Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

Surfacing

Surfacing, illustration by Elizabeth Leggett

Mishy had lived in the undersea city for twenty years. When she went down in the submersible, she was very young and very frightened, all bones and worries, but the years under the water did not feel like they had aged her on the inside. It was only when she had to look at the others that she could see that she was different after all.

She remembered dimly that in the lands of her childhood forty was not at all old, but in the army and under the sea there were hardly any forty-year-olds, and they watched her carefully to see what she might do. She began to grow tired of being watched, and that was when she came back to the surface world again.

She walked for two days before she ran into her first person.

It was a dark-skinned woman with fuzzy black locks, bringing the sheep in from the field. She had a toddler on her hip. She looked Mishy up and down carefully — it took Mishy a moment to remember that this was always done, this cursory search for a weapon — and then said, “Evening, sister.”

“Evening,” said Mishy. “Where am I, can you tell me?”

The woman looked at her a bit more closely, and the toddler squirmed. “You look like you’re right here,” she said. Mishy smiled politely, but the woman’s voice was one of caution, not teasing. “I can fetch my grandmother. She can check for you.”

“No, I mean —” Mishy groped for words that would not make her sound like an army spy. She found none. “Here is as good a place as any, looks like,” she said finally.

“Seems to me,” said the woman amiably, and motioned for Mishy to follow her and the sheep in. The sheep were faintly orange and eyed Mishy with ill-concealed crankiness. The toddler, on the other hand, reached out to Mishy to be held. The woman shrugged and handed her over.

“Been away awhile,” the woman observed. “But wherever you’ve been had childers.”

“That’s true,” said Mishy, surprised. “How did you know?”

The woman shrugged. “You take Tirzah easy enough, but your skin’s gone pink as an apple in the sun.”

Mishy squinted at her. Apples, she knew despite years under the sea, were green. But again, the woman did not seem to be making a joke. She wondered if the entirety of living on land again would be people failing to make the jokes she thought they were making. She twisted a finger in one of Tirzah’s tight knots of curls and got an incoherent toddler monologue in return.

“How’s . . . how have things been?” Mishy asked.

The woman grinned with no happiness behind it. “The war, you mean.”

Mishy had hoped not to mean that any more. She nodded.

“Well, in some ways it seems like more of the same, and in others — my man hasn’t got leave as often as he used to. As you’ll see.”

They approached a low building with a stone base and wooden beams supporting paper walls. The roof was pitched thatch, slumping in a happy mess over the whole. On the back porch there was a white glow coming from a silver cube. Mishy regarded it warily. Under the sea, several of her best comrades had glowed. It was a charming personal quirk, like being a good whistler or left-handed. Here it was out of place.

As they got closer, Mishy saw that in addition to the white glow, the cube had an old refrigerator unit hooked up to the back of it with trailing cables and wires. The woman followed her gaze and grinned. “They’re going to give us a power supply, might as well use it,” she said.

Mishy guessed, “The government?”

“The army. Haven’t you seen the training cubes? I suppose I didn’t have one when I was that age.”

“No,” she said slowly. “I’ve never seen the training cubes. How do they work?”

“The kids get in for a few hours a day, and they do different . . . training modules, I guess they call them. Languages, fighting, math. Strategy. My eldest is pretty good at them. She does half the town’s training time for them.” The woman looked sidelong at Mishy, waiting for her response.

“Hard to know what to do with the bright ones, isn’t it? The army got me, but I got away in my own good time,” said Mishy.

The woman relaxed. “I mean, her daddy’s in the army. I had just hoped . . .”

At that point, a skinny brown boy with a springy black halo of hair came running out of the house wearing only shorts. Mishy had grown unused to guessing the ages of surface children — those under the sea grew differently — but she guessed he was perhaps eight. “Momma, Momma! Who’s the stranger?”

“Name’s Mishegoss,” said Mishy. “You can call me Mishy.”

“That’s a crazy name,” said the boy.

“Coriander!” said the woman sharply. “She’s not from the army, so keep a civil tongue.”

The boy ducked his head, unrepentant but willing to keep the peace. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“It means craziness,” said Mishy. “My name. So you were righter than you knew. I think my parents were onto something when they named me. What do you think?”

His grin dazzled like sun on the sea. “I think so! We should have named Tirzah that!”

“Coriander,” sighed his mother. “Where’s your sister — no, don’t tell me. In the training cube?”

“Luis was busy with their flock, so she’s doing his training time for him,” he confirmed.

Mishy sat on the floor playing with Tirzah while Coriander ran about, sometimes fetching things for his mother and sometimes just regaling Mishy with his knowledge of his immediate world. It was from him that she learned that his mother’s name was Breonia, and that his absent sister was Dhargey; that his mother and father had once lived in the city, before it was bombed out, and that he had only recently learned that there was more than one city; that he had six cousins and only liked two of them.

“Coriander!” said Breonia. “I expect our new friend has enough sense not to spread that around, but you can’t go telling people you don’t like your cousins.”

“She doesn’t know anybody,” said Coriander reasonably. “She can spread it wherever she likes.”

“Get your sister, and get more water from the well,” Breonia told him with a mock-swat.

He returned with a wet-haired girl of about thirteen, freshly splashed and slicked back from the well. Her brother had not escaped splashing, and they treated Mishy with solicitous interest, making sure she had plenty of the radish pickles on her dinner. After crunching thoughtfully, Mishy decided she even liked radish pickles, which was convenient under the circumstances.

“You said you’d been away awhile,” said Breonia when they had finished washing up their bowls and were relaxing in the cool breeze that came off the fields. “Care to say where you’ve been?”

Mishy glanced at the two older children, who were trying to pretend they were playing with their baby sister. She didn’t buy it. “I . . . I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”

“Try us,” said Breonia.

So she knew the children were listening, too, Mishy thought. All right then. “There are some . . . people. I don’t think they’re human any more, but they’re still people. And they’ve built habitats under the sea, and . . . they found me. Or I found them. Or something.”

She saw the confused faces around her and realized she was making a mess of it. “I deserted from the army with some of my friends, and when we were running, we came upon a house on the coast. Probably hundreds of miles west of here. And the house had a dock, and at the dock there was . . . a submersible vehicle.

“The undersea folk came out of the submersible and found us. And we asked them to take us with them. We were tired of war. We wanted to see how they lived. So two of us went with them, and two of us stayed behind.”

“What happened to the ones who stayed behind?” said Dhargey, abandoning her pretense of not listening.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen them in twenty years. That’s one of the things I thought maybe I’d do when I got back, was look them up. Their names were Ilahi and Tran. I don’t suppose they’ve become famous artists or politicians or . . . or generals or anything?”

“Never heard of them,” said Breonia.

Mishy shrugged. “It was a long shot.”

Coriander captured a grasshopper and was busy showing it to his baby sister, who kept trying to poke her fingers inside his cupped hands to get at it. “Did they have trained fish there, under the ocean?”

“Oh yes,” said Mishy. “Mostly not fish. Mostly dolphins and octopus. But some fish. With the octopus I’m not sure I could say trained, but . . . they knew how to communicate. It went both ways. Perhaps the octopus trained us.”

She smiled at the memory of how startled she had been when she figured it out. The army didn’t even use dogs or horses very much, so her last exposure to humans and animals working together had been the cat her aunt kept to kill mice and grasshoppers like the ones the boy held. The cephalopods who interacted with the undersea folk, though . . . she wondered if they had been interfered with, the way humans had interfered with themselves, or if they’d started out that smart and had just learned to show it.

“I didn’t see you in my dreams,” said Dhargey. “I wonder why that is.”

“I didn’t see you either,” said Mishy. “I’ve found there’s a lot I haven’t seen in my dreams. But that may just be me.”

Dhargey shook her head. “Dreaming around corners is hard. Even harder if you don’t know the corner is there and keep training your dreams straight ahead.”

“Training . . . your dreams?” The predictive power of dreamers had been limited when Mishy left, at least in her region. “How do you do that?”

Dhargey waved her hands, frustrated, and Breonia laughed. “These young ones, they take for granted all the crazy things they can do. When I was their age — well, it was a different time, let’s say that.”

“It was,” agreed Mishy. “That’s probably about when I left, when you were their age.”

“Sounds about right.”

They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Mishy was used to silence with the denizens of the undersea habitat, and she had worried about whether she’d grown too unaccustomed to the chatter of the surface. But she had been too hasty to judge her own kind. Apparently not everyone on the surface felt the need to fill every idle moment with noise.

She bedded down near the others in the main room of the house, but not too near. She could see that Breonia was glad she’d brought her own bedding, for there wasn’t much room for spare niceties in their thatched house — probably not much more in the linens than a spare blanket and the winter things. Mishy realized that she had no idea what the climate was on this part of the coast.

“Breonia,” she whispered.

“Mmm?”

“In the morning, can I look at a map?”

“Dhargey will show you. In the training cube. They have lots.”

“Thank you.”

“Mmm.”

The morning had a mellow and rounded smell, which she eventually identified as the lack of salt. There were plenty of obvious things to do to help Breonia and the children start their day, but then they seemed to have the chores about evenly divided up. Mishy was glad she’d thought of the map, not only to orient herself but also as a way to shape her time while she figured out what to do next.

The training cubicle was a dingy blue on the inside and smelled of adolescent girl sweat. There was a screen, but also goggles and gloves that looked like they were from a different world than the rest of the farm, a world with shiny plastics gone cracked and dingy. There would be room for them both inside if they squeezed. Mishy looked down. The floor appeared to have pressure sensors on it. She stepped carefully around them.

Dhargey pulled the door shut, suited up with the goggles and gloves, and matter-of-factly went through an artillery targeting program that glowed in blue and white lines through the entire cubicle. Then language. Then Mishy said aloud, “All right, enough. It’ll be easier to see the physical training stuff outside on the grass.”

Dhargey grinned, and they both took deep, relieved breaths of the fresh air. Stripped of the goggles, Dhargey looked her proper age again, not the serious young soldier they had made her. Mishy hated herself for even having the reaction and was glad something could undo it. They both stretched, thoroughly and slowly.

“If you were in the army, where are your campaign tokens?” said Dhargey. “My papa has so many tokens, his beard sounds like rain.”

Mishy smiled; she had known veterans like that, though not many. She had liked them. They made her feel safe, like a father probably. Not like her own father, who had not been able to keep her out of the army or teach her anything of life in it. “I threw them in the sea,” she said.

“You threw — how could you bear to do it? After you’d fought hard to win them?”

“I fought hard to survive. In the sea — in the city under the sea — that meant something completely different. It was a new life. At least, I wanted it to be.” Now that she was back on land, she wondered if it had ever really been a new life, or just a facet of her old one. She had learned many things in the undersea city, but to its denizens — and possibly to herself — she was always the soldier from the surface.

Not the person from the surface, or the woman, or the daughter, or the lover of jellyfish salads. Always the soldier first.

Well, she thought, the old soldier could make herself useful.

“All right, let’s see what this cube’s been teaching you, then,” said Mishy.

Dhargey grinned. “I’ve never gotten to spar with a real instructor. Just kid stuff with the other kids around the village, and frankly, they can’t handle me.”

“I bet they can’t,” Mishy said, grinning back. She dropped into her easy sparring stance and waited. Dhargey looked to be all elbows and knees when she was around the house and the field with her brother and sister, but she was serious now, focused, her movements far more coordinated than Mishy’s had been at her age.

Dhargey tried several kinds of attack, at least five styles of fighting. Mishy repelled them, smacking her just lightly enough to make it clear that this was all a test. Then there came two styles Mishy didn’t know, and she just had to deal with them as she would sparring with a grown-up.

“Good,” she said. “Good. You’ve been picking up a lot from these cubes, I can see that. You’ll still need practice to fight actual adults, but you’ve got a solid base to work with.”

“Show me what the undersea people do,” Dhargey demanded. There was a fine sheen of sweat on her brow, but her breathing was even.

“The undersea people are different,” said Mishy. “They would do like — so.” She moved in deftly, striking three points before Dhargey could defend against them.

“Good,” said Dhargey. “Good good. I’d like to learn more. Give me an edge on the others.”

“I thought you already had one.”

“You can always use more of an edge. But — that felt like a pressure point strike. I’ve got pins and needles. And the training cube said pressure points are no good in a real fight, only for things like subduing civilians.” When she said the last part, a cloud went over her open, friendly young face. Even with a thrashing toddler sister to deal with, Dhargey clearly did not like the idea of having to subdue civilians.

But Mishy thought she would bring that up again later, almost not noticing that she had decided there would be a later. “Well, the training cube is right, except for one thing. The undersea folk have modified themselves to have venomous stingers here — ” She gestured along the side of her little finger. “And here.” She poked out her elbow. “Pressure points are a lot more effective if the pins and needles are followed by a gentle nerve paralyzer. Then they can take prisoners without having to kill or concuss anybody. They like it better that way.”

“I would too,” said Dhargey soberly.

Mishy examined her young student. “If we’re going to have you fighting, we should get your hair braided up, but I don’t know how to do it with hair like — I don’t know how you say it here — hair like yours. Instead of like mine, where one little braid will do.”

“We call it strong hair,” said Dhargey. “Not that people with weak hair can’t be strong!”

“No offense taken.”

“I know the warrior braids,” said Breonia behind them. Mishy wondered how long she’d been watching. “Married to an army man fifteen years, you think I can’t braid hair for a warrior? Come on, girl. We’ll get it done.”

“That’s if you don’t mind me staying a bit,” said Mishy shyly. “Showing her some things. Otherwise there’s no need.”

“Oh, there’s probably a need anyhow,” said Breonia. “Come on, then. This’ll take a while. You can go help Coriander pick plums, Mishy.”

“I’d be glad to,” said Mishy, her mouth watering at the thought of fresh plums, pickled plums, plums of any kind. She would not have said that plums were one of her favorite land foods, but twenty years away from them made them sound like the most scrumptious thing she could imagine.

When she and Coriander returned from the plum orchard laden with fruit, Breonia had braided both of her daughters’ hair, though Tirzah’s had only grown long enough for a tiny stump. One of them had also made dumpling dough, ready to plunk the smaller plums into and boil for supper.

“I surely do appreciate your hospitality,” said Mishy. “The maps, the dumplings, everything.”

“Well, mind you teach my girl what she needs to learn, then,” said Breonia. “That’s all the gratitude I need.”

“And tell us stories about the fishy people,” Coriander put in.

Mishy laughed and tried to think how to explain to him how the stories were different under the waters.

At first she had been grateful to live under the sea, which was mostly to say, grateful to live in any way that was not the army’s, any way that was not the war. But even the most exhausted soldier can find rest in the cities under the sea, and when she was rested, Mishy began to observe the folk around her, to watch them keenly for their marks of difference and to wonder where they had changed themselves from the people like herself.

They were amphibian, and that was the obvious change, but also the subtle one. They had choices where she had none. It changed how they thought, how they moved, even when they were in the dry parts of the world.

And then — she had not asked closely about their births and deaths, though they had learned enough about how her kind died, even aside from wars. But she thought they were shorter-lived than the standard-line humans — that they wore out sooner.

She had seen no signs that their dreams were anything more than a child’s dreams, a jumble of images and leftover processing. She had asked, and their answers did not seem to indicate that they entirely understood what she was asking.

Even when they had learned each other’s languages better, that was often the case.

After Mishy and her hosts had finished their dumplings, they rested in the breeze again. Mishy expected it was their habit as long as weather permitted — or perhaps they were accustomed to visiting their neighbors and relations and were only not doing it because she was there.

“You must have been brave, to go under the sea alone,” said Coriander.

“Soldiers are used to having to go alone,” said Dhargey. “Look at Papa.” Their mother pursed her lips but said nothing.

“I had a friend who went with me, at first,” said Mishy slowly. She hadn’t talked about Edward in years, but Dhargey didn’t seem to notice anything wrong.

“What happened to him?” she said.

Mishy drew a deep breath. “He died. They tell me some land people just don’t thrive under the sea, and he was — he was too scared to go back. It was too close to our desertion. I should have tried to make him do it — I mean, I should have tried harder.”

She remembered the week she had spent with Edward in a hut on a rocky island. Their undersea friends — if in fact they were friends, if they understood friendship in the same way — had left them there with a supply of food and basic first-aid sorts of medicine, telling Mishy that Edward would either turn a corner in the week or not.

So Mishy held his hand while he died, talking in slow bits about what they had missed from on land, none of which was available on the little rocky island that was sufficiently isolated to let undersea-dwellers come and go without possibly betraying anything to the land-dwellers. After he died, she made a cairn for him, and then sat on the northern point of the island with her knees drawn up under her chin, smelling the salt water that she had been taking for granted when she was immersed in it and waiting for the undersea folk to come back for her.

“Why did you come back?” said Dhargey. “Did you find that you didn’t thrive there either?”

“No,” said Mishy. “No, I — I got older, and it seemed time. It seemed that I could do some good on the surface. Share what I’d learned. I’d lived twenty years without war. I wondered if anyone else on the surface could say the same.”

“Nope,” said Dhargey. “Sure would like to.”

“Sure would,” Breonia agreed. “But no. Not one year without war, much less twenty. What keeps them interested, then? If not news of the war, and not visitors from the surface?”

So Mishy told more stories of the collaborative projects with the octopus, which no one had ever entirely been able to explain to her. She mentioned the orchestra of strange instruments and then had to stop to explain to the children what an orchestra was. Breonia and her husband had heard groups play music in their younger days in the city, before it was bombed, but that was before they were even married, before the children were born, and no one they knew had saved an instrument larger than a drum or a fiddle from the bombing.

Then she tried to explain the quiet, the way that the undersea city did not have cicadas or crickets or oxen, did not have trees in the wind or neighbors in the next pasture over, just . . . quiet, and the rushing of air and water.

Eventually she gave up, and they all went to sleep, even Mishy, even with the cicadas and the oxen and the noise.

In the morning, she was awakened by Coriander’s chatter. “I dreamed of Papa,” he was saying. “I think Papa’s coming home.”

“Not for a while yet, sugar,” said Breonia.

“But when you and Dhargey dream of Papa — ”

“When you’re a little bigger, that’s what it’ll mean,” said his mother reassuringly. “And you’ll go to Auntie Rhee to learn how to cast your dreams. But for now, you just get rest at night. That’s all you need to do. Get rest to grow big and strong.”

“We never cast our dreams,” said Mishy.

“Mmmm,” said Breonia, handing her a cold plum dumpling. “They gave us shots when I was a teenager.”

Dhargey burst back into the hut, her braids swinging. “The sensor pad is malfunctioning. It won’t log me in.”

Breonia glanced at Mishy. “Can you check it? I’ve got enough to do getting the little ones up.”

“I can get myself up,” Coriander protested. “I’m up.”

“You help your Mama with your baby sister,” said Mishy. “I’ll go check this out.”

The power appeared to still be flowing to the cube out back, and the hacked refrigerator hummed along. Mishy peered in at the sensor pad. “So you step on this, and then it prompts the login?”

“It’s supposed to,” said Dhargey. “But it’s not doing it. I checked the connections in four places. I’m pretty sure it’s shut down somewhere in the programming. It’s too bad, too; with my math time and Luis’s, I was going to start calculus in two or three more lessons.”

Mishy’s stomach churned like the sea in a storm. “You’re not doing the same math several times for yourself and the other kids? It doesn’t repeat for you?”

“Oh no. That’d be pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Having to do the same all the time? No, it just moves me along no matter whose time I’m using.”

“Okay,” said Mishy, taking deep breaths. “Okay. Okay. We need to get away from the cube, Dhargey. Is there somewhere you can hide? A — a forest or something?”

The girl’s dark eyes went round. “Sure, of course, but why?”

“You haven’t been using the other people’s time, kiddo, you’ve been using your time. It’s tracking your progress. And when they come for someone to take into the army — ”

Dhargey’s brown skin went ashen.

“I’m going to find your mom, and we’ll talk about this,” Mishy assured her. “Will your mom know where you’d go?”

“Tell her the coppice by the lake.”

Mishy nodded, and the girl ran off lightly through the fields. Mishy wanted to watch her go, but she had no idea how soon the army would come after shutting down the transmissions. It was possible, of course, that it really was a malfunction and no one was coming, or that the only person coming would be a technician. But the training cube showed no other signs of breaking down, and if it was not today, it would be another day. They were grooming Dhargey to become what Mishy had been, or worse.

And Mishy would not let that happen if she could help it.

When she went to find Breonia, Breonia was standing in front of the house talking to a hovering metal thing, a miniature craft with flying blades and a little speaker. “Heard and acknowledged,” Breonia was saying.

Mishy waited until it flew off to hiss at Breonia and call her inside. “What was that?”

“Army drone. They’re sending people.”

“I know they are. They’re sending them for Dhargey. What’ll they do if they can’t find her?”

“Not just for Dhargey,” Breonia protested.

“What’ll they do?” Mishy repeated.

Breonia pursed her lips. “In the village where my cousin moved, they didn’t have anyone to send to the army when the army came. No one was ready. So they levied a bigger tax on them.”

“They tax the food you grow?”

Breonia nodded. “Everything we make.”

“We have to go join Dhargey. I’ll tell you why I think they’ll want her specifically, her alone.”

She tried to answer Breonia’s questions without scaring her too much, as the two of them and Tirzah made their way to the coppice. She was glad Tirzah’s vocabulary was still limited, because even her attempts at not terrifying her hostess could only do so much in the face of the news that her beloved and brilliant daughter was being personally groomed to go away and kill or be killed.

“I always thought it would be an even chance, a fair chance,” said Breonia. “Maybe even a bit better odds than that, with all Candlestick’s boys being so big. I thought if they took one from the village and it wasn’t at random, they wouldn’t pick her.”

“I’d want her,” said Mishy, honestly thinking like a squad leader for the first time since Edward’s death. “If I had to go into a fight with some child at my back, Dhargey’s level-headed, and she thinks about all the things they’re stuffing her head with. It’s not just rote learning for her.”

“And Luis’s sister Yevgenia is a leap-dreamer,” Breonia continued, clearly still on her own track of thoughts. “They always take the leap-dreamers if they can.”

“There’s no reason they won’t take Dhargey and Yevgenia both,” said Mishy. “They can feed them. They can use them.”

Breonia stopped and stared at her. “Then why in the name of all the little saints are we leaving without Yevgenia?”

Mishy sat down suddenly on a fallen log. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out. “Look, if I’m wrong, they might not take anybody this time. It may just be a malfunction, and they’ll send someone out to fix it, or they won’t, and if that’s the case, having Dhargey where she won’t come to their attention will be enough for now.”

“Same for my cousin’s girl Yevgenia,” said Breonia stubbornly. “And if you’re right . . .”

“If I’m right, they may still take somebody. They may not want to waste the trip, may figure they can make another child work once they get them back to headquarters.” The log was strangely bumpy. Mishy had not sat on anything with ridges of that sort since she had deserted.

She was thinking a lot of her desertion, since her return.

“I’m going back for the older children,” said Breonia.

“No! Not yet,” said Mishy slowly. “Let’s meet Dhargey and — and she and I will figure out what you need to bring. When you bring them. So that I can get them away.”

“You’re taking the children away.” Unconsciously, Breonia clutched at Tirzah, who wailed. Her mother joggled her and shooshed her absent-mindedly.

“I’m not stealing your children. I promise,” said Mishy. “But — they’re going into the army unless someone stops it.”

“And you’re going to be that someone?”

“I came back from the sea for something,” said Mishy. “I think it’s this. I think I’m here to — to get the children organized. To get the parents organized.”

Breonia snorted. “You’re not going to avoid a war that way. You’re going to start a revolution. And as much as I don’t want my baby joining her daddy in the army, I’d rather have her in an organized army than dying an unarmed rebel.”

Mishy pressed her lips together. She looked around her at the countryside. They were in a light wood at the edge of the field, and it wouldn’t shield them from more than a casual inspection. But a little further, off on the horizon, she could see hills, hills strewn with darker green trees and grey rocks.

“Those hills,” she said. “We can gather people in those hills. Figure out how to do this. We’ll have me and Dhargey, and she’s as good a little tactician as I’ve ever known. If she wants to be.”

“If she wants to be?”

“I sent her running,” Mishy admitted. “When she hears it all, when she thinks it through, she might want to come back to the village. Might want to join the army when they come for her.”

“Sweet Martha, no,” said Breonia. “Not my girl.”

“What other choices do we have? What other choices does she have?”

“It’s not a choice.”

“It is. It’s her choice.”

Breonia sighed and hoisted Tirzah a little higher on her hip. “I suppose it has to be. I’m not ready for her to make choices that big.”

Mishy nodded sympathetically, although she had never had a daughter or a niece or a protégé without gills. And the gilled protégés . . . had their own agendas. Always.

She hadn’t always been able to determine what those were.

When they found the coppice, Dhargey was up one of the trees, waiting impatiently. “They will take you,” Mishy said without preamble. “I will get you out of here if you’ll go. Your mother thinks we should take your cousin and all the older children.”

Dhargey swung down out of the tree, her new braids smacking against her neck and ears. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, looking for all the world like Breonia if Breonia had ever had to wear a warrior’s braids. “They should get to choose,” she said.

Breonia did not seem to notice the mirroring. “Child, your papa says — ”

“My papa will find me gone when he comes, and how will he feel then?”

“Glad,” said Breonia. “Oh, honey. You have no idea how glad.”

“I’ll get them,” said Dhargey. “I can go quick and quiet, and they don’t know Mishy. They wouldn’t go with her.”

“I’ll help,” said Breonia.

“No. You pack food,” said Dhargey. “We’ll go up to the yam fields. There are caves near there.”

“We’re not going to live in caves forever,” said Mishy. “At least, I’m not. I didn’t come out of the sea for that.”

Breonia hoisted Tirzah a little higher on her hip. “Then what did you come out of the sea for?”

“I — ” Mother and daughter were both watching her carefully. Mishy realized they were not waiting to see what the answer was, they were waiting see if she knew it. “To lead you. To teach you things. So that — so that you wouldn’t have to do this. So no one would have to do this. And — you’ll tell your husband? When he gets leave? So that he can pass the word among the troops?”

Breonia nodded slowly. “Yes, all right. The little ones and I may have to stay with my sister. But we won’t move again, like we did from the city. We won’t hide again. We’ll do this. Together. Just keep my baby — well, as safe as you can.”

“As safe as I can,” Mishy promised, already thinking of supply lines and communications.

Dhargey’s grin finally returned. “All right. Let’s get started.”

“Hurry up, then,” said Mishy. “It’s a long walk to those hills.”

Marissa Lingen

John M. Ford post-memorial reception.Marissa Lingen is a short fiction writer living in the Minneapolis area. She has sold over one hundred stories to publications such as Year’s Best, Tor.com, Analog, and Lightspeed. You can find her online at www.marissalingen.com.