Chris Howard



A long silence oozed into the room, everything done in autumn oranges and browns, a ring of my sullen rescue buddies hunched on the soft circular benches around a cylinder table of some stunningly clear material, a hard shape with sharp edges, but soft enough to make you think the whole thing was made of water—and anything you set down on it would drop right through the surface. I stared into crystal ball depths, focusing on the seams running up the front of Andreus’ boots, which came clearly through from the other side of the ring.

“Come on, Thea.” It was Fritz, reaching way over to touch me on the arm, some sort of diffusing tactic. “Because you’re not alone here.”

I shrugged him off, swept the room with a glare, returning to Fritz. Why wasn’t he outraged at his own love’s betraying remarks? Are they all in on it?

I felt the tears, heavy and wet across my eyes, and looked away, kept my mouth closed. Didn’t trust myself not to say something that would make me leave, and force me to bring about that state of being alone.

Andreus made a few gestures, talking to Brazley in their silent stalker language. It caught my eye, and I looked up, my gaze swiveling to my right, in the space between Fritz’s bench and the clear table.

I was on my feet, and didn’t even remember the desire. My hair looped out a meter, a cautious testing of the conflict waters. It took me a moment to figure out it was Augustine finally coming around, tapping into my not very subtle emotional pressure and feedback automation—way too late—and stirring up some shit.

It was probably the distant look that must have been on my face—me trying to figure what was going on in my own body. I was obviously broadcasting the right battle-prep vibe. Carlos assumed some sort of approved combat readiness stance, half crouch, one hand a stiff jabbing weapon, the other loose, a little curl in the fingers, ready to close into a fist or grab anything that came his way. His steady gaze found mine, and I took a step toward him, pushed back, threw a fist, feinted, stopped it halfway to fully extended. “You want to tell stories so bad, Carlos? Tell your own.”

I backed away from the situation slowly.

Actually...I wanted to hear Carlos’ story, but I couldn’t show that. I slid a sneer onto my lips, holding his gaze until I found my seat. The forest bitch rage and Augie’s response tampering passed without another word.

“Sure, Thea. I can go next.” Carlos brightened, straightened up, and turned to face Fritz, folded his hands together, and whispered softly, just loud enough for the rest of us to hear. “It was the music. His music. It just felt right in the trees. And the locks on doors? I suddenly saw as many keys as leaves. There is no door in any world that cannot be opened by us—Fritz and I.”

Okay Carlos the philosopher-solider really had a way with words. He spun slowly, swinging around with an open gesture. “I met Fritz in OKF building four—the “Death Tower”—and that’s not an overly dramatic name. It’s what it is. It’s almost entirely last resort lockup space, starvation diet, random daily shifts in light and dark cycles and a climate range from three to forty-five C.”

Fritz wore a faraway look and a grim smile. “Really screws with your system—never knowing when daylight will wake you, never knowing if night isn’t going to last forever. The temperature didn’t track with the light cycle. Complete darkness and forty degrees, counting seconds by the drip and tap of your own sweat running off your face and hitting the floor.”

Brazley leaning so far forward off her chair I thought she was going to go all the way over to the floor. She clutched her backpack like a nightmare-frightened child with a stuffed animal. Her long black hair was dragging at her feet. “How did you escape?”

Fritz shook his head, the distant look still in his eyes. “I didn’t escape. Carlos unlocked the door and set me free.”

Every gaze in the room shifted to Carlos, demanding the rest of the story. Even my own, dammit. They’d sucked me into their game like a damn power magnet.

Carlos shrugged easily, made his brows jump. “It was love. I wasn’t going to let him die in there.” He held Fritz’s gaze for a moment, then continued. “He sang, and I couldn’t hear him, but I knew...I knew he was special. I had to hear his voice. I had just been transferred off perimeter security to the interior division, and, although I held some rank, and had protected the fence line for years, I knew so little about what they actually did inside the walls of OKF. Fritz had been transferred—on the same day I’d been moved inside—to one of the ADOM chambers—basically a warm damp stable environment of dirt, trees, and bacteria waiting for him to die. Hellish stink in those places, too.”

“What’s ADOM?” He’d pronounced it like the name Adam, which had no special meaning for me.

“Aerobic Decomposition of Organic Matter, basically you stay in there until you die and become food for the chamber’s active microbial and macro-botanical community. In other words, a human compost chamber with very rich soil and a lot of trees.” Carlos put a hand to his nose, and although I expected a grin, some kind humorous expression, his face soured, and then slid into tight-muscled anger. “And there’s no sound in those chambers. It’s suppressed automatically by the systems in Building Four. I had to go pretty high and threaten a few to get command clearance to override the audio control for Fritz’s chamber. Told them I was doing some near-death experimentation, and needed to be able to communicate with the victim without being seen. I was bumped up to over-achiever status—which as long you’re hurting people, goes pretty far at OKF. So, I jumped right into the system flow from Fritz’s chamber and it’s...”

He sighed.

“It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. He was singing to the trees, telling them that they would have a better life once they consumed his. That he was preparing them to take up that part of him that made music, that felt the beat of the world’s heart, that knew song even when silence reigned. And you know what?”

We were leaning forward for the answer, shaking our heads.

“They understood him. The trees grew taller, leaves greener, branches fanning out over the wet ground, blemishes in their bark faded in the song’s notes, the trees waiting and worshipping him. Fritz sang about the outside world, the unfiltered light of the sun, soft breezes from faraway lands rustling through the branches.” Looking over at me, Carlos whispered, “He sang to them about a girl he once knew who loved nothing but the trees. I listened to him for days, nine of them, watching him and falling love.”

“On the fourth day,” said Fritz. “You spoke to me. You told me your name.”

Carlos turned to us. “And everything else. That I would do anything I could to save his life. I wasn’t internal security—really, but perimeter security, so I told him I’d find a way to get him out of that chamber and to the front door of Building Four. From there, I could get through security without my eyes. Five more days, digging through building charts, door latch documents, threatening anyone in my way, and I got him out. We left together, and we looked back only to burn the image of our enemy in our thoughts.”

A heavy sigh from Andreus, a higher pitched one from Brazley.

Fritz this time. “Thea? You sure you don’t want to tell us anything more?”

I returned a what-do-you-think? look, then turned away.

“Thea?” Fritz pulled me back in with the tone of his voice, something valuable that included me. “Do you know how I learned to sing to the trees, to talk to them? I learned everything I know about trees from the months of Fridays we spent together in the OaK leaF, every week creating a new song for you.”

It softened my mood to the consistency of pudding. “Thank you. I’m still not going next.”

A voice behind me in the gloom, Reed’s tired voice. “It may be easier if I go next.” He stood, holding the doorjamb, his other arm hanging lazily at his side. “I have a friend, a very special friend. Someone I care deeply for—even when there are things inside me that have driven me to hurt her. She is someone who saved my life, and nearly lost hers protecting me. Let me tell you about her.” His voice was rough, probably from not being used, but he sounded right at the edge of sobbing. He looked right at me and said, “Her name is Theodora.”

I was crying, hard jerking sobs. They just burst out of me. I couldn’t help it, my heart thudding, and the adrenalin rush threw me to my feet, and then I was running in for a hug, even sent a handful of vines around his waist, down his legs, pinning him to me.

“You’re back.” I breathed the words into his neck, smelled the fever sweat, the faint burned earth and oranges smell of the Winterdim Lord, but when I touched his skin with my tongue, it was Reed. I tasted the faint electric charge of the thing inside him, but it had been shut away, back in its room with the locked door.

My Reed had returned.

His fingers were in my hair, tilting my head back to look into my eyes. “I heard what you said, heard your story about the OaK leaF and what they did to you and Fritz.”

I swiveled my gaze to Carlos, who had the edge of a smile on his lips.

“You knew he was awake, didn’t you?”

Carlos made a quick mocking shame gesture, hands going to his face. Then they dropped away with a stronger smile, an arm over Fritz’s shoulders. “I can’t take all the blame. Fritz was in on it too.” He held out a hand to Reed. “And the man of the hour, he went along with it. He woke before sunset, very weak, and I gave him tea and some Mazy8’s—those are military-issue endorphs, which didn’t do him a lot of good, took away the pain, but also made him dizzy and thoughtful.”

My rage slipped away, forgotten. Reed was back, and in my arms, and Carlos hadn’t really been the mean scab-pulling asshole he’d pretended to be—really just sort of playfully antagonistic, which I can understand, and even sounds like something I’d do. I tightened my vines around Reed to the point of pain, felt him tense up. I held Carlos’ gaze for a moment. “And a drugged up Reed was more agreeable to your get-some-info-out-of-Thea plan, I’ll bet?”

He made a short bow. “It did help.”

I was back to chewing the inside of my lip. “You bastards.” And I was laughing with them. “Okay, now I don’t know whether to be angry that you led me along or that you prodded my paranoia into high gear just to play your games.”

“Come on.” Fritz laughed lightly. “Either way we had fun. Although it was a little tense for a second. Thought I’d have to jump in to stop you from killing Carlos.”

Nodding, “Yeah, that was close. Believe me.” I twisted my smile into something cruel. “You wouldn’t have wanted to get in my way, Fritzy.”

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