Below the elbows, his arms were canons.
He used one to knock on the cottage door. It made a dent and a sliver of white paint broke off, leaving a fresh, bright scar in the wood.
He listened for movement inside and heard bare feet slapping the floor, each step panting under quick weight. A girl flung the door open without checking first. In the country, they didn’t check.
The girl in the door was dainty and dirty. Her brow and chest wore thin coats of glittering sweat. Her lips were dry and pinched together in places. Her hands were bony and red. She’d been working. Her body temperature and heart rate were slightly elevated. 90 BPM, but decreasing. She had blue eyes. She looked at him.
She saw his arms, which were canons. They seemed dangerous, the way their energy sight-glass indicators glowed and swelled with green fire. The barrels of the guns had once been a matte gun-metal gray but now were singed black from overuse. They were scarred shiny in places and badly dented. Five flexible aluminum plated cables wove out from each barrel and connected into chromium fittings on his shoulders and spine and in the back of his head where the hair was melted off. Fat heaps of scar tissue had grown like barnacles over all the fittings.
The girl’s eyes frisked each cable, tracing them up to his shoulders. She inspected his face.
“You must be Ansel,” she said.
“I am Rynn. Do you remember me?”
“Hallerynn. I go by Rynn.”
Her bony hand went up and touched the dry contours of her lips. “You cannot speak?”
He lowered his eyes.
“Oh,” she said. Her wince turned over into a smile. “Nevertheless, I remember what you sound like from my dreams. I was small when you left, but my dreams brought me good memories.” She nearly laughed at the thought. She held it back. She had many fond memories of Ansel, construed in her own imagination, of course. Ansel hadn’t been there.
They stood examining each other. Behind him, in the field, several sheep stirred. One was rooting around the high flowered grass beside the porch, casting a long, preoccupied shadow. A purple and white spotted butterfly danced past, grazing Rynn’s hair. She brushed it away.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Come in.”
He bent through the door.
Fresh killed ducks were hanging from the ceiling. Their necks were broken and their heads were drooping down where the wire was cinched. Their eyes were bulging and black. He dodged through them.
He followed Rynn into the middle of the cottage, where cheese was drying on racks draped with linen. There were stairs that went up, and a lacquered railing. He didn’t remember a railing. That was new. The stairs were wide, but cluttered with jars packed full of leafy herbs and bright spices and dried fruits. There was a narrow opening where someone could weave a way up and down between the jars, and the steps were faded in those places like a path beaten through the trees.
“Would you like to sit?” Rynn used a dirty rag to gesture at the rope hammock.
He shook his head.
“I wish you would. You look tired. Are they heavy?”
Ansel lifted the canon arms so that they were parallel to the floor. Then he dropped them and felt his shoulders stretch. He shrugged.
Rynn went to the hammock and lowered herself into it, slowly, as if to show him how. She was dirty and her hands were calloused, but she had grace. He cocked his head at her.
“Your father and brother are bringing in a lamb. They’ve roasted it. I’ve been smelling it all day coming in on a breeze from the creek. She was a big, fattened lamb. Her name was Joan. She was saved for Vitus’ inheritance feast. Then we got the message.”
She crossed her legs. She wrapped the rag around her thin hand.
“Vitus remembers you,” she said. “He remembers when you left. I’ve spent my life asking everyone about you.” She hazarded a glance, tried to read an expression, then looked away. “Did you wonder about me?”
She waited for an answer, and when she received nothing from the hulking man with canon arms, she gazed out the window.
“Vitus would never tell about you. Father, I couldn’t bring it up to him, else he turn into a sopping mess. Worse than spring in the valley, the way he’d cry. It could break his mood for weeks. And mother, well, I never knew her. She died once you left.”
Ansel stood there, looking down the barrels of his guns. The green flames made strange lights on the walls.
There came the faint rattling of a bell. Rynn swung up onto her feet and bent low to peak through the crusted window panes.
“Here they come!” she looked at him and smiled. “Here they come!” The warm tips of her fingers pressed into the flesh above his elbow. She pulled him out the back door.
The field was very green, sloping down where it turned golden with dandelions. There was an ox cutting through the gold, horns twisting in the falling sun, the bell around his neck clattering, and a blackened lamb draped over his back. Two men were leading the ox up the slope.
They came within two paces of Rynn and Ansel and stopped. The bell clattered and the ox snorted.
The older man was thin and strong. His hair was white and stiff like the beard of a young grain stalk. His eyes were blue and heavy with years. The other man was much younger, but an adult still. He looked like Rynn, with those same dry, pinched lips. He regarded Ansel for a moment, then went about pulling down the lamb.
“Ansel,” the old man said. He looked at Ansel’s face. “What has happened to your face?”
Ansel looked down.
“My son. What happened?”
“He cannot speak, father,” Rynn said.
The young man got the lamb off the ox’s back and swung it over his shoulder. He nearly tipped under its weight, but he regained his balance and trudged up to the cottage.
Father looked at his daughter pleadingly. “What did they do to him?”
“Father!” she hissed. “He can hear perfectly well.”
“My son!” he said and wrapped his arms around Ansel’s bulging shoulders. He buried his face into Ansel’s chest. He gripped Ansel’s arms.
“Enough, father,” Rynn said. “Don’t be a sap, now. What a happy occasion. Let’s eat.”
They sat to eat inside around the table. Vitus cut the lamb into large, steaming slabs and set out four pots. Rynn said, “Just three, Vitus.”
They all looked over at Ansel.
“How do you eat?” Rynn asked, because no one else would.
Ansel stood and shook the straps of his pack off his shoulders. The pack slid down his arms and landed heavily. He used a cannon to pry apart the pack’s drawstring opening. He jammed the cannon into the pack. There was a click and a hiss. He pulled out one cannon and replaced it with the other. There was another click and hiss. He lifted both arms and rested them on the table. The muzzles were covered by green cylindrical attachments. The aluminum flex tubes twisted and snapped like hoses taking pressure. Ansel sat there with his hoses rushing.
Vitus took away Ansel’s bowl.
Father gaped and could not touch the steaming heap of lamb in his pot.
Rynn stabbed blindly at her pot, unconsciously ate a few slivers of lamb, gnawing as if she could not taste.
Vitus hung his head over his own pot and shoved the meat into his lips. Ansel watched Vitus eat until the bowl was empty and shining with grease. Ansel looked away as Vitus cut off a second portion and dropped it into his pot.
“Are you home for very long?” Father asked.
Ansel nodded once.
“You have to go back?”
Ansel shook his head.
Father smiled. His heavy eyes watered. “Ansel. My eldest, my first born. The farm is yours, you know. Vitus will stay and help you until you can get things running. I am far too old to go on managing this place.”
Vitus rolled his eyes. “To butcher the lambs, will he just blast them in the head?”
Father’s eyes widened.
Rynn said, “Be kind!”
“I am being kind,” Vitus said. He inspected Ansel like he was reviewing a sick cow. “You would burden this poor boy with a farm. He hasn’t got arms. His mouth is melted shut. He cannot speak. He could not even eat his own produce should he like to. There’s no pride in it. How would he survive here? He feeds by plugging protein cylinders onto his guns. What’s he going to do with a farm?”
“Boy, be still!” Father yelled and threw down his napkin. “He is the first born of this family! You owe him your respect. What’s more, your brother spent the last decade battling across the stars so that we could tend our flocks in peace. This farm would not be here without him. You would not be here without him. Show him your gratitude!”
“Tended the flocks, have you?” Vitus’ face laughed, but he did not, for the occasion was far too serious. “I’ve tended the flock while you’ve wept pitifully for your son and wife and grown weak with despair. I am the only one at this table due any gratitude.”
“Begone!” Father commanded, with his finger jabbing crooked like a lightning bolt toward the ceiling and his voice cracking. “Begone now!”
Vitus left through the back door and did not close it.
The father dropped his head into his hands.
The girl chased out after the boy with tears running down her dirty cheeks.
Ansel’s protein canisters sighed and popped off. They spun on the table like coins until they clattered and were still.
Ansel stood up, full.
“Don’t listen to that boy,” the father said.
Ansel stood at the back door, looking out.
“He will come back. He loves you, you know. We all do.”
Ansel went out the back door. The boy and the girl were far off, just shadows. At the bottom of a hill was a fat roll of hay that was twice Ansel’s height. Ansel waded through the grass toward it. He sprung up onto it, then dropped down and sat.
He swung his legs the way kids do when their feet can’t touch the ground. He looked up.
The stars were out. They were full in the night sky. If he could block out the ambient light seeping into the corners of his vision from the cottage, Ansel thought he could just as soon be in space, gazing out from the sortie bay of an Orthodox Cruiser, or camping on an asteroid in Cambodia Sector hours before leading a shock-force raid on its tunnel fortresses. The only difference was that in space, the stars didn’t flicker.
The stars flickered here because their light was disrupted as it passed through the atmosphere. That’s what the science said, but Ansel thought it was because great battles were tearing through the galaxies – war without end on every solar front, reaching the valley’s dumbly grazing sheep only by way of gentle beacons on the tapestry of a country night sky. Ansel thought it funny because the stars didn’t do anything in space but coldly burn. Out there, they made no shows.
Ansel calculated distances to the stars he had been to. He looked at one, and its distance in light-years toggled immediately onto his retinal implant display. He looked at another star and watched the number change.
Ansel watched for some time. The green flames roared in his canon energy indicators, then subsided. He slid off the hay roll and landed heavily on his feet.
He stretched his legs and back. He bent and swept the muzzle of his canon arm over the top of the high grass. Dew sprinkled off the blades. He watched a glinting drop run along the rim of the gun barrel, capturing all the moonlight within its small amorphous boundaries. He watched it suspend there on the edge of his canon, and finally detach and fall.
Then he, Ansel, went into the hills with his canon arms swinging by his side and the sheep moving out of his way.