Science Fiction & Fantasy



De La Tierra

The piano player drums away with her left hand, dropping all five fingers onto the keys as if they weigh too much to hold up. The rhythms bounce off the rhythms of what her right hand does, what she sings. It’s like there’s three different people in that little skinny body, one running each hand, the third one singing. But they all know what they’re doing.

He sucks a narrow stream of Patrón over his tongue and lets it heat up his mouth before he swallows. He wishes he knew how to play an instrument. He wouldn’t mind going up at the break, asking if he could sit in, holding up a saxophone case, maybe, or a clarinet. He’d still be here at 3 a.m., jamming, while the waiters mopped the floors.

That would be a good place to be at 3 a.m. Much better than rolling up the rug, burning the gloves, dropping the knife over the bridge rail. Figuratively speaking.

They aren’t that unalike, she and he. He has a few people in his body, too, and they also know what they’re doing.

The difference is, his have names.

“¿Algo más?” The wide-faced waitress sounds Salvadoran. She looks too young to be let into a bar, let alone make half a bill a night in tips. She probably sends it all home to mami. The idea annoys him. Being annoyed annoys him, too. No skin off his nose if she’s not blowing it at the mall.

He actually is too young to legally swallow this liquor in a public place, but of course he’s never carded. A month and a half and he’ll be twenty-one. Somebody ought to throw a party. “Nada. Grácias.”

She smiles at him. “Where you from? Chihuahua?”

“Burbank.” Why does she care where he’s from? He shouldn’t have answered in Spanish.

“No, your people—where they from? My best friend’s from Chihuahua. You look kinda like her brother.”

“Then he looks like an American.”

She actually seems hurt. “But everybody’s from someplace.”

Does she mean “everybody,” or “everybody who’s brown like us?” “Yep. Welcome to Los Angeles.”

He and the tequila bid each other goodbye, like a hug with a friend at the airport. Then he pushes the glass at the waitress. She smacks it down on her tray and heads for the bar. There, even the luggage disappears from sight. He rubs the bridge of his nose.

Positive contact, Chisme answers from above his right ear. Chisme is female and throaty, for him, anyway. All numbers optimal to high optimal. Operation initialized.

He lays a ten on the table and pins the corner down with the candle jar. He wishes it were a twenty, for the sake of the Salvadoran economy. But big tippers are memorable. He stands up and heads for the door.

Behind him he hears the piano player sweep the keys, low to high, and it hits his nerves like a scream. He almost turns—

Adrenal limiter enabled. Suppression under external control.

Just like everything else about him. All’s right with the world. He breathes deep and steps out into the streetlights and the smell of burnt oil.

The bar’s in Koreatown. The target is in downtown L.A. proper, in the jewelry district. Always start at least five miles from the target, in case someone remembers the unmemorable. Show respect for the locals, even if they’re not likely to believe you exist.

He steps into the shadow that separates two neon window signs and slips between, fastlanes. He’s down at Hill and Broadway in five minutes. He rubs the bridge of his nose again. Three percent discharge, says Chisme. After three years he can tell by the way it feels, but it’s reflex to check.

The downtown air is oven-hot, dry and still, even at this hour, and the storm drains smell. They’ll keep that up until the rains come and wash them clean months from now. He turns the corner and stops before the building he wants.

There’s a jewelry store on the first floor. Security grills lattice the windows, and the light shines down on satin-upholstered stands with nothing on them. Painted on the inside of the glass is, “Gold Mart/Best prices on/Gold/Platinum/Chains & Rings.” Straight up, below the fifth floor windows, there’s a faded sign in block letters: “Eisenberg & Sons.”

Time to call another of the names. He massages his right palm with his left thumb.

Magellan responds. Not with words, because words aren’t what Magellan does. Against the darkness at the back of the store, white lines form, like a scratchboard drawing. He knows they’re not really inside the store, but his eye doesn’t give a damn. The pictures show up wherever he’s looking. This one is a cutaway of the building: the stairwell up the left side, the landings, the hallways on each floor. And the target, like a big lens flare . . . at the front of the fourth floor.

They’re always on the top floor. Always. He focuses on the fifth floor of the diagram and massages his hand again. The zoom-in is so fast he staggers. Vertical axis restored, Chisme murmurs.

The fifth floor seems to be all storage; the white lines draw wireframe cartons and a few pieces of broken furniture in the rooms.

Not right, not right. Top floor makes for a faster getaway, better protection from the likes of him. Ignoring strategy can only mean that the strategy has changed. He probes his upper left molar with his tongue, and Biblio’s sexless whisper, like sand across rock, says, Refreshing agent logs. Information updated at oh-two-oh-three.

Fifteen minutes ago is good enough. He thinks through the logs, looking for surprises, new behaviors, deviations in the pattern. Nada. His fourth-floor sighting will be in the next update as an alert, an anomaly. He’s contributed to the pool of knowledge. Whoopee for him.

He stands inside the doorway, trying to look like scenery, but every second he waits makes it worse. If the target gets the wind up, a nice routine job will have gone down the crapper. And if the neighborhood watch spooks and the LAPD sends a squad, the target will for sure get the wind up.

But it’s not routine. He knows it, he’s made and trained to know it. The target is not where it ought to be. The names are no help: They follow orders. Just as he does. No te preocupes, hijo. Do the job until it does for you; then there’ll be another just like you to clean up the mess, and you’ll be a note in the logs.

Blood pressure adjusted, Chisme notes. Not an admonishment, just a fact. The names give him facts. It’s up to him what to do with them. To hell with the neighborhood watch. He touches thumb to middle finger on each hand, stands still, breathes from the belly. Chisme isn’t the only one who can do his tune-up.

He takes the chameleon key from his pocket, casual as any guy who’s left something on his desk at work—oops, yeah, officer, the wife’ll kill me if I don’t bring those tickets home tonight. The key looks like a brass Schlage; he could hand it to the cop and smile. But when it goes in the lock—

He feels it under his fingers, like a little animal shrugging. It’s changing shape in there, finding the right notches and grooves and filling them. When it feels like a brass key again, he turns it, and the lock opens easy as a peck on the cheek.

Thirty seconds on the alarm, according to the documents in the archives of the security service that installed it. Biblio tells him what to punch on the keypad, and the display stops flashing, “ENTER CODE NOW” and offers him a placid, “SYSTEM DISARMED.” This part is never hard. If a target showed up in one of the wannabe mansionettes on Chandler at four in the morning, he could walk right in and the homeowner would never know.

If nothing went wrong after the walking-in part, of course.

The stairs in front of him are ill-lit, sheathed in cracked linoleum and worn rubber nail-down treads. He smells dust, ammonia, and old cigarette smoke. But not the target, not yet.

He starts up toward the next floor.

• • • •

The evening before, he got an official commendation for his outstanding record. He had to go to Chateau Marmont, up the hill from Sunset, to get it, and on a Friday, too, so he had to pay ten dollars for valet parking to get his head patted. Good dog. If he could fastlane on his own time, it would solve so many problems. But hey, at least there was still such a thing as “his own time.”

She was out on the patio by the pool, stretched in a lounge chair. From there a person could see a corner of the Marmont bungalow where Belushi had overdosed. He was pretty sure she knew that; they liked things like celebrity death spots.

Some of them almost anyone could recognize—if almost anyone knew to look for them. They’re always perfect, of their kind. That’s why so many of them like L.A., where everybody gets extra credit for looking perfect. Try going unnoticed in Ames, Iowa, looking like that.

She had wavy golden hair to her shoulders, and each strand sparkled when the breeze shifted it. She wore a blue silk halter top, and little white shorts that showed how long and tan her legs were. She could’ve been one of those teen-star actresses pretending to be a Forties pin-up, except that she was too convincing. She sipped at a mojito without getting any lipstick on the glass.

For fun, he jabbed his molar with his tongue to see if Biblio could tell him anything about her—name, age, rank. Nada, y nada más. None of them were ever in the database. Didn’t hurt to try, though.

“Your disposal record is remarkable,” she said, with no preface.

“I do my job.” He wondered what other agents’ records were. He was pretty sure there were others, though he’d never met them. She didn’t ask him to sit down, so he didn’t.

“A vital one, I assure you.” She gazed out at the view: the L.A. basin all the way to Santa Monica, just beginning to light up for the night, and a very handsome sunset. No smog or haze. Could her kind make that happen, somehow? They’d more or less made him, but he was nothing compared to a clear summer evening in Los Angeles.

She turned to look at him fully, suddenly intent. “You understand that, don’t you? That your work is essential to us?”

He shrugged. A direct gaze from one of them had tied better tongues than his.

“You’re saving our way of life—even our lives themselves. These others come from places where they’re surrounded by ignorant, superstitious peasants. They have no conception of how to blend in here, what the rules and customs are. And their sheer numbers . . .” She shook her head. “A stupid mistake by one of them, and we could all be revealed.”

“So it’s a quality-of-life thing?” he asked. “I thought the problem was limited resources.”

She pressed her lips together and withdrew her gaze. The evening seemed immediately colder and less sweetly scented. “Our first concern, of course. We’re very close to the upper limit of the carrying capacity of this area. Already there are . . .” (she closed her tilted blue eyes for a moment, as if she had a pain somewhere) “. . . empty spots. We are the guardians of this place. If we let these invaders overrun it, they’ll strip it like locusts, as they strip their native lands.”

A swift movement in the shrubbery—a hummingbird, shooting from one blossom to another. She smiled at it, and he thought, Lucky damned bird, even though he didn’t want to.

“I still don’t get it,” he said, his voice sounding like a truck horn after hers. “Why not help them out? Say, ‘Bienvenidos, brothers and sisters, let’s all go to Disneyland?’ Then show them how it’s done, and send them someplace where they can have their forty acres and a mule? They’re just like you, aren’t they?”

She turned from the bird and met his eyes. If he thought he’d felt the force of her before, now he knew he’d felt nothing, nothing. “Have you seen many of them,” she asked, “who are just like me?”

He’s seen one or two who might have become like her, in time, with work. But none so perfect, so powerful, so unconsciously arrogant, so serenely sure, as she and the others who hold his leash.

• • • •

He’s on the first landing before he remembers to check the weapon. Chisme monitors that, too, and would have said something if it wasn’t registering. But it’s not Chisme’s ass on the line (if, in fact, Chisme has one). Trust your homies, but check your own rifle.

He holds his left palm up in front of him in the gloom and makes a fist, then flexes his wrist backward. At the base of his palm the tiny iron needles glow softly, row on row, making a rosy light under his skin.

He used to wonder how they got the needles in there without a scar, and why they glow when he checks them, and how they work when he wants them to. Now he only thinks about it when he’s on the clock. Part of making sure that he can still call some of the day his own.

When he finishes here, he’ll be debriefed. That’s how he thinks of it. He’ll go to whatever place Magellan shows him, do whatever seems to be expected of him, and end by falling asleep. When he wakes up the needles will be there again.

He goes up the stairs quiet and fast, under his own power. If he fastlanes this close, the target will know he’s here. He’s in good shape: He can hurry up three flights of stairs and still breathe easy. That’s why he’s in this line of work now. Okay, that and being in the wrong place at the right time.

Introspection is multitasking, and multitasking can have unpleasant consequences. That’s what the names are for, hijo. Keep your head in the job.

Half the offices here are vacant. The ones that aren’t have temporary signs, the company name in a reasonably businesslike typeface, coughed out of the printer and taped to the door. Bits of tape from the last company’s sign still show around the edges. The hallway’s overhead fluorescent is like twilight, as if there’s a layer of soot on the inside of its plastic panel.

At least it’s all offices; one less problem to deal with, grácias a San Miguel. Plenty of the buildings on Broadway are apartments above the first two floors, with Mom and Dad and four kids in a one-bedroom with not enough windows and no air conditioning. People sleep restless in a place like that.

Which makes him wonder: Why didn’t the target pick a place like that? Why make this easier?

On the fourth floor, the hall light buzzes on and off, on and off. He feels a pre-headache tightness behind his eyebrows as his eyes try to correct, and his heart rate climbs. Is the light the reason for this floor? Does the target know about him, how he works, and picked this floor because of it?

Chisme gives his endocrine system a twitch, and he stops vibrating. He’s a well-kept secret. And if he isn’t, all the more reason to get this done right.

He walks the length of the hallway, hugging the wall, pausing to listen before crossing the line of fire of each closed door. He doesn’t expect trouble until the farthest door, but it’s the trouble you don’t expect that gets you. Even to his hearing, he doesn’t make a sound.

Beside the last door, the one at the front of the building, he presses up against the wall and listens. A car goes through the intersection below; a rattle on the sidewalk may be a shopping cart. Nothing from inside the room. He breathes in deep and slow, and smells, besides the dry building odors, the scent of fresh water.

He probes his right palm with his thumb, and when Magellan sends him the diagram of the fourth floor, he turns his head to line it up with the real surfaces of the building. Here’s the hall, and the door, and the room beyond it. There’s the target: shifting concentric circles of light, painfully bright. Unless everything is shot to hell, it’s up against the front wall, near the window. And if everything is shot to hell, there’s nothing he can do except go in there and find out.

At that, he feels an absurd relief. We who are about to die. From here on, it’s all action, as quick as he can make it, and no more decisions. Quick, because as soon as he fastlanes the target will know he’s here. He reaches down inside himself and makes it happen.

He turns and kicks the door in, and feels the familiar heat in nerve and muscle tissue, tequila-fueled. He brings his left arm up, aims at the spot by the window.

Fire, his brain orders. But the part of him that really commands the weapon, whatever that part is, is frozen.

• • • •

The coyotes mostly traffic in the ones who can pass. After all, it’s bad for business if customers you smuggle into the Promised Land are never heard from again by folks back in the old ’hood.

But sometimes, if cash flow demands, they make exceptions. Coyotes sell hope, after all. Unreasonable, ungratifiable hope just costs more. The coyotes tell them about the Land of Opportunity and neglect to mention that there’s no way they’ll get a piece of it.

Then the coyotes take their payment, dump them in the wilderness, and put a couple of steel-jackets in them before leaving.

He’s done cleanup in the desert and found the dried-out bodies, parchment skin and deformed bone, under some creosote bush at the edge of a wash. The skin was often split around the bullet holes, it was so dry. Of course, if they’d been dead, there wouldn’t have been anything to find. Some that he came across could still open their eyes, or speak.

• • • •

Maybe in the dark this one can pass. Maybe she looks like an undernourished street kid with a thyroid problem. In the pitch-dark below an underpass from a speeding car, maybe.

She should never have left home. She should be dying in the desert. She should be already dead, turned to dust and scattered by the oven-hot wind.

Her body looks like it’s made of giant pipe cleaners. Her long, skinny legs are bent under her, doubled up like a folding carpenter’s ruler, and the joints are the wrong distance from each other. Her ropy arms are wrapped around her, and unlike her legs, they don’t seem jointed at all—or it’s just the angle that makes them seem to curve like tentacles.

And she’s white. Not Anglo-white or even albino-white, but white like skim milk, right down to the blueish shadows that make her skin look almost transparent. Fish-belly white.

Her only clothing is a plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves torn off, in what looks like size XXL Tall. It’s worn colorless in places, and those spots catch the street light coming through the uncovered window. The body under the shirt is small and thin and childlike. Her head, from above, is a big soiled milkweed puff, thin gray-white hair that seems to have worn itself out pushing through her scalp.

The office is vacant. An old steel desk stands on end in the middle of the room. Empty filing cabinet drawers make a lopsided tower in a corner. Half a dozen battered boxes of envelopes are tumbled across the floor, their contents spilled and stained. But the room’s alive with small bright movements.

It’s water—trickling down the walls, running in little rivulets across the vinyl flooring, plopping intermittently in fat drops from the ceiling. Water from nowhere. From her.

He hears the words coming out of his mouth even as he thinks, This isn’t going to work. “I’m here to send you back.” Once one of the poor bastards becomes his job, there’s no “sending back.” His left arm is up, his palm turned out. He should fire.

The milkweed fluff rocks slowly backward. Her face is under it. Tiny features on an out-thrusting skull, under a flat, receding brow, so that her whole face forms around a ridge down its middle. Only the eyes aren’t tiny. They’re stone-gray without whites or visible pupils, deep-set round disks half the size of his palm.

She opens her little lipless mouth, but he doesn’t hear anything. She licks around the opening with a pale-gray pointed tongue and tries again.

“Tú eres un mortal.”

You’re a mortal. A short speech in a high, breathy little-girl voice, but long enough to hear that her accent is familiar.

He’s lightheaded, and his ears are ringing. He needs adjusting. Damn it, where’s Chisme?

Wait—he knows what this is. He’s afraid.

She’s helpless, not moving, not even paying attention. All he has to do is trigger the weapon, and she’ll have a hundred tiny iron needles in her. Death by blood poisoning in thirty seconds or less—quicker and cleaner than the coyote’s steel-jacketed rounds would have been. Why can’t he fire?

He tries again, in Spanish this time—as if that will make it true. “I’m sending you back.”

Something around her brows and the corners of her eyes suggests hope. She rattles into speech, but he can’t make out a word of it. He recognizes it, though. It’s the Indio language his grandmother used. He doesn’t know its name; to his abuela, it was just speaking, and Spanish was the city language she struggled with.

He can’t trust his voice, so he shakes his head at her. Does she understand that? His left arm feels heavy, stretched out in front of him.

Suddenly anger cuts through his dumb-animal fear. She’s jerking him around. She found out somehow where his mother’s family is from, and she’s playing him with it. He doesn’t have to make her understand. All he has to do is shoot her.

“You are not of the People, but you are of the land.” She’s switched back to Spanish, and he hears the disappointment in her voice. “You cannot send me back to something that is not there.”

“Whose fault is that?” Don’t talk to her! But he’s angry.

“I do not know who it was.” She shakes her head, less like a “no” than like a horse shaking off flies. “But the spring is gone. The water sank to five tall trees below the stone. The willows died when they could not reach it.”

Willows and cottonwoods, they mark subsurface water like green surveyor’s flags all through the dry country. He remembers willows around the springs in the hills behind his grandmother’s village. “So you’re going to move north and use up everything here, too?”

“¿Que?” Her white, flattened brow presses down in anger or confusion, or both. “How can I use up what is here? Is it so different here, the water and the land and the stone?”

There has to be a correct answer to that. Those who sent him after her probably have one. But he’s not even sure what she’s asking, let alone what he ought to answer. Nothing, you moron. And what does he expect her to say? “Sí, sí, I’m here to steal your stuff”? They both know why she’s here. If she’d just make a move, he could trigger the weapon.

“We keep, not use. How to say . . .” She blinks three times, rapidly, and it occurs to him that that might be the equivalent, for her, of gazing into space while trying to remember something. “Protect and guard. Is it not so here? Mortals use. We protect and guard. They ask for help—water for growing food, health and strength for their children. They bring tobacco, cornmeal, honey to thank us. We smell the presents and come. Do the People not do this here?”

He tries to imagine that piece of blonde perfection by the Chateau Marmont pool being summoned by the smell of cornmeal and doing favors for campesinos.

The word triggers his memory, like Chisme toggling his endocrine system. He recalls his last visit to his abuela’s house, when he was eight. She was too weak to get out of bed for more than a few minutes at a time. She was crying, yelling at his mom, saying that somebody had to take the tamales to the spring. His mom said to him, as she heated water for his bath, “You see what it’s like here? When your cousins call you pocho, you remember it’s better to be American than a superstitious campesino like them.”

He’d grown up believing that, until they found him, remade him, and sent him out to do their work. In that hot, moist room, he feels cold all over. To hide it, he laughs. “Welcome to the Land of the Free, chica. No handouts, no favors, no fraternizing with the lower orders.”

Her eyes darken, as if a drop of ink fell into each one. Fear surges in him again. You should have shot her! But tears like water mixed with charcoal well up, spill over, draw dark gray tracks on her white, sloping cheeks. “Please—it is not true, tell me so. I have nowhere to go. The machines that are loud and smell bad come and tear the trees from the soil, break mountains and take them away. They draw the water away from the sweet dark places under the earth. Poison comes into the water everywhere, how I do not know, but creatures are made sick who drink it. I tried to stay by the spring, but the water was gone, and the machines came. There was no room for me.”

“There’s no room for you here,” he snaps. But he thinks, You’re so skinny, Jesucristo, you could live in a broom closet. There must be some place to fit you in.

She shakes her head fiercely, smears the gray tears across her cheeks with her fingers. “Here there are places where the machines do not go. I know this. The People here are inmigrantes from the cold lands—they must know how it is. They will understand, and let us help them guard the land.”

Already there are . . . empty spots, the blonde by the pool had said. But just this one little one? Would she be so bad?

No. All of his targets were each just one. Together they were hundreds. “They’re guarding it from all of you, so you don’t use everything up. Like locusts.”

She goes still as a freeze-frame. “Mortals use. The People guard and protect. Surely they know this!”

What is she saying? “The power. Whatever it is, in the land. It’s drying up.”

“The People let the magic run through us like water through our fingers. We do not hoard it or hide it or wall it in. If we did, it would dry up, yes. Who told you this lie?”

“They did. The ones like you.” Have you seen many who are just like me? he hears the blonde saying, in that voice that makes everything wise and true.

She hasn’t moved, but she seems closer, her eyes wider, her hair shifting like dry grass in the wind. There’s no wind. He wants to back away, run.

And he remembers that night in his grandmother’s house, after the fight about the tamales. He remembers being tucked up in blankets on the floor, and not being able to sleep because it stayed in his head—the angry voices, his abuela crying, his mamá cleaning up after dinner with hard, sharp movements. Nobody’s mad at you, he’d told himself. But he’d still felt sick and scared. So he was awake when the tap, tap, tap sounded on the window across the room. On the glass bought with money his mother had sent home. And he’d raised his head and looked.

The next morning he’d told his mother he’d had a bad dream. That was how he’d recalled it ever since: a bad dream, and a dislike for the little house he never saw again. But now he remembered. That night he saw the Devil, come to take his mother and grandmother for the sin of anger. He’d frozen the scream in his throat. If he screamed, they would wake and run in, and the Devil would see them. If it took him instead, they would be safe.

What he’d seen, before he’d closed his eyes to wait for death, was a white face with a high, flattened forehead, gray-disk eyes, and a lipless mouth, and thin white fingers pressed against the glass. It was her, or one of her kind, come down from the spring looking for the offering.

“It is not true,” she hisses, thrusting her face forward. “None of my kind would say we devour and destroy. This is mortals’ lies, to make us feared, to drive us away!”

He is afraid of her. He could snap those little pipe cleaner arms, but that wouldn’t save him from her anger. It rages in the room like the dust storms that can sand paint off a car.

She has to be wrong. If she isn’t, then for three years he has—He had no choice. Did he? Three years of things, hundreds of them, that should have lived forever.

“Your kind want you kept out,” he spits back at her. “You don’t get it, do you? They sent me to kill you.”

He’d thought she was still before. Now she’s an outcrop of white stone. He can’t look away from her wide, wide eyes. Then her mouth opens and a sound comes out, soft at first, so he doesn’t recognize it as laughter.

“You will drive us back or kill us? You are too late. Jaguars have come north across the Rio Grande. The wild magic is here. We will restore the balance in spite of the ignorant inmigrantes. And when we are all strong again, they will see how weak they are alone.”

She moves. He thinks she’s standing up, all in one smooth motion. But her head rises, her arms shrink and disappear, her bent legs curve, coil. He’s looking into her transformed face: longer, flatter, tapered, serpentine. The flyaway hair is a bush of hair-thin spines. Rising out of it are a pair of white, many-pronged antlers.

Their points scrape the ceiling above his head. The cloud of tiny iron needles fills the air between him and her and he thinks, Did I fire?

But by then she’s behind him. There’s a band of pressure around his chest. He looks down to see her skin, silver-white scales shining in the street light, as the pressure compresses his ribs, his lungs. She’s wrapped around him, crushing him.

Chisme will know when he stops breathing. When it’s too late. The room is full of tiny stars. She’s so strong he can’t even struggle, can’t cry because he can’t breathe. He wants so much to cry.

The room is black, and far, far away. He feels a lipless mouth brush his forehead, and a voice whisper, “Duermes, hijo, y despiertas a un mundo más mejór.” The next world is supposed to be better. He hopes that’s true. He hopes that’s where he’s going.

• • • •

He lies with his eyes closed, taking stock. His ribs hurt, but he’s lying on something soft. Hurt means he’s not dead. Soft means he’s not on the floor of that office in the jewelry district, waiting for help.

He listens for the names. Nothing. He’s alone in his head.

He opens his eyes. The light is low, greenish and underwatery, and comes from everywhere at once. He’s back in their hands, then.

At the foot of whatever he’s lying on, a young guy looks up from a sheet of paper. Brown hair, hip-nerd round tortoiseshell glasses, oxford-cloth button-down under a cashmere sweater under a reassuring white coat. For a second he thinks he was wrong and this is a hospital, that’s a doctor.

“Hey,” says the guy. “How do you feel?”

Come on, lungs, take in air. Mouth, open. “Crummy.” He sounds as if his throat’s full of mud.

The guy draws breath across his teeth—a sympathy noise. “Yeah, you must have caught yourself a whopper.”

This one’s remarkably human, meaning damned near unremarkable. But the lenses in the glasses don’t distort the eyes behind them, because of course, they don’t have to correct for anything. He’s never seen one of them so determined to pass for normal. Is there a reason why this one’s here now? Are they trying to put him at ease, off his guard?

“Actually,” he answers, “it was a little kid who turned into a big-ass constrictor snake.”

“Wow. Have you ever gotten a shape-changer before?”

Bogus question. The guy knows his whole history, knows every job he’s done. But there’s no point in calling him on it. “Yeah.”

A moment of silence. Is he supposed to go on, talk it out? Is this some kind of post-traumatic stress therapy they’ve decided he needs? Or worse—is he supposed to apologize now for screwing up, for letting her get by him?

The guy shrugs, checks his piece of paper again. “Well, you’re going to be fine now. And you did good work out there.”

Careful. “Any job you can walk away from.”

“Quite honestly, we weren’t sure you had. Your ‘little kid’ put out enough distortion to swamp your connection with us. As far as we can tell it took almost thirty minutes for it to dissipate, after you . . . resolved the situation. Until then, we thought you’d been destroyed. Your handlers were beside themselves.”

Handlers—the names. He wonders what “beside themselves” looks like for Chisme and Biblio and Magellan, or whatever those names are when they aren’t in his head. He’s never heard emotion out of any of them.

He stares at the young guy, handsome as a soap opera doctor. He starts to laugh, which hurts his ribs. Has he dealt with shape-changers before? Hell, which of them isn’t a shape-changer? However they do it, they all look like what you want or need to see. Except the ones, bent and strange, who can’t pass. “I wasn’t sure I killed her.”

The young guy winces. “Killed” is not a nice word to immortals, apparently. “The site was completely cleansed. Very impressive. And I assure you, I’m not the only one saying so.”

“That’s nice.” He’s never failed to take out his target before this. He doesn’t know what punishment it is that he seems to have escaped. For this one moment, he feels bulletproof. “I talked to her, before I did it.”

Surprise—and alarm?—on the young guy’s face. “By the green earth! Are you nuts? You must have been warned against that.”

“She said her kind—your kind—aren’t a drain on the local resources. Or aren’t supposed to be. She implied you’d forgotten how it’s done.”

The soap-opera features register disgust. “Just the sort of thing one of them would say. They’re ignorant tree-dwellers. They have no idea how complex the modern world is. You know what they’re like.”

He doesn’t, actually. He’s supposed to kill them, not get acquainted with them. “Her folks were here first,” he says, as mildly as he can.

The young guy frowns, confused. “What does that have to do with it?” He shakes his head. “Don’t worry, we understand these things. We know what we’re doing. You can’t imagine what it would be like if we let down our guard.”

Pictures come into his head—from where? A picture of jaguars, glimmering gold and black like living jewelry, slipping through emerald leaves; of blue-and-red feathered birds singing with the sweet, high voices of children; of human men and women sitting with antlered serpents and coyote-headed creatures, sharing food and stories in a landscape of plenty; of the young white-coated guy, on a saxophone, jamming with the piano player in the Koreatown bar while a deer picked its way between the tables.

“You’ll be fine now,” the young guy repeats. “Get some sleep. When you wake up, you’ll be back home. I think you can expect a week or two off—go to Vegas or something, make a holiday of it.”

Of course, “get some sleep” is not just a suggestion. The guy makes a pressing-down motion, and the greeny light dims. He can feel the magic tugging at his eyelids, his brain. The young guy smiles, turns away, and is gone.

It’s a good plan—but not Vegas, oh, no. He’ll wake up in his apartment. He’ll get up and pack . . . what? Not much. Then he’ll head south. Past the border towns and the maquiladoras, past the giant commercial fields of cotton and tomatoes scented with chemicals and watered from concrete channels.

He wonders if they’ll be able to track him, if they’ll even care that he’s gone. For them, the world must be full of promising, desperate mortals. He’ll lose the names, the senses, the fastlane, but he’ll be traveling light; he won’t need them.

Eventually he’ll get to the wild places, rocky or green, desert or forest or shore. Home of the ignorant, superstitious peasants. That’s where he’ll stop. He’ll bake tortillas on a hot, flat stone, lay out sugarcane and tobacco.

Maybe nothing will come for them. Maybe he won’t even be able to tell if anything’s there. But just in case, he’ll tell stories. They’ll be about how to get past people like him, into the land where the magic is dying because it can’t flow like water.

Then he’ll move on, and do it again. Nothing makes up for the ones he’s stopped, but he can try, at least, to replace them.

Sleep, child, she’d said, and wake to a better world. He’d thought then she’d meant the sleep of death, but if she’d wanted to kill him, wouldn’t he be dead? He relaxes into the green darkness, the comforting magic. When he wakes this time, it’ll be the same old world. But some morning, for someone, someday, it will be different.

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Emma Bull

Emma BullEmma Bull is the author of Territory, a historical fantasy set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 (Tor Books). Other works include War for the Oaks, Bone Dance, and with Steven Brust, Freedom and Necessity. She’s a contributor to the Bordertown fantasy series, and is a writer and editor on Shadow Unit, a contemporary SF-suspense webfiction series (