The satellite was old. It just barely fit in the empty part of the cargo hold. Radiometry indicated an age of 1.2 billion years, give or take 100 million or so. No telling how much it would be worth, especially if he could get it working. Darren squinted at the symbols etched into its surface. The script was recognizable, but the syntax! He slammed his fist against the deck plates. The instructions read like they were written in Betelgish and translated into Centauran-A by someone who only read Vegan! He opened an access hatch, blew nonexistent dust off of some weird-looking integrated circuits (?), scratched his head, and put the hatch back on. Beneath another hatch were rows of buttons with strange shapes printed on them. They were no script he recognized. Nothing ventured nothing gained — mentally flipping a coin, he pressed the button whose icon looked like copulating pigs.
A grinding and shrieking emanated from the interior of the satellite. Bits of corroded metal sifted down onto the deck. Hastily he pressed the button again and the sound stopped. A moment later, a previously invisible door slowly ground open, stuck halfway, then fell off with a clang. He smelled dust, and something else. A staccato tapping sounded from the interior, and a small blue-furred critter shot out of the satellite. The pseudo-pig hit the deck running and disappeared into the dark recesses of the crowded hold.
“Sacred waste products” Darren exclaimed, leaping to his feet and running after the suoid. There were a thousand places in the hold where something that small could hide. He ran back and forth among stacked crates, moved boxes, shone lights, even called to it, to no avail. Finally, he went to his tiny refectory, dialed some stew from the Chefmaster, and put a bowl full in the middle of the hold.
The blue pig trotted right out, even let him scratch its back while it ate. After, it burped, curled up beside him and went to sleep. When it started snoring, Darren walked back to the satellite. The next button in line bore an icon that seemed to have wings and horns, lots of them. Darren reached for it, hesitated.
Up the ladder so fast she skinned both knees through her dress. Into the cloud oracle’s room. The anonymous note had been right. The smoketeller lay face down in a puddle of his own vomit. Poisoned. Dead. In the brazier that smoldered beside his clenched left hand, enough incense for a whole day half-gone already. The mold-sweet smell so thick Irene felt it on the roof of her mouth.
She went up through the door slowly. Even breathing would change the pattern of the telling, but she couldn’t save it if she couldn’t see it.
She jostled the body over and knelt on the teller’s stool, crouched to put her eyes at the level where the teller’s would have been. Composed herself, and looked. Left to right. Threads of smoke against the velvet wall paper. A tangle of meaning she couldn’t read but could remember. An owl in each corner, marking divinatory quadrants.
A bare lightbulb hung above fizzed like it was about to go out. Irene leaned forward to put its glare out of her eyes, felt its heat on the top of her head. The light flickered; all the smokesigns seemed to jump and blur. She looked faster. The corner with the plaster owl passed, then the corner with the stuffed owl. Signs layered on signs unfurling intertangled in the air, all mapped in her brain.
Looking. Bronze owl. Looking.
Irene had nearly reached the wooden owl when the man came up through the trapdoor wearing assassin’s blacks and an expression of recognition. “You’re that memory artist. Don’t say you ain’t. Not one of those phrenologicals with their lumpy heads and magnets, you’re the one who’s some kind of broken, half-made witch. You were pointed out to me once, and you’re not the only one who can remember. Yes, ma’am, it’s a pity you’re here, a pity you’ve had so long to see what you shouldn’t. A pity I have to do what’s next.”
Irene didn’t answer, just reached up until her hand was hot. In the next second, in the dark, with broken glass in one hand, the brazier in the other, with the assassin’s location as bright in her mind as if she could still see it, and her swinging arms filling everywhere he could be with sharpness and burning, she wondered if the outcome of this moment were recorded in the air around them.
Consensus molds reality. Why isn’t there a manifest God? No consensus! For every Baptist sure of Christ’s divinity, someone else fervently believes the opposite. Even two people who sit together in church don’t worship the same God. They may suppose they do, but ha! Six billion unique concepts cancel each other out. But you can game the system.
I decided to create the perfect partner for myself. I didn’t worry about official records. No one really cares about those. I made a Facebook page, Twitter account, LiveJournal, personal website, even a couple of T-shirt designs at Café Press. I invented a small business complete with everything except a product. (She’s a consultant; I left it vague.) Building a girlfriend from the bottom up, so to speak, kept me occupied. I posted elaborate descriptions of our dates. Natalie was so busy, I told my friends, that she didn’t have time to meet them in the flesh. She confirmed this in stressed-out posts on her blog.
Soon I was the biggest problem, because only I knew she wasn’t real! As time went by, more and more people added their increments of belief. Then my sister emailed.
“Invited Natalie for lunch,” Charlotte said, “it was so nice to finally meet her.” Um…what? I hadn’t even answered Charlotte’s invitation. That night my mother texted that she and Natalie were planning a joint shopping expedition. I stopped writing messages “from Natalie.” Didn’t matter. Everyone kept getting them, except me. I suspected a joke, even thought about ways to catch the perpetrators.
Then I realized I’d fallen into a trap. I couldn’t believe in a conspiracy. I had to believe all these messages were from the real Natalie. Only then could that become true. I took a few days off. I didn’t eat or sleep. I posted reminder notes from Natalie all over the apartment. I dug out unused Christmas cards, addressed them to Natalie and myself, and put them all over. I constantly repeated things like “don’t forget Natalie wants low-fat milk.” Pretty soon I was so hungry and so short on sleep that the distinction between reality and myth almost completely disappeared.
I woke up on the living room floor, dizzy with hunger. The TV mumbled. I smelled pizza.
“Dinner’s here,” Natalie called. “Hurry up, I have to be at the airport in an hour.”
“Coming!” I struggled to my feet. Better wash my face for our first date.
A four-pointed star: the city of Ramne, simplified for the sake of ceramic representation.
A willow with six thick branches that keep pale cats on one side and dark cats on another; the latter cats are in a smaller space. The artist’s choice of cats to represent the people of Ramne can likely be traced to her childhood at her mother’s cattery, where the animals were kept in willow-wood pens, and perhaps also to the enduring popularity of cats with the people of Ramne.
A cat neither dark nor pale curled at the willow’s base. Knowledge of Adne’s actions makes the meaning of this tile clear: the cat is dead, self-poisoned, and its proximity to the tree means it too will die, just as Madar did from Adne’s touch. A deceptively peaceful tile, but these are for popular consumption.
A triad of drooping willows, and in each corner of the tile is the Ramne-star. The stars’ positioning signify that the drooping willows occur with Ramne. In truth it took longer for Adne’s rebellion to have the small effect it had. The artist’s need to hide meaning in trees and cats, almost a century later, indicates this.
Though it is sad to see Adne’s sacrifice rendered as bathroom tiles, its presence during a daily cleansing ritual makes up for this somewhat.