Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Swing Time

BANNERLESS by Carrie Vaughn

Available July 11 from John Joseph Adams Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

He emerged suddenly from behind a potted shrub. Taking Madeline’s hand, he shouldered her bewildered former partner out of the way and turned her toward the hall where couples gathered for the next figure.

“Ned, fancy meeting you here.” Madeline deftly shifted so that her voluminous skirts were not trod upon.

“Fancy? You’re pleased to see me then?” he said, smiling his insufferably ironic smile.

“Amused is more accurate. You always amuse me.”

“How long has it been? Two, three hundred years? That volta in Florence, wasn’t it?”

“Si, signor. But only two weeks subjective.”

“Ah yes.” He leaned close, to converse without being overheard. “I’ve been meaning to ask you: Have you noticed anything strange on your last few expeditions?”

“Strange?”

“Any doorways you expected to be there not opening. Anyone following you and the like?”

“Just you, Ned.”

He chuckled flatly.

The orchestra’s strings played the opening strains of a Mozart piece. She curtseyed—low enough to allure, but not so low as to unnecessarily expose décolletage. Give a hint, not the secret. Lower the gaze for a demure moment only. Smile, tempt. Ned bowed, a gesture as practiced as hers. Clothed in white silk stockings and velvet breeches, one leg straightened as the other leg stepped back. He made a precise turn of his hand and never broke eye contact.

They raised their arms—their hands never quite touched—and began to dance. Elegant steps made graceful turns, a leisurely pace allowed her to study him. He wore dark green velvet trimmed with white and gold, sea spray of lace at the cuffs and collar. He wore a young man’s short wig powdered to perfection.

“I know why you’re here,” he said, when they stepped close enough for conversation. “You’re after Lady Petulant’s diamond brooch.”

“That would be telling.”

“I’ll bet you I take it first.”

“I’ll make that bet.”

“And whoever wins—”

Opening her fan with a jerk of her wrist, she looked over her shoulder. “Gets the diamond brooch.”

The figure of the dance wheeled her away and gave her to another partner, an old man whose wig was slipping over one ear. She curtseyed, kept one eye on Lady Petulant, holding court over a tray of bonbons and a rat-like lap dog, and the other on Ned.

With a few measures of dancing, a charge of power crept into Madeline’s bones, enough energy to take her anywhere: London 1590. New York 1950. There was power in dancing.

The song drew to a close. Madeline begged off the next, fanning herself and complaining of the heat. Drifting off in a rustle of satin, she moved to the empty chair near Lady Petulant.

“Is this seat taken?”

“Not at all,” the lady said. The diamond, large as a walnut, glittered against the peach-colored satin of her bodice.

“Lovely evening, isn’t it?”

“Quite.”

For the next fifteen minutes, Madeline engaged in harmless conversation, insinuating herself into Lady Petulant’s good graces. The lady was a widow, rich but no longer young. White powder caked the wrinkles of her face. Her fortune was entailed, bestowed upon her heirs and not a second husband, so no suitors paid her court. She was starved for attention.

So when Madeline stopped to chat with her, she was cheerful. When Ned appeared and gave greeting, she was ecstatic.

“I do believe I’ve found the ideal treat for your little dear,” he said, kneeling before her and offering a bite-sized pastry to the dog.

“Why, how thoughtful! Isn’t he a thoughtful gentleman, Frufru darling? Say thank you.” She lifted the creature’s paw and shook it at Ned. “You are too kind!”

Madeline glared at Ned, who winked back.

A servant passed with a silver tray of sweets. When he bowed to offer her one, she took the whole tray. “Marzipan, Lady Petulant?” she said, presenting the tray.

“No thank you, dear. Sticks to my teeth dreadfully.”

“Sherry, Lady Petulant?” Ned put forward a crystal glass which he’d got from God knew where.

“Thank you, that would be lovely.” Lady Petulant took the glass and sipped.

“I’m very sorry, Miss Madeline, but I don’t seem to have an extra glass to offer you.”

“That’s quite all right, sir. I’ve always found sherry to be rather too sweet. Unpalatable, really.”

“Is that so?”

“Hm.” She fanned.

And so it went, until the orchestra roused them with another chord. Lady Petulant gestured a gloved hand toward the open floor.

“You young people should dance. You make such a fine couple.”

“Pardon me?” Ned said.

Madeline fanned faster. “I couldn’t, really.”

“Nonsense. You two obviously know each other quite well. It would please me to watch you dance.”

Madeline’s gaze met Ned’s. She stared in silence, her wit failing her. She didn’t need another dance this evening, and she most certainly did not want to dance with him again.

Giving a little smile that supplanted the stricken look in his eyes, he stood and offered his hand. “I’m game. My lady?”

He’d thought of a plan, obviously. And if he drew her away from Lady Petulant—she would not give up that ground.

The tray of marzipan sat at the very edge of the table between their chairs. As she prepared to stand, she lifted her hand from the arm of her chair, gave her fan a downward flick—and the tray flipped. Miniature daisies and roses shaped in marzipan flew around them. Madeline shrieked, Lady Petulant gasped, the dog barked. Ned took a step back.

A ruckus of servants descended on them. As Madeline turned to avoid them, the dog jumped from Lady Petulant’s lap—for a brief moment, its neck seemed to grow to a foot long—and bit Madeline’s wrist. A spot of red welled through her white glove.

“Ow!” This shriek was genuine.

“Frufru!” Lady Petulant collected the creature and hugged it to her breast. “How very naughty of you, Frufru darling. My dear, are you all right?”

She rubbed her wrist. The blood stain didn’t grow any larger. It was just a scratch. It didn’t even hurt. “I’m—I—” Then again, if she played this right . . .

“I—oh my, I do believe I feel faint.” She put her hand to her neck and willed her face to blush. “Oh!”

She fell on Lady Petulant. With any luck, she crushed Frufru beneath her petticoats. Servants convulsed in a single panicked unit, onlookers gasped, even Ned was there, murmuring and patting her cheek with a cool hand.

Lady Petulant wailed that the poor girl was about to die on top of her. Pressed up against the good lady, Madeline took the opportunity to reach for the brooch. She could slip it off and no one would notice—

The brooch was already gone.

She did not have to feign a stunned limpness when a pair of gallant gentlemen lifted her and carried her to a chaise near a window. Ned was nowhere to be seen. Vials of smelling salts were thrust at her, lavender water sprinkled at her. Someone was wrapping her wrist—still gloved—in a bandage, and someone who looked like a doctor—good God, was the man wielding a razor?—approached.

She shoved away her devoted caretakers and tore off the bandage. “Please, give me air! I’ve recovered my senses. No, really, I have. If-you-please, sir!”

As if nothing had happened, she stood, straightened her bodice over her corset, smoothed her skirts, and opened her fan with a snap.

“I thank you for your attention, but I am quite recovered. Goodbye.”

She marched off in search of Ned.

He was waiting for her toward the back of the hall, a fox’s sly grin on his face. Before she came too close, he turned his cupped hand, showing her a walnut-sized diamond that flashed against the green velvet of his coat.

Turning, he stepped sideways behind the same potted fern where he had ambushed her.

He disappeared utterly.

“Damn him!” Her skirts rustled when she stamped her foot.

Ignoring concerned onlookers and Lady Petulant’s cries after her welfare, she cut across the hall to the glass doors opening to the courtyard behind the hall, and across the courtyard to a hideously baroque statue of Cupid trailing roses off its limbs. She stopped and took a breath, trying to regain her composure. No good brooding now. It was over and done. There would be other times and places to get back at him. Stepping through required calm.

A handful of doorways collected here in this hidden corner of the garden. One led to an alley in Prague 1600; tilting her head one way, she could just make out a dirty cobbled street and the bricks of a Renaissance façade. Another led to a space under a pier in Key West 1931. Yet another led home.

She danced for this moment; this moment existed because she danced.

Behind the statue, Madeline turned her head, narrowed her eyes a certain practiced way, and the world shifted. Just a bit. She put out her hand to touch the crack that formed a line in the air. Confirming its existence, she stepped sideways and through the doorway, back to her room.

Her room: Sealed in the back of a warehouse, it had no windows or doors. In it, she stored the plunder taken from a thousand years of history—what plunder she could carry, at least: Austrian crystal, Chinese porcelain, Aztec gold, and a walk-in closet filled with costumes spanning millennia.

She dropped her fan, pulled the pins out of her wig, unfastened her dress and unhooked her corset. Now that she could breathe, she paced and fumed at Ned properly.

She really ought to go someplace with a beach next time. Hawaii 1980, perhaps. Definitely someplace without corsets. Someplace like—

• • • •

The band played Glenn Miller from a gymnasium stage with a USO banner draped overhead. There must have been a couple hundred G.I.s drinking punch, crowding along the walls, or dancing with a couple hundred local girls wearing bright dresses and big grins. Madeline only had to wait a moment before a G.I. in dress greens swept her up and spun her into the mob.

Of all periods of history, of all forms of dance, this was her favorite. Such exuberance, such abandon in a generation that saw the world change before its eyes. No ultra-precise curtseys and bows here.

Her soldier lifted her, she kicked her feet to the air and he brought her down, swung her to one side, to the other, and set her on the floor at last to Lindy hop and catch her breath. Her red skirt caught around her knees, and sweat matted her hair to her forehead.

Her partner was a good-looking kid, probably nineteen or twenty, clean-faced and bright-eyed. Stuck in time, stuck with his fate—a ditch in France, most likely. Like a lamb to slaughter. It was like dancing a minuet in Paris in 1789, staring at a young nobleman’s neck and thinking, you poor chump.

She could try to warn him, but it wouldn’t change anything.

The kid swung her out, released her and she spun. The world went by in a haze and miraculously she didn’t collide with anyone.

When a hand grabbed hers, she stopped and found herself pulled into an embrace. Arm in arm, body to body, with Ned. Wearing green again. Arrogant as ever, he’d put captain bars on his uniform. He held her close, his hand pressed against the small of her back, and two-stepped her in place, hemmed in by the crowd. She couldn’t break away.

“Dance with me, honey. I ship out tomorrow and may be dead next week.”

“Not likely, Ned. Are you following me?”

“Now how would I manage that? I don’t even know when you live. So, what are you here for, the war bonds cash box?”

“Maybe I just like the music.”

As they fell into a rhythm, she relaxed in his grip. A dance was a dance after all, and if nothing else he was a good dancer.

“I didn’t thank you for helping me with Lady Petulant. Great distraction. We should be a team. We both have to dance to do what we do—it’s a perfect match.”

“I work alone.”

“You might think about it.”

“No. I tried working with someone once. His catalyst for stepping through was fighting. He liked to loot battlefields. All our times dancing ended in brawls.”

“What happened to him?”

“Somme 1916. He stayed a bit too long at that one.”

“Ah. I met a woman once whose catalyst was biting the heads off rats.”

“You’re joking! How on Earth did she figure that out?”

“One shudders to think.”

The song ended, a slow one began, and a hundred couples locked together.

“So, how did you find me?” she asked.

“I know where you like to go.”

She frowned and looked aside, across his shoulder to a young couple clinging desperately to one another as they swayed in place.

“Tell me Ned, what were you before you learned to step through? Were you always a thief?”

“Yes. A highwayman and a rogue from the start. You?”

“I was a good girl.”

“So what changed?”

“The cops can’t catch me when I step through.”

“That doesn’t answer my question. If you were a good girl, why do you use stepping through to rob widows, and not to do good? Don’t tell me you’ve never tried changing anything. Find a door to the Ford Theater and take John Wilkes Booth’s gun.”

“It never works. You know that.”

“But history doesn’t notice when an old woman’s diamond disappears. So—what do you use the money you steal for? Do you give it to the war effort? The Red Cross? The Catholic Church? Do you have a poor family stashed away somewhere that you play fairy godmother to?”

She tried to pull away, but the beat of the music and the steps of the dance carried her on.

The song changed to something relentless and manic. She tried to break out of his grasp, to spin and hop like everyone else was doing, but he tightened his grip and kept her cheek to cheek.

“You don’t do any of those things,” she said.

“How do you know?”

He was right, of course. She only had his word for it when he said he was a rogue.

“What are you trying to say?”

He brought his lips close to her ear and purred. “You were never a good girl, Madeline.”

She slapped him, a nice crack across the cheek. He seemed genuinely stunned—he stopped cold in the middle of the dance and touched his face. A few bystanders laughed. Madeline turned, shoving her way off the dance floor, dodging feet and elbows.

She went all the way to the front doors before looking back. Ned wasn’t following her. She couldn’t see him at all, through the mob.

In the women’s room she found her doorway to Madrid 1880 where she’d stashed a gown and danced flamenco, then to a taverna in Havana 1902, and from there to her room. He wouldn’t possibly be able to follow that path.

• • • •

Unbelievable, how out of a few thousand years of history available to them and countless millions of locations around the world, they kept running into each other.

Ned wore black. He had to, really, because they were at the dawn of the age of the tuxedo, and all the men wore black suits: black pressed trousers, jackets with tails, waistcoats, white cravats. Madeline rather liked the trend, because the women, in a hundred shades of rippling silk and shining jewels, glittered against the monotone backdrop.

Gowns here didn’t require the elaborate architecture they had during the previous three centuries. She wore a corset, but her skirt was not so wide as to prevent walking through doorways. The fabric, pleated and gathered in back, draped around her in slimming lines. She glided, tall and elegant as like a Greek statue.

He hadn’t seen her yet. For once, she had the advantage. She watched behind the shelter of a neoclassical pillar. He moved like he’d been born to this dance. Perhaps he had. Every step made with confidence, he and his partner might have been the same unit as they turned, stepped, turned, not looking where they were going yet never missing a step. It always amazed her, how a hundred couples could circle a crowded ballroom like this and never collide.

He was smiling, his gaze locked on his partner’s the whole time. For a moment, Madeline wished she were dancing with him. Passing time had cooled her temper.

She’d already got what she came for, a few bits of original Tiffany jewelry. After a dance or two, she could open a door and leave. In a room this large, she could dance a turn and Ned would never have to know she’d been here.

But she waited until his steps brought him close to her. She moved into view, caught his gaze and smiled. He stumbled on the parquet.

He managed to recover without falling and without losing too much of his natural grace. “Madeline! I didn’t see you.”

“I know.”

He abandoned his partner—turned his back on her and went straight to Madeline. The woman glared after him with a mortally offended expression that Ned didn’t seem to notice.

“Been a while, eh?”

“Only a month, subjective.”

“So—what brings you here?”

“That’s my secret. I’ve learned my lesson about telling you anything. You?”

He looked around, surveying the ballroom, the orchestra on the stage, the swirl of couples dancing a pattern like an eddy in a stream. Each couple was independent, but all of them together moved as one entity, as if choreographed.

“Strauss,” he said at last. “Will you dance with me, Miss Madeline?”

He offered his hand, and she placed hers in it. They joined the pattern.

“Have you forgiven me for that comment from last time?”

“No,” Madeline said with a smile. “I’m waiting for the chance to return the favor.”

Step two three turn two three—

“Do you believe in fate?” Ned said.

“Fate? I suppose I have to, considering some of the things I’ve seen. Why do you ask?”

“It’s a wonderful thing, really. You see, we never should have met. I should have died before you were born—or vice versa, since I still don’t know when you’re from. But here we are.”

“That’s fate? I thought you were following me.”

“Ah yes.”

Madeline tilted her head back. Crystal chandeliers sparkled overhead, turning, turning. Ned didn’t take his eyes off her.

“Have you thought of why I might follow you?” he said.

“To reap the benefits of my hard work. I do the research and case the site, and you arrive to take the prize. It’s all very neat and I’d like you to stop.”

“I can’t do that, Madeline.”

“Why not? Isn’t there enough history for you to find your own hunting grounds without taking mine?”

“Because that isn’t the reason I’m following you. At least not anymore.” He paused. He wasn’t smiling, he wasn’t joking. “I think I’m in love with you.”

Her feet kept doing what they were supposed to do. The music kept them moving, which was good, because her mind froze. “No,” she murmured.

“Will you give me a chance? A chance to show you?”

It was a trick. A new way to make a fool of her, and it was cruel. But she had never seen him so serious. His brow took on furrows.

She stopped dancing, and he had to stop with her, but he wouldn’t let go. There, stalled in the middle of the ballroom floor, the dance turned to chaos around them.

“No. I can’t love you back, Ned. We’re too much alike.”

For a long moment, a gentle strain of music, he studied her. His expression turned drawn and sad.

“Be careful, Madeline. Watch your back.” He kissed her hand, a gentle press of lips against her curled fingers, then let it go and walked off the dance floor, shouldering around couples as they passed.

He left her alone, lost, in the middle of the floor. She touched her hand where he had kissed it.

“Ned!” she called, the sound barely audible over the orchestra. “Ned!”

He didn’t turn around.

The song ended.

She left the floor, hitched up her skirt and ran everywhere, looking behind every door and every potted fern. But he was gone.

• • • •

If Ned followed her, it stood to reason others could as well.

Her room had been trashed. The mirror over the vanity was shattered, chairs smashed, a dresser toppled. Powdered cosmetics dusted the wreckage. The wardrobe was thrown open, gowns and fabric torn and strewn like streamers over the furniture.

She didn’t have windows or doors precisely to keep this sort of thing from happening. There was only one way into the room—through a sideways door, and only if one knew just the right way to look through it. So how—

Someone grabbed her in a bear hug. Another figure appeared from behind her and pointed a bizarre vice-grip and hairbrush-looking tool at her in the unmistakable stance of holding a weapon. A third moved into view.

She squirmed in the grasp of the first, but he was at least a foot taller than she and he quickly worked to secure bindings around her arms and hands that left her immobile. All wore black militaristic suits, with goggles and metallic breathing masks hiding their features.

The third spoke, a male voice echoing mechanically through the mask. “Under Temporal Transit Authority Code forty-four A dash nine, I hereby take you into custody and charge you—”

“The what?” Madeline said with a gasp. Her captor wrenched her shoulders back. Any struggle she made now was merely out of principle. “Temporal Transit Authority? I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

“You’ve never stepped through to the twenty-second century, then.”

“No.” Traveling to one’s own future was tough—there was no record to study, no way to know what to expect. She’d had enough trouble with her past, she never expected the future to come back to haunt her.

“I hereby take you into custody and charge you with unregulated transportation along the recognized timeline, grand theft along the recognized timeline, historic fraud—”

“You can’t be serious—”

He held up a device, something like an electric razor with a glowing wand at one end and flashing lights at the other. He pressed a button and drew a line in the air. The line glowed, hanging in midair. He pressed another button, the line widened into a plane, a doorway through which a dim scene showed: pale tiled walls and steel tables.

He opened a door, he stepped through, and all he needed to do was push a button.

In that stunned moment, the two flunkies picked her up and carried her through.

They entered a hospital room and unloaded her onto a gurney. More figures appeared, doctors hiding behind medical scrubs, cloth masks, and clinical gazes. With practiced ease they strapped her face-down, wrists and legs bound with padded restraints. When she tried to struggle, a half-dozen hands pressed her into the thin mattress. Her ice-blue skirt was hitched up around her knees, wrinkling horribly.

“Don’t I get a lawyer? A phone call? Something?” She didn’t even know where or when she was. Who would she call?

A doctor spoke to the thug in charge. “Her catalyst?”

“Dancing.”

“I know just the thing. Nurse, prep a local anesthetic.”

Madeline tensed against her bindings. “What are you doing? What are you doing to me?”

“Don’t worry, we can reverse the procedure. If you’re found innocent at the trial.”

She lost track of how many people were in the room. A couple of the thugs, a couple of people in white who must have been nurses or orderlies. A couple who looked like doctors. Someone unbuttoned her shoes. Her silk stockings ripped.

Needle-pricks stabbed each foot, then pins of sleep traveled up her legs. She screamed. It was the only thing she could do. A hand pushed her face into the mattress. Her legs went numb up to her knees. She managed to turn her face, and through the awkward, foreshortened perspective she saw them make incisions above her heels, reach a thin scalpel into the wounds, and cut the Achilles’ tendons. There was no pain, but she felt the tissues snap inside her calves.

She screamed until her lungs hurt, until she passed out.

• • • •

She awoke in a whitewashed cell, lying on a cot that was the room’s only furnishing. There was a door without a handle. She was no longer tied up, but both her ankles were neatly bandaged, and she couldn’t move her legs.

Gingerly sitting up, she unfastened the bodice of her gown, then released the first few hooks of her corset. She took a deep breath, arching her back. Her ribs and breasts were bruised from sleeping in the thing. Not to mention the manhandling she’d received.

She didn’t want to think about her legs.

Curling up on her side, she hugged her knees and cried.

She fell asleep, arms curled around her head. The light, a pale fluorescent filtering through a ceiling tile, stayed on. Her growling stomach told her that time passed. Once, the door opened and an orderly brought in a tray of food, leaving it on the floor by the bed. She didn’t eat. Another time, a female orderly brought in a contraption, a toilet seat and bedpan on wheels, and offered to help her use it. She screamed, batted and clawed at the woman until she left.

She pulled apart her elegant, piled coif—tangled now—and threw hairpins across the room.

When the door opened again, she had a few pins left to hurl at whomever entered. But it wasn’t an orderly, a doctor, or a thug.

It was Ned, still in his tails and cravat.

He closed the door to the thinnest crack and waited a moment, listening. Madeline clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out to him.

Apparently satisfied, Ned came to the bed, knelt on the floor, and gathered her in an embrace.

“You look dreadful,” he said gently, holding her tightly.

She sobbed on his shoulder. “They cut my tendons, Ned. They cut my legs.”

“They’re bastards, Madeline,” he muttered, between meaningless noises of comfort.

Clutching the fabric of his jacket, she pushed him away suddenly. “Did they get you too? What did they do to you?” She looked him over, touched his face—nothing seemed wrong. “How did you get here?”

He gave her a lopsided smile. “I used to be one of the bastards.”

She edged away, pushing herself as far to the wall as she could. Ned, with his uncanny ability to follow her where and whenever she went. He didn’t move, didn’t try to stop her or grapple with her. She half expected him to.

“Used to be,” she said. “Not still?”

“No. It began as a research project, to study what people like me—like us—can do, and what that meant about the nature of space and time. But there were other interests at work. They developed artificial methods of finding doorways and stepping through. They don’t need us anymore and hate competition. The Temporal Transit Authority was set up to establish a monopoly over the whole business.”

“And you—just left? Or did you lead them to me?”

“Please, Madeline. I’m searching for a bit of redemption here. I followed you. I couldn’t stop following you. I knew they were looking for you. I found your place right after they did. I wish—I should have told you. Warned you a little better than I did.”

“Why didn’t you?” she said, her voice thin and desperate.

“I didn’t think you’d believe me. You’ve never trusted me. I’m sorry.”

No, she thought, remembering that last waltz, the music and his sad face and the way he disappeared. I’m sorry.

“You were following me all along. We didn’t meet by chance.”

“Oh no. It was chance. Fate. I didn’t know about you, wasn’t looking for you. But when I met you, I knew the Authority would find you sooner or later. I didn’t want them to find you.”

“But they did.”

“Once again, I apologize for that. Now, we’re getting out of here.”

He started to pick her up, moving one arm to her legs and the other to her shoulders. She leaned away, pressing herself against the wall in an effort to put more distance between them.

“Please trust me,” he said.

Why should she believe anything he said? She didn’t know anything about him. Except that he was a marvelous dancer. And she needed to dance.

She put her arms around his neck and let him lift her.

“Come on, then.” He picked her up, cradling her in his arms. She clung to him. “Get the door, would you?”

She pulled the door open. He looked out. The corridor was empty. Softly, he made his way down the hall.

Then Ned froze. Voices echoed ahead of them, moving closer. Without a word, he turned and walked the other direction. If he had been able to run, he would have rounded the next corner before the owners of the voices saw him. But he held her, and he couldn’t do more than walk carefully.

Footsteps sounded behind him. She looked over his shoulder and saw a doctor flanked by a couple of orderlies enter the corridor.

“Hey! Stop there!” The doctor pointed and started running.

“All these bloody doors lock on the outside,” Ned muttered. “Here, open that one.”

She stared. The door had no handle, no visible hinges or latches. Ned hissed a breath of frustration and bumped a red light panel on the wall with his elbow. The door popped in with a little gasp of hydraulics.

He pushed through into what turned out to be a supply closet, about ten foot square, filled with shelves and boxes, and barely enough room to turn around. He set her on the floor and began pushing plastic tubs at the door. He soon had enough of a blockade to stop their pursuers from shoving through right away. He kept piling, though, while the people outside pounded on the door and shouted.

Madeline cowered on the floor, her legs stuck out awkwardly. “You can’t dance for both of us, and I’m too big for you to carry me through.”

“Yes.”

“You shouldn’t have come. Now you’re caught too.”

“But I’m with you,” he said, turning to her with the brightest, most sincere smile she had ever seen. “It makes all the difference.” He went back to throwing boxes on the stack.

She caught her breath and wondered what she’d have to do to see that smile again.

“Help me stand.” She hooked her fingers on a shelving post as far above her as she could reach and pulled. Grunting, she shifted her weight to try and get her feet under her.

“Madeline, good god, what are you doing?”

“Standing. Help me.”

He went to her and pulled her arm over his shoulders, reaching his own arm around her waist. Slowly, he raised her. She straightened her legs, and her feet stayed where she put them.

There. She was standing. She clenched her jaw. Her calves were exploding with pain.

“Do you think there’s a door in here?” she said, her voice tight.

“There’re doors everywhere. But you can’t—”

“We have to.”

“But—”

“I can. Help me.”

He sighed, adjusting his grip so he supported her more firmly. “Right. What should we dance?”

She took a breath, cleared her mind so she could think of a song. She couldn’t even tap her toe to keep a beat. She began humming. The song sounded out of tune and hopeless in her ears.

“Ravel. ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess,’” Ned said. “Come on, dear, you’re not done yet. One and two and—”

She held her breath and moved her right leg. It did move, the foot dragging, and she leaned heavily on Ned because she didn’t dare put any weight on it. Then the left foot. She whimpered a little. Ned was right behind her, stepping with her.

The pavane had the simplest steps she could think of. At its most basic, it was little more than walking very slowly—perfect for a crippled dancer. It was also one of the most graceful, stately, elegant dances ever invented. Not this time. She couldn’t trust her legs. She dragged them forward and hoped they went where they needed to be. Ned wasn’t so much dancing with her as lurching, ensuring she stayed upright.

There was a kind of power, even in this: bodies moving in desperation.

She tried to keep humming, but her voice jerked, pain-filled, at every step. They hummed together, his voice steadying her as his body did.

Then came a turn. She attempted it—a dance was a dance, after all. Put the left foot a little to the side, step out—

Her leg collapsed. She cried out, cutting the sound off mid-breath. Ned caught her around the waist and leaned her against the shelving. This gave her something to sit on, a little support.

Without missing a beat, he took her hand and stepped a half-circle around her. He held her hand lightly, elevated somewhat, and tucked his other hand behind his back. Perfect form.

“This just doesn’t feel right if I’m not wearing a ruff,” he said, donning a pompous, aristocratic accent.

Hiccupping around stifled tears, she giggled. “But I like being able to see your neck. It’s a handsome neck.”

“Right, onto the age of disco then.”

The banging on the door was loud, insistent, like they’d started using a battering ram, and provided something of a beat. The barricade began to tumble.

“And so we finish.” He bowed deeply.

She started to dip into a curtsey—just the tiniest of curtsies—but Ned caught her and lifted her.

“I think we’re ready.”

She narrowed her eyes and looked a little bit sideways.

Space and time made patterns, the architecture of the universe, and the lines crossed everywhere, cutting through the very air. Sometimes, someone had a talent that let them see the lines and use them.

“There,” Ned said. “That one. A couple of disheveled Edwardians won’t look so out of place there. Do you see it?”

“Yes,” she said, relieved. A glowing line cut before them, and if they stepped a little bit sideways—

She put out her hand and opened the door so they could step through together.

• • • •

Lady Petulant’s diamond paid for reconstructive surgery at the best unregistered clinic in Tokyo 2028. Madeline walked out the door and into the alley, where Ned was waiting for her. Laughing, she jumped at him and swung him around in a couple of steps of a haphazard polka.

“Glad to see you’re feeling better,” he said. And there was that smile again.

“Polycarbon filament tissue replacement. I have the strongest tendons in the world now.”

They walked out to the street—searching the crowd of pedestrians, always looking over their shoulders.

“Where would you like to go?” he said.

“I don’t know. It’s not so easy to pick, now that we’re fugitives. Those guys could be anywhere.”

“But we have lots of places to hide. We just have to keep moving.”

They walked for a time along a chaotic street, nothing like a ballroom, the noises nothing like music. The Transit Authority people knew they had to dance; if they were really going to hide, it would be in places like this, where dancing was next to impossible.

But they couldn’t do that, could they?

Finally, Ned said, “We could go watch Rome burn. And fiddle.”

“Hm. I’d like to find a door to the Glen Island Casino. 1939.”

“Glenn Miller played there, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“We could find one, I think.”

“If we have to keep moving anyway, we’ll hit on it eventually.”

He took her hand, pulled her close and pressed his other hand against the small of her back. Ignoring the tuneless crowd, he danced with her.

“Lead on, my dear.”

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.