Authors: Suzanne Francis
Tom carefully leaned the yitar against the wall. "What is it?"
Suvi crossed the room to comfort Marja. "Her little boy is very unwell. I brought him some medicine last night, but it must not be the right kind."
"May I have a look at him?"
Marja's head flew up. "Who is that? Is he a doctor?"
Suvi shook her head. "This is Tom Finn. He fixed my motapede." She stared at him, her expression doubtful. "What do you know about milk sickness, Tom?"
"Me? Not a thing." He seemed surprised by her question. "But I have a friend, a very kind friend, who is a healer. If I see the boy, I can tell her of his condition and perhaps she will come and help."
"Truly?" Marja's expression grew hopeful. She stood and grasped Tom's arm. "This way. Riku and I live in number twenty-two."
He knelt at the boy's side and felt his forehead. Then he ran his fingers on either side of his head. Riku moaned in pain, his eyes flickering through the half-closed lids. Tom checked his legs and back. Each time, his prodding elicited the same response.
"What are you doing?" Marja spoke worriedly. "Does that hurt him?"
Tom sat back on his heels and looked at Suvi and Marja. "He doesn't have milk sickness. That is why the medicine is no good. I think it is Trench fever. It's passed by infected louse bites." Tom lifted Riku's shirt and pointed to his abdomen. "Look, he has red spots here, and here and here."
Marja frowned at Suvi as she pulled her aside. She kept her voice very low. "I thought you said he was a Rose mechanic. How in hell does he know what troubles Riku?"
Suvi looked at the tent, where the backlit silk left Tom Finn's silhouette clearly visible. He seemed to be waving his hands above the boy in an incantation. "I am not sure
he is. But if he wants to help then maybe we should let him. I can't see how it could hurt."
By the time the women came back into the tent, Tom had the camera stashed away again.
* * * *
She walked him to the side door where he had left his battered pick-up. "Thank you for everything you did today, Tom. If you hadn't shown up when you did, I might still be buried under a ton of bricks in the office."
He shrugged. "I was happy to help. And I would like to come back in the morning, and patch those broken windowpanes for you. The wind will be howling by tomorrow night. There is a solid freeze ahead and a lot of snow."
Suvi gazed at him. His eyes were clear blue, like
on a sunny day, and yet the suggestion of clouds lay just underneath, as if there were grey thoughts hiding within them. Under her scrutiny, he rubbed his cropped hair and grinned.
"And yes, I will play at the dinner if you really want me to." Suvi still said nothing, and Tom got the uncomfortable feeling she wanted to ask him a question, but could not quite find the words.
Finally, she said, "Your friend, the healer? Will she come with you tomorrow?"
He nodded uncertainly. "I will ask her, but if she cannot, I will bring some medicine anyway. Tell Marja not to worry too much. Trench fever is painful, but can be cured very quickly. If we give Riku some sulfa drug..."
Suvi frowned. "Who are you really, Thommats Finn? You are like no Rose man I have ever met."
Tom thrust his hands into his pockets and chewed the edge of his red-blond moustache. "Come now, Suvi. I thought you, of all people, would be the last to judge a man by his Soli."
She laughed ruefully at this. "Fair enough. I guess I owe you an apology." Suvi held out her hand. "Until tomorrow, then. It was very nice meeting you, Tom."
"And you." Tom shook her hand, very formally. "Expect me in the morning some time."
He jumped in the truck and peeled away rather vigorously considering the apparent age of the vehicle, Suvi thought. Just another little contradiction.
* * * *
"I won't be long, Chelah." The degum wound round her legs disconsolately. "I need to pay a visit to Max, at the Field, and see what he has for us this week."
Chelah growled, deep in the back of her throat.
"Well, yes, I don't think much of him either, but he does help us. Even if it is just another business transaction to him." Suvi picked up the file; the one she had stolen from the man named Jack, and tucked it into her jacket.
She gave her pet a quick pat. "Bye, Chelah. I will try to get some tinned milk for you." The degum growled happily, then curled in the middle of Suvi's pillow, with her long tail wrapped tight around her body.
Suvi scanned the sky outside. Low cloud meant any bombers would come in unobserved, but since there had already been a raid today, she felt reasonably safe. She took the motapede on to Wharfan Svaate, and headed south, in the direction of Ebbetsfeld. The civil defense authority discouraged daytime travel, so the deserted roads seemed almost peaceful. She made good time, adroitly taking footpaths and little used lanes to avoid the ever-present roadblocks. The motapede handled well; even better than before the accident, forcing Suvi to admit that whatever else Thommats Finn might be, he was a capable mechanic.
High, barbed wire fences surrounded Ebbetsfeld, but the rusty metal sagged in many places. Suvi bypassed the main gate, with its many guards, and followed a gravel road round the compound to a little-used back entrance. She drew up to the guardhouse and removed her helmet. The soldier manning the gate stood at attention, his thin, pale face pinched with cold.
Suvi recognized him and waved. "Hello, Willkie. How are you today?"
The sentry, a young Spear of about sixteen, looked around quickly for his Sergeant and then gave her a small, secretive smile. "Fine, Miss Markku. And you?"
"I am well. And Belle sends her regards. Will you come to the dinner on Friday night? I am sure she would be glad to see you."
Willkie frowned. "You know what the Sergeant says, Suvi. We ain't allowed to mix with the locals. Especially now. The field is locked tighter than a drum." He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Some big push going to happen up North, that is what I heard. We might get the call any day now."
Suvi gave a guilty frown, thinking about the papers she had stashed in her pocket. "All the more reason to come this Friday. You can sneak through the back way, in your civilian clothes. How else will you see your lady love before you ship out?"
He seemed unconvinced. "I don't know. I could get in an awful lot of trouble..."
She grinned and poked his shoulder. "Since when do you care? And anyway there will be dancing."
His eyes brightened. "Are you going to sing?"
"If you come, I promise I will."
The Sergeant, a bluff, red-faced fellow, appeared around the corner. The sentry, who had been slouching, straightened his back. "Here is your pass, Miss. Remember you must leave the field after thirty minutes, no longer." He handed over a small white card, which Suvi stuck in her pocket.
"Thank you, Private." Suvi gave him a secretive wink. "See you on Friday." She sped off on her motapede before Willkie could argue. After wending her way through lanes of beat-up Harrier Corps trucks and a few heavy field guns, she arrived at the supply depot. Suvi parked the pede and picked her way through the muddy forecourt.
A swarthy, unkempt man stood in the doorway, scratching his broad expanse of belly, only just covered by his uniform shirt. "Well, well. If it ain't Miss Suvi! And what have you got for your old buddy Max today?"
Suvi forced a smile. "I think you will be impressed." She waited until they were inside the office before carefully peeling the top sheet off the file. "Have a look."
He gave a long, low whistle. "Operation Pincer? Where in the hell did you get this?"
Suvi looked vague. "I found it somewhere."
Max scanned the paper quickly. "Fifteen cases of tinned pukka,
the rest of the papers are genuine."
She laughed mirthlessly. This was an old game between them. "Please don't waste my time, Max. That file describes a top-secret troop movement, to engage the Grond north of
. Very important tactical information. I am sure your employers would not want it to fall into the wrong hands. Berengarth would pay dearly for such vital intelligence." Suvi waited breathlessly, hoping Max would not call her bluff.
He lowered his beetling brows, until Suvi could hardly see his eyes. "You ain't threatening old Max, are you?"
She spoke quickly. "Of course not. I just want you to understand how important this file could be. You might even get promoted if you turn it back in to the High Command."
Max sniffed noisily and spat in an oily puddle, making a swirling rainbow in the water. Suvi looked away in disgust. "I don't give a rette's ass about promotions. I got a good deal here, and something this big could screw it up, see?"
Suvi held out her hand. "As you wish. I can always sell it somewhere else."
"Fifteen cases of pukka and three parachutes," he offered, after a calculated pause. "That is all I can give you. Take it or leave it."
"I want the meat, six parachutes, two hundredweight sacks of flour, three tins of evaporated milk and a flask of poteen," she said firmly. "And
may take it or leave it."
Max gave her a grudging smile, exposing stained teeth and a generous plug of tabac. "You sure drive a hard bargain for such a pretty little thing. Any chance you and me could..."
Suvi quickly shook her head. This too was an old game. "I don't think so, Max."
He spat again, closer to her feet. "Suit yourself. All right, you got yourself a deal. I'll load the stuff in one of those big crates you like so much. One of my boys will deliver it." He held out his hand and wiggled his fingers suggestively. "I'll take the rest of that file, Sweetie."
"I will give you half now and the balance when the cargo is delivered. Please don't be offended. In this business it doesn't pay to trust people."
Max gave her a knowing wink. "Too right, little lady." He tucked the sheaf of papers into the back of his pants and covered it with his uniform shirt. "You want to take the milk with you?"
"Yes, please. But just one tin, Chelah can wait for the rest." She stood by while he dug through a teetering stack of cases close to his desk. Max handed over the milk with a frown.
"Why are you doing this?"
She pretended to be baffled. "Doing what? Getting milk for my degum?"
"Dealing in military secrets." Max stared at her pensively and his eyes looked almost kind. "You are a nice girl, I can tell. Treason isn't your style. Are you sure you want to..."
Suvi cut him off. "You can't wriggle out of our deal now, Max Jalo." She turned her back on him, but called over her shoulder, "When should I expect the delivery?"
"Tomorrow night, after curfew. Give the rest of the file to Jaegr. He won't ask no questions."
She tossed the milk in the front basket, started the pede and sped away, glad to be out of there. Dealing with people like Max Jalo was the only part of her job she truly disliked. They used the war for personal profit, siphoning off supplies needed by the men in the field.
"But we need them too," Suvi muttered as she bounced though another mud filled pothole. "We need them too."
Max crossed his untidy office, retrieving the papers Suvi had traded as he did so. They were already damp and stained with sweat. After perusing them for a minute, he picked up the phone and dialed.
A clipped voice answered. "Major Bennett."
Max sighed deeply, wondering what would happen to her.
Did they still shoot traitors?
"Jalo here, Sir. The pigeon has come home to roost."
A cave bat may hide from the light, but not the darkness.
Powwaw Speak: Shamanic Wisdom of the Irrakish
, Theodore Black, PhD
* * * *
Tessa must have fallen asleep. She woke with a crick in her neck, still clutching the diary. The candle had burned into a puddle of grease, leaving the bedroom in almost total darkness. But she could see the vague outline of the window with the broken shutter. Centered in it, like a portrait within a frame, was a dark shape that looked very much like a head.
She froze in terror and closed her eyes. "I am dreaming. Please God..." Tessa waited for exactly ten heartbeats and then her eyes flew open. The head had disappeared. She flopped onto her pillow again, feeling the cold sheen of sweat that had sprung to her forehead and armpits.
Laughing to herself she said out loud, "Silly girl. Don't be afraid of the bogeyman." Tessa straightened her pillow, and turned over on to her stomach, hoping she would be able to get back to sleep. A few moments later, a resonant scratching sound made her shoulder blades want to meet in the middle of her back. She found she could not turn over and see what it was.
The sound continued. It sounded oddly like fingernails scraping on glass.
Tessa listened hard, desperately trying to think of any benign explanation for the sound. There were no pets, no trees, and no hanging plants. After a short while, the sound grew louder and more varied, almost as if there were two sets of...
With a cry of terror, Tessa rolled off the bed and onto the floor, just as a fist thrust its way through the window, showering her pillow with glass.
She saw white fingers, like huge maggots, scrabbling for the catch. They dragged a terrified moan from her throat. "No... Go away."
There was nothing to throw but the candle lantern, so she did. The hand withdrew for maybe two seconds, but by then she was out of the bedroom and crossing the living room floor. The doors were locked, she had seen to that before she went to bed, but they could still get in, quite easily. As if to prove her point, she heard the hinges squeal in protest as the bedroom window opened past its normal rotation.
She ran to the front door, had her hand on the knob, before she stopped abruptly. Tessa slapped her forehead, hard. "Think. They won't both have come in. One will wait outside in case you try to escape through the door." She dug through the umbrella stand and selected a sturdy brass-topped cane. It had been Suvi's, when her arthritis got the best of her. Somehow, it gave Tessa courage.
A dull thump indicated that one of them was now in the house with her. She didn't want to fight, didn't think she could, but she prayed she might be able to outsmart whatever it was. Holding her breath, moving as silently as a breath of wind, she crept across the floor, back towards the bedroom, towards
. By the time it came through into the living room, Tessa had hidden herself behind the door.
The Poly's heavy tread made the floorboards groan in protest, but it did not depend on stealth to catch its prey. It needed only complete implacability.
Tessa counted to four and then dived back into the bedroom and slammed the door. The impact made the key fly out. It landed somewhere in darkness. "Shit!" She dropped to her knees, groping wildly under the bed.
Already she could feel the vibration of the floor as it moved back towards her. One step, two. It didn't seem to be in a hurry. Tessa found the key and stuffed it back into the lock. She turned it, just as the handle rattled. Standing, hardly able to catch her breath, she backed away from the door, wondering what it would do now.
The upper door panel cracked wide as a fist shot through. Tessa screamed and smashed the cane on the groping fingers. The impact caused the head to break off, leaving her with nothing to defend herself. The hand withdrew, pulling a large section of door with it. A boot kicked in the bottom panel, very efficiently. In ten seconds, nothing remained of the door. The Poly stepped over the broken pieces, and surveyed the empty room. Tessa had gone out the window.
She tore through the night, holding the long gown around her knees, wondering how long it would be before they caught up to her. She passed Joe Romine's house, dark and shuttered. The Captain had told her last week about a three-day fishing trip. She passed Ellie Rayne's snug little cottage, with its hanging geranium pots, thinking she could not involve an eighty-year-old woman in this unreasoning terror.
There was only one person who could help her now.
A dark menacing shape stepped on to the path ahead of her. Perhaps they had also known that she would run straight to Jakob Faircrow.
She swerved onto a side path, covered in loose shingle that bruised her bare feet. The Poly behind her picked up speed, gaining ground with every step. Tessa tried to remember the lay of the land before her. The path led to a rickety jetty, hardly strong enough to take her weight. Once she stepped upon it, she would be at their mercy, with nowhere else to run.
She wondered, desperately, how much a Poly weighed.
By the time she reached the jetty, both of them were right behind her. She backed onto the rotten boards. "No! Leave me alone. Go back to wherever you came from. Please."
They stepped onto the planks with their arms outstretched, like smartly dressed zombies. Tessa breathed an encouragement. "Come on..."
When the first board broke, one of the Polys dropped straight down, landing in the water below. Its head and shoulders stuck incongruously out of the splintered hole. The second did not falter -- did not even look at its companion. The rotten boards gave way under it just as Tessa dived off the end of the pier. The cold hit her hard, like a slap in the face.
She swam and swam under water, until her lungs screamed for air, trying to put whatever distance she could between her and them. The darkness under the surface was impenetrable, so Tessa surfaced, treading water until she got her bearings. She had swum a fair way into the bay, but she could see two dark figures on the shore, standing still, standing silent. They had only to wait -- the coldness of the water would freeze her bones and bring her back to them.
Already her teeth chattered madly.
She dog-paddled, parallel to the shore, and they strolled along beside her on the beach, just as if it were a Sunday afternoon outing. The boathouse loomed ahead of them, the ramp a dark angle in the water.
"Jakob!" Tessa screamed and waved her arms madly. "Jakob, help me!"
She waited breathlessly in the water for a light to come on -- for the door to open -- for him to come charging to her rescue -- but nothing like that happened. Nothing happened at all.
Tessa took several loading breaths and dived again. She swam underwater, trying to make a beeline for the boat ramp, thinking she might be able to hide beneath it. When a dark shape filled her vision she thought at first one of the Polys had come into the water. She swerved violently, but it was only one of the barnacled piers of the boathouse. Tessa dragged herself underneath, hoping there would be some headspace when she broke the surface.
There was something even better. A ladder.
She clambered up the slick and rusty rungs, praying the trapdoor above would open for her. Once she reached the door she pushed hard, but it did not move. Something ice cold brushed against her leg, brushed and then caught hold -- a hand, as white as marble and just as hard. It had her ankle, and slowly, inexorably, it began to drag her back into the water.
Tessa could not even scream.
She wrapped her elbow around the ladder and held on to her wrist with her other hand. The downwards pressure grew, until it felt as though her elbow or hip must dislocate. She gritted her teeth, threw all her strength into holding on, but slowly, so slowly, her numbed fingers began to slip.
The trapdoor above her head flew open, and she just knew the other Poly would be behind it. He would grab her head, and they would pull her to pieces... She closed her eyes, hoping it would be over quickly.
Strong arms seized her from above and jerked, hard. Hard enough to pull her free from the Poly's grasp. Tessa shot straight through the trapdoor, fighting all the way.
"Stop it! It's me, all right? I have you." His words made no impression. Only the warmth of his body stopped her struggling.
She went limp in Jakob's arms and he held her while she babbled. "They came to the window. I couldn't get away. I ran and ran..."
He didn't say anything, just gathered her up and climbed the ladder that continued straight up the wall. As they reached the top, a white fist smashed through the boathouse doors and began to work the barrel latch loose.
Once they were in the attic, Jakob lowered her gently next to the bed. She clutched at him frantically, teetering on the ragged edge of panic. "They will come up here next. How can we stop them?"
He reached behind her and pulled a blanket from the bed. "Wrap yourself in this, you must be freezing." This prosaic advice somehow helped her to get a grip. She drew the blanket around her and sank on the bed. Jakob crossed the room, and Tessa noted somewhat dizzily that he must have been asleep until very recently, for he still wore a pair of tatty flannel pajama bottoms and no shirt. His naked shoulders became a solid, reassuring bulwark between her and the Polys.
"Jakob," she asked, in a very small voice. "What are you going to do?"
An equally tattered bathrobe hung on the door and he threw it aside, revealing a sword and scabbard. Jakob drew the sword with a ringing whine and casually examined the blade.
Panic returned. Tessa couldn't suppress a horrified giggle. "You are going after them with a
? Don't you have anything else?"
He turned to face her, the sword by his side, his hand clenched on the grip. Somehow, his quiet calm radiated far more ferocity than if he had screamed the answer. "I don't need anything else. Stay in here." He went through the door, shutting it firmly behind him.
Tessa dug through the cutlery drawer until she found the knife he had used to cut the apple pie. They sat together and ate it, once upon a time, as if all had been right with the world. She had, she now remembered, been appalled at his table manners. And then he had frightened her, but not nearly enough. Not enough to make her believe.
Why hadn't she believed?
She waited for a long while, until the silence hummed with her hammering heartbeat and the tension grew too much for her to bear. Then, hating herself, hating what she knew she would find, Tessa wrapped the bathrobe around her still-soaking nightgown and stepped into the night, the knife clutched in her hand.
The moon had come out, throwing the shacks into sharp relief. She stood on the top landing of the stair, peering downwards for any sign of movement. The silence seemed magnified by the regular shush of the waves. A Poly appeared, moving stealthily along the stone path. Tessa gave a sharp intake of breath and shrank back against the wall. It stopped and then slowly turned towards her, as if it had some sort of radar.
"No..." she whispered.
As the Poly began to move forwards, gliding silently over the sand, Jakob stepped from the shadow like an avenging angel, with his sword held high. Though he did not look in her direction he seemed to know she was there. He kept his voice absolutely level. "Go back inside."
She did not obey. Couldn't. Terror had cut Tessa's nerves into frayed bits of wire. She watched as the sword flashed, heard the dull thunk as the Poly's head hit the sand, heard Jakob's grunt of agony as the smoking blood splashed his bare shoulder. He staggered backwards until his back pressed against the boathouse wall and then he fell to his knees. Tessa started down the stairs, and saw the other Poly long before Jakob did.
It moved very, very quickly. Tessa took the last stairs in a leap and threw herself between Jakob and his assailant. "Go away! Leave us alone."
The Poly caught her and squeezed. Squeezed until she felt her ribs pop. Squeezed until she couldn't cry out, couldn't breathe, until grey spots swam before her eyes. But this pain brought her resolve.
One of her arms was free. Though her hand felt nearly numb, she remembered that there had once been a knife attached to it. It glinted in the light as she raised it high, and plunged it to the hilt in the Poly's left eye. Surprisingly, it did not let her go, but it did loosen its grip long enough for her to take a ragged breath.
Jakob came up behind her and wrenched the Poly's arms wide. "Drop. Crawl away with your head covered." Tessa did as she was told. He wrestled with it, long enough for her to get clear, and then skewered its chest with the sword.
She watched, somehow dispassionately, as Jakob lifted the sword with one hand, with the Poly wriggling like a frog on the end of a gig -- lifted and shook, until the wriggling stopped. Then he dropped it, and stood over the body, panting hard. He spoke almost to himself. "
Asta ne faircorwan
Animos mi. Telluri mia."
His words sounded eerily familiar to Tessa. "What did you just say?"
"Go back inside," he repeated mechanically. "I will be there in a minute."
"Jakob, are you all right? Let me..."
"Get the fuck inside!"
His anger finally sent her scurrying up the stairs. But she turned when she reached the top, and watched with only mild astonishment as Jakob Faircrow easily lifted the dead Polydactyls and then disappeared.
* * * *
"How did this happen? It looks awful," Tessa dabbed white vinegar on the blistered skin just under Jakob's clavicle. The burned patch covered a six-inch square of chest, which now looked hairless, white and very painful.
He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together for a moment. When she had finished, he said, "The Polys blood is strongly alkaline. Burns like hell."
"Do you want me to bandage it?"
"Nah." Jakob gave her an easy grin. "I will be fine in the morning."
Afterwards, they sat with the table between them. Tessa studied the steam rising from her tea. "How long?"