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A Necklace of Acorns

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Shooting for the Moon

(IX 738)

Now the gods were jealous of Anarra, Moon Mother, for the Moon she had birthed from the pearls of her milk was more lustrous than anything they could craft with their seed. So they schemed together and Ra the trickster and Ur his brother accused her of outshining the All-father’s temple, the Sun. And so she was cast out from the Moon she loved. But her tears flooded the land of the two brothers, and made of it two lands. And so she was revenged.

—Traditional

The boy was Moon mad. He’d worked out how to scam the City Library entry code and read everything they had about rockets: not just the kids’ section, the adult books too. He cut pictures out of newspapers he picked up on the subway and stuck them up on the screen he’d made for his sleeping corner. So when rumour had it that His Oiliness Himself was coming to Rodarred to announce some lunar project or other, Briki rattled on about it non-stop till Tula got Katya to swap shifts with her so she could take him and his sister. He wanted to be a rocket engineer, or maybe a technician on the Lunar Base he swore A-Io would build before he graduated. Tula never had the heart to tell him no-one from Thuvietown was ever going to go to Technical College. No-one with a surname like Anokh was ever going to make it as more than a cleaner or a shelf-stacker or a tram conductor, maybe, if he could pass for Iotic.

It was getting dark in the old amphitheatre now. The big spotlights had been switched on and His Oiliness was silhouetted against a vast image of the Moon. Briki was drinking in every word of the fat old fart droning on about how the new Lunar Colony represented a historic first for all the people of A-Io (he kept poking me with ‘see Ma, told you so’), Beka was fidgeting with her sunhat (‘it’s dark, Ma, can I take it off now?’) and Tula was wondering whether she’d ever find her sandals again if she took them off, when a lot of things happened at once. The lights went out—Inoilte’s voice was cut off mid-word—cheers—masked men zipped down wires from the amphitheatre walls: five! ten! twenty! no, they’re all over!—bangs! pops! crackles!—shooting stars!—smoke everywhere!

The electrics have fused! Call the police! There’s a bomb! Evacuate! False alarm! It’s the entertainment! All the fireworks have been let off at once by mistake! People coughed a bit, then started to laugh and clap and cheer. Even a botched firework display had got to be better than listening to Inoilte, everyone agreed on that. Then there was this big feedback whine and another voice, a man’s voice, started over the speakers. ‘You want the Moon, Mr Premier,’ the voice said, ‘I’ll give you the Moon!’ There was a little hush, then loud guffaws from behind them. People started pointing backwards.

‘Ma, what’s that man doing?’ went Beka.

Tula turned round. A spotlight picked the man out in stark black and white. He’d dropped his trousers and was mooning at the stage! Tula pulled the hat down over Beka’s eyes. ‘Don’t look!’

The spotlight winked out. A sigh from the crowd, then another feedback noise, another voice repeated the message. This time everyone swivelled round till they found him. Then another, and another, and another. Men in the crowd were joining in, and everyone else was cheering and laughing fit to burst. Tula had her hand over Beka’s eyes, but she was laughing so much it was hard to keep it straight.

Then the spotlight hit the stage. Inoilte had ducked behind the lectern, but he was far too fat and his blubbery behind stuck right out. Howls of laughter greeted the sight. The circle of light expanded till a figure with a rabbit’s head joined His Oiliness on the platform. The man picked up a mike and started to speak, but it came out all muffled. He shook his head so his rabbit ears flopped around, then he—no she—pulled off the mask. Her head was covered in this mane of springy curls. Beka gasped.

‘Good evening, Mr Premier,’ the rabbit-woman said. ‘How kind of you to agree to speak with us. You’d better stand up, or everyone will think you’re joining in our little game.’

Inoilte clambered to his feet, clinging to the lectern. His face was bright red, and his mouth was working away, but his mike was off. Tula thought he might be about to have a heart attack.

‘Speak up!’ went the rabbit-woman. ‘They can’t hear you.’ Inoilte lumbered towards her, waving his arms, but she dodged him casually. ‘I think we’re ready for our slides now.’ And behind the two of them, the projector flicked back on. Factory chimneys belching black smoke—monstrous diggers consuming a mountain—oil burning on the waves—slag heaps marching along a valley—litter blowing down a street—children’s corpses piled in a heap—

‘This is what you’ve given us, Mr Premier. You and all your profiteering kind.’ She spat the word out like it had four letters. ‘You’d whore out your own grandma if you thought you could make a quick buck. Hell, you’d cut off your own balls and have them bronzed and sold as souvenirs if you thought there was any profit in it! And now you want to take our Moon?’ The screen went black, then returned to the serene lunar landscape it had started out from. ‘Well, I say—’

But right then a helicopter buzzed the amphitheatre, and the roar of the blades blotted her out. Police! No, security! No, the army! There was a crackling popping noise like the fireworks had got going again. Briki tugged her arm. ‘Get down, Ma!’ he shouted, and he threw himself on top of his sister. Tula didn’t know what she’d have done without him. Everyone else was running round squealing like rats in the latrines when the exterminator gassed them. Briki knew how to squeeze into the crawl-space under the amphitheatre floor. He worked his magic on a fire exit, then wove them a way through the cobbled alleys of the Castle Quarter, where the old roofs almost nudged each other overhead. The din of the helicopters circling low in the sky was like going down the factory floor without ear defenders.

Briki prised up a grate. ‘Down here,’ he said. ‘Subway inspection shaft. We’ll be safe there.’

Tula put Beka down. The kid was sniffling to herself, not quite sobbing but close. Tula groped round with one bruised foot for the top rung. She’d lost her heels when they’d hit the cobbles. ‘Down the rabbit hole,’ she said in her best playtime voice, and Beka followed, more scared of the things she’d seen in the amphitheatre than the dark or the depths. It wasn’t so bad. Once Briki had pulled the grate down on top of them with a horrid clang, he fished out one of those tiny UltraLite torches they were always advertising on RTV. They were bloody expensive, but Tula didn’t care how he’d come by it, only that Beka’s breaths sounded less like sobs.

And down the rabbit hole it was: a right warren of tunnels leading everywhere and nowhere. Briki brought them out in a little cubbyhole with saggy armchairs and a kettle and the stink of fags and piss. ‘We can rest here till early shift,’ he said. Tula sank into a chair and pulled Beka onto her lap. She must have nodded off with relief because she woke with a start. It was dark. Footsteps resounded in the tunnel, closer, closer. Tula huddled down, her hand over Beka’s mouth. The door creaked open and someone slipped through. Briki snapped his torch on. It was the rabbit-woman.

‘Oh, you gave me such a fright,’ she said. She sounded quite different from the figure who’d taunted Inoilte, just an ordinary voice with a bit of a northern burr.

Beka had woken up. ‘You’re that woman,’ she said. ‘The one with the rabbit ears.’

‘Got me.’ The woman smiled. ‘You were at the amphitheatre, then.’

Tula nodded. She pulled herself up in the chair, curled her arms tight round Beka. The girl’s sunhat had gone the way of Tula’s heels, and her smooth scalp nestled against Tula’s cheek.

‘I bet everyone’s after you,’ said Briki.

‘They usually are,’ said the woman, as calmly as if she was talking about the tram being late.

‘Is that why you’ve got… you know… hair?’ Beka lowered her voice to a whisper on the last word. ‘My teacher says only destitutes don’t depilate.’

Beka!’ Tula squirmed. ‘My little girl’s only just started. She’s not used to it yet.’

‘It’s all right,’ said the woman. ‘I mean for people to notice.’ She squatted down till her face was level with Beka’s and said, ‘It’s funny looking when you’re not used to it, isn’t it?’

Beka nodded, and her hand was reaching out to touch the stuff when footsteps started up in the tunnel. Boots. Lots of them. The rabbit-woman’s face went all hard. She was out of the door in a flash. Tula drew Beka down to her breast as if she could protect them both from the sounds outside in the tunnel. Shouts, screams, silence. More boot-steps. The door flew open and two troopers in the black of Inoilte’s Special Security Force crashed through it, their helmets shiny with torchlight.

Briki sprang to his feet. ‘It’s ok, sirs,’ he said, standing up straight for once. He’d shed his Thuvietown accent, and spoke like the toffs on the telly. ‘My family is safe. There was only the one terrorist.’

One of the troopers raised his visor. His face inside was in deep shadow. ‘So you’re the citizen who reported her? Good work, son!’ He clapped Briki on the back with one great gauntleted hand. Briki beamed.

‘Ought to get a medal,’ went the other, his voice tinny through the visor. ‘Only turned out to be the ringleader’s missus!’

The pair turned to leave. ‘Got to admire her nerve though,’ one of them said, as they stomped out into the tunnel. ‘Have you seen the footage? Don’t say you’ve never wanted to say something like that to Old Oilyguts…’

Briki was still beaming, but his face was as hard and shiny as the troopers’ helmets. Looking at him now, Tula knew her son would get his Moon. He’d get everything he ever wanted.


A Necklace of Acorns

(IX 757)

Only cast pearls before swine if a necklace of acorns becomes you

—Sayings of Odo

‘We’re simply thrilled, Mrs Aseio,’ Resa said, ‘thrilled that you’ve chosen to give an exclusive interview to She magazine, the first since your release from prison.’ She ushered the old woman into the female rec room. Pito had bagged the meeting room for what she called a ‘real interview,’ the little toad.

Mrs Aseio just smiled. It was the smile of a woman who’d spent a long time away from both mirrors and dentists. Her one reason for choosing She was the terms of the amnesty, which forbade her from giving so much as an f-word to any publication a man might open, and both women knew it, but Resa breathed a big sigh of relief that the old bag wasn’t uncouth enough to come out with it.

But smiles don’t make copy. Her research said today was the ninth anniversary of what the Odonians called the Capitol Square Massacre and no-one else called anything. ‘Or may I call you Laia?’ she asked. ‘It must be so hard to be reminded of your husband’s name on such a tragic anniversary.’ The woman’s scalp was actually covered in little springy tufts of dirty grey! Like a… like a sheep! They’d have to get a hat on her for the photo-shoot. Or a scarf, maybe. A nice thick scarf with a bit of glitter and a fringe.

‘Certainly, Resa,’ the old woman said. ‘But I don’t mind being reminded of Aseio. It’s quite pleasant, actually, to hear his name.’ She didn’t sound like a sheep. She didn’t sound like a woman who’d just spent nine years in solitary in the highest-security prison in the country. If you didn’t look at all that… hair, she almost sounded human.

‘So what was it that first drew you to him?’

‘His eyes. He had lovely dark eyes. But I was very young back then.’ She smiled again, a swift mischievous smile like Resa’s sister’s little girl. ‘His bottom was his best feature. Now if we’d put that on our recruiting posters, we’d have had women queuing round the block to join! A few men, too, no doubt! Now I’ve shocked you. I’m sorry.’ She didn’t sound sorry, she sounded gleeful. ‘I almost forgot, being in prison so long—it’s female nudity that’s all the rage, isn’t it.’

Mrs Aseio looked up at the cover of last year’s seventh issue above the drinks dispenser, the one that had won all the awards. The image had been blown up across half the wall: Shara Smooth (born Yeliz Naszka of Thuvian stock), Face (Body, more like) of Skin So Soft!, the market-leader depilatory, draped in a filmy gauze shawl that slithered over her skin and left no doubt about the product’s fabled Total Security. Pito had whispered that the photographer had said it was all genuine – no make up, no touch up, no nothing – and Resa cursed her luck to be born with sensitive skin that broke out in a rash if she depilated down there more than once a day. Every morning she had to decide whether to turn down invitations and stay in all evening, or ignore her little problem and spend all day wondering just which of her colleagues noticed how her skirt snagged when she moved.

Mrs Aseio was looking at her now, and her smile was kind.

Resa pulled herself together. She’d show Pito what a real interview was. She dumped all those airhead questions she’d prepped about the ’57 look for women.

‘How do you justify free love, when our city has slums full of unwanted children?’ she began.


The Circle of Life

(IX 769)

Laia Aseio Odo was the heart and soul of the movement that bears her name. When she died, it should have died with her. That, instead, it grew from strength to glory is a testament to Laia’s greatest gift, her power to inspire every single person she met. We are all her children.

Ven, Resa. Laia Aseio Odo: The Woman Behind the Words (New Moon Press; IX 772)

It wasn’t like Laia to be late. Breakfast was over, long over, and the brothers and sisters had gathered like starlings at the Bank from across the city. There weren’t nearly enough chairs, and they all clattered back and forth on the pock-marked marble floor of the hall stacking banners and pamphlets, picking up coffee and bread rolls. They wanted Odo. It wouldn’t be a proper march without Odo. Where was Odo?

Noi caught Amai’s eye. She shook her head. She was caught up handing out Circle of Life badges to newcomers. ‘You go,’ she mouthed. Noi slipped out of the hall, and did some clattering of his own up the grand main staircase with its latticework balustrade, then up the much less grand flight to the bedrooms. ‘Laia!’ he called. ‘They’re asking for you downstairs.’ Her door was part-open, and his hand was stretched out to knock when he saw. Laia. Slumped against the made-up bed, face down, legs twisted beneath her. Yesterday’s clothes. Cold. Stiff.

Noi had thought the world would stop when she left it, but it didn’t. Someone clattered up the stairs. Amai.

‘I was worried it might be her time,’ she said. ‘She shouldn’t be like this. Help me lift her onto the bed.’ Laia weighed nothing – she’d scarcely eaten for months – but it was an awkward job. Amai flew downstairs to fetch Aevi from the kitchens. In the end, she wouldn’t lie flat, and they had to place her on her side. The morning sun lit up her face: blotched, like red wine spilled on a crumpled sheet. Aevi pulled down the blind, and Noi brushed the loose strands of hair away from her eyes, gently. She hated getting hair in her eyes. One long white strand came away in his hand, and he wound it round his finger like a ring. Aevi went to cover her, but Amai stopped him. ‘They need to see.’

And they came, first in ones and twos and threes, then in clumps, crowds. He’d expected them to stay, but they didn’t. The Circle of Life, they said, reverently. A leaf falls, a twig falls, the oak stands tall. Odo would have wanted us to march. We’ll march in her memory. Odo’s Revolution awaits!

Aevi was the last to leave. He rested one gigantic hand on Noi’s shoulder, squeezed briefly. ‘You’ll be wanting to, uh, organise things,’ he said. ‘I’ll be in the kitchen, if you need anything.’

Laia had written her own obituary. ‘That way you get all the juiciest tidbits,’ she’d said. ‘Not that you don’t know most of them, but you’re far too much of an old stick to put them in.’ She’d left instructions for her funeral in an envelope in the rightmost drawer of that monster of a desk, just over there. It wasn’t even locked. But still he lingered here, by the bed, with her. It wasn’t rational. He was wasting time. She hated that. ‘Time’s like water in the desert,’ she always said, and then she’d laugh and add, ‘What do I know, I’ve never lived in a desert.’ He was living in a desert now.

Noi took her hand. The nails were purple as if she’d painted them. ‘You were no leaf,’ he said to her. ‘You were our trunk, our roots!’

Laia didn't say anything.