They had been playing the music a little softer in Laren’s these past few months. There was a time, not so long ago actually, though it felt like the distant past, when Laren’s had been noisy. In the first decades after it was founded, Laren’s had a reputation as the toughest bar in Port O’James. Law enforcement officers were almost as regular as the customers.
This was around the time the Industrial Stimulus Act, called ISA, passed in Port Sang thirty years earlier. The government invested in modernization, automating a lot of the harbor’s services while promoting new industries and services. Port O’James was still a port town first and foremost, but there was a growing tech industry thanks to ISA’s tax incentives and education investment.
This allowed Port O’James to escape from an economic slump, but it also created a gigantic rift between generations, with a lot of resentment toward the “ISA Kids” on the part of those who were a generation or half a generation older. Children descended from long lines of longshoremen and sailors now had access to world-class educations and white-collar careers.
Laren’s became something of a battleground in the resultant culture war. But over time, the old regulars started to give way to new regulars, and the rough reputation transformed into a charm in its own right. The rambunctious fervor of the bar metamorphosed into an ironic imitation of itself.
But the volume of sound, ironic or not, had died down in recent months. And so when Ana walked into her favorite bar, there was something dreamlike to it - an incongruity that, at least in her current state of consciousness (something she was pretty certain was genuine wakefulness,) refused to be contradicted.
There was no denying that if people recognized her on the street, they tended to either stare or avert their gaze. She had never felt so self-conscious, but after weeks of this treatment, she thought she had gotten used to it.
Walking in to see a quiet Laren’s, though, confirmed for her something that until this point she had only understood subconsciously. It was not just her. The city was on edge.
And to be fair, it had felt on edge since the Ostrich sailed into port. But in the time that Ana had been gone, the town had gotten skittish.
She thought about the faceless men, and how the soldiers at Far Watch had behaved strangely, unable to see them. She took some consolation that she had not seen any of the faceless men since Far Watch, and she preferred a town that was scared over one filled with people numb to near catatonia.
Nick and George were at a table in the back – not their usual one, as there was a group of Arizi sailors taking that spot. For an instant, she considered turning around before her friends saw her, but her feet kept taking her forward.
“There she is!” cried George. He got up from the booth and immediately went over to hug her. Ana bent down to accept the hug – George had achondroplasia, and so was over a foot shorter than she was. George wrapped his arms around her and held tight. Her eyes began to well up. George whispered into her ear “You’re back, Ana. And we’re never letting them take you away again.”
Ana released a sobbing guffaw. “Thank you,” was all she could think to say. They had been friends since elementary school. When things got heated with her parents, Ana would stay at George’s house. One hug brought back almost two decades of friendship. It was a little overwhelming.
Ana stood up again when Nick came to hug her. This was a quicker moment, one-armed due to a glass of beer in his hand. And there was the awkwardness inherent both in the fact that they had seen one another fairly recently at the station and the perpetual subtext of his hopeless infatuation with her. It had been her hope that, if there was any good to come of her shocking revelation as undead, that he might finally lose this attraction, but she suspected that he had not.
That was not a problem she felt ready to confront – it was low on her priority list.
“So,” began Nick. “How’s the process coming?”
“Fully debriefed. Legally recognized as the same citizen I always was.”
“And at work?” asked George.
“Taking a leave of absence. Harrick suggested it.”
“To cover himself?” George has always been skeptical of law enforcement, and Ana’s choice to join the force had been met with something like shock – though the shock was couched in unconditional support, as it always had been with George. Ana had chosen the career partially because of her grandfather, Bjorn, who had always been her favorite. He had died early enough that she was able to idealize him and ignore the likelihood that he would have held to the same conservative views that had alienated her from her mother. On principle, she also decided that if she wanted a society with a more progressive and ethical law enforcement, people like her would have to join. Max Herrick had confirmed for her that she wasn’t the first person to have this idea.
Ana shook her head. “He didn’t pressure me into it or anything. I… It’s still kind of a blur to me, you know?” She allowed a server to place a beer that one of her friends had apparently ordered for her in front of her. “I mean, objectively, I’m not back to normal. In a sense I’ve never been normal, you know?”
“Sure, sure,” said George. It had sounded like he was going to follow this up with something, but instead he turned his attention to the bottom of his nearly-empty glass.
Nick leaned forward. “After I got suspended, George took point on trying to get you back.”
“I kept trying to get that Lisenrush fascist’s office, but-“
“Lisenrush, I was trying to get in touch with her to complain. I was beginning to think they were ignoring me.”
Ana’s own attitude toward Lisenrush had been fairly confrontational to begin with, but after their trek through the forest, she did not seem like an enemy.
Yet Lisenrush had been the one to take her against her will to Far Watch. That had been dubiously legal. The Rangers had authority to deal with the undead – an authority that dated back centuries – but as far as Ana knew, the doctors had only put forth the idea as a hypothesis when she was taken.
Still, she had bristled at George’s description of Lisenrush. She had been forced to put her trust in the Ranger-Captain. They had seen something that was almost unthinkable even after having witnessed it. She had expected she would get more questions from the Port Security Service, the North East Colony’s main intelligence agency, though they seemed satisfied with her statements. Perhaps they were in the process of corroborating her statements with those of Lisenrush.
Maybe there was reason to dislike, even hate Lisenrush. But that all seemed irrelevant, given the threats they both knew existed.
Coming back to Port O’James had felt so strange partially because it didn’t look like the world was ending here. Was it safe here?
“It’s like something out of a nightmare,” Ana said to herself.
Apparently it had been out loud, though, because George piped in. “Hey, Ana. We’re going to make things like they were. It’ll be ok.” George, the good friend he had always been, seemed to have adjusted to the revelation of her… physiological status with ease.
But that wasn’t what she was thinking about. In a strange way, it almost felt like finding out she was undead was a kind of relief – a release of built-up pressure. It had been shocking at first, but she was beginning to acclimate to the notion.
The nightmare was the faceless men. The outpost had transformed almost instantaneously. How could she be sure that the faceless men would not come back?
Lisenrush could not feel her legs. They had her on an IV that seemed to be pumping in a lot of pain meds. Though, she supposed, not enough to prevent her from realizing she was on pain meds. And not enough to prevent her from feeling pain.
Maybe it would be worse without the meds.
She had never let pain get to her. When she was a kid – ages ago – she used to get into fights. She was not the best student, or even the most gifted athlete. But she had an edge in fighting, because she did not let pain bother her. She could fight stronger kids and simply outlast them. It was a way that she could win.
Her spine had shattered when it hit that tree. The draugr had looked so frail and thin, but that was the thing about the undead – their strength was not human, physical strength. It was all channeled through mysticism and magic, not earned through practice and grit.
Through standard medicine, she would have been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Nothing below her abdomen would have had any function again. But all that was changing in this new, interconnected world.
The Arizi used magic for everything, even though the doctor that the hospital brought in insisted that “magic” as it was understood by most people, wasn’t really magic in the strictest sense.
She was not interested in philosophical debates. She could barely stay awake for two hours at a time. She suspected that was partially the boredom of being in a hospital bed.
Sleep had been… not difficult, but it almost didn’t feel like sleep. There was a comfort, a pleasant sensation to sleep, when the mind’s logical thoughts were allowed to relax and drift on a timeless sea. Yet when she slept now it just felt like numbness.
She looked up at the clock. It was three in the afternoon. She used the remote to turn on the television. She looked up – she just wanted to check the news – but she had the strangest sensation. She could hear the anchors talking about some sort of uncharacteristic violence in Arizradna (something that gave her a certain nationalistic smugness) but she could not see the television.
She was staring right at the screen, but she could not tell what the picture showed. She squeezed her eyelids shut and opened them again. Was it her vision? The draugr had given her a painful head butt, and perhaps that had jostled her eyes or even her brain. But she turned her head and looked at one of the medical posters – something about proper handwashing procedures over the sink – and she could read it just fine from across the room.
Yet when she looked back up at the television – or rather, where she was certain the television was – she did not see it.
And strangely, she suddenly thought of Ana. Ana had seen things that weren’t there – faceless men, she said. Ana said something about seeing buildings sprouting up around Far Watch when it fell. Buildings full of these men with no faces.
What did you see there, Lydia?
She couldn’t say. She had not seen anything. Not that she had seen the old Far Watch in ruins or an empty patch of forest. She had simply not seen things in the places where she had looked.
And now she was not seeing this television that was only a few feet from her eyes.
Even at Far Watch she hadn’t felt this level of fear. She tried to think rationally why that was as her heart began to pound and she found herself desperately trying to get out of the bed as if her legs were not useless weight and her spine was not shattered into a million shards of bone.
Ana saw them. She thought. Ana saw them. Maybe Ana can stop them.
And then she could see the screen. There were pictures of what looked like a satellite telescope that had fallen onto a building. She could see the television with ease, its power button and volume controls, the cord reaching from the back to a plug nearby in the wall. It was perfectly ordinary.
After all, the faceless man had moved out of the way.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2017)