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Tekeli-li, They Cry

They tell me the future is broken. Will be broken. Has always been broken.

I was wide awake the first time they spoke to me and have been every time since. They come from there, then, when the future is broken. Which is now because the break stretches in every direction. That’s what they tell me.

We’re time travelers, meeting in some middle distance where they can scream at me, speak in soft, reasonable tones, jibber, weep, and tell me what is to come and is already here.

They’re bright, like staring directly into a 100-watt bulb. One that’s already broken—jagged but still burning. There are shapes behind them, smearing and blurring and refusing to stay still. It hurts to look at them, so mostly, I just listen.

The voices overlap. Like listening to five radio stations at once. Whether they weep or plead or speak calmly (those are the worst), the one thing they agree on is south. Go all the way south to the pole. Stop the future from being broken.

Why do I believe them? Because of my beautiful baby girl. I’ve seen her out there on the ice. Even before I came to this blue place full of wind and sleepless sun, I saw her. A skip in time. A scratch on the record of my life. A time, repeating. My past, leaking into my present. Her future, reaching back for her with empty hands.

I know time is broken because I saw my little girl, even though she’s been dead for three years, seven months, and twenty-one days.

Our eighth day on the ice, James and Risi brought Austin back into the station screaming. He shouldn’t have been out there alone. That’s the first thing you learn here—the ice is treacherous. It’s worse with climate change. Everything is more extreme: the colds colder, the warm periods rotting the ice soft under your feet.

Everything here wants to kill you. Not like a jungle or a swamp with poisonous insects and crushing heat. The cold kills with kindness—or humiliation. It lulls you to sleep. It makes you think you’re burning up, so you strip your clothes off. History is full of people who have frozen to death naked in snowstorms.

The wind blows shimmering snow, blinding and tricking the eye. The sun—ever-awake six months and absent the other six—throws shadows all stark on the ground, so we see things that aren’t there and miss things that are. If I didn’t know the world was broken, that there are worse things coming (already here), I would think what happened to Austin was just the landscape fucking with us.

Us. I should say, that’s Austin, Ricky, Sheila, Cordon, Risi, James, and me. (And my daughter’s ghost.) You wouldn’t think I would lose count with only seven, but I do. There should be nearly two hundred bodies filling the station. It’s peak season. But since the moratorium on climate research in 2021, no one cares about the South Pole. They can’t afford to. Still, this is where the voices say the future will break. So here we are, funding our own research, stubborn or stupid or frightened enough to run away to the end of the world.

Austin was gathering samples from the ice for me to study. Bacteria. Fungus. Algae. Some of the few things that can survive here. I’m looking for something microscopic in the ice, something people would never notice, being too busy looking at the horizon or the sky for the big, terrible thing, then bam. World’s end.

When they brought Austin in, he was screaming that something in the ice bit him.

The station has a trauma center. Luckily, it’s in the part that didn’t burn. Sheila is a surgeon. Was. Like all of us, she came to the end of the world with a bag full of demons. One of them was enough to get her barred from practice apparently. She saved Austin, even though there wasn’t much for her to do other than treat him for shock. He wasn’t even bleeding. His wound didn’t look like a bite; the lower half of his arm had been sheared clean off.

The whirring of the 3D printer woke me up even though it had already been going for hours. It’s a waste. All this expensive tech tucked away at the bottom of the world. One government funded a whole bunch of upgrades, top of the line stuff. The next one swooped in and took all the money away, made climate research damn near illegal. Now, all the fancy machines and equipment are rotting away, and private eyes and dollars are on space. Well, it’s not a complete waste, I guess. Austin gets a new arm.

(If the government hadn’t cut funding, maybe they would have found the poison in the water sooner. I shouldn’t complain. Neelie was born with all her limbs in the right place, and no extra ones. Other parents weren’t so lucky. My baby girl only had a slight delay in cognitive development. A lag. Sometimes she was miles away, her eyes on some past or future only she could see. But maybe that had nothing to do with the poison in the ground. Just like the nights she woke screaming. All kids have bad dreams, after all.)

Still, I’m surprised the government didn’t drag the tech out when they pulled the plug. They could have printed light armor, weapons, and bombs undetectable by scans. Some of the scientists tried to burn the station on their way out in protest. After that, the government could barely be bothered to get the people out. If they wouldn’t have had human rights groups from creditor nations barking up their asses, they probably would have left the scientists to rot too.

Anyway, Austin is in remarkably good spirits for someone missing half his arm. He’s sticking to his story. Something in the ice bit him. I think time broke, just where he happened to be. Half his arm ended up in some other when. It’s right where he left it, just a few seconds or years into the future or the past, so we can’t see it anymore.

One of the voices (one of the weeping ones) said a city rose, is rising, everywhere and everywhen. There are holes; things can slide through. Sometimes by accident, like arms. People can slide through, but it isn’t easy, so most stay put and shout across the distance.

(Oh, I should have said. Time is broken. It doesn’t matter what we find in the ice. Nothing we do here matters. I lied to Austin, Sheila, Cordon, James, Ricky, and Risi. The voices (some of them at least) really do think there’s something we can do to change things, but we can’t. I recognize the stages of grief. I’m surprised the other seven (eight?) don’t. The voices are bargaining right now. They’re pleading with anyone who will listen. Just please take it back. Make it the way it was. Make it okay again. Bargaining never works. That’s why it isn’t the last stage. One thing it’s made me understand that I didn’t three years, seven months, and twenty-nine days ago—it’s not that no one is listening. It’s just that sometimes, there’s nothing they can do.)

After I woke up, I went to sit by the printer. It’s hypnotizing, all that passing back and forth, building new bones. Out of nowhere, James burst in and said we should be printing weapons, not arms (ha ha). He said there’s a fight coming. He said he’s seen things under the ice, sleeping. He wouldn’t explain. I saw him standing by the window later, staring out at the ice, at the spot where I saw Neelie last time. I wanted to hit him. She’s my ghost. Mine. He can damn well find his own.

It’s been a couple weeks since Austin’s ‘accident’ and now Ricky thinks he’s seen James’s monsters, too. Shadows under the ice. Vast, slow things. Turning, he said. I don’t know what that means.

Sheila is working with Austin on rehab, even though it isn’t her specialty. It’ll be a while before he has any kind of dexterity. No one seems to care that Austin is basically useless for field work, except James. Every time James sees Austin, he starts in about weapons again.

Ricky’s thing is CERN. He says whatever’s going on is probably their fault. He’s a good kid. He’s supposedly here to keep Risi’s notes in order, label things, make spreadsheets and pretty graphs. I think he would be smart under normal circumstances, but Risi only brought him along because she wants something to fuck.

The birds aren’t birds. That’s another thing Ricky says.

He’s been drawing them since he got here. Really detailed, textbook quality. He wanted to be an artist, but he couldn’t hack it. So he let Risi pay his way to the bottom of the world.

He’s jittery, more so by the day. I don’t think he’s sleeping. I don’t know that any of us are, not real sleep at least. Risi shows it the least.

James going on about weapons got Ricky worked up about CERN again.

“It’s when they fired up the Large Hadron Collider,” he said. “They fucked everything up. Ripped a hole in space.”

Risi looked like she wanted to slap him. Actually, she looked like she wanted to tear him apart with her teeth, right down to marrow and bone. Maybe that’s her kink—violence gets her off better than sex. “That’s not how it works,” she said. “This has nothing to do with science, or if it’s science, it’s not any kind of science we understand.”

She wouldn’t explain what she meant; she stalked off and slammed the door. It’s the closest I’ve to anything like a crack in her armor. Maybe Risi is human after all.

It’s day sixteen, or twelve, or thirty-seven, or two. Cordon and Risi are drinking to cope. I wish I could join them.

I smashed a mirror yesterday. Well, crushed it, really. It was a little pocket mirror I found behind the bookshelf in my room. They’re like dorm rooms, except cleaner. Someone before me cared about their appearance, apparently. I broke it in half, squeezed it until it cracked. Seven years bad luck.

(Maybe I should say why I’m really here, now that you know I know we can’t stop the end of the world. I came looking for Neelie. Even though I saw her before I saw her out on the ice, I think she wanted me to follow her here. Her ghost is brighter in the snow.)

I think Ricky might be on to something with the birds. I wanted to put that down before I forget.

I could say something melodramatic, like I was looking at my reflection, and I couldn’t stand the monster staring back at me. But I wasn’t even looking at the reflective part, just turning the mirror over in my hand like a stone.

(It wasn’t until I picked up the broken pieces that I saw Neelie’s eye staring back at me, her mouth open to speak. I got scared. I’ll admit that. I got scared. I came here to find her; she’s my little girl, but she still terrifies me.)

I had all this nervous energy, and I had to let it out somehow. I used to do that with drink. My brain would spin and spin, there was no other way to shut it down. After the accident, I quit, cold turkey. I’ve been sober for three years, eight months, and thirteen days. A recovering alcoholic, mind you; there’s no such thing as cured.

I saw Neelie inside the station yesterday. Every other time, she’s been out on the ice. Ricky was drawing, and she was looking over his shoulder. It reminded me of the way she used to watch me cook, not asking questions but intently studying everything I did and recording behind her eyes, chewing on the ends of her hair the whole while. I didn’t hit Ricky. I wanted to.

(I’ve waited so long for her to come inside, and when she did, I ran away. Her eyes recorded everything; what if she doesn’t forgive me for the last moments of her life? My little girl turned and stretched out her hand, and I ran away.)

Could I have stopped the car? I wasn’t drunk, only buzzed.

It was late, foggy; Neelie shouldn’t have been out of bed. The babysitter should have been watching her . . .

No. I can’t shift the blame. Neelie liked to run out to meet my car. It didn’t matter whether I’d been gone an hour or a whole day. I knew that. I should have been paying more attention.

(I was.)

(Neelie . . . I could never get over her eyes. Deep down, in the truest and darkest part of myself, love wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get over her eyes. I was one of the lucky ones. All her limbs were in the right place, but her eyes . . . she was out of phase with my reality. Can poison in the ground do that? Sometimes, she looked just like a normal little girl, like the other children on our block after we moved. And sometimes, her eyes were flat black. Polished stone. Static-shot. She would look at me like she was tuning in something very far away or sending everything I was doing elsewhere. Did she know? Was she always judging me for what happened in the last moments of her life, or was it that I thought she was judging me that caused my decision?)

The car. There was a heartbeat’s worth of space. Two. I took a breath, let it all the way out with her frail body pinned in the headlights. The fog made tendrils, swirling around her. She looked right at me with those eyes. Recording. She didn’t look human. I wasn’t drunk. I was scared, scared of my little girl.

I took a breath and let it all the way out, and my foot didn’t move from the gas to the brake. Neelie bled out a few feet from our door. I didn’t cry. I just cradled my baby’s head in my lap and stroked her hair.

The voices gibber and whisper and weep. Last time they came, I looked at the light behind them for as long as I could. The spaces behind them, between their silhouetted bodies and the jagged edges marking my world. Things slid and dragged—amorphous shapes. Too many eyes, too many limbs. Some of them used to be human, I’m sure.

I lied to Austin and Sheila and all the rest. I came here because if the voices can come through, other things can as well. A ghost. A little girl already out of time. I’m not here to save the world, just to take responsibility for what I did, will do, have always done.

The smell made me look through Ricky’s door. He spends twenty out of twenty four hours in his ‘lab’, birds pinned down, so he can draw the mechanics of their wings. Like we don’t know how birds work by now. (Except the birds aren’t birds.) It’s okay; drawing keeps Ricky out of the way. It keeps him from going off screaming onto the ice like Austin did.

Did I mention Austin disappeared? We found the arm Cordon printed for him and nothing else. He went out into the snow and vanished. Or maybe he’s still here in another when, reunited with his original arm.

I thought maybe Neelie would be looking over his shoulder again. She wasn’t, and Ricky wasn’t at his drafting table either. He was crying, wiping at his face and smearing blood all over. Did I say about the blood already?

Ricky was covered in it. His hands, his clothes, all the places he’d tried to wipe the tears away. Only some of it was red. The rest . . . there isn’t a word for the color. Green, but purple. Iridescent: beetle shell, crow feather. The color itself made the stench, clogging up my mouth and nose.

“I needed to see inside,” Ricky said. “The birds aren’t birds. I told you so.”

He held a scalpel, probably nicked from Sheila. He’d made a real mess of the bird pinned to the table, a storm petrel, I think, but not like someone inexperienced at dissection. More like he got scared and tried to stab what he saw out of existence.

It buzzes. The picture of the bird in my mind buzzes, like flies going all at once. It drips, melting wax too close to the sun. Icarus is falling and drowning and drowned, and the world is ended, always ending, has been ended since the beginning of time.

Okay, I just read back, and I’m letting that sentence stand. Some things are just true. It isn’t my fault if anyone reading this doesn’t understand.

I don’t know much about the biology of birds, but I know what they’re not supposed to look like inside. Nothing living should look like that inside.

Picture a city with angles folding inward and protruding outward at the same time. A city made of bone and flesh, intestines and organs, sinew and blood. Picture something like a starfish. Picture all of that and throw the picture away. Remember the worst migraine you ever had. The inside of the bird on Ricky’s drawing table was like that but moreso.

I pulled Ricky out of there and hid him in my room. I had to get him away before Risi saw what he’d done because then she would kill him for sure.

Ricky cut his throat. Probably with the same blade he used on the bird. He bled out in one of the showers, slumped against the wall. Or maybe Risi killed him, a murder-suicide. No one has seen her for two days.

I found Ricky’s notes after we burned his body. We dragged him to the ghost part of the station and set him on fire. Nervous energy. We needed something to do. He was probably too young to have a will. Kid like that thinks he’s going to live forever. Hopefully he wanted to be cremated.

After we burned him, I went through his stuff. Clothing. Razor blades. Deodorant. Cologne. A dildo, tucked down in the bottom of his bag under the socks and underwear. He’d never unpacked. He’d left everything in a duffle bag, like he’d be going home any day. A family portrait: mother, father, daughter, golden retriever, cute as hell. No one in the picture looked anything like him. His drawing supplies.

I found his notes wedged between the mattress and the bed frame. Crumpled, like he wanted to destroy them but couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. There was a notebook filled with gibberish; each entry was neatly labeled with the date and location. The sketches were perfect. Gorgeously rendered in accurate scientific detail. Until they started to bend. Until you could tell from the outside that what I saw when Ricky cut open the bird was lurking just beneath the feathers and skin.

I keep a picture of Neelie in my room. Yesterday, Neelie was gone. The picture was still there, showing our yard and the swing I built for her hanging from the old maple tree. The arrested motion of the swing made it look like she’d jumped out of the frame. She used to pump her legs as hard as she could and jump when the swing was at its highest point. It put my heart in my throat when she did that. There were days when I expected (wanted) her to fly, keep going up forever.

I turned the picture over, like I might see her on the other side, giggling. Hide-and-Seek post-mortem.

It’s proof. Time is broken. It’s always been broken. A vast, cyclopean city rose everywhere and everywhen. Neelie isn’t in the picture, but she’s out there waiting for me. I’m coming, baby girl.

I woke up outside. Sleepwalking, I guess, though no one really sleeps anymore. I’d thought to put a coat on but not button it up. Boots, but I was still wearing a nightgown.

(Neelie was wearing a nightgown when she died. Maybe, I wasn’t sleepwalking. Maybe, I went looking for her.)

Neelie was patting my cheeks when I woke up. She was crying. “Don’t go to sleep, Mommy.” My dead daughter saved my life. After I could have hit the brakes but didn’t.

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry,” I said and threw my arms around her. Not a ghost. Solid and real.

She looked at me. Her eyes just the way I remember them: flat, black, seeing everything. I almost took it back. I almost pushed her away and ran across the ice, begging it to take me, like it took Austin. Can I live with my dead little girl looking at me like that, knowing? Yes. I have to live with it—the choice not to hit the brakes, and the choice to find Neelie again. There are no third chances.

Funny (not ha ha), but it wasn’t cold. The ice groaned. An old sound. A deep sound. “Don’t be afraid, baby girl,” I said. The birds circled between us and the sun, throwing harsh shadows on the snow. Piping while the ice groaned. Almost a song.

The voices were there, too. Begging, screaming. Why did you stop, they asked. Why didn’t you do more to fix the future that has always been broken? I didn’t answer; they already know. Acceptance is a stage of grief, too.

“Look, Mommy,” Neelie said. She pointed to the thing in the ice that James had talked about.

Did I say what happened to James? I don’t know. I don’t know if I said, and I don’t know what happened. We’re the only ones left here, me and my little girl. And the voices. And the thing in the ice. Not things, despite the multitude and the vastness of it. One thing, stretching all the way out under ice that’s clear and blue and shining. It turned while the birds sang. Waking up.

Haruspex. I always liked that word. I read to Neelie about ancient Rome. She liked stories about soldiers. I didn’t tell her about the bloody prophets who dug their nails in the entrails of birds to spell out victory and doom.

Ricky was right about the birds, even though he wasn’t scrying the future when he cut one open. Somewhere, a city is rising, has risen, will always and forever be coming up from the waves. The future, as a concept, is obsolete.

I stood with my daughter, and we watched a vast thing turn in the ice. We listened to the birds whose bodies are cities and angles and impossible, multi-limbed things. This is the new shape of the world. This is the shape it’s always been. We listened to the birds-who-aren’t-birds weep in their weird, piping way. This is where it begins, where it began.

Ricky was right about the birds. They’re an omen but not in the way of a warning. Voices crying in the wilderness, heralding what has already come.

Originally published in Tomorrow’s Cthulhu: Stories at the Dawn of Posthumanity, edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski.

About the Author

A.C. Wise’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Shimmer, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2017, among other places, and her work has been a finalist for the Sunburst Awards, and the Lambda Literary Awards. Her collections, The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron Saves the World Again, and The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories, are published by Lethe Press. In addition to her fiction, she contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine. Find her online at www.acwise.net and on Twitter as @ac_wise.