Alexandra Balasa


Iulian has hunted this soul for eight years, eight long and painful years. It is a horror dredged up from his nightmares to hear it so close. Those militant eighth notes marching in mixed time, the rumbling base harmonies like war drums. Its pulse washes over him where he hides in the shadows of the attic’s rafters.

The Song comes from the eight-year-old girl sleeping in this attic bedroom. But the soul which sings it doesn’t belong in her frail little body. No, this is the soul of Chancellor Vaduva, forger of the Red Empire. Tonight Iulian must take back that soul. And this is good, very good, because he’s grown weary of the senate reminding him Vaduva’s clone reached maturity years ago. Does Iulian know how difficult it is to keep a body in suspended animation? And why is it taking the most talented Soulsnatcher in Rojer so long to find Vaduva’s reincarnation? Is he hesitating, does he perhaps need reconditioning?

They don’t know how hard it is, how very hard to open his ears to a Song he’d spent his life trying to shut out. But Iulian is the Empire’s bloodhound, a good bloodhound. He will fetch the chancellor’s soul. And he certainly does not need reconditioning.

The girl’s deluded father tucks her in for the night. Iulian grimaces, imagining the fuss the man would make were Iulian to stamp in with the senate’s warrant and snatch her away. This way is easier. Quieter. Parents beg and cry and sometimes his resolve weakens. And then his condition flares and pain ravages him.

His condition isn’t acting up now, though, because he occupies his mind as he waits. He fashions his own lyrics to the Song. Kill the vessel, Extract the soul – it is my purpose, my nature, my goal

The vessel that emanates his long-sought, long-dreaded Song protests as her father tries to put her to bed. Snowy owls swoop on her bedsheets with talons extended. The toy bin by her closet overflows with stuffed owls. Iulian guesses she sleeps in the attic because the crisscrossing rafters remind her of twigs in a nest. An odd obsession, he thinks, but then he remembers that in his past life he’d collected snail shells.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Deluded Dad tells her, seating himself on the edge of her bed. He offers a small contraption of metal and lenses.

Song Vessel turns it in her hands. “What is it?”

“Lights, off,” Deluded Dad says, and the house’s operating system complies. Iulian’s optic lenses adjust to infrared, but the next moment the contraption sends out light and colour.

Song Vessel gasps as images spring to life in the air. It’s the snowy owls she so adores! Except these are caricatured, with cutesy eyes and wings that end in five spread feathers like fingers. Each one does a jig with a rodent, around and around and around.

Iulian suppresses a cackle. Cute animations aren’t for this little Song Vessel, whose soul has caused genocides and brought the Rojerian continent to its knees.

“Owls are predators!” Vessel cries. “They kill mice, they don’t dance with them.”

Deluded Dad doesn’t understand. His Song is cultured, civilized, the kind of andante waltz that speaks of a pure soul. One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. Gentle flourishes and an uplifting melody.

“Humans are predators, too,” Dad says. “But evolution has taught us compassion. Maybe these are evolved owls.”

            He isn’t as smart as she is. Silly Dad, so oblivious of nature’s laws. He thinks he can help her, change her. Iulian will rob him of the chance to figure out that he cannot. People don’t change – they die, and are reborn. Like that child who’d collected snail shells, who’d died in the Red Empire’s Conditioning Chamber.

Song Vessel pushes the projector off her bed. The dancing owls flicker and die. Darkness swallows the room, Iulian’s optics again paint everything in infrared.

Dad reaches beneath his glasses and rubs tired eyes. There there, Dad – no point swimming against an ocean current or fighting gravity. Dad scoops the projector from the floor, sets it on Vessel’s nightstand as if she’ll change her mind. “Time for bed, little bird. Have you fed Coco?” Vessel shakes her head and Dad removes his glasses, folds them on the nightstand beside the projector.

“I asked you three times today. Can you do it now?”

“It’s not my bird,” she mutters. “You feed it!”

Dad dares not refuse his dictator’s order. He rises from her bedside and turns the lights back on. Iulian’s implant switches to visible-spectrum. Dad goes to a cage in the room’s corner and gently pulls back the sheet covering it. Inside, a sleepy canary looks out. Dad clicks softly at the bird. He opens its cage and strokes its head with his thumb.

“Will you at least get the bag of seed from the kitchen?” he tries, but she flings the covers over her head. “You asked for a pet bird, and now you don’t want to help take care of it?”

“I wanted an owl,” comes her muffled voice. “With sharp talons and a deadly beak and three-dimensional hearing!”

Deluded Dad can do nothing but crumble beneath the force that cowed the Rojerian continent. Yes, Iulian thinks, she wanted an owl. And her father didn’t want the reincarnation of the Red Empire’s most vicious dictator for a daughter.

Coco sings a ballad and Iulian’s legs are now sore from crouching on the rafters. He groans, the sound bouncing off his acoustic shield and projecting back to him. In his past life he’d been patient, but that was before delays meant being sent back to the Conditioning Chamber.

Dad says, “Do you know what Coco’s saying? He’s asking me why you don’t love him.” The bundle of sheets doesn’t move. Yet he keeps trying, this ridiculous man. “What’s that?” He pretends to listen to the bird twittering. “Oh, I don’t know about that, Coco. If she loved me, she’d be a good girl and do what I asked.”

“That’s not fair!” Vessel bursts from her sheets and scrambles out of bed. She almost trips on her nightgown in her haste to climb down the ladder leading from the attic. Iulian hears her pattering footfalls on the level below, the thumping sounds of cabinets being opened. She returns to the attic with a bag which she thrusts towards Dad. “We learned that in social sciences class and it’s called emotional bribery!”

“Blackmail,” Dad corrects, chuckling as he takes the bag. Vessel hugs him tightly before diving back into bed, burrowing under her sheets again. Dad smiles down on her. He doesn’t understand this is merely Vaduva’s need to maintain good relations with allies.

Poor man, he can’t know what she was in her previous life. She can’t, either – nobody remembers their prior incarnations. In this moment, she is just a moody child. And Dad loves her. Iulian could see him at Vessel’s funeral, this little man with the soul that sings a mild-mannered waltz. He’d reach beneath his glasses to rub his eyes, over and over because tears won’t stop flowing –

Electric currents lance through Iulian’s body, agony cords his muscles. He flinches and loses his foothold. His internal balancing mechanism takes over, letting him maintain his perch. The rafters creak, but the sound glances off his acoustic shield, creating ripples in the air.

Thank the saints for the enhancements the Red Empire has given him, or else Vessel and Dad would think they had a demon in the rafters. Which they do, perhaps. A demon above, and one below. Kindred spirits, he and the Vessel – Soulsnatcher and evil soul.

The reminder makes his condition ebb. No point swimming against an ocean current or fighting gravity. The law says her soul must be Extracted, returned to the Red Empire. It is the law, the inescapable law.

Below, Dad has refilled the cage’s food-slot and sits on the edge of his daughter’s bed again. “Let me tell you a story. It’s about animals with sharp talons and deadly strength – the most fearsome predators of all.”

Vessel’s forehead and eyes appear over her covers. With a sharp inhale Iulian snaps his gaze away. He can’t face those eyes, not yet. Not until the moment of Extraction is upon him and he has no choice. Too many times has he seen his own pain-twisted face reflected in those eyes. Different as their Vessels might be, Vaduva’s and this girl’s, their eyes would be the same. The same soul lurked behind each pair.

“A story about owls?”

“Not quite. These animals lived millions of years ago. They were great, roaring beasts that ruled the entire world.”


Deluded Dad nods. “Do you know what happened to the dinosaurs?”

“They died.”

“No, they evolved. Over years and years, their environment made them change into another kind of animal.” He pauses.

Iulian wishes he’d get on with it, finish the damned story and go away because his condition is flaring up again. He has to hum harmonies to the girl’s Song to distract himself. Kill the vessel, Extract the soul – it is my purpose, my nature, my goal.

“They changed into birds,” Dad finally says.

Song Vessel looks like this is the revelation of the century. “Which birds?”

“All of them. Owls and canaries may look nothing alike, but remember this, little bird: they both have the souls of dinosaurs.”

Iulian can’t help the laugh that bursts from him now. The air ripples around him where his voice rebounds off the auditory shield.

Deluded Dad finally tucks Song Vessel in and kisses her goodnight, closing the attic door behind him, leaving a glowing nightlight. Iulian sends transmissions to the spider-probes stationed around the house. A schematic layout unfolds in the corner of his visual field. The glowing red dot that is Dad moves steadily towards the living room. His activity is the only motion detected.

He is gone, yet Iulian imagines he can still hear underlying threads of the man’s Song. The waltz swells in time with Iulian’s heartbeat. He tenses in anticipation of his condition, afraid what he hears is his own conscience. The Conditioning Chamber is meant to have destroyed that.

The pains don’t come. Iulian smiles his relief – what he hears isn’t guilt, just a symptom of his madness. That is fine, he is allowed to be mad. He leaps from the rafters and lands in a soundless crouch on the floorboards. Disabling his cloaking mechanism with a few blinks, he steps up to the bed so Vessel is within the auditory shield’s radius.

“Up you get, little dinosaur.”

Her eyes snap open, pupils expanding in the twilight. Vessel bolts upright and stares.

And for a moment Iulian resists locking gazes with her. An unwillingness rears its head despite the chains of his conditioning. Perhaps this unwillingness is why his hunt has taken eight years.

He does not want Vaduva to return.

But there can be no unwillingness from one with no will. Before his condition can hinder him further, he does his job, obeys the law, the inescapable law. The Extraction begins as he calls her soul to him, humming its Song. He forces himself to meet her eyes, Vaduva’s eyes, making the connection that opens the portals within them.

Her gasp hitches in her throat as the connection paralyzes her.

Except…Iulian is paralyzed, too. Something is wrong. Chancellor Vaduva’s eyes had been green and toxic, full of hellfire. As are Vessel’s, but… an unfamiliar band circles the pupils. A band tranquil and blue like the Neurr Lakes before Vaduva had them contaminated during the Neurri siege.

Iulian remembers Deluded Dad rubbing eyes tranquil and blue. He loses the connection, and his condition launches its worst assault yet, tearing through his body and fraying every nerve. Vaduva’s voice resounds in his head, pounding in commands, commands hammered in with electric shocks. It’s pain, so much pain he can barely think. The world goes black.

Through the chorus of agony in his head he can hear Vessel call for her father. It sounds leagues distant. When his vision clears he sees her huddled against the wall with her blankets pulled to her chin.

“You’d better leave before Daddy comes!” she shrieks. Her voice resonates around the sound shield, making Iulian feel like he’s inside a struck bell. Pain still blurs his vision, swells through his body. But it passes, leaving his mind sharp, clear. It sobers him, brings back his own little song: Kill the vessel, Extract the soul – it is my purpose, my nature, my goal.

He knows the law orders this Extraction no matter the colour of Vessel’s eyes. But what if he’s made a mistake? A mistake of such magnitude, such Empire-shattering magnitude! Unforgiveable. Unsurvivable. He’s never been wrong before but he must be sure, sure that the Red Empire’s bloodhound hasn’t followed the wrong trail.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he lies, his voice still hoarse from pain. “Your father sent me, to give you a gift. He told me you wanted an owl.”

She drops her blanket, crosses her arms. Her little face is alight with suspicion. “Are you Father Spring or something? It’s not even spring. I don’t think you have an owl at all.”

Iulian searches his mental database for sound clips. Through his interface he directs the chosen clips to one of the micro-computers that make up his sound shield, the one by the window. He switches it over from absorbing to emitting.

The computer plays soft hoots, rustling feathers, a snapping beak. Vessel abandons fear and suspicion. She clambers to the edge of her bed, craning her neck to peer up at the attic window. “No way! Daddy really got you to do this for me? Make it come down, let me see it.”

“First you must prove you are worthy. Prove you are a predator, like the owl.” Iulian moves to the canary’s cage. The bird screeches when he closes a fist around its warm, fluttering little body. He drops the canary on her bed. It stumbles, rights itself with clipped wings. “What would an owl do with a weak little creature like this?”

Song Vessel looks down at her father’s neglected gift. She gazes back at Iulian. “Kill it.”

“Mmm, yes. Would you like to kill it?”

She frowns. It is likely she no longer thinks her father has hired him. “No.”

“Why? Because Daddy says you shouldn’t? Nature says you should.”

Vaduva had tortured animals as a child. He’d taken his first human life at around Vessel’s age. A playground scuffle gotten of hand. Now his reincarnation scoops up the hated bird. Its talons cling to her shirt.

“So pathetic, isn’t it? Its little neck so supple. Twist it, feel the power at your fingertips. You must want to. Do it and you can have the owl.”

For a moment she stares down at the canary. Her fingers close around it and indecision twists her face as if she has her own condition. Iulian holds his breath, anticipating the snapping of the neck. He yearns for it, for proof that Vaduva’s reinstatement as chancellor is inescapable law. That he is but the arrow, the Red Empire the archer.

Vessel’s fingers slacken and she cradles the bird to her chest, stroking its head with her thumb. Tears glisten in eyes green and toxic with a band of blue. She shakes her head.

Panic grips Iulian. It is dangerous to think nature isn’t immutable. Such thinking lands Soulsnatchers back in the Conditioning Chamber. Better to think he’s made a mistake, that this soul isn’t Vaduva’s. Except it is, he knows it is. Or, it was.

“I don’t understand,” he whispers, more to himself than to Vessel.

“It might not be a deadly predator, but it has the soul of a dinosaur.”

And Iulian realizes he can still hear Dad’s waltz at the edge of perception. He realizes it isn’t Dad’s soul he hears now, but a faint thread of Dad’s Song interwoven into Vessel’s.

The panic ebbs, calmness spreads though him. Iulian is the most gifted Soulsnatcher in Rojer. And if it has taken him eight years to track Vessel, how long would it take the others? Perhaps they never would, if he hid her. Perhaps her Song would be unrecognizable in another eight years.

It might be, if encouraged.

Iulian smiles as he listens to that thread of Dad’s Song, faintly present in Vessel’s soul. It goes one-two-three, one-two-three, will the dinosaur become an owl, or a canary?






“Souls of Dinosaurs”   ©  Alexandra Balasa
Alexandra Balasa completed her MA in Creative Writing at Edinburgh-Napier University. Next year she will be pursuing her PhD in Humanities and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at Dallas. Although she ponders existentialism, is obsessed with owls, and collects rocks, she promises she is not a cliché. After all, she does not own any cats (the neighbour’s cats, who have appropriated her house, don’t count). She writes speculative fiction with a psychological edge, and her writing explores questions of identity and moral ambiguity. Her writing has appeared in venues such as PodCastle, Beyond Science Fiction Magazine, the Lorelei Signal, and the Danforth Review. You can follow her on Twitter at @BalasaAl.


Lead illustration – photomaipulation by Fran Eisemann, Stock used: “BARN OWL STOCK”  by Theshelfs, dinosaur stock from pixabay and Creative Commons.
End illustration – photomanipulation by Fran Eisemann.  Stock used:”Virgina Eyes 2” by Sarah “Penny Stock”, canary and owl from pixabay.

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