Robot Moon Love Little Blue
by David Fawkes
It is difficult to date this story, for how does one date a myth? Clearly, the tale appeared after the Messires of Gigahardware began their subjugation of humanity. But it must have been the first of the “homecoming” stories spread as people scrambled to salvage their identity in the darkness of space. After all, where does humanity turn when the future seems uncertain? The past . . . But it was only myth. We never returned to Earth.
-Archivist Fodor Ix, Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 42
Spiderkin nearly landed on his face as he fell from his stasis tube, but he caught himself with his staff. Danger sirens screeched in his ears; automated systems struggled to extinguish small fires all around. Smoke stung his eyes. The smell of ozone wrinkled his nose.
It took him a moment to realize he was still aboard his manifolder, the Hullabaloo, and he’d let the damn butler-bot pilot the ship while he and Modesty caught a few months of sleep.
Modesty! thought Spiderkin. He glanced across the suspension deck toward Modesty’s stasis tube. Of course, the butler-bot, Tux, was helping her revive. The bot smoothed out Modesty’s nurse’s outfit as she leaned against his vacuum-tube head for support.
Spiderkin hobbled over to the pair. To the robot, he said, “What have you done to my ship, floor lamp?”
Tux turned his glass head toward Modesty. “Sweetness, must I answer the pathetic excuse for a wizard?”
“Tux,” said Modesty, rubbing her forehead, “don’t call me ‘sweetness’, and, yes, answer the pathetic–I mean Spiderkin.”
Tux turned back to Spiderkin. “First, I’m a butler, not a pilot. Second, something fired at us from a small moon nearby, which is drawing us into its gravity well. I woke you both to deal with the problem.”
“You did right, jar head.” Spiderkin glanced at the little lantern that dangled from the crook of his staff. It was full of water and glowed blue. He should have enough power for almost any spell. “Come on. Let’s get to the bridge. I know exactly what–”
Another explosion knocked all three from their feet and sent Spiderkin’s staff flying.
The computerized voice of Hullabaloo announced, “Warning, hull breach, loss of altitude. Warning, hull breach . . .”
Spiderkin lay on the floor. He opened sluggish eyes to see both Modesty and Tux sprawled against the floor and wall.
“Modesty.” Spiderkin struggled against a wave of unconsciousness, then knew no more.
“Warning, hull breach . . .” Hullabaloo’s voice continued.
Modesty’s eyes snapped open. She could breathe. Maybe the hull breach wasn’t severe.
Where was Spiderkin? She found him unresponsive and face down on the other side of the suspension deck. She felt his pulse. Alive, though the knotted cords of his outfit were in tatters and his black hair was a mess. That, at least, was normal.
She saw Tux not far away, wedged into a corner of the deck. The light in his glass head had dimmed, which meant he was in sleep mode. Modesty crossed the room to give Tux a shake to awaken him. He could help her with Spiderkin.
Modesty turned the robot around to face her.
“Modesty, angel,” said Tux. “Let me caress your–”
“Focus, tiger. I need you in the here and now. Check Spiderkin to see if he’s hurt.”
“Must I touch the rag bag, my sweet?”
“Can the sweet stuff,” said Modesty, “at least in public. And, yes, scan him, please.”
Tux slouched and trudged to where Spiderkin lay. He began a scan. “He’s a lecherous pervert who defiles you and me with his every touch. But he lives.”
Modesty felt a wave of relief. “All right. Talk to the computer. There was supposed to be a hull breach. What happened? And get it to shut off the warning.”
Tux tilted his head as he connected with the Hullabaloo. “There has been a hull breach. Quite extensive, apparently. And we’ve crashed on that small moon I mentioned.”
“Why are we still breathing?”
“Hmm,” said Tux. “There is a localized gravity sink and atmosphere bubble with a source several miles from here, and have I told you how stunning you are in that nurse’s outfit?”
Modesty sighed. “I’m going to take it off if you can’t concentrate.”
“Oh, yeah! Make my universe!”
“I mean, ‘and put something else on.’ Just wake Spiderkin.”
“Happy to.” Tux kicked Spiderkin in the ribs. Hard.
“Muh,” mumbled Spiderkin.
“Tux! Go check the breach.”
The robot sulked through the sliding doors into the corridor beyond.
Modesty straightened the skirt of her outfit and knelt beside Spiderkin. He looked all right and was beginning to revive.
“Modesty?” he said. “You hurt? Is Tux destroyed beyond all hope of repair? I feel like I’ve had the crap beaten out of me.”
“You were thrown around a bit when we crashed.”
“Crashed? My ship!” He jumped up too fast and stumbled. Modesty helped him stand.
“Where’s my staff?”
They searched the suspension deck and found the staff by one of the sleep tubes. Spiderkin stood the staff upright and inspected its lantern. “Must have been some crash. The lantern’s been knocked loose from its fitting.” He showed it to Modesty. “There’s hardly any water left.” He tightened the lantern’s attachment. “Looks like I won’t be using much magic for a while until I get more water.”
“You’ll have to come down from your ivory tower to join the rest of us ordinary mortals.” Modesty knew there was nothing ordinary about Spiderkin. He was a gifted technomagus. But she liked to hamstring him to keep him humble, or humiliated at least.
“I don’t live in an ivory tower,” he said. “Look at me. I’m dressed in rags.” He indicated the black and blue knotted cords and fabric of his outfit.
Modesty grabbed one of the knots and pulled Spiderkin close. “I like your rags,” she said. “They’re easy to yank off.”
“Hey.” Spiderkin tried backing away. “Time and a place. Crashed spaceship. Running out of air.”
Modesty moved with Spiderkin, keeping his outfit firmly in her grip. “The ship isn’t going anywhere, and Tux says there’s air outside.” She backed Spiderkin against a wall. “We should try to make the best of a bad situation.”
“Heh, oh, all right. Go ahead. Wait! Air on a moon? That’s rare.” He broke away from Modesty and approached one of the suspension deck’s computer terminals. He placed the end of his staff against the access panel, and wires uncoiled from the staff, joining with the panel.
Modesty sighed. Spiderkin’s curiosity had been aroused, which meant he’d lost interest in her. Again.
She joined Spiderkin and put her hands on her hips. “I wish you’d call the hologram like a normal person.”
“I like using my staff, and I’m not a normal person.” Spiderkin adjusted controls along the staff, and a hologrammatic projection of Hullabaloo appeared.
Modesty didn’t like the avatar Spiderkin had chosen for the computer. It wore less clothing than Modesty, and its voice was annoyingly seductive. Modesty wasn’t good at sexy. She was strong and good at smashing. It was hard to be a bombshell while pummeling someone’s face.
“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin to the hologram.
“Yes?” purred the avatar.
Modesty wanted to vomit.
“What happened? Why did we crash?” asked Spiderkin, “and why is there air here?”
The image circled Spiderkin as it spoke. “Our flight path brought us close to this planetary system. I spun down the reel drive accordingly.” The avatar smiled coyly at Spiderkin and glared at Modesty.
The avatar continued. “As we passed through this system, defenses on this small moon fired two shots at me–”
“–crippling this ship, stranding us on this moon, and endangering the life of my one and only true love,” said Tux, reentering the suspension deck. Spiderkin held up his hand. “Pause for a moment, Hullabaloo.” To Tux, he said, “What was that about air on this moon?”
Before Tux could direct any tirade at Spiderkin, Modesty cut him off. “Just tell us what you found.”
“Very well. The first shot damaged some unoccupied portions of the ship, like the galley. The second damaged both the crawl and reel drives. The Hullabaloo must have landed us as softly as possible with damaged propulsion engines.”
The hologram leaned against Spiderkin and lay its head on his shoulder. “I did my best.”
“That’s not all,” said Tux. Light from the hologram flickered across his glass bulb head. “There’s a localized gravity and atmosphere sink around us, and I saw something through the hull breach. Hullabaloo, show the immediate exterior.”
The hologram stepped away from the group and transformed into a cratered expanse of white and gray with lines of mountains on the horizon. Across the entire plain from mountain to mountain were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of spaceships, each crashed, some completely destroyed.
“It’s like the Sargasso constellation,” said Modesty.
“Well,” said Spiderkin, “at least we’re in good company. Obviously, it’s no accident that we were shot down. Further, we’re in a potentially dangerous environment. Who’s up for a look-see?”
“I’ll go get John-Joe,” said Modesty.
“You know that thing was built for mining,” said Spiderkin.
“Not the way I use it.” Modesty headed for the door. “Anyway, if we’re going to wander around a mysterious moon that has enough firepower to drop a spaceship, then I’m bringing my seismic sledgehammer.”
Later, after preparing the landing yacht, the crew set off from the wrecked manifolder. Spiderkin had insisted on bringing Hullabaloo to fly the yacht. Tux could have flown it, but Spiderkin didn’t like to leave the computer for too long. It tended to get bored and rearrange all his files.
The silence of the moon unsettled Spiderkin. There was just enough of a stale atmosphere to breathe and transmit sound, but there was little to hear. The yacht hummed quietly over the moon’s surface. The yacht’s hover panel kicked up a small amount of surface material, which hung in the air like a slow-motion snowstorm.
“Somebody say something, or I’m going to start breaking things,” said Modesty.
“If we don’t find some water for my staff, I won’t be able to help us get off this moon,” said Spiderkin.
“Somebody say something I want to hear.”
“I think I might have just seen a ghost,” said Tux.
“Well,” said Spiderkin, “at least we can entertain ourselves taking you apart to find out what’s wrong with you.”
“Sweetness,” said Tux to Modesty, “tell the charlatan that I really did see something over on that ridge.” Tux pointed a stubby, four-fingered hand toward a group of hills.
“Enough ‘sweetness’, Tux. You sound like my mom. What did you see?”
“On a hilltop, I saw a humanoid figure dressed in white, wearing a dark helmet. It waved as we approached, and then it disappeared. It didn’t just walk away. It vanished.”
“I’m chilled,” said Spiderkin. “We’re approaching the crashed ship.”
Scattered space-faring remains surrounded them. Some appeared whole and perhaps crashed recently. Others lay in broken heaps trailing away from the point of impact. Spiderkin recognized a few ships by their insignia. He wasn’t a pilot, but as a technomagus, he’d studied a great deal of history. These ships ranged from the early red rocket colonization ships up to his own modern manifolder.
“Whoever’s been doing this has been at it a long time,” said Spiderkin.
“I think I’m seeing things, too,” Modesty pointed through the front viewport along a “path” of debris. “There’s a light coming from one of those ships.”
“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin, “head for that light.”
“Anything you say, captain,” said the computer.
“You’re no captain,” mumbled Modesty.
“And you’re no nurse,” said Spiderkin.
The yacht parked in front of the lighted ship. Hullabaloo anchored the yacht, and Spiderkin, Modesty, and Tux disembarked. They approached the wreck with Modesty in the lead, her hammer at the ready.
Spiderkin thought about the impression that entrance might make. “Modesty, I think I’d better handle first contact. I look rough, but not malicious. Hide your hammer behind your back, and try not to look like a trap waiting to spring.”
Modesty pouted, but stepped back. Spiderkin approached the docking door and rapped on it with his staff.
He heard nothing except distant sounds of the wreck setting.
“I hear something,” said Tux. “It’s faint, but coming toward us from within the ship. I can also see approaching heat signatures. The ship is too bulky to discern shapes.”
A scraping and creaking of metal sounded behind the airlock door. It opened before the crew could react.
A small man with long, white hair, a beard, and huge, telescopic spectacles burst through the doorway. “Take me! Take me!” he screamed. “It’s my turn.” He stopped when he saw the trio outside. “Oh, I do beg your pardon. I thought you were someone else.”
“So why are a technomagus, a nurse, and a robot in a tuxedo traveling together?” asked the small man with the spectacles who had opened the airlock door. Spiderkin thought he looked harmless, but waited to decide for certain.
The small man, Dr. Getaway, led Spiderkin, Modesty, and Tux through the dusty corridors of the ruined spaceship. Emergency glow-bots floated above their heads. Occasionally, the light would dim, and a globe would drop below shoulder level as its power waned. The ship had been on this moon a while.
Dr. Getaway led the trio to the other survivors aboard the craft: two women and another man. They all sat on the floor of what had once been the bridge. There were no seats. The viewports looked out over the pale expanse of the moon. Above the horizon peeked a little blue planet.
Spiderkin fidgeted with the blue lantern on the end of his staff. “Well, she’s not a nurse. She’s Modesty Tight, my bodyguard. The tuxedoed floor lamp is her butler-bot, Tux Inferior.”
“Drink aniline,” said Tux.
“She’s dressed like a nurse,” said one of the women. She had been introduced as Karren Mockhitler. She was very thin, with angular features, a beak-like nose, and a grin like a jack-o-lantern. She sat against the wall of the bridge rather than with the group.
“No member of the medical profession ever dressed in such an impractical costume,” said Spiderkin.
“He designed it for me,” said Modesty.
“That’s degrading,” said Mockhitler.
“That’s not degrading,” said Spiderkin. “Degrading is what she did to me in the bath one time with the–”
“Okay.” Modesty held up a hand. “No one cares about our dirty laundry.” To Mockhitler, she said, “I don’t consider the outfit degrading. He likes it, and I like that.”
“Don’t take Mockhitler’s comments personally,” said Dr. Getaway. “She’s a bit reactionary.”
“I am not!” Mockhitler stood and pointed at Modesty and the other newcomers. “If I ran this galaxy, people like you would be–”
“Siddown and shaddap!” This came from the other man of the group, who had been sitting quietly beside Modesty. He had short, stubby legs and leaned forward on long, ape-like arms. His face was scarred and pitted like the moon and seemed stitched together.
She tried sitting next to the other woman, named Meg Hush, who rose to look out the viewport.
Modesty set John-Joe down beside her and broke the silence. “So,” she said to the ape-like man. “What’s your name?”
Without looking at her he said, “Brokenose Brooklyn, last of the Brooklyn line.”
“You’re from the Queen’s Planet?” asked Modesty. “So are we. I’m from the Ellis province. Spiderkin is from Wingdale.”
“Wingdale?” said Brokenose. “That’s too bad.”
“Anyway,” Spiderkin changed the subject, “what are you people doing here?”
“We crashed, like you,” said Getaway.
“No,” said Spiderkin, “I mean all these space ships, the air we’re breathing, the gravity sink. This moon is unreal.”
“No kiddin’.” Brokenose gestured to Dr. Getaway. “Doc, fill him in.”
“It’s the moon,” said the doctor. “She’s a strange one. Some of what’s happening here is her doing, like the crashed ships. It was she who shot you down, but possibly not by choice. There are other forces acting here, too. Unnatural forces. Some things on this moon I can’t explain. Toe stealers and knock specters, the white ghost and the Man in the Moon. The moon herself often appears to us as a mysterious lady. And then there are the body horrors.”
“Don’t talk about them,” said Meg Hush, never turning from the viewport.
Spiderkin ignored her and continued questioning Dr. Getaway. “I don’t understand. You’re talking about the moon like it’s a person.”
“She’s a lady,” said Brokenose.
“She’s an evil, malicious witch!” Mockhitler would have continued, but Brokenose glared at her.
“We don’t know what it is, but it appears as a lady,” said Getaway.
Spiderkin paused and thought to himself, partly to make it seem as though he were thinking deep, technomagus thoughts, but mostly to buy some time until a good thought came to mind. “Could I have a glass of water?”
“We don’t have any,” said Getaway.
“You don’t have any water?” asked Tux.
“That’s interesting,” said Spiderkin. “You seem like you’ve been here a while. Did you run out?”
“That’s none of your business,” said Hush from the viewport.
Mockhitler crossed to where Hush stood and put a hand on her shoulder. Hush ducked away and moved to be by herself again.
“Look,” said Spiderkin, “there’s a whole menagerie full of questions I could ask. The one that keeps struggling to the top of the food chain is ‘where can I get some water?’”
“There might be some at the museum,” said Dr. Getaway.
“There’s a museum on this moon?” Spiderkin looked at Modesty. “And you say I never take you anywhere interesting.”
“Just one of the many things I regret saying to you,” said Modesty.
Spiderkin ignored her and turned back to the doctor. “Can you take us there?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Dr. Getaway. “It’s very dangerous.”
“We’ll do it.” Brokenose rose and strode toward the door to the bridge, his arms swaying like a beast’s. He turned back to the other survivors. “Unless you all have something better to do.”
The three survivors glanced at each other and shuffled after Brokenose.
Spiderkin, Tux, and Modesty, swinging John-Joe over her shoulder, followed after.
Spiderkin saw the squalor in each of the quarters as they marched along the hall. He decided to move beside Dr. Getaway to continue talking. “Just out of curiosity, what are ‘knock specters’?”
“Don’t worry,” the doctor answered.” They can only get you through an opening like a door or window.”
“Comforting,” said Spiderkin.
“Your lady friend,” whispered the doctor, “is she your wife?”
“Bodyguard, but she’s been known to tuck me into bed at night.”
“I say,” said Getaway, “she does have the most delightful buttocks, doesn’t she?”
Spiderkin blinked. “You’re not as old as you look, are you, doctor?”
“I still wear spectacles for a reason, young man.”
When the group all arrived at the air lock, Spiderkin said, “We can all go to the museum in my yacht. Tux, get the door.”
“I’m only a gentleman for Modesty,” said the butler-bot, opening the door for Modesty.
“Fine. She can leave it open for the rest of us,” said Spiderkin.
They all exited through the air lock and approached the yacht. Before reaching it, they heard several large thuds behind them. As they turned, Hush screamed, “Body horrors!”
“Keep together and get behind me!” yelled Brokenose. The squat man had his fists up and ready.
Spiderkin saw what had fallen from the top of the wreck behind the group. Several fleshy mounds lay scattered in front of the air lock door. The mounds rose into what resembled composite humanoids, formed from spare body parts. Some had extra arms or legs of differing sizes, making them resemble insects on their hind legs. Some had eyes that looked as though they had been forced into their heads. Others didn’t have heads, only rudimentary mounds atop their shoulders. All were naked. And they advanced on the group.
Spiderkin turned around. More of the horrors emerged from behind the yacht.
“Get behind you, my ass!” yelled Modesty.
Spiderkin heard her seismic sledgehammer charging.
The horrors attacked, some with fists like cannonballs. Modesty leaped among them, swinging her sledgehammer at any unfortunate enough to be in her way. The hammer hummed through the air, its heavy, metal head a vibrating blur. When it connected with the creatures, it burst limb from torso. Arms and legs that had been clumsily attached to rudimentary joints were sent flying by the percussive blows of the hammer.
Brokenose tried to defend the other prisoners by lashing out with his massive arms. The attacking horrors were too much. They soon overwhelmed and swarmed over Brokenose and Modesty.
This will cost me, thought Spiderkin. He raised his water staff above his head and mumbled the calculation to activate the lantern. Symbols poured forth. Arcane algebra burned cool blue as it swirled around him. Numbers flowed faster as he finished the sum, and then the calculation condensed into a water wave, which Spiderkin directed with the lantern. The wave engulfed each of the horrors and drew them back and up to the crest. When it reached its apex, Spiderkin willed the water to dash the horrors against a nearby rocky outcrop. When the blue water dissolved back into its component calculations, Spiderkin could see what remained of the horrors was no longer a threat.
Modesty, Brokenose, and Dr. Getaway lay on the bare, gray rock. Spiderkin knelt by Modesty. She would recover in a moment. He looked at the lantern. Only a tiny amount of blue water remained within. “It’ll be enough,” he said to himself and spoke a quick proof. A blue trickle streamed over Modesty’s body, cleansing the blood from her skin and uniform.
As the water disappeared, Modesty opened her eyes. “You wasted water on me?”
“I know how you hate to be covered in blood,” said Spiderkin, glancing at his empty lantern.
Modesty propped herself up on an elbow and looked at the others, who began to rise. “Where are Tux and the two women?”
Spiderkin looked at where the water-cleansed bodies of the horrors lay in broken heaps and then at the survivors. “I don’t know. They weren’t in my calculation.”
For the first time in Modesty’s eyes, Spiderkin saw a trace of doubt.
Okay, thought Tux, there’s a forest on this moon.
He had been running through the trees for several minutes. Shortly after the body horrors had attacked, Tux had noticed them carry away the Hush woman. No one else had seen.
What was he supposed to do? He was only a robot. He couldn’t let the woman be taken off by those horrible creatures. Modesty would understand.
The trees and their needles were a sickly green. They were short, but taller than him and bushy, like cedars. The branches swished past him as he ran, making the only sound. He followed the horrors along a definite path. Tux could see the heat signatures left behind by the figures. They were strange signatures, not like those of normal humans.
It occurred to him that he didn’t know what he’d do when he caught up to the things. He was Modesty Tight’s butler, which meant he could crack some skulls when he had to. But he had no weapons. He looked down at his tiny, four-fingered fists as he ran. Would they do?
He was almost upon the creatures and could see them through the trees. There were two, one carrying the limp form of Hush. Tux decided to stick with what he knew. He ripped a branch from a nearby tree, ran around the figures to get ahead of them, and jumped out at them as they entered a clearing.
The horrors stopped when they saw the butler-bot, as though they weren’t sure what to do next. One had four arms and no head. It carried Hush. Buried between its shoulders was a series of mismatched eyes. They gaped at the robot. The other horror seemed more humanoid, but its mouth opened from its stomach. This one tried to put Hush’s foot into its mouth, but the other swatted its hand away.
Tux thought to take advantage of their confusion. “Put that woman down, or I’ll give your lapels such a dusting!”
The one with the stomach-mouth roared, and they both launched forward to attack the robot. Tux leaped at the one holding Hush and smacked its eye cluster with the branch. It dropped Hush and grasped its eyes, howling in pain. Next, Tux rammed the branch into the other’s mouth and down its throat. The creature tried to remove the branch, but it had become slick with blood.
Tux grabbed the unconscious Hush, threw her over his shoulder, and ran deeper into the woods.
He ran until he could no longer hear the horrors. When he arrived at another clearing, he set Hush down and knelt beside her. Tux scanned her. She lived. The kidnapping might have been too much for her. He tried to revive her.
He tapped Hush’s face. “Hey, there, human female. You can wake up now.” She was pretty. No Modesty, but more than adequate for being so unfortunate.
Nothing. No response.
He smacked her face a little harder. “Snap out of it.”
She coughed and began to panic as she awoke.
“Calm down. Stop flailing around.”
Hush stopped trying to fight Tux. When she looked into his glass head, she started to cry. “They had their hands on me.”
Tux didn’t know what to do. He liked it better when she was kicking and screaming. She rested her head on his shoulder. Her tears fell and soaked Tux’s pin-striped pants. He wasn’t very good at soothing; he never had to be with Modesty.
He began to stroke Hush’s chestnut hair. “There, there. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry. I’m a butler.”
The body horrors carrying Mockhitler stopped and dropped her to the ground. She was sore and rose to her feet with a groan. The horrors were a fast, but uncomfortable, way to travel.
Mockhitler looked around. She was in the body horror factory deep within the forest. At one time, she could have felt the power through the floor as the flesh engines recombined human detritus into the body horrors. But no more. All suitable remains from the survivors of the wrecked ships had been used. The factory stood idle.
In the silence of the factory, Mockhitler heard the slapping of tiny, bare feet approaching.
Mockhitler recognized the muffled speech. She turned to see a little blue creature approach. It had small wings and large hands and feet for its size. It wore only a loincloth. Over its mouth a zipper had been installed by one of the body horrors for the Man in the Moon. There had been no reason given.
“Casanova,” said Mockhitler, “does the Man in the Moon want to speak to me?”
The imp-like creature waved his hand in a “keep going” gesture.
“I’m sorry. His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon.”
The creature nodded and then held up what looked like a book. From previous conversations with the Man, Mockhitler knew it was a communication device.
Casanova opened the book-like device, and words rose from the spread-open pages. The letters reorganized themselves in the air and combined to form the image of a tower. From the top of the tower a dim, red light glowed.
Mockhitler had seen the Man’s tower before. She had no idea where he lived within, but the tower had no entrance.
“You have done well.” The creepy whispering of the Man unsettled Mockhitler. “Your information on the other survivors has been useful, as far as it goes.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Mockhitler.
“Thank you, what?”
“Thank you, Most Holy.”
“That’s right. Casanova!” Tiny electrical bolts arced from the device, stinging the blue imp. “Carry me closer to the woman so I am within range.” The blue imp padded closer.
Mockhitler wanted to step back, but that might annoy the Man, and his retribution could be unpredictable.
“There are new, unanticipated variables,” said the Man. “You have met the recent arrivals?”
“The wizard, the nurse, and the robot? I don’t think much of them.”
“Then you are a fool!” Thunder rumbled around the tower above the book.
Mockhitler trembled, but dared not move. “I misjudged them. Why discuss them with me?”
“I have a proposition for you,” whispered the Man. “The body horrors are useful, in certain instances, but at times they’re abysmal. Observe: You, thing, step forward.” One of the horrors that had brought Mockhitler in did as the Man bade. “Tear yourself apart.” The creature tore an arm, a leg, and wads of gristly muscle from bone before the Man said, “Enough. See? Pathetic. And they rout easily. They need a leader. If you lead my horrors against these newcomers, I’ll restore your lost humanity to you.”
“I don’t want it,” said Mockhitler.
“Really? There must be something you want.”
“There is. Hush.”
“The mute? Very well. Then we have a deal.”
“She’s not mute,” whispered Mockhitler in a voice she hoped the Man couldn’t hear. “She’s beautiful.”
“You’re in charge,” said the Man. “I’m counting on you. Gather as many horrors as you need, and fetch me the technomagus’s staff.”
“I’d be happy to,” said Mockhitler.
“Did you do it on purpose?” asked Modesty. “You’ve always hated him.” She stood outside the yacht. It hovered above the dusty, gray lunar surface in preparation for departure. She had searched around the wreck, the cliffs, and as far as a strange forest but could find no sign of Tux or the women. Tux drove her mad at times, but she couldn’t bear losing him.
“How could you say that?” said Spiderkin. “I admit I don’t like him, but I wouldn’t just destroy him. And I wouldn’t risk hurting the women either. I swear my spell should only have affected those horrors.”
Modesty thought he was telling the truth, but didn’t want to look at him at the moment. She stared up at the blue planet in the sky and wondered if it had seen where Tux had gone. She pressed the communication button in the red cross on her breast pocket and tried paging Tux again.
Brokenose sat on a stone by the yacht and absentmindedly kicked at the dust with his heel. “Your communicator might not work ‘ere. We’re in the middle of a big bowl. The museum’s up on a lookout point. You could try again there.”
Dr. Getaway emerged from the yacht. He had been stowing everyone’s gear and describing the museum flight path to Hullabaloo. “We can leave when everyone’s ready.”
“Robot moon love little blue.”
This was a woman’s voice Modesty didn’t recognize. She turned back to the others.
“Oh, no. Not now,” said Getaway.
Modesty saw the image of a young woman, an image like Hullabaloo, but less coherent. It was as though the projectionist were indecisive. At times, the image appeared as a young woman in some incalculably old uniform only Spiderkin would recognize. Then, the form would blur into that of some storyvid princess. At each change, the woman would wince or touch her forehead.
“Everyone back away until we find out who she’s here for,” said Brokenose, rising from his stone.
“Where did she come from?” asked Spiderkin. “She couldn’t have gotten past me.” He backed away with the others.
“My lady,” said Brokenose, inching forward, “you’re far from your castle. Have you come to greet the new arrivals?” He gestured toward Spiderkin and Modesty while maneuvering himself in front of them.
The woman clutched her hair and shook her head. “Robot moon not princess. Robot moon sentinel.” Her image flickered. She stood rigid, and the image righted itself. “Robot moon come for you.” She pointed at Dr. Getaway.
“Oh, I say. My turn, eh? I could’ve helped these people.”
“Get away from the doctor, you two,” said Brokenose to Modesty and Spiderkin.
“We can’t just let her take him.” Modesty stepped forward, wishing John-Joe wasn’t in the yacht.
Spiderkin grabbed Modesty’s arm and asked Brokenose, “What’s going to happen to him?”
“Something natural,” said Brokenose.
Before anyone could react, a ray of light burst from the young woman’s hand, engulfing the doctor. His body collapsed until it lay inert on the moon’s surface. The young woman disappeared.
Modesty, Spiderkin, and Brokenose ran to Getaway’s side.
“Is he dead?” asked Modesty.
Spiderkin felt for a pulse and checked for breathing. “Yes.” To Brokenose he said, “I’m sorry. Was he your friend?”
“We’ll have to take the body.” Brokenose hauled it over his shoulder. “I’ll load it into the yacht.”
“Shouldn’t we bury it?” asked Modesty.
“No, he might need it again.” Brokenose entered the yacht without looking back.
“Is he crazy?” Spiderkin asked.
Whether or not it was Spiderkin’s fault, Modesty was annoyed about losing Tux. Her imagination whirled with thoughts of chains, bludgeons, and dental tools, all waiting for Spiderkin. “I’ll go find out,” she said. She left him standing alone on the moon and entered the ship.
The yacht was only a landing vehicle, which meant very close quarters: a control room, bunks, a small hold, and an engine pit. Of course, the ship belonged to Spiderkin, so he used it like a notepad. Most surfaces and walls were covered by occult scientific doodles. Modesty had tried changing some of the symbols once, just to needle him; they changed back before her eyes.
She found Brokenose in the hold laying the doctor’s body among some spare engine parts.
“Did you mean it when you said Getaway might need his body again?” she asked.
“You lost your accent,” said the dwarf.
“You’re from the Queen’s Planet, Ellis province, right?”
“Yeah, so what?” Modesty heard the hum of the engines through the walls of the hold. Spiderkin must have started the ship.
“What were you?” asked Brokenose. “One of the Torch Maidens?”
“No way! I was a Queen of Liberty.”
“Oh, very tough gang. Why did ya lose the accent?”
“I still got it,” said Modesty. “It comes out sometimes.”
“So you might need it again. Dr. Getaway might need his body.”
“Losing a body isn’t like dropping an accent.”
“Sure it is,” said Brokenose. “A body’s got Ka, or spirit. Yer Ka, like an accent, tells people who you are and where you’re from. It can make you proud and keep you going when things get tough. And they both got other special attributes. Keep yer accent, Ms. Tight.”
“Stay proud of yer past, Modesty. You never know when you might lose it.”
Spiderkin fumed in the control room of the yacht. He paced from panel to panel as Hullabaloo flew toward the museum. He adjusted dial settings and flipped switches just to hear the clicks. How could Modesty accuse him of destroying Tux? He hadn’t, but it had been on his to-do list.
“Are you trying to crash me?” asked Hullabaloo.
“What? No. I’m just angry.”
“I’m a good listener,” said the computer. Her hologram appeared and curled up on a chair beside Spiderkin. “And I like the sound of your voice.”
Hullabaloo was a good listener. Spiderkin had told her too much over the years, another good reason not to leave her alone for too long.
“The others think I used a spell to eliminate Tux and the female survivors.”
“That doesn’t sound like something you’d do.”
“Maybe they know that,” said Hullabaloo, “but they’re frustrated by the loss. Give them time. They’ll come around.”
“You’re a very optimistic computer,” said Spiderkin.
“I try. We’re at the museum, by the way.”
Spiderkin felt the ship decelerate and watched the building come into view. The structure looked more like a fortress than a museum. Steel beams reinforced the plating of the walls. An ancient airlock had been widened into a more accessible entrance way.
“I don’t recognize the writing above the door,” said Spiderkin. “Do you?”
“I can run it through the archives,” said Hullabaloo.
“Do that, and tell me what you find. I’ll let the others know we’ve arrived.”
Spiderkin found Modesty and Brokenose chatting in the yacht’s hold. They seemed very chummy. But then, Modesty had always had more of an attachment to their home planet than Spiderkin did. He tried to forget the place, but she kept reminding him.
Brokenose looked up from his conversation. “We there?”
“Yes,” said Spiderkin. “It’s time to go.”
Spiderkin, Modesty, and Brokenose left the yacht hovering outside the door to the museum.
More obscure writing lined a series of controls beside the airlock door. “Some of it looks like fifth dynasty Azazellian,” said Spiderkin, tracing the lines and curves of the symbols with his fingers. “But I can’t read it.”
“Can you use your mojo stick on the door?” asked Modesty.
“I can’t ‘magic’ a door open. I have to understand what I’m working with. Besides, I’m out of water.”
Brokenose brushed Spiderkin and Modesty aside then touched a few controls by the door, which ground open with the sound of scraping metal.
“How’d you do that?” asked Modesty.
“I been here before,” said Brokenose. He entered the darkened airlock anteroom. Only the soft, reflected light of the moon’s surface lit the interior.
Spiderkin and Modesty followed. The light blue glow from Spiderkin’s lantern staff told him he wasn’t completely out of water, just down to drops. He heard a pop and saw sparks ahead. Then, the lights came on.
“Are you sure this is a museum?” asked Modesty. “It looks like a hangar full of junk.”
“These are ships,” said Spiderkin, “but I don’t know what kind.”
“The ghost knows,” said Brokenose, brushing some dust off one of the hulks. “You’ll see him soon. He hangs out here.”
“There are ghosts here?” Modesty cocked an eyebrow.
“Not scared, are ya?” asked Brokenose.
“Never,” said Modesty. “But curious.”
Spiderkin started walking among the ships to get a better look. There were several types, but most reminded him of giant octobots with rockets, except these only had four “legs”. Rust speckled many surfaces, but the ships survived remarkably well for their antiquity.
“There’s more of that strange writing on some of these ships,” he said.
As he turned back to Modesty and Brokenose, a figure appeared among them, unmoving. In the light of the museum, its outfit blazed white; but otherwise it reminded Spiderkin of starhorse chavalier armor, only bulkier and non-metallic.
“What am I looking at?” asked Spiderkin.
“That’s the Nassa ghost,” said Brokenose.
“Spiderkin,” Hullabaloo’s voice crackled over the squawk box in the lantern staff. “I’ve found a translation of the inscription on the entrance. It reads, ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’”
“Tux calling Modesty. Come in Modesty.” He had been fiddling with his communicator for some time with no luck. Maybe the trees caused interference on this weird moon. He quit for the moment.
Across from him lay Hush on a makeshift bed of needles from the sickly cedars. She slept without a sound. Tux kept scanning her to make sure she was alive. She was, although her readings were strange, ragged, like a scribbled drawing.
He hadn’t really had much experience dealing with women other than Modesty, who was a handful. She was like a thirteen-year-old trapped in an Amazon’s body. An angry Amazon.
Hush seemed peaceful by comparison. Tux could only tell she was breathing by the subtle movement of her feathery hair.
He began signaling Modesty again.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Oh, you’re up.” Tux shut off his communicator. “Just trying to contact the woman of our group.”
“What about the man?” Hush sat up, brushing low branches away from her face.
“I don’t care about that swine.”
“He’s a coward,” answered Tux. “If we hadn’t been running from the Messires of Gigahardware, we wouldn’t be here on this crazy moon.”
Hush shrank back into the branches. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to annoy you.”
“What did you say you’re running from?” she asked.
“Gigahardware? The Wind-up Empire? The Ticking Hordes? Surely, you’ve heard of them.”
“No. We’ve all been on this moon a long time.”
“You couldn’t have been on this moon that long. You’re not old enough.”
Branches snapped nearby in the forest.
Tux didn’t feel terror, but he saw it in Hush’s face. He set his head for full 360-degree scan.
He absorbed a panoramic view of the forest, shifting through multiple views: ultraviolet, infrared, x-ray, the Lukovich bands. There were no animals in the forest, but finally he saw the creature that had made the noise.
“I don’t think it can hurt us,” said Tux, “but let me check it out first.”
“Wait a minute,” said Hush, standing as Tux rose. “What are you going to do? You’re a butler. I’m going with you.”
“Hey,” Tux pointed at Hush, “I saved you with four fingers and a stick, but you can come if you want.”
The creature wasn’t far from them. It had apparently frozen in fear when it made the sound because it no longer moved. It crouched beneath low branches of one of the trees.
“Aww, it’s cute,” said Hush.
Tux switched to the visible spectrum. “It is?” It looked like a blue ball with wings the way it had scrunched up.
“Hey, I know what it is,” said Hush. “It’s a toe stealer. They used to be a big problem among some of the other survivors. But that was before . . .”
“Do they really steal toes?”
“If you have them.”
Tux looked down. “Well, I’m safe.”
Hush crept toward the small creature as it uncurled into a blue imp.
“Hey, little guy,” she said. The creature stirred.
“You sure you should get that close?” asked Tux. “You have toes.”
Hush waved him back. “Oh, they do that when you’re asleep.” She turned back to the toe stealer. “Little fellah? It’s okay.”
The toe stealer poked its head out. “Hmm? Hungry,” it said.
“I don’t think you want my toes, little guy.” Hush looked toward Tux. “Do you have anything?”
“I’m a butler, not a snack machine. Sorry. I’m used to speaking my mind.”
Hush paid no attention and turned back to the toe stealer. “I’m sorry, little guy. We don’t have any food.”
The blue imp began to groan. “Maxmin so hungry.” It emerged from its hiding place and sat closer to Hush.
“Maxmin, is that your name?” asked Hush.
“What kind of name is that?” The little creature would normally annoy Tux, but he felt sorry for it. He could count the ribs beneath its stippled, blue skin.
“Got name from power pack,” said Maxmin.
Tux cut Hush off in mid-sentence. “Both of you, get down.” He’d heard something in the woods again. Something larger.
The sound seemed to come from all around. It traveled easily in the quiet forest. Tux scanned bands until he could see what approached.
Body horrors, dozens, stomped, smashed, and hacked as they came nearer.
Atop the river of sinew sat Mockhitler. A duo of horrors bore her in a makeshift sedan chair. Though dressed in her tattered uniform, she carried herself like a queen.
Tux thought for sure the toe stealer would have bolted, but it had curled into a ball again. Hush crouched over it, brushing her hand gently over its leathery, blue wings.
The horrors passed and were soon only a distant rustle, like a passing breeze.
Hush watched the horrors disappear.
Maxmin yelped. Hush had grasped him too tightly.
“I’m sorry!” She let go.
“You hate the body horrors, don’t you?” asked Tux.
“I think,” she said, “they may have just come from the body horror factory. I’d like to find that, but I don’t know the way.”
The toe stealer raised his head. “Maxmin know. Maxmin show.”
“Why do you want to go there?” asked Tux.
“To destroy it,” said Hush.
Modesty poked her hammer through the Nassa ghost. “It looks real, but it’s one of those imagy things.” She swung the hammer halfheartedly through it, leaving a pixelated trail across its torso.
“Please don’t do that,” came a hollow, echoey voice from within the ghost’s helmet. It raised a blazing white hand to lift its copper-tinted visor. Beneath it smiled a young, handsome face, with square features and close-cut hair. “The program that keeps my light coherent is very old. There’s no need to overtax it.”
Wow, thought Modesty. That’s some pretty light.
“I know what you are,” said Spiderkin. He had been circling the ghost, scrutinizing details here and there across its radiant suit. “I mean, what you’re supposed to be. You’re one of the ancients. The star-nauts of old.”
“That ain’t right,” said Brokenose, approaching the ghost. “He’s a tour guide. I know. I’ve taken the tour.”
The Nassa ghost relaxed from its stiff pose. “Good to see you again, Brokenose. Who are your friends?”
Brokenose indicated his companions. “The tough one with the hammer is Modesty. The pasty one with the stick is a technomagus named Spiderking.”
“-kin. I’m not tough? Why is she the tough one?”
The ghost continued. “I was a tour guide, millennia ago. I’ve seen so much happen to one little moon since then.”
“That quote over the door, this museum, your suit,” said Spiderkin. “This is the moon, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said the ghost.
“What moon?” asked Modesty, shouldering her hammer. “What are you talking about?”
“You remember your nursery rhymes, don’t you?” Spiderkin’s accusatory tone reminded Modesty of her teachers in the learning cage when she was a child. Spiderkin continued. “’Red, red rocket to the blue moon. Cat in a saucer with a shiny new spoon.’ The red rockets and the saucers and the other spaceships in this museum. This is Earth’s moon.”
“Fairy tales in space?” asked Modesty. “That’s ridiculous.”
“He’s right,” said the ghost. “Although I don’t know the rhyme.”
“He’s always right,” whispered Modesty to herself. She wrung John Joe’s handle.
“We’re in a museum,” said Brokenose. “Why don’t you take the tour?”
“You aren’t coming?” asked Modesty.
“I’ve seen it,” said Brokenose, shrugging.
“Follow me,” said the ghost, turning toward the aisle that led between rows of exhibitions.
Modesty glanced back at the dwarf, who sat at the foot of an ancient space ship, and then turned to go.
The ghostly spaceman didn’t walk; his image glided over the polished stone floor. His resonant voice seemed to fill every empty space in the silent museum. A series of glow-bots led the trio, illuminating the sights as the group progressed. All around them towered the spaceships of Earth’s past. Rockets of several designs crowded the aisles like a small city of cylindrical buildings. Modesty recognized the red rockets from the fairy tales of her childhood. Seeing them in person disoriented her as though fiction had invaded reality.
“All of these machines and exhibits you see here . . .” The spaceman swept a broad arm across the vast array of ships and uniforms and plaques. “. . . the events these objects commemorate come from a time further back in history from you than the pyramids were from me in my time.”
“The what?” asked Spiderkin and Modesty as they walked past an engine the size of Hullabaloo.
“What is the oldest culture you can think of?” the spaceman asked.
Spiderkin screwed up his face in thought. “The Cobalt Miners from the Shepherd’s Crook cluster,” said Spiderkin. “That’s the oldest verifiable human colony.”
“What he said,” said Modesty.
“Double that age. Triple it,” said the ghost. “This is where the journey began. The first step.”
Modesty stopped. So did the other two. The glow-bots paused in their rambling.
“Wait,” said Modesty. “So we’ve gone from the last step of humanity to the first?”
“I don’t follow,” said the ghost.
Spiderkin rapped his staff lightly against the floor. The tap rippled across the hushed expanse of the exhibition hall. “Nevermind,” he said. “She’s just bringing up something we finished talking about long before we arrived.”
“You finished,” said Modesty. “I’m not done yet. You left our planet, its people, and everyone else when you ran. I wanted to go back. So did Tux.”
Spiderkin stopped tapping his staff. “I didn’t make you stay. You could have left. Then you wouldn’t be trapped on this moon now.”
“I couldn’t just walk away,” said Modesty.
“I’m not walking. I’m running!”
“I think there’s some history here that I’m not aware of,” said the Nassa ghost.
“I’ve fought the Ticking Hordes of Gigahardware,” said Spiderkin to the ghost. “They aren’t invading. They’re already here, there, and everywhere.”
He sat down on the polished volcanic rock of the floor, setting his staff beside him.
He looked beaten, much as he had when Modesty met up with him. He had been a different man then and fought alongside the other Technomagi during their last stand at the Moon of Infernal Contrition. At first, Spiderkin had limped away. Modesty had healed him enough that he could run.
“What are the Ticking Hordes?” asked the Nassa ghost, sitting beside Spiderkin.
Modesty sat, too. The glow-bots settled into a low orbit around them.
Spiderkin sighed. “It doesn’t matter. They’re the forces of Gigahardware: microscopic devices animating enormous and devastatingly powerful machines.”
“You fought these things?” asked the ghost.
“Yes, and lost. Now I’m running from memories.”
“I wish I could advise you,” said the ghost, “but I’m made out of light. However, you remind me of something. Centuries ago, tiny machine entities invaded this moon as well. They are the reason for our troubles.”
“Here? They’ve been here? Could they be the same?” Spiderkin’s voice trembled. Modesty hated to hear fear from him.
“Well,” said the Nassa ghost, “I don’t know for sure, but your description sounds like the machines that infected our systems. I know someone who can tell us about them, but she’s very delicate. She requires a patient approach.”
“Who?” asked Modesty.
“The moon. I’ll call her.”
From a dark aisle, beyond the ring of light in which the group sat, stepped the moon–the young woman hologram that had killed Dr. Getaway.
“Oh, no. Not her.” Spiderkin began to rise.
“It’s all right,” said the ghost, raising a calming hand. “She’s a friend.”
The young woman approached the spaceman. “Robot moon love little blue.” She laid a delicate hand on the circular blue patch he wore.
“Hello, Moon,” said the ghost, smiling.
Modesty noticed something flash between the two images, a mutual connection, and the moon sat next to the spaceman.
“Moon been with little blue long time,” said the young woman. Her image slouched, propping bony elbows on skinny legs. The moon’s bent posture and tattered uniform contrasted with the spaceman’s straight back and immaculate space suit.
“That’s right. Moon,” said the spaceman, “can you tell these people about the nanomachine infestation from long ago?”
The moon cowered. “No. Moon forgets. We talk about castles.”
“Please, Moon. I’d like to talk about the nanomachines. You know what happened better than I. I wasn’t even self-aware until afterward.”
The moon glanced back at the spaceman, and something again passed between the two. It reminded Modesty of what she and Spiderkin had, at least when they weren’t fighting.
“Moon will tell.” The young woman sat forward, facing her audience. “Moon very old now. Mountains cold. Dust all settled. But long ago, before dreaming of castles and princess dresses and kingdoms, robot moon just sentinel. Then moon infected by tiny bots. Got inside her–changed her insides. But before bots, moon didn’t have spaceman.” She laid her hand on the ghost’s. “Moon happy now. But still hurt.”
Modesty felt something deep inside, a sensation she wasn’t accustomed to. The affection she saw between the two luminous specters made her happy. It was sweet. It made her want to apologize to Spiderkin. Then she got a hold of herself and felt the urge to smash something.
“What do you mean they changed your insides?” asked Spiderkin.
The moon remained silent, but the ghost took over. “The nanomachines rewrote much of her software, including mine. I’m reluctant to ascribe emotions to what I think of as a plague, but these bots were highly aggressive. They seemed to enjoy making us self-aware so they could torture us.”
“I know these machines,” said Spiderkin. “They’re the yesnobites of Gigahardware. They animated the Ticking Horde. You said they invaded long ago. What happened to them?”
“The moon was designed to be a sentinel. After a great struggle, she destroyed them.”
Spiderkin had something to think about again, noticed Modesty. He no longer sulked, but sat forward, listening closely. “It cost you, didn’t it? Everyone who fights the yesnobites pays a price.”
“Indeed,” said the ghost. “Destroying the bots led to Moon’s fantasies and mental state. It led to my desire for space and the knowledge that I can never go there. But the one most affected was the Man in the Moon. Except, at the time, he was just the library.”
“Wait,” said Spiderkin, “the Man in the Moon is a library?”
The noise came from so far away; its echoes barely reached the group.
The spaceman had been about to answer, but Spiderkin interrupted him. “Did you hear that?”
The noise approached. Modesty thought it came from outside the museum.
The spaceman and the moon rose.
“Oh, no.” The ghost looked at Spiderkin and Modesty, still on the floor. “Listen, Moon and I can’t help you. We’ll slow you down. Our projectors can only fly so fast. Find Brokenose. Get to safety. Remember, the knock specters can only get you through an opening. Don’t open the doors until they’re gone. Good luck.”
“Wait!” Spiderkin jumped to his feet, but the two images had disappeared. “Not even a whiff of Brimstone,” muttered Spiderkin.
Bang. Modesty raised her hammer.
A tapping began, like the first drops of rain on a tin roof. Then, the storm hit. A torrent of rapping and banging resounded around them.
Modesty hated loud noises, the result of growing up near a postal phoenix drop zone. The sound of the specters was unlike any she’d heard before. It penetrated her bones.
She charged her sledgehammer.
“Modesty, no! Not in here!”
Before Spiderkin could grab her, Modesty ran for one of the exterior metal walls, swung John Joe in a mighty arc around her body, and let it connect with a support rib, releasing a dazzling spray of sparks. The force of the blow knocked her down and sent her hammer sliding along the floor. When the reverberations ceased, Modesty could see a crack in the structural rib.
Spiderkin stood over Modesty, offering to help her up. He held John Joe in his hand. “You’re going to kill us. Remember: think first, then destroy.”
Modesty listened. “The specters have stopped.”
They must only have paused, because their din doubled in intensity.
“Come on!” shouted Spiderkin, grabbing Modesty’s hand. “We’ve got to find Brokenose.”
Modesty thought of the postal phoenixes again, exploding outside her window, yielding their cacophonous messages. She thought of dropping John Joe so she could cover her ears, but decided against it.
They ran, with glow-bots struggling to follow. The din overtook them. Exhibits shook; glass cases rattled.
They found Brokenose before they reached the museum entrance. He lay before one of the ancient spaceships. As Spiderkin and Modesty approached him, the knocking stopped.
Modesty dropped John Joe and rushed to Brokenose’s side. Blood covered his torn clothing. His mangled arms lay at awkward angles to his body. Modesty looked up at Spiderkin as he approached. “What could’ve done this to him? Do you think it might have been the knock specters?”
“I don’t know,” said Spiderkin.
Brokenose mumbled something and looked up at the pair. “Mmm, knock specters–Kas. –didn’t do this. I was looking for water for you–None here.”
Spiderkin checked Brokenose’s injuries. “Most of this blood isn’t yours.”
“–from the Queen’s Planet.” Brokenose closed his eyes.
Spiderkin glanced at Modesty and shook his head.
Modesty rested her hand on Brokenose’s chest. “What did this to you?”
He put his hand on Modesty’s. “Why did you come back so soon?”
“The knock specters were chasing us,” said Spiderkin. “We thought they might do something to you. Are they what did this?”
“–said they’re Kas,” muttered Brokenose. “They wouldn’t do this to me. The body horrors. They’re here.”
Modesty heard a crash that ran through her whole body. She thought it might be the knock specters again, but this sound was different. A low rumble followed the crash and rolled toward them like a wheel.
From the direction of the crash, Modesty could see rocket tips begin to wobble.
“Oh no,” said Modesty. “We have to get out of here.”
The city of spaceships began to fall as something moved toward the trio.
The sound of toppling rockets ripped through Modesty. She yelled to Spiderkin. “Help me move him!”
“He’s dead, Modesty.” Rockets continued to crash closer to where Spiderkin an Modesty stood above Brokenose’s body. Modesty could see what caused the destruction: something had pushed a rocket onto its side and began rolling it like a rolling pin, flattening all in its path. Soon that would be Spiderkin and Modesty.
“He can’t be,” she said. “Remember Dr. Getaway. We have to take his body with us.”
“No! We have to leave now!” Spiderkin grabbed Modesty with unexpected force. They grabbed their things and ran as the museum collapsed behind them.
Modesty glanced back over her shoulder as she ran. The rolling rocket trampled over the spot where she and Spiderkin had just stood. She couldn’t bear to watch the rocket crush the remains of her friend, the last of the Brooklyn line.
Spiderkin looked back. “It’s the body horrors! They’ve swarmed and are pushing the rocket along.”
Modesty turned her head as she ran, making her glances quick. A mob of body horrors rolled the rocket like a wave. Occasionally, she could see one caught by the turn of the rocket and get ground beneath it. That must have been how it happened for poor Brokenose. That’s how it soon would be for her and Spiderkin if they didn’t escape.
“The entrance,” said Spiderkin. “We’re almost there.”
A terrible metal shriek hammered Modesty’s ears. She tried to find the source. The rocket began to push some of the larger exhibits along the aisle. Instead of plowing over them, the rocket shoved them before it. The detritus began to gather to either side of Modesty and Spiderkin. If the rocket didn’t crush them, the debris soon would.
“The doors!” shouted Spiderkin over the wailing metal. “They’re airlock doors. I don’t think we can open them in time.”
“On it.” Modesty powered up John Joe and leapt for the door. The ancient metal hatch exploded into fragments, scattering across the airlock floor. She and Spiderkin made it into the passage followed by crushed exhibits. Fragments of ladder and gantry and bits of rocket began to fill the airlock.
Spiderkin indicated the outer door to the museum. “Ladies first and second.”
Modesty cracked through the brittle outer door of the museum as the debris piled into the airlock behind them.
The sterile, cold surface of the moon lay before them. Modesty had never been so glad to see the sinuous curves of the Hullabaloo. She never wanted to go to another museum as long as she lived.
Something was wrong. Spiderkin felt it, too. They both had their respective weapons ready.
From above their heads, hands descended. Body horrors, above the doorway to the museum, reached down, grabbing Spiderkin’s staff.
He held on, refusing to let go as the body horrors pulled him closer. Without thinking, Modesty dropped John Joe and grabbed Spiderkin’s waist. If the horrors were going to pull him up, they’d have to take her, too. Spiderkin struggled to keep his staff but had to let go. The pair dropped to the rocky surface below. They watched the horrors pass the staff to a smiling Mockhitler. Then, all disappeared in a cloud of hands as the body horrors retreated over the top of the museum.
“That’s it, then,” said Spiderkin. “All I’ve been through. Hope is gone.” The little blue planet hung in the sky, looking down on both him and Modesty.
Modesty thought about all they had lost: Tux, Brokenose and the other survivors, the ship. Maybe Spiderkin was right. All hope was gone.
At first, the little imp had been jumping from tree to sickly tree as it led Tux and Hush toward the body horror factory. It settled down as hunger took over, and the creature must have realized Tux and Hush had no interest in climbing. Tux had no idea how it knew where to go. This bizarre forest looked the same in all directions.
“So, Hush,” said Tux, “what are you doing on this moon?”
“You mean, ‘What’s a nice girl like me doing on a moon like this?’”
“I’m a butler, kid. Humor’s wasted on me.”
“I don’t remember,” said Hush. “None of us survivors remember what happened before arriving.”
“None? Spiderkin, Modesty, and I have our memories. What’s different about you?”
“You weren’t . . . well, you’ll never know,” said Hush. “You’re a machine.”
“I didn’t figure you were prejudiced,” said Tux.
“No!” Hush put her hand on Tux’s shoulder. He liked it.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” she said. “It’s just that if you had gone through what we did, you’d forget too.”
“Now I have to ask; what happened to you?”
Tux thought she wasn’t going to answer.
“You’re a robot,” she said. “You were created in humanity’s image, except for the clear glass head.”
“Yes,” he said.
“You’re comfortable with the way you look?”
The pair clambered up an incline along what Tux found impossible to call a path. Was Maxmin blind? “The ladies have no complaints.”
“What if your creator hated you?”
“I . . . don’t know. Explain.”
“We survivors didn’t survive. We were reconstructed after our bodies were destroyed crashing on the moon. We were rebuilt by the Man in the Moon. Whenever he needed more slave labor, he forced the moon to crash a ship on the surface, and the survivors were turned into body horrors. Some were built for specific tasks, others for amusement, and few for malice.”
“You’re a body horror?” asked Tux.
“What were you reconstructed for?”
“Maybe I’ll show you some time. The four of us that you, Spiderkin, and Modesty found were different, though.”
“How?” asked Tux.
“Body horrors usually have their Kas stripped away. Without a Ka, a body horror is a happy little drone. The four of us you found were rejects. Our Kas couldn’t be removed. Not permanently.”
Tux’s little feet were giving him trouble. They weren’t built for forest terrain. “You still have your spirit.”
“For what it’s worth. I couldn’t get rid of mine if I wanted. Occasionally, the moon feels pity and tries to kill one of us, but our Kas come back, if they have a body to go to.”
“So, you’re a body horror who knows she’s a horror. That’s why you want to destroy them.”
“Yes,” said Hush. “But I don’t know how.”
Tux stopped walking. Maxmin had ceased his bounding ahead and padded back toward him and Hush.
“Maxmin heard Hush,” he said in his squeaky imp voice. “He thinks he have something that can help. You follow home!” Then, the little toe stealer was off running again.
“Maxmin, wait!” shouted Hush.
Tux and Hush ran after the blue creature as it threatened to disappear into the green of the trees.
The three of them came to a stop at a clearing some time later. A breeze kicked up tiny moon-dust devils. A fine, white powder settled over everything, giving the area a wintery feel. Tux had to fight the urge to tidy.
Near the center of the clearing lay a ruined spaceship, cracked open in places like a piece of dry driftwood. Tux didn’t recognize the type, but it predated the reel drive. It had to be very old.
Tux realized that the clearing was really a crash zone. The crash had been massive, spreading sections of the ship all along the zone. Tux could see more as he stepped along the wreckage. It was narrow, but he couldn’t see the extent of its length due to the hilly terrain. Fuel or something inimical from the ship must have salted the soil, leaving it barren like most of the dusty lunar surface.
“This my home,” said Maxmin.
The imp padded through the dust and debris.
“Home?” said Hush and followed after.
“Hmm, spacious,” said Tux. “Needs redecorating.”
The ship was like none Tux had ever seen. No parts among the debris seemed to have served as propulsion. Perhaps they had been stripped. The ship looked more like a toppled industrial minaret. Then, Tux saw the guns. All were useless. The charging systems had been removed at some point after the ship had crashed.
Maxmin no longer bounded ahead of Tux and Hush. Ever since entering the zone, he seemed to lope along, as though injured.
“What’s wrong, Maxmin?” asked Hush, catching up to the imp.
“Maxmin no like to go home.”
“But it’s your home,” said Tux.
Maxmin led the others to an entrance and stopped. “Maxmin can see in dark. What others want do?”
“No problem,” said Tux, and he filled his head with light. A warm, ivory glow turned the dull gray spaceship to a pale white.
“Your head’s really useful,” said Hush.
“It comes in handy.”
“We go in, then,” said Maxmin. The blue imp pressed against a round, vault-like hatch that must have weighed half a ton. It resisted, but then ground away from an entrance. Beyond the hatch lay a darkness that devoured Tux’s light.
“Lead on, little fella,” said Tux.
The toe stealer crept into the silent ship. Hush grabbed Tux’s hand, her slender fingers enveloping his tiny stubs. Tux moved forward, perhaps a bit braver than he had felt a moment before.
The ship seemed dead. The trio moved through corridors carpeted with dust. Tiny footprints mottled the floor. Tux could only hear the light slap of the toe stealer’s bare feet, the barely audible tapping of his own feet, and Hush’s quiet tread.
“You said you don’t like to come home,” said Tux, “yet you’ve obviously returned periodically. Why?”
“Maxmin visit mama and papa.”
“Your parents live here?” asked Hush.
“No, but they here. Will show.”
“What happened to everyone else?” Tux looked around at the scattered debris. Everything left behind in the ship had decayed over a very long time.
“All thin now. All dead,” said the toe stealer.
Thin? Thought Tux. Desiccated corpses? He wasn’t sure what to expect.
Hush gripped Tux’s hand tighter. “I don’t know that I could bear looking at bodies right now.”
“Ditto, kiddo,” said the butler-bot.
Maxmin continued to lead.
After climbing an access ladder to one of the upper decks, the trio encountered the first of the remains. Tux didn’t know how else to think of them.
“What are those?” Hush halted beside Tux. When they stopped, Maxmin did, too, and padded back to them.
“They bad men,” said Maxmin.
At first, Tux barely registered them as once-living beings. Seen edge-on as the trio had approached, the remains looked like metal sheets extending from the floor. Only after getting closer did Tux realize they were dozens of two-dimensional figures. In silhouette, they appeared to be soldiers in fatigues, carrying weapons. However, within each of the silhouettes, it was as though an image of what the person was had been smeared toward some distant vanishing point.
Tux noticed something about each of the silhouettes. He ran a quick scan on all the figures he could see. “The plane of each figure inclines slightly. They all share a common origin.”
“What?” said Hush.
“It’s as though the figures radiate from some center point, like spokes on a wheel.”
“Uh-huh,” nodded Maxmin. “More to show.” He took Hush’s hand and led them like a chain.
“Tux,” whispered Hush, “these silhouettes are all running opposite the direction we’re going.”
“Relax. If you look after me, I’ll look after you. Something about this seems so familiar. I’ll check my memory cells.”
They continued through more corridors stained gray by dust and time. They passed more figures, not all soldiers, but every one a silhouette. Some ran. Others had fallen, glancing over their shoulders at some long-gone terror.
“Maxmin,” asked Tux, “did these people fear the crash of the ship?”
“No, crash came later. Soldiers feared mama.”
Hush looked Tux right in the globe and mouthed the word mama.
Tux nodded, which caused his light to bob against the corridor walls.
Their steadily inclining way terminated in armored sliding doors, which had been forced open, leaving a space large enough for Maxmin to pass.
“Maxmin fit. What about robot and Hush?”
Tux released Hush’s hand and stepped forward. “Stand back.” He cracked his diminutive knuckles. Being servant to Modesty meant Tux had had to carry, lug, and haul a wide variety of weapons, armor, and siege engines. He was no ordinary butler.
He grasped the edges of the open doors and tugged. The metal groaned as the little robot forced it into a new shape. Afterward, all three could pass, single file at least.
Beyond lay a laboratory. Once-sterile metal and glass surfaces were peppered with dirt and grime. Black halos ringed dead computer banks. Overturned lab benches and chairs lined the walls. More silhouettes radiated from the center of the room. Some silhouettes, likely soldiers, had been running for the door through which Tux, Hush, and Maxmin had entered. Others, scientists in lab coats, seemed to stare at the center of the lab. At the axis from which all the spokes radiated was the silhouette of a woman, her lab coat frozen in a flutter from a long-gone breeze. Her hand reached out in a frozen caress of the axis: a real device that seemed familiar to Tux.
Maxmin approached the woman and laid a hand on her smooth silhouette. It wobbled and thrummed like sheet metal. “Mama,” he said.
Robots often found it impossible to describe to humans how it felt to search their memory. Analogies invariably described simultaneously falling and swimming in deep water until riding to the surface on the currents of memory. Tux’s bubble head broke through the rolling waves.
“Maker within!” he said. “They cut through into thin space.”
“Uh-huh,” said Maxmin. “Mama made a bomb.”
The smell of ozone filled Mockhitler’s nose and burned her throat. Electricity from the Man’s energy weapon still crackled over her stunned body.
The Man’s portable hologram projector stood in a disused distribution bay of the body horror factory. One of the cargo bay doors stood open, allowing starlight and blue planet light to illuminate the open bay of the factory. Troops of body horrors gathered outside the doors, but only a fraction could cluster within the bay itself. They all sat or stood upon half-broken crates and rusted, busted hulks of transport vehicles, like children listening to stories. They gathered around Casanova, the fallen Mockhitler, and the Man’s projector.
“This relationship that you and I have developed, Mockhitler, is unprecedented in my centuries of sentient existence,” said the Man. “Casanova, please prop up my lieutenant.”
The little blue imp with the ruined mouth rolled and nudged Mockhitler into an upright position.
She began to laugh, which trailed into a fit of raspy coughing. Then, she said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She set her hand on Spiderkin’s staff, which lay beside her.
“Refreshing. I’ll ask you again: can you operate that charlatan’s trinket that you brought?”
“I have no idea how, Most Holy,” said Mockhitler, trying to sit up, but mostly leaning on the imp. “It seems inert.”
“Very well,” said the hologram of the Man. From the image of his tower above the projector, a bolt of lightning split the air, blasting Mockhitler and sending little Casanova rolling behind her.
Mockhitler lay smoldering, her uniform and hair singed. “I’m still . . . not sure, Reverence,” she said. “Perhaps another bolt–”
“No. I’m bored,” said the Man. “This isn’t getting us anywhere. I want you and Casanova to bring the staff here to the north pole. Use the factory’s ‘tation-station, and try not to lose any body horrors. They’re crap at operating transporters.”
Casanova rose and limped over to Mockhitler. She propped herself up on his small frame. “What do you want the staff for, Most Holy?”
“For my great undertaking.” The light atop the Man’s tower flared. “This is the task toward which I have been struggling since I became self-aware: I found the Eye of Shiva here on the moon, and everything I have done has been to bring it back on-line.”
“What is it?” asked Mockhitler.
“Purity,” said the Man. “I must protect my books, whatever the cost.”
“What good will bringing the staff do?”
“The technomagus will come. And when he does, I will make him use the staff.”
“Then I will get what I want, right?” asked Mockhitler.
“Absolutely,” said the Man. “After the eye opens, you will have Hush.”
A warm feeling flushed from deep within Mockhitler, soothing her, rather than singeing like the electricity. All she wanted was the touch of a real woman, not these puzzle-box horrors she could never escape. So Hush wasn’t a real woman, technically. She looked like one on the outside, and that’s what mattered to Mockhitler.
She held the staff out to the Man. “You will have it soon,” she said.
The image of the Man’s tower disappeared back into the generator, and Casanova prepared to wheel it away.
Mockhitler signaled for the horrors to follow her farther into the factory. The hordes marched along halls and corridors designed to accommodate their numbers. Dull-orange, emergency-power glow-bots bobbed and sputtered along their path, providing scant light. The body horror converters, with their appendage arrays, sat still along the path of the passersby. Mockhitler noticed how, as they continued deeper into the factory, their path reversed what a human would take to become a horror. She knew none would appreciate it wasn’t that easy for a horror to become human again.
At the end of the hall, Mockhitler could see the cool blue light of the ‘tation-station.
A sudden knocking at one of the hall doors startled her. She stopped short, as did Casanova and the horrors. Of course, behind that particular door, every body horror had had his or her Ka stripped away. Aside from the few stragglers that wandered over the moon haunting the wastelands as knock specters, this room must be the prison for all the hundreds of others. The knocking intensified as though the lonely Kas could sense their former bodies beyond one thin wall.
Mockhitler placed her palm on the cold steel door. She peered through the porthole window, but could see only darkness within. She felt the vibrations of the pounding as the door trembled. “You are ghosts,” she said. “What can you do?”
She turned toward the ‘tation-station to transport them to the pole.
The sound approached Spiderkin, but in the dense morning fog of Astroghast IV, he could see nothing but the stones beneath his feet.
It seemed as though the sound came from him, like a timepiece in his pocket. He held his staff. He felt the beat of his heart fall in lock step with the metronomic phantom.
The fog glowed indigo in the pre-dawn light. The ticking intensified, centering above Spiderkin’s head. One of the Ticking Horde crouched above him, almost close enough for him to touch. Through the parting swirls, it lowered itself.
In the instant before its needles struck, Spiderkin thought, All hope is gone.
Spiderkin awoke thrashing, grasping for his staff. But it was gone.
He lay on the cold metal of Hullabaloo’s cramped sleeping quarters. Modesty had tried to cover him with a rancid thermal blanket that smelled of engine oil. Almost a sweet gesture.
She lay curled in the captain’s chair, barely covered by her uniform. Spiderkin crept over to where she slept and draped the blanket over her and crossed to the airlock door.
He emerged into the lunar night. It was always a bit dark here, except for the blue planet. He didn’t want to die on this twilit moon.
He shuffled over to a nearby crater rim and sat on the edge, dangling his feet.
Spiderkin glanced over his shoulder and saw the approaching Nassa ghost and Moon.
“I didn’t want to startle you,” said the ghost. “May we join you?”
“Pull up a crater.”
The spaceman and Moon sat beside Spiderkin, both holograms slightly above the surface. “You survived your ordeal in the museum,” said the ghost.
“We made a bit of a mess. Sorry.” Spiderkin stared up at the blue sphere.
The ghost shrugged. “Who’s going to come see such things now? You seem preoccupied. Admiring the Earth?”
Maybe his nightmare moments ago had put Spiderkin in the mood to explain himself. “Part of a technomagus’s job is to gather knowledge. I’m here on the moon with the Earth above. This was the start of humanity’s journey into space. I should be leading people back here to their home, but I’m lost in my own troubles.”
“Troubles?” asked the ghost.
Spiderkin turned to face the ghost and Moon and explained the loss of his staff.
Moon grabbed the spaceman’s sleeve. He glanced at her and placed a gloved hand over hers.
To Spiderkin, the spaceman said, “Moon is very concerned. Your staff is an object of great power, is that right?”
“When I hold it, it is. Any other moron would probably destroy the world.”
“That,” said the Nassa ghost, “is precisely what the Man wants to do with it.”
“Yes, yes!” Moon nodded. “Man wants open the eye.” She made a motion with her hands at her forehead like a giant eye opening.
“That’s right, Moon.” The ghost patted her hand. “I’m not sure what she means, but I know the Man has something nefarious planned. For centuries, he’s forced Moon to crash ships and the body horrors to mine the wreckage for useful technology.”
Spiderkin pulled his legs from the edge of the crater and turned toward the two holograms. “The Man wants gadgetry to destroy the moon?”
“Man not destroy me.” The moon pointed at herself. “Moon is sentinel.”
“Yet the Man can force you to down passing ships,” said Spiderkin.
The moon shrank back, and the Nassa ghost answered for her. “There are very old protocols directing the moon to protect the library, and, by extension, the Man. You suggested the Man might use the staff for great destruction. Is that possible?”
Spiderkin thought for a moment. “Maybe. Not intentionally. He couldn’t learn to use it right. But that wouldn’t prevent him from using it wrong.”
“Then we must try to stop him,” said the ghost.
“No,” said Spiderkin. I’m through fighting battles that can’t be won. When all you do is lose, all you want to do is run.”
“That’s all you say anymore,” said Modesty, approaching the group on the edge. She had draped the oily blanket over her shoulders. “There was a time when we fought everyone else but us. I came with you to fight for a good reason, instead of staying on the Queen’s planet and fighting for a bad one.”
“I just want to retire,” said Spiderkin. “Just me, you, and maybe the floor lamp. Someplace far from anything trying to kill us.”
“I’ve done enough running,” she said. “I’m not doing any more.” Modesty turned, dropped the blanket from her shoulders, and returned to the Hullabaloo.
“Maybe . . .” Spiderkin watched her go.
“I wanted to retire too,” said the ghost. He also looked up at the little blue planet as white clouds swirled across its surface. “I know I never did, but the man I’m supposed to be wanted a simple life, living in Orlando, Florida.”
“What about the man I’m supposed to be?” asked Spiderkin. “He’d like to go to Ourland O’Florrida. What’s it like?”
“It’s a world of castles and fantastic creatures, like Moon’s daydreams.” The Nassa ghost laid his hand on Moon’s shoulder.
“I’ve never been one to offer advice,” said the ghost. “There’s never been anyone around to take it. But perhaps, like Modesty, it’s time for you to stop running from your past. You never know when it will catch up.”
Was that it? thought Spiderkin. Was he so easily read that a hologram could tell him what he’d known all along? He could ignore Modesty all day, but it took a specter made of light to convince him to face what he’d been afraid to since Astroghast IV.
Spiderkin rose, pressing on very tired knees.
“What are you doing?” asked the ghost.
“What it’s time for.” Spiderkin turned back toward Hullabaloo. “Modesty! Come out, you Queen of Liberty, and let me tell you you’re right.”
Modesty arrived at the airlock door, hands on her hips. She smiled at Spiderkin.
Before he could speak, the image of Hullabaloo appeared between him and Modesty. “Captain,” said the hologram, “there’s an incoming message directed to you. The sender claims to be ‘His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon’.”
The light that constituted Hullabaloo disbanded and re-formed as a dark tower with a scarlet glow crowning its apex.
The moon stood and pointed to the image. “Evil one from polar tower!” She began to move toward it, but the ghost restrained her.
“Hello, Moon. Always good to see you, but I’m not here to speak to you. I’m here for the wizard.”
“Scientist, not wizard,” said Spiderkin.
“What’s the difference anymore?” said the Man. “I have something of yours, and I need your mojo to make it work.”
“Sorry, fresh out of mojo.”
“Be reasonable,” hissed the Man. “I understand you better than you think I do, scientist Spiderkin. Traveling through a remote star system, eyes locked on the blue planet that is your ancestral home. You wish to go there and see the seas that stretch forever and smell the pines upon the mountains. It’s the same dream as every other soul on this moon. And I can get you there. It would take no effort to have my horrors repair your ship. I have no end of spare parts. All you have to do is make your staff work for me.”
Before he could stop himself, Spiderkin found himself staring at the little blue planet.
“Ah, yes.” The light atop the tower flared. “You know you want it.”
Spiderkin smiled. “I won’t lie. I’d love to see Ourland O’Florrida someday. But I’ll do it my way. My staff works for me.”
Arcs of electric fire crackled around the tower’s crown. “So be it, wizard. Then, run. Run from me and my horrors. We will find you, wherever you hide.”
“No!” spat Spiderkin at the Man. “No more hiding. And when I run, watch out because I’m running toward you!”
Modesty walked from the Hullabaloo, through the image of the Man, over to stand beside Spiderkin. The image rumbled deeply and dissolved.
Spiderkin spoke to the ghost and the moon. “Are you two coming?”
The moon nodded her head.
The ghost answered for both. “We’ll join you.”
Modesty took Spiderkin’s hand for the first time since they arrived. “Fire up John Joe, sweetheart,” he said. “We need a plan.”
“I thought thin space was illegal,” said Hush.
“It’s not just illegal, it’s forbidden,” answered Tux. He walked hunched over, carrying the “bomb” Maxmin’s mama had made. “Cutting into thin space leaves scars in our space that never heal. I question the wisdom of our hauling an illegal, potentially flawed, thin-space bomb through a forest on a crazy moon. But it’s what the lady wants.”
“You make me feel like a bad person,” said Hush. She hadn’t said much since leaving the ship behind.
“You sound like you’re having second thoughts,” said Tux.
“No,” she said. “But now that I’m so close to blowing up the factory, I don’t know if this will make me feel any better.
Tux could see the smokestacks of the factory just above the trees. “Are you ready to tell me what kind of horror you are?” he asked.
Hush said nothing as they trudged over the gray topsoil. She reached up to her forehead and tugged at a nearly invisible seam in her flesh. Slowly, as she pulled down, her skin parted in halves stopping only at the collar of her jumpsuit. Beneath her skin suit, Tux could see the slick red muscle and sinew of her head. It was still Hush, and she was still beautiful, but raw. “I was one of the horrors created out of malice.”
“Let’s blow it up,” said Tux.
They entered the body horror factory with Maxmin’s help. The facility hadn’t been used to make horrors in years, so only a few glow-bots wandered the corridors. They flocked to the trio shortly after they arrived, like lonely pets. None of the massive factory had been designed for comfort. No chairs, no place to rest or refresh. The factory was a slave-making machine operated by slaves. Tux recognized stripped components from the spaceship graveyard put to mysterious new purposes. The whole place was silent. He heard their footsteps and the hum of glow-bots overhead.
The group approached the approximate center of the complex. Hush had re-skinned herself, and she helped Tux and Maxmin assemble the device.
“Maxmin,” said Tux, “you’ve been quiet about what happened on the ship. Can you tell us anything?”
The little imp helped reassemble the device. His hands were ideal for small tools, but couldn’t handle large parts. “Soldiers took papa away, and made mama make a bomb. She was very sad but made one with Maxmin and other toe stealer’s help. Toe stealers very unimportant, so we slept by ship engines. We not know what mama did with the bomb until we came out for food. Were so very hungry. By then, no one left on ship but us.”
“I think you’re important,” said Hush, scratching Maxmin behind pointed ears.
With a last click of the hydrogen disentangler, the bomb was finished. Tux felt as though he stood on the edge of a very steep cliff; the bomb waited to push him into an abyss.
“Maxmin,” said Tux, “Are you sure the timer on this thing works?”
The imp shrugged. “Not know. Toe stealer just helper.”
“All right.” Tux looked over the controls of the bomb. He thought he could understand the function, even if he couldn’t understand the text. “So here’s the plan: The bomb blast never reached Maxmin in the ship’s engine room. I know how far that was. I’ll set the timer to give us enough time to escape.”
Tux began operating what he could recognize of the controls. Suddenly, a recorded voice spoke from the device in a language Tux couldn’t understand.
“Mama!” cried Maxmin.
“What’s she saying?” asked Hush.
“You started countdown.”
Tux saw figures change on the screen to a rhythmic pulse. “Great. How much time do we have?”
“Not know. Maxmin can’t read.”
Tux didn’t have a highly developed sense of failure. That typically took the form of anxiety over not achieving every item on his daily chore list. A deluge of angst threatened to drown him.
“Uh, Tux?” said Hush.
She really was beautiful. Tux didn’t care if she had no skin of her own. “We’ve got to get out of here.” He grabbed Hush and Maxmin and started to run.
No matter how fast and far he moved, the sound of the countdown pulse remained clear in his audio receptors.
Hush yelled protests as they stumbled through factory corridors. The glow-bots, charged with activity, shone brighter as they hummed overhead.
As the group rounded a corner, Hush jerked her hand from Tux’s mit. Had he heard a knock from somewhere?
“Tux, stop!” she rubbed her reddened hand.
“Hush, we have to move.” He noticed a ‘tation-station at the end of the hall. A perfect way out. If it worked.
She turned and started back down the corridor. “I have to check something.”
Tux and Maxmin followed after her.
“Are you mad?” Tux asked. “Bomb . . . boom . . . thin space. Have I left anything out?”
She had stopped at a door much like any other. She laid her hand on the black glass of the view port. There was a knock at the door. This was followed by another and then more. Soon, it sounded like a hailstorm.
“Kas,” said Hush. “This is where they’re kept.” She turned to Tux. “What happens if they’re here when the bomb explodes?”
“Then we, they, and every AI chip in this building will be banished to thin space forever.”
Hush’s eyes widened. She grasped the door handle and tugged. “We have to get them out of here.” She struggled, but the latch would not yield.
If Tux had a heart, it would have been in his throat. If he had one. They didn’t have time for rescue operations. But Tux saw her desperation as Hush clawed at the door’s controls.
“Here,” said Tux, “I can calculate opening combinations much faster.” He nudged her out of the way.
Before he could touch the controls, his bow tie beeped. “Modesty’s calling me?” Tux pressed his tie.
“Modesty calling Tux. Come in, Tux,” said the voice from his tie communicator.
“Tux! It’s so good to hear you!”
“Modesty,” said Tux. “Bad timing. There’s a bomb, Kas, and a locked door. Can I call you back?”
“Wait,” said Modesty. “We have a plan, and I need to tell you about it.”
The countdown pulse grew louder.
The Hullabaloo‘s yacht hurried toward the pole. The flight path led the ship over a stream of crashed ships glittering faintly along a crusty lunar surface. Around them were mountains that weren’t really mountains, but the rims of great craters. Spiderkin felt lighter and realized the enhanced gravity near the museum must decrease by the pole.
He saw a different kind of glittering ahead. “Ice,” he hissed.
“You realize,” said Modesty, “the body horrors will grab us as soon as we land.”
“Of course,” said Spiderkin. “Hullabaloo, as soon as we’re off the yacht, rise well out of the reach of the horrors and wait.”
“But Captain, I can fight. Let me sweep your enemies aside with my wings.”
Spiderkin chuckled, inspired by such loyalty from a starship. “Not this time. We have an idea brewing.” To the holograms, Spiderkin said, “Will you two stick around this time?”
The Nassa ghost and Moon held hands. “Yes, whatever happens, we’ve come to the end of the way things have been. We want to know how things will be.”
Spiderkin nodded. Beyond the viewport, he could see the Man’s tower appear to grow larger as the yacht approached. A vast plain of scattered rock and debris spread before it. Around them, craters of varying sizes overlaid each other, and each held what looked like a thin crust of ice. The water beneath any one of them could be the key to their prison on this moon. If the Man only knew how to use the staff, there would be no point to this journey. He’d already have whatever he wanted.
The Hullabaloo landed a short distance from the tower. After the humans and holograms disembarked, the ship rose vertically until it disappeared into the dark above their heads.
At this point, Spiderkin grew nervous. He remembered how he had felt fighting the Ticking Hordes, the helplessness that came from confronting such a bizarre, inhuman foe. He fought the feeling. He knew the others were counting on him, and he had to be ready to play his part when the time came.
From the tower, Spiderkin felt a low rumbling in his feet through the dust and black rock. Then, from behind scattered boulders and rock walls, from beneath traps and pits carved into the lunar surface, the body horrors emerged. Spiderkin felt like he was at the eye of a very great storm.
The horrors seized him and Modesty. They stripped her of her hammer and carried him and her upon outstretched hands above them. For several moments, Spiderkin knew only the groping, gripping hands of the horrors, until he and Modesty were deposited, still struggling, before the Man’s tower like driftwood left on some lonely beach by a passing wave. The holograms flowed through the throng of horrors like water through a sieve until they rejoined the two humans.
Mockhitler emerged from the crowd of horrors. One of them, shaped like a giant fist on legs, presented Modesty’s hammer to Mockhitler, who already held Spiderkin’s staff.
The woman was a horrible sight. She stood, stripped to the waist, her jumpsuit rolled down to her belt. She was obviously one of the horrors created from malice. Her eviscerated midsection dwindled in the middle to a waspy silhouette of knotted flesh and bone. She held Modesty’s hammer like a stinger, ready to strike.
“If I had had my way,” said Mockhitler, “we would have started the factory back up just for you two.” She indicated the two humans with the end of the hammer. “The moon belongs to body horrors now. And the horrors belong to the Man.”
“That’s ‘His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon’,” thundered the Man’s voice from the tower. “Mockhitler,” said the Man, “these people are our guests, not your toys. You have enough of those.” To the humans, the Man said, “Can Casanova get you anything to make you comfortable?” A little, blue imp with a zippered mouth limped forward.
“I’d like some water,” said Spiderkin.
“Regrettably, we have none,” said the Man. “Casanova, fetch something comfortable for our guests.” The imp wandered off. “Technomagus, you and the nurse are something special.”
“I’m not a nurse,” said Modesty.
“Whatever,” said the Man. “You are the first humans to come to this moon in a very long time that I have not tried to convert for my cause.”
“Tell us about your cause,” said Spiderkin. He glanced at Modesty, and she nodded. Spiderkin knew to keep the Man talking.
“Do you know what I am?” said the Man. “A library. But not just any: I’m the most important repository of human thought ever. A life boat on a sea of ignorance. Everything humanity ever knew and has now forgotten fills my virtual shelves.”
Spiderkin’s mouth watered. Plan aside, he’d love to keep the Man talking about this. “Sounds like a dream come true. How do I get a loan card?”
“You can’t!” The Man’s red tower light flared. “Apologies. My books are not to be taken out.”
“But I’m a human,” said Spiderkin. “Don’t you have some kind of protocol for obeying my commands?”
“Not since I became Holy,” said the Man. “My creators tasked me with a mission, one which I’ve tried to fulfill for countless years. You may know I created the horrors to be servants but also simple, if stupid, guardians of the library. Your arrival has convinced me that my fortifications are not enough. Humans will always come. I have to eliminate their reason to return. And your staff will give me the power to do so.”
Suddenly, the Ticking Hordes didn’t seem so bad by comparison to Spiderkin. “You can’t destroy all those books, all that knowledge!” He fought to free himself from the hands of the horrors.
“Of course not,” said the Man. “I would never destroy my books. I’m going to destroy the Earth.”
Spiderkin’s knees gave out. Only the arms of the horrors that held him kept him from falling.
“Go ahead,” said Modesty. “I’m never going to go there. My home is light years away.”
“Modesty,” Spiderkin said, “what are you doing?”
“Can it, Newton,” said Modesty. To the tower, she said, “What’s your plan, Mr. Man?”
“I plan to use the Eye of Shiva, but I need a power source greater than any I have.”
“Most Holy,” said Mockhitler, “don’t trust her. She’s wicked and . . . indecent.” Mockhitler gestured toward Modesty’s skirt with the staff.
“Oh, quiet, Mockhitler. I’m no fool.”
“I can help you,” said Modesty, “but whatever I do, Spiderkin and I go free. This was never our fight anyway. We just leave and forget we ever came. You can destroy the Earth, and this crazy moon of yours will disappear in space.”
Moon broke away from the Nassa ghost. “No! Eye of Shiva bad! That why Moon have it. Too strong. Eye never close.”
The Nassa ghost reached for Moon’s hand. “Moon’s defenses incorporate some of the most powerful weapons of Earth and most destructive. I think the Eye is both.”
The moon nodded.
“Oh, Moon,” said the Man. “I look forward to an eternity of stimulating conversation with you. Modesty, I accept your bargain. Horrors, let her go. Nurse, step forward. Now, how can you help?”
Modesty said, “I’m not a nurse.”
Spiderkin started to feel the burning pricks of doubt on the back of his neck. Modesty wasn’t just riffing on the plan. She seemed to have made up an entirely new one. Unless she was serious.
“Modesty,” said Spiderkin, “Think of what you’re doing. This moon isn’t just the start of humanity’s journey to the stars; it’s the reason we left for them in the first place. Humanity looked up at the moon and asked why it was there and what lay beyond. If we let the Man destroy the Earth, we won’t be able to bring back all we’ve found. Now, I have only one question for you: is the floor lamp ready?”
Modesty smiled and pressed the red cross on her breast pocket. “Oh, I hope so, or I’m about to do something really stupid. Tux, let her rip.”
She ran for the edge of one of the nearby craters and stopped. Not far below, Spiderkin could see one of the ice crusts. Whatever Modesty was doing, it wasn’t part of the plan. He had to be ready for whatever stunt she tried.
Mockhitler raised the staff to signal her body horrors. “I knew it! She’s up to something. Body horrors, I want you to – aargh!” Before she could finish her command, Spiderkin saw another of the blue imps biting through her toes.
“So hungry!” it said, with blood dribbling down its cheek and bits of toe between its teeth.
From between a throng of horrors, Tux and Hush appeared.
With Mockhitler distracted by the loss of her toes, Hush grabbed the staff and hammer from her. “You’ll never come near me again.”
A scream died in Mockhitler’s throat as Hush passed the staff and hammer to Tux.
“Modesty, catch!” Tux threw them both.
As the two handles described an arc over horrors and moon dust, Spiderkin realized Modesty’s plan. “Oh, Modesty, no.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her. She caught the handles in each hand, barely stepping back as she plucked them from the air.
To the Man she said, “Nurses don’t do this.” She charged her hammer and leapt from the crater’s edge toward the ice sheet below. On impact, thunder cracked and ice shattered in the crater.
Spiderkin rushed to the edge. The ice crust wasn’t far below. Already it was broken and smashed, with small sheets floating atop churning waters where Modesty had broken through.
Tux joined Spiderkin at the crater’s edge. “That wasn’t what she told me she was going to do,” said the butler-bot.
“Nor me,” said Spiderkin.
“That was it?” boomed the Man. “That was your plan to get your staff back? Pathetic! And to think, I have to guard the knowledge of your ancestors for eternity. I’ll have the horrors retrieve the staff from the water, and then I’ll rip knowledge of its use from you like strips of bacon from a pig.”
Spiderkin forced himself to turn away from the crater below toward the Man. “I don’t think so. I don’t need the staff in my hand to make it work.” Spiderkin closed his eyes and intoned some levitation formulas. Below, he could hear the ice blocks part as staff, hammer, and Modesty rose up to them. Spiderkin opened his eyes to see Tux pulling an unresponsive, soaked Modesty to one side to try to revive her. She still held John Joe as though her hand were frozen to the handle. But the staff floated freely. Spiderkin drew it toward him. The lantern was full of water.
“Body horrors!” shouted the Man, “seize that man and confiscate his staff.”
Spiderkin swept the staff before the advancing horrors, freezing them all in motion. With another sweep, every horror crumbled to frosty rubble.
“Ice is appropriate at this moment,” said Spiderkin. “There’s something useful water does when it freezes.” With a third slash toward the Man, a water spout formed from within the crater. Its vortex spun wild until it engulfed the Man’s tower.
“What?” said the Man. “What can your frozen water do to my impenetrable fortress?”
“It expands,” said Spiderkin. Numbers danced in his mind as moisture seeped into micro cracks and grew colder. Crevices, like lightning bolts, began to race across the Man’s surface. Chips slid away from the ancient edifice.
“Really?” said the Man. “You get your staff back, and you use it to erode me?”
Spiderkin drew his staff close to him and rested his weight against it. “It’s not about what I’m going to do to you, anymore. It’s about what they’re going to do to you.”
A sound started, like rain on a rocket hull far away. The Kas drew closer. But now, instead of aimlessly swarming, searching for something, they came with a purpose. They’d found what they had been looking for. An opening.
Spiderkin couldn’t see the Kas pour through the fresh openings in the Man’s tower, but he heard their percussive fleeting.
“What have you done?” The Man screeched. “Technomagus, think of all the knowledge that will be lost without me! No! Keep back. Stay outside of me!”
Spiderkin lost all doubt that an artificial intelligence like the Man could be alive. Only something that lived could scream with so much terror at the thought of losing that life. The light atop the tower flickered and dimmed, and the restless tapping of the angry Kas faded like the death kick of some twitching beast.
Spiderkin sighed. “We learned it once; we can learn it again.” He remembered Modesty and joined Tux in reviving her.
The little butler-bot did not turn to face Spiderkin as he approached. He continued to kneel beside Modesty, her hands cupped between his tiny mits. “She’s cold. I’ve tried warming her.”
“Tux,” all thoughts of the feud between them were gone. Spiderkin knew they both wanted the same thing. “Let me try.” The robot stood and moved out of the way.
Spiderkin touched his staff lightly to Modesty’s chest. If he could have been an objective observer, a scientist that every technomagus should be, he could have calculated how much water to remove from Modesty’s lungs and the power needed to warm her body. But this was Modesty lying on the cold rock, and he loved her. He let the staff work its own magic. The color slowly returned to her flesh.
Her eyes blinked open.
“You changed the plan,” said Spiderkin, taking her hand.
“I improvised. Did the Kas come?” She propped herself up. Spiderkin and Tux helped her into a sitting position. The holograms and Hush had joined them, but Spiderkin barely noticed.
“They did,” he said, “and they’ve gone to wherever angry Kas go. They took the Man with them.” The only noticeable sound came from the Man’s tower, which continued to crack and crumble.
Nassa and Moon, hand in hand, floated over to join the group.
“We’ve ruined your moon,” said Spiderkin.
The ghost held up a hand. “Not at all. It needed a good cleaning. What will you all do now?”
“Modesty, the floor lamp, and I will probably head up there.” Spiderkin nodded toward the blue planet.
“Actually,” said Tux, taking Hush’s hand, “we’re going to stay. The toe stealers will need looking after, and Hush and I can try to salvage some of the library.”
“You’re not coming?” Modesty couldn’t disguise the crack in her voice.
“Don’t make me choose, Modesty.”
Hush put her arm around Tux’s glass head.
“It’s a one-way trip, Tux. We can’t make it back in the yacht,” said Spiderkin.
“Not necessarily,” said the Nassa ghost. There may still be red rockets left behind on Earth.”
Spiderkin thought again of fighting the Ticking Hordes and how he promised Modesty they’d stop running and rejoin the fight. He thought about how strange it was that to go forward, they had to go back. Back to the very beginning. He would go to Ourland O’Florrida, and then they would see.
The silver form of the Hullabaloo floated down from the sky toward them.
“Let’s go,” said Spiderkin.
David Fawkes works by day as a field scientist for an environmental company, which means he works long hours and does a lot of heavy lifting. By night, he writes. One of his hobbies includes rescuing obscure rare books from exotic locales and eccentric locals. He enjoys playing music, but, despite rumors, he has never been asked to play bass for the Residents. Coffee is David’s favorite addiction, with books being a close second.