. “Why?”

“I thought I was doing good.” The corners of Sam’s eyes glitter. “You woke up. You didn’t remember. I thought you were fine.” He runs a hand through his hair. “But you kept wandering toward the Hinterland, and we kept bringing you back. Mr. Don’Ayghel had us reset your memory—had us insert new alloy—but you seemed to fracture a little more each time. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Reaching up, he takes my hand. “Forgive me?”

I withdraw from his clasp. “Liam, take me home.”


* * *


Rain drips from the eaves and splashes the window box outside my window. Washed clean, blooms glow bright against the grey sky.

I curl on my bed, wrapped in one of Elsa’s knitted shawls. The elf brought dinner, but it grows cold on its tray. A letter lies on the floor, slipped under the door by Sam. He said nothing, but I knew his footsteps on the stairs. Know he still waits outside the door.

In spite of the weather, Bertrand and Liam work the garden. I hear them passing back and forth along the rows, turning soft earth over the seeds of a mid-spring crop. Bertrand keeps a merry commentary. Liam ventures an occasional song. Below, in the kitchen, Gerta and Elsa speak in low voices, and the door to the professor’s study shuts with a discreet snick.

A tightness unravels in my chest, and I close my eyes against the tears.


* * *


It is night, but I know my way in the dark.

I remove the family pictures and shove them in the back of the bottom-most drawer, beneath the extra blankets folded there. Then I find the paper I brought from the city, and the pens and pencils, and light a candle.

Sitting at the window, a book for a desk, I fill page after page—and, in the writing, reconcile what I know with what I believe. Reconcile what I can no longer have with what I truly want.

As morning tints the sky, I set the pages aside and stretch, pulling out the past, reaching for the future.

Sam’s letter still waits on the floor.

I snuff the candle and, pulling the shawl close against the chill, put bare feet to the wooden floor. Elsewhere in the house, a board creaks. I pick up the letter.


Jaysha, I came to the Hinterland for two reasons. First, I was curious why you kept striving to reach it, even after your father thought we had successfully altered your desires enough to make you stay in Spectra and live a normal life. Second, I was running from my conscience.

I might not have come but for the Professor. One day in the museum, as I gathered courage to leave everything behind—my career, my comforts—and go off into a mysterious, possibly dangerous place, I stood looking at one of those faded old tapestries from a couple millennia ago, the one with people hunting mythical creatures in the forest, and wondered how I could pass the Civilization Loss Prevention Units without being caught.

Professor Shinnegal said he was collecting people who were not there. Then he handed me a map and a packet of granules he said were vegetable seeds. He said I looked like a farmer.

He’s brought you to the Hinterland at last; I do not think he will go searching for other lost people. He was afraid—as was I—that the experiments would steal your soul as well as your mind. They very nearly stole mine.

I will not ask your forgiveness again, Jaysha, but I hope you live a life that is your own. Whether you stay in the Hinterland or return to the city, find your purpose. Laugh often. Be at peace.

Sam


Something whispers against the door, and a shadow shifts.

Pushing away tears with the heel of my hand, I lift the latch and open the door. Sam looks up from his pallet of quilts across the entryway. His hair is mussed, his clothes rumpled. He blinks against the growing light. Propping himself up on his elbows, he studies me for a long silence.

I place the letter on his chest, holding it there with the flat of my palm.

He covers my hand with his.


* * *


After the skirmish in the clearing, David Don’Ayghel’s men—those who survived or had not wandered glassy-eyed and incoherent into the Hinterland—were escorted to the very edge of Spectra City. One of them carried a letter addressed to Mrs. Ardith Don’Ayghel, informing her she is a widow and childless, and is now the sole heir to Don’Ayghel Ionic Energy and all its subsidiaries.

Each mercenary will forever bear inside his body a tiny bit of altered biologic alloy that Professor Shinnegal harvested from me and corrupted with something malodorous concocted by the rose woman. The Hinterland remembers those who do harm. If the men return, they will never leave.

David Don’Ayghel remained imprisoned in the professor’s woodshed until his fate could be decided. Then he was taken to the vast desert waste bordering the Hinterland on the west. Five days from the forest but in sight of the northern mountains, he was given food and water, an extra pair of shoes, and one small knife. He was bound, hand and foot, but in such a way that he could free himself in an hour or two, enough for his captors to be long gone, their footprints swept away by the desert wind.

I know this, though I did not see it, because I asked he be left alive. Bertrand wanted to kill him in the clearing, in sight of the hired soldiers, as both warning and justice. More fitting, I argued, that he—like me—be forced to walk a new path.

Professor Shinnegal and I are planning to catalog all manner of life in the Hinterland—plants, animals, people. We will learn new languages, songs, and histories, and perhaps build a small museum filled with the professor’s artifacts so the woodlanders can see what life was like long ago, before Spectra City, before the Hinterland, before science attempted to destroy belief.

As for biologic alloys, they may be a worthy pursuit, but there are other scientists than Sam and other test subjects than I.

Yet I am haunted by the possibility there are other experiments like me. Should I, as Professor Shinnegal did, go searching for people who are not there?

Hot wind fans my face, and kicks up a curtain of dust. I wait, just inside the shelter of the trees, straining my eyes to see the sojourners return.

Images move against the billowed sand. I have seen them before, mirages and shadows, but now they emerge into recognizable shapes: Liam dragging supplies on a light sled, Bertrand’s squat form, the centaur Sylvio with a coil of rope slung on his shoulder, Professor Shinnegal in a floppy hat—and a figure with a certain swing to his arms, a cant to his walk, that can only be Sam.

I fill wooden mugs with fresh water, set out a bowl of berries picked this morning, and go out to meet them.






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