Claire is poor.
Poverty comes with fear for Claire. That’s a characteristic of her history as much as her personality. It could have brought despair or anger or ambition. But Claire does not expect to be poor when she wakes up in the morning. She’s not used to it. So it brings fear, instead.
Claire wakes up one morning with chaos. It’s just a little chaos. It’s limning her, the red and purple and gold and black of it.
She could go to the doctor, but doctors are expensive. If you go to the doctor, then it’s more debt that you can’t get out of if you’re poor.
“Maybe it’ll go away,” Claire says.
Fear inhibits action.
Claire goes about her life. She does data entry for a living, transferring endless reams of information from paper to database. Nobody cares if she has a little bit of chaos around her at her job. Jim at his desk says, “Don’t let it get in the numbers,” and Claire laughs a little, but everybody knows that data can’t catch chaos from people.
When she gets home, the chaos is a little worse. She gets out the first aid spray and takes off the cap and then spends eight minutes and seventeen seconds pondering the fact that the chaos leaves her no obvious place to spray.
She scratches at her eyebrow.
“How do you get chaos, anyway?”
She dials in to AOL. She checks it out on Google. She can do this because she’s the kind of poor person who gets leftover machines from her friends—fear-poor, like we said, not despair-poor or acceptance-poor.
Unfortunately, Google is unenlightening. It’s probably just some of the residual chaos left over from the War in Heaven. Maybe it’s brain lesions, though, or acosmism.
After reading far too much about brain lesions, she lets things be.
Sometimes in the evenings she’ll wield the chaos; she’ll sketch burning letters into the air of her tiny studio, or manifest a sword. One boring night when she’s clicking on a button that gives free food to the hungry she extinguishes seventeen Janjawid militia members with it. They vanish from the Earth, sixteen leaving their clothes behind and one disappearing mid-rape.
That night their faces and their hands, streaked with dripping blood, haunt Claire. All the next day as she types names and numbers she tells herself, “Don’t be an idiot. You’ll just make the chaos worse.”
Her friends worry about Claire.
“If you’ve got enough chaos to extinguish seventeen people,” argues Emily, “you need to go to the emergency room.”
But Claire gets all tight-lipped. She shakes her head.
She goes out on the roof that night.
“I can burn it off,” she says.
She spreads the chaos out behind her like wings. It forms a great soft pyre of color, dim in the night, orange and purple and blue and black. She rises into the air. Her legs and arms grow cold as the wind surrounds her. She gestures, and there is lightning and there is thunder over the city that is her home.
In the distance, she can see another person—a man, she thinks. She remembers his face from a long time ago, forever ago, when stars and fires contended in the sky.
The cold fades from her. She is warm now.
The chaos arcs and crackles around her. She gives it strength; and it does not burn itself out. It simply simmers.
Finally, exhausted, she settles herself back down onto the roof.
“If it’s not better in a week,” she promises herself. “I’ll see a doctor.”
She is leaving stardust behind her, now, when she walks. She can stop the flow by concentrating, but sometimes she forgets. Jim yells at her when she forgets because he does not think one should allow stardust in a room with many computers.
“Oh?” she asks.
“It’s bad for them,” Jim says, choosing a generic explanation because he has no idea whether stardust is bad for computers.
“I’m sorry,” Claire says.
Three days later, Emily’s checking in on Claire. Claire is staring glumly at the mirror with her hair blowing in a nonexistent wind.
Emily says, “Look. Me and Brad can cover it. Just go to the emergency room.”
Claire blushes and her hair falls flat.
She hugs her chest protectively.
“What?” Emily says.
Claire is wordless for a bit. It’s the fear, mostly, plus a bit of worry that the doctor will have to use some kind of giant needle to suck the chaos out.
“Okay,” Claire says.
And as Emily’s driving her to the emergency room, Claire says, “You get kind of attached to the weirdest things. You know?”
“When I was a kid,” Emily says, “I had this weird little growth on my nose, and my Mom was horribly offended by it and just had to have it cut off. And I screamed and yelled because who was she to take away my nosewart?”
“Yeah,” says Claire. “Like that.”
“Change is scary,” Emily explains.