From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

The Woman With No Face

Ankuin knew she was in a sim by the mineral taste in her mouth. The other tells were more subtle: the fractal pattern of moss on the cave wall, the cyclical rhythm of the rain on wet fronds, and the lyrical birdsong piercing through the dense forest. Most people wouldn’t notice such details, because most people didn’t have a reason to doubt their senses. But Ankuin’s senses were never fully her own.

“Oh good,” said the man. “You’re awake.”

He was pinched and pale, with skin that matched the spongy mushrooms outside. He crouched beside her like a man courting a viper.

“You had me worried there,” he said, offering a small smile.

Ankuin pushed herself up and sat with her back against the damp cave wall. Her head swam, indicating drugs. It also ached, indicating the possibility of real pain in this fake world.

“Where am I?” She asked the question she knew he wanted.

“Onerth, if you can believe it.” He nodded out the cave entrance, toward the slick trunks of tree ferns. “The Angeroth Forest, near the pole. Pretty much the only place on this planet where anything grows.”

That wasn’t true, but that wasn’t the point.

“How did I get here?”

“We were ambushed shortly after landing.” He gestured at a tear in her pants. “Don’t you remember?”

She was wearing standard resistance field gear: nanocloth shirt, jacket with armor scaling, baggy pants tucked into good boots. No name tag.

“My head hurts.”

“You took a hit.” He searched her face. They had likely drugged her to forget and tried to implant a new memory, but that type of procedure didn’t work on her. He expected her to know something she didn’t.

“Right.” Ankuin made a show of attempting to stand and sliding back down the wall. He grabbed her arm to steady her, but his grip was too tight.

“Don’t rush yourself! We have plenty of time.”

“We need to get back to base.”

“There’s tinmen crawling the woods.” An outdated term for the Horizon Syndicate’s drone army. These days the resistance fighters called them canners. “And we lost our radio.”

So, it was the two of them in a convenient cave in a distant forest in a simulation. Ankuin knew an interrogation setup when she saw one.

“I’m sorry.” She rubbed her neck. “I’m all mixed up and my brain is foggy. Must have been a big hit.”

His forehead smoothed, and he let go of her arm.

“Don’t worry about it.” He moved over to a half-built fire. “It’ll come back to you.”

She squinted at the name tag on his sleeve.

“Henders, right?”

He paused, then kept tearing bark into strips.

“You remember me?”

“A little. Not much.”

“We met right before this mission, so that makes sense. More importantly”—he looked over—“do you remember your name?”

Ankuin held his gaze and kept her face calm. The body she occupied was slight, with small breasts, and hair long enough to tickle her neck with tight curls. The voice sounded young and strong. And her inner circle didn’t wear name tags.

“Kordo,” she said. “Meela Kordo.”

He nodded and rocked back onto his heels. Whoever he was, he had already known the answer. They had only just begun.

• • • •

The Rizul Tribe of Onerth, named by cartographers from Bekgard City, cared not for nation states, rebellions, or interplanetary trade. They were The People, and they had lived undisturbed between the dunes for generations. The hidden springs filled their canteens, the generous sun charged their hunting mounts, and the desert had, many lives ago, taught them magic.

Ankuin was a daughter of The People. Her mother worked leather and made perfume, sharing flasks and herbs with Jingula, the village kun. Ankuin’s father was one of the men, but which one she never knew. Daughters never knew their fathers.

Like all daughters, Ankuin was anxious for her menses to come. Every mother knew the frustration of the wait.

“You’re in such a hurry to know others,” Ankuin’s mother would say, “when now is the time to know yourself.”

Ankuin tried to follow the other daughters. She studied the burrowing animals and thorny plants, seeing which were favorites. She carved knives, rehearsed dance moves, and learned basic healing from Jingula, but no path excited her. Everything led back to her traitorous womb, the gate between her and The People. One by one, the other daughters were initiated, and Ankuin felt time slipping away like sand through her fingers.

When the blood finally came, Ankuin crowed her victory over breakfast and begged her mother to announce it at once. Her mother cupped Ankuin’s face in her hands, stroking her cheeks, then left to arrange the ceremony.

Ankuin knew the ritual by heart. The presentation of first blood to the elders, the exchange of gifts between daughter and mother, and the sharing of tea all blurred past her as she waited for the crucial moment when she would step into The People’s magic. The magic of joining two minds in one body and knowing each other without limits.

Ankuin’s mother took her hand as they sat facing each other in the cool ritual chamber. The connection could only happen with skin-to-skin contact. Her mother’s hands, like all adults’, were soft from years under gloves.

“Try to relax,” she said. “I’ll lead you to me.”

Ankuin nodded and closed her eyes. She had heard stories of what to expect and waited for the pleasurable frisson and tug into her mother’s mind. She would know her mother as a complete person, learn her every story, and take her first steps into adulthood as they shared a meal as two people with one mouth. Ankuin breathed and took in the silence of the sacred moment.

Nothing happened.

Ankuin squeezed her eyes tighter and breathed deeper, willing her pulse to slow. She snuck a glance at her mother, who was staring at their entwined hands with an unreadable expression.

“Don’t fret,” her mother said. “It doesn’t always come with first blood.”

Ankuin couldn’t process those words and didn’t want to try. She looked to their hands, hers rough from sun and play and her mother’s smooth from oils and hide. Underneath her mother’s skin were trails of light, traveling from her fingertips up her arm and to her brain. Somehow Ankuin had never noticed this glow until now, but the intended path was obvious, a beacon inside a knotted network of shining webs.

The air crackled. Something painful was happening, but she was already ahead of it and gliding up the shining paths of her mother’s arms into a place of light. She snatched at the light, hungered for it, lusted for it, and crammed it inside herself.

Ankuin could see herself, eyes closed, hair braided, and she could remember when she was born and colicky in the sling. She felt her pelvis widening from labor and the scent of blood and how slick she had been that night of conception, slick from all the men. She had relished those nights under the stars, sliding into bodies and minds, but now she had a daughter and the birth hadn’t been right. Jingula had cast bad omens, but her daughter was beautiful and whole and eager for the joining. The joining was today.

Ankuin devoured the light, and with every bite there was less light and less to know. She felt her mother in the light and ate more of it, searching for her. Her mother was supposed to be here. They were supposed to do this together. But there was no one else here anymore.

Ankuin screamed with her mother’s throat.

• • • •

Her interrogator was right about one thing: her memory did come back. By the second day she had most of the pieces again. There had been four of them—Ankuin the leader, Meela for information, Haral for protection, and Jingula as always. There was a meeting, months in the making, set in Bekgard City, and they were on their way there when the ambush happened. Ankuin’s body had been injured, so she had taken the scout’s as her spare.

There was no telling how long ago that was, or if the crucial meeting window had already passed. And the meeting couldn’t proceed without her.

“Rations are ready,” Henders called from the fire.

Ankuin took one last look out at the towering tree ferns, a sight she had never seen in reality, and settled in for lunch with her captor.

“I hope you like curry.” Henders handed her a warm packet.

Ankuin did like curry, and most foods. When times were quiet and she had a new body, she loved lining up a feast of her favorite dishes and tasting them with a new tongue, sliding the spices across her teeth. Sometimes, if she was bored with a body’s senses, she would take a new one for the pleasure of rediscovery.

This curry, however, was as bland as she had expected; yet another obvious tell of the sim. She hadn’t been in Meela long enough to know how rations should taste.

“Are we heading out today?” she asked, wiping her mouth with her sleeve.

“Tinmen don’t give up that easily.”

“Then why did you build a fire?”

He hesitated briefly but covered it with a cough.

“The smoke is traveling through the cave’s system overhead, dissipating the heat. Even if they could read a signature, it would show up miles away.”

“Lucky for us, then.” She knew she shouldn’t push him, but his squirming gave her a twist of satisfaction. “These rations aren’t half-bad, either.”

“Not bad at all.” He settled back into his side of the fire, more at ease. If this wasn’t a sim, she would have already swallowed him whole and been on her way. Maddening. “So, how long have you been fighting for the cause?”

“A few years.” She mirrored his relaxed pose.

“And you’re from the Banda territory, right? I noticed the pendant on your boot.”

Ankuin touched it without looking. She smiled.

“You know quite a lot about Onerth for someone not born here.”

He brushed his pasty cheek. “I can’t help standing out, but I can help ignorance. My family moved here when I was young, and I studied up. I find desert people fascinating.”

Ankuin glanced at her hands—Meela’s hands. They were brown and calloused, since Banda people had no need for gloves. There were no mirrors to check her face, but it was unlikely to be a perfect reconstruction of the scout. Such mind-body mapping took time. Luckily, some skew was expected in sim avatars, and all “desert people” looked the same.

“So, did you get to meet her? When in Banda?” Henders said.

Ankuin had been waiting for this.

“The Keeper? The desert is a big place, you know.” She shrugged. “Besides, maybe I met her without knowing it.”

“Oh, you really believe that sand magic nonsense?” Henders pretended to pick dust off his trousers. “That body snatching shit can’t be true. I hear it’s a fear tactic to keep all the cells in line. It’s not like anyone can prove otherwise.”

In the many years since founding the resistance, Ankuin had made sure to spread rumors about herself. Some she had passed down through her troops, others she had whispered herself through stolen lips in dark corners. Misinformation was one of her greatest weapons.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Henders said. “I still believe in the cause. Horizon destroys entire civilizations in the name of profit and trade. We need to fight it. I just find the so-called Woman With No Face a bit dramatic.”

Having no face meant Ankuin could hide in plain sight, but it also meant she had no tangible identity. Anyone could walk into Bekgard City and claim to be her. And if no one showed at all, Horizon Syndicate would learn something very valuable about its new prisoners.

“So, keep the movement, ditch the leader?” Ankuin said.

“Perhaps,” he said and fed the fire.

“Perhaps,” she echoed.

• • • •

Jingula found them first. They had been waiting outside, as was tradition, and bolted through the entrance at the screams.

Ankuin was huddled in a corner, clawing at her mother’s face with her mother’s hands, and staring at her own body in the middle of the room. Jingula, severe and learned for their age, hefted the limp girl in their arms and brought her to where Ankuin sat rocking and crying.

“Ankuin must return to her body,” they said.

“I can’t find Mother!” Ankuin cried with her mother’s throat.

“Return and we shall find her.”

“I can’t.”

“You must.”

As the kun, Jingula knew everything about the old magic and the tethering of breath to flesh. They took Ankuin’s hands, the soft and the rough, and acted as a bridge between them. Ankuin found the path back, guided by the kun, and convulsed into her own body with wracking sobs.

Her mother’s body sank to the floor and did not stir. Jingula studied it for a moment, a frown growing on their face. They backed away from the girl.

“Where is my mother?” Ankuin sobbed. Jingula wouldn’t answer.

The following days were nothing but anguish. The village elders had never seen such a tragedy before and argued over Ankuin’s fate. Finally, the tribunal had her bound and taken to the hidden springs cave, where Jingula hoped to heal her. Ankuin sobbed until her voice died, vomited up every meal, and stopped reacting altogether. She stared at the cave ceiling, barely swallowing when the kun spooned gruel into her mouth.

At some point, the village buried her mother. Ankuin was not allowed to attend.

There was no morning or night in the cave. Ankuin tracked the time by meals and Jingula’s appearance to attempt yet another healing. The kun would kneel over Ankuin for hours, working energy, anointing her with water from the springs. But every time they would collapse beside the girl, defeated.

“Where there should be light, there is only a pit,” they told her. “And it hungers.”

The pair tried centering exercises, breathing maneuvers, and ancient rites. Ankuin learned to see the paths of light in living things without touching them. She couldn’t repair the paths as the kun could, but she could tell when an animal was dying. Jingula had her join with rodents and snakes to train her control, but they all ended up lifeless when Ankuin returned to her own body. Eventually Ankuin announced she would no longer watch the caged creatures die, and Jingula relented.

Ankuin’s restraints became shackles and then a single chain. It was long enough that she could move around their apothecary to mix salves and grind herbs for the villagers, who never came to the cave. The People forgot about the girl who killed her mother, and Ankuin did her best to forget, too.

• • • •

On the fifth night, Ankuin fucked him. She would have done it the first night, anything to hasten the process, but she knew he needed to lead. So she had spent the days complacently listening to his tinmen excuses, sharing fake stories about her life, and letting their bodies touch more and more. Finally, he went for the kiss and she obliged.

Ankuin preferred having a man’s body. Sex was better when she could guarantee her own release and not have to pander to anyone else’s whims. On stressful nights, she would have women brought to her tent, willing volunteers, and use them how she wished. The women knew whose bed they were in, and they didn’t mind the bruises.

Sometimes Ankuin would bring a woman to climax and jump bodies right before the peak, so she could take the pleasure for herself. But this always resulted in at least one body to bury, so she kept this particular delicacy for special occasions.

Jingula, of course, didn’t approve. At first, they had been outraged, and called Ankuin a pestilence, a curse. Then they had tried to reason with Ankuin and spoke of troop morale. Finally, they stopped commenting altogether, and wouldn’t attend the daily strategy briefings until Ankuin had completed the burial. But Ankuin always buried them and Jingula always returned.

Jingula. They were the only person in Onerth who could vouch for Ankuin’s identity. And now they might be dead.

Henders pulled out and finished on her stomach, and Ankuin wanted to strangle him for the mess. Instead she cooed and kissed his chest until his eyes fluttered and his breathing slowed. Then she retreated to the cave entrance and scrubbed herself clean with dirt.

• • • •

The Horizon Syndicate raided the village just after the morning meal, when the children were in school. The tribe had scanners and pulse rifles for hunts, but their borders had been friendly for generations. There was no reason for an active militia.

Ankuin heard the screams from the cave but could do nothing to help. Her chain was anchored deep into the rock wall and the spice grater within reach was too delicate to do anything in time. So she sat and listened to the blasts and the shouts until they faded away into the crisp staccato of boots on stone.

“Here it is,” a voice said, and someone slapped the pool of water with their palm. “The fabled hidden springs. Dirtier than I’d pictured.” Someone else laughed. “But perfect for the depot.”

“Sarge, there’s books and shit over here,” another voice said, closer to where Ankuin crept. “And a lit lantern.”

“Spread out,” ordered a deep voice.

The cave rumbled with their hurried steps as they knocked over shelves and smashed glassware. They found her quickly, huddled behind a striated boulder with her chain in her hands.

“A prisoner?” said the one with the deep voice. “I didn’t think they had those.” He was sweating—they all were—and rested his hands on his rifle strap. His face was weathered, and lined with light that gathered into a knot behind his left eye. Cancer.

“I can handle it, Sarge,” said the younger one next to him. He pointed his rifle at Ankuin. “We got what we came for.”

The sergeant placed his hand on the soldier’s barrel and lowered it. He tipped his chin to Ankuin.

“You going to choke me with that chain, honey?”

Ankuin’s hands tightened around the heavy links. The sergeant chuckled.

“That’s what I thought. Well, honey, we here are traders. We seek out precious resources and enrich all the lands we touch.” In one fluid motion he knelt down, gripped Ankuin’s throat, and slammed her head into the sandstone wall. “Let’s do business.”

Ankuin gasped, not from the pain, but from the hot blaze of light searing her skin. The sergeant wasn’t wearing any gloves. And Ankuin was ravenous.

She ran down his arm like lava and lunged into his mind. The light was there, just as she remembered, but this time she wasn’t looking for her mother. She was looking for information. Memories slid down her gullet and into the blackness, consumed, until she found what she wanted: how to use a gun.

She spun in his body, shouldering the rifle, and fired two pulses into the young soldier’s brain. The others jerked back, crying out, but she had received this command by being a sharpshooter and they didn’t stand a chance. She made quick work of them, spraying shots all over the cave walls, and they fell with wet thuds. The last one popped off a few blasts, but his aim was terrible. She took the battery off his chest to reload.

Outside, the sun was piercing. She couldn’t tell if she squinted from years in the dark or because this body’s eyes were inferior in the bright light. Either way, she needed a moment to get her bearings. The village had grown in her time away, but the original sights remained: the vegetable gardens, the council house, the stables, and the school. In-between tents there were bodies, prostrate and bloody, with no soldiers in sight. But Ankuin already knew where to go.

She rapped on the school door and entered when it opened. The inside was dark and cool from the thick walls of brick and mud. It was the largest structure in the village, but it was still smaller than the cave. In the middle were the children, some parents, the elders, and Jingula. Ankuin turned to a soldier.

“This everyone?”

“Yes, sir. We rounded them up and—”

“And us?”

“Sir?”

Ankuin was still cataloguing the sergeant’s thoughts.

“Is this all of us?”

“I…” The soldier looked around. “Yeah, we didn’t think there was a need to post—” She shot him in the head.

The children screamed and the soldiers swore as Ankuin took them out. Horizon had only sent half a unit to secure the springs, reasoning that was more than enough for some desert rats in their huts. They were dead in seconds.

The children continued sobbing long after the killing stopped. The sergeant was used to such distractions, so Ankuin was, too. She approached Jingula and extended her hand, but the kun spat on her leg. Ankuin grinned.

“Jingula, such manners,” she said. The kun stared. “And after I saved your life. They were going to kill you, you know. That wasn’t their orders, but they were going to do it anyway.” Jingula gaped and recognition dawned on the elders’ faces.

“Ankuin,” Jingula gasped. “Ankuin, what have you done?”

“I told you. I saved your life.” The kun’s lack of gratitude irked her. Ankuin opened her hand again. “My key, please.”

Jingula froze.

“Jingula, don’t you see? I can protect all of us. That’s why I am this way.” Ankuin patted the rifle. “And I don’t have to ask.”

The kun’s gaze fell to the sergeant’s boots and the packed dirt floor. Slowly, as though weights hung from their wrists, they retrieved the key from their robes. Ankuin scooped it up and turned to leave.

“Ankuin,” Jingula said. “The pit is still inside you.” Ankuin paused but did not look back.

“Then I will fill it with their bones.”

Ankuin strode back to the cave, swinging her rifle, and let the midday heat scorch her face. It was good to be here and good to be alive. It was the start of something wonderful. She dipped into the cave’s mouth and nearly skipped down to the apothecary.

Her body lay cold, two pulse blasts in its chest from the earlier firefight. It had died as an animal, chained.

• • • •

“I have a confession to make,” Henders said the next morning, after another round of sex. Ankuin busied herself with tracing lines across his chest where she imagined the light would be, if this was really his body.

“You’ve had better?”

“I know who you really are.” Ankuin stopped tracing. “You’re not some mere soldier. You’re part of Ankuin’s inner circle.” Ankuin looked up at him and smiled.

“Is that what this is about? You think I’m important?”

“Meela, enough.” He pulled away. Ankuin sat up to face him. “I know you were with her. And I know why you were going to Bekgard City.” Ankuin adjusted her position and inched closer to their pile of clothes.

“Ah, so you’re a Syndicate spy?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.

Ankuin contorted her face into disgust and surprise while her mind raced. His timetable had moved up. Something had changed.

“You lied to me?” She gestured broadly with one hand while slipping the other into the clothes. “All this time? Everything that’s happened between us?”

“It was necessary. I wanted you to trust me.”

“Good job.”

“Meela, I am trying to do what is best for everyone. And I need your help.” His eyes were steady and almost sad. “I need to know where Ankuin is.”

Ankuin knew this was always the objective, but his bold-faced acknowledgement was worrisome. She slipped one hand inside folds of shirts and pockets, and led his eyes with the other as she spoke.

“And you need my help with this?”

“We know there was a man with you, but Ankuin doesn’t take male hosts.” Misinformation was lethal. “And I know it isn’t you. So that leaves two possibilities.”

Haral and Jingula were trained in anti-interrogation techniques, but they couldn’t resist the drugs the way Ankuin could. And if either of them had broken, she wouldn’t still be alive. And if neither of them had broken, asking her this question would only muddy the waters. So, Henders had another answer in mind.

“I know you love this cause, but Ankuin is a monster,” Henders said. “She kills people—her own people—and destroys entire communities without a care.”

Ankuin had assumed the entire party had been captured and isolated into separate interrogation sims. She had been biding her time, offering her attention and body, in anticipation of a reveal. But perhaps they hadn’t been ambushed by Horizon at all. Perhaps the attack had been coordinated from within her own circle. And at least one person had slipped away before the drones arrived.

“Why do you need my help?” Ankuin said. “Just turn Bekgard City into a crater.”

Henders sighed and flicked his eyes to her hand buried in the clothes.

“We aren’t who you think we are. Yes, sometimes units act against orders, but our mission is to expand trade for the good of all.”

Ankuin had seen the good Horizon could do reflected in the dull eyes of the dead. They wouldn’t hesitate to burn Bekgard to the ground if it meant stamping out the resistance. But right now they needed to confirm their target. Because someone had walked into that Bekgard meeting claiming to be Ankuin. And she had a sinking sensation in her stolen gut.

Her fingers grazed the polished hilt of Henders’ field knife.

“I have a confession to make, too,” she said.

“Meela.” Henders raised his hands. “You can’t kill me. We’re in a sim.”

“I know,” she said, and slit his throat.

• • • •

The train station was a full day’s journey to the east, and from there a four-hour ride into Bekgard. But they were taking the mountain path on foot, traveling mostly at night, and had planned on at least ten days in the wild. One dawn, Jingula found Ankuin squatting on a ledge, studying the pink sky and the sharp drop below.

“Having second thoughts?”

“Never.” Ankuin tossed a pebble down the cliff. “Although I prefer it when others carry my pack.”

“Is that why you took D’rak?”

Ankuin grinned and flexed her broad back. “He’s a marvel, isn’t he?”

“He has a family.”

“I know that.” Ankuin wrapped her arms around her knees. “I know better than anyone. Better than you.”

Jingula sighed and gathered their robes as they sat. This was an old argument between the two of them.

“What we’re about to do—what you’re about to do—it matters, Ankuin. So many years of strife could end overnight.”

Ankuin didn’t respond.

“Have you planned what you’re going to say in the negotiations? I know you didn’t want to discuss demands before, but now I thought—”

“There won’t be negotiations.”

Ankuin got to her feet and brushed the dust off her trousers. Jingula stared up at her.

“Ankuin. Ankuin, what are you saying?”

“Don’t be dense, Jingula.” She ran her fingers through D’rak’s thick, beautiful hair. “You’ve been working your contacts for months to get me before the Syndicate’s top brass. Of course I’m going to use that to our advantage.”

Jingula reached out and tugged at Ankuin’s hem. Ankuin flinched and stared at her old master, now an elder on their knees.

“Ankuin, please. We could have peace. Real peace. They said they’ll leave Onerth.”

“And you believe them?”

Ankuin reached down with D’rak’s strong hands and helped Jingula up. The kun was small and birdlike, but their light was as bright as ever. Ankuin wondered what their wrinkles felt like without gloves.

“A little more bloodshed to end all bloodshed. You’ll see.”

Jingula stepped away and looked out over the desert, now lit with a new day’s light.

“And what if they get to you first?”

“With you by my side?” Ankuin chuckled. “They can try.”

• • • •

Ankuin woke up sore and exhausted, eyes watering from the harsh artificial lights. She was in a private ward, with bare walls and a fluorescent ceiling, strapped to a bed. There was no way to tell if this room was in Bekgard City or even on Onerth at all. Henders stood beside her at the edge of her vision.

“Finally,” he clipped.

He was pasty white with a sheen of sweat on his forehead and a rumpled Syndicate uniform unbuttoned at his neck. Out of the corner of her eye she could see him leaning onto a cane. Sims had protections in place to prevent participants from actually dying, but that didn’t make the experience smooth.

“How did you know it was a sim?” He spoke slowly.

“I was trained well.” It was odd to hear Meela’s physical voice. “Inner circle, remember?”

Henders leaned over her. His face was criss-crossed with weak threads of light, so thin she almost missed them.

“You bought yourself some time, but I have people wanting answers.” He stank of sour antiseptic. “Tell me the truth.”

She was restrained at the temples and couldn’t lift her head. The gap between them was so small, a mere hand’s width.

“She abandoned you, Meela. She left you in the mountains and came to us. You mean nothing to her.” If only he would loosen these restraints, she would tell him all her secrets. “But I see how special you are. I can take care of you.”

Years ago, when Ankuin had been a girl in chains, she’d slashed her wrists with a broken flask. Jingula had found her by pure luck and brought her back from death. They had worked a full day and night, bending the light to repair tendons and veins, until Ankuin’s skin had knitted back together. But the kun had left a scar on one of her wrists.

“Why leave a mark?” Ankuin had asked. “Why not fix it all?”

“So you remember you’re not alone,” Jingula had replied.

The kun acted kind, but Ankuin knew all kindness was a cover for pity. She had cursed at them, thrown jugs at them, had them dragged from her tent, but always they had returned to her shadow with soothing words and silent judgment. They were the only person still alive who knew what had happened to Ankuin’s mother. They were the only person who knew her face.

Ankuin looked into Henders’ eyes. They were shallow and dark.

“Ankuin’s in a body named Jingula,” she said. “It’s old and frail. The same one that organized the Bekgard meeting.”

Henders barked a small victory, buffeting her face with spittle, then withdrew to the wall. Ankuin twisted her head in the restraints and watched him punch a message into a screen.

“Are you going to kill Ankuin?” she asked.

“We already did.” He didn’t turn around. “This morning.”

Ankuin heard the words, but they were only words. They meant nothing in this room without windows, where she had spent the last week in a false forest with a false man. Ankuin had worn many faces and lived many lives, but the one constant had been Jingula frying bread when she returned home. This mission would be no different.

“It was the plan from the beginning.” Henders was gloating now. “Negotiations ended this morning. I had to make a call, thanks to your little stunt with the knife, but you’ve confirmed my instincts were right.”

Ankuin would tell Jingula all about this. Jingula wouldn’t mind being dead. They would agree that being a leader meant stripping away everything that makes you weak.

Henders pressed a succession of buttons on a panel, and something somewhere shut off. The lights overhead went dark, and dim emergency backups came on. The machines stopped beeping, the air stopped humming, and Ankuin knew they were very alone.

He approached her bed.

“I’ll be promoted for this,” he said. “And you, my useful informant, will make an excellent addition to my personal unit. Once you’ve gone through re-education.” He gripped the bed above her head and leaned over again. All trace of the flighty resistance fighter from the cave was gone. Ankuin thought of the other cave—the real one—and how Jingula had found her hunched over her own corpse, weeping with the sergeant’s eyes.

“Sim death isn’t a very pleasurable experience.” His breath hit her face, hot and stale. “But I thought of a way you can repay me.”

He wrenched her face toward him, cutting her skin with the strap. His knuckles grazed her scalp and there, between the pain and the sorrow, she felt the light. It was sickly and faint, but it was a respite, and she loosened in her skin.

“What do you say?” he whispered. “One more for the road?”

Ankuin breathed and opened wide.

Alice Goldfuss

Alice Goldfuss is a speculative fiction writer and software engineer. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her twin collections of tea and carnivorous plants and looks forward to riding trains again someday. Alice has spoken at some fantastic conferences both local and abroad, but these days you can find her on Twitter (@alicegoldfuss).