3:2: “February”, by Jay Lake

3:2: “February”, by Jay Lake

Numa hunted ghosts in the Lupercalium. The glittering artificial cave loomed
on all sides, ramps and balconies and grottoes hanging inward, outward
and overhead with Escherian disregard for the plane of gravity. Feral miniature
goats no taller than Numa’s knees raced down the walkways, their little kid feet
thumping out an arrhythmia that echoed the beating of his heart.
He had just this day to succeed, catch a ghost and be advanced to the next indiction.
He had just this day to fail and be consigned to the ranks of bondsmen, and eventually
perhaps slavery.
He’d been here for hours with nothing to show for it.
The ghost trap was lovingly prepared. His friend Tatiana had helped him wind
the copper wire around the long steel neck. He’d scrimped from his student allowances
three years running to purchase the glass reservoir that formed the base. The capacitors,
the secondary batteries, the aiming laser and the rest of the gear had been ‘borrowed’
from the physics lab. All according to the best plans he could download.
Numa had prepared himself as well — bathing in scented oils, seeing his analyst,
making the small sacrifices of flame and funds that tradition required. He was as
ready as his ghost trap. Had been all day.
A nearby pillar, serene in its integrity thirty degrees out of true, glimmered with
what seemed to be an unnatural light. Numa knelt down and sighted the ghost trap.
His vision tuned to infrared.
What had he seen? A spark of light. Life. Ghost life?
A pair of baby goats skittered around the curve of pillar in blithe disregard of any
rational notion of down. They were pursued by an equally tiny dog, some low-slung,
skinny rat catcher dreaming of fresh-killed kid.
Disgusted, Numa stood. “Where are you?” he shouted. “Don’t keep hiding!” It
wasn’t fair. The damned ghosts were always bothering people partying in the
Lupercalium. He couldn’t get promoted if he couldn’t purify a single damned one
of the little beggars.
Another herd of the tiny goats nearly ran into Numa as they flowed around him.
He turned to curse after them when he noticed a flash of skin among the fur.
Goats.
Ghosts.
Numa groaned. It couldn’t be that easy.
He stepped into a little grotto. A fountain splashed with light oil at the back.
Couches and an equipment rack awaited lucky lovers. He seated himself, braced the
ghost trap, and awaited the next tide of goats.
They did not disappoint. A trio of tan-pointed black bucks sped past, bent on some
capric errand. Again that flash of white skin. Numa phased his vision to infrared
and triggered the aiming laser.
The ghost glowed like a bonfire. Numa fired the trap, feeling the bleed-off in his
circuits. The ghost blazed, screeched, and flew backward into the barrel of the ghost
trap as if rocket-propelled.
He had made his indiction! The Lupercalium was purified!
The goats stumbled to a halt and favored Numa with a collective barred-eye glare,
but he was indifferent to their contempt. His grin gleamed like the Lupercalium as
Numa bore his screaming, pleading ghost out to the judges and his family.
The echo of dozens of hooves behind Numa went unnoticed, except perhaps by
the ghost.

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his family and their
books. In 2004, he will have stories in over twenty different
markets, including Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet,
Leviathan 4, and Realms of Fantasy.
The next of the Calends series, “February” stems from the root
meaning of the name of month. The februa was a Roman festival
of purification, celebrated in the second month (of the Gregorian
year, at least). February is also the bissextile month, where the
leap day is inserted after the 24th of the month, pushing the
remaining days back one each. An indiction is a cycle of years,
sometimes used to assess taxation or other events and transitions.



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