Sweeter than Honey, Clear as a Mountain Spring
by Alter S. Reiss
It was a picture-postcard day when the provincial flag went down in Sudbury, and the Ninety Stars went up. First the Maritimes had gone, then the three Quebecs. Then trade agreements came to Ontario, then open borders, and more, and more. But Association had always seemed like a bad dream, like something a mile or two further down the road. And on a day when there was snow on the ground, and the sky was so blue you could cut yourself on it, they’d gone those last few miles. A few good citizens were out in front of the police station, sitting on folding chairs, and listening to speeches about how happy everyone was to see the benefits of Association and full membership in the union.
King had been out sniffing around for more materials when he saw the flag going down, and came over to see what was happening. He wasn’t happy to see the benefits of full membership, but then, Association was never meant to please folks like him. He’d picked up a few things—a shade of memory, some light reflected off of ice—but it didn’t look like he’d have time to brew up another batch of the Rare Old, at least not in Sudbury. Full membership meant Specials, and Specials meant death.
The Specials weren’t there yet, but the union cops were, wearing hard plastic visors and padded jackets. They’d also have an eye out for oldtimers like King, and billyclubs and automatic pistols would get the job done just as well as special skills. It had been more than a week since King had taken any of the Rare Old, but he had enough left in him to keep him inconspicuous all the way back to the factory where he and Lucy had settled in for the winter.
The economy being what it was, they weren’t the only folks sleeping in buildings that weren’t theirs, but King was always cautious. He had to use a hair more of the Rare Old to see the office they’d be nesting in, and a little more to get past the door. They didn’t have a fire there because the air was too close, and they didn’t have electricity, because it didn’t take Specials to see something like that—they still had the trucks and sensors from when drugs were the worst thing. Just blankets and parkas and the heat of two people, and the knowledge that cops couldn’t find them. Would’ve been a nice way to spend the winter. But Specials were coming, so they had to go.
Back in the office, Lucy was where he’d left her. Over the years, she’d hit the Rare Old harder than he had, and bit by bit, it’d taken her away. The more she had, the less of her was left, but they needed to get moving. Before he’d gone out, he’d bottled the latest, and now he uncapped it, poured her out a double measure, and on consideration, poured another for himself.
Sweeter than honey, clear as a mountain spring. Time was, they’d cushion the jolt with coffee or beer, but King was almost as far past that as Lucy. The Rare Old hit, and the years fell off like snow from a roof; slow at first, then all at once. Lucy was still rail-thin, her skin still chapped, but she was there again, there was life in her eyes.
“They were hanging the Ninety Stars up by the police station,” he said.
“Time to go,” said Lucy.
They didn’t leave much behind. Just spare blankets and sleeping bags, a couple of pots and pans, some trash. The still was plastic straws and soda bottles, memories and dreams; King packed away parts that’d be hard to find, and scattered the rest back to rubbish. It’d been a good still, and a nice old nest. Sudbury had been nice too—no Specials, no Royal Mounted—but oldtimers never stayed on past closing. One last look, and then it was out, down to the railyard.
They should’ve left sooner, but it wasn’t too late. There were union cops keeping an eye on the trains, but there weren’t any specials. King spent the faintest drop of the Rare Old that he’d just taken, and they walked on past the cops, out to where the freight cars were waiting.
It had been a long time since they were out on the rails. Sudbury had been good, but King was back in the Rare Old, and Sudbury was fading, blowing away in the wind. When they’d left the nest, King had thought they’d be hopping a freight for the tribal lands, further north. Word was that Oldtimers were safe in tribal lands. But the boxcar he chose wasn’t going north. A load of machine parts headed for Tennessee, by way of Kansas City.
Lucy was fading into the Rare Old, but she was enough there to raise an eyebrow.
“They’ll be tight along the northern border,” said King. “But they’ve been sweeping the lower fifty eight long enough that they’ve probably caught all the oldtimers down there. And Durango’s still free, last I heard. One last run, and we’ll be sitting in the shade, sipping Coca-Cola; they’ve got a plant there still making the old recipe.”
There was nothing but the sound of the long line of freight cars rattling as the train pulled them out of the yard.
“Too cold up north, anyway,” said King, and he could feel the old fire burning again. “One last run, and we’re home free.”
But when he looked back, Lucy was already gone, lost in the Rare Old. After making sure their nest was secure, King settled in himself.
Most of the time, there was enough magic just lying around untended that he could just brew up a batch of Rare Old with odds and ends he picked up. Some of it good, some of it bad; no telling how a nip would take you.
This batch, he’d started with a memory he stole from an old derelict, dozing on a bench by the lake. It was hard to take from folks like that, but needs must when the devil drives, and King had been driven.
They were on a slow freight, rattling down to Sault Ste. Marie. The boxcar was shoddy enough that they didn’t need the Rare Old to see through the walls; just needed to look through the holes. It was cold, and there were forests and old telegraph lines and everything else you’d expect.
They were also going home for Christmas, back before the rationing and the holiday shifts. The Rare Old was sweeter than honey, clear as a mountain spring, and it hit like a heavyweight. It was wrong to have taken that memory, it was wrong to love it so well, it was wrong to know that he’d steal it away again if he had the choice. But he was there, with the family at the dinner, with the turkey and gravy and the family jokes and the kid with the goofy smile, and the way the light from the tree seemed to make all their faces glow.
He’d taken it from that man as he’d slept. Took it, mixed it up with some odds and ends, and then used it when he needed it. And now it was his; as King came out, he knew he could dip back into that dinner when he needed it, same as all sorts of things he’d taken. Part of why oldtimers had such a bad reputation, part of why good citizens would call down the Specials on them when they could.
There was more of a kick in that bottle than he’d expected. Could’ve gone with half a measure, rather than a double, and it would’ve gotten the job done. No way to take it back, and no sense in mourning; King leaned back, and enjoyed the warmth in his fingers and toes, the way the little towns looked when they passed them, the snowmen in the backyards and the woodpiles under tarps, the provincial flag still flying.
If he was right, it’d be an easy run all the way down to Kansas City. A bottle like that one, hell, the Kansas City yards might be tough, but they’d slip through like a sunbeam. He had a second bottle in his rucksack, and if that was even half as good, they were practically already in Durango, sitting on the beach and drinking rum and coca-cola.
Lucy’d already faded back down. It was always the same, when she took the Rare Old; she was herself for a little bit; she remembered, her eyes lit up. Then it was gone, and she was off in the magic, flying through the worlds they’d drank, living in the lives that they’d taken. She sat, small in her winter coat, eyes open but dull. Like a doll on a shelf, like a scarecrow out in a field; as loose as death, but not dead. King knew he’d follow her some day, if their trip didn’t end in Kansas City, or Dallas, or Monterray, or at the border crossing into Durango.
He watched her for a little bit, then turned away and let the freight’s slow trip south lull him to sleep. Given the kick that bottle of Rare Old had in it, it’d take a Special to find them. A hell of a good Special at that.
When King awoke, it was nighttime, and the train was stopped somewhere cold and wet. He looked over to Lucy, to see if she needed to be moved out of the rain, and the bottom dropped away; she was gone. Her coat was gone with her, but she’d taken off her rucksack, so she hadn’t fallen or anything.
It was his fault; he’d given her too much of the Rare Old, and he hadn’t stuck with her until she came down. Sure, some nights she’d walk around Sudbury, but this wasn’t Sudbury. They were in the lower fifty-eight, and there were Specials in every district. King got her ruck, and his, and took his leave of the machine parts headed for Tennessee. No way of knowing when she’d left the train, but it was either there or somewhere back up the track.
It was dark, and there was a cold rain, and he didn’t know where to go. But King had a belly full of Rare Old, so he wasn’t nearly so lost as he felt. The train had been shunted off the main track because there was a troop transport heading north. There were Specials on that train; he could feel them. Two men, one woman, hard and clear. Not as clear as he was—they wouldn’t catch him unless he made a mistake. Or Lucy made a mistake, and she already had; it was a terrible time to go walking.
There are a million and one things you can do with the Rare Old, and King knew them all. He reached inside, twisted, and though he was still walking along the railway track, headed into town, he was also flying overhead, in all directions at once. There was the train full of soldiers—a few games of cards going on, a few quiet talks, but mostly sleeping kids, waiting for something they didn’t want to see. Two hours off, at least. If he could get to Lucy in time, maybe they’d be able to get back on the same train, keep on down towards Kansas City.
Problem was that an oldtimer was a lot harder to find than a train full of soldiers. Even though Lucy wasn’t herself, she kept her profile low, purely on instinct. King needed more if he was going to find her. He pulled himself back together, until he was just walking along the railroad tracks, not flying out, not back at that Christmas dinner, where one of the kids was eating way too much ice cream, and was about to be sick. Then he uncapped the bottle, and poured himself another two fingers.
It’d do it, probably. And it’d move him a ways further down the road to getting lost in the Rare Old. It was that, or give up Lucy, so down it went, smooth and sharp. Once again, his fingers and toes were warm, and there was that memory he’d stolen. Strong stuff; as strong as any King’d ever brewed. The guy he’d taken the dinner from had kept it and cherished it and grew it, and now it was sitting in King’s heart, in his head, in his arms and neck.
With that much juice, he could’ve pushed through Lucy’s defenses, but with that much of the Rare Old, he didn’t need to—he saw what she saw, remembered what she remembered, and started heading down the shoulder of the rain-slick highway, heading back to where they’d been, long, long before.
It didn’t take long to walk out of the forest into the suburbs, and it didn’t take much longer than that to get to where he was going. Amazingly, it was still there. Different name, the meat was textured protein and the beer was seaweed and soy, but there was still a steakhouse where there had been a steakhouse. And Lucy was there, sitting in a booth, eating a burger.
King slid in next to her. The whole trip was dangerous enough that they didn’t need to complicate things by going out for dinner in the middle of Ohio. It was a big enough town that there’d be plenty of cops, and good citizens always had an eye out for strangers. But then, the whole trip was dangerous enough that they couldn’t pass up a chance for a meal somewhere clean and warm and dry, where they’d been before everything.
King flagged down a waitress, ordered a steak with French-fried potatoes and grilled onions, and shook his head at Lucy. She shook her head back, utterly unrepentant. “It’s the place,” she said. “Remember?”
King chased it down, through all the magics they had taken, from people, from places, chased down a recollection that was theirs, from back before they’d touched the Rare Old. “Two tires blowing out like that,” he said. “What’re the odds?”
“Given how much you paid for them, pretty much a hundred percent. Lucky it didn’t get us killed.”
“Sure,” said King. “Lucky.”
The waitress brought him his food, and it was good. Too good. It was textured protein, sure, but there was something else in it. And the beer tasted like beer. “You’re leaking, Lu,” he said.
She gave him an absent sort of smile. “You should call your dad,” she said. “No way we’re getting into Chicago tonight.”
Not good. King looked around. Tobacco had been illegal for thirty years, but it smelled like cigarette smoke. People were going to notice, and when people noticed oldtimers, they called the cops. Too dangerous not to. Could be the cops would come out right away, could be they’d call in Specials. Either way would ruin a fine evening.
Lucy was lost in her memories, and she had enough of the Rare Old in her that she was getting some of the rest of the world lost with her. King needed her back and in control. Just long enough to get back to the train, and heading back down to Tennessee. It wasn’t a great idea to take the Rare Old in public, and it was a worse idea to give Lucy any more than she already had. But he didn’t have a lot of options. King used a little sleight-of-hand and added a shot to the pitcher of beer.
She poured herself a drink, and so did he. Wasn’t a great idea for him to take anymore of the Rare Old either, but hell. This was it; this was the place they’d been, and the more he had in him, the better he could remember it. They’d been trying to get out to Chicago for Christmas, and one thing went wrong after the other. It would’ve been hell if they hadn’t been in love, but as things were, it’d been an adventure. Even the tires blowing out like that hadn’t been too bad, and it landed them right in front of the restaurant.
The walls had been different—wood and exposed brick instead of plastic panel, and there’d been cigarette smoke, and the radio’d been playing the Rolling Stones. The radio was playing the Rolling Stones. King shook his head, trying to clear it of the beer—which was beer, not soy and seaweed—and of the Rare Old. Lucy wasn’t coming together, she was leaking worse. There was no way they’d be able to get away with the Stones on the radio; radio was for patriotic music and official announcements.
They had to get out. They had to start running. If they got to the train before the Specials, they’d be able to get gone a step ahead. King looked down at his plate, at the steak he’d cut into when it had been textured protein. It was the real deal—ribeye done rare, charred on the outside and red in the middle. It’d been years since he’d seen anything like it.
There was smoke in the air, and the bar had bottles of all the old brands, Johnny Walker and Jim Beam, Bacardi and Famous Grouse. It was too late to run, but the other folks in the restaurant didn’t seem to be in any rush to get things shut down. The chef picked up the pace at the grill, and someone started passing around cigarettes.
King sat and ate his steak, and it was perfect, the music was perfect, the light was perfect. There wasn’t going to be any easy way out, but while they were there, while they were eating, there wasn’t anything he’d change. Between him and Lucy, they finished off the bottle of Rare Old, mixing it with beer, like kids just getting started. One long dinner, with Lucy entirely herself, and the echoes of bygone days coming in on the radio, and tearing the plastic panels from the walls. Sweeter than honey, clear as a mountain spring.
Oldtimers didn’t have a problem coming up with cash when they needed it, and at the end of that meal, King was so full of the Rare Old that the bills he made would’ve lasted for months. But he didn’t make anything; he paid in proper currency, and tipped the waitress every dollar he had left. Yeah, maybe one of the folks at the steakhouse was going to call in the cops. Probably one already had. But they’d been good sports; they’d enjoyed the night as much as he had. Might as well spread around a little legitimate cheer while he still could.
Out in the street, it had gotten colder, and the rain had turned to sleet, but it didn’t hurt anymore. The Rare Old warmed him like an old down coat, like a family quilt. Up ahead, Lucy started dancing, feet quick and sure. King followed, not quite so certain, trying to keep up as she bowed and twisted and leapt. Another half mile, another quarter mile, and they’d be back on the train, and with enough of the Rare Old in them to keep a whole squad of Specials confused.
King heard the sirens when they were way, way off in the distance. Not Specials, just cops, but plenty of them. They could still make it, but it was going to be tricky. King took Lucy by the hand, and headed off through backyards, over fences and past swing-sets and soccer nets. They have to time it right, get to the train after it had already started moving, and leave it somewhere along the way, and then . . . the cops followed, patrol cars tearing up lawns, floodlights on.
Time for more tricks. A couple of phantoms Lucys and Kings flitted away, running this way and that. Tires blew out, and engines stalled. But it wasn’t enough, and they weren’t just coming from one direction. There were pocks and bangs as the cops started shooting, some at the phantoms, some at King and Lucy.
When he was a kid, King would try to chop time into fragments, when there was something bad coming. The test was next week, so you chop that out, and this week is still fine; the test is after lunch, so enjoy the morning, and so on, until right up to the edge. Then you just go through it, and it’d be fine again later.
Right then, right then wasn’t so bad. He could still taste the steak, still feel the Rare Old in his veins. Lucy was still running ahead, her feet still dancing, her face still alive and happy. Another yard, and then a park; behind them, the Rare Old started up a car in someone’s garage, sent it screaming out into the streets, and a half dozen cop cars followed. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Then Lucy was hit, in the middle of a jump. She turned to him as she fell, looked like she was going to say something. Then she went down, broken, like a doll knocked off from a shelf, like a scarecrow with a split in her seam. By the time King got to her, she was gone, all the way gone.
He turned, and straightened, his hands balling up into fists. No more tricks and shadows, no more running. No more Kansas City switching yard, no more drinking old style Coca-Cola on a beach in Durango. He ran toward the cop cars. There were a few more shots, but none hit. Then there were men coming out of the cars, and he swung and cursed and tried.
It didn’t help. They were young and strong and he wasn’t, and they knew what they were doing. He was forced down to one knee, then both, then down to the ground, but they didn’t stop there. It hurt, animal hurt, as they broke him with fists and kicks and batons. But after a while it didn’t hurt so much, and then it didn’t hurt at all, and he was floating along past that Christmas dinner with the kids. Lucy was there, wearing the yellow dress she’d worn on the trip out to Chicago, and she smiled as she went out the door.
Just a little later, King followed.
Alter S. Reiss is a writer and archaeologist who lives and works in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. His first published story was in Abyss & Apex in 2010. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in F&SF, Strange Horizons, Nature, and elsewhere, and Sunset Mantle, his first longer work, has recently been published by the Tor.com imprint.