by Rory Harper
In the long ago, I sometimes imagined that I perceived half-solid phantoms moving across the landscape, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. They looked vaguely humanoid, their outlines wavering like those of the immaterial structures that intrude upon our world. Nobody but me saw them.
I haven’t seen them for many years.
* * *
It was our day to patrol the overcity. Daneca had swaddled Baby in her best blanket when we left home that morning. Overnight, the translucent glow that wavered around Baby had progressed from dark emerald to a steadily lightening sapphire. Her body noticeably shrank and became more wrinkled by the hour. We’d have to release her to the sky today. Daneca held Baby so tightly that I feared she might crush her, but Baby only cooed and laughed. Daneca’s tears had come and gone already this morning. I’d kept mine imprisoned so far.
We’d arrived a little early, so the city had barely begun to come awake around us when we walked past the looming power station. Many of the crystals covering the ceiling of the undercity’s cavern still sparkled like stars, but those edging the rim had begun to brighten. Shadows still draped the undercity, but they undulated as if alive.
The field of cathedrae marched off into the flickering dimness. Behind them, the power station’s capacitors emitted a rising hum as more grannies burned to begin the daily recharge.
As we drew near the loading dock where our ship was nestled, we could see the lines of grannies being led out into the cathedral grid and strapped in. Cathedrae are ungainly, lopsided masses of wood, durium, and orichalcum, capped by elliptical bubbles of adamant that are threaded with a mesh of multi-colored copper wiring. Heavy cables spray from their reclined backs to the central accumulators for the capacitor banks.
Almost all of the grannies stumbled and mumbled, gently guided—sometimes carried—by attendants from the crèche next door to the plant.
Only a few protested when they were lifted into the waiting cathedrae, strapped in securely, then obscured by the wiring when attendants lowered the hinged bubbles to enclose them entirely.
Behind me, Daneca stifled a quiet hum of distress. If I didn’t ignore it, I would echo it.
After all the years, all the losses, it shouldn’t tear at me this way. I shouldn’t care at all by now.
* * *
Gerene was harbormaster today, and she laid out patrol routes on the big map for all of the captains while Daneca stayed a few yards away, rocking Baby and trying to breathe more evenly. By the time the meeting broke, three more babies had been racked belowdecks on my ship to ride with us.
I slipped over to the hotpot and poured Daneca and myself cups of kav while the twins, Mimsy and Pansy, finished loading supplies and strapped today’s granny into the chair bolted to the center of the deck. Ships’ chairs are less-bulky versions of the cathedrae used by the power station.
The granny mumbled incoherently, but the twins had tranqed her into docility before they led her up the steps and lifted her into the chair. She was a tiny thing, little more than bones and eyes and loose skin. She couldn’t have resisted much anyway, but at least she wouldn’t be distressed when we ignited her.
I called out to Gerene, “Can we get an extra granny for back-up? This one looks delicate, and we might be out for awhile with this many babies.”
Gerene knew that Daneca and I were going to have a traumatic day, so she cut us some slack. “Redundancy is good. Redundancy is good,” she said.
She called out, and a power station attendant whispered to the granny she was about to strap into the nearest cathedra. The granny turned to look at us before slowly hobbling, unassisted, in our direction. She was frowning.
“I was lookin’ forward to a good long burn today,” she said as she drew near. “My mind is clear now, but this body is a mess.”
“We’ll switch you into the chair at some point and fire you up,” I said. “I’ll try to get you a couple of days worth of burn time before we come back. The ship runs off direct fire, since capacitors are too large and heavy for ships. You’ll burn hotter than you’re used to. It can get a little uncomfortable.”
She smiled. She had most of her teeth, and was almost twice the size of the granny in our chair. “Aw, hell, yes. I’m volunteerin’. Burn me every day. I’m so tired of hurtin’ all the time.”
“We have to be fair to the other grannies,” I said. “But I’ll keep you in mind. I do prefer somebody in the chair that doesn’t have to be tranqed and might get unpredictable.”
“No problems from me.” She limped up the gangplank to the lower deck. “Not sure I like bein’ called predictable though.”
“Welcome aboard. You got a name?”
“Yes! Got one last week. I’m Inaka.”
“Strap in, sister Inaka. The ride gets bumpy sometimes.” She offered another lopsided smile. She knew she hadn’t progressed from granny to sister yet, but I respected that she was working hard for it.
We’d customized our ship extensively. Most crews figured that they were going to spend enough time on board that they might as well make their ships more homey than how they came from the shop. The wooden outer rail had been replaced by a well-polished brass one, and we’d painted all of the surfaces with vibrant murals and designs. The feathered diamond heat sinks that spread like sails over the ship illuminated with their signature chime when I flipped the breaker at the back of the chair and the granny ignited. Thin, light turquoise flames encased her body.
Her eyes closed and her mouth gaped in a toothless oh, but she made no sound. I turned the dial to increase the heat and density of fire. My ship lifted half a dozen feet, and the mooring lines drew taut.
Daneca and I signaled Luce and Cannelin, the captains of the other two ships in our convoy, rising on either side of us. You never ventured into the overworld alone. Each of their ships also hosted two babies, but hadn’t loaded a backup granny. Neither of them were quite as paranoid as me, and having someone extra onboard that you had to keep an eye on was a trade-off. If the patrol ran ridiculously long, one of them could cycle back to the undercity to pick up replacement grannies, while we parked on station.
I took my place on the foredeck, then looked to left and right for final confirmation that they were ready to depart. We’d been slower than usual, so most of the forty-eight other ships were receding lights in the dimness.
The twins and Daneca cast us off, and I spun the wheel to take us up the tunnel to the surface.
* * *
The granny started to moan and squirm as we turned the last corner to the location where we planned to release the babies today.
Her halo writhed with static discharge, and she stuttered nonsensical, incomplete sentences. She wasn’t noticeably changing yet. Her hair was still bone white and the same length.
I was the only one on board who could get close enough to her without discomfort, so I hurried over and squirted a dropper full of tranq into her twisting mouth. The flames surrounding her body burned at a low enough temperature that the drop didn’t go to steam. She was fresh, but was burning cooler and slower than I had hoped. We weren’t in a hurry, so I left her power setting alone.
She quieted immediately, and her brow unclenched. I heard a call from Daneca behind me. She’d been up and down the steps to the lower level to check on Baby every few minutes. She was leaning over the rail on the port side, pointing.
“Serafina! There’s a new granny in the road. This is going to be a good day.” She paused. “As good as it can be.”
I stepped to the leading edge of the ship as we slowed to a halt in front of the new granny, and feathered down until the skids touched the ground. You can tell they’re new because they’re naked, have a disoriented, panicky look on their faces, and usually have white hair, if they have any at all.
This one was different, long hair a blonde so light that it almost appeared white, but was not. She wasn’t wrinkled or frail-looking enough to be an advanced granny. I glanced at her hands. They always reveal the truth. She was right on the edge of becoming a sister, I judged.
“Hello,” I said. I clambered over the rail at the edge of the ship and dropped to the ground. “My name is Serafina, and we’re here to help you.”
She cocked her head to the side and said nothing. Non-responsiveness wasn’t unusual.
“I know that things are confusing right now, but it’s going to be all right.”
“I’m not confused. I just don’t know what the holy fuck is going on,” she said. “Also, do y’all have any spare clothes aboard? Running around naked in this cold is bullshit.” I noticed that she’d found a gnarled three-foot-long stick and was tapping it gently against her calf. She was scanning her surroundings continually. “Also, I think there’s monsters around here. I saw something big slinking around a few minutes ago.”
Definitely not a normal granny. Daneca heard her and strapped herself into the portside gunner’s chair above us. She didn’t ignite yet. Daneca burned as little as she could get away with, without getting in trouble with the allocation committee. Being the gunner on our ship made her exempt from contributing to the undercity’s power grid. She might have to burn hard sometimes, but it was rare these days.
“Come aboard my ship and we’ll explain everything to you. We’ve got extra robes in storage, and a few snacks. When we’re done with patrol, we’ll carry you back to the city. You’ll get hot food and a safe place to stay. Does that sound good?” I kept my voice soft and slow. I didn’t want to spook her. I stopped in front of her and held out the hand that wasn’t gripping my spear. She looked at the spear suspiciously.
“Sure. My name’s Gloria,” she said, offering a hand to me.
I fell back a step, stunned. She had a name. New grannies and new sisters and new children, no matter what their condition might be, didn’t have names. Ever.
Before I could respond, a snatch tried to ambush us.
It had rained overnight—real rain, not immaterial rain, so the real ground was muddy, even though it looked like we stood on a hard colorless surface. That invisible mud saved us when the snatch leaped from inside a wall twenty feet away and slid into a tumbled mess a few yards short of us.
Snatches are good at hiding inside immaterial structures, since they block your vision, but aren’t solid. Their sense of smell makes up for the blindness.
The twins splashed out of the ship and raced to either side, nocking poisoned arrows as they ran. This was far from being our first snatch. I heard the crackle of Daneca igniting behind me. Gloria immediately spun to face the snatch and raised her club.
I charged while it scrambled to regain its footing. You don’t run from a snatch, unless you want its stinger in your back. The yellow and black ruff that ringed its face made for a nice target. I leaped high and burned for half a second to accelerate directly at it. The flare and sharp pop startled it and made it hesitate.
It got one clawed foreleg up almost in time to deflect the point of my spear. Almost. It shuddered when the tip pierced its eye and drove to the back of its skull. One falling claw scraped my forearm, and I flinched away in midair. The snatch thrashed for a moment, then stilled. When you fight a snatch, it’s over fast, one way or the other.
The twins saw it go down and immediately spun outward to scan our surroundings. Snatches are solitary predators, and we’d hunted them almost to extinction. But sometimes they have a mate or cubs.
I was still crouched panting, bleeding, and slathered with mud, when Pansy yelled.
I raised my head and spotted a figure walking haltingly toward us. You could tell it was real because of the splashes its feet made. It staggered and limped, moving even more slowly than Inaka had done earlier.
I couldn’t tell for sure in the dim overcast, but it had to be another new granny.
While I was gingerly stepping toward her, Gloria at my side, Inaka appeared at the railing carrying a pulsing, screaming baby.
Our cups ranneth over.
* * *
After the baby was gone and the twins had begun to butcher the snatch for its delicious meat and dangerous venom, I talked with Gloria while I helped her into a robe and gave her a cup of wine with a small loaf of bread. She was remarkably centered for someone who’d been born literally minutes before. She didn’t know how she knew her name.
As soon as possible, we dialed the granny back up and resumed patrol.
Gloria startled the first few times the ship glided through seemingly solid objects. The smaller boxes moved much faster than the ship did, and even I could be surprised when one blasted through us from the rear. We patrolled for the next hour and found two more grannies, both of them naked and incoherent. An unexpectedly good haul, though that wasn’t our primary objective.
The twins kept continuous eyes on the babies racked belowdeck. A baby could convert to the terminal stage in a matter of moments. All of them burned bright blue, right at the cusp of transformation.
Baby hadn’t progressed since we’d left the undercity in the morning.
Gloria mostly stayed on deck, gazing at the scenery that we passed. I didn’t send her below because I wanted to know as soon as possible whether her differentness was dangerous. I had my duties, so we didn’t talk a lot, but our eyes met each other frequently. She was trying to figure me out as much as I was trying to figure her out.
* * *
She gestured at the shapes that surrounded us. Most were so high that we couldn’t see half the sky in any direction. “So, what the hell are those things?” This was one of the first questions that new grannies ask, so she wasn’t unusual there.
The grass and occasional scrubby bushes within view were the only real things. We did cross a small creek, and I slowed to keep the ship from lurching as it slid over the banks.
Everything else in the overworld is illusion. The structures look artificial. Most of them have rectangular surfaces of varying sizes, especially the larger ones that tower over us. The edges waver rhythmically, as if seen though running water.
Smaller structures can be any shape. All of them, as well as the surface that we glided over, were the color of the absence of color. The smaller moving objects look roughly the same, and the field is also cluttered with all sorts of unmoving smaller objects.
They aren’t black in the way that natural things are. When you look at them you simply see nothing. Your brain refuses to perceive more than a surface that blocks sight of anything behind it. Viewed head-on, they look two-dimensional. There is no contrast anywhere on the surface. But, if you circle them, the indistinct edges change shape, and you’re forced to visualize them as three-dimensional objects.
We weren’t surrounded by colorless panes. We were navigating a series of canyons composed of shadows that cast shadows.
* * *
Two babies went critical at the same time and I hurried the ship back to the open space we’d chosen.
Daneca strapped into the gun station again. It whined on its gimbals as she tracked our surroundings for threats, while Mimsy and Pansy leaped over the rail and stopped a few feet away. I followed them, spear ready to defend or attack if needed. Gloria watched from above, leaning against the railing.
There is no traditional ritual, no ceremony, when the time comes to release a baby. But the twins still kissed their foreheads, risking blistered lips, before they held them up to the sky.
After a long few minutes of unmoving silence, first one baby, then the other, expanded into a hot rainbow sphere. A few seconds later, they transmuted into streaks of pure white light that zipped upward and entered the dark edge of the nearby building halfway up its face.
Only Baby remained for us to release and to mourn.
* * *
I don’t know what happens when babies leave us. Most people believe that they transition to the immaterial world. They also believe that grannies and sisters somehow come from the immaterial world. That makes sense to me. I think they’re at least partially correct.
But what happens to the babies that dissolve into multi-colored mist? And why do grannies appear in such wildly varying physical and mental conditions? Why are some people already sisters, or even children, when they first appear? Why do even the wordless grannies know to speak a language once they’ve burned enough? Why so many different languages? The one I speak now is not my first, or my tenth. How do we know so many things without any memory of learning them?
Most of all—why do I never change? I’ve always been a sister, I think. Have I been here from the very beginning of our world? I can’t remember.
There are too many unanswered questions, and no faith has grasped me.
Daneca was certain that we come from nothing and return to nothing, that our world is simply the way that it is, and the immaterial world is a meaningless illusion.
Maybe we’re both right. Maybe we’re both wrong. But I at least entertain the possibility that Baby might go on to new life. Daneca had no such consolation, and was entirely bereft.
* * *
We doused the granny that had powered the ship all morning. We burn grannies to make them healthier, but some of them are so frail that they can’t last for long, and that was the concern that had caused me to request Inaka at the start. After I called her up, I taught Gloria how to help her settle into the cathedra, strap her in, and attach the leads to her body.
“Are you doing all right now?” I asked Inaka. “Let us know if we need to adjust anything.”
She gave me her lopsided smile. “I’m predictably overjoyed. Let’s get at it.”
Gloria didn’t retreat when she threw the breaker at my direction. Another unusual characteristic. Even I tended to flinch at the crack of ignition and the sudden blossom of heat and flame. It almost looked as if she was leaning into the experience.
Inaka moaned when I instructed Gloria to dial her up. She smiled and smiled and burned a striking luminescent emerald. With a little luck, she might grow her remaining teeth by the end of the day.
She burned the same hue as Baby once had, with the same enthusiasm.
We patrolled for two more hours, during which time we acquired one more feeble granny and saw no other predators.
Baby did not ripen. This was completely unlike her, with her headlong rush to death. Daneca and I were already living together when we found her as a granny. Daneca had named her Ashiel. She’d been bright-eyed and alert, but nonverbal. We immediately recognized that she was kindred and adopted her to raise together, rather than depositing her at the crèche. This wasn’t terribly unusual. Many families grew through adoption of new grannies. Something in us wants to nurture new, fragile life.
As she’d grown stronger and gained words, we’d fallen only more in love with her. She was so smart, so filled with joy, that she enveloped everyone around her.
But something drove her to burn brightly and often. She consumed herself as quickly as anyone in the long ago did, when we all burned every day to survive.
Daneca had gradually fractured, forced to watch helplessly as Ashiel became smaller and weaker and lost knowledge and language. Throughout it all, she grew only more happy. She was rushing toward something, not rushing away from this life. She was never able to explain it to us.
She burned into our hearts, brightly. And now she was leaving us.
Copyright © 2023. Burning Grannies by Rory Harper