The corpse-jumping body mercenary Nev is used to filling other people’s shoes. When his assistant Tera recognizes the most recent waterlogged cadaver they bought off the street, though, he finds that his new body is carrying more trouble than he bargained for.
Bodies are only beautiful when they aren’t yours. It’s why Nev had fallen in love with bodies in the first place. When you spent time with the dead you could be anyone you wanted to be. They didn’t know any better. They didn’t want to have long conversations about it. They were vehicles. Transport. Tools. They were yours in a way that no living thing ever could be.
Nev stood at the end of the lower city’s smallest pier with Tera, his body manager, while she snuffled and snorted with some airborne contagion meant to make her smarter. She was learning to talk to the dead, she said, and you only picked up a skill like that if you went to some viral wizard who soaked your head in sputum and said a prayer to the great glowing wheel of God’s eye that rode the eastern horizon. Even now, the boiling mass of stars that made up the God’s eye nebula was so bright Nev could see it in broad daylight. It was getting closer, the priests all said. Going to gobble them up like some cancer.
Why Tera needed to talk to the dead when Nev did just fine with them as they were was a mystery. But it was her own body, her slice of the final take to spend, and he wasn’t going to argue about what she did with it.
“You buying these bodies or not?” said the old woman in the pirogue. She’d hooked the little boat to the snarling amber head of a long-mummified sea serpent fixed to the pier. In Nev’s fascination with the dead body, he’d forgotten about the live one trying to sell it to him.
“Too rotten,” Tera said.
“Not if we prepare it by day’s end,” Nev said. “Just the big one, though. The kid, I can’t do anything with.”
He pulled out a hexagonal coin stamped with the head of some long-dead upstart; a senator, maybe, or a juris priest. The old folks in charge called themselves all sorts of things over the years, but their money spent the same. He wondered for a minute if the bodies were related; kid and her secondary father, or kid and prime uncle. They were both beginning to turn, now, the bodies slightly bloated, overfull, but he could see the humanity, still; paintings in need of restoration.
“Some body merc you are!” the old woman said. “Underpaying for prime flesh. This is good flesh, here.” She rubbed her hands suggestively over the body’s nearly hairless pate.
Nev jabbed a finger at the empty pier behind him; she arrived with her bodies too late—the fish mongers had long since run out of stock, and the early risers had gone home. “Isn’t exactly a crowd, is there?” He pushed his coat out of the way, revealing the curved hilt of his scimitar.
She snarled at him. It was such a funny expression, Nev almost laughed. He flipped her the coin and told Tera to bring up the cart. Tera grumbled and snuffled about it, but within a few minutes the body was loaded. Tera took hold of the lead on their trumpeting miniature elephant, Falid, and they followed the slippery boardwalk of the humid lower city into the tiers of the workhouses and machinery shops of the first circle. While they walked, Falid gripped Nev’s hand with his trunk. Nev rubbed Falid’s head with his other hand. Falid had been with him longer than Tera; he’d found the little elephant partly skinned and left to rot in an irrigation ditch ten years before. He’d nursed him back to health on cabbage and mango slices, back when he could afford mangos.
Tera roped Falid to his metal stake in the cramped courtyard of the workshop. Nev fed Falid a wormy apple from the bin—the best they had right now—and helped Tera haul the body inside. They rolled it onto the great stone slab at the center of the lower level.
Nev shrugged off his light coat, set aside his scimitar, and tied on an apron. He needed to inspect and preserve the body before they stored it in the ice cellar. Behind him rose the instruments of his trade: jars of preserved organs, coagulated blood, and personal preservation and hydrating concoctions he’d learned to make from the Body Mercenary Guild before they’d chucked him out for not paying dues. Since the end of the war, business for body mercs had been bad, and the guild shed specialist mercenaries like him by the thousands. On a lucky day, he was hired on as a cheap party trick, or by a grieving spouse who wanted one last moment with a deceased lover. That skirted a little too closely to deceptive sexual congress for his moral compass. Killing people while wearing someone else’s skin was one thing: fucking while you pretended to be someone they knew was another.
Tera helped him strip the sodden coat and trousers from the body. What came out of the water around the pier was never savory, but this body seemed especially torn up. It was why he didn’t note the lack of external genitals, at first. Cocks got cut off or eaten up all the time, on floaters like this one. But the look on Tera’s face made him reconsider.
“Funny,” Tera said, sucking her teeth. She had a giant skewer in one hand, ready to stab the corpse to start pumping in the fluids that reduced the bloat. She pulled up the tattered tunic—also cut in a men’s style, like the trousers—and clucked over what appeared to be a bound chest.
“Woman going about as a man?” Nev said. Dressing up as a man was an odd thing for a woman to do in this city, when men couldn’t even own property. Tera owned Nev’s workshop, when people asked. Nev had actually bought it under an old name some years before; he told the city people it was his sister’s name, but of course it was his real one, from many bodies back. He and Tera had been going about their business here for nearly five years, since the end of the war, when body mercenaries weren’t as in demand and old grunts like Tera got kicked out into a depressed civilian world that wanted no reminder of war. When he met her, she’d been working at a government school as a janitor. Not that Nev’s decision regarding the body he wore was any saner.
“You think she’s from the third sex quarter?” Nev said, “or is it a straight disguise?”
“Maybe she floated down from there,” Tera said, but her brow was still furrowed. “Priests go about in funny clothes sometimes,” she said. “Religious thing.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking how much you hate going about in women’s bodies,” Tera said.
“I like women well enough,” Nev said, “I just don’t have the spirit of one.”
“And a pity that is.”
“She cost money. I might need her. What I prefer and what I need aren’t always the same thing. Let’s clean her up and put her in the cellar with the others.”
A body mercenary without a good stash of bodies was a dead body mercenary. He knew it as well as anyone. He’d found himself bleeding out alone in a field without a crop of bodies to jump to before, and he didn’t want to do it again. Every body merc’s worst nightmare: death with no possibility of rebirth.
Tera cut off the breast binding. When she yanked off the bandages, Nev saw a great red tattoo at the center of the woman’s chest. It was a stylized version of the God’s eye nebula, one he saw on the foreheads of priests gathering up flocks in the street for prayer, pushing and shoving and shouting for worshippers among the four hundred other religious temples, cults, and sects who had people out doing the same.
Tera gave a little hiss when she saw the tattoo, and made a warding gesture over her left breast. “Mother’s tits.”
“Wrap her up and—”
The door rattled.
Nev reached for his scimitar. He slipped on the wet floor and caught himself on the slab just as the door burst open.
A woman dressed in violet and black lunged forward. She wielded a shimmering straight sword with crimson tassels, like something a general on the field would carry.
“Grab the body,” the woman said. Her eyes were hard and black. There were two armed women behind her, and a spotty boy about twelve with a crossbow.
Nev held up his hands. Sometimes his tongue was faster than his reflexes, and with the face he had on this particular form, it had been known to work wonders. “I’m happy to sell it to you. Paid a warthing for it, though. I’d appreciate—”
“Kill these other two,” she said.
“Now, that’s not—” Nev began, but the women were advancing. He really did hate it when he couldn’t talk his way out. Killing was work, and he didn’t like doing work he wasn’t paid for.
He backed up against the far wall with Tera as the gang came at them. Tera, too, was unarmed. She shifted into a brawler’s stance. He was all right at unarmed combat, but surviving it required a fairer fight than this one. Four trained fighters with weapons against two without only ended in the unarmed’s favor in carnival theater and quarter-warthing stories.
Nev looked for a weapon in reach—a hack saw, a fluid needle, anything—and came up empty. His scimitar was halfway across the room.
If they wanted the body, then, he’d give it to them.
He whistled at Tera. She glanced over at him, grimaced, tightened her fists.
Nev pulled the utility dagger at his belt and sliced his own forearm from wrist to elbow. Blood gushed. He said a little prayer to God’s eye, more out of tradition than necessity, and abandoned his mortally wounded body.
There was a blink of darkness. Softness at the edges of his consciousness.
Then a burst of awareness.
Nev came awake inside the body on the slab. He couldn’t breathe. He rolled off the slab and hit the floor hard, vomiting bloody water, a small fish, and something that looked like a cork. His limbs were sluggish. His bowels let loose, covering the floor in bloody shit, piss, and something ranker, darker: death.
He gripped the edge of the slab and pulled himself up. His limbs felt like sodden bread. Putting on a new, dead skin of the wrong gender often resulted in a profound dysphoria, long-term. But he didn’t intend to stay here long.
The attackers were yelling. The kid got down on his knees and started babbling a prayer to the Helix Sun god. Nev had his bearings now. He flailed his arms at them and roared, “Catch me, then!” but it came out a mush in the ruined mouth of the dead woman whose body he now occupied.
He waited until he saw Tera kick open the latch to the safe room and drag his bleeding former body into it. The one with such a pretty face. Then he turned and stumbled into the courtyard.
A dozen steps. He just needed to make it a dozen steps, until his spirit had full control of the body. Second wind, second wind—it was coming. Hopefully before he lost his head. If he didn’t get them out far enough, they’d just run back in and finish off Tera and what was left of his old body. He really liked that body. He didn’t want to lose it.
The gang scrambled after him. He felt a heavy thump and blaring pain in his left shoulder. Someone had struck him with an ax. He stumbled forward. Falid trumpeted as he slipped past. He considered putting Falid between him and the attackers—maybe some better body merc would have—but his heart clenched at the idea. He loved that stupid elephant.
He felt hot blood on his shoulder. A good sign. It meant the blood was flowing again. Second wind, second wind…
Nev burst out of the courtyard and into the street. The piercing light of the setting suns blinded him. He gasped. His body filled with cramping, searing pain, like birth. He’d been reborn a thousand times in just this way; a mercenary who could never die, leaping from host to host as long as there were bodies on the battlefield. He could run and fight forever, right up until there were no more bodies he’d touched. He could fight until he was the last body on the field.
He pivoted, changing directions. The burst of new life caused his skin to flake. He was going to be powerfully thirsty and hungry in a quarter hour. But that was more than enough time to do what needed doing.
Nev picked up speed. The body’s legs responded, stronger and fitter than they’d been for their former inhabitant. He coughed out one final wet muck of matter and took a deep, clear breath. He glanced back, ensured the gang was still chasing him, and turned down a side alley.
They barreled after him, all four of them, which told him they were amateurs more than anything else thus far. You didn’t all bumble into a blind alley after a mark unless you were very, very sure of yourselves.
He knew the alley well. Hairy chickens as tall as his knee hissed and scattered as he passed. He rounded the end of the alley and jumped—the leap across the sunken alley here was six feet. Not easy, but not impossible. The street had caved during the last rainstorm. Knowing to jump should have saved him.
But he came up short.
He missed the other side by inches, threw his arms forward, tried to scramble for purchase.
Nev, the body that housed Nev, fell.
His legs snapped beneath him. Pain registered: dull, still, with the nerves not yet fully restored. He cracked his head against broken paving stones at the bottom of the sinkhole. A black void sputtered across his vision.
“Shit,” the woman with the dark eyes said. She peered down at him; her mane of black hair had come loose, and with the double helix of the suns behind her, she looked like a massive lion. “Finish killing it. Take it with us. Body’s barely fit for Corez now.”
“He’s a body merc,” one of the others said, behind her. “He’s just going to jump again.”
“Then go back and burn his house down, too.”
The boy came up behind her, levelled a crossbow with a violet plume at the end, and shot Nev in the chest.
It took two more to kill him.
Dying hurt every time.
Nev gasped. Sputtered, wheezed, “Where are we?”
It was dead dark.
“Lie flat, fool. We’re under the floor of the warehouse.”
He gasped for air and reached instinctively for his cut wrist. Tera had bound it with clean linen and salve that stank nearly as bad as the corpse they’d hauled from the pier.
“They’re going to burn the workshop.”
“You’re lucky we aren’t burning in there too. You only lasted five minutes.”
“More than long enough, for some.”
“Easy to please, were they?”
“My favorite sort.”
She snorted. Sneezed. Hacked something up and spit into the dusty space. “They didn’t know what you were until you jumped. Seemed right surprised.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time we pulled a body that should have stayed buried.”
Nev smelled smoke. His workshop, burning. If they didn’t leave soon it would catch the warehouse they were squatting under, too. Years they worked to build up that workshop. If he was lucky, some of the bodies on ice in the cellar might keep, but probably not. All those lovely bodies lost… He shivered and clutched at his wrist again.
“Anything they say give you an idea what they wanted with the body?” Tera asked.
“Only used one name. Said the body wasn’t fit for… Corez?”
Tera muttered something.
The smell of smoke got stronger. “You knew that tattoo,” he said. “It’s like the one on those priests. The new Gods’ eye cult. The real liberal ones with the habit of burning effigies in the park.”
“Not just the tattoo,” Tera said. “I knew the woman.”
“Who was she?”
“My sister,” Tera said, “and Corez is the piece of shit that runs that cult temple she ran off to twenty years ago.”
The fire had seared a scar clean through the workshop and into the warehouse behind it. The billowing flames destroyed three buildings before the fire brigade pumped in water from the ocean. One of the buildings was a factory where children put together beautifully patterned tunics. The children still milled about on the street opposite, faces smeared in char, hacking smoke.
Nev crunched across the floor of the ruined workshop, kicking aside broken glass and the twisted implements of his trade, all swirling with sea water. The cellar had caved in, barring the way to the bodies below. The intense heat would have melted all the ice blocks he packed down there in straw anyway, and ruined his collection. If someone shot him in the heart now, he’d have nowhere to jump.
He saw Tera standing over a heaped form in the courtyard, and walked over to her. She frowned at the crumpled body of Falid the elephant, shot six times with what was likely a crossbow. They’d removed the bolts. Falid’s tongue lolled out. His tiny black eyes were dull.
Nev knelt before the little elephant and stroked his fat flank. “This was unnecessary,” he said.
“So was the factory,” Tera said.
Nev’s eyes filled. He wiped his face. “No. That was collateral damage. This…. This was unnecessary.”
“It’s just…” Tera began, but trailed off. She stared at him.
Body after body, war after war, fight after fight, Nev dealt with the consequences. He knew what he risked, and he was willing to pay the price. But what had Falid to do with any of that? He was just a fucking elephant.
“I want my sister’s body,” Tera said. “I know you don’t care much for people. But I cared some for my sister, and I want her buried right.”
“Revenge won’t bring her back.”
“Revenge will get her buried right.”
“Revenge doesn’t pay for a new workshop, or more bodies.”
“Revenge gets you more bodies.”
“But not a place to put them.”
“Then do it for the money. You’ve seen that God’s eye temple on the hill. You think they only keep people in there?”
“And if there’s no money?”
Tera spat. “Then you’ll have to settle for revenge.”
Falid, the little trumpeting elephant. “It was not necessary,” Nev said.
“It never is,” Tera said.
The cult of God’s eye was housed in a massive temple three rings further up into the city. They had no money to wash and dress the part, so they waited for cover of night, when the only thing illuminating the streets were the floating blue bodies of the nightblinders; beautiful, thumb-sized flying insects that rose from their daytime hiding places to softly illuminate the streets until nearly dawn.
In the low blue light, the craggy red sandstone temple threw long shadows; the grinning eyeless faces carved into its outer walls looked even more grotesque. There was just enough light for Nev to notice that the crossbowmen at the parapet above the gate carried quivers of bolts with purple plumes, just like the ones the boy had used to shoot him and Falid.
“Over or under?” Nev said.
Tera chewed on a wad of coca leaves. Whatever viral thing the wizards had given her was finally clearing up. “Under,” she said.
They slipped away from the temple’s front doors and walked four blocks up to the broken entrance to the sewers. Many had been left unrepaired after the last storm. As they huffed along the fetid brick sewer, hunched over like miners, Nev said, “Why’d you want to talk to the dead, really? We don’t need to talk to the dead.”
“You don’t,” Tera said. She slapped the side of the sewer and muttered something. She had a better sense of direction than he did. “I do.”
“You can’t think the dead are still there, if I can run around in their bodies.”
“I think there’s always a piece of us still there, in the bodies. In the bones.”
“You’ll talk to me when I’m dead, then? You’re, what—eighty?”
“I’m fifty-one, you little shit.”
“Maybe worry over yourself first.”
“That ain’t my job. And you know it. Here it is. Boost me up.”
He offered his knee, and she stood on it while working away the grate above. She swore.
The weight of her on his knee eased as she hauled herself up. The light was bad in the sewers; only a few of the nightblinders made it down here. “Come now,” she said, and he could just see her arms reaching for him.
Nev leapt. She pulled him until he could grab the lip of the latrine himself. He rolled over onto a white tiled floor. Two lanterns full of buzzing nightblinders illuminated the room. He smeared shitty water across the floor. “They’ll smell us coming,” he said.
The door opened, and a plump little robed priest gaped at them.
Tera was faster than Nev. She head-butted the priest in the face. Nev grabbed the utility knife at his belt and jabbed it three times into the man’s gut. He fell.
Tera clucked at him. “No need to go about killing priests,” she whispered. As she gazed at the body, a strange look came over her face. “Huh,” she said.
She shrugged. “Dead guy knows where Corez is.”
“You’re making that up.”
She spat and made the sign of God’s eye over her left breast. “Sordid truth, there. See, those viral wizards aren’t talking shit. Told you I’d get smarter.”
“The man is dead. It’s impossible that—”
“What? Messes with your little idea of the world, doesn’t it? That maybe who we are is in our bones? Maybe you don’t erase everything when you jump. Maybe you become a little bit like every body. Maybe you’re not stealing a thing. You’re borrowing it.”
Nev turned away from her. His response was going to be loud, and angry. Unnecessary. The guild taught that death was darkness. There were no gods, no rebirths, no glorious afterlives. The life you had was the one you made for yourself in the discarded carcasses of others. Most days, he believed it. Most days.
They dumped the body down the latrine. “Lot of work to bury your sister,” Nev said.
“Fuck you. You wouldn’t know.”
He considered her reaction for a long moment while they waited in the doorway, looking left to right down the hall for more wandering priests. It was true. He wouldn’t know. He’d neither burned nor buried any of his relatives. They’d all be long dead, now.
“It made you angry I jumped into her body, didn’t it?” he said.
“Didn’t ask me, or her. No choice, when you don’t ask.”
“It didn’t occur to me.”
“Yeah, things like that never do, do they?”
She slipped into the hall. Nev padded quietly after her, past row after row of nightblinder lanterns. They circled up a spiral stair, encountering little resistance. At the top of the staircase was a massive iron banded door. Tera gestured for him to come forward. He was the better lock pick.
Nev slipped out his tools from the flat leather clip at this belt and worked the lock open. The lock clicked. Tera pushed it open and peered in.
Darkness. The nightblinder lanterns inside had been shuttered. Nev tensed. He heard something beside him, and elbowed into the black. His arm connected with heavy leather armor. Someone grabbed his collar and yanked him into the room. Tera swore. The armored man kicked Nev to his knees. Nev felt cold steel at the back of his neck.
The door slammed behind them.
The black sheathing on the lanterns was pulled away. Nev put his hands flat on the floor. No sudden movements until he knew how many there were. A large woman sat at the end of a raised bed. Her mane of black hair reminded him strongly of the woman who’d chased them through the street, but the body he knew far more intimately. It was Tera’s sister, her soft brown complexion and wise eyes restored, transformed, by a body mercenary like him.
Four more men were in the room, long swords out, two pressed at Tera, two more at Nev. They were all men this time, which didn’t bode well. Enlisted men tended to be more expendable than their female counterparts.
“You stink,” the woman who wore Tera’s sister’s body said. “You realize it was only my curiosity that let you get this far. Surely you’re not stupid enough to risk your necks over a burnt workshop?”
“My sister,” Tera said. “Mora Ghulamak. You’re not her, so you must be Corez.”
“God’s eye, that honeyring didn’t have a sister, did she?” Corez said. “Your sister pledged her body to the God’s eye. She disguised herself and tried to flee that fate. But she’s in service to me, as you can see.”
“My sister’s dead,” Tera said. “We came for her body. To burn her.”
“Burn her? Surely your little body merc friend here understands why that’s not going to be permitted. A body is just a suit. This suit is mine.”
“Her body,” Tera said.
Corez waved her hand at the men. “Dump them in the cistern. There’s two more unblemished dead for my collection.”
Drowning was the best way to kill a body you wanted for later. It left no marks—nothing that required extensive mending. It was also the worst way to die. Nev tried to bolt.
The men were fast, though, bigger than him, better armored, and better trained. They hauled them both from the room, down two flights of stairs, and brought them to the vast black mouth of a cistern sitting in the bowels of the temple.
Nev tried to talk his way out, tried coercion, promises. They said nothing. They were in service to a body mercenary. They knew what she could do with them, and their bodies. They wouldn’t know death. Priests of every faith said they’d never see an afterlife, if they lived as walking corpses.
They kicked Tera in first. Nev tumbled after her.
He hit the water hard.
Nev gasped. It was cold, far colder than he expected. He bubbled up and swam instinctively to the side of the cistern. The sides were sheer. The top was at least thirty feet above them.
Tera sputtered beside him.
He hated drowning. Hated it. “Look for a way up.”
They spent ten minutes clawing their way around the cistern, looking for a crack, a step, an irregularity. Nothing. Nev tried swimming down as far as he could, looking for a drain pipe. If there was one, it was deeper than he could dive. He could not find the bottom.
The third time he surfaced, he saw Tera clumsily treading water. Her face was haggard.
“It’s all right,” Nev said, but of course it wasn’t.
“How old are you, really?” Tera said. She choked on a mouthful of water, then spit.
He swam over to her. Looped an arm around her waist. He could last a bit longer, maybe. His body was stronger and fitter. Younger. “Old enough.”
“The face I see now is young and pretty, but you ain’t twenty-five.”
“Body mercs have been known—”
“I know it’s not your body. You spend more time admiring it than a War Minister’s husband spends polishing her armor for her.”
“That’s the trouble with the living. Everyone wants to know everything.” He had a memory of his first body, some stranger’s life, now, playing at being a mercenary in the long tunic and trousers of a village girl. It was a long road from playing at it to living it, to dying at it.
“Only ever asked you two questions,” she said, sputtering. He kicked harder, trying to keep them both afloat. “I asked how long you been a body merc, and how much pay was.”
“This makes three.”
“Three too many.”
“That’s your problem, boy-child. Love the dead so much you stopped living. Man so afraid of death he doesn’t live is no man at all.”
“I don’t need people.”
“Yeah? How’d you do without a body manager, before me?”
He smelled a hot, barren field. Bloody trampled grain. He felt the terrible thirst of a man dying alone in a field without another body in sight, without a stash of his own. He had believed so strongly in his own immortality during the early days of the war that when he woke inside the corpse of a man in a ravine who would not stop bleeding no matter how much he willed it, it was the first time he ever truly contemplated death. He had prayed to three dozen gods while crawling out of the ravine, and when he saw nothing before him but more fields, and flies, and heat, he’d faced his own mortality and discovered he didn’t like it at all. He was going to die alone. Alone and unloved, forgotten. A man whose real face had been ground to dust so long ago all he remembered was the cut of his women’s trousers.
“I managed,” he said stiffly. His legs were numb.
Tera was growing limp in his arms. “When I die in here, don’t jump into my body. Leave me dead. I want to go on in peace.”
“There’s only darkness after—”
“Don’t spray that elephant shit at me,” she said. “I know better, remember? I can… speak… to the dead now. You… leave me dead.”
“You’re not going to die.” His legs and arms were already tired. He hoped for a second wind. It didn’t come. He needed a new body for that.
Tera huffed more water. Eventually Tera would die. Probably in a few minutes. Another body manager dead. And he’d have nowhere to leap but her body. He gazed up at the lip of the cistern. But then what? Hope he could get out of here in Tera’s body when he couldn’t in his own, fitter one?
Tera’s head dipped under the water. He yanked her up.
“Not yet,” he said. He hated drowning. Hated it.
But there was nowhere to go.
No other body…
“Shit,” he said. He pulled Tera close. “I’m going now, Tera. I’m coming back. A quarter hour. You can make it a quarter hour.”
“Nowhere… to… no… bodies. Oh.” He saw the realization on her face. “Shit.”
“Quarter hour,” he said, and released her. He didn’t wait to see if she went under immediately. He dove deep and shed his tunic, his trousers. He swam deep, deeper still. He hated drowning.
He pushed down and down. The pressure began to weigh on him. He dove until his air ran out, until his lungs burned. He dove until his body rebelled, until it needed air so desperately he couldn’t restrain his body’s impulse to breathe. Then he took a breath. A long, deep breath of water: pure and sweet and deadly. He breathed water. Burning.
His body thrashed, seeking the surface. Scrambling for the sky.
Then calm. He ceased swimming. Blackness filled his vision.
So peaceful, though, in the end. Euphoric.
Nev screamed. He sat bolt upright and vomited blood. Blackness filled his vision, and for one horrifying moment he feared he was back in the water. But no. The smell told him he was in the sewers. He patted at his new body, the plump priest they’d thrown down the latrine: the bald pate, the round features, the body he had touched and so could jump right back into. He gasped and vomited again; bile this time. He realized he was too fat to get up through the latrine, but wearing what he did made it possible to get in the front door.
He scrambled forward on sluggish limbs, trying to work new blood into stiff fingers. His second wind came as he slogged back up onto the street. He found a street fountain and drank deeply to replace the vital liquid he’d lost. Then he was running, running, back to the God’s eye temple.
They let him in with minimal fuss, which disappointed him, because he wanted to murder them all now: fill them full of purple plumed arrows, yelling about fire and elephants and unnecessary death, but he could not stop, could not waver, because Tera was down there, Tera was drowning, Tera was not like him, and Tera would not wake up.
He got all the way across the courtyard before someone finally challenged him, a young man about fourteen, who curled his nose and said some godly-sounding greeting to him. Nev must not have replied correctly, because the snotty kid yelled after him, “Hey now! Who are you?”
Nev ran. His body was humming now, rushing with life, vitality. A red haze filled his vision, and when the next armed man stepped in front of him, he dispatched him neatly with a palm strike to the face. He took up the man’s spear and long sword and forged ahead, following his memory of their descent to the cistern.
As he swung around the first flight he rushed headlong into two armed men escorting Corez up, still wearing Tera’s sister’s skin. Surprise was on his side, this time.
Nev ran the first man through the gut, and hit the second with the end of his spear.
“God’s eye, what—” Corez said, and stopped. She had retreated back down the stairs, stumbled, and her wig was aslant now.
“You take the scalps of your people, too?” Nev said. He hefted the spear.
“Now you think about this,” she said. “You don’t know who I am. I can give you anything you like, you know. More bodies than you know what to do with. A workshop fit for the king of the body mercenaries. A thousand body managers better than any you’ve worked with. You’ve dabbled in a world you don’t understand.”
“I understand well enough,” he said.
“Then, the body. I can give you this body. That’s what she wanted, isn’t it? I have others.”
“I don’t care much for people,” Nev said. “That was your mistake. You thought I’d care about the bodies, or Tera, or her sister, or any of the rest. I don’t. I’m doing this for my fucking elephant.”
He thrust the spear into her chest. She gagged. Coughed blood.
He did not kill her, but left her to bleed out, knowing that she could not jump into another form until she was on the edge of death.
Nev ran the rest of the way down into the basements. They had to have a way to fish the bodies out. He found a giant iron pipe leading away from the cistern, and a sluice. He opened up the big drain and watched the water pour out into an aqueduct below.
He scrambled down and down a long flight of steps next to the cistern and found a little sally port. How long until it drained? Fuck it. He opened the sally port door. A wave of water engulfed him.
He smacked hard against the opposite wall. A body washed out with the wave of water, and he realized it was his own, his beloved. He scrambled forward, only to see Tera’s body tumble after it, propelled by the force of the water. For one horrible moment he was torn. He wanted to save his old body. Wanted to save it desperately.
But Tera only had one body.
He ran over to her and dragged her way from the cistern. She was limp.
Nev pounded on her back. “Tera!” he said. “Tera!” As if she would awaken at the sound of her name. He shook her, slapped her. She remained inert. But if she was dead, and yes, of course she was dead, she was not long dead. There was, he felt, something left. Something lingering. Tera would say it lingered in her bones.
He searched his long memory for some other way to rouse her. He turned her onto her side and pounded on her back again. Water dribbled from her mouth. He thought he felt her heave. Nev let her drop. He brought both his hands together, and thumped her chest. Once. Then again.
Tera choked. Her eyelids fluttered. She heaved. He rolled her over again, and pulled her into his arms.
Her eyes rolled up at him. He pressed his thumb and pinky together, pushed the other three fingers in parallel; the signal he used to tell it was him inhabiting a new body.
“Why you come for me?” Tera said.
He held her sodden, lumpy form in his own plump arms and thought for a long moment he might weep. Not over her or Falid or the rest, but over his life, a whole series of lives lost, and nothing to show for it but this: the ability to keep breathing when others perished. So many dead, one after the other. So many he let die, for no purpose but death.
“It was necessary,” he said.
They crawled out of the basement and retrieved Tera’s sister from the stairwell. It hurt Nev’s heart, because he knew they could only carry one of them. He had to leave his old form. The temple was stirring now. Shouting. They dragged her sister’s body back the way they had come, through the latrines. Tera went first, insisting that she grab the corpse as it came down. Nev didn’t argue. In a few more minutes the temple’s guards would spill over them.
When he slipped down after her and dropped to the ground, he saw Tera standing over what was left of her sister, muttering to herself. She started bawling.
“What?” he said.
“The dead talk to me. I can hear them all now, Nev.”
A chill crawled up his spine. He wanted to say she was wrong, it was impossible, but he remembered holding her in his arms, and knowing she could be brought back. Knowing it wasn’t quite the end, yet. Knowing hope. “What did she say?”
“It was for me and her. Forty years of bullshit. You wouldn’t understand.”
He had to admit she was probably right.
They burned her sister, Mora, in a midden heap that night, while Tera cried and drank and Nev stared at the smoke flowing up and up and up, drawing her soul to heaven, to God’s eye, like a body merc’s soul to a three days’ dead corpse.
Nev sat with Tera in a small tea shop across the way from the pawn office. The bits and bobs they’d collected going through people’s trash weren’t enough for a workshop, not even a couple bodies, but they had squatted in rundown places before. They could eat for a while longer. Tera carried a small box under her arm throughout the haggle with the pawn office. Now she pushed the box across the table to him.
Nev opened the box. A turtle as big as his fist sat inside, its little head peeking out from within the orange shell.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s a fucking turtle.”
“I can see that.”
“Then why’d you ask?” she said. “I can’t afford a fucking elephant, but living people need to care about things. Keeps you human. Keeps you alive. And that’s my job, you know. Keeping you alive. Not just living.”
“I’m not sure I—”
“Just take the fucking turtle.”
He took the fucking turtle.
That night, while Tera slept in the ruined warehouse along the stinking pier, Nev rifled through the midden heaps for scraps and fed the turtle a moldered bit of apple. He pulled the turtle’s box into his lap; the broad lap of a plump, balding, middle-aged man. Nondescript. Unimportant. Hardly worth a second look.
To him, though, the body was beautiful, because it was dead. The dead didn’t kill your elephant or burn down your workshop. But the dead didn’t give you turtles, either. Or haul your corpse around in case you needed it later. And unlike the guild said, some things, he knew now, were not as dead as they seemed. Not while those who loved them still breathed.
Tera farted in her sleep and turned over heavily, muttering.
Nev hugged the box to his chest.
“Elephants and Corpses” copyright © 2015 by Kameron Hurley
Art copyright © 2015 by Jon Foster