Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 33
Stories
The Other City
by J.S. Bangs
Small Creatures and Large
by Michael Haynes
Thirteen Words
by J. Deery Wray
IGMS Audio
The Other City by J.S. Bangs
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Small Creatures and Large
    by Michael Haynes

Small Creatures and Large
Artwork by Jin Han

Murzah thinks I don't know what he does at night when the rest of us are asleep. But I'm quiet and I've followed him before, gone to the dirty unused room in our orphanage that he sneaks to when the lights are out. I've watched him cobble together the bits and pieces of his creations. He thinks no one has seen the things he makes but I have and I love him for it.

He almost gets caught tonight going through the halls. An older boy, one of Mother Sharna's guards with his wisps of beard coming in, steps through a doorway which Murzah has just passed by. The guard will notice Murzah in just a moment. I run my fingernails along the wall to make a skittering sound, like a rat or some other vermin making its way through the night. The guard turns at the noise, looks my way. I am deep in the shadows and have crouched down small. He takes a step toward me. I hold my breath as he peers down the hall.

Finally, he shrugs and lets out a low whistle. Amirala, older than Murzah and I but younger by a couple of years than the guard, passes through the same door he had come out. He reaches out, strokes her cheek and runs his hand down her neck, her chest, to her waist. She smiles at him, leans in and kisses him, but she is looking my way and I see the smile is not in her eyes.

"Come," the boy says as he pulls away from Amirala. "Let's get you back."

They walk closer and I press myself against the wall. I am looking at her, afraid to look at the boy, and I know that she sees me here. But she casts her eyes forward and they pass by in silence, so close I can smell the warmth of their skin.

It's been seven years since I came here. My mother died of the Grell Plague when I was five, my father lost his life in the Ten Nations' War before my first birthday. It won't be many more months before the older boys look at me as they look at Amirala and the others her age. The gods surely disfavor me, but I believe they have given Murzah a great gift.

I count to twenty before I stand, then walk as quickly as I dare. I want to see what wonder he will make tonight.

His workroom has old filing cabinets covered in dust. Occasionally rats must run across its floor. There are small droppings, evidence of their passage, here and there.

Murzah sits with his legs crossed, fingers working quickly, bits of wood and metal and whatever else he's scavenged coming together to make a form. I kneel by the arch from an alcove to the filing room, the place where I have hidden before to watch him work. The angle he's sitting at affords me little view, though, and I can't tell what he's building.

I ache for him to turn around, to let me see, but he doesn't and I can do nothing except wait for him to finish. The pricks and tingles slowly build up in my bent legs but I don't move. I'm rewarded when Murzah places what he has made on the floor. He runs a hand over it and when he's done I see that it's a small frog with buttons for eyes, pieces of pliant bamboo for the legs and feet, a chunk of wood for the body.

The frog jumps and Murzah lets out a tiny yip of delight. It jumps again and again. I think that maybe I hear it croak once.

Murzah watches the frog and I watch them both.

This is his best one that I've seen. The cricket just rubs its legs together and the snake only slithers around. Seeing the frog hop about the room -- and, yes, this time I definitely hear a low croak come from it -- I can't help but clap my hands together.

His head snaps up. "Who's there?" Murzah looks around the room. "Kirun," -- Murzah's younger brother -- "is that you?"

Murzah snags the frog, stills it, and stuffs it into his pouch. "I know someone is there. Show yourself."

Maybe I could have kept myself from clapping my hands together. Maybe I wanted him to catch me. I don't know. But I climb from my knees and step out into the room.

He frowns at me. "What are you doing here, Geetal? You should be in bed."

"As should you."

His lips twitch, a hint of a smile. "Do you know what they'll do to you if you're caught out here?"

I do, but I don't want to think about it. "Will you show me what you made?" I ask him instead.

Murzah hesitates before opening the pouch and pulling out the frog. I reach for it. He doesn't stop me so I touch its back. I want it to feel like a frog, but I'm disappointed. Its back feels like what it is, a piece of wood.

Something clatters in the hall and Murzah hides his work away. He puts a finger to his lips.

Murzah slips to the door and peers out. A minute later, he waves for me. "We walk back together. I'm not going to have you being noisy and getting us both caught." For a second I want to tell him just who it was that kept the guard from catching him earlier tonight but I hold my tongue.

He grabs my hand and we walk back like this, watchful and silent.

Minutes later we are back in the huge dormitory. We separate; he goes to the boys' side, I to the girls'. I get into my bed and try to sleep. Someone is crying nearby. Someone is always crying here. I think of Amirala's eyes and wonder if the tears are hers.

It's nearly a week later. Murzah and I are in line for dinner; I've managed to queue up by him.

"Hello," I say.

"Hi, Geetal." He acts aloof, like we've never snuck through the orphanage's halls in the dark, hand-in-hand.

"I've had the strangest dreams recently."

"Really?"

I nod. "Yes. I see all these animals in them. Crickets and snakes and frogs." His eyes dance a bit. He didn't know that I had seen the other creations. "And they are all so real that I think I could touch them. But I wake and they're gone."

He glances around. Everyone else is occupied with their own conversations, their food, their thoughts.

Suddenly in his hand there's a disc of metal, several inches across. "That's funny," he says. "I dreamt of a tortoise recently." The metal disappears back into the folds of his clothing.

"I wonder if a tortoise will be in my dreams."

We're almost to the front of the line where we'll get rice and dal and a piece of bread that's always tough. "Tonight," he whispers in my ear. Then he's taking a bowl and making nice to the old man who serves the food. I watch the man give him an extra half ladle of the dal.

I try to be nice to the man but I get nothing for my trouble.

I'm unable to sleep when night comes. The sounds around me fade as the others nod off. Finally, a light rustle of feet and a low whistle. Murzah passes by the end of my bunk. He doesn't stop and wait for me, but I catch up easily.

We have no trouble getting to the workroom. I watch as he puts together his tortoise, marvel at how delicately his fingers work the pieces together.

Murzah sets it on the ground and we watch as the tortoise starts to creep along the floor.

"It's amazing," I tell him and his chest puffs out.

"Here." He pulls a smaller bag out from his pouch and scatters a few bits of unused materials on the ground. "I brought these for you. They're for a grasshopper."

I put them together, doing it just as he tells me. But when I set it down, nothing happens.

"Try tightening that wire," he says. And I do so, but still the grasshopper sits, a sculpture made of junk. Murzah's tortoise continues its crawl around the room.

He picks up the grasshopper and fiddles with it a moment. I can't see what he's done differently than what I had done, but when he sets it down, it hops away.

"What did you do?" I ask.

"I just fixed it."

"But how?"

He shrugs. "I . . . I don't know exactly. I just felt what was wrong and what needed to be done."

"Maybe one of the gods told you what to do?" I say it teasingly, but he doesn't laugh.

"Maybe," he says after a long silence.

The grasshopper hops and the tortoise scuttles and we watch them, side by side on the dirty floor, hands inches apart from touching.

I dare to close the gap and slide my hand up against his. Immediately, a distant bell tolls twice and Murzah utters a low curse. "We need to get back," he says, standing abruptly.

I gather up the grasshopper and he takes the tortoise. He stills them both and puts them in his pouch.

We're halfway back to the dormitory when we round a corner too hastily and run right into one of Mother Sharna's guards. He grabs Murzah and I jump back.

"Geetal!" Murzah cries out. I don't realize it's a warning. I step back again and then feel hot arms around me as well.

"I knew there were children about," the guard says. "I told you."

"Yes," says the voice behind me and my stomach knots itself. It's Mother Sharna's voice and though I could imagine what happens to people caught by the guards, I can't begin to imagine what happens to people caught by Mother herself.

"What were you doing, eh?" the guard asks Murzah. He leers. "You're too young to want to be sneaking off with a young woman, aren't you, boy?"

Sharna orders him to be silent. "Take him down to the cell. In the morning, Jarnak can take him to the quarry. Old enough to sneak around, old enough to do a man's job."

"No!" My shout echoes off the stone walls.

"No," I say again, twisting in Mother's arms. "Murzah can't be sent to the quarry. He makes. . ."

"Geetal!" This time I know he means it as a warning, but I go on.

"He makes these wonderful creatures. It's a gift from the gods. And the gods don't bless quarrymen."

"What is this nonsense?" asks the guard. Mother Sharna doesn't speak.

"Look in his pouch," I tell them. A small movement behind me and the guard does as I suggest. He holds the tortoise in one hand, the grasshopper in the other, both still as death.

"Wonderful creatures? They look like garbage to me."

"Make him hold one!"

The guard forces Murzah's hand open and places the tortoise inside of it. At Murzah's touch, the head of the tortoise shifts from side to side and its feet begin to move.

"Let me see it," Mother Sharna says. She lets go of me and takes the tortoise, examines it from every angle and watches its movement. She sets it down on the floor. It creeps along the ground.

"Amazing," she says. I am relieved that I've gotten us out of trouble and allowed Sharna and the guard to see just how special Murzah is.

Then I'm being pushed into the guard's arms and Murzah is being led away by Mother.

"Get her back in bed," she says by way of dismissal of both myself and the guard.

He looks me over and sniffs. "Too young," he says again. I've never been so glad of this before.

Murzah still sleeps in the dormitory, but I don't see him anywhere else around the orphanage for days. He's not in line for meals, not doing chores like the rest of us. And he's not in the mass of older boys -- the ones not favored enough by Mother Sharna to be guards -- who gather each morning to go to the quarry. Someone comes for him each morning, whisks him away, and he doesn't return until late.

I want to know where he's going, what's happening. I try looking for Kirun so I can ask if he knows what his older brother has been up to, but I can't find him either.

I finally work up the courage to sneak over to Murzah's bed at night. I poke his leg. He looks up at me and then rolls away.

I poke him again.

"Go away," he hisses.

"No. I want to know what's happened to you. You leave before sunup and are gone until late. Are they beating you? Making you do some awful work, even worse than the quarry?"

I wait what feels like several minutes and I'm just about to give up when he turns back towards me.

"If I tell you, will you go away?"

The scorn in his eyes hurts, but I nod. I have to know. Of course, having to know is what started all this.

"Mother Sharna's uncle is a General in this region," he says. "They're trying to rebuild, still, after the War and the Plague. The factories which made the machines of death are smashed, and the people who knew how to run them are dead."

"What does this have to do with you?"

"Imagine a bat built to carry bombs, Geetal. A lion built to kill men. An elephant built to smash buildings, crush anyone who gets in its way under its feet."

He pauses. I can imagine these things.

"Do you see now? Do you see what . . ." I know he's about to say "you've done." But he finishes "they're making me into?" Both, I suppose, are true.

"So tell them no."

"I can't. They have Kirun." He turns back away from me. "You got your answers. Now go."

I walk to bed and wish that I hadn't survived the Plague, that I had died with my mother. I've ruined Murzah's and Kirun's lives. Lying down, I cry myself to sleep.

The rare times we see each other, Murzah ignores me and I let him. Winter comes and a fever passes through the orphanage. I don't get it, but that only means that I have to work harder to ensure that everything gets done with so many of the others sick in their beds.

One day they make me help dig two graves. I do this task with an older boy, the one who had called me too young the night Murzah and I got caught. I see him looking at me several times and I hope his feelings about my maturity haven't changed, despite the outward changes he can observe.

I am lying in my bed, eyes closed, half asleep. A hand touches my leg and I almost scream. I sit up fast and see Murzah there, his finger to his lips. He beckons me to come with him. I'm astonished and overjoyed, thinking he has finally forgiven me.

"Murzah," I whisper when we're alone but he shushes me again. We walk past the door of the room in which he made his first creations, climb to the second level and then the third. Dust piles up along the edges of this hall and I know I hear little feet scurrying away from us.

He opens a door and lets us into a room. A ladder is bolted to the far wall. Murzah nods towards it. We go up the ladder, through a hatch in the ceiling, and we're on the roof. Against one wall is a pile of pieces of metal, chunks of wood, scraps of cloth.

"Kirun is dead," he says, the first words he's spoken to me since the night I came to him in his bed.

Tears well up in my eyes. "I'm so sorry, Murzah." It's all I can say.

"It's not your fault." I'm astonished to hear him say that. "He died of the fever. It could have happened here, too.

"But now," he says, "I can tell them no. Or do even better." Murzah pulls a scrap of paper out and shows it to me. A great bird, an eagle, is drawn on the paper. The bird's claws are oversized, a person sits in each one.

"Why tell me?"

"I need your help. I can only get so many pieces of material. It's taken me the three weeks since his death just to gather this much and it's only a fraction of what I need. They're talking about having me build even worse things, not just animals but true monsters as well. I have to get away."

I tell him that I'll help. My heart lifts as I imagine climbing into the claw of this eagle, feeling the strength of Murzah's creation raising me up and taking me away from this place. Of course I'll help him.

So now, along with the chores I have to do and my attempts to avoid the stares of Mother Sharna's guards, I gather any things I can safely steal which I think will help Murzah. Once a week we go up and add what I've found to his pile. Other than that he continues to ignore me. When I ask him why, one night on the roof, he says it has to be that way.

"With Kirun dead, they've got to be worried that I'll rebel. If they thought we were close, they could use you as leverage against me."

I put my hand on his chest. "If they do that, if they capture me and try to use me against you, just go."

Murzah bows his head and when he looks up I see a glistening in his eyes. He doesn't speak.

"Promise me? Don't let them use me like that."

He nods at last. "I promise." He leans in and kisses my lips. The contact electrifies me and I feel warm and noble and like someone who might not be too young, not for him.

"We have to get back," he tells me. He pulls away and heads for the open door in the roof. I follow him. It feels like my feet barely touch the ground all the way back to the dormitory.

Spring is coming. There's a warmth in the air during the middle of the day and there's more life outside, birds and chipmunks and other animals.

Last week when we went to the roof, Murzah sorted the pile out and gave me specific instructions for what to find. I've done the best I can since then. I know this means we must be nearly ready to go and I hope what I've gathered will be enough.

Like always, he comes to my bed and we go through the orphanage without a sound, always watching for the guards. On the roof, I show him my findings for the week. He nods at the pieces of rope and everything else I've assembled.

"It's time," he says.

"Tonight?"

"Tonight. But I need time to put him together. Wait by the hatch, let me know if you hear anything."

He labors throughout the night. I watch the moon peak in the sky and sink back down. I go to Murzah twice to ask if he needs anything, but he shakes his head, lost in his work.

The sky is turning light in the east when I hear the first cries of alarm. They're from people out on the grounds, so Murzah hears them too. I run over towards him but he hisses to keep watch, that we have to know when someone is coming into the room with the ladder.

"When you see someone, close the hatch, Geetal. It will be time to go then, however ready he is." Murzah ran a hand over the eagle's flank and I see its wings stir slightly. He whispers to it and the movement stops.

The sun slides up the horizon. I hear footsteps inside, not far away. I look down and notice that we hadn't closed the door from the hall to the room with the ladder. I swing my legs into the opening to go down and shut it. But I'm too late. A guard steps into the room. Our eyes meet and he hollers for the others.

"Now, Murzah!" I yell and slam the hatch shut. There's a flimsy latch and I use it, knowing it won't keep out the strong boys below for long. I look for something to weight down the hatch, but find nothing.

I run to the wall where Murzah and the eagle stand. The bird's eyes twitch to and fro and its wings are gently moving.

"It's ready," I say, smiling. "You did it."

I lean in, knowing we have to hurry, but wanting to take just a few seconds to repeat our first kiss before we fly away.

Murzah shoves me to the hard tiles of the roof.

Voices shout below and I hear a banging on the hatch.

The bird has lifted up from the tiles and is hovering just above them. Murzah climbs into the claws of the eagle, his shoulders in one claw and his legs in the other.

I cry his name, beg him to wait.

"He's only strong enough for one," Murzah says.

I'm on my feet. The eagle's claws are at eye level to me. "But we were building him together. To leave together."

Behind me, the latch snaps.

"I never said that, Geetal. I can't help what you assumed."

I lunge towards the eagle, hoping to hang on, hoping that Murzah is wrong about what it can carry, willing to take any chance to get away from what this place holds for my future. The beast snaps at me with its beak, grazing the skin of my arm, leaving a little spot of blood.

The pain startles me and in the moment that I am flinching away from the source of that pain the bird takes flight. I hurry to the edge of the roof but they are already too far gone for me to jump. I glance down at the ground far below and think about jumping anyway; they would say I was a fool girl who didn't know how far she could jump, not that I was a fool girl who killed herself.

But I hesitate a second too long and as I bend my knees to leap, strong hands grab me and pull me back from the roof's edge. The guards, boys playing at being men, scream in my ear, cursing me and telling me what they think I am good for. Between their arms and legs and faces there is a patch of sky. And in that sky, flying away, Murzah and his eagle are already tiny in my sight.


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