Spaceship X Has Seconds to Live
by David Fawkes
The ship was crashing, and there was nothing Winchester could do to stop it. The spaceship into which his body had been incorporated for weeks had started to reject him, eliminating him like a disease, reducing his neural relays to a smell like burning hair and ozone. He and his ship fell toward planet Wurlitzurnia, which filled his scanner views over the golden crust of the ship’s hull.
All his dreams of falling as a child had led to his becoming a pilot, and none could compare to this moment of silent awe and terror as the tickle of gravity slowly tightened into a fist.
Winchester opened his living eye, glanced at the bridge, and winced from the smoke. He forced himself to see what sensors could no longer tell him. He saw many of his other body parts flopping helplessly as they attempted to control a ship that would no longer respond.
He turned on his ears to the sound of someone screaming and realized it was him. He stopped, but the panic and din of the dying bio-ship X remained. Its own creaks and groans matched Winchester’s screams. Then, he noticed a new sound. It almost escaped his attention, not being as important as a crashing spaceship. The neu-wave transmitter began buzzing. Why would the ship send a signal through time? thought Winchester.
Winchester’s cybernetic eye came online, which surprised him since he didn’t ask it to. The dead static noise from the device resolved into the same chaotic view of the bridge he saw with his living eye, but with an addition this eye couldn’t see: On the bridge stood a radiant figure. A woman in silver chainmail with white hair and wings glowed as though light were a halo or a crown. She stepped forward to the panel where Winchester’s eyes were housed.
“Winchester,” she said, “the buzzbomb virus is heading for the past. We must follow. Will you go with me?”
Winchester stared at the destruction around him and thought of his dying ship. “Yes,” he said over a crackly speaker somewhere.
She lay an angelic hand on his control panel, and all went black.
Winchester Stranglehold awoke so violently he tore the upper half of his body from its charging unit. The dream, if it had been one, seemed so real to him, and the imagined odor of ozone still seemed to tingle in his nostrils.
He rubbed his living eye and brought his cybernetic one online. He ignored much of its unnecessary spectral data and tried to limit himself to the visible beauty of his home.
He hadn’t been back long from test runs in space, and he was trying to reorient himself to what he remembered of home. The bronze sunlight of early morning on Wurlitzurnia crept lazily through the enormous porthole windows of the bedroom. The bed rose and fell, like a palm tree swaying in the breeze, which meant he’d have to repair its hoverpanel later.
His wife, Dala, kept a clean home, and a flock of tiny tidy-bots grazed along the carpet or circled the ceiling, hunting for grime. Dala programmed them herself; Winchester had no gift for such things, and he admired their dance as he labored to lift himself from the bed. As he sat up, struts creaked and servos struggled to align and balance his mechanized, cybernetic upper body. It wasn’t easy being top-heavy, but nothing about being a motor-head was easy.
The scent of coffee coming from the kitchen revived him faster than any alarm could. He rose, strapped on his uniform in seconds, and hurried to the source of breakfast.
The morning sun began to thin to pink as he stumbled through apartment corridors. Vids and pixelated phantoms of his family morphed and followed him along the hallway picture panel. In-laws and cousins he seldom saw waved while parents frowned or shrugged. Winchester passed the images by. His wife and fresh coffee awaited.
“I didn’t hear you get up,” Winchester said.
“You never do.” Dala smiled and poured him a mugful. She wore a gown of woven optic fibers. Pulses of light criss-crossed the weave. Winchester knew the pulse pattern signaled to other men that she was unavailable. He hadn’t asked her to make this display; she did it on her own. That meant more to him than any ring on a finger could. From the collar of her gown protruded a net of signal amplifiers, and she had shaved her head to allow better contact. LEDs flashed around her head as she received data from the web. Winchester thought she looked like quiet sunlight.
Steam rose from the mug as Dala handed it to him. The first taste was always the best, and the coffee tasted better than it smelled.
Winchester stumbled and winced as a servo over-corrected his posture.
“Oh, sweetie,” said Dala, taking his mug before he spilled it. “You’re not awake yet, are you?”
“No, I’ve been feeling funny. Bad dreams.”
“Do you need a little prop time while you tell me about them?”
“Yes!” he answered. “We haven’t done that since the last time I was planet-side.”
“Leave it to me. I’m a master.” Dala helped lower Winchester to a seated position on the kitchen floor, handed his mug back, and then she sat behind him so they were back to back. He let Dala take some of the weight of his upper body as she propped him up from behind. This prop-time ritual dated back to their early days of dating.
He couldn’t feel her, but he knew every inch of her shoulders and imagined them pressed against his. He sipped at his early-morning reason for being.
“Now, tell me all about the bad dreams,” said Dala.
Winchester couldn’t see her. The hood formed by the motor-head augmentations that covered his head and shoulders prevented him from turning, but he heard her beautiful voice.
He began to describe his dream. “I think it was a dream. There was a feeling like the one I get when I download data, but it didn’t feel like a dream until I woke up.”
“A bad one?”
“Yes,” said Winchester. “I don’t remember much, but I was flying and crashing.”
Dala shifted her weight behind him. “Now you’re going to give me nightmares.”
“Sorry,” he said. “And you thought you were going to get away with just giving me breakfast.”
She reached a hand back and patted Winchester’s hood.
“Oh, no,” said another voice from the kitchen entrance. “Are you two getting . . . affectionate?”
“Not on the kitchen floor,” answered Dala. “Well, not while you’re still living with us, Varna.”
Winchester repositioned so he could see Varna, his sondaughter. “Have I been gone that long? You’re a girl again?” Her short, dark hair had grown a little, and her legs were definitely longer, or was her dress shorter? She’d be a woman soon. When she wasn’t a man.
“Yes, I am. Not that you’re ever around to know.” Varna disappeared down the hall.
Winchester sighed. “What happened? I remember when Varn — I mean Varna — would greet me in the landing bay every time I came home.” He wished he could shrug. “I just wanted some coffee.”
Dala rose and took his mug. Then, she helped him up. “Go say something to her. She misses you.”
“I always say the wrong thing.”
“You’re her father, and she’s a teenager. You’re never going to say the right thing.”
Winchester wondered why teenaged sondaughters couldn’t be more like spaceships.
When Winchester arrived at Varna’s room, the door was rolled partway into its pocket. He entered. Varna sat on her balcony with one of her model rockets. A dozen mini-comp screens filled a corner of her room. Each showed video footage being taken right then by the hordes of other rockets she had let loose on the unsuspecting city. Her “fleet” would return for fuel or repairs, but mostly they just wandered the skies collecting random footage. Winchester had introduced Varna to rocketry. But she had been a boy then. And a girl, and a boy, who knew how many times since. Winchester had tried keeping track at first but was gone too often to know.
“Preparing another launch?” he asked.
“Yes. Gonna tell me not to?” She didn’t look up from her tinkering.
“Of course not. Your rockets are brilliant. Far beyond anything I showed you how to make.”
“Gonna tell me not to be a girl?”
“I never said that.” Winchester sighed. Varna referred to a very old conversation between them. “I love who you are. I said the motor-heads would not accept a cyclosexual.” Winchester knew this was the point when he would say the wrong thing.
Varna threw bits of rocket across the floor. The rocket uttered a tinny whimper.
“You want me to be just a son or a daughter; well, I can’t control the change. This is how I am,” said Varna.
“That’s not what I want,” said Winchester, picking up larger pieces of rocket. “The motor-heads are very strict. They barely took me, and everyone else on this planet is so twitchy about any kind of differences.”
“I’ve seen the way you look at me whenever you come home. Afraid you’ll forget whether I was a boy or a girl the last time you saw me. You’re twitchy, too.”
“I didn’t want you to join the motor-heads!” He carefully set down the model rocket parts. “I know you want to be a pilot, but I didn’t want you to have to go through what I do. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“You think I don’t know about alienation? Get out.” Varna pointed to the doorway.
Winchester was no good with teenagers.
He returned to his wife in the kitchen and picked up his coffee. It was cold. “I think I’m going to go see my psycho-bot.”
Winchester rode alone in a skytram car. He was used to sitting with no one next to him in his aisle, section, or row; but today, he bounced along as the tram flew over the city with no neighbors in his car. Whenever the tram landed at a station, people would start to enter as the doors rolled open, but then they would backpedal and head for the other cars. He only heard the muffled roar of the tram rockets and the hubbub of passengers from the nearby cars.
The people of Wurlitzurnia couldn’t decorate themselves, so they decorated Wurlitzurnia. The skytram flew over curved and rounded buildings decorated with neon, chrome, and cobwebs of stained glass. Colored lights danced across every compulsively polished reflective surface. There were no laws on the planet forbidding bodily ornamentation or mutilation because no citizen would consider such atrocities. Except motor-heads. They accepted the permanent alterations that made them monsters on their own planet.
Winchester listened to the rain starting to tap across the tram hull. Water spots and rivulets distorted the colors of the city so they ran into an electric blur.
He had wanted to be a motor-head ever since childhood, younger than Varna had been. Winchester was a good pilot. On Wurlitzurnia, that meant he flew the bio-ships and tugs that required the merging of motor-head with organic machine. Though they performed the most important job on the planet, piloting the ships that were the life-line of an isolated world, motor-heads were despised as mechanized, cybernetic freaks by the people for whom they worked.
He dozed for a moment. As his eyelid started to droop and before his cybernetic eye drifted into standby, he saw something flying alongside the tram car. He thought it was a glitch since he saw it only out of the mechanical eye. When he turned to see the object, it disappeared into the sparse clouds. It had looked like a woman in silver chainmail.
Winchester’s comm-snake hissed. The communication device couldn’t circle his neck as on most people. He didn’t have a neck, so the silver serpent nestled in a battery hutch in his shoulder. Winchester answered its hooded head.
On the hood’s viewscreen, Winchester saw a form much like his own, or at least as he imagined himself to be. His boss tried to smile, producing a lined face that sagged beneath its mechanized eye.
“Stranglehold,” said his boss. “I need you to report into motor-headquarters.”
“But I’m on leave. I just saw my family for the first time this morning.”
“Stow it. I only need an hour of your precious quality time; an’ I’ll tack it back onto the end of your leave, but you’re coming in. I’m sorry, Winchester. It’s my day off, too. My office. One hour.” The comm-snake rang off and re-curled into a ball.
If Winchester got off at the next station and transferred to the Wishbone line, he’d make it.
As Winchester arrived at motor-headquarters, he circled the towering statue of Clock Vortex, the Patron Saint of Rockets, which stood before the building like a guard. He had been the first motor-head to enter crawl space and return. Only before the entrance to headquarters was the saint shown as he actually had been: more machine than human. All other versions on Wurlitzurnia depicted him before his great conversion, making him look as human and ordinary as possible.
On entering the lobby, Winchester stepped into the suspension field of the lift and allowed his body to drift upward. Aside from prop time with Dala, this was the only relief he ever felt from the great weight of his upper body.
He caught the hook extending from his boss’s office level and pulled himself from the lift back into the normal gravity of the hallway. He wished he could linger in the weightlessness of the lift, but the hours of his leave flew by. He steadied his footing and proceeded to his boss’s office.
His boss, Modom Rooth, had started in the ranks, and his motorized upper body no longer interfaced with any ships, but he kept his augmentations as a badge of experience. As Winchester entered the office, he saw the older man stooped over his station. Rooth withdrew some of his interfaces from his panels and addressed Winchester.
“I know, I know,” said Rooth. “I could be fishing right now, so I ‘preciate your coming in. Not going to jerk you around; you get a lot of work done. We need you to do more.”
Winchester had been expecting this. If you work too hard, you get more work. He nodded to Rooth.
“So when you get off leave, report for more augmentations.”
“More? I already have the full array, enough for any bio-ship.”
Rooth leaned forward as much as he could and hooked his finger toward himself. Winchester moved closer.
“This is of the highest secrecy. I got you a Behemoth-class ship to test,” said Rooth.
Winchester sat back. He’d heard of the Behemoths, but hearing about them triggered memories of the dream from the morning. He wasn’t sure why. “Those are ready? And you want me to test one?”
“You and only you will test version X of the first Behemoth ship.” Rooth gave a wrinkled smile.
Winchester thought how good an opportunity this could be, working on the most advanced crawl space bio-ship on the planet. Then, he thought about Dala and Varna. “Can I think about it and get back to you?”
Rooth paused for what seemed like a long time. His eye glazed over, and he seemed to glare at Winchester as though he were some detestable thing. From somewhere, Winchester heard a buzzing sound. It intensified then stopped. Winchester thought that was strange.
Rooth relaxed and smiled. “Of course. Think about it, but I really need you to say ‘Yes.’ Now, go on back home.”
They exchanged goodbyes, and Rooth reconnected to his panels. Winchester rose to go. As he left headquarters, he couldn’t help thinking there was something more to the look of anger his boss had given him than mere conflict with a subordinate.
While en route, Winchester confirmed a special session with his psycho-bot. Many Wurlitzurnians went to the analytical machines, but motor-heads were required to go. For them, it was often too much dealing with flying ships in the Black Whole of space, let alone being hated for what they became just to work there.
After more tram-hopping, he arrived at the Psycho-bot complex, a hive structure designed by robots to suit highly structured, unguessable needs. It spanned a series of buildingtops located near the city center. Winchester imagined walking through the complex was as close as he would ever get to being in an ant farm.
He wandered through corridors, passing the closed doors of many other bots and patients. Most people and bots valued anonymity, to the extent that not even the bots knew their patients’ private information. Some would enter and exit through analysts’ windows from waiting aircabs. Winchester never worried that much about privacy. He couldn’t hide being a motor-head.
He arrived at his psycho-bot’s nest. The door rolled to the side, revealing his analyst sitting in a deep pit in a round room. Light from a single, massive, circular window lit the room.
“Ah, motor-head Vinchester. Come in.” The bot came from Astral-Hunk 9 in the Hessian Star system. Winchester still smiled at its accent, though not when it looked at him. The multi-armed psycho-bot gestured with a friendly metal appendage. Other arms swung across multiple panels, scanning Winchester’s, and likely other patients’, case histories.
Winchester entered and sat in a special chair constructed for motor-head patients. It propped up his torso, but not as comfortably as his wife did.
“You haff been gone long. Test piloting has kept you busy?” asked the bot.
Winchester was used to the arms swinging from panel to panel during their sessions, but he wished the robot would keep its eyes on him for more than a glance. “Too busy. I barely have time for my family.”
“You are motor-head. You should expect such things. You mentioned an urgent matter. This vouldn’t be more of your notions of a persecutory delusion? That’s for me to diagnose.”
“No,” said Winchester. “The first thing I wanted to talk about is my sondaughter.”
“The cyclosexual? Go on.”
Winchester could see one of the bot’s panels describing general cyclosexual biology. He didn’t like the idea of Varna being generalized by an encyclopedia entry. “Well, doc, Varna means so much to me, but I feel like everything I do for her — she’s a she right now — is wrong. She wants to be a pilot. She’s even built these rockets that fly around town, filming videos.”
The psycho-bot held up a manipulator. “I see. Let me ponder this problem, and I will provide the logical solution. You said ‘first’. You haff other matters?”
Winchester had to struggle to unclench his fists. The psycho-bot often interrupted him when it felt it had all the facts. “I had a dream.”
The robot brought up a fresh panel. “Ah, interesting. Do continue.” Its eyes never left the panels, but it seemed to be listening.
Winchester recounted the dream that awoke him earlier that morning. The smell of burning and the gradual accumulation of weight. The sensation of separation as he discovered pieces of himself scattered across instrument arrays. “. . . and then there was this woman, armored in chainmail, with white wings and hair, radiant, but terrible, like some kind of dreadful angel.” Suddenly, he saw her there in the office out of the corner of his mechanized eye. She shook her head and gestured for him to stop. Then, he noticed the psycho-bot staring straight at him, its manipulators frozen mid-task. Again, Winchester heard a buzzing, like a far-away field of locusts.
“Is something wrong, doc?”
Slowly, it rose from its nest, like some giant mechanized spider, its arms pushing and dragging itself toward Winchester. “I’ve decided to take your therapy in a new direction, Vinchester.” It raised two metal manipulators over its head.
The dreadful angel screamed, “Jump, Winchester!”
He lurched from his seat and propelled himself like a poorly guided missile across the room. The psycho-bot’s arms crashed behind him.
Winchester collapsed against the curved wall of the room.
He wasn’t built for rapid movement, but neither was the doctor. It guided itself toward him by pushing off wall and panel.
“This does not bode vell for your diagnosis, my boy!” The psycho-bot seemed to grow confident as it lurched over faster and herded Winchester away from the door.
Manipulators crashed like whips by his head as Winchester tried to keep his balance while sliding against the wall.
A brilliant white flash from the angel startled him. He was surprised the doctor seemed to see it too. She had drawn a curved, chrome blade from behind her back and held it aloft.
“Run this way, toward the window!” said the angel. She pointed her sword toward the giant circular glass lens. “Trust me. Jump through it.”
The psycho-bot redoubled its efforts to dash Winchester’s brains against the wall.
Something about the angel made Winchester trust her. He guarded his face with an arm and ran for the window like a ram. His heavy metal torso smashed through plate glass. For an instant, he had the vertiginous sensation of slowed time and free fall; then, he crashed hard onto something and rolled. When he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the slow arc of the spider-like psycho-bot as it fell toward the mists of the city below.
Winchester checked his new surroundings. He was on the deck of a passing vehicle. He turned and saw its name: In curvy green and gold letters, it read, “Fortunate Fish”.
“What’re you doing here? No ship docked.”
Winchester had been trying to stand with shaky legs on the deck of a flying restaurant when he heard the voice behind him. He turned to see a dark-haired man in sandals, holding a mop that wasn’t much thinner than him. Under a greasy apron, Winchester could just see several faded clan tattoos.
“Sorry,” said Winchester. “I just fell out of a building.” With the realization came fear. He could have joined the psycho-bot on the street far below. Winchester trembled.
The man looked him over, squinting with deep, sharp eyes. “Never rains, but it pours. Come into the kitchen.” He motioned for Winchester to follow.
The odors within seemed three-dimensional, as though each were part of a thick tapestry, decorating walls and filling empty spaces. Several pots bubbled on a stove, and jars of unidentifiable off-world creatures cluttered shelves.
Most of the signs and menus were in a language he couldn’t understand. He could have used the translator in his mechanized eye, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what anything was.
“Have a seat. They’re clean,” said the skinny man, motioning toward the kitchen counter.
Winchester sat and tried to balance on a stool meant for much less bulky people.
The man poured Winchester a drink. It looked like motor oil and smelled like licorice. One sip and all his muscles began to relax.
“Fell out of a building, huh? What happened?”
Winchester tried to explain, but stumbled over why his therapist would try to kill him, and he left the angel out.
“You’re a motor-head, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Winchester, sipping more of the beverage as the man set out a steaming bowl of soup that smelled spicy and had unidentifiable things in it.
“Ah, then you get a free sweet bun.” The man laid one beside the bowl.
“A free sweet bun? But I just fell out a window and a robot tried to kill me.”
“Look on the bright side. Now you get a free sweet bun.”
Winchester couldn’t argue with that. He ate his food and sipped his wonderful drink. “I’m Winchester Stranglehold,” he said between mouthfuls.
“My name translates as ‘Lustrous Pearl’ in your planet’s language. I’m the owner of the ‘Fortunate Fish’.” He swept his hands across the view of his ship. “My friends call me ‘Lust’.”
“Pearl it is,” said Winchester. “Your food’s delicious. Why is no one here?”
“Aw,” Pearl looked away and began polishing the counter with a rag. “If I had people in here every day, I’d have nothing but work to do.” He shrugged and stared at his feet.
“Well, I’ll be sure to tell my–” Winchester wanted to say “friends”, but he had so few. “–coworkers about your restaurant.” Winchester glanced around. “Anybody else work here?”
“In my clan, it’s traditional for the whole family to work together. On this planet, I’m all I got, now.”
“Aww, you don’t want to hear.”
Winchester pulled another cup over, set it in front of Pearl, and poured him some of the licorice liquid. “I told you about being chased by a robot and falling out of a building.”
The man smiled. Then, it went away. “My clan was from the planet Gallium Chalice. After the Wind-up Empire destroyed it, we worked as cooks on a refugee ship. Then, my wife died.”
“I’m sorry.” Winchester thought about Dala.
“It’s okay, now. But I had daughter too. She contracted Hawking’s Cough. It was bad. She’d break out coughing one morning and disappear into next week.”
“I thought there was a cure.”
“There is now! At the time, I could afford to have her time-snapped at the Hospitaller’s Constellation, but not to get her unsnapped. Now, I’m trying to save money for her release. At least she’ll still be young. I’m getting old.”
From Winchester’s mechanized periphery, he saw the angel. She sat beside him at the counter. Her alabaster wings shone even in the dim lighting of the Fish, and the links of her armor glinted like scales. She sipped at a cup of her own and glared at Winchester.
“That’s terrible,” he said. “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I couldn’t reach my daughter.”
“I try to look on the bright side,” said Pearl. “I’ll tell you when I find it. Speaking of which, is there something you’re not telling me? You keep looking to your right like you expect someone to be there. Someone following you?”
Winchester thought about the angel, sitting next to him and scowling. “Sort of.” He thought about telling this funny chef everything. Maybe there was something in the drink, but he felt like Pearl might want to talk with him. “I had a dream this morning, except I’m starting to think it wasn’t a dream. I was testing a new kind of ship, one I had completely merged with, rather than partially as an ordinary motor-head. And we were crashing.”
“You ever crash for real?” asked Pearl.
“Yes, happens to every pilot, but we were disintegrating on re-entry. And I could feel the ship’s pain.”
“Is that normal?”
“No! This was some special kind of ship. But it and the pain felt more like memories than dream.” Winchester glanced at the angel. She twirled her finger around the lip of her half-full cup. “There was something else, too. I didn’t want to say, but you told me about your daughter.”
“I saw something on the ship I can’t explain: an angelic woman with white wings, and she’s been following me around since I woke up. She’s sitting next to me.”
The angel slapped her head.
The chef finished his drink and said, “Hmm, okay, man. Maybe you are seeing chainmail ladies from space. I dunno. I do know I’ve taken you about as far as I can. Come with me, and I’ll drop you off at nearest tram station.”
Winchester felt his upper body grow heavier. He thought he was making a friend, but the chef rose, and Winchester joined him. The angel was gone. However, as Pearl passed where she had been seated, he did a double take. There were three cups on the counter. Come to think of it, thought Winchester, had he mentioned the angel was armored?
He heard the Fortunate Fish leave, but couldn’t watch it go. He decided to catch the next tram headed his way alone.
All around him, passersby, in their neutral-colored outfits, parted around him as he made his way over congested crowd movers and down hover elevators. Had Winchester ever been like those people before he’d been changed? No, he’d always wanted to be a pilot. To feel a ship under his command; his head merged within its control panel, body bowed like a religious devotee. Free to fly forever across the Black Whole of space.
“Hey, Win,” said a voice behind him. “Ridin’ is still flyin’. You’re supposed to be a planetside pedestrian until your leave is up.”
“Hello, Lailow.” He was almost a friend. Winchester had known him since joining the motor-heads. Having been through the experience first, Lailow had prepared Winchester for his conversion. But knowing about the knife doesn’t dull its sting. “You on leave, too?”
“Yeah, but I got no family like you. I usually waste a couple o’ days leave time down at the Talestore catchin’ up on backissues.”
“That stuff’ll rot your brain,” said Winchester, dodging a rogue tidy-bot.
“Yeah,” said Lailow, “but I’m not doin’ anything with it.”
“You want to ride with me as far as you’re going?” What Winchester needed was company; he might not have a lot in common with Lailow, but he liked the guy.
“Yeah, okay. But you know, from this station, we’re going to have to sit in the ‘motor-heads only’ car on the tram.”
The dreadful angel appeared in the corner of Winchester’s eye. He tried not to glance her way, even though she attempted to get his attention.
Lailow stopped mid-stride, as though trying to find the right words. Pondering the injustice of motor-head life? Winchester thought.
Lailow turned Winchester’s way, seeming to look at something on the horizon. Then, he smiled. “Yes, it’s a new city ordinance. Solidarity, brother.” He slapped Winchester’s shoulder. It rang like a dull bell. “Let’s go catch a tram.” Lailow led on. Winchester heard the buzz again, so close he could feel it like a root canal.
Lailow suddenly seemed strange to Winchester, awkward and unlike himself. His limbs jerked as he moved, and he seemed to forget how to balance his torso. Winchester followed to make sure he was all right.
Sure enough, when they arrived at the tram, one car was marked for motor-heads. Winchester didn’t mind so much. He often picked the last car on the tram; it had the rockets, and the noise usually kept most other people away. However, he didn’t like being told where he belonged.
The door rolled open, and Lailow motioned for him to enter. As he did, Lailow shoved him in hard enough that Winchester crashed into the opposite wall.
“Hey, Lailow, dammit!” Winchester stumbled around to see the door roll shut. He heard the pops of tiny explosions and saw the flash of sparks through the windows. “Lailow, what are you doing?” Winchester rushed across the car to see Lailow stepping away from the door mechanism. He stared through the glass at Winchester, his living eye as cold and unresponsive as his mechanical one.
“This motor-head knows where you live, Winchester Stranglehold. You’re no longer needed.” Lailow moved to an external control panel.
“Lailow, you’re freaking me out.” Winchester heard the lock that held his car to the next disengage. “Lailow?” But he no longer responded to Winchester at all. The rockets for the tram started in reverse. Winchester watched his friend turn around, and walk away as the tram backed out of the station.
What just happened? What did he mean about where I live? thought Winchester. The station receded, and the single car flew slow and uncontrolled into the cacophony of city air traffic.
And the angel was there in the tram car with him, appearing luminous and hovering. “He’s been taken by the buzzbomb virus, Winchester. I couldn’t do anything; I’m sorry. You’ve been extremely resistant to me.”
Winchester stormed the angel. “Sorry? You’re sorry? What about my family? He said he knows where I live!”
“I’d be happy to explain everything, but don’t you think you should try to do something before you reach those buildings?” She pointed over Winchester’s shoulder out the rear windows of the car.
Air cars and trailers swerved around them, horns screeching as they passed. The fliers worried Winchester, but they seemed to want to avoid him as much as he, them. But the buildings of downtown would not be so flexible.
“I can’t reach the rockets from in here,” said Winchester. “This is a tram. Passengers aren’t meant to fly it.”
“What do you have that you can use?” asked the angel.
“Now you’re trying to be helpful?” snapped Winchester.
“Stop resisting me. Those buildings are getting close. What do you have?”
“I can merge with any control system, if I can reach it. But those are outside.”
“Is anything inside?” she asked.
He thought. “Power and lighting. I could make the lights flash.”
“Be serious,” said the angel. “You haven’t much time.”
Something switched inside Winchester; his emotional inhibitor activated, and the pilot in him took over. “The hover panel on the bottom of the car. I can control that.”
“But if you turn that off you’ll fall like a stone.”
Winchester started ripping up the carpet, searching for the power panel lid. “Not off, in reverse. The panels can be set to attract instead of repel; the drag will slow us over the rooftops, but we’ll bleed power. I have to make what I do count.” He found the panel.
He ripped it from its hinges. Beneath, the controls glowed like tiny jewels, Winchester kneeled to let his hood relays merge. “I won’t be able to see while I do this. Can I trust you to be my eyes?”
“If you only knew how much you can trust me,” she answered.
“Then look, and tell me when we’re over a building. I have to do this fast.”
Too soon. Winchester reversed the hover panel to be a drag panel. The tram lurched downward toward the buildingtop below, and he felt the dip as though his stomach dropped out of his body. But it wasn’t enough.
“We’re past that one,” said the angel.
“More warning next time.”
He did and felt the car connect with the rooftop. The savage scraping and shuddering nearly dislodged Winchester from the controls, but the angel hovered unaffected.
They were beyond the edge of the roof and flying free again. Soon the hover panel would be out of power, but the rockets would continue until they ran out of fuel.
“Can you fly out of this car?” asked Winchester.
“You don’t have to worry about me. Save yourself, and I’ll be fine.”
“All right. We haven’t much power left, but I have a plan. Find me a rooftop we can drag on for a while. Follow whatever I do.”
“Now! Turn it on now!”
Last of the power. He let it burn. The tram car hit the rooftop and dragged as the rockets pulled the car along, sending sparks higher than the windows. The shock threw Winchester away from the controls. It no longer mattered. He turned, covered his face, and smashed his hood through the nearest window, glass falling away like diamonds among the sparks. He could see the rockets pulling the car toward the next closest building. Winchester leaped while he still had building left to land on and hoped the angel would follow.
“Hurry! Hurry!” The damn autocabs were so slow and dumber than rockets on a tricycle. But they had no AI or cyberpilots, and the angel had said that was important.
Winchester’s arms had stopped oozing blood, but still throbbed. The improvised bandages helped, but his blood speckled his uniform. Rolling from a moving tramcar onto a rough rooftop had cut him but superficially. All his systems functioned, but he’d never get the dents out of his hood or the kinks out of his shoulder struts. He was permanently scarred.
“Your destination is stationary,” said the autocab. “We require no more than the legally proscribed haste.”
“Stupid machine.” Winchester considered pummeling the interface, but why re-open his wounds?
“Calm down.” The angel floated a wire width above the seat as though she couldn’t mix with something so mundane. She barely fit in the cab, or rather, Winchester barely fit in with her. Her wings, even folded, occupied much of the free space. She was becoming tangible as well. He could feel the tickle of her feathers on his hand, and she radiated coolness, like a breeze on a rainy day.
“Calm down? Lady, I have to get to my family! You have three options: speed me home like a helpful angel should, tell me something useful, or shut up!”
Winchester seethed. He thought about something happening to his family and that he could be the cause. Automatic systems in his hood tried to adjust his emotional level, but he overrode them. He wanted to feel; it kept him sharp.
The angel looked hurt. She tried to rest a hand on his bloody arm, but it passed through. “I’m sorry. I forgot how little you know at this point in time.”
“At this point . . . ? What do you mean?”
The look the angel gave him reminded him of the one teacher-bots gave him growing up in a school-box. “You know where we met was no dream. When I pulled your mind back in time over the neu-wave transmission, it was to follow something terrible.”
“I remember.” He did, but he didn’t believe. “But the neu-wave is just a way of sending data back in time to solve certain crawl-space equations.”
“Data. You. Me. And the buzzbomb virus. We’re all information in the younger Winchester’s hood. He’s the carrier.”
Winchester glanced out the curved glass of the autocab down chrome and neon alleyways and over rooftops littered with receiver arrays. He wasn’t far from home. “Carrier of what? What’s a ‘buzzbomb virus’?”
“You know how most people feel about motor-heads? In the future, some decide to do something about it.”
“What does the virus do?” asked Winchester.
“It can take over cyborgs or AI systems, and its only purpose is to kill you and your family.”
Winchester pulled away from the angel. “What? Why me? Why my family?”
“Stop!” The angel’s voice rang like steel on stone. Winchester shut up. She continued. “This is partly my fault. I had thought the buzzbomb virus came back on its own. I was wrong. It came back in you. But you’re safe because of me. I’m a virus, too. A special kind. As for your family, they’re up to you.”
And they weren’t safe from who he’d infected: his friend, Lailow.
The autocab approached the landing bay of Winchester’s apartment complex. Other questions would have to wait.
As the cab departed, so did the angel. Fine, thought Winchester. This was his job to do anyway.
Everything appeared normal as he crept through the dilating bay door. The corridors were quiet, and he could hear the deep-down hum of the ventilation unit and feel air currents across his skin.
He entered the code to his apartment door, and it rolled open. The smells of coffee and dinner greeted him. Tidy-bots circled around his feet and above his head. Nothing appeared out of place, but he entered as though Lailow might leap from any corner.
He jumped. “Dala.” His wife approached him from the kitchen. “You scared me.”
“Why are you creeping around?” she asked.
He hugged her. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” They parted, but still clasped arms. “I haven’t got much time to explain. I think someone might try to kill us. I think we need to get someplace safe.”
“Your friend? Oh, Winnie. Are you sure you aren’t being a little paranoid again?”
“No! Okay, maybe I have in the past, but he just tried to kill me. I’m surprised he’s not here now.”
Dala must have noticed Winchester’s damage because she ran a hand over his dented hood and bandages. “You’re serious. Gods, you’re scaring me.”
“Go pack a bag. Is Varna here?”
“She’s in her room.”
Winchester rushed back to Varna’s room and pounded the door. “Varna, honey. Open up.”
From within he heard her muffled voice. “I’m not in the mood now, dad.”
He was about to respond when he heard an explosion from the apartment entrance.
Varna opened her door.
Winchester couldn’t hear its usual swish because of the discharge of some unknown weapon and the crashes of destroyed furniture.
“Dad? What’s happening?”
Winchester cupped a bandaged hand over Varna’s mouth. She struggled and tried to get him to let go. She bit him. It didn’t hurt, but he released her.
“Leggo of me!” She tried to fight Winchester’s grasp.
“Hush! Be quiet.”
Lailow entered the hallway to Varna’s room, looking more like a shadow in the glare from the living room. Winchester could see the silhouette of the batterbeam pistol in his hand.
“Oh, no!” Winchester grabbed Varna and wrapped as much of himself around her as he could.
Lailow, or the virus that inhabited him, must not have had much experience with his weapon. Golden glowing beaters ricocheted off the screens, destroying the video photos and setting fire to the walls. Finally, they focused on Winchester’s back. The bronze-colored metal of his head and shoulders would protect him for a while, but soon the beaters would pound their way through him until they reached Varna.
The salvo stopped. Winchester heard the crackle of small fires and smelled smoke.
“You struggle to protect your freakish sondaughter,” said Lailow. “But we shall stop your family before you can spread your monsters among the stars.”
Winchester grunted as the beaters bit into his back again, forcing him and Varna against the hallway wall. Winchester’s legs buckled.
The beaters stopped.
“Get away from my family!” That was Dala’s voice from the other room.
Lailow began to scream as the sound of a dozen tidy-bots filled the hallway.
Winchester risked turning his upper body to see Lailow covered by tidy-bots. Their multi-tools gripped at sensitive areas and their scourers tore at his chest unit.
Lailow began to fire wildly toward the room where Dala was. She screamed.
All of the anger, panic, and fear that he’d been feeling since the cab ride took Winchester over at that moment. He left Varna crouching at the wall and crossed the length of the hall in two massive strides. He grabbed at his former friend and ripped one of the tidy-bots from Lailow’s flesh and began smashing him in the face and delicate areas of his head. Lailow dropped his pistol.
“Dad, stop!” Varna held his arm, trying to stop him from pounding Lailow’s lifeless body. His face and hood were a twisted crater of red metal. Winchester let his own hood calm his emotions, and he felt his breathing slow.
The fires had started to spread, and already Winchester had begun to cough.
Dala! She was in the living room. Winchester rose from Lailow’s body and lurched into the other room. Varna followed.
Dala lay on the floor, her breathing rapid and raspy. Several beaters had caught her across her chest and shoulder; one arm hung loosely in its socket, held only by shreds of muscle and flesh. Blood covered the floor and her beautiful filament dress.
As he knelt, he noticed how the pulse-pattern of the dress had become a random stutter.
“Sweetheart.” He stroked her smooth head, and she opened her eyes.
“Winnie,” her voice was no louder than a sigh.
Varna began to cry. “Dad, do something.” She held her mother’s arm, forcing her to cry out. Varna let go.
Winchester knew there was no way they could get a med-zeppelin to their apartment in time. The fire spread toward them.
“Hang on, sweetheart. We’ll get you out of here.”
Varna reached for Winchester’s hand. He grabbed it and held on.
“No,” said Dala. “You have to get out of here.” Dala brushed her good hand over Varna’s. “Please watch over my Winnie. He’ll be so alone now.”
Varna couldn’t speak, only nodded.
Dala turned back to Winchester. “I’ve left something for you.” She passed him a memory biscuit. “I hope it helps.” The flashing lights from her dress slowed and then stopped. Varna laid her head against Winchester’s shoulder. He couldn’t feel her, but he sensed her weight.
“What could Dala possibly have left me that would do any good?” he asked, mostly of himself.
“Me,” said the angel, appearing beside him.
“Varna, we have to go!”
She had run from Winchester while he carried Dala’s body. Now he stumbled through the smoky hallways back toward his sondaughter’s room. Dala’s body was heavy, but he’d carry it anywhere.
Fire consumed their living room furniture and raced up ancient hanging rugs, draping walls and corridors. Smoke burned Winchester’s living eye, but a fan system in his hood kept him breathing without choking. He felt the heat sear the skin on his arms and cheeks. Why couldn’t Varna have stayed with me? he thought. He absorbed data from Dala’s memory biscuit while he waited.
“You can’t wait for the fire brigade,” said the angel. She hovered behind Winchester, like a stray glow-bot at a tram station. “You’ll corrupt the bots, and you don’t want firedogs after you.”
Varna came around a corner, a damp towel over her mouth. “I got it, Dad,” her voice muffled by her hand, “my rocket controls.”
“You went back for your damn rockets?” Winchester grabbed her arm and urged her back toward the apartment entrance.
“I couldn’t just leave them. They’d be lost without me.”
He didn’t want to think what he’d be like without her. As they exited the apartment, Winchester heard the fire alarm for their floor. The stink of smoke clung to them even as they left the fire behind and ran along the hall toward the landing bay.
“Where are we going, Dad?”
“To the shuttlebug.”
“Why aren’t we staying for the fire brigade? Where are we taking Mom? What just happened back there?”
Winchester thought about how all his possible explanations were as intangible and diaphanous as the angel trailing behind him. Varna deserved something; otherwise, she might start to panic. He grabbed her hand as they hurried. “I don’t know everything yet. People are trying to kill us. We have to get away.”
“Are you trying to keep me calm? You’re being so helpful. Thanks.”
She was sarcastic again. That was a good sign. They entered the landing bay. Nesting in a corner, hovering above the ground, was their family shuttlebug. Winchester sent an “open” signal with his key, and its door dilated. Eight thruster appendages extended from its underside.
Winchester glanced at his sondaughter. She was getting so tall now. He had to make her grow up even faster. “You’re going to have to fly.”
Her eyes widened. “Me? I’ve never done it before. You never let me. Why now?”
“Emergency. I can’t fly it without corrupting its AI. I’m depending on you.” A crash course in flying and working together was a recipe for rebellion, but this might keep her from thinking too much about losing her mom, for a little while.
Her lips trembled as though she were pondering the plan. “I’ll do my best.”
They entered the shuttlebug. Winchester lay Dala’s body in the back seat. He could feel the emotional governor taking control and trying to soothe him. But he wanted to feel. His wife lay still and would never move again. He wanted to be himself so he could remember what he’d felt when he and Varna let Dala go.
Varna sat in the pilot’s chair. “What do I do?” she said. “I can’t merge with the controls. I don’t have a hood like yours.”
Winchester reached into a shuttle compartment over his head and pulled down a dusty headset with curly wires trailing from various nodes. A drizzle of packing bubbles followed after.
“Here.” He handed the headset to Varna. “This came with the bug; it’s for piloting smaller vehicles like this one. You’ll have to use the factory defaults, but you’ll be flying.”
She held it in her hands, unsure of what to do with it.
“You know,” said Winchester, “if you put that on, you’ll be the equivalent of a junior motor-head.”
She crammed the set on her head, like a matte-black tiara and began tapping wires into the board.
Landing bay doors opened, and the bug lurched forward like a crippled spider. Winchester imagined its thruster appendages kicking faster and faster as the shuttlebug left the bay.
“Beautiful take-off, Varna.”
“You mean it?”
“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”
“Well . . . whatever. I don’t need compliments from you.”
“Fine,” said Winchester, “but bank to port or we’ll crash into that carrier.”
Varna over-corrected and became flustered. Winchester remembered she had no governor stabilizing her emotions and tried to remember that feeling of freedom. He reached over and corrected her roll, but she slapped his hand away. She’d make a good pilot after all.
“Where are we going?”
“To a funeral kiosk. We’ll launch your mother into space in a pyrostar; she was Uranian, although a little unorthodox.”
“We’re going to get rid of Mom?” Varna almost whispered the question.
“We can’t take her with us. She would have wanted a burial in space.”
Varna said nothing as she flew, and then, “I’ve always wanted to go into space. I never thought Mom would get there first.”
Winchester put his hand on Varna’s. “I’ll do everything I can to get you there.”
She took her hand back and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Then, she grabbed Winchester’s hand again.
The angel leaned forward from the back and was about to say something, but Winchester pointed a warning finger at her. Varna had not yet been able to see the angel, and Winchester wanted to keep it that way for a while. The angel backed away.
The shuttlebug approached a funeral kiosk, and its forward momentum slowed. Winchester hinted at what Varna needed to do to land while still letting her think she already knew how to do everything on her own.
The legs of the shuttlebug grasped the hitching post, and the bug came to a halt.
“Still don’t need any compliments?”
“No,” said Varna.
Funeral kiosks weren’t much to look at. Beyond the landing area stood the interface, where families of the deceased chose the last rites to be performed during liftoff of the pyrostar. From the rear of the kiosk extended the electromagnetic catapult, a long, steel rail, like a strand of silver wire, ran toward the horizon and up into the sky. When launched, the pyrostar would coast along the rail until launching off the end out into space.
Winchester wrapped his dead wife into a shroud and carried her toward the kiosk. He wasn’t sure if it was an effect of the emotional governor, but time seemed to slow. He saw the lights of passing tramcars snake along their way into the orange haze of twilight. Blazing horns of traffic deepened as though receding into the past. Dala seemed to grow heavier as he and Varna approached the interface. A thought flashed into his mind. He remembered all the prop times with Dala when she supported him as he talked over his troubles. He’d never have that again.
“Our condolences,” said the squat box of the interface. “Whom would you like us to commend to the Black Whole of space?”
“My Mom,” said Varna.
Winchester had been banished to the back of the shuttlebug by his sondaughter. She didn’t want him to see her cry, and, truth be told, he felt the same about himself. He sat on the same bench where his wife had last lain. He struggled to cry through the emotional inhibitor. The tears, when they came, fell in a drizzle rather than a deluge.
A beeping noise came from somewhere nearby. It sounded muffled, like an alarm clock wrapped in rubber. Winchester didn’t recognize it as a shuttlebug sound.
“Varna, is that something of yours?”
He saw her wipe her eyes with her sleeves and cock her head toward the back to listen. “My rockets! Bring me my bag.”
Winchester grabbed it and brought it forward.
Varna coaxed the shuttlebug into autopilot and removed her headset controls. She took the bag, burying a hand deep within its folds. Clothes and random bits of electronic bric-a-brac fell from within onto the floor.
“Ah-ha!” She removed a pocket dashboard from the bag and stroked its surface to wake it. “My rockets are checking in. I programmed them to follow us.” She moved her fingers in arcane swirls across the dash.
“Varn/Varna, sir!” chorused a troop of Varna’s rockets.
“I’m still a ‘ma’am’ for now, but skip it,” she said into the pocket dash speaker. “Report.”
Several high-pitched rocket voices chimed in unison. “Um, ma’am.” These rockets weren’t very smart. No danger of Winchester infecting them. “You ordered us to watch vehicles following along more than fifty percent of your path, reporting only high statistical outliers. Uh, there is one vehicle fitting those criteria.”
“You programmed your rockets to do that? That’s fantastic! You’re just like . . .” Winchester stopped himself from saying “your mom” and switched to “. . . a true future motor-head.” He hoped she wouldn’t notice.
She didn’t say anything. “They’re a bit dim. I sacrificed wit for size.” To the dash, she said, “Show me the outlier.”
On the tiny screen, several images resolved themselves into one multi-view perspective.
“Oh, no,” said Winchester.
Behind them, bobbing along between chrome and neon facades of residence hives and corporate pyramids, a spy shuttle followed. Its puff-drive coughed out steam behind a giant electronic eye mounted on the vehicle’s bow. The eye’s pixelated slit scanned to either side but always returned to its center, where, Winchester knew, they were the focus of its attention.
“It’s an eye-pod,” he said. “It’ll never give up now that it’s seen us.”
“Why’s it looking for us? Is this more of what you’re not telling me?”
“I’m not hiding things from you. I don’t know everything myself. But whoever is after me has stepped up the pursuit.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Varna. “Whatever they want can’t be good. We have to escape.”
The eye ceased its wavering and focused on their shuttlebug. Winchester knew the spying drone had transmitted their location before he and Varna had begun to ponder the problem. All that remained was for it to keep tabs on the shuttlebug until the eye-pod operators arrived.
“I have an idea,” said Varna, “but I don’t know that I like it.”
“What? We should talk about anything.”
“It means destroying one of my rockets, and I don’t know if I could bear that.”
“Varna, I’ll buy you a dozen new bloody blue rockets when this is over. What’s your idea?”
“I could order one to crash into the eye. If anything, it will slow the eye-pod down.”
Winchester leaned over and kissed Varna on the forehead. She wrinkled her face and rubbed her brow. “That’s a great idea,” said Winchester. “Let’s do it.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want to hurt any of my rockets.”
Winchester took Varna’s hand. “Sweetheart, we’re in trouble. Sometimes being a motor-head means making hard decisions.”
Winchester thought about a future he remembered only like a dream, one in which he had to make a difficult choice and follow the mysterious angel from a dying ship.
Varna took her hand back and touched the pocket dash. “Rocket 42, report in.”
A crackle of static, then, “Yes, ma’am. Rocket 42 reporting for duty.”
Varna clenched her free hand into a fist. “My father and I are in trouble. We need your help. I want you to–” Varna looked at her father as though searching for another answer. “–to crash yourself into the eye of the pursuing eye-pod.”
“Affirmative, ma’am. And good luck to you and your dad.” To the other rockets, number 42 said, “Goodbye, fellows. Nothing lasts forever!”
From the rear viewer of the shuttlebug, Winchester could see the unblinking eye of the pod as it followed. Suddenly, Winchester saw the sharpened nose cone of rocket 42 swoop in from port and bury itself in the drone’s eye like a dart in a board.
The eye-pod swerved, and the rocket prevented its eye from moving in its orbit. The pod’s flight became erratic as it tried to shake the rocket loose. Finally, the slow-moving pod bumped into the wall of a nearby building as it tried to dislodge the needle-like rocket from its eye.
“It was a good rocket, Varna.” Winchester patted her on the shoulder. “Now, let’s make the most of what it’s done. Find us someplace obvious to land.”
“Whoever’s following us knows our shuttlebug. We have to ditch it. Let’s leave this vehicle someplace where our pursuers can find it while we search for another ride.”
“Another ride? Like a tram or a cab?”
“No,” said Winchester. “Those would be good if we knew where we were going. We need to get away and think as we go. I have an idea, but first let’s get rid of the bug.”
Nearby, they found a landing stage for a disused sky temple. They left the bug, its thruster appendages tucked beneath it, on the center of the stage, directly under a busy sky path. When the people who sent the eye-pod came, they would find the bug.
“So what’s your big idea?” asked Varna.
Winchester pulled out his comm-snake; its long neck unfurled and the hood opened to reveal its communication screen. “Information,” said the snake.
To Varna, Winchester said, “I’m going to call on a long shot.” He glanced back at the snake, which hissed low in anticipation of a request. “I need a listing under ‘Restaurants’,” he said.
After the call, Winchester and Varna strolled along the conveyor paths bridging many of the city’s popular buildings. Winchester always drew strange looks, and there was no hiding what he was. Varna, however, blended in with the passersby. She never attracted curious glances, except for her in-between times when she was a little too much of one sex and not enough of the other. Winchester wasn’t sure, but the pendulum might be swinging back toward boyhood. Was that getting easier to tell? he thought. Maybe he was just paying greater attention to her.
The red neon lights danced across the faces of pedestrians, which blurred across the chrome filigree adorning the buildings. At the food dock, aromas from the cuisine of a dozen cultures wove together as Winchester and Varna approached.
Off to one side, between the Mediterranean Convoy and the Star Gypsies, perched the Fortunate Fish.
“I don’t know why you couldn’t finish your call in front of me,” said Varna. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I do,” said Winchester. “It’s not that. Dealing with Pearl is very delicate, and I wanted to bargain in private.”
A thin man in sandals and a food-stained apron opened the door to the restaurant and beckoned to Winchester and Varna. “Quick. Get inside before someone sees you,” said Pearl. “Are you nuts? Motor-heads stand out like an octopus at a tea party!” He ushered them onto the deck of the Fish and through its doors as he closed them behind.
The Fish looked much as it did before, but the smell had more of a sweet, acidic tang to it. Winchester could still hear the sound of pots simmering, and their steam added to the general haze of the place. The tables and barstools still stood empty.
“Thanks for letting us hide here, Pearl,” said Winchester. “We needed to get out of sight.”
“You picked the right place for it. Nobody comes here. Who’s this?”
“My daughter. Pearl, this is Varna.”
Pearl wiped a small hand across his greasy apron. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I’ll get you some soup.”
He trotted off toward the kitchen, and Varna looked around for a place to wipe her hand and decided on her father’s uniform. “This is who you called for help?”
“I’m running out of options,” said Winchester. “He seems like a decent sort.”
Pearl came back with a tray of soup bowls. He beckoned to the others to join him at a table. “I gotta tell you, man,” said Pearl. “I almost didn’t come back until you mentioned your bargain.”
“Bargain?” asked Varna. “Is that what you didn’t want me to hear on the call?”
Pearl paused with the spoon on its way to his mouth. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No.” To Varna, Winchester said, “Honey, he wasn’t going to come. I needed to make a deal. That’s all.”
“What kind of deal?”
“Oh, it’s very honorable,” said Pearl. “One father to another. He’s going to pay to get my daughter out of time-snap.”
Varna stared open-mouthed at the two of them. “What kind of ‘friend’ makes a deal like that?”
“Actually,” said Pearl, “I hardly know your dad, and he made me nervous talking about his chainmail space chick last time.”
“Wait a minute,” said Winchester. “You make that sound really bad.”
Varna pointed her spoon at him. “You’d better explain that, fast. Who’s he talking about?”
From a darkened corner of the restaurant, steam and haze swirled and coalesced into a form. A figure approached the table and said, “He means me.”
Winchester looked hard at the angel as she stood by the table. He didn’t know why he’d never seen it before Varna suggested it, but the angel did look like Dala, a Dala from a long time ago, a Dala that now seemed like a ghost.
“This is your mother?” asked Pearl. “What’s going on? Am I seeing spirits?”
“No, Pearl. I’m no ghost. I’m a computer virus designed by Dala to help Winchester.”
“Why can they see you now?” asked Winchester.
“You downloaded Dala’s biscuit,” said the angel.
“So I’m not nuts?” asked Pearl of no one. “That was my big concern.”
“You’re not crazy,” said the angel. “Just keenly perceptive.”
“What were you meant to help dad with?” asked Varna. She put her hand on Winchester’s arm. “He has me now. He doesn’t need help from a virus.”
The angel smiled. “I’m glad you feel that way because it will make my job easier. It’s time you all knew what you’re up against. You’ve all felt the animosity the people of this planet have for bodily alterations; Winchester, you’re nearly half machine; Varna, you change your sex; even Pearl has clan tattoos. The people of this world classify you as ‘untouchable’ and tolerate you at a distance. That won’t always be so.
“In the near future, a splinter group will become enraged by Varna and will try to have her killed. They fail and attempt to eliminate her by more desperate measures.”
“Me?” asked Varna. “Why?”
“You will become the first cyclosexual pilot. Because you can change sex, the bio-ships of the future won’t be able to adapt to your constant change and reject you as a foreign organism, like other pilots.”
“You mean me,” said Winchester.
“That’s the theory,” said the angel. “Varna will be the proof, and she’ll be a hero to thousands of other untouchables for whom you are an example. At least, that’s what will likely happen if you all can work together.”
“How do you know this?” asked Winchester.
“This isn’t our first time coming back, Winchester,” said the angel. “But it will have to be our last.”
Winchester could tell Varna wanted to speak; she certainly looked as though she could explode. Winchester put his hand on her shoulder. She stayed silent but didn’t try to shrug his hand off as he’d expected.
The angel continued. “The attacking virus is called a buzzbomb because of the sound victims make and the explosive way it can spread. The splinter group chose to send this virus back in time via neu-wave trans along your timeline, Winchester, giving them the opportunity to get to Varna through you. They didn’t expect you and me to follow along. But I ‘inspired’ Dala to create me and put me in the memory biscuit you absorbed. That’s why you don’t buzz. I make you immune. But the immunity only works on you. You’re a carrier.”
“Like carriers of Hawking’s cough don’t get thrown through time,” said Pearl.
“Exactly,” said the angel.
Winchester didn’t like the idea of an angel on his shoulder, guiding his hand. “How much of what I’m doing really comes from me? You’re a virus infecting me. Am I just ‘Winchester 3.0’?”
“Oh, Winchester,” the angel smiled and tried to reach for Winchester’s hand. He withdrew it. “Ever since you agreed to slip back along the transmission beam, you’ve been living a life you chose, but it might not be the one you remembered.”
“Last chance, eh?” said Pearl. “Take it, my man. I wish I could.”
It was Winchester’s turn to stay silent.
The angel turned to Pearl. “So, you sound as though you’re more willing to help those two since you know you’re not crazy. What do you say? This could be your last chance.”
“I’ll hold to my bargain,” he said. “I want my daughter back. Besides, we untouchables have to stick together. Anyone want more soup?” He gathered empty bowls onto the tray and returned to the kitchen.
“Why do you have to look like my mom?” asked Varna of the angel.
“I didn’t mean to. I think I look a little different to everyone.”
“Varna, leave us alone a moment, please.”
“Seriously?” said Varna.
“Varna, please,” said Winchester.
Varna frowned at the angel, rose, and walked out of earshot.
Winchester continued. “You’ve changed who I was and who I’m going to be by bringing me back to this time. You’ve changed who my sondaughter will become. I’m not even sure what would have happened had I never interfered.”
“You changed yourself. I gave you the opportunity, and you took it. When I took you back, that set up a possible timeline in which Varna might have a chance if you succeed. If you had done nothing, she surely would have died.”
Winchester had to admit the angel had a point.
Pearl pushed open the kitchen doors. “Hey, Winchester. Transmission coming in. It’s addressed to you. I’ll pull it up on main scanner.” Pearl crossed the dining room to an ancient-looking cabinet covered with lacquered wooden scrollwork. He opened its doors, revealing the Fish’s main screen.
Pearl accepted the message, and Winchester and Varna joined him in front of the screen. The sender icon preceding the message indicated it came from motor-headquarters. Winchester wondered who would contact him through the Fish and why.
On the screen flashed the sagging face of Modom Rooth, smiling a skeletal grin. “Stranglehold. I need you to report in again.” From somewhere, Winchester heard a sound like a squad of angry hornets in a jar. It was Rooth. The buzz hung around him like a stink.
The angel now filled a dark, hazy corner of the dining room, like a tempest on the horizon. “You know that sound, Winchester. He’s infected, and the other motor-heads are likely to be as well.”
Winchester said to the screen, “I won’t be coming in this time, Rooth, or whatever you really are. How does this work? Does Rooth exist anymore, or has the buzzbomb virus killed him?”
“Ah,” said Rooth. “All cards on the table, eh? Well, let me show you my hand, and then I’ll show you yours. Thank you for spreading the virus to me. I was able to pass it on to other motor-heads with great efficiency. We know where you are, and our shuttlebugs are coming for you. We’ve locked onto your hood, so you can’t hide. We know your wife is dead. Soon, you and your whole freakish family will be, too. Pity this all had to happen on your leave.”
Winchester felt the emotions at first, like an itch somewhere he couldn’t scratch. Then, it built like a fire behind his human eye. The emotional inhibitor struggled to calm him only to succumb to the blaze.
“Hide? We’re not hiding,” he said. “In fact, I want to thank you. Now I know who to go after. We’re waiting for you. Make it quick.” Winchester faced Pearl and Varna. “Close your mouths; I have a plan. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a plan?” Varna’s face was red and her fists balled, ready to strike.
Winchester had never seen her so mad. Was her voice starting to deepen? he thought. Perhaps a subtle change in her neck and shoulder muscles, too. Winchester had never seen her full transition from girl to boy. She seemed angrier; maybe Winchester could point her at their enemies and leave some of the planning to her. “I said that because Rooth was still on the line,” said Winchester. “I wanted him to think we’re up to something.” He glanced at Varna. She stood fuming. Winchester thought it might be better if he left her alone for a bit.
Pearl stood nearby with a plate in his hand, picking at something squirming with noodles and smelling delicious. “We’d better be up to something soon, or this’ll be a short getaway.”
He was right, thought Winchester. He owed Pearl and Varna a plan, but he had no gift for such things. But he could use the gifts he had. “Pearl, this is an older ship, or restaurant, no offence. Does it have AI?”
“You kidding? It barely flies. Why?”
“Take me to the controls. I’ll buy us some time.”
The cook shrugged and led Winchester toward a door at one side of the dining area. Pearl set down his plate and wiped his hands on his apron and pants.
Winchester marveled at the composure of unflappable chef. “Aren’t you worried? We’re about to be chased by murderous, virus-possessed psychopaths, and you’re eating a snack.”
“Aww, no good worrying. You’re a good pilot. I’m a great chef. All will be well. Besides,” he turned and winked at Winchester, “they’re after you, not me. I’ll just cook them a free lunch. No worries.”
Winchester smiled and wished he could shake his head. Pearl turned and led him into the flight room on the starboard side of the restaurant. It couldn’t have been called something as formal as a “cockpit”. It looked like a broom closet the way Pearl kept it, and it smelled like engine oil. “Thanks,” said Winchester. “I’ll manage from here.” The cook shuffled back to his kitchen.
But could he manage? thought Winchester. Pearl had been right: no AI. But from the looks of the controls, the ship was little more than a flying wind-up toy. Clearly, it stayed on auto-pilot, flying over a pre-set flight plan across the city. The chef probably only grasped the controls to land at the odd food deck. That’s how the Fish flew now, chugging along the skyways, like a hobo searching for an alley.
Winchester could hear the turn of gears and the creak of pulleys as the wheel corrected deviations in their flight path. The most complicated system in the room controlled the hover panel keeping the restaurant aloft.
Pink and orange sunlight filtered between skyscrapers, its early evening brightness dimmed by the shadescreen over the flight room’s viewports. Against the backdrop of twilight, dark specks drifted out of the sky, floating toward the city. The motor-heads were coming. Winchester was going to have to escape the cat with his tail already caught in the mousetrap.
Winchester pulled the squawk tube from the wall and called to the dining hall. “The ride may get a little bumpy, probably the rest of the flight. Varna, if any parts of a plan show up, I’ll be here in the control closet.” He hung up the tube.
He flipped the controls to manual, wound up the cochlear drive, and aimed the Fish deeper into the city.
When he again looked at the horizon through a break in the city skyline, the dark specks were gone. The clutter that had filled the sky, the motor-head ships, must have settled into the city. He imagined them coming for the Fish, hunting them, like an eye-pod, only infinitely deadlier. For motor-heads knew how to fly almost as well as he.
They would find him; he couldn’t change that. His one chance was to make the Fish hard to get to. He aimed the restaurant for the heart of downtown traffic.
Most offworlders found the city’s chaotic commerce district traffic bewildering, never comprehending how a native could fathom or navigate the maze. In truth, natives didn’t bother.
Winchester saw the first wave of traffic ahead. On a world dominated by air travel, the skyway currents flowed in layers. Winchester marveled at the dance of traffic before merging, once again thrilled to be a pilot. When one joined the traffic, one had to realize the flow moved on not just two or three axes, but four, with timing being the most important. Air cabs, shuttlebugs, starhorses, and carryalls crossed between buildings, wove above or below adjacent crossings or people-movers, or dove in vertiginous pursuit of a wide-open path. Winchester knew the Fish could only crawl among such competition, but he also knew his pursuers would be forced to do the same.
“Dad.” Varna had snuck in as Winchester concentrated on the city. “I have some of that plan for you.”
“Still upset at me, sweetheart?”
“Unbelievably,” she said. “But I’m setting that aside for now. If we live through this, I’ll kill you later.”
“That’s my girl. Now, that plan?”
“I still control the rockets. Some are following behind. Some are searching nearby. The people who are chasing us won’t be as easy to destroy as the eye-pod, will they?”
“No, I’m just hoping the virus has blunted their edge.”
A muffled alarm chimed in Varna’s backpack. “The rockets have spotted something.” She pulled her pack around to reach inside.
Before she could answer the alarm, the Fish lurched. Winchester fought to control the sudden plunge to port.
A crash of pans and crockery, followed by a stream of foreign words from Pearl, came from the kitchen.
“Son of all bitches!” Pearl yelled. “We’re under attack!”
“Stay here,” Winchester stood and said to Varna.
Winchester felt his inhibitor kick in. He slammed it back into his subconscious. He grabbed Varna’s shoulder. “Don’t think for one minute I’m above strapping you to that chair and locking you in this closet. Stay! Find out what your rockets have to say.”
He left her there, simmering, and ran to find Pearl.
On his way, he felt a cold, gentle hand, like a breeze, graze his arm. It was the dreadful angel.
“See if you can capture one of the motor-heads for me, Winnie,” she said. “I may be able to do something with him.”
Winchester rounded on her. “That was Dala’s name for me. You don’t call me that, however much you look like her.” Another crash, and the Fish lurched again. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.
“Get off my Fish!” The yell came from the kitchen. Winchester followed the noise.
The kitchen had the largest bay of the whole ship to allow access for grocer-pods. Perfect access for a boarding raid. Winchester shattered the kitchen doors like a force of nature.
He hadn’t known what to expect, but it wasn’t what he found.
Pieces of former motor-head lay scattered about the kitchen. One crouched, propped against a counter as he tried to dislodge a cleaver from his hood. A fan of sparks sprayed from the gash. In the center of the melee, Pearl whirled, twin halves of his broken mop cut and stabbed at the more sensitive regions of his enemies.
Winchester shook off his surprise and joined the fight.
He used the brute force that came with a heavy metal torso. His head dashed against noses and jaws, and he tossed opponents like a mechanical bull. But all he saw were the faces.
They were men he knew. Every mangled one. Many he didn’t like; some had almost been friends, as Lailow had. None had deserved to be torn apart like savaged toy soldiers.
Then, there was a broken broom half at his throat. Pearl stared at Winchester along the length of the staff like a berserker ready to kill. Blood splatter criss-crossed his face. “Oh, hey, Winchester.”
“You’re covered in blood.”
Pearl wiped his face and stared at his hand. Then, he ran it against his stained apron. “I’ll wash up before cooking again. Help me get these bodies off my Fish.”
Winchester pointed to the one with the cleaver stuck in his face. “Leave that one. I need him.”
While heaving motor-head parts out of a bay door, Winchester saw what caused the Fish to rock earlier. Several shuttlebugs hung clamped to the side of the Fish like barnacles.
“Keep them there,” he said to Pearl. “It’ll be harder for the next wave to land.”
“Dad!” Winchester heard the yell from the control closet.
To Pearl, he said, “Take cleaver-face to the angel,” and then he headed for Varna. He tried to run as he crossed the Fish, but every joint ached. His feet felt coated in lead as he hobbled toward his sondaughter.
“Varna, what’s wrong?”
“My rockets have reported in. There are dozens of shuttlebugs converging on us from all directions. Soon, we won’t have an open path anywhere.”
“Which way is still free?”
She pointed down an avenue.
“Out of the way. That’s where we’re going.” He strapped himself in and grabbed the controls.
He got his bearings as he flew down Varna’s avenue, avoiding a passing diner-bot. Up ahead past the Riddle Way crowd mover and the twin Temples of Justice, he knew lay Motor-headquarters. They were being guided.
More jolts rocked the Fish, knocking Varna to the floor. Honks sounded as aircabs rolled to avoid the Fish.
“More shuttlebugs,” said Winchester. “The motor-heads are mad because they can’t board.”
“Maybe I can get Pearl to throw pots and pans at them,” said Varna, rising on wobbly legs.
“That’s a good idea. Do you still have the bug headset?”
She looked through her bag. “Right here.”
“Go see if you can chuck some of those ‘barnacles’ on the side of the Fish at our visitors. Distract them with your rockets, too.”
“Any other miracles?”
“I’m making a list. Go!”
Varna left to go plug into the Fish’s view screen.
H.Q. lay ahead, thought Winchester. He was flying into a trap. Varna and Pearl trusted him, and he could think of no way out.
A cold hand touched him on the arm. “It’s all right, Winchester,” said the angel. “Let them herd you back to headquarters. I have a plan.”
He batted away her arm, like a puff of steam. “A plan? What have you done to me and my sondaughter? How can we possibly get out of this mess?”
The angel held her hand. She lowered her head like a scolded child. Winchester saw Dala again in her eyes, her downturned lips.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Can’t you see? I don’t even remember how my life used to be before you changed it. I’ve lost my wife and my life. I don’t want to lose Varna, too.”
“How do you see me?” asked the angel.
“You look like an angel of dread, like a storm about to blow in,” said Winchester.
“Ha! Isn’t it strange how people can see others in more than one way? Dala wanted me to be like her, and you see me as a dread angel. Storms bring peace to some, Winchester.” She looked up. “I’m sorry for everything that’s happened, but we didn’t change your past to save you. We’re here for Varna.”
Winchester frowned. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry too. It was a mistake for Dala to make you look like her. I’ve blamed her loss on you. If your plan will save Varna, just tell me what to do.”
“I’ve inspected the motor-head Pearl brought me, and I know what to do. Let the motor-heads guide you to H.Q., and trust me.” She faded, like a passing thought.
Another tremor shook the Fish, cracking the paneling of the control closet. Flaky debris settled on Winchester’s brassy elbows.
He yelled through the doorway. “Varna, you and Pearl get in here.” He wanted them where he could see them.
Winchester struggled to keep the wheel steady. How appropriate, he thought. That’s all he seemed to be doing since he awoke from what he’d thought was a dream.
He was having as much success dodging the attacking shuttlebugs as he had dealing with all his troubles. Fate had herded him, dictated a path without a clear purpose, like the angel. And then there was Dala. What other great loss would he be asked to face?
“Dad!” Varna was in tears. She entered the control closet as Pearl held the door for her. “They’re all gone. Every one.” She laid her head on Winchester’s hood. He peered around her at Pearl.
“Her rockets are all destroyed,” he said.
“They bought us some time,” Varna mumbled. “There’s nothing left to stop the barrage, now.” She raised her head to look into Winchester’s electronic eye. “Except you.”
This was it, he thought. He’d do his best and trust the angel. “Strap yourselves down.”
Up ahead, Winchester could see the red neon of night-time traffic blaze across the polished bronze of the Clock Vortex statue before motor-headquarters. The hero’s statue grew larger in the control closet’s view port.
Winchester heard a sound within the Fish like a crash from the heart of a thunderstorm. The control wheel spun beyond Winchester’s ability to hold it. The Fish whirled in a nauseating dance. Clock Vortex seemed like a giant riding a child’s merry-go-round. Varna screamed as the Fish crashed.
The last memory Winchester’s hood recorded before he lost consciousness was of the giant Clock Vortex looking down on him.
Winchester’s mechanical half came back on-line first. He awoke, coughing, as warning systems urged him to rise. It was like waking to discover your head was part alarm clock.
Varna and Pearl lay nearby. Both alive, but out.
Nothing survived of the control closet. A miracle and Winchester’s metal torso had saved the three of them from a shredding by view port glass, many shards of which jutted from the paneling around them.
Halves of the Fish lay cracked open like an egg. Through the gash, Winchester could see motor-heads before them, crowded at the foot of Clock Vortex.
Winchester struggled to pull himself up. His strained arms and weary legs lifted him higher over debris of the Fish to a clearer vantage point. He wished he hadn’t. Motor-heads approached from all around. This was what trapped felt like.
He clambered back over to Varna’s side and picked up a severed control lever, its cracked gear still clinging to the shaft.
Winchester nudged Varna and Pearl. “Wake up. We’ve got company.”
The swarm of motor-heads surrounding them parted, and Modom Rooth approached.
“And so we have you,” he said, “as though there were ever any doubt. Admittedly, you gave us quite a bit of trouble, for a handful of freaks.”
The motor-heads closed any gaps as they surrounded the Fish.
“Who’s more freakish,” asked Winchester, “the freaks or those who chase them?”
“Means to an end. And you three are definitely at an end.” Each motor-head mimicked Rooth’s gestures like a platoon of puppets.
“So what now?” asked Winchester. “What’s your plan for us and the world?”
“An end,” said Rooth, the buzzing from him and the other motor-heads clearly audible, like a distant chorus of chainsaws. “Not just to your strangeness but to all of it throughout the world. Eliminating your Jack-and-Jill offspring is an unfortunate necessity. Cyclosexuals might make ideal pilots for the Behemoths. But the stars can wait if we need aberrations to take us to them.”
Damn the emotional inhibitor, thought Winchester. No one should talk about Varna like that. He stepped forward to cut away something soft from Rooth with the gear-lever.
Winchester stopped when he saw the glow. From every motor-head’s shoulder, Winchester could see a radiant spot, like a tiny star forming. At first, he saw it only with his mechanical eye, and then his real one.
The stars grew and changed. Each one became the dreadful angel, leaning on the arm and hood of each motor-head, her curved blade drawn across their chests.
All of the motor-heads as one tried to look her way. All struggled against her and failed. She coiled her arms and legs tighter around their hips and shoulders, like an enormous comm-snake.
Gone from her were any angelic traces of Dala. The angel became a demon with leather wings and a twisted grin.
“I have them, Winchester.” Her voice was a hiss, a low rasp. And though it was quiet, it drowned all traces of the buzzing. “I needed you to gather them together to disinfect them and become their own,” she kissed their bronze shoulders, “personal,” she caressed their interfaces, “angels.” She sank her curved sword into their hard drives and disappeared. Each man, wounded to his mechanical soul.
Rooth fell to his knees under the weight of the angel. “What is this?” he screamed.
“The cure,” said Winchester.
The other motor-heads had feared their own versions of the angel. Rooth was the only one who seemed to suffer.
“Get it off me, Winchester!”
“Oh, no,” said Rooth’s angel. “For you, the storm’s blowing in.” Her nails lengthened into claws, which she sank into his hood. Winchester watched her sword disappear up to its hilt beneath the bronze-colored metal.
Winchester wanted to look away but couldn’t. “All right, angel, that’s enough. You’re hurting him.”
“No,” said the angel. “I won’t stop, even for you.” Her arms had vanished deeper into Rooth’s hood.
Several clicking gasps escaped Rooth’s throat.
Winchester stepped toward the angel. “Angel, stop!”
“This is for my family!” She squeezed. Rooth shook, and his living eye became milky white. The light faded from his mechanized eye. Rooth’s body clattered on the steel ground.
Winchester stood stunned, feeling the horror Varn and Pearl must have shared. But Winchester felt relieved as well. The angel had done what he couldn’t have brought himself to do.
He looked and the other motor-heads. They would live, he thought, but it would be a nagging half-life, longing for something always just beyond their periphery, much as he felt after he saw the angel as Dala.
Varna and Pearl joined his side.
“What happens now, dad?” asked Varna. Her voice was deeper, hair hung differently. Winchester would have to start calling him “Varn” again.
Before Winchester could speak, the angel rejoined them. “For you two,” she gestured to Varn and Pearl, “a new story is about to be written. “But Winchester’s is coming to an end.”
With her words, Winchester felt a tingle trickle up his feet.
“What? No! Stay away from my dad!” Varn stepped between the angel and his father.
“I’m sorry, Varn, but Spaceship X has only seconds to live. Once the neu-wave transmitter fails, Winchester’s mind will be drawn back to its place in the future and me with it. But it will be a new future.” The angel rested a hand on Varn’s shoulder. “One in which a statue of you will take its place next to Clock Vortex.”
They looked up to the giant above them.
“You may even now be feeling the effects,” said the angel to Winchester.
The tingle became a flood, flowing up Winchester’s legs.
“There’s still time for goodbye,” said the angel.
Winchester grabbed his sondaughter’s hands. “One of the reasons I didn’t want you to become a motor-head is because I knew you could be so much more. Being a cyclosexual will let you succeed as a pilot where I’ll fail. And whether you’re a boy or girl or a giant statue watching over all motor-heads, I’ll always be proud of you.”
Varn’s arms shook as he wrapped them around his father.
Winchester continued as he felt the flood hit his spine. “Find a ship, Varn. Take Pearl to get his daughter. No father should be without his child.”
“She . . . he . . . both will always have a home with us,” said Pearl. “Once we have one again.” He gestured to the remains of the Fish around them.
The rushing sensation filled his head; his machine eye showed only static.
“Winchester!” The angel grabbed his hand and pulled him away from his sondaughter. “It’s happening!”
He watched everyone he still cared for and his younger self diminish to a point, like looking down the wrong end of a telescope.
Then, the smell of ozone and choking smoke filled his breath box. His living eye, wherever it was in the control room of Spaceship X, couldn’t open. He had to rely on his mechanized one. It saw the angel, standing solid and armored beside him. The ship screamed and moaned with the burning friction and disintegration of re-entry.
The angel put a hand on Winchester’s control panel. “Varn will be all right, now. You made a new history for yourself and a better future for him. I’ll stay with you to the end, Winchester.”
The ship burned like an incandescent scar across the sky.
“You . . . can call me . . . Winnie, now.”