Rune was a coastal city, a loose collection of homesteads perched along the edge of a wooded isthmus that thrust itself into the sea at the far eastern edge of Nasheen. It was the sort of place that made Nyx’s belly ache and her palms sweat, being surrounded on three sides by all that water, only one road back to the desert; or maybe all that discomfort was just the sen and the whiskey. Too much of anything these days made Nyx feel old and skittish, like some dying piece of bug tech.
She stood over a munitions table on Anneke’s salt-battered porch with a dozen pieces of decaying tech spread out in front of her. She had her cane resting against the side of the table, and if she didn’t reach out her hands too far from the wide sleeves of her coat, she didn’t have to look at her two-toned skin.
Half of Anneke’s brood of children clustered around her, their dark little fingers clutching at the edge of the table. Their faces were smeared in mud and loam. Just beyond the sweeping eaves of the tiled porch, feathers of rain blew down from the leaden sky. The world smelled of pine and mud and the peculiar stink of the oak hybrids, a rosy tannin smell that got a lot worse when you burned it; not that anyone out here was burning wood. The fine was three hundred notes and a stint in prison. The only time Nyx had ever smelled burning wood was at the front.
The other half of Anneke’s thirteen were out in the yard squealing in the mud. They had a covered well out there, and a big covered bug bin for refuse. They’d gotten a permit to cut down some trees, and there were still three or four big bulbous stumps the color of honey rearing up from the black soil. The latrine was out back, swarming with dung beetles, and whenever the rain let up, the place was crawling with mosquitoes big as Nyx’s thumbnail. But it had been raining since Nyx arrived, and the wet got into everything. The wood and synthetics of the weather-blown house were warped and perpetually damp. Nyx could feel the wet through her shoes.
She’d left Eshe and Suha at a local dive in town. They’d gotten some coastal gear, including Nyx’s coat and proper shoes, at a secondhand store. She hadn’t planned on buying anything, but she forgot how cold the coast was. During the winter season in the desert, the days were shorter, and the winds were high. She forgot that winter on the coast meant something far more uncomfortable.
Anneke sat up on the porch railing smoking a pipe that smelled of marijuana more than sen, and in her lithe, calloused hands she held the barrel of a z1090 scattergun with a bulb of acid on the backend that turned the thing into a flamethrower for about forty seconds before burning itself out. They were good for burning out the nests of fire ants that took up residence at the edges of cleared land. Nyx and her mother had taken those out once a month back at the farm in Mushirah and stalked the property line, looking for the tell-tale heap of neatly cut grass and leaves.
Nyx was in the middle of taking apart a black beetle cutter mine. She’d already shown the kids how to diffuse it, but Anneke was looking to teach the little bastards all about how to defend themselves in a pinch. Her boys would be headed to the front, and the girls who didn’t become hired guns would probably end up there, too.
“This is a real easy one once you get it to this point,” Nyx explained to the children. Their eyes were big and black, like Anneke’s, but they were all pretty tall; six years old and most of them already reached Anneke’s shoulder. Not that that was saying much. Anneke had always been a little shit.
“What you’re probably never going to get intact is a good fuse, so you’ll need to use the trigger from the one you took apart or from something else you scrounged, yeah?”
A couple of the kids nodded. Nyx had once asked Anneke how she kept her children away from all the guns she had in the house. The place was crawling with munitions.
“I don’t,” Anneke had explained. “Most of `em are a better shot than me. Now let’s unload some mines. I don’t got anybody around who can teach them munitions. Glad you stopped by.”
It was as if Anneke had retired to the coast to build her own private army for the end of the war. If the end ever came.
Nyx looked out over the porch rail at the other six children playing in the mud. The mine was heavy as an avocado in her hand; but not nearly so tasty.
The kids, being kids, had formed ever-changing alliances. The ones out playing among the stumps wanted nothing to do with the ones dissecting mines on the porch. Not today, anyway. Tomorrow the alliances might change, and there would be two different groups, or three, and tonight they might all act like one big happy organism for a short time during dinner. But Nyx didn’t count on the latter. She’d had too much experience with her own siblings.
Anneke’s kids were more openly physical than Nyx and her lot had been, but maybe that was because Nyx’s mother had hated violence. She’d wanted them all to grow up to be farmers and tax clerks, however unrealistic an idea that might have been. When Nyx and her brothers started street fighting, they’d done it at a small mining town just south of Mushirah, in secret.
Eventually, they would all learn to fight in the state schools, and the boys would all die, because they were Nasheenian, and that’s what Nasheenian boys did. The girls fought too, of course, but they didn’t die as often. Not that way.
Instead, Nyx thought, looking over at Anneke, we grow old and bitter and fat and sit out on our porches by the sea, breeding more boys to feed to the desert. She remembered finding the eyeless body of her sister, one arm flung over the side of the tub, mouth gaping, bloody beetles lapping up the blood on the floor, a sheen of spidermites skating across the pinkish water. There were all sorts of other ways to die in Nasheen.
“So once you get the trigger,” Nyx continued, turning back to her attentive audience, “you’ll need to pair it back up with the cistern, here. Sometimes it’s not a great fit, but if you’re wearing repellent” – she showed them her greasy hand – “you can generally give it a good twist without a fatal reaction and bang it on there.”
She deftly pulled off the broken trigger and slipped on the new one. A couple taps with a smooth stone, and the thing was patched up enough to be workable. She held up the little mine, no bigger than her palm, with the round green trigger at the top. “You make sure that trigger’s flush with the ground. The organic mesh here at the top, that blends in to whatever you set it up flush with.”
“But how do you diffuse it if it’s already set?” one of the girls asked.
“You call in a pro,” Nyx said.
Anneke snorted. Nyx shot her a look, but Anneke ignored her and started pulling her gun apart and laying it all out on the other side of the big amber table.
The house behind them was empty; Anneke had left the compounds when her kids were three or four and bundled them all up to the south where there was still some homesteading to be done for people who didn’t mind the occasional Heidian raid or raft full of Mhorian refugees.
From the porch, Nyx couldn’t see the ocean, but she could hear it, and smell it, and that was almost as bad. The whole idea of that soupy-salt sea put her off dinner, but she needed to find Rhys, and this was a good place to start.
The kids on the porch asked her some questions about placement, about timing, about weight restrictions. It was like being back at school, only on the other side of the table. Nyx had hated school, but she didn’t mind it so much from this side.
When the kids started reaching out to play with the scattered tech on the table, Anneke lifted her head and barked at them. “All right, that’s enough! Ya’ll go get wet!”
The kids giggled and pounded down off the porch and into the rain. Nyx watched them go, the little mine still resting in her palm.
Anneke had four boys and nine girls; not a bad spread, really. Most of them ran in packs, but they had their black beetle, too, a solitary girl who’d been out there since Nyx arrived, building a little mud village at the edge of the woods.
The boys and two of the girls from the porch started playing a capture the hill sort of game on top of one of the tree stumps, shoving each other off and declaring themselves the victor. The other group continued to play at their stick fighting, and now that there was another group out there, they started stalking them, running to thump them before they went back to thumping each other.
Nyx started to clean up the gear and pack it away. She wondered how long it would take for one of the groups to decide it was time to stomp through the black beetle’s mud town out there on the edge. They would destroy everything, eventually, and beat themselves bruised by the end of the night. Nyx had done the same when she was a kid.
“I’m surprised you don’t have some old man here,” Nyx said to Anneke. She’d always imagined Anneke settling in with some man and deserting to Mhoria or Ras Tieg. Raising kids at the coast just didn’t seem to fit.
Anneke snorted. “Coastal men are sour as old piss. Just a bunch of ugly, bitter, bloody old soldiers. The good ones all had sweethearts long before. All those women wait.”
“You should take up with a woman, then. It’s lonely out here.” Nyx tugged at the collar of her coat. It was too cold here to rely on a burnous. The nights would be even colder. She listened to the low roar of the sea as she removed the trigger from the cutter mine.
“I got thirteen kids, Nyx. I ain’t lonely.”
“You know what I mean. Maybe you’re not too keen on the sex, but that’s a cold bed.”
“You’re one to talk of cold beds.”
“The desert’s warm enough.”
“Uh-huh,” Anneke said, and spit on the porch. She took the pipe out of her mouth and grinned. “You got lots of women in Mushtallah?”
Nyx shrugged and took up a seat on one of the porch chairs. She watched two of the girls with sticks stalk toward the girl playing in the mud, the solitary one. Here was the destruction Nyx had been waiting for. Nothing anybody created really lasted.
We’re all a bunch of bloody, brutal cowards, she thought, and grimaced.
“Come on, Nyx, I know you ain’t retired. Why the hell you come out here? You fucking hate the coast.”
“Yeah, well, wanted to make sure your kids were getting a good education.”
“That so?” Anneke grinned. “Don’t catshit me. You seen my kids.”
“Any of these kids shifters or magicians?” Yeah, she’d seen Anneke’s kids back in the compounds, back when they were just a brood of anonymous squalling babies. She hadn’t had any idea what to do with them back then. Now that they could shoot a gun, they were a lot more interesting.
“I sure fucking hope not.”
“Yeah, well, me too.” Nyx leaned back in the chair until the back of it touched the wall behind her, left her feet dangling. The girls were circling the town builder now. She had her back to them, hunched over the mud town, protective.
“I got a note,” Nyx said. “Another pretty fucked up one.”
“And you took it,” Anneke said, resigned.
“You get blown apart before or after?”
“Great portent, you know. Rhys would say it was.”
Nyx lost her words, then, and just nodded instead. Yes, he would have said that.
Anneke did not look up from her work. “You come out here for help? I can refer you to a good munitions girl.”
“I’m not looking for a great girl. I’ve got one of those back in town.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
“No joke. She’s worked with some good bel dames. Comes highly recommended.”
“Didn’t she help shut you up in a trunk once?”
“Didn’t you shoot me once?”
“Eh, totally different thing.” Anneke’s hands worked all the while on the gun, strong and sure. One piece, another, laying it all out. Like a poem or a song. “So you ain’t retired.”
The two girls thumped their sticks next to the girls’ town. Splattered mud. The little builder started, then slowly reached out, picked up a glob of mud.
Fucking clobber them, Nyx thought. She palmed some sen and tucked it under her tongue.
“You get any letters?” Anneke asked. “From Tirhan, I mean.”
Nyx felt her gut go icy. It wasn’t because of the sea, this time. “No,” she said. Her voice sounded colder than the air. Much colder. Where had that voice come from? What did she care? She wasn’t any lonelier than Anneke. She had a whole team. She knew how to rebuild. Shit got fucked up. You just kept on rebuilding until they killed you.
The girl holding the mud said something to one of the girls with the stick.
“I been getting letters,” Anneke said.
Nyx tightened her hands into fists, relaxed. “How long?”
“You never said anything.”
“Naw. You never asked.”
“Because I don’t care,” Nyx said. “Whatever life they’re out there building, I want no part of it.”
“Then why are you out here?”
Nyx firmed her jaw, watched the girl with the stick stared out over the mud town. Her stick-sister curled a lip.
They’ll mash it up any time now, Nyx thought. She saw it all as if it had already happened. The ruined town. The tears. The triumphant hoots of the destroyers. She had seen the same thing played out a hundred times at the front, a hundred more since then.
The little builder said something else.
The stick girl lowered her stick. She set it down next to her. She knelt in the mud, started digging some kind of moat around the town.
Their sister, the one still standing over them with the stick, glowered.
Nyx would have given a buck to know what that little builder had said.
“I need his address,” Nyx said. “I know they don’t want me out there, but he’s got some information from the last job that I need. I figured you might have an address for him.”
And then the girl with the stick brought down her stick over her sister’s head. Not the head of the builder, no, but the girl who’d defected.
All three girls started screaming, and the screaming made Anneke turn up her head.
“Hey now, fucking enough!” Anneke yelled. She jumped off the railing and into the mud and stalked over to the girls.
Blood was running down the defector’s face. The girls were tall, sure, but Anneke was still bigger, and she was mom. She smacked all three girls upside the head and sent them inside to clean up.
The girl stalked inside, the defector taking up the rear, the little builder in the middle.
Nyx watched all three of them go past. The only one with her head up was the one still carrying the stick. None of them looked at Nyx.
“You clean yourselves up and go get dinner ready. It’s not done when I get in, I put all three of you to digging out the latrine! You understand?” Anneke yelled after them.
Anneke swung back up onto the porch. She settled in and spit on her cleaning rag.
“Don’t ever fucking have kids,” Anneke said.
“I’m not planning on it,” Nyx said. She took a deep breath. “You give me the address?”
“You know I will, boss. I just don’t think he’ll be too happy to see you come around cause you need something from him.”
“It’s better than me poking around for no reason. I’ll get my shit and go.”
“You’re not looking for a magician?”
“I’ve got some magicians I can sign. I don’t need him.”
Anneke nodded. She slid off the porch rail. “I’ll be a minute,” she said. “You want some sugar soda?”
Anneke went inside, and Nyx watched the rest of the children play out in the drizzly yard. She was tired.
Anneke returned with a small, greasy bundle of folded organic paper in hand. She shoved it toward Nyx.
Nyx raised a brow. “I said I needed an address, not a dissertation.”
“Yeah, well, you might what to know what’s going on before you get there.”
Nyx took the letters. She wasn’t going to read any letters. Anneke should have known that. It would take her days to get through these, and she didn’t have days worth of time.
“Yeah, whatever,” Nyx said, and tucked the paper into her coat pocket. “These coded for you?”
“Sure, but they weren’t tailored to destruct. All the words are still intact.”
“Thanks.” Nyx righted herself in the chair and stood. “I should head out before it starts getting dark.”
“Where you spending the night? That bakkie leaks, I’ll wager.”
Nyx thought about a night in Anneke’s busy house. The stink of the ocean, and all those little feet, those thirteen anxious, spirited voices. You’d never get lonely.
“Naw, I’ll take off.” She reached forward and took her hat; another coastal affectation. She pulled the brim low. “I’ve got a place downtown with my team.”
“God, not that trashy hotel.”
“You and me stayed in worse.”
“Ain’t that the fucking truth.”
The sky opened up then, let out a tremendous gush of water that sent the remaining children shrieking.
“Come on in!” Anneke yelled at them, and the little groups disbanded and ran through the growing puddles. They pounded up onto the porch with mud splattered faces, the hems of their trousers dirty, faces bruised and scratched from rough and tumble fights for dominance.
Nyx watched them all clomp inside. The formerly quiet house lit up with the sound of them and the yard quieted. The kids were unshuttering the globes inside, spilling light. A warm orange glow slanted out onto the porch. Nyx stood on the edge of it.
Anneke crossed her little greasy arms. “You sure you want to drive in this?”
“For what, the Flood?”
Nyx grinned and touched the brim of her hat. “You take care out here.”
“Watch yourself, old woman.”
“You too, boss,” Nyx said. She stepped out into the swampy yard and made her way over the graveled walk, past the girl’s little mud village. She looked over and saw that the muddy rivulets of rain had cut through it, the river through Babylon, carving away the shoddy little mud globs and stick roofs of the world. The detritus of the mud town washed out over the graveled walk. Building the moat and the roads had just made it easier for the water to get in.
Nyx opened the bakkie door, drenched, and slid in. She shut the door, pulled off her wet coat and dripping hat.
For a moment, she gazed back at the porch, at Anneke standing in the orange glow of the doorway of her house, and she felt something like loss or regret or maybe the smoke from Anneke’s pipe had just made her nauseous.
A houseful of noisy children by the sea, a wet coastal city on the edge of winter. It was everything she’d never wanted.
So what do you want, then, Nyxnissa?
And the answer came, unexpected, stupid:
I don’t want to die alone.
Because out here on the edge of everything, in the cold, with her sick stomach and her pounding head, she felt it creeping up on her. Death, like birth. Inevitable. Close. The stuff that kept it all going. Slipping away. Sand.
It wasn’t the kids she longed for, or some brain-addled terrorized soldier or a woman who worshipped her like a minor god. It was less than that, and more: she didn’t want to die alone in some ditch somewhere, bloody and helpless, and get eaten by cats or slowly devoured by fire ants.
She wanted to die with a head full of white hair. She wanted that warm orange glow. She wanted to die warm. For the first time in her life, she wanted someone to hold her hand.
It was the worst sort of dream for somebody to have, in her line of work. It was the dream you could never make come true. It was or it wasn’t. All you had to decide was what to do with the time you had.
Anneke moved away from the light of the doorway and went back to cleaning her weapons.
Nyx started the bakkie and backed up down the drive.
She had a long way to go, and the rain wasn’t letting up.