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The Vermilion Road

We’re two thousand light-years from home.

Earth gravity, beaten.

Solar System.

Milky Way.

I hear fire, I hear creaking, I hear prayers to evanescing gods—

I hold my sister’s hand.

We’ve made it, halfway,

 with so much making it left to do.

 

Between the 2nd & 3rd pillars

I blink, and how many aeons are in a

 second of darkness?

Sabɔ-finɔ looms over me, sweet star-voiced sister, silhouetted against the rays of an unfamiliar sun. She bends, helps me to my liquid legs. You okay? she asks as she wraps her grey scarf over my nose and mouth. Her head becomes Saturn, orbiting her body.

What’s my name?

What is a name? Saturn asks, answers. Arsikɛ, do you hear me? Another blizzard. Going to latch you to myself again, Sabɔ-finɔ says.

You’re no longer half-planet, half-sister. Where are your silver rings? Are we the reveries of distant stars?

Stay with me. It’s all in your mind.

Wild, wild winds steal her words from me. Trumpet loud enough to shatter walls and bones, and hopes and dreams. It howls as we push sideways against the drifts.

Fifty-eight goggle-covered eyes in the whipping vermilion dust, vermilion snow. Scarves waving in a desolate desert. Iridescent intertwined rainbow-coloured gowns, oil-slick refugees fleeing—we walk in a straight line, a migrant constellation on the orange-red,

 pulverised plane.

Pa K shouts into the storm,

 I don’t need to remind you to keep your goggles on at all times. With visibility so low, just trust the march. Trust me. Trust my men. We are almost at the third pillar.

Centuries pass, or so my feet whisper.

Plants on long stalks with heads of carmine petals unfurl before me. Trees with red leaves. Blood in the chlorophyll. Ghost-like satellites hang in the day-night sky, the frozen star-freckled twilight. Petals rain around us.

And I feel connected to the roots mazing beneath my tired feet, beneath these nameless soils. I feel connected to the leaves inching towards the light. I halt, to be a witness. I can’t go on.

What? Sabɔ-finɔ says.

I hand her my goggles. I want to—

Put them on, put them back on.

Dust burns my eyes. Mountain ranges in the horizon. How can we walk through this beauty and not stop and worship? Not stay forever and serve the goddess here? I cut myself from her body, severed umbilicus glazed with

 fine particles.

I dash into the endless fields.

We don’t have time for this! I warned—

I will get her back.

We won’t wait.

Pa K, please …

They echo, Sabɔ-finɔ’s muffled footfalls as she chases after me chasing after beauty, after the goddess here. Arsikɛ, stop running! Arsikɛ, wait for me.

I keep running.

Free, smiling, cocooned in a surge of euphoria.

Sabɔ-finɔ catches up with me, at last, at the end, in the end. She draws me into her fishnet embrace. Stop, she pleads, under the petal-rains.

We are on the ground.

No, I tell her. I want us to stay.

She fits my goggles over my moisting eyes.

What makes you think the planets in Gx409 would hold us better? It’s just the same humans there. The rich have already built their capitals. What do you say? Social-economical-ecological apocalypsing. What makes you think it will be different?

Better there than here. What you told me the day we left Earth. And if we stay on the Vermilion Road, Arsikɛ, we die. Take deep breaths. In. Out.

A planet only habitable for short seasons,

 ephemeral mother, ephemeral womb.

The beauty you see, it’s all in your head—we knew this place would fuck up your mind. We made the choice to come anyway.

Barren, red, freezing,

 and the dust here, mixed with my blood type, causes hallucinations, causes memory loss, causes mind clouds. My sister is right. We lied to Pa K. We lied. Forged fake documents about my blood. I’m AB-.

Sabɔ-finɔ pulls me along despite my fight, my punches, my meteor screams. Please …

I know I should give in to her, but my body acts out of tune with my mind. Look at the face of the goddess. Look at the face of the goddess all around us. Don’t you see the birds? Give me to the glass people. I don’t want to—

Tethered bodies in the storm again, hooked twin sisters on the Vermilion Road.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Will never leave you, my sister’s saying.

I give no reply. I cry.

The blizzard is, then it’s not—gone. My mind calms along with it, a subliming of clouds. I feel a little more myself again. A minute of consciousness. Thanks for not leaving me.

There’s a crescent cut on her lip. She gives me a smile, like a sacrifice.

I shove her, playfully. I’m sorry …

She holds my hand, vets the fissures on my dry skin. We knew what we were coming into. Back on Earth, you always fought for us. And it’s my turn to fight for you, she says.

 

At the 3rd pillar

We arrive at the third pillar—a thick, vertical plume of purple phosphorescent gas, rising from ground to sky, sizzling with electric blue sparks. When I look at its face, I can’t help but tremble this time. At the seventh pillar, our spaceship out of the Vermilion Road drinks fuel for its lightspeed flight to Gx409, syphoning from the soil, syphoning from the soul.

And the energy we take from them mustn’t exceed what we need.

 

Between the 3rd & 4th pillars

I vomit beneath the shade of a dune.

The milk-white water we drink here, grains of the nutrient bars we eat, and asteroids, and bits of a planet I can’t name. I’ve made a river, sediments floating on its tributaries.

She doesn’t even remember her own name. Sabɔ-finɔ rubs my back as she speaks to Musum. She whispers, but I hear. It’s as if this place is taking everything that makes her human. And the memory loss, it’s permanent. Only remnants will remain. We shouldn’t have come. We never thought it could be this bad …

I force my gaze from my newborn river.

I remember you, Sabɔ. You’re my twin, we’re both nineteen. Papa died of cancer. Mama’s already there, at Gx409. War, poverty, on … on Earth, we fled. And Musum’s your boyfriend. Regurgitation, recitation. The things in my head are only those she tells me, evaporated days, evaporated joys, evaporated pains, evaporated life choices and regrets, evaporated people. As this place steals my mind from me, my sister dares to be

 keeper of my memories.

She’s going on about us staying strong,

 and Musum’s going on about how things are always okay in the end, and I’m whispering,

 from here to the Gx409 it’s nothing but desert and it’s full of hearts of stars,

 when a tussle down the distance

 mars our voices.

A punch lands on Pa K’s Jupiter nose. A bulky, tattooed woman

 is wrestled from him.

Tell them! Tell them! the bulky, tattooed woman screams as she’s dragged off. Her breaths, ragged. Is she pregnant? How in hell’d you keep something like this from us? There are others here! His men killed one of them. I saw it all.

So you want to kill me, then? I am the only one that can fly you out of here, fuck! A crowd gathers around Pa K, iron filings around a magnet, the sheep around the patch-eyed, blue-bearded shepherd in outer space. You paid so I’d get you safely to Gx409. And I will. These aliens are harmless, nothing to worry about. His tone drips with the soreness of journeys and the arrogance of power.

We’re the aliens, I almost say to him. I count bokehs instead, drifting away,

 glowlight lullabies.

Why did you keep it from us? Musum shouts at Pa K, walking towards the commotion nebula.

Everything I know about this planet, I learned from my father. He never told me about glass people. We are still learning about them. And I couldn’t tell you all something I am unsure of. We will go through the Road.

He’s lying. The glass people attacked us. The woman frees herself. What’s her story? Where on Earth is she from?

And the glass people, the glass people, they don’t live only in my head. I’ve seen them, too, I almost say, I’ve held their hands, I’ve heard their voices from afar and from within—but—

The planet quakes, rumbling.

Pa K’s saying something.

Sabɔ-finɔ’s searching for my hand when the chasms begin to form, not on the ground beneath us, but on the very face of reality.

Broken mirror world; Sabɔ in her shard, Musum in his, Pa K and his men in theirs, all the travellers, migrants, refugees. I’m alone,

 in my twisted geometric pattern.

I plunge, endlessly, through Vantablack glass, falling with the phosphenes.

Yet my scream isn’t mine,

 something else hurts here.

Kill.

 

At the 5th pillar

We can’t tell days apart. We trudge on through the ultraviolet dusk.

The quake, the shards, the bulky, tattooed woman, the glass people, the scream that wasn’t mine—reality and hallucination have fused into a single sphere

 before me.

But I’m here, passing.

Pa K’s crew marches vigilantly at our flanks, darting eyes, raised guns.

On reaching the fifth pillar, at the agreement of unvoiced words, we all fall down,

 we rest our tirednesses here awhile,

 galaxies of small and big sorrows,

 with just enough hope to dare reach for the stars, or enough desperation,

 all of us in the dust,

 beneath makeshift kɔbalapa telem tents, and all our feet are swollen from

 walking so much.

I lay my head on my sister’s lap. She lays hers on Musum’s shoulder. She runs her fingers through my hair, sings to me; her voice barely pierces through my shroud

 of ache and fever.

It’s an old song, she tells me, an old song from when we were babies unaware of the broken world we’d been born into. Papa sang it to us way back when we’d sit on his knees, before he was drafted to that war that destroyed his lungs,

hammering haunted hills inside of them.

And you made me promise—when you could keep nothing of Papa’s, when we had to sell it all to pay our way here—that I would help you remember this tune, this silly song about a man’s beard burning unknown to him. You always said it was an allegory for Earth. I argued that we knew of all the places our world was on fire, we just didn’t care.

Ko mə fe e
Ko mə fe e
ɛkek dɛ yi ɛŋ

Sabɔ-finɔ’s star voice begins to fade. Silence all at once, heavy.

And the itch starts, rising from beneath my skin, ozone of the self dying. I claw with rushing fingers at the insides of my left elbow until blood is drawn,

 the blood we drip.

Beneath the red, instead of flesh, instead of muscle, instead of bone, glinting glass.

At the sight, Sabɔ-finɔ gasps, cuts from her shirt and turns my black body into a secret.

What’s happening to her? Musum’s head becomes Sun. His solar-storm eyes fix on me.

I’m not sure … I’m … the glass people. We can’t let the others know, not Pa K. It’s nothing, nothing. In the silences between her words,

 fear squirms.

She ties the shirt-piece around my elbow.

We hide in shelves the things we fear, out of sight, out of power, we cover infection—it will not expand into the observable universe.

I groan in pain. What’s happening to me, two thousand light-years from home, on this pilgrimage to greener pastures? And why does it feel like I know the answer to everything hurting, but I’ve undreamed the dream?

Shiver, shiver, shiver.

Those things sustain it … it is sharing with us its soul … what greater sacrifice?

 

Between the 6th pillar & the Cerulean Sea

I, feel, burden-like, you, Sabɔ. Speech betrays my tongue. I struggle to tell my sister my guilt.

Sabɔ-finɔ pushes me tighter onto her back. The sides of her head are shaved, dust-covered. Arsikɛ, breathe … we’ve been through th—

You, carried, me, many miles. And, even, the, others, help, I steal, from, time. Pa K, right, leave me, sister, I’ll be fine. You, know, this mother, here, is ephemeral.

My raspy voice,

 far from me.

I, tired.

We’ll make it on time,

 We’ll make it on time.

I’ve, seen, how, this, is breaking, you. I, hear, you, cry, to Musum, questioning, why we came. I, don’t, want, see you, this, I, don’t, want to see you, hurt.

I cling to her back, my hands around her neck. Her tears drizzle on them,

 hot in the desert cold.

I, be, fine. You, go.

She stops. She begins a litany of memories,

 whispering, the big, the small,

 with every step she takes,

 a reason to go on,

 things I can’t remember,

 evaporated, but enough to keep someone else’s feet drilling through the hurt.

 That time you …

     That day when …

 That night we …

     We’d run about the house …

 Fight over silly things …

     Bond over sillier ones …

 You’d starve so I’d eat …

     Hide and seek …

 You fought a policeman …

     Cuddle in the cold …

 We took odd jobs …

     The end of the world …

 Air raids, we are rubble …

     Always there with (for) me …

Her memories surround us like electric ghosts. Her strength seeps into my heart.

Our story will be kind to us.

We’ll make it to the 7th, board that ship and yaw to better days. Our Earth sorrows won’t follow us into the heavens—

Screams—

Gunshots—

I feel Sabɔ-finɔ stiffen beneath me.

In the distance, in the haze,

 glass people rise out the vermilion dust, sparkling—five hundred opaline eyes

 in the bruisy ambience.

An ambush, real or unreal.

Pa K the hollering shepherd heads towards the Cerulean Sea, and his sheep follow. Everybody runs. The old. The young. Women, men, and in-between. Hand-to-hand combat. Song of guns. Am I still on my sister’s back? Am I flying? In the chaos, I see the waterbody division, as blue as a vein, or fading memories at midnight,

 narrow and not much of a sea.

Musum begins to help me off my sister’s back. Let me take her. Can you feel your feet, Arsikɛ? Hold on to me.

A grunt steals my answer off my lips.

The bulky, tattooed woman, from before, from the beginning of space and time, faces off with one of the glass people. There’s blood on her mouth. She knocks the glass person off their feet. She brings a rock down on their glowing face, over and over, until cracks form and the being shatters beneath her—

I step out of my ache and fever.

Kill them all …

Voices in my head.

I charge at the woman—before she can face me, my crystal fingers stab into her back and out her chest, scream, blood, blood in my palmar flexion creases.

She goes limp in my hold.

What have I done?

Sabɔ-finɔ and Musum stare, mouths agape, emitting shock in waves of silence.

At last, Arsikɛ … Sabɔ-finɔ trembles as she watches the dry skin on my face slip off, that face she’s known and loved all her life, revealing the glass

 I’ve become beneath,

 vitrified.

I see myself, a reflection on her irises.

My hair blows away in a gust of wind.

What’s happening? I want to shout to Sabɔ-finɔ. Nothing comes out of me, tongue fused to the back of a glassened throat.

Musum tows my sister along.

I want to hold her hands, let us go through this together, let us run the last miles

 out of here.

Sabɔ-finɔ runs from me,

 twin sister, unhooked.

Sabɔ-finɔ, stop running … Sabɔ-finɔ, wait for me …

 

The Cerulean Sea

We—we—

I—

Our eyes are many; some remember, some still in awe and witness.

We watch the hidden world,

 and in all its beauty, so much pain,

 so much has been taken,

 and the trees no longer stand as tall, their leaves and flowers no longer bright, creatures in the sky and soil are dying, crying.

We watch the dream—a remembering of

 a genesis of hurt,

 diamond teardrops on our glass faces.

This place we love …

A man in black, short and blurry, stands before the first pillar, an insect next to a great flame. Stern-faced man, hazel watercolour eyes, in need of roads. He prays. He plunges his fist into the plume. Crackling. Exchanged emotions,

 succinct conversations,

 agreements between planet and man.

Later, stern-faced man, hazel watercolour eyes, sits with his spectre crew of four around a fire. They’re all running from a place dear to their hearts, and it shows in their gazes. The man warms his hands with his breath. He speaks,

 a quiet voice, into the red.

Some among us can adapt to the conditions of this planet … we’ve seen it once, with the glass girl. It wants them to be left behind … not against their wills, of course … to worship and witness its design, its beauty invisible to eyes like ours. I have agreed.

And the energy we take from its pillars mustn’t exceed what we need for shuttles. Those things sustain it … it is sharing with us its soul … what greater sacrifice? The planet will hold us tender, be our passage, and no authorities will see us, and may we never renege our promises.

Twenty years pass, a drifting of the clouds, and all is well. But when the original smugglers die, as all men do, and Pa K takes over his father’s ships, everything changes for this place we love.

Maybe his father told him of the ones he should leave behind. Maybe he did not. Maybe he failed to warn him never to take more than needed from the land. Maybe he did. Maybe ignorance was what turned all men into beasts of greed. When Pa K came and saw the energy here, in the seven pillars that uphold the world, all his dreams became of the riches he could gain; mine the gas, mine the soul, and sell it in the new worlds …

To take so much from a place

 will always lead to a form of dying,

 and every form of dying will always lead to evolution—the planet alters those who were meant to be its lovers and turns them into warriors, rage in the biochemistry, glass-skinned protectors

 of the Vermilion Road.

We are chasing the passersby,

 at the speed of prayer;

 kill them all.

They reach the Cerulean Sea that divides them from their escape. Some are innocent, unaware of Pa K’s crimes … only searching for a place in the universe that would hold them warmer … they only fight because they’re afraid,

 the preservation of the self.

Maybe, they don’t deserve to die—there are other choices the planet could make, other solutions—or it only fights because it is afraid,

 the preservation of the self.

They leap into the sea.

We leap after them.

I—

I watch my sister-stranger, drowning.

Pa K and what remains of his men have abandoned their inflatable boats.

They swim like stars across the sky.

But my sister-stranger can’t. We never got to learn in our fire-fire world.

Her hands beg for life, as the waves try to

 submerge her again. She screams, mumbles.

This girl who calls herself my twin.

This girl who whispered memories to make me strong at my weakest. This girl who ran into storms, into darknesses, to save my life.

For miles and miles, carried

 my weight as hers, popo mi

 in unfamiliar gravity.

This girl who loved me so much … that even

 when everything else faded from my mind, I never could forget that someplace, somehow, I must have loved her, too.

I want—

We want—

I—I—I—want to swim to my sister-stranger, I want to hold her and never let go, save her from the waves, but we want to go after Pa K, stop him from getting to his ship, firewings,

 fly away with his loot, and who says he won’t come back with more weapons,

 more mercenaries, more greed,

 more wickedness?

Sister-stranger screams my name.

In the Cerulean Sea,

a h e a r t b r e a k s a p a r t.

 

At the 7th pillar

I wish I could call myself a hero, say that I saved my sister-stranger while still catching the villain and putting an end to his crimes against divinity. I wish I could say the innocent didn’t perish for the sins of the wicked on the Vermilion Road, and they all made it to Gx409 because Musum had always known the workings of spaceships. I wish I could say Sabɔ-finɔ and I told teary-eyed goodbyes in a long parting embrace as I chose to stay behind to worship this red, mystic planet,

 and that our Earth sorrows didn’t follow us into the heavens.

Wishes, like dust particles in the wind.

Sabɔ-finɔ is dead, drowned.

Musum is dead, drowned.

Many of the innocent died here today, in a battlefield whose soil and stone they know nothing of. Those still breathing scramble after Pa K. Look how they run. They make it to the seventh pillar. There, their ship stands almost two hundred feet tall. Twenty segmented tentacles latch onto the plume beside it, syphoning. The faint blue haze of a protective force-field guards

 the mechanism from us.

Pa K smiles, sprinting on.

We can’t pass through the threshold.

He’ll be safe once he crosses to the other side. He’ll get away with everything.

But—

His smile burns away when he spots me

 within the haze.

Guns aim at me, bullets rain.

Their bullets ricochet off my body, as I march towards them.

I’m the newest creation from the goddess here. I’m the peak of a desperate evolution.

Kill them all …

No … there’s been too much death on your skin, of self and of those you hold.

Does he deserve our forgiveness?

You’re a mother, remember. Don’t let the pain turn us into the monsters we hate. Maybe he doesn’t know what he puts you through. Show him. Let him see. Give him a choice. Educate. I have a plan.

We hope you are right.

I raise my hand. How you respond to what I am about to show you will determine how this ends for you.

Like a blessing, I give Pa K all the pain he has given the Vermilion Road,

 and—maybe it stems from naivety, or grief, or this tiredness in my vitrified bones—my hope. I hope that Pa K will return to us the excess energy in his tanks, that all men are bound to be better.

This will give the others a chance at life.

And his ships are needed for people like my sister, people like me,

 those running from burning worlds.

He falls to his knees. He screams

 into the soil.

I leave the blue-beard man to revelation and choices and make my way to my sister-stranger’s lifeless body on

 the lapis shore.

I lift her into glass arms.

I’ll dig you a grave, sister-stranger, and may it be the tender home we sought among the stars. I’ll remember you. Sabɔ-finɔ means good fortune. But sister-stranger, what did you

 get in the end?

How many stories are there like yours?

How many, like me, will grieve forever in the arms of foreign lands—

 an explosion—

I glance over my shoulder, sadness

 inside my chest.

Fire engulfs the silver spaceship in the distance, fireworks and electric sparks, debris, dark soot covers the world because Pa K chose greed, even with the knowledge of the extent of his crimes,

 and they all burn for it.

May the ones who come

after him, hold us better.

I trod off with my sister, down the Vermilion Road.

We will be here to show them.

 


Editor: Kat Weaver

First Reader: Morgan Braid

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Victor Forna is a Sierra Leonean writer based in his country’s capital city Freetown. His short fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize Writing Workshop. He tweets @vforna12. For more, https://linktr.ee/vforna.
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