Taterra had not been left on this world.
She had not been banished, or forgotten. She had not been sent away in disgrace or in punishment, or as some form of cosmic torture conducted by a childlike and petty-minded deity.
Taterra had chosen to be here, on this horrible backwards moon, and she reminded herself of this fact at least three times a day. Sometimes more on days when the weather turned swampy, and her joints swelled, muffled electricity hummed between the clouds of insects, and the lakeshore became indecisive about its role.
Days like today. When the air hung weighted down with wet and sparkled in the last of the sunlight, clinging to Taterra’s flesh and hair as she set up her fishing pole at the end of the dock. Creaking and groaning, she leaned back in the folding chair, and perspired.
Trust Charles to send her somewhere where climate control was still a distant, sweaty fever dream.
Taterra had not joined the Lioness Project as a young woman. She had been well into her sixties when Charles, the smarmy bastard, had begun frequenting the last-row seats of her lecture halls, inviting her to dinner parties with fellow wealthy nutjobs. When she came, he attempted to lay claim to ‘our dear Dr. Mystic.’
“Oh, silly me,” she could hear his smooth, well-oiled laugh reverberate off omnitemporal cocktail glasses. “I do believe it’s pronounced Myshtaq. Yes, she’s doing some marvelous work for us in ecological crypto-ethnology. Wrote the book on it, in fact. Such a star, our girl.”
Taterra was not his girl. She was not anyone’s girl; Taterra had tenure.
But Charles was indeed the star around which the rest of them—those few biologists, linguists, and other scientists he’d managed to gather from far and wide—orbited suspiciously. Charles and his distinguished, silvery temples. His long, slender hands, and weathered skin. So much squinting at the slopes leaves such fine, fine marks.
The thought of those slopes now, from her current sweltering position, was almost cruel. Like the memory of delectable flavor on a starving man’s tongue.
Taterra had signed on to the Lioness Project after only two weekends at his ski-lodge. Even in her darkest moments, trapped as she was on this barbarous mudball of a moon, surrounded by savages, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it. Even knee-deep in nettles and malaria, in a place that felt like punishment, she couldn’t have possibly imagined the volume and quality of data she was collecting here.
She’d been skeptical when she’d first heard of it—the idea of a long-lost settler colony striking her as more of a sensationalist novelty than a research opportunity. She’d laughed at him, pouring herself another glass of Argentinian Malbec, then hissing as a few drops landed on the Egyptian cotton sheets. “You can’t expect me to believe you found a true first-contact society, Charles. Or should I call you Captain Cook?”
It was the second weekend and he already knew he had her. They both did.
He’d reached past her and pressed one long brown finger to the new stain, and they both watched as miniscule beads budded out of the fabric. He’d swiftly gathered them, and placed the finger in his mouth, sighing at her. “Not first-contact, my good doctor, never first. But first in a very long while. Hecate III was a prison moon, well over twenty generations off the grid. Barely Bronze Age, from the satellite data.”
“You’ve bought yourself a satellite, have you?”
“I’ve bought myself a moon.”
“Whom from?” She’d finished off the wine and ran the inside of her wrist across her lips, leaving behind the very last traces of lipstick and sediment.
He’d rolled his sharp, dark eyes, and bright teeth flashed in a laugh. “What does it matter, Tati? A penitentiary conglomerate, if you must know. An old one. What matters is that these people have been living untouched, pure, in a dark little corner of the galaxy, and I’m handing them right to you.”
She’d watched him for a few moments, her eyes narrowed, her mouth tight—she could feel the parenthetical lines that cupped her lips, the lasting acidity of the wine fizzing brightly against her gums.
“And do you intend to go full Leahy Brothers on this dark little corner? Kill the natives for their riches and brand yourself the Cortés of a new era?”
“There are no natives, darling,” he’d sighed at her. “And there are no riches. There are… possibilities. Likelihoods.”
And that was the first time he’d told her about the family. The elite who called themselves Men of Hu—the descendants of a divine lineage, marked by their white hair, who ruled over the rest of the populace like the fairytale kings of old.
It was the first time he’d told her of the magic they claimed to have.
She’d looked at him, skeptical. “Excuse me?” Taterra had spent her life as a social scientist, and as such was inclined to accept more nonsense than the average whitecoat… but there was a limit even to an anthropologist’s credulity.
“Their language isn’t complicated, shouldn’t take you more than a few months to pick up,” he’d continued, ignoring her, reaching over to fiddle playfully with the edge of one grey curl that draped over her shoulder. She’d worn her hair long then.
Taterra had flicked his hand away and sat up, gathering the sheet around her. “Charles,”
“Yes, Dr. Mystic?”
She’d narrowed her eyes at him. “What are you looking for.”
He’d leaned in close, grinned brightly, and whispered, “Magic”.
“Charles, it isn’t magic if you understand how it works—”
“Hear me out, Tati.” He had cupped her jaw in one of his large hands. “Imagine studying this family and the people who believe in them—they say every firstborn is male, and has hair as white as snow—”
“Imagine,” he’d pleaded. “Imagine if it were true. If these people created their realities, if their beliefs shaped the laws of physics, of genetics, of probability. Imagine a world where ideology shaped existence rather than the other way round. Where there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” A cheerier, more self-satisfied Hamlet had never spoken.
She’d watched him for a few moments, then sighed. “What are the study parameters?”
He’d tried to hide his excitement, but couldn’t. “They are yours to set, Tati.”
“But what am I trying to prove, Charles?” Then she’d realized how far she’d allowed herself to be carried. “What am I saying? There isn’t an ethics board in the galaxy that’ll grant you approval. We could never design a study that—”
“What ethics board?” His eyes had gone wide, innocent, his mouth small and quivering like that of a child amused by their own attempt at dishonesty.
Realization had dawned on her slowly. “Charles, does anyone know there is a living colony on Hecate III?”
“The natives call it Yereyoch, apparently. It means Green World, or Green Moon or something of the sort—”
“Who knows there’s a living colony on Hecate III?”
“Everyone who needs to.” He’d waved her cares away, the light glinting off his long, manicured nails. “Remember, my good doctor, this project is entirely self-funded—you would operate in the name of none but yourself. Design, execute, analyze the work independently. Answer to no one. No peer reviewers, no red tape—”
“I get it.” She’d cut him off, keeping down the swelling in her chest that threatened to burst forth as hysterical laughter. “And what do you expect me to do, exactly?”
“Insinuate yourself into the royal family,” he’d whispered, moving in for a kiss she knew would taste of wine and smugness. “Become the bog witch I know you are.”
And that was indeed what Taterra had done.
They had droplanded her here in the dead of night, and she had slogged her way through these swamps for the very first time, carrying with her only enough tech to make the moon survivable for her, and for theatrical necessities.
Taterra had made her way to the castle built from ancient prisonships, and performed for the king. He was a tall, blue-eyed, copper-skinned, white-haired man with a stern face and a credulous heart. He loved to watch the lights dance, unaware of the imagers tucked into the depths of her sleeves. She had a ritual—she would touch each long-nailed finger to her thumb in turn, and then, hands splayed, she would perform wonders for the king and his court. She could see and show sights as yet unseen.
The king, patriarchal and cruel but far from stupid, had kept her on as illusionist and wisewoman. This gave her opportunity to befriend the young queen. Wide-eyed and sweet-tempered, the little girl taught her the lore of the land as she had learned it herself. Or was learning it presently, young as she was.
The white hair was known as the Mark of Galad, symbol of the HuMan King. For as long as anyone could remember, the king and his rightful heir had been known to their people by this mark; it had been passed down from father to son for generations.
“Never to a female heir?” Taterra had asked, as she and the queen—a tall, willowy, umber-toned girl of ten, still too young to conceive but old enough to wive—paced through the gardens one morning. “There’s never been a daughter born with the right to rule?”
Never. The concept was entirely foreign. Over the years, however, Taterra had managed to convince the queen, as well as many of the other court women, that this was a thing not only possible, but inevitable.
The court women had spread it to the chambermaids, and they to the farmers’ and fishermen’s wives and daughters who delivered food to the castle. It wasn’t long before the thought had cemented itself in the minds of the populace: the next Prince of Hu would be no man of woman born. But a woman herself.
It had been prophesied by the witch. By the very pricking of her thumbs.
The king raged, threatened to banish the witch back to the bog from whence she’d come, but Taterra had assured him these were only silly rumors and that she had made no such prophecy. His son would surely come to him in time, he need only wait. She calmed him with illusions—lovely lights and music painted with her fingers across the air of the courtyard. She made pretty pictures dance for him, and made him feel big in the knowledge that her alleged power was his to command.
Still, the whispers persisted. They twisted, changing from one teller to another, buffeted this way and that like wind over the rising heat of the swamp. A female child would be born, taking another’s life as her own.
When the queen was quickened, the baby within her turned. Breach came and the queen-child was lost, even as the queen’s child lived. Taterra mourned her, but celebrated the birth of the little prince.
The queen’s last act in life was to name her daughter Bartholomew.
The king’s rage was spectacular. Not only was his firstborn son a daughter, but she bore the Mark of Galad—by all accounts, she was the Prince of Hu, rightful ruler and heir to his throne.
Not bad for a mere decade’s work, if Taterra did say so herself.
And yes, the king had banished her back to this horrible swamp, and no longer called for her during feasts to make the lights dance, but the little girl prince was growing stronger and smarter by the day, and would come to her—sneak away from the prison castle to see the bog witch, the woman who had foretold her coming.
Bartholomew loved Taterra, listened to her in all things, allowed her mind to be shaped by the witch’s words and stories. Taterra was excited to see the kind of Yereyoch she would make. How it would change around her like the center of a kaleidoscope.
The sun had set over the bog witch, and Taterra blinked in the blue darkness, her fishing line still untroubled. With little thought but a slight wince, she brought arthritic fingers to thumb over the water, and lights began to dance over the surface.
Very soon, the fish were biting.
Once, she’d had to use tech to fool an idiot king into believing she could conjure lights from thin air—now all she needed was to think it, and the lights appeared. Enough people—courtiers, farmers, and their wives—believed her to be capable of magic, and so she was.
Charles had been right. The people here shaped their world—the building blocks of their reality were comprised of belief. Of magic. Charles had been right to imagine a world where ideology could change, and with it, existence.
It was a shame he’d never see it.
He had handed her a moon, a world, in which nothing ever happened but thinking and believing made it so. Which meant that—should it be believed—anything could happen. Taterra intended to conduct her own study, her own set of experiments. If there truly was magic in the universe, it seemed that she had found it. And moreover, she understood how it worked.
Dr. Taterra Myshtaq stood, reeling in the last of her catch. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw that the HuMan Prince had come early, and lit the lanterns. Gathering her things, the bog witch started towards the cabin she’d built with her own two liver-spotted hands, and smiled at the sight of yellow light breathing in the windows.