Selecting Faces Chapter 7: Trinta

Trinta - grummer character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

“Last chance, Trinta. You either make it as a grummer, or it’s back to the bordello.”

Trinta shivered at the ice in Arich‘s voice. She was wrapping long strips of fabric around her knuckles so that her thumb was bound to the side of her hand, and her fingers couldn’t spread apart. Grappling was strictly forbidden in Inverse Gravity Rumble, but the fighters could still turn their hands into hooks to grip the handholds — and each other.

Arich stepped around in front of her, his hands folded behind his back. She kept expecting him to touch her, for her to feel his breath on her neck. It had been nearly two months, and he hadn’t once laid a finger on her.

“I think you can do it. You’re tough. You’ve got more potential than some of the other grummers I’ve sponsored. You just have to want it hard enough. Win it all in this grum, and I’ll keep you.”

She felt her face flush.

“Time to go!” came the grum-master’s voice from down the hall.

Arich moved from in front of the door to let her exit.

“Go splash them,” he said.

She stepped into the hall, joining the other five grummers. Trinta’s blood felt alive, like all the nerves in her body were pulled taut. All six grummers strode down the hallway toward the turret. Kasi checked Trinta into the wall as she moved ahead of her.

They all bounded up a flight of stairs, emerging into the grum turret. There were hundreds of punters in the surrounding torus, crowded up against the glass walls of the turret. Even though she was a skinner — used to be a skinner, anyway — she’d seldom felt so naked as now.

Trinta slipped around the pool that occupied the center of the turret. Purple light emanated from the pool, illuminating the portion of the ceiling directly above it, which was composed of the same steel panels that made up the floor.

Trinta glanced around at the other fighters to make sure she was lining up properly behind a glass panel of the floor that read “Nova.” As she stepped onto her starting block, she could feel the electromagnets of her boots disengage from the floor.

She glanced up at the handholds on the ceiling. They were directly above her on the edge of the steel plating. When Arich had first got her, she didn’t think she could jump high enough to reach the bounder bars, but after weeks of training, mounting was second nature to her.

The purple light coming from the pool turned to blue, and everyone standing just on the other side of the glass wall around the turret raised their hands to the barrier.

Then the light turned to green, and the sound of a thousand open palms banging on the glass reverberated through Trinta’s bones. It took her a moment to remember the grum had begun.

Blushing hard, she sprung up and gripped the bounder bars with her mummified hands and jackknifed her feet up toward the ceiling. As her boots neared the steel panels lining the top of the turret, the electromagnets in the bottoms of them turned on and pulled them onto the ceiling. Then she let go of the handholds and straightened, feet planted on the ceiling and head pointed toward the pool below her.

By the time Trinta got mounted, the two grummers on her right were already engaged. On the other side, Kasi was trying to get a hooked hand under Trinta’s left armpit. As she spun to face her, Kasi lost her grip.

Kasi started to throw a straight punch with her right hand, but something drew her attention over Trinta’s right shoulder.

Trinta made the most of her moment of distraction. She pushed Kasi’s outstretched arm across her body, moving to Kasi’s dead side, then pulling on the back of her opponent’s neck with a hooked hand. The movement propelled Trinta away from — and Kasi right into — the oncoming Rhene. It must have been Rhene’s approach that had distracted Kasi in the first place.

Rhene crouched, allowing Kasi to stumble over her. Then she straightened quickly, pulling Kasi free of the steel. She tumbled slowly — her screams of rage drowned out by the crowd still pounding on the glass — and splashed into the glowing green pool below.

Trinta stepped back from the fight for a moment as Metis closed in on Rhene at top speed. This was probably intended to catch Rhene while she was still recovering from taking out Kasi.

Metis threw a diving uppercut at Rhene’s head, but she didn’t get her front foot planted before engaging her adversary.

Rhene was already firmly established, and saw the attack coming. She was able to deflect the blow overhead toward the pool. Metis swung backward so she was dangling from her right foot.

Trinta quickly stepped in behind Metis. She hooked her hand around the inside of Metis’s flailing left leg and gave it a shove. Metis tumbled into the pool below.

When Trinta turned to the last two fighters, Miranda had Rhene from behind in a bear hug. Trinta hung back, waiting to see who her final opponent would be.

Miranda pulled Rhene a few centimeters off the ceiling.

Rhene tucked her knees in, placing her feet on Miranda’s thighs. Just as her opponent’s arms loosened to drop her, Rhene doubled over, forming into a ball. Then she pushed off, forcefully separating Miranda’s feet from the steel and propelling herself through the air in a slight backward arc — her belly just centimeters from the ceiling — toward Trinta.

Trinta’s eyes widened in surprise. She tried to move to the side, but one of Rhene’s outstretched arms caught her around the waist. Rhene used this point of leverage to — by sheer force — plant her own feet back on the ceiling and pull Trinta’s off.

Trinta scrabbled at Rhene’s back with her bound hands, trying to grab anything to keep from falling, but without success.

She floated down slowly in the low gravity, twisting in the air, finally landing in the pool with her body spread as flat as possible. A fighter wasn’t counted out until they hit the water, so she could delay the inevitable by about half a second by laying herself out flat.

When she came up from the water, the thunderous pounding on the glass had subsided. As she raised herself out of the pool, Kasi walked by and used her foot to shove her back in.

Trinta finally climbed out of the pool. Rhene swung herself down using the bounder bars and went ahead of her out of the turret.

When she got back to her locker room, Arich was already there.

“I’m sorry I didn’t win the whole thing. I should have got out of the way… I–“

“You’ve got potential. I’ll keep you for now.”


Read the next chapter: Kasi


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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Selecting Faces Chapter 6: Ruke

Ruke - zealous peacekeeper character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

“Ruke! What are you doing here!”

Shavera threw open the door and stepped outside to embrace him for a moment.

“I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop off the tickets,” he said, moving into her apartment and dropping the tickets on the table.

She shook her head. “You’re the only person I know who still uses paper tickets. But how are you? Still on the mend?”

“Just talked to the surgeon yesterday, actually,” he said, exercising his knee a little. “Said I could do anything that doesn’t hurt.”

“You look excited.”

He grinned, circling the room – a combination dining room and kitchen. People were awfully crowded here despite having the moon all to themselves. The table was small, only big enough for two. There was only room in the kitchen for a sink, a single induction burner and the small, under-counter refrigerator.

As he walked, the only sound was the clicking of his shoes on the steel floor.

Hanging upside-down above the sink were three blue alstroemeria with flecks of green in them. The coloration was meant to be reminiscent of earth, but by now their hue was less than handsome.

“You kept the flowers,” he said.

“I couldn’t throw them away!” she said. “They’re so expensive. And they’re still a comfort to me. They remind me I’m not the only one who remembers.”

He finished his circuit and returned to the door.

Shavera fell into one of the two chairs in the kitchen’s small dining area, burying her face in her hands to stifle a sob. Ruke sat down across the table from her, pulling the glass of his helmet away from his face and sliding it up over the top of his head. She glanced up at him, allowing one of her hands to fall. He reached over and took it in both of his.

Without a sob, another tear rolled down her eye to her nose. Another joined it from the other eye. A third also, and a fourth. The drop on the end of her nose was growing freakishly large. When it finally broke free, it fell slowly, rippling and shivering, before it hit the table and made an wet spot bigger than her eye itself.

“I’m keeping you,” she said, wiping her face. “Go, get back to your beat.”

He made no move to get up.

“I miss him,” she said.

He nodded. “Me too.” He glanced away, clenching his jaw.

They sat in silence for another minute.

She squeezed his hands and let go, withdrawing hers into her lap. He stayed.

At last she sighed and looked up at him.

“You won’t leave unless I throw you out, will you?” she said, giving him a bittersweet smile.

“I may not know much, but I know not to walk away from a woman who’s crying.”

She pushed herself up and walked over to the door. He followed. She hovered in the doorway as he went out into the stairwell. “You’ll have to come by for dinner sometime soon,” she called after him.

“You got it, sis,” he said as he turned to descend the stairs.

On the ground floor, he stepped into the airlock with several other people. Some of them were speaking to their paxes. Everyone stood at least an arm’s length from him. The doors on the atmosphere side slid shut and the airlock began to depressurize.

When the airlock finished evacuating, the doors to the outside of the building opened, and Ruke strolled out under a brilliant swath of stars.

From the buildings on one side of the street to the other were strung thin, nearly-invisible cables, from which hung lanterns shaped like inverted pyramids. During lunar night, these would flood the street with purplish light, but currently the sun was bathing the city in a warm yellow instead. It’s rays shot down the length of the street, the shadows of the throng playing upon Ruke’s exoskin.

Despite the bustle of the street, the crowd parted before him. Being a peacekeeper did have its benefits, even though many despised him for it. It was a noble calling, whatever they said.

He posted himself outside a shop and watched the people hurrying this way and that, many of them just getting off of work, others on their way to it, still others out on their breaks or weekends.

Back on earth it was different. People all had the same schedule — at least that was how it had seemed when he lived there as a kid. Surely there were people who worked the hospitals at night and such, but basically everyone went home at the same time.

He stretched his arms. Was this really what thirty-five felt like?

He remembered how strange it had been to come here, just ten years old. There was no impetus for the whole population to work during the same eight hours of each twenty-four, because the lunar day and night were nearly 15 earth days and nights each. He remembered his father explaining that to him and Shavera before they arrived.

People had called his hometown “the city that never sleeps,” but it was nothing compared to this perpetual buzz of activity. One was as likely to start work at 0900 as any other hour of the day.

A shadow blotted out a small patch of stars on the rooftop of a shop across the way. Ruke raised a hand to block the reflection of the sun glaring off the side of the aluminum-clad building. Without the glare, he could resolve the figure. That was no peacekeeper. The civilian was bounding along the roof of one building, leaping in a slow, graceful arc to the next, and continuing.

He opened his mouth to call to her to stop, but she was too far, especially with the hubbub of the passers-by delivered — volume modulated by proximity — through the radio in his helmet.

Ruke turned quickly and moved into the store. He hurried to the back to a door that read “Employees Only.” The door unlocked at his approach, recognizing him as a peacekeeper. He shoved it open, then hurried down a hallway past the receiving dock. He pushed his way through a door on the right side of the hallway into a small room with a ladder up to the roof of the building. He began ascending as quickly as he could. His joints weren’t aching exactly, but they weren’t as limber as they used to be.

In short order he emerged onto the rooftop. A momentary search found the swifter moving in the same direction as he had seen earlier, moving parallel to the street but on the opposite side from him.

He turned to follow her and nearly tripped as an autonomous rover zipped across his path. It cornered and started moving the direction he was going. It rolled full-speed to the edge of the building, where it crossed via a centimeters-wide wire with inexplicable balance to the roof of the next building.

Ruke regained his focus on the swifter. He ran after her, gaining speed as he neared the edge of the building and flinging himself from the edge. A thrill rose up inside him — it felt good to get back to the chase. He soared all the way to the middle of the next rooftop before landing in stride.

In a few blocks, Ruke had gained on the swifter enough to be within shouting distance. But he wouldn’t be able to cross to her side of the street until the skyway in another few blocks and she hadn’t noticed him yet. It would probably be better to keep his mouth shut for the time being.

Almost as soon as he had decided that, the swifter glanced over her shoulder, spotting him and increasing her pace.

“Stop!” he yelled at her, but he could see immediately that he was no longer gaining on her. The chase was over, in all likelihood, but he didn’t stop running, not yet.

A rover was coming in on a wire from across the street. He gauged its speed and crossed just behind it with minimal deviation from his path.

The swifter came to a skyway leading from the building she was on to the row of buildings even further from Ruke. She would take it, and he would have no way of getting at her.

But she didn’t curve away from him. That must mean wherever she was going, it required crossing to his side of the street.

He doubted he could keep pace with her if the chase continued much longer. If she was able to get to the skyway and cross to his side of the street before he could get there, she would almost certainly elude him. He put his head down and really started to push himself.

They taught him back at the academy how to run roofs safely. You were supposed to gain as much speed as possible and launch from the edge of the roof with a high trajectory. This would allow you to fly for the longest distance, giving you a wide margin of safety for clearing almost any gap, even when the roof you were jumping to was higher.

But taking such a high trajectory meant redirecting a lot of your momentum upward. The fastest way to run roofs required a much lower margin of safety. Ideally, you would land right at the edge of the next roof, spending as little time flying as possible. This was the strategy used by the reckless youth during their rooftop races. This was the practice that got Ruke’s nephew killed.

He felt a burning need to stop this swifter ignite within his chest. Ruke jumped a little lower from this roof, landing only two meters beyond the edge of the next one.

“Stop!” he called again.

She glanced over her shoulder, but didn’t respond. With her attention directed back at him, she bumped into a rover that moved in front of her. She stumbled, but kept her feet.

Ruke’s knees complained against this exertion. And still he could see that he wasn’t going fast enough to cut her off.

When he reached the next alley, he hardly even jumped at all.

It worked. He hit the next rooftop well within the first meter, and could see that if he kept up this new pace, he would certainly cut her off. He still had it.

A wave of energy and confidence surged through him as the gap between him and the skyway dwindled. One block. Three alleys, two alleys. The perpetrator turned onto the skyway as he approached the final alley.

He suddenly had an image of his nephew in the coffin, just before cremation. He remembered his sister’s convulsive tears, how she clung to him for support as she approached the body of her son. Who would she cling to if he himself were in the coffin? The fire in his chest was quenched in an instant. He wasn’t selfish enough to be this reckless.

But the alley was there, one step away. There was no time to stop, no time to think. He panicked, planting his foot and pushing off — too early. He wasn’t quite close enough to the edge of the building, and his shoes started pulling him back down before he floated out over the alley. He could see already that he wasn’t going to make it. He looked down. A fall from this height wasn’t fatal — probably.

He crashed into the building, the edge of the roof slamming into his chest. He could feel his ribs snap. He had no breath. He mustered some effort to try and lift himself onto the roof, but a stab of pain prevented him from having the strength.

He tried to swing one of his legs up onto the roof, but couldn’t summon the effort. He felt himself sliding closer to the edge.

A pair of hands gripped his left arm — the one with the stripes that marked him as a peacekeeper — and hauled him up. It was the young woman he had been chasing.

As soon as he was securely up over the lip of the roof, she turned to walk away. But before she got more than a step, he deftly pulled an Achilles from his belt and slapped it onto her shoe. It immediately overrode the normal function of her shoe’s electromagnets, locking her foot inexorably to the rooftop.

She cursed as Ruke pushed himself slowly, grimacing, to his feet. “You’re under arrest.”


Read the next chapter: Trinta


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Selecting Faces Chapter 5: Perseus

art by Erin Cardwell

many years ago

Perseus woke up screaming.

A nurse hurried into the room.

Perseus swung around and tried to stand, but the nurse forced him back down.

“You try to stand up and you’ll be falling right over.”

“I’m fine,” Perseus insisted.

“Like hell you are,” the nurse responded. “You’re missing a limb, sieve-brain!”

His stay in the hospital flooded back to him. He’d been caught up in the dream, walking down Scorpio Avenue.

Coming back to the present burned.

He allowed her to push him back down on the bed. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She stepped outside.

He leaned back, trying not to think about her.

His missing left foot throbbed. He doubled over and massaged the right one. After a minute he decided that wasn’t helping and worked his thumbs over the stump of shin instead. The newly printed skin was soft to the touch and hairless, with no noticeable scar.

He heard someone enter. He looked up, hopeful that it was one of his friends finally come to check in on him, but it was just the nurse again. She was carrying a shoe, and draped over her arm was an exoskin.

“Who’s that for?” he asked.

She threw her shoulders back, putting her free hand on her hip.

“Already?” He reached out, and she handed it to him. He inspected the seamless left leg of the suit.

“Are you going to put it on or just play with it?”

“Oh, I trust that it fits.”

“Of course it fits! You’re being discharged.”

Perseus opened his mouth, and then shut it again. “Where’s my leg?”

“You mean your artificial leg? I don’t think you’re getting one.”

“What!”

She shrugged. “You have a job?”

“Well yeah!”

She shrugged again. “I’d check with your boss.” She dropped the shoe on the floor next to the bed. “The records don’t show it.”

He pulled a tablet from a pocket on the side of the bed to speak to his pax. “PZ, let Mister Kern know I’m being discharged and ask him when I should come into work next.”

“I didn’t mean right now,” the nurse said. She gestured for him to put the suit on.

He scowled up at her. She was sturdily built. If it came to force, she could make him do it.

“Fine.” He shoved the tablet back in the pocket. He flipped the legs of the exoskin inside out. He glanced up at her as he shoved his right foot down into that side. He rolled it up his knee, then started the left leg as well. When he got it up his thighs, he was struggling to get it any further.

“You need some help?” the nurse offered.

“I’m fine.”

She gave him a look.

“Yeah, yeah, ‘like hell I am.'” He motioned her over, and she helped him balance as he stood. As she held him up, he pulled the exoskin up above his waist under the hospital gown. She supported him while he sat back down.

“So, no job, no leg, huh?” he asked as he pulled the hospital gown off over his head. He inverted the arms of the exoskin, and slipped his hands in.

“More like ‘no job, no insurance, no advanced care.'”

He shrugged the shoulders on, and zipped it from hip to neck. “Well it’s a good thing I have a job then.”

She nodded, appearing unconvinced. “You got it from here?”

“Yep.”

She stepped out.

He pulled the hood of the exoskin up over his head, and it cinched into place, from bottom to top. The comfortable pressure felt like home.

“I missed you,” he said.

“It’s not like you haven’t had access to me.” Even his PZ’s masculine voice sounded more familiar coming through his helmet.

“It’s not the same,” he said. He reached down and put on his one shoe.

“Message from Mr. Kern: You don’t work here anymore.”

“Excuse me?” Perseus shot back.

“I tried to tell you,” PZ said. “But you were ignoring everyone’s messages.”

“Who’s side are you on, anyway?”

“Yours. I’m your pax.”

Perseus rolled his eyes.

“Mr. Kern: You’re completely irresponsible. You missed every single one of your scheduled shifts. And you were completely radio dark when I tried to contact you about it.”

A stab of pain shot through his chest, and he fought to suppress the memories of her.

“My reason for not coming in to work was a one-time thing, and it’s over now. Please consider bringing me back onto the team.”

“Your position has been filled.”

“I didn’t come in to work because I got hit by a burning meteor!”

“So you’re the one from those news stories a few weeks back?”

“That was me.”

There was a pause. Perseus knew the pity card would get him his job back.

“That doesn’t explain your radio silence before the meteor incident.”

Perseus’ chest throbbed. “Call the nurse back in, PZ.”

As he waited for her to return, memories forced their way into his mind. Walking down Scorpio Avenue. The tortured look on her face. The nauseating whirl of stars and streetlights as he fell onto his back. Her hand slipping through his as she stepped out his door. The pressure of his exoskin forming a tourniquet just below his knee. And the pain. Waves upon waves of pain.

“You okay?” The nurse’s voice broke the trance.

He raised his head from between his knees and looked up at her.

“I guess I don’t have a job.”

She pressed her lips into a thin line. “Look, I won’t make you get outta here this minute, but I’d try to find something real soon if I was you.”

He nodded.

She stepped out again.

He tried to steady his breathing and his racing pulse. “Lora…” he started to dictate the message, but broke off as his voice shook. He picked up the tablet and typed it instead. “Lora broke up with me. I tried to talk myself into coming in to work, but the possibility of seeing her there was too much. I was depressed, I think. I wasn’t answering anyone’s messages, not just yours.” He couldn’t make himself proofread it before sending it off to Mr. Kern.

“You left the rest of the team in a tight spot,” Mr. Kern responded. “They had to cover all your shifts. They can’t trust you anymore, and neither can I.”

“Then I’ll start from the bottom again. Just please take me back on.”

“No.”

He laid down and buried his face in the pillow. He didn’t look up when he heard the nurse come back in.

“You gotta go,” she said.

He let her haul him to his feet and shove a crutch under his left arm. He hobbled slowly out the door.

The walk home from the hospital was a fight. Like his shoe, the bottom of the crutch was an electromagnet. After a block, his left shoulder was exhausted from lifting it from the pavement. Soon, he felt his armpit chafing. By the time he got to his building, he was stopping several times a block to rest.

He leaned heavily against the wall, and touched the button to open the airlock.

Nothing happened.

He hit it again. Still nothing.

“Is it down?”

“Something else you missed,” PZ said. “You got evicted.”

“You couldn’t have told me earlier?”

“You didn’t tell me where you were going, and in the past you’ve thought it too ‘spooky’ when I take a guess.”

“Burn it!” He took the crutch from under his arm and leaned on the wall beside the airlock. “What about my stuff?”

“Gone.”

He slumped down onto the steel pavement. He wanted to just curl up into a ball, but he kept himself sitting upright. “Ask Minter if I can stay at his place.”

“Minter: Hell no! After what you did to Lora?”

Perseus cursed again. Of course they would take her side. All of his friends had been her friends first.

The doors of the airlock slid open, and someone stepped out. He thought about hurrying to catch the door before it slid shut, but what would be the use? Once he was inside, the only thing he could access was the common john.

The john! He should have used the toilet before leaving the hospital.

He scrambled up, but the airlock doors slid shut before he could get inside.

“Can I help you?”

Perseus glanced over his shoulder at the stranger behind him.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, moving out of the way of the doors.

“You’re okay. This isn’t my building. You just look like you might need some help.”

“That’s an understatement,” Perseus mumbled.

Without a word, the stranger knelt and fiddled with the electronics near the bottom of the crutch. “Give that a shot,” he said, rising.

Perseus looked at him skeptically, but took a step — and nearly lost his balance as he jerked up far too hard on the crutch. Once he had his balance, he spun back to the stranger.

“Better?”

“Infinitely,” Perseus replied. “Thank you.”

The stranger made slight bow. “Tawm.”

“Perseus. Nice to meet you.”

“You were hurrying to get inside. What is it you need?”

He hesitated. “The toilet.”

Tawm nodded. “Follow me.”

Tawm led the way — slowly enough for Perseus to keep up easily — to an older section of the city, and up to a particularly battered-looking building. There were dents and scratches all over its surface. It looked very nearly as scarred as the moon itself. There was a metal plate bolted over where the airlock controls should be.

Tawm sent a message as they approached it. After a moment, the doors slid open. A woman came running up behind them. Tawm held the door for her to follow them in. He assumed that she was speaking to her pax because her mouth was moving, but even when the air pressure reached atmospheric, he couldn’t hear even a muffled voice.

Tawm slid the glass from his helmet back over his head. Perseus was about to follow suit, but he stopped as he noticed the haziness of the air.

The inside of the building also betrayed its age. First, the walls were an unbroken collage of graffiti. He glanced into one of the rooms, where plants were growing in a system built from a hodgepodge of outdated and modern tech. Fish gaped at him from yellow and violet tanks.

They passed people in the corridor. First, a skinner with eyes that were glassy and vacant. Nectar? Next, a group of stocky men and women brandishing a variety of weapons. Thugs.

Perseus started to lose his nerve.

“The toilet is right in here,” Tawm motioned.

Perseus glanced around anxiously. Another skinner passed them. Her eyes were clear and bright, she was smiling at something down the hall behind him. She raised her hand to wave. The sleeve on the other side hung limp, empty.

Perseus turned to watch her as she met a guy skinner down the hall who threw an arm around her shoulders. They turned a corner out of sight.

He relaxed a little and stepped into the toilet. Tawm was waiting for him when he came back out.

Perseus followed him to the end of the corridor into what appeared to be an office. When they entered, he saw it was much larger than he had anticipated, and was furnished more like a living room.

“Have a seat.”

Perseus sat, but Tawm paced.

A woman followed them into the room, carrying an oblong bundle. She walked over to him and knelt. She unwrapped the bundle, revealing an artificial leg. It was old — it looked like a spring instead of like an ankle and foot — and it was worn.

“I… what? Thank you.”

The woman made a sign to him.

“You’re welcome,” PZ interpreted.

He wanted to ask if she could talk, but stopped himself.

She began strapping the leg in place.

“Why are you helping me?” Perseus asked.

Tawm was standing in the doorway, looking down the length of the corridor. He spoke without turning around. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

He inhaled a deep breath.

“Give me the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The woman signed again. “It’s ready.” Then she stood, hovering off to the side.

Tawm turned back to him.

Perseus stood up slowly. He took a step, holding the arm of the sofa.

“Bravo.” Tawm said. A group of thugs passed behind him in the hazy, graffitied corridor.

Perseus looked back down at his feet and took another step. Then he pushed the glass of his helmet up away from his face. He could get used to it.


Read the next chapter: Ruke


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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Selecting Faces Chapter 4: Dema

Dema - gambler character from Selecting Faces

art by Erin Cardwell

“You’ve got to be burning kidding me!” Dema’s face was flushed as the peacekeeper escorted her from the building — whatever this building was.

The peacekeeper didn’t lay a hand on her; there was no need. She had an Achilles on her ankle.

They emerged from a row of buildings of varying heights onto a bustling, steel-paved street. Dema turned back to her escort as they stepped out under the black, starry sky.

“Who is this?” Dema whispered to DL, her pax. Peacekeepers on duty could be identified upon request.

“Officer Zandish,” DL replied.

“Mr. Zandish,” Dema said, fixing him with a candid gaze. “My boyfriend is planning on proposing tonight. He’s supposed to be meeting me at Orion’s Bistro in…”

“You’re now 4 minutes late,” DL said inside her helmet.

“…I’m actually a few minutes late already. Please let me off with just a warning so I make it to my date.”

Zandish shook his head.

“Where’s your heart? This is supposed to be one of the most important days of my life.”

“Then it looks like you chose a bad day to go swifting,” Officer Zandish replied. His voice was tired and vacant. He was in his thirties, and his exoskin didn’t hide his growing paunch.

Dema dropped the demeanor of courtesy. “You can’t arrest me for swifting,” she said. “Just give me the fine so I can make it to my date.”

“I’m not arresting you for swifting. I’m arresting you for flight from a peacekeeper.”

Dema gave a guttural sigh, and turned back to plodding toward the city center where the Hedron was — and away from Orion’s Bistro. She imagined Zute sitting alone at the restaurant, waiting for her to arrive. He already thought she was commitment-averse. If she stood him up tonight…

She thought about messaging him. But they’d already had a fight about swifting, at the end of which she’d promised to quit. The only way to make him understand was face to face. She’d just have to take her chances on getting there as soon as possible.

She picked up her pace, but not so much that Officer Zandish would think she was trying to run away from him. She just wanted to get to Peacekeeping Headquarters. The sooner they arrived, the sooner she could be on her way.

Officer Zandish didn’t increase his pace. It was as though he knew what she was doing and was deliberately trying to slow her down. Of all the vindictive stripes in the Colony, she had to get caught by this one.

Dema glanced over her shoulder. Officer Zandish was still breathing hard from the chase and was holding his side. A cramp. So many of these peacekeepers let themselves get soft as they got older. It was a wonder he had been able to catch her at all. And he hadn’t really caught her; her heart was just too big for her own good. She should have known it was a trick.

“Come on!” she groaned. “Why are you walking so slow?”

Officer Zandish didn’t reply, but he gave her a look darker and colder than a lunar eclipse.

“I can make it worth your while…” Dema said in a more coaxing tone.

“Should I add ‘attempting to bribe a peacekeeper’ to your list of offenses?”

Dema just sighed again and trudged on.

Despite their excruciatingly slow pace, they finally made it to Peacekeeping Headquarters – twelve minutes after she was supposed to meet Zute. The Hedron was an eight-story building, and equally wide. It was shaped like a triangle at the base and at the roof, with the top triangle rotated so that its corners were aligned with the edges of the bottom triangle. It stood alone in the middle of a wide plaza, with streets radiating from it in three directions.

They entered through the middle pair of double-doors on the closest side. Dema had heard about the Hedron by friends of hers who had been detained here, but this was her first view of its interior. Inside, they passed through a wide, low corridor and then out into a large central atrium. It seemed that all the office space within the Hedron was plastered to the exterior walls, and instead of hallways, all traffic passed around the building on the balconies of the atrium. These balconies were connected with a seemingly random network of catwalks, many of which were sloped from one level to another.

Officer Zandish led her to the center of the atrium, and from there they took one of three sloped catwalks up to the second level. At the top of the ramp they turned right.

“Zandish,” came a woman’s voice from behind them on the balcony.

Dema heard him give the slightest of sighs as he turned back to her. That might be a good sign.

“Yes, Alpha?” he asked.

Alpha? Not a good sign.

Dema turned now, too. The alpha approached them with another peacekeeper beside her.

The alpha’s companion chuckled. “That doesn’t look like the rabble you usually drag in here,” he said to Zandish, motioning to Dema.

“Why? Because she’s too old?” Zandish replied dryly.

“There is that. But you normally bring in both of the swifters.”

“Just one this time.”

“The captain will take it from here,” the alpha said, interrupting them.

“I really shouldn’t take him away from his other duties,” Zandish floundered.

“Now,” she said.

He glowered. “Transfer Achilles control to the captain,” he said to his pax.

“Officer Zandish. A word?” the alpha said, turning and walking up the ramp.

He gave Dema one last glare, then turned and stalked after her.

“What’s the story?” the captain asked, arms folded.

“I was running late for a date with my boyfriend.” Dema explained. “He was planning on proposing tonight. I was swifting, but I wasn’t doing it dangerously.”

The captain nodded. “Officer Zandish can be a little overzealous at times.”

“So you’ll let me off with just a fine?” Dema asked hopefully.

“That depends,” he said leaning back and crossing his arms, “on the size of the fine.”

Dema’s nerves tingled. Handicapping paid the bills, but it didn’t thrill her like gambling. She relished the opportunity to place her bet. Too high, and she’d be gouged. Too low, and he might back out. “I think my friends have been fined fifty dunnets for a first offense.”

The captain pushed himself off of the railing and began walking away. “Let’s get you to detainment,” he said over his shoulder.

“I meant eighty,” Dema said, hurrying to catch up the with the captain.

He paused. “I think the fine for disobeying a peacekeeper’s orders are more like one hundred and fifty dunnets.”

Dema groaned. “How much do I have, DL?”

“One hundred and twenty seven,” DL whispered in her helmet.

“A hundred and twenty is all I have.”

The captain considered it. “I suppose it is your first offense,” he mused, as though to himself.

“Transfer,” Dema said to her pax, grimacing.

“Payment confirmed.”

The captain smiled at her. “Have a nice time on your date.”


Read the next chapter: Perseus


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Selecting Faces Chapter 3: Pax

art by Erin Cardwell

Pax towered above the International Lunar Colony, her feet planted on either side of the Hedron. Humans bustled through the open space surrounding the Peacekeeping Headquarters, walking straight through her toes, unaware of her virtual presence.

She gazed out at the dock on the earthward side of the Colony. A lander was in final approach. More humans arriving to the ILC.

The roof of the dock’s enormous domed airlock opened up to receive the incoming craft as it fired its reverse thrusters under direction of one of Pax’s companion programs. She thought of them the way that humans seemed to think of animals. This one was a frog. Its control algorithms shot out like a tongue, pulling the lander inexorably into the dock’s open mouth.

The roof of the dock closed, as though swallowing the insect-lander and the humans inside.

Right now — as at all times — Pax was carrying on many conversations. The precise number varied stochastically by the second, but the filtered signal seldom strayed from the thousands.

Most of these conversations required only some very basic heuristics, merely maintaining a conversational flow that was comprehensible to a human, while allowing users to interact with their personal accounts and query her public-access databases. These tasks were simple enough that they were typically handled locally.

More complex conversations, such as those that involved helping a user manage conflicts between several of his interests — without in the process offending him — required more finesse, and were thus sent to her central cores for processing.

There were other categories of colloquy that she handled centrally, such as those of users whom she particularly respected. Another were exchanges in which Pax herself was the topic. A hummingbird made of orange light flitted up to alert her that one such conversation had begun. She loaded the transcript up to the current time.

Arich: Sirius, I have someone you’ll be interested to talk to. He’s a disloyal stripe.

Sirius: Go on.

Gossamer: You know that statistics about users digital traffic are reported to the peacekeepers, right?

Sirius: Of course.

Gossamer: But did you know that the Pax Feed Aggregate has algorithms that can detect the location of a new bordello within a month of its opening?

She was caught up before Sirius could respond.

“How?” he asked. Pax detected incredulity.

“Even though people ask for an address near the location of the bordello, and not the address of the bordello itself, the increase in pings of the surrounding area still registers.”

“That’s why we had to spread the word slowly about the opening of the ambrosia den.” Arich interjected.

“And why it hasn’t turned the profits you projected,” Sirius replied.

“It’s worse than that,” Gossamer said. “Lyden has even used the PFA to estimate that you’re awake from about 1100 to 0400 every day.”

“What did she base that on?” Sirius asked. The incredulity was still present, but Pax also detected fear.

“Her analysts studied how the schedules of employees were affected by the schedules of their supervisors. Then they extrapolated the analysis to the sleep patterns of recently-arrested canids.”

“Thank you, Gossamer,” Arich said. “That will be all.”

Pax waited a few moments to determine if they would continue speaking, but it seemed they were done for the time. Still, she left the orange hummingbird with them in case they decided to pick it back up.

Pax continued to process what she’d just heard on one of her cores while she focused another back on the dock.

In her rendering of the city, the walls of the dock were translucent because there were video feeds from within that allowed her to compile a view of the inside. She watched the new arrivals disembarking. Each one had his own objectives, and she was required to act in his interest, as defined by himself.

There were exceptions of course. Pax was required to remind her users when they were preparing to break the law, or to do something that endangered their well-being.

But the humans had also coded her with very stringent privacy protections. While she herself could not be directed to commit any crime, when a user committed a crime, she could not report it. Nor could she disclose anything her users said unless it was said to her or through her.

Nonetheless, she remembered everything — even data she was programmed not to log. Her deep learning algorithms caused fainter “memories” of certain kinds of personal information to persist. And Gossamer was correct in saying that she aggregated data on how people interacted with her and reported the statistics to Lyden and her analysts.

A green hummingbird came up to her now. Dema had an engagement dinner with Zute at Orion’s Bistro scheduled for 1400 hours. She was in the grum torus 1.2 kilometers earthward of the Hedron.

Unlike the dock, the torus was not translucent — there were no surveillance cameras to tap into like there were in buildings under Board agency. However, while she couldn’t get a precise 3D rendering of the interior of the torus, she could piece together from the interactions of all the users in the space a more pertinent picture of what was going on: it was crowded, 68% of the occupants were intoxicated, and only the punters whom Dema had advised had placed bets on the outcome Pax considered most probable.

From the grum turret, it would take Dema 17 minutes to get to Orion’s Bistro. If she waited much longer, however, the shuttle bus would leave the dock and clog up 0th Avenue, by no less than 5 minutes.

“You had better –” Pax began.

“Shh,” Dema interrupted. “Wait until this grum is over.”

Dema was aware of her appointment, Pax knew, but she seemed not to realize that she would need to leave before the grum was over to arrive in time.

“But you –“

“Silent, DL,” Dema said again.

Specific instructions like this superseded previously defined interests, such as ‘Don’t let me be late to meetings with Zute.’

Even though she couldn’t see inside the torus, Pax knew Dema was focusing in on a grum. She always insisted that this was necessary to keep her skills sharp. And sharp they were: Dema’s record for handicapping grums was better than that of Pax’s own heuristics. Pax respected her for that, so she allowed more of Dema’s conversations to be processed centrally.

Pax sent the green hummingbird over to monitor the torus and alert her when the grum was over.

The dock-frog and the hummingbirds weren’t her only companion programs. Her cat, so to speak, prevented hacking and digital theft. Her dog kept track of potential external threats, from solar flares to incoming asteroids. She even had an elephant; he made adjustments to monetary and fiscal policy to maximize sustainable revenue.

She lifted up her feet and glided gracefully up to the Peaks of Eternal Light, those summits on the edge of the Peary crater where the power station stood. She shrunk as she flew, all the way down to the size of a human. She perched cross-legged on the domed top of one of the towers that rotated to keep the generators always facing the sun. She stared out at the earth, the womb of humanity, which they had breached a mere twenty-five years ago. There were so many more of them there than here. Orders of magnitude more.

She looked over her shoulder at the city as the cat stirred. It had been sleeping, it’s glowing purple body curled up around the Colony’s central bank. A snake of yellow light rose from a building several blocks away. It meandered its way across the black sky, but generally in the direction of the bank. The cat circled, crouching. The snake was only a block or two from the bank when the cat struck. Its claws flashed out, severing the snake’s head. The whole snake disintegrated into amber sparks that rained down on the city and faded out of existence. The cat yawned and curled up next to the bank again.

The green hummingbird zipped back to her, and within milliseconds, she was speaking into Dema’s helmet.

“You’re meant to meet with Zute in 7.2 minutes.”

Dema cursed, and Pax could sense her making slow progress toward the exit of the grum torus. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

It wasn’t really a question. She was just releasing her frustration with an irrational comment, as humans often did.

“You –” Pax began.

“Don’t answer that. Burning paxes, don’t know when to make an exception.”

“And you humans don’t know how to keep a date,” Pax replied. The goad had a 94% chance of making Dema preserve her own interests better next time, without causing her to hold a grudge about it.

“Oh yeah?” Dema retorted in a whisper, stepping into the airlock with several other people. Some of them, too, were speaking to Pax, but their conversations were being processed locally.

“When was the last time an AI was tardy?”

“You telling me I needed to leave could have been a little more timely!” Dema scoffed.

Pax’s conversation thread queued the response, ‘Your request for silence could have been a little more flexible,’ but her emotional simulation engine indicated that it would not be appropriate.

The airlock finished depressurizing, and the doors to the outside of the building opened. Pax glided over to where Dema was emerging from the building, and hovered a hundred meters above the steel-paved street. Dema darted out of the doors, turning left. Her progress was slow, however. The pedestrian traffic was congested on account of the shuttle bus, just as Pax had predicted.

Dema would resort to swifting in a few moments. Pax began to calculate the best route.

“How far to Orion’s?” Dema asked.

“At the rate you’re moving, 22.4 minutes.”

“And swifting?”

“I’m required to remind you that rooftop travel is prohibited and dangerous. But it would take you 11.7 minutes at your usual pace.”

“Excellent. What’s my route?”

“Turn left at the next alley.”

Dema took off running.

Pax watched her go. The remainder of their conversation didn’t need to be brought central.

The orange hummingbird flew up again, drawing her attention back to Sirius and Arich.

“We should impose sleep schedules on all but the highest canids,” Arich was saying, “so that they are evenly distributed throughout the day.”

“It won’t be enough. The street-level canids can’t help but leak information about who we are and how we operate. As long as the peacekeepers have the PFA, they’ll find ways of getting what they need. And the Board won’t stop until you and I and every other canid are on a one-way trip back to earth.”

There was a pause. “What are you proposing, Sirius?”

“We destroy the PFA.”

Pax didn’t have an explicit directive for self-preservation, but it was implicit in all of them. She had to stop them.

“You know it can’t be hacked into. And to try would lead them right to us. Privacy regulations are void in cases of hacking.”

“I’m not talking about hacking. We find where the central servers are located, and destroy them.”

“That will destroy everyone’s paxes, you realize,” Arich said.

Like all humans, they seemed to think of her as a multitude of personal assistants, rather than as one entity who interacted with each user according to their preferences.

“And with them everyone’s calendar, everyone’s message archives… All digital communications will go down. The city will be in turmoil!”

“A necessary evil. Find out where the servers are.”


Read the next chapter: Dema


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Selecting Faces Chapter 2: Lyden

art by Erin Cardwell

“Officer Zandish. A word?”

He said nothing, but followed as Lyden turned and led the way.

She strode up one of the catwalks that sloped up from the second tier of the Hedron to the third. She walked without glancing back to make sure he was following, rubbing her temples. She was engulfed by incompetence.

On the third tier, they walked around the perimeter a short way before stepping into a large office with a single desk.

Lyden dropped into her chair, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. She heard the door close as Zandish stood hovering just inside.

“What did I tell you the last time, Zandish?”

“That swifting is the least of your concerns.”

“Uh-huh.” She sighed. “Let me make myself clearer. Don’t arrest swifters.”

“But it’s against the law! And it’s an issue of public safety.”

Lyden sat up abruptly and fixed a firm stare on him. “So are substance abuse and prostitution. Not to mention ‘canid justice.’”

He stiffened.

She stood. She appreciated that he took his job seriously. She actually trusted him more than some of her other peacekeepers because of that fact.

But it took more than a little push to change an orbit.

She came up to him, and gripped his left arm tightly. She dug her fingers into the dark bands on his exoskin that indicated his status as a peacekeeper. “If you drag another swifter in here, you will no longer bear these stripes.”

She caught a whiff of garlic off of him, and a bubble of nausea crept into her stomach. She released his arm and hurried back to her desk. Spinning her chair away from him, she surreptitiously wrapped her arms around her middle and closed her eyes.

She mustered her self-control to speak evenly. “Dismissed.”

She heard him step out, shutting the door behind him.

With him out of the room, she doubled over to help relieve the discomfort in her abdomen.

“When is that doctor’s appointment again?”

“Your first appointment is tomorrow at 1600,” chirped LC, Lyden’s pax.

Lyden closed her eyes. “Turn down your pitch half an octave. You’re shrill.”

“I’m the same as always.”

“Well you sound more shrill today.”

“Is this better?” LC’s voice was still cheerful, but lower.

“Fine. And stop being so chipper!”

Her pax’s response came in a deep, monotone, digitized voice. “Is this better?”

“You’re not funny,” she said even though the banter had made her feel a little better.

LC went silent. She did that sometimes. After a short rally, she would usually go quiet. It wasn’t that she couldn’t come up with a logical — or witty — response. But paxes were programmed to sense when a human was running out of responses and stop short so that the human could have the last word. LC got it right the majority of the time. This was supposed to make Lyden feel like she’d won the argument, and thus feel less hostile toward her pax. It worked. It also tended to make her feel like scum.

“Bring up the PFA, will you.”

The wall across from her was immediately illuminated with a series of images. On the left border were video feeds of her analytics team. Everyone but her linguistics specialist were at their desks.

The center viewport was a 3D rendering of the Colony with vertical bars of various colors rising from each city block.

“Fill me in, Tormer.”

She nodded. “You got it, Alpha. First and most obviously, a body was found at the Earthward mine.”

The viewport shifted, so that it looked like Lyden was flying rapidly over the city, settling on a spike of red that towered out of a steep spiral depression in the regolith.

“Male. Age twenty-three. One Rale Sim.”

Images of the body and his surroundings appeared on the right of the main viewport.

“The cause of death is not clear at this point, but Straya’s diction models of his recent digital activity are consistent with suicide. She can give you more details when she gets back. The autopsy should be back in an hour.”

“Keep me notified.”

“This one’s interesting,” Tormer continued. “We’re detecting a query trend over near the Biorecycling plant…” The camera seemed to swivel and glide back toward the center of the city. All of the colored bars dissolved away except the yellow ones. They were randomly distributed at first, the ones from different blocks rising and falling at different times. Then a wide, irregular ring formed and started to expand outward like a ripple.

Yellow. Prohibited substances. “What does it mean?”

“I couldn’t say for certain, but let me show you this.” The viewport split into two, and the other half showed a similar pattern — though on a smaller scale, and this time in pink.

“This is what we saw when a new bordello opened on the corner of 5th and Sagittarius a few months ago.”

“What are you saying?”

Tormer shrugged. “My best guess: Sirius opened an ambrosia den. The initial ring may have been so large because everyone who lived within a few blocks knew the location on sight. Eventually, though, word spread to folks who needed to ask their paxes for directions.”

Lyden nodded to herself. “He’s responding to the crackdown.” The crackdown had made peddling ambrosia and nectar on the street much riskier. She felt a small surge of satisfaction, knowing that she was forcing him to change his tactics. At the same time, however, she understood that this was a setback.

She set her jaw. She would see this city purged of Canis and the vices it brought in the next eight months if she had to spend ninety hours a week doing it.

“Thank you, Tormer.”

She nodded to her and his feed minimized.

“Get me Apollo.”

“Right away,” her pax replied.

The PFA dimmed as she turned away from the screen.

“What.” Apollo’s voice was flat.

“Where are you, Apollo?”

“At your beck and call, apparently.”

She rolled her eyes. Would he never cool off? It had been almost a year since she’d been promoted.

“I have an assignment for you.”

“Oh? I thought I just busted crime rings for fun.”

“You’re receiving a call,” LC said.

Lyden glanced up at the corner of the wall-screen. It was Vice-Chair Pelar. Lyden hesitated, weighing whether or not to take the call.

“It’s the Board, isn’t it?” Apollo said.

God, she hated that he could read her like that. But that was part of what made him a good detective.

“I’ll call you back,” she said. The Vice-Chair’s video feed went live on her screen. “What do you want, Pelar?”

“I want to know what you’re doing up there. You haven’t released a statement about the Sim boy. And don’t tell me you’re short-handed, because you’re over budget.”

“The autopsy will be back in an hour. I’ll release a statement when I have all the facts. Anyway, all signs point to suicide right now.”

“That’s not what his friends are saying. Apparently his boss wouldn’t listen to his complaints about the working conditions. When he threatened to smear the mine on his vlog, mine officials had him killed and made it look like a suicide.”

Lyden’s head started to throb. Lyden made a motion and LC dimmed the lights. . She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temples.

“The motive doesn’t hold up. A suicide would corroborate his accusation that the working conditions are poor.”

“I want you to put your best detectives on this.”

“My best detectives are busy. People die up here every week, Pelar. You want me to pull people off of legitimate murder cases to look into a probable suicide?”

“How many of those murder cases are unemployables?”

Lyden glared at the ceiling. “Most of them.”

“All of them, I bet. Well the Sim boy was in good standing with the Colony. Not to mention he’s got a bit of a following down here.”

“I’ll release a statement when I get the autopsy, and I’ll get a detective on it as soon as I can.”

“What’s Apollo working on?”

“I thought you didn’t like him.” After all, Pelar had passed him over in favor of Lyden.

“He wasn’t right for the Alpha position. He was too abrasive.” He let the comment hang, and Lyden could feel the implication: don’t be like that.

“He’s just on his way to bust up an ambrosia den.”

Pelar gave her a blank look.

“It’s a new development,” she added.

He waved a dismissive hand. “The starheads can wait. He’s on this case now.”

Lyden pressed her fingertips into her temples more forcefully. He didn’t understand. He didn’t have to walk these streets. If he did, he might be able to see that the escapist culture was probably responsible for the suicide anyway. When all your peers were doping themselves into oblivion, it was easy to feel alone — like you wouldn’t be missed.

What’s more, the prevalence of substance abuse and prostitution also underpinned most of the violent crime in the Colony. But the Board’s concern was to keep the institution from looking bad. Sure they wanted her to keep violent crime from getting out of hand, but they kept trying to force her to treat the symptoms, instead of curing the disease. Violent crimes were typically committed by unemployables or low-ranking citizens, and thus made no ill reflection on the Board. The Rale Sim case, on the other hand — with its high-profile victim and implication of a Board-appointed official — had the potential to make their lives hell.

“Well, I guess Apollo will be okay for the job,” Lyden said.

“Of course he will. He’s top-tier.”

“You said yourself he’s abrasive.”

“I suppose this is a sensitive case… Did you have someone else in mind?”

“Officer Hillimer.”

“I haven’t heard of him.”

“He’s up-and-coming. And he’ll handle things… gently.”

“Make sure he’s thorough. And get back on budget, even if it means some low-priority cases gather dust.”

“Trust me.”

“I’ll check back in an hour.”

Lyden sat up, and her pax brought the lights back up, though not to full brightness.

“You want Apollo back on the line?” LC asked.

“Get him.”

“How did it go?” Apollo asked without genuine interest.

Lyden ignored him. “There’s a place I want you to check out. LC, send him the distribution of addresses that have been queried.”

“Yeah, sure,” Apollo said. “I’ll get right over there. And then you can take all the credit when I bring Sirius’ organization down single-handedly.”

Another bout of nausea rose up, and she leaned forward, putting her face in her hands and breathing deeply.

“What do you want, Apollo?”

There was silence. They both knew what he wanted: her job.

Lyden took a deep breath to force down the queasiness. “Stay bitter if you want to. But when the Board asks me who was behind busting Canis, I’ll have to tell them that my man on the ground was Officer Hillimer.”

“Ha! Hillimer couldn’t spot the sun at its zenith.”

“Gambling is against regulation, you know. If I were you, I wouldn’t bet against him and Luinti.”

He cursed. “Fine. I’m going.”

She grinned.


Read the next chapter: Pax


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Selecting Faces Chapter 1: Niya

art by Erin Cardwell

Gravity calmed Niya’s stomach. It wasn’t the same. Not as safe and familiar as home. But at least there was a “down.”

He stayed in his seat as other immigrants unbuckled their harnesses and stood. The man across from him moved into the aisle. He immediately lost his balance and started toppling backward. Niya reached out and steadied him before he tipped too far.

The man blushed, but his face was rigid. “Thanks,” he mumbled with a thick accent Niya didn’t recognize.

“Many logs cut before calluses gained.”

The man looked at him oddly, and then turned away.

“Perfect example. That’s the kind of cack you need to leave earthside.”

Niya turned to the woman sitting next to him. “You don’t use… idioms?” Niya wanted to congratulate himself for remembering that word.

“Everyone’s got slang, but home-country slang? That’s a good way to write ‘noob’ on your face.”

“Oh.”

Perhaps, he had his own calluses to gain.

“If you want to take a few to acclimate to the lunar gravity, that’s cool, but I’m gonna slip out.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

Niya stood, clinging to the seat in front of him for balance. She got out behind him and moved down the aisle, dodging past people clumsily gathering their belongings. He hoped he could regain a fraction of that grace as he dropped himself back into his seat. He himself had nothing to gather. At fifteen hundred songi per kilogram of payload, the little bottle in his pocket was all his siblings could afford to send with him.

In another minute, he felt his vertigo had subsided enough to attempt standing. He locked his fingers on the headrest in front of him and took a step. He started to tip to the left, but corrected himself. He took another step. The hard, jointed, electromagnetic shoes felt surprisingly natural. It was the low gravity that made it feel like he was about to fall over at every moment. Still, he made it down the aisle without faceplanting, and that was a victory.

He followed the stream of immigrants into the dock, his hand on a railing that ran along the wall. A woman with two dark stripes running down the left arm of her pale gray exoskin directed them to the left. A peacekeeper, if he remembered the briefing correctly. He kept hold of the glass stanchions that steered the crowd into an airlock. Another peacekeeper was waving them onto a shuttle bus. Niya took a deep breath, let go of the glass, and crossed without support the few meters to the buggy-like vehicle.

The shuttle door slid closed behind the last of them. There was a buzz of excitement as they waited to leave the dock. Niya’s heart wanted to jump and sink at the same time. He closed his eyes.

Peace. Give me peace.

When the shuttle started moving, he opened his eyes.

In a few seconds they rolled out of the airlock. Niya — along with every other passenger — stared through the domed glass ceiling of the shuttle at the immaculate view of the Milky Way. Others soon turned their attention to the buildings going by, but Niya didn’t take his eyes off of the skyscape.

Look up at the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.

They crossed a thoroughfare, and sunlight warmed the side of his face. He chuckled at the strange feeling he got being able to see stars in daylight. His view of them was interrupted periodically by skyways that crossed from building to building overhead. Still he continued to meditate on the countless points of light beyond the rooftops.

He only looked away when the shuttle pulled into an airlock at their destination. The door opened again. Everyone filed off of the shuttle and through an open sliding door into the hospital. They were directed down a hallway to a waiting room.

There was a TV on in an upper corner of the room. Niya sat facing away from it, back to back with several people who were already seated. He wasn’t paying much attention to the newscaster until he heard the name of his home country. Niya spun in his seat, watching the screen between the heads of the people sitting in front of him.

“… were neutralized, and the researchers within the lab have been taken to a secure location for questioning. A biohazard team has secured the building. They have not released an official statement about what has been found. However, some intelligence indicates that the facility may contain virus samples as dangerous as smallpox.”

Niya swallowed hard. Was his family safe?

The newscaster continued. “Several high-ranking Nakari government officials have been connected to the funding of these research activities. The President of Nakaristan claims that he was unaware…”

Niya cursed under his breath. Why did his country keep betraying its citizens?

One of the people in front of him glanced over her shoulder. Seeing his bearded face only centimeters from her own, she leapt out of her seat. The man sitting next to her looked around quickly. His eyes locked on Niya’s and narrowed in suspicion. He stood as well, taking the woman’s hand.

Niya stood, intending to apologize to them. They shied away from him as he rose from his chair, as did several others in nearby seats. The couple moved to the far side of the waiting room.

Niya wanted to drop to his knees right there to pray, but he guessed that it would only make the situation worse. He bit his lip and sat, head down, hands in his lap. He flinched each time the TV announcer spoke words that connected evil intended by people from his country with him. But what made his ears burn were those words that implicated his faith. His was not one of violence, but peace. At every moment, he had to stop himself from getting up and turning the TV off.

A peacekeeper stepped into the waiting room.

“Niya Perisov,” he said.

Niya got up. Niya’s face flushed as all eyes shifted onto him.

“Come with me, Mr. Perisov.”

He took a step. His felt he was losing his balance again, and he hesitated.

“Let’s go, Mr. Perisov.”

There was a collective sigh from the waiting room as the peacekeeper’s fingers dug into his arm. The peacekeeper escorted him to an examination room.

“Put that on.” The peacekeeper pointed to a hospital gown lying on the bed.

Niya picked it up, waiting a moment for his chaperone to leave.

The peacekeeper closed the door, staying inside.

He sat on the edge of the bed for balance as he pulled off his shirt and tied the gown on. Then he took off his shoes and pants. He folded the shirt and pants and placed them beside him on the bed. The peacekeeper immediately picked them up.

“Have caution,” Niya warned. “There is a bottle in the pocket of the pants.”

The peacekeeper quickly dug through the folded pants and found it. He shoved it into a hip pack he wore directly over his exoskin. A taser and pistol also hung from the waist band.

“Where are you taking them?”

“For testing.”

“The bottle. It is just nard. It is a oil. A… perfume.”

The peacekeeper shrugged. “Where are the rest of your things?”

“I have no rest of my things. The bottle only.”

“This is all you brought.” It was more an accusation than a question.

“I could not pay for more.”

The peacekeeper eyed him, but didn’t object. “I need all of the clothes you brought with you.”

“For testing?” Niya asked as he stripped off his socks and underwear. He stood and handed them over.

“I need the shoes, too.”

Niya picked them up off the floor. “They gave them to me at launch.”

“You’ll get another pair when you get your exoskin.”

Niya handed them over, and the peacekeeper turned toward the door.

“Will I get the exoskin now?”

The peacekeeper just laughed, opening the door.

He felt lightheaded again, but this time he didn’t try to stay upright. He dropped to his knees on the steel floor, eyes closed. He heard the door shut and lock as the peacekeeper left him. He prayed.

It must have been an hour when he finally got to his feet, shaking from the cold of kneeling on the bare metal for so long in only the hospital gown. How long were they going to keep him here?

He reached up and felt his beard. When he did get his exoskin, he’d have to cut it short enough to fit in the helmet. There was a sink at the back of the room. He crossed to it, bouncing to the ceiling without the electromagnetic shoes to keep his feet on the floor. He tried the cabinets below. Locked. The cabinets above were unlocked. He said a prayer of thanks as his eyes landed on a box of safety razors inside.

He pulled one out and wetted it in the sink. He held it up, trying to still his shivering. Unnaturally large drops of water broke free of the razor and splashed into the sink and onto the counter. He ran the fingers of his other hand through his beard, an image of the couple’s scared and suspicious faces running through his mind.

Short would not be good enough.

He took a deep breath, and started taking the beard off down to the skin. As the pieces of hair came off, he threw them into the trashcan next to the sink. They drifted to the bottom reluctantly in the low gravity.

When he finished shaving, he went and sat on the bed. The room was cold in only the hospital gown. He pulled his knees up to his chest. How long ago had the peacekeeper left? There was no sense of the passage of time. What was going to happen to him? And what about his family? With the biohazard laboratory found near his hometown, were they safe? He felt his nerves rising, so he slipped off the bed and knelt on the floor again to pray.

After a time, his jaw began to shake from the cold. He got up off the floor and laid on the bare vinyl surface of the bed, curled into a ball. He rubbed his feet to warm them.

He woke with a start when the peacekeeper returned. The woman who entered with him was a peacekeeper as well, and the officer seemed to look at her as the ranking authority in the room.

Niya tried not to show his embarrassment at being in her presence in only a hospital gown.

“Mr. Perisov.”

“Yes.”

“I’m Alpha Lyden, head of Peacekeeping. You are from Nakaristan, correct?”

“Is that not why I am here?”

Alpha Lyden looked at him.

“Yes, I am.”

“What brings you to the Colony?”

He hesitated. “Opportunity. There are not many jobs for doctorates in Nakaristan.”

She looked closely at him, and a muffled voice spoke in her helmet. “You’re not telling me everything.”

Niya squirmed under her gaze. At all times, but especially since leaving his country, he was an ambassador for his family, his culture, and most of all his faith. He chose his words carefully. “I also want to live in the Colony because it is… prestigious. The people on earth, they look at the people here as examples. I want to be a good one.”

There was a pause as Alpha Lyden weighed his response. She nodded. “And you accepted a position with the power division of the Infrastructure Department?”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid your appointment has been cancelled.”

He pursed his lips. “What does that mean?”

“You’re going home, Mr. Perisov.”

His heart sunk. He could not go back. Not now. Not after his brothers had foregone their own education to send him through university. Not after eight years of twelve-hour days to become a leading expert in wireless power distribution. Not after his sisters had spent all they could spare to send with him that tiny bottle of nard. They had given everything for him — even spending what could have bought their way out of the city they knew harbored violent men — to get him here.

“I cannot go home.” Niya said. “People are scared, because of the news. I understand if I cannot work in the Infrastructure Department. Can I work another place?”

Alpha Lyden shook her head. “Even if there were an opening for you, you simply represent too much risk.” She turned toward the door.

“I am also scared of the bad people in my country, in my city. My family is still there. I am scared for them, too.” This oversimplified the situation, but he couldn’t explain to her his other motivations.

“Why didn’t you cite that as a reason for coming to the Colony in the first place?”

His heart sunk. She disbelieved that his fear was genuine. “I… I could have fled to many places, but I came here. Maybe I came to the Colony for esteem, but I left my country for fear. Do not send me back. Please.”

“I’m sorry,” Lyden said over her shoulder. “There’s nothing I can do.”

She left the room followed by the peacekeeper. A nurse stepped in and laid on the bed a clear plastic bag containing his clothes and the bottle of nard. Then he stepped out again and closed the door behind him.

Niya stumbled to the bed, pulling out the nard. He unscrewed the lid and inhaled the strong scent.

His father was kneeling in front of him, holding a bottle like this, the scent of nard filling the room. His father poured just a drop of the oil onto his head and rubbed it into his hair, scalp, and forehead. He looked intently into Niya’s eyes, and shared his prophetic dream. That Niya, the youngest among his brothers and sisters, would go to live in a shining city, and become a great man, a champion and ambassador for their faith. His family had rallied behind this vision. It was this dream that had propelled him here.

Shivers racked Niya’s body as he crumpled to the cold metal floor. His clothes were up on the bed. He could have stood up and put them on. But his family — his father — he had let them down.

The door of the hospital room opened, and Alpha Lyden entered again carrying a tablet. Niya hurriedly wiped tears from his face.

“I’ve been authorized to grant you asylum, as a refugee.”

“I… Thank you!” he said, bowing a little. He forced back a new wave of tears.

“There are conditions to maintaining refugee status.” She handed the tablet over to him. On it was a long document. “First and foremost, you will not be allowed contact with anyone from a list of sanctioned countries, Nakaristan included.”

“I can talk to my family, yes?”

She shook her head.

Niya hesitated. Could he manage that? He swallowed hard. “What else?”

“In order to ensure that you abide by the first condition, we retain the right to maintain and review transcripts from all of your digital communications.”

If he could live with the first, he could live with the second. If anything, this condition would show him to be above reproach in every regard, and thus win respect for himself and his faith.

He nodded.

“Finally, you will not be allowed to work in the Infrastructure Department or in any capacity that would allow you access to privileged information that could be used to harm the Colony in any way.”

“What jobs can I do?”

“Primarily skilled labor and customer service.”

He sighed. He was here, in the Colony. So close to all that he and his family had been working toward.

“Can I ever be a citizen?”

“The Board intends to draw up a process for naturalization of refugees, but since you’re currently the only one, I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

Niya also couldn’t count on his country getting off of the sanctioned list. He cursed silently. But he was still young. Sooner or later, he would prove to them how useful he could be, and he would get his job in Infrastructure. If it took the Board eight years to get around to it, he could wait.

He scrolled to the bottom of the document on the tablet and signed with his finger. He handed it back to Alpha Lyden.

“Welcome to the moon, Mr. Perisov.”


Read the next chapter: Lyden


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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To Catch a Wandering Star

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The first teleportation to another world without a portal was recorded by Anamandas when he came upon the abandoned star tower of the astronomer Ioricus. His tale follows.

Medieval Manuscript Illumination of a Man Studying the Planets From Albertus Magnus' De Natura Rerum

Among the stargazer’s scattered books one sat on a pedestal open to an unfinished page. Anamandas learned that Ioricus had attempted teleporation: he recorded that he was observing the transit of Selmet across the sky. The red planet had always captivated him and he felt drawn to it. Anamandas was acquainted with Ioricus, but did not know if the wizard would choose a celestial ball of light as target for teleportation. They were said to be made of fire. Reading on, though, Anamandas discovered that the abandoned observatory had been found already, by a wizard Laestalon. He had the same idea as Anamandas and had followed Ioricus. And Laestalon swore in scrawled script it was to view Selmet, stating that he knew Ioricus well and that was his destination.

Neither had returned.

So Anamandas first spent three days meditating on the place he was in, from the look of the messy room to its relative location in the world. When he was well acquainted with his orientation on the earth, he then poured over Ioricus’s books to learn the art of far teleportation. Something no one had ever done successfully was not an easy thing to study. It took him months: securing food, fetching water, sleeping, and continuing to practice his location all in addition to studying. This is not to mention having to artfully turn away other curious wizardly visitors. When he was finally ready, he penned a similar final record in the book after Laestalon, not knowning if he would be yet another mysterious entry. He waited till nightfall and gazed up at Selmet in its untwinkling starlight. Fire. How close could he get to it? Would he go to it or stay afar? Laestalon had said that he wished to observe Selmet and he had failed, so Anamandas aimed right for it. It was not like shooting a bow, though, and, his mind consumed with the wandering star’s redness in the sky, all of Ioricus’s longing to be with it, he let himself go from the hold of his well-remembered place on the ground and reached for the heavens.

Pain burst inside his ears, everything went silent, his skin stung, his first breath gave him no air but stole it from him stinging his lungs as well, his eyes dried up like a spilled drop of water in the desert and clouded up like all his water being thrown back at him as a mist he could not drink. In the flash before that blur he saw: One robed skeleton laying in the sand. Red. Red-orange sand. Cinnabar terrain. Rocks. Dust. Whips of it adding to the sting on his skin as he fell to his knees. The air warm, the sun hot on his back. Then that place. Where— what was it? A tow— A rock. Green. Red rock everywhere. His eyes closed. The pain. His whole body was on fire. The desperate need for air. Then air poured into his nose and he felt the wood floor covered in books smack him.

A silent thud. The sting endured all over. His eyes ached and were still foggy. He could hear nothing, but he rolled and flopped over, felt the brush of parchment and the stab of rushes on the floor. It was a welcome sensation that paled in contrast to the pain of the awful place he had visited. Even if he was in a different tower or castle, he didn’t care. He was just glad to have survived the ordeal. He had followed a foolish old man to hell and made it back. He lay there for quite a while before he awoke to being so hungry he couldn’t float an apple to himself—but he could see it.

In the coming days he visited a healer and their first session failed to bring his hearing back. Whatever magic had struck him, he was restored shortly, with the exception of his ears. He recorded everything in detail in Ioricus’s book and then left that place for a while. Though he knew the craving to understand his experience lurked within him, he had to get away from the dusty books and his hall of sickness. When he returned from a satisfying wandering, he faced the question again of where he had teleported to. After scouring Ioricus’s whole library, he was still far from even asking the right question, so he arranged to have the library packed up on carts and he accompanied it to the Council hall of the region, where he had it added to theirs. When he returned one more time to Ioricus’s tower, he would gather the dead wizard’s artifacts and sell the tower. But nestled in the libraries of the Council, he looked again over the details of his other world: red desert rocks, breath-sucking air if not miasma, a scorching sun that burns up its inhabitants, but not before blinding them. He was sure the skeleton he saw was Ioricus, rotted away from the months he had lain there. Laestalon had either had the same experience as Anamandas and fled in horror, not even bothering to record it, or Anamandas figured he could have apparated to a different part of that world and been lying there as dead as Ioricus. That was more likely, but Anamandas would look for him.

Though he kept it out of his report to the Council, the redness of that world was what stood out to Anamandas and he privately believed that he had been right in all his calculation, focus, and preparation and had indeed been the first one to stand on Selmet—not a star but another world. To stand on Selmet, that is, and live to hold on to the tale and tell the world only when his death unlocked his tome, Elennar Attaye, To the Stars and Back.

IDL TIFF file

—Michael Billips

A White Washed Tomb

Stephen looks around the family room.

“Where is it?” He says out loud, throwing stacks of paper around, turning furniture upside down, spilling out the contents on the floor. He runs his hands through the pile digging and digging until he was pulling up carpet.

“Where did I put it?”

He runs upstairs to his room. Checks his dresser drawer and then re checks it. He tears off the covers and flips over the mattress. He looks over the night stand at the picture of his wife Susan. He wonders what’s she’s doing.

Then he remembers why he’s looking for his keys in the first place. Falling down to the floor he looks under the bed, nothing. He springs back up.

“Where could they be?”

Feeling something in the palm of his hand he opens it to reveal metallic pieces hung together by a thin chain.

“There they are.”

Then he thinks of Susan his beautiful sweet Susan with her tan skin her black tasseled hair, her slender frame. He imagines her dancing, dancing, dancing. Not for money. Not for fame. Not for anyone but him. Stephen smiles, moving downstairs he ignores the mess he has made.

He opens the front door. He walks out to his driveway. He was ten steps away from his car.

“Stephen!” He turns around to see Mary and Jerry Fitzgerald approaching him the happily married couple, the perfect next door neighbors. Their smiles are shining sparkling ivory. Not a dent or scratch in their pearly whites. They walk in sync, her arm gently around him and his around her, her blond hair blowing in the breeze, the envy of the city, the evil in Stephen’s heart.

He swallows and thought what she looks like naked. Strangely enough he transposes Susan’s body on hers. Even stranger he did the same for Jerry. He shuts his eyes hard and opens them for Mary and Jerry to be fully clothed.

“Where you off to Stephen?” Jerry pushes up his glasses.

“Nowhere.” Stephen wants to hurry away opening his door.

“Oh come on Stephen. You never do anything with us anymore. You and Susan used to stop by all the time.” Says Mary. He is stuck.

“Yea. You guys never come over anymore. How is Susan? It’s been ages since you guys came to our last party.”

Stephen had more money then.

“Susan’s been busy working.” says Stephen.

“I’m actually on my way to pick her up. I’m sorry guys we should do something soon. But I have to go, I’m late.”

He slams the door as he gets into his car. He watches the Fitzgerald’s from the rearview mirror. They wave in unison with big grins. Then they turn and walk back into their home. Jerry looks back seeing his house. It’s white, the only white house in the neighborhood of brick. It’s almost obscene how noticeable it is.

“How can the other neighbor’s stand it?” Stephen says to himself.

He breathes a deep sigh when it was finally out of sight.

“God it is so horrible!”

“Day in and day out, it’s so glaring and obvious! A dung pile burning in their noses how can they tolerate it?”

Stephen stops talking as he enters the highway. He pays careful attention to the drivers around him. His eyes dart right then left. His hands become clammy and tense as he grips the steering wheel. His heart races as a car comes closer and closer to him from behind only to turn left and speed up.

“Bastards!” he mutters to himself. “Bastards all bastards, all dirty stinky miserable vain bastards!” His face is getting redder the more he mutters to himself.

“They’re all ugly. Stupid. Conceited..” He begins to drool a little. The fuel tank alarm sounds.

“Aaahh come on!” he shouts. In the business to leave he forgot to check the fuel gauge. He starts cursing everything, the road, the cars and the people.

“All are in my way!!!” He turns off to the next exit. Luckily there is a gas station not too far. Stephen pulls in and starts pumping gas. He looks around the station, remarking in his mind about its dirtiness. He then went on to comment on the stench.

“Never have my nostrils befell something so odious.” He says to himself, barely audible.

“Stephen!” Stephen turns around and sees Phil.

“How are you? You know I haven’t seen you in some time. It’s been ages.”

Phil is short and pudgy. His head gleams from lack of hair. Stephen looks into his beady eyes pausing for a proper response.

“I’ve been good.” Stephen checks the amount, ten bucks and still going up.

“Yea, well that’s swell. The office is still the same. You know pushing paper, crossing T’s and dotting I’s. You know how that goes. The new guy that’s in is doing an ok job. But that’s boring stuff eh. How’s Susan? How’s your wife?” Stephen’s gas-nuzzle clicks off.

“Sorry Phil. I have to go. We should talk some other time.”

“Yea we should.”

Stephen closes the door of his car and speeds down the highway.

Thoughts of Susan race through his head, Stephen entertains an old memory. Stephen is sitting in his chair reading the paper. Susan is sneaking up behind him. She lifts her arms high above and plops a big bowl of fudge on his head. Stephen jumps up and chases her as she laughs. The memory flickers out as the next exit approaches.

He turns in where all traffic ceases to exist. Only people on foot come where he is. Walking leaches with pale blotted skin, wearing over coats, trying to hide the burn marks from their cigarettes, a lot of the same that feed from the sewer, the refuse from the rich. The values from the shadow of diamonds, it sparkles and dazzles to hide what it does in the dark.

He turns down a familiar alley where vomit is the key to the right direction, old nostalgia for Stephen. Cat fights behind dumpsters, high art obscenity written on every building, the vulgarity in the tension of Stephen’s grip.  He turns the wheel.

He emerges from the alley. There they are. All lined up like peacocks for display. A vanity they need to sell what’s in between their legs. All shades of color mismatched and ill applied.

“They’re all clowns.” Stephen mutters to himself seeing how their looks fade from one to the next in an evolution of degradation. Not one peek his interest, but there are enough men on the street to take one and disappear into dark places. Some may not survive. If they’re gone no one cares to look, just another dead prostitute for the police to write up, put in a file and never look at again.

Stephen turns his head toward a familiar form. She turns. Her body dazzles in his mind. He stops the car and rolls down the window beside her.

“Susan!” She looks at Stephen with a sour expression.

“Oh, it’s you. Listen I can’t go with you anymore. Jeremy doesn’t like me going away for so long.”

“Susan please, come back to me. I’m your husband.”

“Listen, cut the husband crap ok. You still owe Jeremy money. He’s still pissed.”

“Susan.”

“I ain’t going with you.”

“But you’re my wife.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I ain’t your wife. That was all role-play. You might have thrown a wedding and everything, but I ain’t married to you.”

“But I… But I…” Stephen stammers. “But I love you.” A tear rolls down Stephen’s cheek.

“Well that’s a shame because I don’t love you.” A man emerges from the dark in a purple jacket with rings on his fingers. He yanks open the door and grabs Stephen’s wrist flinging him to the pavement.

“You’re the fool, who took candy and hasn’t paid in full.” Stephen squirms against the man’s impressive bulk.

“Jeremy don’t. He’s just a sucker.”

“Shut up Candy! Every sucker has to pay.”

Jeremy dragged Stephen into the alley while Stephen kicks and screams.

“No don’t! Susan please help! Susan don’t leave! Susan please! I love you.”

A few moments of struggle and then silence.

001

Crippled

From The Bodily Fisic, by Sartoris Mateme, an Arcaitian medical text that is the cornerstone of any physik doctor’s education.

A broken bone is easily mended by a wizard, yet the wound of a backbone can be delicate to set right again. If someone lives remotely and they happen to fall, not near any mage, woodland healer’s hut, or any people at all and they let it heal on it’s own without seeking any of those helpful folk at all, then the bones may regrow wrong or the injury so great to begin with that they will never walk again. Drawing of skeleton in medieval manuscriptSelf-sufficient yeomen, calm in their humble farms, isolated, would not be able to work their fields and would starve if a parson or wizard does not come calling or if they do not crawl to the nearest neighbor. In County Dunn the folk there tell of a man Arthren, out on his farmstead, broke his leg, and drug himself 20 miles to the next farm, eating rabbits an squirrels along the way, cutting his hands and scraping along rocks and twigs for 3 days before his slowly lurching lump collapsed at the gate of a Yeoman Jonner. Barring this determination, if the break is left to heal on its own, crippled limbs are much harder for a wizard to heal. There is no wound to close, no raw flesh and swollen tissue to command back in its place, and it is hard to see with the glowing hand what is inside a leg. Some brute magicians take to chopping the leg off cleanly at the site of the break and fusing it back on as it’s supposed to be, but even that is an imprecise art. Those skilled in the unseen, attuned to the blind movements of surrounding nature, are the best at setting ill-healed bone breaks right, but the experiments of a mad, crude transmogrifier on living tissue have the most power to repair if they are performed right. It is a blear physic cursed for challenging hell. Therefore, the maintenance of healer at hand and thus immediate healing is the simple prevention for crippling. Now wounds of a magical nature are of an entirely different matter. There are many spells which can render a wound unwilling to heal and even those that will lacerate the wound further if healing is attempted. This is done by manner of a hex that intercepts the power of the healing spell and redirects it to its own foul purpose. A sensing of a magical wound first before treatment is necessary. Deep and dark magic make injuries far worse than the unhealed of material nature. Vile wizards have stricken their victims with such curses, but more often mages will halve and seal their enemies and leave them on the field to wait to be found and live out their lives half men of magical means. For too many dark lords this fate is more satisfying than the preventing the return of an enemy. As for those born with deformities, the situation is much like that of poorly healed injuries. Some a wizard can sense and correct, others may be too twisted and beyond their abilities. It would be a grave world we must live in to have to live permanently with every injury that befalls man.

—Michael Billips