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Long is the Way

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For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. “Long is the Way” by Carrie Vaughn and Sage Walker sheds light on what people will do to escape the sins of their past, and whether anyone can find redemption.

Zoe Harris is a marked woman: in hiding for decades because of her connection to a terrorist attack on Jerusalem almost twenty years ago. One determined reporter, Jonathan Hive, stumbles upon a lead that takes him to the south of France to discover the truth. What he finds out is a lesson in how life can bring about the most unexpected miracles.

 

 

Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light. —Paradise Lost

 

Jonathan Tipton-Clarke—also known as Jonathan Hive, also known as Bugsy, and probably also known as a lot of other things that no one actually said to his face—drove up the impossibly picturesque country road with decreasing confidence that he was going the right way. The direction app on his phone had been silent for too long, which probably meant he’d lost the signal. The road grew narrower and narrower, curving through one tiny Provençal village after another, until the villages ran out, replaced by hillsides covered with olive groves and vineyards, and the soft, golden light that had given Impressionist painters ecstatic fits. He ought to be enjoying this. The assignment—track down and interview a “person of interest” who might or might not have been involved with a terrorist attack on Jerusalem almost twenty years ago—had been an excuse to spend time in the south of France on an expense account. He didn’t expect to actually find Zoe Harris.

While he might have had romantic spy thriller notions about chasing down leads across the Middle East, the task had been bureaucratic and dull. Old-fashioned detective work, poring over records, asking the right questions, offering a bribe here and there to get a look at files he maybe shouldn’t have seen. He hadn’t even had to use his ace, much. Fortunately, Harris had spent a lot of time in countries without strict HIPAA requirements. He started with her last known location—Jerusalem, 1994—and her last known associates. The problem was, most of them had died in the disaster. The sheer scale of it—five thousand dead from a biological attack, a weaponized version of the Black Trump virus that killed any wild carder who came in contact with it—meant records were spotty. A lot of people disappeared. But Harris popped back into the record once or twice over the years. A couple of arrests, a couple of hospitalizations—she’d apparently had a rough go of it.

Then he found a mug shot from a hospital in Cairo. Didn’t have a name attached to it, but the ash-blond hair and angry expression matched an earlier passport photo. Harris was an ace who could animate small objects. According to the hospital records, her power was out of control. She was a danger to herself and others and had been kept sedated for years. Then she disappeared, again. Released, homeless, most likely. She was probably dead at the bottom of the Nile.

Except… a decade ago, a woman named Zoe Harris popped up as the president of a small chemical company in Toulouse, France. Couldn’t be the same person, could it? This Harris was reclusive. He couldn’t find any pictures of her. So he asked for a meeting, and now he was on his way to meet her. Assuming he could find the address.

He rolled down the window, set his arm on the edge, and let loose a couple of bugs. Bottle-green wasps popped from his hand and were whisked away by the wind of the car’s passage. That was Jonathan’s own weird and occasionally surprisingly useful ace: He could turn into an equivalent mass of wasps and his consciousness could follow along wherever they went. He sent them straight up, high enough to give him a map-eye view of the road ahead, to make sure he was really going the right way and wasn’t about to end up in some cowshed.

The place wasn’t even that far ahead, turned out, and he’d been going the right way the whole time. Trust the app. Hidden behind a hill and an uninviting stone wall, Harris’s enclave was disguised as a remote country farm. No one who didn’t have a reason to be here would find it. And here he was, driving through a gap in the wall and up to a set of buildings arranged around a gravelly courtyard. Some of the structures were old, maybe even medieval—weathered gray stone, cracked Spanish tiles on the roof. One was very modern, glass and steel, with wide windows and skylights. That must hold the labs.

A small, unassuming sign placed in front of the modern building read Zephyr in a very expensive-looking font. He hesitated a moment, hands on the steering wheel, engine idling. Did he really want to go in? Probably this Harris woman wasn’t even who he thought she was. She probably hadn’t had anything to do with anything. He’d ask her a few questions, maybe get a rundown on her perfume business, and write a puff piece for an airline magazine. Expense account justified.

He sent his already-released bugs ahead, along with a few more of them besides. Just to look the place over. Got the layout pretty quick. Apart from the main building, there were a number of cottages and more typical country buildings, with whitewashed walls and tile roofs, the little kitchen gardens and trash bins of any residential neighborhood. He gathered that a lot of the people who worked here also lived here. Middle of the day, no one much was out and about.

Zephyr was involved with processing ingredients used in perfumes, which seemed an arcane business but somebody had to do it, he supposed. The sleek modern building was the centerpiece of the estate, and a couple of the bugs skimmed over the roof. They found a vent and slipped inside. The sharp tang of volatile chemicals—alcohols, esters, solvents—almost knocked them out right then, and back in the car he shivered in response, until they got their wings back in order. If this lab really did belong to Zoe Harris, maybe-former-terrorist, was she hiding anything in plain sight here? Maybe cranking out something else besides overpowering smells? The bugs flew on through the ductwork. He was hoping he could pop them out into a room—some actual lab or even a secret storage closet—but it turned out the interior vents all had really good filters on them. He couldn’t find so much as a loose seam to crawl through. He’d have to find another way in. He diverted a couple of bugs to wait by the front door, right at the top where no one ever looked.

Back in the driveway, he stepped out of the rental car, shaking out his jacket and running his hands through his dark hair to make sure he didn’t look too respectable. Made him more approachable, he thought. Or maybe he was more nervous than he wanted to admit.

A man left the modern building and approached Jonathan. Middle-aged, with Mediterranean features and a brisk, practical walk. An eye patch over his right eye. He looked a little like a pirate. So the place had surveillance. They’d known the minute Jonathan arrived.

The man said, “Puis-je vous aider?

“Ah… Je ne parle pas français.” That was most of the French he knew right there.

“Oh yes, of course. You’re American.”

Jonathan tried not to feel insulted. “My name is Jonathan Tipton-Clarke. I have an appointment with Ms. Harris. I assume I’m at the right place?”

“You are; she’s expecting you. Right this way.” The man smiled thinly and gestured for Jonathan to follow him. With one last look around the yard, he did so.

A pair of bugs went inside when they did, and quietly buzzed off looking for whatever they could find.

Windows along one side of the corridor looked into a laboratory, stainless steel tables filled with glassware—flasks and bottles, the intricate tubing of distilling apparatus. Several people shrouded in white lab coats, caps, and masks seemed intent on their work, bent over metal trays, carefully lifting bits with delicate forceps.

The clean rooms were really clean. The wasps couldn’t find a way inside. Not that Jonathan would have known what he was looking at if they had. Be helpful if he could find a box labeled Danger, explosives, a package with a return address from the Twisted Fists, but he didn’t.

“Not what people imagine when they think of a perfume factory, eh?” his guide said, with obvious pride. “Not very romantic. This isn’t really a perfume factory—we don’t make perfume here. We make what makes perfume, yes? We can draw the essence from nearly anything.”

There was a metaphor there that Jonathan chose not to chase down.

One bug caught a glimpse: a woman approaching… and she saw him. Them. She was a joker, with a face that looked melted on one side, average white middle-aged matron on the other, with brown hair tied in a ponytail. She held a tightly coiled newspaper in one hand. The pair of bugs crawled along the ceiling—well out of reach of the universal weapon of “death to insects.”

And then her arm stretched. She whipped it back and flung it out, once, twice, and both wasps smashed into spots of goo. Well, then. Jonathan felt the buggy deaths as an itch. He decided not to send out any more bugs, at least not right now.

The corridor turned away from the lab, then ended up at an open door, which they passed through. His guide announced, “Zoe? Mr. Tipton-Clarke is here.”

“Ah. Thank you, Tarek.” The man gave a little bow that somehow didn’t seem anachronistic, and slipped back out, leaving Jonathan to confront his interview subject.

The office was like something out of Architectural Digest. Nothing but clean lines, glass and steel, a soft carpet in a comforting shade of gray. The desk and credenza were black lacquer, and several available chairs seemed somehow soft and repellent at the same time. Zoe Harris, a woman of late middle age, with short-cropped hair and a tired, severe expression, wore black slacks and a gray silk blouse. She’d been studying her large computer screen—only the screen sat on the desk, and a small cordless mouse was tucked under her hand. She clearly ruled this domain.

It was her. That ashy hair, the shape of her face—this was the Zoe Harris from Jerusalem. The terrorist.

He waited while she finished whatever task on the monitor held her attention. After a moment, she stood. “Please, come and sit.” Her accent was American. New York. She didn’t offer her hand for shaking, and Jonathan didn’t press the issue.

“Thanks for agreeing to speak with me, Ms. Harris.”

“Zoe, please.”

“Do you mind if I record our interview?” He held up his digital recorder.

“I’d rather you didn’t, if that’s all right.”

It made things harder, but he understood. He’d even offer to let her speak anonymously. He was imagining an artistic photo to accompany the article, her face shrouded in shadow. He traded the recorder for a pad and pen. “I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work here, and how you got started—”

“That’s not why you’re here,” she said bluntly. “I read up on you, you know. I had people on the lookout for your, ah, associates.”

Jonathan smiled wryly. He was years past being embarrassed at his spying. People generally knew what they were getting when they invited him in.

“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said.

“No, of course not. But we can’t be having outside contagions cluttering up our clean rooms. You understand.”

He spread his hands to say yes, he did. In a way, he was relieved. No pretending he was something he wasn’t, and no dancing around the subject. “So. I’m here about Jerusalem.”

“And?”

“And you’re one of the loose ends. You had contact with the major players. Then you disappeared. A lot of people assumed you were dead. Then you pop up here?” He took in the quiet, professional surroundings.

“Are you working for the police? The CIA?”

Jonathan laughed. “No, no—I’m exactly what I said I was. I’m a reporter on assignment for The Atlantic.” It was the highest-profile gig he’d ever had. They were doing a whole issue of think pieces on wild cards–related terrorism and its aftermath. A lot of retrospectives, interviews with people who’d been there. Trouble was, given the nature of the topic, there weren’t a whole lot of survivors to interview. Jonathan was shocked they’d called him—his usual gig, Aces! magazine, was generally considered a tabloid rag, all celebrity gossip and scandal. But he’d been one of the aces to ditch American Hero to battle the Righteous Djinn in Egypt, back in the day. Five, six years ago now? Seemed longer. He had front-line experience, so to speak, and if an editor thought that made him qualified to tackle the subject, well, he’d give it a shot. This was going to be a coup. If he could get the interview.

“All right, then. What is it you hope to learn, Mr. Tipton-Clarke?”

Why did you do it? was never the right question. It was too big, too prone to pat answers. He had to come at it backward. Find out who Harris was then by figuring out who she was now.

“I want to learn about all this. Zephyr. How did this start? What is it you do here?” He was thinking of a nice lead-in, contrasting the pastoral beauty of the place with the violence of the woman’s past.

Her gaze narrowed, as if she had made a decision. This was usually the point where Jonathan got kicked out of places. “What is it you think we do here?”

“Uh… it’s a perfume business?”

“No. This is redemption.”

He hesitated, taken aback. Now this sounded like a story. “What do you mean? What are you redeeming?”

She might have been a little surprised by his attention. Like she expected him to be uncomfortable with that kind of declaration. She pursed her lips, gave a little nod. And then she told her story.

 

There have been no criminal charges against me, yet. The penalty I deserve is death. If I thought an eternity of torment, of fire or torture, awaited me after death, that would be comforting. I’m stuck with a rationalist’s disbelief in immortality. My hell is that I have memories of what I’ve done and didn’t do to stay alive.

When I left Jerusalem, my plan was to somehow find ten people who were cursed with generosity and the power to forgive. I’m a secular Jew at best, but the mythology is that ten good men are required to keep the world from destruction. I wanted to get ten people out of living hell and into a place where they could live and thrive. Everyone I employ here at Zephyr is a joker. I was born in Jokertown, you know. The people there, the people in jokertowns all over the world, need a leg up more than most. If I can do this little bit…

But I think I might be getting ahead of myself. I’ll start again.

You’re here about what happened in Jerusalem in 1994. The Black Trump. The Card Sharks. There are some words, some memories that cause physical reactions, even after years have passed. See this? I’m trembling, even now. I remember too much.

I was working with the Black Dog—you know the name? At the time he led the Twisted Fists, and I know you know that name. I imagine you sent your little spies out to look for signs of them, to see if maybe I’m still working with the most notorious terrorist ever to crawl out of Jokertown. You know about their “five for one” policy? They’d kill the killer and four others for every murdered joker. It was justice that no one else was seeking at the time. But no, I have no ties with the Fists, not anymore. The incident you’re here about was the Black Trump, the moment Jerusalem was held hostage. The Card Sharks wanted to release the Black Trump, kill every wild carder in the area. So the Fists had a bomb, a nuke. Retaliation I helped haul to the Mideast in an old Blue Bird bus. And then I tried to stop them from using it. So, no, I’m not working with the Twisted Fists.

I’m a murderer. I’ve slaughtered people in anger and killed in self-defense. I saw a moonlit desert, an ambush, a forever-anonymous man with a rifle, his outstretched arm clouded by needle-sharp grains of a private and deadly sandstorm. My vision of that arm would replay for me that night or on some other night soon, a nightmare view of forearm and wrist and finger bones, scoured blue-white and fresh, falling to the sand.

His screams.

I did that.

I didn’t save Jerusalem, or children who depended on me, or my mother. I went to Pan Rudo’s camp, I even had sex with that genocidal monster, but I didn’t manage to destroy the Black Trump virus. Other people did. A virus that could have killed every ace, deuce, and joker on Earth had been destroyed. The quantity of evil in the world remained much the same. Its forms remained banal.

You’re here about what happened to me after Jerusalem. How does one get from that to this?

The first thing I did—I went mad.

I had a list. Jack Braun. Thomas Tudbury. Nephi Callendar. Tachyon. Tachyon was off-planet. I managed to learn that much. Others. People who could have done, should have done, and didn’t. But I couldn’t manage to get close enough to anyone on the list to even sneeze at them. Those were pre-Google years, remember? No, you wouldn’t. You’re young.

I have powers, Mr. Tipton-Clarke. You must know that about me. But I still couldn’t save anyone. And then I realized I was one of those people I hated. I should have done more, and I didn’t, I couldn’t. Self-hatred grew in tandem with my desire to lash out at the perpetrators of so much violence, so much slaughter. I had nightmares, and my nightmares… fear fuels my power. I’d wake to a bedside lamp rocketing through the air, smashing into the wall above my head. Lumps of dust would grow huge, sharp teeth and chatter in Arabic under my bed.

The flat in Jerusalem was crowded with beds, and all of them were empty but mine. I forgot to eat. I stopped bathing, stopped cooking, lived on canned food I didn’t bother to heat. I left Jerusalem, thinking if I could just get away from where the horror happened, the nightmares would end. They didn’t. I ended up in Cairo. But it was the same. This went on for years. I was arrested—I destroyed the flat I was living in. And then I was institutionalized. You know they really do have padded rooms? I should have been safe, in a room with nothing in it. But during my nightmares, my power pulled the stuffing out of the walls and turned it into shrapnel.

I spent a lot of time drugged. That was probably for the best.

And that’s the state I was in when Croyd found me.

 

“Wait,” Jonathan interrupted. He’d written down just a few key words. Black Trump. Card Sharks. Black Dog. Twisted Fists. Jerusalem. But this… “Croyd Crenson? The Sleeper?”

“Yes. You know him?”

“Can’t say that I do,” he answered. “But… everyone knows Croyd Crenson.”

“Yes,” she said, wearing a smile that was incongruously gentle. They’d slept together, Jonathan realized suddenly.

“And he was in Cairo,” Jonathan prompted. “He found you?”

“Yes.”

 

“Jesus, Zoe. What the hell happened to you?”

I didn’t recognize the man who said this to me. The fact that I didn’t recognize him told me who he was. The voice was familiar. That hurt.

“Croyd?” My own voice was small and unused.

“Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Croyd changes every time he sleeps. Sometimes he wakes normal. Sometimes he wakes with powers, an ace. Sometimes… well, sometimes he tries to go back to sleep as quickly as he can. In this manifestation, he was the height I remembered from years before, medium tall. He had dark hair and eyes when I knew him, and a wedge of nose that was slightly left of center. I liked that nose. This Croyd was bald as an egg and his jaw boasted three days’ worth of black and gray stubble. His eyes were pale in the harsh hospital light, but I knew him.

One of his arms seemed to be missing, though. No, not missing. Translucent. A ghost. I thought my drug-drenched brain was playing tricks.

“We can’t get out, they’ll stop us—”

“No they won’t,” he said. “I need your help, Zoe. I need you.”

He was wrong; no one had needed me for a very long time.

“You knew where I was this whole time and didn’t come visit?” It felt like so long since I’d talked at all.

“I didn’t know. It was Needles, and he didn’t tell me until—I don’t have time to explain!”

“Needles?”

Croyd’s translucent hand passed through the door, into the locking mechanism, which clicked back, and the door swung open. He unlocked the last two doors the same way. We passed a couple of orderlies, a couple of doctors. But Croyd was wearing a white lab coat. He had his solid arm around me, as if he was guiding a distraught patient back to her room. Smiled and waved at hospital officials. No one questioned him. People trust men in white lab coats. They shouldn’t, but they do.

We walked out of the hospital. It felt like being reborn.

It was autumn—dark, raining. Croyd hustled me into a jeep and drove straight out of the city, then onto a path that zigged and zagged and tracked across wet dunes and through a marsh.

There was a boat, sleek and fast, with four seats and a lot of inboard motor, hidden in a stand of reeds. It was black and had too much gold striping on it, like a prized drag racer from some paint shop in Jersey. Its engine was loud in the quiet. Some ducks woke up and yelled at us.

I noticed Croyd didn’t have a key. He used his translucent hand to reach into the ignition, to start the motor. He’d done the same with the jeep.

“Did you steal this?” I asked him. I’d missed a couple of doses of medication by now. I was starting to really wake up. “And the jeep?”

“Yeah.” He shrugged.

There was enough light for me to get scared of what I might see if I could only see better. It came from some sort of reflection from the lake, a strange shade of brownish gray. Even now I can smell the living water, see swirls of mist and the white wake behind us, feel the splinters of rain jabbing my face. We went through dark stretches of open water and twisting paths through low stands of what I thought might be papyrus. I didn’t know if papyrus was a thing of history or if I was looking at plain old bulrushes. Whatever they were, they were growing in shallow water. I tried not to think about what would happen if we hit a sandbar.

I grabbed for a handhold when Croyd hauled into a steep turn that lifted my side of the boat out of the water. He hit reverse and the boat crashed back to level and braked itself fast. We plowed through a stand of reeds and onto wet sand.

There was a hut. It seemed to be built of weathered gray boards. It had a tile roof that slanted back from a sort of porch. Water was pouring off a low spot in the roof and falling into a plastic barrel. A man came from beneath its shadow and ran toward us.

It was Needles. Needles, one of the kids I took care of in Jerusalem, but all grown up. He’s a joker, with sharp claws for hands and teeth like baleen. He looks… different now. Well fed, fit.

“How is she?” Croyd demanded.

“Not good,” Needles said. “Zoe. Hi.”

“Hi,” I replied wonderingly. One of them made it. At least one of them is alive.

Croyd hauled me out of the boat with his solid arm and I felt a faint tremor in his hand. Uh-oh. He’d been awake for too long. What a pair we were.

“Croyd. Why are we here?”

“Zoe. Zoe, I couldn’t think of anyone else. She has to get help and she’s so afraid.” He grabbed me by one elbow and tugged me toward the hut.

She, I heard. We’d been lovers once, Croyd and I. We’d been through a lot. She. Damn him.

The slanted roof of the hut made the interior seem like the inside of a tent. It smelled clean. There was an oil lamp in one corner with a small, steady flame, scented with cassia and camwood, warm scents for a cold wet night. There was a sort of pallet bed on the wooden floor, its red-striped cotton covering squared off and carefully tucked in. A woman sat beside it, her feet tucked under her. Her arms were braced on the floor beside her, palms flat, to support the weight of a huge, painfully pregnant belly. Her eyes were closed tight and her fingers were puffy.

“Rima,” Croyd whispered. “She’s here. Zoe’s here, the woman I told you about. She’ll help.”

She opened her eyes, the huge sloe eyes of a beauty from One Thousand and One Nights. She was in her twenties, perhaps. Her hair was hidden by a scarf of green threaded with gold. Her perfect amber skin was beaded with sweat.

“No one can help me,” she said, in English. She clenched her jaw and held her breath, listening to something inside her that hurt. “But the baby? She can take the baby?”

“You, she’ll help you.

At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. Or I ignored what that meant.

Oh, dear God. We were in the middle of nowhere. Really nowhere. I’d seen no lights during the journey from shore to this place. The woman was in labor. I’d had an EMT course years ago, in another life. I’d seen videos of a delivery but I had never seen a live birth.

Needles stood like a statue at the doorway. Croyd stayed frozen where he was, crouched on the floor an arm’s length away from the woman. She breathed again. When she did, he moved no closer and said nothing at all. I think it was terror.

Hospital was my first thought. We have to get her to a hospital. My vision was of sterile tiles and clever machines and brisk, efficient people in scrubs who delivered babies every day. The reality was that we were in muddy wilderness, a long way from any sign of the crowded, sprawling chaos that had been my experience of towns in the Mideast. We had a speedboat, and two men who looked ready to run like rabbits at any sudden noise. It was not a good time for me to lose it.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked stupidly. I was coming out of the sedative haze. My head hurt. My stomach turned over. “I can’t… I don’t… I can’t…”

Croyd said, “I thought… your power. You know. Maybe you can help things along. Like, move the baby out?”

I stared. “Croyd, that’s stupid. My power only works on inanimate objects.”

The woman, Rima, groaned.

“Please, Zoe.”

I knelt by the woman. “When did the pains start?”

“Yesterday,” Rima said.

I thought I knew that first babies take longer to get born, that labor for a first-time mother takes hours, even a whole day. I sincerely hoped I wasn’t making that up. “How far apart are they?”

Rima gazed directly at me for the first time. She looked a little startled. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Let’s time them, then.”

“I have a watch,” Needles said from the doorway. He held a finger above the face of his watch, ready to punch a button on it.

“One’s starting now,” Rima said. She pinched her lips tight together. Her nostrils flared.

“Breathe,” I said. “Slow, deep breaths.” It was tempting to hold my own breath until whatever this child, this woman, was feeling went away. But I knelt beside her and rubbed her shoulders.

We breathed.

“Tell me when it eases,” I said.

Rima nodded.

Another breath. Another.

“Better,” she said.

“Two minutes,” Needles said.

Croyd finally approached and stroked Rima’s forearm from elbow to wrist, a gentle touch, but he stayed where he was, at arm’s length.

I looked at his translucent hand. “Maybe you could… with that hand… like you did with the lock.”

He huffed a nervous laugh. “It only works on inanimate objects.”

“Needles, keep your eye on that watch,” I said. “We’ll tell you when the next one starts.”

He nodded and didn’t look up at us.

“I’m thirsty,” Rima said.

Croyd patted the back of her hand and got to his feet. “I’ll get you some water,” he said.

There were shelves along one wall, and a Coleman two-burner camp stove on a counter.

“How long would it take us to get to the nearest hospital?” I asked.

“Two hours at least, Zoe,” Needles said. “There’s a canal that leads to a little harbor. No hospital. Maybe there’s a clinic there or something, but there’s been fighting in the village. Some shelling. I don’t know about tonight.”

Croyd opened the cap on some bottled water and brought it back to us. Rima drank deeply and handed the bottle back.

“No. Tell her,” she said to him.

“We can’t go to a hospital. If her father… If any of her brothers or her father find her, they’ll kill her,” Croyd said.

Ritual murder, a tainted woman, a disgrace to the family. I knew that story. Croyd, what have you done, and why?

“We’ll lie about her name,” I said.

“It’s starting again,” Rima said.

“Four minutes since the last one,” Needles said.

“I have to go outside.” Rima grabbed a little sack from beside the bed. She clambered to her feet and beneath the hem of the white cotton layers of her dress, I saw them for the first time, her bare little swollen feet and chubby toes. Babies’ little fat feet are pretty and healthy. Swollen feet on a pregnant woman can be an okay thing, but her ankles and her calves were swollen, too.

“I have to—”

The next word was in Arabic. I went with her to the porch.

She limped to the side of the house and squatted. I didn’t know if a baby would fall out. I wanted to panic about that, but baby horses slid out on the ground, didn’t they? And they lived through it. I supposed there was nothing to do if that happened other than pick it up. I was extremely scared, but I couldn’t think of anything to animate that would help any of us. This would be a good time for an ace to show up and perform miracles. Didn’t look like that was going to happen, and I seemed to be all this poor girl had to cling to, so I shoved the panic aside and tried to keep on thinking.

In the dark and the rain, she pushed, she pooped, and her water broke. The little package was some sort of sterile wipes, and Rima used them and managed to get to her feet. There was no baby on the ground, but her dress was soaked. She began to sob.

“Somebody bring me a towel!” I yelled.

Needles brought me one. I lifted Rima’s skirts and dabbed her legs and we helped her walk inside.

I remember how warm the little hut felt after the cold wet air of the outside, how the scented lamp cast its faint golden light.

She was preeclamptic, but I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know what it meant. I got her out of her wet clothes and wrapped her in blankets. We shoved the bedding in the corner and I got Croyd to sit with his shoulders braced against it so Rima could lean back against him. I asked Needles to heat water, because it’s traditional and because it kept his back to us, and I wanted some warm soapy water around for Rima and the baby. He brought water in from the barrel outside. Rima probably didn’t want any men around, but as things got busier I don’t think she cared.

That’s how I saw it then. Now I think her indifference was an early stage of delirium.

I tried to distract her. “Tell me how you and Croyd met.” How you got into this predicament. Between the two of them, I got the story. They traded off, corrected each other on little details. The way couples do.

Rima Naji was a student at Columbia. She wanted a master’s degree when she finished her B.S. in sustainable development. Her family wanted her to come home to Port Said and marry the man they had chosen for her. She thought the prospective husband would turn down the match if she wasn’t a virgin. She went into Jokertown to find someone who could make her inconvenient hymen go away. She found Croyd in a coffee shop, freshly wakened and eating a dozen donuts.

It was sweet, he said. She was fascinating, and exotic, and very bright, and she had a lovely laugh.

I have a clip of her that I’ve saved for Jorah, a Q&A after a C-SPAN lecture where she gave an opinion disguised as a question. She was articulate and persuasive. And she was beautiful. Her dark curly hair wasn’t covered, not when she was a student in New York. I understood why Croyd fell for her. One thing led to another, and then to bed.

“She insisted,” Croyd told me. “It wasn’t until after, until a couple of weeks after that first night, that she told me why.”

He had been her lover in a working city in a busy time, in a country at peace. I envied her that. When I remember the first time Croyd and I made love, I remember the fear that we did our best to escape in each other’s arms, the hope that we’d make it to shore, the smell of seawater crashing over the decks, the growling thump of the engine. We were on a creaking ship in a Mediterranean storm. The blankets smelled of diesel.

“And then she was just gone. Poof. Gone.” As Croyd tends to be once he can’t fight off sleep anymore. “She told the guy at the coffee shop she was going to Toronto.”

Rima murmured, “There was nothing you could do.”

Holding her hand, he stared into the past. “When I woke up the next time… No, two times later; those two were bad wakeups. I tried to find her in Toronto, her name, where she lived, anything.”

“I refused to go back to Egypt,” she said. “So my father came himself and hauled me onto a plane.”

Croyd said, “I got a message from a cop in Jokertown. He found me awake. She’d sent it weeks before. It said she needed help in Egypt.”

He didn’t say he was sorry he’d been asleep, or crazed, when she needed him. He knew I knew how life worked for him. There’s no way out for him, no escape from the cycles.

“You found me,” Rima said. Her smile was beautiful.

“I got a one-way ticket to Alexandria and gave this guy with a truck the name of the place she’d written down, and the next thing I knew he stopped at the side of the road by a lake.” The corner of Croyd’s mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. “Rima found me. When I saw her…”

Croyd had never looked at me the way he looked at Rima.

I think Rima didn’t know she was pregnant when she left New York. When that news slipped, one way or the other, and she knew her father and her brothers knew and would kill her, as required for the honor of the family, someone gave her enough money to get away from Port Said. It may have been her mom. She couldn’t buy an airline ticket in her own name, so she went west to a place she knew from her childhood. The hut was abandoned, part of a research station at a bird sanctuary. A comfortable place for rich Alexandrians to wait until it was time to get in the duck blinds for a morning’s sport. At least she and Croyd had found each other again.

Rima groaned. “I need to push.”

I held her feet so she could brace against my hands. Croyd locked his arm in front of her chest like a bar for her to hold and whispered to her, little terms of endearment that I knew from long ago.

It went too fast. It was the first time I’d seen how huge a baby’s head looks on its way out. Jorah’s head was a sliver of gray bulge sliding forward with contractions and then retreating again, and each push made it larger. This isn’t going to work, was what I thought. This can’t ever work; human babies are too big.

Needles brought a basin of warm soapy water and a pile of towels he’d found by rummaging in a cabinet. He sat down beside Rima and kept one supporting hand on Croyd’s bicep. Needles rattled off some Arabic. Rima replied.

“She says she’s trying to be brave,” Needles said.

Croyd whispered something in her ear. The girl smiled and then clamped her jaw and pushed again. He tried not to tremble but he was truly wired, and I saw the effort he was making.

It’s like kittens, I told myself. I’ve seen kittens born. Things get born and it’s usually okay. There was black silky hair beneath the membrane that covered Jorah’s head. That was a relief. It was a head coming out, not a gray monster. I guided Rima’s hand down to feel it and she smiled. I picked up a towel and held it tight against her stretched vaginal skin. Support the perineum, that long-ago video had said. Something was going to tear, and Rima was bellowing, and Jorah’s head slipped out, facing down, the back of his head on top, a little chin where I couldn’t see it well, and membrane over it all. I wanted to get his nose free so he could breathe and his mother was no kitten; she couldn’t reach down and tear the sac away with her teeth.

“Scissors?” I called out. “A knife? Something?”

Croyd rummaged in his pocket and brought out a folded pocketknife with a black-and-ivory handle. It looked like the 1950s to me. I got it open and let it fall into the soapy water. That would have to do for sterilization. Carefully made a hole in the membrane with the knife tip and pushed the cowl away from Jorah’s face. I turned his head to the side a little and wiped his nose and mouth. He blinked and stared, as calm as a Buddha. I found myself smiling.

I could feel Rima’s relief in the way her muscles relaxed, in the different rhythm of her breathing.

“The head’s out,” I said.

Rima tried to lean forward to see. The motion pushed the rest of Jorah out into my arms, wet and slick and purple, and I thought, My God, he’s dead.

There’s this thing about holding a baby by the heels and slapping him to make him breathe. He’s too slippery, I thought. I can’t do that.

Jorah opened his mouth, all gum and tongue, and sighed, and began to turn pink.

I lifted him onto Rima’s remarkably deflated belly. She reached down and stroked his head, and everything was wonderful and my next obstacle was the umbilical cord. The video had stressed that you don’t have to cut it first thing, that if you just left it where it was for a while, nothing bad would happen. But the damned cord was in my way and it looked as big as a garden hose.

Croyd stared at the baby wide-eyed. He looked completely dazed.

“It’s a boy,” Croyd said. Jorah was most definitely a boy, and since I’d never seen a baby boy’s genitals at birth before, I was a little worried. They looked huge. Maternal hormones, I learned later, are the reason baby boys’ genitals are so big, relatively speaking, at birth. And they were a nice healthy red, as was the rest of him.

I tied the cord, in two places, as tight as I could, with dental floss, and cut between the knots with the blade facing up. The texture of the cord was tough, much like a chicken’s windpipe. Croyd kept a nice edge on his knife.

The baby was making sucking motions with his little mouth. I lifted him and Rima took him in her swollen hands. He found her nipple like an old pro, bless his heart, and I grabbed a towel to wipe him down a little, and then covered him with another one.

“Oof,” Rima said when the baby began to suck. As it’s supposed to do, the breast stimulation gave her one more contraction and the placenta slid out, a purple and red mushroom the size of a big seder plate with a long stem of cord. It smelled meaty, like a slightly warmed steak. I bundled it into a plastic sack, because the video I’d watched so long ago said to do that.

“Okay, guys,” I said. “Go out and smoke cigars or something while we clean up.”

They tromped out. The rain was heavier than it had been before I had stopped listening to anything except Rima’s breathing between contractions and, later, the screams that she tried not to make.

“He’s beautiful,” Rima said.

He looked small to me, but I didn’t know how big or little a newborn was supposed to be. Like a nat whose skin was covered with a splotchy layer of white cheese, but a standard human, not a variant. I finished giving Rima a bed bath and pulled the coverlet up to her shoulders.

“Take care of him,” she whispered.

There was something wrong with her eyes. Glassy, staring, wrong. Really wrong. I leaned closer to look and got the baby out of her arms when the first convulsion began.

 

Jonathan stared at her across the desk, his notepad sitting forgotten in front of him. “Croyd Crenson has a kid,” he said bluntly. This was news. This was huge. The Sleeper, a kid. This was the cover of Aces!. The story of a former terrorist made good was okay, but one of New York’s ace legends with a secret child—people loved stories about babies.

But this one wasn’t finished yet. Zoe Harris looked at him with a kind of forced serenity. This was a woman who had killed people. Who had planned to kill more. If she wanted to kill Jonathan, she could, and he had a sudden thought—that was the only reason she was telling him her story, because she planned on killing him. Likely, she wouldn’t be able to. Whatever she threw at him, Jonathan Hive could disintegrate into a cloud of bugs and flee. Sting her good on the way out, too.

“There’s more,” Harris said.

“Of course there is. This doesn’t end well, does it?”

“It could have ended worse,” she said calmly.

 

Rima might have died even in a hospital. Eclampsia still kills women, despite the sterile and steel hospitals of the so-called first world. The hypertension may have caused an intracerebral bleed, and that’s what killed her. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know what had happened to her, the name of the disease that had killed her, or even, really, who she was.

“Rima?” Then, “Rima, Rima, no no no—”

The basin that the soapy water had been in flew, hit the ramshackle wall. Water sprayed behind it. A tin cup followed it. The baby cried, and I bent my head over him and tried to get myself under control. This was me, my stress and fear. My power, out of control. Croyd never should have smuggled me out of the hospital.

The door slammed open, Croyd and Needles storming back in. “Rima!” Croyd choked out and rushed to her bedside, but there was nothing he could do, nothing anyone could do.

“Zoe, it’s okay. Calm down, Zoe. Please.” Needles talked me down. Things stopped smashing into the wall. The weight of the baby in my arms anchored me.

The rain stopped. The hut was quiet. And Croyd murmured, “She’s gone.”

More quiet. For a long time. Croyd stayed frozen where he was, crouched over Rima, ready to brace her when the next seizure began. But there wasn’t another one. At last, he sat back. He fumbled inside his jacket and I knew he was searching for pills before he brought out a bottle and chewed three of them. He always wants to stay awake as long as he can. Sleep for him means he’ll wake as a different person—deuce, ace, or joker. Or he’ll draw the Black Queen and be dead. He knows more about amphetamine psychosis than anyone should have to know.

I’d have thought he’d want to sleep, just then. I did.

“We should go,” Needles said hoarsely. “Her family might still find her here. But if we leave now they won’t follow us.”

“We can’t just leave her—”

“Yes, we can,” Needles said.

“If nothing else, he’ll need a bottle,” I said. “Formula, diapers, surely there’s something if there’s no breast milk bank— a wet nurse, if we can find one.”

“Croyd?” Needles pressed.

“Yeah, okay.”

Too quickly, we were back in the speedboat, leaving the hut—and Rima—behind. Needles opened the throttle and the motor roared. We were in open water. Brushy little hummocks or islands broke its surface here and there. Rain tapped down on the canopy of the boat, on the surface of the lake. I thought there was a horizon ahead, a smudge of lighter sky at the edge of the dark watery world. The rich littoral smell of the water had changed. I smelled the sea.

“What do you think?” Needles asked after a time. “The village, or back to the jeep?”

Croyd jerked at the sound of Needles’s voice and began turning his head to scan the water, first on one side of the boat and then the other.

The jeep meant a long drive back to Cairo. At the village… surely there’d be something there for the baby. Blankets. Milk.

“Village,” I said.

“Okay,” Needles said. “Village. Croyd, help me look out for the lights. Croyd?”

The man was huddled up in his seat, hugging himself, his stare vacant.

“I’ll help,” I said softly. “Croyd? Croyd. I need you to hold the baby. Your son, Croyd.” It was the only thing I could think of to get Croyd to focus.

“What?”

“Here.” I went to him and pressed the baby against his chest. His one substantial arm went around him automatically, balanced him on his lap. Croyd looked startled, but he took his son and held him close. Even with one arm. He fiddled with the wrappings and pried a tiny fist out into the air. So help me, he counted fingers, which seems to be one of the things people do. The baby grabbed Croyd’s finger and held on tight. Croyd fished for feet, two, and assessed the number of toes. Five on each foot. I was counting, too.

The baby began to cry. Croyd wrapped his son’s feet up again and patted his little back. He tried to rock him, in a jerky sort of way.

“Zoe? What do I do?”

“Put him inside your jacket, for starters. We don’t want him cold.”

“He’s wet!”

He didn’t mean rain. Oh. Diaper change time. We didn’t have any diapers and we were running low on dry cloth when we left the hut. “It’ll have to wait.”

“Jorah. She wanted to call him Jorah.”

Needles steered around a hummock of reeds. The patch of lighter sky I had seen before was brighter now, beams of white light strobing in smoky dust. It wasn’t dawn. It was the village, and something had gone terribly wrong there.

“This complicates things,” Needles said. “Croyd. Whose boat is this?”

“I don’t know,” Croyd said. “I stole it. Berth seventeen.”

Needles sighed. “Zoe, there should be some papers near where you’re sitting. See if you can find the registration or something.”

There was a clear plastic folder with papers in it in the glove compartment, or whatever it’s called in a boat. The papers were in Arabic. Needles stopped the boat and took them from me, leaning over to read in the faint yellow glow from the battery compartment light. None of us had a torch, a flashlight.

Needles whistled through his baleen teeth. It’s quite a sound.

“Okay,” Needles said. “When we get to shore I’ll do the talking. Pretend you don’t understand a word I’m saying.”

I remembered a little Arabic from my time in Jerusalem. Croyd? He might or might not speak it. Look like you don’t belong here and we might live through this, Needles meant. Right. Got it.

The baby began to fuss. Croyd passed him back to me. “I can’t,” he said.

“What?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do this. Rima knew I couldn’t do this, but you… I’m sorry.” He looked at Needles and me, took one last look at the baby, then rolled over the side of the boat, into the water.

“Croyd!” I yelled. Needles kept driving the boat. As if he had expected this.

I wasn’t worried that Croyd would get hurt, or that he wouldn’t be okay. Croyd was always okay. But if there is one thing Croyd Crenson can’t ever be, it’s a father. He can’t stay in one place. He can’t hold a job. Some of the jokers he’s been are monsters who could not in any way cook a meal, hold a child, even throw a ball to a kid or catch one with whatever flippers or tentacles that version of him happens to have. And Croyd has to be on the run from time to time. He’s good at hiding when he has to, and sometimes no one knows where to find him.

“We can do this,” Needles said. “It’ll be fine.” Last time I saw him he’d been a teenager. Now here he was, taking charge. Taking care of us.

I let the baby suck on my knuckle. He had a strong suck and that surprised me. He seemed really hungry. I thought babies needed to get calories every couple of hours or they’d starve. He’d die, too, like his mother. I’d never felt more helpless.

Jorah fell asleep again.

Newborns really don’t need to eat for the first twenty-four hours. I didn’t know that then.

Needles steered the boat up to the weathered boards of a slip. Strobing torches blinded us, and uniformed men with guns stood on the jetty. They looked as big as giants, looming above us. The charred remains of a town lined the shore. A breeze came off the salt harbor and kept most of the stink of destruction to the land side of us.

I was suddenly glad we’d left Rima’s body at the hut.

It’s been eleven years since Needles climbed out on that sagging pier to a face off with the local authorities. I huddled in the boat with Jorah inside my jacket. Needles didn’t outrank Magdi Shenouda, the Alexandrian official on the dock, but he could match him in rapid and adversarial chatter mingled with effusive praise and many honorifics. There was much shouting. Needles pointed to the boat. More discussion. They walked a few steps away and then Needles came back and reached down to help me out of the boat.

“He wants to see the baby,” Needles said.

As ordered, I climbed out and got the baby out of my jacket.

“It’s a boy,” Needles said. “Unwrap him, Zoe.”

It had stopped raining. Shenouda stepped closer while I demonstrated Jorah’s undoubted boy-ness to the cold wet air. Jorah squirmed and gave an outraged yell or two. Shenouda smiled and chucked Jorah under the chin. I wrapped Jorah up again.

I saw a wad of cash pass from Needle’s spiny hand to Shenouda’s. Then it disappeared.

“Congratulations on the birth of your son, madame,” Magdi Shenouda said. “I fear there will be no papers regarding the kind return of my friend’s stolen speedboat or your accouchement. The chaos of war. I’m sure you understand.”

I don’t know how things would have gone if the baby had been a girl. Or a joker. No matter. Jorah Harris is a de facto French citizen because Magdi Shenouda was a decent man. They do exist. Another factor in our survival may have been that if there was one thing he didn’t need that morning, it was more bodies to deal with.

There were body bags lined up on the beach. I’m sure Rima’s body became one of them, eventually, but I’ve never heard about it.

After that, Needles somehow found us an ancient farm truck, and drove us out of the war zone.

“Needles, where did you get that money?”

The truck rattled, its decrepit engine thunking along. “Croyd gave it to me. It’s like he knew. He knew, Zoe.” Crying, Needles wiped his nose on the shoulder of his shirt. “There’s enough to get you to… well. To wherever. Both of you.” He nodded to the baby in my arms. Jorah.

They never even asked. They just knew I would take care of him.

Not every memory is ugly. The fields of Egypt are tended and lovely and flat, and the sunrise that morning was beautiful, pinks and purples and touches of gold burning away the mist. A falcon, the sign of Ra-Horus returning with light and life, flew by on his way to the waking lake.

“France,” I said. “We’ll go to France.”

The mythology is that ten good men are required to keep the world from destruction. I had a second chance. I had survived madness. I wanted to do more. I wanted to get ten people out of living hell and into a place where they could live and thrive.

I wanted to raise Jorah to be a good man.

It took years. I got a little start-up business going with Croyd’s money. I hired locals in the first years and made them part of the business. They got a share of the profits. Greed is a great motivator. When Zephyr became known as a good place to work, I went looking for my special ten, nats and jokers with talent and the ability to work and histories that read like horror porn. A half-Asian woman and her husband, who had built and owned a rice-paper factory in Free Vietnam before Tom Weathers went totally psychotic and left for Africa. A former lay sister and her bastard son, driven out of Tanzania. Her brothers later became child soldiers and then, very soon, dead child soldiers. An attorney from Nairobi, who was born in some unpronounceable hamlet on the Congo before it became a river of death. My dear Tarek—you met him when you arrived. You know he has a degree in chemical engineering? Gadi, his wife. Amanda Ann, always both names, from N’allins, US of A. She has a lovely drawl. Mateus and Victor, a couple from Brazil.

And I have a son.

Croyd does what he can. He sends money when he has some. He comes from time to time, to Zephyr, to see his son. Jorah knows who his father is, and that he can’t be here very often. I think he knows more about Croyd than he’s willing to tell me yet, because Google. They seem to have a bond, Croyd and Jorah, when they get together, and the different versions don’t seem to bother my son at all.

I don’t know if Croyd looked like Jorah at any point in his life, but the boy Croyd may have looked something like this before the virus changed him for the first time. There’s something about Jorah’s voice… Their voices are similar in some ways, and there’s something silky and dark in Croyd’s voice that seems to hold through the transformations he goes through.

I’m a murderer and a fool. I regret many things. I fell in love once, and I don’t regret that. While my son lives, I will keep on living. That’s all I can promise myself, ever.

 

Jonathan Tipton-Clarke sat for a moment, trying to take it in, playing it as a movie in his mind—it would make a pretty good movie. He might even suggest to Zoe Harris that she write a memoir of the whole thing. If, you know, her life story weren’t tied to the Twisted Fists and littered with bodies. If she didn’t have a kid to take care of.

And Croyd Crenson’s son. As Harris had said, the Sleeper was great at hiding. There were a lot of people who wanted him dead, who might settle for hurting his kid.

“I—I can’t publish this story,” he said. “That’s why you told it to me. You knew I wouldn’t jump on it.”

Smiling serenely, she glanced down at the surface of her desk, her hands flattened on it. Contemplating the blood on them, maybe. Or maybe admiring how clean they looked these days.

“Was it enough?” he asked. He might not be able to publish the story, but he was still going to push. In fact, not publishing the story gave him even more reason to push. “Has all of this been enough to clear the slate? To get yourself some of that redemption?”

“That’s not for me to decide,” she said softly.

“And… where is Jorah now?” he asked.

“He’s at school. I’m sorry you won’t get to meet him.”

He didn’t think she was sorry at all. In fact, he was pretty sure she’d planned this to keep the reprobate journalist away from her kid.

She moved the mouse, tapped a couple of commands, and then turned the monitor around to show him a snapshot. She had it set as her computer’s desktop image: Zoe Harris, mid-laugh, hugging a child of eleven or twelve, a boy in a school uniform, sweater vest and charcoal trousers. He was also laughing, hugging her back with gangly pre-adolescent limbs. Jonathan guessed that Jorah more resembled his mother: He had thick dark hair in an untamed flop over his forehead, light brown skin and fine features. No one knew what Croyd Crenson really looked like. Probably not even Croyd himself. But hey, there was a project—Croyd had grown up in New York City. There had to be a school picture somewhere. Maybe he could find it. Send it along to Zoe and Jorah.

“Nice kid,” Jonathan said, and meant it.

“Thank you.” The woman in the picture seemed completely different than the poised, precise executive sitting in front of him. He suspected Jorah was really the only person who ever got to see the other Zoe Harris. “Well, Mr. Tipton-Clarke, I shouldn’t take up any more of your time.”

And there it was, the pointed exit. The part of the script where he walked out the door and tried to figure out what to do with this secret he’d been given.

Nothing. He’d do nothing with it.

“Thank you for your time, Ms. Harris.”

She still didn’t offer a hand for shaking. “I’m sorry you came all this way and won’t have anything to show for it.”

“No, you’re not. But hey, I got to spend a week in the south of France.”

“I’ll have Tarek show you out.” She reached for a phone, presumably to call the man. One of Harris’s ten good men.

He was about to insist that he could find his way out, but was clever enough to realize that it wasn’t about him finding his way out but about making sure he left. “How about this? How about I interview Tarek about what it’s like to have a degree in chemical engineering and work at a perfume lab.” He’d get his puff piece, dammit. “A guy who benefited from the generosity of a good person.”

Ms. Harris smiled. “I would read that story, Mr. Tipton-Clarke.”

“Long is the Way” copyright © 2019 by Carrie Vaughn and Sage Walker
Art copyright © 2019 by John Picacio

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