“Prayers to Broken Stone” by Cat Sparks

1. Eyes I Dare Not Meet in Dreams

The apartment is musty. No one has been in here for a very long time. Arpita tugs the curtains, letting in a blast of light. To do so is permitted, on the list of things she is allowed to and supposed to do.

Dusty boxes in need of unpacking clump together against a plain cream wall. The box cutter is in the drawer where they said it would be. Everything is always exactly where the voice on the phone says it will be.

Old furniture belonging to a different era. Ancient hardwood, stained, too ugly to be valuable.

She wasn’t allowed to bring the notes she’d scribbled when they called. They expect her to memorize ordinary lists of ordinary-sounding tasks, but nothing is ordinary about this job or this place.

Arpita slits tape, unpacks each box slowly and thoughtfully, examining every object in case it is more than it seems: long-life milk, tea bags in packets of 100, slim rectangular tubes of coffee pods. The coffee machine on the grey marble bench top looks like it has never been used.

Two double beds in separate rooms with mismatched sets of sheets. She’s surprised by the wardrobe in the master bedroom; an ancient monstrosity with large, dark keyholes, wafting smells of naphthalene and tennis shoes. One much like it stood in the grand Bengali mansion where Aunt Laksha worked. Aunt Laksha used to sneak the sisters past the wrought-iron gates. The young girls made a castle of that wardrobe, imagining themselves princesses and queens.

Arpita dismisses her memories brusquely. She makes both beds and stacks the linen closet with towels pulled free from placental wrappings.

She took this job because it pays more than any other job she’s ever had. The extra money is supposed to buy her silence. In eighteen months she has learnt nothing more than what brands of tinned and packaged foods can be conveniently stocked in different cupboards. Only once has her employer’s agent come to meet her, a woman who declined to give her name. She looked disturbingly like Arpita; of similar height and build. Similar skin, yet not one of her people. Different hair, but changing hair is easy.

The woman stared her down and said, whatever it is you’re looking for, stop here. Stop now. Trust me. She put her hand on Arpita’s and it was cold, the look in the woman’s eyes much colder.

There are always phones in the apartments. Old-fashioned landlines made of dull green plastic. If a phone rings, Arpita is supposed to leave. Immediately. Just drop whatever she is doing and get out, never to return unless instructed.

In eighteen months she has obeyed every command, from unpacking boxes to calling numbers and leaving incomprehensible messages. Sometimes simple tasks are required, such as purchasing a bottle of Dior perfume at Myers, placing it on the second shelf in a bathroom cabinet. Other things, all too ordinary to speak of.

Arpita lives in motels they designate and pay for. That part she doesn’t mind—she’d been staying with distant relatives barely known to her. Had they searched for her that first night she didn’t come home? A question she ponders frequently as she cleans apartments that, as far as she can tell, are rarely used. Which should make them safe, but doesn’t. Safe as houses, something her Port Headland case manager used to say. Safe as houses… a peculiar phrase, whatever such words were truly supposed to mean.

Once Arpita spent six weeks in a red brick house waiting for a call that never came, sleeping in an enormous double bed with mismatched sheets.

It’s Wednesday and she’s dusting venetian blinds in the master bedroom. The phone rings, a jarring clamoring like bells, unsettling in the electronic age. She pauses the duster mid-air. Three minutes can be plenty of time, or not enough if your personal items are scattered.

She knows what she is supposed to do, but this time something stops her. She freezes, waiting for the awful noise to cease. Then Arpita does something she has never done before. Picks up her shoulder bag, takes off her shoes, and climbs into the dark and musty wardrobe.

Her heart is pounding and she knows she’s crossing a line, that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, that apartments such as this one are not safe—nowhere is safe, that she might get killed if she sees something she shouldn’t, that of course she will see something because everything is forbidden to her here. Everything. But it’s too late, three minutes have drained away, then another one, then another and another.

Her right foot is beginning to cramp when metal jangles and a key turns in the lock.

* * *

2. In Death’s Dream Kingdom

I watch and listen. That’s what they pay me for. Not a bad job, really, but I’ve been working here too long. The anti-social hours fall within my comfort zone, as does overtime, cab vouchers, meal allowance, and blissful solitude during the graveyard shift. An oversized, padded swivel chair and a big fat bank of sixteen monitors. A slim window sits above the penguin clock I brought from home; tinted and permanently stuck fast. Always chilly—air conditioning’s there for the machinery, not me.

I sift data for politicians. Record and splice together news they don’t have time to watch, with eyes glazed over—I can do this in my sleep—sometimes it’s like that’s exactly what I’m doing.

Management locked us out of gaming, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram. E-mail’s permitted—I IM folks all around the world. One of my regulars is a woman called Morgan. Not her real name. Probably American. I used to think our jobs were similar: watching screens, summarizing data. Morgan twigged to my civilian status early. Stopped using heavy military jargon I struggled to get my head around.

She might be military but she’s not infallible. They call her station ‘the Caribbean’—pretty sure that’s code for someplace cold—where shifts last 24 hours in capsules buried 60 feet below. She too has a swivel chair, but only four old monitors, black and white; two keyboards and a box her people refer to as ‘the key’.

She says her people get slung a lot of tests: long checklists, learn-by-rote, and sleepless nights. Fake alerts come in at all hours with flashing lights and nerve-grating alarms. The pumped-in air stinks like a backed-up sewer. Vibrating floors make them nauseous and antsy. They’re off their faces half the time on stuff she calls ‘bath salts.’ They scour their capsules in search of secret cameras but the ever-flickering fluorescent lighting conceals all evidence and proof.

Sounds like hell.

Another slow shift in my own shitty job. Sixteen screens showing nothing of local interest: Al Qaeda insurgents striking back in Yemen. Gaza, where they’re making gas masks out of jars and paper towels. North Kivu awash with starving Congolese. Janjaweed proxy militias continue systematic hammering of Darfur villages. North and South Korea… not much happening—nothing new. A French tiger helicopter raid in Mali – gotta love those ‘surgical’ missile strikes.

My bottommost right hand screen is stuck on a live train station feed. People waiting on a concourse under a big old clock. Unusual, no explanation in the shift handover notes. Not my problem, Someone else can sort it in the morning.

My eyes are dry.

Just past the witching hour, up pops an IM window. Morgan. She never wastes my time with pleasantries. Gets straight down to whatever’s in her head.

“This whole bloody subculture,” Morgan types, “You get inklings of it on TV. What was underground is now mainstream. This whole hybrid happening. The mentality. They’re carrying a lot of hurt.”

“Who’s carrying hurt—are you watching what I’m watching?” I reply, then backspace over my words. Of course she isn’t. I’ve figured out she’s Air Force, stationed somewhere in the wilds of the USA or Alaska.

What I’m watching is text scrolling along the bottom of three screens claiming the Syrian Mujahideen are taking the fight to the Assadist enemy. Shabiha forces holed up in a building when the Mujahideen come busting through. Pale gouts of smoke envelop crumbling cement. Trees shiver beside the satellite dishes.

“I’ve got toxic strain,” Morgan continues. “Spent too much time doing the jobs nobody wanted. I’m used to a different kind of chaos. There are cameras everywhere. In the foyer, glass tubes hanging off the ceiling. I miss Alexander, my ex.”

I pause before replying. She’s told me about her ex so many times. “Thought your husband’s name was Dominic?”

She pauses. Three little wavering dots onscreen. “Alexander or Dominic. One of the two. I mix them up. I’ve got head trauma. Hairdressers don’t like cutting my hair because of it.”

Morgan can get pretty random sometimes—some nights more random than others. Sounds like tonight is going to be a doozy.

I rest my fingers. My feeds seem to be stuck on Syria for the long haul. Insurgents caught up in an extreme firefight with SAA Troops in Atman. Small arms fire, mostly, but I can just make out impressions of heavy urban terrain fire fighting in the background.

I wait to see if she’ll bring the chitchat back to Dominic – or Alexander—but she doesn’t. Way back I concluded that Morgan has never actually been married. That Morgan has, at best, a tenuous grip. She’s never once asked after my own sorry marital condition. She likes to talk. She’s not much of a listener.

Three dots blinking, waiting.

An innocuous, gradient sky fills my screens. Clipped bursts of Arabic, a young guy firing in Adidas knock-offs, dusty blue jeans, ammo cartridge striped in his nation’s colors. Allah Akbar, he says. Allah Akbar. No protection but sandbags and thin trees.

I’m going to keep the IM window open till Morgan gets bored and goes away. She used to ping some of the other guys but now she just pings me. Didn’t take long for Leskie and Wazza to call it like it is. Contradicting her terms, her frames of reference: Morgan, you were not on board the Rainbow Warrior when it blew. Morgan, you never signed with the French Foreign legion. They don’t take chicks—and if you reckon you speak French, go on then—prove it.

I don’t believe her either. Reckon Morgan reads a lot of magazines. She’s recounted in great detail black ops in jungle terrains. Bagging dead bodies. Digging maggots out of her flesh with a bowie knife.

“I avoid the packs,” she told me once. “I just can’t run anymore. I’ve got scars all over my body. Scars on my arms. Scars on my legs. Scars on my hands. Scars on my side. Gotta do gym just to get the aggro out.”

On my screens blurred forms streak past flaming ruins. Bare arms against stripped trees. Fighters dragging fallen comrades through dark soil. Back against the split brick wall, hurrying down grenade-blasted streets. Tanks trembling with the aftershock.

“The soldiers all wear protective gear,” says Morgan. “They reckon ESP exists. Based on random possibility and the speed of technology. In Kabul, you know not to touch these guys. So long as you do nothing wrong, you’re fine…”

There’s nothing fine about the long-range firefight live streaming from Afghanistan. The onscreen battle contains small arms fire, sniper rifles, machine guns, and an A10 Support Scattershot cloud peppered over orange sunrise. Machine gun rounds like popcorn. Rapid fire. Pop pop pop. Mist rising off distant mountains. “Coming between right peak and right here,” the onscreen soldier shouts. His face obscured in shadow. “Got more coming your way, friend!”

I take a slug of warm Red Bull, shift my weight as a tattooed insurgent fires through the smoke, which goes from white to black, to vaporized. Big gun mounted on a Toyota flatbed. The whole thing shudders when it fires.

On the screen below, footage of the seizure of Khan al-Asal. Scrolling text in Arabic, superimposed over masked men firing through gaps in an ancient stone wall. Cut to big guns firing out the side of a dirt-streaked combi. The vehicle shakes with every bright blast of yellow.

When the smoke clears, I’m staring at a firefight in woodland terrain. Some other fucking country altogether. I sit up and say out loud, “Hey wait—is that Bosnia?”

Nobody answers—obviously. Wouldn’t be the first night shift I’ve ended up talking to myself.

Onscreen, infantry trudge uphill through waist-high foliage, leaves dull, khaki green. Walky-talkies passed from hand to hand, pale faces daubed with shadow stripes. Arguing over directions. Out of the sunlight, uniforms meld with the muddy tree trunks and rotting leaves.

“Saw a soldier suicide,” says Morgan. “He had caps in his teeth. I turned around and he wasn’t there anymore. Only a few of us stuck with the mortuary run. You lose your memory. That’s why no one wants the job. My friend was the Russian who got done with polonium. I knew him as an Englishman. I remember standing, watching some dead people after a tank accident. Married an Englishman. Don’t know if he’s alive or dead. That’s reality in the twenty-first century…”

AT4 rocket live fire footage. A10 Thunderbolts blitzing already arid fields. Vignettes of greedy, gobbling flames digest a row of tanks, canary yellow, through blazon orange, demon red, then finally to belching chokes of charcoal.

I lean in closer. This war looks familiar. Really familiar, only I hardly ever pay attention to the European feeds. The monitor room’s gone very dark. I can barely make out past the edge of the desk. Can’t even see the penguin clock or the glow that usually bleeds in from the streetlights.

“It’s chaos if you buy into the information,” says Morgan. “Like playing a computer game. I’m walking through town and there’s this enormous screen. A cartoon character’s eyes pop out and he looks at me and winks. Satellites can track us wherever we go. The military are transmorphing and transposing all realities.”

My screens seem closer, bigger, more immediate, each one filled with city ruins in black and white. Footage from an older war in dreary smudges of color. A woman running ahead of shuffling crowds, like constipated lava. Men in brown lining up to get their guns. Loading boxes. Marching with fists raised.

“What. The fuck. Am I watching?”

“I’m a believer in eternity,” says Morgan. “The future doesn’t exist and the past doesn’t exist. That’s why I don’t believe in time travel. You get tethered to people. Just take it as it comes. A whole other world we’re not meant to be aware of.”

I realize I’m no longer typing. Morgan’s slow southern drawl continues inside my head. Too many cigarettes. Too many nightmares.

The feeds change back to black and white; ruins and rubble, peasants wailing for lost children, lost men. Unfamiliar aircraft in the background.

“There was this funeral in town,” says Morgan softly. “Only one mourner. A soldier. Everyone else was in the shadows. Some people know me from the past—and others from the future. You got to be nice to them. I never get involved in the machinations.”

Two soldiers in skin-tight jumpsuits step in from the left – their uniforms are like something out of sci-fi. The smaller one carries a gun that’s half her size.

“Gotta go,” I say to Morgan. She doesn’t answer. The IM chat box has vanished my screen.

“She got disconnected,” I explain to the empty room. It’s all just darkness like the sky behind the ruins. No screen. No walls. No sound.

The close air reeks of cordite, dust, and ash. And something else—dead flesh. As the soldiers approach, the tall one pulls his helmet off. The small one slings the gun across her shoulder.

“No.”

“You don’t fall through the thin ice unless you’ve walked there before,” says Morgan. It’s her, no mistake, standing right in front of me. Hair lank and greasy, fallen bodies strewn about her feet.

“I spent my entire life expecting people to die,” she whispers. “Life’s just like that. Good and bad at the same time.”

But I’m not listening. That tall soldier has me spooked. Something about the shape of him and the way he shifts his weight. When the helmet’s off, he runs gloved fingers through clipped hair. My hair.

“I’ve got ghosts,” says Morgan. “They cling to us when they want to.”

I shake my head but the soldier doesn’t see me. A radio crackles and he talks into his wrist. With my voice, my lips, my blunt inflections. I’m still shaking when both of them step out of the screens and walk right through me, boots and all.

* * *

3. Sunlight on a Broken Column

Esther is not certain of this city or the date. She has been awake for 100 hours, running from The Soldier with the straight white teeth and sniper rifle. Sheltering in doorways, cowering in the back of cafes, dimly-lit, or the protective, garish glare of McDonald’s, with its stale fat stench, plastic furniture, and nobody paying attention to anyone else.

The brisk wind brings her mind into sharp focus. The camera slung across her torso bangs against her hip. This is Sydney and she is pretending to be a tourist, easily blending with youth hostel backpackers: tattoos, piercings, Paddy Palin kit, but when The Soldier smiled, he knew and she knew he knew. She’d been made and she’s been moving ever since. On alert and perpetually on the run.

Esther is the name they gave her, a diminutive of the Goddess Ishtar or perhaps an ancient Persian name for star—she can’t remember. Esther has had many names and many, many briefs. So many countries, so many exit routes.

She presses her face against the bus window, camera balanced on her knees, observing backstreets thick with casualties of suburban wars: the ancient, the hard-bitten, the weary, and the desperate. No smiles to spare. Withered hands fumble coins, roll-your-owns pinched between sour lips, shapeless women in floral polyester, urchins darting between varicose calves.

The bus shudders, flinging Esther backwards. Leviathan faces pout down at her from billboards. Torn paper hangs in pastel curlicues, weeds lunge between pavement cracks. Wind sends garbage pirouetting in the updraft.

She is safe here on this rattling bus—for the moment.

The 309 crawls through urban wastelands, slinks past terraces huddled in rows. Abandons passengers at the feet of mighty towers. Esther slumps, lets her eyes slip out of focus as the cityscape bleeds to monochrome. In the floodlit glare, she glimpses evidence of shadows trapped. Geometric silver planes intersecting where darkness melds with light. The Soldier will not shoot her in broad daylight. Not if she keeps moving—and she’s always on the move. Once the package is delivered, she’s off the grid—perhaps forever. She’s waiting for instructions—that kind of message, she’ll know it when she sees it.

The bus tacks wind traps between cold monoliths, moving ever closer to the city’s pulsing heart. Skirts the parkland fringes; metal detectors gliding across fallen leaves. Students huddle, staring at their phones as old men doze fitfully under trees.

She shifts her eyes back into focus. Something is not right.

At the back of the bus, a shadow coalesces. She sees it only in reflection—when she turns, there’s no one there. But she knows it’s him, his resonance. The Soldier.

At the next stop she jumps down into the realm of politicians, lawyers, the specialists of Macquarie Street and their slick-suited retinues. The trim and streamlined lunchtime crowd flood from office to food court, returning in sweeping tides, balancing lattes and carb-free salads sheathed in rectangular plastic.

Tall buildings create wind corridors. It is cold out of the sun. Everybody strides with purpose. Nobody looks lost. Nobody ambles. Every single one of them wears black.

Esther is busy too. The drop will be monitored and she doesn’t want to fumble it. So many things have changed: old buildings knocked down, replaced by new ones three times the size. Coffee shops nestled in their vestibules below ridiculously large attempts at corporate art. Blurred baristas and the hiss of steam. Seated people talking, always talking, gesticulating, sipping latte, glancing at their phones. Checking they’re not late for something else.

Office people cannot be trusted. They bully each other like caged and beaten dogs, safely cocooned from the contemporary world, never going hungry, never too hot or cold, never had to watch a loved one die by their own hands.

She doesn’t want to think about that now.

Esther is much older than she looks. She’s plagued with memories of London, before the parent organization was forcibly cleaved three ways: Propaganda; Active Operations; Planning. Before the establishment of Home Station, the temporary premises her unit was assigned were often both uncomfortable and unsuitable.

Operatives were required to possess subversive minds. Rebels, prepared to do whatever it took. Riots, boycotts, labor strikes. Assassinations, liquidation of traitors, military and industrial sabotage, the dissemination of relentless propaganda.

Recruitment was by word of mouth. Training took place in special schools secreted on remote country estates. Unarmed combat, secrecy, trade-craft, and silent killing, resistance to interrogation, parachuting, signaling, and sabotage. Weapons, explosive devices and booby traps.

These days, when pressed, sometimes Esther will claim to be a film student or a photographer. Where possible, she makes use of influential people and authorities to gain intelligence.

The bus made her uncomfortable. She does not fare well in cramped, confined spaces. On a bad day she will involuntarily experience flashbacks to that South Pacific skirmish, memories of zigzagging in a submarine, recycled air, warm, stale, and shit-scented overlaid with the purr of distant diesel engines and clammy close-pressed iron walls run damp with condensation. Obtaining vital intelligence from Chinese agents, yet another in a long line of risky solo missions. The last one ended in betrayal and capture, nine months solitary in a dirt-floored prison cell. The guards had taken her out to shoot her, but something had gone wrong. A light so bright, she’d been blinded for a week. Woke up between crisp white sheets in an iron bed about as far from the Makassar Strait as it was possible to get.

And now this. Here.

She pushes blindly through the tide of suits, irrelevant in her cargo pants and T-shirt. Heading for the Quay to lose herself amongst the garish crush of tourists. But, in an unanticipated flare of luminosity, an electronic billboard broadcasts an encoded message—a giant eye winking, just for her. The eye sends her off in the opposite direction; to Central Station under the clock where she will be expected to make the drop.

Chances are The Soldier saw the billboard the same time she did.

Chances are The Soldier will be lying in wait by time she gets there, with his 7.62-mm. bolt-action Remington M24 and fixed-10 power scope, elevated to correct for ballistic arc.

* * *

4. This Broken Jaw of Our Lost Kingdoms

Nadya sits in the railway cafeteria, frowning at short skirts and bare midriffs. In this country, everybody thinks they’re a celebrity. Nobody notices Nadya, despite her outlandish burgundy fur ensemble. She dresses well, still compensating for the deprivations of her squalid Soviet upbringing. The bare-walled room thirteen meters square reeking of kerosene desinsectal used to fight the communal flat’s frequent bedbug infestations. The stinking lavatory, it’s black walls smeared with human shit graffiti. Twenty below zero, rooms filled with smoke from brick and pig-iron stoves. Seven decades on and she still remembers all of it. Casual observers do not see her history. Do not question why she overdresses in high-buttoning blouses, brooches, and embroidered cardigans. Thinning hair pinned back out of her eyes and, perhaps, a hat.

Two gentlemen directly in her line of sight dismiss her as irrelevant while checking the room for surveillance possibilities. A scalp hunter, one of them, she’s certain. The other, a talent spotter, himself a famous raven back in the day. Not in her day, of course. Neither man was born back in her day.

She ignores them. Her years of professional espionage are well behind her. It’s ordinary people she comes here to watch.

She purses her thin lips as, in the coffee queue, a man chasing a dropped coin is startled to discover himself standing on an enormous map of Australia fashioned from inlaid marble, states and territories delineated in shades of off-white, puce, and bone. He’s staring at the compass inset in the speckled emerald ocean when the barista calls out that his coffee’s ready.

Behind him, a middle-aged white woman in fussy pink leans on a stack of luggage almost her own height. A blind cane rests against the bags. Her husband approaches the coffee counter, resplendent in white chinos and white shoes, a pale blue shirt crisply ironed. Navy blue jacket with smart brass buttons lend him a maritime air.

The dumpy waitress taking his order’s long red hair is home-dyed. Her Irish brogue is broad and pleasing. She waddles across the floor to deliver a triangle of wrapped sandwiches to a young seated couple sharing a pastry; him talking, her listening intently, luggage huddled roughly around their feet. His jacket folded and draped over an extended suitcase handle. A crust pinched delicately between her thumb and forefinger. Red-painted nails, two takeaway cups nestled to protect her skin from scalding tea.

Nadya’s gaze travels beyond them, surveying the concourse, the space beneath the station clock crowded with young families and groups of Asian tourists. Couples pushing wheeled suitcases glide across smoothly polished marble. Pigeons dodge and flutter beneath careless feet. A scruffy bearded man with lost expression passes another fitter man pushing a bicycle, its spokes whirring gently.

A young white woman stands solo beneath the clock, waiting. Short hair. Cargo pants. Camera slung across her torso. She flinches as a sullen man with heavy black-rimmed glasses and a leather jacket pushes past her clutching a box of tulips.

The clock itself is an ancient thing—perhaps as old as Nadya—round and solid, heavy-looking, suspended by taut wires. Pale, set with thick black Roman numerals. Below, a vast, imposing electronic Next Departures board, timetables streaming in endless loops. Corrugated plastic sheeting filters natural light from above, pinned in place by pale green beams.

There are ghosts here. She can feel them.

Nadya nods approvingly at a smart young Asian girl’s powder-blue trenchcoat, yellow handbag hooked over one arm, long legs and shiny black patent leather shoes. The girl checks her phone. She is waiting for someone. Everyone under the clock is waiting for someone.

Back inside the cafeteria, Mr. Maritime sets two coffees carefully on a nearby tabletop. Mutters something, takes the cane and heads for the cafeteria’s heavy side doors, tapping all the way to the public toilets. Nadya’s surprised to discover him the blind one, not his altogether more fragile-looking wife.

The raven and the scalp hunter sip coffee without concern. They do not notice Nadya’s fascination with the concourse. The blond barista is an asset. He sees Nadya every other week. She blends into the scenery, with her Devonshire teas and second pot of hot water, stretching out the first to fill in time. He’d peg her as an Aussie or a Brit, if pushed. A nice old lady, harmless. Overdressed. Lonely, perhaps, with nowhere else to go.

The barista has been trained to penetrate facades. He stares idly into space as the milk-frother screeches, venting great jets of scalding steam.

An old grey man in a ratty jumper taps past with his walking stick, coughing, hat flaps tight over his ears, metal hitting marble with loud thunks.

A second screech in competition with the first—chair legs dragging. Nadya is clumsy when she rises, bending arthritically to hook her leather handbag over one arm. She walks with an ivory-handled cane even though she does not need it. The cane once belonged to her husband Borya.

She bumps the former raven’s chair. Turns slowly to make her apologies. Up close, yes, he is still handsome despite the scar, probably still well adept at entrapment. When her arm brushes his, she takes pride in his momentary flash of concern. For a second – just a second – he considered she might not be what she appears.

She apologizes profusely, then ambles on her way. She did not do anything so obvious as tamper with his drink, nor press a tracking device the size of a teardrop onto the expensive fabric of his jacket.

Nadya heads for the taxi rank at the far side of the concourse, berating herself for wasting so much time in this miserable place. She comes here because of him, despite the constant irritation at having to fend off with a brusque, gloved wave the stoned beggars pestering the cafeteria tables. She passes under the clock, moves on to Platform 4—the last place she saw her Borya alive. Borya, who’d survived the Great Patriotic War and the German Fascists only to succumb to pancreatic cancer in a land he had not chosen as his own.

She’s standing there struggling with her memories when she senses something materialize nearby. She stiffens, recognizes its peculiar metallic scent, even though it has been many years and she was certain this country was a safe one. The creature is a shadow soldier—she is never wrong about their kind.

She turns slowly, carefully, glancing back, presuming the scalp hunter or the raven to be the creature’s mark.

The shadow travels quickly, striding brazenly out in the open. It fears nothing—already it has claimed a place beneath the station clock, looming over the short-haired girl in the cargo pants and t-shirt with the camera.

Nadya knows it is too late. That she can do nothing. That she cannot bear to watch. We lost the wars. We failed in our duty. We let these creatures through and there’s no turning back. Her rheumy, tear-filled eyes flick up to the garish, over-lit TV screen hanging high above the turnstiles, a mess of flashy sports footage and talking heads. The screen is so poorly calibrated that the skin of the smiling blonde advertising kitchen appliances is the color of scalded lobster.

Nadya squeezes her eyes shut. By the time she is able to open them, the girl with the cargo pants and camera has vanished. In her place stands a yellow sign explaining that all Blue Mountains inner city trains between Central and Penrith have been cancelled.

* * *

5. In This Valley of Dying Stars

Hours have passed with her hidden in the wardrobe – Arpita marks time by the cramping in her legs and the unbearable pressure building in her bladder. She’s been too terrified to move in case the apartment’s two occupants hear her. It will not take much for them to investigate, to open the heavy wardrobe door. That they haven’t already is some kind of miracle, perhaps one sent by the gods who abandoned her on the golden sands of a foreign shore.

There are two of them—one definitely a man, no question but the other, she’s not certain. A woman, perhaps, with a deep, rich voice, or perhaps another man, a younger one. At first they banged around the kitchen opening cupboards, speaking something sounding much like Russian. She knows practically nothing about that country, only what she has seen on television. What she does know is that if they find her, they will kill her. They will presume she is a spy. They will not believe she is a housekeeper, randomly assigned, never visiting the same apartment twice. That she doesn’t know who she works for. She took the job when it was offered because, back then, she would have taken any job. She had no papers and was relieved to learn there would not be drugs or immoral acts involved. Only for her to unpack, stack, clean, dust and vacuum, move things around and, occasionally, speak nonsense down a phone line. Sentences such as:

“There are no eyes here in this valley of dying stars,” and “Lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone.”

Just a voice instructing her to speak such words, hang up, then quickly leave. Pack up the vacuum and close the curtains maybe – if there’s time. Time, apparently, is always of the essence.

Arpita has been trying to understand the random urge that made her climb inside the big old wardrobe. Perhaps the memory of Aunt Laksha, or was it because, so very briefly, the act had made her feel utterly alive? The same pounding-heart-inside-her-chest she’d experienced when she climbed into the boat that brought her and 554 desperate strangers to this country. Tight-packed in like human sardines, passed from open boat to open boat, tossed over the sides like sacks of grain. No shelter from the sun or stinging rain, each boat bigger than the last one, everybody soaked to the skin and retching as they bobbed and lurched and panicked in near-pitch darkness.

She is not supposed to be here, not supposed to see or overhear. Not supposed to stand out in any way.

Her third assignment was the first in which term ‘safehouse’ was spoken. She’d never considered these strange apartments safe. Safe from whom or what is never specified. Safe from the outside world? She can never feel safe within such cold white walls. She is frightened of the ringing phone, of the faceless people speaking down the line. What they might say in response to her strange poetry. Afraid one of them might ask for papers she does not possess. She is not supposed to be here, yet here she is, luckier than so many of the others.

Her bladder is about to burst. Somehow she’d managed to keep her dignity on those terrible leaky boats and she is damned if she will lose it in this place. She holds her breath and pushes the wardrobe door, gently gently, the sharp stab of afternoon light blinding.

She makes no sound as bare toes brush nylon carpet. The double bed has not been slept in. Dust mites swirl above its drab print calico. Soft light floods the room, old and yellowed, matching the crockery she so dutifully stacks in cupboards.

No sounds emanate from the lounge. The door remains ajar, she can see inside – and the reason for the silence. A man lies face up on the carpet, a dark stain pooled beneath. No sign of the other one, the one she could not be certain of.

She’s desperate to relieve herself, but she has to get out of there. She remembers her shoulder bag, retrieves it from the wardrobe along with her shoes – she’d almost forgotten them too.

She does not want to see the dead man’s face but in the end she can’t help herself. Glassy eyes stare into nothing. He might have been handsome, a small scar on one cheek. A cleft chin, day-old stubble.

She’s made it three steps down the landing, door pulled shut behind her when the phone begins to ring, hollow chimes much louder than they should be.

The dim stairwell thickens with moving shadows that seem almost alive. Arpita hurries and does not look back. Same here as on the journey out of Cisarua. Looking back never offers any solace. Looking back, so often, is the thing that tears your heart out in the end.


Cat Sparks is a multi-award-winning Australian author, editor and artist whose former employment has included: media monitor, political and archaeological photographer, graphic designer, Fiction Editor of Cosmos Magazine and Manager of Agog! Press. She’s currently finishing a PhD in sci fi and cli fi. Her short story collection The Bride Price was published in 2013. Her debut novel, Lotus Blue, was published by Skyhorse in March 2017.
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  • So much to think about in this story. Thanks for an enjoyable read and much food for thought, Cat!