Glossy. That's Mirdonna.
Glossy: from the tips of her supple thigh-high leather boots with heels as thin and sharp as cobra fangs, to the deep orange corset laced with ivory threads. Her eyes are painted radiant poison-green. It's her smile, though, that captures everyone's attention. Her thick lips are glazed in brilliant umber; the tip of a red tongue pokes between her teeth.
"If I asked," she murmurs, her voice like molten honey, "would you give me your heart?"
I swallow. "Literally or figuratively?"
We're in my flat, which feels dim and desaturated now, with its nicotine-stained walls, frayed couch covers, ceiling paint peeling. The windows rattle in the storm. Sleet pecks the panes, and the chill digs through the worn weather sealing.
"A little of both." That hypnotic smile widens. Mirdonna stretches out one smooth hand. Her short nails gleam like frost etched in hypothermia-blue. "If you're still desperate."
Desperate? If I don't find a way to repay my debts, there won't be enough of me to write an epigraph on a tombstone I can't afford.
I know how deals with the devil end, but when she's handsomer than any devil you can imagine, is it really so bad?
I take Mirdonna's hand. She lifts it and kisses my knuckles. Her chill breath burns my skin and I shiver. It's not unpleasant, this pain.
"Ask and you shall receive," I tell her.
"Oh, I will."
Glossy. And cold—but that's a given for the Winter Lady.
Two days before, I met Mirdonna. I was bar-tending for Madam Eve.
Summer incarnate, that was Madam Eve. Long, marbled gold and red hair, eyes so blue they burned her lashes umber, her smile non-existent. She wore skin-tight lace, rosebud pink and mossy green, patterned like ferns and leaves. It clung to her skin, restless, always a breath shy of sloughing off and flying free.
I pulled taps for the regulars, all women. I stocked the bar, counted the till, and always behind the counter. That was her rule. Know your place.
Madam Eve lounged beside the stage. Her chair was spread with spotted fawn hides and decorated with antlers too big to be real—which were, nevertheless. A pair of great wolfhounds, reddish fur combed and oiled to gleaming, lay by her feet. I remember the women they used to be: lucky twins who'd run up gambling debts at Madam Eve's tables in back. They'd accepted her leash; in exchange, she'd forgiven their debts.
I felt my name, like an itch, on the ledgers she kept of who owed her what, and how, and for how long.
Every night after work, I swore to myself I wouldn't slide through the frosted glass doors and into the velvet-walled parlor. I wouldn't pick up the dice. I wouldn't push chips stamped with her face onto the felt tabletops.
But I was hooked on the perfume the dealers wore, their easy smiles, the wins just often enough to make me hope.
I knew how it worked. The cycles. The addiction. But I just couldn't make myself stop. Part of me wondered: what was the point? What was left?
My brother was financially secure. He had a two-bedroom apartment with his wife in uptown. A steady job. Good benefits. He didn't need my support any longer, and I refused his charity. I didn't want to drag him into my pit.
Friends are hard to keep when you always push everyone away to stop them from hurting, or hurting you in turn.
That night, Mirdonna swept in the front doors in a swirl of icy wind and snowflakes sharp as razors. She nodded once to Madam Eve, who inclined her chin in turn.
The air in the bar seemed to split, about to explode in lightning from hot and cold now meeting.
"Sister," Madam Eve said in her slow, elegant drawl. "How good of you to visit."
"Darling," the Winter Lady replied with a smile that would have turned anyone else into an ice sculpture. "Is my money good here?"
"Always," Madam Eve said, laying a hand on one of the wolfhounds. "Jordan, dear, a drink for my sister on the house."
I nodded, heart pounding.
"Unsweetened cider," the Winter Lady said as she sashayed to the bar. "Hot."
The apples were picked from the indoor hydroponic garden, huge golden fruits with skin as soft as a newborn's skull and pomegranate-red flesh. These apples only the Summer Lady could grow.
Her cider was the strongest drink the bar served. It tasted, I was told, of breezes across a wild meadow, the screams of mice caught by hawks, the musk of rutting deer, and the burn of fires engulfing pine forests and everything that lived within.
I pulled on heavy leather gloves, then took the slim bottle of cider from the shelf.
The Winter Lady leaned one elbow on the rosewood of wild cats tearing apart rabbits. "You're new here, aren't you, miss...?"
"Cashier. Jordan Cashier." I licked my lips, wishing I had a moment to pop my chapstick from my purse. "I've been here about a year."
She smiled again. The ice from her skin had fogged the bar counter. "Eve's staff does have a rather...high turnover."
I shrugged. Careful to watch my hands and the red, red juice, I poured the cider into a steamed mug and set it across from her.
"My sister and I have always had an affinity for hearing the lost," she said.
I grabbed a cloth to wipe the bar, even though it was spotless. I'd usually make small talk, play sympathetic ear, or flirt with the customers. But if I looked at the Winter Lady too long, I thought those brilliant eyes would absorb me and leave nothing left.
"Let me know if I can get you a refill," I said, and sidled down to check on my other regulars.
Sweat dripped down my neck. I ignored Jasmine's usual come-ons and told Laretta her she'd reached her limit. The Winter Lady hadn't moved.
Finally, unable to ignore her, I looked back.
"If you find yourself in a bind..." One lacquered nail slid a business card towards me. "My number."
I looked at the card: crisp white stock with silver lettering. It said, simply, MIRDONNA. There was a phone number on the back. I tucked it in my pocket.
Then she glided out. She hadn't taken one sip of her cider.
She wants to rule the world. Don't we all?
"Not rule, honey," she says as we sip mocha lattes in her laboratory. "I intend to correct the world."
Mirdonna's lab is ensconced in a tower, a time-warped fairy tale planted in the middle of the arctic. It's all polished steel and sparkling glass and burnished wires.
I'm not much of anything by trade—bar tender, cabbie, retail cog, gambler—so I can't name half the things lining the walls.
She whisked me here in a sleek chopper painted like snow camo. Eerily silent rotors spun wind.
For my safety, she said, but I've been trapped in dead-end jobs and relationships to know what a prison's like. It's okay. I'm safer here than back in the city, where Madam Eve's huntresses are on the prowl.
"Correct it how?" I ask. The coffee is burnt, the foam too sweet. It's keeping me awake though. Going on thirty-six hours without a nap, I'll take whatever I can get.
"Look at you." Mirdonna sets down her mug. There's frost patterns along the lip of ceramic. "A woman down on her luck. Perhaps it's bad decisions, but we all make those. And why should those bad choices result in pain?"
I fiddle with my mug, now empty but for the film of steamed milk on the inside curve. "Isn't that how it works?" I laugh, cough, then swallow back the bitterness knotted deep in my chest. "You fuck up, someone fucks you up in return."
"Exactly." Mirdonna's voice is a low purr. Her fingertips brush mine, and an electric chill makes my skin prickle. "And why should we let this destructive pattern continue?"
I squint at her. "So you don't want to rule the world and bend it to your will? You told me—"
"I told you I want to make the world better," she says, "and under my guidance, it will be."
"I'm here, aren't I?" I nod at the laboratory. It's all business: mechanical efficacy, charts on the walls, computer screens humming with equations and weather patterns. "You keep me from ending up in the river as a fishy consort and I..."
I'm still not sure how literal she's being when she says she wants my heart. You can survive with artificial recreations of the organ, but she doesn't strike me as a surgeon.
"You help me change the world," she says, and her hand encloses mine.
Her touch isn't as cold as I remember. She pulls me closer, her lips a fraction from mine, and when she kisses me, all I can feel is heat.
My brother calls my cell phone again. This time I answer.
"Jordan?" His smoke-husked voice is a welcome, familiar sound.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Thank god." He's the nicest man I've ever met. He recently married and his wife is pregnant with their first kid. Jacob has always worried about me. He's younger, but when we were children, he felt it his duty to watch my back while I tried to scrape by with part-time jobs after school. "I stopped by to bring back your crockpot, but all I found was a pile of newspapers on your mailbox and your neighbor said you haven't been home in over a week."
"Yeah, I'm fine. I got a job that's out of town. Short notice."
I tighten lug nuts on the glass octagonal containment chamber. I'm good at mechanical jobs: I can work with my hands, and follow instructions. Mirdonna has given me a few tasks to keep me from worrying. "You're...not in trouble, are you?"
I imagine him biting his lip or sucking on a lollipop—his two tactics for when he quit smoking.
"No," I tell him. "I'm just fine. The job pays well, but it's up north."
The wrench is cold and heavy in my gloved hand. Like the lies.
"That's good." He clears his throat. "Carol wants to know if you'd like to come over for dinner sometime this week."
I tighten the next bolt; metal whines.
"I don't think I can."
"Oh, okay." A long pause, just our breathing and the crackle of bad signal. "Well, respond to my texts a little sooner, would you?"
I try to laugh, but it sticks in my throat. I can't tell him I deleted them all without reading. If I read them, I'll have second thoughts. I'll remember where I am.
Jacob says, "I was afraid you'd gone off into a ditch. Roads are slippery. And I bet you haven't gotten winter tires, have you?"
"I'll get to it." On the phone, it doesn't matter if I cross my fingers or not. "And I'll drive safe."
I hang up before Jacob can drag out goodbyes and make them hurt more than ever.
Mirdonna's machine is like a cocooned butterfly. A network of membranous arrays will fold out from the tower into modified satellite dishes. Inside, like the unsettled bio-mass, lie the containment tanks and the mechanic nervous system that power them.
Each tank holds a person, comatose, strapped into nutrient fluids that look as cold as the winter sea.
"What does it do?" I asked her when she first showed me the control room: a dozen security camera screens, inside and out, and a slim panel with only two buttons—one blue, one white.
"I call it Empathy," she said. "It's based in sympathetic magic—emotions distilled from love, compassion, kindness, joy. The energies will be conducted into the biological equivalent of an EMP." Her finger hovered over the blue button. "When I press this, the world changes."
"It will eradicate the human desire to harm," she said. "No one will crave violence, feel anger, or seek to hurt another."
"You're taking away people's free will?"
"What use is it if they cannot control it?" Mirdonna smiled. "Relax, darling. I'm not taking everything. Think of it as neutering. Everyone will still feel happiness and satisfaction. It will not change who you love, or sleep with, or build your life with. It simply removes the baser elements from the human equation. We've wasted millions of years and humans still can't control their baser urges. I'm tired of waiting."
I shivered. "It will affect everyone?"
"Yes." Her eyes gleamed like new ice. "Can you imagine a world without pain, Jordan?"
Her finger brushed my lips. "Not yet."
The next text I get is from Madam Eve herself.
Darling, I'd rather not send my pets to sniff out your poor dear mother. She's hardly got your vigor and charm. But even an old dog can beg if taught.
Come visit, honey, and make this easy on yourself and your dam.
I drop the phone, shaking.
When I catch my breath, I try calling Mom.
There's no answer.
I was just getting off shift at midnight. I handed over the new till to Kelsey, a cute transwoman who always wore iconic rock band shirts. I pocketed my tips.
"Jordan, dear, I'd like to speak with you a moment," Madam Eve said.
My fingers itched to grab my lighter. I craved a smoke. The ivory case engraved with my dad's initials was more than just a light. It was my protection; he hadn't been carrying it—he'd quit on my birthday—when he died. I thought that if he had, he'd have come home.
I knew I was screwed, but I kept my smile fixed as I stepped around her wolfhounds and stopped by her throne. "Madam?"
Her hand stroked the bigger dog's head. The hound shivered under her touch, its tail tucked beneath its haunches. "Genevieve tells me you haven't been paying back your...tab."
I tugged my button-up shirt collar. Fuck. "Money's a little tight right now, Madam." I tried to laugh. It failed. "What with—"
She lifted an index finger, and the entire bar went silent. The air was hot, thick, like a living thing that coiled around my throat.
I struggled to breathe and not panic.
"My dear, I'm a lenient woman." Madam Eve indulged me with a raised eyebrow. It made my stomach cramp. "Tell me, can you have your payments made by dawn?"
No. I was broke. I'd used my paycheck to scrape by on rent and groceries, sending my mom a tiny stipend via her bank account as I did every month to help her out, and...the rest went to the house's coffers. A hole that got ever deeper.
My brother didn't know Mom was struggling. She'd demanded I not tell him. He had his own family now. We could get by. We always had.
"Of course, Madam."
Her nod was nearly imperceptible. She sipped lies like fine champagne. "Marvelous, my dear. Come back in six hours, then, and we'll settle the books. I do like to make my ledgers neat before the solstice."
I nodded, jerky as a broken marionette.
Everyone in the bar who knew me—most of the regulars, Kelsey, the bouncer (and ex-girlfriend) Carlotta, the hounds who I'd known once upon a time as Meryl and Mara—averted their eyes. Everyone knew.
I couldn't repay what I owed. And I couldn't run—where do you go in a world where there's nowhere to hide?
By dawn, I'd be either dead or transformed into one of Madam Eve's pets.
Everyone knew. Especially the Summer Lady herself.
Outside, hands shaking as I lit my last cigarette, I remembered Mirdonna's business card in my back pocket.
"If it's fueled by sympathetic magic," I asked her over dinner (smoked salmon with roasted asparagus and on a bed of jasmine rice), "Where does the energy come from?"
"People," Mirdonna said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
I chased my food down with a delicate white wine. "You mean...me?"
"No. One is not enough. Not even two." She sighed. We sat across from each other in her parlor.
Outside, the wind raged and hurled snow in blistering curtains against unbreakable glass. "I tried that, in the beginning. I thought two who loved me would suffice. But they did not, in the end, truly love me. So I've gathered others. The desperate, the altruistic. They must come willingly, and when I ask, give me what I need."
I lit up. She didn't care if I smoked. It wasn't my health that she needed.
She smiled, but it had a shadow of sadness—the first regret I had seen in her. "It won't hurt. I can ensure that much."
I nodded. "How soon is it operational?"
"When the last of my hearts is ready," she said.
In the end, wasn't it better to die knowing I might have changed the world?
Mirdonna's machine isn't ready.
I don't know where she's gone. No one else but me here in the tower, except for the containment pods.
I need something to bargain with, to pay off my debts, or my mother will become collateral.
There's a cot, a space heater, and an electric kettle and microwave atop a small fridge in one corner of the lab. Food, instant cocoa, tea bags, coffee. The bathroom is across the short hall, buttoned by featureless steel doors.
I have a proper bedroom—lush, maroon and orange curtains across unopening windows, a vaulted ceiling, a rosewood armoire, a king sized bed so soft I thought I might melt if I touch it. Plenty of outlets for charging my laptop and phone. No internet, though the cell reception is excellent for being in the middle of the arctic.
Mirdonna doesn't answer her cell.
I almost call Jacob, but I've deleted his contact from my phone. I know the number. It hasn't changed in years. I don't want him involved. He deserves his happiness. He can't help me or Mom anyway.
There's one room I'm not allowed inside: Mirdonna's private office.
We've fucked in her bedroom, all plain white velvet and therapeutic pillows and the walls decorated only with a single painting of Madam Eve. There's nothing in there, beyond her scent and the memory of orgasms.
The office isn't locked.
She simply told me, "Don't," pointed at the door, and strode past it when she gave me the initial tour.
I look for cameras, any sigils on the threshold that spells death to anyone who opens that white oak door.
Will she be angry? What can she do that Madam Eve won't?
I've already promised her my heart.
Fuck the rules.
I open the door and step inside.
There's nothing in the circular room except a pedestal with three crystal globes.
Inside each is a slow-beating heart.
I suck in my breath. The room is like ice. The air burns my skin. I take a step, and frost crunches under my foot. The carpet is frozen chenille.
"Have you no respect?" Mirdonna says behind me.
I whirl around. "You—"
"You are not supposed to come here." Her eyes are flecked with winter lightning. "Do you think you're the only one I need? I should destroy you."
I glare at her, sudden fury overwhelming me. "So what's to fucking stop you? You could have anyone you want. Anyone in the world! Why me?"
"Because you belonged to my sister," Mirdonna says.
"Yeah, and I will again if I don't pay her off. She's coming after my mother."
"And what, darling, do you think would happen if you gave her back our brothers or myself?" She sweeps past me and lays a finger on the center crystal. "She will just let your mother return to whatever squalor she lives in? That the Summer Lady will not simply take you and make you watch what she does to your family?"
Panic settles sour in my gut. I crave a smoke but I'm out. My lighter's all that's left in my pocket.
She's right. I know it like I know how much I've fucked up.
"Then what do I do?"
When the Winter Lady left the bar, I dumped her untouched cider into the carefully marked drain that went back to the garden.
Even if it wouldn't have cost me my job, I didn't dare contaminate the municipal drainage. Who knew what would grow from the pipes if I did?
"If they're sisters," I said to Desmondelda, one of the regulars who was freer with her words than most, "where's spring and autumn?" I meant it half as a joke. Elements like Mirdonna and Eve were never isolated.
Desmondelda chuckled. Her nails tatted against the polished counter. "Those boys? Pretty sure Madam Eve and Lady Winter skinned them and used them for rugs long ago. No one's ever seen 'em."
I laughed, as was expected, and refilled Des's beer.
"Finish what we've begun," Mirdonna says. "Your mother's fate is decided regardless."
My knees wobble and I sink to the floor. I can't feel anything.
I know. I know. As soon as I got that text, I understood.
I'm a fool if I pretend there's hope left.
"I thought they would be enough." Mirdonna lifts the two crystals, turning them in her hands, then flings them to the floor. "But no. My brothers have never loved me. They tried to take my power when I told them my plan. So I took theirs instead."
I laugh, bitter. "So you already failed once."
Ice flares along her skin until it becomes long talons on her nails. Her hand hesitates just shy of seizing my throat.
"Do you dare accuse me?"
"It's true, isn't it?" Numb, I get to my feet. I brush her hand aside, incautious. "Is the third one yours?" I nod at the crystal heart still on the pedestal.
She sighs, but the ice fades from her hand. "It is."
I want to pull her close, tell her I'm sorry for what she endured.
But she wants no pity, and I'm so tired I don't know how much more I want to feel.
I look up into her eyes. "Tell me one thing. The people who offered to help. Do you feel anything for them?"
Can you still love?
She looks away, her jaw muscles bunching. "It's not necessary. Their devotion is all that matters."
"Magic is a conduit. It flows both ways. If you don't care about them—hell, maybe it only takes one to spark the spell, like a fuse. But if you don't love any of them in return, it won't work."
Her rage dims. Her flesh isn't as cold as I once thought.
"And you, Jordan? Do you love me?"
She tilts her head back, slow, as if the bones in her neck are melting snow.
"Fear you, respect you, desire you, sure." I won't lie. "But I don't love you. Not yet."
She crosses her arms, pushing me back a step. "My sister is coming for you, and she will learn what I have created. She will want to destroy my work."
I wish I had told my mother goodbye before I followed Mirdonna. I wish I had the backbone to stay, to face Madam Eve alone.
I'm so sorry, Mom.
I shut my eyes against burning tears.
"Is my mom dead?"
"Not yet." Her tone is cool, clipped. "My sister will not waste her so easily."
I nod. I've wondered, since I came here, why there is no one else in the tower not enclosed in glass. Is it because Mirdonna has put all her power, all her skill and magic and will into the machine? She has no soldiers left. She has no army to combat her sister.
She cannot save my mother—but perhaps I can.
I take a deep breath.
"I have an idea."
There's a winding catwalk that connects all the containment chambers. Each has a name.
I look into each tank, into each face. None of the sacrifices see me. But I study them. I memorize their names.
I wonder who they are. Who they love, what they are giving up. What they want. What regrets they still have.
I make myself watch them until I'm raw, devastated. They're all going to die.
Ninety-nine human beings out of billions. Each an individual. Each a universe—starstuff, souls, history, memory, passion, dreams. I still have enough of a heart to mourn them. To feel empathy.
That is the purpose of the machine, after all.
"Jacob, it's me. Yeah. Is that dinner invitation still open?"
Jacob looks at me through the anesthetic haze. His mouth forms soundless words inside the containment tank.
"Hi, little brother." I speak into the mic from the control room.
He'll hear. The containment tank is equipped with speakers that have, until now, played soft, soothing playlists of spring rain and loons, water lapping against sandy shores, delicate wind instruments guiding thoughts through peaceful melodies.
"I wanted to tell you Carol's just fine. Your baby's healthy and due to be born next week, right on schedule."
Jacob's eyes focus. He's suspended at the top of the pyramid of bodies. I only want him to see my face, in the end.
Below him are the ninety-nine who've offered their hearts to Mirdonna. Interlinked with needles and tubes, electric primers strapped over ribcages. Dreaming, I hope, of a new world.
"Dinner was nice," I continue. "I'm glad we had a chance to get together."
Carol told me they were having a baby girl. The name they'd picked out: Jaclyn Rose.
"Pretty," I said.
Carol laughed. "Your mom's name and mine combined. I think it's perfect."
I'd brought a bottle of Mirdonna's favorite vintage wine. As soon as Jacob passed out, while Carol was in the bathroom, I carried him out to the chopper.
I'm stronger than I look.
Jacob blinks, now, focusing on my voice.
"Remember that time we built a snow fort on Mrs. Kelroy's vegetable garden to protect it from invading lava monsters?" I ask. "Mom got so mad, even if Mrs. Kelroy thought it was hilarious and brought us hot chocolate with marshmallows to drink in our fort."
Tears drip down his face. He mouths words again, but I can't hear.
"It's one of the few good memories I still have, Jake."
Outside, in the wild arctic, I hear Madam Eve's huntresses.
I see them on the security cams: They've shifted into bears, foxes, wolves, elk. Some of the women ride snowmobiles, winter coats flapping about their shoulders like capes. Madam Eve is with them, running bare-legged across the snow like a living flame. A stream of boiling water flows behind her steps.
Mirdonna is on the roof, shaping the last threads of steel and living membrane to carry the Empathy across the world.
"It was the day Dad..." I take a breath. "The day he was murdered. I know Mom told us it was an accident. Christmas Eve, and some asshole just walked up to him in the street, high as fuck, and shot him for kicks."
Jacob shuts his eyes.
"That's the kind of world we have right now. Random violence. Grief. And I know. I know. I'm taking you away from Carol and your daughter. I'm sorry, Jacob. But they'll be okay. Because tomorrow... no one will want to kill. No one will want to hurt each other."
Mom will live. She'll walk away from Madam Eve. Everyone who's bound to the Summer Lady will be free.
"We'll be okay. Your baby's going to grow up not having to be terrified that if she looks at a guy wrong, he'll kill her. Your wife won't have to get catcalled and harassed on her way to work or out for a jog. Mom won't get her teeth knocked out by a drunk boyfriend."
I turn off the security feeds.
Madam Eve and her huntresses won't get here in time. And if they do...it won't matter.
"I couldn't have done this without your help, Jake. Goodbye," I tell my brother. "I love you."
Inside the control room, it's dim and cold. Snow flurries buzz down from the opened roof. The flowering antenna and dishes are positioned. Mirdonna glides down the ladder and stands next to me.
"I don't know what to do when this is over," Mirdonna says, her fingers poised above the launch button.
When she presses it, all the empathy and life force will multiply and bloom like a great tidal wave. It will ripple through the atmosphere, airborne, and infect everyone who breathes.
We don't know if it will change the unborn—like Carol's daughter—but we can hope. Perhaps, if brought up in a world where pain and hurt are not necessary, children will learn without being neutered by the machine.
"We'll figure it out," I say, and she smiles.
The countdown begins: ten, nine, eight...
Engines hum. Power floods the circuitry and the transmitters begin to glow.
The ninety-nine bodies convulse as needles pierce their hearts, leeching out life energy and blood into the tubes winding into the converters.
Seven, six, five.
Mirdonna takes a breath. She looks up at the stormy sky, the snow crusting her lashes.
"Tomorrow," she says. "Tomorrow..."
I grab her wrist. Mirdonna turns her head, slow, predatory. Her eyes meet mine.
The needles pierce Jacob's heart.
The status bar on our screen is at ninety-nine percent.
"He's my brother."
Mirdonna pulls her arm back; I let her go.
Jacob's eyes close for the last time.
I press the button for a new world.
first published in ABSOLUTE POWER: Tales of Queer Villainy, ed by Erica Friedman (December 2016)
(c) 2016 by Merc Rustad