I let my legs hang off the edge of my shelter in the same way the shelter itself hangs off the side of a canyon. The last rays of sun hit the cliff face and illuminate the bright fabrics I’ve covered the inside of my home with for a final few moments before the second sun disappears beyond the horizon.
Humming, I weave a fishing net with iridescent thread that reflects the starlight.
Many hours later, when the rising sun warms my skin, footsteps creak on the wooden steps leading down to my home. My hands still as I listen for signs of the visitor is carrying weapons. There are only light footfalls. Tying off the thread to keep my place, I turn to the stairs as a girl steps into view, a veil covering the lower half of her face.
She jumps, blinking under my gaze. “Um…” Her eyes are pulled to the ceiling of my abode, but she doesn’t ask about the bones hanging there. Shaking her head, she asks, “Are you the Weaver?”
“Maybe.” I move my work out of her sight. “Who are you?”
“A priest’s daughter. This is for you.” The girl holds out a scroll wrapped in a jade necklace. “From my father.”
I stare at it, then at her. “What, no trap sigils? No poison plants inside?”
“Uh, no. No.”
“Huh. How unusual.” I take the scroll and turn it over, but don’t open it. Faint magic thrums through my fingers. “Is this supposed to be a bribe for my services?”
The priest’s daughter shifts on her feet. “I don’t know what it says, but I assure you the jade is real. Enough to last you for years.”
“And what under the two suns is a priest looking for in the space between worlds so direly he’d pay a pagan for her services?”
“I was told not to tell you.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know what the scroll said?”
Her mouth opens, but nothing comes out.
I laugh quietly to myself. “Even when you’re not trying to deceive me, you priests lie.”
“I said I was just a priest’s daughter.”
“What’s the difference? You haven’t burned anyone alive yet?”
She stiffens, pressing her lips together. “Please, just open the scroll. It will explain everything.” When I say nothing, she adds, “We just want your help.”
“With what? Can you blame me for being cautious when you won’t even tell me what you want?”
“It– It’s not a trick. The scroll.”
I hold it out to her. “You open it, then.”
She flinches and takes a step back. Her face pales as she realizes her mistake.
I give her a humorless curve of my mouth. “That’s what I thought.”
At least she has the decency to stare at the ground, not meeting my eyes.
“What did he do to it? Imbue a curse in the words that goes off when I read it?”
The girl shakes her head. “The jade’s real, but the thread holding them together is enchanted with a poison that releases when you unwrap it.”
“Clever. I’ll give you priests that, you keep getting cleverer.”
“It… It wasn’t…” She looks up at me again. “It wasn’t going to kill you.”
Smiling to myself, I nod. “Huh. He’s willing to risk bringing me back alive.” I consider the girl again. “So. What is it that your father wants so desperately?”
In spite of myself, I laugh. “A priest asking a pagan to teach him? Now I’ve seen everything.”
“He wants to learn to do what you do. To pull artifacts from between worlds.”
I clutch my net protectively. “No.”
She starts. “Why not? I thought your kind advocated for freedom of knowledge.”
Bristling, my hands curl into fists. “Not when it will lead to the destruction of ‘my kind.’ The artifacts are our only advantage. I will not give that away.” I send her a storm cloud glare. “‘Freely’ or otherwise.”
“That— That’s not what my father wants.”
A gust of wind sweeps past and rattles the bones. All that remain of many of my good friends, salvaged from pyres. A cracked rib there. Half a charred femur here. A bundle of blacked fingerbones. Any grief I once felt is muted at best. “Keep lying to yourself if you must.”
The girl shifts on her feet, clasping and unclasping her hands. “If you don’t come now, he’ll send inquisitors instead.”
“So, this is a threat.”
“It’s…” she wrings her fingers, “an alternative.”
“For who?” I tilt my head and gesture to the bones above me. “Both ways end the same for me.” I turn my face to the sky, breathing deeply, and swear I smell brunt flesh. “Is it our power or our difference that frightens them?”
The girl says nothing.
“Get out of my house.” She doesn’t move. “Unless you’d like to see an artifact up close.”
That sends her scampering away.
Alone again, I continue my weaving. Once the net is all shimmering, I drop the scroll into it, toss it into the sea and wait.
The most annoying thing about the paralytic serum is it doesn’t numb you, so the needle in the back of your neck stings the whole damn time. A close second is the chemical tinge that permeates the space—the smell of filtered and reused air.
Whoever stuck me in this chair didn’t quite disable all my cybernetics. The red-orange-yellow shapes of the officers through the wall appear in my infrared when I blink it on. There are two of them: one stands, one sits.
The infrared also reveals an icy blue sheen on my side of the wall. It encircles my throne. Particle shields. Assuming I could move, I’d get two steps before hitting an invisible wall.
A violet hologram bzzts on, it’s shape identical to the standing infrared figure. I blink away the double vison as the hologram, a woman in officer’s uniform, clasps her hands behind her back. “Hello. We know you as the World Hacker. Is there another name you’d like to give us?”
“Y’know, I’m good.”
“Then you admit you are the World Hacker?”
“I’m,” I give her a tight, close-lipped smile, “not gonna answer that.”
She holds up her hand and another hologram appears: a small box with three antennas. My metaphorical net. Even in the hologram, the air between the antennas is iridescent.
I hold back a wince.
“We found this on your person when you were taken into custody. What is it?”
“No ‘enhanced interrogation methods’?” I raise an eyebrow. “You guys going soft? Or am I just special?”
“What is it?”
A prickle runs up and down my back unrelated to the needle in my neck as I scan the room, all the not-quite hidden sensors analyzing my every breath. “I dunno. I found it.”
The officer glances at something outside the hologram. “Try again.”
“I made it.”
“What is it?”
I give her a narrow-eyed glare. “You know what it is, that’s the only reason I’m here and not already in a cryo-prison.” My lips peel back. “And I’m guessing you didn’t understand what you found, if you found anything at all.”
The officer eyes my net, shifting away from it.
“It scares you, doesn’t it? All the things I have you don’t understand and can’t explain. What I’ve found in the space between worlds.” Smile widening, I’m sure the room’s sensors register my heartbeat accelerating. “Does the manpower you’ve spend tracking me down feel well-spent? Or does it make you uneasy knowing now what you were up against?”
“Enough! You—” The hologram shuts off. I blink the infrared back on and watch the officer run her hands through her hair.
I smirk at all the cameras in turn while the two figures talk.
Bzzt. Stray hairs riddle her head now, so fine they flicker in and out. “You will explain how to use the device to Conservatory scientists. If you’re cooperative—”
I wrinkle my nose. “I won’t be.”
She blinks. “Excuse me?”
Louder, I repeat, “I won’t be. Cooperative, or explaining anything, least of all to Conservatory stiffs.” Even saying the name leaves a sour taste on my tongue. “You want to use my net? I’ll be doing it.”
“You— You are in no position to bargain.”
“Big words coming from the people too scared to be in the same room as me.”
The officer only pulls herself up taller and silently stares me down.
“Okay. Have fun figuring out how to use it on your own, then.” I settle into the chair. “I assume you’ll be putting me in cryostasis now?”
Lips pressed together, the officer looks outside the hologram again, presumable at the other figure. After a moment, she turns back to me, defeated.
They hover me, still immobile, through windowless hallways to a lab, park me in front of a desk and plunk my net on it. Scientists in lab coats, some with Conservatory crests, gather around, like I’m as much the object of study as my net.
“Yeah, I need my arms for this.”
The needle stings as it’s removed. While we wait for control to flood my limbs, an older scientist shakes his head at me. “It’s a miraculous device. Shame such a mind’s inside a criminal who spends her days hiding in a desert.”
I roll my shoulders, stretch my fingers, relishing the burn as muscles loosen. “I’m only a criminal because the Conservatory decided my work illegal.”
“Your work was dangerous.”
My face flushes, residue from my final walk out of the Conservatory’s campus. Not even my closest friends would look me in the eye, but they gawked with everyone else as I left. Rumors spread like replicating nanobots about why I got booted out. Anything ranging from black holes to neutron stars. “So dangerous you’re all willing to be right next to it while I do a demonstration.”
He sputters. “Well, now that know it’s safe—”
“Oh right, now you know there’s no risk, but you’re not going to clear my criminal record, are you?” I gesture at the room, the greater prison outside it. “This is where I’m gonna end up.”
No one answers. I turn my focus to my net.
My fingertips phase through the sides of the box to its augmented inner workings. I pull at the threads generated inside and the air between the antennas shimmers. The antennas twitch as they search until the shimmering air glows white.
I hold out a hand to the others. They blankly stare at me. “It’s an exchange. I need to give it something to pull something through.”
Aiming her gun at me, the officer hands me her plasma knife. I drop it into the glow. When it dims, a scroll wrapped in green beads drops to the desk. Everyone but me yelps.
The scientist snatches it first, fiddling with the knot.
Dust puffs from the beads as the knot loosens. I jump to pull my shirt over my nose, holding my breath as it disperses. The scientist’s scream is cut off as he drops to the floor. The others, all clustered together, follow.
I collapse my net’s antennas, grab it and the officer’s gun and bolt out of the room.
Smoke reaches me before shouts or footfalls. And with it, a thundercloud of magic that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I grab my spyglass, trace a rune on the lens and peer through. Instead of the river in the canyon bottom, it shows the source of the smoke: a dozen inquisitors and a priest, half on horseback and already surrounded by protective sigils.
A white light flashes from my net as I collapse the spyglass. I reel in my net, praying whatever’s inside is useful. The small knife burns along the edges and when I take an experimental swipe at the stone wall, it passes through like cutting thread.
Tying my net to my belt, I pull down the fabrics covering my walls, slash the artifacts behind them to pieces, and toss them to the river below. I cut down the bones and tie them around my belt as well, and pocket a few teleportation runes. Lastly, I rip a piece of thread from the net and wrap it around a wand. The thread crystalizes as its magic flows into the wood—
But whatever magic I can conjure will be useless against the sigils’ protections. The drum of hooves pound on the ground above. I glance up, back at my hands, the wand in one, the knife in the other. I take breath, drop the wand into my net and climb down the cliff face.
Down the hall, I lower my shirt and gasp, drinking the fabricated air. Looking over my shoulders, I pocket my net and tuck the gun in my waistband. I straighten my clothes and stroll down the hall. Maybe nobody noticed—
An alarm drowns out the rest of the thought.
Cursing, I sprint around the next corner. I try to use my infrared to avoid security, but blink it on too late. A squad of security officers spills into the hall, guns drawn and air icy blue in front of them. I open the nearest door for cover while I shoot. My shots bounce off the shields and leave craters in the walls.
The box vibrates. Something’s trying to come through. Gritting my teeth, I close the door and throw myself against it. I straighten the antennas and pull at threads until the glow becomes clear. I consider the useless gun, then drop it in. A wooden stick with a crystal handle falls into my lap.
Red-orange figures crowd outside my hiding place. Cold blue from guns aim inward. I face the door, hold the stick like a knife – something like a current buzzing against my palm – and slash at air. Nothing, except the hairs on my arms standing up—
A blast of green light bursts from the wood, leveling the wall and cutting through the particle shields. Whistling appreciatively, I pick my way over the rubble and bodies. Stick in hand, I take off down the hall again.
The inquisitors on foot reach my shelter as I drop onto a ledge partway down the canyon wall. Their torches send shadows dancing. Hand on the bones to quiet their rattles, I press myself against the cold stone, sidestepping away as quietly as I can. Pebbles fall from above me as horses approach the edge of the cliff. With a flash, a new weight drops into my net. It also steals any stealth I might have had.
Shouts are followed by pointing and drawing sigils in the air. I snatch the L-shaped piece of metal, examine it… There’s some kind of trigger. Holding my breath, I aim it at the inquisitors in my house and pull. A blue beam shoots from the end. It hits the rock beneath their feet and crumbles it, sending two down to the canyon floor. For good measure, I fire another blast into the air. Horses whinny and buck. I run along the stone ledge.
Spouts of fire chase me, close enough they singe my hair. I fire behind me. The blue light passes right through the sigil shields and another body falls, a charred hole in their chest.
The wooden teleportation runes click in my pocket, but the ledge is too narrow to lie them out. I drop the wooden coins into my net and shoot behind at random, attention on the canyon floor. If all else fails, the river will make a swifter death than the stake.
I send another green slash through a trio of security officers’ shields. Panting, I spot a sign pointing towards a vehicle bay.
Once inside, I bring the wall with the door down to buy time. The bay has some kind of lift. Good. Hopefully it takes me up to the surface. I tap on the door of a hovercar with the stick. Nothing. I try again, and then make a larger swipe through the air. Nothing. The crystal has dulled, almost the same colour as the wood. Out of energy. Rubble cracks and shifts as they try to get in. Shit.
Grabbing a piece of metal from the rubble, I pry a hover from the hovercar’s underside. I shove the disk – still trying to float away – into the net. Four wooden coins pop out. Inspecting them reveals angular shapes… They look sort of like arrows. Or a compass maybe?
I lay them to on the ground in a circle, muttering to myself. When that doesn’t work a square. Nothing.
The rubble begins to fall. I clench my jaw and tighten my grip on the makeshift crowbar. Even if I end up in a cryo-prison, I’ll be damned if they get their hands on my device. I place my net on the floor, raise my arm to strike—
There. With the light from between the antennas, I notice one of the points is more intricate than the others. The other three coins share the same pattern. I point the fancy arrows to the outside, then the center. A larger copy of the shape draws itself on the floor. I grab my net and step inside as blasts find their way into the room.
“Get me out, get me out,” I mutter. Then, “Take me home!” A column of light erupts around me, blindly bright. It fades to reveal the desert. Wide and empty and endless and brimming with fresh air.
A laugh bubbles out of me. I fall back to the warm sand, grab handfuls and letting the grains drain through my fingers. And in the distance, the angular shape of my home.
The air I breathe burns my lungs. Footsteps behind me encroach like a rising tide. A flare from above sends a beam of light straight down to the river and destroys my path along with it. I turn to face my pursuers. They flinch when I raise the metal weapon. But when I pull the trigger… Click, click. Nothing. I swallow hard.
Smirking, the inquisitors close in. I back up until my heels brush open air. My net stays dull. Holding my head high, I let the weapon fall from my hand. I close my eyes, and step back.
Wind rushes past me, muffling any other sounds except my rattling bones, and the rushing water growing closer, closer, closer—
I’m yanked upward from my waist, belt cutting into my sides. I jerk to a stop, close enough to the river I could reach down and touch it. A strange, humming disk strains upwards from inside my net, suspending me in air. Shaking, I grab onto the edges of the disk. If I tilt it, I find I can control the direction I fly. And I fly. Following the river, my toes brush the water and the wind’s so fast I can’t tell my tears apart from my watering eyes.
Those on horseback give chase from the top of the canyon. But I’m faster than them. So, so much faster. Fast enough it’s like I become the wind, hair and skirts billowing out behind me as I fly away. Far, far away from the smell of smoke.
The swamp’s humid air clings to metal of the small box. On the side is a switch. I flick it. Iridescent light ignites from the box’s top, like a spell frozen in time. It projects foreign stars onto the entwining and roots of the tree I now call mine. Hanging bones cast shadows and I take them down to better see the lights. I reach up, the stars shifting into my hand.
And somewhere, I know there’s another being looking at the same stars.
The stone is unremarkable aside from the crude drawing of a sun on it. I leave my sheet metal shelter with all its machines and half-finished gadgets inside and step into the desert sun. The drawing glows, and tendrils of light begin to drip over the sides of the stone like water. They harden into iridescent crystal roots, which grow into an intricate tree. The light paints fractal patterns on my skin.
And in some other sunny place, I know someone else is painted with the same pattern.