When the city of Amarana fell, broken from the cliffside like a docked tail, its cobbled streets fell first. For a heartbeat they retained their shapes, their curves, their intersections. I have memorized every single one—that ghost of the city, the amputated walkways and avenues backlit by the fading orange blooms of our bombs.
By my side, someone whose face I can no longer see whispered, “It’s beautiful.”
I tried to agree, but I couldn’t speak.
The ghost city tilted as it fell, barely enough to see through the black spots burned into my retinas, then the streets divorced and the illusion was broken. There was no ghost. There was no city. Only a storm of cobbles, and they landed like hailstones.
Buildings followed. Homes. Shops. The cluster of government offices that had inspired us to kill the city in the first place. All filled with screams—I still hear them, especially the children—as everything plunged to the valley floor and shattered. Only in the ensuing silence did the city’s outer wall—stubbornly rooted into the rock face, protecting only smoke and emptiness—collapse.
Here, there are no walls. Time has dissolved. I simply persist, each day an echo, huddled with prisoners and grimmer things in this massive stone bowl beneath the Judicial Plaza. It is the most famous—and the cruelest—of the oubliettes of the Fifth Sovereign. A prison without walls; confinement without bounds.
Somewhere high—even higher than the spires of the plaza—comes the sounds of thunder, a great clearing of the throat. A whisper leaps up—a single ember, and everywhere it touches: conflagration. Prisoners scatter in orbit around me, hopelessly purposeful. Their instinct is to huddle, to hide, but where? Cruel, cornerless world. Some even cling to the bars above, faces turned up and gasping at the slash of rain like monstrous white koi biting at the surface for food. The rain falls, inevitable.
It speaks to me of cyclicities. At the grated bottom of the bowl, where corpses collect and melt to the river below in fat rotting chunks, I lie back and watch the other figures—the ones that are not prisoners here. The rain passes through them as if they were fog, and they sing a melancholy song about a different rain, about pale dirt made black, about lying in the glurbling mud while drops fall into open mouths, open eyes.
I would sing, too, but I have no songs.
I watch the new prisoner too. The one that does not belong. Crawling, not like the others, but with purpose. Energetic. Inquisitive.
He has come for me. But I don’t know who he is.
Amarana is a wreckage, but still its citizens press cold against me in the oubliette. Another darkness behind me. Like the mother who died birthing me—with each push I stole more of her breath, and still more until, crowning, I ended her and emerged, bloody fists held before my open eyes.
My world now is the imprisoned and the dead, but I can’t tell the difference until they reach into me. Ghost fingers are needles—they dimple my flesh and then puncture, and once inside me they inject sensation and memory.
This was how I had learned first-hand the fear of the people of Amarana when the city fell. The weightlessness, the shock, the wretched impotence. This was how I had lost myself beneath the terrible weight of their accusation.
I cannot bear them, but I cannot flee.
This is why I scream when the mysterious man touches my face, and I thrash away until I realize his fingers are blunt and rough like walnut shells, not needle-like at all. The fingers of a living man.
He squints in a familiar way and opens his mouth. But instead of words he emits only a buzzing shriek, ear-splitting, a hundred thousand hives rising up in frenzy.
I shrink down, hands protectively over my head, and the man touches my shaved scalp with a manner so gentle I finally recognize him. Kaeler. My brother, Kaeler.
“Bzzz bzz?” he asks.
Are these words?
I cannot recall. I shake my head.
He looks from side to side and points down. Down to the grated barrier and the river below. “Bzz?”
While I am staring at the black rush of the river, filled with vertigo terror, the air shifts—becomes heavier—and needles hit me.
There is a ghost in me.
“Your brother will help you escape,” says the ghost.
I crouch and whimper.
“Listen to him,” the ghost says.
Kaeler opens his mouth to disturb the air, and those disturbances magically transform into words. “—can escape. Zin implanted—”
I lose his words in a panic, overwhelmed by the relentless sound of Amarana’s detonation. It echoes still. More ghosts crawl into me—worms in an apple—and shush me and soothe me and instruct me.
“You must go with him,” they say.
I protest. I have carved a path through life like a reaper in the field.
“Yes,” they say.
There can be no resurrection. Nothing for the stalks beneath my feet but decay.
“Yes,” they say. “But you cannot allow it to happen again. For you: one more swing of the scythe.”
One more swing of the scythe.
I take Kaeler’s hand. We look at each other like wolves.
Too many voices in my head; too many visions. But I swear Kaeler opens a small hatch in his bottom jaw, and from it he withdraws a narrow jeweler’s blade, and, with a quick glance up, cuts off the top of his left middle finger.
Blood is a friend of mine. It defined my old life—though I cannot remember exactly how—and my time in the oubliette.
But what comes from Kaeler’s finger isn’t blood. It is too thin, too black, and where it hits the grates the metal smokes and fizzes and finally cracks to pieces.
An implant. My old specialty.
“Do you remember,” the ghosts inquire, “the men who bore the bombs like fetuses into Amarana?”
Four men, and a woman. A young woman. Each placed strategically. There had been months of research and—
“Quickly, now.” Kaeler grabs me. A dribble of black from his finger burns into me. “Be present, Lash.”
“Look at him,” say the ghosts. “Look at him.”
I look at the grate first. Kaeler had burned a hole almost two feet wide—more than enough for my starving body.
“Into the river,” he says.
The river is black and angry. It is thirty feet below us, and just looking at it, past the ropes of prisoner-rot swaying from the bars, overwhelms me. I evacuate my bowels and shriek something in a language I don’t know. Kaeler—it was Kaeler next to me when Amarana fell, Kaeler who saw the beauty, and
“I have come far, brother,” says Kaeler. “We need you, and there is no time for hesitation.”
“Jump,” says a ghost.
So many voices.
“Let the river take you.”
“We will fall together.”
“Into the river.”
“Into the air!”
—and one of them is Kaeler’s—
—but I don’t know which.
I close my eyes. Hands are on me, rough ones and needle ones.
“The fall will be over soon enough.”
“God be with us.”
I open my eyes. The oubliette is above me, above us, quickly receding. From here it looks like a fishing net—massive, the size of a small town—hauling in its grisly catch of murderers and dissidents. Tangled in it are people like me, staring, already too far away to tell if they are confused or scared or excited.
There is a brief sensation, like a shockwave, and I go black.
Water, people say, evokes a feeling of peace. Sunsets over lakes. Ocean waves talking their way up beaches.
But water is false. Like a man, it has two faces. Its surface—merely the reflection of the people and things around it—is a pleasant story, a harmonious extension of its surroundings. But within: it is unforgiving, violent, cutting, crushing, bottomless, blinding...
“Open your eyes,” says a voice.
I am floating.
“Surface,” says a voice.
I am submerged.
Maybe water has three faces. Calm surface; chaos in the transition; and beneath is oblivion. Serenity.
The ghosts scream in my head. Bubbles erupt from my mouth.
Strong arms wrap around me, and pull me back to the air and to life. Kaeler’s face is huge and black and wet.
“Lash,” he whispers. “Lash, are you still here?”
“I’m...” I don’t know what to say. Days have passed without food, with only rain for water, and my body... “I’m here.”
“Good. Our ride is here.”
I become aware of a shape, low and dark as a log or a hunting crocodile. It’s a boat, silent, and filled with silent men who offer us hands. Once Kaeler and I are pulled aboard, the men rocket us between the banks using their hands as paddles. The oubliette is gone and the city bridges arc majestically over us. The movement, and the calming shushes of the ghosts, lull me to the edge of sleep just as the alarm is raised.
Bells ring out from the Judicial Plaza and voices call out from bridge to bridge above us.
“Gods,” mutters one of the boatmen. “I didn’t expect them to be so fast.”
“Hide,” whispers a ghost in my head.
“We need to get off the river,” says Kaeler. “If they know of the escape, they’ll have already dropped the gate. There’s no way out, this way.”
We continue for ten minutes—long enough for the silhouettes of pursuing boats to come into view behind us—before grounding suddenly and violently against an abandoned stone boat ramp. The four boatmen jump out and brandish blades. I cannot see their faces, but I see no trace of fear or hesitation. One of them claps Kaeler on the shoulder.
“With me, Lash,” says Kaeler, leaping from the boat and offering his hand. His eyes flicker in the moonlight. “Our brothers will buy us a delay.”
I try to run, but my joints have suffered and I can’t keep up. Before we even make it up the boat ramp, Kaeler makes an exasperated noise and crouches so I can climb onto his back.
He stands, holding my forearms together with a single hand. “You weigh nothing, brother.” He exhales, and jogs into the cluster of merchant buildings, all of which are dark and closed for the night. Just as we are concealed, we hear shouts and fighting. The guards have arrived at the boat ramp.
Kaeler must feel my tension because he pats my arm and says “We’ll have time. The men I brought are demons in battle.”
As if on cue, the shouts from the ramp turn to shrieks and the sounds of armored bodies—the city guards, I realize—collapsing onto stone and splashing into the river. There is a hush, then, and I see all four of our companions trotting into view, crouched low and gleaming with sweat and blood.
The ghosts churn within me, but I can’t tell if they are excited by the violence or disconcerted by it.
I drop from Kaeler’s shoulders and we all confer in the shadowed entrance of a warehouse.
“There were two boats in pursuit,” says the lead boatman. “Three men to a boat. Sentries, though, not soldiers.” He grins. “They stood no chance.”
“Thank you,” I say.
The boatman looks at me for the first time, for a long time, then raises his sword hilt to the center of his chest and nods to me. “It is an honor.”
I do not know why.
I am in a box. Hidden in a warehouse, in the dark, with Amarana and its ghosts. “Until the city lowers its guard,” said Kaeler.
It is as timeless as the prison beneath the Judicial Plaza. But even in the timelessness and lonely darkness there is no peace. The ghosts of Amarana are awake, sharks at chum.
What do they want from me?
“Remember,” one hisses.
I remember only pieces.
“What do you remember?
I remember a man, younger than me, and a hollow in his abdomen where his organs had been.
I remember something in the hole—clockwork and wires—and a voice, whispering as if to itself:
“silver to copper, then
silver to black;
silver to copper, then
silver to black”
and there was tension in the voice—concentration, and perhaps fear of the terrible potential.
“What do you remember?”
Steady hands. A voice—Kaeler’s—saying “Amarana will fall.”
“What do you remember?”
Five toned bodies scooped out like gourds. False brass sides attached to them to conceal the bombs. Celebration.
“What do you remember?”
Fire and blooming death and falling.
The box is moving.
The box is moving.
I am so thirsty.
The box is a coffin. I’m sure of it.
My lips crack and bleed. My body shakes uncontrollably.
Kaeler has forgotten me. He is dead; they are all dead; all life has been crushed beneath the heel of the world but me, gasping in the darkness like a fish on the shore. There are no brothers.
There are only ghosts.
A noise awakens me. I don’t know where I am. The noises of the city have long stopped. I don’t know when it is. I’ve slept more than once.
The ghosts have kept me company, reciting hour after hour of stories of Amaranan lives snuffed out, and they know my mind. “You are not dead,” they whisper. “Not yet.”
A sudden crack of light almost blinds me, and the nails of the box lid shriek as they are wrenched up.
I don’t want this. I want the dead to whisper me into oblivion. I want to lose myself. To become clay, formless, like I was before the hands of the world first shaped me.
“This is your resurrection,” says a ghost. “You are not done.”
Reluctantly, I sit up and there is jubilation. Twenty faces, thirty, I cannot count the crowd, but their mouths are all open and shouting and their eyes are wild. From the blur, Kaeler steps forward and raises his hands.
“Welcome,” he shouts, toward me but in a manner meant for the audience, which cheers in response. “My brother: Lash the physician! Lash the bombmaker!”
That’s what I was.
That’s how I flooded my past self with blood and glory. The doctor who learned how to conceal bombs from even the most attentive guards, who learned the delicate wiring from a toothless clockmaker
silver to copper, then
silver to black,
always in that order, never permitting the copper and black wires to cross—who perfected the implantation procedure. Lash the bombmaker, who—
“—struck Amarana to the ground.” Kaeler was still shouting to the crowd. “The man who brought the spinning hub of our enemies to a grinding halt! Welcome home!”
Home. I am overwhelmed. Home!
“We will never have a homecoming,” says a ghost. An old man’s voice. “Our homes are spread to dust on the valley floor.”
The words pull me away from the fleeting sensations of the room and back into my mind.
This is not my home.
I want to protest. Home was a small two room shack, warm and pleasantly dim, filled with the smell of cinnamon and the voice of our mother singing and the sound of our father’s hushed conversations with huge, faceless men. I played with toy soldiers and learned my letters there, under the tutelage of mother’s mother. Home was where father was taken by Justice, months before Kaeler was even born.
“You never knew our home!”
Am I speaking out loud? No one seems to have noticed, except perhaps Kaeler who is very still and looking at me. The crowd is too excited to see me. Everyone is smiling with their teeth and every nerve is telling me to run.
“We know,” say the ghosts.
I can’t do this.
I’m— I haven’t said the words, but I realize abruptly I mean them. “I’m sorry!”
“Apology,” hisses a ghost, and I can feel her like a blade in me, “is insufficient.”
Night comes fast in the valley. The sun lowers but does not dim until the edges of cliffs eclipse it. There is no twilight warning—the unsuspecting can be caught off-guard, lost in the dark among the many false paths and treacherous falls that line the valley’s walls and floor.
The sun is low, and I understand the dangers. But, fixed by Kaeler’s eyes I still find myself wanting to flee, to deliver myself to the wilderness.
“We need you,” Kaeler says.
I don’t know if I can do this.
“Ask him what he needs,” instruct the ghosts.
So I do.
“The loss of Amarana brought the junta to chaos, but they’ve mostly recovered. Administrative functions—even for the remote regions—have been moved to the capital.”
“You need my bombs.”
“More than ever. Amarana had a single failure point, which is why we hit it in the first place. But the capital is hardened, and the ideal targets are well-distributed.”
“So you’ll need to hit multiple locations. Depots and offices?”
Kaeler shakes his head. “They’re too well-protected. They learned at least one lesson from Amarana.” Then he laughs, and it is terrible. “But they didn’t learn every lesson.”
“Listen now,” say the ghosts. “Listen closely. Listen and remember.” They fill me again with their final sensations—smoke burns in my lungs, and the ground slips away beneath my feet and I am falling, I am falling...
“We’ll hit their markets. We’ll hit their homes. Their hospitals. Their nurseries.” Kaeler’s face is fierce. His conviction is absolute. I remember a time when that conviction swayed me. “They are protecting their brain, so we will rip out their heart.”
They give me a medical student—a skinny, nervous young man called Heit—to train.
“We’ll need more bombs than you can provide, brother.” Kaeler claps me on the shoulder and pushes Heit into the room with his other hand. “Heit will be of great help to you,” he says, but he smiles as he says it. Kaeler never smiles.
“Be cautious,” say the ghosts.
“I am always cautious,” I say, then kick myself for speaking out loud again without meaning to.
Kaeler raises an eyebrow. “I understand. You have standards. But properly trained, Heit will be a second set of arms for you. Teach him everything.”
Kaeler walks out and I’m left alone with Heit.
Well... not entirely alone.
“Do not trust him,” says a ghost.
“He is one of them,” says another.
“He cannot be—”
“I know!” I shout, and Heit drops a scalpel he was examining and looks at me in alarm.
“It is an honor, bombmaker,” he says, mumbling, while stooping to pick up the scalpel.
I wince. “Call me Lash. Only Lash.”
His eyes grow huge, and I’m reminded of my welcome here. I am a hero.
I don’t need the ghosts’ jeering to feel sick at the thought.
“How old are you?” I say.
Nineteen? So young; was I ever so young? I was only two years older when Kaeler...
“Yes. Two years.” He looks me in the eyes for the first time. “My mother always said my hands were a gift.”
“And demolition work?”
Heit finds the scalpel and drops it trying to return it to a table. “None, bombmaker. Lash.”
The ghosts break in. “He is your tool. Use him.”
“Yes... teach him.”
I make a squeaking noise and smile, too large, and I can feel my left eyelid flutter. “Ah, so I will... teach you.”
The ghosts riot.
And I... drift.
Heit and I, we carve bodies—I don’t ask where Kaeler gets them—so he can learn where the incisions are made, where the explosives are packed, how everything is fused and resealed. Camouflaged.
But I spend as much time arguing with the ghosts as I spend teaching Heit.
He asks why we hide the bombs inside people—why not just packs that can be set down? The ghosts scoff and spit, and I explain about the search protocols, and how in areas of heightened security every cart and every bag is searched. A person with a bag filled with the expected travel necessities—and nothing else—can walk in with thirty pounds of explosives in their gut primed for detonation.
“Is that how you killed Amarana?”
The ghosts seethe. They tear at me.
I cannot remember the faces of the bombers I operated on before Amarana. But I remember they were young, and I remember their twitching excitement—the same excitement Heit demonstrates now. And again the ghosts remind me of my purpose and assail me with a hurricane of their last moments, and by the time they stop I am curled on the floor, weeping.
I forget to answer Heit’s question.
I try to focus.
I want so badly to think clearly again, but the ghosts won’t leave me alone. “Do you know what the brothers say about you?”
I don’t care about what they think.
“They say you’re crazy,” says a ghost.
“They think you’re dangerous.”
I try to turn back to my lecturing, but they interrupt me again.
“They’re plotting, right now, Kaeler and those closest to him.” This voice is of an older woman, and it reminds me so much of mother’s mother I cry just to hear its softness. Heit looks at me in alarm, but the ghost keeps talking. “They’re going to ask you to sacrifice yourself. To be the next bomb.”
I close my eyes, and all I see is surgical cuts and the removal of pulsing organs and explosives, then wires, always silver to copper, always silver to black, wires bristling from the empty cavity of our sacrificed brothers and sisters. My whole body shakes at the thought, and I whisper, “What should I do?”
Heit steps forward, hesitates before he touches me. “Sir?”
The ghost’s voice is understanding but firm. “You’re going to say yes.”
“Good,” I say, and it is. The brass is smooth on my sides—better than I could have crafted it myself. Heit has listened well.
Kaeler’s voice disrupts my thoughts. It is too muffled to understand his words, but I recognize the tone. He and the men he calls brothers—I spit at the thought—are in the next room, deep into yet another planning session, no doubt arguing about me, about where I will strike.
Of course, my brother didn’t trust me with the detonator. But he should understand better than anyone: a compliant man is as reliable as a button.
“Now the wires,” I say to Heit, Heit-my-scythe, and I smile at the weight of the explosives within me.
I am walking death; I need no button to push; Kaeler cannot—
“He cannot stop you,” say the ghosts.
Ghosts crowd against me. Their fingers brush my back, tracing the pattern of the streets as they fell, as they still fall, over and over, accompanied by our ragged cheers and the screams of children. I sense their anticipation, but I don’t feel it.
I feel only relief.
Heit licks his lips. He is so eager, but he doesn’t understand. His young mind is filled with future, unaware we have already been cut down by the past.
All that remains is to fall.
I try to pity the boy, but the ghosts don’t allow it, so I simply watch.
His nimble fingers pluck at cords within my abdomen to complete the wiring, just like I showed him:
Silver to silver;
copper to black.
A single spark leaps. Beneath me, the stones bloom.