When you grow up, you’ll never be sure if this happened or not. Never sure if it was just something your grief stitched together from the parts of her you remember and the questions still in your throat. Your doubt comes up against the image of her, flickering behind your eyelids.
This is the last time you see her.
You’ve managed to steal up into her room, though you know it’s bold to go up there, though you know she needs to be resting. You haven’t been near her in so long. You’ll rest with her, you think, climbing up into her bed and across soft cotton plains. She laughs, deep, when she sees you, leans over. “Come here to me, come here to me!”
She is beautiful.
She holds her hand up in front of your face, inches from your nose. At her fingertips, there are lights.
Blinking green sparks, pinprick. She brings her touch to your face, cradles your cheek and your jaw. You feel small, hard lumps beneath the surface of her touch. Her skin, once warm, is now ash. There is green at the edge of your vision. Green like a frog. Green like leaves. Green like nature but unnatural, artificial instead. You have never seen these before.
There are gaps where the teeth at the edges of her smile should be. Her eyes are still soft, if far away. A green pinprick flickers above the arch of her left eyebrow. Her hair is wrapped in a scarf, escaped black tendrils here and there.
Her lips are chapped. Your cheeks are wet with tears; she thumbs them away. “Don’t cry for me, Penelope,” she sings, rhythmic, lullaby. “Don’t cry for me.”
A strange light sits in the center of her chest: a bigger one, round as a penny. It sits like a jewel amid chalky scar tissue. It doesn’t flicker, but rather flashes, framed by the softness of her nightshirt. Her veins are risen and pattern her skin, tiny black rivers.
“There’s nothing to be sad about. I am so happy.” She’s whispering, she’s laughing. “I wish you could hear the things I hear. I have spoken to electric gods. You will, too; I know it.” Her finger is hard on your jaw now; it starts to hurt. “You’ll find a way. You’re cut of my cloth, girl.”
Her voice is thick. You climb over the duvet landscape to her lap, and she cradles you. You put your ear to her chest, looking for warmth, listening for a heartbeat. There is none. A hiss comes from under her skin, a static thrum. She smells like burning, like copper.
“Can you hear the machines, Nell?” she whispers to you. “Can you hear what I hear? They tell me you’ll do great things. They tell me that I am dying but that my questions live on in you.”
“Who are they?” you ask.
“They have voices like falling stars,” she says, her hand on her chest.
“Who are they?” you ask again.
Your mother holds her hand above your face, sparks in her fingerprints, filaments alive. “The questions. You’ve started already.”
A door swings open. You are lifted away.
They argue, your da and your ma.
“Don’t be talking to her when you’re like this; you’ll poison her worse than she already is,” he says, and she swears at him.
“She’s more like me than you; she has my eyes.”
And you’re out into the hallway, down the stairs in his arms, floods of tears, green still at the corner of your vision. Green like the parklands, green like poison. Like electricity.
Green like Go.
There are three rules:
- The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
- Contribute, at all cost.
- All code is blasphemy.
Just under the surface of the waves where the ocean met the land, a hand without a body reached out for someone to grab it. The hand was wrapped in plastic, so time and water hadn’t eaten it, and its fingers, unmoving, were poised and ready to be held. Nell Crane picked it up out of the foam. She placed it quietly into her satchel.
Right where the black river split into the big wild blue, Nell and Ruby Underwood were collecting bits of treasure from the foam. They were farther out than they were supposed to be, out on the city’s jagged edge, the pair of them charged with rebellion. Besides, this was where all the best stuff washed up. Right before the hungry sea gobbled the old pieces of the city into oblivion, the estuary caught them and spread them all out on the beach. Treasure among the pebbles.
Nell wouldn’t take her boots off and stood at the kissing lip of the water, keenly eyeing the drift. A lightbulb, a coil of wire: she snatched them and tucked them away. Only useful things. Maybe they’d be the very things that would spark off a great idea—she needed one, and fast. Summer would be over soon. Days like today were a distraction from the forms Nell had not yet filled out, the letters she hadn’t answered, the end of apprenticeship project she had not yet begun. Here by the waterside she could forget, at least for a little while.
Her small pet stoat, Kodak, was far more courageous, leaping about in the foam. Ruby, however, bravest of them all, was in up to her knees, a net in her left hand, a long stick with a pincer at the end in her right, and a basket thrown over her shoulder. She was a round, bright pinwheel in the water, and Nell was drawn out like her long shadow on the land.
The shoreline was pocked with dilapidated signage roaring impotent scarlet warnings like turn back now or no entry. The girls ignored them. Quarantine was over; there hadn’t been an aftershock in years. The two of them had been touched by the epidemic in different ways, both their families scarred by the toxic electromagnetic pulses of the Turn, but these times were for healing. This water was theirs.
The fat old sun wouldn’t lower into the horizon for another hour or so, and the heat of the day was beginning to weigh heavy. The salty air helped, alluded to a breeze, but it was still so hot. The sky had been a too blue blankness for months now, so quiet that it had long since become suspicious. Sweat beaded down Nell’s forehead and nose, gathering at the tip of her chin, where a chalky ashen scar began.
Despite the heat, she was covered almost head to toe in linen and cotton. Her hair was a black crow’s nest, impossibly thick and just about persuaded into a bundle, speared with a thick graphite pencil. She’d deal with the sweat; it was the price she paid for invisibility. She’d never shown anyone the whole scar, the path of it down the center of her body. Her chest cavity at least ticked only faintly this afternoon, a soft metronome against the laughter of the waves. She would have traded the scar and the ticking for a mechanical arm, or leg, in a heartbeat—or whatever the machine did, close enough to a heartbeat that her body believed it was real.
It was commonplace to sport an arm, a leg, a set of ears, two fingers, or even the bottom half of a jaw crafted from exquisite, intuitive prosthetic. Absent limbs were part of the price the people of Black Water City paid for surviving the cruel touch of the epidemic.
Nell, however, was the only person with all her metal inside. She was the only person who ticked.
Ruby surveyed the murky water. She dug up hunks of sea glass and other shining scraps, sometimes whole objects that had been fed to the Livia River by accident, or perhaps sacrifice, during the Turn. With salty fingers, she adjusted the patch that sat comfortably over her right eye socket. Ruby staunchly refused prosthetic or augmentation, wasn’t keen on the machines; she always said, “What’s good for the rest of you is good for the rest of you.” Thick eyelashes framed her left eye, so dark brown that it was almost black. Today she had painted all around it in gold and jade powders a proclamation: “You’d better look right at me. I survived!”
Ruby looked up. Kodak had gone and got himself into a spot of bother. The stoat floundered barely a foot offshore; something had caught his tiny leg. He barked softly, fighting it but losing. She stomped toward him and pried his leg free as he squirmed.
“Ah, would you look!” she exclaimed, tossing the offending object to Nell. “That’s for you!”
The tall girl shrieked and clumsily batted away the slimy, cold web of seaweed. Ruby cackled, and Nell thought for a moment about rushing in and splashing her as watery revenge but looked down at her boots: not going in there proper, not today. The beach was good for combing, but farther in, you never knew what you could find or what could find you.
Not that they’d ever come across anything made of flesh and bone, but the abandoned pieces of people’s lives were sad and terrible enough: drowned blank books, washed of ink, useless pieces of unconscious technology, scraps of the old world swallowed up while the town was burning.
Behind the girls and the beach and the dunes lay ghostly industrial estates, tall and gray, with scorched black windows like rows of blank eyes. Beyond and to the west, past the factories, stood a stone monument— a woman, towering more than a mile high over the rest of Black Water City. Beyond the devastated capital, western still, sat the Phoenix Parklands, where Nell’s and Ruby’s homes lay. It was a long ride back, and the girls’ bikes waited for them in the pebbles, like spindly steel horses.
“All right! I’m done!” announced Ruby, storming back to shore. “I won’t be able to carry all this if I keep at it!” She staggered a little under the weight of her basket as she strode from the water. “Ugh.” The seaweed was oily on the soles of her bare feet.
Nell was glad she’d kept her boots on. As they walked up the stony shore, Ruby said, “Well, give us a look at what you found.”
“Just scraps. And this.” Nell took the hand she’d picked from the drift. Kodak flounced out of the water and ran in circles on the beach, shaking himself off with the disgruntled gait of a wet cat and the enthusiasm of a puppy. They planted themselves on the stones by the bikes for a moment. Ruby was panting a little, and her basket landed on the beach with a thud. It was almost completely full of smooth glass shards but for the occasional iceberg of bright plastic breaking the little sea of green.
Nell peeled the briny plastic wrap from the hand, cellophane strips placed there in some attempt at preserving it. The plastic was old but held strong. She unwound it like bandages and revealed the too pink painted skin. The hand was posed as though it were holding something invisible, painted crudely but with the intent of looking marginally lifelike—pinker nails, clumsily engraved knuckles. It stopped just below the wrist, with a screw protruding from a flat base. It was weirdly big, an ungraceful thing. Nell turned it over and over in her own hands, fascinated.
“What do you think, Ruby?” asked Nell, locking her fingers with it, her own hand small against it.
“Well, it’s useless to me,” answered her friend, absentmindedly combing through her basket of treasure. “If it were a bit more elegant, I’d use it for displaying rings, but it’s too masculine for what I’m working on right now.”
Nell hadn’t thought about giving it boyness or girlness, but now it certainly seemed boyish. A boy’s hand.
“Huh, I suppose so,” she mumbled.
“Look, you can keep him. Show him off down the Bayou; take him home to meet your father. Then all your problems will be over!” jibed Ruby, planting an elbow into Nell’s ribs.
“Piss off.” Nell elbowed her right back.
“Get him involved in the family business. Break Oliver Kelly’s heart once and for all.”
Oliver Kelly. Trust Ruby to conjure him to their quiet afternoon—in revenge, she placed the long, strange fingers of the hand on Ruby’s face. She shrieked, and Nell cackled. Ruby had meant it, though, had thrown Oliver Kelly’s name like the seaweed, slimy and cold, unpleasant.
“Can we go home?” asked Nell, retreating and discreetly placing the hand back into her satchel. She eyed the tide, a little greedier now, eating further into the land.
Ruby rolled her eyes. “So early.”
“I know, I just . . . Da worries.”
“It’s what, five o’clock? It won’t get proper dark until ten. Your da needs to calm down.”
“I know,” Nell repeated, her voice sinking quietly in her throat. Her ticking escalated ever so slightly; she could just about hear it.
Ruby groaned and stood. “Fine, fine. Let’s go.”
They affixed their belongings to their bikes and took off in silent flight down the beach and out onto the deserted roads. They didn’t say much as they shot along, their empty shadowbox city offering a meager welcome.
The population sign at the leaning harp of Godot Bridge boomed: Welcome to Black Water City, We’re Well Again! Population 10,076. It had been 74 that morning, and the paint was still wet. The number hadn’t taken a significant dive downward in quite some time. It flickered week to week—three up here, three down there—marking the revolving door on the city. Nell took small reassurance from it; chances were that the babies had arrived safely, maybe had even been born without missing any parts. Or maybe it would be just a missing finger or toe or a cavity somewhere innocuous—lower back was common and easily repaired. They’d be due a good life in the Pasture; a whole body could be a ticket out of the Pale. The number would waver but would never plunge deep again.
Every time the number on the sign rose, though, their city gained strength. Glasses would be raised in the three taverns; the bands would play later. For all the gray and gloom, the people who remained in the city were happy and eager and strong. Their world was small, but they were content to try to make it bigger, one brick at a time.
By the looks of it, the construction workers were being let out an hour early, too. The girls found themselves cycling amid the daily exodus from the site of the giant woman.
Strong, stony-eyed folk, decked out in flannel and denim, hard hats under their arms, marked out with neon vests and heavy boots, strode toward the city in clusters. The women wore their hair in efficient braids; the men were largely bearded. They’d a style of their own, a culture developing all along the skirts and curves of the monument. Their kinetic limbs were bigger and gaudier than the rest of the civilians—part statement, part function. Their smart biorobotic arms and legs needed to support more movement, lift heavier things.
Altogether around a thousand people worked on the statue and would work on the next when this one was finally done. Some were older than Ruby’s and Nell’s fathers, some were just about their age, a couple here and there were younger. They were a vast collective, a village almost, working together to erect the closest thing their island had to a beacon. These folks had hope. Some sang their way home, others chatted. The news of the two births had spread.
The giant woman was Nell’s titanic sister; her plans had been Nell’s mother’s contribution to Black Water City. Like any sister, Nell wasn’t sure if she loved her or hated her and was almost certain she’d never live up to her. Best to admire her from a safe distance. The scale of her importance was staggering when she got too close. Nell’s achievements—or striking lack thereof—were shameful in the shadow of what her parents had made.
Each lamppost they passed had the same stack of flyers hung on a shiny nail, declaring, “Dr. Julian Crane’s Marvelous Augmentations—Present This Flyer and Construction Collective Membership Card for a Free Strength Upgrade!” Nell’s father’s sharp cheekbones and glinting eyes and round spectacles peered out from the ink. A genius, folks would say, but so reclusive. Such a shame what happened to Cora Starling-Crane! He must still be heartbroken. She was so young, they’d say. It was her death that drove him to be so passionate about his work; it was he, you know, who brought the first prosthetic to life! The augmentation! A miracle! And he was only twenty-one when he came up with it! Unheard of, that level of prodigy. And his tiny daughter! Well—
Somebody called out, “Look, it’s Nell Crane! Heard you’ll be joining us soon!” A ricochet reply: “Nah, she’s going out to live with the preachers in the fields, aren’t you, Nellie?” Other workers hooted and cheered, but Nell kept her head down, her skin crawling. Under no circumstances would she be joining them or going out to live in the Pasture. Ruby didn’t say anything.
The pair coasted up the boardwalk alongside the Livia River, past the hodgepodge markets of downtown. The city was a labyrinth of burned-out houses littered with small pockets of community. It had taken almost a hundred years for this quiet to fall, for the fires to stop. It had once been so vibrant, so full of technology and ideas. Too much technology, some thought. Too many ideas.
That bright city was a thing of the past. Strictly rationed electricity dimmed the glow of the place to embers. They’d scorched it out, renamed it, started from nothing. But it was a peaceful ash heap at least. The blue turning violet of the sky was scored with black wires that had once carried power and information; now they simply hung there, making the sky a harsh dead grid above them, thin square shadows on the paths.
Nell and Ruby raced up the quays of the murky river and swung north for the Phoenix Parklands, where their fathers’ houses were. The hungry, pulsing trees and tall ferns filled the air with their dense aroma as the girls passed through the ancient iron gates and made their way up the winding road home. The parklands was almost a village scattered throughout a huge forest, pocked with old family houses, just outside the city. It had made a good retreat when the Turn had become violent: a dense, leafy stronghold, bubbling with swamps.
The Cranes and Underwoods were the only families in this neck of the woods. The farther Ruby and Nell rode, the more the greenery gnawed at the path until they turned sharply into the glades cradling their homes. When they pulled up at the messy garden that marked the Crane house, they stopped together.
“Still coming to the Bayou tomorrow, aren’t you?” Ruby asked, challenging Nell to say no.
“Yes, I suppose.”
Ruby made a theatrical, exaggerated noise. “Suppose! Try and muster up a little excitement for once, would you?”
Nell forced a smile that was all gritted teeth. “Yes. Yes, I’m coming.”
“The party’s going to be wonderful. Wear something nice like; don’t make a show of me all decked out for a funeral. I’ll come for you at half six.” Rub clumsily shifted her bicycle back toward the path. “Stick that awful hand in a pot of boiling water before putting it on any of your shelves, too. Never know, it might start creeping around when you’re not looking.”
Ruby stuck out her tongue and cycled away toward her house, just on the other side of a fat, twisted thicket of briars. Nell watched Ruby disappear, then led her bike to the house.
The Crane house stood with a shabby kind of magnificence on four thick pillars, twenty-odd feet from the ground. The wooden paneling on the walls was stained and dark; the windows were long and covered by blinds. If a wrong kind of magic touched it, it could walk away on its own, a clumsy creature of a house. It loomed. It was home.
It had started life as an elegant holiday home for the Starling family, visited rarely, planted deliberately in the last green lands of Black Water City. When Nell’s willful mother decided she wanted to get out of the Pasture and live in the Pale, her parents reluctantly gave her the keys. As time peeled away that history, the house had taken Nell’s father’s name instead.
Nell checked the postbox. There a crisp, slim letter and a carefully wrapped brown package sat neatly together, addressed to Miss Penelope Starling-Crane. She sighed. Definitely from Nan.
She kicked out the stand and left her bike in its place under the stairway to the porch. Kodak scampered up her arm and onto her shoulder as she took her satchel and trudged up the stairs, her head a thousand miles away.
Through the front door, down the hall, and up another rickety stairway she went, creaking a symphony, up to the crooked landing, to her bedroom.
Nell’s room was uncommonly large, with high ceilings and a bay window looking out over the tangled mess that their back garden had become. Just beyond a ridge of full, low-dipping willows, lay a small lake. In the dark, it reflected the night sky so clearly that sometimes it looked as if the whole world ended at the bottom of the garden. The Pasture could begin here really—Nell was sure of it—but healed folk had marked a twenty-mile stretch of land outside the city as sick, too. That whole barren territory was marked as the Pale. The Pasture spanned the rest of the island, ruined and quiet but for the port town to the west. During the island’s quarantine a partition that stood to this day had been built around it. Nell hadn’t any desire to leave but knew that out there in the western reaches of the Pasture was the Library Complex, towers full of paper from before the Turn, the printed Internet, being alphabetized, sorted, stored—away from civilian eyes.
Nell had asked Nan in her childhood if she could go to visit the Library buildings, but Nan had just laughed. “You’ve enough paper here to be contending with, girl, rather than need to see what’s out there.”
Nell did occupy herself with an awful lot of paper. The walls of her sanctuary were covered in drawings and diagrams, proof of Nell’s studies; detailed pencildrawn charts of leaves, a dead mouse, how the kettle boils. Her father had been a distant mentor through her apprenticeship, but she worked hard, if alone.
She drew reams and reams and reams of things on long sheets of butcher paper: thin detailed lines, light gray shading, to scale and then bigger and bigger. Massive spiders stood watch with unmoving eyes from their homes on her papers. A single great rose almost burst into a flood of gray petals above her bed. By her wardrobe were a cluster of self-portraits and a constellation of drawings of her mother, facial comparison studies. They had the same full mouth, the same brown skin, the same nest of thick, untamable hair.
Nell dropped her satchel and sat down by the window at her drawing table to read the letter. It was heavy in her hands. She’d been expecting it. She hadn’t replied to the last one or the one before. This table was the quietest space in the whole room: a barren expanse but for a fat stack of similar envelopes in the corner, weighted down by a spare wrench. It was a stark plain in contrast with the mad cavern of her work desk, a quiet place to think. Nell ran her finger along the gum of the envelope and tore it open.
Where has the time gone? Summer again already—the days are so long, a grand stretch in the evening. I’m sure you’re as surprised as I am that contribution season is almost upon us. For so many families in the city this must be such an exciting time, the next generation of apprentices ready to contribute to the healing. Out here in the Pasture everyone is positively humming with curiosity about what the contributions will be. There is stone fruit on every altar, and my rituals have mostly taken place outdoors.
I would love to be as excited as my neighbors, but sadly I have a great deal of trepidation about your seeming unwillingness—or inability—to provide any progress reports on your project to either the Youth Council or to me.
This is not easy, but I must be stern in the face of your recent silence. I’m unsure what kind of point you’re trying to make. Is this a silent rebellion, or pure laziness, or a cry for help? I certainly hope it’s not a deliberate attempt to cause Julian Crane—or me—any anxiety. If you believe there to be some charm or honor in working the stone woman site, then you are sorely mistaken.
You are from the line that drew the stone woman.
Our Cora was a pioneer. She found a way to employ hundreds of people, to give them hope. You’ll bring nothing but shame on us. My own mother and father didn’t strive as hard as they did to remain whole and healthy just so the last in the Starling line could throw it all in. Cora had a rebellious streak, but she worked hard. You are simply not doing enough, Penelope.
I’ve outlined below the only options I see fit for you from here on in.
Produce a contribution of excellent standard by the Youth Council’s appointed date.
Quickly, and without notable fuss, begin a courtship with an appropriate partner whose contribution aligns with your skillset. If you do pursue this avenue, alert me immediately so I can schedule a visit at the soonest possible juncture in order to approve your selection.
Pack up your belongings and relocate to my estate on the Pasture. I can formally employ you as my personal assistant, and you will remain preserved from stonework.
Continue to squander your time. In this case, I am unsure if Julian will permit your residence at the parkland house, and I will be ceasing any contact and withdrawing my support. You will not work on the stone site with my blessing.
I will write each choice on a nectarine and place them on the windowsill until the season changes. I hope the fourth rots last, child. This letter has taken me all day to write. I have been reading it aloud to myself over and over. These things need to be said before it is too late. I hope you will make the right decision. Cora would have wanted more for you than the scaffolding and the stoneyard. You could have a very good life out here in the Pasture if you wanted.
Write me soon. My love and blessings are with you.