The last time he saw Eli, her ribs stuck out like planks in her tiny body. And she wouldn’t stop coughing–that broken violin cough–and she’d sit on the kitchen floor with its crumbless cupboards and lick her fingers as if they were cinnamon.
So Remy left his bank card on the table and grabbed dad’s machine rifle and told his sisters not to wait for him.
A month later, he found his mark.
Remy watched the flying mountain through the scope of his rifle. It barged through the clouds, dragging its shadow upon lavender fields, until it hovered over the town.
His target would come from the only structure on the flattop of the mountain: the factory. Waste tubes coiled through the factory like a cancerous intestine, leading to chimneys that coughed on the clouds.
Then, he saw it; the shipment platform glided off the flying mountain. Flat with prongs at its corners, the platform resembled a steel hand falling toward the earth.
Peace Bringer spoke in the back of Remy’s mind, “Each time you destroy, you cripple your soul, bind it to the broken Wheel.” The words ached on his forehead.
“You’re right.” Peace Bringer always was. Remy took his eye off the scope and wiped away sweat dripping from his cheeks. “I admit my fault.”
He imagined the white-garbed Peace Bringer kneeling behind him, shaking his head, scolding him for being so heartless.
And for the evil he was about to do.
Thirteen uniforms stood on the descending platform. The scope defined them as “Havaan Security Personnel.” Sunshine revealed what they guarded–a dozen transparent crates. The crystal seeds within glittered purple.
One explosive round could take out the platform’s engine, while gravity claimed the rest.
I’ll get well over ten million zhill for this.
“Each zhill you gain through destruction is a curse, not a blessing,” Peace Bringer said. “Remy, you fill their bellies with human flesh!”
“I do what I have to.” Remy locked down his rifle’s bolt handle. Ch-chk. “Eli, Rika, this is for you.” He centered his crosshair on the steel hand, tilted up to adjust for wind and gravity, and pulled the trigger.
The sky shrieked.
Purple shards and fire rained. The soldiers burned in the debris. And the flying mountain glided on, dragging its shadow, as if it just didn’t give a damn.
The scope read +35,315,400–the first time his balance shot over a hundred million zhill.
Sirens blared. Eye rounds shot off the ground in the distance, trailing smoke into the sky. Should one spot him, the militia would discover his location.
Peace Bringer shook his head near the roof’s ladder. “Better to be destroyed, than to destroy–once again, you have forsaken the primary principle of our teaching. Isn’t that enough money now?”
Remy watched and waited. A squad of militiamen dashed down the street toward his perch.
“It’s barely enough to pay our debts. I have to keep on fighting, so my sisters never have to suffer again.”
The next day, Agent Khems grabbed a cupcake from the box he made the girl hold and hoped it was strawberry frosted. It wasn’t. But green tea-caramel was his experimental favorite.
Mmm…here we go…
“You have a hundred-twenty seconds.” He pretended he wore a wrist watch and prepared to devour the creamy top.
The metallurgists at the roundtable blinked, one after another. One of them spoke up, “Agent Khems, eighteen hours ago, a shipment of–”
“I know. When you have a time limit, don’t repeat the obvious. A hundred seconds.”
The man cleared his throat. It “ghhd” like a hair-clogged drain. “After finding several of our militiamen murdered in the outskirts of town, we believe that dog, that Petyamese swine responsible for the attack on the shipments in the last town is now hiding here. The factory is scheduled to fly over in a few hours, and you’ve got to do something about him.”
Green tea fudge and caramel bits swarmed through Khems’s mouth. The heaven in each granule of dough, the dripping confectionary, the hidden hint of lemon, the–
“Please, pay attention! If you need more of an incentive, the metallurgists’ union is willing to offer you ten million on top of what the state pays.”
“I don’t want it.” Khems swallowed and took another bite. “Use it to recoup your losses.”
One of the metallurgists jumped off his seat and pounded the table. “I beg you, heed us! The factory flies over once a lunar cycle!” When he shouted, the hairs above his lip kissed his nose. “If we don’t get our seeds, we can’t grow any titanium. We’ll have nothing to produce for the floatlands. You realize how many will starve? It’ll kill our town!”
Cupcake girl gazed at the floor, apparently embarrassed. Probably because she wore the same uniform as Khems, but most likely because she was a cupcake holder.
“And if you can, when you catch this dog, keep him alive,” said the metallurgist. “We’d like to impale him on a metal spike, let him die slowly as his body drifts down. And keep him on display, to deter other Petyamese infiltrators.”
Khems reassured cupcake girl with a grin and wink. “All for a little zhill.” Defiled of its caramel top, he put the cupcake stub back in the box. “Let me give you the obligatory reassurance, from an officer who wears the Havaa crest with pride. I’ll find this dog of Petyam. If he’s hiding in this town, he’d better have kissed his children goodbye.”
Cupcake girl should feel less embarrassed now.
Remy saw sisters play tag through the scope of his rifle. He watched smiles seize their cheek bones, and heard their giggling in the back of his head. Where the Peace Bringer lived.
“Remy, you’re not thinking of…” Peace Bringer always pretended to be surprised, always judged with the illusion that he expected better.
A smiling town surrounded them. So unlike Drouz–that dreary metropolis. Here, the houses wore brown hats, neatly scattered across the plain.
“Why not?” Remy hovered his crosshair over the littler sister, who’d fallen onto the cobbled street. Even the flowers on her dress smiled. “I’ve forsaken you, no? Might as well embrace what I am.”
The number five appeared in his scope. The little one sat on the road and rubbed her eyes. Her big sister tried to yank her up, but she resisted. Ten for both. Enough to buy ten granules of rice. Two-hundred sisters and he could savor a cup of mint juice.
“Damn treaties are gonna starve us,” Remy said. “Is this not a war?”
The Treaty of Lezsh had lowered the yield for a “female Havaan minor” to a hundred-five, the Treaty of Tirana to forty-four, and Vlores to five. With each treaty, the war wound down and jobs were lost. With each treaty, the bread and butter of soldiering was reduced to crumbs.
Crumbs of crumbs.
Remy’s back tooth ached, but he didn’t dare touch it. Peace Bringer sat still, somewhere on the floor behind him. Not near the broken pottery nor any window. And never close enough to breathe in his ear.
“You don’t mean that,” he said. “Just the thought of their smiles going out knots your insides. You can’t help but see your own sisters in them.”
With the crosshair on the little one, Remy rubbed the trigger. The fantasy of pushing it toyed with him. How badly that would prove Peace Bringer wrong.
But he saw Eli and Rika in their mischievous smiles. Eli seven years old, Rika fourteen. Eli who just learned what hieroglyphics are, Rika who just learned about boys. Eli with her chaotic curls, Rika with her long side-braid. Eli lately obsessed with drawing flying squirrels, Rika lately obsessed with how her thighs looked in jeans. Eli with her hatred for pistachios and “other green fruits,” Rika with her hatred for her brother Remy—because of what happened.
“You’re right.” Remy let go of the trigger.
“I always am. I see into you, Remy. You’ve lost yourself in form. Peace cannot be attained through the building and crumbling of things.”
A man eating a cupcake strolled by the sisters. Remy aimed at the clouds. Puffed like mountains, they bathed the town in shade. Soon a flying mountain would roll with them–another chance at a thirty-five million mark.
“I do like to see things crumble.”
In plainclothes, cupcake girl looked like a mother trying to dress like her daughter. Not that she was old, just that her professionalism never wilted. But at least her dress didn’t clash with the cupcake box. Both were strawberry.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve never met a soldier who’d turn down ten million zhill.”
Khems walked and ate, filling his taste buds to douse the stench of earthy wetness so common in the flatlands. Cheddar-flavored cupcake with oregano sprinkles. A failed experiment.
“The reward’s in the work,” Khems said.
“You mean, you actually enjoy this?”
“Nothing’s better than the hunt, ‘cept for cooking what you catch.”
She glanced at the cupcake box and shifted to holding it at the corners. “Speaking of cooking, I don’t mind carrying this thing, but you do know I have other skills…right?”
“Listen, I value you highly. You graduated with high honors, can run a mile in four minutes twenty-seven seconds, and have traveled above the atmosphere. You just meet the minimum requirements for holding my blessed cakes.”
“T-thanks, I guess. Were you a baker in another life?”
Khems dodged children running around the market square, and a cart selling wood cutlery. Tasteless–like this whole town, with its disorganized layout and empty spaces. No cloud breather could stomach such design inefficiency.
“It’s sad,” cupcake girl said, “all the bakeries in my home town closed a few years ago. The bakers were drafted as army cooks. Part of the totalization of the economy toward the war.”
“With the treaties winding this war down, they ought to get back to baking.”
“I hope so. Umm, tell me, why’d you choose such bizarre flavors?”
They stepped off the street onto a grass field. Khems forced himself to devour the cupcake stub.
“I didn’t. The great cooking spirit, who made them through me, did.”
“If the cooking spirit wants a topping of peaches smothered in tomato sauce, who am I to question?” He kept a stern face and watched the gullible girl blush.
“Uhh…right, of course!”
The first spire waited ahead–an arrow balanced on earth, aiming at something in heaven. The perfect sniper’s perch, and there were nineteen of them on the skyline. A town of spires.
Khems unholstered his pistol, snapped off the safety. “Cooking spirit help us.”
A pattern shone on the door of the spire–glyphs of the “Wheel of Heaven and Earth.” A seed plus rain drop turns into a flower, which turns into a metal bead plus hammer, which turns into a warship and a gun. What a timeless story.
A lantern lit up the stairwell. The girl put the box of cupcakes on the grass.
“No, no,” Khems said. “Pick it up.”
“Huh? I can’t hold my gun and the cupcakes at the same time!”
“True, clearly you don’t have three hands. Hold the cupcakes.”
“Hahah…you’re joking, right?”
Khems shook his head. “Imagine a squirrel gnawing at my Turtle’s Delight–which, by the way, is the name for my original banana paste and cookie dough mix. I can’t take that risk.”
“With all due respect, sir, if he’s inside, I’ll be defenseless!” She grabbed her pistol out of the strap around her thigh.
“Listen, do you want to be a student of the great Khems? The Shield of Havaa, the Vanquisher of Petyam, Honorary Lord of the Baker’s Guild?”
She glared at him like he was an escaped bear rummaging through her gourmet kitchen.
“Hold the cupcakes, and maybe I’ll let you have one.”
A door screeched open below. The hair on Remy’s neck stood. He lowered his rifle and listened to the footsteps and chatter.
“How many damn towers these flatlander townies build?”
“T-tired already? But we still have ten to go!”
He set the switch on his grip to anti-personnel rounds, then aimed down the stairwell. Two people, male and female, civilians. No, the gruff man held a gun. Remy’s trigger finger throbbed as he read the words in his scope: Havaan Inter-Services Intelligence–colonel–500,000,000.
The girl walked into his crosshair. The plainclothes colonel looked up. Remy backed off from the banister.
“You see something?” the girl said.
An ovular wall surrounded him. Two windows flanked him–nothing but gravity outside. Peace Bringer meditated in the center of the room, as if Remy’s unease was his serenity.
Where to hide? Where to run? Their shadows appeared in the room, dragging their bodies. Remy stuck his rifle in his pack and dove out the window.
“Another nothing tower, filled with broken pots,” the colonel said. “I don’t get this town. Small hovels, big spires, and nothing in between.”
“Flatland towns are like this. Deal with it, sir.”
From the edge of the windowsill, Remy listened as he hung on by a hand. An anxious wind breathed under his armpits. Sweat moistened his fingertips. His back tooth ached, but he didn’t dare tongue it. Gravity clung to his ankles like a raging gorilla. The sun piloted a shadow upon him. He looked up to see it.
Atop the spire, Peace Bringer floated on a needle tip. “Who would have thought two months ago you’d be about to die in a Havaan village?”
Exactly sixty days ago, Remy was at his own baptism. The water was colder than this wind, and he could feel icicles born in his eyes. He’d swallow mouthfuls to taste the chills in his flesh. It made him feel dead, and he was tired of feeling alive. He went twenty-five minutes before screaming nerves forced him out.
The sun over Drouz burned in patches–scorching on the rooftops and deflated in the shade of buildings. Walking across the sky bridges, the world was chilly, then hot, chilly, then hot. It always looked like clouds streamed by the windows at fifty knots per second, but it was the city that ripped through the clouds. When Remy got home from the Abode of Peace, he found a dreaded visitor huddled at his doorstep.
“I need to talk to you.” The frail man had scrunched up his overcoat into a ball against the wall and used it as a pillow.
“Make it quick.” Remy unlocked the door to his apartment and let his dad in.
They sat face to face at the kitchen table, crumbs from last night’s pickle sandwich scattered all over, the stench of bleach worse than that of the creeping mold.
“I need you to come back.” Dad’s hand twitched–tat-tat-tat on the glass. “The factories aren’t hiring old men like me, and our food is getting low, and–”
“You’re selfish!” He smacked his bony hand on the table, sending crumbs flying. “I need you. Your sisters need you!”
“I’m on my own now. I earn for myself, the little I can doing something that doesn’t destroy. We’ll heal the world by refusing to turn the broken Wheel.”
Dad got up, tucked his chair in neatly, and dug his hands into his pockets. “That cult has destroyed your mind! You think it’s wrong to live with us, because my money came from the war? Think you’re better than everyone? Think that because war is evil, even those of us who make a living off it are? Peace is nothing but a delusion!”
“I don’t want to live like you! Even if I don’t make much, as long as no one has to suffer because of it, I’m fine with that! True happiness is found in peace.”
“You’re being naïve, Remy. We’re all going to end up on the streets, Remy. I can’t hold up this family anymore. You’re the only other man. Remy, you’ve got to do your part! For your sisters, at least–”
“I love you Remy. Eli and Rika love you.” Whenever dad showed love, he shriveled into a sad imp. “What’s more important? Your sisters, or this ‘peace’ you obsess about?”
“Get the fuck out!”
That was the last thing he ever said to that sad imp.
Remy pulled himself back into the spire. The door below screeched shut.
Peace Bringer greeted him with the shake of his head. “Every zero on that number nails you to the broken Wheel.”
500 million for a colonel. Screw the factory shipment. What they could do with 500 million…
There were two cupcakes left. Khems glared at them–chocolate-mango fudge and…strawberry.
It sounded like the sky was ripped in half, sheared with a saw, as the floating factory hovered this way.
Its shade covered half the girl’s face. She bit the shadowed part of her lip. “Since we can’t find him, what’s the game plan? We going to just let him destroy the shipment and win?”
Khems took his finger out of the chocolate-mango fudge and stuck it in his mouth. Mmm, a trite yet stimulating concoction.
“He can’t win.”
“How’re we going to smoke him out when you’re more worried about your cupcakes?”
“Well, I ought to be. Once they run out, the mission ends.”
“The great cooking spirit decrees it.”
She rolled her eyes as the factory loomed overhead. “These people are relying on us. Flatlanders don’t have much to begin with. If that shipment gets destroyed, people here will starve. Their livelihood depends on–”
“Yes. I heard the speech this morning. Like I told you, he can’t win.”
The flying mountain resembled a caramel volcano-cake. The platform jetted off. A vanilla donut claw, it held twenty containers of seeds in its grip. They twinkled like strawberry sprinkles.
“And this is why.” Khems took out his pistol, set the switch to explosive charges. He aimed at the hovering platform and pulled the trigger.
The land quaked. The explosions sounded behind him; the charges he set earlier had detonated. He turned around and saw nineteen smoking spires–broken and charred.
Townspeople stampeded out of their hobbles, shouting. Cupcake girl gaped at the detonated spires. Khems looked through the scope of his pistol and read the numbers.
-17,658,970 damage to allied facility x 19 = -335,520,425.
The first time his balance shot below negative a billion zhill.
No plus for the kill?
“Shit,” Khems said. “That didn’t kill him.”
Cupcake girl continued to gape, like a lover waiting to be fed cheesecake by her beloved.
“You…you did that?”
Hordes of townies took to the streets. The vanilla claw descended, until it landed with the hiss of depressurized gas. Confusion washed the faces of the town militia. They hustled to the containers and began hauling them off.
“He wasn’t there. We wasted our bones climbing up nineteen staircases.”
“You set charges in each one? I can’t believe you! Shameless–”
“Shut it! Put down that box and take out your gun!”
Khems set his pistol to eye rounds and fired a shot in the air. The little eyeball arced through the sky under the factory, then boomeranged back. The slow motion movie of its journey played in his scope. He saw miles of purple flowers as a bird would. But among it all, stood a black-garbed man, in the field to the east.
A rifle in his hands.
Cupcake girl dashed for cover behind a metal barn; Khems followed.
He crouched next to her. “I eyed him, to the east. Seems he wants to lure us out.”
“Has his target changed?”
“For sure. He must’ve spotted me and realized I’m a higher value target than this entire town put together.”
The factory tore through the sky overhead. The militia continued to haul off crates.
“If he’s just after zhill, why wouldn’t he take out the shipment, the militia, and you too?”
“We’ll see. You stay here.”
She glared at him like an angry librarian. “If both of us flank him, our odds are better!”
A bullet whistled through the air. The sky grumbled. Pieces of the caramel volcano-cake cracked and fell. The boulders smashed through the heavens and crashed somewhere in the distance.
“D-did he just fire on the factory?”
“To draw me out…stay here! Let me show you why I’m worth so damn much.”
She bit her lip and nodded.
Khems dashed out of cover, keeping low, toward the field to the east. He faced a man who’d picked a floating platform out of the air. Purple flowers strutted like corn stalks, up to chest high, where that man waited.
A shot wailed across Khems’s ears. An explosion roared behind him. Metal sheared. The bullet sundered the metal barn. It collapsed in on itself.
Was cupcake girl okay? Khems crouched in the jungle of flower stalks. Some buds were open, others were closed. Titanium beads gleamed inside–the town’s one money maker. All this for these little beads.
Another shot cried across his ears. Khems dove toward his target. He rolled to his feet, raised his pistol, and fired at the black-garbed man a hundred yards away.
The man collapsed in a bed of purple flowers.
At his fifth baptism attempt, Remy remained underwater for thirty-seven minutes and sixteen seconds. Ice diamonds glazed his skin. Liquid death rolled around his brain. It threatened to kill him, so he scrunched into the fetal position and stared at the glass covering the water.
He recalled the words of his brothers to contain the pain. “Seek the one who will erase your doubts, firm your faith.” So he tensed his muscles until they shook with violence.
“Seek him in the water, for those the water chooses, will see Peace Bringer.”
But Remy never saw Peace Bringer, and didn’t even know what to look for. “Peace Bringer will speak unto you, words you know as true.” But the water didn’t choose him. His faith was false. Peace was a delusion. “Words you know as love.” He never saw Peace Bringer. Not until the day he parachuted out of a Petyam Float Corps ship, and found himself surrounded by endless Havaan flatland. Where the air was so thick, it was like drowning all over again.
Today, he knew he would see Peace Bringer for the last time. When Remy opened his eyes, he couldn’t move. Chains bound his feet and arms to a chair. A burning dullness throbbed beneath his bandaged right breast. The colonel sat on the floor, a pink box in his hands. The girl noticed Remy awake and tapped the colonel’s shoulder.
The gruff man walked over and held the box open for Remy. “I saved this for you.” His beard was wavy and dark, exactly how an evil Havaan colonel should look. “Better eat it before the townies find us. You’d rather not know what they have in mind for you.”
But Remy’s bound hands couldn’t reach for the strawberry cupcake.
“Why don’t you feed it to him?” the colonel said.
The girl held the cupcake and waited for Remy to open his mouth.
He kept it shut and looked around. Some kind of hall surrounded him. Walls and floor torn out, the only thing left was a chandelier. Like a spider hanging by a thread, it swayed from a strand dangling off the ceiling.
The colonel rubbed the nozzle of his machine pistol. “I’m afraid I have to execute you. Enjoy this as your last meal.”
“I hate strawberry.”
“Now I don’t feel so bad. A man who hates strawberry doesn’t deserve to live.”
An altar lay beneath the chandelier–upon it stood the Peace Bringer.
“Surrender,” he said, “take the first step toward freedom from the broken Wheel. It’s not too late for you. Surrender.”
“You’re right.” Remy opened his mouth and let the girl feed him the cupcake.
Too sweet. Strawberry always was too much on the tongue.
“While you were out, I looked through your wallet.” The colonel held a small photo in his hand. “Thought I’d get to know you.”
The photo of Eli, Rika, and Remy that day at the mall, when the radio blasted news on the Treaty of Lezsh, when Eli spilled green paint on her new shoes, and Rika bought two more skirts she didn’t need. Before dad lost his job. Before Remy told him to “get the fuck out.” Before dad jumped off the edge of the city and became a puddle on some flatland.
“Petyamese kids are so cute,” the colonel said. “Your family?”
“You all look happy. Makes me want to have a family. But I’ve got a credit of negative a billion. It’s hard enough lugging around all that weight.”
“Negative a billion? How can you live with such debt?”
“I get by, I fill my belly. See, I got this cute garden, where I grow green tea and soy and strawberries. Next to it I got an old style kitchen, you know, pot full of pebbles, red-brick hearth, where I can make whatever my belly desires.”
“I’d think the state would take it all away, if you owed them a billion zhill.”
“Last time the state sent someone to do that, I cooked said person a mango strudel and shot his hand off.”
Remy finished the cupcake. His back tooth ached. He tongued it, feeling the metal end of the detonator. Three clicks and the explosive rounds sowed into his abdomen would blow–500 million more for his sisters.
Peace Bringer fluttered toward him, put a hand on his shoulder. A frigid hand. A baptismal water hand.
“In these seconds of surrender, you bring peace into the world. That is what I chose you to do. Don’t nail your soul to the broken Wheel. Don’t.”
Remy wished he could swipe Peace Bringer’s hand off, just to feel warmth again. “I don’t want to. I’ve no other road. Eli and Rika will starve. Those millions of zhill will sustain them, for a while at least.” He tongued it, felt it click.
To the colonel and the girl, he must have sounded crazy talking to a ghost.
But the colonel nodded like he understood. “I’m not your judge. You don’t have to repent to me. You’re admirable. The townies were in your sights. You spared them where I wouldn’t have. I honor you.”
Honor? What will happen to Eli and Rika’s honor the day the money runs out? No honor in begging or enslavement. No honor in being army whores. Wasn’t it Remy’s job to make sure that never happened?
The colonel gently pushed the girl away. She glanced at Remy with trembled lips, then shut her eyes.
Peace Bringer let go of his shoulder. “Better to be destroyed, than to destroy,” he said. “Money won’t save your family, so save yourself and heal the world. Don’t do it, Remy.”
Warmth flooded Remy’s sore chest. He slid his tongue across the metal detonator.
“I’m not your judge.” The Havaan colonel raised his gun, aimed it down Remy’s forehead. “Nor your jury.” And pulled the trigg–