Love, That Hungry Thing

January 26, 2021

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Cassandra Khaw is an award-winning game writer, whose fiction work has been nominated for several awards. You can find their fiction in places like F&SF, Year's Best of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Tor.com. Their next book Nothing But Blackened Teeth is coming out in 2021. They can be found on Twitter (@casskhaw) mostly!

Content Warning(s):
Blood/Gore, Violence

“Sister,” pants the white fox as it dangles upside-down from the railing, its tail like a question mark, its grin like something the devil had won from Saint Peter. “You’re getting soft.

I pinch my midriff and shrug, winking an eye. “I’ve been busy.”

“No, no, no.” It chortles, all teeth and the sly red hint of a tongue. The parent-god themself speaks only in keigo, but their messengers won’t abide such formality. Over the years, I’ve heard these foxes converse in Louisiana creole, gossip like gang-bangers fresh from Peckham, even debate in Bislama. Today, however, this fox’s all Brooklyn, every diphthong authentically and anachronistically New York, New York. A taunt. That version of Gotham is long dead, black-blue with bodies, and all that is left of that city is him. “That’s not what I meant. Sister, don’t play dumb with us. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Maybe, I do. Maybe, I don’t.” Sunlight knifes through the foliage. Post-apocalyptic anywhere has a tenderness to it and Tokyo is no different. Patches of the city still bleed, the psychic resonance of a million casualties deafens. But here, under the eaves of the shrine, jewelled with summer rain, it is beautiful. “Who knows?”

“You do, sister. But alright, I’ll bite. I’ll talk.“ And its smile lengthens into a warning. “You’re getting soft. A decade ago, you wouldn’t waste your wishes like this. But now? Now, you’ve gone and given up a proper promise, all for that little counterfeit fox of yours.”

“Every fox is a fake next to you and yours,” I soothe, the flattery half-ritual already.

“Riiiiiight.” The god’s emissary screams a laugh, and the cicadas cease their chorus, scandalized by the interruption. “Right, right, right. So tell me. Tell me what makes that pretty little fox-thing worthy of a borrowed boon, why don’t you? Tell me and maybe I’ll whisper this request into the right ears.”

“Because his smile in the right light looks like another word for home,” I say without recitation, with the ease of rote. When the fox cocks its head in reply, I continue, softer than before. “Because he cares so damn hard that I don’t know what to do about it, sometimes, and the thought of him is an ache. Like coming home from the blizzard and letting your heartbeat thaw in hot water. That same kind of sweet, slow pain.”

“And you’d be happy with such a simple thing?”

“Brother, I could build a life around that.”

The white fox reverses the tilt of its sleek head. “But he won’t build a future around you.”

I smile, slightly forlorn. “Yeah, well, that’s never been what it’s about.”

§

The gods woke as we fled the planet and boy, were they hungry.

To this day, deities remain a contentious topic despite how they’ve made themselves common on our ships, manifestations drawn from every version of themselves. For example: Odin, one-eyed and stentorian. Odin, as portrayed by Ian McShane a lifetime before, Odin as recognized in comic books, Odin as a roar of thunder. That sort of thing.

Mine called themselves Daji and declared themselves victorious over all other foxes. Daji, Dakini, even Reynault in France, who they assure me was once as numinous as them. At least, until they cracked Reynault open and supped on his marrow.

But we’re digressing. Before, if their fiction is to be believed, they were happy to content themselves with glasses of alcohol, rice dressed with sweet soy and blanketed with fatty char siu. Money; always a favorite. The nights, however, have become as long as grief these days. The gods now require better nutrition and blood, as history endlessly repeats, fills that need like nothing else.

I found this out one night when I was desperate. When he was ill, writhing in sick bay. I offered a pour from my veins and Daji’s messengers lapped it up, giggling like children throughout. 

“Sister, he doesn’t deserve you.”

At that, I only dug deeper into the vein. “I know.”

§

“Ama?” 

I slide a look over my shoulder as Rita jogs into view, voluminous hair bramble-wild in the humidity. Sweat glistens along her jaw, drips; it gleams along the holocaust of her right cheek, the muscles wefted into something like rough wool, skin crocodilian where it isn’t absent, flesh all pink. “Yeah. What’s up?”

“I heard you talking—” 

A shrug. I’m not a priestess. Not really. Daji isn’t my god to hawk.

“I’m always talking to someone.” I pinch the bridge of my nose, let go, a smile following after, a hound on the hunt. “Usually they’re under the age of two and about ready to shit on my suit.”

Rita gives one of her rare laughs, the sound of her voice precise, dangerous. Bad whiskey on a bleak night. Recruits get themselves killed over that noise; it’s a lie that says everything’s good, everything’s safe, everything’s alright, don’t think too hard on any of this, don’t think, just go. “Yeah. Sorry. We’d look into getting some help—”

The rain starts up again, machine-gun fire on the wooden roof. “Promises, promises.”

“You could teach someone.” Rita slants a reproving look, and I half-shrug into her admonishment, both shoulders going up, staying up. The white fox isn’t anywhere to be seen and neither is the offering I’d brought, vacuum-packed and primly divided, each section labelled. Not one of Daji’s menagerie has ever remarked on whether the gesture is appreciated, but since no disapproval has been expressed either, I’ll continue my little courtesies. Gods are strange these days.

“I could.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Because you’d pitch me out of an airlock if I did.”

Rita shakes her head. The light threads itself through her scars, transforms her skin into a mosaic. “Lies. I wouldn’t have a cook if I did.”

“I appreciate that you appreciate my functionalities. It says a lot about what you feel in regards to my personality.”

“The less said about your character the better.” Rita drags fingers through her curls, restless. I don’t blame her. The pret—our word, a colloquialism, not the official epithet—gravitate towards biophysical activity, evidence of synaptic function. If someone told me a decade ago that this is what we’d be fighting, afterimages and psychic runoff, I’d have—no, I probably wouldn’t have laughed. But there’d have been incredulity, skepticism.

“You know what I like about you? I always know where I stand with you.” I let my shoulders drop, thumbs hooked through my belt loops. Civilian attire is always so risky, but I miss pockets, miss the convenience of draping fabric, the feel of cotton. The breeze snakes through the undergrowth, a faint rustling. A floral sweetness suffuses the air, luscious, nameless. Humanity’s exodus catalyzed the parturition of a billion new species; bacterial and vegetal and animal, every phylum contributed offshoots to this new ecosystem.

“Careful.” Her eyebrows go up. “Or I’ll really jettison your ass.”

I bark a laugh, avid and hungry. “Promises.”

Rita’s expression pares itself of playfulness. In its place, she installs a portraiture of the decorated commander: analytical, apathetic. “What are you doing here, Ama?”

A Cold War of ciphered expressions before I allow a smile to tender my submission, eyes lidded, a lie slotted into my smile. Rita sighs, compromises on pretending on that whatever I’d say next is something approximating honest fact. “Just felt like—I don’t know. Giving back a little.” I palm an orange-red pillar, let my expression color sly. “The shrine was kind of enough to stay upright despite the end of the known world, so I figured it merited some gratitude in return.”

“Uh huh.”

“Honestly,” All teeth now, my grin. Gods are vectors of contagion, their idiosyncrasies breed like viruses, infect with impunity. All worship is a contract of sorts, tacit permission for the numinous to edit their flock. You can’t help but evolve in their proximity.  “What’s wrong with a little prayer in our line of work?”

Her expression calcifies, a snarl coiling her ruined mien. “Everything.”

§

We fled to the stars before Earth let out its last breath and drifted between galaxies for four hundred years, listening to the heartbeats of our ships. Fiction would have you think that such an enterprise would turn the species feral, but the truth is kinder. Humanity lost its fear of itself, shed its hate like a mouthful of rust. When you have nothing but each other, you learn to love your neighbour. You do that or you die.

§

“Not that again.”

“Serotonergic activity increases the—” 

I flap a hand. “I know, I know. You don’t have to keep banging on about it.”

“We’ve lost six already.”

Eight, I think, not wanting to remind Rita of that cat’s cradle of charred bodies I’d found on the riverbank in Seattle. Two new recruits who’d been separated, who did everything right but still died with their spines fused into a black rope of burnt muscle, teeth hard and small and commercial white, studding jawbones like bridges of charred fat. 

Still, no reason to bring up the dead and even less purpose in bringing up guilt. Casualties are all part of the business.

I study Rita’s features for a hard minute before I shrug, my apathy invoking a look of chagrin. She rakes a hand through her hair again, shakes out the curls. She’d been a girl once: soft, certain in the world’s charity. And despite the banality of that revelation, its raw absurdity, it surprises me. I search her countenance, wondering if I could decode an image of that child from the wreckage of her face, some uncharacteristic vulnerability to suggest that Rita wasn’t harvested from a cloning facility, full-grown, cynical from activation.

“What?” I say.

“Talk to me.”

“What do you want me to say? I see trees of green, red roses too?” I enfold the world with a gesture. The rain maintains its desultory assault. The air thickens, a green sweetness on the tongue. Through the trees, I see the detritus of Tokyo, verdant, its skyscrapers excised of their original purpose, nothing more than trellises now, overrun with new life. “I see them all. Yeah, I—”

“That’s not what I meant.”

I cock my head. “Meaning only the slightest disrespect, Colonel, but if you’re dissatisfied with me in any way, I invite you to file a fucking report. Otherwise, you don’t have jurisdiction over what I do during my free time.”

Rita’s tongue laves across her mouth in a quick motion. Her fingers spasm into claws, then fists, squeezing shut. We’d sparred. Of us two, Rita is quicker, more practiced, but I’ve the advantage of density, my frame made to endure.  “This is not about your performance.”

“Then with even less respect than before, Colonel, I ask that you fuck off and let me do what I need to do.”

“Fucking hell, Ama. Can’t you—we’re not fighting here. This isn’t a war between the two of us. You and I? We’re not enemies.” Sentences like buckshot, violent. 

“Nope.” Deer, pelts red-brindled and muzzles tusked, spring from the undergrowth, and I pivot on a toe to watch as they bound across the road below, their bodies reflected in the dark glass of a shop front. Inside, mannequins like desiccated bodies, haute couture rotting into shreds. “Not enemies.”

A sigh. “I know what you’ve been doing.”

I slant a look across my shoulder, the horizon bleeding to dusk. A smile spills again into place as I dip my head, body tensed against the implied accusation. “And?”

“You’re going to kill yourself this way.”

“I’m careful,” I say, carefully, picking my way through the sentence, eliding anything that may be construed as incriminating. Every marine is kitted with telemetric machinery, methods with which to conscript and transmit data: barometric pressure, atmospheric nuance, confession. “I’m a trained medic. I know the limits of the human body.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“It’s not your business anyway.” 

Implacable, Rita continues, pursues her interrogation without a pretext of courtesy. “Yes, it is. You’re my friend, Ama. Like it or not, I care about you. And he doesn’t—”

“Still not your business.”

“Fuck me. Will you just listen?”

“Love makes you do stupid things, I guess. ” Conversation, like everything else, is subject to weaponization. A pair of foxes skulk from the undergrowth, bleach-pale and too broad along the scapulae, almost primitive in the way they hulk. They bay like wolves, like women halfway to wolves, like things wilder than both, sublime in their lack of classification.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” 

“I don’t know,” I tell her with a frayed smile. “I’ll let you know when I stop lying to myself.”

§

I spoke to Daji. Once. When I represented an unprecedented novelty: a mercenary who would be a priestess, without training or even the excuse of familial affiliation, with nothing but audacity and avarice. They came to me in the ship’s hold. A murmuration of porcelain foxes, hundreds-strong, each as delicate as a child’s phalange. When they spoke, it wasn’t in chorus but in concert, their discourse Mozartian in its elegance. They sang and the ship sang with them, ecstatic, effusive. 

“He will never give you what you want.”

“Probably not.” I told them. “But that’s not the point.”

“He won’t love you back, you know? Not the way you want him to. Not the way you could be loved.” Daji disclosed futures in potentia: a woman, black-haired and solemn, a ring on a pale finger; a man, gaunt, starved of ego; daughters without the preamble of romance: two adopted, a third hand-crafted by medical professionals. So much uncomplicated happiness, only a decision away from corporealization. All I needed to do was ask.

Gods are cruel that way.

I closed my eyes against the Technicolor possibilities, breathed out. “Maybe. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about.”

“So, why?”

The answer’s always inelegant, always has been inelegant. Without the framing of my private neurochemistry, without the context of love, its poetics, my response has never been anything but clumsy, sentimentality absent of sense. So I said nothing on the topic, instead deflected with a question. “What will it cost me?”

“What will what cost you?” Daji disseminated themself across the space, multiplying between seconds, until the infrastructure swarmed with enamelled bodies, their eyes a universe of unblinking stars. 

“My wish.”

“It depends on how much you want it.”

My voice husked without intervention or irony. “Like air.”

The quality of the light altered, became syrupy; halogen deepened to gold; the seconds slowed to something like honey; a meadow-sweet aftertaste of clover you could crunch between your molars. “Tell us again. Tell us what you want.” 

Their instruction turned in my breastbone like a key. 

“Keep him safe.” I said and the words had the suppleness of practice. They no longer hurt on exit. The yearning expanded in my breast. “No matter what, keep him safe, keep him safe.”

“No matter what at all? No matter what I ask?”

“No matter what.” 

And Daji laughed like a thousand worlds ending at once.

§

“All this is for—”  

“Yes.”

Why.”

I pinch my tongue between incisors, press down until the taste of rust steeps in my mouth. It isn’t until a rill of wetness winds down my chin that I pause, thumbing at the blood. Swallow, smile. But the lie of nonchalance doesn’t come easy this time and behind my ribs, my heart drums a dirge. Ten years of prayer, of consorting with spirits from a thousand light years away, all for someone who has never looked past next Wednesday. The irony is an incision, a cut in a lung, and when I breathe, it hurts.

But this story was never about me.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ama.” Rita thumbs the trigger of her ion-pistol, then palms its grip in the next stroke. The rain recedes, seeps between the cobblestones and spreads into puddles, an upside-down window to the bruised-plum firmament, suddenly so very dark now, deepest indigo save for the gold lacquering the mountain line. I gaze out at Tokyo, the city inert and still. The air flexes. Somewhere, a fox screams. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t lie to me. Don’t try to weasel out of this. Don’t do this to—” Leather, petri-grown, sliding over leather. A motion in the periphery of my vision, gunmetal gleaming. “—us.”

I look back to her, the firearm in her grip, no threat as of yet but the nascent vow of one. Rita’s expression is a reflection, familiar in a way that I wish it wasn’t, that exhaustion intimate as a fillet of muscle from my thigh. I know that look. Worn and weighted down, weathered, weary, dragging regret like someone else’s sins. Rita’s spent forever trying to save me from myself. “Didn’t know we were dating. I’d have dressed up for you more, otherwise.”

Click. “Please don’t make me do something I’d regret.”

“Like what? Shoot me? Is that where you’re going with that? Because we both know you’re not supposed to pull out a gun unless you’re planning to use it.” I spread my arms, palms turned up. “No one is getting hurt by this.”

“Except you.”

“That’s not your cross to bear.” I take a step forward. “That’s not your fucking business either.”

Rita doesn’t back down, only lowers the barrel so the muzzle aligns with my knee. Her expression is glacial, the look of someone who has brought more people out of this world than in. “Why do you owe him this? What the fuck did he do to deserve any of your consideration? This is a security risk.”

“It wouldn’t be if you didn’t insist on hanging around.”

“That isn’t the point. This is still a security risk. A member of personnel—aka, you—is still at risk from these activities. And gods, I—I can’t understand why you’re taking these chances, why you’re putting yourself in harm’s way. Because as far as I can tell, this whole thing’s been in his favor and all you’re doing is bartering for scraps. Hell, does he even know you’re doing this? That thing with the Daji shrines?”

“I’ve sent images.”

“And what did he say?”

I grit my teeth. “He said he appreciated the sentiment.”

There is no warning between the moment when Rita makes her decision and when she fires, the bolt cleaving through my augmentations, past bone, boiling synovial fluid to steam. The shot is precise, intense; it cauterizes the flesh as it passes. I collapse, panting, my vision haloed by magnesium flashes.

“The fuck did you do that for?”

“Daji needs a sacrifice, right? That’s how it works?” Rita bends down, face frescoed with darkness. She unholsters a knife, small and primitive, slices a curl of fat from my thigh before rising to her feet. “A friendship’s got to be worth its weight in something.”

A buzzing noise suffuses the atmosphere, lower than the sound of cicadas, lower even than the hiss of old-fashioned television static; something that murmurs through the spine like the song of a million pale foxes. Through the torii gates, I see something move, a teardrop of a body uncurling, and it’s anyone’s guess if it is one of Daji’s messengers or the pret come to feed, and if there is any difference between the two.

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© Cassandra Khaw

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