"If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time."
“What’s this?” Luisa toed the oversized gym bag. Almost big enough to hold a cello, it did not belong in the hospital nursery, no matter how tidily stashed behind the door.
The nurse from whom Luisa was taking over signed the shift-change checklist on the ward’s iPad. “Oh, that’s Michelle’s — from CPS.”
“She knows better than that,” Luisa frowned, but when she spotted the young child-placement caseworker seated on the far side of the room, singing softly to a baby in her arms, she had to stifle a laugh. “Oh, Dios mio! I’ve never seen her out of a business suit before!”
“The t-shirt and yoga pants make her look all of eighteen, don’t they?” Luisa's coworker grinned. “What I’d give for her genes! She was on her way to work out when she heard about the abandonment.”
“We’ve got a foundling?” Luisa gaped. Media coverage made it seem otherwise, but genuinely walking away from a newborn was statistically rare in the US in this day and age — perhaps fourteen a year here in Florida. No wonder Michelle had come, professionally and personally . . . but with her gym bag? Luisa shook her head. “Safe-haven system?”
“No.” The other nurse sighed. Every state in the union now had safe-haven laws, allowing unharmed newborns to be turned over without penalty or identification at hospitals, fire stations and sometimes other official places; they offered an easy alternative to infanticide or exposure, after some horrifying high-profile incidents. Other countries had revived medieval ‘foundling wheels’ for the same purpose, upgrading to heated or air-conditioned ‘baby hatches.’ But not everyone had gotten the word, obviously. “A bird-watcher found the baby this morning. So instead of sending her right off with ready-to-adopt parents now that we know she’s healthy, we hold her here until a judge can grant temporary custody to the state and order the protective investigation.”
“Probably tomorrow, then, since it’s almost after their business hours tonight.”
“Yeah, shouldn’t be more than twenty-four hours.” Luisa’s coworker handed back the iPad and headed home. Luisa spared another glance at the dark-haired, blue-eyed, Child Protective Services caseworker across the room.
The neonatal ward's hallway often became a pilgrimage route for people with regular business in the hospital, its lobby an oracle of hope and purpose. Most wandered through only occasionally, wrapped in their own thoughts, but Michelle routinely climbed two floors out of her way to ask if there were anything they needed, anything her agency should know. Whether called to the hospital for the hell of a child collected from a crime scene or the heaven of a prearranged placement, she found a moment to stick her head through their door. When she had first moved to Miami for this job, with the ink barely dry on a master's in social work and an internship with a safe-harbor advocacy group, her coworkers had nodded knowingly, from experience, that such drive always flared out quickly. That had been before they had gotten to know her and her story.
Well, her current cover story, anyway, Michelle thought as she listened to the two soft-spoken nurses dance around the question of whether she would be allowed to stay where and when she did not quite belong. Tonight, she was depending on the exception she hoped she had earned.
“We’re calling her Cara after the woman who found her,” Michelle said when Luisa bent down for a look at the adorable miniature person in her arms. “It’s from the Italian for ‘beloved.’”
“Or the Irish for ‘friend.’ A good name, either way,” Luisa agreed, “if her new parents keep it.” She paused. “Did yours?”
“So you know, too?” Michelle looked up as if startled, then relaxed. “I guess I haven’t kept it much of a secret. No, I was a Jennifer at the hospital. My parents changed it to Michelle for the Beatles song. My dad used to sing it to me as a lullaby.”
“The Beatles?” Luisa teased. “Just how old were your parents when they finally got you?”
“Oh, my dad liked every era of music.” Michelle smiled vaguely. Mentally, she kicked herself for letting that memory loose, unfiltered for the passing years. Newborns brought out the timelessness in her; her mind was elsewhere. “My mom, she was more into gardening.”
Luisa patted Michelle’s shoulder and moved on to her next task.
“See, they all know I’m a foundling,” Michelle confided to baby Cara in a whisper, “and adopted, just like you’ll be. It helps to rerun really key facts like that in every identity. First name, native language, faith if you believe . . . you can’t help reacting to those, so you might as well bake them in.”
“But we do have to let go of more than we get to keep.” Michelle wiped the corner of the baby’s mouth and listened again to the faint trill of potential immortality. The possibility had made her bolt to the hospital at the news; the sensation had made her settle in at the nursery for as long as it took. Watching. Waiting. “That’s the other side. They all think I’m an orphan.”
This time, her forged records claimed that her adoptive parents had died in a car crash shortly after she graduated high school. For years, Michelle nearly had been able to pretend that they had been the ones who had plunged over the cliff that gray fall morning — that she was the survivor and they her ghosts, instead of the other way around. Then 9/11 had cracked the world. She had found herself on a plane back to the US with her sword in the cargo hold before she could think. Fly away home. Home, home, home. At baggage claim in the Seacouver-Tacoma airport, the sight of a familiar letter jacket had snapped her back to her senses. She had hopped a bus south, and then a train east. It had been too soon. Too close. It still was. Her death had been front-page news, back when front pages were paper and such news got a yearbook spread instead of a Facebook memorial. Until the day came when her classmates began to be grandparents and her own parents had retired to Hawaii — a plan she had recently watched emerge through her mother’s Pinterest and father’s Twitter — necessity would continue her decades-long exile from the Pacific Northwest.
“I’d warn you never to change a cassette while driving, but even if we still used cassettes, by the time you get a license, I bet cars will drive themselves. And there are worse ways of never seeing nineteen, you know? But I’d recommend at least thirty, if you happen to get a choice. You won’t have to uproot and start over as often.” Michelle cradled Cara carefully as she stood and walked to the window. “If the Gathering hasn’t ended by then, I suppose. If you get your turn in the Game . . .”
The heavy curtain of southern dusk had just fallen; in a moment, it would be night. Michelle wondered whether she would ever get used to that swift transition. Not only in the Washington of her childhood, but also in the Austrian abbey finishing school where Amanda and Duncan had stashed her for her first two years of immortality, northern twilight lingered, a subtle gradient from one state to the next. In Austria, Amanda had arrived almost every school break to teach Michelle swordcraft — often on whirlwind runs to or getaways from Amanda’s latest amusement — until just before Michelle was to start university in Rome. That was when everything had changed. Michelle sighed and watched the dark turn the window into a mirror. This far south, dawn and dusk, spring and fall, all the easing in-betweens went missing.
“You can’t see that far yet, can you?” Michelle asked Cara, nodding at their reflections in the glass. “You look gorgeous, of course. I look like someone who stiffed her stylist.” Michelle frowned at the thick, brown hair layered just to her earlobes, like this year’s best-actress Oscar winner. She thought the cut made her nose look too big. Not that she could afford to miss the long mane she had surrendered a decade ago: it had made her look suspiciously — okay, accurately — young.
Turning back to the charmer in her arms, Michelle marveled at the true common thread of their respective appearances: Michelle looked unquestionably typical of newborns in the Seacouver neighborhood in which she’d been found in 1977, and this baby appeared of precisely the prevailing demographic in this corner of Miami here and now. A little too healthy, perhaps, but nothing to see, move right along. Embodiment of a generation. “They sure know their casting, don’t they? Whoever ‘they’ are. But they’ve blown it on settings.”
Cara began to fuss; Michelle walked up and down the room, a gentle, stretching stride. Whatever stork delivered immortals-to-be hadn’t gotten the modern message. Cara, just like the other two of their kind whom Michelle had encountered over the years, had been found on holy ground.
Luisa asked, “Is Cara the first other foundling like you that you’ve met?”
“Like me?” Michelle found a smile by looking at the pudgy cheeks of the little girl in her arms. “Not quite. But we’re pretty rare.”
Michelle had been ecstatic the first time she had accidentally brushed against such a minute pre-quickening potential — long ago, but not all that far away. The second time, she had been anxious. This time, she was committed. When all they shared was how they came into this world and how they left it, what had happened to those two children had been no coincidence. So Michelle had worked herself into the best position she could to be ready.
Ready, for when next the hunter came.
If that was not before Michelle could deliver baby Cara to her new parents, Michelle would resume waiting until the next target lay helplessly exposed between news coverage and a family’s embrace. Even the word ‘hunt’ gave this debasement too much credit. Monitor the news feeds, jump on a plane, feel the faint buzz — snick snack slit. How very many false leads were worth that one eventually yielding a prize. Michelle had confirmed the evidence of her senses against trails in the mass media and data through her job, but what law-enforcement agency could she trust? Such tiny quickenings to steal . . . Michelle’s stomach clenched. Immortal hunters never stopped until someone stopped them.
The first time Michelle had taken a head, the man had chased her for hours through Paris, where she was meeting Amanda for a shopping expedition before a jaunt to Rome to scope out apartments near campus. Michelle hadn’t been able to shake him; she had been able to gut him with a low thrust and sever his neck when he fell to his knees. Survival had been her only thought; the Game hadn’t crossed her mind. After the fight, the death, the quickening and the body, she had dragged herself back to the hotel, shivering as if freezing in the summer heatwave. But instead of Amanda’s shoulder to cry on, Michelle had found a blithe voice-mail that her teacher wouldn’t be making it after all and trusted that she would be fine on her own. Frantic, Michelle had dialed Duncan — ignoring the time difference and international charges — and found him waiting for her call. Duncan had explained that Amanda had witnessed the duel and left only when she was sure Michelle had pulled through, that he and Amanda were both proud of her, but wouldn’t be seeing her for a bit. He promised that this custom, like all the rules, would make sense to her later.
And it had, later. Just not then.
Michelle had supposed Rome so jam-packed with holy ground that university there would be nearly as safe as finishing-school at the abbey. Instead, her second head came only a few weeks into her first term, a self-styled seducer who wouldn't take “no” for an answer until she carved it with her blade. Amanda’s combat instruction had served her well, Michelle knew. But, after a sheltered, privileged, indulged childhood, the twenty-year-old was in a strange country, starting college, alone. Battling to the death and absorbing supernatural power on top of it all . . . sent her spiraling into a waltz through “the whole candy store,” almost flunking out, and stumbling within a stab of losing her head to stalker number three. When Duncan's friend Cierdwyn had moved into the vicinity, even Michelle at her least functional had been able to see the conspiracy. After some brisk sniping quarrels and prolonged crying jags, though, she hadn’t cared. Amanda had taught her how to stay alive; Cierdwyn had showed her how to stay sane.
Hunting pre-immortal infants wasn’t sane. Not because it was monstrous — although of course it was that — but because it wasn’t the Game. By now, it was not only Duncan’s lectures that made Michelle’s skin crawl at the thought of breaking those rules. Whatever had woken her up in the morgue almost twenty years ago required, invited, seduced that she play the Game. It wasn’t law only. It was grace.
Michelle took a deep breath, kissed Cara on the forehead and handed her to Luisa.
“Need a break?” the nurse asked.
“Yeah, I think it’s time.” Michelle cocked her head as if to listen. She headed across the nursery toward the hall. Cara’s tiny, potential buzz disappeared under a clanging dissonance — not like the rushing harmony of immortals she knew as friends. Michelle met the startled eyes of a petite blonde in white scrubs and a labcoat, just stepping through the door.
“I didn’t come for you.” The stranger’s eyes darted from the hospital employees to the families to Michelle. “You can have it. Be my guest.”
Michelle smiled pleasantly as she advanced on the woman, invading her space enough to see a surreptitious syringe and bottle in her pocket and to suspect twin short-swords — long knives? — in sheaths down her back. Michelle breathed, “If you came for any of them, then I came for you.” She had researched the poison used to murder the children in their first deaths; she had wondered about the blade used to execute them at their last. “Consider me a bonus.”
“We're in a public place!” The stranger hissed, backing up into the hallway.
Michelle retrieved her gym bag and slung it over her shoulder as she pressed forward. “Funny you never thought of that when your opponents couldn’t fight back.”
The woman ran for the stairs. All eyes and conversation followed her.
Michelle took the opposite stairwell. She kept a casual pace where people could see her, but lit out and jumped railings down a floor between security cameras. She emerged into the underground parking garage only seconds behind the stranger, harrying her out the side door near the park with nothing but a bright smile and determined stride — again, for the benefit of the cameras. As she got outside and leaned into a run in the darkness, Michelle envied the days before omnipresent digital surveillance.
The stranger scrambled down the hillside toward the walking path.
Under the spreading trees, Michelle cut her off. Lit faintly by streetlamps pointed the opposite direction, Michelle dropped her bag and drew her sword. She had never before challenged another immortal. Never stepped beyond the common human right of self-defense. This time, she was playing the Game in defense of the Game itself. “I won’t let you do it again.”
Briefly, Michelle worried that the woman wouldn’t fight. Michelle had planned to be dealing with a coward and a sneak; she was prepared to chase for days, if necessary, herding the child-killer to the camera-free nooks she had identified across the city and its suburbs. She had not arranged how to handle surrender. After the third time that Michelle had gone her own way against Amanda in their early days, Michelle had overheard part of a midnight phone call to Duncan, begging him to take Michelle back, find her another teacher, anything but leave Amanda flailing in Rebecca’s place; Michelle had hidden under her covers, pretending sleep. She had alternately tip-toed on eggshells and snapped like a deadfall until Amanda had told her about Rebecca, her late teacher. From then on, retreat was always an option between them, but never again surrender.
Michelle need not have worried.
Cornered, the stranger unsheathed her swords — two nineteenth-century fascine knives, as Michelle had guessed — and screamed as she plunged forward, dancing aside at the last minute to draw Michelle’s parry with one blade and slit open her right bicep with the other. Michelle’s sword fell from her limp fingers. She deliberately fell with it, rolled, and came up with her blade in her left hand. All Amanda’s circus tricks hadn’t made Michelle genuinely ambidextrous, but she got by. “Nice try.”
The stranger circled, laughing. “There can be only one!”
Michelle adopted a low guard, maintaining her distance. She didn’t often face foes her own height, and the unfamiliar level eliminated some of her best moves. Cierdwyn always said that favorite maneuvers were a liability, anyway. Amanda contended that it didn’t matter — one fight, one time, one survivor: who learned a pattern? — but Michelle had never caught her rerunning a combination within a bout, either. Michelle widened her stance to bait the stranger into repeating the rush she had made a moment before. The stranger swung to the left this time, but, yes! otherwise duplicated her fleche. Michelle twisted and pulled her arm back at an angle as the woman charged, letting her opponent’s momentum skewer her on Michelle’s weapon.
The woman’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open, voicelessly. The hilts of her own blades hit the grass with muffled thumps. She reached without strength for the sword that would kill her.
Dragging out her blade with her left hand, Michelle glanced at her right bicep. The skin still gaped open, but the bleeding had stopped and the muscles had reknit. She raised her sword with both arms for a severing blow.
“If it really were the time of the Gathering, the end of the Game, when there can be only one, there wouldn’t be any reason — it wouldn't be fair — for these babies to still be coming into this world,” Michelle said. “But the Game is fair.” That was what made the Game so different, so separate, from the ordinary world, she had come to believe. It no longer seemed strange. “That they’re still coming proves there’s still time! We can be for each other, not only against!” Regret would stay with her, but hesitation drained away at the top of the arc. Michelle swung to slash through air and flesh and bone. “Just not you.”
The dry lightning over the park that night went viral online the next day. Someone in a high-rise had pointed a telephoto lens at the right place at the right time to capture the burning white rips in the air, and the red and purple hazes swirling up from the silhouetted trees instead of down from the sky. Cara’s dad later framed a print of the photograph and hung it in his den. “The night before we got you,” their story always begins.
Someday, Cara (renamed Isabella) will see that old, familiar picture with new eyes — and wonder.