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The following text is an excerpt from MEMORY by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2003 by Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
When I was ten I had a blanket that was smooth and dark, with no light of its own until I moved and then its folds would glitter with thousands of tiny stars in all the colors of the stars in the night sky. But the pale arch that appears at the zenith on clear nights and that we call the Bow of Heaven never would appear on my blanket—and for that I was glad. For if there was no Heaven, I reasoned, then the dead would always be reborn in this world and not the next, no matter how wise they became in life.
This was always a great concern for me, for my mother was the wisest person I knew and I feared for her. More than once I schemed to make her look foolish, just to be sure she would not get into Heaven when her time came. When my antics grew too much she would turn to my father. With a dark frown and her strong arms crossed over her chest she would say, “We have been so very fortunate to have such a wild and reckless daughter as Jubilee. Obviously, she was sent to teach us wisdom.” My father would laugh, but I would pout, knowing I had lost another round, and that I must try harder next time.
I seldom suffered a guilty conscience. I knew it was my role to be wild—even my mother agreed to that—but on the night my story begins I was troubled by the thought that perhaps this time I had gone too far.
I lived then in the temple founded by my mother, Temple Huacho, a remote outpost in the Kavasphir Hills, a wild land of open woods and rolling heights, infamous for the frequency of its silver floods.
As often as three nights in ten the silver would come, rising from the ground, looking like a luminous fog as it filled all the vales, to make an island of our hilltop home. I would watch its deadly advance from my bedroom window, and many times I saw it lap at the top of the perimeter wall that enclosed the temple grounds.
That wall was my mother’s first line of defense against the rise of silver and she maintained it well. Only twice had I seen a silver flood reach past it, and both times the chemical defenses of the temple kobolds that lived within the wall stripped the silver of its menace before it could do us harm. True silver is heavy and will always sink to fill the low ground. But the remnant silver that made it past the wall spired like luminous smoke, tangling harmlessly in the limbs of the orchard trees.
Because silver was so common in that region no one dared to live near us. Only a temple, with its protective kobolds, could offer shelter from the nocturnal floods, and Temple Huacho was the only one that had been established anywhere in Kavasphir. So the mineral wealth the silver brought was ours to exploit, while the temple well was famous for producing new and mysterious strains of the beetlelike metabolic machines called kobolds. My mother harvested the kobolds while my father prospected, and eight or nine times a year small convoys of truckers would visit us to collect what we had to trade.
On that evening, two trucks had arrived from distant Xahiclan and the drivers had with them a boy named Tico who was also a lesson in wisdom for his parents. Naturally I loved him on sight, and so did my brother Jolly who was a year older than me but not nearly so useful to our parents. We abandoned our younger siblings (who we were supposed to watch) to play wild games in the orchard. After dinner—a magnificent feast that my parents had prepared and that we did not appreciate except for the sweets at the end—we disappeared again, this time on a special quest.
In the old enclaves like Xahiclan the temples all had long histories. Thousands of players depended on their protective powers, and so they had become sacred places. Children were not allowed to play on the grounds, and only the temple keepers were permitted inside the buildings. None of this solemnity was attached to Temple Huacho. Our outpost was not thirty years old; it was home to no one but our own family; and it was the only playground my brothers and sisters and I had ever known.
Jolly and I were oldest, so we could go where we wanted within the confines of the temple wall, though perhaps not to the well room, not without supervision. But Tico wanted to see the well of the kobolds. He told us he had never seen a kobold well before. Jolly and I were so astonished to hear this that it took only a moment for us to reason that the rule about not visiting the well room was an old one, and that if we were to ask, our mother and father would surely say we were old enough now to go there on our own . . . but of course we couldn’t ask: they were busy with the truckers and would not want to be bothered, while it was up to us to keep Tico entertained.
So we crept quietly through the halls, accompanied by Jolly’s little dog, Moki—a sharp-faced hound with large upright ears, a short back, lush red fur, and a long tail. Moki had been Jolly’s pet for as long as I could remember. He stood only knee-high, but he followed my brother everywhere. Now he trotted beside us, his nails clicking against the tiled floor.
Temple Huacho was a house of stone, made from the abundant minerals of Kavasphir. The floor tiles were a cream-colored marble laced with gold; the walls were of lettered stone, in a shade of green like malachite with the letters compressed into barely readable veins of black print; the ceilings were made of translucent slices of a lighter green stone bearing the image of fossilized forests. Lights shone behind the ceiling panels, giving the effect of walking through a woodland on a cloudy day. Tico was much impressed by this décor. On the way to the well room he kept whispering about how wealthy we must be until I decided that perhaps I didn’t like him quite as much as I had thought.
The entrance to the well room was framed by the trunks of two trees fossilized in white jade. Jolly held on to Moki while I leaned past the nearest trunk, taking a quick, cautious look around the room, confirming that it was empty. Then I motioned Tico and Jolly forward.
The well room was a round chamber, its walls lined with cabinets holding hundreds of tiny, airtight drawers where mature kobolds were stored. On the right-hand side, in front of these cabinets, was the broad jade table that served as my mother’s workbench. Her microscopes and analytical equipment were shapeless lumps beneath a white dust cover. On the left side of the room another workbench supported stacks of transparent boxes—test chambers for uncataloged kobolds—but they were empty.
At the center of the room was the temple well. A thigh-high mound of fine soil surrounded its throat. Over the years I had watched this mound grow until now it spilled onto the tiles around it, where its soil was scuffed and crushed to a fine brown powder by passing feet.
Tico did not wait for further invitation. He strode past me to the mound’s edge, where he looked over the embankment of dirt, and down, into the dark, jagged hole that was the throat of the well.
A kobold well is made wherever a plume of nutrients chances to rise from the steaming core of the world, a bounty that awakens the kobold motes, tiny as dust, that lie dormant everywhere in the soil.
I felt proud when I saw the awe on Tico’s face. The well was the heart of Temple Huacho. It was the reason my mother had settled there. It was the source of our security, and our wealth. So I was surprised when Tico’s expression changed. Awe became confusion. And then confusion gave way to a wicked scowl. “Is that it?” he asked. “A dirty hole in the ground?”
I frowned down at the fine, loose soil, wanting desperately to impress him. “There are kobolds,” I said, and I pointed at the well’s throat where two newly emerged kobolds were using their weak limbs to claw free of the hard-packed ground. These were large metallophores—metal eaters—as big as my father’s thumb and beetlelike in appearance, their color as dull as the soil that nourished them.
Kobolds were a kind of mechanic, a machine creature, and like any machine they were created by the labor of other machines: the kobold motes, to be specific. That was the essential division among the animate creatures of the world: mechanics were made, so that they began existence in finished form, while organic life had to strive for existence through the complexities of birth and growth and change.
Mechanics were living tools. The metallophores that I pointed out to Tico could be configured to make many kinds of simple metal parts. As a spider eats and secretes a web, so kobolds could take in raw material, metabolize it so that it took on a new form, and secrete it. But where spiders secreted only webs, kobolds could produce things as diverse as medicine or machine parts, depending on the strain. The common metallophores of our well did their work inside a metabolic foam, which they would excrete in layer upon layer for many days depending on the size of the artifact they had been programmed to make. When the project was complete the foam would be washed away, revealing the fan blade, or bracket, or truck body that the configuration had called for.
All players were dependent upon mechanics, but we were especially dependent on the kobolds. We could not have survived without them, so it was easy to believe the legends that said they had been made for us.
But Tico showed no sign of being impressed by the large metallophores, so I hurried to look for other kobolds, and soon I spotted some that were tiny, the size of a grain of wheat or even smaller, moving through the mound’s soft soil. “See those?” I asked Tico. “There. Where the soil quivers? Those are probably the kind that make platinum circuits. My mother’s been trying to improve that strain.”
He shrugged. “Who cares about kobolds? I’ve seen thousands. I thought you were going to show me a well like the ones in Xahiclan. They’re a hundred feet across, with crystal walls crawling with rare kobolds no one’s ever seen before.”
A hundred feet across? I wondered if it could be true. I looked at Jolly. He had circled around to the well’s other side where he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, a sure sign he was getting angry. Moki sat beside him, his alert ears listening for any familiar words in our conversation. Jolly said, “At Temple Huacho we find lots of kobolds no one’s ever seen before. More than in all of Xahiclan, because this temple is new.”
I smiled, pleased at my brother’s parry. But now the line had been drawn and Tico had territory to defend. “New kobolds out of this little hole? I don’t believe it!”
It took me a moment to understand that he had just called my brother a liar. When I did, my cheeks grew hot. “Why do you think your dad comes all the way out here?” I demanded. “It’s because our kobolds are special.”
“Uh-uh!” Tico countered. “It’s for the minerals.”
Jolly smiled his signature half smile. I saw it, and took a step back from Tico. In a quiet voice Jolly said, “You forget where you are, Tico. This is the Kavasphir Hills. You’re not in an old, tame enclave like Xahiclan. We don’t need a big well, because the silver here is powerful.”
Jolly was a beautiful child, smooth-skinned and bright-eyed, his blue-black hair sprouting in unruly spikes—but he was eleven, and the easy cheerfulness of his early years had already begun to fade under the pressure of a growing self-doubt, for no talent from his past lives had ever returned to him. Every new skill had to be learned with great labor, as if for the first time. Though I was younger, I was far ahead of him in reading and math, because for me each new lesson only wakened a knowledge I already had, while Jolly had to earn it. He would grow frustrated, and rail that he must have been the stupidest player in existence, to have learned nothing from his past lives.
That night though, he was a player. He told Tico, “This land belongs to the silver. It’s in the ground. It’s in the well.” He stomped his shoe softly. “It’s here, right under our feet.”
Tico didn’t like this idea. He took a step back. “It’s not.”
“Oh, yes it is,” I said, rising to my brother’s aid—though the idea of silver lying in wait underground was new to me, and deeply unsettling . . . because it made sense. Questions I had never thought to ask were suddenly answered, and I echoed them aloud: “Where do you think kobold motes come from?” (As if I knew!) “The silver makes them, that’s where. It’s in the land.”
“It is not!” Tico said. He was becoming desperately angry now. “My uncle’s a stone mason. I’ve been to a quarry where stones are cut out of the ground, and there’s never been any silver underneath any of them.”
“This is a temple,” Jolly said.
Well it certainly was and Tico had never been in a temple before. What did he know about temples? Nothing except the silly rumors he’d heard in Xahiclan of wells a hundred feet across. But Tico was proud of his ignorance. He shrugged; his lip thrust out in a pout. “Your well is still boring to look at.”
This was too much for me. To belittle the well was to belittle the life my mother had made for all of us and that I could not bear. “Come with me, then,” I said, and I started to climb carefully over the mound. “If you want some excitement, then come with me and see the silver—unless you’re afraid.”
Jolly’s eyes widened when he saw what I was doing. “Jubilee!” But the well lay between us, and he could not stop me.
I looked over my shoulder at Tico. “What’s the matter? Don’t you want to come?”
Warily he asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to climb down the well. That’s what you have to do to see the silver.”
“But I can see the silver outside any window. It’s rising tonight. My dad said so.”
I edged closer to the well’s dark throat, placing my feet carefully so as not to crush the lumpy shapes of dormant kobolds that lay buried beneath the surface of the mound. “But it’s in the well too. Always. Night or day. Don’t you want to see it?”
I didn’t expect him to follow me. I thought fear (or wisdom) would get the better of him, and he would run away and then Jolly and I could have a good laugh together. But Tico was a gift to his parents, and to me. “Okay,” he said. “You go first.”
Of course I had never climbed down the well. I had no idea if the silver really could be seen at the bottom, or even if there was a bottom, but Tico was watching me with a wicked smile. He knew I was lying. He was only waiting for me to give up and admit it, but how could I? I glanced at Jolly. He was my big brother. He was supposed to keep me out of trouble, but he only looked at me with merry eyes, saying, “The chimney bends about ten feet down, but if you wriggle past that, you can keep going for almost thirty feet.”
I could not hide my astonishment. “You’ve been down the well?”
“Sure. How do you think I know about the silver?” He looked past my shoulder and his smile widened to a grin. I turned to see Tico fleeing the well room. The sound of his footfalls faded in the direction of the dining hall. “He won’t tell on us,” Jolly said. “He’d only get himself in trouble.”
Tico was already forgotten. I turned back, to glare at my brother. “Have you really been down the well?” I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to believe he’d done something so momentous without me. And he didn’t want to admit it. I could see that at once. “You have gone down it!” I accused.
He looked askance. “Only one time. When you went with Dad to Halibury.”
That was the time my father had taken me to see the matchmaker. Jolly was oldest and he should have gone first but our father wouldn’t take him—not until he knew what Jolly’s talents were. My own special talent was languages. I had a knack for them that had been clear by the time I was six. Naturally my brother had been jealous, and he must have been bored too in the days I was away—but that was months ago! He should have forgiven me, and confessed. I wondered what other secrets he kept. “You should have told me.”
“Why? You would only want to go yourself.”
“So it’s dangerous. You really can see hints of the silver down there.”
“I’m not afraid.”
He was only a year older than me. I knew I could keep up with him. I always had. “You can follow me, Jolly, if you want to, but I’m going.”
I lowered myself into the well’s dark throat. The shaft sweated a cold dew. Knobs of jade stuck out from the narrow walls as if they had been put there on purpose to make a ladder. I moved cautiously from one to the next. Jolly and I had climbed every tree in the orchard, we had scaled the wall around the temple at a hundred different points, and we had even climbed up to the roof once, when my father was away and my mother was busy with the new baby. But the shaft was a new experience for me, and I didn’t like it.
I could feel my shirt getting wet, and crumbles of dirt trickling past my collar. The smell of dirt was strong. Beneath that though, there was something else: a sharp scent that made me think of knives, or melting glass. The walls were tiled with the shapes of dormant kobolds. I could see their legs folded against their machine bodies, and their scaled abdomens, but the complex mouthparts that decorated their beetle faces were only half-formed.
I had never seen an unfinished kobold before. I stroked the back of one. Then I pried my fingers into the dirt around its pupal shape to see if it could be freed. It popped loose with surprising ease. I almost dropped it, but managed to catch it with my left hand, while my legs held me propped against the wall.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Jolly said.
I looked up at his foreshortened figure braced across the well’s throat, and I made a face. Out of sight in the well room, Moki was whining anxiously, wondering where we had gone. It was a lonely sound, and did not help my mood, but I had things to prove. So the pupal kobold went into my pocket and I continued down.
The bend in the well shaft was just as Jolly had described. I wriggled past it, leaving behind the friendly light of the well room. I felt the shaft open out around me and I had the feeling I’d entered a secret chamber. It was warmer here, and it was dark enough to make me breathe hard. I couldn’t see the shapes of the pupal kobolds in the walls anymore, but I could feel them, bumpy-smooth, like river rocks under my hand. The sharp, glassy scent had grown stronger.
Jolly was wriggling past the bend now, so I started down again to get out of his way. “Where’s the silver?” I asked softly.
“Farther down. It’s trapped in the walls.”
“It can’t get out, can it?”
“I don’t know.”
My hands trembled. The temple protected us from the silver. But it was night—the time when silver rose. And I wasn’t exactly in the temple; I was under it.
“Did you climb down at night?” I asked Jolly. “Or during the day?”
Okay. I bit my lower lip. It was only thirty feet or so to the bottom. That’s what Jolly had said. I climbed faster. The sooner I touched bottom, the sooner I could come back up.
It was too dark to see anything.
I couldn’t believe Jolly had climbed down here by himself.
Or maybe I could believe it. Jolly was like that. I would never have done this alone—and that was a hard knowledge to bear.
I slipped. I slid only a few inches and then I caught myself on a knobby rock. But now my eyes were playing tricks on me. Was there a gleam in the walls of the shaft? Yes . . . like threads of light beneath the black soil, but not silver threads. Their color was bronze. I brushed my fingers over them and some of the covering soil crumbled away. The light grew brighter, and closer to silver in color, but the texture was wrong. “Jolly?”
“Is this what you meant? Is this the silver?” It didn’t look much like silver to me.
“Tiny veins in the wall?”
I felt a little calmer. I could handle this. I started again for the bottom, moving faster now. I wanted this adventure to be over. I wanted to be out in the temple’s sweet artificial light. But to get there, I had to touch bottom first.
The well came to an abrupt end. Still clinging to the walls, I felt around with the thin soles of my shoes, but I could not discover any further passage. I was a bit disappointed. Despite my fear, it would have been fun to find a new passage, and venture just a little farther than Jolly.
“Where are you?” Jolly called. His voice sounded far away. I glanced up, and saw him silhouetted against a patch of gray. He had come only halfway down from the bend. His black shape hung there like a giant spider.
“I’m at the bottom.”
“Then come back. And hurry. Mama’s going to be looking for us soon.”
“In a minute.” Gingerly, I lowered my weight to the floor. Something brittle crunched under my feet and I half expected the shaft to give way and drop me all the way through the world to the ocean.
Nothing so dramatic happened. All around me I could see the tiny veins of embedded light glowing in the walls. They were everywhere at the bottom of the shaft, like luminous spiderwebs under the dirt. Or maybe they were just easier to see there, so deep down inside the world. I traced their tangled paths with my fingers. “This doesn’t look like silver,” I said. I looked up at Jolly. “Are you sure it’s not just a mineral?”
“I didn’t dig it out.”
My father had once shown me a grotto near our home where silver could be seen even in the daytime. He had not allowed me to go inside, but standing at the grotto’s entrance I could clearly see the silver tucked into the crevices and the hollows of the rock. It had looked just like silver looks in the night: cottony tufts of luminous fog. These gleaming veins didn’t look anything like that. Instead, they looked like strands of metal. “I don’t think this is silver.”
“Jubilee, come back up.”
I scraped experimentally at the dirt. I was still angry with Jolly. How I would love to prove him wrong! I scraped harder, but it hurt my fingernails. That was when I remembered the pupal kobold in my pocket. My fingers slipped around it, exploring its hard shape, and the way its abdomen came to a sharp point like a tiny pick. I pulled it out, and—gently at first, but with more force at every stroke—I used it to scrape at a vein.
Jolly must have guessed what I was doing. “Jubilee!” He started down toward me.
I kept scraping. Little streams of dirt rattled to the floor. The line of light beneath my excavation brightened. Encouraged, I stabbed my little weapon hard into the vein, and something popped. It was a tiny sound, like a clucking tongue, far away. Then a spurt of glowing silver slurry shot out across my hand like a pulse of blood. Or acid. My hand burned as if someone had laid a wire of red hot metal across its back. I dropped the pupa and screamed a little half scream, bit off at once because worse than a burn would be Mama finding out what I had done.
“Jubilee?” Jolly whispered, a note of panic in his voice. “Where are you? What’s wrong?”
“I’m okay!” I said. “Go back up. Go back up.” My hand hurt so badly. I whimpered, expecting a cloud of silver to ooze out of the wall at any moment to engulf me. The traceries of light still gleamed, while the vein I had attacked wept tiny drops like luminous quicksilver.
“I’m coming!” I climbed frantically toward his voice, knocking loose the pupal cases of several half-formed kobolds in my haste.
I kept my hand hidden from Mama. The wound was a livid red trench that ran from the knuckle of my little finger to the base of my thumb. After a few minutes it stopped hurting, but I could hardly bear to look at it and I certainly didn’t want to explain where it had come from. So I said good night with my hand thrust deep in my pocket. Then I hurried to the room I shared with Jolly, shut the door firmly, and crawled under my blanket of stars. I lay in the dark, staring at the trees beyond the open window, their leafy branches bathed in a pale gleam. I was terribly tired, but my guilty conscience would not let me sleep. After a few minutes, Jolly came in, with Moki following at his heels.
“You okay?” he asked.
He walked to the window. Pale light shone across his face. “The silver’s deep tonight. It’s almost over the wall.”
I crawled to the foot of the bed to look. Kneeling beside him, I leaned out the window.
Temple Huacho was built at the summit of a softly rounded hill. I looked down that slope, past the orchard my mother had planted, to see a luminous ocean lapping at the top of the perimeter wall. The silver’s light filled all the vales so that once again our hilltop had become an island, one of many in an archipelago of hills set in a silvery sea, though all the other islands were wooded. Ours was the only one where any players lived.
The oldest stories in existence, the ones brought forward again and again through time, tell us that in our first lives we came from beyond the world. A goddess created this place for us and the silver was her thought: a force of creation and destruction that could build the bones of the world or melt them away. She brought us out of darkness to live in her new world, for it was her hope that each of us might gain talents in our successive lives so that someday we would grow beyond this world and ascend to Heaven too.
The goddess had made the world in defiance of darkness, but the darkness was an angry god and he pursued her and sought to slay her world. A great war fell out between them and while he was cast back into the void, she was broken, her existence reduced to a fever dream with the silver the only visible remnant of her creative power.
We call it silver, but other languages have named it better. In one ancient tongue it is the “breath-of-creation.” In another it is “the fog of souls,” and in a third, “the dreaming goddess.”
That was how my mother spoke of it. When the silver rose she would say that the goddess was dreaming again of the glorious days of creation, and certainly the silver brought with it both the beauty and the madness of dreams. It was an incoherent force, wantonly powerful, that entered our world at twilight and stayed until dawn, reshaping what it touched. In the course of a single night it might dissolve a hundred miles of highway, or the outer buildings of a failing enclave, or a player unlucky enough to be caught out after dark. In the same night it might build new structures within the veils of its gleaming fog, so that a columned mansion would be discovered in an uninhabited valley, or a statue of glass would be found standing in meditation amid a field of maize. But while the silver could both dissolve away the structures of our civilization and build them anew, it acted always as an impersonal force, never seeming aware that this was our world, or that we existed in it.
So we walled it out.
A silver flood might get past the protection of the temple kobolds that lived within the perimeter wall, but not without losing most of its strength. More temple kobolds guarded the orchard, and more existed in the temple itself so that the silver could never reach us. So my mother promised.
Every temple was an enclave, an island of safety in the chaotic wilderness of the world. The truckers had brought their vehicles into the courtyard; my father had closed the gate behind them. They would sleep in the guest rooms tonight, and we would all be safe.
I watched the silver lapping at the top of the wall, somehow eerily alive that night. I watched the first tendrils reach over the wall’s flat top. When they encountered the chemical defenses of the temple kobolds they smoked and steamed, rising as a fine mist into the air. But the advance of the silver did not stop. More tendrils spilled over the wall, and these were not turned back so easily. I watched first one, then many more, flow down the face of the wall, gathering against the ground like smoke on a cool morning.
I retreated from the window.
My fear must have shone because Jolly said, “It’s okay. It won’t come inside the temple. It can’t.”
That’s what Mama would say—but she didn’t know about my adventure in the well. She didn’t know I’d disturbed what was there.
Jolly left the window to sit beside me on the bed. Moki followed him, snuggling in between us. “How’s your hand?”
He was silent for a minute. I could smell the silver: a fresh, strong scent as I imagined the ocean would smell. “Do you . . . ever feel like you’re having a dream?” Jolly asked. “Even though you’re awake?”
I puzzled over his question, wondering where it had come from. “You mean like a daydream?”
I could see he was already regretting saying anything. “Never mind.”
“Are you having a dream right now?” I asked him.
Silver light glittered in his eyes.
“So what do you dream about?”
But he looked away. “Never mind. Go to sleep.”
I was tired, so I lay down again, wriggling about for a minute so the stars on my blanket gleamed brightly. I looked at Jolly, still sitting at the foot of my bed, gazing out the window at the silver, his hand moving slowly as he stroked Moki, who had fallen asleep in his lap. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw faint motes of silver sparkling over his hand. Then I was asleep, before even the stars in my blanket had begun to fade.
Moki woke me, his sharp high bark like an electric shock. I sat up. Jolly had fallen asleep where he’d been sitting. Now his head jerked up. I was astonished to see motes of silver dancing in his hair and over his hands and in the folds of his clothes. He turned to the window.
The silver light was brighter than I had ever seen it. Jolly was silhouetted in its glow. He rose slowly to his knees, staring out the window like someone mesmerized.
“Jolly!” I spoke past Moki’s frantic yipping. “There is silver on you.”
He looked at his hands. Then he swiped them against his pants as if to wipe the evidence of silver away, but the motes would not leave. “It’s too late,” he whispered. “I called it, and now it’s coming.”
At first I didn’t know what he meant. Then Moki went ominously silent, and a moment later the silver rose over the windowsill. It had rolled up through the orchard all the way to the temple. Now it spilled through the window and into the room: a luminous stream that spread in a smoky pool across the floor. Its fresh, crisp scent filled my lungs and planted a quiet terror in my heart.
I crept backward, to the far corner of my bed, pulling my blanket of stars with me until I felt the wall against my shoulders. I could see no way to escape, for the silver had already rolled up against the door.
“Mommy!” I whispered it like a spell, a word with magical warding powers. “Mommy.” Too frightened to shout.
The silver started to rise. It inflated in ghostly tendrils that swirled toward Jolly, who seemed hypnotized by it, for he didn’t move. I reached out, grabbing a fold of his shirt where the silver motes were thinnest, and I yanked him backward. “Get away from it!” I whispered. “Move back. Move back.”
He seemed to wake up. Had he still been asleep? He scrambled into my corner. Moki came with him, barking frantically again. I put my hand over his muzzle and hissed at him to hush! I did not want Mama to wake. What would happen if she hurried to our room, if she threw open the door? She would be taken.
“Go away!” Jolly whispered. “I didn’t mean it.”
He had boxed me into the corner, put himself between me and the looming silver fog. Never had I seen silver so close. I peered past him, in terror, in wonder. It looked grainy. As if it were a cloud made of millions of tiny particles just like the silver motes that clung to him.
The cloud touched the edge of my bed.
Jolly started to creep away from me, moving toward it. “No,” I whimpered. “Don’t go.”
I grabbed his shirt again and tried to drag him back, but he turned on me in fury. “Don’t touch me! If the silver takes one of us, it’ll take the other too if we make a bridge for it to cross.”
“I don’t care!” I started to cry, but I didn’t touch him again. I held on to Moki instead, who was trembling in my lap. “I want Mama. I want Dad.”
“I do too,” Jolly said in a soft, shaky voice. Then a tendril of silver slipped across the bed and touched his knee. For a moment the tendril glowed brighter. Then it flashed over him, expanding across his legs, his torso, his arms, his face, all of him, in a raw second. For one more second he knelt on the bed like a statue of a boy cast in silver. Then the cloud rolled over him, hiding his terrible shape within a curtain of perfect silence.
I couldn’t breathe. Air wouldn’t come into my chest. I pressed myself against the wall and held on to Moki, wanting to scream, wanting it almost as badly as I wanted air, but I didn’t dare because I didn’t want Mama to come into the room and be stolen by the silver too. Even when the glittering mist began to retreat, leaving the foot of the bed empty, with ancient letters newly written in gold on the bed frame and on the stone floor, I stayed silent in my corner. I waited until the cloud had drifted out of the room—not out of the window, for the window was gone, and most of the bedroom’s wall with it, dissolved in the silver, just like Jolly.
I stared out at the orchard, wondering why the trees had remained unchanged, but silver was like that: sometimes it would leave things and sometimes it would change them, but it always took the players it touched, and animals too. I waited, until the last wisp still clinging to the ruined wall evaporated from existence. Then I screamed.
by Linda Nagata
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-9831100-8-8