Visionary

 In Short Fiction, Stories

“Look.”

“No need. There are none there.”

“Look or else, Mr. Halpine. Whipping is the punishment for disobeying orders.”

I don’t want to. The reek of the Unseens’ blood at this hovel, like a malt-and-orange fog, is strong. Even the sergeant can smell it, I’m sure. The straw mat that covers the entrance has been tattered as if by huge claws or the small mouths of a million insects. I lean my musket against the outer wall of unnatural clay that forms the Unseens’ odd conical abodes (made of their spittle, I heard a colonel whisper once over a late ale, spat out over a fortnight and hardened), garnering a frown from the sergeant, and I stick my head inside the cone.

Shivering, a wounded Unseen cowers against the far wall.

I am Vision. I see what you do not, and alas I see it for you. There are so few of us, in the division of Vision, nobodies who have become precious for our talent that you so desperately need, and yet we are treated like dirt. Shepherds and shopkeepers. I was the town cobbler. I saw holes in shoes before the army rolled one of its rare ghostly prisoners through the street in a cage, testing, and I saw the Unseen. Confessed to what I could see. I was pressed into service within the hour.

The Unseen in the hovel knows I see it. There is the acknowledgement, eyes meeting, the joint attention of souls. The indigo face, so human above that snaking neck, is passive. It–she–has been half-crushed by one of our Wolves. Three of her six limbs dangle in spilt blood. The other half of her is steam-charred by the Wolves’ howls. Her approaching death, blackened skin, the short, battered, almost silent breaths, need no Vision for me to understand the pain.

I don’t want this. My eyes are screaming, Please, stop. Have been for months.

“Anything there?”

“I told you no.”

Something in my voice, the casual musket laid aside, makes the sergeant push in past me, and the lie will be my death now, should he feel about the walls and discover her. I will be executed as a traitor. But the Unseen has died in the second it took the sergeant to enter.

He sees a corpse.

Why we of the Vision can see them when they live and you cannot has never been explained. Electricity below the indigo skin is the theory, that pulse which makes the frog’s leg leap, shifting the Unseen constantly in and out of our reality, or what our brains reel off to us as reality, a saw-edge, seen-edge, a glimmer of colors–occasionally, and only in the right light–of violet and turquoise stripes on the air, gone again. Ghost again. To you.

Alive, only we of the Vision see them. Dead, everyone does.

With one bloody boot the sergeant toes the corpse, gives a sergeantly harrumph, and ducks back out.

The Wolves’ howls are still loud at the far end of the Unseens’ hamlet. The Wolves are sent in first when an area is to be conquered. Clanking mansions of steel on four legs, paws that crush the invisible enemy indiscriminately. Lady Beale’s famous invention, thought large. Yet it is their steam from which no Unseen escapes. Shot forth in a howl, from maws twisting left and right, revealing to you, the unseeing, for only a moment the shapes of your enemy in the displaced steam before they die. I never watch.

The ground here is still hot in patches. A pile of burnt Unseen bodies lies near the next cone we investigate, and before I can duck inside, an Unseen scrambles from behind the pile and darts away. I can’t help but gasp.

Sergeant Mallory’s no fool. He follows my eyes, shoots and his aim is true. The Unseen expires in a spray of blood, a male, an elderly one. I have come to recognize these distinctions: age in the way the middle limbs curl in, gender in the greater stature of the females. (But then the faces give that away too, so human, only the brown eyes larger than ours, worlds exploding as they die).

We finish our rounds of the cones assigned us and Sergeant Mallory walks me back to the main tent. Katherine is there, her half of our Vision patrol completed, and we sit beside a small fire, watching the last Wolves move out into the gray hills burning the brush for more stragglers while soldiers dodge about their legs. Katherine’s eyes mirror mine, I think. Burnt shells of witness. Katherine was beautiful when she joined the Vision, a little sun of a face, restless hands; now she seems most familiar to me with tears tracking through the soot and indigo smears on her cheeks and she never moves after her work for the Vision is done.

“You have blood on your face,” I tell her.

She blinks. “There were lots of young ones here.” We’ve spoken of this before, only between ourselves. That with each village razed, the next appears to have more children. She thinks the children are better at escaping, that the next place adopts them and so they become concentrated, until one day we will be destroying whole villages of only children. I think she sees what she wants to see, because she was forced to leave two small daughters behind to serve the greater purpose of the Vision. Left in the care of her own decrepit mother, her husband having died of the ague, and never any news of them. Sometimes I want to take Katherine’s still hands that were once spirited and hold them.

“Bloody yourself,” she murmurs, and when I frown, she indicates my forehead, where the spatters from the Unseen that Mallory shot must still cling.

Sergeant Mallory, stepping out from the staff tent after his consultation, says “Watch that mouth.” He couldn’t have heard her. He means me.

It’s too much in one day. I’m lost. “Sir?”

“I gave you a good report in there, but I mentioned your obvious unwillingness. Borders on insubordination, Mr. Halpine. Watch what you say to your superiors in the future.”

“He’ll have you out as the enemy, Cedwyn.” Katherine’s scorn earns a glare from the sergeant so malicious I’m frightened for her, but she’s another sergeant’s responsibility, not his.

It is these little rebellions that keepus sane. Say something to her, my thoughts sing, as Mallory turns away, tell her what that flash of her vanished spirit means to you.

Yet it is when Mallory moves away that I see the boy standing just behind him.

Gangly, bulbous in the wrong places, like indigo bladderwrack. His six hands clutch and unclutch as he stares directly at me, pleading something no one ever hears. Please, make it not to have happened. Bring my village back. The mangled corpses you may have seen do not do justice to the Unseen when they are alive, the way they move. There are those who describe the Unseen as insectoid. A few of the Vision with an artistic bent have drawn them in living poses, of attack or ambush, and their exaggerations have colored the revulsion you feel, the horror that for millennia we unknowingly shared territory with beings so alien to us. Ghosts on our borders. But they are flesh and blood as we know it, family to us on a cellular level. The human faces, white-silver hair, five fingers on each of the six hands. Clutching, unclutching.

The boy comes around the fire and crouches near me. Katherine manages not to start when she sees him. Soldiers, non-Vision, are passing by, we are nothing to them, but Sergeant Mallory has stopped a few feet away and turned back to watch the two of us, as though he felt the brush of air. The boy is beautiful and deathly sad. No wounds, only the indigo stains across his chest that must be the remains of his family. I will not look at him. I stay fascinated by the fire, struggling to show no sign, and I sense Katherine doing the same. After a moment she gets up and leaves, and the sergeant, frowning, moves on.

“Help me,” says the boy in a squeaky voice, and my every nerve lights up as though a Wolf has torched it. No Unseen has ever spoken. No one has ever thought they could.

None of the passing soldiers react.

“All hurt,” he says.

I close my eyes, put my hands over my ears in a way I hope looks merely exhausted.

*

It was inevitable. Come into the age of machine greatness, our Empire expanding, we had to have the world, the spaces unspoken for, and so we found them. The Unseen, who had always been there on the furthest perimeters. If there had been encounters before, they had been the stuff of our ghost stories. Ghouls in the landscape. Shimmers of light, come and gone. Adventurers’ tales of the third man. Yet, once discovered, the truth of them could not be tolerated. Our brains are made for lines, for perceiving the edges of things. This belongs outside, not inside. The very definition of dirt is something out of place. We expand our cleanness, our territory of what is us, and whatever does not belong must be pushed outward, eradicated. Another of Lady Beale’s discoveries–shocking to us–is that of germs. That is what the Unseen are, for most. Germs, thought large.

The boy waits for me outside my four-man tent the next morning. His silver-white hair is matted by the night’s drizzle, the blood of his relatives washed away. There is something more human in him than in any of the others I’ve seen. The lostness in his large eyes, perhaps. I’m made a parent against my will and I don’t want it. I don’t have that strength. When I stalk away, the boy follows. My private ghost. The camp is active with dawn work, any moment now a soldier will bump into him, will wrestle with the invisible, knowing immediately what it means. The boy will be bayoneted or shot and the questions will come. You, Vision, you must have seen . . .  I walk on pins. Every passing glance seems a stare. I can’t think straight. I feel three of his hands brush my arm, seeking.

“Mr. Halpine!”

It’s Sergeant Mallory. Fear shoots stars through my veins, but the sergeant only gestures. “Special orders. You’re to report to the staff tent immediately.” He frowns again. Like a bloodhound, he can smell the panic on me. My left side, where the boy stands not a foot from him, is on fire.

“My mother, where.” The boy’s murmur is loud as a gunshot.

“What are you waiting for, Mr. Halpine? Hop to it.”

“Help me, us.”

I could let him die, so easily, my child shadow, just turn, casually, and gasp, pretend he’s just come up behind me, and that would be the end of it.

I salute and spin away and my ghost spins with me.

At the staff tent I’m led to an inner sanctum. The boy is beside me all the way, through the crowded officers, and someone will brush against him now, or sense the space I’m keeping open to my left. Inside the partition a woman with an insignia I’ve never seen sits alone behind a field desk. She gestures for me to take a chair, and the boy crouches on the tent floor at my feet.

Heat calls out the sweat. She can see my heart, surely, pounding in my neck. The woman wears lace at the wrists, a moneyed family, her unruly midnight hair piled in a careless bun in the manner of the young, but when I see her eyes, they are old.

“My name is Dr. Stedhope, Mr. Halpine. Call me Octavia. May I call you Cedwyn?”

“It’s the army and I’m a private. You’ll call me whatever you like, I’m sure.”

“Ah, that stubbornness.” Those eyes wander to a paper on her desk. “Yes, conscripted.” Laughing at me, those old eyes. “Make yourself undesirable long enough, is the strategy, I assume, and the army will let you go home. But we do value independent minds such as yours, you know.”

“I did not know that.”

“Gone all, hurt–”

“You’ve been with Vision for six months now.” She’s spoken over the boy’s voice. I’m still adjusting to this knowledge, that there is something more than Vision, that there is Hearing and none of you have it. Working out how to hide it.

Harder than pretending not to see your ghost is pretending not to hear it.

“We like to talk with our Vision recruits after a certain period, you see. We understand the stresses, the constant barrage, proximity to the Wolves. Other soldiers are subject to it as well, but of course our Vision men and women are . . . more important to us.”

“Is this introspection?” She can’t hide her surprise that I’ve heard the word. A cobbler would have no need for education, for staying up all night reading every book that fell into his hands. “You’re an introspector?”

A bite of her red lips. “Not the preferred term. We . . . look inside, yes. We see what is unseen, much as you do. We are not some kind of police of the mind as the pun on inspector suggests.”

I’m shaking now, and she’ll see that. Because they do see, or so the books said, trained to read souls in faces. She’s a wolf of a different kind, steam that will make my true shape visible. Not here to help but to spy out. Sit back, look relaxed. The boy has leant against my left leg, hugging it. I can’t move it, and when I lean back, I look twisted.

“Cedwyn.” She props her arms on the desk, disturbing the layer of soot there, palms open toward me. “Allow me to ask you a question. What do you think the Unseen are?”

“Dead skin, the father. Hurt, ever ever–”

A trap. “I don’t think about that, Octavia. Surely you have learned people who understand more than a shoemaker.”

“Oh, I think you do think.”

“You say her–stop hurt us.” Four sets of knuckles rap on my knee.

“I think, Cedwyn, that you sympathize with the Unseen, perhaps more than you realize. From interviews with your superiors, it would seem you rarely say anything about our enemy, neither good nor bad.”

“You say her–”

I want to place my hand on his silver hair, tell him I have no say when it comes to my people killing his. Make him understand that dead skin is dead. Ever ever.

Dr. Stedhope is consulting her papers. “You had a younger brother who joined the army. He fell at Nicerre.” Terence, with the bright face that might have been this face at my knee if it had not seen horrors. Or maybe Terence did look like this, after his first battle. I never saw him again once he joined. I begged him not to, offered him a position in my shop. We were all that was left after our parents died, and I became the father-brother. I raised Terence and loved him and the Empire threw him away. All hurt ever ever.

“So you see, I understand you may resent the army, Cedwyn. You’re here against your will. But I need to know if you hate the Unseen as well.” With one finger, as if unconsciously, Dr. Stedhope has drawn a sickle line in the soot on the desk between us. A half-moon, a boat, its hull toward me. Her finger plays back and forth across it and then retreats and she is looking at me.

There are things going on here I don’t understand.

“Have you ever had an idea in your mind that shouldn’t be there?” Her question is musing, friendly. Late ale in a tavern.

I’ll play. “Shouldn’t is relative. I’m the one to decide what should be there or not. I’m the only one who can.” Her smile in response is dazzling and terrifying. Go all in. “How about books that shouldn’t be there, Doctor? Discourse on the Souls of Brutes, maybe?”

“Ah, you’ve read Mr. Carlyle’s forbidden treatise. That the Unseen have souls, comparable to ours.” The boy has become silent as if sensing the dangerous game of our words. My strategy–confess to a small indiscretion in order to misdirect–could still backfire. “It does not discredit you, Cedwyn, to know that which is forbidden. Much to the contrary. I need someone open-minded.”

From a table behind her Dr. Stedhope retrieves a small box and places it on the desk, shifting it more than necessary, obliterating her drawing. Whatever the sickle was, I didn’t respond to it in time. The box, once opened, reveals circuitry–a jumble of wires and tubes that make my limbs ache with dread.

“The researchers grouped around Lady Beale have made great strides.” On her palm she holds out two tiny glass lenses. At their edges wriggle dark jellied filaments. “These are inserted into the eye, one for you and one for me, and communicate through the box.” My mouth is dry. Every nerve tells me to run. “Experiments have not gone as hoped. I believe that is because the minds of the two participants were not in tune to a sufficient degree.” With a practised sweep of her pinkie, she lodges one of the lenses in her right eye. It moves of its own accord, centering. Lights on the box go on. “I wish this to be voluntary, Cedwyn.” Lights in my mind have gone on as well, rapid flashes like musket-shot: she’s obsessed. “You see, I want to see them. Alive.” She holds out the second lens, and yes, her hand is shaking. “I need to.”

I’m on my feet. “Find someone else.” The boy lets go, scrambling back.

“I can order you–”

“And I can tell someone about the line you drew.”

Stedhope stands. She is smaller than I thought. “Please, Mr. Halpine–Cedwyn. There are things you don’t understand.”

I turn and walk out, feeling the boy following at my back like the muzzle of a gun.

*

“If it works, anyone non-Vision could control us. They’d always know when we see the Unseen or not.”

Sage and ash scents drift through the dense dusk. I’ve met with Katherine at the edge of the woods, after whispering a message at supper. Her eyes went wide at my description of Stedhope’s machine.

“The first thing she would have seen was him.” She glances at the boy crouched in the ryegrass beside me. The apathy that marred Katherine’s face has lifted. Some hope of action maybe. A story of resistance. We all need stories. “You did right to refuse.”

“There’s something else.” I tell her about the sickle.

“Dear Lord, I’ve heard of that.” She stares. “The Eye is a legend, just a rumor. A secret organization to save the Unseen. They’re said to reveal themselves to each other with the symbol of the eye. She expected you to complete it with a second line drawn on top. She’s a member.”

“That, or she’s only heard of it like you.” Traps within traps. I grope for details, trying to decide whether I should have trusted Stedhope. Only that last show of obsession has stayed in my mind, the only moment that rang true, the trembling hand. She longs for the Vision.

“Bad good,” says my ghost.

My dilemma, in simplified form. I crouch before the boy. The first chance I’ve had to acknowledge him, the shock of his voice. “Tell me, do all of you speak our language?” Behind me Katherine starts.

“All not.” He frowns. “Good. Bad.”

“How did you learn it?”

“One, two go you houses, listen. Come tell.”

When I look up, Katherine has her hand over her mouth.

“You don’t hear him, do you?”

Hear?

I’ve never touched an Unseen. I touch the boy’s top arm. The flesh is hotter than ours, more like gum rubber, and yet the connection sparks. Nerve, sense, scent, grief, we are all made of the same material. I’ve been muddling through, I see that suddenly, neither hot nor cold, protecting them when I can and shrugging when I can’t, refusing to believe it’s a moral decision, that they’re not more than animals.

“Touch him,” I tell Katherine. She’s crying.

“I–I can’t.”

I remember her daughters and I understand.

Either the Eye Stedhope drew is a trap, or I’ve been offered a way to prove myself. I’m too exhausted to decide. I agree to meet Katherine again, and when I return to my tent Sergeant Mallory’s waiting to arrest me.

*

Ghosts are germs. Our memories a disease, and grief the symptom. They bring me to the cages, where Stedhope is waiting with her box, and I fight, braying as in a fever, thinking only of Terence, as they hold me down and place the lens in my right eye. Beautiful Terence, who is the boy, who is my ghost. Who will die as Terence did, torn apart, once Stedhope sees him through my eyes.

The cages hold the few live prisoners taken from the hamlet. Most are dying of their wounds. Seeing a female half-conscious in the nearest cage, the boy whimpers, “Mother, hurt,” and it’s too much.

“I didn’t ask for it!” I cry to Stedhope as she inserts her own lens. “I didn’t ask to see–I won’t be your vessel!” I keep my right eye closed, but Mallory forces it open. I’ll tear my eyes out, I think, and they think the same, for a soldier pins my arms back.

The box lights up. Shocks stab my brain. A weight, presence–she is here, looking and looking, as Mallory twists my face to the cages and I hear Stedhope gasp with wonder, the she-eyes in my head darting from cage to cage of Unseen–here is one uninjured, grasping his cage bars with all six hands and roaring defiance (she doesn’t hear that, but her–my–eyes move up and down him, admiring). The young, the old, a female nursing the infant it managed to rescue. The mutilated, the expiring, and yet graceful in their seaweed undulations. The indigo velvet of their pain, strong as a musk scent against the falling night.

And the boy, who has stepped into our line of sight to approach his mother’s cage.

We look straight at him.

“Yes,” Dr. Stedhope murmurs. At her gesture, I am snatched up and shoved along the cages, moving down the line, away from the boy, as she admires each prisoner through me. Mallory moves with me, his greasy fingers gouging my face where he holds my eye open. “Yes. The experiment is a success.” As we pass Stedhope, I see she’s drawn a sickle in the dust with her boot, and she looks at me looking at her, a dizzying loop of secret acknowledgement. “Thank you, Sergeant Mallory, that will be all for now.”

“It’s not all.”

It’s Katherine’s voice, the spirit in it twisted into something shredded. She steps from the shadows, accompanied by her own sergeant, a burly man named Foale. Her face is stone and it turns me to stone. “Go on,” Foale tells her.

“They’re sympathizers, the both of them. Traitors. Bringing the Unseen into our midst.” Katherine approaches the boy. I believe–will always believe–that for a second she hesitated. “Here, the proof.” She rams herself against the boy, bounding back.

The squad brought there to guard me is swift. They’ve confronted it before. Two of them surge forward, grapple with the invisible, feeling out its contours, until they hold the boy tight. He’s still looking at his mother, who’s crawled to him against the bars. He’s made no attempt to run or fight, the word traitor meaning nothing to him.

“I knew it,” Mallory growls.

Sergeant Foale has moved to block Stedhope. She clasps the box.

“Why?” I ask Katherine. This is grief too, this hate I feel, a Katherine I knew dead.

“Because I want it to be over, Cedwyn. When they’re all dead, I can go home.” Her eyes are fruits burst open and rotting inside. “All your resistance only makes it take longer. I don’t care about them, I don’t–” She has begun to sob. “I don’t care about anything except my girls.”

Beyond the cages there is movement, my own tears perhaps, but then I see them. Flowing out, through a dusk that has become night–an indigo wave. Hundreds of Unseen, stepping from behind tents and trees, dodging past guards who are unaware. Stedhope, seeing it through me, stiffens and then smiles.

Katherine’s shout is too late.

They have learned from us. Their attack is swift, disarming the soldiers of their muskets first. The river of their bodies turns where needed, they cry instructions to one another in a language like waterfalls. It is this they lacked up to now, this defiance, organization. Yet it is without the lust to kill. Each soldier is hugged in a six-armed vice, while other Unseen use the muskets to shoot the locks off cages. Mallory is tentacled by two of them, screaming his rage. Alarms sound from the center of camp.

“We can’t stay here!” I cry to the boy, who has helped his mother from her cage.

“Come you.” A thick voice beside me, the young uninjured one, freed from the first cage. He sweeps me up, cradling me like an infant against his hot chest, and calls out a command I sense is a retreat. Another Unseen lifts Stedhope and her box and she laughs like the maniac she is.

Katherine has fallen on her knees in the midst of it. She hasn’t fought. The despair is back, she is the stony-faced ghost of herself again, but I have to try. I motion my carrier to pause.

“Come with us, Kath. We’ll send for your children, live in the woods. Resist.”

No reaction. There is no Hearing for her, and–I see suddenly–no Vision. Not the Vision needed. I leave her there.

Soldiers pour into the far end of the clearing. As one, the Unseen flee the other way, the boy, the prisoners, our carriers in the lead. Melting away toward the hills. We are in their river, Stedhope and I, rising upon their rapids. If arriving soldiers glimpse us, we must seem to float on our backs into the dark, that motion in dreams that signifies death, but it is life we go to.

We are part of that movement still. It was within a fortnight of seeing the Unseen through me that Stedhope began to see them without the lens, and then to hear them. We changed the Eye’s sign to an Ear. More sympathizers join us here in the hills every day, non-Vision who, after wearing the lens, waken one morning with Vision, their brain taking over the work of the box’s wires. It is the seeing in the first place that is difficult, the acceptance that changes everything. Soon they hear as well. The Unseen move among you now, in your cities, part of a plan I’ve devised, for it is my theory that it is contact that makes Vision and Hearers of us naturally, that someday you will stop in the street at a glimmer and watch it become more than a glimmer.

I will make them be seen, I will make them be heard.

Rhonda Eikamp is originally from Texas and lives in Germany. Her stories have appeared in Unlikely Story, Lackington’s and Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction, among others. When not writing, she translates for a German law firm or just stares out the window, contemplating the invisible worlds around us.

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