The woman who knows
the eagles’ songs
doesn’t need a mare between her legs
to taste speed.
She rides the wind past cliff and spire,
beyond gray shore, where waves’ hiss
plays harp to curlews’ cry.
The woman who knows
the eagles’ songs
will not wait for you,
though she may let you
fly beside her for a while.
She will not bend like iron
in the blacksmith’s fire of your desires.
Her ululations seed the clouds.
If her music grasps you in its talons
she will not let you go.
— Sandi Leibowitz
Sandi Leibowitz, author of The Bone-Joiner and Eurydice Sings, writes speculative fiction and poems that may be found in Devilfish Review, Metaphorosis, Liminality, Mythic Delirium, Kaleidotrope and other magazines and anthologies. Her poetry has won second and third place Dwarf Stars awards, and has been nominated for the Rhysling, Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards. She recently created Sycorax Press, a micropress devoted to speculative poetry focusing on fantasy, and is working on the first issue of the related online magazine, Sycorax Journal. An elementary-school librarian, she also sings classical and early music. She lives in a raven’s wood, next door to bogles, in New York City. Sandi invites you to visit her online at www.sandileibowitz.com.
Editor’s Note: The poet said “The blacksmith’s line is…meant it to be the very antithesis of the nature imagery of the woman. It’s manufactured and hard in addition to being literally bent out of shape.”
The image of an eagle flying through music notes is symbolic.
Hacked away at tree bark
Broke its limbs to sever them
From the rest of its body
I shredded and peeled the skin
Beat its flesh endlessly
Finally I drove nails into it
And then the heart of the tree
Was resurrected as a birdhouse
Just to become human
— Nikhita Kokkirala
Nikhita Kokkirala is currently a computer science student who is on her way to graduating two years early. She spends her time reading as many books as she can, and geeking out about various coding languages. This is her first publication and aspires one day to have her own, published novel.
Editor’s Note: This complex image is made from rustic birdhouse made from reclaimed barn wood, a cross & tree image, and a heart & dove image—together they carry the symbolism alluded to in the poem. Congratulations to Nikhita: this being her first publication, and for giving us the honor of publishing it!
There is only one love here.
Water becomes air.
Light is only a blue dream.
I am not moved.
I am complete, without eyes,
with music I cannot share.
I will hold my symphony,
shallow without shell
or bone or memory—
bound in the silence of a sea,
rippling through the Earth’s
floor of fire.
— Meg Smith
Meg Smith is a poet, journalist, dancer and events producer living in Lowell, MA. Her poems have appeared in The Cafe Review, Poetry Bay, Astropoetica, Illumen, Dreams & Nightmares, the Dwarf Stars anthology of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, and many more. She is a past Board member of Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! and produces the Edgar Allan Poe Show, honoring Poe’s presence in Lowell, MA. She recently published a second book of poetry, Dear Deepest Ghost, available on Amazon. She welcomes visits to megsmithwriter.net, as well as to Facebook and Twitter (@MegSmith_Writer).
Editor’s Note: The fractal design from pilgrimage of the heart yoga online (Sri Chinmoy Archives, fractal-292057_1280) captures the evoked images in the poem in a surrealistic way.
My time machine is geared for me alone.
I don’t meet stars, make presidents, stop wars.
Fantastic times hold folks I’ve loved and known.
Jazz clubs with Uncle, Dad, Young’s saxophone.
Visits at Grandma’s, bunking with Dad’s snores—
My time machine is geared for me alone.
Unlike Our Town, give me the daily drone—
Like favorite songs and books, I love encores
Of times spent with the folks I’ve loved and known.
A traveler must endure the pain foreknown—
Worth it to see the people she adores.
My time machine takes tolls from me alone.
For Grandpa’s jokes, I’d give up all I own—
For family boating, Dad’s hands on the oars—
I cherish times with folks I’ve loved and known.
This is my heaven—stopped by no gravestone,
I’ll loop my life and visit you in yours.
My time machine is geared for me alone,
But best times hold you folks I’ve loved and known.
— Adele Gardner
With master’s degrees in English literature and library science, Adele Gardner (www.gardnercastle.com) has a poetry book (Dreaming of Days in Astophel) and poems, stories, articles, and illustrations in American Arts Quarterly, The Cape Rock, Pedestal Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Legends of the Pendragon, NewMyths.com, Strange Horizons, and more. Gardner is a two-time third-place winner in SFPA’s Rhysling Awards and a third-place winner in the Balticon Poetry Contest of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She lives and writes under her middle name to honor her father, mentor, and namesake, Delbert R. Gardner, for whom she serves as literary executor.
Editor’s Notes: For this Villanelle (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/villanelle-poetic-form), though tempting to use a Victorian time machine, a more abstract representation of time travel was chosen with the collage overlays and color adjustments, and of course, the graveyard/stone is a significant “initiator” of the place and time set.
On a Pullman train
in the olden times,
a dark-skinned man
with immaculate white gloves
and a beautiful smile
helps a woman on board.
She wears a ratty fox stole,
eyebrows plucked and penciled
on a powdered canvas of wrinkles.
Through lips firmly pursed
in perpetual scowl,
she calls him boy.
In the dining car
with white tablecloths
and shining cutlery,
there is an extensive menu
with elegant service
by a dark-skinned man.
But none of it is to her liking:
the knives and forks aren’t clean enough,
there are crumbs on the carpet,
her soup is too hot, her tea
too weak; and in a strident voice
she calls the waiter boy.
In the smoking car
where passengers engage
in convivial conversations,
she intrudes her opinions,
drinks too many martinis
and calls the barman boy.
When she chokes on an olive
no one comes rushing to her aid;
a voodoo spell, a magic curse?
There’s no evidence to tell,
but her time upon this mortal soil
most thankfully expires.
A Redcap lays her body in a berth,
buttons up the heavy curtains,
respectful of the dead—
her soul left to forever dreams
of serving nasty passengers
with unaccustomed smiles.
— Marge Simon
Marge Simon lives in Ocala, FL. She edits a column for the Horror Writers Association Newsletter, “Blood & Spades: Poets of the Dark Side,” and serves on Board of Trustees. She is the second woman to be acknowledged by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association with a Grand Master Award. She has won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Poetry.
Editor’s Notes: A Pullman porter helping a woman is blurred with an image of a creepy old woman, all colorized red, and made haunting
I know you were with him through all the chambers of the night. His six legs one by one enfolded you, stunning you with surgical precision, while you drummed passion into the sternness of his exoskeleton. His antennae, each as though alive, slipped/probed about your eager shoulders, and your breath rasped across his compound eyes, driving clouds of grieving water vapor along the stuttering surface of his sight. The chattering of his mandibles drew pure iridescence into your engorged heart, and your skin surely grew hot and threaded, and to his every move you were an echo, blind in your release, deaf to all but the hive of your own symphony. In the end, his wings unfolded proudly to give him greater art in balance; and the night was wounded by the quickness of your stinging, meaningless murmurs. All this, the entire bridgeless infidelity, I could forgive had you turned at the moment of measure and with one last mammalian moment, bitten his head off. But no, my love, you did not. And I will not be next.
— Ken Poyner
Ken Poyner’s current books–Constant Animals (mini-fictions), The Book of Robot (speculative poetry), Victims of a Failed Civics (poetry) and Avenging Cartography (mini-fictions)–are available at the vending sites of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booksellers. He is a retired Information Systems Security Manager, who now cheers his wife at her powerlifting affairs, and has long conversations with their four cats and betta fish.
Editor’s Notes: A green fly’s shadow is merged with a woman’s silhouette
by Richard Agemo
Kira pressed the key that turned the deadbolt, and a metal click locked us inside her hotel room. “Hope you don’t mind, Blake,” she said. “I once had a bad experience.”
I once had a bad experience.
The phrase sounded familiar, and I tried to place it, suddenly recalling once speaking the same words to Mei, her sister. But Kira hadn’t been with us that day, two years ago, in Futaba Station.
And now Mei was dead.
“A bad experience?” I said. “Here, in Futaba?”
I didn’t ask for details—both of us were grieving, deeply. In the span of forty minutes my emotions had plunged from jubilation about seeing Mei, my fiancée, to devastation over her death.
Kira slumped into the love seat across from the sofa that supported my sprawled limbs and sagging body. She stared at me with a frown; the shining paths of tears on her cheeks, I thought, probably mirrored mine. Her oval face and space-black hair reminded me of her sister, her elliptical eyes the same color of dark chocolate, features they shared with their brother, Kei.
Even in my grief, I found Kira, in a handsome way, prettier than Mei. Ashamed at that thought, I lowered my face.
The nano threads of the carpet took on the texture, color, and smell of the fresh grass I remembered from childhood, as if someone had told it, “North America, mid-2040’s, central plains.” And yet, my thoughts didn’t remain in my rural origins; instead, they zoomed two years into the past, to the platform at Futaba Station.
I still remember my hypercab creeping into the station, and how I was second-guessing my decision to accept my new assignment. I shook my head and let out a long sigh. Fukushima! would be a rush job, but the studio couldn’t resist the money the producers had offered. However, they imposed a condition: Fukushima! must be released on the 75th anniversary of the disaster—just ten months away.
I was one of the best envirotographers around, and the studio asked if I could get it done. Eagerly, I answered with a confident yes, though the more truthful answer was, I really can’t be sure.
I was given two days in Futaba and one in Daiichi to record every sensory detail with my cameras and scanners. From there, the director, simulation engineers, and bot actors would take over, creating a you-are-there spectacular with fifty roles for the audience. A thousand 8-D theatre parks in seventy countries had already agreed to run Fukushima!
It wouldn’t be the first time that a historic disaster would be commoditized, or the last. Maybe I was just rationalizing, but I believed Fukushima! would serve as a healthy, albeit terrifying, reminder of a big lesson learned: Think the impossible can’t happen? Think again.
Through the window I saw Mei, the local guide hired by the producers to assist me. She stood on the platform, her black hair gleaming past her shoulders. In her mid-twenties, she was as tall as me—almost two meters—things I already knew, but seeing her tallness, I found it strange. And beautiful.
Gripping the straps of my bags, I stepped onto the platform.
“Blake,” she said with a quick bow of her bronze face, a blue sheen darting across her hair. “Welcome.”
Awkwardly I bowed and set down my bags before extending my hand. “Mei, a pleasure, finally, to meet you in person.”
As we shook hands loosely, I pressed a finger gently against the veins of her wrist. Her chin dropped and, almost whispering, she said, “Don’t worry, Blake, I’m completely human.”
“I’ve made it a habit to be sure.” I smiled, but she didn’t notice. I touched my right ear lobe and confirmed my translation node was on. “I once had a bad experience.”
She looked up, her brows arched with concern. “What happened?”
“My bot guide withheld some basic information, and it wound up costing the studio a lot of time and money. At first they blamed me, but then another envirotographer had the same problem. There were errors in the installation code for the bot’s knowledge scripts.”
“Well, such a mistake won’t happen here. I hope you trust me.”
I realized her English was excellent, so I turned off my t-node. With a kind of bemused caring, her eyes glimmered, their metallic shine a sign of retinal implants that gave her at least 100/20 vision. I had decided to forgo such sensory “enhancements.” For one thing, they were expensive. For another, philosophically, I wanted no artificial help with my work—envirotography is an art and should remain naturally human.
“Pretty eyes,” I said to Mei, staring into them. “If you don’t mind me asking, did you choose static or non-static enhancement?”
“Non-static.” Bowing her head, she looked embarrassed, and then she raised up again. “You see, I want the upgrades—advanced infrared imaging next year.”
One non-static enhancement, I knew, by itself didn’t make one a cyborg. Many upgrades and further non-static enhancements—including mechanical ones to the skin and body limbs—were required, and full integration of all neural and physical enhancements before one is truly half-human, half-machine, officially a cyborg.
I also knew that cyborgs remained an elite bunch, with less than ten thousand on and off the planet, and that governments strictly regulate their development. One early enhancement, banned internationally, made a person love the cyborg. An electro-neural aphrodisiac, delivered by the borg’s touch, allowed it to activate pleasure centers of victim’s brain, literally making her, or him, lovesick.
Many consider borgs dangerous, but I wasn’t one of them when I met Mei. A part of me admired her choice—enhancements, especially the non-static type, are expensive and require a commitment to work properly—but she was beautiful, and it would be a crime, I thought, if her cyborganization changed that. In any case, I was already infatuated—no aphrodisiac needed.
Mei suggested that I check in at the hotel, but I wanted to begin work immediately. Rain was coming within the next half hour. “The smell and wetness of the rain are things I want to capture,” I explained.
“Please excuse me, Blake, I understand. I should have asked about your plan.”
“No harm done. You’re my guide, so don’t hold back any suggestions.”
After I dumped my bags in the rear seats of the pod, we squeezed into the front. The scent of Mei’s peach perfume filled the space as she told the pod to take us to the small historic section of Futaba, which had been preserved as a memorial to the many thousands who had suffered.
The pod accelerated with a soft buzz.
My equipment was optimized for several passes through Futaba, north to south, but the historic district was near the center. After I conveyed this to Mei, I thought I might need my t-node after all, because she said, “We can begin in the middle and proceed north, then go in a circle.” As I jutted my chin and squinted, she gently tugged at my arm and smiled. “Trust me.”
She was gentle, yet strongly confident, and I didn’t wish to argue with her.
The autumn sky was gray, but enough light remained so that apartment and office buildings cast long shadows—our pod whizzed in and out of them as we approached the historic district.
We stopped at a closed gate, beyond which stretched a deserted street.
“Not a popular place,” I observed.
“A shocking surprise?” Mei said.
“Guess not. You don’t have to accompany me.”
“Oh, but I want to.”
After we got out of the pod, she placed her palm over the latch of the gate, which swung open. With scanner in hand, I entered. Steady rain began falling. I was prepared to get soaked.
The stucco houses lining the street were empty shells painted in bright pinks, greens, and yellows, with no doors or windows. The idea, Mei told me, was that even though the displaced inhabitants would never return, their spirits could.
A giant gash ran through the middle of the pavement like a sheet of paper ripped in two.
Further down an old sign hung over the street, its dark Japanese characters shouting from a white background. My virtual screen provided the translation:
NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION: A BRIGHT AND FUTURE SOURCE OF ENERGY
Aiming my scanner, I slowly turned my body. “This is exactly what I need.”
Mei didn’t speak often, but when she did, her tone was soft but assured.
“My great grandfather died here during the disaster,” she said.
Puzzled, I paused and looked at her. “But everyone evacuated.”
We worked nonstop through the afternoon and, by day’s end, I was ahead of schedule. Mei had lived in the Fukushima prefecture all her life, and she proved a quick study in helping me calibrate my scanners and cameras. Her enhanced vision also helped as I scouted for killer details in the scenes I was recording. She saved me a good deal of time, and I began to rethink my opposition to undergoing retinal enhancement.
“Kai, my brother, knows you’re here,” she said as we packed up the equipment. “I told him about you, and he’d like to have you over for dinner. He loves foreigners.”
“All right . . . when and where?”
“Tonight if you wish, at Lake Inawashiro, on his yacht.”
My eyebrows shot up. Mei’s lifted too, but slowly, as if she’d said something wrong.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “His company builds pleasure ships.”
Kai looked younger than his sister, and he wasn’t as tall, but they had the same oval face, hair, nose, and eyes. His shirt and pants were slick white silk, and his yacht—with its fine bamboo floors and three bot servants—projected wealth.
We dined on the upper deck overlooking the mirror-like waters of Lake Inawashiro. On the horizon, Mount Bandai’s two peaks were almost identically shaped pyramids.
During our meal, Kai listened politely as I described Fukushima! and the goal of replicating the conditions and sensory landscape of the earthquake and tsunami, so audiences could relive them. Kai’s low voice was as soft spoken as his sister’s, but his question, which he asked in flawless English, still sounded aggressive.
“So, in essence, this Fukushima amusement will profit off something that caused human suffering of historic proportions, is that right?”
“Well, I understand how one can see it that way,” I replied, trying to defuse things. “But one might also view it as reminding people of lessons learned, such as—”
“People lost family members during the evacuation, Blake. Some of the victims’ sons and daughters are still living.”
He glanced at his left hand that lay flat on dining table. With his wrist kept on the surface, he lifted the hand so he saw it from the back. A spectacular blue sapphire adorned his ring finger, which he turned so it sparkled in the light.
“This ring belonged to my great grandfather. It’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”
As I nodded, Mei added, “The same ancestor I told you about this afternoon, Blake.”
Kai’s nails were translucent pink, polished and smoothly filed. The antique ring, undeniably, was stunning. In its gold setting, against the pink shades of his fingers and nails, the blue gem sparkled like a moon of some alien world.
“You are,” he said, “following my sister’s recommendations about where and what to shoot, aren’t you?”
“Because she knows everything,” He looked up at her. “Don’t you Mei?”
“Of course not. I only give Blake guidance. Like you, he’s his own person, Kai.”
“You, sister, were the lucky one who received the know-it-all gene from mother.”
He chuckled at his own joke, and when Mei joined him, so did I, but uneasily. I wondered if she’d taken Kai’s comment as a compliment, or if she was afraid of him.
Kai warmed up to me as the evening progressed. Perhaps it was his fondness for sake. We must have tried a dozen kinds, and he amazed me in describing their unique tastes. After the third one, however, I no longer detected any difference.
As we drank, he proposed things he and I could do together, such as tennis and sailing—without including Mei. She stayed silent, as if accustomed to his rudeness. Not wanting to sound impolite, I accepted his invitations but didn’t commit to specific days, thinking it my job would get in the way.
Kai gave me a long hug at the end of the evening.
Mei and I began work early the next morning. “I hope Kai’s speech about Fukushima didn’t put you off,” she said outside the hotel. “Disasters horrify him—probably more than they do most people. When he flew virtual aboard Space Swan, you know, the one that exploded, he was only ten.”
“He can be rather assertive,” I said.
“The lingering effect of sibling rivalry. I beat him at most things as kids—he became very competitive, even violent at times. Once he shoved me after I won an art contest we both had entered. Now, he jokes about me being superior to him.”
She paused and flashed a smile, then glanced at the pod. “We should leave.”
I stopped wondering about Mei and Kai. She was afraid of him.
We finished in Futaba and took a pod to Daiichi that afternoon. “Those walls are all that’s left of the nuclear facilities,” she said pointing at a mass of gray concrete surrounded by weeds. She turned to me, gazed at me for a moment, and then said, “The radiation is still above normal, though well within the safety index.”
I checked my wrist screen anyway. The detector clicked like a chattering dolphin. The screen read 0.22 µSv and flashed SAFE.
Holding the camera at my waist, I peered into the viewfinder as I shuffled my feet a little at a time until I made a full circle from north to south. I repeated this process with the scanner, recording fifty different meteorological measurements.
We walked down a barren hill to concrete ruins.
“This was the seawall,” Mei explained as I calibrated my camera and prepared to shoot. “Technology in those days was quite good. Engineers designed excellent buildings, but no one ever imagined an earthquake and tsunami of a scale which, by their understanding, was impossible.”
“Nothing, necessarily, is impossible,” I said. “You just have to imagine what can’t happen and then assume that it will happen, and plan for it.”
“What is your saying? Hindsight is twenty-twenty?”
I smiled. “I’m lucky, I guess, that I’ve never had to tell myself that.”
The next day, I uploaded my data and my role in the project was finished. Thanks to Mei, I had beaten the deadline. The studio would now synchronize and manipulate the images and measurements, integrating graphics and special effects based on historical data—essentially every bit of information known about the Fukushima disaster—and add real human actors (not just bots) to recreate a 360⁰ 8-D reality of, well, in a word, terror.
We enjoyed the rest of the day hiking in the forest north of Futaba, where boxwood, white cedar, and pine stood in uniform, even proportions along our ten-mile trek. Ferns and flowering plants, asters, “false” lilies, and geraniums, also seemed to form a pattern, like one gigantic centerpiece. The cool, pine-scented air never changed, nor did the width of our rocky trail. More than once I felt a delightful déjà vu, which was refreshing after focusing for three days on radioactive calamity.
Japan was becoming more and more attractive to me. So was Mei. I decided to stay a couple more days, and we took a second hike. “Those are falcated ducks,” she said, pointing at their formation in the sky, the green color of their heads visible even with my unenhanced vision. Later, we found the same species of ducks floating on a pond. Close up, they looked different—the green coloring of the males darker, the bills of the female long and gray—nonetheless we felt sure these were the same birds we sighted earlier.
“Always pleasant to see things from different perspectives,” Mei said.
I nodded, concluding her statement explained her interest in cyborganization—she enjoyed heightened, altered senses, and was curious to explore them.
We gazed at each other, and then kissed.
Our lips touched for only for a few seconds, but a part of her infused into me, and me into her, an exchange I can only describe as electrical in the way it made my body tingle, literally, from top to bottom, as if she had an enhancement that she hadn’t revealed to me. But I didn’t want to spoil the moment by asking and getting into a conversation I wasn’t ready to have, namely, that I hope she would abandon cyborganization and remain as she was.
When our kiss ended, she bowed her head. I asked her if something was wrong.
“I’m afraid, Blake,” she said to her hands, her fingers interlaced in perfect symmetry.
“Of . . .?”
But she only looked up at me with a tight smile, as if she had several answers and didn’t knowing which one to give. I leaned toward her to kiss her again but she stepped back. Then she took my hand and we walked silently out of the forest.
My two extra days in Japan turned into three extra months. Mei and I spent a lot of time together, though not every day. With the 75th anniversary of the disaster six months away, the prefecture had retained her to plan an elaborate ceremony.
Local feelings about Fukushima! were mixed. The studio had marketed it as a global entertainment event, but some locals—Kai among them—argued that Fukushima! shouldn’t open on the anniversary date, at least not in Japan, out of respect for those who perished. Mei disagreed, believing everyone should decide for themselves whether and when to attend. Of course, I took Mei’s side, but avoided the topic with Kai.
He had invited me to a private club in Futaba to play a match of tennis “on equal terms.” By that he meant we would use identical rackets, wear no jewelry, wristbands, headbands, or other gear, and dress in identical white sportswear. In disregard of etiquette, one of his bots, without telling me, had already scanned me for my size. Despite Kai’s rather strange conditions, I accepted.
“You are letting me win,” he said to me after the first set.
“Not at all. Your backhand’s better than mine.”
He laughed. “That’s a lie. You must like me.”
Something in me bristled at that, and when he asked me to join him on his yacht after the match, I demurred, claiming that I was meeting Mei soon, which wasn’t true. She and I had planned to see each other that evening, but it was only early afternoon.
“Well, that’s just fine,” Kai said as he bounced a ball with his racket before smacking it into the net. “Have an absolutely exquisite time,” he added and then walked away.
I regretted lying to Kai, but also relieved. If he’d been competing for my affections, he now knew I wasn’t interested. Yet, I warned myself to be careful: alienating Mei’s only sibling could harm my relationship with her.
Mei and I chose Mount Adatara for our next hike. During the hour-long pod ride from Futuba, I asked her if she’d told Kai how our relationship had become serious.
“I’ve only told him a little,” she said.
“A little, meaning . . .?”
She kept silent, her metallic eyes staring at the giant ads on the podway’s wall, the series of still photographs animated by the pod’s speed of 200 kilometers per hour.
I placed my thumb and forefinger, with just a tiny space between them, before her eyes. “This much a little?” I said, getting her attention. Then I put both my hands in front of her and, with a smile, expanded them to the width of my shoulders. “Or this much?”
It got her to laugh, and I left things at that, not bothering anymore to wonder what Mei and Kai may have discussed out of my presence. I’m not even sure I want to know now, though I could still find out. Probably.
Along the hiking trail, beech trees stretched high into the air, their white trunks slender and uniform in width and height, their branches of tear-shaped leaves pleached above our heads, a verdant canopy. We soon veered off and waded through a grove of painted ferns, then emerged onto another path that took us into a different section of the forest. Here, the tree trunks were twisted, more irregular in shape than the ones we had seen before, but all were twisted and soon looked quite similar.
We came upon a waterfall composed of four equal-sized boulders, the water splashing into a stream, calming as it rippled away. A moon bridge curved in a half-circle, creating a black shadow beneath it and, with its reflection in the water, a full circle.
“Should we cross?” I said.
“No,” she replied, taking my hand. “This way.”
When walked up to the bridge, we could see the grassy bank that jutted from below both ends. After stooping underneath the planks, we sat on the grass and kissed in the darkness. Our hands wandered and then we rolled on our sides, our bodies pressing against each other.
“Stop, wait,” she said. We parted and pushed ourselves up. In the dark, the irises of her eyes glowed faint red. “There’s something I must tell you, Blake . . . well . . . I’m not having more enhancements. I decided I don’t need to change myself for me, or for . . .”
We kissed again, briefly, because I wanted to say more. “Mei, I can’t tell you how happy your choice makes me . . . I was afraid . . . oh, it doesn’t matter. But I’m curious—will you keep the retinal enhancements?”
“I have to, Blake. They’re irreversible.”
We left the bridge and found the path leading to Mount Adatara’s high cliffs and breathtaking views, some of which we took in from behind iron safety rails. A week after the hike, we slept together for the first time.
It had been only a few months, but we were already certain about a lifelong commitment. Mei felt sure her father would consent to our marriage. With a Korean mother and Japanese father, Hiro himself was the offspring of a biracial union. Her mother, Mei explained, would be the difficult one. Only with great reluctance did Leiko agree to meet me.
Mei’s parents lived in Odaka, and Mei took me there one afternoon. We sat with Hiro and Leiko in their north-facing living room. The space gracefully combined the new with the old: a silver disc table hovered above an antique rug of two swans; from a stout tea-leaf jar sprouted glowing electric flowers; the latticed squares of a virtual shijo screen changed images based on the collection of moods in the room, shifting from basic colors in the pattern of a Mondrian, for instance, to a pair of blooming cherry blossom trees.
While I was there, tall ocean waves in the style of an Edo-era woodblock print appeared on the screen, rising and crashing.
That day with Mei’s parents, though on an infinitesimally smaller scale than what happened in Fukushima three quarters of a century ago, nevertheless ended in disaster. Hiro and Leiko didn’t speak English well, so we each spoke our native language and depended on t-nodes.
Leiko greeted me with a curt smile as Hiro grinned broadly and bowed.
In the living room, the kettle of hot water was already on the silver table. A bot floated in with the tray of bowls and tea, and poured the water. The conversation began with my work and praising Mei for her help with Fukushima! Hiro mentioned his grandfather who had died during the tsunami, and how he planned to visit his shrine on the anniversary date.
“Yes, I saw his emerald ring, sir,” I said. “The ring Kai now wears.”
“I never met my grandfather,” Hiro said. “He founded the family shipbuilding business, which I handed off to my son, along with the ring.”
Leiko said nothing the whole time, her lips constantly pursed unless she was sipping her tea, as if she were perturbed about something—or about everything. Mei had warned me about her mother. It didn’t matter that the world was nearing the dawn of the 22nd century. Spawned by human traditions, bigotry, prejudice, and racism endured, even in the most advanced technological societies.
Leiko and I locked glances during a prolonged moment of silence. Finally, she looked at her tea, took a sip from the bowl, and then set it down. “I can tell you are pleasant, a gentlemen,” she said. “But let us be clear, you will not marry our daughter.”
Mei glared at her mother. “This is unjust. We were supposed to have a fair hearing.”
“There was a time when people didn’t question things,” Leiko replied, her hands shaking. “It was so much easier. Please, excuse me.” Abruptly she stood, swung around, and scurried out of the room, pausing a moment to stare at the shijo screen, which now showed a stylized hill of trees swaying in the wind and losing their leaves.
In the shocked silence that followed, I turned to Hiro, who shrugged. “I am sorry,” he said. “It was foolish of me to think my wife might have softened her views. Mei should have never brought you here.”
“Sir?” I said.
“Leiko doesn’t want half-breeds in the family. A few years ago, she didn’t allow Kai to marry a foreigner, which caused a lot of suffering. I thought she wouldn’t want that again by objecting to you. Clearly, I was wrong.”
“But she would call you a half-breed, father,” Mei said.
“Perhaps,” replied Hiro. “But do I look like one?” Before Mei could respond, he pivoted to me. “What’s your opinion?”
Had Mei answered her father, I could have just agreed with her, but I was on my own. As I examined Hiro’s face, I couldn’t form an opinion, but if said that, I’d risk sounding impolite.
“No, sir,” I said, “you don’t look like one.”
I wanted to stay for the ceremony Mei had been planning, but it was still months away. I’d been working remotely, but now the studio expected me to be on-site in the Americas.
Before my departure, Mei and I only half-joked about DNA Accelerated Reconstruction as a last resort if she failed to persuade her mother. Mainly for the rich, DAR techniques for altering one’s race had improved, though the procedure still carried risks. And the science wasn’t altogether clear about possible long-term effects.
On the five-hour flight from Tokyo to LA, I learned everything I could about DAR.
Leiko’s opposition struck me as a particularly onerous form of prejudice. Mei’s father had argued with Leiko, but she remained adamant: she would never speak to Mei again if she married me. Mei didn’t take the threat very seriously. At the same time, we both knew our marriage could be rather unpleasant for the rest of her family. Both of us wanted children.
We ruled out elopement as an option.
I’d gotten my own fair skin and blondish hair from mother, and though she was deceased by the time I met Mei, I felt it would disrespect her memory to eliminate her traits as they appeared in me. DAR would mean passing onto my children my reconstructed genes, not the ones I was born with.
But after many conversations, Mei and I concluded that DAR was a viable option, and perhaps the only way to solve our problem.
A new backstory would explain how I was of pure Japanese descent but possessed a different cultural background. Around Leiko, I would be a shy man of few words, my natural Japanese only adequate. If Leiko did learn the truth, we hoped grandchildren would eliminate any lingering opposition to our union.
DAR had been available for twenty years but remained expensive. I’d have to leave work for five more months without pay. It would wipe out my savings, the equivalent of a year’s salary, to have my features altered to match those of a Japanese male.
Would my physical transformation even convince Mei’s mother? Would Mei herself like the results? Would I like the results? Predictions of DAR outcomes, the doctors warned me, were not always accurate.
I became frustrated. I told myself that I shouldn’t have to undertake such a risky procedure to get around the prejudice—no, the racism—of Mei’s mother. And it was ironic, I thought, that I had not wanted Mei to change physically, yet I was about to do just that. At least I would remain one hundred percent human.
I studied before-and-after pictures of dozens of patients and became fascinated, and then excited. My father was deceased, too, and I was no longer close to anyone in the family. More and more, I looked upon DAR as a way to begin my life anew. Mei wanted us to find a home in Japan.
She had made no progress with her mother.
I asked the studio for a five-month leave of absence, but the studio refused. Emotionally I’d become so invested in DAR, I quit my job. My employment contract allowed them to remove my name from the credits for Fukushima! I didn’t care. I was embarking on a real adventure, no longer interested in a simulation of some disaster.
Mei and I saw each other every day, virtually in 3-D. But after I began DAR, she didn’t wish to see my physical changes as they occurred. A part of me—a big part—longed to see her, but another part thought a one-way viewing arrangement would be uncomfortable, imbalanced, and we agreed to speak to each other without visuals.
She described the success Fukushima! Everyone who went, she said, found it to be a convincing nightmare.
DAR wasn’t painless. The many slow injections produced sharp tingling in my skin and dull aches around my cheeks and eyes. But my larger concern became Mei. At the start of the third month, she sounded sad, not her normal self, speaking more slowly and in deeper tones. Her mother remained upset with her. Kai, too, had fallen from Leiko’s graces once more and, according to Mei, he had simply disappeared. No one even knew where he was living.
“In ninety days this will be over, Mei. I’m pleased with my progress and would like you to see for yourself. And darling, I’m dying to see you as well.”
“No, I couldn’t bear having you look at me in my present state.”
“You mean because you’re unhappy? Because of your mother?”
Things improved in the following weeks. Mei was laughing again as we picked a new name for me—Haru—and made up backstories to explain my poor Japanese. Sometimes I had been raised in California, sometimes in England, but always as an only child with deceased parents and few family connections, anywhere. When I came to Japan, Mei said her father would help with changing my name and establishing my cover.
In the spring I completed DAR, and with the last of my savings bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo.
My hypercab pulled into Futaba Station at sunset. Everything—the tracks, the interior of the car, the platform—was bathed in reddish gold. But as I stepped out, my bronze hands clutching the straps of my baggage, I didn’t see Mei. Instead a woman, frowning and wearing white gloves, held up a sign.
I walked up to her, bowed, and said in broken Japanese, “I am Haru. Where is Mei?”
A tear dribbled down her cheek as she lowered the sign. She was young, Mei’s age, but not as tall.
“I am Mei’s sister,” she said and then lunged at me, throwing her arms around my neck while still gripping the sign, which crumpled into my hair. She pressed her face into my shoulder, her tears dampening my skin through my shirt. I dropped my bags, reached up, and tried to peel her away as her hands kept a strong grip on my shoulders.
She was sobbing uncontrollably. “Mei died. Yesterday. I am her sister. Kira. I am sorry. I took her place. Please forgive me.” She spoke in a low voice, in perfect English.
Only as I fell to one knee did I become free of her grasp.
I began crying, staring at the platform’s golden surface, before finally asking Kira what happened. She sat next to me, her knees crossed, her arm around my back, and with jagged words described the accident—hiking alone at Mount Adatara, Mei had fallen from a high boulder.
People were looking at us. As soon as we noticed them, we got up, the questions swirling in my head acting as a sort of bandage for my grief, my desperate need to understand mixing with a depthless sadness that already exhausted me. I recalled the image of Mei among those shells of houses in Futuba’s historic district, how she’d spoken of the spirits there, how she might now be among them. Honestly, it scared me a little.
And now, in Kira’s hotel room, I recalled she had dead-bolted the door.
I once had a bad experience.
She wanted sake and got up and retrieved a bottle and two matching cups. As we drank, disgust diluted my sadness as I kept thinking how she was more beautiful than her dead sister—perhaps because her eyes lacked the artificial sheen of Mei’s.
Still sobbing, I said, “Mei never mentioned you. Neither did Kai.”
“We were estranged.”
She kept her gloves on and, as she raised her sake cup and drank, she gazed at me.
By now, I craved sleep. I pushed myself up from the couch, staggered to the bed, and tumbled in. The blackness of unconsciousness had almost consumed me when I felt Kira’s body pressed against me. My eyes opened; her hand reached over my head and dangled just above my brow. She had taken off her gloves.
A sapphire ring circled her ring finger. I recognized the blue gem instantly.
“When I first met you, I knew I loved you, Blake. Oh, you’ve noticed my ring—it’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”
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.
by Jeff Metzler
I was sitting with Elly at a diner on Main Street. The restaurant was run-down and its food cold and tasteless – falling just a few narrow notches nearer to being consumable than non-consumable on an edibility spectrum. The conversation flowing between Elly and I over our pathetic, plated meals wasn’t about anything important. We touched on the weather, the horrible morsels we were putting into our mouths, and the sitcom we had watched together the night before.
It was a normal night in every way. Nondescript. Uneventful. And perfect… absolutely perfect. Perfect because of Elly.
She paused while talking about a scene in the sitcom, her eyes – sepia shaded, like two old, oval photographs – lowering to the cup resting between her hands. When she spoke again, her tone, and the topic of our conversation, had changed: “Do you think people can ever change?” she asked, quietly. “Really change?”
I linked the fingers of my hands together around my cup of tea. It, like everything on our table, was cold. I wondered where Elly’s sudden question had come from. After a moment of silence, I answered: “No.”
Some of the light seemed to drain from Elly’s face, the pulsing sun of her skin fading to a pale moonlike glow. “You really don’t think so?”
“I’ve never been able to change.” My shoulders twitched upward in a brief shrug. “And I’ve tried. So many times, in so many ways.”
“That’s bullshit,” Elly said, the harsh word sounding soft and sweet coming out of her mouth. Elly made even unpleasant words sound mellifluous, somehow. “I’ve always believed that we all have a self at our centers that is the ‘real’ us. And I think life is about discovering that person. A journey to that person. None of us start out as our truest selves… we have to travel there. That’s what change is.”
“Do you think some people have a longer journey than others?”
I let go of my cup and placed my hands flat on the table. “If that’s true, I wonder how far I am on mine.”
“Do you feel at peace with yourself? Do you feel true to yourself?”
I looked at Elly carefully. With her eyes on me, I did – I felt completely at peace, and utterly myself. But, overall? Something churned in my stomach, and my limbs stiffened. In this place, I was content with who I was; was content with everything. But… there was another place, wasn’t there?
“Hey,” Elly said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She leaned across the table and pressed her lips to mine. “That’s the last thing I want to do,” she breathed into my mouth.
Something wasn’t right.
Her eyes opened, encaging mine with their silken sharp grip. Burning in crimson cold fire, her lips moved on my lips; moist flame flickering, licking the darkness. Her fingers wrapped a velvet vice around mine, as her shoeless foot slid up my leg.
Something was coming. Something was changing.
Elly’s hand cupped the side of my face, brushed passed the corner of my mouth, and slid into my hair. It was then that it started. Nightmare began to seep into dream, or perhaps dream began to fade into reality. I felt the soft locks of my dark hair grow brittle and twist into dandruff-speckled curls. Coarse strands wiggled out through the surface of my scalp, curling around Elly’s fingers: coiling tendrils choking the color from her flesh.
Strangely, Elly seemed not to notice. I kissed her ear. Closed my eyes. Prayed for the truth to go away. It refused to do so. Beneath Elly’s warm breath and searching tongue, I sensed my skin beginning to change. Acne sprouted – zit after zit swelling my skin in plump, red mounds of seething yellow discharge.
With her right hand still in my hair, Elly wrapped her left arm around me. Firm flesh immediately faded into slanted bone beneath her embrace. My wide shoulders drooped down, becoming angular ridges. My body began to contract and shrivel like a grape’s atrophy into raisin. Muscles dissolved, ribs pressed up against skin, and veins revealed the intricacies of their blue webs. All that had been skin became skeletal.
I noticed we were standing now, the diner no longer around us. How long had things been like this? I placed my deflated arms around Elly, cradling her against me. She melted against my boney body, a supple, fragrant fusion of skin and cloth and hair. I breathed her in. Elly was everything I had ever wanted. She was all I could ever need. But I knew she was not mine to hold. She never had been. She never would be.
My palms grew wet against her bare back. She felt my hands change, my skin on her skin like drenched, dead fish on the white sands of a tropical island.
Her eyes darted open as she pulled back from me, tearing herself from my thin arms and soggy fingers. Screaming, she found her body being yanked back towards me, her hand ensnared in the tangled thicket of my hair. She tugged at her arm frantically. She put her foot to my stomach and pushed with her leg. My eyes slammed shut, teeth clenching in pain as Elly’s hand found freedom, tearing clumps of arid hair from my head. I fell to the ground and Elly scrambled away from me, her body shaking with frenzied sobs.
I looked up at her with pleading, apologizing eyes. Elly’s head was turned away from me, her eyes opened wide on nothing and her mind attempting to close on everything.
Her sobs. I could hear nothing but her sobs. I needed to say something, if not to make things better, then only to silence her gasping cries. “Please, Elly, I…”
At the sound of her name, Elly’s head snapped towards me like a triggered mousetrap. “What happened to you? What…what happened…” She touched her face tentatively, as if afraid that my acne had crawled from my skin to hers. Finding she hadn’t been infected, that her skin was still her skin – soft, smooth immaculateness – she grew both calmer and deeper in disgust with me. “Your body… my God…”
“I know, Elly, I…”
“Your hair it… latched onto me! Latched onto me!” She began brushing her hand again at the remembrance of the hairs that had clung to it. “What’s wrong with your hair? Your body? Your entire body!”
My head sunk to my knees. I curled my fingers into a fist and rocketed my knuckles against the ground. Pain raced through my hand, but it felt distant, unimportant. I looked up again, eyes fighting back tears. Elly stood at a distance, staring at me. Fear and repulsion were twisting her features.
“I’m sorry, Elly. I’m so, so sorry.”
“What’s happening?” she asked with her voice and demanded with her eyes. “Just tell me what’s happening!”
“You need to leave now,” I whispered. “Goodbye, Elly.”
“Goodbye? Where do you think I’m going?”
Her voice… god, how I would miss her voice. “Back to the cluster of circuits that gave you birth,” I said, tears flowing as my words stumbled out. “Goodbye.”
I didn’t need to look up. I knew that I was now alone. I knew that the entire time I had truly been alone.
I stared up at the ceiling. “A dream,” I told myself, the stench of morning-breath hanging on my words. “I knew it was only a dream again.”
Grey light filtered through the large windows above my bed, casting an anemic glow over sheets, and blankets, and me. I sat up stiffly and swung my feet to the hardwood floor. A profound ‘true self’ conversation stuck inside a wet dream, wedged within a nightmare… some pillow pilgrimage that had been. I struck my fist against the wall behind my bed, again sending splinters of pain racing through my hand. The pain felt more real this time, probably because it was. I was so frustrated that I almost longed for those days when people had dreamt normal dreams.
I looked out the window and a forest of lumbering stone and metal rooted in cracking concrete peered back at me. Dirty snow lined the sides of the street and distant dark clouds whispered that more was to come. Winter in the city, a time when nature fought to beautify Man’s wilderness: To quilt concrete lakes and streams in soft snow, drape cars in white sweaters, and street lights in icy hats.
It was, of course, a fight nature always lost. Like mites in a symbiotic pact with the concrete beast whose broad back they lived upon, animals of Man’s forest would turn snow to slush under boot and wheel; transform pure white to dark gray and bile black. Before the time would come for it to melt, the snow would be blacker, fouler, than the hardened tar it covered.
I stood and made my way to the bathroom, the weight of sleep deadening my initial movements. I flicked the bathroom’s light switch up, and the florescent bulb on the ceiling noisily buzzed to life. Before my eyes stared my face. I sighed, placing my palm flat against the mirror’s cool surface. My reflection also mouthed a sigh, laying its glassy palm against my sallow flesh.
My vision of myself in my dream hadn’t been too far from the truth. A horrendous second skin of red and white mounds sat atop dry, flaky flesh. Not that the layer of pimples was covering anything worth seeing. My face was wan and thin, my skin drawn tightly to bone as if my skull wanted to penetrate its flawed mask. Dandruff sprayed from the curls of my hair as I ran my fingers through it. The white dots speckled my reflection’s face. I closed my eyes; opened them again. I was still there, standing before myself. I removed my hand from the mirror.
Pitiful, hideous bastard, I told my reflection; my reflection told me. If true change was possible, I mused bitterly, I’d have already seized it at any cost. But it wasn’t. I was an ugly wretch who had flunked out of the Military Academy. I was a worthless factory grunt who couldn’t even enjoy my nights like every other man alive could. That’s all I was, and all I’d ever be.
I reached out towards the light switch and clicked it down. My reflection became a shadowy figure, a mere androgynous outline: suggestion of a head flowing into a ghost of a body. No longer me. Just some unknown shade; empty profile. That was better.
Shedding my night clothes, I switched to the fabrics of day: Brown pants (three sizes too large), white T-shirt (its current color merely suggesting the notion of white), button-down shirt with a streak of black on the back and the letters KALVIN HOBBES printed below the collar (Kalvin Hobbes being my name, the black streak being a stain).
Fighting my boots onto my feet, I took another look out the window from my seat on the bed. The world was still out there. Another day of work awaited.
Wind whipped my face as my feet sloshed through mostly-melted snow. All around me, men in brown pants, no-longer-white T-shirts, and letter-branded button-down shirts marched out from the faces of buildings. Black boots filed through blackened snow.
The long, burnt body of a flare cylinder attracted my attention: bright red smudge sticking out of grayish slush. The blot of red seemed alien to the day… this day that had woken up groggy and grumpy while color had slept in, warm and snug in rainbowed pajamas. Continuum of gray – dirty white, ashen gray, coal black – those were the shades which saturated the sky, tinged the buildings, and dyed the slush-soaked earth. With my boot, I kicked a spray of icy sludge over the flare casing as I passed it: quickened pulse pumping in a cadaver’s arm – it didn’t belong on this street, in this city.
Like a massive troop of dancers all dangling from one branching string of choreography, boots suddenly slid to a stop on all sides of me. Necks bolted heads upward to face the sky. We then stood paralyzed like marionettes abandoned, returned to our true state as inanimate, lifeless wood. Breath bottled in lungs, arms locked at sides, legs glued to ground, we dared not make a noise. We stood, we stared, and, above all, we listened.
It began softly, no louder or more discernable than imagined, half-heard words carried on the tongue of a night-time breeze. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere; ethereal breathings from lips unseen. It was a noise floating in that auditory limbo between gasp of air and articulation of word… a sound that reaches the ears but not the mind.
I gritted my teeth as whisper vaulted into scream. Deafening squeals ripped across the sky, sounding too organic to be artificial, too metallic to be natural. I was visited by an image of a robotic pig suffering beneath the knife of slaughter, its fleshy larynx launching cries of pain through a cast-iron snout. Such a piercing sound seemed it should be an impossibility on this day; seemed it should be absorbed by the layered grey of sky, drowned out by the oppressing, omnipresent quiet. It wasn’t. The glass globe which had contained our soundless, colorless world was rippled with cracks. The dark quilt of sky shattered and fragmented fabric rained to the earth. Silence denied its essence and screamed – ran off to some dark corner.
Boots stirred, heads lowered, limbs twitched: our puppeteer had apparently returned. Yet, now, the men around me moved in distinct ways. Some dashed forward desperately, fearing for their lives. Others took brisk, broad steps – not caring enough to run, but not quite suicidal enough to walk. I followed behind them all, going the same pace we all had been before the siren’s call.
No matter how we moved, we were all going the same place: A nearby opening in the earth revealed an escalator now frozen in the stagnancy of common stairs. Boots clanked down the narrow metal steps.
I stepped from the stairs into a concrete tomb behind the other men. Mighty pillars held ceiling from floor, casting towering shadows from the flares some of the men had already lit. A smattering of round spotlights hung from the walls and from some of the pillars, but they were currently turned off. The air was so damp that I felt the cold clinging to my skin like a wet film. Clouds of breath streamed from mouths, ghosting across wavering auras of red light.
I looked around as if this were the first time I’d seen this dreadful place. To one side of the tomb the floor fell away to reveal a lower platform with long-unused rails. The metal beams and wooden planks of the railway snaked away down a dark, partially collapsed tunnel.
We placed our backs against the concrete wall across from the tracks, dropped to the floor, and sunk our heads between our knees. The sound of the siren had died away up above, now replaced by a volley of piercing yelps. The bombs had started to fall.
Tremendous cylinders of metal were being carried along a conveyor belt in front of which stretched a line eighty men long. The men stood in silence, side by side, eyes focused downward, hands forever cycling through a set loop of motions. I was one of these men.
Hands jerked in dreary dance, each pair of five gloved digits locked in a perpetual pattern of motion. Pinch…Push…Turn: those were the steps of my dance; the cycle that bound my fingers, moved my muscles. Our hands were like hamsters caught in a spinning wheel – our digits scrambling non-stop, our efforts only fueling our continued torture.
The conveyor belt continuously advanced the iron cylinders, rolling them past chicken wire bins packed to capacity with metal menagerie. There were endless variations of screws, bolts, and widgets in the bins: Shells of concave, tinted glass; gears with jagged teeth; and sticks capped with clicky trigger buttons.
The bin which I worked out of contained hundreds of transparent needles. My work days and nights were spent inserting shards of glass like these into ports riddling the bodies of the iron cylinders. I had no idea what the function of the glass shards was. But the iron cylinders, they were to become cannons.
“Seems like your limbs are still intact,” a voice rose above the steady screeching of the treadmill and the incessant din of the machinery.
I glanced over at the speaker: a stout, unshaven man whose shirt read IRVINE LINESS.
I nodded. “Still in one piece.”
The voice belonging to the shirt labeled IRVINE continued: “Hell of a downpour this time – getting worse all the time. Whole groups of guys I was with got roasted… cooked like chicken.”
“Same here,” I answered. “I was down in the subway on Pine. Part of the roof caved in – crushed a dozen or so.”
“Fried like fowl and pressed like pancakes,” he said with a laugh which was quickly overtaken by coughing. The coughing was then usurped by a wheezing which was concluded as a wad of muddy saliva was expelled from his mouth onto the concrete floor. “Fowl and pancakes,” he repeated, perhaps being touched by hunger at the thought. Then, more solemnly, he added, “Ah, well… what can you do?”
Nothing, my mind answered. You could do nothing. That was our one certainty in this world – the threat of death was always near. We lived in a world where, when death fell from the sky alongside snow, people thought the two just as natural, just as matter-of-course. Clouds let out moisture – those were the snowflakes. The enemy rained death upon us – those were the bombs.
If there was one thing we could do, it was to make the weapons that we would use to rain hell back on them, I thought as I swiveled my right hand within its metallic cone. The cone was my control console, manipulating a robotic arm positioned above the conveyer belt. The arm was a meshing of stringy cables, laced with plastic veins pumping with oil… it was ugly, and reminded me of my own skeletal arm.
“Nothing like being awake to remind you how much you love the missis,” the man in the shirt marked IRVINE remarked with a dry chuckle, the digits of his robotic hand removing a needle from the bin beside us. “Rain bombs down on us, and suck our hours away in this factory, but when the waking hours fade and I’m with my girl again, nothing else seems to matter.”
I said nothing, watched my second – my metallic – hand slide a shard into place on the cylinder, its rubber-tipped fingers rotating the glass clockwise, clicking it into place.
“Legs that go forever!” IRVINE rhapsodized. “Such legs! Glorious… glorious.” Staring with eyes that seemed to see nothing but the landscapes of his daydreams, the man continued talking in a distant voice. “And that sense of humor – don’t want you thinking I’m shallow, now! – that sense of humor could raise a chuckle from a corpse. Wit to burn. I’ll tell you, she’s quite a creature – an amazing creation.”
Gears creaking, my artificial arm lowered middle and index fingers into a crevice atop the moving cylinder, and turned it around to reveal a new set of ports awaiting to swallow the glass shards.
“Guys like me, and certainly like you,” IRVINE said, throwing me a glance and an apologetic smile, “we’re sure lucky we have our women, eh? Back before the war, specimens like us would have been out of luck. So… how is your little lady these days?”
“Fine? Just fine?”
“Yeah… okay, not bad, no complaints… fine.”
“Well, sorry for prying, but in my experience, ‘fine’ never means ‘fine.’”
I laughed a laugh that carried in it more nervousness and less amusement than I had intended. “No? Well, in your experience, what does ‘fine’ mean?”
“‘Fine’ means, invariably and quite simply, ‘not fine.’ It means that something is wrong… that things could and should be better than they are.”
I fit several more thin pieces of glass into the next cylinder. I thought about saying nothing and letting my conversation with IRVINE die. I didn’t. “You’re right,” I eventually said.
“Okay, then,” he replied, sounding happy that I had finally spoken again, “what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. I’m… not sure.” I moved my hand too quickly, swinging the robotic arm too far left – the crystal hit the side of the cylinder and rained broken bits onto the belt.
“Damn it,” I spat through clenched teeth. A red bulb on my control cone flashed on and a thin voice crackled from a speaker below the light: “Warning… continue with renewed care… this is your warning… Number 699… This is your warning…”
The head above the tag marked IRVINE shot a nervous glance over at me before quickly looking back down at his own console. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this. It’s not important…”
“Yes – it is.” I watched the belt carry the shattered glass away from me, grasped a new piece between iron thumb and iron forefinger. “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with… with her lately.”
Again, he sent an anxious look my way, unsure if it was wise for us to continue this conversation. “What kind of trouble?”
“It’s hard to explain…”
“How long have you had her?”
“About four months.”
IRVINE began tapping his foot beneath his console cone. “Don’t tell me you’re getting tired of her already!”
“No, it’s not that. I really, really like her. She’s wonderful.”
“What is she?”
“She’s a… her name is Elly.”
“Ah, an Elly! Elly… Elly…” IRVINE narrowed his eyes. “I have a damned difficult time remembering all their names, but I think I can picture her.”
“She’s so smart, so beautiful – perfect, really.”
“Too many names to keep track of, that’s the problem!” IRVINE said, plunging his robotic hand back into a bin. “Why bother with different names, anyway? There’s nothing in a name. They should call them all, say, Sallie, and then give each Sallie a different number. Sallie 1, Sallie 2, Sallie 3 – you get the idea. Numbers are easier to remember than names, I’d say.”
A new kind of cylinder started coming down the conveyor belt. I carefully reached my metallic glove into another bin of parts next to the one I had been working from, selecting an opaque rectangular piece. “Something just doesn’t feel right when I’m with her. But… well, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this problem with a girl.”
IRVINE yawned. “So, are you leaving her?”
“I don’t want to. I want it to work. I said goodbye to her before I woke up this morning, like I’d never see her again. But…”
“Some guy I know,” IRVINE interrupted, “I met him in a bomb shelter last week. We got to talking. He was saying how he had struggled with his woman at first, like it sounds you are. But when we talked, he had just proposed! He said he had a Kelly, I think. Or maybe a Lisa. Which is the one with the giant rack?”
“Lisa, I think,” I replied absentmindedly.
“Yeah – Lisa. Damned names. But she is incredible! Hell of a looker. Almost wish I had chosen her for myself!”
IRVINE’s foot was now slapping against the concrete with a plan, pounding out some intricate beat. “Your Elly’s not the easiest on the eyes, but I’ll grant you that there is a certain something about her.”
“I think she’s beautiful. More beautiful than anything in this world.”
“Anything in THIS world, sure. But as for the…”
“I meant more beautiful than anything else – anything and everything else.”
Elly’s image flashed before me, my mind’s eye opening wide, soaking in her visage. Her dirty-blonde hair was drawn back in a tight bun, fully revealing her face, fully displaying her beauty. Her thin lips were pressed tight under smiling eyes, her expression both playful and thoughtful, reckless and serene. “I think I love her.”
“You love her? Powerful word, that. You can’t leave her, then! You’ve got to do something about your problems – you absolutely must!”
“I know I do.” I fit another rectangular bit into place. “I will.”
Outside, the sky was darker than it had been that morning: livid with masses of thick clouds which conspired to deaden the sun and blanket the city in an ever-shifting ethereal ceiling. The snow was soggy and stuck to the bottom of my boots. I shoved my hands into my pants’ pockets to shield them from the cold. The distance I had to go was short, but so was my time. I walked quickly, crossing an overpass and then descending a flight of cement stairs jutting from the face of a hill.
The stairs led to the torn pavement of a highway, a blast-riddled stretch of blacktop which had long seen its final car. I walked down the center of one of its lanes. The worn yellow paint scrawled on the roadway’s surface was visible in those areas where patches of snow had melted. On both sides of the highway, ghosts of buildings began materializing, their crumbling facades representing what was once the business district. Husks of twisted steel and shattered brick, the structures hung like wilted flowers over the roadway. My feet sunk into the diseased skin shed by their leprosy – bricks, mortar, rotted wood, slabs of concrete, knives of glass, webs of corroded piping, and shattered ceramic.
I turned onto a street lined with decimated houses and the scorched trunks of trees. A short way down the street, one house still stood – a two-storied colonial, its weathered wood mottled in chips of white paint. A sign planted in the barren earth of its front yard read: RELATIONSHIP-SIMULATION DEALERSHIP OF TRIBACAN, and in smaller letters: The New Name in Love.
A chime sounded as I swung the door open and entered a room whose perimeter was lined in faded-green plastic chairs. Dirt-stained white tile groaned beneath the weight of my steps as I headed for the reception desk.
A man – or, rather, the outline of a man – sat behind a closed pane of darkly tinted glass which rose from a wooden booth. The silhouette of his head turned to face me as I walked up to him, but he left the glass window closed in front of him, simply staring at me with shadow-eyes within a shadow-face.
I stood directly in front of the glass and ventured a ‘hello.’ The shadow hung frozen, as if imprinted upon the glass. “Hello,” I repeated, louder this time, “I’d like to see one of your doctors.”
The shadow-mouth moved, jostling shadow-jaw up and down. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No, I don’t.”
The pane of glass sighed. “I’ll have to check to see if we have anyone available.”
Rising, the entire shadow shifted, floating away from me, leaving the pane of glass just a pane of glass – nothing viewable beyond its tinted transparency, and no sounds slipping from its thin face.
I sat down on one of the plastic chairs. To my side stood a small table stacked with papers bearing bold printing. The glass had stopped talking, the shadow had disappeared, and there was nothing left to do except wait, so I reached over and took one of the papers.
It was an advertisement for several new products by GOVENT, the entertainment branch of the Government. ‘Digital Doggies’ and ‘Cyber Kitties’ – the pets that leave no mess – headlined the colorful publication, perfervid prose gushing about the artificial animals.
I returned the paper to the stack, unimpressed. I had zero interest in caring for another being, messes or no messes. And I had already heard about all the other offerings the ad touted.
A tapping noise came from the glass booth. I saw that the shadow had returned and walked over. “Someone will see you,” the glass informed me. “Go into the back.”
I passed the booth, the shadow’s head moving to follow me as I did, and entered a long hallway. Blazing lights hung on the ceiling, their astringent glow dousing the chipped walls and white floor tile in sharp luminescence. There were six doors on either side of the hall, none of them labeled, all of them closed. I walked the length of the hall once, then walked back down it again. I was about to go ask the shadow where it was I was supposed to go when a hand clapped down on my shoulder.
I turned around. Atop a white smock glazed in the hall’s blinding white light sat a puffy face. The face crept into a smile, wrinkles writhing at the effort, freckles undulating on folds of flesh. “This room should suffice,” the man said, removing his hand from my shoulder to gesture to the door closest to us.
I nodded. The man opened the door for me. As I walked passed him, I noticed that printed in black, stringy letters upon his smock were the following letters: DR. DRANZONE.
“Have a seat on the table,” the man said as the door shut behind him. He turned away from me and began rummaging through instruments scattered on a metallic cart. “ScopioScope, ScopioScope…,” he muttered, finally plucking a small wrench-like device from the table and wiping it on a rag.
“Now, then, let’s take a little peek, shall we?” he said, his words coated in a bored inevitability which let me know that they stumbled from his mouth at the commencement of every examination he performed. He threw the rag to the floor. “You’ll be spending quality time with your little lady again in no time flat, friend,” he intoned. Again, supreme disinterest stuck to his words like dried-up maple syrup. He forced his bloated lips upward into another labored smile. It, too, stuck of the same syrup.
His job was no different than mine, I realized. Pattern of motions. Mine were Pinch-Push-Turn, and his: Rummage-Little Peek-No time flat-Smile. Each of us forever at our place on the assembly line of life. And for what? What were we building? What had our hands constructed when our assembly lines – whatever their particulars – stopped moving for good?
“Worthless crap,” the mouth belonging to the shirt marked Dr. DRANZONE said. He held up the device that I assumed – from his earlier mutterings – was a ScopioScope. “The tools they expect us to work with at this place! Crap!” He shook his head in disgust, and then shook it some more. He got so involved in rattling his head from side to side that it seemed that he had forgotten what had spurred the head-shaking in the first place.
“Crap,” he said, remembering. “Sure, spend ten bazillion dollars writing software for new fillies, but force us to use fossils to tend to them.” He sighed. The first apparently felt so appropriate to the moment that he sighed again. “Ah, well, what can you do?”
The swaying fabric of the doctor’s gargantuan smock rustled noisily as he lumbered towards the table on which I was seated. The smock hung down to his ankles, and his socks didn’t quite travel up to meet the smock, leaving hairy stubs of legs exposed.
He plopped onto a stool and took a moment to take me in with dark eyes poised over the frames of even darker lenses. The frames slid further down his nose as he continued to look me over.
“I’ve been seeing more people than a calculator-less individual could count these days,” he informed me, cranking a lever on the stool’s side which rose the seat higher and higher in jerking spurts. “My patients – by and large – are happy with what they’ve got. But not completely. No, never completely. They see slightly greener grass and expect me to be the one to get them to the other side.” He stopped turning the lever – the stool’s seat was now level with the table.
“Lie down,” he ordered. “No, further back on the table – that’s fine. I get these picky sons-a-bitches in here, think I’m a hair-dresser or a beautician, want me to spruce their woman up for them. They want me to sprinkle some spice onto their love life. Turn your head away from me and place your chin down… that’s good.”
I pressed the side of my face against the cold body of the examination table as the doctor’s palm cupped the back of my neck. Fingers roved roughly over my skin. There was a small port on the side of my neck, right below my right ear. Inserted into the port was the software. I assumed that the doctor was now examining the status of my port, and would then proceed to remove the software from within its walls – from within my neck.
“They ask for endless adjustments – ‘improvements,’” the doctor continued. “They simply MUST have them taller. They can’t go on living unless she’s feistier in the sack; more understanding to their needs; less demanding; has longer legs, or bigger boobs. A damned digital plastic surgeon! Is that what they think I am? You’re going to feel a pinch, a stinging sensation. There, it’s over. Humans! We’re selfish, needy, trivial, finicky creatures.” He sighed again. “Okay, there’s going to be a brief drilling sound. There… your program is out. Sit up.”
Between his thumb and index finger he held a transparent crystal, its interior teeming with tiny chips laced with metallic specks. He was holding my software – he was holding Elly.
“So, then – what is it going to take to please you, hmmm?” he asked me, his rheumy eyes peering at me again over the rims of his glasses.
How could that be her? Elly, grasped between two bloated fingers! Elly, a construct of plastic, metal, and microchip! I had never seen Elly like this… not even during her initial installation. I had seen other Relationship-Simulation women in this form, and had been shocked by those sights, then. But to see her like this, Elly – my Elly – my intellect played dumb and hid beneath disbelief. This couldn’t be Elly!
A slight turn of the doctor’s head flicked a fluorescent glow across his lenses. “Yes, it is her,” he said in that same for-Christ’s-sake-don’t-make-me-go-through-this-yet-again voice. “You know it is. You know how all this works. GOVENT only spent decades creating their Relationship-Simulation technology. And then the past five years cramming this so-called L.U.S.T. program down our throats.” The doctor snorted. “This miracle of modern science taps into the electric impulses of your brain, and delivers romance straight to your neurons, while you sleep,” he said in a strange voice that was apparently an attempt at mocking the advertisements that constantly ran for L.U.S.T. on TV. He shook his head. “I realize it’s a jolt to see the flesh and blood bed-buddy you know so well like this,” he said in his normal voice, holding up the crystalline circuitry. “But there it is. Reality.”
He stopped talking and there was silence. Mostly silence, anyhow. An air filtration system hummed softly through the rusty ducts winding over my head. I could hear Elly’s voice, deep and breathy, rising and falling within the flow of the whispering wind.
Elly’s voice in the air vent’s howling! I cornered the thought in my mind and ridiculed its ridiculousness. But, then – how less real was a thought of Elly conjured by the coursing of air then it was by the firing of circuits looped in that tiny crystal that hung before my eyes? No. Elly was real – real to me. What she made me feel was real, so she was real.
“So, what infinitesimal tweak are you here to have done to your artificial woman? Change her eye color? Give her a sixth toe? What?”
I gritted my teeth. The doctor’s tone – the way he was talking about Elly – was making me bristle. “Nothing,” I said. “No… tweaks. I like her just the way she is. But I’ve been experiencing a technical glitch with my program. I’m here to get that fixed.”
“Oh,” he said, using his free thumb to push his glasses up his bumpy nose. For the first time, he looked at me not over the tops of his glasses, but directly through the thick lenses of his frames, as if finally willing to see me as more than a distorted, blurry mass. “So… you’re not here for a simple mod? Well, then, tell me what’s been happening.”
“My program has been crashing – nearly every night.”
“Really?” The doctor’s voice had altered, now free of the sticky malaise that had clung to his earlier utterances. He was charting new conversational ground, here. This was beyond greeting, beyond amiable artifice, beyond instruction. This was a stall in his assembly line. This was something new. Something about what I was saying had excited him. “Are the crashes causing you to wake up, or do you fade into normal sleep?”
“I wake up. I always wake up.”
“Alright, alright,” he said, tapping his ScopioScope up and down on his leg with one hand, and still holding Elly’s software with the other. “And, after you wake up, does the system re-boot once you fall asleep again?”
“Yes. But if it crashes once, it will, without fail, crash every single time that night. I’ve been waking up three, four times a night on average.”
The doctor blinked rapidly. “Interesting! Let me peek at your file, eh?” He reached over and snatched a manila folder from the table of instruments at his side. Unlooping the red string which bound half to half, he flipped the folder open. A series of ‘hmmms’ dribbled from his mouth as his eyes moved over the pages within. “Let me see… you have an Elly installed, correct?” he asked, briefly looking up at me from the file.
“You’ve had her for four months, now?”
“And what did you have installed prior to your Elly?” He asked as he flipped through my file, seeking his answer on paper before it could be given to him via sound.
Sound proved faster than sight. “Rebecca,” I answered. He continued to look through my file to find the answer I had already given him. He found the page and nodded, content now that the information had been verified.
“And how long did you have the Rebecca program installed?” he asked, even though his inflection betrayed that he was already staring down at his question’s answer.
“Only two months,” I said. “I never felt… comfortable with her. She made me uneasy, anxious. She was too outgoing, maybe. Towards the end of the two months, I began to experience system crashes.”
He looked up at me again. “The same type of crashes you’re dealing with now?”
“Yes. The same.”
“And before Rebecca, what other programs did you use?” The doctor’s voice was high-pitched now, his words coming rapidly.
Squirming on the cold metal slab of the table, I began reaching back into unpleasant memory banks, rummaging through dusty filing cabinets, the moth-eaten tatters of mental minutiae. I then starting reciting names.
“Sarah, Allison, Alex, Tracy…,” I spoke slowly, one name sparking remembrance of the next, stumbling along a path of linked knowledge like a schoolchild first wrestling with the slippery links of the alphabet’s chain. “Gabriel, Trisha…”
“Lanel, Heather,” the man’s voice took command of the recital, spewing names with alacrity, “Dana, Rachael, Crystal, Sasha – quite a list you’ve amassed. Interesting! And most of these programs you had for less than four months. You did have the five-year dating program installed when you were seventeen, did you not?”
“Then you do realize that that program, that period, is when you are supposed to ‘test the waters,’ don’t you? All these other girls that you’ve had installed and then promptly cast aside were supposed to have been life mates – or healthy long-term relationships at the very least.”
“I understand. I wanted to settle down with the first girl I had installed after I finished the dating program. But it never felt right; I never felt comfortable. Reality always crept into the fantasy. It’s happened with every program I’ve had – sooner or later, they all begin to crash. I had no choice but to try different programs. Elly’s… different, though. I feel utterly connected to her like with no one before… but, the crashes are still happening.”
“Every single one has crashed…” The doctor lifted Elly’s software crystal to his face, blinking at it. “I told you that everyone and their brother comes in here to modify their post-dating program girl. But it’s rare for them to change to different girls, swapping one out for another. The programmers of these things have quite the knack for crafting creatures who are difficult to part with, you understand.” The doctor set Elly’s software down on his lap and scratched his nose. “I’ve never seen anyone who has had as many post-dating program women installed as you have. Not even close. But… you said you don’t want to switch programs again?”
“No. Elly – my… program… I want to keep my current program, if there’s any chance of getting it fixed.” I eyed my software nervously as it hung between the dip in the doctor’s smock, over the gap between his two parted legs.
He arched his bushy black eyebrows. “Most interesting,” he said. “You truly aren’t just playing the field like a maniac, my boy. I can see that now.” He stretched his arms over his head and my Elly software slid perilously close to the edge of his lap. “Well, with the history of problems you’ve had with so many different programs, I’d hazard a guess that the problem to be fixed might not lie with them, but with you.”
“What happens right before your program crashes?”
I looked down at my white, boney fingers. “I… I start to realize I’m not like my dream-self. I start to see my real self, and so does Elly. She never remembers the… episodes where I become myself, when I see her next. She’ll recall everything else about our times together, though.”
“Quite illuminating, these details.” The doctor made a clucking sound with his tongue. He grabbed my software from his lap and wrapped his fingers around it. “Crashes in these programs are incredibly uncommon. For you to experience them with every variation of software you try, why, it makes you very unique, boy.”
“Yes. And the world always has need for unique things. Now, more than ever.”
“I don’t understand…”
The doctor jumped up from his stool. “Understand, this – I’ve arrived at my diagnosis. You, my friend, have no self-confidence! Your brain is unable to fully give into the fantasy of being with Elly because you don’t believe you deserve her.”
“Well… I don’t! Look at me, and then think of what she’s like. She’s flawless! She’s…”
“A program!” the doctor yelled. “A program meant to serve you! A mere prancing digital diversion! Of course you deserve her! She was made for you.”
“No! She’s more than that!”
The doctor shook his head. “No. She’s less than you think she is, and you’re more than you believe you are. Get that sorted out in your head, and your nights will start going very differently.” He peered over the tops of his glasses. “Can you do that?”
“Yep.” The doctor smiled. “Change your perception of yourself, and of your program.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, lie down again. I’m going to re-insert your software crystal. And make a small improvement that may help you. Remember – self-confidence in both the waking world, and in the ersatz realm of your evenings, will take you far. Realize that you’re more than you think, and that you deserve what you have. Do this, and you’ll have quite the amazing night tonight. Trust me.”
I stared at my bed. Draped in a ratty plaid comforter, my bed was my portal. It was our meeting place. It was sleep. It was dreams. It was Elly.
I turned away from the bed and headed across the room. I sat at the chair by my table and kicked my boots off. They clumped as they hit the wooden floor, splattering moisture and mud. I threw my shirt on the ground by the boots, on the mud. The letters must have fallen facing the floor. There was no KALVIN HOBBES visible on the garment – just wrinkles branching across worn fabric that wasn’t white, but once was. It struck me as strange to see my shirt lying there so flat and thin and lifeless: so shapeless. It somehow seemed like it should still have the shape of a torso lifting out the front, filling in the sleeves… making crumpled fabric a shirt again. It was almost like seeing Elly as a circuit-packed crystal instead of what she became in my dreams.
My gaze drifted from the shirt turned crumpled cloth, up my wall, and onto the crawling arms of my clock. The large arm was locked firmly on Twelve; the medium arm hung between Nine and Ten; the smallest arm couldn’t decide which number to commit to. It was almost time for the scheduled sleep period.
I stood again. Walking towards the windows, I heard mutters of broken words oozing through the paper-thin wall from the next apartment over. My neighbor must have started his sleep period ahead of time – everyone babbled incessantly in their sleep. You would be enchanting your woman with your charm in the dream world, making her weak in the knees with your wit and intellect, while in the physical world your saliva-splattered mouth would be croaking out gibberish. ‘The dazzling light of your beauty pales the luminescence of the goddesses themselves,’ you could say while logged into your program, while in reality nothing but a string of slobbery ‘Ugnatifnatugs’ would be lurching from your mouth.
I looked outside, but met only my face. There were no buildings, no streets, and no city – there was only me. The cold glow of my apartment’s overhead lights cast the windows as sheets of solid, reflective black. I stared at myself for many minutes, and then sat on my bed.
Could I change? Would tonight with Elly be different? Lying down, I figured it was time to find out.
I was sitting on the plush, red couch. It was opulent, as was everything surrounding it: gossamer curtains catching moonlight, an oak dining room table with a dark cherry finish and chairs with carved seashell motifs on their backs, a glass coffee table, and an antique multi-colored chest dotted with drawers, each with a boldly hued door looking ready to transport whomever opened it into another reality.
Elly had picked out everything around me.
The stately grandfather clock by the loveseat tolled – it was ten o’clock. Elly walked in the front door as if summoned by the chiming. My surroundings – seeming so elegant moments ago – were suddenly put to shame as Elly strolled through them. She wore a breathtaking black strapless dress that hugged her figure like an enthusiastic long-lost relative, tightly wrapping itself around her in an intense embrace. Her neck, her arms, and her lower legs emerged from the silky fabric like fire leaping from the dark of night. Her skin was radiant and enchanting.
I was off the couch and in her arms in moments. I breathed in the scent of her hair, pulling her slender frame against me. We kissed and her lips tasted both new – like she was an exotic creature I had just met – and familiar – warm and comfortable and reassuring, as only well-known things can be.
“Elly,” I whispered into her mouth as I pulled back from our kiss. “I missed you.”
“And I you.”
“Never leave me again.”
“I promise,” she said. “Never.”
We stood holding each other for long minutes before Elly finally stepped back. A smile touched her lips, lit her face. “Are you ready to go to the play? The curtain rises in forty minutes.”
“Almost,” I said. “Just give me a moment.”
I went into the bathroom and stood before the oval mirror over the porcelain vessel-style sink. A sublime grey, double-breasted suit jacket swept over my broad shoulders, eventually meeting my flat-front pants. I was straightening the white cuff of my button-down shirt when a fleck of red on my right cheek caught my attention. I angled my head to get a better look at my reflection – was that a pimple? I stared at the spot of skin where I thought I had noticed something, but now didn’t see a thing. Of course it couldn’t be a pimple, I realized. I had never had a dot of acne my entire life.
I ran a hand through my soft, shiny hair and flashed myself a smile – I was ready.
Returning to the den, I found Elly with her back facing me. The triangle of flesh visible on her back where her dress cut away drew me like a magnet. I waltzed over and placed my hand below her neck, against her warm skin.
“All set,” I said.
Elly remained motionless. Silent.
I removed my hand from her back. “Elly?”
She turned around, quickly, spinning wildly on her high heels. Her face – something was wrong. Her eyes were filled with fear.
“Elly?” I grabbed her arms. “What is it? What happened?”
“The old Pine Avenue subway,” she blurted out, her voice sounding unlike her own.
“What?” I searched her eyes, finding an alien dullness. My grip on her arms tightened. “Elly, what are you talking about?”
“The Pine Avenue subway,” she repeated, louder. “Go there! Now!”
“Why?” My panic was growing. “What’s there?”
“We need to go there? What’s there?”
Elly stumbled away from me. “No – not us. You! Go now!”
Elly clenched her fists. “Wake up and go! Go now!”
“I… wake up?” My chest ached, feeling like it was caving in, and I sucked in rushed, shallow breaths. “What the hell are you talking about? I am awake! Why are you talking like this?”
Elly stormed forward and stuck her face inches from mine. “This is not real!” she spat. “Wake up! Just like you have every night leading up to now! You know this is fake. That’s why I’m here. Get back to what is real. Now!”
“Not… real?” I looked down at my hands. Suddenly, my skin grew paler, and my bones more pronounced. I felt my body shrinking – growing shorter and thinner. My suit soon hung from me in flaps of overextended fabric. “Elly!” I screamed. “What’s happening to me?”
Elly looked at me sternly. “Meet me at the Pine Avenue subway,” was all she said.
Our apartment twisted, its colors bending and bleeding. Scratched floors and bare walls soon replaced it. I sat up in my small, sweat-stained bed. I had woken up.
I walked down the stationary metal steps of the broken escalator, my balance shaky. My heart was beating far too quickly, and my hands were sweating even more profusely than they usually did.
What had happened when I was with Elly? It hadn’t been my own mind realizing the fantasy of the dream this time. Something had invaded that fantasy and pulled me back into reality – something had spoken to me, using Elly as a mouthpiece.
I reached the bottom of the escalator. A few spotlights high up on concrete walls and on pillars sporadically and inadequately lit the cavernous space. The southwest corner of the ceiling was a yawn of exposed pipes and the space beneath it was covered in rubble – results of the cave-in during the bombing this morning. I still couldn’t believe I was back here, in this place.
For an hour after waking, I had stayed in my apartment, deciding whether to come to the subway. Concerns for my safety had battled against my intense curiosity. In the end, my curiosity had won. What, I had decided, did I have to lose?
I looked around. There was no one there. The subway looked the same as it had when I had left it this morning – only minus the hundred other factory workers who had accompanied me then (both those who had walked out with me after the bombing had finally concluded, and those who had stayed behind on account of being dead). I paced back and forth between two pillars, under a ceiling cloaked in shadows. Had I imagined the whole thing? Had something turned my Elly program truly defective?
“Here!” snapped a voice.
I jumped at the sound.
“Down here!” it yelled again.
I walked over to where the concrete platform stopped and the recessed railway began. I didn’t see anything at first, and my eyes followed the path of the tracks. Right as the rusted rails were claimed completely by darkness, I saw a slash of light appear and then vanish. “I’m here!” said the voice, sounding like it was near the spot where the light had flared.
Again, curiosity and fear fought inside me. Again, curiosity reigned supreme. I jumped down onto the railway. The light flashed on again – only for a second – and I saw a blink of an ashen face, but little else. I stumbled along the tracks towards the area of the darkness that I knew held something more.
I clanked along the rails until I became part of the blanketing blackness. I could no longer see anything in front of me. Even the spotlit platform of the subway platform I had left behind was now nothing more than a faint illuminated blur. Then, between one clunk of my boots onto unseen rail and the next, another sound emerged. A cough – close by. I froze and the light came on again, staying on this time.
Someone stood mere feet from me in the center of the tracks – a woman, the remaining darkness flowing around her like an immense cape. The beam of her flashlight was pointed to my right, reflecting off the wall and creating a pool of weak illumination around us. The light was enough for me to see the woman by. She looked to be around my age and had short hair, a plain face, and uneasy eyes. Her skin was freckled and her body pudgy. She was the first real woman I had seen in five years.
“Anabelle,” the woman said, and she thrust out the hand not holding the flashlight.
I reached out with my sweaty hand and took hers. It was calloused, her fingers small, and her nails jagged. “I’m Kalvin,” I said.
I let go of Anabelle’s hand. The strength of my curiosity faltered as I was struck with a frisson of fear. “How?” I said. “How do you know me? It… it was you, wasn’t it? You were the one talking to me through Elly?”
“Yes. That was me. Dranzone told us about you.”
“Dranzone?” I repeated, puzzled. Then I remembered the nametag worn by the doctor from the Relationship-Simulation Dealership… ‘DR. DRANZONE.’ “The doctor I saw earlier? What does he have to do with anything?”
“He’s a member of the Resistance,” Anabelle said, her eyes seeming to flicker with the word, “as am I.”
Anabelle crossed her arms, causing the flashlight beam to streak across my face before slapping against the opposite wall. “Yes.” Her expression tightened. “Against the Government.”
“But why am I here? What do I have to do with any of this?”
“We want you to join us, Kalvin,” Anabelle said. Her arms dropped – again repositioning the pool of light – and her stance softened. “We need your help.”
Anabelle’s eyes bore into me. She was sizing me up; judging me. I didn’t like the look. “The lure of the Relationship-Simulator doesn’t have its hooks fully into you,” she said. “Dr. Dranzone is always looking for people like you – those who aren’t completely swayed by the fantasy of the Government’s program; those who experience continued issues with the software. He believes your kind make the best Resistance members. We all do. You are more awake than most.”
“How many of you are there?”
“Enough,” she said, tilting her head to its side. “Hundreds.”
“I still don’t understand, though – how did you talk to me in my dream?”
A smile sprung to Anabelle’s face. “I am sorry about the intrusion. When you visited him, Dr. Dranzone added a special cap that sits over your L.U.S.T. program crystal.”
“What?” My hand shot to the cold metal of the port in my neck. I remembered the doctor saying he had made a small improvement for me…
“The Government has his office bugged,” Anabelle continued, “so the safest way for him to contact those he thinks will make strong Resistance members is through such caps. It’s a receiver that allows someone with the corresponding transmitter to speak directly to you during your nightly simulation.”
I felt a sinking feeling that I couldn’t explain, like every organ in my body had become untethered, plummeting down through blood and past bone towards my feet. Around me, the darkness beyond the beam of light seemed to grow even darker. It began to drip with an intrusive coldness.
The light itself, however, was even worse than that which it had cast away. It started to appear as bright as the fluorescent lights I found wherever I went – my apartment, the factory, the doctor’s office. It was too abrasive, too artificial, too penetrating. And this Anabelle – she started to appear the same. This was the first real woman I had seen in half a decade, but she was so less genuine than Elly. I took a step further into shadows, away from her light.
“But, you and the doctor and people like you,” I said, “why are you resisting the Government?”
Anabelle’s jaw dropped. “You honestly have to ask that?”
I said nothing. I took another step back.
“I’m sorry.” Anabelle shook her head. “I forget that few know what I and the other Resistance members know.” She walked forward, closing the gap I had placed between us, and lowered her dry, scratchy hands onto mine. “Kalvin, the Government is evil. It exists only to protect those already in power, and to oppress all others. The war that’s been raging for decades? The war that consumes all our lives? Those in power keep it going for their own benefit. The leaders of the ruling political party gain financially from the ongoing conflict. They have no desire to see it end.”
My hands trembled beneath Anabelle’s. “How? How could that be possible?”
“It’s easier in many ways for those in power to rule during times of war, you see. Periods of peace bring with them all manner of prickly problems that those who seek ultimate power don’t want to deal with. During war, a populace looks to its ruling class to deliver them one thing: continued survival, at any cost. But while peace reigns, a peoples’ desires grow wide and deep, and demands for survival are joined by hunger for freedom and thirst for prosperity. In war, the enemy of those in power is some external force. In peace, the enemy of those in power becomes their own people. Better the threat to their complete control come from a distance than from right beneath their own feet, those currently ruling us believe.”
“And President Tanner is behind all of this?”
Anabelle smiled at me sadly. “President Tanner is a puppet, Kalvin. He has no real power. Our true ruling party lives in a glorious city behind the West Wall – a city that none of us have ever seen, and aren’t meant to know exists. Everything they’ve told us – through President Tanner – is a lie. They’ve always said that a rampant, incurable disease causes ninety-five percent of babies to be born male. This is not true. A roughly equal number of males and females are born. But the ruling party whisks the females away. They let them grow up, and then force those they deem unattractive into roles as maids and midwives. And those they do find attractive they force into an entirely different kind of servitude. As far as males are concerned, the Government occupies them with the war – making them either soldiers, or factory workers. They expect you to give your lives to them, and in return they give you only dilapidated living quarters, meager amounts of food, and artificial girlfriends.”
Artificial girlfriend… I opened my mouth in knee-jerk defense of Elly, but then closed it. I pulled my hands away from Anabelle’s, and stared at the shadowy concrete floor. These things she was speaking of were horrific – the Government keeping women as slaves? Those in power eating up the lives of common men like me with a war that didn’t even need to continue?
The shadows kept getting darker, and the flashlight beam brighter. I looked at Anabelle. I could see the conviction in her face. She believed in what she was doing. And, it seemed, she believed in me. “What is it?” I said softly. “What is it that you and the Resistance want me to do?”
I stomped through the filthy snow, an army of men around me. It felt warm in my hand, even though I knew it wasn’t really. It also felt heavy there, covered by my fingers, although, in truth, it weighed only ounces. I wondered at the destructive power they were now able to fit into such a minuscule device.
I shot a few furtive glances around me, and then uncurled my fingers. It stared back at me with its small digital counter at the center of its black body. Anabelle had given it to me. She had called it a test of both my loyalty and efficacy.
It was a bomb.
My fingers quickly clenched closed again, concealing the weapon.
Earlier, after leaving Anabelle, I had headed back to my apartment. It had been shortly after midnight when I had arrived home. I had been eager to return to Elly, to truly test if I’d be able to stay with her the remainder of the night without reality breaking through into the fantasy. But, with everything that had happened, I had been unable to sleep.
I had laid in my bed, eyes wide and limbs jittering, staring across my room at the bomb on my kitchen table. It made no sound, and yet blared like the world’s loudest alarm clock in my head. It looked nondescript, but wouldn’t release my eyes, or let my attention wander, for even a moment. Could I really do it, I kept asking myself? Deploy the bomb at my factory? Was reality even more horrible than I had already known? As horrible as Anabelle claimed? And, even if it was, would working with the Resistance and setting off the bomb really change anything?
I had gotten up from bed and walked to the table. I peered down at the bomb. Three zeroes blinked on its display. They had been flashing like that since Anabelle had handed the device over. I touched a tentative finger to its surface. Whatever happened next, I knew, change had finally found me.
I slammed into something.
“Hey!” a worker in front of me yelled. He swung around. His shirt read ‘KENNY SMITH.’ “Watch where you’re walking, buddy!”
My eyes shot down to my hand – the bomb was still there. I hadn’t dropped it. I glanced up at the worker. “Sorry,” I muttered.
He grumbled something and turned back around. We resumed moving with the throng around us, everyone stomping forward as if asleep, their legs moving only because of some chemical-electric firings in the deepest corners of the most primitive parts of their brains. The rest of their minds were shut off, I knew. Still reliving the events of the night. Still with their women.
The bomb seemed to grow even warmer and heavier in my hand. I had been tasked with waking them up, I realized. With waking myself up, too…
The blast came without warning – thundering and tearing. I had heard countless bombs over the course of my life, but never had one been this loud; this big; this close. My eyes bolted to my hand, my first thought being that my bomb had somehow exploded. But the device remained unchanged in my palm – black body with blinking zeroes on its display.
Screams sounded from behind me and I turned, seeing where the bomb had actually hit. A crater had been blown into the marching mass I was a part of – a depression of bodies strewn across the ground, bloody, bellowing, missing limbs and eyes, fingers and ears. Those still standing moved forward again. Once again, the Pine Avenue subway was the closest place that could afford us some protection from the attack. The men around me headed towards it. Like yesterday, they moved at wildly different paces. This time, however, I was among the runners.
Another bomb fell, falling from the sky like a piece of the universe that had popped loose and plummeted – a decorative star or asteroid that God hadn’t attached firmly enough to the black fabric of space. It struck to my left, shattering pavement and spraying flesh and blood through the air like smashed watermelon pieces.
We reached the broken escalator and stomped down. We lit flares that spit red sparks. We placed our backs against the wall. We dropped to the floor. We sunk our heads between our knees.
I peeked up and looked towards the tracks, thinking of my meeting with Anabelle, and thinking of my own bomb, pressed against my sweaty palm.
The siren warning of the bombs that had been falling for minutes already finally sounded. Its screeching was somehow an even worse noise than that made by the bombs themselves.
The conveyor belt trundled along before me, pulling cylinders. The man with the IRVINE LINESS nametag stood next to me again. It was rare for two of us workers to be positioned beside each other multiple days in a row.
My hand was in my control cone. I pinched. I pushed. I turned.
The bomb was in my pants’ pocket. It felt warm there, too; heavy. I tried to focus on my cone, my metal hand, my needles. Anabelle had told me to detonate the bomb during my fifteen-minute lunch break at Noon. It was still only 11:45. My only task now was to not make another mistake like yesterday; to not draw attention to myself.
“How was Elly last night?” IRVINE asked, turning to glance at me. “Things go any better? You two able to get busy?”
I again thought about ignoring him. I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to talk about anything. Yet, again, I found myself opening my mouth. “No,” I said. “I… something went wrong again. I woke up.”
IRVINE frowned. “Sorry to hear that. Did you try again after waking up?”
“No. I couldn’t fall back asleep. And I didn’t want to take my sleeping pills. I… well, I wanted to be alert for today.”
“Yeah, those sleeping pills knock me off my ass for at least twelve hours. I still take them, though, if I can’t get to sleep otherwise. Being groggy for half a day is worth it to be able to see my Betsy.”
I nodded without saying anything.
IRVINE threw me another glance. “How many girls have you gone through since your dating program period, anyway?”
I plucked a triangular piece from the bin with my metal fingers. “A lot.”
“Hmmm. Well, I’m not going to claim that jumping from one digital dolly to the next doesn’t have its perks – but, truly, nothing compares to the beauty of a long-term union. Why, me and my program wed over eight years ago, now.” Dreamily, he looked up at the ceiling, staring into the harsh lights. “The day of my wedding… hell, that was the single best night of sleep I ever had.”
“Yeah. I’d like that for me and Elly someday. I hope it works out.”
“Well, why wouldn’t it?”
“Reality,” I said. The answer came automatically, but I realized that it was true. My own confidence levels were keeping Elly and I apart, like the doctor had said. But now there was an even bigger obstacle – the bomb hidden in my pocket, and all that went with it.
“Reality,” IRVINE spit out, like he was uttering a curse word. He looked around with distaste. “Who’s to say this is reality and the world where we each spend time with our true love is fake? I say ‘reality’ is whatever makes us happy. I say we should put greater stock into the world that builds us up and grants our dreams than into the one that tears us down and delivers only misery.”
A bell sounded.
“Lunch time!” IRVINE smiled. “Find me in the cafeteria, yeah?”
I pulled my hand out of the cone and shut my metal arm down. “Yeah,” I said distractedly. “Maybe.”
I had never been in this hallway before. You could see it from the factory floor, as it was raised high above it, and visible through tall glass panes. It was where my boss had his office, and it was much nicer than the rest of the factory, decorated with potted plants and pictures. There was even a water cooler. The water inside the clear container looked much cleaner than the stuff that spewed from the faucets down in the factory and in my apartment. A sign over it read: ‘For use by management only.’
Near the end of the hall I found the door I was looking for – the one with my boss’s name emblazoned on the glass window: ‘HAROLD DENSON’
This is where Anabelle had instructed me to place and detonate the bomb. I had never even met my boss. He never came out of his office. I wondered what he was like. Was he working with the Government and aware of all the atrocities they were perpetrating? Did he deserve to die?
It wasn’t for me to decide. Anabelle and the Resistance knew more about the truth of what was going on than I did. I had to follow their orders. Not stopping, I walked past HAROLD’S door, dropping the bomb to the floor without looking back. Anabelle had told me to do it this way, in case there were hidden cameras. I hurried down the hall to steps leading back to the factory floor.
There were still five minutes of the lunch break left, so the floor was empty – nothing but a crisscross of stationary conveyor belts, waiting bins of shards and screws, and dead, dangling robotic arms. I went back to my station. I could see my boss’s door up above, but couldn’t see low enough to see the bomb. Anabelle had told me I should be at least two-hundred feet away before I set it off, and I believed myself to be at a safe distance.
I placed my hand in the pocket holding the small detonating remote. I pushed its button.
Anabelle had said there would be a ten-second delay between my hitting the button and the bomb detonating. As the seconds of this delay ticked by, I couldn’t stop myself from looking up towards the office. The door opened. IRVINE came out. He took two steps down the hall before fire and light lurched outward from behind him.
The bomb’s explosion brought down part of the ceiling and tore through walls like they were made of paper. IRVINE’s body blasted forward, smashing through glass and tumbling out over the factory floor. He landed five feet from me with a sound that was wet and crunchy. He was missing half of his head.
The Assistant Manager had closed the factory for the remainder of the day. The police had come, but they let all workers go after an hour. All the workers assumed that the enemy nation south of us had attacked the factory. As far as I could tell, the police were under the same misperception.
I went back to the Pine Avenue subway, as Anabelle had instructed me to do as soon as I had detonated the bomb and was cleared to leave the factory. I found her in the same spot as before – down on the tracks, in shadow.
She was smiling. “You did it!” She threw her arms around me. I had never been hugged by a real woman before, except for my mother – and my last hug from her had been fifteen years ago. The hug was nice, but also somewhat uncomfortable. Anabelle smelled of dirt and sweat, and she wrapped her arms around me too tightly.
I disentangled myself from her. “Yes.”
“I’m so glad you’re back. You did great! You’ll make a terrific addition to the Resistance.”
A siren clamored above, followed by explosions. More bombs had started to fall. I glanced up at the ceiling as a blast shook dust and small pieces of concrete loose. “When do I meet the others?” I asked. “Where is everyone else?”
“Soon,” she said. “And, below us.”
“The Resistance Headquarters is right under our feet. We have a network of hidden tunnels beneath the tracks. Bombs striking the city above can’t touch us. We’d only be in trouble if a bomb – and a powerful one at that – got into the shelter, on the railway itself.”
“I killed IRVINE.”
Anabelle’s eyebrows lowered. “Huh?”
“One of the workers at the factory,” I said. “He was in my boss’s office… I hadn’t realized. I… I saw him get caught up in the explosion.”
Anabelle’s eyes explored my face. “Was he your friend?”
I thought for a minute. “No,” I eventually answered. “People don’t have friends in this world. Not anymore. Not really. He was just a co-worker, but he didn’t deserve to die. I’m not sure why he was in my boss’s office – he was nothing but a regular grunt, like me. He was one of the people you – the Resistance – are trying to protect.”
Anabelle put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But don’t blame yourself. There are sacrifices in war, all the time. That’s how it has to be.”
“Of course.” Anabelle’s grip on my arm tightened. “Kalvin, we’re living in a world ruled by immense evil. To defeat them, and to truly make a difference, we need to do everything in our power. Sometimes, those things we have to do may involve incurring collateral damage. It will all be worth it in the end, though.”
Anabelle nodded. “Yes, when we’ve remade the world so everyone is free, and equal, and when peace reigns instead of war. When we can all be happy.”
She smiled again, the lifting of her lips brightening her otherwise ordinary, dirty face.
“Do you think people can ever change?” I asked, observing her closely. “Really change?”
Anabelle laughed. “That’s the reason I’m in the Resistance, Kalvin! Change is not only possible, it’s imperative. Every day I’m able to wake up and keep fighting because I know we can change the world.”
“The world… and ourselves?”
“Changing the world starts with changing ourselves. We can’t change everything around us until we change what’s in us, first.” Her smile grew. “Just look at you, Kalvin! You changed today! You decided to stand up to the Government. And as you changed, you made a change in the world – setting that bomb off at your factory will send an important message to those in control of us all. Just remember, sacrifice always accompanies change, the same as it does war. It’s how it has to be.”
I looked down at my hands. “Did I, though? Did I change? I was merely following orders, like I always do. I was just doing what someone else told me. The only difference is that I was listening to the Resistance this time instead of the Government.”
“That’s a big difference, though. Listen, I know everything is confusing initially, but you’ll know more and more, soon. We’ll teach you everything we’ve found out. You’ll feel more a part of the Resistance everyday – more invested.” Anabelle turned and pulled a bag out from the shadows behind her. “Which leads me to your next mission.”
“What’s in the bag?”
Anabelle thrust it towards me. “A bomb,” she said. “A bigger bomb.”
I took the bag and it pulled my arms down with its weight. This one truly did tax my muscles every bit as much as its significance weighed down my thoughts. “Where?” I asked quietly. “Where am I to set this one?”
“There’s a tower past the ravine in the center of the old entertainment district. It’s the only thing still standing for miles. The Government broadcasts the Relationship-Simulator signals from there.”
“What? It does?”
“If you can get that bomb into the tower and set it off, you’ll disable the Government’s L.U.S.T. transmissions. Every worker and soldier in the nation will suddenly be without their artificial nighttime worlds; without their fake women. Everyone will have to wake up.”
I looked down at the bag in my hands. “Elly…,” I muttered.
“Huh?” Anabelle said. “What did you say?”
“I…” I shook my head. “Nothing.”
Anabelle touched my arm again. “Are you OK? Do you think you can handle this?”
Anabelle leaned forward and pressed her lips to my cheek. Her lips felt as rough as her hands. “I’m proud of you, Kalvin. And glad to have you on our side.”
“Now,” she said, pulling back from me, “you should go about your usual routine, so as not to arouse any suspicions. Go to sleep and trigger your program. Try and exit out of it like you’ve been doing; try to realize by yourself that it’s fake. If you’re having trouble escaping the fantasy, we’ll be monitoring you, and I’ll use Dr. Dranzone’s cap again, and speak directly to you. Once you’re awake, as long as it’s after midnight, head to the tower.”
“This bomb has a more impressive blast radius than the last. Much more impressive. And there’s no delay with this bomb, either. Be sure you’re nowhere near it when you press the detonator.”
“Good luck.” She grinned. “You and me, Kalvin, we’re going to change the world together.”
I was in Elly’s arms. We were sitting on the couch. Her scent was wonderful, her touch even better, and her taste, as we kissed, was the best of all. I ran my hand through her hair. Jazz was playing on the stereo and we had the windows behind the couch partly open, allowing ingress to delicate moonlight and the warm breeze.
“Elly?” I whispered, my mouth inches from hers.
“I… I’ve been thinking. About what we were talking about the other night.”
Elly pulled her head back slightly so that she could see my face clearly. “You have?”
“Yeah… about whether change is possible.”
Elly stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. “Have you come to a new conclusion?”
“I don’t know. I… I think so.” I scratched the back of my head. “I’m not sure why, but I feel like I’m about to make a big decision; a big change. I couldn’t tell you what, because I’m just not sure. But something deep inside me says that I’m different today than I was yesterday. I’m on that journey we talked about – the journey to my true self. And a journey to change the world.”
Elly’s brown eyes gleamed. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “But not surprised. I know you’re capable of anything.”
“I’m a new man, Elly. I’m going to fight for what I believe in from now on.”
She kissed me again and my body flushed with warmth and want. “Give me a minute, OK?” I said after removing my lips from hers. “I just have to run to the bathroom.”
Elly slid a hand along my leg. “Hurry back.”
In the bathroom, I stood in front of the oval mirror. A handsome, tanned face stared back at me. But then I caught sight of something… something red and round on my nose. I leaned in towards the mirror. It was a pimple. I poked at it and it hurt. I could feel the pressure of the pus inside of it.
I had never had a blemish before… what was going on? Another one appeared, and then another, bright points of angry crimson popping up on skin that looked increasingly colorless and sickly. I closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I felt like I was somehow prepared for this. I’m worthy to be here, I thought. I deserve this life. I deserve Elly.
When my eyes opened, my flawless face had returned. I nodded to myself in the mirror and turned. I stopped short – Elly was standing in the doorway. She wore a blank expression, her head hanging forward like her neck muscles were unable to support it.
“Elly?” I said, alarmed. I held her. “Are you OK?”
Her head shot upright and her eyes locked on me. “It’s Anabelle,” said Elly’s voice, strangely strained. “Wake up!”
“This isn’t reality, Kalvin! Wake up!”
I let go of Elly. My head swam. The world around me looked still, but it wasn’t. The planet Earth rotated without pause, did it not? Somehow, I could now feel its every lurch. My former immunity to its motion had been stripped away and the floor beneath me, the walls around me, and the ceiling above me transformed into an amusement park vessel out of a nightmare, whisking me around too quickly for its movement to be seen, but too slowly not to be felt.
I screamed in fear. Elly screamed my name. And the world went black.
I woke up – back in my own apartment. Alone once again. It was time, I knew. Time to change myself. Time to change the world. I walked over to my kitchen table and pulled the detonator out of the bag Anabelle had given me.
The bomb was no longer in it.
My entire life I had blindly followed orders, living for others instead of for myself. I hadn’t been my true self because I had barely been anybody. I had seen myself as worthless, and others had seen my only worth as my manipulability. It was time that ended. I would live my every day from this point forward in pursuit of what made me happy. I had never believed it before, but I deserved to be happy; had every right to be.
And nothing made me happy like Elly made me happy.
I walked into my bathroom. The bulb blazed on, revealing my pasty, pimply face. IRVINE had been right. What he had said before I blew half his face off had been true – we got to choose what we regarded as reality. And it would be ridiculous to choose a world of violence and struggle over one of pleasure and peace… over one with Elly in it. One world I’d probably never be able to change for the better – if I even could accurately determine what ‘better’ was – while paradise awaited ripe for the plucking in the other world, if only I could alter my perceptions and abandon myself fully to it.
I thought of the bomb Anabelle had given me. I had dumped it out of the bag before I left the subway station, while I was still on the train tracks. It was sitting over the base of the Resistance. If it went off, it would destroy their organization. It would protect Elly and every other Relationship-Simulation woman.
I looked down at the detonator’s red button. In my mind’s eye, I watched myself push it. This self seemed more my ‘true self’ than any other version of me I had ever envisioned.
My thumb shot down.
I could hear the blast all the way from my apartment. At my window, smoke was visible snaking up from the horizon. I watched it curl into the dark of the sky, and knew what it represented – hundreds of deaths, the protection of the Relationship-Simulation transmissions, change.
Still watching the smoke, I lifted the tweezers I had grabbed from my bathroom drawer and jabbed them into the port on the rear of my skull. I felt them snag on something, closed them, and pulled. A strange metal disc was pinched between my tweezer’s tips. It was Doctor Dranzone’s ‘cap’… it had to be.
I thought of the Doctor. He had been half right – I was much more than I had thought; I was someone who could grasp change and wield it like a sword, striking at those who threatened my happiness. But he had been wrong about Elly. She wasn’t a vacuous, artificial diversion. She was strong, and smart, and beautiful… and she was central to my life. She was central to who I was.
I dropped the Doctor’s cap in the trash and turned away from the window. A pang of sadness shot through me: I felt sorry for Anabelle and the other Resistance members. I had just killed so many. Then something Anabelle had said filled my mind… Sacrifice always accompanies change.
I went back to my bed. I made myself comfortable, placing my head on my pillow and pulling my blanket up to my chest. I was going to see her. And this time I’d be sure to stay with her, uninterrupted until morning. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, a big smile on my face.
Elly walked out of the kitchen wearing a checkered apron and holding a freshly-baked plate of chocolate chip cookies.
Her eyes lit up in a smile. “Hey,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
I smiled back at her. “Starved.”
She walked over to me and lifted a cookie to my mouth. I bit down.
“How are they?”
“Perfect.” I took her hand. “Elly? You know when we were talking about my new opinion about change earlier?”
“I did it.” My smile widened. “I… again, I can’t remember exactly what it was… but I did what I was planning to do – I’m sure that I did. I changed. I’ve realized my worth, and I’m not going to mindlessly obey others any more. I’m going to protect the things I love. I’m going to protect you. My journey to myself was a journey to you. I’ve arrived.” I kissed her, hungrily. “I deserve you, Elly.”
Elly returned my kiss, somehow increasing the intensity of our previous one. “Of course you do. We deserve each other.”
“Elly, I missed you.”
“And I you.”
I pressed my mouth up against her ear. “Never leave me again.”
The grandfather clock chimed once, reverberating through the night and exposing existence’s inexorable march towards morning.
“I promise,” Elly whispered. “Never.”
Bio: Jeff Metzler is just a normal guy, with a slightly abnormal imagination. By day he works as a college librarian, soaring among a trillion thoughts both bound and digitalized, and at night he plays in the wide-open spaces of his own mind, pouring what he finds there onto pages.
He lives tucked away in the woods of New Hampshire with his wife, son, cat, the ghosts of his past, and the specters of his possible futures. More information about him can be found at jeffmetzler.com.
by Matencera Wolf
Nelson’s scream tore across the worksite and my head snapped to his direction. His leg had been replaced by a bleeding stump.
“We gotta help Nelson!” I shouted, raising my mallet in the air.
Charl and several other laborers charged with me, but we hadn’t taken three steps before the trappie darted from its trapdoor, and Nelson’s screams ended.
We stopped short. There was no use in chasing a trappie down its hole.
“Damn it! Get up on the wall, boys!” I shouted, and together we filtered up the thin stairways in a single file, leaving behind one of our own.
“Why aren’t you lot bloody working?” Gaz growled.
We all stood frozen and stared at one another as Gaz stomped into our midst. No one wanted to be the first to answer, the first to draw the foreman’s attention. I sighed.
“Trappie musta snuck past the wall guards last night,” I said.
Gaz’s face blanched and he tiptoed to the edge of the wall to stand beside me. His face reddened.
“Well, it’s gone now. Get back to work!”
I took a copper nail from my pouch and tossed it at the red smear a hundred feet below. All was calm for a moment; then a horned head exploded from the earth and snatched up the nail. When the dust settled, the ground was smooth once more.
“Well, don’t just stand there you idjit, send for the bloody guards!” Gaz growled.
“Already sent one’a the boys,” I replied.
Gaz glared at me and I froze.
“I’m docking your pay for wasting nails.” He smirked at me, daring me to argue, then stomped away.
Charl placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Damn it, Jo,” he whispered. “Sometimes I think you have more sack than the rest of us combined.”
Soon enough, a squad of guards sauntered across the pathway atop the wall. We moved aside to let them do their work, and they rained crossbow bolts down into our worksite, guided by our shouts.
A bolt struck home and the trappie erupted from the earth in a shower of soil. It rammed itself against my wall and pride flared in my chest when the stone repelled it. Bolts pinned its scaly form to the ground and the guards cheered.
“Give me a hand over here,” one of the armored idiots shouted as he pressed his shoulder against a building stone.
“Don’t you bloody dare!” I shouted, but before the words were out of my mouth, the huge block of stone tumbled over the edge of the wall and reduced the trappie to a black stain on the dirt.
I shook my head and grumbled to myself. It would have been a simple job for them to climb down the stairs and finish it with a bolt to the face. But of course, they chose the path that sent them back to their dice games the quickest, leaving us laborers to clean up their mess, haul what was left of the stone block up the wall, and still complete our quota for the day. I shook my head again and descended to the worksite.
I could almost hear Charl’s back muscles straining as he hefted the slab of wood against the frame of the wall. I felt bad making him lift it alone, but with Nelson gone, we were understaffed and short on time.
“Ready?” I mumbled through a mouthful of nails.
“Get it done,” he grunted.
Placing a nail against the wood, I hammered it down with my mallet, before spitting another into my hand and continuing down the length of the slab. I reached the end where the wood gave way to air and the mallet flew from my hands.
“Careful, idjit! Break that mallet an’ I’ll break your face,” Gaz yelled.
I flashed him a forced smile. “Sorry ‘bout that, Gaz. Won’t happen again.”
He stomped over and thrust his finger into my chest. “You think I’m joking around? I’ll wipe that damn smile right from your face if you’re not careful!”
I bit my tongue and he poked me again.
“What’s that face, Jo? Got something you want to say?”
My fists balled at my side and I shoved them in my pockets. I ground my teeth and imagined what I would do to Gaz if I didn’t need my job.
“Damn it!” One of the boys cried out, his curse punctuated by the snapping of a cheap mallet.
Gaz rushed away like a monster after blood and I shook my head. Eager for the day to be over, I resumed hammering with a new ferocity and craving for my after-work drink.
The shouts of vendors assaulted my workmates and me as we passed through the marketplace to my tavern. The smells of cooking meat and spices made our mouths water, but between good food and hard liquor, a hard working laborer would always choose the latter.
I pushed open the door to my tavern and took a deep breath, filling my nostrils with the comforting aroma of old alcohol. She wasn’t pretty; it was a homemade bar in the bottom room of my small house, stocked with an old family recipe. But what it lacked in aesthetics, it more than made up for in character. It was a place where we could all enjoy a drink and pretend that the outside world didn’t exist.
I walked behind the bar and poured myself a mug of rotgut. I said a silent prayer for Nelson, gulped it down, poured myself another, and sipped at the clear liquid. Part of me wanted to make a speech for our lost workmate, say something nice and toast to his memory, but the others didn’t need any reminder of their losses.
Charl tossed his sack of copper onto the bar and I passed him a bottle and a clay mug to help himself. His pay never covered what he drank, but to Charl, drinking was as necessary as air, so he paid what he could, and I pitched in the rest. He deserved at least that much. I was snapping up coppers and handing out mugs when the door opened and Whisper strode towards the bar.
Whisper was as close to a living god as anybody in Ellsworth had ever met. During the malificia purge, a squad of foray guards had entered the slums to claim the bounty on his head. The guards’ corpses were found the next morning seated at the Minister of Defense’s breakfast table. The legendary assassin had grown into an old man, but even now, he was a force of nature. The fact that he was the last surviving magic user in the city was a testament to that.
Before I could avert my gaze, our eyes locked. I ground my teeth, feeling like a cornered rabbit. No matter how many nights he spent in my bar, it was a feeling that didn’t go away.
“Rotgut?” I asked in a wavering voice.
“Thank you,” he said. His gentle voice was all the more threatening coming from the thin man, like rotgut disguised as water.
He let himself behind the bar and selected a bottle from the wall, before taking his customary seat in the far corner of the room. I didn’t stop him or demand payment. Hell, the entire bar acted like if he didn’t exist – a comfortable fiction for the lot of us.
Brash kicked in the door and lumbered over to the bar with his sack of baked good slung over his back.
“Oi, ugly! Pour me a mug,” he shouted.
“Oi, stupid! Give me the goods,” I retorted.
We clapped hands over the bar and broke into laughter. Brash was a baker, and we had an understanding of sorts. He kept me and my family fed, and I kept him drunk.
I handed him a mug and removed the first baguette from the sack. I almost broke my teeth on it.
“Damn it, Brash! How old is this stuff? I could replace my naughty bat with this!” I shouted, slamming the bread down on the bar.
Brash shrugged and quaffed his mug.
“Some’s from today, some’s from last week. You know how it is, Jo. I just take what I can get me mitts on when the boss ain’t watching.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Oi, Charl! Watch the bar for me while I check on my little one.”
I topped up my mug and slung the bread sack over my back, then made my way up the narrow, spiral staircase that led to my living quarters. My son was asleep in the bed that we shared, and my old man was asleep in his chair. The same chair that he had been confined to since his back gave way five years earlier. Stepping over the slack rope of the old man’s lasso, I kissed my son on the forehead and upended the bread on the floor. I grabbed one of the softer loaves and tossed it into the old man’s lap. He opened his jaundiced eyes and reached blindly for the mug that I pushed into his hand.
“‘Bout time you got back. We went to bed hungry again,” he growled, breaking off chunks of his bread and dipping them in his rotgut.
“I was working so that we could all eat,” I snapped.
“Don’t you give me lip. I worked myself broken so you didn’t starve.”
“Whatever you say, old man.” I bit off a chunk of bread. “How was my little one today?”
The old man smiled. “My boy was an angel. Made up stories all day for his poor old gramps, he did.”
I stared down at my son and grinned. Despite the hardships of his life, Leon had that effect on people. He had been delivered into this world in the arms of death, and death had hovered over him for the first few years of his life. Once herbalist Seifer had taken all my metal, he told me there was nothing he could do, that my son was ‘touched by the gods.’ He mentioned how a dog breeder drowns touched puppies to spare them a life of pain. Well, let’s just say that I didn’t spare that bastard a life of pain.
A shout echoed from downstairs and I grabbed my naughty bat from under my bed.
“Mind my boy,” I called over my shoulder as I took the steps three at a time.
Downstairs, I found my regulars standing with their backs to the bar, ready to face off against Rat and his gang of seven. At only sixteen, Rat towered over most laborers, but he was still just a boy aching to prove that he wasn’t afraid of the world.
Brash stood behind the bar, holding a bloody rag to his nose.
“What’s this?” I growled, smacking my club against my hand.
“Bloody scumbags came in demanding free grog, and Brash told them what they could do with their demands. Things got complicated.” Charl said.
I sighed. “Look, fellas, you can either put dough in my pocket or bread in my pantry, but no one drinks for free.”
“He does,” Rat, said, pointing at Whisper.
I glanced at the assassin, but he seemed to be lost in thought, staring at his unopened bottle.
“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “I pay for Whisper’s drinks out of pocket and in return, he hasn’t killed anyone in my bar.”
Rat grinned. “Sounds fairs to me. What ‘bout you, lads?” Rat asked.
His gang cheered.
“It’s settled then. You serve us drink, and we don’t kill anyone either.”
I snorted. Well aware of Rat’s eyes on me, I strode behind the bar and poured myself a mug.
“I have a better idea,” I said. I gulped my drink and breathed the burn through my nose. “How ‘bout the lot of ya make like trees and piss off!”
The room erupted into violence. Laborers who pounded wood with mallets by day, pounded skulls with their fists, while I strode through the melee, lashing with my naughty bat like a city guard.
One of Rat’s boys leaped at me, swinging heavy blows, and I put him down. Rat’s fat body crashed into mine and I slammed face first into the bar. I tried to find my feet, but he caught a handful of my short hair with one hand, and the naughty bat was ripped from my grasp. Fists rained down on the back of my head in flashes of white light. Doing my best to protect myself with one arm, I scoured the bar for a weapon. My hand closed around something solid and I swung.
I propped myself against the bar and looked around the room. Rat lay face down on the floor with his gang, his dark hair a crimson mess. I burst into laughter. The baguette in my hand looked as if it had been smeared with berry preserves.
I grabbed the bloody rag from where Brash had dropped it and stuffed the end into my bleeding nose.
“Gonna hang this beauty on the wall,” I said, holding the baguette like a trophy.
“And here you were, complaining that the bread was too hard,” Brash grunted as he and Charl dragged the unconscious Rat towards the door.
“Don’t put’em out there. The streets will skin ‘em alive in the state their in.”
“It’s what they deserve,” Charl said, his top lip rising into a snarl. “Back when I was in the foray guards we used recruits like these as monster bait until they learned their manners.”
“And how many of those recruits do you see in your nightmares?” I asked.
Charl was silent.
“They’re just stupid kids. Chuck’em over in the corner and forget about’em. They won’t make any more trouble tonight.”
They hauled the unconscious boys to the corner by the door, and Charl hurried back to me with a smile on his face.
“Grab Senna for me, would you?” he asked.
I grinned and felt under the bar for his fiddle. I passed it to him, and after a quick tuning, his voice fell into the artful cadence of a performer. He composed a ballad of our little tumble, dedicating a passage to all present, and we sang along until the fire in the hearth burned down to a faded red eye.
I was struggling to keep my eyes open when I shouted out last call. Rat’s gang had slunk out the door over an hour ago and Charl was grumbling to Bibi and Brash.
“Guardsh ‘ave it eashy theshe daysh. Claiming to defend the shity. Bah!” he slurred, waving his empty bottle through the air.
Bibi gave a non-committal grunt and tried to siphon the last drops from her mug. She was little more than a wrinkle of translucent skin stretched over sharp bones, but somehow, she always managed to make last call. Being half blind, I don’t know how she made her way to my bar each evening, but I didn’t trust her stumbling home alone at night.
“All they do ish play dishe. Bet they ain’t never sheen a monster up closhe. Never had to charge one wish…” he paused and poked Bibi in the shoulder. “Oi! Lishten to me. Lishten to me…” He laid his head on the bar and broke into choking sobs, his drunken fingers tripping over Senna’s strings.
I hated seeing him like that, but memories of the past reduced him to that state each and every night.
“Drink this and go to sleep, big guy,” I said, filling his mug with enough rotgut to send him to a place where nightmares couldn’t reach him.
I scooped Bibi into my arms like a child. She struggled for a few seconds before giving up and slumping against my chest. I could feel little more than bones beneath her thick shawl and wool skirt.
“I’m taking Bibi home. Mind the bar for me, Brash?”
“No problem, Jo.”
Slinging my naughty bat over my shoulder, I made my way into the night.
When I returned home, Whisper was sitting at the bar beside the unconscious Charl. For the first time ever, I was thankful for Charl’s snoring because it let me know that he was still alive.
“Where’s Brash?” I asked.
“I told him I would guard your bar and that he could return home. A young man like that needs his sleep.”
I nodded and forced a smile. “Thought you would’ve gone home already yourself,” I said. I tightened my grip on my naughty bat although I knew it would be of little use. If Whisper wanted me dead, I was dead and that was that.
“I was impressed by how you handled those thugs earlier. Peace born of a handshake lasts longer than that born of a punch. It is only a shame that your extended hand was refused.”
“Thanks,” I said. I walked behind the bar and poured myself a nightcap. I offered the bottle to Whisper, but he waved it away.
“I want your help, Jo.”
I swallowed and forced a smile. “What can I do for ya?”
“Armed with the right words, a person in power can accomplish what an army of assassins cannot. I would like you to be that person in power.”
My jaw dropped open and I broke into laughter. Then I remembered who I was speaking to and wiped the smile from my face.
“And how would I do that?”
“I will teach you.”
I took another swig of rotgut. “Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not exactly the finest liquor on the shelf. I can’t even read.”
Whisper shook his head. “All children should learn to read, but we are what we choose to be. Let the aristocrats decide for you and you have already lost. They want slaves who can lift heavy objects, not equals who can think and reason.”
His pity stung me more than any insult.
“What if I don’t wanna’ learn?” I snapped.
Whisper shrugged. “The choice is yours, but I’m sure that I can find a way to motivate you.” The elderly assassin passed by me and I shivered despite my anger. Once he had left my bar, I locked the door, for whatever good it would do, placed his unopened bottle back on the shelf for the next night, and joined my son in the warm embrace of our bed.
Motivation came the next evening when I returned home from work.
I heard the old man’s muffled yells from within the bar and all but ripped the door from its hinges. He was sprawled on the ground, his thin, crippled legs useless as he crawled towards me.
It’s Leon. He won’t wake up!”
I raced up the stairs and found my son in our bed. I shook him, but he didn’t stir. His shallow breaths were the only hint that he was still alive. I brushed aside his blond hair and kissed his forehead.
“You’re going to be alright, Leon,” I said. To myself, I whispered, “You have to be.”
Scooping him into my arms, I ran to Ellsworth’s only herbalist, trusting in Charl to take care of the bar and my old man.
The store was closed for the evening, and the door locked, but I pounded on it until Herbalist Seifer opened it a crack.
“I’m closed and about to go home,” he growled through the gap.
“Something’s wrong with my son. He won’t wake up!”
Seifer snorted. “I told you that you should have drowned him as a babe. The child is nothing if not infirm.”
I gritted my teeth and pushed down the urge to rip the man’s throat out with my teeth. “I don’t care, just fix him,” I growled.
“Can you pay?”
“Can you reciprocate me for my services with, steel, iron, bronze or a great deal of copper?”
“No,” I spluttered. “Not right now, but I will. I don’t care what it costs.”
He shut the door and I waited for him to undo the deadlock. After several moments, I kicked it.
“Hurry up!” I shouted.
“If you can’t pay. I can’t heal,” came his reply. “I don’t frequent that hole you call a bar and expect free alcohol on the promise of payment, and thus I do not heal for promises.”
“I’ll kill you!” I shouted. I kicked the door again and felt the slab of wood budge in its frame. I was lining up another kick when the city guards rounded the corner and I took off home.
“I can’t believe that bastard!” I shouted, shouldering open the door to my tavern.
“Eyes on your drinks,” Charl snapped, and everyone’s gazes slipped away from me. “What’s happened now?” he asked.
I laid my son’s sleeping form on the bar and stroked the hair back from his eyes. My blood boiled and I punched the bar.
“Fuck!” I shouted, punching it again.
Charl poured me a drink, grabbed my arm, and forced the mug into my hand. “Drink this before you break something. You’re no use to Leon if you lose control, Jo.”
I necked it in a single gulp, savoring the burn that swept away my stress as it wafted from my mouth.
“Good,” Charl soothed. “Now tell me what happened.”
“Seifer won’t even look at Leon unless I can pay him on the spot. And he won’t hear nothin ‘bout a loan.”
“How much is he asking for?” Charl asked, refilling my mug.
“Steel,” I said.
“That’s pathetic!” Charl snarled. “I remember back before the purge when there was a malificia who could heal with her hands. Cup of flour here and there, and she would heal you up without a worry. Now that Seifer has the market cornered, the greedy thinks he’s some kind of god, holding our lives in one hand and our purses in the other. Well, I’ll convince him to help if I have to do it at the point of a knife!”
The room cheered their accent, and more than one person rose to their feet.
I banged my mug on the bar. “Thanks, Charl, but gettin’ yourselves put in a chain-gang to build outside the wall until monsters take ya ain’t gonna help no one.” I slammed the mug again and the clay shattered. “How the hell can someone ignore a sick child like that!”
“I’ve seen once good men, stripped of everything that made them human, commit unspeakable acts simply to keep themselves alive for one more day. I’ve seen them dump the putrid bodies of onetime friends in our rivers, and then look away while children choke on the corrupted water. I have watched this city die ever since I was an apprentice, leaking the corpses of the poor like blood while the wealthy rest atop its carcass like proud hunters.”
I glared at Whisper. “I don’t have time for poetry!” A thought struck me and desperate hope chased away my anger. I grasped Whisper by the shirt. “You work with poisons! You must know something ‘bout cures!”
Whisper jabbed my shoulder with a finger, and my arm went flaccid. He shrugged away my feeble grip and turned toward the stairs.
“Bring your son up to your room,” he ordered.
I followed the elderly assassin and laid my son on our shared bed. My old man was passed out in his chair, no doubt exhausted after dragging himself down to the front door. Whisper held his head to Leon’s chest and looked inside his nose, examining my son while I paced the room like an imprisoned animal.
Finally, he said, “Your son will be fine. It’s rare, but sometimes a papillon endormi, a sleeping butterfly, gets trapped on a north blowing wind and floats into the city from the Forest of Silence. He just needs some thyme, rugroot, and bellroot to open his sinuses and flush the poison from his system. You should be able to get everything you need from the herbalist.”
I bent my neck to the left until it popped, then repeated the process on the other side, trying in vain to release the buildup of pressure in my shoulders. “I don’t have the metal to pay for them,” I said. “And the herbalist won’t sell to me.”
“I know,” he replied, locking his gaze with mine.
I remember thinking that an assassin’s eyes shouldn’t be warm and brown. They should be black, like the dead place in his chest where his heart once was.
“Thyme, rugroot, bellroot. Thyme, rugroot, bellroot.” I repeated the words like a mantra as I entered the alleyway behind Seifer’s store. The sun had set, but that did little to calm my nerves. Using the bread sack to cover the window, I elbowed through the glass and fled deeper into the alley. I was sure that at any second a squad of guards would arrest me and my son would be doomed. When no one appeared, I breathed a prayer to whatever god happened to be watching over me, and crawled through the small window, careful to avoid the shattered glass.
I crept through the dark store to where the shadows of herb jars were shelved along the far wall. I could make out the labels on their faces, but the foreign squiggles meant nothing to me. I hadn’t even thought of not being able to read the names. I bit down on my fist hard enough to draw blood in an effort to barricade my scream within my throat. Hot, frustrated tears sprung from my eyes. I was an idiot. My son was going to die because I was an idiot. Whisper was right; all children should learn how to read. Swallowing my rage, I breathed another prayer and shoved as many jars as I could into my bread bag.
When I returned home with the sack of stolen herbs slung over my back, Leon was walking down the stairs, taking them one at a time with slow, deliberate care. He saw me, squealed, and run back up the stairs. He knew he wasn’t allowed to leave his room without an adult.
I dropped the sack at the open door and sprinted after him just in time for the door to slam in my face.
“Sowy, sowy, sowy,” came his voice from the other side.
“It’s ok. You’re not in trouble, buddy. Just open the door,” I called back, my heart hammering in my chest.
The door creaked open and Leon stood in the doorway, chewing on his fingertips. I crushed him against my chest and swung him side to side while he squealed.
“You’re ok,” I repeated over and over.
I set him down on the floor and he collapsed his legs beneath his body, refusing to stand. I kissed his cheek and he giggled.
“As it would appear, I had the correct herbs on my person,” Whisper said from the corner of the room where he was leaning against the wall.
“Then why make me risk the chain-gang?” I asked, deliberately calm while my gratitude warred with my anger.
“To teach you the importance of reading,” Whisper said.
I gritted my teeth. My hands clenched and released by my side as I struggled to remain polite to the legendary assassin.
“Thank you for healing my son. You are right. Reading is very important. I will find myself a teacher. Please help yourself to my bar,” I stated.
Whisper sighed as if I was a slow student, and I restrained myself from throttling him while he passed me and walked down the stairs.
For the following week, I worked on the wall by day, and while Charl ran my bar during the night, I roamed the city in search of a teacher. One week later, I sat beside Whisper at my bar.
“Do you now understand why you have never learned to read?” Whisper asked.
“I’ve never learned to read because I’m poor, and I’m poor because I can’t read,” I replied.
“But, let’s say I did want to learn, where do I find the time?” I asked.
“Make time,” Whisper replied.
“How? I already work two jobs.”
Whisper shrugged. “Get up earlier. Stay up later. Charl has proven quite capable of operating your bar, so hire him. You may lose some income for the time being, but I’m confident that Brash will continue to keep your family fed. Finally, stop working for the city. The menial job you perform pays little and was designed to keep you tired and stupid so that you don’t aspire to goals. Do whatever you need to do, Jo… or would you rather remain an idiot all your life?”
I slapped the bar. “Of course I don’t! I want a better life, for me and my son.” I stared down at my scarred fist. “For everyone.”
Whisper retrieved a tome from within his shirt and laid it open on the bar. The paper was blank. He pressed a thin stick into the palm of my hand.
“This is a lead pencil; you use the sharp end to write.”
I closed my fist around the pencil and held it like a hammer. I scraped it along the page and the paper ripped.
“Sorry!” I blurted. I suddenly felt like a kid again, unable to get even the smallest job right.
He waved the apology away and took the pencil from me.
“I prefer to handle it like this,” he said, pinching it between his thumb and index finger. He flipped the page and marked ten large letters down its side.
“Get a feel for it and hold it however is comfortable, then copy the letters I have written. When the sheet is filled, I will give you new letters on the next,” he said, pressing the pencil into my hand again.
I stared at that book until the foreign scribbles blurred through my watery eyes. Long after even Charl had made his bed behind the bar, I gazed at the stairs and thought of my own soft bed, where little Leon would be snuggled in our blankets. It would have been nice if there weren’t so many steps between us. I let my head loll forward for a second, to relieve the tension in my neck, and before I could stop myself I was asleep at the bar.
I woke up the next morning to the sun shining through the window and stood up so quickly that my stool crashed to the ground. I was late for work. I looked from the door to the bar, where my night’s progress was displayed in the open tome, and smiled. Whereas I could not even hold a pencil at the beginning of the night, I had ended the night by signing my own name at the bottom of the page. It had only taken one night, and I was no longer bound by the laborer’s X.
From that day forth, I dove into the deep end of learning. Whisper tutored both Leon and me during the day, and while my calloused hands, so used to wielding a mallet, butchered the detailed movements that writing called for, Leon took to letters like a trappie takes to earth. He mastered the alphabet in a matter of days while I was still stuck trying to figure out the difference between the letters C and K.
At times, I would lose my calm and slam the pencil down on the bar. When this happened, Leon would wrap his arms around my waist, pinning me to my chair with his frail body, while Whisper spoke to me simply, and without anger, reminding me why I chose to suffer. They never failed to motivate me to take up my pencil again.
Once night would fall, the boys would filter through the front door and I would send Leon to bed with the promise of joining him soon. Charl would pour me a mug of rotgut, we would toast, and I would dive back into my study.
“You read too slow!” Leon pouted, trying to turn the page that I was halfway through.
“Read another book if I’m reading mine too slowly,” I said.
He gazed up at me with his blue cocker eyes. “But I want to read this one,” he whined.
“You have a debate in a week.”
I gasped and threw a protective arm around Leon. I hadn’t even heard Whisper open the door.
“I have a what?” I demanded, ruffling my son’s hair, pretending that I had only meant to hug him.
“Use the dictionary if you do not know the word.”
“I know what debate means, but what do you mean that I have one?”
“The Minister of the People was found hanging from his balcony this morning.”
“And…?” I asked. Whisper never said anything without a purpose.
“A replacement will have to be found, and as such, I have entered you into the election.”
I frowned. “Do I get a say in this?”
He gazed at me flat and level. “No.”
“Fine…” I sighed. “What do I have to do?”
“Just keep studying, I have some rendezvous.”
Knowing that I wouldn’t get any more information until Whisper decided to share it, I poured myself a mug of rotgut and chose a book at random from the mountain of tomes that smothered my bar.
“What’s this word, Leon?” I asked, pointing at a long scribble atop the page.
“Sound it out like Master Whisper says,” he said
“Sound it out with me?”
“Ok.” He leaned onto the bar and blocked the page with the back of his head.
The front door crashed open and three hooded men charged into the room.
“Go to grandpa and lock the door!” I shouted at Leon. He didn’t move, so I shoved him in the direction of the stairs and he fell from the stool, striking the ground hard. Tears welled in his eyes and I wanted to go to him, to explain the situation in slow, calm words that he could understand, but it was too late.
Footsteps approached and I swung my mug. It shattered to pieces, scattering over the prone body of my attacker. A club struck my skull and I fell against the bar. Blood and stars blocked my view, but I grasped a stool and heard a man grunt as I swung it wildly through the air. The club struck me again and a sack was thrown over my head. I tried to shout for Leon to run, but a rope was pulled tight around my throat, cutting off my breath and turning my cry into a muffled gasp. My arms were yanked behind me and more rope bound my wrists. My attackers kicked my legs out from under me and my ankles were bound, too. I thrashed against my bonds, but every movement tightened the rope around my neck and darkness claimed me.
When I came to, Leon was shoving me with all the strength that his little arms could muster. As I wrapped him in my arms and kissed his forehead, I realized that my bonds were gone.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
I could make out the shadow of his head bobbing in the dark room and sighed in relief.
“Tell me who you work for,” came Whisper’s soft voice from the far end of the room.
“Stay here,” I told Leon. I felt through the shadows for a weapon and settled on a chair. It would have been more practical to break the leg off of the table it was seated under, but that would have been too noisy.
Following Whisper’s voice, I found a door. I cracked it open and peered through the gap. Rat was being held against the wall by Whisper.
“Not tellin you nothin,” Rat said, spitting a mouthful of blood at Whisper’s feet.
“Of course you will.” Whisper lowered his dagger to Rat’s left eye, hovering the tip above his dark iris. “But it will be easier on you to simply tell me now, and less work for me if I do not have to sift the truth from your screams.”
I burst through the door with the chair held in front of me.
“Ah, you have awoken then,” Whisper said.
I remember thinking how stupid I had been to have trusted such a monster. I charged and swung the chair at his head, but he flowed aside.
“Sit down and let me explain,” he ordered.
I swung again, but this time he released Rat and ripped the chair from my grasp with a strength that belied his elderly body. Rat picked himself up from the ground and threw a wide punch, but Whisper caught the boy’s wrist. He twisted and pulled the arm straight, then slammed his elbow down on the locked limb. The snap echoed through the room and Rat screamed as bone jutted free of his skin. I charged forward and Whisper reached into his pocket. He brought forth a fistful of powder and threw it into my face, and I fell to the ground clutching at my stinging eyes.
“I’ll ask again, Rat,” Whisper said. “Who hired you to kill Jo?”
I flinched at his tone. What an idiot I was. I had just attacked my savior.
“Some rich bitch,” Rat sobbed.
“Who’s this rich bitch?!” I screamed, my hands still scratching at my eyes.
“I don’t know. I never met her. She paid us through some guy named Keit.”
Another bone cracked, followed by another scream.
“But I had one of my boys follow her! So I know where she lives! I’ll show you the way!” Rat panted.
“Yes,” Whisper said. “You will.”
A loud thud echoed through the building and I flinched as cold water was splashed over my eyes. I opened them but wished I hadn’t. Rat’s broken body was passed out in the middle of the room with white bone protruding from both of his arms. The rise and fall of his chest were the only testaments to his continued living.
“You saved me?”
“Of course I did, you idiot. Did you think I would spend six months teaching you to read, just to kill you? Use your brain.”
I forced myself to look down at Rat’s form. “What will you do with him?”
“Use him to find his employer then dispose of him.”
“He’s still a kid,” I said.
Whisper barked an ugly laugh. “After kidnapping you and your son, he burned your bar to ashes with your crippled father still inside.”
I bit my fist. The old man was dead. I wasn’t sad, but something inside me felt like it was missing; a part of me that I would never get back.
I took a deep breath. “He’s still just a kid,” I said. “After what you’ve done to him, I don’t think he’ll ever attack anyone ever again.”
“That ‘kid’ was paid to kill you. Think, Jo. Why are you and your son still alive, in an abandoned factory in the middle of the slums, when he has already accepted a handful of bronze to kill you?”
I opened my mouth, but Whisper cut me off.
“I will give you a clue, Jo. It wasn’t to shake your hand and thank you for busting his melon a few months back.”
I clenched my fists by my side.
“I understand how you feel, Jo, but consider his crimes. How would the Minister of Law deal with him?”
I met his eyes. “Put the monsters with the monsters,” I quoted. “He would be chained outside the wall to lay foundation until the monsters took him.”
He escorted Leon and me to our home later that evening, but all we found was a blackened shell surrounded by our friends. Charl caught sight of me and rushed through the crowd, throwing his arms around my waist. He lifted me into the air. My back cracked and he dropped me.
“Good to see you too, Charl,” I gasped.
“Just glad you’re alright,” he choked out, wiping at his face with his dirty sleeve.
Brash came over to shake my hand.
“Should’a known that even death would reject your ugly mug,” he said.
I barked a laugh and clapped him on the shoulder.
“If there’s anythin’ I can do for you, Jo, say the word.”
I felt a tug on my shirt and looked down to find Leon, his eyes locked to the charred skeleton of the only home he had ever known.
“Where’s grandpa?” he asked.
I lifted Leon into my arms and opened my mouth to lie, but my chest clenched. I turned my head upwards and inhaled, trying to deny my stinging tears. I wanted to be strong for my son. He wrapped his arms around my neck, and like a dam that cracks and then gives way, I cried. Not for the old man who had never been my father, but for the man who would no longer be Leon’s grandfather.
After the old man’s funeral, Whisper appeared beside me. I didn’t jump this time, whether I was in shock or just becoming accustomed to his sudden appearances is anybody’s guess.
“I want you and Leon to reside in one of my safe houses for the foreseeable future,” he said.
I shifted my feet. Whisper had saved our lives and proven himself to be on my side time and time again, but being around him still made my skin crawl.
“Thank you for the offer, but I would rather stay with a friend,” I said, forcing my shaking voice to be firm.
“It is your choice, but until I have dealt with your enemies, you are going to be a danger to anyone you are around.”
My eyes widened and I tightened my grip on Leon.
“Enemies…” I tested the word, rolling it over my tongue. I’d always had people that I didn’t like, bosses I detested. But I’d never had any enemies before Whisper offered to teach me to read. I gazed out at the remains of my home and shuddered.
Leon fell asleep in my arms as Whisper escorted us deep into the city’s slums, down streets that even a malificia wouldn’t stroll alone. When he stopped at the door of a decrepit house, I moved to follow, but he raised a hand and I stopped short.
“I must first deactivate the traps.” He disappeared into the house and returned two minutes later. “It is now safe,” he said, waving me in.
I shuddered as I passed through the doorway. Despite his assurances, the assassin’s lair still held an air of malice. The room I entered was as run-down as the street outside, with broken furniture and filth littering the ground.
“Do you really live here?” I asked.
“That is exactly what most people ask themselves if they manage to find my safe house,” he replied.
He used a knife to pry open a trapdoor set in the floor, revealing a spiral staircase.
“And that is exactly why it has remained a safe house for so many years.”
Careful to keep my balance as I carried Leon, I followed Whisper down the tiny steps until we came to a large chamber that was something of a mélange between an herbarium and an armory. The air was surprisingly fresh.
“There is a bed in the corner that you and young Leon may utilize. I must leave.” He turned to leave.
“Wait,” I said. “Have you got anything to drink?”
“I will bring fresh food and water with me when I return. Until then, assume that everything consumable is poisonous,” he called over his shoulder.
“Could you bring back something a bit stronger?”
Whisper stopped short and turned to me. “Why do you drink so much?” he asked.
I squinted, sensing a trap. “Because it helps me relax after a hard day,” I hazarded. Whisper nodded. “And will you let your son drink himself stupid every night when he starts having hard days?”
“Of course not!” I said, shocked.
Whisper gazed at me flat and level and I groaned.
“I give my son rules to protect him. I’m an adult; I know and accept the risks of dri…” I trailed off as Whisper raised an eyebrow. “Which, of course, is exactly what Leon will say when he’s old enough.”
Whisper started up the stairs without a word, and I tucked Leon into his new bed. He slept soundly, as he always did, but I lay restless beside him. Like me, Leon was born in the slums and had been raised without an education. Instead of questioning the inequality of his life, would he drown his problems in alcohol? Like his parents before him, and my parents before me? I had tried to better myself and the aristocrats of this city had tried to hammer me down like a stubborn nail. Staring into the darkness, I contemplated the choices I had always made without a single thought.
“It is time.”
I opened my eyes to find Whisper standing over the bed and had to stifle a scream. I untangled my limbs from Leon’s, but he gripped my arm tighter and groaned. I snuggled close to him for a moment, kissed his forehead, and pulled myself free.
“Are you sure you’ll be ok with Leon? Alone?” I asked.
Whisper nodded, and a faint smile reached his lips. “I always wanted a son. Today will be a new experience for me, but one I will cherish.”
I tried not to appear shocked at Whisper’s revealing slip, but it must have shown on my face. His smile disappeared and he thrust a dagger toward me.
“Take this and go,” he snapped.
I waved my hand at the blade. “Thanks, but I won’t waste time pretending to know how to handle a knife.”
Whisper nodded. “I thought you might say that.” He wandered toward a wardrobe set against the opposite side of the room and returned with a mallet, much like the one I had used while working on the wall.
“It’s not as effective as a good dagger, but I suppose your work has taught you how to swing a heavy object, at the very least.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”
Hooking the mallet through my belt, I hurried from Whisper’s safe house and the trapdoor slammed behind me. I looked back, and although I knew exactly where the entrance was, I couldn’t differentiate it from the rest of the floor.
Only a week ago, the slums had seemed fraught with danger, but since word had gone out that I was under Whisper’s protection, the shadows themselves seemed to flee from me as I jogged towards the city center.
The city guards parted the crowd that had massed by the dais as I made my way towards them. These were the forgotten citizens of Ellsworth, the ones too weak to labor and too poor to do anything else. The sight of their bones and joints protruding from their filthy skin only strengthened my resolve. I would not let Leon become one of them.
I climbed the stairs to the stage and found the rich bitch sitting in a padded, maroon chair, surveying the crowd from her podium like a goddess overseeing slaves. I studied her as I took my place at the opposite end of the platform. We were about the same age, but her years had ridden her far more graciously than mine had. Where the passage of time had left scars on my face, it had brushed by her, leaving only slight crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes.
“I was surprised to hear that a plebeian wished to take place in an election,” she said. “What good fortune for you that they allow just anyone to run for Minister of the People.”
I ignored her taunts. She was the rich bitch that Rat had betrayed in his last moments of life. The same rich bitch that had paid to have my small family murdered to further her career. My instincts cried to attack, but I knew that I could extract far more revenge by winning the election. Once I came into power, I could tear down this little world she had built for herself where she could get away with murder.
I stared down at crowd and wave of dread washed over me. I had practiced giving speeches before, but this crowd was so much bigger than the motley group that had filtered into my bar.
“I must commend your bravery, though. When I heard about the fire, and your father, I feared you might renounce your claim to our little rivalry.” She smiled, and I balled my fists at my side, digging my nails into the meat of my palm. I hated the aristocrats. They all spoke in polite phrases, filed down to exquisite edges that stabbed discreetly, where an open ‘fuck you’ would suffice.
Anger swept away my fear and I placed my hand over my heart like I had practiced with Whisper. The crowd quieted and I began the battle of words.
“I grew up shoveling shit like the rest of you who weren’t lucky enough to be pulled out from between a rich pair of legs,” I said.
The rich bitch huffed and puffed and I pushed on:
“But if you vote me Minister of the People, I’ll do right by you. Every man will be treated as my own brother, every woman as my own sister, and every child as my own young.” I forced out the speech. The feelings were mine, but the words were Whisper’s. They left my mouth feeling like the first time I had snuck a sip of rotgut when I was a child.
The crowd was looking differently at me now. They were no longer just standing there, waiting for the election to be over so that they could return to their lives. I could see the sparks of extinguished hope flickering to life behind the mirrors of their dull eyes. My knees shook and I stuttered. I felt like a fraud as I gazed out at these people. Whisper could have chosen any one of them instead of me, and I would have been standing amongst them now, looking up into a stranger’s face as they promised me change. I owed it to each and every one of them to give them the same chance.
“Jo!” Brash shouted, pushing his way through the crowd.
“Arrest him,” the rich bitch ordered, stabbing her finger in Brash’s direction without leaving her chair.
Two guards stomped away from their posts and I jumped down from the platform, landing behind them. I placed a hand on either of their shoulders and they turned.
“What!” One snarled.
His older partner elbowed him in his leather jerkin.
“Show respect, Jaik. Might be your new boss come the new moon,” he growled.
I took in the puckered scar that covered the elder guard’s face and nodded my thanks. I would remember him when I became the Minister of the People.
“I need to hear what he has to say,” I said, stepping between them.
The rich bitch jumped from her chair and stomped to the edge of the podium, dangerously close to the common man. She was speaking, but her words were swallowed by the mutterings of the crowd, enflaming her anger and bringing a smile to my face.
The crowd split down the middle, creating a path for me to my friend.
“What is it, Brash?” I asked
“It’s Charl,” Brash huffed. “New wall. Trouble.”
My smile fled.
“The fact that you are willing to abandon your post, in the middle of your own speech no less, shows that you are uncommitted to serving the people of Ellsworth,” the rich bitch shrieked. She was looking down at me like a feral animal, her brows furrowed with rage.
“I don’t have time to waste talking about how I plan to help people when I’m too busy actually helping them,” I shouted.
I ran to the new wall, and the crowd ran with me.
Expanding the wall took time, a lot of time, but it seemed to me that zero progress had been made since I had quit over half a year ago. My blood chilled when I saw the squad of wall guards laughing and cheering from atop the wall. I ran up the narrow staircase and my blood boiled. Charl was standing shirtless in the worksite below, waving his shirt in one hand and a sword in the other.
The guards howled in excitement as the trappie rose from the earth, stones and soil falling down its armored hide like miniature avalanches. The horned monster charged and Charl yanked his shirt aside. He stabbed, but his sword bounced off of the trappie’s thick hide.
I grabbed the nearest guard by his collar, pulling him to face me. “What do you think you’re doing? Shoot that damn thing!”
He shoved me away and fixed me with an unfocused glare. His breath smelled like liquor.
“He offered to show us how a real guard would kill a monster,” he slurred. “To be fair, we gave me a sword.”
I started down the stairway, disgust chasing away my fatigue. I could hear the guards cheering above me, but the brick walls of the stairway blocked Charl from my view.
When I reached the ground level on the wild side of the wall, Charl was still waving his shirt, but his sword was firmly lodged in the folds of the trappie’s neck scales. I started toward Charl, and the trappie’s head snapped to my direction, stopping me short.
“Back to me, you ugly bugger!” Charl shouted, stomping his foot on the ground. The trappie charged, but again Charl twisted out of the way. “Get out of here, Jo,” he said.
I took out my mallet and sprinted to his side. “Tell me what I can do to help,” I gasped.
“You can get out of here,” he repeated.
Our conversation was cut short as the trappie charged past again. I jumped too far back and fell on my ass, but quickly scrambled to my feet.
“Get up and stand behind me,” Charl snapped. He waved his shirt with renewed vigor, never taking his eyes off of the trappie. “Don’t speak, and move only when you have to. Trappies go after sound and movement.”
I did what he commanded, sticking as close to his broad back as I could without pushing him over. The trappie flowed by so close that I could taste the rot on its breath and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was smelling the remains of Nelson.
“How can I help?” I repeated, swallowing my rising sickness.
“Use your mallet,” he whispered.
The trappie charged by and I brought the mallet down with all of my strength, but it bounced harmlessly off of its scaly body.
“Give me that!” Charl hissed, ripping the mallet from my hands. I was suddenly an apprentice laborer again, watching uselessly from behind and getting in the way every time I tried to help.
Charl took a deep breath, raising the mallet above his head. When the rot invaded my nostrils again, he exhaled and brought the mallet down, pounding the sword hilt-deep into the trappie’s flesh.
“Run!” Charl cried out.
Before I could question him, Charl flung me over his shoulder and sprinted towards the stairway. Behind us, the trappie had forsaken the hunt for movement and was lashing out wildly in its death throes.
Charl didn’t set me down until we were halfway up the stairs. He pulled his tattered shirt over his body, hiding his face with the hood, but not before I saw the sunken shadows around his eyes.
“You shouldn’t have come down there,” he snapped.
I sighed and started up the stairway. When Charl didn’t follow, I fixed him with a glare until his footsteps echoed behind me. We pushed our way past the dumbstruck guards and sat atop the wall with our legs dangling over the edge as the trappie bled out below.
“What were you doing?” I tried to keep the anger from my voice, but Charl deflated. The seconds ticked by in silence. I was about to ask again when he finally spoke.
“Can’t do it anymore, Jo. The instincts that kept me alive when I was out beyond the wall don’t just go away because I’m safe in a city now. Someone goes to shake my hand and those instincts scream at me to draw my sword before a claw scoops out my insides, but I don’t even have a sword anymore. They took that away when I left the foray guards, and the nightmares keep coming. Even passing out don’t help anymore. And what happened to your old man, it’s just too much. The monsters prey on us outside the wall while the humans prey on us inside it. Truthfully, I can’t even tell who the real monsters are anymore.”
“Give me time, Charl. I’m changing this city.”
He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I know you are, Jo,” he said. He was smiling in that bittersweet way one does when the only other option is tears. “But it’s too late for m-”
“It’s never too la-”
“Let me finish, damn it! The Ministry used me up and threw me away. To them, I was never anything more than a disposable sword, whose condition didn’t matter because a new sword is cheaper than a repair. Don’t make that same mistake, Jo.”
I took his hand in mine. “I won’t,” I said.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You know, I always thought I would get better and we would…” his voice broke and tears welled in his eyes. He stared down into his lap and wept, clutching at my hand.
“I’m sorry, Jo. I’m just so sorry.”
I stroked his back with my free hand. “You will get better. Just like this city.”
He turned to face me. “I’m so glad I got to see you like this, you really are going to change this city, but there won’t be a place for me in that new world.”
He drew close and I thought that he might kiss me. Then he released my hand and threw himself from the wall. I grabbed for him, grasping his hood with one hand and a post from the wall’s frame with the other. My shoulder jerked to a sudden stop and I screamed. His hood ripped. He fell.
Thin, dirty hands clamored to be the first to pull me up the wall, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Charl’s broken body, lying twisted and bloody a hundred feet below. Time stopped and my vision blurred. The grumpy old bastard was actually dead and the future that I saw for us was suddenly reduced to the ramblings of a couple of drunks.
Charl’s death solidified my victory, but I would have preferred a lengthy election with my friend by my side. Risking my own life for his had proven to the people that I wasn’t just another aristocrat, tossing copper at the poor so it looked like I was helping while I lined my own pocket with steel.
A week later, I moved into the home of the previous Minister of the People. My first action as the new Minister was to tear down the six-foot high steel gate that separated my sprawling property, and the mansion within, from the outside world. I had it melted it down to pay for houses to be built for the poor, and they would be ready before winter came, but a few wooden huts with smoking chimneys were already decorating my land, with people running to and fro like a small village. With roofs over their heads, food in the bellies, and a chance at education, these forgotten citizens would become the future of Ellsworth.
Whisper entered my office and closed the door behind him. He glanced around the room, scanning the shelves of books illuminated by the buzzing lanterns.
“I see you have discovered electricity?” he said, shaking my hand.
“When I first saw that the lanterns didn’t have any oil or wicks I thought it must have been magic,” I said.
He shook his head. “Just technology from the old world. Something that the rich take for granted and the poor know nothing about.”
“Another thing I plan to change.”
He smiled. “Congratulations on being instated,” he said, taking the seat across from me.
“Thank you, Whisper.”
“Everything is paying dividends now. Minister of the People today; tomorrow, who knows? The rules no longer apply to someone in your position, Jo. I think we both know where you are heading if you can maintain your rise.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Have you asked yourself what your goal is yet? Direct my knives into the right places, and you could be Prime Minister of Ellsworth in a few short years. I can begin with Jeezabul, the woman who burned down your bar. Just give the order.”
I rose from my desk and crossed the room to gaze at the mallet mounted on my wall. It was the same type of mallet I had used while working on the wall that defended my city. I now defended my city in a different capacity.
“I won’t have you kill anyone for me, Whisper,” I said.
“I understand, Jo. Don’t worry; we will keep your hands clean. I can make them look like accidents, just like poor old Edward, the man whose office you now occupy. Technically, I didn’t kill him, but I did provide him with enough rope to hang himself. Think of it as cutting the dead fruit from the branch so the tree can flourish.”
Up until then, I had tried to focus on the good that Whisper had done. He had saved my life and that of my son, but hearing him speak so casually of murdering the citizens of Ellsworth, the citizens of my city, clarified things. A murderer could only poison what I hoped to build. I gripped the mallet with my good hand and turned to face him. Whisper was on his feet wielding his dagger. I hadn’t even heard him move.
“You’ve put me in a position to change the world for the better, Whisper. The monsters will no longer be put with the monsters. Jeezabul will face justice like any other criminal…like Rat should have.” I took a step forward. “I’m going to create a city where all children can read.”
I whistled and guards filtered into the room, but they hesitated when they caught sight of Whisper. Faced with a living legend, their swords shook in their hands. They glanced nervously at one another, unsure who should lead the attack. They needed a leader. They needed me. I hefted my mallet over my shoulder.
Whisper clapped his hands and I blinked. When my eyes opened, all of my guards were silent on the floor. I forced myself forward another step with Leon’s future in mind.
“You are not the first minister I’ve created, Joan, but I knew you were different from the start. Night after night, I’ve dreamt about ending my life, only to have my traitorous body draw another breath and remind me of the vow my foolish heart made in my youth: I will leave this world better than I found it. Thank you, Joan. May you always be a clean woman in a dirty business.”
He slashed his dagger across his own throat and slumped to the ground. Smiling, he waited to die.