Escape Pod 449: An Understanding

Show Notes

This story was a finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

An Understanding

by Holly Heisey

The sun on Joppa was a deeper red than I remembered, and the blocky shapes of this dusty town I did not remember at all. I passed the sign for Hann River Landing and walked down the main street. There were few people about, mostly women and young children, the mothers dressed in plain cotton and linen and the children ratty, if not mostly clean. The women watched me with a glare reserved for strangers that they must not have used for some time. There were no aircars, no groundcars, no visible signs of industry. Trees around the houses boxed them in at odd angles, some branches bending to stop abruptly in the air. The Time Walls were tight here.

I checked the bridge tethering me to Aijas Normal time on my ship in orbit, and checked my rate of sync with local time. It was a strain, to be held in two times at once. I would not stay here long.

I scanned into the minds around me, looking for that one particular voice I’d caught two hundred and twelve lightyears out on a wave of Kaireyeh. A young woman. I felt her here, the barest scent of her, and turned down 2nd Street and then onto Acada Lane. The houses on Acada Lane were spaced twenty and thirty feet apart, no more than thirty or forty feet wide, with trimmed lawns of brown grass. Children played in a yard down the street. It was all so quiet that if I turned off the voices for a moment I could hear the rhythm of the Time Walls around me. Beats barely forming measure. I quickened my pace.

Her house was one-story with peeling blue paint and white plastic trim. I climbed up the three steps to the creaking porch and since there was no button for a caller rapped my knuckles on the door.

I waited. I searched for her mind again–yes she was here. I rapped again. I rubbed a small circle of dust off the door window and peered inside. I did what I had not wanted to do but was necessary now and touched her mind. She gave an inner start and I withdrew quickly, leaving behind only the thought that she must open the door; I was a friend.

The door rattled and jerked inward. A slim, red-haired woman looked back at me with almond eyes. Her skin was a dusky tan, typical for Joppan natives. She looked up at my ice-white face, a face that would never be typical in any situation, and I remembered my eyes to blink. I saw and felt her shudder.

“Lorin, may I come in?” I said.

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you want? I don’t have more to give, man.”

I spread my hands in a universal gesture of peace. She only stared at my white hands. I would have a short window in which to convince her to listen; I would not force her mind again.

“I am Barenin,” I said. “I want to help you.”

She looked at me blankly before hardening up again. “I didn’t ask no help, I didn’t call you. What are you, diseased? You look all diseased, and I don’t want your disease.”

“May I please come in and we’ll discuss–”

“Nothing. I won’t talk nothing with you.” And she slammed the door. I let it catch on my hand and didn’t flinch. Truly, there was no pain. I pushed the door back open. Lorin gulped and stepped back, and I stepped inside.

I had never mastered the art of soothing, but I still gathered myself and projected calm. It seemed to have some effect, as Lorin wobbled over to sit on a stuffed chair. I walked to the sagging couch and sat down opposite her.

“I am Barenin Lyr. I am a Registered Kaireyeh Sorter for the Thousand Worlds. I am sure you have heard of the Thousand Worlds in some history of yours; you have heard of the Fractured Wars. It is my job to listen to the Kaireyeh tides and detect any wounds that may open and fester and crack the universe. Your voice is at the center of one such wound. What happened to you?”

Lorin’s eyes glossed. I did not need her thoughts to read her mind; all her pain was etched across her face carving lines that should have belonged to a woman fifty years her age.

I skimmed the top of her thoughts and pulled at the most prominent thread. “Your child?”

She bit her lip. “Yah, my little girl.” She sat forward, anger strengthening those lines in her face. “Wallers took her, two weeks ago–_Damn-the-Void Wallers!_ Just took her to send their trash through! Why do they do that? But she’s over now–and you’re not helping me, cause you’re not from here and if you came through the Wall, you’re one of them. What do you want, money? To go get my girl? I know you can’t get her, whatever hoodoo you want me to think you have–or maybe you just dressed like that all pale to make me think you’re like them–”

“The Wallers are pale?”

“No, but who else would be pale?”

I breathed out slowly. Wallers. Most fractured worlds had them in some variation. Only infants could pass through the Kaireyeh Time Walls, and then only once, and goods couldn’t pass through without a soul attached. Governments needed diplomatic relations and people needed their luxury imports; thus, Wallers.

I stood. “Which direction?”


“Which direction did they take her? Through which Wall?”

“I don’t–” Lorin swallowed, and looked up at me with something approaching terror. Maybe she was starting to believe me now. I didn’t have time to test the theory.

“Lorin, which direction–”

“East. East, the Wallers are working east these days. Gods, I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

I swore in thoughts and images untranslatable to any human. East was the sharpest contrast in time here.

Lorin stood. “You’ll bring her back?”

“She’ll be older,” I said.

“I don’t care.”

I nodded. I blinked myself out of her living room and into the Time Wall to the East.

A push through a Time Wall takes lifetimes, stretched and distorted in an Aezthena mind. For the young of us, it is easier. The young do not have millennia of memories to relive.

I spread myself across the Wall like water on glass and poured myself through it. I blinked out into the open, and the hit of minds in time staggered me as it always did. I wheeled my arms for balance and caught quick mental bearings–blinked out and in again–and was still.

The world on this side of the Time Wall was dusky twilight. Black towers marred the sky with their own brand of stars. Signs flashed and holo tickers ran high in the air; aircars swarmed in ordered rows and the air tasted like salt and shuttle fuel and burning plastic. The zone must stretch far, maybe even across the bay.

I licked my lips, a very old habit. But I was strained with the third of my mind holding the bridge to the other side of this Time Wall, and again to my ship in Aijas Normal. Three times.

And then the strain of this city…

I stood on a street where grays and browns ashed out all color and trash was a regular drift against brick walls. I tucked my chin and thrust my hands in my jacket pockets and started walking.

I walked until it was fully dark. There were millions of minds here, some in remnants of patterns I’d known years ago. But I had one pattern I searched for now; I turned every time I caught her scent. I would bring her back, I would heal the wound.

Time lost itself in my mind, as sometimes happens when I am bridged to another time and often happens when I am bridged to two. I found myself again when I judged it to be midmorning, the sky gray with unbroken rain. I stood on a concrete sidewalk, all manner and color–literally, every spectral color and some off the human spectrum–of humanity pooling around me. I even saw some men and women with the white hair, white skin, and golden eyes of the Aezthena, and they nodded to me as if I were one of them, but I felt nothing in their minds but humanity. They honored us? This small part of this world must truly have forgotten time. And they’d forgotten how much they hated and feared us–humanity’s greatest achievement, and greatest monsters.

At least with a crowd like this I no longer stood out. I searched and caught the scent again, stronger, and boarded a tube train headed in its calculated direction. I was regurgitated in a park district with green groves and slate plazas and fluting fountains, and I–lost time again–

Sometime around noon I found my feet trodding the grass of one of the inner parks. The scent was strong in my mind, but the scent felt…tainted. Was this part of the wound? Did this world taint a child when it was sent through a Wall? Were the Time Walls on Joppa so broken? Of course they were. This world, once my home, was the center of it all, and I ached with the tides.

I focused more attention on the scent of this tainted mind, and then stopped so abruptly that a man behind me rammed into me. He apologized and I made the polite motions, but my whole mind was wrapped now around the three minds that fit my pattern. Three. Each subtly different than what they should have been, but the scent of the pattern was there.

I pressed my lips tight and strode off in their direction. Up over a rise, past old trees, and out to a great sand square, though there was no water. I stopped at the edge. Here, parents stooped in the sand and played with their children. For a moment I blocked the scent and just breathed the emotion (joy, frustration, elation) of parents with their children.

My gaze went to one young woman tossing handfuls of sand with a small boy and girl. All were naturally tan. All three fit the pattern. I walked around the square until I was close to them and started across the sand itself.

The young woman looked up. Her face peaked with mild alarm–I quick-skimmed her mind–she was only nervous at the seriousness of my expression, or perhaps the lack of any expression at all. And the formality of my gray civilian suit.

She gathered her children to her, and they looked up at me with big, slanted eyes.

“Has something happened to Annda?” she asked.

“Who is Annda?” I said. I felt her strong emotional tie with an old woman, but the connection itself was muddled. I would not probe. This woman’s name was Cole.

Cole relaxed in a slump. “Oh, thank the gods. Rossa, Joann, go on. Go play.” She dusted off her hands. “Can I help you?”

“I am looking for someone.” And how to proceed? Should I have asked Lorin to show me her child’s father so I could get an opposite print to match against the patterns I saw in this woman’s code now? Perhaps she was the daughter, perhaps not. Perhaps, with the woman Annda high in her thoughts, it was much worse.

“I am looking for someone who came through the Wall. Someone in your family–”

She grabbed my arm and looked around. “Not here. We will not talk here, yes?”

I nodded.

She rubbed her forehead. “Okay, let me get the kids–Rossa! Joann! We are going!” She looked back to me, her gaze saved from hostility only by the lines of her fear. “I’ll take you to her, okay? But don’t you do anything to frighten her. Not anything.”

“How old is she? Your mother?”

She shook her head. “Annda is my great-grandmother.” She shot me a pleading look.

I gave a small nod. No, I would not ask any more questions.

Cole gathered her kids and said, “Okay. Follow me.”

We rode up to the two-hundred and forty-fourth floor of one of the towers in the newer part of the city; the lift opened on carpeted halls, but there were no floor attendants. Cole dragged her kids halfway down the corridor and palmed the lock on one of the doors. We stepped into a long room. Blue tile counters bled into a round dining area with a table lit dimly overhead and one red flower centered in a blue china vase. Past the table, dim shapes shivered in the hint of light from closed curtains beyond.

Cole dropped her bag on the table and ebbed into the darker dark. “Annda? Annda, are you awake?” Her voice faded with her.

I reached out for the other mind, the mind that would fit my pattern exactly. I found her in a comfortably bright bedroom and looked through her rheumy eyes as Cole opened the door and came in. I shook my head and withdrew. The two children were staring at me.

“Why are you white?” Joann asked.

“I like it.”

“Ma says it’s un-nat-ural.”

I did not look at her any sharper than I had, but my senses honed nonetheless. These people did have some memory of Aezthena. They should. It was we who had fractured their world.

“I am sure that it is.” I did not have time for this. I strode through the dark, turned left down a short hall, and found the bedroom door open and emitting light and two voices in quiet disharmony.

“If you will permit me to enter?” I said.

Both women stopped and stared at me. The older woman–old. Very old. Old such as aging should not be anymore, and was not, on the worlds not caught in time.

“You are from the other side?” Annda rasped.

“I am.”

Cole turned back to her great-grandmother. “Annda, please–”

“You go,” Annda said. Cole straightened and gave me a hard look but she left, and left her cloud of rage behind her.

“Young man,” Annda said, and I couldn’t help but smile at that. She looked less certain, then. Some people could sense it, that cloak of age. I’ve been told it’s like death reeking off of me, and that was from a man over two-hundred. I’d seen years in the thousands. Not even Aezthena made new Aezthena anymore, not for centuries since the Fractured Wars, though she wouldn’t know that. My face and my body were frozen on my thirty-ninth human year.

Annda drew her chin up and went on firmly. “Young man. You are from the other side of the Wall. Why have you come to bother me?”

Again I smiled. Annda could have been a queen in another age. I swept a formal court bow, a bow I had used when I was human king of this world and many others.

“My lady. I am Barenin Lyr, Registered Kaireyeh Sorter for the Thousand Worlds.” And now a slave, as all Aezthena were, atoning to the humanity some among us had hoped to improve and replace. “May I have your name?”

“Annda Kelorr,” she said. “You have crossed the Wall, right? With your talk of Kaireyeh and Worlds. Are you an off-worlder?” Her mouth creased like paper and she leaned forward. “Or are you from the cabals?”

“I am not a Waller.” I stepped closer to her bed but stopped when I sensed from her that I’d come far enough. I could still sense humanity, though I could no longer understand it. “I was sent by your mother. She is anxious to hear of your wellbeing.”

Annda went very still. Her blue eyes clouded, and I would have liked to peer into her thoughts, but I restrained myself. Times like these belonged to one soul alone.

When Annda spoke again, her voice came feeble. “My mother is alive?”

“Your mother is well, and she is young. Will you let me take you to her?”

And heal the wound.

Annda propped herself up on both arms and opened her pale lips. Her almond-shaped eyes grew wide. “I cannot pass through the Wall, child, no one can pass through but the infants.”

“You were wrongly taken.” And few had chosen to become Aezthena, either, but we were, for the continued existence of an aesthetic race which could not repopulate its own. Now for the survival of time and space itself.

Annda shook her head. “I have accepted what was done. I have my family here.”

I burst into her mind and she gasped and drew back; no, she had not accepted any of it. She was, in fact, very active in the Wallers themselves. She had indirectly sent twelve children through the Walls, and had gained her family wealth. She had never told them where it came from. They hadn’t had to ask.

“No misuse of a child is acceptable,” I said. No misuse of a human being.

“I was not harmed. I had a good family. A good life here.”

I had been called to this world by hurting Kaireyeh; I had been called to heal a rift, one tear too many in the face of living time. Annda was wounded, her mother was wounded, the Wall Annda had come through was wounded by the crime of it, and the crime continuing.

I closed my inner eyes and listened to Kaireyeh. There were no words, there seldom were, but I knew what I must do. I knew what I wanted to do, and my purpose and Kaireyeh aligned.

I blinked beside Annda and grabbed her arm and pushed her with me into the Wall. I did not protect her as I might have.

Kaireyeh hurts when mothers cry and babes are torn from blood kin and sold for such things as new chips and the latest scarves. Annda screamed and Kaireyeh screamed with her unwilling will, and the Time Wall tore as if skin were tearing and raw muscles now lay exposed and it was wrong. But some wounds needed rebroken to heal. The wound was so deep, so deep; the tear would take centuries to flux out, but the Wallers would be stopped, and maybe the people would heal. Kaireyeh’s deepest wounds were in the souls of the living.

I tightened my arms around Annda and pushed out to the other side, stumbling and then rolling until I lumped to a stop and lay beside her on the dusty ground. Annda wheezed.

It was night here now and the air was cool. Night insects chirruped.

I pushed myself up and pulled Annda to her feet. She did not look at me. Her mouth was set with all the hatred of generations. It was not so infeasible that she, on this world, was from one of my lines.

“Aezthena,” she spat.

It was about time someone saw me for what I was.

Annda pointed to the Time Wall. “You did this to us! You are the reason–”

“I did not make me what I am. And I did not make you who you are.”

I reached out for Lorin’s mind; she was not far. It was not possible to be far in this zone. I touched Annda’s arm and blinked us over.

Lorin stood in her dimly lit study with her hand reaching toward her desk. She looked up at Annda and me and then swayed. Lorin was old. Not so old as Annda, but not so far, either.

“By the gods,” Lorin whispered.

Yes, by this one at least.

“This is Annda,” I said. “This is your daughter.”

Lorin’s attention shifted to Annda and stayed there. Annda was shaking. I did not touch either of their thoughts.

I watched as mother reached out to daughter and daughter turned her self away. I watched with my whole self as the Kaireyeh within these two swirled from the gold of wholeness to the black of Void and back again. And back again. And back.

I felt a tug on my bridge to Aijas Normal and the ship, the Time Walls shifting too fast around me. I blinked back up to the ship and Normal. The stark world of Aezthena white. Not a world I had chosen, or so many others, when their hearts were ripped out, and their blood was toned silver, and all that had mattered was replaced by synthetics. Immortal.

And yet it was my world now, and like Annda, I lived in it.

I merged myself with the ship’s sensors and stared down at my old blue and green world. Its fractures and boundaries were unseen and festering like cancer. We had made it this way. Aezthena and human both.

I felt Kaireyeh willing me to jump the ship and ease my own pain, but I held it back.

Let me stay. Let me feel for once, for I was once human and I understand.

About the Author

Holly Heisey

Holly Heisey launched their writing career in sixth grade when they wrote their class play, a medieval fantasy. It was love at first dragon. Since then, their short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, The Doomsday ChroniclesClockwork Phoenix 5, and Transcendent: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction, and has been translated into German and Estonian. A freelance designer by day, Holly lives in Upstate New York with Larry and Moe, their two pet cacti, and they are currently at work on a science fantasy epic.

Find more by Holly Heisey


About the Narrator

Wilson Fowlie

Wilson Fowlie has been reading stories out loud since the age of four, and credits any talent he has in this area to his parents, who are both excellent at reading aloud.
He started narrating stories for more than just his own family in late 2008, when he answered a call for readers on the PodCastle forum. Since then, he has gone on to read dozens of stories for PodCastle, all of the other Escape Artists ’casts, StarShipSofa and other District of Wonder podcasts, KaleidocastGallery of CuriositiesDunesteef Audio Fiction magazine and several others.
He does all this narrating when not at his day job as a corporate video voiceover performer in Vancouver, Canada. And if the pandemic ever ends, he hopes to get back to acting in local theatre productions.

Find more by Wilson Fowlie