Monuments

How many days like this have I seen now? This time it is bright and sunny and for some reason it matches my mood. A part of me wants to dance as I used to in musty ages past, when that was a way of showing honor to fallen comrades, fallen opponents… Customs are different now and it would be frowned upon to do such a thing in such a weighty place. Instead I content myself with a small smile and a few moments more of standing there with my memories.

They should be and are memories of hell on earth, of death and destruction but there were so many of those… the things that stood out in my very long and apparently at least mostly eidetic memory were the moments and people that I came to care about, to love. Some of them died in that particular hell, some of them survived to die in the next one… Some survived until time claimed them, as it always does. For me… almost no one lived more than 20 or 30 years.

That was as long as I could go before moving on. Any longer than that and people would begin to wonder why I didn’t age, why I didn’t sicken and die like those around me. Sometimes I was able to fake my death, other times I was forced to simply disappear. Mostly I found a war, went off and got myself “killed” for real though. I’m not sure why I chose that way to do it, I think a lot of it was internalized self -hatred because I couldn’t manage to just live apart from others, couldn’t manage to do the right thing for them and never allow emotional attachments to grow.

I suppose I still can’t manage it. I did it again, not that long ago… well not that long by my standards anyway. By the standards of the rest of humanity it has been long enough for the very last veteran on either side to have finally died of old age… a thing which takes a great deal longer than it used to. One of the very few people who’d known my secret then had survived, been the very last… My enemy become my friend as so many times before, the man who killed me become my husband, as never before.

It wasn’t something I planned but the way things happened, it was him or me and we both gave it a fair try. I may have picked up more than a few tricks over the ages but none of that does much good when the other person gets off the first shot and it goes straight and true to the heart of the matter. My heart, at least. In terms of ways to die I’m a big fan of speed having experienced many of the possibilities firsthand and this variant was faster than most.

Dying for me is different than it is for other people in one very specific way. I don’t stay dead and for some reason it triggers a full-on regeneration so even old scars and wounds vanish. I can even direct my regeneration toward a specific appearance if I manage to hold an image in my mind while dying but that is a lot harder than you might think and I often wind up with a very strong resemblance to the last person I saw.

I’d been thinking about my life and remembering my little sister so very long ago at her heartfasting. Its something I try to do to help make the memory of someone growing old and dying not hurt quite so much but I don’t think it really works, I just remember both things. Anyway, hers was the image that came back to my mind at that last instant and as a result I awoke this time with a very puzzled looking young man looking at me like he’d seen a ghost which was no surprise as dead people don’t usually get up and walk off a few hours later. I was ravenously hungry, again no surprise since it takes a lot out of me.

“What are you?”

I had no issue understanding him, I’ve knocked around long enough to pick up most of the languages out there currently but it took me a few minutes to get myself together enough to try an answer. When I did I’m fairly sure my look of surprise matched the one that’d occupied his face when I awoke because my voice was much higher than before. I cleared my throat and restarted but it came out the same so I plowed on in a clear soprano.

“I am alive. Aside from that I would like an answer to that question just as much as I’m sure you would.”

“You were dead.” It wasn’t a question, just a statement of fact.

“Again.” My inflection matched his and to his credit he showed no surprise at all.

“Do you always, um…” He gestured at me and I stared at him for a moment, unsure what he meant. “Do you always change sex when you die?”

“Not usually. I almost always die in some sort of battle and it tends to shape me toward being male but I was thinking about my little sister, when she wed and then there you were looking so very much like her first husband. It was right at the perfect moment so…” I shrugged.

“How long?”

“A little hard to say really. Time wasn’t always counted in the same way, especially in the tropics. Maybe 80 thousand years or so, give or take 2 or 3 thousand. For a long time I marked time for myself in generations of the people around me… its easy to fade into a sort of sameness for a few hundred years. Eventually something always happens to change things and I have to move on, to become a new person in a new place.” I looked him over carefully but he seemed to be taking all of this information on board without much of a bobble. “You seem to be handling this a great deal better than most who have discovered my secret over the years.”

“I guess I’m glad that if I had to kill someone it was someone who would not stay dead. I have never killed anyone before and I will not again if I can avoid it… although given the circumstances I am glad that I managed to shoot first.” He essayed an attempt at a smile which came out a bit crooked.

“I am too…” I surprised myself so much with that admission that I had to stop and reflect before I could continue. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

“And?” The question in his face was clear but I managed to avoid it for a moment.

“And I’m glad that life is done with.”

He wasn’t going to let it go that easily. “Was life as an American man so bad?”

“Life as a man is not my preference.” He’d wanted to know but it was still one of my most closely guarded secrets.

His eyes barely flickered from my own. “What about being an American?”

“It had its good points. Best indoor plumbing since the Romans although I really wish bidets would catch on there.”

“That’s… I never even thought about it that way.” He looked surprised and a little amused.

“Yeah well, when you get used to toilets and then have to do without for most of 2 thousand years having them again, and even better, private bathrooms…” I began to stand and he reached forward with a helping hand. “Things like that help make the nastier bits of a society seem just a little less nasty.”

“It must be very lonely, living for so long.” It wasn’t really a question so I let it slide by and changed the subject.

“I lived here more than a few times and traded through here a great deal over time. There were large towns working toward becoming cities maybe 20 thousand years ago but I was here long before that, before people learned how to farm and keep livestock. I spent… maybe 3 or 4 thousand years just wandering by myself and exploring. There were other kinds of human alive back then and the world was… young and ancient, full of mystery and wonder. I have never found another like me, who can die and not die, who can change in this way. It is lonely, like you said…”

I had to stop for a moment to gather myself as the lifetimes, the people I had loved and lost flashed past in my mind. “That is why I was alone for so long. Everyone and everything I knew changed and died, even the land I was born in. When I was young and for many thousands of years after, it was lush and green but now… even the land has changed so much I doubt I could find it anymore. The sands have buried it many times over and it is a place even scorpions do not tread lightly.”

He sensed my mood then because he started walking, drawing me along in his wake with my hand still in his. “We can’t stay here. I was deserting when we found each other and there will be people looking for me soon. If they find you they will probably do terrible things to you and kill you again and I can’t let that happen.”

I followed along in silence for a few minutes until I saw something familiar and stopped, pulling him to a stop with me. He opened his mouth to protest and I cut in before he could. “I know where I am. Follow me.”

“Are you certain?”

“The land hasn’t changed much in the past thousand years and I recognize those two mountains. A month’s travel on foot north of here was the place where the people who would become the Chinese were first turned back in defeat and I remember the army marching right through here. I managed to stay out of that war…” There was no need to tell him that I had been the one to manage the evacuation, to save as many lives as possible from the oncoming hordes… No need to tell him how horribly I’d failed and how many died…

I said nothing for many hours after that as I taught him by example how to ghost through the jungle unseen. He picked it up quickly and seemed to sense that I’d withdrawn emotionally as he worked to keep up with me. It didn’t seem fair to tell him I’d move twice as fast on my own… He was trying so hard and it was clear he was performing at the very limits of his ability. I had no choice but to push him farther than he thought he could go and when I finally led him into a notch between two trees and helped him to sit he was truly beyond his endurance. He sat there for several minutes as I worked to build a small fire depending on the jungle canopy and the trees which met overhead to shield us from view, unable to do more than breathe and hold back an occasional moan.

When I brought the small bird I’d killed out of my pack and proceeded to pluck and gut it he just watched with dull eyes, barely able to move. I took the packets of cocoa powder and instant coffee, mixed them with the blackberry jam from one of the rations and ran my fingers between the skin and meat to separate them before I stuffed the mixture under the skin then stuffed the cavity with some herbs I’d gathered along the way and rigged a small spit low over the fire to take full advantage of its very limited warmth. By the time the smells of cooking meat reached him he’d managed to sit up against the tree at his back and take a few small sips of water. His breathing had slowed to a more normal pace and he watched as I pulled some rations from my pack and set them to heat. I’d lucked out and gotten spaghetti and meatballs so a tin each would give us some much needed carbs. The Dessert Unit for that ration pack was plain white bread but it could be very tasty when used to soak up the juices from something else like the spaghetti or in this case the bird that was teasing my nose as I worked.

I had a few LURP rations as well but I wanted to use the heavier MCI items first because we would be moving fast and quiet as soon as we’d eaten and slept a bit. The opportunity to snag a bird on the run had been too good to pass up and I was glad for the extra protein and fat it would supply. With everything set there was little to do for the next 20 minutes or so and I took advantage of the time to slip off a little way and relieve myself, a somewhat more complex exercise than it had been just a few hours before.

When I returned my companion had recovered enough to make his way over and turn the bird on its spit, the lowermost side having reached a delicious dark brown color. “How did you manage to catch this bird? I never saw anything and I was right there with you!”

He looked genuinely interested so I pulled an assemblage of weights and lines out of my sleeve and demonstrated how the lines would fan out from the central point when thrown properly. “This is called a Bolo now but I can’t remember not having one and most of the Old People I met used them. Thrown right you can bring down 1 or 2 birds pretty easily and with a lot more practice they work well for small ground game as well. I keep it in my sleeve the way you saw because it lets me pull it out and throw it in one motion and speed is essential. I happened to see the bird perched, threw and got it tangled in the lines and it fell right in front of me so I picked it up, wrung its neck and strapped it to the side of my pack. We needed distance most of all right then so I didn’t bother mentioning it.”

He fed the fire slowly, stirring the cans with a spoon from his pack with a slight frown. “Why are you helping me? I am glad you are… but I don’t understand.”
“That’s ok, I don’t understand it myself really but I think I’m beginning to. You gave me something I couldn’t manage to give myself, a new life with a clean exit and a reason to move on. I owe you my life, this life, in a very literal sense and you gave up everything you knew to help me so it is my duty to make sure I help you build a new life too. And… I like you.” I watched as he digested that and turned the spit a bit more.

He finally looked across the fire and watched as I pulled a large metal cup out, filled it with water and set it amongst the coals to boil. “Drinking water for you. The water sources here tend to have some fairly nasty parasites and diseases in them. They don’t touch me so I’m just fine with drinking it as I find it but it might make you very sick or even kill you so I’m boiling it for you. I have some water purification tablets but they taste pretty bad and I’d prefer to save them in case we can’t build a fire for whatever reason. They didn’t teach you any of this in training, did they?”

“No. They just gave us tablets and told us to put them in any water we drink but they never told us why. Mostly no one uses them anyway because they taste so bad.” He looked embarrassed.

“Well from now on avoid using water that hasn’t been boiled for at least 10 minutes or that you haven’t used a tablet in. I’m going to sterilize both of our canteens so we can carry as much good water as possible for you and I want you to drink as much as you can now and before we break camp, ok? After we eat you sleep and I will keep watch. We have a lot of distance to cover and these mountains make for some rough travel even for me. I’ll l do everything I can to make it easier for you but you will be more exhausted than you ever thought possible at first.”

“You make it sound so… not easy but a little less scary.” He gave the spit one final turn to get that last bit of crispy skin ready. “Can you teach me some of this along the way? I want to help contribute as much as I can.”

“You’ll learn. We have a thousand kilometers to go before we reach Bangkok and we need to stay hidden until we get well into Laos. Once we get into Thailand we’ll be able to travel more openly and I’ll be able to access one of my stashes for funds.” I tried to make it sound a little less difficult than it would actually be but he seemed to understand what I was doing.

The skin had finished crisping and turning golden brown so I took the improvised spit from atop its frame, impaled the canned loaf of white bread on one end and slid it up against the bottom of the bird before sticking the end I’d sharpened into the ground. The smaller set of twigs at the bottom served to hold the bread off the ground and another larger set higher up kept the bird from sliding down. With that resting I fished the cans out of the coals and sat them in front of each of us to cool off a little.

“I don’t know your name…” I’d meant it as a question but it drew a laugh from him.

“I don’t know what my name is now. I can’t be Tranh Nguyen anymore and I don’t know what name to use. Maybe I could use one of your old names?” He thought about that for a moment and grimaced. “No, if I am to start a new life, I will start it with a truly new life. I never wanted to be a soldier, never wanted to be any of the things they made me be.”

I understood what he meant having faced a similar sundering many times over the millennia. “Then we shall be nameless for a while together. Take your time, I know from experience the proper name for a new life only makes itself clear to you when you are ready to accept it. Survival first, then we can take some time to properly find ourselves again, both of us.”

“Again for you perhaps. For me… well, like you said, survival first. I’ve been too busy surviving to be able to think about things like that.” He lapsed into silence, staring into the fire.

We sat there for a few minutes, him staring into the fire and me keeping an eye on our surroundings. I judged the bird had long enough to sit and drip its juices into the bread so I took the spit from the ground and set it so that the bread would toast over the fire. That went fairly quickly and then we split everything equally using large leaves as plates. Hunger and exhaustion combined to make the simple fare seem like a gourmet meal and it was quite enough to sate our appetites.

He was by far the most exhausted of us so I took first watch and let him sleep once I’d carefully extinguished our fire and taken additional measures to hide us from chance discovery. I gave him 6 hours of sleep out of pity since I’d driven him so hard the day before but it was also practical since I intended to drive him even harder today. I’d set aside the toasted bread from yesterday and we made our breakfast from that and the cookies that had been in the ration packet. Not the best of fare but better than nothing and I would keep my eyes open for more game today.

As we were covering the traces of our camp he finally broke the silence that had held since he woke. “When we get to Thailand… will you leave me there?”

I’d given the matter some considerable thought while he slept. “Do you want me to?”

“I want… I don’t think I know enough to have any clue what I want. I know that there is so much I can learn from you and I know that I am…” he flushed and looked down at his pack “I want to know you better, as a friend and maybe…” This time he couldn’t bring himself to finish so I did it for him.

“Maybe as a lover?” He still couldn’t look up at me so I took the initiative. “I think I would find that most agreeable. It has been a very long time since I’ve had a relationship as my proper self, with nothing about me hidden. Not yet though… I want it to be special for both of us.”

We’d been walking for some time before he was able to respond. “I have never, um… been with anyone. Even just as a friend. I was always afraid I would say or do the wrong thing so I kept myself apart, found places and ways to avoid attention. I don’t… I don’t know how to be a friend or a lover or much of anything really.”

“All you have to do is be yourself. You showed me a kind and generous heart, you accepted who and what I am as though it were the most natural thing in the world and now your chief concern is that you will somehow hurt me, hurt us, out of ignorance. If there is a better way to start a relationship I have yet to experience it in all my years.” He smiled at me in a way that warmed my heart and… well, other areas…

As we made our way through the mountainous jungle I showed him a few of the tricks I’d learned to make the going a little easier and creating a great deal less in the way of noise and tracks left behind. By the time a few hours had passed he’d adapted well enough to find the going much easier than he had the previous day and even though it felt more like a stroll through the jungle we were making very good time.

Midafternoon we had to stop and shelter until a series of patrols passed and once they’d gone we worked our way farther up into the highlands where the likelihood of running into any soldiers would be minimized. Ideally we could avoid villagers as well but many of the people who lived in these areas moved through the jungle almost as well as I could in a full stalk. It was almost inevitable that we would encounter some of them but I knew the hill folk here cared no more for the wars than they ever had.

Dynasties and religions had come and gone, empires burgeoning and crumbling to dust for longer than people had recorded. The hill people remained through all of it, accepting foreigners into their midst as long as they followed the ancient ways. They had endured here, changing very little over the millennia in their relative isolation. I found myself looking forward to an encounter with a group I knew had lived a few days away and hoping they were still in the same area. Few of them would remember my last visit of course, it had been over 400 years but very long ago I had carefully secreted a method of proving that I was the Ancient One from their legends.

Two women, grandmothers who I had helped into this world with my own hands were entrusted with a secret, only to be told to their chosen successor when they themselves became grandmothers or if one was near death before then she could pass it on in other ways but it always remained a secret known only to 2 or 3 women at any time. I had used this method in many places and times and it had proven surprisingly effective. One legend lasted almost 15 thousand years and might have gone for longer had I not retrieved what I’d left.

For this night though, we had a reprise of last night’s repast only this time I’d managed to bag 2 birds so we ate until we were overstuffed with enough left over to make a nice sandwich for morning. Once we’d settled down and covered the fire I took first watch again but this time I woke him after 4 hours and had him wake me after another 4. It wasn’t enough but running rough like this meant exhaustion was part of the bargain.

The next 3 days passed in very much the same fashion except that our food choices were dwindling and I was having to spend more time both gathering edible things and teaching him how to recognize them so he could help with the task. The next day I began to see the subtle markers that told me the people I wanted to meet still lived here and hopefully still held the old knowledge.

Around midday I saw the combination of landmarks I recalled and made him wait while I ventured into the jungle and after a bit of fairly intensive digging pulled out a medallion made of jade. The intricately worked dragon seemed to be curled around an invisible enemy in mortal combat and it was clear that the medallion lacked a piece, possibly 2. I returned to my companion and stood in the center of a clearing, carefully using small splashes of water to clean it, getting every last speck of dirt from it and polishing it until it shone dully in the light that filtered through the canopy.

A voice sounded from the edge of the clearing. “You know the sacred place of the ancient one’s treasure. You must now prove that you hold the rest of the knowledge or your life and that of your companion will be forfeit.”

“Bring to me the tiger and the monkey and I will prove myself.”

There was no response until 2 old women appeared from the jungle as if by magic. Each of them held a jade medallion similar in size to the one I held but on one was a monkey and the other was a tiger. They each walked over to me and held their medallion out cautiously. I took the monkey medallion first and fit it together with the first one so that it looked like the monkey was hovering over the dragon. Taking the tiger medallion next I fit them all three together so that the image became one of the dragon carefully holding the tiger on its back and the monkey helping the tiger to stay in place.

“You have proven you have the knowledge passed down to us by our ancestors. You may dwell in peace with us for as long as you wish.”

“We thank you honored elders. We ask nothing of you but the warmth of your fire and a safe place to sleep for a night or two.”

“It is as the elders told us many years ago. Be welcome, share our meal and our homes for as long as you wish. We are happy that the great Tu Shan has returned although we did not expect you to take the form of a western woman.”

“Times change and I must change with them. I stand before you as my true self, having finally cast off the uncomfortable illusion of being a man. You know all life is duality but in some one side is dominant. That is the way it has always been for me but only now can I truly become free.”

“Our ancestors knew this about you and we honor those like you as we always have. Come, let us be comfortable and share food together.” With that both of the women turned and led us onto a concealed path which led us through a tight rocky passage which after some minutes opened out into a lush series of valleys enclosed by high cliffs.

We were welcomed with a small show of celebration as the memories and legends had persisted. The people remembered that I did not like to be treated as someone better or wiser and largely they acceded to my known preferences. They were however unable to fully overcome their deference for age and I found that I was always offered the first portion of every dish even when I tried to defer that honor to the village matriarchs.

The remainder of the day passed into night with the sudden completeness of sunset in the tropical jungle mountains as I told them of my adventures since last I had visited. When I finally got to the last few years they informed me that they were well aware of the wars that currently raged outside their enclave but were unconcerned by them.

“Honored elder, we understand your concern for our welfare and we thank you for it. We have stood in this place since before the Hong Bang, living as you taught us so long ago. All of the invaders since have passed us by, hidden as we are. This war too shall pass and we shall remain as we always have.”

“That is a discussion we must save for when next I visit. The world has changed in ways that will not allow you to remain hidden for very much longer. When the world at large comes to know of you there will be many who wish to come study your way of life or simply to visit. There is a way to turn this to your advantage but that will have to wait until this war and its aftermath have had time to pass. Another generation or two must pass before that project can begin and I will return at that time.”

“Will you not remain with us elder? It has been long since you graced us by living among us for a time.”

I leaned over to the old woman who spoke. “I cannot, Grandmother. Not yet. There is much yet to accomplish before I can take my rest among the People again and even then it can only be for a time.”

She’d known my answer before she asked and yet a tear shone in her eye. “As you say, Elder.” I held her shoulder as she began to turn away to hide her disappointment and drew her into an embrace. We stood like that for a time and I wept with her, sharing the weight of our years and losses.

“My time comes to an end soon, Elder. When next you come I shall dwell among the cliffs with the ancestors.”

“I have no power to change that. I could, if you wish, return in a year or so and take you outside, to see the world before your time comes.” The offer was made in earnest but I already knew the answer.

“My place has always been here and here I shall remain. The wonders of this new world are for those young enough to understand them. I am an old woman who understands the earth beneath my feet and the rains which bring us life. It is enough for me to know that our grandchildren will know the wider world and the magics it holds.” She said nothing further and went to her house to sit on her porch rocking back and forth while she worked on cutting vegetables for the meal.

I understood her dismissal and turned away to be surrounded by the others of the People who wanted to meet someone they only knew from legends. I carefully committed each of their names and relationships to memory but the alcohol flowed freely and even with my metabolism I was able to get quite a nice buzz on by pairing it with a few herbal mixtures. When I awoke the next morning my senses were singing in that way that tells me I have to move immediately to avoid causing danger to those around me. I immediately rose and dressed as quickly as possible.

“We must leave now, before the village awakes. We must vanish into the morning mists as I always have, sooner than I wished… but if we do not leave now they will not survive to see the world I have tried so hard to build for them. If we vanish before they awake they will take it as part of the legend of Tu Shan and they will remain in their sanctuary until I can protect them. Please help me?”

“I trust you with not just my life but the lives of my family and….” He looked at me from beneath lowered lids “I trust you as the mother of your family, which I hope will also be mine.” His skin was a lovely mahogany shade but the blood that flooded his cheeks made his face blaze in the dawn.

“Yes, I will marry you. The two of us have no names, or many, but none that matter. One day we shall choose a name, or names… We will have to put something on the birth certificates at least and…. I want our children’s names to have meaning. They will be using them for a very long time indeed.”

“The oldest of my grandfathers died when I was a child. My mother said he lived almost 200 years.” He looked at me in a way that I was beginning to realize conveyed his affection. “Hopefully our children will live at least that long…”

“Have you not understood why this place is so isolated? My children live …. I don’t know how long really. That foolish old woman thinks she is dying and I nursed her at my breast 8 thousand years ago. I expect she’ll be around for a bit yet. She gave me that same routine the last time I was here, and the time before that.”

The look on his face was priceless. “Will our children live so long?”

“From what you’ve just told me, possibly longer. It sounds like one or more of your distant ancestors may have been one of my children. I have only had a few and those very long ago. She was the last child I bore… I knew by then that my children would not live as long as I and it was too much for me to bear, to know that I would eventually make a place for her in the cliffs with the others.”

He said nothing for a time as we both donned our packs and made our way out of the sanctuary in silence. I took the time to secrete my portion of the medallion in its place, carefully covering our tracks and back tracking for over an hour, carefully wiping away any traces of our passage.

With that done I set about making a false trail that could be easily followed, stopping after a few hours to build a fire, use it to heat a can of food for each of us and then dousing it with water, covering it in a clumsy way that would make it obvious to an observer that this had been a campsite. We took the time to do our business and then covered it sloppily, made a scuffed space on either side of the fire to make it look like we’d slept there and left the previous day. With that piece of misdirection in place we made our deliberately clumsy way to a small river and lefts tracks on the banks that would suggest a boat had picked us up. We made our way up the river, making certain we weren’t leaving any sort of visible tracks for several miles before I reached up and hauled a branch down, handing it to him and hauling another down.

In this way we pulled enough branches down to allow us to climb up into the trees. The forest here was dense enough to allow us passage through the space between the middle and lower canopies without having to touch ground for quite some time. It was a physically exhausting and at times terrifying way to travel but it made our passage effectively untraceable. We left no scent trail for dogs, no scuffed earth or bent twig to mark our passing and our misdirection upon entering the river should have led the pursuers that my instincts told me existed far away from the hidden valleys of the People.

Finally we took a break, sitting in a space where several enormous limbs split away from the main trunk. We shared some of the compressed LURP rations I had and took the time to look around us at the beauty of the jungle. Here in the space between the middle and upper canopies the ground was almost invisible, a thing whose existence had to be taken at least a little on faith. Dapples of sunlight made their way in to cast a diffuse and almost otherworldly light, making the whole jungle seem like the grandest temple ever conceived. In my mind, if there was such a thing as the divine then places like this were the temples provided for us to appreciate something more than our own limited existence.

Having eaten we moved on, keeping to our route through the jungle as the ground beneath became increasingly rugged and would have greatly slowed our progress. As it was we finally came to a point where the jungle began to thin and eventually it was clear we would have to make our way forward, earthbound once more. With barely a word between us we made our way toward one of the last of the great trees to sleep in its welcoming shelter after another scant meal of LURP rations.

I awoke in the darkness, knowing that dawn would come soon and we needed to be well on our way by full light. We both relieved ourselves in the crotch of the tree where we’d slept so as to leave no spoor on the ground, then climbed carefully down and began to make our way across the sparsely covered area. Ahead of us lay a belt of fields and small villages along the road and we needed to be through that area so we could find good cover again. We broke into a slow jog, enough to eat the distance without forcing us to overexert ourselves and by the time stars began to fade from view we were back into the cover provided by the verge of the jungle.

It wasn’t the same sort of growth as before so we had to proceed on the ground. He had proven to be a quick learner and was now very adept at moving silently and unseen so again our progress was considerably faster than it might have been for others. I was able to do a bit more hunting on the fly and he managed to add to the larder with his bolo, although he spent quite a lot of time retrieving it as well. We both ate until we were uncomfortably full then found shelter in the trees again to sleep. Neither of us stood watch, having gone far enough away from anywhere people lived or came for any reason to make that precaution necessary.

In the morning we ate the last of the meat which we’d smoked before dousing our fire and as we chewed he looked around, having a better view of the terrain than he had when we’d stopped there at dusk.

“Where are we?”

“Ever heard of Xa Tong?” He shook his head. “Son Tong?” Another shake of the head.

“The road we crossed yesterday runs between them. We’re about 6 kilometers into Laos now and we shouldn’t have to worry much about people for the next 2 or 3 days but we still need to stay hidden. Neither side of this war respects little things like borders even though there really isn’t anything to bring them here.”

“Will we travel like this all the way to Thailand?” He didn’t seem disturbed at the idea.

“We have another 3 days or so until we reach Muang Xai. I can trade on certain favors owed to former selves to get us a flight from there to Chiang Mai. From there I can access all the funds we will need to go wherever in the world you wish.”

He looked a little lost at that. “I… I never thought about it. Somewhere with Universities where I can study in peace. I want to learn so much about the world, about myself… about you… I don’t know enough to pick a place and how long could we stay anyway? How long before people notice you aren’t aging the same as they are...?”

“About 30 years if I really push it and use lots of makeup tricks. 15 or 20 is much easier to pull off but there’s something you haven’t considered here. If you are going to live anything like the length of time your family seems to I won’t be the only one having to worry about aging too slowly and our children… I have no idea. Let’s worry about the next few days for now and then go somewhere we can take our time and think about it, build proper legends for our new identities.”

That was the first time we ever really talked about it but it was far from the last. We stayed in Thailand for almost a year, lazing about on the beaches and simply deciding what to do next. We spent most of the 1970s wandering around Western Europe, never really settling in one place but enjoying the wild freedom of the time. We were in some sense young and in love and it was a magical time to be alive. Along the way he did study at many universities for a term here and there and if it had all been done under a single identity his academic credentials would have been quite impressive.

He also made a decision that would one day bring great upheaval and change to not just our lives but those of every human alive. It seemed so innocuous at the time, such a simple thing… a name. He decided that he would, for himself if not always in public, reclaim his name and be once again Tranh Nguyen. That decision wasn’t made in a vacuum of course, it was made in the excitement and soul-searching that came with the discovery of my first pregnancy and the suddenly weighty thought of what name our child would bear.

It seemed the blink of an eye later that I held the first child I’d borne for millennia and together we named her Mala Nguyen as she suckled at breasts that had so longed to nourish life again. 4 years later her little brother arrived on the scene and our lives were…. so indescribably full of joy and love. Its difficult to be certain but I don’t think I’d ever felt quite this way, knowing I wouldn’t have to leave everyone I loved and it was healing for my soul in a new and wonderful way. Our children grew up knowing the freedom that came with the ability to travel the world as they wished and as the computer age came into being their possibilities grew and we finally stopped traveling for a time.

Mala wanted to attend MIT and her brother was keen to follow her so we settled in Boston for a few years, then when Morgan followed her to Oxford we moved to London. Eventually they went to different places for their postdoc work and we were alone again, as we had been 30 years before. We rang in the new millennium in New York City, videoconferencing with our kids who were in Sydney and Osaka at the time.

The world seemed so full of hope just then… like humanity would maybe finally learn to live together. We were living in a warehouse on the docks which was mostly unused space with a few thousand square feet renovated to provide quite agreeable accommodations. The rooftop garden provided a superb view of the city and the bustling hive of humanity that provided us with anonymity and in normal times it was a place of peaceful serenity. I was there, meditating and getting ready to paint when I saw the beginning of the horror, saw a plane slam into one of the towers.

At first I thought the same as many others, that it was some sort of horrific accident and I was glad my children were on the ground in other cities and my husband was downstairs. I called him up to the rooftop with me, knowing there was nothing we could really do to help but compelled to watch. We were still watching when another plane hit the second tower and at that instant we both knew that war had come to our doorstep.

We’d been watching television coverage as well from the laptop I’d fitted with a TV card and saw the coverage of the plane hitting the Pentagon and all the confusion and speculation going on but that paled in comparison to watching people jump to their deaths and then the devastation of the towers themselves following their plunge. Tranh and I held each other and wept at the sheer horror for a few minutes before old training came to the fore.

“We have to go down and open the place up. People will need shelter from the air itself today.” He made himself look back over at the spreading cloud and nodded. “I’ll secure the air handlers to recirculate and be down in a few minutes to help rig up the air curtains. The water tower is secure and should give us enough to hold for a while. Once we’ve got that rigged up you start taking care of the first people and I’ll go see what sort of help I can round up.”

I knew he was too numb to function very well at first so simple tasks would help him come out of it and get him moving at full speed. I felt much the same but I’d had a great deal more practice in compartmentalizing my feelings in crisis and although this particular horror was new in my experience reflex kept me moving, thinking, planning. I’d been careful to cultivate relationships with the surrounding residents and business owners in the time we’d been here and had done rather significant favors for more than a few of them. If needed I would call in every favor owed but I didn’t expect it to be necessary.

I kissed him deeply which woke him up a bit before gently pushing him toward the door. He went a few steps before he broke into a jog, clearly getting his mental footing back a bit. I turned to my own work which didn’t take very long due to a bit of forethought and quickly had the louvers on the air intakes dogged closed. That done I double-checked the water tower to ensure it was filled to capacity and waved to several others who were on their buildings doing the same. We each managed to convey to the others by gesture that we planned to let in as many as possible to shelter so some of my work would have already been done.

By the time I made my way below Tranh had already drafted sever passersby who were helping him set up the long strips of plastic that formed air curtains so people could pass through easily but the air outside would largely stay outside. I noted with approval that he’d gotten them to setting up a double curtain affair with a makeshift plastic room between so that would help even more. We’d fitted the various entry ways with similar air curtains as part of the renovation since they increased efficiency dramatically and allowed us to have a very airy layout to our living quarters. It just wasn’t something that worked for the main entrance we planned to open as heavy plastic strips tended to be rather unfriendly to the paint jobs of the vehicles they dragged over, hence the need for the temporary rig.

More came in to help as I watched and they were beginning to look quite dirty as the cloud enclosed everything and suddenly it was impossible to see more than a few feet outside. Tranh had finished with his task and was now working to help organize his impromptu crew as more and more people streamed in. I took some of the more functional of them and created a secondary station where we washed their faces with water from the tank, provided each with a liter bottle of water and sent them either for further triage at the nursing station that had somehow magically appeared or on into the space to make room and find a spot to rest.

The whole thing faded into a process of, quite literally, wash, rinse, repeat. At some point the flow of people turned to a trickle and I had time to look up and see… a sea of people. The warehouse was literally filled to capacity, people sitting or lying on the concrete floor everywhere there was room. I followed the next person who came through, taking them to the nursing station since they had a few nasty gashes. It took a while for me to realize that the person I was helping had the remnants of a paramedic’s uniform on and then it truly struck home. To have these kinds of injuries… he’d been close. Very close.

He must have stumbled blindly through that hell outside, all the way from the plaza. I stayed with him, held his hand while the nurse stitched the more immediate of the wounds up and then helped him onward into our quarters. They had been similarly filled but everyone here was injured to some degree, some of them even more severely than the medic I accompanied. I was able to make a pillow for him but all of the surfaces usable as beds had more severely injured on them so he got a spot on a rug which was certainly better than the tile beneath it.

Someone had gotten into the kitchen and begun cooking and the delicious smells pulled me out of the stupor I’d fallen into. Someone else was with my paramedic and I allowed myself to be led into the kitchen which was a beehive of activity with every surface in use. It looked like a restaurant running at full dinner rush and I was glad of the restaurant supply business next door. Tranh had thought to go over and ask to purchase everything and since there was a large connecting door everything was able to run from place to place without having to go outside.

We would have been willing to buy the building if necessary but Emilio brushed aside Tranh’s offer of payment, saying it was the least he could do to help and bossing the assemblage of employees and volunteers to get food to our kitchen and 3 others nearby. We weren’t the only ones who had taken in everyone we could and there were thousands of people who needed at the very least something decent to eat. It was looking more like the neighborhood, cooperating as it never had before, could manage that task at the least and I was heartened to see it.

I’d seen my share of horrific disasters and you never really knew how people would react at first. Sometimes there seemed to be no response at all, just survivors picking through the wreckage when it was all over. Other times little bands of people would form, mostly to help each other but some predatory, looking for loot or someone to vent their anger upon. This… this was more like it had been during the Blitz but without any sort of formal organization yet it all worked. I’d loved this city since it was New Amsterdam and the land even longer and it made me feel good to see the people who called this city home behave in this way.

In the end, we did manage to get everyone fed, got the wounded to hospitals and helped everyone get back home. It was nearly a week before the last of our guests left and amazingly, the place was spotless. Emilio had refilled and emptied his warehouse 3 times keeping everyone fed and the refugees had organized recovery brigades amongst themselves, helping to clean apartments that had been contaminated with the horrible ash and dust and even in a few cases finding new homes for people whose homes were still off-limits or who had been homeless and simply come in for temporary shelter. As a part of it they’d cleaned our building from top to bottom, quite literally. Even the rooftop garden had been restored to a pristine state and except for the gaping hole in the skyline it was almost possible to think nothing had happened.

I awoke in late morning to sunlight streaming in and the smells of cooking coming from the kitchen. I elected to shower after eating since I’d let my hair grow to just below waist length and it took a little time to care for it properly at that length. By the time I made it into the kitchen Tranh was just finishing up plating and we shared a long kiss after he took his apron off and set our plates on the table.

“You never cease to amaze me…” he sat and took a sip of his juice. “Standing there in the sun like that… you look like some artist’s conception of a nature goddess and I know you just rolled out of bed.”

I shrugged and took a bite of a truly excellent omelet. “I think you’re pretty damn sexy too… a naked guy in an apron is seriously one of my turn-ons…”

“It feels good to have our home back… I didn’t realize how much I’d come to dislike wearing clothes until I had to do it for a solid week again. I guess being a hippie really stuck, huh?” He grinned past a bite of his own.

“I don’t think that’s news dear. In case you haven’t noticed neither of our kids has much taste for clothes in private either.” I smirked at him. We’d deliberately raised our kids to be comfortable with their own bodies and with seeing others unclothed without it having to mean anything sexually and if anything they were a bit libertine by the standards of the time.

“So we did something right then?”

“Our kids are successful in their chosen fields of endeavor, happy as far as I know in their personal lives… I’d say thats a parental win.” I took a bite and chewed for a moment. “I hope the next ones turn out as well.”

“I have to admit it’s a little hard to wait another decade before we move to our next identities and can do it again. As much as I love having our home back I miss having kids in the house.” There was a little dimple at the corner of his mouth that I knew meant he wasn’t expressing the true depth of his emotion to me and I felt much the same as I knew he must.

“You know… we could foster a couple of teen kids and make sure they are set up for life when we do have to make movement. We’ve got a decade to play with and maybe a little more if we push it. They would have siblings and could become each other’s sibs… Give them a new family to replace whatever was for them before and a real shot at life.”

“Do you really think we could?” The look on his face made me want to laugh with joy.

“I’ve some kids in mind. I’ve noticed them on the streets around here, busking and living rough. I know where their squat is. Amrit leaves a grate open for them deliberately and they have repayed her kindness by cleaning the space up. I watched one of them put an envelope through the mail slot one day and then saw Parninder drop it back in the younger girl’s violin case later that day.”

He looked thoughtful. “You think they tried to pay rent?”

“Sure looked like it to me. I’d be surprised if Amrit hasn’t been feeding them on the sly too. I’m sure they’d like to do more but with his health and their age they likely wouldn’t be allowed to foster the kids even if they could get them to agree to deal with social services. Kids don’t go to the street without a reason and I’d bet any amount of money they’ve been abused wherever they were.”

“Wait… you’re talking about those four kids that vanished yesterday? The ones who were camped in the 3rd floor corner?”

I nodded.

“Well then lets go get dressed and bring them back here so we can get things rolling now!” His energy was infectious and within a few minutes we’d both dressed and I’d done my hair in a quick braid to keep it out of my face. It was a little early for buskers to be out in this area but when we found the kids it looked like they’d found a decent spot in front of a shop whose owner was puttering around inside with the door open so she could hear them.

When Tranh and I stopped in front of them the younger girl abruptly stopped playing and drew a small sour note from her instrument. A voice came from within the shop almost immediately and I couldn’t help the little grin that came to my face when I heard it.

“Hey, nobody messes with those kids! Whoever you are you can just… Oh, Hi Shan, Tranh. You got some problem with these kids?” Her customary fierce look was joined by a scowl of suspicion.

“You know me better than that Lilah. Gimme a sec, ok?”

Her scowl lightened a little as she scrubbed at an imaginary speck on the window. From her that was something like approval so I turned my attention to the kids who’d been standing there watching the interplay with faces as impassive as they could manage.

“Lilah was half right. We do want to talk with you but its not a bad thing in any way. Have you eaten today?” That got a halfhearted nod and I knew they missed the food they’d been having for the past week. “Okay, I’ll take that as a ‘Not much’. Want something to eat while we talk? You pick what you want.”

The oldest looking spoke for the rest. “We’d like to go back to your place if that’s ok. We can pay for the food.” The others nodded in support and the violin was quickly stowed.

“Give me a minute to talk with Lilah before we go, ok?” I slipped inside the store and drew Lilah inside a little with me.

She spoke before I had a chance to. “You gonna take em in, yeah?” her face was adorned with an expression that might be likened to a smile if one were charitably inclined. Knowing Lilah as I did I was more than charitably inclined. With the hells she’d lived through it was a wonder she hadn’t simply closed off the world and retreated into herself but she was in her shop every day. She couldn’t manage more than half the day and she didn’t sleep especially well so she opened the shop and left around noon most days to go have some lunch and a try at a nap. Her nephew did most of the actual work around the shop and was just glad to have a decent job with his prison record.

“Depends on them. We’re going to offer, yes. Those are some wounded kids and I don’t know if they will be able to trust us that much. I really hope they say yes…” I was surprised when Lilah gave me a quick half hug and stepped back immediately. Given how much she hated being touched by anyone that amounted to a bear hug from her.

“They gonna say yes. I hear em talking this morning bout how much they missed bein in your place this past week. You an Tranh be the best thang happen to em. Now you go, feed kids and talk. They won’ let me feed em nothin.” She turned away abruptly and brushed furtively at an eye. I knew she didn’t want me to see her tears so I respected the implicit request to go.

Back on the sidewalk the kids were waiting with Tranh who was doing his best not to be a little intimidated by their lack of expression. Once we got back to our place the same one that had spoken earlier politely asked where they could clean up and they spent a few minutes at it while we put together a quick meal of waffles, eggs and sausage for them. They trooped back in looking much neater and took places at the table, eating with relatively little said except for a thank you from each of them before digging in and little noises of enjoyment.

When the smallest one, the girl who’d been playing the violin finished and carefully crossed fork and knife on her plate she started to get up, presumably to clear the table. I preempted that by scooping their dishes up, spraying them off and sticking them in the dishwasher with our dishes from earlier.

I sat back at the table and everyone looked at me including my husband. “Okay, we said we wanted to talk with you so here it is. We know you’ve been living rough under the Singh’s place and we want to offer you a home. We’ve got two adult kids who live overseas and we miss having kids around the house. The only thing we will ask of you is the same we asked of our own children, to do your best and hopefully to be happy.”

“We’re all trans.” It was the youngest who’d spoken and I could see the impassive expressions return. “We ran away from a conversion camp together. Our parents sent us there and we can’t risk being forced to go back.”

I’d suspected as much but it was clearly a surprise to Tranh. He was still the one who spoke first. “Okay, so we need to get each of you to a gender specialist as soon as possible. Got anything more that you think will make us reject you? I’ll tell you right now it won’t and there’s no way we’d let your parents take you back even if we have to move out of the country. None of that will be an issue anyway, Shan is owed the right favors by the right people more than likely. It will mean we formally adopt you all, if you want that.”

It was as though they’d rehearsed it was so smooth and simultaneous. They each studied both our faces and I nodded in affirmation of his words. They looked at each other and suddenly a smile spread across all four faces. “Yes, we want that.” It was the violin girl again.

It was such a strange and serious conversation to be having with kids. “Okay, first order of business. You know our names but we have no idea of yours. We can deal with birth-names later, right now we need to know what you’d like to be called and we’ll arrange to make that legal as quickly as possible too.”

“I’m the youngest. My name is Anna Charlotte after my grandmother and my aunt and I want my last name to be Nguyen like yours.”

“I’m the next youngest. We’re both 13 and my name is Oliver Charles. I want my last name to be Nguyen as well.”

The largest child spoke up. “I’m the next youngest and my name is Emily Amelia. I’m 14 yesterday. I want my last name to be Nguyen as well.”

“I’m the oldest. I turned 14 3 months ago and my name is Edward Grant. I like to be called Eddie and I too wish to take the name Nguyen.”

“Good. Now we’ll get you to a doctor for checkups and to get things going for each of you tomorrow but it might take a week or so to get you all into the school I have in mind for you. Lets go and get your stuff cleared out from the Singh’s place, ok?”

It was a happy little procession that trooped back to our place with a few things for each of them but really very little. I sent each of them for a bath or shower, their choice and washed their clothes while they were in. Eddie was the first to poke his head out. I saw his expression and knew what he was going to ask.

“No Eddie, I’m not giving you that ace bandage back. We’ll get you some proper binders but the bandage thing can be dangerous. If you’ll look under your jeans you’ll notice an undershirt that should compress things enough to get you to the right shop, ok?”

He opened his mouth to say something, decided against it and withdrew, closing the door lightly. In just a minute he was back out with a smile on his face and loose polo shirt on his torso. “Thank you maam. I just… I can’t see myself like that. It messes with my head.”

“Never be afraid to bring things up, whatever they are. And I don’t really like to be called maam. You don’t have to call me mom or anything like that, I’m fine with Shan.”

“What if I want to call you Mom?” He looked a little nervous.

“I would love that.”

The smile was back. “Ok Mom!” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “That feels… so amazing…” He was crying but smiling from ear to ear.

“You made Eddie cry!” it was the youngest, hair still somewhat askew.

“Its good tears Anna. Happy crying because she said I could call her mom if I wanted and I did and its… amazing…”

“So you want us to call you mom?” it was almost a challenge.

“Not if you don’t want to. I’m ok with just Shan or whatever although I’d rather not be called maam.”

“Ok, then I’ll call you Mom too. Can you help me with my hair mom?” I sat on a chair and had her sit on an ottoman in front of me while I brushed her hair into something a little less ragged and a bit more pixieish although it needed the attention of a hairdresser to really do anything with it. It was still quite short and equal length all around and I knew what I was looking at.

“They shaved you and Emily’s heads?” It was more of a statement than a fact and she waited a moment before replying.

“It was harder for Emmy. I’d never been allowed anything more than a buzz cut but she had hair down to her shoulders almost. They really treated her horribly, shock therapy and stuff. They did that to all of us but they were just more sadistic about it with her. I think they wanted her to kill herself.”

“I’m really sorry you kids had to go through that. I’ll make sure that place gets shut down and the kids rescued.”

“Its not there anymore. We tried to go back the next week to get the others but the whole place was empty.” Eddie looked angry. “I don’t know if any of my friends are even alive.”

“We’ll find them Eddie. When we do, the people responsible for this will go to prison for… however long they survive. They don’t like people who hurt children in prison.” I couldn’t keep the grim tone out of my voice and they both picked up on it.

“Good.” Eddies tone was flat but it was clear he believed what I’d said and I intended to make it happen in spades. Anna echoed right after but in a much more satisfied tone of voice.

“Good. I’m gonna go talk to Emmy, you go talk to Ollie, ok?” The two of them ran off before I even had a chance to say anything and I just shook my head in bemusement.

“I really want to hunt those people down and hurt them very badly…” Tranh’s voice was a growl from behind me as he walked out of his study.

“I thought you swore off violence?” I pretended to be shocked.

“I got over it. Besides, I only swore off killing.” He tried to maintain the serious tone but couldn’t manage it and snorted with laughter.

The mirth was contagious and we continued to set each other off for a moment. “I feel the same way but neither of us are the type for that sort of work. I’ll talk to Emilio tomorrow if you want to go that route but I think we should pursue it through legal means first. That gives us the best chance to rescue the kids and expose those people for what they are.”

“You’re right and I know it but the impulse is still there.”

“For both of us. You’re acting like a dad already, you know that right?”

“Well you’re acting like a mom already yourself so I don’t see that you have much room to talk...”

We shared a quick kiss and a moment of appreciation for the new family we’d just created. “That’s ok, I like being a mom and these kids surely need parents who’ll do right by them.”

“Not anymore we don’t! We found the parents we want!” We looked up from each other to see the four of them standing there together. It was Anna who’d spoken up. She might be the youngest of the group but she seemed to be the spokesleader or whatever to the extent there was one. The others nodded agreement.

“We’re glad you feel that way. Now, is everyone ready to go shopping? First stop is a shop where we can get binders for the boys and forms for the girls if you want them. Then we’ll split up and do a little clothes shopping before the girls hit the salon with me and the boys hit the barbershop with Tranh. Once everyone is tidied up a bit we’ll meet for something to eat and then the serious shopping can begin!”

“We don’t want to cost you too much.” Eddie looked worried.

“Kids… we have no shortage of money and what else would we spend it on? We won’t encourage you to be foolish with money but you don’t ever need to worry about costing us too much, ok?”

Eddie looked a little doubtful but nodded.

“I’m glad we got that cleared up! Now we’re going to take 2 cars since we’ll be in different places most of the day and both of them are waiting downstairs so lets be about it!”

That caused a mini-stampede to the elevator and a scramble to the cars once we got down there. Once we were all situated, the girls with me and the boys with Tranh, I introduced them to their driver who’d held the doors for us before sliding into his seat with his own odd boneless grace.

“Girls, this is Antonio. If you ever need a ride or help out of a spot just call him or Mahmout. He’s driving the boys today. Antonio, I’d like you to meet our daughters, Anna and Emily.”

“Hello, sir!” they chorused at him.

“Good to meet you girls. I’ve sat and listened to you more than once. Good to have a name to go with the faces though. What happened to your flute?” This last was directed at Emily.

She scowled a little “I broke it on some asshole who thought he could steal Anna’s violin. I miss playing but he’ll think twice about trying to steal from a busker next time!”

“Good for you! Sorry you broke your flute though, you play beautifully. Let me know when you want to replace it, I can get you to the right person.” He smiled and Emily smiled back at him happily.

“Thanks Mr. Antonio!” She bounced a little with happiness and I added one more thing to my mental list for the day.

“I’ll have none of that from you kids. I’m just Antonio to you, ok? Now I have a no exceptions seatbelt rule so buckle up and we’ll get moving.”

“Yes Sir!” they chorused back at him and he just shook his head before slipping the car into gear and easing forward as the doors opened. It was a little past noon on a sunny day with warm temperatures so Antonio opened the large sunroof and we were able to enjoy the weather while he navigated through the organized chaos of traffic. As traffic in the early 21st century in major world cities went it was actually quite orderly, stoplights mainly being obeyed albeit with some degree of truculence although lanes and defined parking seemed to be mere suggestions. In less developed countries traffic tended to be a total free-for-all and fatalities from bizarre accidents were shockingly high so having experienced them I was rather sanguine about Antonio’s decidedly aggressive driving although the girls seemed to be enjoying it immensely.

In 15 minutes or so we arrived at our first destination and disembarked while our drivers pulled away to wait nearby. It took nearly an hour but we came out with a bags full of things I’d had no clear idea even existed previously. The kids were a bit more educated than I was but it was a revelation to them as well and they were proud of their newly augmented/restrained figures. The boys wanted to go directly to the barber before shopping and the girls decided things in the other direction so we split up to do our first bit of shopping while they went to be shorn.

We’d examined several high quality wigs but Anna declared she wanted as little as possible to be artificial and surprisingly Emily agreed with her so we hadn’t bought any. Over the next 2 hours we blitzed 10 or so shops and came out with armloads from each. I was feeling a little tired by the time we arrived at the spa and the girls were visibly flagging but there were light hors d’oeuvres at hand and we snacked a bit before they were each taken to the back for the full works. I had my own pampering in store so it was another 2 hours before I saw them again.

Martina and her staff had done wonders with the two girls and they were glowing with happiness at the way they looked and felt. Despite our snacking earlier we were all hungry so we met at Gennaro’s, a little eatery tucked in behind 2 shops a few blocks from home. The name was a little misleading as the cuisine on offer was what he called “Global Fusion” and included more than a few things I could definitely say were hugely different to the originals.

The kids all proved to be adventurous eaters and ate most of what they ordered although the stinky tofu ravioli was a little much for them and they all rejected it while expressing amazement at my enjoyment of the dish. I just shrugged mentally and savored it as a rare treat while the kids exclaimed over the newfound wonders of Peking frog(I have no idea how he makes it work but it totally does) and other delectable oddities. When we finished no one really had a desire for further shopping so we went back home.

Antonio and Mahmout had delivered the purchases and gotten them into separate rooms while we were at the spa or eating, I had no Idea which but they quietly let us know that they’d left our surprises in the center of each bed. I was beginning to wish we could be in each of their rooms to see their reactions but they completely outfoxed me there. There was some flitting about from room to room and then they each came out to the main sitting area carrying their packages while my husband and I watched in amazement.

“We decided we wanted to open them together and we wanted you to see us do it. I know I’d want to see someone open a gift!” Eddie was so excited the words were tumbling over each other.

“Thank you kids. Understand before you open them that you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to.” Tranh was ready to choke up over it we were both so excited. “That said, open them already before you give your mom and I a coronary or something!”

They did their little silent conversation again and decided to go oldest first apparently as Emily carefully deconstructed the wrapping to reveal an instrument case, opening it to find 2 instruments nested together. Her eye practically jumped out of her head as she took each one out of its molded space and turned them over reverently.

“A piccolo too?” She started to cry and Oliver reached over to hand her a tissue. “And engraved with my name? How…?”

“Antonio has a few connections.” I shrugged it off as normal because to me it was.

“Thank you so much mom…” She sniffled and popped up to give us both a tearful hug before sitting down so the rest could open their gifts.

One by one they unwrapped their instruments with a great deal of care and I was delighted to see their reactions. We’d gotten each of them their primary instrument and in all except Emily’s case a secondary instrument they would get to open next. For her there was yet a third instrument to come and we shared a secret smile between us in anticipation of the next round of fun.

Finally they were sat there holding a new violin, a banjo and a twelve string guitar along with of course a flute and piccolo. They were clearly trying to decide what to play when Tranh and I convinced them to bring their instruments and follow us. They trooped into the skylit space and stood there uncertainly until Tranh turned the lights on and they could see the full extent of our practice/studio space. That brought a collective gasp from them and I couldn’t manage to remove the smile from my face when I saw their reactions.

Tranh being quite musically inclined and myself having some degree of skill in producing sounds that don’t immediately cause people to run away(Its hard not to pick up a little bit when you have so much time to play with), we had turned nearly half of the space on this floor into a largely soundproofed area suitable for music and large enough for 40 or 50 people to play or listen in comfort. The instruments and equipment had been stowed away while the area was serving as a shelter but whoever had taken on that responsibility had put almost everything back exactly where it’d been when found.

Turning a warehouse into an acoustically decent space had been quite a lot of fun for me, the last time I’d designed a performance space the Greeks of yore were still a batch of freebooters who had yet to experience the great good fortune of being the only people who survived the Great Flood. There had of course been any number of Great Floods during my time but I’d only been on hand for a couple of those personally. Fortunately I’d been living outside Atlantis at the time as I doubt even I could have come back from being right on top of an exploding supervolcano.

The kids were certainly impressed with it and were silent for a moment as they looked around. There were 4 gift wrapped packages waiting there in the middle of the floor between the two drum sets and they headed over in a bunch. Each of them found their package and opened it in the same order as before and they were each emotional but the flood of tears came from Oliver this time as he caressed the dark finish of the sitar he cradled.

“Dad broke my sitar when he found out about me. I hated him so much for that…” he sobbed for a moment then with comfort from the others got himself calmed down. “I didn’t think I’d ever play again but they had a banjo at the camp and I knew how to play that. I like it, it’s a lot of fun to play with a group but I didn’t think I’d be able to afford one of these for a long time. Thank you!” he laid it aside and came in for a hug which turned into a group hug with everyone having a bit of emotional overload.

Emily received a saxophone while Eddie got an electric guitar and Anna had an electric cello. We had practically everything they might want to play at hand and a few things I’d built from memory, instruments that had long ago vanished but had important sounds to contribute to the musical conversation. I’d spent more than a few “lifetimes” as an instrument maker since in most societies it has been a way to be the equivalent of upper middle class without achieving fame or much in the way of attention save from musicians. That had been one of my strategies for hiding in the midst of societies which were… well, far from ideal really.

Over the next few hours they played many instruments and we discovered that all of them were musical polymaths. They could literally pick up an instrument, experiment with it for a few moments and then proceed to pull sounds out of it that were completely unexpected. It turned out that the conversion camp they’d been sent to masqueraded as a music camp picking the cream of the crop and they had all arrived relieved to be amongst kindred souls only to be bundled off into rather extreme aversion therapies and the like. A kind person might have described what they were put through as torture and after getting a basic idea of the hell they’d been through I was feeling decidedly less than kind.

The kids finished up with something disturbingly familiar… woodblock rhythm chants that awoke echoes from my distant past and sent thrills down my spine. There should have been a particular sort of drum in the mix but I recognized music from ten thousand years ago that had survived in this particular form amongst only a few peoples. When that finished they were buzzing a little, very pleased with themselves and I was really impressed.

I’d heard them playing and singing on the street but given their choice of instruments and a proper acoustic environment they were each stunningly talented. Emily was terrified her voice would break but it hadn’t happened yet and I was determined it wouldn’t if that was what she wanted. It wasn’t just their voices though, all of the kids were at least a year or two past what might have been the optimal point to arrest their undesired developments as evidenced by Eddie’s need for binders. Still, there was time to arrest any further development and send things down another path and they would be getting a far earlier start than most of their trans kindred.

We all enjoyed a snack and then the kids peeled off one by one to have another wash and go to bed. Each of them gave Tranh and I a hug before leaving and it was obvious they had almost entirely decided to trust that their good fortune was real. I knew there was a level of doubt that would likely follow them through their lives and haunt their relationships with others unless they confronted it early but there was time. They would each be seeing a therapist and a doctor tomorrow and although I wasn’t going to push any of them on it at first I wanted to make sure they had an outlet to discuss it, not just with the others but in a context where they could be assured of privacy.

Tranh pulled me from my musings with a gentle kiss. “I know that look. You’re sitting there plotting away aren’t you?”

“Me? Plot? I can’t imagine how you could say such a thing…” I faked my best pout and tried to look injured but a tickle attack ruined my composure and we made our way back to our bedroom.

Some while later we both lay there catching our breath and snuggling. “You’re going to get them into Julliard, aren’t you?”

I thought about that one for a moment. “Well, I have to admit I thought of it that way at first but I was wrong. They will get in all by themselves if they want it, all we need to do is make the opportunity happen. None of our children are shy about going for the brass ring and I intend to encourage that as much as possible.”

“I’m really glad we did this…” he rolled over to kiss me and I savored the intimacy.

“So am I. We’ve got to do something for the rest of those kids too you know.” I gazed up into his warm brown eyes.

“We have no shortage of space.” He fell/rolled over onto his back to lie beside me. “Maybe we should open a refuge or something?”

“We have to do it right then. It can’t just be us because we have an expiration date and I don’t want a thing like that to vanish with us.” It wasn’t our first time setting up a foundation for philanthropic work so that it could continue long after we’d had to vanish and I was glad of the ability to do it. A mere two centuries before it would have been a great deal more difficult to ensure that anything at all would carry forward and now all it really required was money, lawyers and managers of various descriptions.

“So I’ll set up a meeting with Saul then?”

“As soon as possible, yes. We’ve got to get their medical transitions underway as soon as possible and that absolutely has to be a part of the whole thing. I want to make sure these kids have every opportunity society and their parents deny them.”

“I love seeing you with a mission. Its like watching a goddess in action, scary and exhilarating and the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.” He looked over at me and grinned.

“I’m no sort of goddess, you know that.”

“I think you’re something more than you will let yourself be but occasionally you let a bit of your true nature peek through. I wish the world were such that we didn’t have to hide, that you didn’t have to hide…” He stroked my hand with a finger.

“One day, my love. When we figure out how to give everyone a vastly extended lifespan and I’m no longer the unicorn. Speaking of horns, what’s this I see standing at attention?” I gently gripped the ‘horn’ in question and he inhaled sharply.

“Well it isn’t a horn but perhaps it’ll do the trick?” he rolled over again and kissed me in the hollow right above my collarbone, just the barest brush of lips on skin that ran a thrill of pleasure right to my core.

The next morning I awoke before everyone and went to meditate and work out a bit in the dawn coolness. Tranh joined me in the shower after and we each took a bit of additional time to make sure the other was clean before drying each other off. He went to get breakfast started while I took the additional time required to get ready. In some ways I missed the hippie days when I never bothered shaving anything or much at all except being clean but even then taking care of my hair took a bit of time.

Now I was dressing the part of insanely wealthy woman being careful not to flaunt it which was on the surface true but for today’s audience it was also a subtle yet clear signal of understated power. I laid out clothes to match for Tranh once I was finished and went into the kitchen, taking over the cooking while he went off to dress. The kids came out one by one and I had them cooperate setting the table, pouring juice for everyone and coffee for those that wanted it which turned out to be everyone.

We tucked in to a delicious breakfast and soon enough were ready to go with some minor tweaking for the kid’s outfits although they had done remarkably well by themselves. Eddie had gone just a bit too formal and Anna a little too relaxed but they changed without me saying a word about it and we were off to the first of a series of appointments.

Over the next few years the kids all grew into well-rounded adults, not without the occasional bobble along the way but that’s the normal stuff of life. We were heartbroken when the time came to disappear in 2028 but we’d held our identities almost a decade and a half longer than we should have and it was past time for us to move on. We left a foundation which was running strong and donated the building to it in our wills, then vanished in a “plane crash” and waited for our biokids to join us after the funerals.

We hated not being able to tell them about ourselves but it was necessary. Our biokids had to know since it was likely they would live a very long time indeed and they were deeply involved in the foundation and its nascent offshoots in cities around the world. We knew they would carry our work forward but they also understood that their time was limited, that they would have to vanish soon enough themselves.

I’d like to say I dealt with it well but I didn’t, none of us did. 20 years later we went through it all over again when they had to leave and it was just as hard secondhand. It did work out as we’d hoped for our adoptive children and in many ways much better. The kids were just entering their 40s when the first lab grown reproductive organs were perfected and over the course of 5 years they all underwent the process and augmented their adoptive families with biokids of their own. The same advances began the serious work on life extension and life expectancy began to rise rapidly in a world weary of conflict and death.

Eddie was the last to die at 168, surrounded by his family including little Emily Amelia, his 4 times great granddaughter who’d been born the week before. They may not have been our biological children but we loved them every bit as much. It took me nearly a decade to properly recover after that and even then we had to move to Valley City for either of us to engage with the outside universe and our family properly again. We rang in the new year of 2200 there, surrounded by all but 3 of our grandchildren, their parents and grandparents as the airlocks were opened for the last time, to remain open since the air outside was now breathable.

More than a few of my much older descendants were also there having moved off planet since it was so difficult to disappear on Earth anymore. We were still actively hiding then although we could stay in one place for much longer without arousing suspicion. We finally left Mars in 2291, outbound for Proxima Centauri 4. For the outside universe it took a little over 10 years for us to arrive although inside the ship it was only 2 years due to relativistic time dilation.

Lifespans grew and grew until the average life expectancy was well over 500 years by the time we decided to settle on the then frontier world of Greensward orbiting Gliese 667C. Humanity had found many somewhat Earthlike planets and terraformed a few by that time but this one was unique in having chemistry that was largely compatible with our own and a robust jungle-like biosphere with fewer large predators than might have been expected due to periodic bombardment from the star’s Oort cloud or one of the three asteroid belts.

It was about as close to paradise as any place humanity had yet found and it was truly a great place to ring in our second millennium together. By then our family was spread out over 18 different star systems, soon to be 19 as several families were moving to the latest new planet cleared for habitation, this one even further out. Soon enough we moved outward too but by this time we’d stopped actively hiding and mostly no one cared that we could be traced all the way back to pre-diaspora Earth if you searched hard enough.

With Tranh’s natural lifespan augmented by the wonders of medicine we spent another 5 thousand years together wandering the stars and raising many families but in the end, there was a limit and that is how I found myself here 300 years and 80 light-years away from the place my husband had taken his last breath. I finally walked away from the time-worn black stone having given the final honor it was in my power to bestow and joined Tranh on the dais, looking as fit as he had over six thousand years before. He drew me to his side… his new improved side that could be replaced again when it wore out in another few thousand years.

Arrayed on all sides were dignitaries from every human world and 36 different starfaring species. Word had apparently spread in the time we’d taken to arrive back on Earth, about exactly why we were coming to this place and what we were to do. We’d expected that but what happened when we arrived in the Sol system was… I don’t even know what to say about it. There were thousands of ships parked in Earth orbit and many more thousands which were able to land on the surface and our yacht had an escort all the way from just outside the Oort cloud.

Some enterprising researcher had finally bothered making the effort to trace and correlate both of us all the way back to the late 20th century nearly a thousand years before that so it wasn’t like we were unknown in very obscure levels of academia but this was truly unexpected. Tranh was being honored as the oldest human war veteran still living and I couldn’t help but smile a little as Tranh squeezed my hand again and I looked over to see him mouth his love to me which I replied in kind. The true extent of my history remained unknown which was exactly as I preferred it.

“I’m glad we came. You deserve this honor more than any of them know.” We kissed lightly as the indications of approval rose around us in a crashing wave of sound and light. “You might not have ended war for humanity in general but you did end the war I waged inside myself.”

“You did that, I was just there. It’s a shame that they honor you as my wife without knowing that your name is right there, etched in black stone. I know this monument is for those who died in that war and I respect that but to me it will always have more meaning as the thing that brought us together.”

I had to hold back a sniffle. “They’re waiting for you dear. You are the hero here, not me.”

He grasped my hand and began to walk forward toward the black stone box that lay on a shining plinth in front of us and I followed, trying desperately to look as though accompanying him had been preplanned. He was in range of the audio pickups before he stopped and I simply stood there while he spoke.

“Today…” his words rang back at us from the various audio and light feeds and he hesitated, then began again. “Today we are all gathered here to do and witness something new in human history in the hope that it will banish some of our old demons. I understand that you all had the intent of honoring me simply for surviving and I thank you for that.” He paused and another deluge of applause filled the silence.

“We aren’t really here for that though and we all know it. Somehow by surviving I became a sort of figurehead for war, at least for humanity. I was honored for something I hated so badly that I deserted to escape it.” He paused and looked out at the audience for a moment.

“In deserting I met the love of my life who stands here with me today, Shan Nguyen. It is she who deserves any honor you may choose to give. She is the one who taught me how to be someone better than myself, taught me how to be strong and yet peaceful, the one who conveyed that same worldview to our children. Maybe that helped humanity evolve in some small way, maybe it didn’t but I know that this thing we do today should not be taken lightly.”

If he had their attention before every visual receptor analog out there was riveted on him now. “Today I ask that you honor her rather than me. I am and must be a symbol of what has gone, what we have put behind us and it is appropriate that we are here to inter my ashes at this site. Let them forever be a marker for the end of our infancy and the beginning of what we are still to become. Let their presence be forever a monument, not to war but to our higher ideals… to peace!” His voice had been gaining in strength until the last words were almost shouted out into the ether.

Silence fell for a moment until the gathered beings managed to recover from the emotional shock of his words. What had been distinguishable as applause before was now simply an inchoate tsunami of noise that battered our ears and eyes until Tranh put a hand up and it trailed away to silence again.

“Together we will bear the ashes, what is left of the me that was then, the man Shan rescued so long ago. A symbol of death and of rebirth, a celebration of life and love.”

He urged me subtly forward and we both took up one side of the heavy stone urn, trying not to show the effort required to carry it the few meters to another plinth, this one partially buried in the ground behind the monument. Together we gently slid the urn into the receptacle designed for it and when it seated fully in place 2 workers moved in to slide a large piece of stone into place before fusing it into the plinth to create a smooth featureless surface.

What followed struck me so hard emotionally I went rigid and clutched Tranh’s hand so tightly he winced. I stood there weeping until the last notes of silver taps faded away and we turned to make our way off the dais. We came back nearly a week later after a truly insane round of parties and this time I gave my own honor.

I danced a dance from my own childhood, a dance given to honor the lives we took to survive. As I danced my grief and joy and love surrounded by family I looked up into the endless depths of night at the stars teeming in their brilliance and I finally found my own peace.



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