Plugs

When another hour passed without word, and the automatic voice that answered for his lawyer still repeated the generic message that meant it either didn’t recognize the caller or it did, but didn’t have any news he’d want to hear, Javad Azaizeh decided to go out for a walk. He wrapped the scarf around his neck, turned up the collar of his jacket, and pulled on his warmest hat. It would be ironic to have made it unscathed through half a Kharbarovsk winter only to catch a cold just when he might be back in front of crowds who wanted to hear his voice.
Javad’s ears popped as he door of his building shut behind him. The light, filtered by the blue plastic of the snow tunnel walls, was twilight-colored and noon-bright.
A scrap of paper, scuttled along by the wind, stayed just ahead of his feet. Midway through the second block, words appeared, lines in Korean script. A menu, to judge by the pictures of bulgogi and bibimbap — smart paper, a page set for a local frequency, that had come loose of wherever it had been posted originally. Another three steps, and the menu faded to a flyer for the jewelry store Javad was passing, then to a teaser for that day’s Tikhookyeanskaya Zvyezda. For a few seconds, under the concrete arch of a bike lane, the scrap showed nothing but crawl-scrolling gray-pink snow.
He followed the page, even when the tunnel wind took it off his usual route. Flickering false-3D ads melted into handwritten daily special lists, which morphed into tables of apartment dwellers meant to accompany banks of buzzer-buttons. Javad forgot the courtroom in Brussels, the message he hadn’t gotten. When he passed a school where a chorus must have been practicing, a few staves of whatever the folk song they sang sketched themselves across the wrinkled, dirt-smeared paper, and, before he could catch himself, he hummed the first notes.
He felt the vocal lock tighten in his throat. The lawyer must not have been successful; Javad still didn’t own the performance copyright to his own voice.
Wincing with shame more than pain, he leaned against the wall, feeling the chill of hard-packed snow through the plastic. He took thin breaths and let the paper continue tumble and change without him.
There’d be a message now, one telling him about the fine he’d just incurred.

Guilt, always so much guilt.
Merswe floated on his back down the river Mawkee, scouting for a mate. Around him, other males hooted and paddled, lifting sensory pads up to the sky, waiting for the females to come to them.
Such was his anticipation, so exquisite was the tension in which he floated for days, that Merswe almost missed it when it happened. The strain had worn him out and he was dozing when the women began falling. He caught one by pure chance, grabbing onto her hair and pulling her up before she could sink under the grey waters of the Mawkee.
They wept from the joy of having found each other, and from the sorrow of watching so many women die as they rained on the river and drowned before a male could reach them and pull them afloat.
Her name was Xi.
They fell in love instantly and floated together for a fortnight, making love while Merswe held her close to him to keep her from drowning.
Finally, Xi laid her eggs and Merswe took them inside himself, carefully stashing them in his innermost gill, close to his soul.
“I can take you with me,” Merswe said, bravely, “I feel so strong…”
But they both knew it was wishful thinking; manly bluff. Merswe needed his strength to make it all the way down the Mawkee and onto the rich muddy waters of Hope lake, where their children could hatch.
He cried as he let her go and she didn’t flinch as the water closed in over her. Around him, Merswe heard the cries of a thousand females who weren’t as brave as Xi and pleaded with their lovers to carry them on, only for a minute, only for a day. But none of the men were stupid enough to try. Eggs came first and the eggs must make it to Hope lake. The men pried their lovers’ desperate fingers from their fins, unravelled the knots of hair that tied them together and pushed them away. Soon enough, the cries ceased.
Merswe floated down the Mawkee, eyeflaps rippling red with grief. Xi’s eggs were safe, as were the eggs of Maya, Thi and Tes and all the others who had come before them. Finally, tears spent, he turned his gaze to the sky and waited for more women to fall.
Of his sorrow only guilt remained. Guilt, always so much guilt as Merswe floated on his back down the river Mawkee.

The thing was, Dave had never known Grandpa to lie–not even little white lies. There was no one you could trust like you could trust Grandpa. And before he’d died, Grandpa had said the pants were magic.

“Magic pants?” Dave had said, trying to figure out the joke Grandpa wasn’t telling. “What do they do?”

“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you,” Grandpa had said. “It’s funny …” Then Grandpa had staggered, and when his mouth opened, no words came out. It was a stroke, it turned out, and from the stroke until he died four months later, Grandpa’d never said another sensible word.

Dave doubted the pants would kill him. Because why would someone make murderous pants? On the other hand, why magical pants at all? Without the answer to that question, there was no way of guessing what the pants might do.

Grandpa wouldn’t have given him something he knew to be dangerous–but then, Grandpa had confessed he had no idea what the pants did.

Dave had a good life. He had a girlfriend who rocked his world and didn’t mind that he was a little on the chubby side; he was graduating with honors and proceeding directly into his dream job at a game development company; even his no-good brother seemed to have fallen into a crowd that was turning him around. As long as there were cheese fries, margaritas, love, and high-quality graphics cards in the world, Dave honestly had nothing to complain about. Even if the pants were something miraculous, who needed magic pants? That was why they’d been stuffed in an old duffel bag high on a shelf in his closet since Grandpa had his stroke, and why they’d stayed there after Grandpa died.

He took out the pants again and looked at them. They were dull gray, made of some kind of heavy, soft material, with a button fly. Maybe he should burn them. Or he could give them away. Drop them off at the Goodwill store. Tell his brother to try them on.

Finally, he unsnapped, unzipped, and peeled off his jeans. The pants slid onto his legs like water flowing over dry rocks. He buttoned them up and looked in the mirror. Well, they weren’t magic that way: he was still fat.

But then he felt a giddy sensation, and as he began to drift up into the air, he thought he heard Grandpa’s voice, calling his name.

Children’s counting chant, recovered from shards of crystal memory cores found in the ruins of the prophets’ quarter, Sarandib city, on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

1 for the citadel, proud and unbreachable

2 for the ion ghosts, crackling at dawn

3 for the sky-rings, lined like the plains

4 for the cinder-general

5 for her ash-gray armies

6 for the Kuiper-kings, in their halls of ice

7 for the emissary, with his gold-foil scroll

8 for the assassin, waiting on the road

9 for the identity mask, stolen and recoded

10 for the masquerade and its merry confusion

9 for the misled Duke, lonely in his garden

8 for the ice stiletto, evaporating after

7 for the ducal court, split between his children

6 for the late alliance, desperate and dangerous

5 for the ash-gray armies, massing on the plains

4 for the armistice, hasty, fragile, brief

3 for the yearlong siege and the songs of hunger

2 for alliance with ghosts, more desperate, more dangerous

1 for the citadel, echoing and empty

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