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unpick the lock of your bones

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Nature is full of teeth
that come in one by one, then
decay,
fall out.
In nature nothing is stable,
all is change, bears, dogs, peas, the willow,
all disappear.
~ "The Wall" by Anne Sexton

"They are like beasts," her father says, "always hungry, waiting to feast on what they can catch." His eyes burn like coal, the flames from the fire shining bright when he looks at her. She will never forget this memory of him even when she's long forgotten that feeling of fierce pride. "Do not get caught."

"Do not get caught."

~*~

Aisha is seventeen, and even without a war that the world can name, she is still a soldier. She does not count days but bodies.

Tonight it is cold. Her steps are uneven on the shifting sands as she circles the outskirts of a slave trader's camp, moving between the shadows and cutting down the sentries who think a gun is the only protection they need in the desert.

She is sliding her blade into the gut of a gunrunner and slowly twisting until his blood oozes thick over her fingers when the sky falls. Fahd and Aziz will tell her that God's hand rose and closed into a fist that swallowed the stars.

What Aisha will remember is this: the firm grip of her hand around the hilt of her knife, the wide, dark pool of the man's eyes as his breath blows hot and falters against her palm, the sky stretched wide and black above them. A star will explode in her vision, and she will think nuclear war. She will think, We are all dead; we have lost.

Her life will be divided by memories like these — memories of before and after.

~*~

She wakes in the slave trader's camp, strapped to a stake driven deep enough into the ground that she can't pull free. They've stripped her of her knives and guns. Her jaw hurts, the taste of blood thick on the back of her tongue, the flakes of it dried at the point of her chin, and her ribs ache. Each breath hurts.

When they realize she's awake, the men around her start to shout in a dialect that she doesn't know or understand. She waits until they've all gathered to yell at her and kick her, probably demanding answers that she's not willing to supply, and she tells them in Dari and Pashto, "I will kill you."

A few of the men laugh, sharp barks of sound that precede expansive hand gestures in her direction as they share the joke. What happens next is by the grace of Allah. For a moment, Aisha is almost willing to believe, but faith did not teach her to wield a knife, carry a gun, watch men and women and friends scream and die. One by one, the men surrounding her die as if she has drawn a blade across each of their throats, the cuts as deep and precise and deadly as Aisha would have delivered them.

They don't reach their guns in time to stop her.

She stretches her legs, hoping to drag one of the men closer and use his knife to cut herself free. It takes patience and time, and Aisha doesn't realize until the pain becomes unbearable, until her heart beats frantic and wild in her chest, until panic makes her stupid with fear that she does not have enough of either.

Her vision nearly whites out, each breath more painful than the last. She rips free of the ropes — her wrists raw and bloody, nails broken and ragged — grabs a knife, and lunges forward to slice off the right ear of the man closest to her, continuing until she's removed the ear of each man that she killed.

With her task complete, she sits in the sand, breathing heavy, hands wet and shaking, her shoulder wrenched, and stares at the sky. She needs water and food. There's enough water for her to clean the knife and rinse her hands. She also strips the men of their guns and then takes the weapons truck, another mission accomplished.

~*~

The long day ends and another begins.

She climbs down from the truck, and her father rests his hand on her shoulder, pointing to the sky.

"It's gone," he says.

All the stars are gone. The sky looks strange without them.

Then one by one, they reappear, each flaring bright like mortar fire.

As she watches, her father's thumb brushes her cheek. He scratches at the blood that must have dried on her skin. "What happened to you?"

~*~

"What does it mean?"

"What has happened?"

"Is it the Americans?"

"Is it the Soviets?"

"Is it Allah?"

~*~

Her father won't care. Neither will she.

"We will consider this a blessing," he says, and tests these new skills.

He watches when she's done and crouched next to the dead, tucking her knife behind their ears and making quick, clean cuts.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"I don't know," she answers, and stares at the flaps of flesh in her palm. She uncurls her fingers, skin tacky with blood, and lets them fall.

~*~

"There are these large spaces ... ."

"... distortion ... ."

"Reports of ... chaotic areas ... ."

The only facts they'll uncover is that the West is building a wall called Heaven's Gate. In the East, a similar wall is being built — Hell's Gate. These are the only "official" stories being provided to the public. Her father's network runs much larger than that.

"They are calling you Contractors," he tells her, his hands clasped behind his back as he stares at the sky. "Because of what you must do." She feels the weight of his gaze but is no longer cowed by his judgment. "After."

She shrugs as she stands, wiping the flat of her knife against her thigh. "It must be done."

~*~

Fahd presses his lips to hers, and she realizes she is waiting. Nothing happens. She doesn't lean forward, eager and hungry for him anymore. His skin is warm, but she is not restless with desperation.

"You've changed," he will say when they are laying on their backs beside each other.

Aisha stares at the drape of their tent and imagines the field of stars that once filled the sky. "The world has changed."

Fahd laughs weakly as if she's told a joke. "It has." His hand finds hers in the dark, palm broad and warm against her skin, his fingers finding the empty spaces and slotting smoothly between hers. "It has," he whispers.

~*~

The world changes again, five years later, in South America. Once again, there is a war. Aisha watches the stars explode, painting the sky in streaks of white, each one zipping down, dead and forgotten. Even Heaven falls.

Even her father.

Like the stars she will never catch, she never finds him. She leans against a tree and stares at what used to be, in memory and in reality. Her boots are caked with mud and death, her fingers numb from the recoil of guns and the jerk of her knife, the demand of her obeisance tiring. Her shirt and pants are stained with blood, clothes black from her own wounds and those of others. Enemies, friends — she can't tell the difference anymore.

For now, everything is quiet. She is alone, and her father is dead.

She looks at the dark stretch of a sky filled with false stars and feels nothing. The stars fall all the time now — like lives, hearts, countries. All she has is the memory of her father, a memory that she loved him once.

But that, too, fades.