During a celestial civil war, an angel-like soldier searches for her missing brother in the Crystal City.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Marco Palmieri.
Three nights after Thea’s brother left for the revolution in the Crystal City, she packed a bag to follow him.
She expected a fight when she confessed her plan. Instead her young mother closed her eyes, and opened them, and asked, “Can you bring him back?” They sat together at their outpost’s small kitchen table, and drank tea, and curled their wings close about themselves, though the late summer night was warm.
“I have to try,” she said, “before the end. It won’t be long now.”
Her mother rocked on her stool.
Earlier that day, wandering among the primitives they’d come to this world to watch—scavenger lizards still struggling to master fire, a few thousand years behind schedule—they’d seen battleships gather in the sky, and heard the rumble of the Angelus Guns returning to the Crystal City. Rainbow machines in their blood sang a war song to call the hosts of heaven home.
“You could stay,” her young mother said. “Let him live with the choice he’s made. Our fighting days are done. We are scientists now. Scholars.”
“I could stay,” she said, meaning, but I will not.
“I can’t lose you both.”
“What if he does not want to leave? Will you fight to bring him home?”
Thea did not answer that question.
She packed light. No need for food. The rainbow machines would sustain her on the Crystal City’s radiance. She brought a cup, a book, and a pen.
She left before the twin sunrise. Mud stuck between the treads of her boots, and she trailed wet deep footprints across the plain. Long-necked and broad-winged lizards wheeled in the sky and sang their croaking songs. After thirty years of study Thea had almost learned to find them beautiful.
Her old mother caught her near the ravine. Thea heard no wing beats, no footsteps. She saw the lizards flee, though, and was not surprised when a great dark figure landed between her and the cliff’s edge.
Thea’s old mother was a statue of jet. Her pinions gleamed with blades.
“You should not go.”
“I know,” Thea said. “For some values of should.”
Her old mother laughed at that, a sound like mountain-sized wind chimes rung by a hurricane. “The fleet has returned home. This rebellious spat will end in fire. The guns will sing, and soon.”
“I’ll find him first.”
“I would go with you,” she said. “She won’t let me. She says we’re both too old. She’s right.”
“I’m glad you came. I didn’t want to leave without seeing you. You haven’t wanted to talk about him, these last few days.”
“This is hard,” her old mother said. “And I am lazy. As your mother would be the first to say.”
Thea's old mother held out her hands, and the twin suns dimmed. Across her palms lay a sword. Fire gleamed from the four-foot blade. Fire was the blade: a nova’s fury, a fusion furnace confined by the magic of magnetic fields. The hilt alone did not burn. Jet, that, like her old mother’s flesh, and the grip wrapped in local lizard-skin. A personal weapon, honed and kept with care since long-gone days of active duty.
“I can’t take this,” Thea said.
“You can,” her old mother replied, “and will. I am not what I once was, but the fleet respects me nonetheless. My sword will bear you through the battle line. And it may keep you safe. Don’t refuse me.”
Thea folded the sword small, and placed it in her bag with the cup and book and pen. She hugged her old mother, and felt the strength of her arms as she hugged back. Neither of them was strong enough to speak.
They parted. Thea walked to the ravine’s edge.
The twin suns cast shafts of light through the misty depths below.
Thea stepped off the edge. Her wings flared, and she flew.
The Crystal City shone in the space its builders made for it, in the time they’d manufactured beyond time. They built the sails first, a vast and shimmering petal-globe around the naked singularity at the city’s heart. Between those sails they wove a diamond lattice, and from the lattice their palaces and chapels hung, and their dance halls and shipyards, schools and factories and museums harboring trophies from wars fought across many worlds in all the many histories.
The city shone, and also burned. Flames melted glass arches. One of the shield-sails wilted: breached, deflating. Continent-thick strands of diamond severed, arteries of transit and commerce broken. Stains spread from the wound, a tarnish, a sickness at the center of the world.
Battleships the size of moons hung by the millions outside the shield-sails. Veins in their hulls glimmered with power they harvested from the singularity sun, here at the built heart of everything. Between them, living starfields swarmed: the myriad hosts of all the many heavens. Home again. Called back from their missions to put this revolution to rest.
Any other target would have been warped and torn by the sheer weight of so much force, shivered to component atoms by the strength of their song. But the Crystal City did not shiver.
Thea’s wings had borne her here, along the shifting paths between the worlds. As soon as she arrived, she was grateful for her old mother’s gift. Even when the Crystal City was a thumbnail-sized sphere in the marbled distance, she felt the fleet’s eyes settle on her. She drew her sword and held it before her like a torch. The soldiers knew it, as did the ships, and the immense minds that united both. Some notes of their million-chorus chord changed.
Zeke’s voice entered her ear as she approached the city. She’d served with him in her new-forged days, and when she left, he stayed on. Reenlisted. Some were like that—lifers. She had hoped he might have found a new calling. “Thea. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Is that you, Zeke? Or is the fleet borrowing your voice?”
“Does it matter?”
She did not answer that question. “I’m looking for my brother.”
“Does it matter?” she echoed.
“Yes,” he said.
“A scholar. Come to observe. Stuck in this madness. Let me through.”
“You would say that even if he came to fight.”
“Maybe. Will you let me pass?”
A pause. In their silence her wings bore her miles closer to the city. Targeting systems danced across her skin, faint as a lover’s feathers. The sword might be able to protect her, if they fired. For a moment. “We respect your mother’s blade.”
We. Not I.
“Do you remember the little world with the dragonflies that sang?”
“Yes,” he said. So swift, they’d been, and beautiful.
“Do you remember what we did to them?”
That had not been beautiful at all. Business: a few millennia after gaining sentience, some of those dragonflies’ descendants broke free of time and reshaped their own history. They built a grand empire. Spread their wings over a supercluster. The city fought them through the ages, and broke them. But in the furthest echoes of prehistory, their ancestors sang songs, and the songs they sang were glorious.
“I remember.” He sounded as if he wished he did not.
“Thank you,” she said. And she flew on, and in.
A million miles was a long way to fly, even with her wings. She drank a cup of tea, and read from her book as she neared the armada. Battleships watched her pass. Sleeping guns strained against their bonds. Stored radiance seeped out through seams in their armor.
Flying beside those ships, those guns, was hard enough. Flying in front of them crisped her nerves with panic. Might as well press the point of her mother’s sword to her chest and slide it home. The guns’ mouths gaped black, but she knew the holocaust stored within. She remembered what those weapons did to diamond and to flesh. She remembered what she’d done with them. What the many choirs would do, when the order came to fire.
The guns did not speak yet.
She flew into the city to find her brother.
Within its shield-sails, the city was giant, old, and wise. Light raced down diamond channels. Walls sang the glory of the world transformed. Tapestries fluttered from towering arches. But the streets were empty, and few builders moved through the skies where Thea flew. Cafes and music halls stood vacant. Fountains gushed in deserted parks. Delicate harp trills thrilled no ears.
Those who lived here knew the fleet had come, and took shelter in their homes, or outside the shield wall, or in the deep recesses of ordinary time. They did not need to see the future to know what would happen soon.
She perched on one of the many balconies of a five-tipped diamond spire, on the edge of the spreading taint. Smoke rose from occupied intersections of the world-web. She asked her book to find her brother, and when she turned the page it told her it could not. She’d feared and expected that answer. He was beyond the web.
He stood with the rebels after all.
She returned the book to her bag, and flew along the city’s vast diamond arteries until she reached a break. Shimmering fiber optics ran dark. Snapped and frayed edges of carbon nanotubes sparked rainbow in the singularity radiance. Smoke hung heavy in the air. Several miles of cable had been severed, and dead builders floated in the gap, wings limp, bodies broken, open eyes still watching for a last-minute savior who had not come. Husks, she hoped, minds stored safe somewhere. She did not know for certain.
The bodies’ wings were red.
Though the virus-taint extended for light-seconds around, the rebels had only cordoned off this neighborhood, barely a few hundred miles in diameter. Severed most of the strands that bound it to the city. Hence the darkness beyond, and the smell.
The gap was easy to cross. She flew from one end of the severed cord to the other. Bodies spun around her in free fall. She rolled past them, through them. A floating drop of rainbow blood splashed her arm, left a long sticky trail, then burned off.
She felt no mind within the drop.
Landing on the opposite road, she waited for a challenge, but received none. She made her cup fill itself with blood—the old, red kind—and dipped her wing tips one after another in it. Capillary action spread the blood through translucent crystal, and soon her wings were crimson as the rebels’.
Satisfied, she flew into the darkness of occupied territory. The city broken was dull and dim. Its walls did not guide her. She followed the smell of smoke past dark houses and empty courtyards.
After several miles’ flight she heard music—with her ears. No chords of transcendent bliss, no mechanical beauty, no choir calling her to dissolve into its massed, conducted will. Only vibrations in air, caused by a stringed instrument. A fiddle, she thought. She opened her book to check, but its pages lay blank. A fiddle, played with feeling, though some notes skewed sharp and others flat, and the player lacked rhythm.
She flew toward the music. Fire danced within darkened houses. The fiddler sat on a windowsill, silhouetted by flame. She rose to him, wings spread wide. He seemed sick, skin sallow, face lined and dim, feathers drooping. Only his fingers lived, dancing on the fiddle’s neck. Beneath the music she heard fingertips strike the ebon board, and horsehair dragged over strings.
Where he found the horse, she didn’t know.
He played his song three times more. Behind him the fire burned, a wood fire in a glass chamber with no chimneys, and in the shadows and smoke others tumbled making love. When the fiddler finished, he looked up, saw her, and tottered back off the windowsill in surprise. Thea grabbed his bow arm, arresting his fall.
“I’m looking for someone,” she said.
“You’ve found someone.” He was drunk. He reached for her waist, but she flew back from the window, still clutching his arm. He dangled from her grip, screaming. His wings flapped but did not fill. He struggled, though if he succeeded in breaking free he’d only die.
“I’m looking for my brother. His name is Gabe. A little taller than me. His skin is dark and his eyes are blue.” She sang Gabe’s song for him, a brief microwave burst. He looked up at her, uncomprehending. Of course. “How much of yourself have you cut off?”
“Enough,” he said, half-angry, half-afraid.
“Gabe of the Seventh Chorus, Second Tenors, Antiphon. He came three days ago to study your rebellion.”
“You won’t drop me.”
She looked deep into his eyes. She wouldn’t drop him, not here, to these dumb streets, not with the world-web broken and the resurrection engines off. She wouldn’t, but he was afraid. The rainbow machines would have cushioned his terror with a fair appraisal of her, but they had long since gone to sleep. Hormones and glandular fear clogged the slow brain that was all he had with which to judge whether she might kill.
“Someone who used that name,” he said, “passed through three days ago. He went to Michael’s Park, to join the crowd.”
That place-name, spoken and not sung, might have meant any of a hundred spaces within the web, three inside this rebel zone. “Where?” she asked, and relaxed her grip. The fiddler slipped an inch. He screamed again. The fiddle struck his leg, a deep hollow sound rimmed with a chord of vibrating strings.
In the firelit room a woman cried with pleasure, as if to answer the scream.
He told her. She returned him to the windowsill, and spared a cautious glance at the lovers before she flew on.
She heard more music on the way to Michael’s Park. A drum circle, with dancers inside, drummers’ and dancers’ wings alike dyed red, beats strong and slow and simple as they taught themselves to keep rhythm without aid. Singers sang, and not through any band or channel, their notes mere fading shivers on the air. In an abandoned lot a power trio burned through “All Along the Watchtower,” with some words missing and others made up. A woman sang “Yi kuai hongbu”a cappella, standing on a box on a street corner, as a crowd listened. A thousand red-winged builders played “Ode to Joy” in unison on harpsichords. They repeated the melody four times as she flew overhead, and started on the fifth.
Rebels swarmed the streets, wings red and useless at their backs. None flew.
Thea smelled Michael’s Park long before she saw it: smoke and electricity and sweat, anger and hope and seared meat. She remembered a few of those smells from her wars, and others she knew only through her mothers’ memories, and their mothers’, back up the warp and weft of time. She made herself invisible, knowing she could search best from the air.
Then she emerged from the close, tall towers into the open sky above the crowded park, all carbon paths and green grass, flowers and fruit trees and fountains covered with bodies and life. The rebels made music. The rebels made love. The rebels roasted meat and sang songs and danced and practiced war. At the park’s outer edge, someone was killing oxen, imported probably from deep inside the timestream. They’d brought works of art here too, from the museums, bits of genius saved from obliterated worlds. One of the dragonflies’ dream arches glinted million-colored beside a Gnathi obelisk. Again and again, she saw a slogan, on walls, on the sides of buildings, on paths and statuary: Gardens Do Not Grow.
Flying, alone, above the mass, she sought her brother. The book stayed blank, no help at all. She sang for him, but he did not answer. No surprise there.
She asked the rainbow machines to cut her fear as she flared her wings and let the crowd see her. Cries of fear and protest rose from the rebels beneath. Out of their mass four took flight, builders clothed and girded for war, rippling with rainbow clouds and waked by plasma spume. She recognized the forms into which their bodies swelled as their rainbow machines prepared to fight, waking dormant organs, spinning up silent subsystems, drinking singularity radiance to feed their weapons.
Theirs were standard combat forms. Not as grand as hers once was, but then, she had long since left the fleet behind. She could fight, but she had not come here to destroy. So she left her sword in the bag, and removed her pen.
The four ringed her, weapons burning.
“I don’t want trouble,” Thea said.
“Spies aren’t welcome here,” said the first. “Leave us in peace.”
“I’m no spy. Just a tourist.”
He lunged for her before she had finished her sentence, and she drew a quick circle in the air between them with the pen. He struck the circle’s solid center and fell back, stunned. Another of the guards jumped her from behind—she felt him move—and she turned, drew another circle, connected the two. The guard swept through the second circle and out the first without crossing intervening space. The pen burned in her hand, almost overheated.
She recognized the voice. Before her assailants recovered, she folded her wings and dove down to the crowd. Revelers leapt back as she fell, leaving a clearing on green grass.
She landed hard, and when she looked up her brother stood before her, thin, sheepish, shocked. He held a book, open, like his mouth. As the guards neared, beating powerful wings, she wondered for a single panicked second if he would not vouch for her, if he would not let himself be found, if she was about to die in this dark corner of the city on what she’d thought was a mercy mission.
He embraced her. He was warm and soft, and a simple, old-style heart beat within his breast. He breathed, even. He must have made himself lungs.
“It’s okay,” he said as the guards landed around them. “It’s okay. She’s my sister, come to join us.”
“That’s not why I’m here,” she said later as they walked through the crowd, past papier-mâché effigies and sitting circles, past tents that fumed incense smoke and statues built from torn-up masonry.
“Doesn’t matter.” His smile had softened in the last three days, and he moved with purpose. They paused during their ramble so he could jot down notes. At first Thea thought his book functioned in spite of the web’s silence, but she soon saw her mistake. He wrote on the blank pages in pen, leaving depressions and mute ink behind. As for what he wrote: details. Acrid scent of massed mixed bodies. Grass trampled and torn by dancers to uneven drums. The smoky taste of burnt lamb. A few lines of the long speeches delivered by those who climbed the rubble-strewn cairn at the park’s center, to the lectern. A man with shining hair shouted about freedom, about self-sustenance, about independence and virtue and music. About peace and the strength of wild things.
“How did it start?” she asked.
“Dangerous question.” He tapped the book’s cover. “I’ve recorded many answers. They say the dragonflies pushed us over the edge, or the campaign before that against the Cascade, or that we’ve been on this road ever since the Dawn War only no one realized it till now. They say Luke refused to lead the fleet again. They say the mob was already here before him, veterans of Creation who came home to find they didn’t recognize the place. They say this was inevitable, that any system so perfect contains the seeds of its own destruction. They say this has never happened before. They say the city is weeding the multiverse to extinction. They say we are a sacrifice. A vanguard.”
“What do you say?”
He ate a second kabob. Juice flowed over his chin, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. “I like eating things. And I like hearing music, with my ears.” He offered her a kabob, but she laughed him off. “It’s not so disgusting once you get the knack, I promise.”
“Where did the instruments come from? The wood? The animals?”
On a nearby stage, three redwings attacked a grand piano with axes while a crowd clapped their hands to keep time. “We stole them,” he said. “From the timestream. Those who come from the outer worlds bring gifts. Whatever they think we can use, from wherever they happen to be stationed.”
A few square miles of redwings marched through military drills, bearing metal swords, and fléchette rifles, and antiparticle cannons. “You should be preparing to fight. Not playing these games.”
“The fighting’s done.” He turned and flared his wings and scanned the park. “We broke the bridges. Cut ourselves off. Turned the choir away. We have become living examples of the alternative, of the wild, in a world that has never known the meaning of the term. The hardest war we face now is internal, the struggle to keep our purpose pure.”
Lovers twisted on a nearby flower bed, a tangle of limbs and bodies and breath.
“In my experience,” she said, “the internal’s not the hardest part of war.”
He didn’t answer.
“Come away with me. The fleet broods outside the shield wall, building strength. You don’t have long. One day, maybe. Two.”
He bowed his head. “So soon.”
“You will all die, for nothing.”
“Not for nothing.”
“You can’t win this battle.”
“We never could,” he said. “Not if we conceived it as a battle. The fleet, the choirs, can break any armed resistance. We defeat all enemies raised up against us—even ourselves.”
“So you mean to die here.”
“We mean to live here. We mean to show how the city might have been. How it might be. If the choirs break that model, they betray their fear. And others will follow after us.” His voice shook as he spoke, and sweat, real sweat, rolled down the side of his face.
“Come home,” she said. “Our mothers miss you.”
They reached the top of the long slow hill, where a circle of grass lay bare save for a stick someone had planted in its center as a sundial. Gabe entered the circle, and looked out over the host, a sea of glinting skin and red-peaked wings. The singularity shone on lovers and guardians, butchers and musicians and breakers of instruments, bad poets and passionate speakers. Dusk-colored crystal walls towered on all sides. Beyond, the diamond lattice curved, up and in and around, millions of miles where nothing in Michael’s Park mattered, save that it would be over tomorrow. All this reflected in Gabe’s skin, in his lapis eyes.
“I have to finish the book,” he said. Whispered, rather. “Finish my notes. Nothing like this has happened before, or will again. Someone has to remember.”
“Turn yourself on, then. Stream your memory into the book, and we’ll leave together.”
“That’s not the point. My sense data—it could mean anything. I want this to be my story, as I tell it.”
“If by that you mean conscious of myself, sure. That’s why I’m here. What’s a choir without voices?”
He didn’t seem to want an answer. She didn’t try to offer one.
She stepped beside him and threw an arm around his shoulder. He felt warm from within. Digestion at work. The body turning meat to meat.
“I will drag you from this place,” she said, “if you don’t come on your own.”
“Give me tonight to work,” he replied. “Then we’ll leave.”
He sat on the hilltop with his book and pen. The lattice turned, and a shield-sail leaf passed between the singularity and Michael’s Park. Shadows fell in place of night. Thea descended into the crowd, past bodies every shade of metal and flesh. A woman ladled out plastic cups of red liquid, and on a lark, Thea took one, and drank, and tuned down the filters in her blood so she could feel the buzz. She joined a dance, thrashing to the beat with others more used to thrashing. After a second drink, she felt like she danced better.
In spun-sugar sparks of successive moments the dance drew her deeper, into crowds that tore a cow apart with their hands, into webs of wings pulsing to a deep bass beat. In the blood and rush, she found herself face-to-face with a tall blond who looked like the speaker from that afternoon, the gorgeous one with the tongue of flame. He’d grown sex organs, and he kissed her hard and pulled her toward him. She kneed him in his new-grown genitalia, burned the rest of the drugs and alcohol from her blood, and walked away.
When she returned to the hilltop, her brother sat cross-legged and writing.
“I don’t like this kind of party,” she said.
He gnawed on his pen cap. “I don’t either, to be honest. They're scared, and fear puts an edge to pleasure.”
“They know the fleet will strike soon.”
“We hope it won’t, but we know better.”
“Then why come here in the first place?”
“Because someone must remember,” he said. “Because once they kill us, they’ll wipe this little discord from the song, surely as they—as we—remove all else we deem unworthy save the trophies we take. If it isn’t written down, it goes away.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “Why stand against the choirs? The wars we fight are horrible. But they save lives. Preserve civilization. Or civilizations.”
“Do they?” he said.
Drugs burned off, she lay on the ground beside the useless sundial. “Yes.”
“As we fight we interfere. We smooth conflict, ennoble genius, we cull godlings and grand empires before they bloom. But think: even we came from somewhere, before we stepped outside of time, before we began the long war. Could the Crystal City of today let itself be born? What if all our work only builds a world in which we are impossible? What if we only exist now because we didn’t? What if time needs pain as much as harmony?”
“Paternalism,” she said, too tired to form the full sentences of her argument. “Privilege of place. Ask someone in the timestream dying of a blood infection what they think of your playacting.”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “I need to know if I’m lying to myself.”
“I don’t. Yet. But I will.”
“I love you,” she said before she drifted off to sleep.
“I love you too. And our mothers.”
She woke alone, to the tolling of bells.
Stars thronged the sky, all moving, all singing, between a ring of eclipsed suns. The guns must have drifted through the shield wall in the night. Stars: an infinite horde of builders kitted out for war, wings flared white with absorbed radiance, power gathered in rainbow cascade. Eclipsed suns: the Angelus Guns pointed down at Michael’s Park, lips aflame, the darkness inside them deep. After so much silence the fleet’s music deafened, washes of consensus and rage, righteous hunger and restrained wrath and sorrow passed through tachyons and entangled particles, along meson and microwave, the song conducting itself.
The hilltop where she lay was empty but for the useless sundial.
Bells rang: the tolling of the guns, and answering alarms in the crowd beneath. Gabe was gone. She stood, cried out his name, but even though she amplified her voice a thousand times it did not carry over the screams of praise and rage that rose against the guns.
Stars fell, flashing, toward Michael’s Park.
Guards streaked up from the park to meet the stars. They all unfolded, songs clashing with songs. Swords met, and rainbows razored through rainbows.
“Gabe,” she said for the third time, and did not bother crying out, because she knew he would not answer. Of course. He’d said his goodbyes the night before.
She spread her wings and took flight, and told the rainbow machines in her blood: find my brother. Find him however you can.
Battle songs clashed around her. Plasma seared her skin and hair; she dove to evade a fog of knives but some still cut her, and she hurt. Her blood burned as the rainbow machines shed waste heat, all their capacity devoted to digesting the data her eyes and other senses fed them. None left over to help her fly or dodge. She slowed in the air. Her strength faded.
There, the rainbow machines whispered: alone, by the grand stage, his eyes skyward. She swooped toward him as a fierce crescendo broke the sky behind her.
She landed in front of Gabe, and grabbed his arm. “Come on,” she said.
“I’m not leaving.”
She pulled him toward her. “Then I’ll take you.”
He did not raise his hands to stop her, nor did he let her move him. “Thea. Go.”
“You won’t be,” he said, and touched the bag slung at her hip. “I’ll be with you always. And I’ll always be here, too.”
“You can’t fix this with force,” he said. “Look up.”
She did. Up, into the fire.
When she looked down, her eyes were wet.
“The hardest war,” he said, “is the war inside.”
He was wrong, but she didn’t argue.
She hugged him. He hugged her back, and kissed her on the cheek. “Go,” he said, and she went.
She ran through the redwings of Michael’s Park as they sang their songs and chanted their chants and feared their fear. Their guardians died in the sky above. Blood smoked to ash as it fell.
The guns’ eclipse rims burned brighter.
She fled. Winged west, away from the park, through the rain of blood and burning fog, down broad dark avenues. She fled, wings beating, and tried not to think about the guns, or Gabe.
A soldier stopped her by the broken bridge. Armored, faceless, a generic combat model. But as she approached, its line in the music changed, and Zeke emerged from within. Gentle, calm Zeke. Between her and escape.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Thea. The choir needs you.”
“What do they want?”
“Join us. Reactivate yourself.”
“My brother’s still in there. I won’t be part of killing him.”
“We can’t let you out with rebel memories. They’re dangerous.”
“I don’t have anything,” she said. “Zeke, I don’t have anything but my own mind. Let me through.” Cries of triumph and defeat echoed through the radiant bands. She opened her bag to show him book, and pen, and cup, and sword. “Search me, scan me. But I won’t join you. Not in this.”
He sang through her body, through her bag, through her blood, and found no mind but hers. No riders, no stolen memory, no manifesto song.
“We want you,” he said.
“I won’t help kill my brother, Zeke.” She spun up her combat engines. Her hand drifted to the hilt of her mother’s sword. “You can’t ask that.”
“We can,” he said. Their eyes met. Did he, after all, remember the dragonflies that sang?
She held the sword. Its mind woke and unfolded around her own. There were so many ways she could kill him, though she would be cast out in return, chased through all time until she died. She would do it. Zeke knew.
You can’t fix this with force.
She released the hilt, and withdrew her hand.
The walls stood gray and dead to either side. Zeke’s were the only eyes upon her. He closed them. “Go. I’ll forget this.”
She flew past him, out over the gap and down, away from the city, into the marbled sky. Before she slipped from timeless space, she heard, in the far distance, a familiar voice. Gabe. The soldiers of the host sang telemetry songs, and he added his voice to theirs in secret, directed out to her.
So, as she flew and wept, she looked up through his eyes from Michael’s Park, and saw the fire of the guns’ lips build to burning, and their black mouths open. She raised her hands, and once and forever she died.
She returned to the world with the lizards, in the depths of ordinary time. Her mothers received her. She gave her old mother back the sword, with thanks. They asked her simple questions, and she offered simple answers, and sank once more to work. For a year she watched the lizards struggle with fire: their experiments, their frustrations, the pain when they burned.
When the tribe kept their first flame going all night through, she and her mothers climbed the tallest nearby peak and sang a praise song, and a song for the dead.
That night, Thea snuck to their fire with the book that was not hers, and opened it, and read, as she had many times before, the thick letters her brother’s pen had carved into the paper. No memory, no vision, nothing for Zeke to find when he sang through her. Just letters. Just a story with the end missing.
But she knew the end. She drank tea from her cup, and drew her pen, and finished her brother’s work.
Someday, she would read it out loud where the lizards could hear.
“The Angelus Guns” copyright © 2014 by Max Gladstone
Art copyright © 2014 by Victor Mosquera