by Ellie An
A woman charms winds with her singing. She uses her last treasure to buy an incubator.
Alba rushed into the room, slammed the door, and turned to the Seller.
“Were you followed?” the Seller asked.
“I don’t know,” her voice was trembling. “Is it ready?”
“Yes,” the Seller started poking about under the table.
Alba made a few steps towards him, bypassing the piles of old stuff. Smells of an unwashed human body, stale air, and junk filled her nostrils. Alba pulled the black hood off. Her pure white skin, so untypical for the dwellers of Dharma, reflected the dim light.
Alba threw a wary glance at the door. She did not dare to call a wind to get to the Seller’s warehouse. It was day outside, and the electric lights were too bright to glade at the ceiling. The city wardens would notice her. She wondered if they had ever lost her. Since her mother’s death, Alba had always been in hiding. If only she knew why the city leaders hated her family too much...
The Seller stood up. A large can filled with shimmering fluid was in his hands. Alba’s lavender eyes sparkled with eager anticipation. She licked her lips and reached out towards the jar.
“Hold on,” the Seller said. “My payment, first.”
Alba nodded and took the fist-size gemstone out of her pocket. The Seller’s narrow red eyes flickered.
“It’s all I have,” Alba whispered.
She extended her arm to give him the gem, but suddenly her fingers fretted. Her body shivered, as if in fever. The revolting tremor went to her body, under her skin, inside her brain. The gray haze covered the dim light, and Alba fell to the floor. Before losing her consciousness, she watched the gemstone rolling to the Seller.
When Alba came to her senses, she was sitting on the chair at the Seller’s desk. She felt weak and, in front of the Seller’s enormous body, tiny and fragile. His eyes were looking at her under the bushy eyebrows with… pity?
“How long?” he asked.
“How long ago did a bat-bee sting you?”
“Ah… About a month. Why?”
The Seller shook his head.
“You need a remedy,” he said. “Now. Lucky you: I have one”.
“Oh. No, I’m fine”, Alba smiled.
“You are not, my lady. Tomorrow you will be dead.”
Alba’s smile went off.
“I thought I had at least a week,” she said in a low voice, as to herself.
“The remedy,” the Seller reminded her. “For your gemstone, I’ll give you one, my lady. It would not heal you completely, but… ”
“And the incubator?”
The Seller grinned.
“Sorry, my lady, I have to do my business. Either the remedy or this,” his massive hand lay on the glass can.
Alba sat silent.
“The remedy,” her voice was barely heard.
“That’s my girl,” the Seller grumbled. He put the incubator back under the table and approached an immense locker. Alba followed his movements with shimmering eyes.
“Here,” he handed her a long syringe filled with nasty brown coal.
“What’s that?” Alba demanded.
“Why, the antidote, of course.”
Alba gazed at the syringe.
“You know who I am, right?” she asked.
The Seller swallowed, then nodded. His giant hands trembled.
“How much did they pay you?” Alba hissed.
The Seller rushed forward, the syringe aimed at Alba, like a knife. The woman was faster. She ran to the exit, opened the door, and sang.
A violent wind rushed into the tipped-over room. He raced between the lockers, scattered the stuff and threw it to the Seller. In a moment, the warehouse became a mess, and the whirlwind was spinning the gargantuan body of the Seller.
Singing, Alba dashed to the table and snatched the incubator out. Her own wind could not stop her; he fastened her steps instead. With the last tone, pitch-high and trembling, the wind smashed the Seller to the wall. The giant body went limp, and the wind dropped. Alba ran out and slammed the door.
She leaned to the wall and looked around. The city wardens had finally turned off the main illumination, and the only light was grayish lamp lines along the walls.
She touched the cold incubator - the womb of the baby she would never see.
“No one will notice us, daughter,” Alba whispered. “We just have to get higher.”
Alba sang softly. It was a pure motive without words, the first one among the dozens which her mother taught her. The same four notes went over and over again, like a call.
The new wind was born under her feet. He caressed her sleek boots, played with the cape, and slid on the fragile body. He went through her hair and touched the face like a breath. Alba closed her eyes and allowed her body to relax, fall in his lap. She never stopped singing. The wind lifted Alba into the air, a mile high, so that the top of her head almost touched the city ceiling. The song changed: now it sounded brightly as a march. Obeying the charm, the wind carried Alba to the upper north sector.
To the city jail.
Alba murmured the last notes of the march and lay silent. She had already asked the wind to take care of the incubator, so she did have to worry about the precious can. She knew the wind would carry both her and her future daughter and would not stop until the jail’s walls. Alba stretched her body along the ceiling and watched, half dozing, the reflection of the grayish lines far down. Finally, the exhaustion overcame her.
The nightmare started, as always, with her mother’s face. Slick and red-stained, it is red with tears. Her eyes are like two magenta drops on this bloody face.
“What… Mom… What’s happened?” Alba hears herself talking.
“We have to go, my dear. Now.”
Her mother’s voice is not trembling, but it has lost its overcoming power. She grabs Alba’s tiny hand, and they run from the house – the house with pretty pink walls and a soft plush sofa, where Alba loved to sleep.
Alba reaches out to grab her favorite doll, but her mother can’t wait. Last glance on a toy – and they leave the house, never to be back again.
The scene changes. Alba is flying, leaning to her mother. Fast, fast, fast - they have never before ride such a swift wind. Alba glances at her mother’s face and loses all her joy. Why is her mom so terrified?
“Listen, daughter,” her mother whispers between the chants. “I hoped this talk would never happen until you are eighteen, so, please, do listen and remember my words.”
Something in her voice makes Alba freeze.
“I listen, Mommy” she hears her childish voice.
“One day, you’ll have to find an incubator. They are hard to get. I’ve been looking for yours for almost twenty years. The city leaders control all of them. They decide who will have children and who won’t. They won’t give you one by all means. ”
“But why?” Alba wonders.
“It does not matter. Just… remember, girl. You have to find one and drop your blood there. This is how you will get a daughter.”
“But I don’t want a daughter! I want a sister.”
Alba mother smiles.
“A daughter is as good as a sister, my dear. Like you are to me”.
Alba smiles in return, and the scene changes again.
Alba hears a long, high, hopeless wail, and realizes that the wail is her own. How is it possible? Her throat is cut with tears. Again and again, she touches her mother’s cold hand. She calls. She cries. She howls. She calls.
And he comes.
Soft hands touch her face. She lifts her head with hope but sees no one. Still, she can feel them: the hands of the wind patting her head with the tenderness which her mother will not give her anymore.
It is the first time Alba calls the wind, but all her mother’s guidance is fresh in her head. She starts singing. Her voice is trembling and weak, and tears keep running into her mouth, and she stumbles and makes mistakes – but the wind understands her. He hides her and takes to the ceiling. Mommy will be glad: with the wind, Alba is safe…
Alba woke up. Her heart still hurt with memories, and her face was wet, again. Thirty years had passed, but her pain would not lessen. Alba touched the incubator and felt a little better. It was a hope, for her and for all dharmanians, although they did not know it.
The wind was hiding near the ceiling – a small twister, unseen in the darkness. Alba huddled. The jail had not changed since the last time she had seen it, but she forgot how overwhelming it looked. It reminded Alba the day a month ago when she and her best and only friend stumbled upon a bat-bees hive. Almost faint with starvation, they killed the bat-bees, took the nest and ate all the bitter honey. Alba remembered the orderly lines of honeycombs, each her fist’s size, filled with black ductile substance.
The jail looked like that hive, but millions of times bigger. Its cells contained prisoners, not honey.
Alba squinted, studying the transparent cells. They were too far to see the prisoners’ faces, but she did not care. Her friend was somewhere there, in a cell, stuck in a nutrient solution like a bat-bee in honey.
“The Dark Knight will be a nice stepfather for you, daughter,” she murmured, patting the incubator. “We just had to save him.”
The familiar weakness came over Alba. Her skinny body shivered like a guitar string, but Alba could not allow herself to rest. She started singing. The voice did not obey, went up and down, but gradually Alba’s will prevailed. The first wind remained swinging the incubator, and the second wind rushed Alba to the jail.
Alba was singing her soul out. No fear, no doubt, no regrets. Her mother would never dare call more than two winds at a time, so what? The pure sonic fire was flowing from Alba’s pale lips. She had to win.
The second-stage prisoners thronged out of their barracks at the bottom of the giant honeycombs. Alba had not noticed them. Her friend could not be there: no one could get into the barracks after month imprisonment.
Alba continued singing. With every breath, her voice gathered power, even though it seemed impossible. She called the third wind. He crashed into the force wall around the jail, and the transparent barrier trembled. People behind the wall were shouting, but Alba did not listen. Without guns, the prisoners did not matter.
The barrier was trembling, electric flashes surrounded the place where the vigorous wind was hitting it, but it was not enough. Alba jumped down on the floor. The moment her feet touched the ground, the second wind bumped into the barrier. Alba’s voice went so high it was almost unhearable. She was willing to put more power into her song, but she could not find any. Soon, she would be empty. She had to break through the barrier, she had to! Or would it be too late?
Was it, already?
First came the smell. The fresh air, touched by the wind, was changed with the reek of a scrap-heap. Alba winced . Then she understood what the stink meant and sang even louder.
They were too close.
With a corner of her eye, Alba saw them coming: the ugly three-legged constructions, each seven-feet high, with a single ball-like red eye. Their yellowish metal bodies were covered with stains of litter which they used as a fuel. The stench almost made Alba suffocate, but she had to sing, so she overcame her nature and made herself breath normally. Following her voice, the second wind left the wall and surrounded her body like a chrysalis.
The electric shot from the nearest tripod slid across the whirlwind. And another, and another, and another… Dazzled by the flashes, Alba closed her eyes. She was safe now, but one wind was not enough to break the barrier. What should she do?
The whirlwind had dispersed the reek, and it became easier to breathe, to sing, and to think. Suddenly, it all was clear as day. Alba had only one way to go, although she hated it.
The second melody came into her song, like a delicate flute among the brass section. Tears were running from Alba’s closed eyes, but she did not notice. She sang and sang, all the while until the first wind penetrated the cocoon and handed her the precious incubator.
Alba wrapped the can in her cape and hit the barrier with first wind. Her charm changed again. Now it was more a howl than a song.
The final flash was so bright that Alba’s pupils hurt even under the eyelids. The winds broke through the wall and flew further. Alba broke her chant on the highest note and started a new one.
The thunderous wind sprinkled the crowd of prisoners. Men and women of all ages, dark-skinned and yellow-eyed, they fell on their backs, stunned with the wind’s force. Alba flew up to the city ceiling, gazing into the transparent cells. Impossible! She would never find the Knight. Too many cells, some empty, some filled with the glowing liquid like that at the incubator. Faces of the imprisoned people were invisible in the darkness. And there were hundreds of rows. The highest almost touched the ceiling.
Alba kept the incubator closer. She had to find the Knight. He was the only one who she could trust her child. He was cautious and knowledgeable, and he knew Dharma better than anyone - and the outside, too. He must have tried to cross the borders this time. She could not imagine how else they could catch him.
An electric bolt flashed near Alba’s shoulder. She glanced down. Holy gales! The disgusting tripods were all over the square, and more were rushing from the streets. Alba averted her eyes: a flash sparkled close to her face. She got higher and flew over the first row. They would not touch her there… until they figured out and called the copters.
Alba gathered her will and put it into her exhausted throat. For a moment, she felt the air stir… but then, horrific fatigue swallowed her body and mind. This disgusting tremor, again! Alba felt herself falling. For five long seconds, her will fought the poison in her blood, until the latter won. With the last flash of her drained mind, Alba put all her power in one chant. The two remaining winds merged into a tornado. The brisk twister ripped across the cells, smashing the thin plastic.
Deafened, wet, and half-comatose, Alba hit the floor. Her hands were hugging the home of her future baby tightly to her breast.
The darkness took her.
Alba licked her lips. It tasted sour. Sweet, disgusting reek filled her nostrils. It worked as some smelling salts: Alba came to her senses immediately. She heard cries, scraping of metal and dangerous tap-tap of metallic feet. All sounded as through a quilt. Alba froze in terror. She fell. What happened? The incubator?..
Alba felt the coldness of the can huddled at her belly. The terror stepped back, and the questions came forward. The main one was, why was she still alive? Alba wiped the gooey substance from her forehead and opened her eyes. And then – she saw him.
The Knight was crouching at arm’s length, wrapped in a piece of a navy blanket. The shimmering liquid covered him from head to toes. His long, graphite-skinned face looked paler than usual, and his yellow eyes had lost their perky glimmer, but the Knight was almost himself. Despite…
“What…” started Alba, and terrible coughing broke her voice. She had to continue in whispers: “What's happened with your hair?”
The Knight tousled his crew-cut black hair - all that remained from a luxuriant mane reaching his knees.
“We're going to die, and you’re asking about my hair?” he grinned.
Alba half-lifted her body and looked around. She lay in the corner, and a bed turned on its side separated her and the Knight from the rest of the room. Two light bubbles were flickering dimly, one near Alba, another at the Knight’s feet.
“What’s happened?” Alba whispered. “How did you...”
“I guess you saved me,” the Knight answered. “It was your storm, wasn’t it?”
“So, I found myself thrown at the air. I was lucky enough to be in the third row, so I fell uninjured. Some guys were less fortunate.”
Alba felt a prick of conscience, but the coldness of the incubator leaning to her belly reminded her what it all had been for.
“What’s then?” she asked.
“Well, after I remembered who I am and realized where I am, I guessed you must be nearby. So I found you and brought here. The older ones live here. They all are outside, trying to get away. Holy shit! Today’s your best day. The freaking tripods were too busy hunting the running prisoners to notice us. But I’m afraid that won’t last for long. Call the wind, and let’s get out of here.”
Alba nodded, opened her mouth and breathed out - but no sound came from her nibbled lips. She tried once more. Nothing. Alba whimpered.
“I see,” the Knight said. “You need rest. I guess we can stay here a bit longer. At least, for the last ten minutes no tripod came here”, he noticed Alba was going to say something and gestured her to keep silence. “No. Don’t talk. You have to give your throat a rest”.
“Wanna know how much of me is still me?” the Knight grinned unkindly. “Yeah, the cells are famous for making people… agreeable. How long I’ve been there?”
“Crap! It felt like a week,” the Knight’s face darkened. “You know how they took me, don’t you?” he went on, not really expecting an answer. “I was crossing the northern border. On the first floor. There is a huge hole in the city wall, behind the garbage dump. Hell, the stink! It gets stuck in your hair. But no, it wasn’t me who cut it. They did it here, before putting me into this nasty nutrient mucus.
“So, the garbage dump, yes. I don’t know why they have not fixed the hole like all others. Maybe they used it as a bait for guys like me. There are dozens of these nasty tripods there, you see. They just graze on the litter hills! I did my best, sneaking out and back a few times. But the last time… Well, I was not cautious enough.
“So they brought me here, cut my hair, put me into the mucus and plugged some wires to my head. Here”, the Knight showed barely visible spots on his forehead. “Then I lost it. I guess it was kind of a coma, but with bad dreams. So bad and so real… Again and again, I am sneaking between the piles of junk, suffocating on reek. Again and again, they catch me and mock me. Again and again, they kill me with...”, he stopped and continued slowly. “They have a good imagination.”
Alba covered his cold hand with her palm.
“It’s all over now,” she whispered. “Look!”
She pulled the incubator out underneath the cape. The Knight gasped and stared at the can in disbelief.
“Is it...” his voice was suddenly hoarse.
“I want you to care for her,” Alba said. “Raise her. Let her finish what we started. She has to break away. She has to find out what’s happened to the plants. She has to revive them. And you will help her. Please.”
“But…” the Knight was stumbling on each word. “You want me... Why?”
Alba rolled her left trouser-leg up and showed a purple swelling on her tibia. It looked twice its normal size, and a small bloody sting was apparently visible in the middle.
“That bat-bee,” the Knight was breathing heavily. “It got you! You… lier!”
“I thought I had a week left,” Alba said. “But it looks like… It will be to...tomorrow.”
“What?” The Knight cried.
An electric bolt flashed in a few steps. The Knight jumped up and turned around.
“Run!” he shouted.
“I have to do it now!” Alba said. “Until there is too much poison in my blood.”
Creepy reek filled their nostrils, and a second later they heard ominous gritting of metal feet. A tripod dashed into the room, sparkling with lightnings. The Knight ripped off the sheet from the bed and stepped towards the robot. Flash! The bolt flew to the Knight, and he dived down. He danced like a snake dodging the bolts, trying to find a moment to throw the sheet on the tripod’s ugly head. He kept the tripod so busy it had not noticed Alba. She opened the incubator’s lid, punched her finger with a short knife, drop blood inside and wrapped the incubator carefully with her cape.
Alba tried to sing but she couldn’t. She got to her feet and stepped forward.
The tripod stopped for a moment. It was enough for the Knight to throw the sheet on its single eye. Then he clutched Alba’s right hand and pulled her to the exit.
“Run, Al!” he cried.
Her body ached like hell. It seemed as though no unharmed muscle remained, all of them were stretching with a dull, tiresome pain. Alba hugged the incubator with her left hand and did her best to keep up with the Knight.
Bolts were flashing from every angle, tearing the darkness of the night apart. Seeing was impossible. Alba closed her eyes, and the iron grip of the Knight’s fingers became her only guidance in this tormented world. The Knight stopped, and she stopped. He pulled her forward, and she rushed with all her speed. He bent and crawled, and so did she. Alba opened her eyes, just for a moment between two flashes, and saw plastic debris, pools of the nutrient substance, monstrous tripods hunting the running prisoners. Consciousness panged Alba again when she noticed a few broken bodies. They must have fallen from the upper rows when her tornado smashed the honeycomb. She killed them.
Alba bit her lip and held the incubator tighter. This was all for her daughter, for the future of Dharma. She had to.
Still, it hurt.
Now and then Alba tried to chant, but her most significant success was three notes which were not enough even to wake a wind up. She moaned and pressed her full weight on the Knight: an electric bolt pierced her left tibia with a sharp twinge.
“Run, Al!” the Knight groaned. “No time for whining!”
Half-blinded and tortured with pain, Alba stepped forward. A few drops of blood sparkled in the flashes under her feet. “That must be his,” she thought.
Wounded or not, the Knight pulled her forward without mercy. Alba realized they were out of the square, sneaking on the crooked, garbaged streets. The night was counting its last minutes, and soon the yellow light of city lamps would start flowing from the ceiling. For now, though, darkness was their friend. The disgusting stink of tripods became weaker, and for the first time, Alba was able to make a deep breath. She still could not chant. The Knight squared his shoulders, his steps became even more decisive. A tiny, timid glimpse of hope lighted up Alba’s soul.
And then, the Knight froze.
Alba hit his back, but the Knight did not move. She peeped out of his back.
There were dozens of them. Their heads and bodies were wrapped in dark-red cloth, and Alba could see only their glimmering yellow eyes - and rifles in their hands. All guns were aimed at her and the Knight.
The city wardens. Those who had hunted her all her life, until the minute when she rushed into the Seller’s warehouse. Those who had finally found her. Those who would eventually kill her.
And the Knight.
And her daughter.
There was just one moment between Alba and death. No time to think, no time to breath. For a split of seconds, an image of her mother’s last moments sparkled in Alba’s flaming mind.
She knew exactly what to do.
“Name her Elpis,” Alba handed the incubator to the Knight.
She snatched a knife from her sleeve pocket and heard a soft “No” from the Knight and a deafening “Fire!” from the wardens’ captain.
Then, she slit her throat from ear to ear.
Alba fell. In contractions, blood spurted from her body.
And the storm.
A whirlwind blasted off the bloody mess of her throat. It embraced the Knight and carried him up and up. It collapsed onto the city wardens like a hungry vulture. It hit and smashed and gnawed on them, squashing their broken bodies on the black walls.
The Knight was sitting on the storm’s head. He was watching helplessly the hell far down, feeling a huge hole being born in his heart.
The incubator felt heavy and cold.
“Hey, Daddy! Look what I got!”
A laughing girl in her early teens jumped from a junk pile, and the Knight’s heart bounced. Naughty child! She would break her neck one day, and what’s then?
She ran to him, and one glance at her happy face was enough to turn his frown into a smile.
Sometimes, he thought Elpis was a wind herself: a light, cheerful breeze of hope. It did not matter that she had not shown any of her mother’s talent yet. It did not matter that Alba started chanting at four. Elpis was safer like that, and the Knight tried to make her childhood as happy as possible.
“Here,” Elpis opened her palms, and the Knight gasped.
Between thin, childish fingers, there was a shard of glass covered with shimmering blue fluid. The Knight stared at it, not believing.
“After all these years,” he murmured not realizing he was speaking aloud. “How is that possible?”
“What is possible? Daddy?”
The Knight flinched. He looked at his daughter’s pretty face, at her purple eyes, just like her mother’s, rounded by curiosity.
“Where did you find it?” he asked softly.
He followed her, that mad chase coming to life more clearly with every step.
There it was. The incubator’s shards were spread over a small pile of junk. The fluid of life the fluid which ought to have been destroyed after the baby Elpis broke her incubator was shimmering in the city lights. The Knight sat on the pile, deep in thought.
Why did the fluid stay alive?
Suddenly, he felt a soft touch to his long hair. Was it… a wind? How could a wind be born in a still place like Dharma? Without a wind chanter like Alba… It just was not possible.
The touch repeated. It was the wind. The Knight jumped on his feet and ran towards it. He heard light feet of Elpis following him, just like Alba long, long time ago.
And just like Alba, Elpis hit his back when he stopped.
There it was.
A curvy flaw crossed the wall bordering Dharma, and the soft wind was blowing from its widest part. It was not enough to even put a head inside, and that must be the reason why the wardens had not fixed the crack.
The Knight stood still until he felt a gentle touch of Elpis’ hand to his shoulder.
“Let’s go home, daughter,” he said. “We have to talk. It is time to tell you… about your mother”.
The girl’s face brightened up. The Knight had never told Elpis about Alba.
A baby wind danced from her laughing lips.