Plugs

Dana Yamamoto was the worst martial artist in school. When she first stepped on the mat, Mirabelle Hayes jeered, “Are you dead?”

Dana didn’t challenge her to a duel. She just blushed and hunched.

“She means you’ve got your gi on backwards,” Samantha MacKinnon said.  “Left side over right. You put the right side over the left on a dead person.”

Nobody told her that at least one girl a year stepped on the mat dressed as a dead person.

She drove her sparring partners wild, the way her hands shook like the Mars lander.

The day she tore her gi pants for the sixth time, Hepplewater Sensei followed her into the dressing room. She settled across from Dana, who sat mending the gusset with Mars lander hands.

“Must be hard, being the daughter of a general,” said Sensei.

“Yes, Sensei.”

“She expects a great deal of you, I imagine.”

“Yes, Sensei.”

“And what do you want?”

Dana looked up.

“I w-want to be the best student in the school,” she blurted out. “And,” she added, shocking herself further, “I want to th-throw Mirabelle Hayes all the way across the mat.”

“Hurt her, you mean?” Sensei Hepplewater asked.

“No. Just throw her.”

Sensei nodded. Dana thought to herself, this is where Sensei decides to train me in secret, or gives me a magic black belt. Or sends me on a quest to a distant mountain, so I come back able to fight off six attackers and fly over the roofs. She waited.

“You can be the best student in the school, though what that means may change for you. And you can throw Hayes all the way across without hurting her. But you must do one thing.”

“What?” Dana’s hands shook even more than usual.

“Keep training.”

Hepplewater Sensei left the dressing room. Dana stitched and cried, and left an hour later. She lay awake all night thinking and crying, so that the next day she arrived so tired that she broke her wrist taking falls, and had to sit on the bench for three months.

“Do I have to watch class every day, Sensei?” she pleaded.

“Yes,” replied Hepplewater Sensei.

She sat and watched, every day. When she returned to the mat, she threw Samantha MacKinnon halfway across it.

“Your hands don’t shake anymore,” accused Mirabelle Hayes as she came in for the attack.

“Th-they don’t,” agreed Dana.

Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the carpet unless the light catches it or he steps on it.  The mountain, though short, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted so long.  It would not bar him from his lost father.

Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder.  Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes.  One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne:  like God after the sixth day.  The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.

Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests:  Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?

Yul had never put his mind to quests.  He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump.  Days passed like a clock’s pendulum.  Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.

Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Hours:  “Hours could tick without a death if you positioned the necklace right.”  Of course it would fail, but had they held it right?

The Ruby had never given Yul the confidence he needed to start his own life.  Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on.  It was only late in his third decade that he, questing, paused by a village, found a gangly girl drawing water, and when he asked for a drink, she gave without reservation.

Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines.  Yul stood beside the old man:  his white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on his right, wrinkled hand.

“Hello?”  The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room.  “Is that you, Spot?  I’ve a doggy biscuit.”

Yul grit his teeth.

“I shouldn’t have let you go.”  The last word came out as a sob.

Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.

The old man’s body shook so violently, his ribs rippled beneath his robes, coming and going.  “I loved you like a son.”

Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.

Once it was fun to courier packages through Orphir’s confluxes of alien architecture. This was a city of shadows and politics. But things are changing—now the knives emerge from the shadows, and tonight they point at me.
The assassins emerge from an Aethergate. A hole in reality opens and they dash forward from another where, another plane. The slash at me, my package. I see a keyhole tattooed on one palm. The Order of the Silver Key. A few hours ago I would have called them the most enlightened of the cabals skulking around the back halls of power. But things are changing in Orphir.
I make for the roofs, climbing something that may be a drain pipe or a feeding tube for a piece of sentient stonework. My feet pound over slate and silica.
My lead narrows and I descend to the streets, crashing down fire escape stairs. One assassin has flanked me. He slashes with his knife as I dance backwards. His blade catches the package, unseals it.
It goes without saying that I do not know what I carry. You do not open the package. That is the rule. But now the package is opened, and a blue-bladed aether knife falls free, spilling from its scabbard. It spits and crackles in the night.
I catch it before it hits the floor, slash the assassin’s knees. He screams and falls.
I run, they pursue and corner me in Flex Plaza. Five aethergates–one on each side of the space. I eye them, expecting fresh assailants. The assassins close. I lash out, and my blade severs theirs. Steel hits the floor. I slash again, hands join the blades. Three drop. One—holding back—remains. He run for a gate and vanishes. I smile.
Then the gate behind me opens and the assassin steps through. He has navigated the space between realities in a blinking. He is Aetherblessed, and I am screwed.
I run, but he’s always before me, stepping out of one gate, then another, outstripping all the speed of my feet. Eventually I am exhausted, cannot run from his approach, only wheeze.
The blow doesn’t come.
“This is not death,” he says. “This is rebirth. This is recruitment.” He holds out a hand, a silver keyhole tattooed there.
I pause then accept the hand. It feels right. Feels smart. After all, things are changing in Oriphir.

We had to get, like, I don’t know, a million fucking klicks out past Jupiter’s orbit for Leap. We didn’t get to see anything the whole way, and it took, God, like a month and a half. Rinnie and me were going batshit by then, practically, because while it was a huge-ass ship, we were stowaways, and there were only like three places we could hide: hydroponics, cargo 2, and the morgue.
But after the Leap, we figured they’d have to just let us join the colony. Because what else were they going to do, shoot us out into space? Call our moms and and have them come get us in another fucking solar system?
It wasn’t like Rinnie and me wanted to go into space so much as that I got Rinnie pregnant and we figured we should run away because her dad would fucking kill me when he found out. Not like, he’d be really pissed or something, but actually kill me, like with his hunting knife or just beat me down with a tire iron or something. And Rinnie wouldn’t abort the baby, because she said that would be murder, and seriously, I had dreams sometimes that we aborted the baby and it came back and was this little fucking zombie child with its head all wrong. I was way, way more cool with stowing away on the Leap Ship than killing that baby.
“Hey, I think they’re doing it,” Rinnie said.
“Shut up. You don’t know,” I told her. “How do you know?”
“I feel something, like in my uterus.”
“That’s the baby, stupid,” I said, but then I knew I was wrong, because I started feeling it in my uterus. Or, I don’t know, my liver or something. It was like there was a little tiny drain in there, trying to suck me through. It felt like hell.
“I think I’m going to hurl,” I said.
“Wait–” said Rinnie, and then suddenly the whole universe burst into stars and pieces, and there wasn’t me or Rinnie any more, but we were both just tangled together like one person, tangled together with the baby, and the stars flew through us, and we stretched until time stopped and feeling stopped and we were the whole universe, Rinnie and the baby and me.

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