“If I may speak?
“I am the sole proprietor of a very simple secret—just a truth, really—that nobody ever wants to hear. The truth is this: I was a nice girl, once.
“It’s easier not to believe it. If you don’t believe it then you can keep listening to all the bullshit poetry they wax; it’s far less uncomfortable if you let the lie-tainted needle continue threading nonthreateningly between your ears. Double negatives, I know. I can’t have been a nice girl once, because now I’m this, and if I wasn’t born to be what I am today—how did I get here? How did any of us?
“Like I said. Uncomfortable.
“The answer is hilariously simple, of course. That’s how it usually happens: the hardest questions look easy and the easiest the most difficult, so the world keeps on spinning and people think they’re achieving something. The grass is green and the sky is mauve—this world’s, at least—and life is cruel to nice girls, so I learned to be crueler.”
Subject 930820847284’s heart rate has increased. She appears to be in a state of alarm. We recommend the inspector finish for the day.
A watch beeps. The inspector glances at it, smiles, slides a long acrylic fingernail under its screen’s face. Destroys it from the inside out. Machinery carcass litters the floor, shredded clockwork and slashes of glass. She smashes the remains with the bottom of her heel.
Her smile stays the same throughout all of this, pleasantly neutral. When she is finished, she continues speaking. Conversational.
“As I was saying. Do you know how I got here? It was similar to your experience, I think. I hopped a star like most of the lost girls do, desperate for a way out. That’s how they would begin my story, any of the others.
“But even beginnings have beginnings. My primus was a shipwreck, sparsely-inhabited maze of planks and beams and waterlogged wood. There were some others; we always called one another cousins, though who knows what we really were. We ate fish, mostly scar-scallops, raw. Some of my cousins ate each other.
“And there were sirens, too—that’s a sky name, we called them mirsongs. Those were the ones of us who stayed under too long, chasing stars’ reflections. They would stay sick for a day, then disappear under, and after that we could only hear them, singing, if we listened at night. It was all very melancholy.
“One day, I found a ladder in the wreckage. Good sturdy one, left in a little cave with an air pocket. I didn’t waste time: I gathered rusty coins and speared an applefish and weaved a little pack from seaweed, and then at night I climbed to the stars.
“I could hear a mirsong as I climbed, actually. The ladder was rusting and wet and cold, and she sounded anguished. I can hum the tune for you, if you like, though I’m dreadfully tone-deaf.”
Subject 930820847284 is still shaking, but nobody knows it now. The sensor is in pieces and through the air vents the noiseless void is especially deafening today. The inspector has gone off-script and she is humming.
(The mirsong song is quiet and heartbroken, like a rotted promise on a sea-salt night. It is the closest the inspector will ever get to telling the full truth. When it finishes, she lets it hang in the air a full second before continuing.)
“As I got closer to my star, the ladder began to melt.
“It molded onto me. Scalded my fingers. Scorched my scales. It hurt so much. So deeply, I still remember. I thought maybe if I just fell I could find a new patch of sea, somewhere to start again. I remember. I told my fingers to let go, survival and terror and pain. I was falling and struck still and climbing all the while, and my fingers stayed gripped on.
“By the time I reached the top, my nerve endings were dead and blackened. I grabbed the star easily, numb hand into inferno infinity till I reached the plastic figure at its center. So I closed my eyes—I was crying, desperately, but my tears dried up before they could well—and I swung.
“And so we both felt it, then, this second at the end of the rope, the tip of the star. Cold ice water, pins and needles. A weightless surge in gravity. Maybe you held till it was your turn, but I couldn’t. My burned-up skin shriveled, my whole body withering with it. I never gave up; my first body decided for me.
“So I dropped from the star in a little beach-harbored world they called Skræv, reduced again to a pearl. I grew there on the shore for six whole moonspans before anyone found me.
“And Nasarah was the girl in between. She laughed and danced and sang, with her brothers first, then alone on my side of the sea. Each day she brought binoculars, hoping to gaze into the sun, and her brothers teased her for it. The Skræv people were skymappers, you see; it was in their blood. Night Charting. They plotted star routes and scried out fortunes, first for themselves and then, once they’d been scouted, for whichever worlds or networks commissioned them. Lucrative business, and one other worlds tried to siphon off of, but it was little harbors like this that always did it the best.
“Her brothers laughed at her for wanting to map the day, but I think Nasarah will. She was long-legged and whip-smart, and sometimes she drew the sun in the sand. I was right next to it, still barely even a shell, and I almost looked at her sometimes. Long dark hair flying with the wind. I could imagine her saying my name.
“And maybe in another life I would have stayed, grown slowly back into a person and kissed her sweetly during sunsets. I could have been soft for her, maybe, or even driven her mindless like a sky’s proper siren. Our mirsong were different.
“But it is my belief that there is an ache, deep under the center of the sky, a tangible wanting. It’s what drew me on, past shipwrecks and fires and joy. When the seventh full moon came, and the whole world gathered on one sheer, rocky peak, and I was big enough to heave myself up, I jumped upwards to the sky.
“It was close that night, so it took me.”
The subject is listening, now, and alarms are ringing. Somewhere. Everywhere. They will wonder after what drew the inspector to do this, to rebel so spectacularly. The truth is it was not one thing but a million, day after day of torturing the unlucky ones, once-lost girls like her. Nobody thought about who she was until she became a monster. Maybe it was a desperate last attempt. Maybe she was a mirsong, and this was what she sang. Or maybe she was just bored.
She hurries on, dropping plot threads like they’re spools. There is no time to be careful. She is burning, again. The tips of her fingers are crumbling, charring. They will find the pearl this time.
“Do you feel déjà vu? That’s where your world runs thin—it’s everywhere for me, years of wandering, years of running. I wasn’t so lucky the second time I hopped, to be in a little haven like Skræv. I found an industrial hell-land instead, unnamed back then. And I was naive, and so I was recruited.
“It was a young man, the one who found me. Copper eyes, smile like gold. Slippery. He charmed me, asked so many questions. Drew me in. He had a line, he said, that took him to somewhere we could help try to make it better. It was all a big scheme, diamond dust. I told him about Nasarah and we burned a hundred stars just jumping until all that was left was a man asking me if I felt forever about a girl I’d never really met. We parted ways then.”
The inspector’s skin is cracking now, fire underneath. But she only smiles, and for a blissful, untainted moment, the blood dripping from her hands feels almost like a blessing. Then it is past.
“I tried to change things! I leapt through forests and mountains and fog. The seas were my least favorites, because it was only then that I remembered. It’s hard being displaced, and harder still having no purpose. I wished I stayed in Skræv.
“Eventually, the agency found me. They needed star-hoppers and torturers and it all made me feel better for a moment. A sense of purpose.
“I am only just realizing what I lost. What I am missing. I should have been helping lost girls but instead I’ve been testing them. You. I shed my skin every thousand years, and now it is revealing a truth cracked behind it. It hurts.”
Subject 930820847284 isn’t scared anymore, but the inspector is. The silent void is deafening now, steaming out of pipes and floorboards. This isn’t a world and it isn’t a star, though it was built around one’s carcass. There is nothing here but pain.
“If I could do it all again I would write you a hundred happy endings, spell your names into each leaf and tree and cloud. I would write myself more explanation, exposition, I’d explore. Do you know how rushed this is? How little time I have? I wish I could have saved you.”
There is shouting. This will not last much longer.
That’s all she can say before the line goes dead.
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