Year of Wonders
She painted on nonsdays, the day before worship, the day after sex, when her body was loose and her head was clear and she hadn’t yet purged herself of the week’s paltry sins. She liked the light on nonsdays, and she sat at her window in her robe, legs spread, watching the light spill over the city. The breeze was hot and heavy, humid as a den of lovers. The wind smelled of the sea. If she gazed over the blue tiles of the city, gazed just there, between the great towers of the church temple and the storage silos blocking the tail-end of the bay, she could just see the glint of the sea.
All she ever painted was the sea. The light on the sea, the city and the sea. She had moved out of her studio three times, trying to get a better view of the sea, but violence and poverty always sent her away from the core of the city and the beachfront tenant houses. She sat in her rented room and painted a dream of the sea cut through in a sliver of real light. When she slept, she dreamt of the sea.
But her dreams did not sell. Whoring kept her in rent and paint and sometimes bread. She liked her life. She loved her view of the sea. She did not want for lovers, just bread, for sometimes she felt she lived on the view and the dreams, and that was enough.
She was twenty-two, paint-smeared and starving.
When a man knocked at her door asking for a commission, she assumed it was a euphemism for sex, and told him he would have to wait until the day before nonsday. He laughed, and she offered him weak tea.
He sat with her on the floor of the studio and stared at the cluttered wall hung in a splash of canvases; a thousand shades of blue and violet and white and yellow, orange and gray, all dabbed and mixed and lovingly kissed so they could create this: the sea.
“I would like you to paint me,” he said. “As you paint the sea.”
“Impossible,” she said. “I dream of the sea.”
He leaned toward her. He was broad and angular, but not frightening. Men did not frighten her. Only violence. And men knew nothing of violence in the blue-tiled city. That was a woman’s vocation.
“I want you to dream of me,” he said.
He was not beautiful. But then, neither was she. It was not a city for the beautiful.
The Boxing Magicians of Faleen
For hours they stood on the edge of the road watching the cars while the dust settled in their hair and cicadas clung to the hems of their trousers. They had come from the boxing in Faleen and their eyes were black shadows and their clawed hands were tinged a faint violet, thick with swelling.
They were magicians, magnificent, resplendent in amber and topaz robes that covered their thick, powerful bodies. The black shadows of their eyes told nothing of where they’d been, why they waited, but you could always mark the boxing magicians of Faleen. They stood in the world like it was a transient thing, as temporary as a dawn wind. They stood as if they would outlast it.
Arran had seen them as soon as they alighted from the bus. They emerged from the cloud of roaches spewed from the bus’s exhaust and remained on the far side of the ditch, speaking low among themselves and watching the traffic coming back out from the city after afternoon prayer.
“You think we should offer them something, mother?” Arran asked the woman working beside him. He held the basket of roach eggs as she repaired the burst walls of the house, sealed the eggs over with mud and straw.
She was a big woman, fleshy in the hips and thighs, broad in the face and heavy in the bosom, her breasts so large that Arran once dreamed that he suffocated against them in her warm embrace. He had not known her long, only a season. His birth mother worked in government, somewhere in Punjai on the edge of the desert, along the Chenjan border where the worst of the skirmishes still blazed. He had been farmed out to families further inland from the fighting, to be raised up until he was old enough to go to war and kill the Chenjans that left his birth mother with no time for children. It wasn’t long off, he was nearly fourteen, and he’d seen the sixteen year old men marching off to war along the road after their graduation in Faleen. Not long. Not long at all.
This new mother spared a black look at the magicians, and spat a red pulp of kaj onto the dirt. “Offer them water. Magicians don’t go for liquor, this time of day. Go ask your sister to dole it out. And don’t linger. Magicians don’t like boys.”
Arran abandoned the basket and bolted around the back of the house to where his sister Jax was sparring with some local girls. They said that magicians could tell the future. They could tell you how you’d do in the war, how many Chenjans you would kill, how much honor you’d get back in Nasheen, how long you would be remembered.
“Jax, ma says to dole out some water,” he said.
Jax parried a blow from her partner with her left forearm, dipped away, pushed back from the sparring circle
“What?” she said. Sweat poured down her long, flat face. Her dark skin was covered over in a fine reddish dust. She had twisted her dark hair back into a knot of braids. All the girls did their hair that way, these days. He’d once begged to be allowed to grow his hair long, but every mother he’d had scolded him for it. What would a boy do with long hair? Get it caught by some Chenjan, likely.
“There’s magicians on the road!” he said, and immediately regretted it.
The other girls looked over at him. Jax’s sparring partner, and the three watching.
“What kind of magicians? From Faleen?” Jax said. She retrieved her long robe and rubbed her face with it.
Arran rocked back on his heels. “Mother wants water for them. She says I should –“
“We’ll take it out,” Jax said. She nodded to the girls, grinned. “You want your fortune told? I heard they give you good ones, if you bring them some bugs. Arran, give me your locust.”
“No,” Arran said. He’d caught the locust a month before, when a swarm came through and he and Jax and their mother had gone out to cover over the fields with organic netting. The locust had clung to the sleeve of his jacket, and when he saw it spread its amber and lavender wings, he caught it up in his hands and knew he had to keep it. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Don’t be a maggot,” Jax said. She shrugged into her robe, cut a look at her sparring partner, some lanky girl named Trinh who lived at a farm an hour’s walk away.
“It’s mine,” Arran said. “Just give me the water. Ma said –“
“Piss on what ma said. Let’s go see what these magicians are like,” Jax said. She nodded to the girls, and they bled past Arran and back around to the front of the house.
Arran hopped after them. “Don’t! Ma said I...”
Jax unlocked the well and pumped out some water into a bowl at the base of the house. She handed the bowl to Trinh.
“Shut up, Arran,” Jax said. “What do you think they’d have to say to you? Boys all end up the same, dead and buried in Chenja. Who gives a fuck about a boy’s future?”
Cheira had named the ship after herself, and she still sat at mealtimes in the hub with lists of names at her elbows and a mask of liquor vapor in her hand. None of her crews had ever seen her eat. She did not keep her crews long (nameless bodies abandoned; deep space) because after a time they became dull and desiccated (and she left them on the crust of a colonial waste wearing thorns in their hair, clinging tightly to the lead rope of a solitary ox the color of old blood). She’d named the ship without any hint of irony. The idea that Cheira had any irony left was a riotous laugh even without knowing the ship's moniker, and her Second, Roman, amused himself often at the expense of her baptizmal humor.
Roman would come into Cheira’s quarters after the purging of every crew, his long face set in a dark, graven expression she had come to call winter, for it came as often as she remembered that season in her childhood.
His visage was his gift to her stagnation.
"Why don't we go on," he would say. "We can manage the cortex on our own. Engineers take up space. I can handle repairs. And the mercenaries… You're a better miss than any of them."
"There's the matter of the prisoner," she would say.
And he would throw up his broad, scarred hands and sigh and say, "Yes, there's the prisoner."
It was Cheira’s duty, her obsession, her vocation, to tread down the tongue of the spiraling stair from the cortex to the holding tank every six hours. She greeted the semblance of a body suspended in viscous green fluid with a blank stare and an unconscious moue she had seen Justice wear in propaganda posters during the war.
The body’s eyes were closed, its sex indeterminate, its face a morass of dark, thread-like tubes and wires. Most sessions, she merely came down and unlocked the feed cabinet, filled a clean syringe with dark fluid, and inserted it into the long black tube suctioned against the transparent cell. Sometimes, when the body absorbed the fluid, it would writhe and twist, lost in the ecstasy of fulfillment. Sometimes, it did not react at all, but remained still, unmoving (a mermaid trapped in ice).
After recording the convulsion - or lack of one - Cheira often went straight back into the cortex. But she had been known to linger, to sit at the flat, purring recording console that kept her charge in permanent stasis.
She had stopped wondering where the body had come from, or who it had been. Her interest was in pondering what it would become. She lost track of time (in these intimate reveries), often. After twelve hours of contemplation, she would hear Roman do a sensor sweep of the ship. He would find her alive and intact, and perhaps he would go back to playing screes or fucking one of the engineers or concocting a filmy liquor the tarry consistency of fuel oil. They were a pair of two, a crew of three, picking up floatsam and jetsom in the seams between the stars.
When the next filler contract arrived in Cheira’s room, Roman wanted a new crew. He was lonely, he said, after she left the last of his engineers on a paltry rock the color of foam.
She let Roman pick the crew, and he navigated them a path into Stile, a dusty ring of settlements on the edges of an asteroid belt circling a bloated, dying star. His brother worked in the scrap constellations around Stile, digging through old ships, piecing together their innards, selling them as pirated vessels imbued with the spirit of cheap colonial grit.
Cheira had not seen Roman's brother in a decade, when speaking of the war, of genocide, in terms outside the propagandic, was still new and unsettling and got them thrown out of establishments whose whores and buggers and creep cleaners called them void, diseased (marked for a dry asphyxiation in a torn cargo hull aboard a drifting ship in limitless space).
She did not greet Roman’s brother when he came aboard, but waited until he sought her out in the cortex. She stared out at the projection screen, the long loop of the asteroid belt. Bits of space debris bumped against the hull, bits of rocks and bodies, glass shards and scraps of metal so small they were worth less than the energy to gather them.
She heard him walk up the stair into the cortex. Heard him hesitate on the threshold.
"This your ship?" he said.
She had expected to feel nothing at his voice, but like the body in her hull, she was sometimes surprised at what was fed to her. She felt a sort of pain.
She swiveled in her chair. He did not take up the doorway as Roman did, but inhabited it in the loose way he inhabited all spaces, wrapping it around himself like a shroud , blurring the edges of his surrounds. He had once had the body of a dancer, but like all of them, he had atrophied, and though he was thin, it was a thinness borne of hunger and the loss of muscle. His eyes were black as Roman's, but their color was the only feature they shared. He was coffee black to Roman's sallow cream, slight in the hips and shoulders, delicate in the wrists and ankles, with the doe-like eyes of an oversized marionette.
He stepped into the cortex, and the ship hummed. She patted the console, and it quieted.
"You look terrible," he said.
"I was thinking the same of you," she said.
"Roman says you need an engineer."
"We don't, but we do."
"Cryptic, intriguing. I brought my work."
"Desecrate the hull and I'll have your sack."
"Haven't you had it?"
"It's been a long time."
"I have no doubt."
She regarded him. Something inside of her stirred, something dark, a gray gauze. "Where are the others?" she said.
His name was Luck.
Roman's tastes were predictable in their disparity. He brought up his foundlings to meet with her, the first: a pale, freckled girl of a pilot whose yellow hair was a startling burst of color. No one remembered the last time they'd seen yellow hair. The war, maybe.
The other was a mercenary, a tall, long-limbed man as dark as the girl was light. His head was shaved bald, and he wore a silver circlet above his ears; half of one ear was missing. He carried a charged gun at either hip, a shotgun across his back. He smelled of blood and metal.
"Do they have whole names?" Cheira asked Roman.
"Hanah Tohl," the little pilot said, holding out her little hand. It was a rude affectation picked up by a lot of the young, to touch when first meeting.
The other one, the mercenary, sneered at the open hand, said, "Dax Al-hamin. And in whose service are we?"
"Cheira's," Cheira said. "The ship and I."
"Cheira, is that a Kip name?" Hanah said. She had pulled her hand back in. She was smiling broadly. Her teeth were too white, not her own.
"It's nobody's but hers," Roman said. "And the ship's Cheira-Cheira. You'll say hello to her later."
Cheira sat with the new crew over supper. She unrolled her lists. She wrote Hanah Tohl and Dax Al-hamin.
Roman filled Cheira's vapor tank. He had not given her a plate.
"You ain't eating?" Hanah said.
Cheira merely raised her eyes. She put the mask to her face, inhaled.
"Cheira doesn't like questions," Roman said. "Don't ask them."
"You say we are in transport," Dax said. “I signed on for a job.”
Cheira pushed her vapor canister at Roman, and he stood and refilled it.
Roman said, "We have an indefinite transport contract with the Authority. We take on odd jobs to supplement that."
"What did you do before?" Hanah asked.
"There was nothing before," Roman said. He set Cheira's canister back at her elbow.
"So what happened to your crew?" Hanah asked.
Cheira looked sidelong at Roman. She picked at her teeth, heard someone behind her, glanced back.
Luck slipped in through the vibrating door, a tardy shadow.
“Food looks recycled,” Luck said.
“You expected something else?” Cheira said levelly.
“There’s no before, and no crews,” Roman said, clearing up the obnoxious pilot’s question. “We take on crews only as we need them. We’re being asked to deliver cargo to some Authority swanks. We’re taking you all on to assist with pickup and transport.”
“Where we going?” Dax asked.
“Tutara,” Roman said.
Dax leaned back in his chair, crossed his big arms. “They still have cargo on Tutara?”
“We’ll find out,” Roman said.
“Cargo? What sort of cargo?” Hanah asked.
Dax fixed a black stare on her. “Bodies,” he said.
“Whose bodies?” Hanah said. She fiddled with her liquor mask. Cheira wondered if Roman had watered it down to crew rations yet. Best not get them used to excess.
“Abandoned colonists,” Roman said. “The ones who took the slow boat to the outer systems. Bad timing on their part, and bad tech.”
“We invented faster drives while they slept,” Luck said.
Cheira frowned at him. Luck had never invented anything of the sort.
“And when they arrived,” Roman continued, “the terras they’d intended to settle were already colonized by faster ships run by their great-grandchildren. Colonizers who set down first get first rights, so extraneous cargo was diverted to Tutara.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” Hanah said.
“What, salvaging?” Roman said.
Cheira wondered if Hanah had ever sold her womb. It was practically the same thing. Just body parts. Dumb tender kid. Where had Roman dredged up this one?
She finished another canister of liquor and shook it. It was time to feed the prisoner.
She pushed back from the table.
Roman caught her eye. “You’ll excuse Cheira. She has an engagement. I’ll finish the briefing.”
Bodies in space (It was always an interesting ride).
Monday, May 23, 2005
Year of Wonders