(reading time: 1 hour, 24 minutes)
The 9th Life of Long Odd Silver
“We are closed!” Minty shouted as she rushed toward the front door in her green silk pajamas. It was so early in the morning that there was only a shred of daylight outside, so she held an illuminated card up like a candle, footage of a yellow flame flickering. Her feet were bare and her glasses resting comfortably on her nightstand a few rooms away.
Whunk whunk whunk! The knock came again, though it was more like somebody swinging a sack of potatoes against the wood. Then there was another knock from a different angle, smaller, harder, more persistent. Then another. It was hammering, she realized.
Kathug! That one made her pause in the middle of the stacks. Worse than knocking or hammering. A rivet. Somebody was riveting the front of her home at 4:30 in the morning. She ran the rest of the way and was inundated by all the impact sounds and a few extra: sawing, bending, and stomping. It sounded like an entire construction crew, but only their tools made any sound. She didn’t hear a single grunt, snort, or cough.
She tried to push the door open but it was stuck. The windows were blocked by wooden panels. Sawdust was falling from the ceiling and a few other seams like sand in an hourglass, getting in her hair and between her toes, making her feel like a pharaoh prematurely buried in her pyramid.
“Excuse me!” she screamed, sure she’d never been so loud since the swing of things. The riveting and sawing ceased while the hammering remained, though greatly muted, as if they were doing it just to tell her it couldn’t be stopped.
“That wouldn’t be Miss Minty Julip, would it?” A man’s voice. Deep and smooth, like a groove so deep in a record that the needle couldn’t reach it. She wasn’t sure how, but from his words she already had an image of his composure. He was leaning one shoulder against the exterior, resting his head on it despite construction vibrations surely passing through his skull.
“Who are you and what do you think you’re doing to my place of business!?”
“You’re speaking with the prince of Pluto,” he said. “My crew out here is just upgrading your entryway. Your storefront has to look presentable when it’s under the Eudaemon umbrella.”
“Roman Koch? It’s you… in person?”
“You should appreciate that. My associates tell me you’ve been difficult. A lesser leader would let you go for that, but I’m very understanding. Though I admit, it’s just because I know what you’re capable of when you put your hands to it.”
“I’m not capable of anything!” she shouted, wincing at her own foolishness.
“The head’s never wrong.”
“Then it’s lying.”
“It can’t do that.”
“Then it’s mistaken! I don’t throw cards in anger, not for royalty or anybody else. I’m likely just the best at chronicling the use of Cat Steps. I am a librarian after all.”
“Brazen head, were either of us mistaken when we discussed Miss Julip?”
“No,” the voice of the head answered, making itself loud enough for her to hear. It sounded like he was casually holding it against his hip like a gunslinger stroking his iron.
“So she’s a fighter? At least in a fight she’s a fighter?”
“Yes,” the head confirmed. With that wood and copper idol present there was no arguing with him, so she had to change the subject.
“I demand you cease whatever you’re doing and vacate immediately!” she ordered. “Or else I’ll call-”
“Who? We have no peacekeepers. That’s the whole problem. We’ll have them soon, and you want them to be the right kind of person, don’t you? That’s why I need your help. Pluto’s stuck here because it couldn’t ‘clear its neighborhood’. We’re not going to make the same mistake. I’m clearing the neighborhood right now, sweeping the bad into the gutter and uniting the good under one banner.”
“I don’t think putting up a banner requires rivets,” she protested.
“Relax. It’s just a little extension. The metal is in our colors, so everyone knows that if they mess with you they miss with us. I’ve got to protect my assets.” The riveting resumed. Kathug! Kathug!
“I’m not one of your assets! I refuse to work with such a thug!” The prince was quiet for a moment, but she felt him stewing, like a ball of churning magma just on the other side of the wall.
“Have you ever heard of the lord of misrule?”
“No,” she answered as angrily as she could.
“It’s a position in an old Earth festival, similar to Saturnalia. The lord of misrule is the one who rules the chaos of the party. Their position is temporary, but their authority is absolute. If the lord of misrule tells you to drink yourself to death, and enjoy every sip, you have to do it. They’re the emperor that would never be allowed near the throne normally. The lord was chosen at random. Whoever discovered the tiny human figurine hidden in all the desserts was given the honor.”
“I’ve read of a few traditions like that,” she admitted.
“Pluto had too. Before the swing of things it tossed me in a dumpster full of stale pastries and uneaten cake. Maybe a wedding went badly. I wasn’t the right kind of person to succeed; that’s what I thought.
Everyone’s time comes around though. Most people blink and miss it. They don’t even notice the dragon swinging by on the carousel, let alone mount it. Digging through that garbage for a decent meal I found the brazen head. The human figurine. Saturnalia came shortly after… so you see… I’m the lord… and I’m the prince.”
“A head can hardly be called a figurine,” she argued, unfazed by his determined tone. “It’s a bust. All you’ve told me is that your authority is based on the ramblings of a thing that can’t pull itself out of the garbage.” Roman spoke to someone else, the words lost under a sudden flurry of hammering. She heard 2 people shuffle to the blocked windows. Then came louder sawing.
“The brazen head is the booby prize,” he went on. “It’s an amount of sympathy so small that offering it could just be called cruel. Of the millions of people Pluto brought forth, it didn’t think this one was worth a body, or flesh, but it gave something. Enough to answer. Enough to see everything around without the fog of life obscuring the truth.”
“You’ll be charged for every simillion of damage,” Minty threatened.
“I heard you liked cats,” Roman mentioned. She froze. The wild crowd that had ‘wandered’ in was full of spying eyes after all, and they’d spied Drizzle. A dagger of light broke through the thin wood over the window and stabbed her in the eye. Minty lowered her card and shook it like a developing photograph to extinguish the flame footage.
Another saw tip broke through, and they worked their way around the rectangular shape of the window. The bookseller took a few steps back. Were they coming in? Why would they block the windows in the first place then?
“They’re going to smoke me out like a bee,” she muttered, biting her fingernails. “What do I do? Slim!” The mechanical ladder responded to her cry, descending and racing to her, but there was little it could do beyond that. She grabbed a rung to steady herself and breathed deep frantic breaths, fearing they would be her last clean ones.
“So these are a gift,” Roman declared. “I picked them up at the zoo. They haven’t been fed in a while, so they’re probably about as lively as you. I’ll see you soon Miss Julip.” Krish! A mallet busted through the glass just as the sawed out wood was pulled away. A gloved hand swirled it around the edges, getting every last shard out of the way.
The door of a small cage blocked the light. Between its bars 2 reflective eyes stared down the stacks at Minty. A second later the bars flew up and the eyes spilled out. Broad paws, densely furry, explored the carpet. Black spots across a pale tan coat clustered around the ears, which were tipped with a tuft of hair that stiffly held the shape of a 5.
The wildcat growled experimentally, to see if she would bolt. If she did it probably meant she was prey. Why would he do this!? She glanced at her hand. One electroglass card. It’s another test! I’m supposed to fend this creature off with skills I don’t have.
Roman Koch had much more faith in her than that, as 4 more cages were put up to the hole, one by one. The first cat disappeared behind the stack to her left as the 2nd landed. She tapped Slim and put her feet on the bottom rung, sending him slowly back toward the cash register.
The 3rd cat landed as the first hopped up on the counter. It extended its neck, nose twitching as it parsed the papery elements out of her scent and found the skin, hair, and sweat. She froze, but when the 4th cat hit the floor it came running down the aisle. Like a squirrel sent up a tree she scurried to Slim’s summit and crawled out onto one of her shelves, mystery fiction to be exact.
The 5th intruder was surely in by now, though the already stealthy animals were impossible to hear over the renewed bangs and whirs of construction. Roman’s true deviousness dawned on her. Even if she screamed for help no neighbor would hear.
Her one card was her only lifeline, but there was nobody to call. Peachy would rush to her aid, and get herself stuck right alongside. Minty’s fumbling fingers insisted there should have been an emergency number to call, but that was just the confidence of how smoothly the world ran before the swing of things. Now there was nobody, no government to employ the police and medics that could save her.
With ladders built into their instincts it wasn’t difficult for 2 of the cats to hop up to the top of the shelf with her, one on each side. They didn’t give her any time to think, approaching one padded foot after the other, the softness in their gait assuring her it would all be over quickly and she would barely feel a thing.
She managed to slow them down by shaking the whole shelf, but that was nothing intentional, just the terrified wobbling of her legs. The distance between them shrank nonetheless, and she found herself having to pick an opponent. Her head flicked back and forth. She could count their ribs even through their thick coats, so they were equally hungry. Fangs equally sharp. Ears-
They pounced. Minty ran at the one closer to the register as if to tackle it, shutting her eyes tight and holding her breath. It probably got a good look at that breath when it passed straight through her torso and collided with its kin. The librarian had noticed at the last second that the tufts on its ears were shaped like a 6, and at 4to1 she was an increment beyond its reach.
Knowing which cats were a danger and which weren’t would’ve been helpful, but in looking around she only saw a single 5to1 wildcat. The others were skulking about no doubt. Minty felt she had no choice but to climb and get a better vantage point, so she lowered herself back onto Slim and stomped on a rung as if spurring a horse into a gallop. The ladder shot across the stacks, chugging along so powerfully that it sounded like a locomotive.
On her way to the back wall she finally made use of her card, requesting that the public computers produce for her footage of a rattlesnake. Her collection contained plenty of books on the natural world, and she recalled a tidbit about most cats’ natural wary hatred of snakes. The computer obliged, giving her a looping 6 second sizzle reel of coiled rattling and hissing.
The reference section produced one of the beasts, and did so at startling speed, so Minty held out the card like a crucifix against a vampire. It worked, if only for a moment. The feline’s pause gave Slim enough time to click into another track, this one sending her rocketing up to the 2nd floor.
Minty dismounted, her legs only steady because she’d given them a mission. They took her to the railing. She leaned over the darkly varnished wood to survey the threat, but a pair of paws was already grabbing at the edge. One swiped straight through her leg, but in the 6to1 fashion rather than the decidedly messier 5to1.
With nowhere left to run Minty put her back to the history section. She spiraled her finger around on her card’s face, trying to raise the volume of the hissing, but the item shook right out of her hands. There was a cat in front of her. To her left. To her right. Over her shoulder.
Luckily that last one was Drizzle, who had been snoozing atop Pluto’s entire era of agricultural revolution. The black dollop’s head emerged, ears perking up when he finally heard the encroaching growls. He flowed over Minty’s shoulder like fresh taffy and plopped on the floor.
His bubbling hiss, like something effervescing at the bottom of a cauldron, was a valiant effort that did little to slow the wildcats. They responded in kind. Drizzle’s head disappeared into his body and reappeared under his tail; he couldn’t turn tail fast enough. The black cat scrambled against the seam of the bookshelf up against the wall.
“It’s no use,” Minty whispered to him. “I know every inch of this place, and this is the last one.” She looked again. Drizzle was half gone. His legs scratched the floor as they forced their way deeper, like 2 drumsticks spiraling down a drain. He’s liquid, but liquid still takes up space. There’s something back there!
As soon as the last drop of him disappeared she grabbed the side of the history shelf and pulled with all her might. It groaned across the floor, snagging on the carpet and ripping. That sound hurt her greatly, but she kept at it until the fissure was large enough for her to slip through.
It was dark, but the shaft of light she’d just passed through illuminated another shelf back there. She leapt over to it and grabbed, surprised to find it was only half as heavy. Turns out it was only half a shelf, something she didn’t stop to question until it blocked most of the light, and the clawing cats, off from her. She collapsed against the half measure.
Drizzle slithered under her shirt in the darkness, resting against her heaving chest until it began to slow, until her eyes adjusted to the dim. She looked around. It wasn’t a room, not exactly. Rooms were planned. It couldn’t be called incidental either, like a cave, since it was, if anything, unfinished.
The walls swirled into the ceiling while the floor curved, the overall shape something like a Chinese dumpling that had seen renovations and additions. Occasionally angular bends of wood breached the paint like the arching backs of whales. Books hung from the ceiling by their spines, letting all their pages hang out.
When Minty got back to her feet the first thing she did was attempt to pluck a book from the half-shelf and see what it contained. Even with the beasts moaning at the wall and the echoes of the rivets she found the emotional room to be angry with Pluto instead. A whole section left out? When was she going to get a say in the matter?
The book wouldn’t come loose. When she looked closer she estimated it was more like 9 10ths of a book, the bottom 10th lost in the wood of the shelf. All of them in the row were like that, as well as those in the row above and below. Somebody didn’t finish their homework. One of the tomes stuck in the wall was more forthcoming, still requiring her to stand on the tips of her toes to get close enough to read.
There certainly was text, but it wasn’t formed enough to be called prose. It looked more like the inklings that, after a few years of rumination, might become prose. It was organized into lines and chapters, but the scribbles were meaningless to her. She briefly entertained the idea that it was written in √Permillion, but the hardluck language’s non-repeating gibberish still had a recognizable look not present here.
She checked a few other books embedded in various surfaces, working her way back, all of them showing the same symptoms. Can a girl at least get an illustration? How am I supposed to know what any of these are about? Like a wise old sage on their deathbed, ready to pass on their pearls of wisdom, but they wait too long and burble it out incoherently. Secrets are for those who hang their hat on a rack of regret.
Her toes curved up at the edge of the back wall. There was another book, almost like a centerpiece, if a centerpiece didn’t imply more intent than that pocket of Pluto had ever seen. This one actually had a reason to be separate from her collection: it couldn’t possibly fit on any shelf.
The 2nd half of its pages were inaccessible, embedded in a swollen bulge of wall, but the front cover sat at a tantalizing angle, just open enough to suggest it could barely contain its contents. Minty grabbed the bottom corner, waiting to see if she felt anything.
6 feet by 9, with binding made of a combination of plated metal and leather so thick it could only come from a whale or a space dinosaur, the cover mostly felt heavy. The librarian pulled it open. The plain cover offered no title, and the title page was similarly mum, taunting her with a table of contents and nothing else. The table noted where sections began and ended, but not what those sections contained.
“Well I know you’re pre-swing,” she growled at it. “Any chance you’re a cat training manual?” It could’ve been, but once she was on the first real pages she recognized √Permillion. Once again there were no illustrations, but as she flipped through its hundreds of pages she did start to get the picture.
At first it was just a slight swelling in the middle, but as she got closer it took shape, the thick paper, which smelled like lamp oil, conforming more and more to the shape it encased: a human one. It was curled up in the middle of the page like it was trying to sleep under a menu sized blanket in the dead of winter.
Caution slowed her, but she already knew she couldn’t stop. None of the contents of her shop were allowed to be a mystery, and her sensibilities were greatly offended by whoever stuck a person right in the middle of a book. People were always a mystery, only charlatans claiming the ability to read thoughts.
By the 100th page she could see the shape of their face, a paper mask of death drawn across strong cheekbones and full lips. The body didn’t appear distinctly male or female, but it was both lithe and ropy, like a line of knotted sheets and pajamas an adolescent might use to escape their bedroom window.
By the 115th page Minty knew she was looking at someone special. She could tell by the arms and hands, which held each other not out of cold desperation, but out of self-love. Even through the remaining pages she could see the soft caress, the embrace of worth so assured that they would never be able to die with regrets.
By the 118th page they were free.
“Eeep!” Minty squeaked, hopping back and covering her mouth as the figure fell and hit the floor. They left behind a hole in the book, like some trick compartment a flask might be hidden in. Their prison was lined with a thin layer of strange metal that held the edges of each page, looking like a sinkhole showing 100 years of volcanic rock striation.
She’d never seen hardluck look quite like this person, if that was even what they were. The 9to1 were ghosts, and the 10to1 essentially nothing; the book’s prisoner was somewhere in between.
They still held shape, but only as a combination of dust and air. Between increments or not, at such low odds they should have fallen straight through the floor, and perhaps the first few feet of Plutonian crust as well, yet there they sat.
Breathing should have been the furthest thing from what was left of their mind, but Minty clearly saw the chest rise and fall in defiance. They were supposed to be well on their way to irrelevance, but they clung to the most mundane and most profound act of living.
“Hello?” she asked. The specter didn’t acknowledge her in any way. They likely couldn’t. There was no telling for how much of Pluto’s constructed history they had been kept there. She tried again. “Can you hear me?” Nothing. She dropped down to her knees next to them.
They moved in response, head landing in her lap and plunging her into cold shock. I’m supposed to find comfort in books, not the other way around. Her hands cradled their head. Their surface wasn’t like skin or hair, or any solid she had experience with for that matter. It didn’t feel like anything, but she simultaneously felt like she would commit murder if she attempted to move her hand past their surface.
Something else became clear: their predicament. The book had been sucking the life opportunities out of them, slowly strangling them into the coffin of a narrative, but interrupting the process had only worsened their decline. Their breathing shallowed. Their presence waned.
“Oh stars… you’re dying!” They grabbed her wrist but lost strength all throughout the process, so it felt like fairy wing tips against her skin as they fluttered by. “You don’t want to, do you?” No, she felt as much. They wanted to live as much as anyone 2to1 or even 1to1, despite their hopeless hardluck. Other unlikelies might look at them in disgust. ‘Look at that pathetic one, flailing for air like they matter. How embarrassing. How unbecoming. They don’t know their place, which is in a shrinking crack between 2 walls until those walls are one.’
“I can help you become,” she said, reaching into her pocket. Out came the crystal teardrops gifted to her by Peachy, just in case of a burst of bad luck. She’d been transferring them outfit to outfit out of respect for her friend’s concern, even into her pajamas in case of a night terror that scared her out of her increment. The drops were all she had unless she wanted to rip out a page from a half-formed nonsense book and poke eye holes in it. Surely the jewelry was better.
She didn’t have to ask if they wanted her help; she felt it more than she felt them. Minty steadied their head while she still could. She gently licked the adhesive on the sides of the drops to activate it before pressing the first one into the corner of their right eye. Placement counts with emergency masks. Wearing one askew skews one’s view of the world. This should be dynamic rather than symmetrical. Like they’re alive. Like these are their indigenous tears.
Minty pressed the 2nd one low on the left cheek, like a tear about to start the fastest part of its life, the slide down to the chin. Too much pressure and it would wind up under any eventual skin, so she kept her finger there, trying to perfectly match the fading resistance of their face.
Water flowed from the tip of the first tear, filling the basin of the eye. A pupil and a dark iris rose from the depths; as they grew they caused an overflow. A skin of silvery tears, retaining the sparkle of the crystal, sadness and salt smoothing it to pearlescent sheen, cut a path down their cheek like a river cutting through a mesa.
The 2nd tear erupted, sending its trail up to the left eye. The resulting flood brought forth the 2nd pupil, and what a pair they made, reminding Minty of the dark swirling depths of the drainage funnel just outside Aleatory Books.
The tear springs would be permanent, she realized, always flowing and shining, but never actually falling. They terminated together under the chin like a strap. Around this mask skin had become. Smooth. Matte from the polish of good luck. Their face was stunning in its beauty, a bust surely sculpted by artistic human hands rather than a god that wanted its subjects to reflect their imperfections. They were a muse, perhaps how those born blind thought of faces.
With the crash from whatever they were all the way down to 5to1 came the rest of the body and all its various flavors and fillings. Minty realized how big this person was, not heavyset but quite tall and quite dense like a spire of a tree that would always sway in the wind but just moan luxuriously rather than crack.
Fully crashed they were still not concerned with either side of the gender metronome. They were the click and the tick in the middle of it. Remarkably flat-chested for a woman. Peacock thighs that most would say didn’t belong on a man.
The flutter of their long thick eyelashes reminded Minty they were alive, so she started helping them to their feet. They stopped needing her help halfway up, so she backed away and took in all 6 feet of them. Their clothing was thin, casual. Something between a cape and a collar, silver and transparent, covered their shoulders and chest. Their gray pants stopped just below the knee, legs shining all the way down to their bare feet as if their tibiae were forged of radiant pewter.
“Hello,” they said, clear as a bell. Minty had expected a croak, someone trying to speak after nearly drowning. Their voice was overwhelming velvet, like being captured by an expensive armchair and falling into an ambush nap. Their tone implied familiarity, as if the librarian was supposed to remember just as many evenings out with them as with her arranged best friend Peachy.
“Hello,” she finally managed. “Are you alright?” They examined their hands and then they twisted, almost flexible enough to look at their own spine.
“I’m terrific, thanks to you. What medicine was that?”
“Oh… uhh… an emergency mask.” They looked at her quizzically. “Do you… not know what those are?”
“Just a moment.” They held up one hand and paced back and forth, listening as if something was crawling around in the ceiling above them. “Yes, some of it’s coming to me… I do feel owed more… but… yes. An emergency mask.” They touched the tear trail on their left cheek. “So this is the new me.”
“Yes… I’m sorry!” Minty squeaked. This is not the person who was trapped in that book; I changed them. Made them cry when they wouldn’t have on their own… and now that’s their foundation. I made a person out of sorrow! This should’ve been a planet’s decision, not mine.
“Don’t apologize. You saved me. I’m certain of that.”
“But I made you cry…”
“Tears are an expression, and for me they’re expressing joy,” they assured her with a beaming smile and a laugh. “All the best people have known these tears. They’re the ones you get looking up at a clear night sky, overwhelmed by your place not under the stars, but drifting in them. These are oh wow tears. I’m an oh wow person.”
“Well that’s a relief… What exactly did I save you from?” Their head flicked back to the book. They approached the item and flipped through a few of the giant pages.
“Not sure exactly,” they admitted. “I remember… the color green. And something about a set of tiles? Perhaps I was snatched away from my old life just as I was redecorating a bathroom.”
“And put in a book?”
“That part’s ingenious. If someone is trying to keep you from coming into your own, they need only tell your story before it’s finished. How are you supposed to act when there’s already a record of you having done something? Your pattern of behavior was aggressively established.” Minty thought about that intensely while they continued to flip through their cell, eventually coming up with a theory.
“You were a possibility Pluto didn’t want,” she guessed, “like the brazen head! It tried to turn you into an object instead, just as it probably did millions of other possibilities. But Pluto’s not as good as the other planets, evidenced by its demotion in 1to1. It makes mistakes. It didn’t finish with you, so it just swept you under the rug.”
“Hah! Imagine,” they said, running a hand down their side, “sweeping this under the rug.” They paused. “It doesn’t really matter if it was Pluto or someone else, as they succeeded. Not only do I not exist… do I have that right?”
“Yes, this is probable space. You’re sitting at 5to1 odds. If you wanted to exist you’d have to make it all the way to 1to1 and that’s… impossible.”
“I see. So not only do I not exist, I’m also not the same possibility that got stowed away in this 2nd act.”
“Does this new you have a name?” Minty asked.
“I see one here,” they noted, prompting Minty to remember that people retained comprehension of √Permillion after crashes, “but it no longer suits me. I do still identify with some of the positively swashbuckling elements on display here, so I’ll be keeping those…” They grabbed the heavy cover and pulled it closed, turning. “Call me… Long Odd Silver.”
“Ooh literary,” Minty couldn’t help but bubble.
“Now I should like to get out of this little cave and never return,” Silver declared, striding past her toward the shaft of light thick with shadows of scratching wildcats. Their presence didn’t seem to concern Silver at all.
“Wait!” Minty insisted, rushing to their side. “I’ve been thrust into the middle of something. I found your book accidentally, while fleeing from those wild animals out there. We must figure out how to placate them or we’ll be torn to shreds.” Drizzle slithered up to her shoulder, swelled until his head popped out, and meowed as if in agreement.
“I’ll just use my winning personality,” Silver said as they grabbed the bookcase and threw it aside with tremendous strength. Before Minty could protest the cats poured in and swarmed Silver. The librarian’s hands were over her mouth, but before she could make a scream to muffle she saw the reality of it.
All the cats were nuzzling Silver as they went to one knee to pet them. The 6to1, seemingly reverted to kittens, rolled around on their backs, mewing until Silver’s roving hands found their bellies.
“How did you do that!?”
“Animals, especially big bad predators like these softies, read body language. If you look afraid they know you’re afraid. My body speaks a fearless dialect.” One of them licked the tears off Silver’s cheek. The salty taste upset the cat and sent it running back out into the library. Silver and the others followed. Minty leaned to get a good look at her invention’s face; it only took a moment for their eye to produce another shimmering trail. There really was no getting rid of it.
Minty had to take Slim down to the first floor, but Silver joined the wildcats in simply leaping down, landing nimbly on the front desk without damaging it. Silver, hands on their hips, surveyed the stacks while the cats ran and played around them.
“Is this a library or a bookseller?” they asked as Minty was stepping down from Slim’s last rung and thanking him by patting his side.
“A hybrid,” she said proudly. “I am the owner and the operator and the public servant.” A cat bolted and knocked over a few romances, reminding her that today was not business as usual. While Long Odd investigated their surroundings she rushed into the back, grabbed her card catalog, and immediately asked the operator on her 7 of wheels to connect her to the nearest zoological garden.
The person on the other end was helpful, confirming that several of their cats were stolen 2 days prior. Minty explained the situation, pinning the blame squarely on the Eudaemons, which the zookeeper did not doubt. They said they would be there as soon as they could, with cages and raw meat treats. With that settled she took a few deep breaths and marched back to see how her new companion was adjusting, though everything else seemed to adjust to them instead. She found Silver flipping through a textbook on Pluto itself, no doubt settling into the swing of things.
“I can find you a few others that should be helpful,” Minty offered.
“No thank you,” they said, clapping the book shut with one hand and inserting it back into its proper place. “I think the rest of it should come to me organically.” They glanced at the card catalog in her hands. “What is that? A deck?”
“Yes and no. It has a dual identity like my place of business. I use it for organizing the shelves, but, at least according to the people who trapped me in here with those furballs, it longs for blood.”
“And who are these people?”
“Roman Koch and his flunkies. He calls himself the prince of Pluto. Just one of a handful vying for table scraps before Antichthon arrives and ends Saturnalia. Do you know about that?” Silver shook their head. Minty proceeded to explain everything, a little afraid her dry rendition wouldn’t communicate the importance of it all. If Silver was bored they didn’t let it show, staring intently the whole time with their hand under their chin.
“So the prince sees you as a recruit for his gang, which will almost certainly turn into a useless corrupt lump of a bureaucracy once a government sits its fat bottom on this city.”
“Yes, and he’s sorely mistaken. I have no training or talent in Cat Steps cardistry, which I’m supposedly the best at. I don’t even feel like part of Saturnalia or the swallowed needles of conflict tearing up its insides. I’m like a historian… it all feels far away to me, in both time and space. It doesn’t worry me, until it invades these walls that is.”
“Try your hand at cardistry. Toss one at me,” Silver encouraged. “Then I can test myself by tossing it back.”
“I suppose there’s no harm.” Minty gently plucked the 3 of lights from her catalog, swiping with her thumb to clear the book records and return its standard suit artwork to its screen. How do the professionals hold it? Index and middle I think… then they just give it a good… flick! The card made it all of 4 feet before looping back and crashing into the floor. “There, you see? The prince sicced bobcats on me for that.”
Silver picked up the card, examining both sides. They balanced it on their finger by a single corner, flicking it to start a spin. Wordlessly they transferred it across each finger on their hand before tossing it to the other side and doing the same, all without interrupting the spin. When they tired of that trick they flung it at Minty. The card elegantly sailed around her head, curved, and came back by way of her opposite ear. It was caught with the same ease as it was thrown.
“You’re a natural,” the bookseller complimented, dumbfounded.
“All natural,” they agreed, walking up until they towered over Minty. They delicately pressed the card back into her catalog, pushing it down with one finger and giving it a final light tap. “In a book everything looks like pages, layers. So to me I’m not throwing the card, just sliding it across the page. The paper does all the work; the stars know I wouldn’t do it.”
“Oh!” Minty gasped, backing out of their shadow. “It all makes sense now. The brazen head was mistaken. It sensed incredible cardistry talent from this address, and I’m the only one who officially lives here, therefore it must’ve been me. In near-actuality it was you! It just couldn’t detect you because it works the way Pluto wants it to and Pluto swept you under the rug!”
“I’m not sure it was Pluto that did that,” Silver said. They took a moment to pet the wildcat rubbing on their already polished leg. Then their head went up, eyes lingering on the hidden room of half-formed books. “I said I didn’t want to go back in there, but… I think a gift is in order for reinvigorating me. Just a second.”
“Oh, gosh, I forgot; my name’s Minty by the way. Minty Julip,” she stammered as Silver walked by.
“Perfect to meet you,” they said with a tiny grin before calling Slim with a knuckle-knock on the wall. Minty blushed, the sensation strange. It wasn’t a flirtatious compliment, just one so calming that it made her feel like she was halfway through a steamy shower. Perfect to meet me, as if they think Plutonians don’t make mistakes. When Long Odd Silver descended again they had something hidden behind their back.
“What kind of gift might this be?” Minty wondered aloud. “This is my building, so I’m pretty sure I own anything you just picked up.”
“This was in the book with me,” Silver explained. Minty’s joking smile dropped. “It was sort of a bookmark, helping me keep my place so the narrative didn’t bury me, so I didn’t decompose and become fully characterized. I want you to have it.”
Before the librarian could protest Silver took her hand, rolled it open, and placed something in her palm. Then they walked away to play with the cats. What’s… no. How am I supposed to keep myself detached from these times with this thing here!? The movers and shakers will move here and shake down my door to get to this.
What she had was a card, not of electroglass or any blend of paper. It ate all the light around it, soaping itself up with the weak trembling rays. It was a bright shining gray, metal that had never been ore. A dark pattern, like a python made of concrete blocks climbing itself, traversed the entire border. Its designation was stamped into it: ace of wheels.
As far as she knew such cards weren’t connected to a computer bank, but looking at it made her realize how little she knew, how limited that knowledge was to the innocent cue ball that was Pluto. Maybe some spectacular unfathomable computer ran the planets themselves, those in actual space the ones and those in probable the zeroes. If so, that was the computer that fed this card, this platinum card.
Whatever information coursed through it was not for her to access. Instead it gave her only her reflection under the tall arch of the A. That’s not my reflection. It’s clearly my face, but something’s been done to it. Somebody had to put that look in my eye, because the heavens know I would never put it there. And that smirk! What stage-dwelling, spotlight drinking, money rubbing pixie smiles like that?
She couldn’t look away, sensing that the version of her on the card would keep staring back even if she did. Minty asserted herself, grabbing the card by the bottom and holding it up like a hand mirror. Her reflection was unimpressed, so she spun the card around once hoping to put a different expression on its face. No luck.
“See how you like this,” she muttered, calling in her card catalog cavalry. She shuffled the platinum ace into it and was sure to treat it the same as all the others. A brisk spring flourish should’ve done the job, especially since it was so loud that it scared the cats away, but when she found the ace again her reflection looked the same.
Growling, she cut the deck in 5 and spun the sections in her hands like she was a vindictive tilt-a-whirl at the county fair trying to get the lunch to rise out of its patrons. Then she put it on the edge of a fan and threw the array open and closed a few times, threatening to let it fly, letting it slip a little further from the rest each time. She singled it out again. There we go. Now you look worried; now you look like the rest of us.
Just to be sure it was put in its place she reminded it that without her it would fall the great distance to the floor and probably perish. A good flick sent it spinning around her waist, like she was a planet and it was just one piece of her decorative ring of rock and ice. Once it had gotten a thoroughly dreadful look down from the balcony of her hips she snatched it out of orbit. All the reflection’s confidence was gone; it looked like it wanted nothing more than to entomb itself in the card catalog and wait for her expanding collection to drive it deeper.
“Showed you,” Minty boasted.
“You sure did,” Silver agreed.
“Hmm? Oh sorry, I wasn’t talking to you. But… what did I show you?”
“No, that was just…” Minty’s excuses vanished in her throat, leaving a pathetically dumb sound in their place. “Oh! Oh no! No thank you! No no!” She placed her card catalog on the front desk and walked, away being the only direction that mattered. When she stopped she tried to swallow the lump that had replaced the excuses, only for it to insist that it was questions in need of asking. “Long Odd, where did you get a platinum card!?”
“I wasn’t them, you saw to that,” Silver reminded, “and I doubt they got it anywhere. Card and spirit must have met somewhere as they came closer to fruition. Putting a latitude and longitude on it is like trying to paint by irrational numbers.”
“Do you have any idea what the platinum deck is?” Minty’s legs were still locked together, keeping her facing away from her deck. She heard Silver approach from behind, clearly interested in the tension between woman and object, like a spider plucking at a silk line it couldn’t remember spinning.
“It’s coming to me, but I don’t regret gifting it to you. The old me definitely was a pirate, for that is some sunken treasure.”
“The platinum deck only deals good hands,” Minty quoted a scholar of cardistry. “Everything is in the cards when the cards are platinum,” she quoted another. “If the full platinum deck were assembled and shuffled, I believe it would rearrange the universe,” she quoted a 3rd, though with a much higher and squeakier tone.
“Just handling that one card made you figure it out,” Silver observed. They were right behind her, voice like a shoulder massage.
“It tricked me,” the librarian complained. “I was just trying to show it that I’m not that kind of person. I didn’t realize it was switching with… It’s like… Have you ever seen different versions of yourself in the mirror?”
“I’ve never seen a mirror, but don’t slow down.” Their voice transitioned into an actual shoulder massage.
“I’m 4to1, so I know I’m just the likeliest version of me, but that means there are countless others. We’re all boundless theories, change limited only by how long it takes and how far one dimension can move away from all of our others. The card, it hid in my reflection the Minty who threw cards instead of reading them. Now she’s-”
“Right here!” Silver had glided away with spectacular stealthy skill. Minty hadn’t even noticed the end of the massage, but somehow they had made it all the way to the desk, drawn a card from her deck, and thrown it. Its nearly silent slicing of the air was the entire string section of an orchestra to Minty now, so she whirled around and caught the 6 of kisses between 2 fingers.
“I may vomit,” she said after a small choking sound, dropping the card and letting it flutter to the ground. She took a few steps away, but in making Aleatory Books her world she now felt trapped, locked in the same cage with an angry gorilla of talent.
“The prince’s information was good,” Silver said. They took up the deck and cut it in half. Then they performed what’s called a ‘toppling throw’: a lunge where the outstretched hand contains the cards. All are thrown, but the top cards are released first, so it appears like a rope of cards is being extended. It’s more difficult to catch than it is to perform, and Minty’s hand reflexively swallowed up all 26 as they reached her.
“Yes, that lousy head was right after all.” She noticed Silver’s raised eyebrow and quickly explained the peculiar artifact that gave Roman much of his influence.
“He’s got that and you’ve got me,” Silver assured. “I hope you don’t mind if I lodge here for a while. I’m happy to work it off.”
“No, by all means!” Minty yelped. “I brought you into this mess; the least I can do is let you nestle in it. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, though we’ll have to work out the sleeping situation.”
“Those are my favorite situations to work out,” Silver crooned, but before Minty could be made entirely uneasy they cut their cards and sent a few orbiting like a sash around their chest. It appeared Long Odd’s personal style of cardistry favored Over the Moon, though the toppling throw was a Cheater’s Welcome technique. “First let’s give you a work out!”
Minty had to know exactly what the platinum ace had done to her, so she sparred to the best of her freshly installed ability. At first it was standard deflection. Silver would fill up their personal orbits with cards, but rather than pluck them out and throw them they flicked them out with amazing precision, another fusion of Over the Moon and Cheater’s Welcome technique.
With most of her cards tucked against her left palm with 2 fingers, Minty used 2 fanned 4 card hands to block each projectile or blow it off course. When Silver’s orbits were nearly empty she threw a few of her own to destabilize what was left. When her cards ran low she made use of the ones Silver had already spent by sliding her bare toes under them, grabbing them with said digits, and kicking them up behind her. After they sailed over her shoulder she grabbed them and added them back to her stack.
That was classic Cat Steps, something Silver noticed when they saw her perform it. That was what needed testing, so they changed tactics. They didn’t have the posture for that style, lanky as they were, but they could put the cards that low by angling their wrist perfectly during the throws. Down they went, down below Minty’s knees.
The librarian took to it like dancing, each step stopping a throw flat. She bent down like she was about to sweep everything into a dustpan and didn’t come back up, flicking cards parallel to the floor for Silver to deal with.
At first this was easy enough, especially for someone like Long Odd who was 70% legs, but Minty didn’t let up. The cards she flung spun and spun and spun, rarely heading directly for their target’s ankles. They took trips around the shelves, circled each other, all while never colliding with their partners or the walls.
Even the cats didn’t have cats steps matching hers. They all ascended the shelves to get away from her complex web of attacks. Drizzle remained on the floor, curiously watching each one go by, as whenever they struck the liquid cat they simply passed through.
The librarian decided to use her pet to her advantage in her final attack. She rolled her spine, looked at Silver upside down, and tossed one last card, this time in a vertical orientation. In order to bounce properly it had to only strike the floor on its corners, and it did so all the way to Drizzle’s back and up it, leaving ripples in his black flesh like a skipped stone.
It took the last leap as it splashed off the cat’s forehead and headed straight for Silver’s chest. They caught it at the last second, directing it with a knuckle into one of their orbits, where it still had so much speed that it knocked all of the other cards out. When they snatched it out they whipped it back and forth to get rid of the instilled energy, their fingers smarting.
“Now that one had zest!” they complimented. “And it settled it for me. I’ll help you get that wild technique of yours under control. That way you can show the prince who has the greater title of boss.”
“You know how to fight?”
“You’ve got to fight to keep your claws on the edge of the rug for so long.”
“I suppose I should learn… but aren’t I already the best?”
“The best at Cat Steps. That’s just a style. Style falls apart in an actual bout. I bet if I was against the wall long enough I could invent a new style using just my teeth.” With that Long Odd headed for the front door, curious as to exactly how dim the distant central fire was. On the way they stepped over a few of Minty’s throws still waltzing around. The librarian followed, but only because she noticed that the sounds of construction had ceased; she wanted to know what monstrosity had been riveted to the front of her shop.
The prince did not disappoint. When opened the front door led to a new 2nd entryway, rather like the folding accordion-shaped tunnels passengers used to board airplanes or instruments of space travel. It smelled of metal, sawdust, and cheap carpet. The new door that took over the duty of ferrying them to the outside world was thick, pale, green metal the color of toothpaste. An unfriendly hatch kept it sealed.
Opening it felt like exiting a submarine. She examined the exterior while Silver wandered toward the drainage funnel, surveying the street, sky, and hardluck phantoms leaving trails in the clouds above.
“It’s so beautiful I might cry,” Silver joked. Minty was too distracted to acknowledge it. Why? What’s the point of strapping this big ugly door on my store? She leaned out into the street and looked down each direction. There were at least 3 more of the industrial entryways, some presumably equally unwanted. It’s a show. He’s marking his territory… but who’s he trying to intimidate?
An Excerpt from Fancy a Game?
Available at Aleatory Books
If we may, for a chapter, zoom out from our concerns of geometric patterns and the best woods and varnishes for chess and backgammon boards, we can take a look at the frame in which all of these games exist. Is life, or the world, a game in itself?
Diving into game theory is usually reserved for mathematicians of the highest order, but there’s nothing more in the spirit of gaming than taking on a challenge where you know you are the underdog, so here we go.
Personally, I don’t believe we can wait to explore these ideas. We are still before the swing of things, as such these writings will have added credence to them, as if they are part of the rule book for any grand game that may or may not exist.
So, let us consider the board. We will set its boundary as the furthest possible orbit around our central fire, and we will do so because we currently have no evidence of life anywhere else in probable space. There is of course Nemesis lurking beyond our borders, but despite what the disheveled man down at the bar with the inside out pockets says about its politics, no life has been confirmed there.
No instrument of space travel has ever entirely left the system while manned, so there are no out of bounds situations.
Now, up until recently, the game seemed like it was underway. After the set-up period in which Vulcan, Antichthon, and Phaeton arrived, the interactions of all 3 cultures along with those on their satellites and stations were considered to be ‘the game’. Their successes could be measured in any number of dimensions: reputation, material wealth, space exploration, etc.
One thing that was generally agreed upon, though rarely spoken, was that our solar system was a zero-sum game. For those unfamiliar with the term, I find games played with a deck of cards, and no additional markers of any kind, to be a helpful analogy. In cards only one person can hold the 2 of lights. If someone else gets it, then that first person has lost it.
One player’s gain is another player’s loss because the number of resources is both finite and well understood. The trio of planets could be seen as 3 suits, and each of their industries and natural resource pools a card. If this analogy had been considered earlier perhaps people would’ve seen a 4th suit coming.
Then we happened. Now our history occurs as I write this, a set-up of our own, so we’ve had no time to clack with the other marbles and only observation to go off of, but it’s safe to assume that game players of the highest order, bankers, traders, presidents, princesses, will be greatly flummoxed by our arrival.
Pluto, though the smallest planet by far, is still a huge influx of physical resources and manpower from out of absolutely nowhere. We are proof that the system was not fully set up, and that all their efforts have been put to securing powers with ceilings higher than they perceived. Nobody likes to underestimate the treasure hoard when taking their fair share.
We are evidence that this is not a zero-sum affair. If Pluto can manifest as it did, what’s stopping other hypothesized planets from doing so? You see, before there was human ignorance to consider. Theorizing occurred at times when telescopes were nonexistent or weak. A blob of sauce on a lens could become a mighty empire in our realm. As their technology advanced, as the gaps closed, the shrinking room for interpretation should’ve sealed probable space off like the caulking on a ship.
As it turns out there are other forces just as powerful as ignorance, like bureaucracy, imagination, and stubbornness. Pluto is a planet because scientists changed their mind and the rest of actual Earth didn’t. I personally am glad for it, as I’ve always enjoyed watching but wanted to play even more.
Theorists on other planets may groan at the prospect, but I delight in concocting scenarios that could bring us new neighbors. There’s still a stubborn contingent in the decided-upon universe that believes the Earth is flat, like a casino chip. Could that fervor eventually give us another Antichthon, sharing its orbit? Other possibilities abound. Antichthon gone in a flash, replaced with a fresh flat one. Antichthon forcibly flattened, its lives and power reduced by a whole dimension in a matter of seconds. These unsettling questions are not likely to sweeten them on Pluto’s presence at all.
Earth cultures have long associated constellations with specific animal and warrior shapes. Did that give these arrangements wills? There could be giant bears, mostly in spirit form, watching us hungrily from the night sky alongside crabs and winged horses.
If someone over there in the place that is knew of us, they could potentially even landscape probable space with propaganda campaigns: convince a nation that something exists with falsified data and then sit back and wait for it to appear here. Oddly enough this is the least likely, given that the higher standard for the actual universe makes anything that comes out of ours unintelligible and unrecognizable to them.
I digress. The point of this exercise, after refuting the zero-sum scenario, is to explore what each planet is like as a game piece and see where our dear Pluto fits. Is it a mere pawn, or more of a wild card? Let’s start with the others in the order of their proximity to the sun.
Vulcan: The smallest and youngest planet aside from Pluto, with a population around 50,000,000, it nonetheless enjoys several strategic advantages in play. With a core and bedrock likelihood of 2to1, its people possess stunning levels of health and fitness that come with that calm. They regularly live to be over 100 years old, enjoy fertility so exuberant that it sometimes flatly ignores birth control attempts, and have negligible rates of birth defects, physical or probability based.
This health is a double-edged sword in the game however, as with this stability comes rigidity. When people on Vulcan suffer a reduction in likelihood they can plummet, becoming incompatible with their planet and forced to flee in a matter of days or weeks. Politically they have become isolationist and lacking in curiosity and adaptability.
Their main relevance in the game comes from their number one export: actual information. Being broadly 2to1 they can observe, and even hone the skill to do so, the 1to1 world. Their planet does this as well, occasionally providing visions of it in the sky like an aurora. Most of what we’ve borrowed from Earth, literature, film, architecture, music, science, and bad luck superstitions, originates from Vulcan.
Since the ultimate pursuit of many powerful people is gaining likelihood, this puts them in an advantageous position. They are capable of negotiating their way out of situations where they are outclassed militarily with little more than bribes whispered in ears. There is even the potential for them to become the capitol of the solar system, but that would require a concerted effort the individualistic and distracted Vulcanoes are never likely to manage.
As such, it’s best to sum up their place on the board as an information broker, rarely making disruptive moves and doing the bare minimum to maintain their privileged position in the game. To dwell on them as a Plutonian is to compare the silver spoons in their mouths to the candy cigarettes in ours, so let’s move on.
Antichthon: With over 5,000,000,000 people to work with, Antichthon is a much more directly intimidating presence. With robust 3to1 mineral resources compared to the waterlogged Vulcan, people to spare, enviable biodiversity, and a moon from which to coordinate and launch their many space initiatives, Antichthon currently presents itself as the most powerful piece in play.
Add to that their age and you get a vision of an industrious and experienced rival likely to outclass you in any competition, but they have one major weakness: strife. They’ve been around so long they’ve learned to dislike themselves, and they often fall victim to repeating the original Earth’s antics.
They’ve had civil wars and world wars. They’ve had coordinated genocides far worse than anything on the other worlds. They’ve squabbled over and squandered many of their resources internally, and are currently waging a mass extinction against their many animals in an effort to support their swelling population. Though ostensibly united under a single government, the nations within are constantly at the throats of their neighbors and struggling for cultural supremacy.
So as a piece they are unstable, and it might not take much prodding from any other player to cause them to rupture and divide into innumerable weaker pieces. I think they know this instinctively, and this is what drives their expansionist ideals. If the rupture occurs, then each nation wants there to be plenty of options and power to gobble up.
With some countries being much larger and stronger than others, it would certainly behoove the smaller ones to have places to retreat to where landmass is less of a factor, like a space station, asteroid, or dwarf planet. This suggests they will be interested in distant Pluto. With little effort it can become a valuable outpost, and with a little more a new home for a banished regime.
Antichthon is old, suspicious, bitter, and precariously perched, but it nonetheless dominates the board, challenged only by Phaeton.
Phaeton: Surprisingly stable at 4to1, Phaeton is the most massive planet in the system. It frequently engages with Antichthon in diplomacy and trade, but is careful never to give too much, fully aware of their neighbor’s instability. At one interval of likelihood lower, Phaeton’s population grows more slowly, so at the time of writing they number only 3,000,000,000.
Their name comes from a mythological demigod whose father controlled the chariot of the sun. In the story Phaethon the son made his father promise him a chance to control the chariot, to demonstrate his skills. He did not heed his father’s warning about the power of the horses that pulled it, and he paid for it with his life, falling to his death.
Phaeton’s people have taken the story to heart, and are nervous about the prospects of space travel. As such their presence beyond their own atmosphere is exceedingly small, and even then its forces there are composed mostly of immigrants from Antichthon.
Instead they focus on a mastery of computing power and radio communication. It is said that just one of Phaeton’s computer banks is capable of tracking the trajectories of every asteroid in the belt, and that one experimental model under government control is even running a simulation on the entire solar system, predicting when and where new bodies might appear.
Engrossed in their own culture, I would be remiss if I did not mention the power that comes from their art. Phaeton is home to probable space’s most respected filmmakers, authors, poets, musicians, and artists. Many of these goods can be transmitted via radio wave, and people across the system are more invested than they know in this source of joy.
So upon analysis I believe Phaeton views Antichthon as a liability, and Vulcan as its true rival in this game of domination. It is Vulcan that brings us all the Earth’s entertainment, and they don’t even have to make it, merely record or recreate it from visions. Stories are what inspire us, and there are those who say the ones from Earth are always of higher value, having it innately by virtue of originating in the 1to1 soul.
Phaeton would disagree, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of efforts on their part to sever Vulcan’s ethereal connection to actuality, forcing us to rely only on our own spirits, and only on their radio serials.
Helmed by a combination of hereditary monarchy and democracy, in which one line is allowed to pass power onto their children barring votes of no confidence from elected representatives, Phaeton is a foe built on reserved strategy, one that will one day prove it can drive the chariot of the sun.
Pluto: At last we come to the most difficult piece to judge. I say this because I am biased toward my home planet, a plucky underdog if there ever was one. What have we got in our favor? We’re the smallest. The least likely. The least welcome. The least populous. Though certain accommodations have been made to facilitate our lives here, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re a mess of dim skies and ice volcanoes.
We have no infrastructure for significant space travel, as if the planet shouted to Phaeton, didn’t immediately hear back, and gave up.
With the longest pre-rendered history and culture we’ve had no time to find ourselves, making a true assessment like I’ve done with the others impossible. The only conclusion I can draw is that Pluto, with its self esteem as low as it is, won’t do much to defend itself or assert its presence on the board. It is, in essence, up for grabs. For sale to the quickest bidder.
Maybe the philosophy of Pluto is to take what you can get. We don’t have the confidence to win, but we do have the fear to keep us from losing. Upon reflection, I don’t think our principle export will be ice or 5to1 goods. It’ll be crazy8s. Compared to other populations we have a head start on desperation, and on being absurd. I mean, what are we even doing here? It’s a mistake even in senses of the word we don’t fully fathom.
We’ll put on a mask. We’ll have a good time… but the second someone who knows what they’re doing gives an order, we’ll fall and beg them to give another. A pawn after all.
The couple was on the fence about the whole affair, partly because it started as an affair, but when the bride-to-be’s dear friend told them she had found a free venue they just decided to roll the big dice that were the rest of their lives.
The ceremony was taking place in an abandoned restaurant that probably hadn’t seen anyone since the swing of things started nearly 5 months ago. The owners were likely appalled to find themselves short order cooks once Pluto actually gave them the wheel. While it was little more than a diner it only needed a good dusting and some polish on the chrome stools to make it picture perfect.
The honored guests sat at the counter, with the rest of the party in the booths behind them. Finding a caterer was impossible, as they’d all dissolved into Saturnalia, waiters wading into dancing hoards with canapes and cocktails only to get absorbed and never emerge. Instead each of the guests had cooked something and when they’d all arrived they’d simply placed their item one booth or stool down from where they were sitting.
With nobody to protest, the groom’s father, who insisted he was much handier now than Pluto had made him look for the first 61 years of his life, had knocked out the wall between the kitchen and the counter, sanding the sides down to make an arch for his daughter, her fiance, and the officiator to stand under.
Dressed in satin black and gray, a style based on a rolled-up newspaper, complete with a headline about her own wedding across the bodice, the bride’s smile beamed so brightly that her guests didn’t need to use the flash when snapping pictures with their electroglass cards.
The kiss had just happened, her hair sweeping so low that it picked up some of the wall dust her father had missed. When the cheering started the officiator whipped out his jazz trumpet and began to play. Finally all the planning and arrangements were done; everyone could just dance. When they were done the diner would be trashed, but they would be sure to leave the door intact, so that once it swung closed behind them there was no telling how long it would be before another person stepped foot inside.
Their sense of relief was a touch unwarranted, because they hadn’t actually done much of the planning, most of that had been handled by her friend yet again. In all the world there was no better friend than Peachy Schnapps. It was Peachy who pointed out that their affair really didn’t count as infidelity when it was Pluto that put them with the wrong people before the swing of things, Peachy who found the venue when looking for a place for her brunch book club to meet, Peachy who introduced her to the dress designer, Peachy who suggested the carousel of home cooked foods, and Peachy who gave the first toast with a raised glass of club soda.
All that and she didn’t even ascend to her rightful place as the maid of honor. Instead she stood back with the other 2 bridesmaids during the ceremony, in a simple sleeveless rose gold dress. She held her pregnant swell even though it wasn’t that large yet. The woman would sooner perish than shirk her self-appointed duties, so she didn’t look away once during the ceremony, and thought of nothing but her friend’s future flooding with love.
When the dancing started she pulled a single card out from her cleavage and checked the time: 11:46. It was a morning wedding so they could celebrate all day, but Peachy had other obligations. Having to leave early was why she had forsaken the maid of honor position. She slipped into the crowd, shaking her hips and shoulders just enough to not interrupt the mood, and caught the bride’s ear. She did have to literally reach up and pinch a lobe, short as she was.
“Is it time already?” the bride pouted.
“I’m afraid so, but it was really the time of my life. You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen,” Peachy said, pouring on her signature syrup.
“Then stay Peachy! I promise I’ll be beautiful until the 7th glass of champagne.”
“I wish I could but there’s absolutely no way around it; I’ve made someone a promise.”
“If you must. Will I see you after the honeymoon?”
“At our regular time, on the nose.” Peachy did her best to hop, achieving a quarter inch off the floor, and tapped the tip of her friend’s nose. From there she rushed to the bathroom, where she had her belongings and more appropriate clothing for the rest of her day. The dress provided no room at all for storage, necessitating the cleavage trick that left her card covered in sweat.
She hurried over to the sink and rinsed it off, drying it by blowing on it before slipping it back into her deck. When she did she caught a message on her jack of lights, running across the little screen on repeat, as urgent messages did.
You’re late. You’re late. You’re late.
“Am not,” she muttered. With a look around she confirmed she was completely alone, so she started shimmying out of her dress. It was a little too tight, her kid having grown in the 2 weeks since she’d been measured for it, so the stout little woman stopped to catch her breath when it was rolled up around her thighs.
That was when she had a thought, and even though time was tighter than the dress she took a moment to haul herself up and sit on the edge of the sinks. This allowed her to see most of herself in the mirror, naked from the waist up, feet dangling. She rubbed her belly and admired its reflection. No, she wasn’t completely alone after all.
How awful the moments between friends were, like a jukebox insisting on playing 2 minutes of silence between songs. If such an item tried to hang around Saturnalia it would be hollowed out and turned into a game of bobbing for apple martinis.
The kid was the cure. There would never be moments between again. For years she would have her baby by her breast, by her side, and in sight. Even when they were all grown up she would still have them, because they would have friends of their own; she knew she would feel when they were out having fun, like effervescence in their shared blood. Peachy couldn’t help but wiggle in front of the mirror, ecstatic at what she was, at the bright smoothness of her skin, at her compact little frame that looked meant to squeeze onto a shelf loaded with other mason jars full of sugared fruit and assorted buttons.
10 minutes later she was a few blocks away, in the shopping district, looking ready for a day full of errands, the bridesmaid dress stuffed into her tiny purse alongside her deck, a tube of warm lipstick, and a few fizzy tablets to settle her tumultuous tummy. Crystal&Tall, the department store, with 7 floors of sprawling luxury retailers, was the perfect place to get a few of the things she still needed for her nursery.
She waited out front, back to a window next to the revolving doors as tall as 4 of her stacked. Each spinning glass panel in them was etched with frosted patterns of a suit and season, but every time the one themed after drinks and the rainy season passed by she noticed it was a little worse for wear. Scratches mingled with the raindrops, even a few cracks that almost looked like thematic lightning. Nobody wanted that season to come; Saturnalia was the ultimate parade, but it was still susceptible to getting rained on.
Peachy also hoped the skies would hold out for a while longer. It would be most convenient if the downpour started when the kid was born, since she would be cooped up with them anyway. None of her friends would begrudge cancellations when it was wet and nasty outside.
It was her friend Zesta who wound up being 3 minutes late, but Peachy greeted her with a tight hug and a broad smile anyway. Zesta, a frazzled woman with long, fluffy, auburn hair and worry lines that could pull a tugboat, wasn’t sure they were in hugging territory yet, but she was grateful that someone wanted to socialize with her at all.
She’d never planned on having a baby, but Saturnalia had proved too enticing for her to bother with precautions, and she’d wound up pregnant. Unsure if it was from the instance in the dark cephalopod nook at the aquarium with the man who seemed to have more suction cups than the surrounding octopus or the instance with the bespectacled man who wanted someone to help him test an invention he called a ‘vertical bed’, all she knew for certain was that she was done with Saturnalia, probably men as well, and that it was time to build a home even though the festivities continued to blur around them.
Peachy swooped in just a day after Zesta found out she was expecting, almost as if she’d sensed it. The short woman was a little further ahead with her kid, and was very insistent that as some of Pluto’s first mothers-by-choice, a term Zesta didn’t quite bother to disagree with, they had to stick together.
Zesta had no idea how much of her casual future, the evenings in and summer vacations, had already been laid out for her by Peachy. Their kids would be born just a month apart, and so were destined to be best friends as youths and get married as adults. No matter the situation of their gender and preference when they got older, they would of course be perfectly compatible because that was the only way Peachy could help her kid construct a marriage proposal for Zesta’s.
Together they went through the revolving doors and took in the sights of Atrium City’s most upscale building. The floor was made of Jupiter granite, so called because its swirls of cream and cinnamon red resembled the vapor rivers in the gas giant’s atmosphere. Black pillars wrapped in electroglass that displayed shifting dust clouds rose 30 feet over their heads before joining the ceiling.
“Please tell me they have escalators,” Zesta huffed.
“Oh they have everything,” Peachy assured, taking her by the hand and dragging her deeper. Ostensibly they were there to get cribs, bottles, baby clothes, and a dozen other things, but on the way Peachy insisted they make stops at the top chocolatier’s, the card shop, and the 2nd best chocolatier’s to see if the 2 should have their honors swapped for her future visits.
Everything they passed was open for business, in stark contrast to everything outside on street level. Saturnalia hadn’t seeped in thanks to 2 factors, the first of which was the prestige of having a shop in the spire with the crystal windows. The only prestige left was climbing to a higher floor, and if anyone noticed you leaving greasy fingerprints on the glass you’d be tossed through the revolving doors.
The 2nd factor was the ingenious policy that every store must tightly wrap its goods after sale and customers were not permitted to open them within the building. As soon as the transaction was done the miscreants scurried out as fast as they could, taking the enabling items of drunkenness and debauchery they’d just purchased with them.
Both inside and out every ridge large enough for a pigeon to sit on was covered in silvery wands that visibly shocked the birds. Sandwiched layers of 8to1 insulation kept hardluck phantoms from trespassing and disturbing their clientele. There was even a small entry fee for any floor above the first, one half-simillion rhomboid coin called a chansinhell.
Zesta started to worry they were not fit to shop in such a high society place, especially because Peachy had her pay the entry fee for both of them, claiming to have no cash on her. Zesta voiced her concerns, but Peachy countered with the adage that their children deserved the absolute best.
In a housewares department that smelled of cologne and perfume waltzing romantically they discovered a line of bibs that were guaranteed to ward off stains from 3 probabilities. If true it was certainly impressive, as Zesta once spilled 6to1 blueberry pulp on her 5to1 sleeve and it persisted to this day, through a dozen washes with detergents of varying likelihood.
They would be perfect, if it wasn’t for the price tag being as long as the bib itself. With the hawk-like eyes of the salesperson already lingering on them, Zesta was ready to quietly move along, but when she looked for Peachy she saw her engaging with the person, digging a specific card out of her deck.
“You can just charge it right to this!” she bubbled, handing over a card with a red symbol Zesta couldn’t quite make out. The person snatched it, deposited it in the middle of their own deck, loudly flipped through it to process the charge, and then expertly fanned the top 10 for Peachy to pick hers from.
“What was that card?” Zesta asked when Peachy returned to her side and handed her one of the bibs, in her favorite color of cornflower yellow no less, which she couldn’t remember ever revealing to her.
“Don’t you worry about that,” she insisted. “Friends of mine deserve the absolute best as well.” Zesta’s fingers glided across the silky bib; it felt fit to wipe away angel tears. If this kept up she would have no choice but to hug Peachy every time she saw her.
the card with the red symbol reminded Peachy again as she slipped it back into her deck, where its color faded. The numbers and suits randomized; she would only be able to find it again if she needed it for its intended purpose. Her heart fluttered. She’d forgotten that she might indeed be late for that, but really who kept up with that sort of thing? Just petty people… and the last word she thought about in regard to her friend at the top was petty. He was very generous.
Eventually Zesta stopped looking at the card each time Peachy brought it out, afraid she was too close to recognizing a certain symbol. Wherever that money came from it bought the both of them baby pajamas, booties, bottles, rattles, and caps. It even bought the babies some of their physical development, as Peachy used it to pay for their lunch at a cafe so exclusive that if you ordered a glass of water they would bring you a list of mountain springs to select from.
Zesta was wondering how long she could let this go on before questioning the source of the funds, but Peachy’s busy schedule saved her the trouble. The stout little woman had another appointment with another friend, and it was a promise, and there was no possibility of her not keeping it.
They hugged again at the top of the escalator leading back down to the first floor. Under Zesta’s arm Peachy spotted someone at the bottom, flipping through cards covered in newsprint in a perturbed fashion. He was a middle-aged man, but still looking rather inflated around the chest and biceps. They had met once before, and Peachy guessed he was too cheap to pay the chansinhell fee when he could just wait at the bottom for her to emerge.
Whatever he wanted, it wasn’t part of her appointment with Zesta, so Peachy shooed her on down the steps, promising they’d meet next week, feigning a search for something within her bag so she didn’t have to descend quite yet. The man looked up and spotted her, scowling. He flipped an article in his hand, revealing a ticking clock face on the other side. Despite his impatience Peachy waited until Zesta was completely out of sight before she took her one and only step on the escalator.
He couldn’t even wait for her to reach the bottom, rushing up the last 6 steps and grabbing her by the elbow. Unwilling to protest, not yet, there was no need for a scene to be penciled in, she let him roughly escort her to a corner of the lobby near the restrooms. There she slipped free and rubbed her already sore shoulder.
“You hiding from me?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly,” she said as cheerily as she could, like he was an uncle thinking he’d been slighted an invitation to a family reunion. “I didn’t know you were looking; the prince didn’t call. He knows he can call any time.”
“You’re daft.” His face scrunched as if she’d belched and laughed about it. “The prince isn’t going to talk to you. You do understand the nature of your arrangement, don’t you?”
“Of course!” She offered no further elaboration, leading the Eudaemon to roll his eyes and demand the card she’d just gotten such thorough use of. Peachy flipped through her deck until Roman’s symbol appeared and was snatched out by the thug. It still flashed its tardiness warning. He shoved it back in her face.
“Your line of credit only exists as long as you make payments. You missed the last 3, and in so doing made me get out of the office. I like the office. It’s quiet and people try to bribe you with donuts and sandwiches.”
“I could take you out for a sandwich,” Peachy offered.
“You don’t have a sandwich to your name!” He grabbed one of her shopping bags and ripped it open. “You bought all this junk with Koch’s money?” He found a wrapper from the still-2nd-best chocolatier, which pushed him over an edge. “Give me your coat.”
“You heard me you dumb broad. That coat’s probably worth about one payment.” Peachy’s smile faded, wishing she could talk with the other Eudaemon, the woman who had made their arrangement on behalf of the prince. She would understand. Peachy had explained the situation to her fully, even letting the woman touch her stomach, though there was no movement to feel at such an early place in the pregnancy. The credit was just to get her through Saturnalia, and through the early expenses for the kid, and then when things settled down she would gladly do the same and work for the prince’s enterprise as a secretary.
“There’s no need to be rude, ever really,” she pouted, slipping the soft pink coat off her shoulders. He snatched it and handed back the card.
“Now you start paying or I’m going have to come back and take something off you that’s not meant to be taken off, you hear me?” Peachy nodded her sunken head. This would be over soon. These awful moments were always just that; the clock kept ticking. As much as the fastidious goblins of the world wanted to halt the hands and go over their grievances for all eternity, they just kept ticking.
“Is that all?” she asked sullenly.
“Yeah,” he grunted. She started marching away, but he called back to her. “By the way, our card was the one you put in your-” he mimed his index finger diving between a pair of breasts “-so thanks for the show.” His smirk was just awful, and despite the desire to stick to her schedule exactly she couldn’t get away from it fast enough.
There was a chill in the air outside Crystal&Tall, and it sat on her bare shoulders like the talons of frozen ravens. The Eudaemon’s grin lingered in her mind, and she did her best to get rid of it as she pushed against the flow of pedestrians by humming songs from the radio. Usually it wasn’t so difficult to get rid of dark soggy thoughts like that; she thought perhaps it was the changing of seasons. If so, if this spreading sadness was to be part of every year, perhaps hibernation was a strategy worth consideri-
“Oof! Oh I’m sorry!” she apologized after bumping into a man in a suit. His tie was untied and the briefcase he carried was hanging open, empty.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a smile before he went on his way, passing through most of the other shoulders in the crowd. Peachy froze. He had looked very pale, and out of sorts. That was why she didn’t turn away, having subconsciously guessed he was 7to1. She must have been wrong, because while she had suffered a drop to 5 a month ago she certainly wasn’t at 6. She had the prince watching out for her, and so many supportive friends, and a whole life she was busy constructing on the inside. Pinky was waiting.
The game hall was certainly a few rungs below Crystal&Tall, probably on a broken rung at that, but Peachy had no class or wealth requirements for her friends. Saturnalia left the place without proper management, but the drinks were still being delivered and there was always a bartender thanks to the unwritten policy that various debts generated there could be forgiven with a few hours worked behind the counter.
Today there was a girl of 16 taking orders who waved at everyone entering enthusiastically, with Peachy being the only one whose return wave could match it in intensity. She ordered a seltzer and made her way to one of the round wooden tables in the back, where Pinky Lady and a few other acquaintances were already playing their biweekly game of cards.
Peachy made it there, only losing a few drops of her drink to an outburst from the next table over. It was full of rough characters, and the shout had come from one of them pulling the bloody corner of a card out of his shoulder while the others laughed.
As much as she would’ve liked to befriend everyone, men like that were not qualified. They were playing takebaxi: the game of mistrust. Some considered it the ultimate card game, one perhaps invented between the quarreling couple who crafted the universe as they fiddled with the platinum deck.
It was a game of bluffing and trading, where each player attempted to assemble the jack, queen, king, and ace of a suit of their choice in their hand, but if another showed them a card and they were holding the next card up in that suit they were forced to hand the higher one over.
That in itself wouldn’t drive away people like Peachy, but the rules regarding lower value cards did. At any point, with no warning whatsoever, a player was free to throw a card, sharpened or not, at any other player, and if they failed to catch the card they were forced to take it into their hand and discard something of higher value.
Obviously cardistry came into play, and at the highest level it was a spectator sport, with the cards dulled for the viewing public. Still, that encouraged those who thought of themselves as skilled cardists to prove it by winning as many simillions and as much blood as possible in ‘the game of flying fates’.
Peachy, Pinky, and the other girls opted for something much tamer: bridge. Pinky, now that her long time teammate had arrived, dealt from her deck, the cards using a lovely theme of white lace. Between rounds they descended into gossip, with Peachy being pumped for information that she would’ve disgorged freely anyway. They were all friends after all.
“One of those prince doors went up on the laundry on Lost Moon Street,” Pinky offered to kick things off. She was a slick woman, as short as Peachy but much thinner, always wearing skintight dresses that forced her to store her belongings, like pens and loose cards, over her ears.
“There’s more than 100 now,” one of their opponents remarked. “He sure is busy.”
“What do you think they’re for?”
“I was flirting with one of the workmen and he told me they’re a gift. They can be sealed to help prevent flood damage, just in case this rainy season is a drowner.”
“Poor Minty,” Peachy threw out. The others’ eyes sharpened. Every week Peachy mentioned at least one person they hadn’t heard about yet. Did she know every woman in the city? “Oh, I don’t know if I’ve told you girls about her. She runs that little library-shop called Aleatory Books. We go for walks all the time and she tells me about some book that might or might not be written honestly, you know, because of Pluto being the publisher-”
“What made you think of her?”
“Oh, she just got one of those doors too, but there must have been some mistake, because she never ordered it.”
“Deary you don’t ord-” one of them started, but Pinky hushed her.
“The prince really has his eyes on her; I know that much,” Peachy rambled. “The brazen head said she was an amazing cardist, and she doesn’t believe it, but I do. I think if you turn as many pages as her it becomes a reflex very similar to throwing cards.”
“And Roman is trying to recruit her? What for do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea,” Peachy said with a shrug and a sip of her seltzer. She coughed, a little tickle in her throat, as if some of the bubbles were escaping.
“To fight somebody, obviously,” one of the others said. “You don’t recruit cardists to have them juggle at dinner parties. He’s going to fight Antichthon.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pinky urged. “Nobody stands a chance against them. They’re coming like the rains and that’s that. He’s going to talk to Antichthon, but if his words are going to seem good for anything he needs to be consolidated on the ground. He’s taking on a Plutonian.”
“Sorry, but, are you sure it couldn’t be juggling?” Peachy asked. “I mean, if it was a fight that might put Minty in danger, and she doesn’t belong there. The prince should know that about one of his subjects.”
“I know you’re worried,” Pinky said, patting her useful friend on the shoulder.
“I am now!” she squeaked in response. “Now I really must speak with him, on her behalf. To think, a librarian on a battlefield.”
“If you made it into his club you could probably ask the head what he wants her for,” one of their opponents mused.
“You have to make it a yes or no question,” Pinky reminded, “and you’d have to ask several in a row just to narrow it down. It’s impossible. I heard Roman keeps his head near his shoulders at all times now. Doesn’t lend it out to his subordinates like he used to. Makes a girl wonder what he knows that he doesn’t want anybody else knowing.”
“Probably how to become prince of a whole planet when there’s no king and queen in sight.” The conversation weaved this way and that through several games and rounds of drinks. At some point the teenage bartender was swapped out with a portly bearded man who was very attentive despite mixing up the orders constantly. Twice Peachy nearly took a sip of something alcoholic before her friends warned her.
It was almost like they failed to do so, given how upset her stomach became. Despite drinking nothing but seltzer that was more breath than water she felt something thick pooling inside her, the way one feels when they’ve injured their mouth and swallowed too much blood. Unpleasant as it was she kept it to herself, so as not to ruin the fun.
Her luck wasn’t faring much better, and at the end of their 2 hours together they’d lost every game, not that Pinky minded, as she’d already claimed her prize in the form of helpful tips about 10 people connected to Peachy, including the newly married couple. The Survivor Function was paying well for information that the public computers couldn’t get thanks to the informality of Saturnalia.
“Alright darlings, I’m afraid I must be going,” Peachy said wearily as she set down her last set of losing cards.
“Of course love,” Pinky said, sliding the hands back into her deck. “Who are you off to meet now?”
“I’ve made a promise to spend some time with Ginger Tonic and her little nephews; we’re going to play a board game. I have to be there at 6:30 on the dot or, so I’ve been warned, I won’t get first choice for the color of my game piece.” She bent over to whisper. “It’s pink.” Smirking when she said it, the lean nonetheless caused the stagnant puddle in her gut to lurch. She had to suppress the urge to vomit. “Excuse me.” She snagged her shopping bags.
The portly bartender waved goodbye, and of course she waved back, but the distraction nearly cost her the tip of her nose as a metal-edged card flew in front of her face. It had been difficult to ignore the party playing takebaxi all night, but now it was impossible. 2 of the men had decided to settle a quibble over the rules with a duel, which, in the variant they were playing, was still part of the game.
It had started over their table, both of them tossing the same few cards back and forth. Whoever failed to catch a card that would otherwise hit them, or whoever stood closer to the first card that stopped flat, would be the loser. In stretching their arms to make catches they’d shuffled away from the rest of their party, all of whom now had their feet on the table and their hands behind their heads as they watched and laughed.
They’d settled directly in front of the exit, or as Peachy saw it, between her and Ginger’s nephews. All sense of style gone, they grunted with each fling, sweat glistening on their foreheads. One of them sucked in air with his funneled mouth, like he was desperately trying to finish a set of exercises.
“Excuse me gentlemen, I need to leave,” Peachy said, but they paid no attention to her. She already knew how sharp the cards were by the amount of blood on their fingers. The paper based cards were already stained with it as well.
She knew a flourish or 2, and could perhaps hit a dartboard from half a room away, but that was with electroglass cards running programs that anticipated her desires and kept her from cutting herself. Hearing the cards shred the air in front of her, she knew there was no way she could snatch them out of the air without injury.
“Gentlemen please!” she tried again.
“Shut up!” one of them barked without even looking at her, prompting laughter from their table. Someone tried to enter, someone with a much more physically intimidating presence than Peachy, but they took one look at the screen of cards in front of them and closed the door again.
In 15 minutes the board game would start, and she could already see their cherubic faces sagging in disappointment when Aunty Peachy wasn’t there. Delays because of Saturnalia were sometimes unavoidable, as she would never dream of raining on a parade, but these 2 of a kind weren’t even having fun. There wasn’t even any power or influence at stake; they were just being mean. That casual aggression, turned into a barrier, had Peachy steaming, which was not good for the puddle of whatever-it-was in her stomach that was so thick it refused to even bubble.
“I don’t have time for this!” she declared like a train whistle, powering forward on her heels. The first victim was a strap on one of her bags, but she still had a good hold of the other one. A card sailed straight through the other bag, cut one of her new bibs, and continued on out the other side.
The entire game hall cheered as the door flapped shut behind her, more excited for the risk she’d taken than the reward she’d received. Peachy took a deep breath in the fresh air and only then examined herself for cuts. Everything seemed in order, on the outside anyway, so she put her smile back on and started toward Ginger’s place.
100 feet down the sidewalk she stumbled, dropping her bags and barely managing to stay upright. She looked back and saw her high heels, sitting together like a couple on a park bench. Her toes wiggled on the cold concrete. Peachy couldn’t bear to look at either of them, so she locked her eyes forward and started walking again, but it was too late. She was going to be late. I hate even revealing this to you, it’s awfully personal, but it was the worst feeling of her life.
She wondered if her life was ever actually going to start, and not just in terms of a job, or a relationship, or children. It was primordial: a doubt that the first microscopic fella on 1to1 Earth really had their affairs in order. They’d forgotten their official paperwork in crossing the border from inanimate to animate, so the entire ensuing enterprise was actually illegitimate.
Tiny bubbles rolled across her skin all over her body: pockets of gas that were no longer compatible. She was like a glass of seltzer herself, wanting to grab the little bubbles back, but they were already popping feet above her. The numerous changes of pressure made her lightheaded, and the only place to sit down was against a brick wall in the mouth of an alley.
Somewhere there was a party. She could hear it. There were waves of cheering every few minutes, each one like the birth of a new year. Peachy smiled and cried. It was the board game; everyone was having fun gathered around it. It hurt that she wasn’t there, but at least her friends were enjoying themselves. They would be fine without her for a while. Perhaps they would always be fine without her.
Peachy’s clothes clung to her stomach wetly. She put her hands over the spot to hold it all in, but that wouldn’t do any good. There was only one reason her feet would leave a pair of expensive 4to1 shoes behind.
Blood slipped through her fingers, drifting as bubbles, momentarily buoyed by the escaping gases. All she could do was watch, knowing what would come next. She wondered where she’d gone wrong. She owed money, but the universe didn’t run on a balance sheet. Did Pluto? Whatever the beginning, whatever the middle, her little stunt back there had been the end. It wasn’t just her life she gambled with when she stepped through those cards.
“But I was supposed to do this,” she cried as she lost more to the air. “I’m sorry. I thought it was our time.”