Table of Contents:
1 – “Digits are Cold, Numbers are Warm” by Liviu Radu (Romania)
2 – “Aliens” by Lavie Tidhar (Israel)
3 – “Space Oddity” by Regina Catarino (Portugal)
4 – “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn” by Aliette de Bodard (France)
5 – “The Collors of Creation” by Judit Lörinczy (Hungary)
Link: [to be posted as soon as possible]
6 – “Dad Bought a Teleport Device” by Attila Sümegi (Hungary)
Link: [to be posted as soon as possible]
Dad Bought a Teleport Device
Frank stood at the HomeTech companies Easyport 2100 teleport device wearing a palm patterned short, a T-shirt, a flip flop and a straw. He was thinking. Should he put the sunglasses on before entering the glowing gate? His wife’s crying from the bedroom had stopped; probably Ann had taken all the tranquilizer capsules and was now lying in bed with a pair of hung up eyes, and, most probably, the sheet was sucking her saliva.
He turned back to say goodbye but the children still stood next to the lamp stiffly, stock-still, like the furniture around them. Even their eyes had not move for two days. But when Ann gave them food, their reflexes worked and they swallowed it. Of course, it was the teleport device’s fault, as everything else in the last few days.
It had started two months ago. Frank carried home the box under his arm, containing the Easyport 2100, and of course, Ann started to row immediately: what was it for? Surely it was not tested properly… it was dangerous to the children and so on Frank asserted in vain that nobody should set back the progress because this is the future and soon nobody will use vehicles.
He was right. At first, they implemented teleports only in the main squares and shopping quarters of the town, but the number of receiving stations increased from week to week. Ann did not let the children use the device to teleport to school, but the boys made hissy more and more due to their classmate’s laughs. Their colleagues were mocking them because they still went to school by bus and that is never a good thing for the children.
Frank was already familiar with that new world. At the company where he worked they linked the production lines installed in different countries with teleport devices half a year ago in order to save transport time and cost. This led to the rioting: the police fought every day with the strikers of the forwarder companies and transportation corporations.
This is the future! Frank smiled every morning when saying goodbye to his children standing front of the teleport device.
He also used the teleport more and more times, even though is job did not required him to do so.
He dreamed the first time when he tried the machine (right after its assembly) and he teleported himself to the shopping quarter to buy some beer for the England-Hungary match. That was the first football match where not only the players but the ball arrived to the pitch by teleport device.
According to the scientist and the user’s manual the teleportation passes off unnoticed, the subject feels nothing, especially dreams nothing. The machine takes apart every atoms of the body, saves the information from every particle and forwards them to the receiving station where the subject can build up particle by particle, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, and cell by cell.
There is no place for dreams.
However, Frank dreamed at the first time. He was singing in the stadium with the other fans. It was just a picture, a sharp, colourful picture. But it was filled with life.
Then the more he teleported the more he dreamed.
Longer and longer dreams as the time between departure and receiving station increased because more and more people entered their machines simultaneously. They became information from material jostling inside the optical cables.
Frank sighed, set the receiving station: shopping quarter. A couple of days before Christmas the size of the crowd were unbearable. Human stream flowed among the shops, faces wept dollop, and sweat bodies that stepped from the gates of the teleport machines.
This time the awaiting is the longest.
Frank did not want to buy a present. He looked again the staring children. He understood them. They did not see the room, their imagination was flying in another world, somewhere in the highway of information between two teleport devices. They would have not been happy by a new toy nor a new cloth or any other thing.. They hardly spoke for weeks and they did not smiled at all.
Neither did Frank. Slowly the colours faded out from his life. He did his job apathetically, without even thinking of it. When he gave a kiss to Ann, he felt cold skin within his mouth. When he caressed the children, he felt plastic hair with his palm. The food lost the taste, smell. Whenever it rained, he always felt the same. As if it would have been sunny: like a piece of stone. From night to night his dreams paled and finally ceased and then he felt it every morning! Like if he was waking up in a coffin.
Meanwhile, during the longer teleportation he saw more, graphic fantasies. No, it wasn´t dreams any more. They were more than fantasies, because the dreams were connected each other as the parts of a soap opera. They created a continuous story with Ann and the children. They lived together, happily, colourful, smelly, filled with desire, pleasure and fear.
Frank took his backpack, which contained a ball, because he promised the children that he would teach them the football tennis in the beach. How good it will be! Last time the dream ended when they arrived to the beach and Frank was not sure if he had put the ball into the backpack.
He entered the device. His heart was beating excitedly. He sighed and pushed the button. He did not care about his wife who lied in the bed, dazed by the tranquilizers, and he did not care about his unmoved, vegetated children, because he was hearing the roaming of the sea, the ringing laugh, the soft voice of Ann, who was asking him to be nice and smear her back with sun oil. The ball popped in the hot sand, rolling, rolling.
Frank never arrived to the shopping quarter.
About the Author:
Attila Sümegi was born on the 7th of January 1978 in Budapest, Hungary. In 2007 he joined a group of professional and amateur writers called Írókör to develop his skills. First published short-story was „Home Straight” (Célegyenes) in 2008.
His first novel, an urban fantasy story entitled „Gate of Irkalla” (Irkalla kapuja) is waiting for publishing.
Some of his short-stories are:
„Home Straight” (Célegyenes, 2008), “Prey” (Zsákmány, 2009), “Animus” (2009), “System error” (Rendszerhiba, 2012), “Dad bought a teleport device” (Apa teleportáló gépet vett, 2011), “Lightless routes” (Fénytelen járatok, 2011), “Graves” (Halmok, 2011, fantasy).
The colors of Creation
Translated by Ágnes Körmendi and Judit Lőrinczy
Our eyes were created to be like God’s and God said, ‘Let the light come from your eyes, let it shine upon the world, let it dye the grass Green, the sea Blue, let the colors calm your senses. Shine, with Red light upon the blood as a warning, and also upon the twilight sky, to show when my Eye, the Sun, falls under the horizon of my lid.’
Our eyes opened and the world was filled with colors. Let the leaves be green, and they became Green, let the sand be yellow, and it became Yellow. Our skin was sweet Brown on sheets of Lilac and Purple.
We named the world with colors and gained knowledge of everything, and God shone upon us with His Lightning Eye, that it was good.
‘These are all God’s colors. What are yours?’ asked the Voice and it scared us. Our light could not see its source.
Yet the challenge had to be answered.
‘Green! Blue! Red! Their sweet children Yellow, Lilac…’
‘Sea is not blue, grass is not green,’ replied the Voice. ‘You are not only brown, either.’
‘The sea is Blue, the grass is Green!’ echoed our choir.
‘What is my color?’ asked the Voice.
We cast our light on it and said:
‘You are Blue.’
‘My light shows Yellow.’
Others said Lilac, Purple, and Brown.
The Voice shouted ‘I am all of these!’
We wondered how something other than God could have all these colors. We turned to God and asked why we only had one color. God replied ‘You all live in the White Light of my Eye.’
The Voice said ‘Blend the colors, and then you’ll have all the colors God has!’
‘God, what should we do?’
But Blue and Red had already blended, and all the complementary colors and tints and shades went with them. There was nothing left but Yellow, and that could not hold out much longer.
Then the light went out in our eyes, and the Voice named itself Black.
About the Author: [To be published as soon as possible]
Don’t miss the opportunity to read a great interview to Judit Lörinczy in the first number of the ISF Magazine, to come out this month!
ISF FOURTH SHORT STORY
14 MAY 2012
The ISF is proud to present a short story by Aliette de Bodard. “Butterfly, Falling at Dawn” is a breathtaking story, first published in Interzone and reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction. Now this beautiful story is published for free reading, available for everybody.
Editor in Chief
“BUTTERFLY, FALLING AT DAWN”
Aliette de Bodard
Originally published in Interzone 219, November 2008
Reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction, July 2009
Republished by permission of the author
Even seen from afar, the Mexica District in Fenliu was distinctive: tall, white-washed buildings clashing with the glass-and-metal architecture of the other skyscrapers. A banner featuring Huitzilpochtli, protector god of Greater Mexica, flapped in the wind as my aircar passed under the security gates. The god’s face was painted as dark as blood.
A familiar sight, even though I’d turned my back on the religion of my forefathers a lifetime ago. I sighed, and tried to focus on the case ahead. Zhu Bao, the magistrate in charge of the district, had talked me into taking on this murder investigation because he thought I would handle the situation better than him, being Mexica-born.
I wasn’t quite so sure.
The crime scene was a wide, well-lit dome room on the last floor of3454 Hummingbird avenue, with the highest ceiling I had ever seen. The floor was strewn with hologram pedestals, though the holograms were all turned off.
A helical stair led up to a mezzanine dazzlingly high, somewhere near the top of the dome. At the bottom of those stairs, an area had been cordoned off. Within lay the body of a woman, utterly naked. She was Mexica, and about thirty years old–she could have been my older sister. Morbidly fascinated, I let my eyes take in everything: the fine dust that covered the body, the yellow makeup she’d spread all over herself, the soft swell of her breasts, the unseeing eyes still staring upwards.
I looked up at the railing high above. I guessed she’d fallen down. Broken neck, probably–though I’d have to wait for the lab people to be sure.
A militia man in silk robes was standing guard near one of the hologram pedestals. “I’m Private Li Fai, m’am. I was the first man on the scene,” he said, saluting as I approached. I couldn’t help scrutinising him for signs of contempt. As the only Mexica-born magistrate in the Xuyan administration, I’d had my fair share of racism to deal with. But Li Fai appeared sincere, utterly unconcerned by the colour of my skin.
“I’m Magistrate Hue Ma of Yellow Dragon Falls District,” I said, giving him my Xuyan name and title with scarcely a pause. “Magistrate Zhu Bao has transferred the case over to me. When did you get here?”
He shrugged. “We got a call near the Fourth Bi-Hour. A man named Tecolli, who said his lover had fallen down to her death.”
I almost told him he was pronouncing “Tecolli” wrong, that a Mexica wouldn’t have put the accent that way–and then I realised this was pointless. I was there as a Xuyan magistrate, not a Mexica refugee–those days were over, long passed. “They told me it was a crime, but this looks like an accident.”
Li Fai shook his head. “There are markings on the railing above, m’am, and her nails are all ragged and bloody. Looks like she struggled, and hard.”
“I see.” It looked I wasn’t going to get out of this so easily.
I wasn’t trying to shirk my job. But any contacts with Mexica made me uneasy–reminded me of my childhood in Greater Mexica, cut short by the Civil War. Had Zhu Bao not insisted…
No. I was a magistrate. I had a job to do, a murderer to catch.
“Where is this–Tecolli?” I asked, finally.
“We’re holding him,” Li Fai said. “You want to talk to him?”
I shook my head. “Not right now.” I pointed to the landing high above. “Have you been there?”
He nodded. “There’s a bedroom, and a workshop. She was a hologram designer.”
Holograms were the latest craze in Xuya. Like all works of art, they were expensive: one of them, with the artist’s electronic signature, would be worth more than my annual stipend. “What was her name?”
“Papalotl,” Li Fai said.
Papalotl. Butterfly, in Nahuatl. A graceful name given to beautiful Mexica girls. There had been one of them in my school, back inTenochtitlan, before the Civil War.
The Civil War–
Abruptly, I was twelve again, jammed in the aircar against my brother Cuauhtemoc, hearing the sound of gunfire splitting the window–
No. No. I wasn’t a child any more. I’d made my life in Xuya, passed the administrative exams and risen to magistrate–the only Mexica-born to do so in Fenliu.
“M’am?” Li Fai asked, staring at me.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ll just have a look around, and then we’ll see about Tecolli.”
I moved towards the nearest hologram pedestal. A plaque showed its title: the Journey. It was engraved in Nahuatl, in English and in Xuyan, the three languages of our continent. I turned it on, and watched a cone of white light widen from the pedestal to the ceiling; a young Xuyan coalesced at its centre, wearing the grey silk robes of a eunuch.
“We did not think it would go that far,” he said, even as his image faded, replaced by thirteen junks sailing over great waves. “To the East, Si-Jian Ma said as we departedChina; to the East, until we struck land–“
I turned the hologram off. Every child on the continent knew what was coming next: the first Chinese explorers landing on the West Coast of the Lands of Dawn, the first tentative contacts with the Mexica Empire, culminating in Hernán Cortés’ aborted siege ofTenochtitlan–a siege cut short by Chinese gunpowder and cannon.
I moved to the next hologram, Spring among the Emerald Flowers: a Mexica woman recounting a doomed love story between her and a Xuyan businessman.
The other holograms were much the same: people telling their life’s story–or, rather, I suspected, the script Papalotl had written for them.
I headed for the hologram nearest the body. Its plaque read Homewards. When turned on, it displayed the image of a swan–the flag-emblem Xuya had chosen after winning its independence from the Chinese motherland two centuries ago. The bird glided, serene, on a lake bordered by weeping willows. After a while, a hummingbird, Greater Mexica’s national bird, came and hovered by the swan, its beak opening and closing as if it were speaking.
But there was no sound at all.
I turned it off, and on again, to no avail. I felt around in the pedestal, and confirmed my suspicions: the sound chip was missing. Which was not normal. All holograms came with one–an empty one if necessary, but there was always a sound chip.
I’d have to ask the lab people. Perhaps the missing chip was simply upstairs, in Papalotl’s workshop.
I moved around the remaining holograms. Four of the pedestals, those furthest away from the centre, had no chips at all–neither visu nor sound. And yet the plaques all bore titles.
The most probable explanation was that Papalotl had changed the works on display; but given the missing sound-chip, there could have been another explanation. Had the murderer touched those holograms–and if so, why?
I sighed, cast a quick glance at the room for anything else. Nothing leapt to my eyes, so I had Li Fai bring me Tecolli, Papalotl’s lover.
Tecolli stood watching me without fear–or indeed, without respect. He was a young, handsome Mexica man, but didn’t quite have the arrogance or assurance I expected.
“You know why I’m here,” I said.
Tecolli smiled. “Because the magistrate thinks I will confide in you.”
I shook my head. “I’m the magistrate,” I said. “The case has been transferred over to me.” I took out a small pad and a pen, ready to take notes during the interview.
Tecolli watched me, no doubt seeing for the first time the unobtrusive jade-coloured belt I wore over my robes. “You are not–” he started, and then changed his posture radically, moving in one fluid gesture from a slouch to a salute. “Apologies, Your Excellency. I was not paying attention.”
Something in his stance reminded me, sharply, of my lost childhood inTenochtitlan, Greater Mexica’s capital. “You are a Jaguar Knight?”
He smiled like a delighted boy. “Close,” he said, switching from Xuyan to Nahuatl. “I’m an Eagle Knight in the Fifth Black Tezcatlipoca Regiment.”
The Fifth Regiment–nicknamed “Black Tez” by the Xuyans–was the one guarding the Mexica embassy. I had not put Tecolli down as a soldier–but I could see now the slight callus under his mouth, where the turquoise lip-plug would usually chafe.
“You weren’t born here,” Tecolli said. His stance had relaxed. “Xuyan-born can’t tell us apart from commoners.”
I shook my head, trying to dislodge old, unwelcome memories–my parents’ frozen faces after I told them I’d become a magistrate in Fenliu, and that I’d change my name to a Xuyan one. “I wasn’t born in Xuya,” I said, in Xuyan. “But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.”
“No,” Tecolli said, coming back to Xuyan. There was fear in his face now. “You want to know about her.” His eyes flicked to the body, and back to me. For all his rigid stance, he looked as though he might be sick.
“Yes,” I said. “What can you tell me about this?”
“I came early this morning. Papalotl said we would have a sitting.”
“A sitting? I saw no hologram pieces with you.”
“It was not done yet,” Tecolli snapped, far too quickly for it to be the truth. “Anyway–I came and saw the security system was disengaged. I thought she was waiting for me–“
“Had she ever done this before? Disengaged the security system?”
Tecolli shrugged. “Sometimes. She was not very good at protecting herself.” His voice shook a little, but it didn’t sound like grief. Guilt?
Tecolli went on, “I came into the room, and I saw–her. As she is now.” He paused, choking on his words. “I–I could not think–I checked to see if there was anything I could do–but she was dead. So I called the militia.”
“Yes, I know. Near the Fourth Bi-Hour. A bit early to be about, isn’t it?” In this season, on the West Coast, the sun wouldn’t even have risen.
“She wanted me to be early,” Tecolli said, but did not elaborate.
“I see,” I said. “What can you tell me about the swan?”
Tecolli started. “The swan?”
I pointed to the hologram. “It has no sound chip. And several other pieces have no chips at all.”
“Oh, the swan,” Tecolli said. He was not looking at me–in fact, he was positively sweating guilt. “It is a commission. By the Fenliu Prefect’s Office. They wanted something to symbolise the ties between Greater Mexica and Xuya. I suppose she never had time to complete the audio.”
“Don’t lie to me.” I was annoyed he would play me for a fool. “What’s the matter with that swan?”
“I do not see what you are talking about,” Tecolli said.
“I think you do,” I said, but did not press my point. At least, not yet. Tecolli’s mere presence at the scene of the crime gave me the right to bring him back to the tribunal’s cells to secure his testimony–and, should I judge it necessary, to ply him with drugs or pain to make him confess. Many Xuyan magistrates would have done that. I found the practice not only abhorrent, but needless. I knew I would not get the truth out of Tecolli that way. “Do you have any idea why she’s naked?” I asked.
Tecolli said, slowly, “She liked to work that way. At least with me,” he amended. “She said it was liberating. I–” He paused, and waited for a reaction. I kept my face perfectly blank.
Tecolli went on, “It turned her on. And we both knew it.”
I was surprised at his frankness. “So it isn’t surprising.” Well, that was one mystery solved–or perhaps not. Tecolli could still be lying to me. “How did you get along with her?”
Tecolli smiled–a smile that came too easily. “As well as lovers do.”
“Lovers can kill each other,” I said.
Tecolli stared at me, horrified. “Surely you do not think–“
“I’m just trying to determine what your relationship was.”
“I loved her,” Tecolli snapped. “I would never have harmed her. Are you satisfied?”
I wasn’t. He seemed to waver between providing glib answers and avoiding my questions altogether.
“Did you know whether she had any enemies?” I asked.
“Papalotl?” Tecolli’s voice faltered. He would not look at me. “Some among our people felt she had turned away from the proper customs–she did not have an altar to the gods in her workshop, she seldom prayed or offered blood sacrifices–“
“And they hated her enough to kill?”
“No,” Tecolli said. He sounded horrified. “I do not see how anyone could have wanted to–“
“Someone did. Unless you believe it’s an accident?” I dangled the question innocently enough, but there was only one possible answer, and he knew it.
“Do not toy with me,” Tecolli said. “No one could have fallen over that railing by accident.”
“No. Indeed not.” I smiled, briefly, watching the fear creep across his face. What could he be hiding from me? If he’d committed the murder, he was a singularly fearful killer–but I had seen those too, those who would weep and profess regrets, but who still had blood on their hands. “Does she have any family?”
“Her parents died in the Civil War,” Tecolli said. “I know she came from Greater Mexica twelve years ago with her elder sister, Coaxoch, but I never met Coaxoch. Papalotl did not talk much about herself.”
No. She would not have–not to another Mexica. I knew what one did, when one turned away from Mexica customs, as Papalotl had done, as I had done. One remained silent; one did not speak for fear one would be castigated–or worse, pitied.
“I’ll bring her the news,” I said. “You’ll have to accompany the militiamen to the tribunal, to have your story checked–and some blood samples taken.”
“And then?” He was too eager–far too much for an innocent, even an aggrieved one. “I’m free?”
“For the moment–and don’t think you can leave Fenliu. I need you at hand, in case I have more questions,” I said, darkly. I would catch him soon enough–and tear the truth from him if I had to.
As he turned to leave, he straightened his turtleneck, and I saw a glint of green around his neck. Jade. A necklace of jade, made of small beads–but I knew each of those beads would be worth a month’s salary for an ordinary Xuyan worker. “They pay you well, in the army,” I said, knowing that they did not.
Startled, Tecolli reached for his neck. “That? It is not what you think. It was an inheritance from a relative.”
He said the words quickly, and his eyes flicked back and forth between me and the door.
“I see,” I said, sweetly, knowing that he was lying. And that he knew I’d caught him. Good. Let him stew a bit; perhaps that would make him more co-operative.
After Tecolli had left, I gave orders to Li Fai to trail him, and to report to me through the militia radio channel. Our young lover had looked in a hurry, and I was curious to know why.
Back at the tribunal, I had a brief discussion with Doctor Li: the lab people had examined the body, and they had come up with nothing significant. They confirmed that Papalotl had been thrown over the railing, plummeting from the high-perched mezzanine to her death.
“It’s a crime of passion,” Doctor Li said, darkly.
“What makes you say that?”
“Whoever did this pushed her over the railing, and she clung to it as she fell–we analysed the marks on the wood. And then the murderer kept on tearing at her until she let go. From the disorderly pattern of wounds on her hands, it’s obvious that the perpetrator was not thinking clearly–nor being very efficient.”
Passion. A lover’s passion, perhaps? A lover who seemed to have rather too much money for his pay–I wondered where Tecolli had earned it, and how.
The lab people had not found the missing audio chip either, which confirmed to me that the swan was important–but I did not know in what way.
“What about fingerprints?” I asked.
“We didn’t find any,” Doctor Li said. “Not even hers. The railing was obviously wiped clean by the perpetrator.”
Damn. The murderer had been thorough.
After that conversation, I made a brief stop by my office. There I lit a stick of incense over my small altar, pausing for a brief, perfunctory prayer to Guan Yin, Goddess of Compassion. Then I turned on my computer. Like almost every computer in the city ofFenliu, it had been manufactured in Greater Mexica, and the screen lit up with a stylised butterfly–symbol of Queztalcoatl, the Mexica god of knowledge and computers.
This never failed to send a twinge of guilt through me, usually because it reminded me I should call my parents–a thing I hadn’t never had the courage to do since becoming a magistrate. This time, though, the image that I could not banish from my mind was Papalotl, stark naked, falling in slow motion over the railing.
I shook my head. It was not a time for morbid imaginings. I had work to do.
In my mail-box, I found the preliminary reports of the militia, who had questioned the neighbours.
I scanned the reports, briefly. Most of the neighbours had not approved of Papalotl’s promiscuous attitude; apparently, Tecolli had only been the last in a series of men she brought home.
One thing Tecolli had not seen fit to mention to me was that he had quarrelled violently with Papalotl on the previous evening–shouts loud enough to be heard from the other flats. One neighbour had seen Tecolli leave, and Papalotl slam the door in his face.
So she had still been alive at that time.
I’d ask Tecolli about the quarrel. Later, though. I needed more evidence if I wanted to spring a trap, and so far I had little to go on.
In the meantime, I asked one of the clerks at the tribunal to look up the address of Papalotl’s sister. I busied myself with administrative matters while he searched in the directory, and soon had my answer.
Papalotl had had only one sister, and no other living relative. Coaxoch lived on23 Izcopan Square, just a few streets away from her younger sibling, on the edge of the Mexica District–my next destination.
The address turned out to be a Mexica restaurant: “The Quetzal’s Rest”. I parked my aircar a few streets away, and walked the rest of the way, mingling with the crowd on the sidewalks–elbowing Mexica businessmen in embroidered cotton suits, and women with yellow makeup and black-painted teeth, who wore knee-length skirts and swayed alluringly as they walked.
The restaurant’s facade was painted with a life-sized Mexica woman in a skirt and matching blouse, standing before an electric stove. Over the woman crouched Chantico, Goddess of the Hearth, wearing her crown of maguey cactus thorns and her heavy bracelets of carnelian and amber.
The restaurant itself had two parts: a small shack which churned out food to the aircars of busy men, and a larger room for those who had more time.
I headed for the last of those, wondering where I would find Coaxoch. The room was not unlike a Xuyan restaurant: sitting mats around low circular tables, and on the tables an electric brazier which kept the food warm–in this case maize flatbreads, the staple of Mexica food. The air had that familiar smell of fried oil and spices which always hung in my mother’s kitchen.
There were many customers, even though it was barely the Sixth Bi-Hour. Most of them were Mexica, but I caught a glimpse of Xuyans–and even of a paler face under red hair, which could only belong to an Irish-American.
I stopped the first waitress I could find, and asked, in Nahuatl, about Coaxoch.
“Our owner? She’s upstairs, doing the accounts.” The waitress was carrying bowls with various sauces, and it was clear that she had little time to chat with strangers.
“I need to see her,” I said.
The waitress looked me up and down, frowning–trying, no doubt, to piece the Mexica face with the Xuyan robes of state. “Not for good news, I’d wager. It’s the door on the left.”
I found Coaxoch in a small office, entering numbers onto a computer. Next to her, a tall, lugubrious Mexica man with spectacles was checking printed sheets. “Looks like the accounts don’t tally, Coaxoch.”
“Curses.” Coaxoch raised her head. She looked so much like her younger sister that I thought at first they might be twins; but then I saw the small differences: the slightly larger eyes, the fuller lips, and the rounder cheeks.
Coaxoch saw me standing in the doorway, and froze. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I–” Staring at her eyes, I found myself taken aback. “My name is Hue Ma. I’m the magistrate for theYellowDragonFallsdistrict. Your sister is dead. I came to inform you, and to ask some questions.” I looked at her companion. “Would you mind leaving us alone?”
The man looked at Coaxoch, who had slumped on her desk, her face haggard. “Coaxoch?”
“I’ll be all right, Mahuizoh. Can you please go out?”
Mahuizoh threw me a worried glance, and went out, gently closing the door after him.
“So she is dead,” Coaxoch said, after a while, staring at her hands. “How–?”
“She fell over a railing.”
She looked up at me, a disturbing shrewdness in her eyes. “Fell? Or was pushed?”
“Was pushed,” I admitted, at last, pulling a chair to me, and sitting face-to-face with her.
“And so you have come to find out who pushed her,” Coaxoch said.
“Yes. It happened this morning, near the Fourth Bi-Hour. Where were you then?”
Coaxoch shrugged, as if it did not matter that I asked her for an alibi. “Here, sleeping. I have a room on this floor, and the restaurant does not open until the Fifth Bi-Hour. I am afraid there were no witnesses, though.”
I would check with the staff, but suspected Coaxoch was right and no one could speak for her. I said, carefully, “Do you know of any enemies she might have had?”
Coaxoch looked at her hands again. “I cannot help you.”
“She was your sister,” I said. “Don’t you want to know who killed her?”
“Want to know? Of course,” Coaxoch said. “I am not heartless. But I did not know her well enough to know her enemies. Funny, isn’t it, how far apart you can move? We came together fromTenochtitlan, each thinking the other’s thoughts–and now, twelve years later, I hardly ever saw her.”
I thought, uncomfortably, of the last time I’d talked to my parents–of the last time I’d spoken Nahuatl to anyone outside of my job. One, two years ago?
I couldn’t. Whenever I visited my parents, I’d see the same thing: the small, dingy flat with the remnants of their lives in Greater Mexica, with photographs of executed friends like so many funeral shrines. I’d smell again the odour of charred flesh in the streets of Tenochtitlan, see my friend Yaotl fall with a bullet in his chest, crying out my name, and I unable to do anything but scream for help that would never come.
Coaxoch was staring at me. I tore myself from my memories, and said, “You knew about Papalotl’s lovers.” I couldn’t pin Coaxoch down. One moment she seemed remote, heartless, and the next her voice would crack, and her words come as if with great difficulty.
“She was notorious for them,” Coaxoch said. “It was my fault, all of this. I should have seen her more often. I should have asked–“
I said nothing. I had not known either of the two sisters, and my advice would have sounded false even to myself. I let Coaxoch’s voice trail off, and asked, “When did you last see her?”
“Six days ago,” Coaxoch said. “She had lunch with Mahuizoh and me.”
Mahuizoh had looked to be about Coaxoch’s age, or a little older. “Mahuizoh being–?”
“A friend of the family,” Coaxoch said, her face closed.
Something told me I could ask about Mahuizoh, but would receive no true answer. I let the matter slide for the moment, and asked, “And she did not seem upset then?”
Coaxoch shook her head. She opened the drawer of her desk, and withdrew a beautiful slender pipe of tortoiseshell, which she filled with shaking hands. As she closed the drawer, I caught a glimpse of an old-fashioned photograph: a young Mexica wearing the cloak of noblemen. It was half-buried beneath papers.
Coaxoch had lit her pipe. She inhaled, deeply; the smell of flowers and tobacco filled the small office. “No, she did not seem upset at the time. She was working on a new piece, a commission by the Prefect Office. She was very proud of it.”
“Did you see the commission?”
“No,” Coaxoch said. “I knew it was going to be a swan and a hummingbird: the symbols of Xuya and Greater Mexica. But I did not know what text or what music she would choose.”
“Does Mahuizoh know?”
“Mahuizoh?” Coaxoch started. “I do not think he would know that, but you can ask him. He was closer to Papalotl than me.”
I’d already intended to interview Mahuizoh; I added that to the list of questions I’d have to ask him. “And so she just seemed excited?”
“Yes. But I could be wrong. I had not seen her in a year, almost.” Her voice had gone emotionless again.
“Why?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.
Coaxoch shrugged. “We–drifted apart after settling in Fenliu, each of us going our own way, I suppose. Papalotl found her refuge in her holograms and in her lovers; I found mine in my restaurant.”
“Refuge from what?” I asked.
Coaxoch looked at me. “You know,” she said. “You fled the Civil War as well, did you not?”
I said, startled, “You can’t know that.”
“It is written on your face. And why else would a Mexica become a Xuyan magistrate?”
“There are other reasons,” I said, keeping my face stern.
Coaxoch shrugged. “Perhaps. I will tell you what I remember: brother turning on brother, and the streets black with blood; the warriors of the Eagle Regiments fighting one another; snipers on the roof, felling people in the marketplace; priests of Tezcatlipoca entering every house to search for loyalists–“
Every word she spoke conjured confused, dreadful images in my mind, as if the twelve-year-old who had fled over the border was still within me. “Stop,” I whispered. “Stop.”
Coaxoch smiled, bitterly. “You remember as well.”
“I’ve put it behind me,” I said, behind clenched teeth.
Coaxoch’s gaze moved up and down, taking in my Xuyan robes and jade-coloured belt. “So I see.” Her voice was deeply ironic. But her eyes, brimming with tears, belied her. She was transferring her grief into aggressiveness. “Was there anything else you wanted to know?”
I could have told her that Papalotl had died naked, waiting for her lover. But I saw no point. Either she knew about her sister’s eccentric habits, and it would come as no surprise; or she did not know everything, and I would wound her needlessly.
“No,” I said, at last. “There wasn’t anything else.”
Coaxoch said, carefully, “When will you release the body? I have to make–funeral arrangements.” And her voice broke then; she buried her face in her hands.
I waited until she looked up again. “We’ll let it into your keeping as soon as we can.”
“I see. As soon as it is presentable,” Coaxoch said with a bitter smile.
There was no answer I could give to that. “Thank you for your time,” I said, instead.
Coaxoch shrugged, but did not speak again. She’d turned back to the screen, staring at it with eyes that clearly did not see it. I wondered what memories she could be thinking of, but decided not to intrude any further.
As I exited the room, my radio beeped, signalling a private message had been transmitted to my handset. Mahuizoh was waiting outside. “I’d like to have a word with you in a minute,” I said, lifting the handset out of my belt.
He nodded. “I’ll be with Coaxoch.”
In the corridor, I moved to a quiet corner to listen to the message. The frescoes on the walls were of gods: the Protector Huitzilpochtli with his face painted blue and his belt of obsidian knives; Tezcatlipoca, God of War and Fate, standing against a background of burning skyscrapers, and stroking the jaguar by his side.
They made me feel uncomfortable, reminding me of what I’d left behind. Clearly Coaxoch had held to the old ways–perhaps clinging too much to them, as she herself had admitted.
The message came from Unit 6 of the militia: after leaving the tribunal, Tecolli had gone to the Black Tez Barracks. The militia, of course, had had to stop there, for the Barracks were Mexica territory. But they had posted a watch on a nearby rooftop, and had seen Tecolli make a long, frantic phone call from the courtyard. He had then gone back to his rooms, and had not emerged.
I called Unit 6, and told them to notify me the moment Tecolli made a move.
Then I went back to Coaxoch’s office, to interview Mahuizoh.
When I came in, Mahuizoh was sitting close to Coaxoch, talking in a low voice to her. Behind the spectacles, his eyes shone with an odd kind of fervour. I wondered what he was to Coaxoch–what he had been to Papalotl.
Mahuizoh looked up, and saw me. “Your Excellency,” he said. His Xuyan was much less accented than Coaxoch’s.
“Is there a room where we could have a quiet word?” I asked.
“My office. Next door,” Mahuizoh said. Coaxoch was still staring straight ahead, her eyes glassy, her face a blank mask. “Coaxoch–“
She did not answer. One of her hands was playing with the tortoiseshell pipe, twisting and turning it until I feared she would break it.
Mahuizoh’s office was much smaller than Coaxoch’s, and papered over with huge posters of ball-game players, proudly wearing their knee and elbow-pads, soaring over the court to put the ball through the vertical steel-hoop.
Mahuizoh did not sit; he leaned against the desk, and crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you want to know?” he said.
“You work here?”
“From time to time,” Mahuizoh said. “I’m a computer programmer at Paoli Tech.”
“You’ve known Coaxoch long?”
Mahuizoh shrugged. “I met her and Papalotl when they came here, twelve years ago. My capulli clan helped them settle into the district. They were so young, back then,” he said, blithely unaware that he wasn’t much older than Coaxoch. “So…different.”
“How so?” I asked, at last.
“Like frightened birds flushed out of the forest,” Mahuizoh said.
“The War does that to you,” I said, falling back on platitudes. But part of me, the terrified child that had fledTenochtitlan, knew that those weren’t platitudes at all, but the only way to transcribe the unspeakable past into words.
“I suppose,” Mahuizoh said. “I was born in Fenliu, so I wouldn’t know that.”
“They lost both their parents in the War?”
“Their parents were loyal to the old administration–the one that lost the Civil War,” Mahuizoh said. “The priests of Tezcatlipoca found them one night, and killed them before Papalotl’s eyes. She never recovered from that.” His voice shook. “And now–“
I did not say the words he would have me say, all too aware of his grief. “You knew Papalotl well.”
Mahuizoh shrugged again. “No more or no less than Coaxoch.” I saw the faint flicker of his eyes. Liar.
“She had lovers,” I said, carefully probing at a sore space.
“She was always–more promiscuous than Coaxoch,” Mahuizoh said.
“Who has no fiancé?”
“Coaxoch had a fiancé. Izel was a nobleman in the old administration ofTenochtitlan. He was the one who bargained for Papalotl’s and Coaxoch’s release from jail, after the priests killed their parents. But he’s dead now,” Mahuizoh said.
“He’s the man whose picture is in her drawer?”
Mahuizoh started. “You’ve seen that? Yes, that’s him. She’s never got over him. She still makes funeral offerings even though he’s beyond all that nonsense. I hoped that with time she would forget, but she never did.”
“How did Izel die?”
“A party of rebel warriors started chasing their aircar a few measures away from the border. Izel told Coaxoch to drive on, and then he leapt out with his gun out. He managed to stop the warriors’ aircar, but they caught him. And executed him.”
“A hero’s death,” I said.
Mahuizoh smiled without joy. “And a hero’s life. Yes. I can certainly see why Coaxoch wouldn’t forget him in a hurry.” His voice was bitter, and I thought I knew why: he had hoped to gain a place in Coaxoch’s heart, but had always found a dead man standing before him.
“Tell me about Papalotl,” I said.
“Papalotl–could be difficult,” Mahuizoh said. “She was wilful, and independent, and she left the clan to focus on her art, abandoning our customs.”
“And you disapproved?”
His face twisted. “I didn’t see what she saw. I didn’t live through a war. I didn’t have the right to judge–and neither had the clan.”
“So you loved her, in your own way.”
Mahuizoh started. “Yes,” he said. “You could say that.” But there was a deeper meaning to his words, one I could not catch.
“Do know Tecolli?”
Mahuizoh’s face darkened, and for a moment I saw murder in his eyes. “Yes. He was Papalotl’s lover.”
“You did not like him?”
“I met him once. I know his kind.”
He spat the words. “Tecolli is a parasite. He’ll take everything you have to give, and return nothing.”
“Not even love?” I asked, seemingly innocently.
“Mark my words,” Mahuizoh said, looking up at me, and all of a sudden I was not staring at the face of a frail computer programmer, but into the black-streaked one of a warrior. “He’ll suck everything out of you, drink your blood and feast on your pain, and when he leaves there’ll be nothing left but a dry husk. He didn’t love Papalotl; and I never understood what she saw in him.”
And in that last sentence I heard more than hatred for Tecolli.
“You were jealous,” I said. “Of both of them.”
He recoiled at my words. “No. Never.”
“Jealous enough to kill, even.”
His face had grown blank, and he said nothing. At last he looked up again, and he had grown smaller, almost penitent. “She didn’t understand,” he said. “Didn’t understand that she was wasting her time. I couldn’t make her see.”
“Where were you this morning?”
Mahuizoh smiled. “Checking alibis? I have very little to offer you. It was my day off, so I went for a walk near the Blue Crane Pagoda. And then I came here.”
“I suppose no one saw you?”
“No one that would recognise me. There were a few passers-by, but I wasn’t paying attention to them, and I doubt they were paying attention to me.”
“I see,” I said, but I could not forget his black rage–could not forget that he might have lost his calm once and for all, finding Papalotl naked in her workshop, waiting for her lover. “Thank you.”
“If you don’t need me, I’ll go back,” Mahuizoh said.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t need you. I might have further questions.”
He looked uncomfortable at that. “I’ll do my best to answer them.”
I left him, made my way through the crowded restaurant, listening to the hymns blaring out of the loudspeakers, inhaling the smell of maize and octli drink. I could not banish Coaxoch’s words from my mind:
I will tell you what I remember: brother turning on brother, and the streets black with blood…
It was a nightmare I had left behind, a long time ago. It could neither touch me nor harm me. I was Xuyan, not Mexica. I was safe, ensconced in Xuya’s bosom, worshipping the Taoist Immortals and the Buddha, and trusting the protection of the Imperial Family in Dongjing.
But the War, it seemed, never truly went away.
I came back to the tribunal in a thoughtful mood, having found no one to confirm either Mahuizoh or Coaxoch’s alibi. Since we were well into the Eighth Bi-Hour, I had a quick, belated lunch at my desk–noodle soup with coriander, and a coconut jelly as a dessert.
I checked my mails. A few reports from the militia were waiting for me. The timestamp dated them earlier than my departure for “The Quetzal’s Rest”, but they had been caught in the network of the bureaucracy and slowed down on their way to the tribunal.
Cursing against weighty administrations, I read them, not expecting much.
How wrong I was.
Unit 7 of the Mexica District Militia had interviewed the left-door neighbour of Papalotl: an old merchant who had insomnia, and who had been awake at the Third Bi-Hour. He had seen Tecolli enter Papalotl’s flat–a full half-hour before Tecolli actually called the militia.
Damn. There was still a possibility that Tecolli could have found the body earlier, but if so, why hadn’t he called the militia at once? Why had he waited so much?
Disposing of evidence, I thought, my heart beating faster and faster.
I should have arrested Tecolli. But instead I had clung to my old ideals, that torture was abhorrent and that a magistrate should find the truth, not wring out of suspects. I had been weak.
I had him watched. He had been making phone calls. It was only a matter of time before he had to make some kind of move.
I sighed. Once a mistake had been made, you might as well drain the cup to the dregs. I’d wait.
It was a frustrating process. The afternoon passed and deepened into night. I attempted some Buddhist meditations, but I could not focus on my breath properly, and after a while I gave this up as a lost cause.
When the announcement came, I was so coiled up I knocked down the handset trying to pick it up.
“Your Excellency? This is Unit 6 of the militia. Target is on the move. Repeat: target is on the move.”
I grabbed my coat, and rushed out, shouting for my aircar.
I met up with the aircar of Unit 6 in a fairly seedy neighbourhood of Fenliu: the Gardens of Felicity, once a middle-class area, had sunk back to crowded tenements and derelict buildings, sometimes abandoned halfway through their construction.
I had a brief chat with Li Fai, who was heading the militia: Tecolli had left the Black Tez Barracks and taken the mag-lev train which criss-crossed Fenliu. One of the militiamen had followed Tecolli on the mag-lev, until he alighted at the Gardens of Felicity station, making his way on foot into a small, almost unremarkable shop onLao Zi Avenue.
Both our aircars were parked at the corner ofLao Zi Avenue, about fifty paces from the shop–and Tecolli had not emerged from there.
I looked at the three militiamen, checking that they had their service weapons, and drew my own Yi Sen semi-automatic. “We’re going in,” I said, arming the weapon in one swift movement, and hearing the click as the bullet was released into the chamber.
I stood near the closed door of the shop, feeling the reassuring weight of my gun. At this late hour, the street was almost deserted, and any stray passers-by gave us a wide berth, not keen on interfering with Xuyan justice.
Li Fai was standing on tiptoe, trying to look through the window. After a while he came down, and raised three fingers. Three people, then. Or more. Li Fai had not seemed very certain.
Armed? I signed, and he shrugged.
Oh well. There came a time when you had to act.
I raised my hand, and gave the signal.
The first of the militiamen kicked open the door, yelling, “Militia!”, and rushed inside. I followed, caught between two militiamen, fighting to raise my gun amidst memories of the War, of pressing myself in a doorway as loyalists and rebels shot at each other onTenochtitlan’s marketplace…
Inside, everything was dark, save for a dimly-lit door; I caught a glimpse of several figures running through the frame.
I was about to run through the door in pursuit, but someone–Li Fai–laid a hand on my shoulder to restrain me.
I remembered then that I was a District Magistrate, and that they could not take risks with my life. It was frustrating, but I knew I had not been trained for this. I nodded to tell Li Fai I’d understood, and watched the militiamen rush through the door.
Gunshots echoed through the room. The first man who had entered fell, clutching his shoulder. A few more gunshots–I could not see the militiamen; they’d gone beyond the door.
A deathly silence settled over the place; I moved cautiously, stepping around the counter, and stepped through the door.
The light I had seen came from several hologram pedestals, which had their visuals on, but not their audios. On the floor were scattered chips–I almost stepped on one.
In the corner of the wood-panelled room was the body of a small, wizened Xuyan woman I did not know. Beside her was the gun she’d used. The militia’s bullet had caught her in the chest and thrown her backwards, against the wall.
Tecolli was crouching next to her, in a position of surrender. Two militia men stood guard over him.
I smiled, grimly. “You’re under arrest.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Tecolli said, attempting to pull himself upright.
“Sedition will suffice,” I said. “Resisting the militia is a serious crime.” As I said this, my gaze, roaming the room, caught one of the images on a hologram pedestal–an image that was all too familiar: a Chinese man dressed in the grey silk robes of a eunuch, gradually fading and replaced by thirteen junks on the ocean.
Things that should not have been copied, or sold elsewhere than in Papalotl’s workshop.
I remembered the missing chips in Papalotl’s pedestals, and suddenly understood where Tecolli’s wealth had come from. He had been stealing her chips, copying them and selling the copies on the black market. And Papalotl had found out–no doubt the reason for the quarrel.
But for him it was different: he was an Eagle Knight, and subject to harsher laws than commoners. For a crime such as this, he would be executed, his family disgraced. He’d had to silence Papalotl, once and for all.
He’ll suck everything out of you.
Mahuizoh could not have known the truth behind his words, back when he had spoken them to me. There was no way he could have known.
Tecolli’s eyes met mine, and must have seen the loathing I felt for him. All pretence fled from his face. “I did not kill her,” he said. “I swear to you I did not kill her.” He looked as though he might weep.
I spat, from between clenched teeth, “Take him away. We’ll deal with him at the tribunal.”
Yi Mei-Lin, one of the clerks, entered my office as I was typing the last of my preliminary report.
“How is he?” I asked.
“Still protesting his innocence. He says he found her already dead, and only used the extra half-hour to wipe off any proof that he might have tampered with the holograms–removing his fingerprints and wiping the pedestals clean.” Yi Mei-Lin had a full cardboard box in her hands, with a piece of paper covering it. “Those are his things. I thought you might want a look.”
I sighed. My eyes ached from looking at the computer. “Yes. I probably should.” I already knew that although we’d found the missing chips in the black-market shop, the swan hologram’s audio chip had been nowhere to be found. Tecolli denied taking it. Not that I was inclined to trust him currently.
“I’ll bring you some jasmine tea,” Yi Mei-Lin said, and slipped out the door.
I rifled through Tecolli’s things, absent-mindedly. The usual: wallet, keys, copper yuans–not even enough to buy tobacco. A metal lip-plug, tarnished from long contact with the skin. A packet of honey-toasted gourd seeds, still wrapped in plastic.
A wad of papers, folded over and over. I reached for it, unwound it, and stared at the letters. It was part of a script–the swan’s script, I realised, my heart beating faster. Tecolli had been the voice of the hummingbird, and Papalotl’s script was forcefully underlined and annotated in the margins, in preparation for his role.
The swan–Papalotl’s voice–merely recited a series of dates: the doomed charge of the Second Red Tezcatlipoca Regiment during Xuya’s Independence War withChina; the Tripartite War and the triumph of the Mexica-Xuyan alliance over theUnited States.
And, finally, the Mexica Civil War, twelve years ago: the Xuyan soldiers dispatched to help restore order; the thousands of Mexica fleeing their home cities and settling across the border.
The swan then fell silent, and the hummingbird appeared. It was there that Tecolli’s role started.
Tonatiuh, the Fifth Sun, has just risen, and outside my cell I hear the priests of Huitzilpochtli chanting their hymns as they prepare the altar for my sacrifice.
I know that you are beyond the border now. The Xuyans will welcome you as they have welcomed so many of our people, and you will make a new life there. I regret only that I will not be there to walk with you–.
Puzzled, I turned the pages. It was a long, poignant monologue, but it did not feel like the other audio-chips I’d heard in Papalotl’s workshop. It felt…
More real, I thought, chilled without knowing why. I scanned the bottom of the second-to-last page.
They will send this letter on to you, for although they are my enemies they are honourable men.
Weep not for me. I die a warrior’s death on the altar, and my blood will make Tonatiuh strong. But my love is and always has been yours forever, whether in this world of fading flowers or in the god’s heaven.
It was the Third Bi-Hour when I arrived at “The Quetzal’s Rest”, and the restaurant was deserted, all the patrons since long gone back to their houses.
A light was still on upstairs, in the office. Gently, I pushed the door open, and saw her standing by the window, her back to me. She wore a robe with embroidered deer, and a shawl of maguey fibres–the traditional garb of women in Greater Mexica.
“I was waiting for you,” she said, not turning around.
“I sent him away.” Coaxoch’s voice was utterly emotionless. On the desk stood the faded picture of Izel, and in front of the picture was a small bowl holding some grass–a funeral offering. “He would not have understood.”
She turned, slowly, to face me. Two streaks of black makeup ran on either side of her cheeks: the markings put on the dead’s faces before they were cremated.
Surprised, I recoiled, but she made no move towards me. Cautiously, I extended Tecolli’s crumpled paper to her. “Papalotl stole the original letter from you, didn’t she?”
Coaxoch shook her head. “I should have seen her more often, after we moved here,” she said. “I should have seen what she was turning into.” She laid both hands on the desk, as stately as an Empress. “When it went missing, I didn’t think of Papalotl. Mahuizoh thought that maybe Tecolli–“
“Mahuizoh hates Tecolli,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Coaxoch said. “I went to Papalotl, to ask her whether she’d seen it. I didn’t think.” She took a deep breath to steady herself. Her skin had gone red under the makeup. “When I came in, she opened the door to me–utterly naked, and she didn’t even offer to dress herself. She left me downstairs and headed for her workshop, to finish something, she said. I followed her.”
Her voice quavered, but she steadied it. “I saw–the letter on her table–she’d taken it. And when I asked her about it, she told me about the hologram–told me we were going to be famous when she sold this, and the Prefect’s office would put it where everyone could see it–“
I said nothing. I remained where I was, listening to her voice grow more and more intense, until every word tore at me.
“She was going to–sell my pain. To sell my memories just for a piece of fame. She was going–” Coaxoch drew a deep breath. “I told her to stop. I told her it was not right, but she stood on the landing, shaking her head and smiling at me–as if she just had to ask for everything to be made right–
“She didn’t understand. She just didn’t understand. She’d changed too much.” Coaxoch stared at her hands, and then back at the picture of Izel. “I couldn’t make her shut up, you understand? I pushed and beat at her, and she wouldn’t stop smiling at me, selling my pain–“
She raised her gaze towards me, and I recognised the look in her eyes: it was the look of someone already dead, and who knows it. “I had to make her stop,” she said, her voice lower now, almost spent. “But she never did. Even after she fell she was still smiling.” There were tears in her eyes now. “Still laughing at me.”
I said at last, finding my words with difficulty, “You know how it goes.”
Coaxoch shrugged. “Do you think I care, Hue Ma? It ceased to matter a long time ago.” She cast a last, longing glance towards Izel’s picture, and straightened her shoulders. “It’s not right either, what I’ve done. Do what you have to.”
She did not bend, then, as the militia came into the room–did not bend as they closed the handcuffs over her wrists and led her away. I knew she would not bend on the day of her execution either, whatever the manner of it.
As we exited the restaurant, I caught a glimpse of Mahuizoh among the few passersby who had gathered to watch the militia aircar. His gaze met mine, and held it for a second–and there were such depths of grief behind the spectacles that my breath caught and could not be released.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Justice has to be done.” But I did not think he could hear me.
Back at the tribunal, I sat at my desk, staring at my computer’s screensaver–one of Quetzalcoatl’s butterflies, multiplying until it filled the screen. There was something mindlessly reassuring about it.
I had to deal with Tecolli–had to type a report–had to call Zhu Bao to let him know his trust had not been misplaced and that I had found the culprit. I had to–
I felt hollow, drained of everything. At last I moved, and knelt before my small altar. Slowly, with shaking hands, I lit a stick of incense and placed it upright before the lacquered tablets. Then I sat on my knees, trying to banish the memory of Coaxoch’s voice.
I thought of her words to me: it ceased to matter a long time ago.
And my own, an eternity ago: The War does that to you.
I thought of Papalotl, turning away from Mexica customs to forget her exile and the death of her parents, of what she had made of her life. I saw her her letting go of the railing, slowly falling towards the floor; and saw Coaxoch’s eyes, those of someone already dead. I thought of my turning away from my inheritance, and thought of Xuya, who had taken me in but not healed me.
Who could never heal me, no matter how far away I ran from my fears.
I closed my eyes for a brief moment, and, before I could change my mind, got up and reached for the phone. My fingers dialled a number I hadn’t called for years but still had not forgotten.
The phone rang in the emptiness. I waited, my throat dry.
“Hello? Who is this?”
My stomach felt hollow–but it wasn’t fear, it was shame. I said in Nahuatl, every word coming with great difficulty, “Mother? It’s me.”
I waited for anger, for endless reproaches. But there was nothing of that. Only her voice, on the verge of breaking, speaking the name I’d been given inTenochtitlan, “Oh, Nenetl, my child. I’m so glad.”
And though I hadn’t heard that name in years, still it felt right, in a way that nothing else could.
About the Author:
Aliette de Bodard was born in the US, but grew up in France (in the gorgeous city of Paris, to be precise). Although French is her mother tongue, her parents insisted early on that she learn to speak English.
She first discovered SF through the works of Isaac Asimov, and then moved to fantasy when she happened upon a copy of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Earthsea Quartet”, which today remains one of her favorite books in the genre. She decided to write when her family moved to London for a few years: she found a copy of Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction”, which first made her realise that she could try her hand at writing.
She studied in Paris in a classe préparatoire, a prep course for the competitive exams which would enable her to enter an engineering school. After two years of intensive classes, Aliette was admitted into Ecole Polytechnique, one of France’s top engineering schools. During her class préparatoire, she started writing regularly, which enabled her to find a distraction from science. She completed two novels during her studies.
Halfway through Ecole Polytechnique, she started writing short stories instead of novels, in order to improve faster–and went on writing those after she graduated.
In June 2006, Aliette attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, which enabled her to sharpen her skills, as well as come back with a wealth of information about the craft and the business of writing.
Her writing took off after she won the Writers of the Future contest and got picked out of Interzone‘s slushpile by the inimitable Jetse de Vries; this marked the beginning of a growing number of sales, out of which several were made to semi-professional or professional markets. She was able to join SFWA as an Active Member in 2008, and became a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2009, narrowly losing to David Anthony Durham.
Her first novel, Servant of the Underworld sold to Harper Collins imprint Angry Robot following a lucky break involving an agent, an editor and a delayed flight (see full story here at the Angry Robot website).
Servant of the Underworld is a cross between a historical Aztec fantasy and a murder-mystery, featuring ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters. For more information, see the novels webpage.
Aliette is currently working on an alt-SF thriller, Foreign Ghosts, which is set in the same universe as her Hugo and Nebula-nominated “The Jaguar House, in Shadow”.
Regina Catarino (Portugal)
The countdown begins.
I am strapped to my seat, waiting for lift-off. I wonder what you’re doing now?
A few seconds later, the brutal acceleration smashes me against my seat. How many G’s? I really don’t know.
I’m leaving without knowing very well if or how will I return. This is an old ship, repaired at the last minute for this urgent mission with isolating panels, fixed way too quick and carelessly. I would almost bet they used staples and duct tape instead of the proper titanium alloy rivets that were supposed to – that would have taken a lot more hours than those actually spent.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. My shift had already ended but the other pilot had the flu. For once, they really needed me. And I could never say no to a request for help.
Time slides silently. I hum a song which name I cannot remember while I perform routine tasks. All seems to be going well. For now, at least.
I’ve dropped the satellite in the right orbit and I’m now delivering the supplies to the Space Station. Those folks sound really anxious for whatever I’m bringing. They seemed very happy to see me arriving at the docking station.
Hmm. An alarm on the console. I was expecting that… I turn off the audio and nothing’s left but an orange light blinking sadly, in an almost frustrated manner.
Finished unloading. The space station astronauts hugged me gratefully and rushed in to open the containers. I wonder what was in it? Food? Books? Music? I have no idea. Time to go back, now.
Oh bugger, the alarm again. Now I have two lights blinking alternately, lending the cabin a shady, sleazy look, like a cheap bar in the suburbs on a big football match night. I wish I was home with you, gazing at the stars instead of flying closer to them.
A few more hours pass by. Reentry approaches and the blinking orange lights turn red.
Thinking of you makes me unaware of time. I miss you dearly.
One more hour passes. I hum the same song again, and this time I recognize it: David Bowie. Quite adequate, don’t you think?
Reentry in less than an hour. I strap myself to the seat again. From the intercom, hysterical voices disrupt the silence. I turn it off. I don’t want to listen. I know better than them what’s happening.
Through the small plexiglass window on the hatch I saw a piece of panel drifting away slowly into orbit. I knew those staples wouldn’t hold it… no duct tape can perform miracles.
We both knew one day this could happen. I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to you before take-off. I didn’t even leave a message on your voicemail. I know you don’t pay much attention to them, so… never mind.
“This is Major Tom to Ground Control… … tell my wife I love her very much… she knows”
Tonight, I won’t be in your arms gazing at the stars. But if you come out and turn your head up, you will see my last goodbye – without a kiss but full of bright light.
Tonight, I will shine like a star above you.
Born on the Far East, she moved to Portugal in 1971.
Her first SF short stories were published in 2004 (“Memória” ) and 2005 (“O guardião”, a six-hand round-robin with Ricardo Loureiro and Rogério Ribeiro) by Hyperdrivezine, edited by Ricardo Loureiro, now a good friend to whom she gives great credit for being the first to believe in her writing skills. Recently, Álvaro Holstein and Roberto Mendes have challenged her to contribute to their edition adventures: Fénix #0 (“And now for something completely different”, 2010), Jornal Conto Fantástico (with the original version of “Space Oddity”, 2010) and Vollüspa (“Vermelho”, 2012).
When asked what makes her write, she answers: “I write because it allows me to create new worlds and/or realities. Every sci-fi fan experiences a longing for the stars, the vast and unknown universe. When I write, my words carry me up there.”
She is currently part of the Fénix fanzine editing team and wishes more women in Portugal would write Sci-Fi.
“Ok, we can’t pretend laws of physics do not exist. But what seems unrealistic on today’s Earth might be normal in the far future – or in a parallel universe. There’s no limit for the imagination.”
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SECOND SHORT STORY
3 MAY 2012
The International Speculative Fiction is proud to present its second short story. After Liviu Radu from Romania, we have now to offer you a beautiful short piece of fiction by Lavie Tidhar from Israel, one of the most important authors’s when it comes to international speculative fiction.
I believe you will find this short story to really suit the spirit of ISF!
Lavie Tidhar (Israel)
When the aliens come you are watching television in a bar in a South Pacific island and it’s hot outside; it’s sweltering. There is a whole delegation of different aliens and you watch them as they meet the Chinese president inBeijing. Al-Jazeera cuts to shots of the American president looking kind of lost on his own inCamp David. A commentator says, cheerfully, that at least now the president can work on his golf swing.
The aliens are obviously of different species. One looks like a classic alien, big eyes like a cat and an elongated face and no ears and his skin is grey. Another one has tentacles. One alien is entirely enclosed in something metallic the commentator says is an exo-skeleton. You order another beer.
The aliens speak good Chinese. Al-Jazeera puts subtitles on the screen for your convenience. The aliens say they come in peace. The bartender snorts. They also want to open trade negotiations and sign a bilateral trade agreement, whatever that is. The bartender puts the beer down on a fresh mat for you and offers you a bag of peanuts without being asked. ‘Earth is no longer an island,’ the aliens say and the Chinese president nods his head until it seems it’s about to fall off. The bartender’s name’s Samuel Welegatbit, and he pours himself a fresh beer and puts it down next to yours and sits down on the other side of the bar and says, ‘That’s what the white man said when he first came here.’
You say, ‘Say what?’ and sweat and sip your beer.
‘That this was no longer an island. Then they wanted us to sign a bilateral trade agreement.’
On the screens the alien delegation is talking about technological expansion and skill-sharing rather than service-delivery strategies. You say, ‘But they could have faster-than-light travel!’
‘Alongside planet-pulverizing guns,’ the bartender says.
‘They must have learned all this from the European Union,’ Sam Welegtabit says. ‘Have another drink, it’s on the house.’
On the screen the Chinese president looks away from the camera. You take another sip of your beer. There is a silence, broken only by the waves, and then the horn of a cargo ship arriving outside the bay.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY THE AUTHORhttp://pedromarquesdg.wordpress.com/myportfolio/ About Lavie Tidhar:
Lavie Tidhar grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and has since lived in South Africa, the UK, Vanuatuand Laos. He is the author of the ground-breaking alternative history novel Osama (a BSFA Award nominee), and of the Bookman Histories trilogy of steampunk novels comprising The Bookman, Camera Obscura and The Great Game. Lavie’s other works include linked story collection HebrewPunk, novellas Cloud Permutations, Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God, An Occupation of Angels and Jesus & The Eightfold Path. He edited The Apex Book of World SFand was a World Fantasy Award nominee for his work on the World SF Blog.
FIRST SHORT STORY
2 MAY 2012
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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY THE AUTHOR
The International Speculative Fiction is proud to present “Digits are Cold, Numbers are Warm”, a short story by one of the best Romanian speculative fiction writers, Liviu Radu.
Liviu Radu has recently been distinguished with the “2012 Galileo Award for lifetime work achievment”, for the “extraordinary stories that he gave and still gives us…”
I would like to thank Liviu for his contribution to ISF, and Cristian Tamas for all his hard work promoting Romanian Speculative Fiction.
Digits are cold, numbers are warm
English translation by
Of course, they’re all saying Teddy was a good man. He was. They don’t even know how good he was, and how much it had cost him to be a good man. What an ordeal his goodness meant to me. Yet I’m really afraid those guys are only saying nice things about him because one does not say anything else in times like this…
They are all in a hurry. Nobody is really grieving. I’m trying to restrain myself, to not show the despair that is slowly, slowly getting to me. What am I going to do without Teddy? The burden will be too heavy for me to carry alone. It brought him down, the kindest and most responsible of us all. I only made it this far through his support. How am I going to cope now?
My face is twisting; I am about to cry with self-pity. However, I catch the unforgiving look of young Joshua and realise his sarcastic expression is yelling: What has got into this crone? She’d better spare us with her hysterical fits! Young people are dying, people that had the entire life before them! That decrepit husband of hers should be glad he was put out of his misery, that the Lord took pity on him and took him to the land of light! If only she would rush to follow him so that we could be rid of the old hag once and for all!
The Lord is kind; he will take pity on me and let me follow my mate. He knows I’ve earned my right to rest and He has punished me enough for what I did. Yet who will take care of these insolent young people? Who will bring them the light, who will prepare their rest?
Reverend Stillwater, who has taken over the parish, is trying to perform a decent service. Indifferent, but decent. Teddy deserved better…
Did he? My poor ruffled chaffinch! A stranger to this world yet so willing to be accepted by it! And so right for me! You know what they say, “birds of a feather flock together.” Teddy who had been made of the stuff martyrs are made, willing to sacrifice himself for the world, and the world laughed at him and spit on his sacrifice! Of course, from my point of view – which is subjective if judging it cool-headedly – Teddy would have deserved the highest honours and a funeral at Westminster Abbey… Yet my beloved husband, the late reverend Theodore Michener, Teddy Bear and Teddy-Teddy, would have backed away in horror in the face of such honours.
He knew that the good done to mankind could only be rewarded with the lack of acknowledgement. Oblivion. Silence. Ignorance.
How can one explain the greatness of his sacrifice? Such a thing can only be done by someone who was completely involved at his side. Yet the true exploits seem like such rubbish when you try to explain them, when you try to justify them. Heroism makes no sense; it is proof of imbecility. Or of overworking glands.
The tragedy of man is that he cannot be understood by his neighbours. The only one who can understand him is our sweet Lord.
What if Jesus turns out to be a stranger to my worries? What if he feels, in his divine wisdom that I was wrong?
Then it means my existence was a terrible mistake. That there is no redemption for me or for my dear, dear Teddy, that we will find each other in the eternal flames.
I’m shaking, terrified by such prospect, which I try to remove from my thoughts. Yet that Joshua bastard notices my start and whispers something to that peasant of a wife he has. God, I know these are not the people, not the only people Teddy sacrificed himself for, but had we known what fate had in store for us, would we have tried to play God?
My dear Teddy Bear! My dearest! You are now lying stiff, cold, and distant, with a bit of a frown on your face, without that gentle embarrassed smile that charmed me the moment I first saw you…
What a strange thing fate is! I first saw you at Aunt Sarah’s funeral, an old hag nobody in our family loved… There you were, a young and enthusiastic vicar talking about her as if she had been a saint. Such conviction about you that I wondered, and still am wondering now, if maybe you knew Lady Bellington better than her own family did. And now I see you for the last time in the same cemetery, among the polished marble stones, in the same monotonous murmur expressing false regrets and boredom.
That stupid Maryanne Sargent is looking terrified at the sky. It seems she has developed some sort of phobia after that Zeppelin’s visit; she is talking about aerial bombardments, about the destruction of London all the time… The others are no better than that, pretending not to take her seriously, but they are shaking in their boots. As for me, nothing scares me any longer. How could the human-made fire raining from the sky be any more terrifying than the heavenly fire that awaits me?
Teddy used to say we had no reason to fear, but how am I not to believe God has become angry with us? So much has happened to us that looks nothing like a reward…
Teddy had always hung between two worlds. He did not feel at home in this world, which he left in the end. He felt he had a job to do and did not shirk from it. The poor in the parish had good reason to be grateful. They thought he was rather naïve, rather stupid to put it bluntly, but what man takes charity without making fun of the one who gives it? There never was any gratitude, let us not delude ourselves, but they cared for him, they felt he was different from the others.
Our life was going calmly, walking the trodden paths of the dull existence full of events that could be foreseen a long time ahead, of a priest and his wife, from just another parish with no particular problems. My ruffled chaffinch was full or tenderness and understanding. Now, judging it cool-headedly, our marriage had nothing to build on. It could have successfully failed. He understandingly overlooked all my flaws, my weaknesses, the fact that I was unable to give him all that a man wanted from a woman…
Yes, Teddy was a special man, an unearthly good man. A true representative of God on Earth…
The moment Mrs. St. Matthew had been waiting for has come. She has suddenly bloomed, she feels at home. After a few words befitting the occasion about the activity of the deceased she has broken out. She describes in great detail the activity of the Association for the Redemption of the Repentant and Unrepentant Sinners. She’s got the audience interested, I must admit. Especially men are listening to her intently; you can see them trying to remember places, names, fees… Reverend Stillwater looks embarrassed. I see on his face the same signs of the struggle between the will to serve his neighbours and the disgust towards the same neighbours I had once seen on my dearest Teddy’s face in the beginning. He’d like to intervene, remind that lady that she is at a funeral, not at a meeting, yet he dares not…
Well, it was good while it lasted… Until the day Teddy sorted out the parish papers and found the journal of the priest that had come before him, Reverend Knocksmith. And the curse of the numbers along with it.
Strange story, Knocksmith’s was… He had been a priest in various places from regiments stationed in Burma and Ceylon to the Newgate prison before landing in our parish. While striving to help the sinful souls, full of remorse or vain, that were carrying out their punishment in this world, he had heard the confession of a lady, Catherine Wilson. The woman, who had been a nurse in Spalding, a town in Lincolnshire County and in Kirkby Lonsdale, in Cumbria, had taken care of elderly people between 1853 and1862. Although nobody had noticed anything unusual, people had started to assume her patients had not died of natural causes, especially after her husband’s death, Dixon. She had been tried and cleared, then arrested again, charged with other murders and eventually sentenced to death and executed.
Nurse Wilson had adamantly denied her alleged guilt. Before the execution she had opened her soul to Father Knocksmith, who, bound by his oath and, maybe, convinced of how futile revealing that confession would have been, had settled to only write down what he had been told in his diary. God damn him for such an idea, because if he hadn’t done so, Teddy would have remained the man I had known, and my life would have been completely different!
That Wilson woman did not know much about causes, only about actions. First of all, she had confessed to some of the murders, others than those she had been charged with, albeit even in those cases she regarded herself as an accomplice rather than a murderer. Her husband, Dixon, had been the murderer, she said, who had eventually killed himself in remorse. In his young days, Dixon had been a friend and disciple of an important murderer, whose crimes had been publicised by the newspapers, one Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a gentleman coming from a good family and with a good education. This man, suspected of having killed some relatives, had fled to Paris and stayed out of England between 1830 and 1837. He had then returned after getting in trouble with the French police, and had been arrested for forging some papers. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Dixon had gone with him to Paris and helped him in his endeavours, terrifying actions, which that nurse could not understand. The woman had only understood and told Reverend Knocksmith that Wainewright had committed murders and crimes beyond the wildest imagination, out of sincere belief that he was saving mankind from an imminent danger by doing that. He had conveyed his belief to his young disciple, who, many years later, had felt he had to continue his master’s work. Except there’s a long way from an idea, irrespective of how crazy and antisocial it is, to the action itself. The image of old people dying a terrible death had haunted his nights, until he had no longer been able to bear it and had taken his own life, leaving his wife to carry the burden of suspicion and the hatred of the victims’ relatives. The Wilson woman had adamantly denied any guilt – she regarded herself as completely innocent – just that the fate had played a nasty trick on her by having her convicted of something she had nothing to do with.
Judging from the diary, Father Knocksmith appeared to have been convinced of the nurse’s sincerity. Yet it was not that which marked the end of my peaceful life. It was the fact that the confession of the murderer must have aroused in the priest the wish to find out the reason why some nice educated people had started committing acts against nature, for which they had paid with their freedom or lives. Surely, the world was full of murderers and assassins, yet few are those cases when they actually pretend to be saviours of mankind!
The diary also contained the lengthy description of the vicar’s attempts to find out more about Wainewright. Of course, after so many years it had been difficult to uncover anything more than the papers of the time had written. He had, however, succeeded in finding that when that guy had been arrested, there had been books among his seized personal property which had been later sold at an auction. The vicar had thought that he might find some clue if he could track down the convicted man’s library. Enviably tenacious, he had collected every possible information and had repurchased or at least got to browse all the adventurer’s books. After having studied them, he had reached the conclusion that one book held the key he had been looking for so stubbornly. That was Arab Abdul Alhazred’s Necronomicon, translated in Latin by Olaus Wormius.
Oh, the lip servers are done, those chatterers that only wanted to be noticed!
Joshua seems tired, he looks at me worriedly – am I holding on? – a concern caused not by some human feeling towards me but by the cold calculation that he will have to take care of the old woman. I quickly roll my eyes as if I’m about to faint, and then give him a languorous smile. He’s mumbling something in anger. He’s probably swearing at me. Of all the curses that have fallen upon me, the constant presence of my nephew who hates me is but the least.
Reverend Stillwater begins a eulogy of the deceased. He is honest, poor lad, but he knows almost nothing about my good Teddy, so he’s improvising with talent. He keeps to general things.
I wonder what this stuck-up gathering would say if I told them what I knew about Father Michener…
Teddy had shared his discovery with me from the very beginning. We would read Knocksmith’s diary together and discuss it. To us it seemed to be the early display of the madness that had driven the author to bedlam and then to suicide.
We had noticed a few interesting facts from the beginning. First of all, the two assassins had been punished for other crimes – which they had not even committed; then there was also their conviction that they had done something commendable. Their means had shocked poor Dixon and had led to his suicide, yet the man had truly believed his master had uncovered an overwhelming secret, which had made him act the way he did. One more and very important thing: both of them had been convinced that they had done mankind no harm, that they had rid it of unimportant or even harmful elements, with Wainewright picking his victims from the Apaches of Paris and Dixon from the incurably ill elderly people his wife was taking care of.
Teddy had learnt from a former Oxford colleague of his that Abdul Alhazred had been mad, that his work had been, indeed, written during his delusional states, when he was convinced that he was getting in touch with another universe, which his followers believed was true. After reading part of the Necronomicon, which we had found in the books left by Knocksmith, together with my husband, I realised no sane mind could have produced such an atrocity that filled you with disgust and revulsion towards the entire universe. That moment I felt, for the first time in my life, the doubt that God really existed. How else could he have allowed such horrors? Through a lucid analysis, however, Teddy convinced me we cannot comprehend the ways of the Lord and that we need to have faith if we want to be redeemed. God gave us free will, we can choose our path, we are forced to distinguish between good and bad. If the world is the way it is, isn’t it so that the valley of sorrows can truly be a proving ground?
Similarly shocking to us was the name of the translator, Olaus Wormius. Olaus could have come from Olahus, therefore Vlach or from Nicolaus. The initial term could have suffered a deformation, an abbreviation. Did that deformation serve a different purpose, as well, besides concealing the name of the real translator? Wormius suggested the fellow was Anglo-Saxon in origin, and nothing more than that. The name could have been everyone else’s that regarded himself as a worm on the face of the earth. You could almost believe the humility of the translator who had transposed the contagious madness of the Arab into an accessible language was real.
After so many years I wonder if that poor man had not actually felt like a worm under the burden of the immense knowledge, of the importance of the imminent danger uncovered by chance, a secret that had to be told to others, to some people willing to take action.
I admit that Reverend Knocksmith’s notes, may his tormented soul rest in peace, were of great help to us in understanding the Arab’s work.
Stillwater is done chattering… There comes the final part of the sorry show, the Bible quotes and ritual phrases. I’m staring at poor Teddy’s wax-like face. I realise I haven’t really thought of the atrocity I’m living: now that Teddy is gone, I will never see his gentle smile, I will not hear him cough shyly, embarrassed about his weakness… He tried to carry his illness unnoticed, without inconveniencing anybody and died as if apologising for being such a bother…
When I see those gathered around his tomb I realise we were the remains of another world, some kind of dinosaurs lost in another era. Extinction was our only salvation. I, too, will pass away soon…
That Alhazred had stumbled upon the discovery that from time to time our world was haunted by creatures of horror, demons that lived in another universe. Evil demons with amazing powers… Their appearance bore no resemblance to humans, as neither did their logic resemble the one which we are all accustomed with in any way. They could not be defeated, but could be appeased, tamed, calmed for the moment… They had the power to influence people’s judgement, and if the sacrifices they wanted were not given willingly, they would get them themselves hundredfold and thousandfold.
A portal would open between our universe and theirs and the nightmarish creatures would sneak into our world. Powerful wizards could use their inhuman powers, albeit at the risk of losing control of those bizarre creatures, which would have led to the immediate destruction of those too bold. The only salvation, the mad Arab said, who pretended he had dealt with the monsters many times, was to indulge them as quickly and as fully as possible to make them docile or willing to go back to the hell they had come from. As their logic was not similar to ours, one had no way of knowing how they would take the requests of those trying to contact them. The fearsome inhabitants of the other world could be generous, giving more than they had been asked for, or, on the contrary, would take offence at trifles, in which case the connection with them would turn out to be fatal.
On the other hand, the creatures from the other world had the power to convey their thoughts, to alter the structure of the human mind, turning it into something resembling theirs, that is full of cruelty and violence, prone to war and destruction. And that transformation would not only become a lasting one but was passed on to others, spreading like a plague across the entire Earth.
Mankind’s only salvation was to send the visitors from the foreign universe back as quickly as possible, before they got a chance to alter the human way of thinking. Fortunately, that alteration was not permanent, it would fade in time and people would gradually revert to what they had been before the monsters’ intervention.
From what the mad Arab was saying, the two universes, ours and the monsters’, would intersect according to a simple yet interesting rule. These universes would seemingly come closer and apart because the portals would open in one year and then twenty-two years later, twenty-three years after that and then after twenty-four years and so on with the interval between the visits of the horrific creatures increasing by one year until they would be thirty years apart. From that moment on, the interval would start going down by one year, with the contacts between the two universes becoming increasingly more frequent. When the distance between two appearances of the sinister beings reached twenty-two years, it would start going up again…
So, if we were to believe Alhazred, the Earth was under the periodic influence of the sick, inhuman minds of those alien beings, for which destruction was the only way of life.
Next in that bizarre book was a part I could not understand, full of complicated calculations related to star positions. Those calculations were meant to help detect the time of the horrific creatures’ next appearance and the time frame within which Earth was open to the evil influences. Because the monsters would not come for an hour or a day, the time our planet was left for them to plunder would change every time, ranging from days to months.
We were terrified to learn of those things. I felt touched in my faith, in the opinion that God had made us from clay to do his will. If God was leaving us fall prey to those demons coming from their hell, if mankind was periodically subjected to evil influences of beings that could not be defeated, that could shape our thoughts and will to their liking, where would the free will to seek redemption, as the Church was teaching us, fit in?
Now, while I’m sitting powerlessly and looking at the soulless carcass of what used to be my only love, I’m thinking maybe our punishment was not that meaningless, as I had thought for a long time. Jesus had chased away the demons. The divine might was surely greater than that of these fiendish beings. We should have sought salvation in the teachings of the one who had been crucified for Man’s salvation. Yet we, after suddenly getting that information and terrified of what we had learnt, afraid and ashamed of talking with others that they might consider us mad, did not even try to find out whether there was a way of banishing the demons, of closing the gates other than that suggested by that mad pagan, damned be his memory! I am now wondering if his damned work wasn’t actually those demons’ work, intended to lure naïve earthling souls…
But no, that cannot be, my Teddy did not sacrifice himself in vain! I am convinced there is another way, of the light, although the mad Arab had been honestly preoccupied with saving his neighbours, but had found a way that suited his pagan education.
However, at that time, we had been disgusted by the sick imagination of the Bedouin wizard and less convinced of the truth of his words. The conviction came some time later, after we had played with the numbers. Because even though words have their role in convincing people, their subjective character leaves a shred of doubt in the listener’s mind, by definition.
Digits, however, are dry, cold and impersonal. Some abstract signs, with no image attached to them. This is why they leave the impression of objectiveness, of something that cannot be denied. “This results from calculations” is an unbeatable argument. Neither I, nor my darling one, were that good with mathematics so as to know if there were any subterfuges – if there really were any! – to cast a doubt on a calculation.
Our true conversion, however, began only after we had attempted to check the validity of Alhazred’s calculations.
Curiosity killed the cat. And ruined our happiness. Had we stopped at that, the horror story of the demented Arab and of his followers in 19th-century England, the century of science and industrial development, would have seemed just an interesting figment meant to trouble dreams and we would have forgotten about it after a while. The misery of the world would have passed us by, accepted with people’s usual fatalism: it was meant to be. It didn’t happen that way! The story in the Necronomicon had caught us so deeply that we allowed ourselves to drift with it.
Teddy contacted a friend of his who taught astronomy at Cambridge. He gave him the necessary information, without explaining where he had obtained it.
The result didn’t tell us much at first. We were within a 27-year interval and going down and the moment of the future contact was somewhere in 1888. It was 1886… Two more years until that time. At the moment we thought we had forever…
A simple calculation showed us that the previous visits had taken place in 1861 and 28 years before that, in 1833.
The strange thing about this was that although wars and revolutions had taken place during those periods, they had only been local, non-fundamental conflicts that had not changed the fate of the world substantially. Moreover, those years coincided with the times when those people who had started it all, Catherine Wilson and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright had committed their heinous murders, which they said had helped save the world.
Taking calculations further back in the past, we found that 1833 minus 29 made 1804, the year when Napoleon had been crowned.
Teddy had exclaimed with conviction:
“Of course! Napoleon the emperor puts an end to the French Revolution; from that moment on all the wars he would fight would have a different purpose, would be meant to expand and consolidate his own empire and not spread the ideas of the revolution!”
His remark had seemed logical. The Napoleonic Empire had, indeed, caused a great massacre. The other states could surely not be considered innocent, with hatred and obstinacy manifest in their most acute forms. We can accept for the sake of the argument that 1804 had been a year when the demons coming from the depth of the universe had induced a wave of violence on the planet. The Napoleonic wars had not been not local; they had expanded throughout the world like a plague…
We resumed our calculations. 1804 minus 30 gave 1774. Bewildered, I browsed the contemporary history book.
“Nothing special! Darling, I think the whole story’s just a practical joke!”
“You’re wrong,” my Teddy mumbled with a sombre expression on his face. “On the contrary, this figure is more convincing to me than the other. It was 1775 when the wars of the colonies against England started. The so-called American Revolution. An event whose implications have never been fully analysed. The French Revolution that would start within less than one decade from our colonies’ conquering their independence was inspired by that successful example. The royalty concept had been dealt a heavy blow. A certain type of society had been proven possible to destroy. And revolutions started with their bloodshed, abuses, dispossessions and all…”
“But the war began in 1775…”
“My dear, the war was indeed started in 1775, but if we analyse the facts in detail we will see violence had actually arisen in 1774. Because the war was the way to manifest that violence which had filled people’s souls. The plan for violence had emerged before it started. Nothing is spontaneous. The mind needs to be prepared to accept something for that something to happen. And the revolutions that made the world bleed were actually started the moment the idea, which probably came up at an earlier time, was accepted by a large enough group of people. The date seems reasonable…
The years resulted from the calculations were either significant dates or not matching any important event. This could mean that in the years of contact between the worlds, when nothing had happened on Earth, certain people had intervened and blocked the fiendish actions. Or that the entire scheme was nonsense…
As for the future, interventions were forecast for 1888, the date Teddy’s friend had found from the astral configuration, and then for 26 years later, 1914 and for 25 years after that, in 1939.
Yet those years meant nothing to us, as the future could not be verified. We could believe world disasters were in store for us at that time or that nothing would happen.
Things stopped at that stage for the time being. The story was interesting and convincing enough but not so convincing as to make us dig deeper into the the mad Arab’s dirt and his followers’, who either were murderers or had ended up in a bedlam.
Once having started to rummage though the books left by Knocksmith, Teddy kept on researching those tomes hoping to find more interesting and amusing things.
He discovered among all those breviaries about spells and black magic a small book written by a certain Menonius Agrippa, who claimed he had had access to Pope Gregorius’ manuscripts. That Pope, a great mathematician – also considered a wizard by the people of his time, because of his skill in doing all sorts of things with numbers – had been interested at some point – the author of the book said – in the symbolism of periodical events. It seemed that the duration of the intervals between two events could indicate the type of the ensuing event.
“Here’s what this man says, basing his fallacies on the authority of that semi legendary pope,” Teddy told me one night when we were together in the library. He was hiding among piles of very valuable ancient books that had become the property of the parish after Father Knocksmith’s unfortunate death and I was sitting comfortably by the fireplace. “If an expected event is preceded by an event of the same type, and the distance between them calculated in years is the cube of a natural number, then that event will have a catastrophic effect. The events that are preceded by an interval representing a multiple of thirteen or the power of a prime number have negative effects, as well. The prime numbers suggest that the events to come will be ordinary, without anything, either good or bad, to single them out amidst those of the same kind. An even number, which is neither the cube of another number nor a multiple of thirteen, forecasts events that will end in a positive effect, albeit such events might seem particularly bloody or tragic at first…”
Of course, there was an entire ramble about series of numbers, about what can be considered a row of periodical events…
Somehow I thought it was only natural that a number which contains within it the seed of the number thirteen should foretell death and trouble. A long tradition contributed to that conviction. I, however, could not understand why the cube of a number signalled something catastrophic. The author did not explain this, either. He merely stated it.
“Why does a prime number foretell something ordinary and its power spell havoc? Why does an even number predict something good and its cube a disaster?” my ruffled chaffinch was wondering, raising the eyeglasses on his forehead.
I had no idea what to answer him and I don’t think he was actually expecting an answer.
“The only explanation would be,” he went on with his monologue, “that each number has a negative potential in it, either greater or smaller. By multiplying with itself this potential expands, becomes greater in value. It would be something like incest, where negative traits amplify, as they are not kept in check by fresh blood… The more times a number is multiplied by itself, the bigger the evil seed grows and becomes dominant… I suppose,” he added, after pondering it for a while, “that Menonius Agrippa’s opinions are based on ancient knowledge, predating Christianity. At one time I thought they were cabalistic in origin, because I didn’t find a positive meaning in the trinity-related numbers in his work. But he is not a cabalist, because number seven does not have any special meaning! I am surprised by his mention of the number thirteen… This guy might have extracted his knowledge from who knows what mystic Egyptian texts, left by the secret worshippers of Aton. Do you know Moses is believed to have been a harried priest of this monotheistic faith?” he asked me. “Jews might have taken the essence of the Mosaism from that forbidden religion, or they might not even have been a specific people enslaved, but a group of Egyptians, believers of the faith the priests and the pharaoh had prohibited. Led by a priest who would not abjure his credo, they ran away in the desert and in time were assimilated by Semitic shepherds wandering through Sinai. They gave the latter the monotheistic faith and the stubbornness to not change their belief, thus forming a people that has lasted for thousands of years…”
Nice theory, right, I thought at the moment, without paying it too much mind. I was preoccupied with something else. The time frame between two openings of the portal between the two universes, ours and the killing monsters’ ranged from twenty-two to thirty years. Which of the numbers from 22 to 30 were among those that soiled little book of Agrippa warned about? I made a quick calculation and found that only three were part of the baleful group: 25, which was the power of 5, 26, which was a multiple of 13 and 27, which was the cube of 3.
I was tempted to sigh in relief at first as only three numbers had a very serious influence, while the rest foretell relatively bearable events! And then I noticed something that had eluded me at first: 25, 26, 27! The three periods were connected, regardless of whether the universes were coming closer or coming apart! In the absence of somebody’s intervention, countless disasters would befall the Earth for almost a century! We were in the twenty–seven year period, brought to rest by the intervention of the Wilsons. The twenty-six year period was next and then the twenty-five year one.
I rushed to share my findings with Teddy. My husband paled but did not say anything. He stood there lost in his thoughts, and I did not dare bother him. I felt that this time, the Teddy that lacked practical sense, who would forget to eat were it not for me to call him to dinner, was about to make an extremely important decision for us and for mankind.
He eventually told me, “Tonight I’m going to pray as hard as I can. I’m going to ask the Lord to enlighten me, to send me a happy inspiration!”
The service is over. The two gravediggers are closing the lid on the coffin. I got to see the noble face of my mate that now displays a sad seriousness one more time. The tremendous grief that is taking me over is full of self-pity. What I am going to do? The burden is too heavy for one person, especially for a weak one such as I… Teddy Bear got away. The Lord was correct in his judgment. He was the better and the kinder of the two of us, he deserved to be put out of the misery first. In a way, I’m happy for him. My dearest dearest! Life sure sees to it that people like him are forced to carry the burden of the sins of the world!
The gravediggers are nailing down the heavy lid and I realise for the first time that I will never see his beloved face. Teddy never blamed me for anything. I hope with all my heart that the understanding he showed me was sincere. His love for me had a drop of pity in it, that I know, but it didn’t’ bother me. I needed his love. And he gave it to me unconditionally, without holding back…
Nobody knows what a great soul he was…
The next day my husband came home from the church with a worn-out look on his face and circles around his eyes when I was making breakfast. He waited for me to lay the table, and then told me before we started eating:
“The Lord did not speak to me directly. He did not send any signs to me. I somehow find this normal. It is not possible that God would urge you to break his laws… On the other hand, the decision must be mine. I must take responsibility for my actions. My dear, after having prayed long and hard and meditated, I came to the conclusion that there is no other way for me. I must act and prevent the destruction of our world!
I wasn’t expecting anything else. I was proud of my Teddy!
“Let’s clear up some practical details, my dear… I have less than two years at my disposal. During this time I need to find out what I have to do and prepare my interventions. They will most certainly be some atrocities, if we remember whom those Father Knocksmith identified as saviours of Earth in 1831 and 1833 were and what crimes they were accused of. I would like to keep you out of this in any way. This is why I believe it would be best if you moved in with one of your sisters. We should at least stay separated for the fatidic period…”
I was touched by his concern. And I answered him right away:
“I’m not going anywhere. Only death do us part!”
Yes, only death did us part! The heavy coffin is going down slowly, held in place by ropes, to the moist bottom of the grave and worms are getting ready to feast. Don’t stuff yourselves, you disgusting things! You’ll soon get another helping! Not even death will keep us apart for long, Teddy! I will keep you company wherever you are, because we both committed the sin, if that’s what it was…
Honestly speaking, I doubted Teddy would have managed on his own. He had a special soul, a gentleness out of this world and that would have prevented him from doing things that were so little in line with the Christian morality. He was a man of books and an analytical mind, yet he was totally lacking practical sense. He needed me. He had always needed me…
The following period was dedicated to studying the terrifying book of the mad Arab. What we had read in the Necronomicon up until then was nothing compared with the filth we were forced to dig ourselves into…
Abdul Alhazred’s recommendations were clear: the demons in the other universe could not be appeased by anything other than human sacrifice, which needed to be made during the period when the monsters had access to our world. Depending on the moment the two universes were joined, on the time since the previous appearance and whether that interval was longer or shorter than the one before it, the sacrifice had to be made in a specific way; a certain ritual had to be observed. The mad Arab was giving all the necessary indications…
After going over the text we calculated what our obligations were, according to the algorithm set by the Arab. And we were terrified when we found out what we were supposed to do. But we had no choice. We had willingly decided to do whatever was necessary. We could not turn back. Not that we wanted to.
Yet our determination would not lessen our disgust towards what we were about to do…
Had it not been for those numbers and their related interpretations more or less possible to verify, we would not have let ourselves convinced. The realisation of how big the difference between digits and numbers is has always amazed me. It’s nothing like that between letters and words. Words are combinations of letters, of course, but letters alone can mean something, can have a life of their own. Single digits are cold, distant, avoid hinting at anything. Numbers, on the other hand, are full of implications, stating openly that they are more than a mere quantitative abstraction. They are alive, they change their potential; the same number can mean various things depending on circumstances. To me, the numbers turned out to be warm.
Because they had the warmth of blood.
The coffin was deposited on the bottom of the tomb, the gravediggers pulled out their ropes… One more ritual ensues before leaving poor Teddy alone. Reverend Stillwater takes a clod and lets it fall into the grave. It makes a muffled sound upon reaching the coffin. I startle, imagining – I don’t know why, that the sound could bother my poor helpless husband…
Next, Joshua comes closer to me, gives me a handful of moist dirt and pushes my wheelchair to the edge of the tomb. I am carefully pouring the dirt in the grave, with a keen sense of loneliness. Mine and Teddy’s…
To divert my thoughts elsewhere, I’m looking at the palm still soiled by the moist dirt. And remember another moment when I got my hand dirty…
I had fallen, slipped on the wet asphalt, using the palm of my hand to lean against the stones in the macadam. When I got up, looking at the mud on my fingers in disgust, Teddy had already started the real dirty job. He was cutting through the body lying on the ground, reciting sinister incantations in a voice cracked with emotion, which did not resemble any known language, the meaning of which not even Alhazred probably knew…
It was at that moment that I realised what a strong spirit poor Teddy had. He, who had not slaughtered even one chicken in his life, who didn’t even know how to cut a turkey for Christmas, was performing that satanic ritual without rushing, methodically, painstakingly observing the recommendations.
Teddy was indeed worthy of admiration.
Only God knows what must have been going on in his soul. He never complained, he never regretted it.
Anyway, the biggest effort for him was sending those demented letters to Scotland Yard, signed with a pathetic alias. I used to watch him write them. I could see disgust on his face but that was an obligation mentioned by the mad Arab and my husband had decided to go all the way, to observe the instructions completely.
I had had some trouble with him when I had informed him I wanted to come along in his nocturnal errands. He had fought it as hard as he could, had threatened me to drop the whole thing but in the end he had to comply. I had been right, as usual. With all the hysteria that had taken over London, no patrol had dared suspect a respectable couple like us. If Teddy had wandered the streets alone, some guy with a sicker imagination might have wondered what a priest was doing in the dark. Yet a priest accompanied by his wife… That guy’s imagination should have been really sick to make any connection with Jack the Ripper!
The funeral is over. I am sitting upright I my wheelchair, like a queen on her throne and those who came to see Teddy to his final journey are now coming one by one by present their sympathies. There’s Mrs. St. Matthew… What a chatterbox she is!
When we had first planned the whole thing, one of the main problems was the selection of victims that were to be sacrificed. Our predecessors, the Wilsons and Wainewright, had used dying old people, whose disappearance was somewhat imminent or thieves from the slums of Paris, whose elimination was a positive thing.
We didn’t know how to do it, what environment to choose those people from whose killing would drive away the danger that was threatening our world. Then Mrs. St. Mathew came along, with her idea to establish a charity in order to help prostitutes with social reintegration. At first I only thought of the fact that my Teddy had to do his vicar duty, as well, that he could not refuse to participate in such an activity and occupy his mind with only the bloody ritual he was to perform. It later turned out my intuition worked flawlessly. Teddy thus found a pitiful world, wherefrom we could extract five people without the society actually losing anything. A world that was living in dark streets, in the middle of the night, thus allowing us to act without fear of being caught or without having to bother luring the victims to our homes and then taking the trouble of getting rid of the bodies afterwards. Teddy learnt many secrets of that world, secrets which came in useful when the time to act came. St. Matthew never imagined how much she had contributed to the panic that had taken hold of London from August till November 1888…
Joshua comes and pushes my wheelchair to the carriage. He’s doing it nonchalantly, without hiding his relief. Was he afraid I might do some embarrassing scene? How little did that boy know me… And how little did we know him!
It all had ended well, 1888 had passed without any major crisis, and mankind had kept rushing towards what it regarded as progress… At first we were so pleased with us that we almost revealed ourselves, told the entire world of our marvellous actions. Yet the more time passed, the more meditative Teddy became and the more he kept to himself. I couldn’t bear to see him like this. One day I took the courage and said to him:
“My love, you have nothing to blame yourself for! On the contrary you have something to be proud of!”
“My dear, I am not blaming myself for anything. Yet I cannot help but think that time passes and the next term will arrive before we even realise it…”
Indeed, what’s twenty-six years? One had already passed. But the future still looked bright to us. We were young, in twenty-five years we would still be strong and could do again what we once did…
Only that in our ignorant joy, we had forgotten there is a God that was judging things differently. Later, in those long years when all I did was think, I realised murder is murder, regardless of its purpose. Our predecessors in diabolic rituals had ended up in prison, on the scaffold or killing themselves. They had paid for their crimes. They had no children. God felt their seed had been cursed.
And the punishment fell upon us, too. God does not squander miracles. An ordinary accident can be his instrument, as well. And I turned into a crippled, helpless being…
Many years after that, when all hope for a cure was lost, Teddy confessed he did not think he was able to complete the sacrifices without my help. I had known it for long, but did not want to offend him by telling him that. The only solution was to turn to somebody else. It was only then that Teddy remembered of a nephew of his that had gone astray. A violent and impetuous nature, he had been imprisoned for attempted murder. We invited Joshua to live with us and Teddy started to gradually prepare him for the task before him. The new century had already arrived…
Joshua turned out to be obedient and intelligent. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Until the day Bishop Carrell came along.
He mentioned the appeal of numbers and series of events during lunch… He even quoted the Necronomicon, as one who had closely studied the work of the mad Arab. Teddy, who was convinced – as I was, after all, that he was dealing with someone who possessed the knowledge, started telling him about what we had learnt from that evil book. Fortunately, he did not get to reveal to him that he had made sacrifices to the demons coming on the other world. The bishop listened carefully and asked various questions. At night I talked with Teddy, wondering whether God had done a miracle somehow and brought us support to appease the hungry monsters that were soon to arrive.
Yet it did not work out like we hoped it would. One day after the bishop left, Teddy was forcibly committed to a health institution of the Church. He lived there in good conditions, I was allowed to spend time with him and bring him comfort with my presence but he was kept under heavy guard until his life came to an end. I later found out the decision had been made by that Carrell bastard, who, having been informed by our nephew that Teddy had gone crazy, paid us a visit to check out the information. And he had come to the conclusion that Reverend Michener had become a danger to society!
Well, they did see what a danger he was! Because they thought he was mad, mankind entered the most dreadful war ever, a true world war. And instead of five victims, millions were sacrificed to the demons from another world…
We’re home. Joshua and his wife are taking my chair out of the carriage and carrying it inside. They are putting me in bed and make sure I am comfortable. I cannot say that they are bad, that they are not taking care of me. Yet it clearly shows they don’t like me, they are afraid of me. I will set them free as soon as possible. I can see that my presence is an ordeal to them…
The bed is cold. It will get even colder during the night, without Teddy there to keep it warm…
My dear Teddy Bear! How cold you must be, poor you, in that moist grave!
Maybe if I hadn’t known all that happened so well, I would have suspected my Teddy was a sadistic man, who had kept his criminal instincts in check for as long as he could and then snapped, after having found a way to justify his vice.
Poor Teddy! He sure did butcher those creatures, as the ritual required. That was all he did. Because, the moment he had to stab his first victim, he dropped the knife and started to cry. Lucky I was there…
English translation by
Original title : „Cifrele sunt reci, numerele-s calde”
Novels: „Trip-Tic” (1999), „The Option” (Opțiunea, 2004), „Fears” (Spaime, 2004), „Waldemar” (Fantasy, 2007), „The crooked blockhouse” (, Blocul câș, Fantasy, 2008), „Afternoon with beer and fairies” (După-amiază cu bere și zâne, Fantasy, 2009).
Short stories volumes: „To Jerusalem” (Spre Ierusalim, 2000), „Constanța 1919” (2000), „Babl ” (2004), „Digits are cold, numbers are warm” (Cifrele sunt reci, numerele-s calde, 2006), „Fantastic Stories” (Povestiri fantastice, 2008), „Alone on Ormuza” (Singur pe Ormuza, 2010).
Eurocon 2000, Encouragement Award.