“To Claim a Piece of Sky” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert
(EPUB | MOBI)
Barbed tendrils of indeterminate hiatus uncoiled from her mind, releasing her senses.
Motionless in her coiled nest, the body opened her eyes.
A rotary fan gnashed teeth in the ceiling, sucking the green mist of Interval away into some distant chamber. The room shuddered from the precipice of unreality into life again. Feeling returned to the borders of the body on needled feet. Color heaved itself across the room, army-issue green seeping into the cave of blankets pressed against her cheek.
The body twitched and snorted and found her lungs again. Vapor billowed when she coughed.
No sound carried through the earth-gray pallet under her. No footsteps vibrated the metal plating of the walls. The silence whispered early yet and so the body settled, occupying herself with an old training exercise.
Eyes lidded, she watched her hand warp into a tentacle, a talon, a fin, a paw. She changed into all the creatures she remembered. She changed into some she did not, made up as she went with vestigial limbs of amphibious ancestors and opposable thumbs.
And she counted.
The end of the hour found a swamp hound buried in the blankets. When the hydraulic door hissed and ground open, a woman in a lab coat stood in the frame — unremarkable, but new. Born only thirty years ago, in the human way.
“Sibyl,” the woman said, addressing the swamp hound in the nest of standard-issue blankets. “The general is waiting.”
Shadow-shaped and still, the body closed her eyes and turned away. The new woman glared. She folded her face in lines, set the corner of her mouth like mortar and named the swamp hound again.
Sibyl put her skin back on.
The new woman led her to the usual room and disappeared. Inside, General Miranda glowered at the worn map and three heavy folders sprawled across his metal table. Another man stood at his side.
Both carried guns. Miranda’s looked very new, dangling like a fat apple from his belt. The other had a long gun strapped to his back, worn and quilted with injuries, but very clean. This man’s name was Jack Armistice. He did not put lines in his face very often — not to smile or frown — but today he gave her a companionable look over Miranda’s armored shoulder.
Today would not be a good day.
Miranda glowered at her, heavy lips pursed tight.
“Glad to see you’re finally awake,” he growled, not glad. This did not confuse her like it used to. Sibyl knew now he did not understand the language as it had been explained to her.
Walking around the metal table on human legs, she sat. Miranda put three pictures down in front of her. Two of them were men she did not know. The third showed a woman whose skin had been folded many times. Two Intervals ago, this woman had come to give the swamp hound a name in the morning. Her name was Elmira Qing, 47, no medical anomalies, no known relations.
The pictures meant Sibyl would kill her.
“Officially, failure to report,” Miranda told her, the ever present thundercloud hovering in his weathered face. “Unofficially, she’s a goddamned thief. Assholes smashed the GPS in a rover and went about their merry goddamn way headed west at oh-three-hundred with a shit-load of genes, files, and fuck-all else.”
He leaned forward. “Bring her back here, Sibyl. Dead, alive — hell, I don’t care if you eat the bitch, just leave her head intact. We need the memory drained, see who the hell she’s been selling secrets to.”
Sibyl ignored Miranda’s meaty fingers gouging valleys into the stack of paperwork beside her hand and looked at the photograph instead. The woman there did not smile, but a certain amusement rested in the corners of her thin lips. Sibyl wondered if that amusement bothered Miranda more than his missing fuck-all.
“She’s headed south now, far as we can tell,” he said, slapping down a map. “Travels mostly underground. Apparently she’s got some kind of operation set up in the Doldrums. If we’re lucky, she’ll still be there.”
Red and black ink constellations seared the print-out, marking out importance. Tiny copperplate words lay circled and labeled, referencing old satellite pictures of cities since destroyed. Paths, subway tunnels, and sewers seethed in heavy black.
Paper and more paper.
Sibyl did not understand maps. They carried no sights, no smells — only pictures of places, badly drawn, lacking those things that made the places what they were. Forests and debris, depth, weak points in rotten wood — these things could not be mapped.
But Jack Armistice understood. He nodded, placed a finger on the corner of the map where plotted black courses swarmed like insects. Light caught oddly in the eye that didn’t match its twin. He asked the important questions. Location, locals, rubble shifts, and mires.
Miranda’s attention turned from her, back to the matter at hand. More lines crawled across the map. More scratches obscured copperplate names.
Mind elsewhere, Sibyl waited.
Lying on their bellies in the grass, Jack Armistice and Sibyl watched like sodden angels over Doldrum 3. Nearby, a stand of twisted trees and jutting cement hid the car. The car, in turn, hid them. What was left of the Doldrums slept below, dozing in the afternoon sunlight blanketing the basin.
And Sibyl hoped Jack would shoot Elmira, because all of the alternatives were worse.
Leaves dappled the sky above them, dark and welcoming. Sibyl kept her eyes on the warehouse in the valley, feeling the caress of the shade like the skin of a damp lover. This building hadn’t been so much damaged by the War. Frayed edges of singed brickwork and tattered steel sliced the wind, but people still lived here.
They’d closed gaping wounds with what bricks there were, and dammed the rest with river stones and wooden planks from scavenged, nearby buildings. Colored, well-washed fabrics hung from the windows to replace long-shattered glass. Sibyl absorbed it, watching, waiting.
Sunlight must look so beautiful, she thought, somersaulting through those wide-eye windows each morning. If information had been leaked, she and Jack Armistice would burn this building down.
Sibyl scanned the outer walls. She wondered what the people would do after the fire. Most of them would die, she knew, and Sibyl did not like the smell humans made when they burned. But some would escape; some always did. They would be small and insignificant — mothers, children, the very old and walking wounded — and so they would not be followed.
What happened to them? When she and Jack Armistice returned to Cerberus, stinking of smoke and blood, heads and genes rattling in the trunk — what would those left behind choose to do? Would they bury their dead here? Would they reattach the burnt tatters of blue and orange to the building’s empty eyes? Or would they burrow into the broken Doldrums and sleep beneath the wreckage, the scent of water collecting in the clover beneath their wounds?
In Doldrum 3, a woman unpinned the colors from her window and disappeared. A moment passed. The woman returned. A thin wire ran from her window to the sullen sentry tree that jutted from the remains of a distant guardhouse. Like clockwork, the woman pinned clothing to the wire until magpie colors ran from tree to wall and back again.
Sibyl had seen this before — outside the Hub, when Miranda had sent them after a cyborg who dealt in arms and legs. Women like this were hanging out their washing, Jack had told her. They hung their clothing from their homes to dry. Sibyl envied her. So simple a thing, but Sibyl had no washing of her own to hang. Miranda would never allow her the time or space.
What was it like, Sibyl wondered, to wake up each day, always? To wake up and not be alone, in a little room with a nest of colors found only in little niches of decay? What would it be like to go to sleep each night? To wake up when the sun crept in and explored the backs of her eyes?
Beside her, Jack Armistice made notes of the city’s fringes. His mismatched eyes followed the lines where buildings stopped, where no one lived, and where they could hide if necessary. Sibyl watched him. She knew his strength and his speed, the way his muscles moved under the dark leather he wore. She was comforted by his heat and the familiar scent of acetone and cordite on his skin.
If she were like Elmira, she would leave him.
“Are you very old, Jack?” Sibyl asked, her eyes following the dark stretch of pinprick hairs beginning on his jaw.
Jack glanced at her over the scope of his gun.
“Don’t live long in this line of work,” he answered and returned his eyes to the warehouse.
Sibyl considered this. She’d had two partners before Jack Armistice. It hadn’t taken either of them very long to die.
In the window of the warehouse, the woman hanging clothing paused in her work. She pressed a hand to her back, staring off at the crooked tooth buildings of Doldrum 1.
“Look at that woman,” Sibyl murmured.
Jack Armistice followed her gaze, fixing his scope with mechanic precision. Perplexed to find Elmira hadn’t appeared, he glanced back at Sibyl. Sibyl did not notice.
“She will be a woman tomorrow,” she said.
For a moment, Jack was quiet. “Humans tend to do that.”
Sibyl shook her head. “She is always a woman. She will not change. No one will ask her to be anything else.”
Slowly, Jack lowered his sights from the warehouse and propped himself up on one elbow in the damp grass to look at her. In the window, the figure turned and disappeared.
“Miranda doesn’t care what you keep under the vest so long as your face fits the cover story, Sibyl.”
There was something soft in his voice and his unmatched eyes, like the grass and the sky she was not allowed to keep. Sibyl turned away from him, sinking her fingers into the chilly, yielding earth instead.
“My genitalia is not the issue.”
He only watched her, still and patient. “What is?”
Dappled sunlight pooled and gathered in the curve of Jack’s spine and the heated leather there smelled of wood smoke and musk. Coiling up from the valley, may-apple pollen drifted in the breeze, cloying, twined with the scent of frying meat. Sibyl stared out at the warehouse with its distant clatter of colliding lives. She remembered the time she’d seen rain, and the noise the sky had made as it sobbed and tore itself to tatters. She remembered the sweet-sharp tang of mottled ozone, the cool patter casting down on the feathers she’d made that day.
“The grass,” she decided. “I want to sleep in the grass.”
Clipboard held like a shield, the new woman marched down the hallway in front of Sibyl. She wore heels made of hide that smelled like cow and clacked like gunshots, announcing their approach to the endless oatmeal tiles. On and on, the corridor ran, filled with identical steel doors, halogen lights that did not flicker, and a vast expanse of nothing at all. Sibyl fingered the scrap of color in her pocket she’d taken from the warehouse windows. It had gone ragged and singed around the edges, but remained blue.
Mostly. Mostly blue. Elmira didn’t die clean.
Sibyl followed where the new woman led, back to her little room without windows or washing or grass. The new woman had read her file. She did not believe Sibyl could be tame. Fear undercut the stinging scent of the woman’s perfume like a riptide and her eyes were very dark, glancing back.
Sibyl followed and watched her. She considered turning into something large and frightening when the new woman looked away, but decided against it. Incident reports or cameras, Miranda would know. He would shout at her, with Jack Armistice standing empty-eyed beside him.
Or worse, he wouldn’t. He would take the things from her room again. Confiscate.
Sibyl wanted to keep her color.
The door hissed and stuck when pressed, spitting hydraulic fluid in the low place no one noticed leaking. Together, they waited, shoulder to shoulder. The new woman cut her eyes at Sibyl. To what point, she did not know.
When the door finally opened, Sibyl stepped inside and waited with her back against the wall for it to shut again, for the new woman’s gunshot heels to clatter down the hall. Alone, Sibyl slipped the blue from her pocket.
If they knew she had it, they would take it. Color was not standard issue.
Though stained and burnt, the scrap of fabric still looked lovely. Blue-jay blue; dark pinfeathers when the morning sun squinted awake, slanting onto dew and dampened ground that smelled of shipwrecked worms. Sibyl cradled her blue in the cup of her hands, curling into her nest.
This belonged to her, she thought in wonder, stroking a finger along the soft, fraying boundary. No one knew she had it. She could create a pouch for it, between skin and muscle — keep it in her body where they could not reach to take it from her. It was hers. It belonged to her. When they gave her water, she could wash it — could make the stains come out and it would be so blue, so beautiful and blue.
Sibyl smelled the Interval coming before she saw the haze. Clutching the fabric to her stomach, she snarled. How could they demand she Wait? She had done as they asked. She had brought back every head they requested. This day belonged to her. This day and her blue.
So she shifted.
Holding her breath, Sibyl molded gills. Over the years since she’d woken the first time, cold and naked in a vat of fluid, she’d learned to filter out the fog. Had learned, after Miranda caught her, to hide her gills in folds of flesh and creases where they would not be seen. Sibyl pressed her blue to her skin as she spun and wove her DNA. The color reminded her of late-night skies in high summer. Of big fish and jelly umbrellas that lived in the sea before the War. Of the scent of ivy and damp stone. Of listening to crickets and birdsong in crisp early mornings.
After a long moment, the miasma settled. And every Interval, when the fog ceased its invasion, the wall barked at her, metallic, harsh, and final.
But today she heard nothing.
The room breathed. Sibyl scanned the ceiling and her eyes locked on the vent in the high corner. The cover hung open, broken and unmoving on automatic hinges.
She could get out.
She could leave, now, without waiting for the Interval to end. No one would know. No one would see her. Even if they did, they could not put her back. Until the Interval left, no one else could enter.
But she could leave.
She could leave
Sibyl buried her blue very deep in the coil of standard-issue nothing-mud green and forced her genes into a better pattern. It hurt. Her DNA stripped away, unseen hands wrenching her apart. Muscle and bone ground down, sheering away, unsupported by the new code. She burned. Fever hot. Splicing hot. Searing pain wracked her — quick, intense, and soul-deep.
It hurt. Agonizing pain mauled her dwindling frame and it hurt, it hurt, but she sloughed off matter like an old skin, forced it away, battered herself smaller and tighter until she stood as no creature of specific origin, but small. Sibyl lay there, tiny and shaking, her body pieced together with collected bits of others, a tiny ragdoll patchwork, narrow and crooked.
Slowly, aching, she spread her wet new wings out across the now vast expanse of blankets. Sibyl breathed. Her body throbbed and shook with the last tremors of pain. It had been too long since she had severed into something so small. Creating mass from nothing was loud, but easy. Extra matter always floated aimless in the atmosphere; no shortage of all the old molecules from the beginning of things drifting past, waiting to be put to use again. But wrenching apart, ground and gnashed into only a few million cells, felt like dying.
Sibyl waited until the fluid dried on her wings. Eventually, the shaking stopped. She forced her wings to move, dragging herself up and into the air-mire. The Interval clung to her back and legs, but Sibyl clawed her way through until finally, blessedly, she careened into the vent. For a long time, she lay on the lip of the broken cover, staring down into the night-lit darkness.
She’d done it.
When the shaking abated again, Sibyl rose. She turned the scent pads on her tiny fingers inside out, pressed them into suction cups and scurried down the shaft of slippery metal. She followed the vent. Hollow, empty noises crept up from the hall below and scattered down the corridor. Rivets passed in regular intervals, tight against the metal, until finally Sibyl found an opening.
The gap was small — a patch, tubing fortified with ductwork from another broken building and just ill-fitting enough that it required putty to seal the hole. Sibyl turned and slammed her stinger into it, wrenched herself free and slammed home again, tearing and poisoning, until the substance melted away.
Light filtered through the hole in a rush, blazing patterns on the stained metalwork. She blinked back at it, taking in the gray so like Miranda’s rotting eyes, awash in the clinical glare of the halogen lights outside.
Sibyl pressed herself into the opening she had made, fighting at the boundaries of the gap. Too small. Ragged edges threatened to break her exoskeleton. Air left her tiny body, not enough to stir the dust. Wedged and struggling, Sibyl wondered if this was what it was like to be born.
She wondered, as she twisted herself free, if it made a difference.
Did that first battle make humans what they were? Sibyl had woken to water, to nutrients in synthesized embryonic fluid, to minerals and substrates, enhancers and preservers, to carbon and hydrogen and tasteless flecks of deuterium. She’d woken in a cycle, flowing with chemicals, into chemicals, becoming, unbecoming. She’d woken to strings of DNA and gene patterns and probabilities sprawled like cat’s cradle at her cascading fingertips. She’d seen every atom of her creation, had sensed things even smaller, things without name. She’d seen everything she was, everything there was to see.
She doubted Jack Armistice had done the same.
Staring down the deserted, beige and browning hall, Sibyl wondered if she was ever really human shaped at all.
She flew. High up, where the scientists in the open rooms wouldn’t see her, she meandered along the ceiling tiles and turned the scent pads on her fingers inside out again. The hallway smelled of antiseptic. Behind that, it smelled of nothing. Slowly, a tendril of anxiety unfurled in the coil of Sibyl’s stomach, small and nagging.
The Cerberus facility seemed endless, corridors groping out in every direction. On and on and always — and Miranda had given her no orders. No tactics dictated her path. She was free. Free to go where she wanted. Anywhere she wanted in the vast, swallowing hallways. She was free.
She was free.
Sibyl fled from herself, darting inside a ventilation grate. Pressed against the cool metal, the world went small again. Concise and simple.
Humans made these kinds of choices all the time. The washer woman took her clothes outside when she wanted to, walking through the corridors as they occurred to her. When she woke, she saw the day. She saw increments of time and tasks and all the little things she enjoyed.
But Sibyl was not human. She saw helixes behind her eyes.
Rising, she made her way down the air vent. When the vent ended, opening into a room filled with shelves upon shelves of tan folders, she climbed out. Her file would be here. Somewhere in the room, all the things they knew about her would be here.
Sibyl crouched in the shadows, shifting again. Matter flowed towards her, into her. She changed it, stirred it, melted it into the shapes she needed, and grew. She grew into something small and predatory, a beast long dead, with opposable thumbs, forgotten by evolution and the tide of time. But matter remembered. DNA remembered. The story slept in the coding, the infinite possibilities of things that never were or weren’t for very long. She took everything from the air with a sound like the sky had made when it sobbed and Sibyl went cold — so cold — but the shape was easy, more familiar than breathing.
Soon, she crouched in the shadows, grotesque and monstrous. Sibyl scuttled between the shelves, claws skitter-scratch-scratching on the tiles. She moved fast, no need to hold back, no where am I; where is Jack? Sibyl blurred between the aisles of beige, beige folders. Hers was hard to find. It was not labeled under S, for Sibyl. It was labeled GS-t427 (LS).
God Soldier — trial 427 (Limited Success).
Sibyl was their only success.
For a moment, she held the folder in her hands, remembering the vial, the rows and rows of her sisters, floating in their greenish embryonic fluid. Horrible, twisted creatures with gaping holes where DNA had failed them, they’d clutched their tiny bellies with malformed talons and misplaced, staring eyes. They had been alive once. For the briefest of moments, they had struggled to become. And hadn’t.
Carefully, Sibyl put her file back.
She did not want to know.
She wanted to be human. Wanted to be like the scientists, coming and going when they pleased. Like Elmira. Elmira ran. Took what she wanted and ran from Miranda. Went where she liked because she liked it and didn’t fill out the forms to go there. Even before. Even before Elmira ran, when she was allowed to go, she left the building whenever she liked. She went to another place, where no gas waited to make time seize and shiver. To a place with a nest she’d coiled to her liking, with a hundred different colors and a lover inside. To a place with a window. To a place where there was sun and grass and blue.
Sibyl coveted that, she realized. She wanted it.
Staring at her unopened file on the shelf, it struck her again that she could run. If she shifted now, she could mimic a scientist leaving after hours. There were at least a dozen in these corridors to choose from. Men and women with a habit for staying late, clearance high enough to asphyxiate questions. Sibyl could leave. She could walk right through the front doors. She could find a car and make it work — Jack always drove, but she could do it. She could leave.
Alone. No one to send her. No one to hunt. Just her, with the sky huge and forever —
And it terrified her.
Cold dread gripped her bones, shook her until her sharp teeth rattled in her head. All by herself. Controlling herself. No one there. No Miranda. No Jack. No Jack. No point. No purpose. Just her. Just her, on and on and always — choosing to leave, choosing to live, choosing.
Sibyl tore off her skin. She flew through the air duct, through the hallway, through the Interval vent, torn and throbbing so hard she could not feel the shakes. She went back to her room, to the void, to her blue, and desperately comforted, slipped into sleep.
The Interval plucked at her eyes when she woke, the air thick and sharp. Around her, the room glowed in the not-light of night vision. The air in her nest had grown still. Sibyl shifted, pulling from the pile of fabric her scrap of blue. The edges frayed further, crumbling with ash and blackened stains.
And the color had gone.
The blue jay pin-feather blue, cricket song blue, ice, water in summer blue had leached away, sapped into gray by the hypodermic fingers of the Interval snatching at her vision.
Sibyl’s stomach hurt. Something small and dark with hot, sharp claws scrabbled at her ribs. Her skin pulled too tight. Breath came and left her in a rush — short, hot bursts fast enough to stir the air until clouds separated like blood clots to drift fat and lazy through the room. The creature tore and ripped ribbons deep into all her places already hurting. Unseen, a hand closed around her throat, clenching, molding. Sibyl shifted, tried to sink smaller, but no matter how small she got, the skin still wrenched, roiling, trying to pitch her out into the lurking, sulking Interval.
With a shock, Sibyl realized she was angry.
She had not often had cause to be angry. But she had seen Jack Armistice angry and she knew this must be what anger was. She did not want this. She wanted color. She wanted her blue jay pin-feather blue. She wanted to sleep in the grass. She wanted.
Last night she wanted. She wanted and she could have taken. She could have mimicked anyone. She could have mimicked dust. She could have run screaming out into the world if she wanted and no one would stop her — but she’d stopped herself. She’d wanted but she hadn’t.
Furious, crouched in her nest, memory struck Sibyl hard across the jaw.
Miranda met her alone in the little bare-bones room and the air filtration had been so loud. She’d asked where Dawson was. Dawson was always there.
Miranda told her to sit. She would not sit. She asked where Dawson was. She was not afraid of the lines in Miranda’s face. She was not afraid of the hand on his gun. She had known guns and lines before. She asked where Dawson was. She asked where Dawson was.
She asked where Dawson was, and Miranda threw a folder at her, into her arms, and all the pictures spilled out like entrails, dark and slick, running through her fingers, over her fingers and onto the floor. She knew where Dawson was.
— And rows and rows of crumpled little creatures watched in the green glass vials. The water drained around her. The Others, outside the container, loomed above her on two legs — and she had legs now too, but hers were naked and would not hold her. Hers buckled and warped as the Others made noises, scratched onto the flat things they carried, and made more noises as she tried to find her pieces.
Outside, past the Others, her sisters stared, wounds gaping where things had never been. They were her. She was made from them. From all of them, from the pieces they’d been able to make. She’d been designed from their failures, from all of those tiny, accusing faces.
— And the table bolted to the ground was not bolted anymore. It lay cockeyed and across the room, in the puddle of glass that used to be the halogen light. Miranda pointed his gun at her. He told her to sit down. She told him to bring Dawson back.
He looked at her. The lines in his face meant disgust. He told her he was not God. He told her dead was dead. Sibyl picked up the table. Sibyl looked at him. She told him to bring her Dawson back.
— And Elmira was bleeding, half her face burnt. She would not look at Jack Armistice. She was alive still.
She would only look at Sibyl. She would not speak. She was alive still.
Jack Armistice asked her for the names of the other scientists. She would only look at Sibyl. She would not speak. She was alive still.
Jack Armistice had a knife. He brought it close to her skin, to the dead edges of her face, and began to peel. She would only look at Sibyl. She was alive still.
Her remaining eye was blue. Blue jay pin-feather blue. Cricket song blue. Jelly umbrellas and lost worm blue. She would not look away from Sibyl. She was alive still.
Jack Armistice informed her he would soon stop being civil. Elmira blinked. Sibyl stared. She was dead now.
— And Miranda stood in her room, flanked by two men. The lines in their faces meant fear. Confiscated, he said. Inappropriate use of Cerberus funding and he didn’t know who the hell had given her so many blankets. Only one blanket remained — the new one, with the strange fiber that smelled of burnt plastic.
Confiscated, he said. Did she understand? Sibyl did not. No one had needed those blankets. She had needed those blankets. Why had they taken them from her? Were they dead? Dead, that did not mean quiet and still? Dead, that meant empty, that meant hollow and sticky and wet with things that were supposed to be on the inside? Dead, that meant something touchable that could not touch back, not ever again, not for any reason, not if she screamed, not if she threw unthrowable tables, not ever, not ever again? Dead, that meant gone?
Miranda smiled. He called her a smart girl. He took his flankers and he left. The room smelled of nothing. The room smelled of fear.
— And the girl was small and new. Maybe as old as Sibyl, but human, and that meant something different. Sibyl could see her tiny, glass chip eyes peering out from under the woodpile. The air smelled coppery and acidic. Jack Armistice did not notice. The gun was his hand, his arm, a brand-new limb he couldn’t shape himself.
The noise it made was as small as the girl. So close to nothingness, so small and unthreatening. The glass chip eyes shut just the same. Sibyl made a noise that was not human. Her skin tried to turn her inside out. She made the noise again, harsher, softer, tiny as glass chips closing, and Jack put his gun down.
Jack held her in the grass. Elmira watched them from the car. From a black plastic bag that contained only her head. Sibyl made the sound that was not human. She made it quiet, so no one but Jack would hear. Jack held her in the grass and petted her hair. He told her it was over. He told her it was all right. He told her sweet smelling things and sunlit stories. He told her about places she had not seen. Places that were beautiful. Places he would take her. He told her he would not go away. Not just yet, anyway, and that was a joke, Sibyl. Hush. Don’t cry. Hush.
— And Sibyl curled up in her blankets, crushed by the Interval, cradling her blue-no-more blue in the heart of her hand. She could leave this place. She could run and run and run without stopping and never come back. If she could prepare, if she could trick and retrain and unfrighten, she could make herself walk out those doors.
This Interval wouldn’t end. Occupied with their severed heads, the Others would not need her again for some time. Sibyl stirred in the mist. She felt hungry. It was a rare and fascinating sensation. Human. Curling in her un-colors, Sibyl collected the experience. She could count on one hand the times she’d been hungry.
She would need food on the outside. She would need to hunt. To run, to chase, to rend flesh and scavenge through wreckages for edible things. Sticky, clotted entrails. Creatures she knew the insides of. Creatures whose insides she’d worn before.
Sibyl climbed out of her pallet as the black eyed thing that DNA remembered. She moved the pallet to one side, shifting it down along the gray tiles. Choosing one, she pried open the place where the lines met. Underneath was concrete, solid brick with steel beneath. Unimportant. Sibyl’s claws were sharp.
She dug. She gouged and gashed until a hole glared back at her from the floor.
She grew. Sibyl swallowed air, swallowed lost molecules, absorbing. The memory of water choked her. Ice closed overhead. She froze. So cold, bones-in-the-dark cold, groping black claws sliding fast and deep into the soft flesh she gathered around her.
In the grate on the far wall, the fan clicked on, settling in to devour the Interval. Sibyl grew still, shuddering with the aftershock of growth as thumbs pressed through the mess she’d made of her hands.
The Others must need her after all. She had to hurry.
Sibyl gathered up the fragments of cement and dust. Too much to hide. She swallowed it. Secreted it away in a second stomach, disconnected from the rest of her. The fan clattered louder.
Sibyl cradled her blue-no-more blue inside the hole and carefully replaced the loose tile. Stubbornly crooked, it refused to be put right. But Miranda had never moved her pallet — only blankets. He would not find her blue.
Sibyl pressed her mattress back into its corner, scrabbling over the rocky pallet to wrench the edges of her blankets from behind the wall. The bed did not look as though it had been moved.
Sibyl sat back on her haunches, belly full and heavy with cement, and watched the door.
She had a hidden place now. A hidden place and color.
It was not the new woman. When the door opened, Jack walked inside, hands folded behind his back. This was not protocol. Sibyl eyed him from her nest, suspicious. She’d flown close to the ceiling, in the shadow-packed wall-well, away from the gaze of the cameras. They could not have seen her. They did not know. They had no reason to send him.
“You are letting me out?” she asked, eyes narrowed, half hidden in the folds of cloth.
“I’ve got the clearance now,” he said, but Sibyl did not welcome, and so he stopped walking towards her. His head turned to the side, a strange light in his leftover eyes. “Problem?”
Sibyl had no clearance. Sibyl had a closet. Once, Jack Armistice told her that was where all the weapons went when the fighting was over.
Her belly rumbled, loud and hungry through the weight of the building lodged beneath it. Heated needles pricked and pulled at the backs of her eyes, skin tight over the nape of her neck, over the belly she cradled to her, and Sibyl longed for her blue with clenched teeth.
“I want to be a woman, Jack,” she said, and in her voice was the echo of a metal table meeting glass.
He watched her. The look in his eyes was one she’d seen from Jack Armistice before.
Sibyl looked down at the swollen curve of her stomach. The needles stabbed deeper, until they sewed lines in her skin. She did not know how to make herself pregnant. There was not another like her, and the intricacies of a human pregnancy were too much to manage alone. She could make herself into anything, but she could not make anything into life.
Slowly, Sibyl lifted her eyes, staring back up at Jack. “Yes.”
Jack would not un-meet her eyes, but she could see his flicker in the silence. “We need to go out.”
Sibyl didn’t move. Both hands curled over her thrusting belly.
“I want,” she said, and the table rose again, “to be a woman, Jack.”
For a long moment, Jack was still. He tucked his tongue into the space where cheek met gum and watched her, gauging.
“All right, Sibyl,” he said at last, slowly, as if he could not taste the words. “If that will make you happy.”
Jack stayed silent as they drove, eyes hidden and inscrutable behind chipped black glasses. She did not need to see his eyes to know Jack was watching her. But he said nothing.
Sibyl wasn’t convinced Miranda didn’t know. Miranda always knew. She should have bent the light around her once out of the ductwork. Miranda could not see her then, no matter what eyes he left in the hallway. But she hadn’t — because it was hard — and now Jack had been sent to watch her, sent to keep his eyes on her belly and on her face, watch her to see if she was lying.
The scents in the air changed. Sibyl could smell uranium and pine.
The foliage altered as the sun set, slicing strips of orange and blue across the tops of oaks and evergreens.
The road, what was left of it, disappeared. Jack turned the car onto the path the wanderers and traders used, worn smooth and shiny with the passing of many feet.
They drove, and finally Jack pulled the car over and stepped out into the thick of the trees, gun in one hand as he relieved himself in the underbrush. Sibyl leaned over the side of the car and silently, easily, vomited cement.
Jack returned to the car. He saw her unswollen stomach beneath the vest and touched her arm, something sad and quiet shifting behind those mirrored glasses.
Sibyl followed the new woman down the hallway because Jack Armistice had been called away. General Miranda was not pleased with the result of their driving. He’d been promised by an informant that the bombs had not gotten to that city. And when it was decided that yes, the bombs had, he’d been promised the bombs had not destroyed that research.
They found no city. They found charred bricks dissolving for miles in either direction. They found bunkers, ragged edges peeled open like tin cans, contents rotting in the sun. But there was no city, and inside the no-city, there was nothing.
This, Miranda had decided, was Jack’s fault.
So Sibyl followed the ever-anxious new woman, watching her back-front-back as the woman clattered down the hall, forever glancing behind her. The woman scanned her clearance at the door. The door did not open. With a curse, the woman lifted the pass to eye level and scratched at something on the surface. She scanned her clearance again. Silently, Sibyl shifted, until she stood behind the woman, only inches to the right. The door beeped. Satisfied, but distracted, the woman slipped the pass into her pocket and stepped back, directly into Sibyl.
Yelping, the new woman skidded on the no-color tiles, her tiny heels granting her no purchase. When her back hit the wall, she stopped and stifled her panic. She collected herself, patted her hair, and the chain at her neck…
But she did not pat her pockets.
Light broken like a cloak around her, Sibyl crouched, hungry and shadowed in the mess-kitchen. Beside her sat a stack of the ration packs she and Jack used on missions. She picked through the cabinets, taking the ones that would not be missed, filled with pre-war preservatives without the Cosmoline aftertaste.
Sibyl felt hungry. Living through the Interval had made her hungry more times than both hands now. She wanted to eat, but only the oldest ration packs would not be missed. She needed those. If she could not hunt, if she could not seek out and find something edible in the detritus of no-cities, she would need these. There had to be something, though. Something old that was not rationed and remembered.
There were times Jack crept into the kitchens after hours. On those days when she was allowed to stretch her legs — however many she pleased to stretch — Jack would sneak tiny morsels from the kitchen. Little things they ate with their fingers in the weak, companionable light of his bedside lamp. Coiled together, fighting the crumbs off the bed sheets, dribbling purposely on each other, they made a game of licking the spills away.
What sort of things did he take? Sibyl cast around the kitchen, aimless and shivering in her skin. Aged meat — the kind that bit back. There’d been cheese, older than the meat, thick on the pad of her tongue. Fruit was rare, missed first, and risky. Jack had brought her a round, pithy orb once, though. An orange, he’d called it, though it tasted thick gold and summer grass green. Someone had been bribed or threatened for it; Sibyl did not remember which. She’d been eating the casing by the time Jack told her the story of oranges, entranced by the bitter, roiling gleam of it in her mouth, and Jack had laughed with a low soft rumble and lines in his face.
Sibyl rested her stack of rations on the table and made her way to the large door on the far well. Maybe they had a room here for food like the rooms she’d seen in the Hub — where meats hung from the ceiling in garlands next to shelves of cheeses. And maybe there’d be crates of once-growing things — the dark curling roots she liked the summer musk taste of, or oranges with thick rumpled skin to sink her teeth into…
Sibyl opened the door.
A breeze kissed against the soft hair of her cheek, sent by the tree beckoning in the distance. A once-gravel path led away from the door, the rocks beaten smooth into the dirt with frequent travel. Sibyl smelled cooking meat from the far distance, smelled sex and metal and clay and cloth and color and light and dark and everything. She was on the outside. She was outside.
She could run. She had food now — she could eat it. Could run through the trees until no one could catch her. Could eat her food in the belly of the bushes and wander through the no-cities. Could make herself strong and peel the cover of a tin-can bomb shelter back over her head. Could crouch down inside with the bones and the ghosts, and, if they were fresh bones, fresh ghosts, she could suck their marrow out as she waited for the sun to squint at the sky again.
Miranda would never know. He’d know she’d taken the new woman’s card. He’d know the door she left through and if she scuffed the dirt on her way out, he’d know the direction of her passing. But he’d never know where she was. He’d never find her. He’d never send her out with folders full of pictures of people she hoped Jack would shoot because whatever Jack Armistice did to them would be much, much worse. She would never see Jack’s face in those folders, would never ask Miranda where Jack was, to bring him back to her, because she would be gone. And as long as she never saw him, as long as she never heard or knew or saw, her Jack could live forever.
She would be gone. She would be the one to leave. They would send Jack Armistice to hunt her, maybe, but he wouldn’t find her and she’d be alone. All alone. With the sky that wasn’t a ceiling, that went all the way up and only stopped when it touched the stars on the outside — and Sibyl’s muscles clenched so tight and trembling they burned.
She backed away from the door. Shut it, gently as minding a child, as creeping away from something slavering and starving. Sibyl bent the light harder around her so she could not be seen, pulled the ration packs to her chest, and padded in bare feet down the beige-gray-beige halls.
When she reached the door, she unlocked it with the card and gathered herself inside. She put the key in the hole she’d made beside her blue and covered it with ration packs. They did not all fit. She took one out, fit the tile down, and ate. Sibyl ignored the plastic spoon, scooping the syrupy beans and any-animal meat with her fingers. She sucked the juices from her skin, licked the tiny, melted fragment of chocolate from the cardboard.
The spoon she hid in the depths of her blankets. The cardboard, she ate.
Not hiding, she told herself. Not frightened. Waiting.
Jack sat cross-legged on the bed, bits of his gun spread out on a cloth around him. He cleaned like clockwork, tick-tock-ticking between the pieces with a soft fragment of what was once a washrag. Days like these, when too many jobs meant it was not worth the Interval to put her down and get her up again, they let Sibyl stay with Jack.
Sometimes, they slept together. Jack was fascinated by her body and the things it could do. He did not ask her to change. He stroked and soothed, and the pleasure his body brought her was always quiet and gentle.
Sibyl sat on the floor today. She curled on the fraying carpet Jack was allowed to have, a swamp hound in faded polymer, hidden. He would not touch her now. He had no use for animals they hadn’t trained him to become. Usually, when she was not Sibyl, he would not speak to her. But today, Jack watched her over the soft, clean towel that held his gun parts, tracing with his eyes the swamp hound on the carpet where he wanted a woman to be.
“You’re not yourself lately, Sibyl,” he said.
Sibyl lifted her eyes from the carpet. He watched her, waiting for a reply. She shifted, pressing out the head of the hound enough to form words. “Who am I then?”
Sudden lines crossed Jack’s face, rare and unsettling.
“Miranda do something to you?” Jack Armistice asked, low and dark, and she could hear the table rising there.
Sibyl did not know how to answer. Miranda took her Dawson away. He was not God. Miranda confiscated. He took the blankets Dawson gave her. The little gifts he’d made from things he found while they stared at buildings full of people who would soon be dead. Miranda took her gender. He took her phylum, genus, species, life, skin, and self.
Had he done something to her?
Guns in the closet never complained. They lost their companions. They lost their bullets before they could love them. Sights were broken, stripped and changed. Trigger springs replaced. Waxed cloth bound up a split stock. When that became familiar, the cloth tore away. The wood was abandoned, replaced with something grinding and new. Guns were broken, dismantled, remolded in the image of their unattainable youth. But guns in the closet never complained.
Had Miranda done something to her?
“How old am I?” Sibyl asked instead, shrinking back into the inside part of herself, where it smelled of grass and wind without the vast, abandoned emptiness of the world outside Cerberus’s doors.
Jack blinked. The lines washed from his face. He put his rifle down on the bed, leaned back and looked at her, mismatched eyes meeting flesh. “I don’t know. Do you?”
Sibyl shook her head, looking up and out, back up at Jack.
“Before you came here,” she said, “who were you then?”
He turned away from her, back to the gun on his bed. “Nobody.”
Sibyl sat up, proper colors seeping into her. The body rippled until it spat her out, naked and new, a woman on the carpet.
“But you were someone else,” she insisted. “On the outside. You lived there.”
Like always, when she asked the unanswerable question, his face went dark and clean, and he focused all his attention on the gun between his hands.
“It wasn’t living I did, Sibyl. Nothing to talk about.”
Her fingers clenched in the carpet, needles prickling the folds of her eyes with hot, demanding talons.
“But where did you come from?” she pressed. And then, quietly, her sisters staring her down through the walls and walls between them, “Did you have a mother?”
Jack Armistice looked up, and there were lines in his face. “No.”
Jack’s scent lingered everywhere. Sibyl dodged through the hallway. The Interval clung to her clothing, breaking off in wisps of not-scent. If Jack had the nose to track, he’d be here with her already. She wondered if she’d tripped a trigger somewhere — a light, maybe, that went on when her door opened — because Jack Armistice hunted her now, tracking her with tick-tock footsteps like the little clock she’d once found in the rubble of a building.
Sibyl smelled him before she saw him. A fan breathed cordite and leather in her direction and she darted off down a new hallway just in time, running silent, flying on soft padded feet. It didn’t matter. Jack Armistice knew she was here. He knew she was out of her Interval.
But who let him out, she wondered, and how long ago? Had they sent him to find her? Because Jack Armistice could not grow gills to hide in the skin creases of ears and neck — Jack Armistice breathed only through the holes he had — and he moved far too quickly now to have only just stopped Waiting.
Sibyl fled. Quick as a rabbit, she flashed down the hallways. She hadn’t been out long. She’d given the Others no time to empty Jack Armistice’s room of Interval. Yet, he followed her, close on her heels. How, Sibyl thought, choosing corridors at random. How had they possibly had time to rouse him?
And then, suddenly, faced with the labyrinth of beige-gray-beige, Sibyl understood.
She was standard issue.
She was a weapon.
She was folded up and shoved into a closet when not in use, allowed nothing, not even a scrap of blue — and as she ran, hot hypodermic claws of hate buried in Sibyl’s flesh.
The pretty blankets she had loved were not standard issue, so they were taken. Her simple toys and baubles were not standard issue, so they were destroyed. Dawson was not standard issue, so he’d been gutted. Elmira was not standard issue, so she’d been burnt and slaughtered and butchered, tucked up nice and neat inside a black plastic bag — standard issue — and running, running, Sibyl wanted very much to scream.
She wanted. She wanted.
Sibyl stopped, and stopped fighting against the ancient coding in her genes. She let her shape blossom, bulge and narrow where it would. She was not human — she did not look human. She looked wild. She looked twisted and strange, beautiful and monstrous.
She was Sibyl today.
Tugging at the strands of her DNA just enough to bend the light around her, Sibyl listened and held her breath as Jack Armistice tick-tock tracked her down the hallway. When he turned into the corridor, she saw his face, unshaven and strained. He passed through slowly, checked every door, and even stopped to stare into the ventilation. But he saw nothing. And when he paused to listen, he heard nothing. Eventually, he passed on, the unnamed expression still wrenching at the corners of his mouth, and the unhappy slant of his brow.
Sibyl breathed. She followed, tracking him now, stalking. And he felt her. His scent changed under the acetone, round certainty turned wary-sharp, acidic. He looked, but could not find her. Listened, but could not hear her. Lines deepened in his face, chasms crisscrossing his eyes. But there was nothing to see until she wanted to be seen, nothing to hear until she wanted to be heard.
She was Sibyl today.
When they passed the records room, Sibyl stopped. She waited until even the scent of Jack Armistice faded, and scanned her stolen card to open up the door.
Unlike her, she found him filed under A, for Armistice.
Jack’s file was very small. Opened, it revealed little more than height and weight. And a picture. It was Jack, but younger, dark haired, spattered with arterial spray and glowering. Foundling, Miranda’s coded scrawl read. Uncommunicative. Skilled.
Sibyl put the folder back.
Here because he chose to be.
Jack Armistice came to wake her the next morning. Course fur prickled at his jaw. Shadows circled his eyes. He did not say anything when he entered the room, let the sound of the door wake her, and leaned in the frame, watching, mismatched eyes in shadow. She was Sibyl today also, but he was not afraid now. He only watched. There were no lines in his face, but the tilt in his mouth spoke sadness to the silence.
They were going out again. More people would be brought back in standard-issue plastic bags. Some of these would be people Sibyl knew. They had all given her something — a glance, a flower, a sweet — and she would be the end of them.
Sibyl watched Jack Armistice from her nest, both of them unmoving and silent. He had been given orders. He’d come to tell Sibyl she could not be Sibyl today. He’d come to tell her she should be a man. Today, they needed strength and stealthy bulk. Something to scare ‘em shitless, Miranda had said. So Jack Armistice had been sent to bully her into changing — to steal her choice, her gender — but some things even blood-soaked Jack Armistice would not do.
He watched, his eyes dark with more than shadow. Neither spoke.
Jack Armistice turned, worn boots silent on the tiles, and left.
The building stood mostly intact on the southern wall, and so they settled there to wait for morning. Jack paused long enough to kindle a small fire before he pressed Sibyl against the only standing brickwork, touching his mouth to hers, gentle, searching. A low, broken noise rattled in his chest and was silent. Sibyl stroked his skin, searching also. She felt the muscles that made him, sought out the places where sinew and ligament found bone, where blood rushed to the surface, where a pulse beat a rapid tattoo against her lips and teeth and tongue. She touched him, pulled and pressed, consumed and shattered him, but they were quiet throughout and quieter finished.
Afterwards, they lay together on the bedroll Jack had brought. Sibyl curled in the space beneath his arm, her head on his chest, and listened to his heartbeat. She thought of her blue, safely tucked away beneath her vest. She thought of Elmira’s staring, blaming, and then empty eyes. She thought of standard-issue black plastic, of Dawson, and wet entrails behind slick photos. Jack noticed. He tugged her closer to him, until her head fit beneath his chin, and carded rough calloused fingers through her hair.
“Who would come after us?” Sibyl asked, listening to his breathing and the breathing of small things living in the debris. “If we never came back, who would they send?”
“Someone.” Jack shrugged the shoulder she was not laying on. “Mercenaries are a dime a dozen.”
“But they send us,” Sibyl said, sitting up. She pressed her back against the wall, tilted her face to the vast and starlit sky. “They always send us.”
Jack opened his eyes to look at her through the milky darkness. “They’ll send Miranda, then,” he said. “And that’s one bastard you never want on your tail.”
Sibyl smiled. She gazed out past at the wreckage of the east wall, through the trees, beyond the meandering, ruined roads.
“I hate Miranda,” she said, and the honesty seared blessedly cold against the needles in her eyes. “I hate being told which species to be. I want to be a woman, Jack. I want to be this woman. Not human, not animal. This.”
For a long moment, Jack said nothing. They sat in quiet and crickets as Sibyl lifted her chin and licked the sky. She tasted summer on the horizon, morning dew, and the dusty down of bats dancing somewhere up above her.
At last, his voice soft and laden with the unnamed thing, Jack murmured, “You’re irrational.”
“One of us should be,” Sibyl said, and of this she was absolutely certain.
When she looked down from the stars, she found Jack watching her. In the shadows, his eyes were the same color.
“Goodnight,” he said at last. It was not what he meant to say.
In his eyes, she saw goodbye.
Sibyl watched him turn from her. She moved, sat with her back to the open air, and watched his broad chest rise and fall until his breathing evened and slowed. She watched until his eyes searched beneath their lids for something that could not be found, and watched when, sorrowing, they stilled.
He could leave, if he wanted. He could sign away his paperwork and walk into the trees. No one would hunt him.
But that, Sibyl knew, was what Jack Armistice was afraid of.
Silent as a whisper, she rose and took her bag, bursting with rations, and walked outside the building. Moonlight reflected from her skin in colors she had no name for. The grass crunched bright beneath the soft hull of her leather boots. The whole world smiled, washed in phthalo hues.
Sibyl turned back, once, to look at the empty window Jack Armistice slept beneath, the bare, heated skin of his back pressed to the cool bricks. She stepped away from the scattered wreckage, into the deep grass where fallen rubble and toads crouched unseen. Wind rattled low and urgent through the trees, beckoning, laughing — and it sounded like Dawson, like Elmira, like Jack. The blue sang to her sweetly, outstretched fingers reaching. Her blood brightened. Sibyl felt her skin prickle, felt the heat start low in her spine and rise.
She smiled, stretched her legs.
|Crystal Lynn Hilbert lives in the forgotten backwaters of Western Pennsylvania and subsists mostly on old trade paperbacks and tea. A fan of things magical and mythical, her stories tend towards a peculiar blend of high magic and Eddic poetry. You can read her latest works “The Many-Named” at Betwixt and “Duplicate” on Flash Fiction Online. In April 2016, her story “Stone Woken” will be appearing in EGM’s Women in Practical Armor anthology. A monster masquerading as her sleeps at cl-hilbert.tumblr.com. Feel free to drop by.|