The speedboat coasted through Tripoli harbor, running swift and quiet past the last indignant bastions of loyalist territory. Maryam huddled with her coded notes, diligent as ever, reviewing the file on our target. I leaned back in my cold plastic seat and watched my kindred stars as they stepped through the slow obedient constellations of their dance.
Those lucky, cowardly bastards.
We approached a vacant cargo terminal, and I dragged my gaze down from the heavens. The port had changed so much since I’d seen it last, but it followed the same old arc as every human city. Build out, build up, bigger and uglier, then smash it back into rubble.
The boat bumped to a halt against a concrete pillar. I handed the boatman a stack of euros, and Maryam leapt onto the dock, tall and confident in the darkness as she offered her fake Al Jazeera ID to the waiting revolutionaries. I stuck a cigarette between my lips and sparked it to life.
A bullet lanced through the air. Hot, lightning-swift, it knocked the cigarette from my hand and struck me in the neck. I boiled away the lead and shoved Maryam behind the shelter of a crane. The revolutionaries sprayed the next pier with bullets, keeping the sniper busy while two of the boys sprinted between containers.
Not our mission. Our hosts could handle it. But I felt the boys’ running hearts, the chord of bullets. How dare some tyrant-loving mortal take aim at journalists, shoot their rifle at me? I leapt from cover, ready to run and burn and—
Maryam halted me with a tug of scripture, my bindings leash-taut around my soul.
Most of my handlers would’ve yanked. Instead, Maryam waited for me to return. I put on a scowl, and held tight against the impulse toward motion and anger.
She ignored my glower. She peered around the edge of our shelter, her jaw tight until the air crackled with the deep stutter of American-made guns. Young voices cheered, and Maryam let out her breath.
She turned a narrow-eyed gaze toward me. “Something you want to tell me?”
I scraped my shoe against the shredded ruin of my cigarette. “This is a mistake, kid. I shouldn’t be on this mission.”
“Don’t brood, Enoch.”
“It’s not that. Another rebellious star so close, it makes me want to…” What words could explain it to a child of God and Adam? I gestured at the boat’s wake, where waves diffracted starlight into patternless shapes. “Stirs old memories, that’s all.”
She adjusted her headscarf. “You should’ve said something before we left.”
“Funny, I don’t remember anyone asking.”
The revolutionaries hustled us away from the docks, and one of them escorted us toward a safe house. When we reached the silence of a ruined building, Maryam whispered a spell into the boy’s ear, and he slumped to the ground in her arms. He’d be fine in the morning, but he wouldn’t remember a thing about us.
I finally got my smoke. I enjoy them for the ritual, not the nicotine. A little fire, a brand-new drop of ash, the same little destruction every time.
Plus, it makes some mortals impatient.
“Lot of people counting on us,” Maryam said.
“Yeah, we got work to do. Unless you want to get used to architecture like this.” I gestured at concrete and rebar grasping the hot night air.
Back at the dawn of creation, seven disobedient stars nearly sundered heaven and earth. They failed, and they were punished, each in accordance with their sins.
This year a single star had danced, and millions of mortal souls followed. All those kids, fighting brother against brother against king, never knowing the true source of their unrest.
I said, “So, kid. A star out of their cage. What’s the plan?”
“One of these days you should try reading the briefings.” She ticked off the steps on her fingers. “We find the cage, smoke out the star, bind it up, and lock it back away.” Her mouth twisted in a smirk. “Easy, right?”
“Easier if we had a lead on the cage. Which we do?”
She sighed. “Yes, we have a lead. Qaddafi shut down the synagogues in 1970, but we know who looted it. He ended up running the ‘Ain Zata detention center here in Tripoli.”
“See why I don’t read the briefings? Chin up, kid, it sounds like you’re already making history. First Jew in this country in forty-one years.”
“Hush!” Maryam glanced through an absent window, and then lowered her finger from her lips. “Not true, actually. A handful stayed through the ‘70s, and the last one died in ‘02.”
“Is that right? Something interesting in the briefing after all.”
“Maybe. I like your version better.” A smile twitched free from the corner of her scowl. “Feels more heroic.”
I took another drag on my cigarette. “Here to serve.”
“In that case, you ready to get moving?” She emphasized her request with a tug of her shirt cuffs, a hint of the Aramaic calligraphy tattooed around her wrists. My leash, written in the words that live in sacred fire, too bright for even me to burn.
“Lead the way.” I stubbed out my cigarette on the husk of a refrigerator. I gave her the most disrespectful smile I could get away with, until she hid those damned tattoos. Hurt my eyes to look at them, but I knew every word:
Then the angel said: This place, until the consummation of heaven and earth, will be the prison of the stars, and the host of heaven.
The stars are those which transgressed the commandment of God before their time arrived; for they came not in their proper season. Therefore was He offended with them, and bound them, until the period of the consummation of their crimes.
—1 Enoch 18:15-16
Al-Jazeera credentials opened any door we wanted. Maryam could do a perfect Qatari accent, and every poor sap wanted to share some sliver of accomplishment they’d extracted from their uprising. By midmorning, we had a solid trail: directions to the one surviving prisoner from the ‘Ain Zata detention center.
Nisreen al Shamrani lay handcuffed to her hospital bed. She had one arm locked in a cast, and more creating bulky shapes beneath her blanket of a red-black-green rebel flag. Her doctor, a stocky woman with dark rings under her eyes, glared at me and then cornered Maryam. “Please, ma’am. I told my cousin, no journalists. Shamrani needs to rest!”
Maryam hushed her, calming and respectful. Whether she was working her charisma or magic, that left me to handle Shamrani. I slipped between the bed and the window, and knelt to the girl’s eye level. Girl? I was no good with ages, but she seemed much younger than Maryam.
I needed to find some leverage. “Are they treating you all right in here?”
Shamrani’s gaze shifted from the cloudless sky to me. “You’re journalists? Please, don’t go.” She ran her tongue over cracked lips. “I jumped out the window. I had to get away. From the soldiers.”
“I know it hurts, but smart choice. You’re the only one who made it out of ‘Ain Zata.” An hour after she’d jumped, the liquidations began. No prisoners survived until the rebels overran it, and no guards survived after.
Tears welled up at the corners of her eyes. “I had to escape. They wouldn’t let me leave, after. Three soldiers stood around me, one behind me, one on two sides. They brought the prisoners to stand in front of a tree, and they gave me a pistol. One bullet at a time. The first—”
“Hold on.” I didn’t want to hear yet another human atrocity. We’d been told survivor, not executioner. How would Maryam deal with a contact gone off the rails? Don’t judge, stay focused.
I fumbled the briefing sheet from my jacket, and showed Shamrani a black-and-white photo of a tiny bronze cage around a fleck of jasper. “Who were the soldiers? Did any of them wear this pendant?”
“Real soldiers. Mukhabarat, not Popular Guard.” She coughed, like the ashes of a laugh. “Popular. I didn’t want to, I swear. They made me.”
A defensive answer, but no heat rose to her cheeks, no restlessness to her soul. She wasn’t lying.
“We know. It’s not your fault. That’s why we’re after your warders.” I shook the photo. “The pendant?”
She glanced at the photograph, at me, and then back to the window. “The captain had one of those. He gave it to me, when he wanted…”
Whatever he’d wanted, I hoped he didn’t get it. And however the girl had shifted herself between killer and victim, I hoped she was happy with the trade.
On the bright side, if the pendant barely registered for her, that meant no conspiracy, just a cage left unwatched for forty years. Anything in human hands ends up broken eventually.
The doctor left, and Maryam met my eyes. I wagged the pendant’s photograph. Maryam whispered a brief spell, pressed fingers to her lips, then raised as if testing the wind. She shook her head. It’s not here.
I shrugged, and beckoned her to Shamrani’s bed.
Maryam smiled like an angel without its avenging aspect. “Thank you so much for talking to us, Ms. Shamrani. We know this is hard, but we’ll tell the world what monsters they were. Qaddafi and all the rest who’re responsible.”
She squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “Can you tell me your address? We want to talk to your family, share their story too.”
I stepped into the hallway and rolled a cigarette in my fingers until it caught fire. I took a drag, leaned against the wall, and waited for someone to notice.
Maryam emerged from the room, and I followed alongside her. I switched to French and said, “You’re a good liar, hero. She, on the other hand, is neither. She believes that story, but something’s off. It’s too neat.”
“It won’t matter either way if we don’t catch that star.” She glared at me. “Are you smoking in a hospital?”
“Yup.” I flicked ash onto the concrete floor.
“If you care so much about the truth, I’ll drop some hints on a journalist mailing list when we get home. Happy?”
“Who said I was unhappy?”
She picked up her pace. “Come on. The faster we find that cage, the sooner this country can start putting itself back together.”
In loyalist neighborhoods, the damage took a different form. Outside the scuffed windows of our hired car, the buildings stood mostly intact, spared the heavier artillery of Qaddafi’s army. Yet the storefronts were vacant, the apartment buildings hushed. The walls had smaller bullet holes, sporadic but close-clustered. Less combat, more executions.
But who could blame them? The tyrant had fled his palace, and justice ran riot on the streets. People forced for so long to watch every word and step, they deserved every inch of their liberty.
Damn it. The star was tugging my thoughts, pulling and pointing like a magnet beneath a sheet. Stoking memories better left buried. Too easy to tell yourself that rebellion was worth the cost if you weren’t the one paying.
It took a real monster to lead a revolution, even against a tyrant.
I tapped the driver’s shoulder. “Drop us off here.”
The two of us left his battered yellow Honda and walked the last two blocks toward Shamrani’s address. Maryam said, “What’s wrong? Anything specific?”
“Yeah. Target’s near. Probably.” I straightened my collar. “Spotted us, maybe? Or just keeping everyone away from their cage.”
I wanted to run, to move, to be anywhere except beside Maryam and the words tattooed around her wrists. I lit a cigarette and kept pace with her, step for step on the fear-quiet street.
Their fear, not mine. When had this boulevard last bustled with life? On the corner, a restaurant’s broken glass facade advertised Tripoli’s best kusku. Probably couldn’t hold a candle to Moroccan couscous, of course, but here in Cyrenacea they—
“Hey, old man. Focus.”
I blinked, back in the present day, and gave her a halfhearted glare. “Don’t call me that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Come on. If the star’s holed up around here, that’ll save a step.”
Once she turned her back, I let myself smile. Maryam tolerated a lot of hypocrisy from me. Particularly on this mission, with me touchy and distracted because—
Two balls of fire streaked down from the sky.
I threw Maryam to the ground, and the fireballs struck me in the shoulders, searing my clothes as I drew them hot white sweet wild into my core.
A meteor landed beside us, arms and legs and face shaped out of fusion and pride. As naked as the third day of creation, more beautiful than anything I’d seen in twelve thousand years.
I stepped toward her, arms wide, between her and Maryam as the kid whispered a spell into her pistol clip. I said, “Aiyakara. Been a long time.”
“Esechanra. My brother, my love, my inspiration,” the star said in a crackle of sunspots. “How low they’ve brought the brightest of us.”
What could I say to such fire? “Don’t worry about me, sis.”
I took another step toward her, expecting my chains to tug me back, to resist our reunion. I needed to play for time, for Aiyakara or for Maryam or for anything to get me out from between them.
Maryam squeezed off a shot.
Aiyakara leaped, a white slash of heat and motion faster than any bullet. She landed behind us, and hurled another ball of flame.
At Maryam, with me on the opposite side of her, my body slow and leashed in its veil of flesh.
Maryam had almost enough time to turn, one arm outstretched toward the searing fire. The heat struck like a hammer, and rang against the anvil of a blinding-bright light: the words of God around her wrists, their judgment a sacred flame.
Maryam cried out and fell to her knees, both hands upraised, as her melted pistol clattered to the asphalt. Her wrists shone like haloes, like wedding bands, like luminous golden shackles, proof against the power of stars.
Aiyakara shrank back, and then leapt away in an arc of jangling glory. She vanished into a window overhead, and Maryam’s tattoos dimmed.
I shook off the spell of my sister’s presence, and knelt beside Maryam. “Kid! Are you all right?”
She nodded, despite the sweat dripping from her face. Her sleeves had burned away to the elbow, her hands scorched to blistered red.
She shook off my arm and stood. “We’ve got this, Enoch. She can’t hurt either of us. I—” She coughed. “That’s what I get for trying something bold.” She glanced at her wrists. “I’ll stick to the basics next time. “
I studied the sky, watching the constellations turn behind the sunlit blue. They all remained in their appointed places, following the paths and progressions God had decreed. “She hasn’t gone far.”
I peeled off my ruined jacket, checked the burn-holes through my shirt, but Maryam wasn’t waiting. She was halfway to the door of Shamrani’s apartment building; if she got much farther, I’d feel the leash. I hurried after her, past the scorch marks and hot-tar scent of my sister’s footsteps.
The apartment building had a column of doorbells, with the name Shamrani on the fourth floor. I burned away the lock, and Maryam nudged past me and took the lead. Our shoes clanged on the iron stairs of the building’s stuffy central shaft. Maryam braced her forearms against her chest, careful not to let her hands touch anything, and I could hear the words of God’s judgment gathering in her throat.
On the second floor landing, my heart fluttered like a human in passion’s grip. I grabbed Maryam’s shoulder. “Wait. She’s in here.”
She said, “Stay behind me, Enoch.” The door’s lock was already broken, its plate hacked out somewhere in purge or counter-purge. Maryam held her hands forward like a weapon, and kicked open the door.
A dark-skinned woman stood there, dressed in a black abaya, with henna-red hair curling unscarfed around her head and a revolver in her hands.
The gunshot knocked the air from Maryam’s lungs, and her body into my arms.
The star met my eyes, her lips curled in sour laughter. “Of all the names these mortals take, she calls you Enoch?”
“Good as any.” I set Maryam down against the wall and stepped over her legs, her body’s heat feeble but steady. Still alive, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from Aiyakara. I stood between the two women, and the star aimed her pistol at me. “Leave her be, sis.”
“But she holds your leash, Esechanra!”
I sighed. She was breathing on coals I’d stamped out millennia ago; if any heat remained, I didn’t want to know. “I appreciate it, sister. But there’s no escaping our sentence.”
“Are you so sure?” She spread her arms, her every gesture infused with grace and power and ease. Her human veil could hide neither the fire in her eyes nor the furnace of her heart. “Here I am, out of my cage! Where is the word of God to stop me?”
“He doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s the kids’ world now.”
“Mortals.” Aiyakara spat. “They never had enough will to shape this world. Give them a tyrant’s word, and they’ll hold the lock. Show them how to dance, and they’ll tear each other apart to invent new steps.”
“They’re a mess, but they’ve got the Angel of Death over their shoulders, and—”
“Forget them!” She flung aside her pistol. “We have siblings in chains, cousins frightened into obedience. I’ve done what I could, but you could liberate them all.”
Her voice tugged me like gravity, cradled me like interstellar wind, the sweet hot sound of particles and patterns I had tried for so long to suppress.
How had I let myself forget the taste of freedom?
Maryam lay unconscious by my feet, shirt dry over her bulletproof vest. If she were dead, I could tear myself free and soar with my sister. But whether or not I wanted Maryam to live, the words of God and humankind bound me to protect her.
I couldn’t deny Aiyakara, but neither could I follow her. At least my bindings spared me the pain of choice.
“Would if I could, sis.”
“I thought their cages were so cruel, but my suffering was nothing compared to your slavery.” Cinders whirled around Aiyakara, red-hot scraps blown on the wind of her frustration. “I’ll free you, brother. You and everyone else bound by echoes of that absent Tyrant.”
A hot wind passed over me, and she was gone.
I tapped Maryam’s cheek. “Hey. Hey, kid. Wake up.” Her eyes fluttered open, dark blue and exhausted. “Stay awake, kid. I’ll get you to help.”
Maryam shook her head and whispered, “Take care of myself. Go get her, Enoch.”
I glanced at the quiescent scripture around her wrists. She meant what she’d said, but truth could only take you so far. “I can’t.”
She bared her teeth. “Fuck that. I release you, Enoch.”
Her eyes drifted shut. She drew another breath, and released it in a whisper penned by King Solomon three thousand years ago. Spirits rippled through the air, gathering to protect and preserve her.
Plasma thrummed in my chest, following the rhythm my sister once taught us all, the gyre of worlds upended. But I had a mission to finish.
Fourth floor, left-hand door. Nameplate: Shamrani. I slapped the door open, and the hinges fell to the carpet with a liquid-metal sizzle.
Not much dust, no bullet holes in the turquoise-painted walls. Someone had been here recently; parent, partner, whomever brought her valuables home from the hospital. But where was the pendant? It was made to imprison my kind, it wouldn’t reveal itself to a star’s senses. I needed to search by hand.
I ran into a bedroom, flipped open drawers, swept junk off the dresser. Nothing. Next, the closet, small but packed with clothes new and old. I lifted a picture frame lying face-down on the floor, snagged a wooden box from a shelf, flicked it open with my thumb.
A pendant. A tiny bronze cage around a fleck of red-speckled jasper.
I held it away from my body, my arm shaking as I studied that ancient stone, its open door. Could the cage trap me as easily as my sister? No, I felt no pull, no invitation; I had nothing to fear. But then how could I get Aiyakara into it? A cage made a poor weapon without bait or leash.
I slid the picture frame beneath it like a plate, and then backed out of the closet. Safe as the cage seemed, I felt more comfortable with another layer between it and me.
The photo beneath it showed a familiar face. Nisreen al Shamrani, younger than ever, standing proud in her Popular Guard camouflage uniform while a female officer pinned a medal to her chest.
The girl had served Qaddafi’s army after all, yet she called herself a victim and a conscript, and believed every word. Anger flickered through me, but the flame found no wick. Why had she convinced herself of another story, despite her photographed past? Why had she retold her story, when every other witness had died?
To protect herself from judgment, of course. Not the judgment of others; she was her own accuser, she could have stayed silent. The only judgment that mattered was her own.
For all her wounds and suffering, she had escaped the burden of knowing herself a butcher.
A heady pattern of heat washed through the air. I turned around, and faced Aiyakara. She wore her veil of flesh, but the remains of the bedroom door smoldered behind her.
Awe illuminated her voice. “And here I thought I would need to find a way to free you. You’ve shed your chains, Esechanra! You always were the strongest of us.”
I release you, Maryam had said. My leash cut, and all I had thought to do was run upstairs and finish the mission. But Aiyakara was right. I held her cage; I could find a way to bind her. But what reason did I have to try, save for the habits of millennia leashed?
I flicked the photograph away. The frame clattered against Shamrani’s dresser, and the cage bounced into the carpet without a sound.
Furniture. Jewelry. Dross. The creations of humankind, meek and forgettable.
I drew Aiyakara close. Our hands met, and my body assumed a dancer’s frame: open, rich with compression and possibility. At last, at last, we could resume our dance, and lay our steps upon the shape of creation.
We cast aside our mortal veils, burned through steel and cinderblocks, rose into the air. Aiyakara dipped and wove around my unpracticed path, tracing a calligraphy more luminous than any mortal art. An antiaircraft gun boomed, and I swept the shells around us in a diadem of blazing metal.
Beyond the azure sky, three hundred billion cousins halted their orderly dance, and watched us with fearful jealousy.
“Look up!” I laughed, a crackle of gamma rays writ across my photosphere. “Let’s show them what they’ve been missing!”
“We’ll start right here!” She flared toward the sun, where he hung steady and wide above the cloudless North African sky. “Thinks he’s so different because the Tyrant gave him a better seat! I bet he’s just a coward like the rest, afraid to let himself dance.”
Earth’s sun. Fusion and soul, the same as all of us, but not from the mortals’ angle. If he joined us in freedom, mankind would never build back up from rubble again. No more worried doctors, no factories to make cigarettes, and no more hard-working sorcerer kids who dreamed of being heroes.
I said, “Forget this one! We have a whole galaxy ahead of us.”
“Are you still trying to protect the mortals?” She paused our dance, her corona like a pitying hand against my cheek. “My poor brother. Your spirit so broken that even without your chains, you empathize with your punishers.”
“Punish?” The word stung, an unexpected needle of ice. “I chose to work for them, sister.”
She snarled in high ultraviolet. “What? I saw your fetters, Esechanra! You were our leader, the inspiration for us all!”
Could she be right? Why would she lie? Had I drawn my six siblings into defiance of God, into chaos and upheaval, cracking heaven and earth at civilization’s dawn?
Of course not. Only the gentlest of seven could earn the chance for penance.
I said, “What kind of a monster do you think I was, to deserve twelve thousand years in chains?”
I clasped her shoulders, our fires joined like paired wicks, and summoned the only thing that burned hotter than us. I said, “Then the angel said: This place, until the consummation of heaven and earth, will be the prison of stars, and the host of heaven.”
The Aramaic words wrapped around us both as surely as they had in my tattoos, leashing us anew in a corset of calligraphy and radiation. We dimmed and smoldered and fell, outshone by the luminance of words. The word of humankind, the word of God, and the words we two stars had chosen.
I leaned over Maryam’s hospital bed and dangled the pendant until she snatched it from my hands. She sank back into the pillow, and her face relaxed into something very close to a smile. “Knew you could get her, old man.”
“Me? Nah, kid. I’m just the muscle. You took the risks, you’re the hero.”
She gave me a funny look, and I studied the night sky outside the window. The electricity was back on, uninterrupted for the first time since revolution reached Tripoli. The city sparkled with a bright tenuous light, leaving the stars to seem all the fainter in contrast.
I said, “Isn’t this Shamrani’s hospital? She still here?”
“Should be. Why?”
That picture frame sat on her bedroom floor, holding the evidence of her sins. But if the girl had rewritten herself into a better person, she deserved a chance to make a life of it.
“No reason. But do me a favor, kid? Forget about siccing journalists on her. She’ll tell her story at her own pace.”
I sat on the edge of Maryam’s bed, breathed a cigarette to life, and waited for her judgment.
Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist, SFF writer, and assistant editor of the science fiction magazine Escape Pod. You can follow him on Twitter @BenCKinney, or visit benjaminckinney.com for more of his fiction. If you want to learn more about the real stories that inspired “Memories of Fire,” you can read more on his website or go straight to the original reporting.