Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Game of Chance

Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman

This story also appears in the new fantasy anthology, Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman, which features 23 all-new tales by masters of fantasy.

Once, they’d tried using sex to bring down a target. It had seemed a likely plan: Throw an affair in the man’s path, guide events to a compromising situation, and momentum did the rest. That was the theory—a simple thing, not acting against the person directly, but slantwise. But it turned out it was too direct, almost an attack, touching on such vulnerable sensibilities. They’d lost Benton, who had nudged a certain woman into the path of a certain Republic Loyalist Party councilman and died because of it. He’d been so sure it would work.

Gerald had proposed trying this strategy again to discredit the RLP candidate in the next executive election. The man couldn’t be allowed to take power if Gerald’s own favored allies hoped to maintain any influence. But there was the problem of directness. His cohort considered ideas of how to subtly convince a man to ruin his life with sex. The problem remained: There were no truly subtle ways to accomplish this. They risked Benton’s fate with no guaranteed outcome. Gathering before the chalkboard in their warehouse lair, mismatched chairs drawn together, they plotted.

Clare, sitting in back with Major, turned her head to whisper, “I like it better when we stop assassinations rather than instigate them.”

“It’s like chess,” Major said. “Sometimes you protect a piece, sometimes you sacrifice one.”

“It’s a bit arrogant, isn’t it, treating the world like our personal chess board?”

Major gave a lopsided smile. “Maybe, a bit.”

“I think I have an idea,” Clare said.

Gerald glanced their way and frowned.

Much more of this and he’d start accusing them of insubordination. She nudged Major and made a gesture with her hand: Wait. We’ll tell him later. They sat back and waited, while Gerald held court and entertained opinions, from planting illegal pornography to obtaining compromising photographs. All of it too crass, too mundane. Not credible. Gerald sent them away with orders to “come up with something.” Determined to brood, he turned his back as the others trailed to the corner of the warehouse that served as a parlor to scratch on blank pages and study books.

Clare and Major remained, seated, watching, until Gerald looked back at them and scowled.

“Clare has a different proposal,” Major said, nodding for her to tell.

Clare ducked her gaze, shy, but knew she was right. “You can’t use sex without acting on him, and that won’t work. So don’t act on him. Act on everything around him. A dozen tiny decisions a day can make a man fall.”

Gerald was their leader because he could see the future. Well, almost. He could see paths, likely directions of events that fell one way instead of another. He used this knowledge and the talents of those he recruited to steer the course of history. Major liked the chess metaphor, but Gerald worked on the canvas of epic battles, of history itself. He scowled at Clare like she was speaking nonsense.

“Tiny decisions. Like whether he wears a red or blue tie? Like whether he forgets to brush his teeth? You mean to change the world by this?”

Major, who knew her so well, who knew her thoughts before she did, smiled his hunting smile. “How is the man’s heart?”

“Yes. Exactly,” she said.

“It’ll take time,” Major explained to a still frowning Gerald. “The actions will have to be lined up just so.”

“All right,” he said, because Major had proven himself. His voice held a weight that Clare’s didn’t. “But I want contingencies.”

“Let the others make contingencies,” Major said, and that made them all scowl.

Gerald left Clare and Major to work together, which was how she liked it best.

She’d never worked so hard on a plan. She searched for opportunities, studied all the ways they might encourage the target to harm himself. She found many ways, as it happened. The task left Clare drained, but happy, because it was working. Gerald would see. He’d be pleased. He’d start to listen to her, and she wouldn’t need Major to speak for her.

“I don’t mind speaking for you,” Major said when she confided in him. “It’s habit that makes him look right through you like he does. It’s hard to get around that. He has to be the leader, the protector. He needs someone to be the weakest, and so doesn’t see you. And the others only see what he sees.”

“Why don’t you?”

He shrugged. “I like to see things differently.”

“Maybe there’s a spell we could work to change him.”

He smiled at that. The spells didn’t work on them, because they were outside the whole system. Their spells put them outside. Gerald said they could change the world by living outside it like this. Clare kept thinking of it as gambling, and she never had liked games.

They worked: The target chose the greasiest, unhealthiest meals, always ate dessert, and took a coach everywhere—there always seemed to be one conveniently at hand. Some days, he forgot his medication, the little pills that kept his heart steady—the bottle was not in its place and he couldn’t be bothered to look for it. Nothing to notice from day to day. But one night, in bed with his wife—no lurid affair necessary—their RLP candidate’s weak heart gave out. A physician was summoned quickly enough, but to no avail. And that, Clare observed, was how one brought down a man with sex.

Gerald called it true. The man’s death threw the election into chaos, and his beloved Populist Tradition Party was able to hold its seats in the Council.

Clare glowed with pride because her theory had worked. A dozen little changes, so indirect as to be unnoticeable. The perfect expression of their abilities.

But Gerald scowled. “It’s not very impressive, in the main,” he said and walked away.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Clare whispered.

“He’s angry he didn’t think of it himself,” Major said.

“So it wasn’t fireworks. I thought that was the point.”

“I think you damaged his sensibilities,” he said, and dropped a kind kiss on her forehead.

***

She had been a normal, everyday girl, though prone to daydreaming, according to her governess. She was brought up in proper drawing rooms, learning how to embroider, supervise servants, and orchestrate dinner parties. Often, though, she had to be reminded of her duties, of the fact that she would one day marry a fine gentleman, perhaps in the army or in government, and be the envy of society ladies everywhere. Otherwise she might sit in the large wingback armchair all day long, staring at the light coming in through the window, or at sparks in the fireplace, or at the tongue of flame dancing on the wick of the nearest lamp. “What can you possibly be thinking about?” her governess would ask. She’d learned to say, “Nothing.” When she was young, she’d said things like, “I’m wondering, what if fire were alive? What if it traveled, and is all flame part of the same flame? Is a flame like a river, traveling and changing every moment?” This had alarmed the adults around her.

By the time she was eighteen, she’d learned to make herself presentable in fine gowns, and to arrange the curls of her hair to excite men’s interest, and she’d already had three offers. She hadn’t given any of them answer, but thought to accept the one her father most liked so at least somebody would be happy.

Then one day she’d stepped out of the house, parasol over her shoulder, intending a short walk to remind herself of her duty before that evening’s dinner party, and there Gerald and Major had stood, at the foot of the stairs, two dashing figures from an adventure tale.

“What do you think about, when you look at the flame of a candle?” Gerald had asked.

She stared, parasol clutched in gloved hands, mind tumbling into an honest answer despite her learned poise. “I think of birds playing in sunlight. I wonder if the sun and the fire are the same. I think of how time slows down when you watch the hands of a clock move.”

Major, the younger and handsomer of the pair, gave her a sly grin and offered his hand. “You’re wasted here. Come with us.”

At that moment she knew she’d never been in love before, because she lost her heart to Major. She set her parasol against the railing on the stairs, stepped forward, and took his hand. Gerald pulled the theatrical black cape he’d been wearing off his shoulders, turned it with a twist of his wrists, and swept it around himself, Major, and Clare. A second of cold followed, along with a feeling of drowning. Clare shut her eyes and covered her face. When Major murmured a word of comfort, she finally looked around her and saw the warehouse. Gerald introduced himself and the rest of his cohort, and explained that they were masters of the world, which they could manipulate however they liked. It seemed a very fine thing.

Thus she vanished from her old life as cleanly as if she had never existed. Part of her would always see Gerald and Major as her saviors.

***

Gerald’s company, his band of unseen activists, waited in their warehouse headquarters until their next project, which would only happen when Gerald traced lines of influence to the next target. The next chess piece. Clare looked forward to the leisure time until she was in the middle of it, when she just wanted to go out and do something.

Maybe it was just that she’d realized a long time ago that she wasn’t any good at the wild version of poker the others played to pass time. She sat the games out, tried to read a book, or daydreamed. Watched dust motes and candle flames.

The other four were the fighters. The competitive ones. She’d joined this company by accident.

Cards snicked as Major dealt them out. Clean-shaven, with short-cropped hair, he was dashing, military. He wore a dark blue uniform jacket without insignia; a white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar; boots that needed polishing, but that only showed how active he was. Always in the thick of it. Clare could watch him deal cards all day.

“Wait a minute. Are we on Tuesday rules or Wednesday?” Ildie asked.

Fred looked up from his hand, blinking in a moment of confusion. “Today’s Thursday, isn’t it?”

“Tuesday rules on Thursday. That’s the fun of it,” Marco said, voice flat, attention on the cards.

“I hate you all,” Ildie said, scowling. They chuckled, because she always said that.

Ildie dressed like a man, in an oxford shirt, leather pants, and high boots. This sometimes still shocked Clare, who hadn’t given up long skirts and braided hair when she’d left a proper parlor for this. Ildie had already been a rebel when she joined. At least Clare had learned not to tell Ildie how much nicer she’d look if she grew her hair out. Fred had sideburns, wore a loosened cravat, and out of all of them might be presentable in society with a little polish. Marco never would be. Stubble shadowed his face, and he always wore his duster to hide the pistols on his belt.

A pair of hurricane lamps on tables lit the scene. The warehouse was lived-in, the walls lined with shelves, which were piled with books, rolled up charts, atlases, sextants, hourglasses, a couple of dusty globes. They’d pushed together chairs and coffee tables for a parlor, and the far corner was curtained off into rooms with cots and washbasins. In the parlor, a freestanding chalkboard was covered with writing and charts, and more sheets of paper lay strewn on the floor, abandoned when the equations scrawled on them went wrong. When they went right, the sheets were pinned to the walls and shelves and became the next plan. At the moment, nothing was pinned up.

Clare considered: Was it a matter of tracing lines of influence to objects rather than personalities? Difficult, when influence was a matter of motivation, which was not possible with inanimate objects. So many times their tasks would have been easier if they could change someone’s mind. But that was like bringing a sledgehammer down on delicate glasswork. So you changed the thing that would change someone’s mind. How small a change could generate the greatest outcome? That was her challenge: Could removing a bottle of ink from a room change the world? She believed it could. If it was the right bottle of ink, the right room. Then perhaps a letter wouldn’t be written, an order of execution wouldn’t be signed.

But the risk—that was Gerald’s argument. The risk of failure was too great. You might take a bolt from the wheel of a cannon, but if it was the wrong bolt, the wrong cannon . . . The variables became massive. Better to exert the most influence you could without being noticed. That didn’t stop Clare from weaving her thought experiments. For want of a nail . . .

“I raise,” Major said, and Clare looked up at the change in his voice. He had a plan; he was about to spring a trap. After the hundreds of games those four had played, couldn’t they see it?

“You don’t have anything.” Marco looked at his hand, at the cards lying face up on the table, back again. Major gave him a “try me” look.

“He’s bluffing.” Ildie wore a thin smile, confident because Major had bluffed before. Just enough to keep them guessing. He did it on purpose, they very well knew, and he challenged them to outwit him. They thought they could—that was why they kept falling into his traps. But even Major had a tell, and Clare could see it if no one else could. Easy for her to say, though, sitting outside the game.

“Fine. Bet’s raised. I see it,” Fred countered.

Then they saw it coming, because that was part of Major’s plan. Draw them in, spring the trap. He tapped a finger; the air popped, a tiny sound like an insect hitting a window, that was how small the spell was, but they all recognized the working of it, the way the world shifted just a bit, as one of them outside of it nudged a little. Major laid out his cards, which were all exactly the cards he needed, a perfect hand, against unlikely—but not impossible—odds.

Marco groaned, Ildie threw her cards, Fred laughed. “I should have known.”

“Tuesday rules,” Major said, spreading his hands in mock apology.

Major glanced at Clare, smiled. She smiled back. No, she didn’t ever want to play this game against Major.

Marco gathered up the cards. “Again.”

“Persistent,” Major said.

“Have to be. Thursday rules this time. The way it’s meant to be.” They dealt the next hand.

Gerald came in from the curtained area that was his study, his wild eyes red and sleepless, a driven set to his jaw. They all knew what it meant.

“I have the next plot,” he said.

***

Helping the cause sometimes meant working at cross-purposes with the real world. A PTP splinter group, frustrated and militant, had a plan, too, and Gerald wanted to stop it because it would do more harm than good.

Easier said than done, on such a scale. Clare preferred the games where they put a man’s pills out of the way.

She and Major hunched in a doorway as the Council office building fell, brought down by cheap explosives. A wall of dust scoured the streets. People coated in the gray stuff wandered like ghosts. Clare and Major hardly noticed.

“We couldn’t stop it,” Clare murmured, speaking through a handkerchief.

Major stared at a playing card, a jack of diamonds. “We’ve done all we can.”

“What? What did we do? We didn’t stop it!” They were supposed to stop the explosion, stop the destruction. She had wanted so much to stop it, not for Gerald’s sake, but for the sake of doing good.

Major looked hard at her. “Twenty-nine bureaucrats meant to be in that building overslept this morning. Eighteen stayed home sick. Another ten stayed home with hangovers from overindulging last night. Twenty-four more ran late because either their pets or children were sick. The horses of five coaches came up lame, preventing another fifteen from arriving. That’s ninety-six people who weren’t in that building. We did what we could.” His glare held amazing conviction.

She said, “We’re losing, aren’t we? Gerald will never get what he wants.”

So many of Gerald’s plans had gone just like this. They counted victories in lives, like picking up spilled grains of rice. They were changing lives, but not the world.

“Come on,” he ordered. “We’ve got a door.”

He threw the card at the wall of the alley where they’d hidden. It stuck, glowed blue, and grew. Through the blue glare a gaping hole showed. Holding hands, they dove into it, and it collapsed behind them.

***

“Lame coach horses? Hangovers?” Gerald said, pacing back and forth along one of the bookshelves. “We’re trying to save civilization.”

“What is civilization but the people who live within it?” Clare said softly. It was how she said anything around Gerald.

“Ninety-six lives saved,” Major said. “What did anyone else accomplish?” Silent gazes, filled with visions of destruction, looked back at him. The rest of them: Fred, Ildie, and Marco. Their jackets were ruffled, their faces weary, but they weren’t covered with dust and ragged like Clare and Major were. They hadn’t gotten that close.

Gerald paced. “In the end, what does it mean? For us?” The question was rhetorical because no answer would satisfy him. Though Clare thought, it means whatever we want it to mean.

***

Clare and Major never bothered hiding their attachment from the others. What could the company say to disapprove? Not even Gerald could stop them, though Ildie often looked at her askance, with a scowl, as if Clare had betrayed her. Major assured her that the other woman had never held a claim on him. Clare wondered if she might have fallen in love with any of the men—Fred, Benton, or even Marco—if any of them had stood by Gerald to recruit her instead of Major. But no, she felt her fate was to be with Major. She didn’t feel small with him.

Hand in hand, careless, they’d leave the others and retreat to the closet in an unused corner of the warehouse’s second floor, where they’d built a pallet just for them. A nest, Clare thought of it. Here, she had Major all to herself, and he seemed happy enough to be hers. She’d lay across his naked chest and he’d play with her hair. Bliss.

“Why did you follow Gerald when he came for you?” she asked after the disaster with the exploded building.

“He offered adventure.”

“Not for the politics, then? Not because you believe in his party?”

“I imagine it’s all one and the same in the long run.”

The deep philosophy of this would have impressed her a few years ago. Now, it seemed like dodging the question. She propped herself on an elbow to study him. She was thinking out loud.

“Then why do you still follow him? You could find adventure without him, now that he’s shown you the way.”

He grinned sleepily and gathered her closer. “I’d wander aimlessly. His adventures are more interesting. It’s a game.”

“Oh.”

“And why do you still follow him? Why did you take my hand the day we met?”

“You were more interesting than what I left behind.”

“But I ask you the same question, now. I know you don’t believe in his politics. So why do you still follow him?”

“I don’t follow him. I follow you.”

His expression turned serious, frowning almost. His hand moved from her hair to her cheek, tracing the line of her jaw as if she were fragile glass. “We’re a silly pair, aren’t we? No belief, no faith.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Major—if neither of us is here for Gerald, we should leave. Let’s go away from this, be our own cohort.” Saying it felt like rebellion, even greater than the rebellion of leaving home in the first place.

His voice went soft, almost a whisper. “Could we really? How far would we get before we started missing this and came back?”

“I wouldn’t miss the others,” she said, jaw clenched.

“No, not them,” he said. “But the game.”

Gerald could fervently agitate for the opposite party, and Major would play the game with as much glee. She could understand and still not agree.

“You think we need Gerald, to do what we do?”

He shook his head, a questioning gesture rather than a denial. “I’m happy here. Aren’t you?”

She could nod and not lie because here, at this small moment with him, she was happy.

***

One could change the world by nudging chances, Clare believed. Sometimes, she went off by herself to study chances the others wouldn’t care about.

At a table in the corner of a café—the simple, homelike kind that students frequented, with worn armchairs, and chess boards and pieces stored in boxes under end tables with old lamps on them—Clare drew a pattern in a bit of tea that dripped from her saucer. Swirled the shape into two circles, forever linked. In front of the counter, a boy dropped a napkin. The girl behind him picked it up. Their hands brushed. He saw that she had a book of sonnets, which he never would have noticed if he hadn’t dropped the napkin. She saw that he had a book of philosophy. They were students, maybe, or odd enthusiasts. One asked the other, are you a student? The answer didn’t matter because the deed was done. In this world, in this moment, despite all the unhappiness, this small thing went right.

***

This whole thing started because Gerald saw patterns. She wondered later: Did he see the pattern, identify them because of it, and bring them together? Was that his talent? Or did he cause the pattern to happen? If not for Gerald, would she have gone on, free and ignorant, happily living her life with no knowledge of what she could do? Or was she always destined to follow this path, use this talent with or without the others? Might she have spent her time keeping kittens from running into busy streets or children from falling into rivers? And perhaps one of those children would grow up to be the leader Gerald sought, the one who would change the world.

All that had happened, all their work, and she still could not decide if she believed in destiny.

She wouldn’t change how any of it had happened because of Major. The others marveled over Gerald’s stern, Cossack determination. But she fell in love with Major, with his shining eyes.

“We have to do better, think harder, more creatively. Look how much we’ve done already, never forget how much we’ve done.”

After almost a decade of this, only six of the original ten were left. The die-hards, as mad as Gerald. Even Major looked on him with that calculating light in his eyes. Did Gerald even realize that Major’s passion was for tactics rather than outcome?

“Opportunities abound, if we have the courage to see them. The potential for good, great good, manifests everywhere. We must have the courage to see it.”

Rallying the troops. Clare sighed. How many times had Gerald given variations of this speech in this dingy warehouse, hidden by spells and out of the world? They all sounded the same. She’d stopped being able to see the large patterns a long time ago and could only see the little things now. A dropped napkin in a café. She could only change the course of a few small lives.

“There’s an assassination,” said Gerald. “It will tip the balance into a hundred years of chaos. Do you see it?”

Fred smiled. “We can stop it. Maybe jam a rifle.”

“A distraction, to throw off the assassin’s aim.”

“Or give him a hangover,” Major said. “We’ve had great success with hangovers and oversleeping.” He glanced at Clare with his starry smile. She beamed back. Fred rolled his eyes.

“Quaint,” Gerald said, frowning.

The game was afoot. So many ways to change a pattern. Maybe Clare’s problem was she saw them as people, not patterns. And maybe she was the one holding the rest back. Thinking too small. She wasn’t part of their pattern anymore.

***

This rally was the largest Clare had ever seen. Her generation had grown up hearing grandparents’ stories of protest and clashes (civil war, everyone knew, but the official history said clashes, which sounded temporary and isolated). While their parents grew up in a country that was tired and sedate, where they were content to consolidate their little lives and barricade themselves against the world, the children wondered what it must have been like to believe in idealism.

Gerald’s target this time was the strongest candidate the PTP had ever put forward for Premiere. The younger generation flocked to Jonathan Smith. People adored him—unless they supported the RLP. Rallies like this were the result. Great crowds of hope and belief, unafraid. And the crowds who opposed them.

Gerald said that Jonathan Smith was going to be assassinated. Here, today, at the rally, in front of thousands. All the portents pointed to this. But it would not result in martyrdom and change, because the assassin would be one of his own and people would think, our parents were right, and go home.

Clare and Major stood in the crowd like islands, unmoving, unfeeling, not able to be caught up in the exhilarating speech, the roaring response. She felt alien. These were her people, they were all human, but never had she felt so far removed. She might have felt god-like, if she believed in a god who took such close interest in creation as to move around it like this. God didn’t have to, because there were people like Gerald and Major.

“It’s nice to be saving someone,” Clare said. “I’ve always liked that better.”

“It only has to be a little thing,” Major said. “Someone in the front row falls and breaks a bone. The commotion stalls the attack when Smith goes to help the victim. Because he’s like that.”

“We want to avoid having a victim at all, don’t we?”

“Maybe it’ll rain.”

“We change coach horses, not the weather.” But not so well that they couldn’t keep an anarchist bomb from arriving at its destination. They weren’t omnipotent. They weren’t gods. If they were, they could control the weather.

She had tried sending a message about the government building behind Gerald’s back. He would have called the action too direct, but she’d taken the risk. She’d called the police, the newspapers, everyone, with all the details they’d conjured. Her information went into official records, was filed for the appropriate authorities, all of which moved too slowly to be of any good. It wasn’t too direct after all.

Inexorable. This path of history had the same feeling of being inexorable. Official channels here would welcome an assassination. The police would not believe her. They only had to save one life.

She wished for rain. The sky above was clear.

They walked among the crowd, and it was grand. She rested her hand in the crook of Major’s elbow; he held it there. He wore a happy, silly smile on his face. They might have been in a park, strolling along a gentle river in a painting.

“There’s change here,” he said, gazing over the angry young crowd and their vitriolic signs.

She squeezed his arm and smiled back.

The ground they walked on was ancient cobblestone. This historic square had witnessed rallies like this for a thousand years. In such times of change, gallows had stood here, or hooded men with axes. How much blood had soaked between these cobbles?

That was where she nudged. From the edges of the crowd, they were able to move with the flow of people surging. They could linger at the edges with relative freedom of movement, so she spotted a bit of pavement before the steps climbing to the platform where the demagogue would speak. A toe caught on a broken cobblestone would delay him. Just for a second. Sometimes that was enough to change the pattern.

“Here,” she said, squeezing Major’s arm to anchor him. He nodded, pulled her to the wall of a townhouse, and waited.

While she focused on the platform, on the path that Jonathan Smith would take—on the victim—Major turned his attention to the crowd, looking for the barrel of a gun, the glint of sunlight off a spyglass, counter-stream movement in the enthusiastic surge. The assassin.

Someone else looking for suspicious movement in a crowd like this would find them, Clare thought. Though somehow no one ever did find them.

Sometimes, all they could do was wait. Sometimes, they waited and nothing happened. Sometimes they were too late or early, or one of the others had already nudged one thing or another.

“There,” Major said, the same time that Clare gripped his arm and whispered, “There.”

She was looking to the front where the iconic man, so different than the bodyguards around him, emerged and waved at the crowd. There, the cobblestone—she drew from her pocket a cube of sugar that had been soaked in amaretto, crumbled it, let the grains fall, then licked her fingers. The sweet, heady flavor stung her tongue.

Major lunged away from her. “No!”

The stone lifted, and the great Jonathan Smith tripped. A universal gasp went up.

Major wasn’t looking to the front with everyone else. He was looking at a man in the crowd, twenty feet away, dissolute. A troublemaker. Hair ragged, shirt soiled, faded trousers, and a canvas jacket a size too large. Boots made for kicking. He held something in his right fist, in a white-knuckled grip.

This was it, the source, the gun—the locus, everything. This was where they learned if they nudged enough, and correctly. But the assassin didn’t raise a straight arm to aim. He cocked back to throw. He didn’t carry a gun, he held a grenade.

Gerald and the others had planned for a bullet. They hadn’t planned for this.

Major put his shoulder to the man’s chest and shoved. The would-be assassin stumbled, surprised, clutched the grenade to his chest—it wasn’t active, he hadn’t lit the fuse. Major stopped him. Stopped the explosive, stopped the assassin, and that was good. Except it wasn’t, and he didn’t.

Smith recovered from his near-fall. He mounted the platform. The bodyguard behind him drew his handgun, pointed at the back of Smith’s head, and fired. The shot echoed and everyone saw it and spent a moment in frozen astonishment. Even the man with the grenade. Everyone but Major, who was on the ground, doubled over, shivering as if every nerve burned.

Clare fell on top of him, crying, clutching at him. His eyes rolled back, enough to look at her, enough for her to see the fear in them. If she could have held onto him, carried him with her, saved him, she would have. But he’d put himself back into the world. He’d acted, plunged back into a time and place he wasn’t part of anymore, and now it tore him to pieces. The skin of his face cracked under her hands, and the blood and flesh underneath was black and crumbling to dust.

She couldn’t sob hard enough to save him.

Clare was lost in chaos. Then Gerald was there with his cloak. So theatrical, Major always said. Gerald used the cloak like Major used the jack of diamonds. He swept it around the three of them, shoving them through a doorway.

But only Clare and Gerald emerged on the other side.

***

The first lesson they learned, that Major forgot for only a second, the wrong second: They could only build steps, not leap. They couldn’t act directly, they couldn’t be part of the history they made.

So Jonathan Smith died, and the military coup that followed ruined everything.

***

Five of them remained.

The problem was she could not imagine a world different from the burned-out husk that resulted from the war fought over the course of the next year. Gerald’s plan might have worked, bringing forth a lush Eden where everyone drank nectar and played hopscotch with angelic children, and she still would have felt empty.

Gerald’s goal had always been utopia. Clare no longer believed it was possible.

The others were very kind to her, in the way anyone was kind to a child they pitied. Poor dear, but she should have known better. Clare accepted the blanket Ildie put over her shoulders and the cup of hot tea Fred pressed into her hands.

“Be strong, Clare,” Ildie said, and Clare thought, easy for her to say.

“What next, what next,” Gerard paced the warehouse, head bent, snarling almost, his frown was so energetic.

“Corruption scandal?” Marco offered.

“Too direct.”

“A single line of accounting, the wrong number in the right place, to discredit the regime,” Ildie said.

Gerald stopped pacing. “Maybe.”

Another meeting. As if nothing had happened. As if they could still go on.

“Major was the best of us,” Clare murmured.

“We’ll just have to be more careful,” Ildie murmured back.

“He made a mistake. An elementary mistake,” Gerald said, and never spoke of Major again.

***

The village a mile outside the city had once been greater, a way station and market town. Now, it was a skeleton. The war had crushed it, burned it, until only hovels remained, the scorched frames of buildings standing like trees in a forest. Brick walls had fallen and lay strewn, crumbling, decaying. Rough canvas stretched over alcoves provided shelter. Cooking fires burned under tripods and pots beaten out of other objects. What had been the cobbled town square still had the atmosphere of an open-air market, people shouting and milling, bartering fiercely, trading. The noise made a language all its own, and a dozen different scents mingled.

Despite the war and bombing, some of the people hadn’t fled, but they hadn’t tried to rebuild. Instead, they seemed to have crawled underground when the bombardment began, and when it ended they reemerged, continued their lives where they left off as best they could, with the materials they had at hand. Cockroaches, Clare thought, and shook the thought away.

At the end of the main street, where the twisted, naked foundations gave way and only shattered cobblestones remained, a group of men were digging a well into an old aquifer, part of the water system of the dying village. They were looking for water. Really, though, at this point they weren’t digging, but observing the amount of dirt they’d already removed and arguing. They were about to give up and try again somewhere else. A whole day’s work wasted, a day they could little afford when they had children to feed and material to scavenge.

Clare helped. Spit on her hands, put them on the dusty earth, then rubbed them together and drew patterns in the dust. Pressed her hands to the ground again. The aquifer that they had missed by just a few feet seeped into the ditch they’d dug. The well filled. The men cheered.

Wiping her hands on her skirt, Clare walked away. She was late for another meeting.

***

“What is the pattern?” Gerald asked. And no one answered. They were down to four.

Ildie had tried to cause a scandal by prompting a divorce between the RLP Premiere and his popular wife. No matter how similar attempts had failed before. “This is different, it’s not causing an affair, it’s destroying one. I can do this,” she had insisted, desperate to prove herself. But the targets couldn’t be forced. She might as well have tried to cause an affair after all. Once again, too direct. Clare could have told her it wouldn’t work. Clare recognized when people were in love. Even Republic Loyalists fell in love.

“What will change this path? We must make this better!”

She stared. “I just built a well.”

Marco smirked. “What’s the use of that?”

Fred tried to summon enthusiasm. They all missed Major even if she was the only one who admitted it. “It’s on the army now, not the government. We remove the high command, destroy their headquarters perhaps—”

Marco said, “What, you think we can make earthquakes?”

“No, we create cracks in the foundation, then simply shift them—”

Clare shook her head. “I was never able to think so big. I wish—”

Fred sighed. “Clare, it’s been two years, can you please—”

“It feels like yesterday,” she said, and couldn’t be sure that it hadn’t been just yesterday, according to the clock her body kept. But she couldn’t trust that instinct. She’d lost hours that felt like minutes, studying dust motes.

“Clare—” Gerald said, admonishing, a guru unhappy with a disciple. The thought made her smile, which he took badly, because she wasn’t looking at him but at something the middle distance, unseen.

He shook his head, disappointment plain. The others stared at her with something like fascination or horror.

“You’ve been tired. Not up to this pressure,” he explained kindly. “It’s all right if you want to rest.”

She didn’t hear the rest of the planning. That was all right; she wasn’t asked to take part.

***

She took a piece of charcoal from an abandoned campfire. This settlement was smaller than it had been. Twenty fires had once burned here, with iron pots and bubbling stews over them all.

Eight remained. Families ranged farther and farther to find food. Often young boys never came back. They were taken by the army. The well had gone bad. They collected rainwater in dirty tubs now.

And yet. Even here. She drew a pattern on a slab of broken wood. Watched a young man drop a brick of peat for the fire. Watched a young woman pick it up for him and look into his eyes. He smiled.

Now if only she knew the pattern that would ensure that they survived.

***

When they launched the next plan—collapse the army high command’s headquarters, crippling the RLP and allowing the PTP to fill the vacuum, or so Gerald insisted—she had no part to play. She was not talented enough, Gerald didn’t say, but she understood it. She could only play with detritus from a kitchen table. She could never think big enough for them. Major hadn’t cared.

She did a little thing, though: scattered birdseed on a pool of soapy water, to send a tremor through the air and warn the pigeons, rats, and such that they ought to flee. And maybe that ruined the plan for the others. She’d nudged the pattern too far out of alignment for their pattern to work. The building didn’t collapse, but the clock tower across the square from which Fred and Marco were watching did. As if they had planted explosives and been caught in the blast.

Too direct, of course.

***

She left. Escaped, rather, as she thought. She didn’t want Gerald to find her. Didn’t want to look him in the eye. She would either laugh at him or accuse him of killing Major and everyone else. Then she would strangle him, and since they were both equally out of history she just might be able to do it. It couldn’t possibly be too direct, and the rest of the world couldn’t possibly notice.

Very tempting, in those terms.

But she found her place, her niche, her purpose. Her little village on the edge of everything was starting to build itself into something bigger. She’d worried about it, but just last year the number of babies born exceeded the number of people who died of disease, age, and accident. A few more cook fires had been added. She watched, pleased.

But Gerald found her, eventually, because that was one of his talents: finding people who had the ability to move outside the world. She might as well have set out a lantern.

She didn’t look up when he arrived. She was gathering mint leaves that she’d set out to dry, putting them in the tin box where she stored them. A spoonful of an earlier harvest was brewing in a cup of water over her little fire. Her small realm was tucked under the overhang formed by three walls that had fallen together. The witch’s cave, she called it. It looked over the village so she could always watch her people.

Gerald stood at the edge of her cave for a long time, watching. He seemed deflated, his cloak worn, his skin pale. But his eyes still burned. With desperation this time, maybe, instead of ambition.

When he spoke, he sounded appalled. “Clare. What are you doing here? Why are you living in this . . . this pit?”

“Because it’s my pit. Leave me alone, I’m working.”

“Clare. Come away. Get out of there. Come with me.”

She raised a brow at him. “No.”

“You’re not doing any good here.”

She still did not give him more than a passing glance. The village below was full of the evening’s activities: farmers returning from fields, groups bustling around cook fires. Someone was singing, another laughing, a third crying.

She pointed. “Maybe that little girl right there is the one who will grow up and turn this all around. Maybe I can keep her safe until she does.”

He shook his head. “Not likely. You can’t point to a random child and make such a claim. She’ll be dead of influenza before she reaches maturity.”

“It’s the little things, you’re always saying. But you don’t think small enough,” she said.

“Now what are you talking about?”

“Nails,” she murmured.

“You have a talent,” he said, desperately. “You see what other people overlook. Things other people take for granted. There are revolutions in little things. I understand that now. I didn’t—”

“Why can’t you let the revolutions take care of themselves?”

He stared at her, astonished. Might as well tell him to stop breathing. He didn’t know how to do anything else. And no one had ever spoken to him like this.

“You can’t go back,” he said as if it was a threat. “You can’t go back to being alive in the world.”

“Does it look like I’m trying?” He couldn’t answer, of course, because she only looked like she was making tea. “You’re only here because there’s no one left to help you. And you’re blind.”

Some days when she was in a very low mood she imagined Major here with her, and imagined that he’d be happy, even without the games.

“Clare. You shouldn’t be alone. You can’t leave me. Not after everything.”

“I never did this for you. I never did this for history. There’s no great sweep to any of this. Major saw a man with a weapon and acted on instinct. The grenade might have gone off and he’d have died just the same. It could have happened to anyone. I just wanted to help people. To try to make the world a little better. I like to think that if I weren’t doing this I’d be working in a soup kitchen somewhere. In fact, maybe I’d have done more good if I’d worked in a soup kitchen.”

“You can’t do any good alone, Clare.”

“I think you’re the one who can’t do any good alone,” she said. She looked at him. “I have saved four hundred and thirty-two people who would have died because they did not have clean water. Because of me, forty-three people walked a different way home and didn’t get mugged or pressed into the army. Thirty-eight kitchen fires didn’t reach the cooking oil. Thirty-one fishermen did not drown when they fell overboard. I have helped two dozen people fall in love.”

His chuckle was bitter. “You were never very ambitious.”

“Ambitious enough,” she said.

“I won’t come for you again. I won’t try to save you again.”

“Thank you,” she said.

She did not watch Gerald walk away and vanish in the swoop of his cloak.

Later, looking over the village, she reached for her tin box and drew out a sugar cube that had been soaked in brandy. Crumbling it and licking her fingers, she lifted a bit of earth, which made a small girl trip harmlessly four steps before she would have stumbled and fallen into a cook fire. Years later, after the girl had grown up to be the kind of revolutionary leader who saves the world, she would say she had a guardian angel.

© 2013 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC.
Originally published in Unfettered,
edited by Shawn Speakman.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, as well as the superhero novels Dreams of the Golden Age and After the Golden Age, the young adult novels Voices of Dragons and Steel, and the fantasy novel Discord’s Apple. Her latest books are Bannerless, Martians Abroad, and Amaryllis and Other Stories. Her Hugo Award-nominated short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, from Lightspeed to Tor.com, as well as in George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series. She lives in Boulder, Colorado. Learn more at carrievaughn.com.