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Aster removed two scalpels from her med-kit to soak in a solution of disinfectant. Her fingers trembled from the cold, and the tools slipped from her grasp, plopping ungracefully into the sanitizer. In ten minutes' time, she'd be amputating a child's gangrenous foot. This shaking and carrying on would not do.
Was this winter?
Dim light — chemiluminescent reactions of peroxide, orange dye, and ester — suffused the makeshift operating room. Starjars, the T-deckers called their improvised lanterns. Aster wondered where they'd gotten the peroxide to work them, let alone the phenyl oxalate ester.
"All you got to do is give one of them a shake and the stuff inside gets all mixed up," said Flick, rotted foot propped atop two stacked trunks. "Look! You looking?"
Of course Aster was looking. Couldn't Flick see her eyes?
A pile of faded comics lay next to the child on a flipped-over wicker basket, The Reign of Night Empress #19 on top. Its cover depicted a woman named Mariam Santi in a beige trench coat carrying a cylindrical device made of metal and wood. When she pulled its tiny lever with her index finger, a silver ball shot out of the tube, wounding her enemy.
"Rifle," Aster whispered, her lips splitting at the corners where the cold had pasted them shut. As a child, she'd called them ripples for the way they had of changing everything in a story. And because she'd misread the word the first time around, finding that f's and p's looked similar to her untrained eyes.
Issue 19 of Night Empress had been one of Aster's favorites when she was a girl, and she'd read it along with every other Mariam Santi adventure available aboard Matilda. Old comics circulated wing to wing, deck to deck.
"Look how it blows up inside when I jostle it! Boom! Boom! Boom!" said Flick as she — he — no, they — shook the starjar. Aster regretted the error. She was used to the style of her own deck where all children were referred to with feminine pronouns. Here, it was they. She'd do well to remember. "Explode! Explode!" Flick continued, tossing the starjar into the air before catching it. "Except not really. If it was a explosion there'd be fire, and if there was fire it'd be hot." They spoke in that matter-of-fact tone native to children who believed they knew everything. "My great-grandmeema say there was blackouts before too, but they was just passing through. After one week they stopped, and lowdeckers never even had to have no energy rations to stop them. No cold," said Flick, dark-brown skin lit bronze under the meek glow of the starjars.
If there was a chance he'd respond — and there wasn't — Aster would radio the Surgeon. He'd write her a pass to transport Flick up to his clinic on G deck or somewhere else warm. He'd sign it in his looping cursive and stamp it with his fancy gold seal. Aster didn't know every guard on Matilda, but the ones she did wouldn't dare deny a pass issued by Heavens' Hands Made Flesh.
As it was, the Surgeon hadn't spoken to Aster in three and a half weeks, not since the start of the blackouts. No Surgeon, no access to Matilda's upperdecks. No upperdeck access, no heat.
"It's like a star, see?" Flick said, shaking another lantern, setting off its chemical show.
Aster looked at the lantern, then at Flick, then at the lantern again. "I'm afraid I don't."
"A star's a bunch of little things coming together to make light, yeah? Chemicals and all that. And our little special jars here is a bunch of little things coming together to make light too. Also chemicals. Agree or disagree?"
"Agree," said Aster, familiar with the basic chemistry from studies in astromatics.
"So, they the same. Chemicals plus more chemicals makes magic," Flick said, tongue sticking out.
Aster admired the child's sureness if not their utter wrongness. "Your model lacks specificity and is therefore useless," she said, speaking more harshly than intended. This close to the end of the day, she lost the ability to modulate her naturally abrupt manner for the comfort of others. "According to such a theory, a suitcase would be no different than a bomb. Sugars and synthase react to make the cotton of the luggage. Oxygen oxidizes gunpowder to make an explosion. Chemicals plus more chemicals makes magic describes both scenarios rather well, but, of course, we know a suitcase is nothing like a bomb."
Flick blinked obstinately, and Aster searched for a child-appropriate explanation.
"You're arguing that a person is identical to a dog because they've both got bones and blood."
"Guards be calling Tarlanders dogs all the time," Flick said, hand on hip.
Aster twitched at the sound of the familiar word; she hadn't heard it in ages, but it still stirred a sense of belonging. Tarlanders were the inhabitants of P, Q, R, S, and T decks, and it was as close to a nation as anything on Matilda.
"The guards are hardly a compass by which to measure right and wrong," said Aster.
Flick's eyes flashed open in what was presumably mock shock. "You gonna get struck down for saying that, woman. Don't you know that Sovereign Nicolaeus is the Heavens' chosen ruler? And that the guards are Nicolaeus's soldiers and, by extension, soldiers of the Heavens? A spurn to them is a spurn to the Heavens direct," Flick said in a high-pitched voice.
"Well, let's hope the Heavens exact vengeance after I've amputated your foot. I wouldn't want you — righteous defender of the moral order that you are — negatively affected by my sacrilege." Without meaning to, Aster smiled.
"How about if you promise to do my surgery up good, I'll write a letter to the Guard begging they spare you? I been practicing my vocabulary and I already know what I'm gonna say. Want to hear?" Mischief drew Flick's face into a sly grin.
"Dear Sirs," Flick began before loudly inhaling, "On account of there being no heat down here on account of there being no electricity on account of the brand-new energy rations so thoughtfully and nobly and honorably imposed on the steerage decks by Sovereign Nicolaeus on account of the blackouts — Aster fell prey to a brief fit of hypothermia-induced delirium and spoke out against you in her maddery. She's healed up now so you don't have to worry about it happening again. Yours humbly, deferentially, meekly, and respectfully, Flor 'Flicker' Samuels." Flick erupted in laughter and took a bow. "Opinions?"
"Your sarcasm reveals clear disregard for the sanctity of the Sovereign's Guard, which I appreciate," Aster said, blowing into her cupped palms before vigorously rubbing them together. As much as she enjoyed the banter, their conversation proved a distraction against resolving the matter of the cold.
"You can have my mittens if you want," said Flick. They set down the starjar they'd been holding and showed off their wrapped hands. "They'll warm you up good so you can cut, cut, cut me up, no problem. Slice into me like a festival ham if you want."
Aster's eyes made uncertain contact with Flick's. "I cannot discern whether or not your offer is in earnest. It should be obvious I cannot perform an amputation in mittens. Are you joking again?"
"Aye," Flick said, having the decency to look a little bashful about making fun. "But they is warm. Lined with rabbit fur. My great-meema skint it herself back when there was rabbits aboard Matilda. Real rabbits. When was the last time anybody saw one of those?"
Aster assumed the question was rhetorical, as she couldn't very well ascertain when the last time in the entirety of the universe someone had seen a rabbit. "I didn't think the moments preceding an operation were particularly well-suited to humor, but it's characterized a large portion of our interaction," she said. Aster was always memorizing new ways of being with people.
Flick shrugged, the gesture causing the blanket wrapped about their shoulders to fall. "I like to do the exact opposite of what's suited. We got a saying here in Tide Wing: Should is for weaklings. Why would we care about such a thing when already nothing is how it should be on this cursed ship? Should won't make it so you don't got to cut off my foot, will it? It sure won't turn the heat back on, or kill the man who thought to turn it off in the first place. Should disappeared three hundred years ago when our old home went gone. There's no such thing as supposed to in space. Didn't your meema never teach you that?"
Breaths glided like exorcized ghosts from Flick's mouth. Aster recognized the puffs for what they were, condensed molecules of H2O, but she reached out to touch one of the vagabond forms anyway. She imagined each foggy sheaf as an Ancestor, even though the Ancestors were dead, swallowed into the past alongside the Great Lifehouse from which Matilda had fled.
"My mother killed herself the day I was born," Aster said. "Though it's possible she attempted to impart a distaste for should in me before passing, newborn infants lack the neuro-capacity to process language or form memories, so if she did, I don't recall."
The way Flick pursed their lips, they looked on the verge of whistling. "My great-meema says I'm always stirring up old wounds. Forgive me," they said, eyes intent on Aster. Yet the wound of Lune Grey felt quite fresh and untended, no stirring from Flick required.
Aster blamed the blackouts. The last time Matilda experienced ship-wide power outages was twenty-five years ago, and every conversation she overheard seemed to revolve around that sum. I thought they fixed this twenty-five years ago, someone said, and, It may have been twenty-five years but I remember it good as yesterday, or, Twenty-five years. Couldn't they have bought Matilda more time than that?
These grievances were innocent enough on their own, but to Aster they were reminders. Twenty-five years her mother had been dead.
"Talk about a woman with no care for should," said Flick, "leaving her baby 'fore it had a first sip of milk."
"What?" Aster replied, aware Flick had spoken, but clueless as to what they said. Thoughts of Lune had increased to the point of distraction, interfering with her work. She gulped her tea, hopeful the bitterness would focus her enough to deal with this cold. "Do you have isopropyl alcohol?" she asked.
Flick scrunched their brow, poked out their plump lips. "Great-meema!" they called, then louder, "Great-meema!"
A woman appeared after Flick's fifth call. "What?" she asked, hand clamped around a fabric idol. She'd been praying.
"Ole girl say she need alcohol," said Flick.
The woman, young to be the mother of a mother of a mother, turned to Aster. "We don't got nothing pure, yo'wa, " she said, and it took Aster a minute to parse that particular form of address. Where Aster lived, folks said yongwa. Soft o, then a g sound. It meant young one in the language of the Tarlands. "I do got something that might do. One moment," the woman added.
Flick read The Reign of Night Empress as they waited for their great-meema to return. Aster saw it was the same copy she herself had owned fifteen years earlier. The lemon curd she'd spilled on it as a child still smeared the top left corner. There was more on page eleven, covering the tip of Night Empress's rifle.
"This good?" the woman asked as she returned, handing over a jar.
Aster unscrewed the lid, flecks of orange rust peeling from the age-softened metal. She gagged upon smelling the contents and slammed the lid back on. "Booze?" she asked.
"More or less," said the woman. "What you need it for? I suppose if you have a drink it'll warm you from the inside. I wouldn't recommend it. Couldn't pay me a new pair of shoes to drink that piss." She pinched Aster's cold-nipped ears, but they were too numb, and Aster didn't feel the pressure.
"It is fuel. For the stove I'm going to build. I'll need that can too," said Aster, pointing to the large cylinder in the corner of the cabin labeled:
MAMA LOU'S BAKED BEANS BROWN SUGAR, MAPLE, BACON FAMILY-SIZE 6lbs 5oz
Aster emptied the odds and ends from inside. A few thimbles, a spool of thread, buttons, two packets of pop-pyserum, razor. "Now socks, shirts, anything," she said. Two other women hustled to gather the materials, stuffing them into the can as Aster directed. When it was sufficiently packed, Aster poured in the entirety of the jar of rotgut Flick's great-grandmeema had procured.
A teenager pointed to the lighter in Aster's hand. "Can I do it?" they asked.
"Go ahead," said Aster, handing over the lighter. Smiling, the girl grabbed it and held it to the can, the alcohol igniting.
"How long will this burn for?"
"Several hours," Aster said, surprised that the same women who rigged the starjars had never built an alcohol stove. It was Matilda's geography, she supposed. What people had known for two generations on R deck had yet to be discovered on V, and so on. Twenty thousand lowdeckers and almost half as many different ways of life. That was the nature of a ship divided by metal, language, and armed guards. Even in decks as linked as the Tarlands, information had a way of staying put.
"How come there's no smoke? I never seen fire with no smoke," said a woman wrapped in a small afghan.
"Alcohol's good fuel." Aster didn't have time to elaborate and returned to the operating area. There, Flick already sat, their great-grandmother next to them. "Lay on your side for me," Aster said. "I am going to lift your nightgown for just a moment. Acceptable?"
Flick lifted the gown themself. Aster scrubbed their back with a sponge, pinching the skin where she'd insert the needle.
Not necessary, but she'd picked up the habit from times she'd watched the Surgeon. She'd learned most body-cutting craft from other Q deck healers, but the Surgeon's tricks stuck with her most. "You'll feel a small nip," she said, then injected local anesthetic into the child's intervertebra. Flick whimpered and grabbed their great-meema's hands. "You'll feel heavy pressure in three ... two ... one." Aster inserted the larger needle into Flick's spine. Then she dragged her stool down to the bottom of the cot and pinched the gangrenous skin above Flick's metatarsals.
"Is it gonna hurt much once that stuff you put in my back wears out?" asked Flick.
A tear formed in the corner of Flick's eye, but they wiped it away with the collar of their shirt before it could fall.
Aster pressed her stethoscope to Flick's talus bone and listened. The steady pulsing of blood signaled viable vessels and circulation, and she drew a line in ink where she planned to make the incision. Preserving the anklebone would make fitting a prosthesis easier.
"It feels good," said Flick.
"The cabin," Flick clarified. "It's like being on the Field Decks, Baby Sun on my back." They squeezed their eyes shut, and for the tenth time this week, Aster thought of her mother. This time, it was the talk of Baby that summoned her. Lune had worked as a mechanic on the miniature star that sourced Matilda's power.
"Are you certain this is the only way?" Flick's great-meema asked. "I heard you make potions, medicines so strong they regrow skin. They say you got a secret lab with tinctures that cure anything." She squeezed her left hand with her right, kissed each knuckle prayerfully.
"I don't have a secret laboratory," Aster lied. "But if I did, and it had the cures you speak of, I wouldn't keep it from you. This is the only way."
Aster took her scalpel and made a decisive slice into Flick's epidermis, through to the muscle, a line going all the way around, creating a flap of skin that she would later suture to form a nub over the bone.
"May retribution come to those responsible for this," said Flick's great-meema, fists balled into her apron.
Aster cut away the rotted flesh and muscle of Flick's foot, gratified by the falling off of blackened and corrupted limb, shiny white bone revealing itself underneath. There was no sense mourning that which no longer nourished.
By the time Aster finished, Flick's arteries sufficiently ligated, skin repatched, it was only a little over an hour to curfew. She placed the foot into a cooler. She had to hurry if she wanted to deposit it in her botanarium — or secret laboratory, in Flick's great-grandmeema's words — before retiring to her quarters for the night.
Excerpted from "An Unkindness of Ghosts"
Copyright © 2017 Rivers Solomon.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
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