The world is dark and the world is cold. I open my eyes and it remains the same. My husband is still sleeping and I don’t move, not wanting to wake him in case his dreams are different. A twinge of jealousy courses through my body as the alarm clock glows, gets brighter, and is eventually the only source of light except for the mercury vaps seeping through the edges of the blinds. I turn it off and, so very carefully, itch my palm underneath my glove. Either the rustle of the sheets or the sound of skin rubbing against thin fabryche wakes him.
He smiles and kisses me lightly, like a pulse through a patterned sheet. His eyes linger on the gloves and I see his mouth downturn but he keeps his silence; it’s an old argument, one we’ve had before, and there is nothing he can say to change anything about who I am or what I have to do. I don’t know if I love him more because he stayed with me after the Hind or if that’s when the slight taste of hatred crossed my tongue, like tasting an unpleasant, wafting odor. The crinkle at the corner of his mouth is gone and I quickly get dressed and tell him to go back to sleep.
“How many?” he finally asks and I can tell, even with my back turned and a shirt over my head, that it’s a question that’s been pushing from his teeth, like someone living between his molars, kicking at his gums until he asked it.
“Three. Two lotties and a doublebacker,” I say and the fabric muffles my voice.
“Look at you, Vas,” he smiles and I can tell just by the inflection of his voice. “Only two weeks on the job and already you sound like a hard-boiled mellophist.”
“Better hard-boiled than soulless, like you’ve been saying.” I regret the words almost as soon as I say them. Silence hangs in the air and I can’t keep staring at his reflection in the mirror and I have to turn to see him, to see those crinkles climb back onto his face and make him look like a crumpled drawing. He recovers before I can apologize, and smiles. I don’t need to hear his voice to know that this one is a dangler, a bait thrown in the hope that he can lure a real smile from deep inside of himself. “If it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else. Besides, would you have everyone drift in the Ink Sky just to save a few chipped-away pieces? My grandmother knew better than to try and save a broken teacup, Arin. It’ll give you nothing but leaky tea and cut fingers.”
“People are not teacups—” He catches himself as if he were falling out of bed. He physically puts one foot on the cold, dusty floor so he can brace himself. “I don’t want to fight. And you don’t want to be late.” He stands up, pulls the sheets with him so he becomes some Greek statue, still and silent and judging and it’s not until I feel flesh and not marble as he hands me a hat that the lemon taste at the back of my throat goes and anger slinks away and leaves us both shivering.
We need as much routine as we can get and I enjoy even the arguments, so long as we stick to the script.
I close the door and it locks behind me with a hermetic seal that’s supposed to keep the ionized dust out, but we always wake up to white glove smudging ash. Arin’s been coughing lately. I wonder if he needs a new lung and my head does the calculations from the last time it was replaced and I can almost hear the clacking but then I realize it’s just my neighbor.
“Mr. Wick,” I say and nod my head as he shuffles down the corridor.
“Mell. Sturm,” he says back, but doesn’t make eye contact with me. I fiddle with the lock in order to give him time so that he doesn’t have to talk to me any longer than he has to but he stops at the turn in the hallway and, as an afterthought, adds: “Strange noises from your apartment again. If you don’t tone it down, I’ll have to talk to management.” The last few words come out a questioning suggestion and he’s talking to the wall instead of me.
“I didn’t know they installed a com there,” I joke, trying to make him feel more comfortable but he has already shuffled down past the turn and all I hear is the clack clack clacking of his walker. I try and remember if Mrs. Wick ever doublebacked so she could replace his hip and hope that, if she hasn’t, she never will. I have yet to make an extraction from anyone I know and I don’t know if I could be able to look in anyone else‘s eye. Accusation is the last in a long line of emotions I don‘t want directed at me. “Yeah,” I whisper to the door, thinking maybe there’s something after all to this inanimate object catharsis. “Arin has nightmares sometimes.”
I take the stairs instead of the lift – it’s not the small spaces, it’s the other people and I’d hate a repeat of Wick’s deferential terror magnified by mirrors and tight corners – and enter my mellophist’s license number to access the motbike. The comp churns and, if it had any physical gears, I would swear they were grinding, but it’s old and it’s last on a long, long list of things that need replacing and finally the mobile garage coughs out my vehicleThere’s a sound of gritty sandpaper as the helmet brushes against my beard; I forgot to shave again. Now my face is going to smell like chlorophime all day.
The gears – real ones, this time – bite and chew and ricochet off the brick and I’m surprised the clay doesn’t crumble from the sound of the bike. I tug my coat collar tighter around my neck as the rain starts up again and take off into the crowded streets under an eternally cloudy sky. It won’t last long – the acid wash, not the grim overhang of meteorite-sifted nebulosity – and by the time I’m halfway to the eclipsing Nasun building, it stops. My place of work stands taller than anything else around it, sharp like a dagger, almost sharp enough to cut through the sky and finally make the light come back. And in a way, that’s what they did; it wasn’t blood they drew but something deeper.
It’s about ten o’clock in the morning and the only way to tell is by looking at the dim blue clocks wiping through the darkness like falling stars.
“…prepared for the three hour event at precisely three In Aeternum. Which has us wondering,” the radio chirps in the right ear of my helmet as the left talks about an encroaching dust storm that’s supposed to knock out power tomorrow, “what has taken Nasun so long? It’s been three turns since the last solar event and whatever crops that were maturing last we checked, have lost their nutrients from the lack of sunlight.”
“It’s a malfunction with the lotties. Corruption has tripled according to our sources,” says another voice on the same show and it sounds like Mr. Wick’s, but I know that’s just me imagining things again. It’s Demis, an outspoken critic whose voice haunts my dreams I hear it so much. “…Opting out of their appropriate turns by trading in stolen and black-market chrysalis for a reprieve.”
“Disgraceful,” the host intones and I can hear the smugness thickening his throat. “And who’s to blame?”
“The mellophists themselves,” Demis replies, quicker to the answer because he knows the question is coming. “They’re taking what’s not theirs, attacking people in the darkness perpetuated by their own misdeeds and selling pieces of people’s souls to the highest bidder. We’ve even got intel that there are restaurants that will serve you – get this – serve you chrysalis.”
“Sickening,” voices chirp in the back in order to let the listeners know how they should feel. My stomach churns, but it has nothing to do with the crickets. The attacks, I know, aren’t coming from people like me, but, as demonstrated by Mr. Wick, no one is willing to meet my eye and talk about it.
Streetlights whizz by and the ground is slick, reflecting streaks so that I’m in an ever-expanding prison of sickly blue light. There’s already static in the air from the encroaching dust storm and I can taste the electricity on the back of my tongue. I should call Arin and let him know to put towels under the windows, but I park the bike in the garage and, before I can even take off my helmet, there’s an open elevator and my assistant is holding the doors. They’re black and shiny and I can see the bags under my eyes before stepping inside the lush, bread-colored compartment.
Her name is Sabret and her hair is pulled back to show off her cheekbones and whatever wrinkles she’s gained by the time she’s twenty-three are exorcised by her bun. She’s worked for Nasun since graduating college and is more involved with my career than I am; she was a secretary looking for someone to ride up with – not just in an elevator – and I happened to have just the soul she was looking for.
“…Already waiting. She’s seems really nervous. We might have to give her some chlorophime,” Sabret has been saying and I’ve been paying attention only to the numbers on the elevator as it climbs impossibly high at an impossible speed. One two three four and by the time I blink we’re already at sixty three sixty four — “Sixty five,” she finishes and holds the door for me to walk out. My stomach lurches again and I try to tell myself that it’s because parts of me are still thinking they’re going up when I’m trying to walk forward, but I pull Sabret’s arm so we can talk before we get into my office.
“How’s everything going with…” I look at the floor. It’s some patterned carpet designed not to impinge anyone’s tastes, but I think it just inspires an encompassing apathy. It teaches you not to feel anything on a floor where everything will be taken from you.
Sabret nods sagely, pursing her red lips and standing on her tip toes in her pumps and whispering: “You’ve been placed in the bid. Anonymous, like you asked. I’ll let you know the winner before your third appointment.”
After that her personality is wiped and she clacks down the hallway, moving her skirt just enough to cause my eyes to follow there but not enough to be anything more suggestive. I can almost feel Arin swatting me on the ear so I have to flick at the cartilage to get the feeling to go away. I follow the gray, black, flesh, black blur until I’m side-stepping Sabret’s erect posture to stand next to a woman – a girl, really – laying down in one of the extraction rooms. The first lottie and she’s barely eighteen.
People can go their entire lives without being picked to harvest pieces of their souls to power a new sun so that the rest may go on living, and some are chosen the day they become eligible. There’s a subtle sympathy radiating from Sabret that I notice she gives every lottie and I realize she’s like the carpet – inoffensive – but there’s something more here, something else. I can feel it too. It’s the girl’s bitter, ammonia-drenched fear that’s coming off in a palpable coldness from her hands.
“Amber?” I ask, hoping I haven’t called her the wrong name since I was only half-listening in the elevator. “My name is Vasker. I’m a mellophist.”
“Is it going to hurt?” she asks and her eyes are as big as any I’ve ever seen. Everyone reacts to fear differently, to knowing that they’re going to become a different person in just a matter of minutes, and she barely has any control over her body, over anything really, so even as I watch Sabret open her mouth to lie to the girl, I give her this.
“Yes,” I say. Her eyes widen and then her breathing shortens. Sabret turns her head sharply and I wonder why I can’t hear it crack and she clacks down the hallway until I can’t hear her heels anymore. Such a noisy person. I turn back to Amber and put one of my hands in hers. She pulls away but I’m used to it. I am not something she can control either. As far from it as she can possibly get. “The extraction feels like getting a tooth pulled, I’m told. It’s all pressure and popping, but a dull ache. It’s when I’ll be looking for hollows that will be excruciating. They’re like divots in your soul, concavities that allow me to slip in and harvest a bit. I’ll do it as quickly as I can. If you want, we can give you—”
“No,” she says and then looks in horror at her word but stands by it. “I want to know. I have to. My grandmother was one of the first. To get a piece taken, you know.” I don’t, but I know it’s an expression. I nod. “I don’t remember her before, but afterwards, she was always staring at things. It didn’t really matter, I found out, but it was like she needed to stare, you know?” I do know. I’ve known many people afterwards. Myself included. “I made a collage the day my number was called to stare at, to remind me of everything in my life. I just finished it this morning.” She stops her story in a whisper, as if each word is a picture to arrange on a wall, to balance, to level. I pat my pockets and find a dried leaf that Arin’s always picking up from his work. He thinks every one is a map to somewhere, written in the veins that we haven’t deciphered yet, or – on his less lucid days – have somehow been corrupted because of their artificial sunlit growth, thus leading nowhere. Dusty roads are inscribed and one will lead us back to the way we were, he says. We just need to find it.
“For your collage,” I say and hand it to her. She stares at it – I know with all of her, not just piecemeal bits haphazardly thrown back into her body – and her knuckles turn white holding the brittle stem. “It’s not finished yet, just like you. This will pass.” I’m supposed to thank her for her sacrifice, but I don’t think anyone wants to hear that so I usually leave it out.
“What happens if you can’t find a hollow?” she says, carefully dusting photographs in heavy, gilt frames.
“Then you become like me.”
I leave her with the picture of the leaf and know that she has never seen one before. It’s because of the way she turns it over and over. I take off my gloves. Underneath the fabryche there are my hands, but they are pellucid and my veins, like the leaves, are maps to the thickening of flesh at my wrists and underneath my hands are Amber’s knees. I plunge them into her and it feels like scratchy, shatterable tree branches pulling at my insubstantial fingers. She screams. The branches, I know, are her skeleton and I have to concentrate to allow my hands to float, to stretch and find that gossamer part of both of us and string it like a clothesline.
I have stopped hearing her but I see her mouth in the shape of an O.
There. I’ve brushed my way past and the clearing comes. Now I start searching for imperfections, for dark spots, for hollows. Her body is convulsing and then goes slack. She’s fainted. Finally. My fingers climb through the undergrowth, the twisting vines, the dead growths, the forest. I find one, swirling downwards like a drain, picking up pieces that I can easily snatch up and pull out. As soon as I pull the piece of her soul out of her body it instantly crystallizes and I have to put it down so it doesn’t burn through my ghostly hand.
Sabret knocks twice before entering and I step around to the other side so that Amber is between the two of us. I eye my gloves and then keep a precise watch on where my assistant moves. With my hands unsheathed, it’s very dangerous for me to be around someone who has been through the Hind. Sabret knows this, but she’s more interested in collecting the chrysalis than she is in anything else. Whatever sympathy that took up residence in her iris is gone and is replaced with insatiable longing as she looks at the glowing white rock that looks like it could be broken into common table salt. The sheen will fade the further away from Amber it gets.
I sigh. My hands are shaking as I try to put on my gloves. I have two more extractions today and who knows how many more after that. I try to think about what Arin is doing. He is probably reading or scribbling a nonsense note with the crayons he got as a present from his niece. His fascination with their waxy colors boggles my mind and I try not to think about if a similar part of Amber will disregard such simple solace. I hope her collage works, but I know it won’t.
Her eyes flutter open and she stares at the ceiling as I leave the room.
The second extraction goes without any complications. The chrysalis I extract from the middle-aged man is larger, but that really has nothing to do with the amount of energy it will release into the new sun. People think that hollows are caused by wrong doing, a corruption of the immortal, but I have dug around in enough people to know that is just a justification, a lie to get people through the horrible truth, like heaven. Like hell. Any skulless baby has hollows, just like any chain-smoking, blackened centenarian. The only ones that don’t are mellophists, those like me. And I know that I am far from pure, from clean, and I am lucky enough to have Arin.
That almost makes it worse.
During my break the second lottie’s piercing green eyes strike me out of the blue so that I am lost in the memory of their crinkled agony. He stayed awake the entire time and the piercing thought lancing through those eyes made me think he’d somehow created his own hollow in me and once again the adolescent terror that the mellophists — the ones I didn’t know before I became one myself — will come for me returns. The terror seems to grip my legs like I’ve walked into a minefield; each step fraught with eye-dancing indecision and mouth-drying disquiet.
I was lying on the table like so many others, staring at the bright blue light of the mercury-filled tube, thinking that it was the brightest light I had ever seen in my life and it didn’t even remind me of the sun – the real one, not the fake solar-flared man-made doppelganger – and that was the last thing I wanted before my soul was incomplete and if they ever really brought the sun back, I wouldn’t want to remember it without that important thing and then nothing. The mellophist put his hands down and I thought it was done. It wasn’t until I realized that my own hands were doppelgangers themselves that I breathed, that I was whole. Transparent, but whole.
Sabret pulls me out of the room and my memories, quiet and heavy like stone and tells me she has bad news. Each word is a pebble in my gullet becoming bigger until I can’t swallow. The doublebacker is going to be observed by Mell. MacPherson. My conduct has been called into question. I have lost the bid. The last one is such a large stone I feel all of the air leave my chest. Arin. I did all this for him. It was his number, not mine, and I became what I am so that he wouldn’t lose a piece. But he did it anyway.
And I never even found out why he wanted the money.
“Are you sure?” I ask and put my hand on her arm, maybe using too much pressure, and I wonder if I’ve let my desperation bleed through.
“Vasker, I—please stop, you’re hurting me. Yes, you lost. And we can’t do this anymore.” Her eyes are making the walls into people. Maybe just ears. “I think MacPherson knows about the anonymous bets you’ve been placing. Don’t drag my name through this. You, you’re safe,” she says and pulls her arm away as a man in a suit passes by. “They’ll throw me in the metarteries if they know that we’ve been vying for black market chrysalis.”
“If we can sell it to the highest bidder, why can’t that guy be me?” I ask, more forceful than I want, but she hasn’t seen what will happen. She doesn’t know and she can’t. Unlike me, she doesn’t know what she says when she talks about the metarteries. You know?
“God, why don’t you just take it then? You’re more than capable.” She puts a hand over her mouth as soon as she pronounces the last bubbling consonant. “I didn’t mean that. I know that you would never.”
“Then why is MacPherson observing? If you wanted out, you could have just said. You didn’t have to say anything to him.”
She leaves, her gray, black, flesh, black backside clacking and my hands are shaking. Is it anger? Apprehension? Desperation is in the gut, makes you swallow your spit until your throat is just convulsing, not taking anything down with it into the churning inferno of your stomach. No, this is a string breaking; one wrong note in a symphony that breaks the belief.
The third extraction of the day, the doublebacker, goes by in a flash. MacPherson’s hands are almost bigger than my face but he keeps them gloved; it’s his eyes that are acuminous and serrated. Extracting a piece of soul when it’s already been rendered is disorienting but easy, like reading upside-down. I almost feel MacPherson’s gaze like white pokers into my back as I cause the doublebacker the second most intense pain of her life. I’m a glass pyramid, refracting his eyes through my hands into her soul. But she doesn’t feel it, which doesn’t mean I don’t. Chlorophime fills the air like heavy mustard gas. Its target is awareness. Hers? Mine?
After she’s done she is taken into a recovery room to wear off the effects of the anesthetic. She’s euphoric now but her insides will burn later. Her mind maybe forever. I am taken aside to be given a close-mouthed, husky-voiced lecture about proper etiquette. I am to remind them chlorophime is always available. That their sacrifices are noble and worthy. That the words I am saying are not written down on a piece of paper somewhere and memorized, given subtle nuances so as not to sound practiced. I wonder if we say these words more for ourselves than for them, but I keep silent and nod. All the while I think about how much he really knows and why he’s not saying what he wants to know; it is a common problem.
“Sir?” I ask as he turns his toes to leave me. “Did she ever say what the money is for?” It’s a common question. Especially for me.
“Her kid,” he replies as his voice drowns out the clopping of his shiny shoes. “Sick or dying or something. Like everyone else isn’t.”
My mind fills in the woman’s blurred, quickly-malleable features for Arin’s. He told me he didn’t have any family in need of new organs. Did he lie? It wouldn’t have been the first time. But now I remember how I’ve lost the bid again and I hurry down to the elevator in the hopes that by rushing my body, my mind will do the same and I will be able to think about what else I can do before I have to see him again. The bright lights of Nasun are replaced by the brooding clouds and the dreary darkness of the real world outside: skeletal trees, gray, ink-washed buildings, acid dust that eats us away piecemeal, and blue, humming lights.
It is not quite three o’clock.
I know the spectersun will be up soon and I close the second-layer darkened visor like some reptilian eyelid and with a snap there comes an unnatural dawn from the apex of the building I am leaving. Everyone stops what they are doing to watch, to close their eyes and pretend it’s something else; they watch with their skin. Not having a sun has taught us to be wary of sight. Sight is much more than just eyes these days. But something is moving, stark against the silence of everything else, and with my back to the spectersun, I am the only one who sees. There is a woman with a smudged face being dragged into an alleyway. I wouldn’t stop, except the smudged face now looks like Arin’s because I pushed it that way with my thumbs. It is the doublebacker and her screams are ones that are familiar to me.
There are things digging into her soul. That’s why I know that particular brand of telescoped suffering. They are white-skulled, sharp-toothed bruised things with cat-like eyes. They are barely more than beasts as they scoop up her spirit with bowed fingers. They are the soulless or the soulful and they are what has been attacking people in the metarteries. People have seen them, I know, but people have also learned to distrust their eyes, even when they are telling the truth. Maybe especially then. They don’t want to know what sacrifice means; they are parents to an abominable pregnancy and they don’t even deign a twinge of recognition for their hapless children.
“Help me,” she gurgles and I stop the motor on my bike and take off my helmet. The light almost blinds me as I grope to pull at her hand. She grasps it, undoes the clasp unknowingly in her blind excavation and my specter hand slips out. The creatures hiss and back up. They are barely human anymore and I wonder if even they realize how much of their souls they have lost and if it was worth the cost. Her essence is still solidifying in their mouths and parts dribble out like sticky spittle as they stare at me. They sense another predator when they see one.
And then a small, niggling idea saunters into the reptile part of me. The musk scares the mammals away even more and they drift into whatever darkness they can find in the fake light. Sabret’s words come back to me and as the struggling woman continues to grasp, I wonder how much they have taken. Is she slipping into unconsciousness or have they taken enough to make her like them? Can I even save her? If I can’t, can she maybe now save me?
Her hand passes through mine and with it, a hollow finds my middle finger and a piece of chrysalis drops to the concrete with a large, rising knoll. I did nothing to move out of her way, knowing what would happen. Before she can even register that I am chewing her alive, that I am making her a sacrifice that is noble and worthy, I put on my glove with my teeth – are they sharper? Is my skull protruding from my hairline? – and pick up my stolen guilt. They keep track of how many times I take off my gloves. They’ll know something is up. I am whizzing past buildings before I even remember where I am. I have missed my exit and I have to double back.
These lapses of darkened memory are troubling; like stepping into a pitch-black room and stumbling into a table that is three feet from where it should be. You think either it was moved or you are mistaken. Maybe both. Or maybe it’s a perception thing. I try to remember if that’s how it happened with Arin. Was there a second of time between his flesh hitting my exposed hand that I could have pulled myself away? Did some part of me – the same part that just killed that woman – want to see what would happen and then forget in that split-second that dreams and real-life are different? If only he hadn’t doublebacked without telling me. Why wasn’t my sacrifice noble and worthy enough to spare him? I don’t know what else he needed without me. I can’t take a piece out accidentally unless the spiderweb shattering has already begun. I would have been more careful if I had known. I would have been, I know.
I get back home. The blinds are drawn but there’s a crinkle down the middle of them, like someone has pulled a needle and thread and the slats followed the current of the conductor’s hand. With a few snaps they are back into place and there’s a small cut in the fabryche of my glove. I stare idly at it and wonder if ghosts bleed before remembering why I’m here. What I just did.
Arin is in the closet. He is moaning and keening. Whatever part of him he remembers from this morning has slipped away like curling, escaping steam. I would have been more careful but now I have to make sure he doesn’t take a swipe at me. Nothing will happen – he can’t pull me apart like the woman in the alley because there are no hollows in me – but he can break the skin and I can’t bear to see if he would try to lick up the blood. The chrysalis is in my pocket and I try not to think that he is a dog and I am in his master giving him a treat. I throw it at him and close my eyes and see with my ears that he is chewing on a piece of ice. He was drinking a large glass of iced tea and an ice cube has gotten stuck in his teeth and instead of sucking on it, he grinds his teeth and wears them down.
I open my eyes too soon and see the truth of it: he is gulping down the piece of soul to replace his own. The ones that I’ve taken from him and the ones that he’s taken from himself. I would give him all of myself if I could, but I can’t. So I give him what I can. Recognition swims in those feline eyes and he smiles at me. He doesn’t stare. He looks.
MK Sauer lives in Colorado where she owns a coffee shop and spends entirely too much time being caffeinated. She loves Russian literature and Saturday morning cartoons equally and finds ways to appeal to both in her writing. Though her hair has been many colors, it is now a shocking shade of fluorescent green, which just so happens to match her car. She likes to write on a typewriter named Hella next to a human skull named Rochester. This is her first published piece of fiction. It is dedicated to Jess, Mark, Mrs. Margo Walsh and oatmeal.