“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present." --Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
She should never have allowed Mark to talk her into this.
It would’ve been relatively easy to do, if she tried. Mark was... intelligent in an unusual way, brave in another unusual way, and a little on the dense side when it came to matters of the heart in a way that wasn’t unusual at all, and it would’ve been so very easy for Sam to convince him that somebody else, anybody else, would be far better suited to this job than her. He would’ve believed her reasoning, however flawed, because he didn’t like the idea of Sam being out here anymore than Sam herself did, and he wanted it to be somebody else.
Sam tightened the cloak around her shoulders, cursing her own thoughts. This war had made a coward out of her, but not so much of a coward that she refused to fight her own little corner of it with her own two hands. Better to die a coward trying to do something worthwhile, than to live as a manipulative coward in the dark, giving up everything she’d ever believed had value to survive. Sam refused to turn into one of those people, who used what they were to get what they wanted.
Of course, it was probably going to be dark anyway, whichever way it ended. Even if Lord Fear’s bones should fall apart on public display tomorrow, nobody deluded themselves into thinking they’d see sunlight anymore.
There were a great many things she shouldn’t allow any of them to talk her into. Perhaps she was just as confused as Mark, when you got down to it.
Sam approached from the western entrance, where the firefly lighted hummed sickly green, beckoning people to the gates, and there were enough humans milling about for her to be reasonably well hidden. A cloak hid the side of her face which wasn’t scarred and broken, and her wrist guns were wrapped in swathes of bandage. The bandages hid the signal flair too, pulsing pale purple against the skin of her right wrist. With any fortune they’d think her to be another infected and ignore her. The carnival was packed tonight. Which was unusual, considering that there wasn’t much else going on around it. No upcoming stage shows, no performances, no announcements or executions... You wouldn’t expect there to be many people around here. Surely that was the entire point of this? The crowds made her nervous...
Some of those crowds towered over her head; spindly limbs and too high faces with bulging eyes, or bones that clattered like wind chimes. Others tottered around close to the ground and scurried around her ankles; gnomes with their bitter little faces and industrious movement, and absolutely no resemblance to the tacky constructs from Mark’s mother’s old garden. They were building a new stall by green firelight, scrambling like insects over the steadily growing wooden frame, while an oversized rock creature watched them work and occasionally prodded them to work harder or faster, or simply, it seemed, for the sheer amusement value of poking small, hurried creatures with a sharp object. They were probably its children, crafted with its own two lumpy hands, to be something better than their creator. But still merely drones, nonetheless.
Sam walked past them while pretending not to look, because that was how Sparx had warned her to behave. ‘Don’t look ‘em in the eyes, sweetheart. They’ll think you want something an’ they’ll try to give it to you. Nothing Zoar-damned worse than a gnome who wants to give you something.’
Even the other humans never seemed to be on Sam’s eyelevel. They were mostly adults, twenty years older than her, folks who could remember the world a lot better than Sam could. If had only ended three years ago, but the sixteen year old Sam wasn’t convinced she’d remember what her childhood playgrounds looked like, or where she’d gone to school. The Shifts messed with everyone’s minds, eventually.
The new world still had fairy tales though, Sam recalled the stories she had seen Kat reading to the infants in Hiding House. Red Riding hood was a wolf now, and the less said about the seven dwarves the better. Sam sometimes wished she understood how all the changes worked.
No distractions now. She was here for a job.
She weaved her way between the crowds and for the most part, her disguise worked. People shifted out of her path and made room for her on the tarmac streets. In the strangest of ways, this place still bore some resemblance to the world Sam had known before. People herded to the stalls and gathered at booths and even laughed nervously, at the games the Carnival folk put on for their entertainment. Dogs being thrown some scraps to keep them from biting people’s hands off, Sam thought a little bitterly, remembering Random’s explanations of how the carnival worked. Distract people from the doom that befalls them, and they’ll be laughing all the way to the apocalypse.
But all this meant to Sam that perhaps, in a way, the carnival was still frightened of human beings. A strange thing, but in a way, a hopeful thing.
A smiling, oversized zombie (Sam would never get used to thinking of them as zombies, but nor could there be any other name for rotting, ugly creatures falling apart in their own detritus) tried to hand Sam a glowing green ball as she passed, and gestured to a dunking tank where another zombie sat. Sam was pretty sure there were creatures moving in the thick green substance underneath the tank. She declined with the politest half smile her half face could manage, and tried very hard not to throw up.
The signal burned on her wrist, drawing her closer. She knew the way, but there were so many people... Sam hated the carnival. Or she would, were it not for the fact that it was one of the few places you could still find people, human people. How strange it was that they crowded here, where their over-throwers had set up home and then welcomed them inside. Sam barely understood how that mentality worked. ‘We grant you life, but you live on our terms, and our terms will become yours soon enough’. And so people did, they bent and they submitted to the creatures from another world. This new world had grown from the ashes of the one before it. The Carnival grew from the old, junk-heap of a fairground that had existed here in the old days, and the depth woods had grown from Percival Park, and Sam didn’t like to think about what was in the waters of the lake these days. She never drank anything which didn’t come from the Vaults. Sam sometimes wondered, in a fit of whimsy, what had happened to the oceans, and the distant cities, and Yellowstone...
The rat emerged from the shadows of a nearby thrift stall when she dared to pause there for longer than a few seconds. ‘Hey heey well then, that’s just what we need, no lepers touchin’ the good stuff, sweetie, not unless you’re –planning on buying.’
Sam snapped her hand away from the stall and looked up. The creature floated in the air before her, wings beating with no obvious pattern, ugly twisted face curled into a snarl. A flying rat. Just typical.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t...’ Sam cut herself off before the apology could form, pretending instead to be fascinated in the wears of the stall next door, who’s owner, a fat dragon, lay slumped against a barrel snoring.
The rat continued watching her with sharp, piggy eyes.
‘You wonder about em’, don’tcha girlie?’ the Rat chuckled. ‘All your peoples, comin’ here. S’cause they know we know what’s best for ‘em, y’see. We carnival folks, we knows the ways forward. You just stick with us, gorgeous.’ He cackled.
Sam took a step backwards. You had to watch out for the ones who cackled. They were always somewhere approaching the next level of crazy. There were some humans who had started cackling, now.
Things are the way they are because of chance, coincidence and bad luck. Sam told herself, fists curled tight inside her robes. Because of foolish, stupid men and their desires to have more power than they justifiably should have. You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the stupidity of humans. She thought all this, and bit her tongue.
‘Now this here, see. This here, might not be the solution to your problems but I hear it’s goin’ for big bucks way up in the Citadel,’ the rat went on, one gritted hand still clutching Sam’s shoulder. If he were a human salesman he’d have his hand around her back. ‘since you’s a... damaged sort, though, and I takes pity on those who has to work with their limbs is falling off –s’cept zombies,’ he added in a stage whisper, those lazy, slack jawed freaked wouldn’t know work if it bit ‘em on their asses, if ya know what I mean, - I can let ya try it out for free. Minus a small donation.’
Sam squinted at the bottle, trying to read the tattered remnants of a label. 45% proof. ‘That’s moonshine,’ she said.
‘Oh, is that what they’s callin’ it? Imagine. Ain’t that the prettiest name?’
‘What is it nowe, rat? Are you once more trying to poison my patrons brains?’ A voice said from behind them. Sam tried not to let her heart thud as she turned, or show the terror she had wrapped beneath her cloak and bandages, but her hands trembled.
The creature, woman, stared at Sam for one eternally long moment, as if deciding what she thought of her. ‘Mrs Kutcher?’ she asked.
‘I... yes.’ Sam barely remembered the fake appellation in time not to drop herself into trouble. ‘That’s me.’
The woman raised an eyebrow and Sam thought, perhaps she had not been as convincing as she hoped. ‘I believe we have an appointment.’
The rat’s ugly face grimaced, though Sam supposed it was meant to be a gawk. It was a little hard to shape expressions with a face like that. Many of those from the Otherworld had such problems, as if they weren’t designed to function in the world of humanity. Which essentially, they weren’t. Then he snorted with laughter. ‘Heeey look at you, Miss Hoity Toity. Trading favours for scraps with the little flakey humans now, are we? The mighty ain’t just fallen... looks like they’s crashed as well.’
‘Oh, cease your incessant gibbering, rodent,’ the woman rolled her eyes. Sam examined her as best she could in the dim light. She seemed, in a way, human, except for all the ways in which she was most decidedly not. She was tall and much too thin in her green Victorian gown with jewels that had gone dull and faded with age, too lean to be human. Like the broken down dolls the children played with in Hiding House. Her headpiece twitched and moved like the living limbs of a spider attached to her skull, tattered strands of dark, short hair beneath. Her skin seemed pale and white in the green light. Her eyes were dark and ugly and... Superior, looking down on the world as if it were an insect to be crushed beneath the heel of her boot.
Still, she matched Random’s description, albeit vaguely. And the mark on Samantha’s wrist was tingling furiously in her presence. ‘Better to trade with human scum than with the likes of you. That.... concoction would likely burn her eyes out.’
‘S’no accountin’ for taste,’ the rat said, giving Sam a look. ‘Just make sure you don’t catch somethin’ off of her, is all I say.’
‘I’m sure the child is more careful than that.’
‘Who said I was talkin’ about the mortal?’ the rat burst into cackling peals of laughter and the lady snorted, grabbing Sam more tightly by the arm and herding her into the hut.
‘Big news, huge happenings. The woman shook her head dismally. The ground is shaking, leper child. I hope you know what you do by coming here, for the fates are not always kind to one’s wishes.’
Sam recognized this sentence once she was inside the tent – a pitch. The woman was treating her as a customer and... well, that was good enough cover, wasn’t it? A logical and natural idea, the leper who came to the fair for a cure for her affliction. Whoever said subterfuge was glamorous?
It was dark inside when the woman closed the curtains, but warm with the light of a fire that, unlike most carnival lights, burned orange, like a human flame. Sam couldn’t help but move towards it, almost missing the huge frame of legs and fur, the size of a football, scurrying close to the door. It shrieked at the same time Sam did, spitting and scurrying away from her to hide beneath a table covered in a tattered green cloth. There was a crystal ball on the table, smoking from the inside, and a scattered away of filigree patterned cards. Sam’s heart pounded, more at the sudden movement than anything else.
‘Aachen, shush,’ the woman scowled. ‘Animals she said, and Sam got the feeling she was actually thinking: ‘humans’. ‘Don’t be bothered by him. I’d say his scurry is worse than his bite, though that would be an untruth. neither are particularly pleasant.’ She rolled her eyes, and Sam had the distinct impression that she was thinking. Be still and he will not bite. That’s not a death I would wish on you. To business, then?’ She lifted the sleeve of her fine gown without hesitation, displaying the purple symbol carved into her skin, as if with a sharp blade. It was with some relief that Sam discarded her bandages to reveal her own purple tattoo, a precise other half to the one on the Lady’s skin. No chance of anybody being mistaken around here. Everyone knew what they were. Sam wondered what the odds were of her being eaten right now, if she’d gone to the wrong tent. Spider women, the old books that came from the otherworld had said. Daughters of Arachne. Never accept their gifts.
And the carnival fortune teller, too. The crystal ball sat, murky and dulled on the nearby table. The chimes above it made no sound when they clattered together in the breeze from the doorway, or the riding heat from the fire. Silencing chimes; better for privacy when sharing information with a... client. Sam had been taught about these things.
‘So the revolution is sending children now,’ the woman said. ‘Did they run out of psychopathic cyborgs, or did you volunteer?
‘The latter,’ Sam mumbled, rubbing her hand across the tattoo Mark had carved on her wrist with shaking hands, as if it were something precious. ‘I... you are Miss Elspeth, aren’t you? You were... friends once, with one of our own.’
The woman sniffed lightly. ‘A strong word for it, but there’s some truth. Enough that he wouldn’t risk sending a child to me. Never let him hear me say so of course, but thank the gods for the Rat, he stopped you walking,’ the woman said, softly. ‘A few steps to the left and you would’ve probably been enjoying the delights of the funhouse by now.’
Sam winced. ‘I don’t think that’d be as fun as it sounds, would it?’
‘Not even close,’ the woman smiled slightly, the slightest quirk of her lips, sitting down again at the tattered little table and gazing into the misted over crystal ball. ‘Would you care for a seat, Mrs Kutcher. Though I presume that is not your true name.’
She sank into a battered couch before the fire, gesturing for Sam to join her. Sam perched on the edge like a nervous bird and tried not to look as if she were prying. The tent was plain and dismal, with very few furnishings; elegant once over, everything now was faded and crumbling at the corners, but the heavy red curtains shut out the noise of the carnival outside as effectively as a steel plated door. Sam glimpsed at the small table with its crystal ball. Small talk never got anybody killed, she thought, although it probably had somewhere, if it was the wrong kind of small talk. These days so many communicated with code. Sam knew a girl who once got her hand chopped off for saying no, she’d prefer not to buy the pink sapphires from an irrefutable dealer, and no she didn’t care for summer.
‘My friend Heather, she... she knows about this stuff. She learned it, after... After the world ended. She said she wanted to know how it worked.’
‘So she found out,’ the woman smirked, eyes following a scattering movement across the tent floor. ‘Don’t even think about it,’ she said, sharp and cold. The large spider scurried back under the table at the demand. Sam hadn’t even heard it emerge, and shuddered.
Sam swallowed, and tried not to think about how everything she was doing right now went against the very grain. Random trusts her, she told herself. Of course, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be much of a reassurance. Just who |random trusted, and when, depended on what mood he was in. Sam had never met an otherworlder with quite such an appropriate name.
‘So you friend, she reads fortunes.’ The lady sounded surprised by a human doing so.
‘Not usually. She... she says it’s mostly sleight of hand and telling people what they want to hear. Or don’t. Sam went on, timidly. There’s no magic in it. No more than there is in anything old conjurers used to be.’
‘But the magic out there, you deny the reality of it?’
‘I don’t know...’ Sam mumbled, staring at the smoke in the crystal ball. ‘If there’s real magic out there, fair enough, but... there’s none in here.’
‘Really?’ The woman’s voice was different. Sam looked up, eyes wide and shocked, and the face staring back at her now was a human face. Familiar and warm when she smiled. Dark hair, curled into just the right pattern to suggest a spider. Sam took a srtep backwards on impulse. ‘What...’
‘Elspeth,’ the woman said, the voice all wrong for the face she now wore, so disturbingly human that you couldn’t tell the difference. ‘Lady Of Illusions, Samantha Thompson, of the Mortal progeny. The Samantha, I trust. He would send no one but himself otherwise.
‘You know who...’
‘You believe I would have suggested such an alliance had I not already known about you?’ The Lady of Illusions smirked with her too human mouth. ‘The children who began the end... are the ones who will come together and finish it.’
‘I don’t believe in prophecy.’
‘Who said anything about it being prophecy? Pure logic, that is all. This is how the stories go, and mine is the domain of such things; stories and their endings.’ She gestured to the crystal ball on the table, the mists still swirling. Somewhere outside, an explosion flared up and the chattering sound of gnomes wailing could be heard. The surface of the crystal sparked dull orange in response.
‘I’ve never met a... denizen, who wanted to help us before.’ Sam admitted. If this woman already knew everything it would hurt nothing to be honest. ‘I was... surprised when they sent me here.’
‘Naturally,’ the woman sighed, sounding bored already of this entire affair. You humans prefer not to think beyond the boxes of conquerors and caretakers, as if we couldn’t be anything else. Even you in the revolution are bound by the same frail stupidities.’
‘It’s not like that,’ Sam insisted. There was a time when she would’ve believed it, when issues such as colour or creed were nothing more than arbitrary divides to her. She remembered that old grandmother who had sniffed at her in the corner shop, as if the colour of her skin were something to be ashamed of. Sam knew better than to judge by such feeble ideas.
‘But these were creatures built on the human constructed ideas of greed and hatred and fear. They were not created to be... good. ‘Only... well. You did take over the planet.’
‘And were you responsible for the monstrosities of your forefathers, little girl? The conflict of the Boer Wars? The Fight for Independence? The Cold War... all wars with various intentions, various degrees of justification, all potentially good and all potentially bad... and all bloody.’ The woman dismissed the comment before Sam could answer. ‘Anyhow, I do not offer my services as freely as you might think,’ her body shifted and changed before Sam’s eyes, pale skin melting into green, hair twitching and coming Alive. Sam did her best not to shudder. ‘I offer my services in exchange for your knowledge, Miss Thompson. You will teach me of your history.’
Sam frowned. That was what Elspeth wanted? Of all the many things she could have demanded (and there were a great many things, however few of them could have acually been provided; you'd be surprised how many folks traded for things like chocolate, these days)... she wanted history lessons?
‘Oh yes. I wish to know of such things. Human history.’ She patted the cover of the book on the shelf, lifting it and placing it into Samantha’s hands. ‘It always helps,’ she said, ‘to know the face and life of your enemies. Perhaps now, it shall have other uses to me?'