by Alexander Jablokov
Tromvi trudged up the hill from the harbor, where she had just packed the last of her trade goods into the hull of a ship heading to the east. What she had received in return already weighed on her horses’ backs. She smiled to herself as she remembered the sea captain, caught between a reluctance to say goodbye and the need to be ready for the receding tide, being uncharacteristically sharp with his crew. In the end, it had been she who turned away. She had her own affairs to settle before she could leave this place.
The sea breeze rattled shutters already closed despite the still-abundant daylight. Her boots alone crunched the street’s crushed shells. Even the ever-present cats had slunk off to chew their fish heads somewhere they wouldn’t need to look at her.
This was unusually bad. She was certainly used to the change that came during the last days of a trading trip, when her need became obvious. Smiling faces turned to cold masks and then disappeared behind bolted doors. Children who had once followed her around now hid behind fences and winged pebbles at her. And the streets grew miraculously empty.
But usually someone sought her out before the last day, to privately make an exchange.
Her fellow traders had good reason not to come down to the coast, despite the access to overseas goods: people here didn’t feel compelled by their own gods to do the necessary thing. Tromvi couldn’t worry about whether that would eventually doom them to revenge by inland gods. She needed a corpse to get home, and she needed it now.
Tall and sober, blue eyes sharp under a felt hat shapeless from too many rains, she walked the lanes of town, hoping for a glimpse of someone around a corner, or an eye in the gap beneath a loose shutter. She had noted a couple of people in town with the drawn look of someone worried about a poor burial decision. So she walked, visible and obvious, past the places where these people lived. Under her hat her hair cascaded in curls, white edged in black, like a mountain thundercloud. Her homespun cloak had a pattern from the new western valleys where her children had settled. It wasn’t like anyone could miss her. Still, no one darted out to reveal the location of an inappropriately buried body that needed to return to its birthplace.
She knew traders who left on their return journey home with this essential task undone. One such had spent an entire evening at a tavern explaining to Tromvi how exciting it was, to always be on the lookout for an uncomfortably buried body, with the possibility of an exciting discovery around each bend of the trail. He eventually ended up frozen to a tree below the bolted door of a mountain Gatehouse, not permitted to pass, and unable to descend due to an early storm. The next spring, Tromvi had been asked to take him home. She spared a prayer to his god to receive his body kindly and at full value, but already had a proper corpse, and so left him for someone who could use him.
A gust of wind brought her an out-of-place sound: the clang of a goat bell. She turned to see a nanny trot out onto the road. It glanced at her, then was on its way, seeming in a bit of a hurry, bell still clanging. That was a sound from the hills and the wide plains to the north of the mountains. She had not heard of anyone here keeping one.
She walked out past the last house to where the horses of her pack train cropped rough seaside grass. She got on her lead horse and headed up the road north. It wasn’t the direction home. Her last possible chance lay this way.
A man had come down from a farm up there to sell grapes and raisins, many of them to Tromvi’s friend Nemillo, the eastern captain. The grape seller had glanced at Tromvi, then away. Despite her age, some men still managed enough interest to look at her. She could tell this was something different. READ MORE
by Sandra McDonald
At an office building on Tanner Boulevard, two intelligent elevators whisk workers up from the lobby toward their employment destinations. The people headed for the fifth floor greet each other every morning with nods. The people from the fourth floor sip from their brown coffee cups and read their smartphones. The people on the third floor run an interplanetary rescue agency and sleep in their conference room each night, so you won’t see them arrive for work. The people on the second floor are all dead now.
The people on the fifth floor are mostly women, middle-aged or older, some black but mostly white. Most are mothers, grandmothers, or cat ladies. Some, like Carol Lee, are all three: her cubicle is pinned together by pictures of her adult babies, her grandbabies, and her fur babies. The people on the fourth floor run a for-profit private college geared toward military veterans, a college under investigation from the federal government for misuse of funds. The people on the third floor came to rescue the fragments of ancient gods from a nearby swamp. The people on the second floor died in bursts of agony, their dreams of a prosperous future shattered.
If your self-driving car brings you here and you position yourself in the clean lobby of glass and steel and tile, you will observe certain demographics among this morning’s arrivals. For instance, the women who work on the fifth floor are often stout, their bodies shaped by multiple pregnancies, years of sedentary office drudgery, and dozens of mornings each year celebrated with blueberry crunch muffins. They wear loose-fitting clothes with sequins and have short dyed hair, or perhaps long gray hair with girlish barrettes, and they often make the muffins themselves. They are very good bakers.
Young men with brown skin and bodies marked by war attend classes on the fourth floor made possible by special veterans programs passed with bipartisan support from Congress. Some of these men display their weapons ports plainly, and others hide them under long sleeves despite the heat of the summer. None of them bake muffins. The faculty and staff of their for-profit private college are white and Latino, and they wear suits every day except Friday. On Fridays they wear corporate polo shirts and khakis, and they always leave by four o’clock for happy hour at The Tilted Kilt restaurant up the street.
You won’t see the people on the third floor. They exist out of dimensional phase with the humans of Earth. When you pass by their suite you will see office furniture but no workers. The lights will always look unlit to your eyes. Packages left at the door disappear overnight. They were misaddressed anyway: interplanetary rescue workers have no need for FedEx.
The people on the second floor are barely recognizable corpses now, but they were young and hip and vibrant, sporting body tech in glowing colors and asymmetrical haircuts that seemed to defy gravity. They strode through their lives with a powerful sense of possibilities and a constant fear of failure. Their start-up business offered a service that would automatically destroy your sensitive email or other communications in order to protect your privacy, your wallet, and your future employment possibilities. The company was named LPOS. That is an acronym for Liberty, Parent of Science, a motto stamped on a few very rare and extremely valuable United States pennies back in the 1700s. The liberty these young people espoused was the liberty of leaving no digital trace of yourself behind. READ MORE