PodCastle 665: Reading Dead Lips — Part 1

Show Notes

Rated R.


Reading Dead Lips

By Dustin Steinacker

Nouelle had always thought that she’d feel a sense of homecoming when she returned to the country that had birthed her. But after eight years, it was already a foreign land. Her first day back she risked a hostel, near the border, and the shower water was wrong; it stung her flesh with its force but never seemed to rinse off the lather. The loudest voices in the common room all spoke the occupiers’ dialects and she stayed silent rather than mark herself as a Czir. The cooking smells too were unfamiliar.

After that she slept out of doors.

She was wiser than she’d been when last she breathed Czir air (this she told herself, and sometimes she believed it too). She now knew occult sciences, after all, and had acquainted herself with the many stages of corpse-stink. So yes, she was standing on ground that she’d had to sell herself to escape, occupied ground. But she was also prepared. She’d lost everything she ever had in this country and now, dammit, she had the chance to take just one thing back.

Somewhere within these borders was her sister.

On her third morning in Czir she browsed a cemetery — not the first she’d passed, but the first remote enough for her work. The town which fed these graves seemed far enough away to prevent any surprise drop-ins.

Pacing the headstones, she snapped the thick elastic band wrapped around her wrist, which read “STUDENT RECREATIONAL TRAVELER — DRAELES.” Her cover story. It was the only sound apart from her steps, aside from the nickering of the horses who eyed her warily from the morning mist, unshoed and wild.

Snap. Snap.

The occupying West Noratians had changed the cemetery’s name to Cauvault, and judging by the names that she was seeing from these last eight years, they’d started to bury their own dead here. She’d been counting on that.

Snap.

Nouelle stopped at a particularly ornate headstone, one depicting a flower whose roots were aggressively wrapped around a boulder several times its size.

He’s military, she thought as she read:

ALAND REPLIK, BRIGADIER

DEC 1 NR 94 – AUG 15 NR 158

VOSHEN AIKUR, VOSHEN EN SAT

“Perfect.” She went to fetch her shovel, planted in the earth at the end of the row.

Spring had thawed the land and so the digging was easy. Half an hour later, she was face-to-face with the half-rotted rictus of Aland Replik. He’d been buried in a soil-filled casket in what she supposed was the West Noratian tradition. Carefully, she pried open his stiff jaw with a gloved hand, and then wedged a small pill-shaped device into the dry palate of his mouth with pliers.

All right, she thought as she heaved herself out of the man’s final resting ground. Let’s give Brigadier Replik a few minutes to get himself together.


On her way back to her rusted motorbuggy, Nouelle put in her earpiece. She gave the tiny glass globe at the end of its wire a couple of light flicks with her finger, through her jacket-pocket.

Lynn began to rouse.

“How long?” The voice was earnest but muffled, like a woman speaking through a tunnel.

“Since we spoke?” Nouelle opened the lockbox to the vehicle’s rear. Glass bottles clinked as she rummaged within. “A few hours.”

“Hours, damn. I’m noticing the time pass less and less. I wonder if that’s what happens to everybody. The moments stretch until you just slip away into eternity—”

“Want to see something interesting?”

A long pause.

Then, with a thin anger, the voice said: “You made the trip, didn’t you, Nouelle?”

The one you advised me against, both as a professional and as a person with common sense? “Yes.”

“Why not follow my advice, like you did before? Or like you pretended to.”

Nouelle put down her canteen and took out the globe, no larger than her thumbnail. She scrutinized the deceptively clear air within it. “I miss seeing your body language, Lynn. To know when you’re joking.”

“I never joked with my clients, not in that way. Too easy to misconstrue. My little refugee, you shouldn’t have come here. You’re confusing closure with recovery.”

“You’re not on the clock, Lynn. Give it up.” Nouelle took a handful of dried currants.

“Fine. Bluntly, then: You’ve got more than enough corpses in your past, without digging more up.”

Nouelle looked up at the sound of a faraway crack. Rifle. A hunter, probably. The only person she’d seen all morning was an old man, hunched and scavenging in a distant brake of trees. “I’m not interested in a corpse.”

“You don’t know she’s alive.”

“Go to hell.” Nouelle slammed the lid and set off for Replik’s grave.

“If only.”

Lynn had barely diluted at all with her death. Speaking to her brought Nouelle back to that office of flickering fluorescence where they’d met for seven months, back to that place which sold not normalcy but the promise of normalcy to those they called “displaced persons” or “civilian victims of war.” That was all her country of asylum, all Draeles had ever been to her: just a series of rooms, of buildings. Government offices of counseling, the university where she’d traded up from Osteopathic Medicine to a science so new and avant-garde that few knew it or dared teach it, the dishroom where she put in her daily four hours to maintain the refugee scholarship. A nation budgeting just enough to assuage its guilt over nearby savageries it might have done more to prevent, just enough to go on hating those who’d faced them.

So many therapists, so much bureaucratic compassion. Until Lynn. She realized it only after: Lynn was the real thing, behind those stern eyes. Lynn had cared. Poor sod.

Nouelle crouched over the open casket, and she held out Lynn’s globe. “Can you see him?”

See isn’t the word for it,” said Lynn. “But yes. There’s an ocean of voices here. They’re faded. But this one . . . you’ve done something to him. You’ve brought him together.”

Nouelle could feel the change in him, too. There was no way around death — death was final. But it was a slower process than most knew. The dead kept roots in the corporeal world, like a ripple’s echo rebounding long after the stone which made it has sunk to the lakefloor.

And, with a little work, they could even speak.

What was left of Aland Replik’s quintessence had gathered to the receiver wedged in his palate. She only hoped it would be enough. She’d never done this in the field before.

“Watch this.”

She closed the corpse’s mouth. The once-stiff jaw moved without protest. An electric thrill shot down her arms and legs.

“Why don’t you introduce yourself?” she asked quietly, massaging the remaining tissue of Replik’s face. It resisted slightly more when moved in some directions than in others; the half-there lips stiffening when pursed, or loosening when puckered. Some lingering eyelid-flesh fluttered.

C’mon, you decrepit bastard.

She jerked her hand away at the crack of the joint. Replik’s jaw flew open as if he were gasping for air.

Maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she felt Lynn snap to attention.

“Can you hear me, Aland?” she asked in passable Noratian.

The man began to speak, falteringly, as if dazed.

I’m blind, she wrote on her ledger in shorthand, reading his words with care. Can’t breathe.

All right — time for the nurse act.

“You’ll be fine,” she said. “We’ve got some wonderful people looking after you. In the meantime, I’m going to have to ask you just a few questions. Where were you born?”

More silent speech. No, his voice was a whisper now but she could hear it, rising: “In . . . in Adni. Adni Workhouse. I think I’ve been paralyzed, I—”

“Please, answer the questions. What day and year is it?”

“August second, maybe third. In the one hundred and fifty-eighth year of the National Revolution.”

She checked the tombstone. Two weeks before his death. Might have been comatose before he went.

“And how long have you lived in this country, Aland?”

“Three years. I came here with Stassia and her family.”

“Very good. Listen carefully, because I’m going to test your memory. You were an officer, correct?”

Were an officer?”

“Please.”

“I am a Brigadier, Prime Overseer of the Frontier Region.”  He frowned. “You’re a doctor, did you say?”

“Have you heard of the village of Óste? That would be its Czirash name.”

A pause. The flesh of his head and neck tensed.

“Yes,” Replik finally said. “I did not serve near the Capital, but everyone in the service knows that place.”

Damn you, Noe, she thought in better self-recrimination. You’ve overplayed yourself. Too excited, too rushed. He knows what you are, there’s no way he doesn’t. Just get on with it.

She swallowed. Suddenly she was very aware of where she was. Of how indefensible this scene would be, if somebody came upon her.

“The children, Aland,” she said. “The ones being carted out in that photograph, after the other shootings. In that picture that was smuggled out and put in the Gazette in Draeles. Where did you take them?”

The corpse said nothing.

“Where would they be taken? Labor camp? Settlement?”

Replik muttered what may have been a prayer or a curse. “I’ve been captured, haven’t I? I hear your accent. I know what you hounds do to the men you catch.” What was left of his eyes bulged in horror. “And I’ve told you my identity.”

“You have.”

“You’ve been drugging me, I know it. I feel as if I’ve been sleeping for days, weeks even. But so tired.”

“If I were what you say I am, you’d work with me all the more. Do you know why?” She waited. “Because I’m free. I could do something for you. A favor. Deliver a message, or check on somebody, maybe?” She grinned. “Relax. We’re not all hounds.”

“What an offer you make, insurgent. Why would I trust you with a message? With family?”

She calculated. There’d been just a hint of cathedral spires in the distance as the sun rose, a steady whiff of smoke upwind, vestiges of tire trails leading off in the same direction. People lived past those trees, maybe a quarter-hour’s drive.

Nouelle made her voice hard. “Aland, we’re hours from storming your village. Some of our women and men lived there, before they were thrown out or jailed. Some of them still do. How gentle do you think they’ll be, to the people walking their streets, whistling at their daughters, making them vagrants in their own neighborhoods?”

Replik winced. He seemed to debate with himself.

“Nastassia. That’s her name. Surname Naviki née Replik. Lives just across the river, near the garrison.”

“And?”

“A man with a birthmark on his cheek. If you see him in that house, or anywhere near that house, I want you to have his legs broken. But not in front of the grandchild.”

“And if this Nastassia objects?”

“She’ll object. Do it all the same. And then you protect that house.”

“And how is that name spelled?”

As he spoke, Nouelle pointedly drew crosses and diamonds in her ledger as if writing a name.

“You have my word, Aland. Now let’s talk.”


Ten minutes and three ledger pages later, they were finished.

“And that’s all you know?” Nouelle asked, plucking the pliers from her belt. She tried not to sound disappointed.

“I’m an honest man, faults notwithstanding,” Replik said, with the shadow of a smile. “Now it’s time for you to keep up your end of our—”

With a swift tug of the pliers, she pulled the receiver out of the roof of his mouth. Aland Replik seemed to shrivel slightly as faux-life left him, to shrink back into the earth.

She pulled the glass of the collection tube from the receiver and crushed it against a stone with her boot. For a moment she imagined the man dispersing in the wind.

“Cruel,” Lynn said.

Oh, are there rules of etiquette when dealing with war criminals? Nouelle thought. But no, Lynn deserved better.

As she walked, she studied the chickenscratch map she’d drawn by the corpse’s instruction. “Nobody’s invading that village, Lynn. That man’s daughter, she’ll stay living in that house her daddy stole for her. Same as if we never dug him up.”

“Those were his last wishes. Ghastly ones, I’ll admit.”

“If he had any last wishes, he gave them two years ago. I just brought him back for a little postscript. He isn’t anything anymore. Just a ripple. The grease you smell in the air after cooking dinner.”

“Nice to finally know what you think of me.”

Nouelle stopped. “That’s not what I meant. There’s barely anything of him left, he’s been dead so long. But I was there with you, Lynn, you’re so strong you can speak without a throat, you . . .”

You don’t want to hear it.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She took out her earpiece, stomach tight.

She told herself it was only her journey ending which made her so cross, which put her at odds with one of the better people she’d ever known. This exhumation hadn’t given her much of anything useful, after all. Just a direction, one she could never go. This map she’d drawn was a map to her destruction.

Northeastward. To the capital outskirts. Buildings with records of captives taken to workhouses, to interim camps, or, in a mockery of compassion, to aid workers outside the country. And she knew what she would have to pass to get there. Azhmany. The first village with a military post. Hrudin. The first with patrols. Then the first checkpoint for people like her. The first with ethnic martial law.

One of these would mean her capture. One of these would mean her death.

She’d taken herself back to her homeland, only long enough to bring scared little Noe back. And now she had to leave.

“Just one drink,” she said, and went for her lockbox. And not for the canteen.


Nouelle awoke in a start and sat upright.

Bad idea.

After a few miserable dry heaves she emptied what was left in her poor stomach onto the ground. Shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare she took a few deep breaths and tried, parched, to spit.

The fifth of brandy lay in the thin grass near her ankles, considerably emptier than she’d intended. She tightened the tasting cork and deposited the bottle on the running board of the buggy beside her.

She rose carefully, eyes squinched, battling nausea. She took a few pained steps and fumbled in her lockbox.

“You try to find this?”

Nouelle turned with a gasp and then winced as her skull throbbed.

The old man. The scavenger she’d seen earlier. He was holding out her canteen.

“You sleep in the shade, but then the sun moves.” He smiled. “You bake yourself.”

“You speak Czirash?”

He made a non-committal hand gesture. A little.

Nouelle coughed and took her canteen. She unscrewed the cap and paused. She sniffed the water.

“Safe,” he said.

She shrugged and took a sip, rinsed her mouth and spat before finishing off the rest of the water. “Thanks.”

He was a Noratian, of course. An ethnic mainlander, with their pale skin and harsh facial lines. There wasn’t a hint of white in his beard, but maybe he was dyeing it.

“You look for someone?”

“Pardon?”

“These bodies, you should let them rest. But I know why you dig them up, maybe.”

She blinked. “Have you been watching me?”

He said nothing.

“No, just who the hell are you?” She stepped back. “What are you doing here? Are you looking for — for people like me?”

“Yes.”

She shuddered, looked about. Almost she felt she could hear the rattling of treads, the distant rumbling of mortars.

“No, no! Not like that.” He held up his arms. “Not for government. For me.”

She reached into the back pocket of her slacks, for the retractable blade she carried. She forced herself to smile. “Are you here with anybody? Any friends?”

“No.”

She raised the blade. “Step to the side, over there, where I can see you. Then do not move one inch. If I ever see you again…” Harsher words failed her. “I won’t hesitate. Do you understand me?”

With a sad smile he nodded and obeyed.

She pulled the blocks out from behind the buggy’s front tires, then set them down inside. She climbed shakily into the driver’s compartment, dropped her brandy bottle into the other seat and turned the key. The engine shuddered to life.

Behind her was the road back to Draeles, back to an outsider’s life. Walking through endless rooms that didn’t belong to her, dulling the pain in whatever way she could, and all the while remembering this moment, wondering what might have been.

The old Noratian hadn’t moved, hadn’t said one word. But there was something in his eyes. A hurt she couldn’t understand. Some genuine need, not a partisan’s devotion.

“I take you,” he said quietly. “Where you’re going.”

“You don’t know where I’m going. Why would you offer that?”

“Please,” he only said. “I want to.”

She looked down the road, then back to those eyes.

“Óste. You can get me there?”

He blinked in surprise, but nodded.

“Past the checkpoints?”

“Yes.”

Nouelle warred with herself. She’d given everything to get here, bought this vehicle and then abused and weather-treated it until the sight of her with it wouldn’t attract suspicion. Bought under-the-table passage over the border, with cash this time. But even if she turned back now, gave up, she’d still have her life.

And she’d never forgive herself for it.

This man, she thought, will get me killed.

Not because she didn’t trust him, though she was pretty sure she didn’t. But because she would let him take her back home, back into the belly of the beast.

She opened the passenger door. “You travel with me at your own peril. Do you understand?”

He smiled.


Óste. That’s where they were going. Her village lived in the shadow of the new West Noratian capital, where it was said that firing squads still resounded weekly in the morning air, and where a Czir might be plucked out of a checkpoint and not reappear for months, if at all.

She told herself that she wouldn’t actually enter the Capital, but that hardly reassured. Her hometown had only ever been close enough for the heat and smog of the city once called Pernin to be a frightful shimmer in the distance. Father had often said that dragons lived there, speaking of city people and their ways, but in her child’s innocence she took it literally and learned to watch the horizon with dread. Now, Pernin was ruled by worse than dragons.

The man, Alex, couldn’t drive. She didn’t even ask: she could see the stroke in the way he moved. Every time he’d stop to piss she fought the temptation to leave him there and turn back, call this off. She missed talking to Lynn. She’d rather that Alex didn’t know of her.

They drove in the well-trod dirt of others passed, which gained cohesion until it became a road almost without her noticing. Soon they’d be on the highway she’d been avoiding.

“Slow,” Alex said, as a rabble of Czir children crossed the road ahead, whooping and chasing a corn crake the lead child held tethered by a string tied around its leg. As the bird took burdened flight, a girl cackled and yanked hard at the string and sent it flailing groundward to the protests of its would-be tamer. Alex watched their play fondly, like a doting grandfather.

The children disappeared into a network of shanty-houses blanketing the left side of the road, columns of doors repurposed into walls along with rotten lumber and metal siding, tarps tied down for roofs.

These children have only known bondage, she thought.

And another thought, one she was surprised to find alarmed her even more: she felt no commonality with these children. Nor with the other Czir she’d seen since arriving here. And she could think of Óste, but couldn’t think of it as home.

It’s not just the occupation, a voice in her head said. It’s you that’s changed. You aren’t Czir, aren’t a Draelene student either.

Are you anything at all?


Alex warned her that it wasn’t her village she’d be returning to, but a boneyard. “After that battle,” he said, and she bit her tongue not to meet that with it wasn’t a battle, it was murder, “they would not move the bodies. They would bury near, in one place. Then, the winter next-next, when your rebels slaughter the officers and their families: more graves, also one place. Nobody will live there now.”

She grimaced.

The greatest atrocity in an occupation filled with atrocities. None of the usual controlled repression, no, only a conqueror’s id dredged to the surface, manifest: Mass executions of combatants and non-combatants alike, a village of resistance turned into a killing field. And then, in one final grave-spitting insult, the killers had moved into the homes of the dead.

Were these all just footnotes? Things that happened?

She had to say something, or she might strike this man.

“Why on earth would they bury their officers alongside Czir?”

“Took tribute for themselves, I hear.” He shrugged. “From the village. Hid away nice things they found. Made themselves Czir in death.”

“I don’t want to hear any more.”

Stormclouds were gathering, so they camped that night in a disheveled grain silo just off the road. Black ash coated the inside wall, which in places was torn away in curls like paper. Travelers had stopped to build fires here. Nouelle was a mouthful of scotch away from an empty flask and trying to decide whether she’d need more to sleep, even if that meant going out into the storm.

“I still don’t like this,” Lynn said. The earpiece in Nouelle’s ear wasn’t much more than a tin can on a string, but it carried her words well enough, even over the din. Lynn had always been strong.

Nouelle spoke quietly as Alex slept. “I’m chasing a ghost, right?”

“I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes gotten caught up in metaphor while advising you. But in the sense of seeking something you won’t find, yes. You heard yourself earlier: labor camps, settlements. Do you think you can just drive up with a name and fetch a person?”

She swallowed. “I’ll figure that out when—”

“And what if she’s been raised under a new name? She won’t answer to hers, or remember you.”

“I need to do what I can. Oh, and go screw yourself.”

You need to do this? This is for you?”

“You know what I meant. Actually, I thought you’d just say if only.”

She listened to the rain drumming on the metal walls, at the way it would change sides with the wind. She bristled at the occasional droplet on her cheek. She thought.

“I didn’t even like the baby that much,” Nouelle said. “Hated her, in fact. Such a little terror. As the occupation wore on, eventually only Father would leave the house, and I’d be trapped inside with her and Mom. All day.”

Lynn was silent.

“One evening, though. One evening Father was having one of his rough spots. That’s what Mom called them, as if that excused what he’d do to her sometimes, to me. He’d finished with Mother and apparently it wasn’t enough because he started in my direction, started shouting something about the look I was giving him, some bogus thing to justify it.”

“I didn’t know your father was a drinker.”

“My father never drank.”

“Oh.”

Nouelle breathed in, sharp. “Katty was nearly three. She came running up from wherever she always hid and she threw her arms around my neck, just held on tight. I thought she wanted me to protect her, so I tried to turn and shield her. But she squirmed free and went around. Between me and Father. See, she knew he didn’t beat on her. She only knew maybe four words but she’d figured out that much. She was protecting me. For the first time, I knew she saw me as a sister.

“And not even a month later, I abandoned her. Ran right past her out of the house when I heard shots from the road. She was chewing at her fist and she watched me go. I wonder when she realized her sister had left her behind.”

A long silence followed. Nouelle rolled onto her side and pillowed her head into the crook of her arm.

“Why didn’t you tell me this, about Catherine? During our sessions?”

Nouelle shrugged. “Would you have advised me any differently?”

“No. Even now, no. But I’d have known you better. It could have helped in other ways.”

“You were being paid, by the resettlement project. Why would I trust you?”

“You kidding? My objectivity comes at a premium. But when you’re a friend, oh, that’s when I get to be a real shitheel.”

Nouelle laughed, and brushed her cheek dry, and slept.


Jeeps rumbled by in the early morning, too many to be civilian. Nouelle woke and cowered, held her breath, stared through the gash that led outside. She wished that she could sink into the metal of the silo floor, and then even further into the earth and the bedrock beneath it. In her dreams, no depth was ever far enough to avoid capture.

Alex’s back and neck were straighter than she’d ever seen him. His face was tight and his eyes unmoving until he blinked, twice, and seemed to slip back into his usual self. He relaxed.

She did not. Was the buggy outside decrepit enough, she wondered? Did it look like enough of a junker? She’d parked it with a door open and unscrewed one of the headlights, but if they suspected it was functioning, and decided to check the only shelter in sight for its owner…

She was going to fail, to freeze, when the time came. She knew it. The moment that tested her mettle, whenever it was, it would break her. And this time, nothing she had to offer, no money or even sex as a dread last resort, would save her again.

She tried to think of nothing but her breath, the way Lynn had taught her. It wasn’t working. She felt smothered, choked.

Alex approached with deliberate steps. He lowered himself and put his hand on her shoulder. “Who is that you talk to?” He asked. “At night? Ears still strong, I hear it. And you hold something. Radio?”

He was trying to distract her, bless him for it.

“No.” She picked up Lynn. He took her gingerly, like he was holding a baby bird. “Like this.” She mimed inserting the earpiece, her hand shaking. He put it in.

After a second, his face brightened in utterly childlike wonder. “Oh. Delightful.” He stared into the glass globe as he spoke halting sentences to Lynn in Nouelle’s tongue, transfixed, laughing open-mouthed with every response.

By the time she thought of the road again, it was quiet.


“First checkpoint, since the border,” Alex said, slashing a line with his finger along his pocket roadmap, a more detailed affair than the map Nouelle had sketched by the dead Replik’s instruction. They’d pulled over to plan, beside a series of pastel-painted concrete houses backing a garbage-clogged river. To a casual observer, he’d reasoned, they might look like well-to-do Czir setting out to market. “No papers needed yet, I think. Wait for only one guard on duty, money.” He held out his hand miming an offering. “I will talk.”

“I don’t have any money,” Nouelle said. “My living allowance from resettlement, I spent it all getting here.”

“Too much.” He clucked at the foil-wrapped rations they were eating, packed up to the brim of her lockbox with the bottles. “Nenthe. Expensive. Should buy food here.”

That feeling, that disconnect struck her again.

There was an open-air market or two nearby, she knew from the scent in the air. The custom was to buy the ingredients for the day’s meals in the morning and then cook the first there, weather permitting, over communal fires or coals. It was a chance for children to play, for manual laborers to start the day with friends before beginning their work, for the poor to beg a morsel or two in exchange for tending the flames and scouring the pans.

But she’d never even considered availing herself of her own people. Instead she’d brought her own food and refilled her water stores from streams, dropping in iodine. She’d prepared as if she were camping in some unpeopled wilderness.

“We’ll give him some dried fruit, then. Or a pouch of protein or something.”

Alex exhaled through his teeth. “No other gift. Only money. Easy to hide.” He spoke then in an undertone, and it wasn’t until he leaned in and cupped the earpiece that Nouelle realized he was talking to Lynn. He’d been wearing her all day.

“Bourbon, she says you have.” He reached for the latch of the lockbox. “Grey Marker. Common here, nice. We offer that.”

Damned bloody Lynn.

She took his wrist. “You said it should be easier to hide.”

“Liquor is a . . .” he thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Exception.” He opened his arms wide, and laughed. “All to share!”

“I’d rather not give away my . . . my supplies.”

“Drink water,” he said. He held out his arm — how had she not noticed his yellowed skin? — and pressed the flesh with two fingers. The imprint stayed, like a sponge. “One day, you realize, too late. And still you drink.”

Nonsense, she thought. I’m supposed to give up my nightcap because an old jaundiced Noratian cocked up his liver?

She looked at her shovel. “What if I had another plan?”


Alex spoke to the guard at length, his face a mask of austerity and confidence. They were relatives, he was saying, of Iliza Marla Marozh, here to pay their respects to the family.

He had balked at the idea of interrogating the dead woman. But as Nouelle explained the process he finally conceded that it was a more reliable plan than a bribe. Marozh had been buried only three weeks before. So their story was plausible; he knew anything about her that a relative — who’d forgotten his transport papers, wouldn’t you know — would have, down to the fact that she had occasionally crossed this very station to visit her own husband’s grave.

Nouelle’s face might have forced a show of papers had the guard given her a good look. They were supposed to check, as militant Czir could often pass for their West Noratian occupiers. But she pretended to sleep, curled over on the passenger’s side.

Their speech was too fast, too nuanced and slang-laden for Nouelle to easily follow, and finally, she gave up. At the end, the guard asked some question. Alex gave Nouelle a light pat on the knee and the two shared a vulgar laugh.

“What did you two say about me?” she asked later, back in the driver’s seat. His turn at the wheel had been so slow, so careful that she was sure they’d be found out.

“That you are my wife.”

“That was not all of it.”

He held up his palm. “Necessary.”

She sighed.

And watched him watch the terrain. It was as if he were staring into the sun, looking some duty head-on that set his stomach on edge, but which couldn’t be avoided. That same look from the day they met. She’d need to ask him about it.

They passed miles of empty brown farmland as they approached the new capital. Workers were hoeing rows and clearing stones in preparation for the late-spring sowing.

“So worried. Don’t be. This place is calmer now.”

Calmer? Yes, life is easier when you clean out everybody who causes problems for you, isn’t it?”

He didn’t respond. He eyed the fields of tawny cattle, grazing parallel to one another, the sun to their left. The weatherworn steep-roofed shacks from which this farmland was administered by rustic, uncomplicated folk of the sort Nouelle had known in Óste. Tentative paddocks where stacked stones made fences for horses or swine.

Nouelle thought of what Alex had said. As it had before, this side of him stuck in her throat. War was so much more than the people who did the killing. It started with some other way of thinking about another people, with a casual indifference. Which gives birth to the nascent idea that their suffering was an acceptable means to some end, some bullshit broader aim.

And then, after decades: burnt villages, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing . . .

“Did you grow up rehearsing an invasion of my people? You called the rabbits Czir when you threw stones at them, didn’t you?”

“All that,” he said, “and more. My kin lived near Uluk. By the border. I am old. But I remember fear, those days. People, sometimes they go out, and don’t come back. Sometimes Czir kill them.”

She’d heard this before: war apologia which assigned her people a kind of racial karma for the occupation, which didn’t say they were to blame exactly, but which danced nevertheless around the implication. She should have known she’d find it here.

Alex looked uncomfortable. He seemed aware that he’d said something wrong. Then, he grinned. “You know magic?”

“What?”

“Magic trick. I show you.”

“No.”

His face fell.

She almost laughed — that must have been his foolproof tension-breaker. But she was glad for his silence.

But, a few kilometers down the road: “How do you know her?”

“Who?”

He held up Lynn’s globe, and pointed to his ear.

“I’d have thought you’d been through all of this with her by now,” Nouelle said. “Haven’t you two been pouring your hearts out to each other?”

He squinted at the metaphor. “Is your right to share, she said.”

Nouelle smiled. So Lynn was holding herself to some sort of confidentiality, long after no authority on Earth could rightfully expect it.

“She was my therapist. She was paid by the government. To help me come to terms with what had happened to me, to heal, to assimilate.”

“Assyimil . . . ”

“To stop speaking Czirash. Act like them. Not make them think about my country when they saw me.”

“Ah.” He raised an eyebrow. “Did you . . . ?”

What did he mean?

“No! No, I’m not a killer. But I was there when it happened. There were people who targeted people like her, people who were… who were helping people like me. We were in a cab together.” She pulled up her pantleg. The scar started along her calf and went up nearly to her knee. “I don’t know who it was. Somebody who’d been following her. They rammed us sidelong. She was sitting on that side.

“I got away. She didn’t. But I took what was left.”

“Why keep her? And not a friend, not kin?”

“All of my kin are here. And friends, as a Czir? Do you think I had the pick of the market, browsing for spirits?”

“Every apology.” He held up his hand. “Too many questions. I let you drive.”

They passed a longer, machine-tilled field. Central pivot irrigators sat tarped and dormant, ready to mist the year’s crop, duplicating the work of dozens of smallholder farmers digging trenches to divert riverwater. No mongrel thatch cottages here; only a pristine aluminum workhouse which screamed capital and seasonal laborers, probably Czir kept at subsistence.

Nouelle sighed. “No, it’s not only that. Look at Lynn’s globe. Spiritual matter follows the rules it remembers from life. So it takes up space, it moves in the wind. But the vial we used for Marozh. Much smaller, right?”

He pursed his lips. “Right, I think.”

“Lynn needs more space. Look, this is a new science, and maybe others could explain this better. But there’s an intent to life, and it sticks around, even after death. But if you don’t contain it, it spreads out, it diffuses. These other corpses, even newly-inhumed Iliza back there, they’re more like a recording. Some intent there, but it’s passive. It forgets. Talk to them long enough and they’ll start asking you the same questions over again.

“But Lynn here, I distilled her before all that could happen. Fresh. She’s a person, Alex. She’s as alive as you or I.”

The old man regarded the globe with a new reverence. “Second birth…” He closed his eyes, muttered a prayer. Then he tilted his head, listening over the earpiece.

“What does she say?” Nouelle asked.

He shook his head. “Doesn’t agree.”

#

“This, here, we leave the road,” Alex said, pointing.

“There’s a road ahead that goes home. I remember it.”

“No. Not that road. Not any road anymore.”

Nouelle couldn’t guess what he meant. Until she saw it: part of the old road, passing a thin copse of trees to the right. She trembled and stopped the car.

She’d been on this road dozens of times with Father, going out to do the community work of repairing fences or checking the forest traps when it was his turn. Now it was little more than scar tissue. The old road to Óste had been cleared, as part of the clearing of the village itself from history. To hide what they’d done. To pave over the brightest blood of their new nation’s founding.

“I will drive.”

“No, I’m all right. Let’s keep going.”

The landscape grew wild and raw, patches of crownvetch and sunny anthyllis battling for dominance from the lake to the limestone foothills above. Fallow deer congregated in the distance, far closer to the village than they had ever ventured during Nouelle’s time.

This can’t be home, she thought.

They arrived at a ruin.

Blackened it was, very little she could even recognize as manmade except burned-out debris.

She stopped the buggy and stepped out, leaving a sleeping Alex behind.

To Nouelle, the word “ghost” had lost some of its paranormal bite. But here it came roaring back, with all of its primeval melancholy. She walked the streets, now leveled. Here a wall stood, there the remains of what might have been a washboard. It was like looking at a map of a place she once knew: Everything was the right distance apart, but the flat substance of it didn’t match.

Her stomach roiled.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said, behind her, “for you to see such a place. We can go around.”

She shook her head, folded her arms tight to keep them from shaking. “No, this is it. I’m . . . I’m home.”


TO BE CONTINUED . . . You can find Part 2 here.

About the Author

Dustin Steinacker

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Dustin Steinacker is a science fiction and fantasy writer who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he finally has the reading porch of his dreams. His short fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Compelling Science Fiction, and he is the 2018 winner of the James White Award.

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About the Narrator

Tatiana Grey

Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth. She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com

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