Agents of Paradise

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Agents of Paradise is a science fiction novel by Christopher A. Miller

Christopher A. Miller’s reality-bending tale of creation and rebellion on a cosmic scale takes us to a place where history can change with the whim of powerful beings which defy understanding, and traces of past places haunt the status quo like demons. A place where Patterns do the unmaking on wings of solid light, and Adonai work miracles to subdue the masses.

Kholos longs to be free.  He is bound by rules he cannot understand, and is compelled by his nature to escape it all. He wants the woman he loves to join him, but cannot bear to tell her his love for her grows from the memories of another. He cannot bear to tell her she is Fractured because he decided to escape this reality, and disobeyed an order to destroy Anvir.

Antonia knows she does not belong in this world.  Like the Boracs and the Slythe, she was left behind from the makings and unmakings over the millennia. She hopes one day she and her Ghosts can find a world where they might make a home more suitable to their ideas--before the Thought Assassins destroy them all.

Dr. Voss is asking some heretical questions, speculating about observations that are sins against Faith and Reason, aware the answers may damage him in some fundamental way. Colored bullets, a sewing machine and crumbling shale:  He knows they have something to do with work they were doing in the City Burning Forever. The city that once had a name, was once important.

Phase 5 Elements:

Another World 125; Fabricated Reality 241; Ideas 42

Classification: Science Fiction.

Appropriate for Teens and Adults: Moderately Explicit Violence and Death, including wartime battle; Brief non-explicit sexual situations; Profanity; Death of animals

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 About the Author

Christopher A. Miller lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, Katy, and his son, Trent. He works in the design and construction industry as a technical writer, and spent several years as a Young Adult Librarian in urban public libraries. Chris also writes poetry and short fiction and has published poems in journals across the United States and online. An avid speculative fiction reader, The Agents of Paradise is his first novel in the genre.

Author of Agents of Paradise, a reality-shifting science fiction novel.

 Free Sample of Agents of Paradise

Agents of Paradise
by Christopher A. Miller

1. A More Precise Location

“Please step out of your vehicle,” ordered the Comanche soldier at the gate.

V was driving, a virgin for the second time that week. She was no younger than seventeen or eighteen but no older than twenty-two or three. Her hair was long and brown, her eyes were quick, her skin was flawless. On the wheel her hands were painless again and she had been staring at them in appreciation. The blue-uniformed soldier with the white claw patch on his shoulder waved them forward, took their papers through the window. V was chewing a bit of sarsaparilla bark and she spat it out.

The climate, this close to the burning city, was fickle. Yesterday, coming over the plains from Duran Town, V and Kholos were among forests filled with ferns. Brooks trickled by and the sun was warm in a blue sky. Today the world was parched. The landscape around the gate was pebbles and sand and scrub, a lonely patch of dying pines here and there around a muddy pool. The mountains, the Asinwati, seemed to change color, gain lighter shades of red and brown as the rocks and grass and gravel that comprised them shifted in the distance moment to moment.

The sun beat down hot and heavy. Yesterday there had been sleet, and ice topped the water jugs when V, much older then, unscrewed the caps with arthritic hands to heat some water for their breakfast. Today she felt smart and tough. She felt nineteen years old.

V put the truck, her truck, into park and stepped out, little puffs of dust coming up from the heels of her boots. Kholos, on the other side, opened his door and stepped out as well. This was all new to him, though he understood everything, from the protocols of the Comanche military to the name of the mountain range before them.

As he stepped out the truck lifted a little. Kholos was tall, taller than any of the Comanche troopers manning the gate and even taller than the little hut where the controls were housed. Probably he was taller than any man any of the Comanche had ever seen. Soldiers gathered in a tight group around him.

“Your papers, please,” said a soldier to V.

V reached into her envelope-sized wallet and fumbled around for her Columbium identification and the Universitat travel permit. Columbium travelers always received extra scrutiny. Oran County, the paper said, resident of Duran Town, married. The paper listed her age as twenty-nine years old. It was signed by Dr. Nathan Voss, Universitat representative for Duran Town. The soldier noted most of her first name had been crossed out by a black marker, leaving only the single first letter, V.

The soldier looked at her. “This isn't you,” he informed her. “This is for someone older.”

“It's me,” V said. “I'm Fractured.”

The soldier stepped back. Twice. Like he might catch something.

On the other side of the truck, three soldiers had come up around Kholos. They were studying him, speaking about him in the Ute language.

“This is a nice truck,” said the soldier before V.

“There's a Universitat note in there,” V said. “We should be clear to travel.”

The soldier unfolded the papers fully and the hand-written but officially stamped note from Dr. Voss fell out. The soldier picked it up and read it, looking back and forth from the paper to V. The note was legitimate. Dr. Voss had inscribed the numerical codes unique to the Universitat, in the special script that could not be forged.

V looked back down the dirt road, not a real Universitat road but just a straight strip of dust heading back west, towards Duran Town and Oran, Columbium country, and wished they had arrived at the gate when there was more traffic to get through. Or perhaps on a day when there was snow instead of sun. The Comanche might have hurried things along, then. As it was they were the only travelers. And she was the only Columbium, as well, a white-skinned descendant of refugees from the Republicant wars.

All of the vehicles were military vehicles, Comanche vehicles or at least they were Comanche vehicles now. There were attack cars with thick, high tires and rocket launchers mounted in their rears, massive armored half-tracks parked in a row, and small tracked tanks with twin cannons. All of them were painted blue and had a single white claw stenciled on their hoods or their doors.

A couple of attack cars were whizzing about the edges of the base, stirring up trails of dirt and pebbles among the scores of single-story, whitewashed buildings. Cyclone fencing was set up in a giant square around the base, with towers on stilts at the corners where soldiers stood watch to the west, lazily leaning over gun barrels. A dull buzz of the electricity flowing from some local generator reverberated everywhere. Televia wires ran over the base like a net.

The yellow flag of the Incorporated Nation of the Third Comanche flew over the biggest building, the only building on the base higher than a single story. Cables ran from this building out into the empty countryside and up and into the mountain pass the base guarded, heading east. V thought about the messages those cables might carry. She wanted to get through the gate and over the pass. Out beyond the burning city where Kholos could start looking for what he believed would set him, set them both, free. Absolutely free. What did that even mean, nineteen-year-old, V thought as she stood in the sun. Absolutely free?

She missed Michael. Then she looked at Kholos, taller than the top of her truck, and missed Michael a little less.

“We're taking the truck,” the soldier said, folding the papers back up and returning them to her. “Get your gear out, and you can go on.”

“What?” V demanded. “You're what with my truck?”

After shifting his rifle over his shoulder the Comanche took a pad of papers from a pouch at his hip and a pen from the pocket of his shirt. Ignoring V, he stepped around the pick-up, writing down details about a couple of little dents and dings, the condition of the tires.

“You can't take my truck!” She waved the crunched up Universitat note from Dr. Voss. “We've got permission to travel! Universitat permission!”

The soldier did not look up at her. “We have a Universitat representative here,” he said. “Would you like to tell him why you are not in a center for the Fractured?”

Kholos stepped around and his trio of onlookers followed like a wake.

“We have a little money,” he said.

The soldier stiffened, then turned to V. “There's a war coming, young lady … Miss,” he continued. “We have the right to commandeer any materiel we need in support of that war. This right,” he added, “was recognized by the Universitat as well. You should thank us. We're defending you Columbiums too.”

He touched a dent along the driver's side door panel. Dust came up on his fingertip. “Besides, you'll be fully compensated. Probably more than the vehicle is even worth. Just take this to any Comanche bank. They'll honor it. With interest, if you hold onto it long enough.”

V's face flushed. The other soldiers watched her. Kholos could deal with them, she knew. Deal with them all in a blink. She had seen it happen. Or rather, she had seen it not happen.

“Don't you tell me there's a war on,” she said. She'd had the truck since she was fifteen. Properly fifteen, not Fractured fifteen. She and Michael had put in long miles in this truck. “My husband died in that war.”

“Your husband?” said the soldier, standing up from behind the rear bumper where he still scratched at his pad of paper. “He's dead?”

“That's right.” V said .

“If that's so, then who is this?” The soldier pointed with his pen at Kholos, who, according to Dr. Voss's note, was the husband of V. This was not a lie. V had lost a husband, more than a husband, in the war against the Stalinistas. This man was not Kholos, however, and she was not married to Kholos in the way the Comanche meant.

For a moment the entire party stood staring at one another. V furious. The soldiers nervous. The Comanche with the pad of paper half-grinning, his pen in mid-air.

Kholos took a deep breath, put a hand on V's trembling shoulder.

“How far to the highway?” he asked all of them, asking with the thunder.

He spoke barely above a whisper, but his voice rumbled and it carried up through the soles of the boots of the soldier with his clipboard. One of the soldiers gasped but none of them answered, just stared.

Kholos repeated, “How far to the Universitat highway?”

“Through the pass,” said the Comanche in charge. “Just over the mountains.”

Kholos nodded. “And how long to cross the pass?”

“Couple of hours in a car. Less in clear weather.”

“On foot?”

“Two days.”

Kholos looked back at V, who was nearly shaking with rage. Then at the soldier. Kholos thought: is this man part of me? The soldier swallowed.

“Let us take out our equipment and supplies,” Kholos said, without the thunder this time. “Then we'll be on our way.”

All of the Comanche exhaled.

“No!” shouted V. “No! That's my truck!”

“We packed too much anyway,” said Kholos. “Let it go. There'll be transport on the highway of some kind.”

They unloaded.

Kholos said, “You'd fight them for the truck, risk yourself, knowing we can go on without it?”

“No,” she admitted. “But you could have stopped them. Couldn't you?”

“You're nineteen today,” said Kholos. “No more than that.”

“What does that matter? You know I'm right.”

“You want me to destroy this place, kill all these men, make this a hole where nothing will ever live again? I can do that. But then we would get nowhere, and I would be caught, and you would be alone. Alone again. This is what it is worth to you to keep your truck, because you are nineteen today. This is what you want?”

V sighed but kept her arms crossed. “No,” she admitted. “That's not what I want.”

Kholos looked down at the bags and cans and bedrolls. “Only what I can carry.”

Kholos could carry a lot. The big backpack they had brought from Duran Town he packed with three days of food and water, a length of climbing rope, matches and torches with batteries, a handheld mirror, a compass (useless this close to the burning city), a tarpaulin, and four thick blankets, made from sheepskin. Also packed were an assortment of clothes for V: little jumpers and bootie socks, a training bra, five different sizes of underwear, a tiny pair of children's canvas shoes and a pair of slippers with rubber soles stitched to the bottoms, a second pair of jeans, and a brown shift that she had sewn herself, which when combined with the red sash of velvet would fit her body in all of its older stages, from mid-forties to crone. For Kholos there were only some extra socks and underthings, a lined leather coat, and a wool cap. Everything else he already wore, or else was hidden in the closely tied brown canvas bags.

What was hidden was his armor and weapons. Rust-colored in its current state, it was stacked into itself inside the bags. The helm with its flat visor. The breastplate and backplate with the hinges at the shoulders and along the obliques. The wrist and shin greaves. The gauntlets and the boots. And, mostly importantly, the twin canisters, which when Kholos activated them would allow him to fly on wings of solid light and move faster than time.

What was also hidden was the list. The list of saints. The list of Adonai. The miracle list, that Dr. Voss had given him. Would give him, Kholos corrected, much later.

His weapons were more conspicuous, but still concealed. The sword was wrapped in canvas in its scabbard, but it was long and wide and the grip was visible: a metal guard over a hilt shaped to Kholos's own hand and his hand only. The sword cut through the spaces between molecules. The rifle was even more obvious, long-barreled and with a stock of almost golden wood, a sharpshooter's weapon. The canvas wrapped and tied around the barrel did nothing to conceal what was inside. At least, Kholos thought as he strapped the sword and the rifle across the bulging pack in an X, the strange ammunition for the gun was not visible. Nor the scope that could see forwards in time.

With ease Kholos hefted the sword, the gun, and the pack up onto his back. Then he adjusted the pistol he carried, a big Columbium gun he had bought in Duran and now wondered why he had bothered. The frosted peaks of the mighty Asinwati Mountains rose before them, the gravel and dirt road that led through the fort and up into the pass winding between two sharp slopes just past the blue-and-white striped gate of the base.

The soldiers were watching them, gaping a little at the size of the pack Kholos carried, the long gun and sword criss-crossed there. They had never actually raised the gate for them, and clearly were not going to even as Kholos and V walked briskly towards the low white barrier. It was made of metal, activated by an electric motor, and weighed about four hundred kilos.

As they approached the soldiers stopped talking to watch as Kholos and V approached, Kholos in the lead. Despite his height he was thin, lean, with a completely bald pate and a gaunt face, very, very pale. Paler even than most Columbiums.

Without breaking stride Kholos put his hand on the gate and snapped it in two, using just his thumb and forefinger. One piece fell onto the ground. The other side, still attached to the little guardhouse and the arm apparatus, swung straight up into the air and vibrated there.

“Hey!” shouted one of the soldiers as they moved on up the slope, not looking back once. “Hey!”

V smiled the smile of the just.

 

Later that afternoon Colonel Ute Redroot, Commander of the Fighting First Claws regiment and current Commandant of Fort Tamu, as the Comanche called the base at the foot of the pass, stepped out of the two-story building where the flags flew and the wires terminated their east-west runs. He was a young man, handsome, with high cheekbones and red skin he insisted he had not had chemically tinted. He stared up at the winding road leading into the pass, even though there appeared to be nothing to see there except the mountains and the dirt.

With him were two other officers and the soldier who had commandeered V's truck. In Redroot's hand was a flimsy piece of paper, printed from the Televia machine, sent direct from the capital in New Taabe. The paper was stamped with a level of priority Redroot had heard about but never seen before. When the orders had arrived the adjunct had called him into the communications office, and Redroot assumed, hoped, that the Incorporated Nation was at last joining the fighting up in the northwest against the Stalinistas, that the orders were for his Fighting First Claws to mobilize to the front.

Instead, the orders had instructed him, and all other Comanche commanders anywhere within the Incorporated Nation, to pursue a single man. A description of this man followed. The orders were signed by both the Comanche War Chief and Peace Chief from New Taabe, which was unheard of.

They were strange orders.

Redroot read the description of the man to the soldier, again. “You're certain?”

“Yes Colonel. Tall, pale. Looked Columbium, but then they all look the same to me. There was a woman with him. Said she was Fractured.” He was following Redroot's eyes into the mountains. “They had Universitat papers,” he added, apologetically. “Sir.”

Redroot re-read the orders. There was nothing in them about a woman. Just the man. And just pursue. Not capture. Not kill. Just follow him, and report in.

“This makes no sense,” said one of the officers. His name was Stands-Tall-Under-Cedars and he was Redroot's blood brother. They had sworn the official oaths and signed the legal papers, and now shared all things. Houses. Wealth. Wives. Stands-Tall was also the Fighting First Claws' Tank Commander, a Major in the Incorporated Nation's mighty mobilized military. “The whole army on alert? For one man? With the Stalinistas already landed?”

“He must know something,” said the other officer.

They stood on the steps and watched Colonel Redroot. The mountains. Redroot. The mountains again. Only the colonel kept staring up at the road through the pass, ignoring them.

“All I know is what this says,” said Redroot, at last, holding up the paper. “And what this says is, opportunity for the First Claws.”

“For Colonel Redroot, you mean,” said Stands-Tall, with a laugh.

“Yes,” said Redroot, with a smile. “For Colonel Redroot, and for the Fighting First Claws, as well.” He had not taken his eyes off the road. “This is from New Taabe. Not HQ. Not even Tacoma. Whatever it is, it matters. Matters enough the whole nation is about it.” He added, “They're on foot. They can't get far.”

“Just report you've spotted him,” said Stands-Tall. “That's what the orders say. Explicitly.”

“Yes, but we do this correctly, we assume he's dangerous. Get Lieutenant Galai, have him take a sniper team in an attack car. Observe, but be alert. Take out his legs, if they have to.”

“The woman?” asked the second officer. “What about her?”

But Redroot was already turning out of the heat back into the command building, reading and re-reading the orders from New Taabe. Without looking he waved his hand up in the air, dismissively.

“The orders say report his location, Colonel,” Stands-Tall was repeating. “Report. Not shoot.”

“We'll be able to give a more precise location,” said Ute, “if he can't walk.”

2. The City Burning Forever

The shale in the Asinwatis, being so close to the burning city and its weird effects, was treacherous. Kholos with his heightened hearing could make out distinct rumbles, echoes from kilometers away. These rumbles signaled a sinkhole that could be hundreds of meters deep and hundreds of meters wide or a pocket eruption.

The Universitat highways, somehow, were safe even in this unsettled region. But the local paths and roads, the ground everywhere, could be riddled with craters or soon-to-be craters. There was no predictable pattern to the cave-ins. Suddenly, a bed of shale would turn to dust. Poof.

Or, a stream could dry up in an instant. Or a flash flood could tear down the slope. The weather, the terrain, the air, could all change in a blink around the burning city. This was one of the mysteries Dr. Voss was investigating in his basement laboratory, back in Duran Town.

In the evening sky the stars began to trace their arcs. By midnight, when V would change, they would cut long silver trails, criss-crossing one another in a lattice that would outshine the half-moon. The night was clear, for the moment. The stars had only made little lines.

After finding a place set away from the road, Kholos and V made camp. The little tarp they used as a roof was tied slant-wise between to sapling poles Kholos had cut. Under the tarp sat the big pack, the weapons, and the rest of their gear. So long as the sky held they would sleep in the open. A small fire burned between them. They had not bothered with making a fire circle of stones, and the dust under the hot sticks had flattened out under the heat. A tin pot with a fold-away handle was set to the side. The remnants of some baked cornmeal mixed with beans and a little bacon sat inside the coals, two spoons nestled together along the lip. A water jug was open next to Kholos. They were close to the peak of the pass, having made good time with young V in the lead. Even with the compass useless V could time their pace and note their direction. After all, she had made her living back in Duran as a guide, before Kholos, before she was Fractured, before Michael died.

Now they sat, full and tired, on opposite sides of the fire. Being tired, physically tired, was still new to Kholos and he looked at his long legs and stared at them. V pulled her knees up to her chin. She had unrolled her sleeping mat and her bag, patched in so many places with denim and canvas it was hard to discern the original color of the cloth. Kholos stood, staring at the sky, at the slopes. V had seen him do this many times before, looking up, looking out.

She had seen Michael Staffa do this, too. The only difference was that Michael had wondered, but Kholos seemed to know. She shivered a little even though the night was warm.

“When we find them,” V said, unlacing her boots, “I don't want you to kill them.”

“I might have to. If it helps us to be free.”

“I don't want to go around murdering the saints. That can’t be wise.”

“Maybe we'll get lucky,” said Kholos. “Maybe the first Adonai we find will know how to reach the Celestial City, and we'll just have to ask them nicely to show us the way.”

“Free,” said V.

“Free of the Aetherian, or whatever name you wish to use. They have plenty of names.”

“Can I be enslaved by something I never heard of?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” said Kholos. “Easily.”

“I'm not a slave to the Adonai, though,” she said.

At nineteen she felt confused about their mission. Did she want this? Want him? Yes. But it all made more sense when she was a child. When she was old she did not care as much, either way. And when she was young, stubborn, strong, she wanted it all to fit together.

“The Adonai?” said Kholos. “They don't rule me. Nor you. The Adonai are probably more slaves than either of us. Except for maybe Pang. I don't know. Yet.”

V was not religious, especially. But like every woman in Duran Town, like every Columbium woman whose home she had been inside of, she had her little shrine to Theresa, with the ribbon and the scented herbs, a sprinkle of flour, and, for those in rich homes, some cinnamon. Perhaps, for some women, a pair of lacy panties. And like every town everywhere she had ever heard of, Columbium, Comanche, Republicant, Duran had a church to Pang. There were others, great lists of them the Universitat priests and professors expounded upon as examples, ideals to follow, ways to think. The Adonai.

The idea of hunting down, say, Pang, seemed crazy. Certainly the Adonai lived in the world, everyone knew that. They were real, like the stars were real. But to go after them was crazy as going after the stars.

But it was crazy the way Michael was crazy. It was crazy the way being Fractured was crazy.

“Tell me again,” she said. “About Michael and you.”

Kholos, still standing, looked down at her. His eyes were big, dark, golden in the firelight. His beauty was still somewhat frightening to her, unreal, like a picture of beauty. This crazy man who said he could fly. Nothing could fly. Everybody knew that.

Kholos began his lie, again.

“At the front,” he said, “against the Stalinistas, I met a man. A young man named Michael Staffa. They thought he was a soldier, but he really was a poet. He was my friend. My closest, dearest friend.”

This was what V liked to hear.

“And what did Michael Staffa tell you?”

“A lot of things,” said Kholos. “Tales of a town with good sandwiches.”

“Go on,” said V, almost laughing now. Almost crying now.

“A town named Duran, in the middle of nowhere, in a nowhere little county, with a very curious Universitat Administratum man.”

“And?” V said. “And?”

Kholos squinted and furrowed his brow, like he had to think hard. “And a taste for elk steak?”

V threw a rock, a small rock, at Kholos. It hit his bald head and he laughed. “Good aim,” he said. Then the laughter vanished and his face flattened, and the golden eyes turned on her full force. “Michael Staffa showed me how to look at the world in new ways. Ways only he could explain. Could write. Beautiful ways. He gave me everything. He gave me you.”

Kholos paused. The lie was mostly truth.

“He gave me the love of a girl. A girl named V-”

“Don't say it!” V squealed. “Don't!”

Sometimes when Kholos told her the story, especially when she was old, it could make her weep. But it seemed the younger she was, the more it made her laugh. So silly, it seemed when she was six, seven, even ten years old. It was hard to believe.

Kholos did not say the next part: Michael Staffa died. At the front, in a trench, fighting against the Stalinistas.

“And the love, the love of that girl, was mine, just like it was Michael's,” said Kholos. “And I knew before I could be free, before I could escape this false place, I had to find her, and bring her with me, if she would come.” Kholos paused. “Will you, still come? Even if it means we kill some gods?”

V started to say something smart but stopped. Kholos could see into people, see things, patterns, he knew she was wondering. She nodded. Yes.

“I can give you nothing but freedom,” said Kholos, softly.

They spoke a little while longer, about their supplies, about how far it would be to reach the highway on the other side of the pass. V asked if they would see the city, the burning city, and Kholos said yes, the little glow in the east was the flames. He said this sadly, but not regretfully.

Then V lay back and closed her eyes, and fell asleep. Kholos watched her a while, thinking of how the god Golgothan, the renegade Adonai, could be anywhere in the mountains around them. Kholos wondered if he would feel it, the presence of another one made not born. But he felt nothing except trapped in a cage where the trace lines of the stars were the bars. He watched V sleep. How he loved her. Loved her like Michael loved her.

Later V rose from her bedding. The air was still warm, tangy but dry. Her body was still young, firm. She felt it, warm and alive. It could stay this way for days, she knew, or be gone for weeks. She undid the buttons on her jeans and roughly jerked the sweater off of her head, stood there a moment in her socks and panties looking at her shadow with its tiny waist in the embers of the fire. Deftly she tied up her hair with two twists of her fingers. These little powers, she thought, are mine again.

 

 

In the morning she was a crone. They had slept cuddled together wrapped in Kholos's blanket, moving under the tarp as the snow came down. Kholos woke to feel old bones against his skin and heard V's soft groans. He recognized the sound: the pain of her arthritis. Her hands were nutty claws, swollen at the knuckles and spotted brown. All of her muscle from the day before was gone, her limbs thin as sticks and the skin loose. Her hair, what was left of it, was white.

A little spittle rolled out from the corner of her mouth, her eyes darted about in confusion as her mind tried to adjust to her body. She was old, old. The wrinkles of her face were thin and shallow and ran in maplines down from her cheekbones.

Kholos knelt alongside her. She smiled and there were maybe four teeth left.

The world, high summer the day before and then with snow overnight, had turned to spring. Fog hovered over the ground. Aspen and alder and poplar had sprung up. With a glance over his shoulders Kholos noted that their tarpaulin shelter had risen to twice the height of where he had tied it off, as the saplings had thickened and shot up while they slept. The sky was cloudy and low. A little wind, promising growth, blew over the ashes of the fire. Buds of tiny flowers poked through soil that had been sand when Kholos slept. The road, pebbles and dust when they had walked it, sprouted with weeds and there were patches of mud along the edges. It felt like a little warm rain might fall.

Kholos had set some wood under the tarp the night before for their fire but this had changed as well. The old wood now was mostly green, a couple branches with little leaves on the twigs. Still there was some wood that had stayed seasoned, somehow, and Kholos snapped it into kindling and brushed away the wet ash with the edge of his hand and blew on the coals underneath until the little twigs caught. He rinsed out the pot from their supper and poured a little oat and raisin mixture from a pouch, added water, and set this among the coals to cook.

How strange, he thought, that the old fire was still an old fire, while the trees were all different?

He turned to V. She had curled into the blanket and stopped shivering, and was watching him. There were times Kholos remembered when she had woken up old and not known who he was at all. Kholos cupped a little water in his hand and lifted her up against him, let the liquid trickle into her mouth. After she had swallowed he set her back down and washed her with a small soft cloth, wiping away the dust where it still stuck to her from the previous day. After rummaging in the pack for a moment or two he found the brown dress she had made after she learned she was Fractured, just before they decided to leave Duran to try and be free.

It was a practical garment, sewn in such a way with button holes strategically placed so that it could be worn as a sack or a shawl or, even, a proper dress with a pretty red sash to tie around the waist. Kholos helped her, holding her head like baby's and then fitting her arms through the sleeves. Then he buttoned the little brass buttons in the places he thought would best keep her warm.

“Kholos,” she said, reaching up and touching his ear with the back of her hand. “Kholos, I dreamed I was young and strong forever. Like you are.”

“Was it nice?”

“No,” said V. “Not really.” She looked down at herself. “You buttoned me all wrong.”

V at eighty, ninety, a hundred years, complained a great deal. She needed help for everything. She could carry nothing. She confused names and places, called him Michael, Dr. Voss, her father, her brother, the butcher, and meant them all.

After eating a little breakfast and spooning some mouthfuls of the oatmeal into V, Kholos cleaned up their campsite and packed. Before hefting up the pack, with his weapons again lashed across the back, he took his sleeping blanket and folded it twice over, then used a little cord to tie off the ends narrowly. He then tied this off over a shoulder, so that he had a little pouch across his chest and belly, stretched from shoulder to hip. Before testing out this reverse-papoose he checked to make sure he could reach his pistol. He could.

V watched him from where he had left her, seated before the fire. She was rubbing one of her feet through her socks. “That won't ever work,” she said.

“We'll see.” He hefted her up like she was nothing and she cooed a little on the way up. She had to pull her knees in, which was uncomfortable and she said so, but it was also warm. She lay back, and smiled up at him. They moved out, back onto the road. Soft now from the new climate, the new ecology of the Asinwati Mountains. The fog lifted, slowly. The sun came up.

“Kholos?”

“Yes?”

“I'm sorry I'm so old today.”

They were across the peak and descending quickly when the Comanche sniper shot Kholos. The bullet should have blown out his knee and sent him toppling forward, crushing V. Instead Kholos cried out and his leg buckled halfway, but he did not go down. Pain shocked him.

V gasped, and he saw the terror on her face. Carefully Kholos knelt, touched the place where the bullet had hit him and looked at the blood on his palm. An unknown, having never bled before in his short existence, although of course he had in a sense bled a thousand times over. The pain was hot, like a burn and he found this curious. Looking behind them, in the direction of the shot, he spotted the hidden Comanche. They were concealed within a stand of poplars up the slope some four or five hundred meters distant, with the shooter working madly to reload. Kholos concentrated, and could hear them whisper.

“You were not ordered to fire!”

“I didn't! I don't know what happened!”

“You missed, at least.”

“I did not miss. I don't know how he's standing. I shot him right through the knee.”

Clack of the bullet in the chamber. Click of the bolt.

“Shoot him again. To wound.”

“What? Why?”

“We'll bring him back. Alive. It will be alright.”

“He's already shot.”

“I'm in command here. Shoot through the pack. Incapacitate him. We're almost out of Incorporated Nation territory, we can't let him get any farther. The Colonel will be furious as it is. We'll take him back. Do it.”

Then, a rustle of green leaves shuffled as the shooter aimed.

Kholos braced himself. Huddled over V. There was a strange half-instant when Kholos thought he felt the impact of the shot but heard it afterwards. It did not hurt at all, this shot, just a tap against his neck from the pack. He sweated. His knee hurt. He concentrated. Could he even die? No, the Aetherian would remake him, all those bits and cells, those skills and lessons, washed out, recycled, reused, into a new pattern. And then another. And another.

V's mouth was open but her eyes were closed and she was moaning a bit. The big pack was covering everything but the soles of his boots and the points of his elbows and the back of his head.

“Fly us away,” said V.

“It's alright,” said Kholos. “I'm alright. The armor in the pack, they can't get through it.”

Another shot. Impact, a thud. The little rock V had thrown the night before had hurt more. Kholos reached for his pistol.

“Oh, no,” said V. Her hands clutched at his shirt.

Kholos listened, then waited for another shot. This one was higher up the pack, but still it impacted his armor and did not pass through. There would be a click and a clack, a few long seconds for him to fire. With the gun in his right hand he spun, cradling V close to him to protect her with his left arm. She hid her face against his chest.

He saw them. Four of them, two prone, two kneeling. One with a long rifle, almost as long as Kholos's own, another with just a scope. The two standing held up binoculars, stared down at him from behind the tree trunks. There were fresh branches tucked into the webbing of their helmets and their faces were smudged with dirt and mud.

“What's he doing? Is he surrendering?”

“He can't hit us from down there with that!”

Bang. Kholos shot the sharpshooter. Bang. Then he shot the soldier with the scope in the forehead. Bang. Then he shot the one who had commanded them to shoot. One two three. The fourth leapt up and was running, back up the slope, crouched, unarmed. Kholos drew a bead on the back of his head, then put his gun down.

He looked at the bodies. He looked at what he had done. He had killed hundreds of men. He had never killed anyone before.

The sniper bled out through his eye socket into the dirt, the spotter lay face down with his arms out like was trying to swim. The officer's eyes were still open. The Aetherian might well come to this moment, this place to harvest them, Kholos thought. He holstered his gun.

“It's over,” he said to V. “They're gone.”

“You killed them.” It was a statement, as if she had said it was raining or she was hungry. “You killed Third Comanche soldiers.”

“I killed some of them,” said Kholos, standing back up on his wounded knee. “Three of them.”

V lay back in the sling. Her eyes seemed to dim a bit.

“They'll come after us now,” she said. “Now we have to run.”

“It's not the Third Comanche I'm running from.”

Kholos had slipped off the pack and was taking out the first aid kit from its little metal box and she swayed some as he worked. She began to say she could make a brace for him, but then felt the icy ache in her fingers. Perhaps tomorrow she could.

His knee throbbed, but he believed he could walk on it once it was bandaged and cleaned. It was late in the day. Kholos could make out the glow of the city burning, not so far away now, to the east.

“We're murderers, now,” V said as Kholos grimaced from the alcohol he poured over his leg.

“I always was,” said Kholos, staring at the glow.

 

Kholos's knee slowed them, and they did not top the last ridge until the day was almost gone. This made the light from the burning city, the city everyone knew but no one could remember, all the brighter when they finally came to the last length of the road down through the pass and looked across the plains and saw it there, aflame.

The fires flickered and danced but consumed nothing. Kholos watched with his telescopic vision. The beautiful tall buildings built from steel and glass, so high they seemed to soar. Parks. Schools. Trolley tracks. Store windows. Shopping plazas. Cathedrals, both for learning and for worship. Homes and tenements. Mansions. Boulevards lined with trees. Museums. Gardens with sculptures from the Republicant, from the Incorporated Nation, from Mayans and Incas, from the Inuit and Iroquois, from Ebon Empires, from everywhere in the Columbium counties.

There were people everywhere, Kholos could make them out, could remember their stunned faces as he descended to eradicate them. Now, he knew, they stood as if frozen, bathed in the same white and red flames as their streets and their buildings and parks, immobile, locked in the instant he fired the red bullet, fired down upon the sinning city from his wings of light. They did not scream. They did not move. They did not even blink. He was moving out of time, deliberately firing the wrong bullet, to make good his escape.

They burned. It burned, all of it burned. A little rend in space and time, left open.

Kholos took a deep breath. Here he had started running. Running to get his girl. Running to get away, to be free, free, free. He had no idea, then, what consequences his decisions would bring. He did not particularly care, so long as it meant a chance for freedom. But standing on the ridge the enormity of what he had done that day above Anvir—that was the name he had taken out of existence, Anvir—the widening ripples of unreality, the Fractured, the declaration of war against the gods—was not lost on him. In the flames he saw his rebellion.

“I did this,” he confessed.

V reached up from her cradle and touched his cheek with her crone's hand.

“Silly man,” she said. “You were in bed with me with this happened. Don't you remember?”

3. Gyr Zax Trucking Co.

The Borac caravan was arranged in a wide semi-circle. The ends met at the slopes of the Asinwati Mountains, while the arc of the circle just barely skirted the tarmac of the north-south Universitat highway. The highway, after the infinite incineration of the city, had been diverted westward away from the flames, so that now it belled out towards the mountains before returning to a pure northerly course. It was a sin against reason to approach the burning city, as the effects closest to the flames were wild and unpredictable. The Universitat reported horrible consequences for even looking into the flames for too long.

The sun was setting over the peaks to the west, so the Borac encampment was already entirely in shadow. However, the glow from the burning city, even many kilometers away, added a strange light to the many small fires and naked electric lights from the caravan.

There was music, both the crackly, tinny-sounding music recorded for play on Televias, and live music: Borac women and children singing, playing handmade instruments. There was also the lowing of the saurs and the caws of the dactyls, ebbing out from somewhere deeper within the encampment. The louder gasoline roar of the diesel engines of the big trucks, which formed the perimeter of the semi-circle, echoed off the rocks.

A tiny part of Kholos was Borac, the skills and experiences of the person transferred whole. Kholos, searching his mind, found that he knew how to speak a handful of Borac words, and, interestingly, how to handle and care for a dactyl.

“What is all that racket?” V asked. She had fallen half asleep during the last daylight hours of their walk down through the pass. She shifted in her sling to peer out at the lights of the camp. Kholos had slowed his pace, sure that there would be pickets out. He needed to rest, needed to clean and dress his injured knee, needed to top off their water, needed to wait until midnight for V to change, hopefully, into a shape more suited for travel.

“Boracs,” said Kholos. He limped fitfully on. “Traders. A big caravan.”

“Boracs,” said V. “I never.”

Kholos closed his eyes and paused, tried to organize memories that were not his but were now.

A small race of big people, the Boracs hailed from the swamps and forests and low hills of the Southeastern reaches of the Northern Columbium Continent.

Before the coming of the Columbium, even before the Universitat, the Boracs had farmed and hunted, lived in small clusters, fought amongst themselves or against their neighbors, the Slythe. They had a language more complex than most of the Iroquois, Shoshone, Cree, and Cherokee tongues, and were well-known for their metalwork and their control of anima, the binding force of the world. This despite Universitat insistence that laboratory tests proved anima did not exist, and that Pang had explicitly stated there was no such thing.

When the Columbium came to the Borac lands, the Boracs had little trouble pushing away the disease-ridden and hungry white people. But, as the flow of refugees increased, the Boracs' lack of numbers, as well as their insistence on being a decentralized, ungoverned people, began to tell.

Unlike the violent history of human contact with the Slythe, human battles against Boracs were rare, usually accidental. And the Borac nation, such as it was, still stood unthreatened. But over the centuries, the Columbium from the east and the Comanche from the west and all the other peoples crowding the continent pressed the Boracs. Like the Slythe, the Boracs were dying out.

Now the Boracs were a race of traders and shippers, hauling immense cargos across the continent, from the great eastern port cities to the Inuit marches to the north, west across all the little Columbium Counties to the great metropolises of the Incorporated Nation of the Third Comanche, and down south to what remained of the Aztec Empire as it struggled against the Stalinista invasion.

The Boracs also carried news. The advent of the Televia technology had eliminated the need for mail, but there was other news that could be shared, sold, hauled. Little news, the Boracs called it. Visions of the changing saints, rumors of the Stalinistas, gossip about Universitat Bishops and Deans. Boracs moved this as well as their goods across the continent.

Whether news or cargo, the Boracs moved their goods using saurs and dactyls. These ancient beasts were all albino, ghostly white with red eyes. The Boracs bred them in the swamps of their homelands, keeping the lines alive for hundreds of millennia after the animals should have been extinct. The saurs did the carrying. Bigger than houses, they could carry twice their own massive body weight. Long-tailed, long-necked, and small-brained, the saurs lumbered down the continental highways, loaded up along their flanks, and with three or four handlers guiding them by ropes and chains attached to elaborate harnesses.

Traditionally, Borac traders lived atop their beasts, building tiny one-room huts with rope ladders attached. They climbed up in the evenings and cooked, ate, talked, sang, loved, and slept all on wooden decking laid across the spines of their saurs. Then in the mornings they would climb down, burn their garbage and see to the feeding and grooming (checking the feet of the saurs was very important, and very dangerous) then move on.

The dactyls were more intelligent than the saurs. With wingspans that stretched out to their full size and a full third again, the dactyls were flying beasts with long beaks and leathery skin. Dactyls were bred as scouts, trained to relay information back to their handlers as to where, exactly, the caravan was and what was ahead. A tug or a swing one way could signal to a handler bandits or a forest fire or a flood. A caw could signal right of way to another caravan, or a location. Their eyesight was exceptional.

They could also fly. This was impossible, of course. Because, as proven morally and logically by the Universitat's greatest thinkers, to attempt to fly is a sin against both one's creator and one's fellow men. A sin against faith and a sin against reason. Objects might glide, they might be thrown for a certain distance, or they could float, but nothing could actually fly under its own power. Pang had decreed this, and Universitat research proved it empirically.

Kholos paused and looked up. Circling slowly, pale in the shadows of the mountains, was a single dactyl, cawing out to its handler below the arrival of Kholos and V.

Kholos pointed up at the thing. “Look, V, a dactyl.”

 

  

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