by Gunnar De Winter

Hermit, reversed

Sometimes only the trees hear Yaza speak.

Even if those trees are saplings in the Arka's ship garden. Yaza likes to put her small hands on the soft olive bark that still needs to harden into brown ridges, hard as a statue that defies time. The bright green runes on Yaza's skin pulse with life as she spins tales for her silent listeners.

Yaza is not confident enough to speak to the older trees yet.

When the eager plants are done listening, Yaza runs around the park with her arms wide. This is the only time she feels free, like she's flying. Yes, she's on a ship zipping through space, but it doesn't count unless the wind plays with her hair, which only happens when she runs fast.

The entire upper deck of the ship has transparent walls supported by carbon-crystal beams. The giant oblong vessel is Leviathan who swam out of the sea and into the stars.

Tired of running, Yaza falls into the grass, snickering with gleeful exhaustion.

Throughout the upper deck, soft lighting strips on the floor illuminate the area without drowning out the infinity of stars outside. Yaza watches a dwarf planet cloaked in purple swirls float by. It is a busy system, full of dwarf planets, moons, and the twin gas giants surveying their smaller cousins.

Whispers of her birthmates shatter Yaza's peace into a thousand painful shards. Behind the group of youngsters in white ship overalls, protector Zaya strides toward her target.

"Yaza." Zaya's voice is a soft blanket that can coddle or smother. She squats next to the young girl whose joy has been locked inside now, back in its fortress. Zaya smiles. Coddle it is. "What are you doing here? Weren't you supposed to be in class?"

Yaza mumbles something meaningless.

Zaya sits down next to her sulking charge and folds her legs. She spies Yaza throwing glances at her birthmates, glances filled with both anger and longing. "What is wrong, Yaza?"

The girl throws her arms in the air and then claws at her skin. "I don't want to be like this! Nobody likes me and they think I'm ugly!" Tears of anger carve rivulets in her grimace.

Zaya grabs Yaza's wrists. "Oh, Yaza, no no no nugget. You are beautiful. Look at me. Look at me, Yaza." The tantrum is put on hold, ready to burst into action again, if required. Zaya shakes her head. "Oh Yaza, you are magic."

Few adults can match the profundity in Yaza's scowl. "I'm not magic. I can't even use spells."

"Yaza. Nugget. You are a spell."


The hanged woman, upright

The rune on the inside of Yaza's wrist fades until only itchy skin remains. For Yaza, it would be more epic if it would hurt. Somehow, that would make a better story. Magic is supposed to be painful.

Zaya always joins her in an exchange, but the protector does not wear her flowing platinum robes when she leaves the Arka. Instead, she dons a stern pantsuit that blends in with the fashion of whatever moon they visit.

The man with the heavy gray mustache withdraws the fine silver needle he used to trace the rune and unwrite a piece of Yaza. His golden watchmaker's loupe clicks and whirs as the magnifying lenses retreat to their resting orbit.

There are a lot of new sounds. The clicks and whirs of the many machines, the creak and groan of the chamber’s wooden planks, the screeching of unknown birds with iridescent scales and rainbow feathers.

Everything is metal and wood on this moon. Embor. Yaza tastes the word. It feels suitable for no other reason than its sound. Embor is a world of treehouses and brass golems, a world where time and progress have been stirred and recombined.

Yaza and Zaya don't stick around.

Other moons await Yaza's particular flavor of magic.

"Tell me again," she demands when they climb the rope ladder to the – of course – wooden landing pad for the shuttle that will take them back to Arka.

Zaya grunts. "Tell you what?"

"What I am. What we do." Every iteration of the story brought her closer to understanding the magic. Syllable by syllable, Yaza was determined to unwind the tale.

"There are few ships that can sail the sea of stars and the Arka is the greatest of them." This part Yaza accepted. She had seen the moons and knew that the Arka was richer than any of them.

"This means that the moon's inhabitants lose their magic. To help them, to make sure they survive and turn their world into a beautiful green oasis, we need to give them some new magic from time to time." Yaza didn't understand why it had to be her, though. Why not simply teach the mooners the magic? She had asked. "Later", had been the reply. Every time.

During the brief shuttle trip, Yaza traces the vanished rune on her forearm. She is being erased, one word at a time.

They undock in the shuttle bubbles that give direct access to the garden. It's the best way to immediately impress guests.

Zaya, no longer an old woman, but again a protector now, puts a hand on Yaza's slim shoulder. "You should get some rest, nugget."

Yaza has a choice: trees or tarot.

The cards were a gift from Zaya. "A remnant from one of your mother lineages," she had said.

Yaza likes the drawings. And the word. Tarrrot. She rolls the r on her tongue. The r that dances throughout the word until it bounces against the boundaries of the two strong t's. Contained, much like a spell locked in flesh.


Justice, upright

The babies look happy as they float in their milky nutrient baths. The wombs are zits on the wall of the birth chamber. Only birth mothers are allowed here. And the protector. And now, Yaza too.

She touches – carefully, so carefully – the glass that shields the younglings from life. Her right arm is rune-free. The hard transparent skin of the wombs is pleasantly warm, warmer than the skin of the trees, but gifted with the same flowing power of life.

Even before Zaya begins speaking, Yaza knows this is the day the magic dies.

Zaya walks around the circular room, checking the bright green numbers on the tiny screens that hang next to each womb. "This is the only real magic, nugget. From nothing to life. From cells to sentience. Don't believe anyone who says they've got it figured out."

The old protector finishes her round and turns to her protégé. Her hard features melt and a hint of ineffable sadness, deep as the sea their leviathan traverses, lingers in her glacier blue eyes. "But we know the language in which this spell is written."

Yaza's fingers travel across the unwritten runes that no longer tattoo her. She is one-third unmade. Once, she cursed what made her different. Now, she fears the day that it will be gone.

"On the Arka," Zaya continues, "we have the full alphabet at our disposal. On the moons, they have not. Their genetic alphabet degrades over time. Chronic radiation, founder effects… The reasons are multifarious and contextual. So we help. We make our own little spell." Bright eyes shatter Yaza. "You."

Yaza's fingers have reached the runes on her skin that still glow green. "Genes," she mutters.

"Yes," Zaya confirms. "A library. A living library. You see, in stasis, even genes can turn into zombies. They need life to remain vibrant. Once every generation, we encapsulate them in an inert viral vector and engraft them in the skin of a special embryo. Each graft is a code that tells us which variants it contains. A rune full of magic. A rune for each moon."

Yaza swallows. She is a receptacle, a living biobank containing a combination of genetic deviations not needed on the Arka, but essential to ensure the diversity of the human population spread thin across the system's moons. Her entire existence is a revitalization tool for genetic material.

The dark, leathery fingers of Zaya trace long-forgotten runes on her weathered skin, mirror images of the ones on Yaza's arms. The protector sighs. "At first, the Arka tried to give them a stasis pod with all the genetic material they might need. But when short-term survival is the priority, long-term vision becomes cloudy. Add to that the limited availability of resources, and it simply didn't work. So we do our route and bring our magic. Until they can stand on their own feet. We are the last protectors of humanity in the system, Yaza." There is much more hidden in that sentence than Yaza caresfor.

The young woman stares at the embryos. Not clones, but constructs. Not predestined, but predisposed. After all, there's no need to make an engineer, when you can make people who want to be engineers. But not her. She is custom-made. She is destined to be magic, whether she likes it or not.

Yaza's mind roils. The magic, shattered. Her fate, already set. Her facial muscles tremble. Tears of anger mix with those of lost childhood dreams.

She storms out of the room.

"Nugget, wait, there's…"

Yaza doesn't care what Zaya has to say. The protector's words have lost their luster. Their magic. She is merelyan old woman.

After the wordless rage has subsided, Yaza shuffles her pack of tarot cards. "Tarrrot," she murmurs. She draws six cards. Reshuffles. Draws six again.

Within the cards, a slight glimmer of magic, a destiny redrawn. If the story they tell does not suit Yaza, she can rewrite it.




The hierophant, reversed

Yaza pulls the hooded brown cloak tighter around herself. Her forearms and face are rune-free already, pages erased. Her skin is a different hue than the golden honey of the moon's inhabitants, but without visible runes she can blend in. She can still feel the shapes on her skin, a cellular memory that refuses to fade. Each memory a moon.

The icy gale on Kheimon carries a thousand little needles that dance across the slits of still exposed skin. She ducks into the yurt. By now, Zaya will have noticed the empty shuttle berth.

The yurt is large and most of Kheimon's population sits inside, warming the place with their breath and their bodies. A few children are crying.  The coat of the yurt is black to absorb the little heat that falls on Kheimon. The carbon struts of the structure are laced with bioluminescent fungus. The swirls of emerald light create the impression of an underwater kingdom.

The people resolve into a pattern. Buyers and sellers, comers and goers, crates filled and emptied. The yurt is a marketplace, cave entrance, and storage room in one.

Yaza fingers the pack of tarot cards in one of her pockets.

She recalls the holos of the local contacts that Zaya had her memorize. She knows who to talk to.

The gruff man sits huddled in a mountain of gray-and-brown mottled cloaks. He raises a bushy eyebrow. "Alone?" He rumbles.

Yaza nods.

The man unfolds. He's a lot taller than he looked at first. He cracks his neck. "Follow me."

Yaza has to walk quickly to keep up with the strides of the mountain giant. They descend into the caves of the ice moon. Both the air and the light are unexpectedly warm. Slimy blobs on the ceiling glow a soft orange, much like the sunstrips on the Arka.

Reza. His name is Reza, Yaza remembers from the holos.

He leads her to a chamber full of tools and scrolls. Against the back wall stands a small cot that begs Reza not to sit on it. It is the room of a thinker and a tinkerer. All the tools are made out of bone so finely carved that it rivals the Arka's medical implements.

Reza gestures at Yaza to sit down. He turns to a desk that is invisible beneath a highland of yellowed scrolls. "We find carcasses in the snow," he says. "Large animals. We use their strong bones for many purposes."

He shuffles to Yaza, holding a fine bone needle like a pen.

Yaza's eyes flit to the scrolls and she sees family trees with twisting and curling branches.

In his other hand, Reza clutches a small vial filled with a colorless liquid. Unassuming as it appears, it is the most advanced technology on Kheimon. A cage for magic.

Reza points the needle at Yaza. "Would you mind?"

Yaza's hand travels to a piece of skin on her left ribcage. A burning rune. "I don't… I don't want to go back. I can help in other ways too." She has learned about the human body, she knows the paths of the ichor that gives humans life.

Reza's eyes are the hard gray of an ice storm.

That night, Yaza tiptoes to Reza's desk and she pilfers a bone scalpel. After returning to the small visitor's chamber adjoining the mountain giant's lair, she pushes the knife into the skin of her inner thigh. She will make her own runes.

She stops after finishing her personal rune and staunches the bleeding.

In the dim light, she studies the destiny in her tarot cards.


The devil, reversed

Glowing jade runes fall from the sky. Yaza tries to run, but the gritty ground rolls beneath her feet so that she has to run to stay in place. The runes stick to her, burn into her. Through skin, they etch themselves into bone. When she tries to scream, sneaky green tendrils crawl inside her. She erupts into light.

And screams.

And wakes up.

And screams.

She clasps her hands in front of her mouth. It's been two days and nights since she left the Arka. The dream has been with her for both nights. By now, Reza knows and he no longer bursts into her room with a bone axe and wild eyes.

Yaza helps him with the sick and wounded. The mountain giant is a shaman, a healer. Like her in a way. But different.

She opens the small hatch at the back of the room and sticks her hands in the dark hole. Ice cold glacier water runs across her hands. There's no better – or faster – way to wake up. The water runs through the walls of the caves in a complex network of channels, all the way down to Kheimon's subsurface ocean.

Something isn't right.

She turns but is too slow to avoid the fist. Yaza slams against the floor. The next moment is erased from existence. When she blinks back into awareness, greedy hands travel all over her body. She tries to scream. A strong hand clamps her mouth shut. The man – long thick hair, shaggy beard – holds her down easily. He rips her clothes. He is not much older than her, but molded and shaped by an unforgiving world. Deep lines and traces of frostbite pattern his skin. Burdened cables of muscle ripple underneath.

Yaza is crying, a slimy combination of tears and snot, but she can't tell whether it's from fear, anger, helplessness, or all three.

He tears her clothes and traces the runes on her legs and stomach. He hesitates at the healing cuts on her inner thigh.

The earlier determination of the man fades. Yaza sees her chance and starts thrashing. She hits him in the knee. He goes down and his weight falls on her.

Suddenly, Reza lifts him off her and throws him out of the room with a single hand.

The tempest in the shaman's eyes travels over her, stopping for a heartbeat when they see the self-inflicted cuts. He unclips his coat and drapes it over Yaza, who is sitting up, hugging her knees. "Are you okay?" His voice is the gale of the moon. This man was made for Kheimon. Made. The thought makes Yaza uncomfortable.

She nods.

Reza sighs. "You are more valuable than you realize, Yaza." It's the first time he has said her name.  He steps out of the room, and Yaza hears a few clipped words. Reza enters again. "There will be no more trouble."

A few hours later, Yaza finds Reza in the infirmary. He crouches next to a cot with a boy trapped in that weird age between childhood and adolescence. The boy's breath is raspy. His left incisor is crooked. A developmental error. A rune wrongly written.

Yaza can tell the flow of life in him is wrong.

"Congenital heart condition," Reza whispers, almost subsonic. Another misspelled rune.

"You're not from here," the boy grins. Then, he whispers, one conspirator to another. "You're from up there, aren't you? One of the arks?" His eyes – green with brown flecks – twinkle. "What's it like? It must be Eden."

Eden exists only through contrast, Yaza wants to say, it doesn't have an independent existence. Instead, she takes his hand in hers and says: "It's more like a library. A vast library that needs to be maintained."

A library, she continues in thought, that contains the story of what humanity could be. But that story needs time to unfurl, frustrating though that may be. The thought surprises her. For the first time, she understands the workings of the Arka. Her birthmates assigned to their duties, the careful calibration of resources, and the protection of the cyclical mechanisms of self-sufficiency. They are as dependent as the moons. Contrast. They too fight for survival, for the long-term future of humanity in the system.

The young man keeps smiling, but Yaza sees the disappointment in his eyes.

She smiles ruefully. "No Eden, sorry. But we can build one together, the moons and the ships."

"Sounds great. How?"

"With time."


The star, upright

Zaya looks so brittle. Parchment skin wrapped around glass bones.

She is aging so rapidly. Fifty years passed in the few days that Yaza spent on Kheimon.

"It's my destiny, nugget," Zaya says. "My job is done."

The cold of Kheimon has cleared Yaza's mind. Past hints stand out in her memories with startling clarity. The runes on Zaya when she took a young girl who talked to trees under her wings, Zaya's nervous tick of tracing invisible runes on her own skin. "You're like me."

"Once upon a time…" Zaya's cloudy eyes watch past scenes unfurl. She snaps back to the present. "And now, you are like me." A sad smile. "You will have to protect the next spell. Preserve the magic."

Could she? Would she?

Bringing down the Arka and dismantling the ship might – barely – be enough to tip one moon from harshself-sufficiency into something resembling thriving. But there were many more moons than there were ark ships in the system.

The true magician has always been time.

Yaza shuffles her tarot deck. A card for a moon. And she holds the pack. Who was she to defy destiny? And if her destiny is helping people, helping humanity, why fight it? She draws six cards. Her story. And Zaya's story. And the story of the baby that is about to be born.

Hermit, reversed. An odd baby, different. Painted with powerful runes. Outcast by design.

The hanged woman, upright. A child, a boy this time, who will learn about his gift that transcends generations, about the pain of seeing pain and knowing that it will take a long time to heal.

Justice upright. The teenager who rebels, who rages against the injustice of an uncaring universe.

The hierophant, reversed. The burgeoning man who will have to face many moons and will begin to understand.

The devil, reversed. The return home. The man who accepts, who will embrace his protector and his task, who will bow to the will of the future.

The star, upright. The moons, scrambling, working, growing. Humanity, far away in the future. Shining bright among the stars. At last.

A beep pierces the sedate atmosphere in the birthroom. A boy is born. Zaya moves slowly, cleaning the slime off the baby. She squints, moving hurts.

"Welcome, Gaya," she whispers to the boy before handing him to Yaza.

"Hello, nugget," Yaza says. "I will protect you, always."

© 2023 Gunnar De Winter

About the Author

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher who uses fiction to explore ideas. His stories have appeared in, among others, The Deadlands, Future SF Digest, and Daily Science Fiction. He tweets as @evolveon.

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