ONE Two Three FOUR Five Six

This I know:

Best of my children, brave as they all are brave, clever as they all are clever, but loyal as none other is loyal, save to me.

There is a rottenness at the heart of me, some split rock at the foundation, some root gnawed raw. I am set apart from all others, clever Loki, shifting Loki, Loki who is all things and no one thing. The world is twinned and tripled, split again and again, like tree roots, like snake tongues, and at every branching of the way, there is Loki dancing. From such are monsters and magic born.

Father of monsters, but mother of heroes, so you will be accounted the greatest of horses, my son, born of my flesh, faster than the sun, sure-footed as the wind, master of all paths like your mother Loki. The gods themselves will find you worthy, my son, but only to bear burdens, not counsel. Ah, well. Bear glory and the bridle well: it is more than I have given elsewhere.

Palimpsest

A beautiful boy, drowned in a pool.

That’s the story, anyway: mouth green with cress he drowned, a sailor boy dead in fresh water. His great-thewed lover turned the island out for a month of searching, dawn to dusk, and then left; even love only lasts so long.

The island remembers.

Spring is ending and they run the hills, the trails, the dirt paths, crying a dead name in honor of a dead love. Forced, they say; by tradition if nothing else. Oh, well. In the evening they eat cress, drink new wine.

White driftwood on rocky beaches.

A fisher, caught in his nets, frozen in place; helpful hands descending. That’s the story, anyway. Slipped off the docks, a bad fall stopped just short of the water, arms and legs above the tide line, dark with the sun.

Train tracks.

They drink too much, joylessly, stubbornly, in cars parked outside of town. Plausible deniability, a stupid accident walking home, some high school nonsense. Red rocks and iron and parents who are careful to not search their rooms.

Woodsmoke and gulls.

You circle back to these stories, to these moments, like sea birds over a school of fish. Each time, one spiral higher, one circle wider, and then—

Delivery

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

She’s between shifts, tired now, floating weightless at the center of the ship, warming herself around a bulb of throat-shreddingly flavorless ethyl, letting the kinks work themselves loose in the long muscles of her back. Savoring the receding soreness.

“Five hundred days, I said. Do the third row before the second tomorrow, that’s all.” The balear making the pitch isn’t one she knows, but she recognizes the babyface of a habitual sailor, the loose-limbed confidence of a woman who’s spent her life off the islands.

“Why?”

“Doesn’t matter to you. Hell, doesn’t matter to me. Who knows? Somebody wants it in that order, that’s all. Five hundred days. No harm done, hey? What does it matter, an hour or two either way?”

She revolves it this way and that but can’t find the hook. “Deal,” Petra says, and the balear buys them both a drink to seal it. She’s got a good smile, that one, and the long hands of a pianist or rifler. Petra buys the next round, and they take them back to her nest in the rigging to drink them. There’s no privacy, but the baleares are tactful; it’ll do.

Ontogeny

She’s tired of death.

Petra gets a job as an eileithyia on a barque making the centuries-long loop between Here and There. It’s quiet work, and warm, a far cry from the rigging and the rifles she got used to on her trip out, though she still bunks with the baleares. They go up and she goes down, through the ship’s envelope of water, through gardens, past gravity, into the gentle near-weightlessness of the creche.

The bags are arranged chronologically, so she recapitulates phylogeny over the course of her shift, zygote to blastocyst to embryo to fetus to infant; eyes sprout, fingers bud, legs kick. Squib work, nothing too complicated: she monitors hormone levels, implants placentas into amniotic sacs, recycles the 4% of implants that fail.

Decanting happens on the other shift, but she attends as often as she can. There’s always a good crowd arranged quietly against the dura, bearing witness to the orderly parade of births. It’s good luck, they say, a safeguard against radiation and the drag of the islands. They hold their breath while the eileithyia scrapes off the caul and a new crewmember draws their first shuddering lungful of air; united, however briefly, in purpose.

Ellen Smith

Detective novels have lost their savor, but it’s been so long since she’s read anything else that Ellen isn’t sure what to do with herself. She’s wise to their tricks, that’s all; there’s only so many ways you can arrange a limited number of suspects, only so many ways to organize a killing. She’s seen it all: shootings, hangings, drownings, explosions, immolations, defenestrations. Bumped from a high place, buried alive in a low place, fed to ants and dogs and bristle-chinned pigs. For jealousy, for money, for revenge, for mania, for no reason at all.

Some cheat, which makes for a surprise ending but not a fun one. There’s nothing to put together ahead of time, nothing to suddenly fall in place, no moment when the clouds part and the sun shines down, just the stultifying wonder of a magician whisking a cloth aside to reveal your missing card. Yes, that’s the one. Of course.

She nibbles at real crimes, but shudders back. Out here, people die for too many raw reasons, killed in the street for a busted taillight, shot in the office by an abusive husband, hit by accident for no reason at all.