Winterdim

Chris Howard

25

The Dryad and the Anthropologist



I helped Carlos make tea—the new feeling made me. It got me to my feet, opened my mouth, and I heard the words, but they sure as hell didn’t sound like anything I wanted to say at that moment, “I’m sorry. Let me help you.”

Holy Tree, it is meI feel guilty.

Guilt was my guess. I had no idea it ran so deep, in so many subtle little hair-needle pains, like the sting of a broken branch and then—in your heart—you feel a hundred separate stings of every leaf along it. Yeah, it hurt.

I gave my shaking hands something to do. Flashed the water to 66.6C, set out a nice assortment of teas—imported all the way from California—and three pots of hot water.

In the middle of the group, while passing it out, Carlos nudged me with a tray full of teacups, made them clink together. “You’re really not going to tell us anything, are you, Thea?”

“Nothing more about me, no.” I sighed at the crestfallen looks. Maybe a concession without conceding... “Look. I can tell you how my mother and father met? If you’re interested?”

That seemed to get the group’s attention.

“I would like to hear that,” said Brazley in a very soft voice—scary soft, echoSaw razor beam soft. She even had her pack full of toys with her, still slung over one shoulder. I looked over, tried to stare into her matte black eyes. Nothing.

I set down the tray, and found a place next Reed, took a sip of tea, waited for everyone to follow me. Reed set his cup down, and waited.

Deep breath. “Okay. This would be thirty-something years, four or five before I came into this world.” I’m gesturing wildly, something I know I do when I’m nervous. So I curled my hands into fists, dropped them heavily to my sides, cleared my throat, and went on. “Kraneia was on one of her foresting journeys along the southern coast of Africa—in Namibia, my father’s homeland, and she fell in love, first with a tree, then with a man. Yup, my dad. Dr. Thomas Viran saw her the first time standing at the foot of a giant tree, a Baobab. He was professor of anthropology at the university in Sesfontein, and he often walked hundreds of klicks through the countryside, and often past this very tree. He’d stop to think or read in its shade.” I looked up, hadn’t even noticed until then that I’d been staring into the steam off my mug of tea. I set it down.

I caught a couple questioning stares. I brought up my hands, spread my fingers, raised my arms like the limbs of a tree—something I’m pretty good at. “If you don’t know what a Baobab looks like, well, it’s an enormous tree—the trunks regularly get ten meters across—that’s diameter, with large white flowers when they’re in bloom.”

I lowered my arms, reached for my mug. The tea tasted good, but it was like a desiccant in my mouth, a promise of warmth and wet, and it—or my own body—turned on me ten seconds after each sip, dried up all the moisture inside. I looked into the brown fluid depths. What is this shit? Also noticed my breathing was hard, with the accompanying rapid heartbeat. Calm downDrink more tea. Tell them the damn storyWhat’s the fucking problem? It’s not even yours. I set the mug down.

“Anyway, that morning there was a woman standing at its foot, among the roots, still as stone, staring up into the branches. He watched her for a while, wondering what she was doing—she didn’t look like the typical tourist. Didn’t look like she came from anywhere near Namibia. He thought at first she was a visiting professor, maybe a botanist—although the Baobab tree is one of the most beautiful trees on earth, and you’d pretty much have to be blind to walk past one without looking up, wondering at its beauty. So, here’s this woman doing just that, only she holds up her arms like the branches of a tree, opens her hands, and the Baobab blooms for her, just one flower—blooms at her command. The blossom drops from the high branches into her hands, and she studies it. And still Thomas Viran stands silently and watches her. She dances at the tree’s foot and it bears fruit. He watches as she gently puts her fingers against the tree, then leans in to touch it with her tongue, and she even bites into the bark to taste it.”

I gave them a roll of the eyes. “My mother says she ‘knew Thomas was there the whole time.’ I don’t think so. I think he surprised her—but pleasantly so. My mom’s as tough as an old tree when she wants to be, tornado nasty, spiteful and blood-drawing as a mouthful of thorns.” I shot Fritz and Carlos a look and we shared a nod. They knew what Kraneia could be like. “But my dad won her heart with one line. When she asked him if the tree was his, he said, ‘No tree can belong to any man.’ Pretty obvious that would go over warmly with my dear mom.

“Anyway, they fell in love, traveled the world, counted a thousand Spheres, wandered through forests in north China, all through South America, every continent—even Antarctica to see the thriving groves of the Colonize Mars SimFabrik station, kilometers of gardens and lakes and living spaces—still there as far as I know. The whole place was supposed to be self-supporting for millennia—long after humans left earth.”

I had them all leaning forward. I leaned back, crossed my legs, slid one hand around Reed’s waist hooking my fingers under his shirt, took another longer sip of tea, sighed. “I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to get out of me.”

Carlos nodded resignedly, got up for more hot water, and jabbed his mug at Reed. “Disappointed, but more than I’d hoped for.”

I watched that same sentiment passed around the room in the expressions on faces, and ignored it.

“Forget about me.” I elbowed Reed. “I’ve been dying to hear your story—how they got you, what they did, what they were planning to do. I think I’ve pieced together most of it going back to how they managed to get you in Rennonvorah—Folesh with inside help, right? But the details are what I’m interested in.”

Reed set his mug down, rubbed his eyes, his face a little slack, still coming down off the reunion and whatever Carlos had dosed him with.

He smiled—although that was probably the endorphs too, and scooted left to fit easier into my arms, looked into my eyes. Yeah, it was the drugs.

Without any context outside his own head, Reed leaned closer and said, “It’s not that I absorbed him, you know. Your mother made certain that I became him.”

Blinking through weeks of memories, feeling the impatient weight of everyone else in the room, it took me a minute to get it. “The Winterdim Lord? And my mother just didn’t want him in this world with all his ‘tools’?” I shook my head, felt a twitch of vine in my hair. “I’m your goddamn toolbox? Not that that doesn’t sound like something my mom would do. Just I’m not that happy about it, if that’s my role.”

That’s what I had to say for the crowd, of course. Whole different story inside. Something warm in my stomach that went deep and way beyond possessing all the power-accoutrements of a world’s ruler, something about being tied to Reed. Something I didn’t really want to form clearly beyond the idea of the two of us needing each other to make the tools work. A little twinge inside, a rough roll of prickly skin up my arms. And from memory, I tasted Reed’s sweet blood in my mouth, and the power it contained, felt the lift in my body from those beautiful wings, the roar and ring of fast moving air past my ears, the untroubled snapping of some other tree’s branches, the blur of the earth below me, and the fire.

I swallowed it.

The mug of tea was shaking in my hand when I grabbed it off the table, needed something to wash the memory down, something to get that ringing out of my ears.

Reed had already launched into his story, Folesh had help inside the Rennonvorah, a woman who was never named—and he’d never learned her name, and a man named Higgins—who’d been the one Helodes had interrogated, cut up and fed to some fat happy Mississippi catfish and eels. Then it was just a lot of running and some flying north, and when they finally got to OKF, who’s there to greet Reed and his captors? His good old dad, Lazaro Gossi.

I wasn’t the only one who nearly dropped a mug. “What did you say to him?”

Reed grinned, a scary pain-bearing mask, his hand waving in greeting. “Hullo, Dad. How’s it going?” Reed’s head dropped, a tear rolling down his cheek. “No, actually I just stared at him, asked him why he killed Andrea. I didn’t know he was behind it; the question just came to me. You know what he said? She got in the way. He was fucking sorry about that. They were supposed to get me—that’s all, and ‘Andrea stood her ground and interfered with the outcome.’ It wasn’t even death to him.” Reed wiped his eyes. “It was an outcome—not someone’s life, just something unfortunate, unavoidable, like a fucking missed med appointment.”

One of the first differences in Reed I noticed was his shift in language—abusive language. Maybe I was rubbing off on him. Wash out my mouth all you want; you’re not taking the fuck-you out of me. And here’s articulate fucking Reed having become expletive-inserting Reed.

Maybe it wasn’t me, but something they did to him.

“What did they do to you? Inside the OKF, I mean. Or along the way?”

He shook his head. “Nothing on the way up. In fact, Folesh isn’t nearly as scary as he looks, even friendly. Once we got inside the OKF fenceline, everything changed. Colder, quieter, echoes off the stone smooth walls, and they stuck a bag over my head to keep me from seeing anything. Shirley kept me as up to date as she could.” Reed blinked, rooting around for descriptive words. “I couldn’t really see anything, but I could see the kinds of things around me. It was like a map she created for me, with markers, and sometimes names, where people...living or dead stood. The prismdead were everywhere, working there in the facility. We went up in an elevator, felt the pressure on my feet, so I know it was up. They staked me to the wall of a room, pulled off the bag, and someone in a white lab fullsuit—head to foot, couldn’t see anything but gray eyes through the lenses, and even those looked like placeholders for the person’s real eyes, just so I’d know where he or she was looking.” He frowned, suddenly going thoughtful and very Old-Reed. “I guess that makes sense. It wouldn’t be easy to hold a serious conversation with someone suited up when you couldn’t see if they were paying attention. That must be what they were—”

I gave him a stay-on-track gesture, waved a finger in front of his face, and slapped his knee for emphasis. “What about Lazaro? When did he show up?” And turning to Carlos, “Do you know him?”

Carlos nodded. “Never met him, but I know the name Lazaro, SPM—Special Projects Manager out of Building One, been with the company a long long time, his rep is that he’s scary, smart, dangerous...”

My gaze, drifting to Reed at this point, swung back, clicked with Carlos’, and at the same time we both nodded and said, “The Dangerous Man.”

“What?” Reed stopped, mouth half open, about to continue.

“I talked to you when the Winterdim Lord emerged, while we were up in the interrogation room working to free the wall fasteners on your arms. That part of you looked at me, and told me that he’d made everyone in the building stand down, fall asleep. From where he was—you were—being held on the seventy-seventh floor, locked in an interrogation room, he interfered with OKF security, diverted attention away from his rescue party. He cleared the path for us.” I swept the room with a hand. “He did all that, but he said he couldn’t affect one man, a ‘dangerous man’ who had escaped without facing us, up to the roof, and took our aircraft.”

Reed reached for his mug, but just held it, warming his hands. “Lazaro is the dangerous man?”

“Has to be.”

Andreus added, “He was not there, and when we climbed to the roof of Building Three, the shuttle was in flight, probably five minutes before we cleared the roof access door. If this Winterdim Lord disabled everyone else, then Lazaro was the only functioning man, the only one capable of piloting that craft.”

“Folesh?” Reed threw it out to think about, but you could tell he was far from certain.

“No way.” I jumped in. “Folesh is too big.”

Fritz had been quiet for a while, eyes closed, but the tension in his face showed that he was listening. He shook his head. “No. We met Folesh on the way back here. No way he could’ve taken the shuttle, landed, and returned, then backtracked to casually stroll through the forest so we’d see him. No matter how fast he can fly—and we know he can. We know he’s winged. He jumped the Iroquois River.” Fritz opened his eyes, glanced at me. “Very similar to the way you got us off the roof, Thea.”

“What? He didn’t use wings like they ought to be used?” I stretched out my arms, leaning forward, jutted my stubby nose like a beak, trying to be birdlike. “I thought it wasn’t the wise choice myself, but that’s what the Winterdim Lord wanted me to do.” And there was that taste again, iron and oranges, the heat and taste of Reed’s blood in my mouth, and the power... “Uh...through Shirley.”

Fritz caught my gaze, gave me a jump of his eyebrows, a friendly question about something he saw in my expression. I closed it down fast, gave him a glare as he was opening his mouth to ask what I was thinking.

“Not answering another question today.” I managed a smile. “If you can hold it for tomorrow, I’m there.”

The tip of my tongue hit the bridge behind my top teeth, sound coming up my throat, the L sound forming. I was about to say “Leaf Father save me,” and...he did.

I felt it. Him. I whispered, “We need to get back on the west side of the Mississippi.” The room felt unfamiliar, the air too hot, the smell of old rotting wood. I stumbled. My feet weren’t firm on the floor. The autumn colors of the room bled into gray. “What is this place?”

Brazley, on her feet across the circular space. “Thea? What do you see?”

“This isn’t right. Colors are turning. Where am I? We’re passing autumn.” Fighting that seasonal urge to sleep, and words were spilling from my mouth. “Fuck is going on?” And then my automated responses kicked in, passing directives to Augustine, start burning the fuel, my man, here’s a list of toxins I want prepared in the next thirty seconds. I need Chimeric-L, the eldritch variant, Proteant, and Homily. I don’t care how you get it done, how much it costs me. Just do it. And fast.

Fritz sprang to his feet, hands up, fingers playing something in the air. “I feel that, too. Thea, what is it?”

“We need to go.” I wheeled toward Fritz, arms out, my hair unwinding and braiding for battle, panic like teeth closing in around me. “Now! He’s here!”

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