Jacky Short

These are in no definitive order.

Jacky loved eyes

 

Jacky loved eyes more than anything else.

She moved through the market, watching the eyes. The men, she could see their hands, their necks, their beards, their ears, their long hair braided outside of their white robes. The women, all she could see was the eyes.

Eyes watching eyes: all over the market, all across a square mile under the highland sun, people were watching people’s eyes, as they bartered, as they bantered, as they pondered how to get along or how to get around each other. They had lived here for thousands of years, lived just this way, these people with their brown eyes and their black hair and their white robes and their little horses and their scrawny sheep and their bright curved knives. Thousands of years: Jacky had not spent three weeks in the same world in many—well, in a long time.

She scanned, she watched, she glanced. She looked up: she was moving past a little booth with a little patch of shade from the merciless highland sun. A man with a long stringy grey and brown beard was watching her with a disdain that bordered on malice. As soon as she met his brown eyes, he switched his face to a smile, but the eyes remained disdainful. He held a length of whitest cloth.

She bowed a little to him, and pulled her scarf a little forward over most of her own black hair. She put her hands together, palms up, and said, not letting go his eyes, “May I?”

Those eyes warmed ten degrees. “Of course,” he muttered.

She took the cloth and felt it, pulled it through her hands. She had spoken his language, she had reminded him of her concession to his people’s ways; he was never going to not know she was from away, so why cover her work shirt and jeans and boots in a robe just to talk to him? He knew all this. She looked at the cloth, and then she met his eyes again. He smiled. She smiled.

“If the lady would wait just a moment,” he said in a low voice, as if speaking something shameful, “your humble servant has a bright cloth she might wish for.”

“A print?” she asked.

He almost laughed at her. He quelled his mirth and said, “A tapestry. It is from Mahash, over the mountains. Shall I?”

“I would be honored,” said Jacky.

“Just a small moment,” said the man. He turned and pushed back through a curtain, which gave him what must have been a tiny inner booth. She looked around.

The eyes were on her. There were many, as always. Brown eyes, almost black or almost amber, women who showed no more than eyes and the bridge of a young nose, men whose eyes hid deep in wrinkly faces, children, boys and girls, who ran with smiling eyes or scared, suspicious eyes, the big eyes of small horses, the strange eyes of goats and sheep.

Jacky looked across that optic panorama. She was not challenging anyone’s eyes, not today. She who had challenged the eyes of the Lady, Lakanth in the heart of Sinafror, she who had met the eyes of the schoolmaster Photius, in conference or in conflict, she who had met and defeated so many eyes, she who had fallen in love with so many eyes, she who had fallen in love so many times.

A woman’s eyes smiled. A little ways away, a young stone seller’s eyes smiled. A pair of children smiled, with eyes and mouths, then laughed and ran on. She smiled at them.

She scanned to the left. There. Those eyes.

They vanished. Her heart jumped into her throat. She stepped left, still holding the white cloth. She held it up, then let it unfurl a little.

She had a spell ready: she had several, actually. She needed no wand: she had long disdained such stuff. But here, in the middle of the market, under this unforgiving sun, under all those eyes: no, no spell.

Jacky bent to lay the white cloth back respectfully on the table. She put her hand down to her boot.

She stood and looked a little further to the left. Those eyes, those green eyes, between horses.

She unfolded. From her right hand flew that little paring knife of hers. The young man selling stones and one of the women: their eyes were fast enough to follow that paring knife, which Jacky had used just yesterday to cut up an apple. They saw what it did, and then they looked back at Jacky, changing their appraisal again.

She turned back to the man with the beard. He had just come back through his curtain, carrying several folded tapestries over his arms. His eyes went from where that knife had flown back to Jacky’s blue eyes.

“Perhaps,” he said, setting down his burden and lifting one tapestry, of a hunt with a lord and a lady with bows, “this might be what one is looking for?”

“Yes,” said Jacky, giving it a fair assessment. “Yes, I think this would be excellent.” She smiled at him: they were the same height. “I prefer not to haggle,” she said, finally fully meeting his brown eyes. “Name your price.”

 

 

Refuge

 

Jacky opened her eyes and looked around.

She was a little exasperated at herself. Reflexively she checked at her ring. And there it was, muscular gold ring, large pale blue stone, smooth ovoid. Only the hand was different.

Many, many thoughts went through her mind, her powerful and capacious mind, but she was not confused. Presently she gave voice to one of the many.

“I will never understand you,” she said to her ring.

She looked around. She was in bed. She began to get up and then she thought, but did not say, fuck it, and let herself fall back. There was time. She thought of all the times she had wished she could stay in bed. Now she had every excuse.

So she lay there and sorted through her situation. Jacky was not a fan of dying, and she had not died. This was disorienting enough.

Jacky Clotilde began answering all the obvious questions. She was in bed. She definitely did not feel herself. She was in pajamas. Jacky was one to sleep in the buff. She laughed at her own thought, which was another of her habits that she was past being annoyed at: had she more often slept in the buff, or had she more often slept fully clothed in her dark shirt, dark pants, socks, and useful boots?

She had a thought. She reached down under the comforter, under the loose waistband. Yep. A package. She was a guy.

Not a bad package, in resting mode. Feeling herself, heh heh.

She took in the light: late morning, perhaps. Men she knew got erections in the morning, presumably from just having to pee. This guy had gotten up, peed, and come back to bed. She even felt a little moisture on her hairy hand from inside the pajama pants.

She raised her eyebrows.

She took another minute, then half-said to herself, welp, and heaved herself out of bed. She bent at the waist, twisted to the left, swung out the guy’s feet, and landed with a thump. Oh, the knees. “It’s rough being an old guy,” as Waren had often said to her of a morning.

Of a morning. A sunny morning in her little cottage overlooking the lake. With Waren making coffee, with Lily and Sezan and the gnomes playing down by the water, perhaps with George pottering around in the little back room he’d set up.

She looked down at herself, at himself, and sighed. Soon she would find her way back to the cottage by the lake. But not yet. It would be such a bother to have to go through all this again because she had tried to move too soon.

Or, worse, to die. Dying was just plain annoying.

She looked around the room. Nice enough.

Bureau. Dresser. Day clothes on the floor. Some stuff on a chair. Window: outside into cloudy sunlight. Tempted though she was, she did not go look out the window.

Door to a hall or something, a closet or something: she couldn’t tell one from the other, but she was sure they were one of each. Door, open, into a bathroom.

It was all messy, old man messy, but nice enough. Not rich. Not poor. But someone who lived alone.

Lived alone. Widower, perhaps. She smiled. There was a picture: an older lady, smiling, probably already sick with cancer or Parkinson’s or whatever had killed her.

She looked at her hand. A wedding ring. Aww.

She went into the bathroom. And there he was: jowls, morning beard, messy, partly bald head. Maybe sixty. She smiled at him: her host.

“Sorry about this,” she said to the mirror, in his growly voice.

Still staring at the mirror, the face changed: it was still his face but the expression was all Jacky Clotilde. She sniffed, or something.

The coast was clear.

She addressed the man in the mirror again. “Thank you, old fella,” she said. “You seem like a nice enough guy.” She waved the ringed hand. “Blessing on you,” she said. She smiled.

Then she was gone, and he, presumably, was left to wonder how he’d gotten in the bathroom.

 

 

 

Jacky keeps it simple

 

“It’s very simple,” he told her. “You have something. I want it. You don’t need it, it’s nothing to you, it’s certainly worth what I’m offering, which is plenty.”

Jacky kept her sigh and her eye-roll to herself. She took a moment, sitting there bound to the chair by spells far stronger than chains, to compose herself. Being basically tied up was a good enough excuse to go on. She looked at him, blue eyes into palest blue—Jacky, who had always been a fool for eyes—and said, “What are you offering?”

He smiled the damn smile of the man who thinks he has won, the man who has his script and sees no likelihood he will need to deviate from it. “Nothing less,” he said, “than your freedom. Your life, really.” He allowed himself a sort of snicker-titter. He was near her, but he bent closer still, not quite close enough for salivary assault. Then he turned and moved away a few steps.

The room was not large. It was featureless. She was in the only chair. There was no visible door. He had not needed a door, nor had she. He had his wand, and his ring, with its dark green gem. She had her ring, with its pale blue gem. And she had her black pants, her dark shirt, her bit of scarf tying back her black hair, her useful little black boots, not to mention what she had in the pocket of her black pants.

She could have spit on him, when he was so close; he would have slapped her and then walked away chortling. That was the script.

There was no point in it. Spitting in his face would feel good, but only until he slapped her. Then she would want to slap him, and darn it, she could not, at present, do so. So there was that: a momentary pleasure, unrewarding in the long run. Jacky had not got where she was by giving in to unrewarding urges.

But Jacky did not want to be where she was.

Or, Jacky needed to be here, because here she could get something she could get nowhere else. But she didn’t have it yet, and she didn’t want to trade for it. As far as he was concerned, she was going to give him what was in her pocket, and all she would get in return (if that) was her freedom. Oh, her life, really: he had said that. As if he had what was needed to take her life.

He was now as far from her as he could get, in this room, facing away. He was speaking again.

“Quite simple,” he said. “You will agree to terms. I will remove the charms that bind you to the chair. Then you will stand up, and you will retrieve the symbol, from whatever orifice you have hidden it in, and you will place it on the chair. When I see that you have done so, I will let you leave this place. You may even keep your time warrior ring.” He turned his head to the side as if to look over his shoulder. She could not get past the idea that he was peeing. He held up his left hand, but she still could not see his right, which was presumably still holding his wand. “You must have noticed that I already have one of those.”

Yes, Stanfort, she thought to herself, I noticed that you somehow got yourself a time warrior ring. Nice color, forest green. Ever been in a real forest? Yes, Stanfort, thank you so much for not trying to take my ring. Emphasis on try. Several other truculent sentences went unsaid. There was nothing in particular she felt she needed to say.

He turned. “Well?” he asked.

“Well?”

“Do you agree to terms?”

“Not as yet,” said Jacky.

“Not as yet? Not as yet? Whatever are you waiting for? The terms will not change, only your opportunity to meet them.”

She rolled her eyes for real this time: she couldn’t help herself. “All right, fine,” she said, “why don’t you spell out the threat? Or what?”

“Nothing will happen to you,” said Stanfort. “Nothing at all! Of course. I shall presently tire of this conference, and leave you, and time will pass, and perhaps, if we feel tolerant, I shall return and give you a second chance. And if you turn that down, I shall leave you for good, and we will find something to fill this room other than air. Oh, I know. Your ring gives you independence from want of air. No matter. We could fill this room with molten metal, or with frozen helium. Frozen helium! Now there is an interesting substance. Have you ever worked with it? No?” He chortled, he tittered, and then he turned and walked away again. “So, that is what ‘not as yet’ brings you.”

“Mr. Stanfort,” she said, “if I may, who is ‘we?’ Do you speak of yourself and others, or are you using the editorial we?”

“We do not need you to know who we is,” said Stanfort. He snickered, half turned, then turned away with another snicker. “We have made you an offer, and we shall make no other. It is a matter of whether you accept it or not.”

“So it’s editorial. Or royal? Is it the royal we? Just trying to clarify.” He turned and looked at her, a smile wavering on his round face. She said, “Surely it took more than just you to put me in this position.” He smiled more, but still said nothing: the only reason he would remain silent would be that he was actually thinking about something. She went on, “You’ll say I don’t need to know, I’ll just blab it to someone once you let me go, and I’ll say, don’t worry about that, I’m not going to take your offer, go ahead and submerge me in frozen helium or whatever.”

“But we would take what you have anyway,” he said. “We have a way of doing it. Do not doubt that we do.”

“Ah, the we is very persistent. You know, I think you are actually using the plural. You and—!”

No smile. He huffed, then said, “I am not playing this game, Jacqueline.”

 

“Not Photius. Not the Schoolmaster.” Now he almost rolled his eyes. “Not the Lady,” Jacky went on. Slight smirk on his face: but that might just be its resting position. Resting smirk face. “Someone from Laton maybe?” He started to chortle. Goddess, she could hardly wait to give him the slapping he deserved.

“Really, Jacqueline,” he said.

“Must really burn you up,” she said.

His eyes dilated by two tenths of a millimeter for three milliseconds.

“Really?” she said. “That’s it? Burners?”

He laughed out loud. “Really, Jacqueline, your fantasies are terribly entertaining! I—!”

“Would find it most diverting,” she said, “to explain all that to the Schoolmaster. To the Lady. Burners? Seriously? You’re working with the Real Burners? And—frozen helium?”

His face hardened. He turned and walked away, to the extent he could. “Jacqueline,” he said, “I fear you are non-responsive. I shall—!” He heard the chair squeak.

He whipped around, his wand in his hand, pointed at her. She was standing. “Nyk eur goth,” she got out, three syllables in half a second, her left index and middle finger pointed at him.

His wand flew from his hand: that was how far she outranked him. He rolled his eyes.

“Thank you for this most informative conversation, Stanfort,” she said. “You see? It really is quite simple. Asshole.” She smirked: there was no need for slapping. She twisted her ring and was gone.

 

 

Backing Up

 

Jacky did not like backing up. She had many tools, but eyes in the back of her head was not one of them. The present situation, however: backing away slowly seemed rather the thing to do.

The pool before her was opaque and not exactly black. It was impossible to make out details on its surface. She did not doubt that it was moving, swirling. The air about her was stale, warm and yet cool on her skin, moist and yet parched.

Jacky backed up. She wondered idly as she did so if she was hitting the footprints from her approach.

She was not sorry she had approached. It had not been a mistake. Coming here at all was not a mistake. Leaving: that would also be the thing to do. If only it were simple: but she could not return the way she had come, not even if she wanted to.

A step. Another step. Another.

She was watching the surface. Her eyesight was excellent, but this stuff challenged her faculty, dark and yet not black, still and yet in subtle motion, opaque and yet, and yet.

Another step, in her comfortable little boots. Watching that—ripple, or not.

In a moment, there was something moving at that opaque surface. One moment only, Jacky watched, her feet on the ground, in the process of shifting weight backwards: wondering if she was seeing something, or if it was just an artifact of the low light and her excellent imagination.

It was rising. It was the top of something like a head, a bald head, still the color of the liquid in the pool. She slowed her speeding breath.

She backed. It rose.

It stood in the pool, dripping, not quite as a swimmer drips standing ankle-deep in the sea. She thought it glared at her, though she could make out no detail in its form: a head, two arms, two legs, no detail.

It took a step. It swung into slow movement forward.

Jacky stepped back. All she had to do was retreat along her path as fast as it advanced, which was not fast, not at present. A step. Another step, the two of them, opaque figure at the edge of the pool, time warrior receding in black boots, in stride.

She concentrated on it. There was nothing else to do with her eyes. But then there was: behind the figure, something was happening on the surface. Another bulge, another dome of smooth head, pushed up into the foul stale air.

There was no doubt: another of the dark figures was rising from the pool. Behind it, over its gleaming black left shoulder, another.

Jacky gave up trying to keep her heart from racing. She considered turning and running: surely she could outrun such things. But she did not really know what such things were capable of. She did not know such things. She considered her current tactic the safest. She backed up, keeping her eyes on the things before her.

The ground was rising as she retreated the way she had come. The way she had come: she could retreat only so far and then that road would be closed. Still, unstumbling, unturning, she backed, one step, one step, one step, among the ruined brush, the withered weeds.

She was alive. Blood flowed in her veins, the lightning of thought flashed across her neurons. The stale breeze moved in her dark hair. Her skin flexed and prickled in the benighted vale. The things before her—three, four, five?—advanced, one step, one step. One was out of the pool, standing on the foul soil. Another stepped forth, dripping. They advanced, to make room for another, another. Another head bulged up out of the liquid.

Jacky retreated, stepping backwards up the slope from the pool. They advanced, implacable, their arms at their sides, their blank, black faces glaring.

Jacky knew it would happen, and it happened: the moment came when she could not retrace her steps any further. That way was closed. The world she had left was no more. That road had led here. She could not go back as she had come.

She had come here because she had been forced to. It had been the only move. For so long behind her, she had made the move she had been forced to make, again and again. It had led her to this place, from which there was no retreat. Perhaps this was the board position from which she had no further move. Perhaps this was it: the end of the endgame.

Jacky. Time warrior. Wizard with a ring. Ring with a big pale blue stone. But even her ring was no use to her here: even that could not win her another move.

Behind her, she felt the slope growing steeper, a slippery slope indeed. Around her, the foulness, the death, the worse than death, choked her lungs, the shadow clung to her clothes like brambles in a swampy wood.

They advanced. If they had breath, she would soon feel it.

Then, as if she noticed a rook or a knight she had forgotten she had, she felt something at her left ankle, something warm, something not of this place. Staying still, her eyes never leaving the foremost figure, now only steps away, Jacky bent at the knees and ankles and lowered a hand. She touched fur.

She stole a glance into those golden-green eyes: color in the colorless world.

Then she rose and swung her left arm forward. With a formless word, she let loose a bolt of bright shade. For just a moment, the thing before her stood up straight, its arms up to ward off the thrust, its face and shoulders illuminated for a fraction of a second. And then it fell back into the arms of the one behind it, and together they fell back down the slope.

Jacky swung her arm around again, her index and middle fingers pointed. She struck the third one, then the fourth, then the fifth. One by one they fell back. Color did not fill the world: no, color only touched a percent of that place, but it was enough. One by one the things went down, and rose again to struggle forward, and went down again, falling further back, until they were back in the pool. They tried to rise, and Jacky, not advancing, not retreating, threw hue at each one that rose, until they rose no more.

The pool was still.

Jacky took one more breath of that stale air. She almost laughed, but sighed instead.

She knelt and put her left hand down into that fur. She felt the purr of response.

“All right, babycakes,” she said. “Good to see you again. Shall we go?”

Receiving a prut in reply, her left hand still buried in grey fur, Jacky used her thumb to twiddle the ring, and the two of them, the lady and the tiger, the time warrior and the housecat, vanished from that place, left that pool in stillness again.

 

 

The Refugee

 

The refugees milled in the cavernous concrete room. They flowed in through a set of double doors, they washed back into the recesses where they dropped themselves, in family groups or groups of acquaintances or mixed groups of parentless children or accidental congregations of men or of women. They had brought only what they could carry, but they could carry a lot.

They brought with them what they had seen. They had seen their homes destroyed, their cities on fire, their fathers, mothers, children slain, lying dead on the ground.

Now, light years from those scenes, they waited. They did not wait for anything in particular—that would have been easier—but they waited. An old couple cuddled with their scrawny cat. Three sisters, adult and teen and preteen, stood identically against a wall. Here and there someone sat by himself, or, rarely, herself.

A woman sat by herself, along a wall in half-shadow, dark of hair and raiment, somehow reading in a little book. A girl of early teenage sat a few meters away, her knees pulled up to her chest. A few boys wandered over and leered at her, but something put them off. They wandered away along the wall. It opened into a further, darker recess, which they disappeared into.

More people were coming into the cavernous room. It was like an infusion of smoke: they came from the double doors, but they seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, condensing all over the chamber in little clumps, until the mean distance between clumps dropped from meters to centimeters. Fights did not break out, but there was a general shove away from the double doors and into the recesses of the chamber, and anyone standing soon found themselves in motion with the tide. Gradually spaces were filled in and everyone who was not already sitting had to remain standing. It was like a room where one waits to board for a journey, but the atmosphere was not one of waiting.

Little by little, here and there and by a phase change almost everywhere, people thought through the waiting-room analogy, figured out that they weren’t going anywhere, and settled where they were. If they could have pitched tents or built houses, they would have.

Some of them had something to eat, and they ate it. Some did not, and they watched. Whatever food there was, no one had more than one or two meals’ worth, so if you felt aggrieved, wait a day and everyone would be equal again.

People began to doze off here and there. The hours of stress and dread were not over, but they had tired lots of people enough that they could fall asleep.

Just as some of them were getting their first shuteye in days, the double doors burst open and guards came in, men and women with good muscle tone and well-made weapons. They made a show of force in area before the double doors, pushing people around, grabbing young men who looked rebellious, taking away several older folks and at least three attractive young women. Then they were gone, and people sat right down in the space that had been cleared.

An unknown number of hours passed, and there was movement again. The double doors opened, and more crowds of hungry, tired people came shoving in, their faces blank. Some of them held hands in the crowd, in pairs or in stretched lines of half a dozen or more. There was room for them: it seemed as if people were moving out of the front region, slowly, gradually, toward the dark recess into which the boys had gone.

Back there, there was another double door, hidden away in deep shade, but it was open now, and the crowd had grown dense enough in the cavernous chamber that an ooze of people was pushed into it. The light grew as they pressed on down what turned out to be a long, shallow ramp about six meters wide. They were not exploring: they looked ahead down the hallway not with anticipation so much as apprehension. They moved onward in fits, as the pressure behind them grew, moving their belongings with them.

Behind them, more people were pressed into the formless queue that led to the ramp. Some of them thought they were lining up for processing or food, some of them thought it was better to be going somewhere than to be sitting there with no food and no agenda, some found themselves carried along by the tide. Many of them didn’t quite realize they were in a queue. A dozen and a score at a time, they found themselves pushing through the doors and onto the ramp.

Far in the rear, the teenage girl watched the crowd move into the dark recess, and at some point she decided to get up and join them. The woman reading did not notice her at first, but when she did, she followed, and before the girl was into the double doors, the woman managed to grab her by the shoulder.

“Don’t,” said the woman.

“What?” said the girl. She shrugged. “What else is there to do?”

“Wait,” said the woman. She looked around, then back at the girl. Their eyes met, blue and brown. “I don’t know.  There has to be a better option.”

“Why? What could be—?”

They stopped. Groups of guards had entered by the front doors, and fanned out into the crowd. Three of them, one clearly an officer, were moving people toward the recess and getting closer and closer to the woman and the girl.

“Move along, move along,” said the officer to anyone she met. “Move along now.” And then she met the blue eyes of Jacky Clotilde, her right hand behind her, securely gripping the girl’s wrist.

“What is going to happen to these people?” Jacky asked her, in a low clear voice.

“Move,” said the officer. “Move her, gents, move them both.”

Jacky brought her left hand around, but only to put her palm toward the nearer of the two male guards. They stopped as if she had a gun.

“Ah, ah,” said Jacky. She met the officer’s eyes again. “Tell me what is the disposition of these refugees. Tell me that. It won’t kill you.”

“Listen, lady,” said the officer, “I can’t help you any. We have our orders. We have to move these people, there’s literally forty, fifty thousand of them by now, more landing all the time. We’re just processing them.”

“Processing them, huh? Well, you’re not processing us till I know what the disposition is. Where are all these people going? Interviews?”

“Look, lady, you’re all escapees. I don’t know, you, you seem educated, you don’t talk like they do, but a lot of these people are no better than criminals and terrorists. We have no idea what kind of diseases, what kind of ideas they bring, we can’t just let them squat wherever they want on our planet. They’re murderers, criminals, rapists, these people. The Republic—!”

“Listen,” said Jacky, “I know about the Republic. You have a charter that guarantees help to those in need, who have fled tyranny to freedom. Those are the words.”

The male guards moved restlessly: they wanted to beat her up. The officer said, “Don’t tell us what our own charter says.”

“I’m sorry I have to. These aren’t criminals, any more than you are. These people have escaped from war. They’ve escaped from the worst things you can imagine. They were on Ilkhar-2 when the Ondrian marines landed. This was the only place they could get to, with the old freighters they had. Forty thousand? Five million set off from Ilkhar. They left a hundred times that many dead from the quantic bombs alone. Look, I know you have a good life here, I know you don’t want a bunch of refugees to eat you out of house and home and squat in your town square. But think what they’ve been through. They’re not a threat to you, they only ask for a little help, a little sympathy.” She stopped and looked again into the officer’s eyes. Jacky’s eyes changed. “Tell me what you’re doing with these people. Tell me what’s down that ramp.”

“You’re not from Ilkhar,” said one of the male soldiers. “What’s it to you?”

“Come, boys,” said the officer, “let’s take her for further questioning.”

“No,” said the teenage girl, her first words.

“What do you care?” said the male guard. “You’re moving along, little girl.” He advanced on her, ready to push her into the flowing stream of her fellow refugees.

“No,” said the girl, grabbing onto Jacky’s wrist with the hand that Jacky didn’t already have by the wrist. Jacky said, “No, no, ah, ah.”

“Now look,” said the officer, advancing into Jacky’s face. “You don’t have anything to say about this. You don’t have—!”

“Oh, I have,” said Jacky, and then she swung her left hand up from her pocket, where she had returned it. She held a scary-looking knife. The officer did a half-smirk at the blade: seriously? A knife?

And then that knife blazed with pink lightning. A static zing flashed across the air between the point and the nose of the officer, who stepped back two steps and then fell backwards, unconscious. The crowd bore her back and laid her to sleep it off on a crate. The two male guards didn’t respond in time, and were disarmed by the refugees around them. Jacky moved forward into the crowd, which parted for her: two more guard teams emerged to confront her, and the blaze off the knife took them out as well, leaving six more black-uniformed soldiers of the Republic unconscious.

“Grab their weapons,” said Jacky, and weapons were grabbed. The crowd ceased to push toward the dark recess, and began to gel in place. Still, local turbulence pushed three more teams of guards out into the little space that had opened in front of Jacky and the teenage girl. Jacky took down most of them with a simple sleep spell, and the one officer who managed to resist that went down to a hard pink zap. More weapons were seized, and now a dozen and a half refugees, women and men and girls and boys, formed up in front of her. What have I done, she thought, but she said, “Is that all of them?”

“So far,” said a middle-aged man with a scary-looking photon rifle.

“So what do we do next?” asked a teenage girl with a venomous-looking pistol.

“Okay,” said Jacky, “this is going to be delicate. I’m not sure exactly how this is going to work, but—!” She let out a breath. “We are going to get you to somewhere where you can have a little peace and safety. That doesn’t seem to much to ask.”

“We’ll need to get our freighters off,” said the man. “And most of ‘em crash landed.”

A big woman with a gun said, “They can fix ‘em up or they can give us new ones, their choice. We need more hostages, dontcha think?”

“Need more weapons,” said the middle-aged man.

“We need to get back out those doors,” said a young man. “We need to move these people back out, and we need more weapons.”

“More weapons,” the cry went up.

“But don’t kill anyone,” the middle-aged man called after them, and that call went around too.

The flood reversed. The mass of refugees pushed back out through the double doors, while Jacky and the teenage girl stood as if rooted, taking it all in. Jacky was filled with doubts, but that wasn’t unusual. She had got through one problem, in a way she had not thought of till she did it, and now there were five more problems laid out before her, and she hadn’t had time to begin to solve any of them. She looked at the girl, who was looking back into the now empty recess, and the just-visible doors into the ramp.

“What happened to the people who went down there?” she asked.

Jacky gazed into that distance for a minute, then sighed, turned and said, “What’s your name?”

“Karen,” said the girl.

“We didn’t, Karen. We didn’t go down there. That’s all that matters. Okay?”

 

 

 

 

When Jacky met Jacky

 

Jacky Clotilde was strolling down an aisle of a library. She paused, thinking of something. She felt a hand on her shoulder. She jumped out of her little boots, landed back in them, turned with a spell on her tongue, and jumped out of her boots again.

“Please don’t say a word,” Jacky Clotilde told her.

Jacky took this in for a minute, happy to oblige. Jacky looked at Jacky, and vice versa.

Jacky, surprised in the library, thought the Jacky who surprised her was older. It was hard to tell, since they both had time warrior rings—they both had the same time warrior ring. It was something about the eyes.

The older Jacky waited. She stole a glance around at the stacks. The younger Jacky presently said, “You must be here for a reason.”

Jacky smirked. “We’re all here for a reason, baby,” she said. Jacky rolled her eyes. Jacky, the older one, the one who surprised the other one in the library, put her serious face on and said, “Well, clearly.” She looked around.

“I know this is supposed to be dangerous,” said the younger Jacky, “coming back to meet yourself. So it must be a pretty good reason.”

“You just made Time Warrior,” said Jacky. “You’re still stupid.” She playfully cuffed her younger self on the top of the head. “It’s not dangerous, it’s just confusing to your companions, of which you currently have none.”

“Hey, I have—!”

“I know, I know, it’s not what I meant. Hell, I have less friends than you do, I know I have less lovers than you do, and I’m only five biological centuries older than you. I just mean I had to find you alone.”

“To do what? Give me hints? Tell me who I should kill right away, and who I can wait on?”

“I’m not going to do that. Sorry. So I—!”

“Not because of paradoxes,” said the younger Jacky. “Tell me it’s not because of paradoxes.”

Jacky smirked yet again. “There are no temporal paradoxes.”

“I knew it. I knew it! So can’t you give me hints? Do I kill Gremhar? Don’t even tell me how long it’ll be. Just do I kill him?”

“Not going to tell you. No, not because of temporal paradoxes.” They smirked at each other, the two Jackys. “Because you deserve some suspense.”

Jacky rolled her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “What are you here for?”

“I need your help with something,” said Jacky.

 

After one minute and forty seconds of further discussion, the two of them took hands and vanished. Four seconds later, they were back.

“That was actually kind of fun,” said the younger Jacky. “I mean, I can see why you wanted another you for that. But—!” She wanted to ask about time travel again. She felt stupid and young, even though Older Jacky was not especially patronizing and literally looked exactly like her. Jacky felt her inner teenager coming out. “Is this gonna happen a lot?”

“No,” said Jacky. “I don’t think it’s going to happen again.”

“Well,” said Jacky, “if you live forever, then everything happens again. Right? You can literally never say never again. Good or bad. Has that started to happen? Things repeating themselves?”

“No,” said Jacky. “No, things won’t be repeating themselves.”

“But we’re going to—? Wait. What?”

“We’re not, ah, you’re not going to live forever.” She laughed grimly. “We, you used the correct pronoun, we are not going to live forever. I’m very sorry, except in a way I’m not.”

They looked at each other, a million thoughts in each of those two nearly identical, so muscular brains. “Well,” said the younger one, resurrecting her smile, “I better get to my next.” She looked around. “I’m looking for a copy of Lyndon & Schupp.”

“Ah, yes,” said Jacky. “Great diagrams. It’s, um, two aisles down, Aisle K, right near this end, second shelf up from the bottom.”

They smiled at each other a little longer. Jacky giggled and said, “It’s been an honor, I think about you a lot.” They shook hands, then hugged.

“You’re going to go through a lot,” said Jacky, “but trust me? Somehow it’s going to be worth it.”

“You mean everything comes out okay?” said Jacky with a smirk. “It all makes sense?”

“Well,” said Jacky, “it’s going to be worth it.”

They looked at each other for one more moment. “Well,” said Younger Jacky, “Aisle K, second shelf up from bottom.”

“Take care of myself,” said Older Jacky.

“I must get on. Nayori will be waiting. Don’t want to make her worry.”

A shadow passed across Older Jacky’s face. “No, we don’t,” she said. “Don’t, um, make her worry.”

“Jacky,” said the younger one, picking up a hint of something.

“Just tell her, uh, Nayori, hi from me,” said Jacky. She twisted her ring and vanished, leaving the other Jacky gazing uncertainly at empty air.

 

 

How she touched him

 

How she touched him, that wan morning, sitting on the bed.

Jacky did not know what was going to happen. All the flooding years, all the fall afternoons, all the snowy mornings, all the desperate pursuits, all the waiting, all the heavy lifting, all the surprise, all the disappointment, the betrayal. All the waiting.

She did not know how this moment would change all the centuries to come. But she knew that how she touched him, this wan morning, would change each stone, each particle of the pattern, just a little, just enough.

He lay there sleeping, his strong, tired body in repose, his strong mouth open a little, framed by a trim brown beard, his hair tousled. She smiled. He would think his hair a mess, he would run to rinse the night out of his mouth and wash himself.

How she touched his cheek with the fingertips of her left hand. Her lover. The King.

Thomas, Thomas the Archer, had made himself King, but Jacky had made him her lover. She who thought everything through, who thought out her chess plays ten moves ahead, had looked upon him, that rebel cavalryman, that soldier’s soldier, that kind, valiant, lordly commoner, that risen-up refugee, that defender of destitute villages, that hunter of battlefields, he who had retreated to advance again but who had never backed down, he who had lost his father and avenged him, who had lost his mother and never forgotten her, who had lost his lady in childbirth, who had lost his child, who had lost and gained so much: she had looked upon him and desired him.

She had not made him King. He had made him King. She had helped, as she could, and told herself she was helping his poor, destitute, tyrannized people: well, it was true. But she had also helped herself. She had been with him, mostly out of sight but with him, defending him from horrors he could just about imagine, driving off the shadows, humiliating the men and women with wands who thought they could interfere in the spooling out of his story, and by now, the Lady of Sinafror knew better than to confront Jacky Clotilde if it could be avoided.

But Jacky knew, Thomas knew, that she could not stay. She had her destiny and he had his, and now he had his princess, soon to be his Queen, a powerful wizard herself (though no Jacky Clotilde) who would give birth to his son, Thomas II to follow Thomas I. And far down that line—

Jacky looked around. Nayori would be waiting to be off, Nayori, Amazon warrior. Jacky’s future, whatever that entailed.

Lovingly, Jacky bent forward and kissed him on the brow. She thought a moment, then she moved her head down again and kissed him on his open lips. He muttered something, moved a centimeter and remained asleep.

Lovingly: yes, she loved him, she loved him deeply, intensely. She wondered at it sometimes: she who loved so few, Thomas, Nayori, anyone else? Certainly not herself.

She stood, frowning at the thought. She looked on him one more time: his eyes were closed and she loved his eyes most of all, Jacky who loved eyes. She passed a hand across her face. Who stood there waiting, down her road, centuries down? The Amazon warrior she knew, but the mousy princess? The ghost? The librarian, the dead king, the blond sea captain?

The little girl?

Jacky put her hand on her belly. Yes, the girl. She knew about the little girl. Daughter of a king.

She turned and took up her little pack, slung it over her shoulder and went to the door. She did not go through. Instead, she looked back one last time at King Thomas the Archer, lovingly, her right hand on her belly.

Jacky sighed. She tweaked her ring and was gone.