Change of Light

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?”

“No. Tokyo.”

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.”

“Heart attack.”

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?”

“I¬”

“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 . . .”

“Me?”

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?”

“Yes. Depressed.”

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.

HARU

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?”

 

END

Robot Moon Love Little Blue

by David Fawkes

It is difficult to date this story, for how does one date a myth? Clearly, the tale appeared after the Messires of Gigahardware began their subjugation of humanity. But it must have been the first of the “homecoming” stories spread as people scrambled to salvage their identity in the darkness of space. After all, where does humanity turn when the future seems uncertain? The past . . . But it was only myth. We never returned to Earth.

-Archivist Fodor Ix, Folktales of the Spaceways, vol. 42

#

Spiderkin nearly landed on his face as he fell from his stasis tube, but he caught himself with his staff. Danger sirens screeched in his ears; automated systems struggled to extinguish small fires all around. Smoke stung his eyes. The smell of ozone wrinkled his nose.

It took him a moment to realize he was still aboard his manifolder, the Hullabaloo, and he’d let the damn butler-bot pilot the ship while he and Modesty caught a few months of sleep.

Modesty! thought Spiderkin. He glanced across the suspension deck toward Modesty’s stasis tube. Of course, the butler-bot, Tux, was helping her revive. The bot smoothed out Modesty’s nurse’s outfit as she leaned against his vacuum-tube head for support.

Spiderkin hobbled over to the pair. To the robot, he said, “What have you done to my ship, floor lamp?”

Tux turned his glass head toward Modesty. “Sweetness, must I answer the pathetic excuse for a wizard?”

“Tux,” said Modesty, rubbing her forehead, “don’t call me ‘sweetness’, and, yes, answer the pathetic–I mean Spiderkin.”

Tux turned back to Spiderkin. “First, I’m a butler, not a pilot. Second, something fired at us from a small moon nearby, which is drawing us into its gravity well. I woke you both to deal with the problem.”

“You did right, jar head.” Spiderkin glanced at the little lantern that dangled from the crook of his staff. It was full of water and glowed blue. He should have enough power for almost any spell. “Come on. Let’s get to the bridge. I know exactly what–”

Another explosion knocked all three from their feet and sent Spiderkin’s staff flying.

The computerized voice of Hullabaloo announced, “Warning, hull breach, loss of altitude. Warning, hull breach . . .”

Spiderkin lay on the floor. He opened sluggish eyes to see both Modesty and Tux sprawled against the floor and wall.

“Modesty.” Spiderkin struggled against a wave of unconsciousness, then knew no more.

#

“Warning, hull breach . . .” Hullabaloo’s voice continued.

Modesty’s eyes snapped open. She could breathe. Maybe the hull breach wasn’t severe.

Where was Spiderkin? She found him unresponsive and face down on the other side of the suspension deck. She felt his pulse. Alive, though the knotted cords of his outfit were in tatters and his black hair was a mess. That, at least, was normal.

She saw Tux not far away, wedged into a corner of the deck. The light in his glass head had dimmed, which meant he was in sleep mode. Modesty crossed the room to give Tux a shake to awaken him. He could help her with Spiderkin.

Modesty turned the robot around to face her.

“Modesty, angel,” said Tux. “Let me caress your–”

“Focus, tiger. I need you in the here and now. Check Spiderkin to see if he’s hurt.”

“Must I touch the rag bag, my sweet?”

“Can the sweet stuff,” said Modesty, “at least in public. And, yes, scan him, please.”

Tux slouched and trudged to where Spiderkin lay. He began a scan. “He’s a lecherous pervert who defiles you and me with his every touch. But he lives.”

Modesty felt a wave of relief. “All right. Talk to the computer. There was supposed to be a hull breach. What happened? And get it to shut off the warning.”

Tux tilted his head as he connected with the Hullabaloo. “There has been a hull breach. Quite extensive, apparently. And we’ve crashed on that small moon I mentioned.”

“Why are we still breathing?”

“Hmm,” said Tux. “There is a localized gravity sink and atmosphere bubble with a source several miles from here, and have I told you how stunning you are in that nurse’s outfit?”

Modesty sighed. “I’m going to take it off if you can’t concentrate.”

“Oh, yeah! Make my universe!”

“I mean, ‘and put something else on.’ Just wake Spiderkin.”

“Happy to.” Tux kicked Spiderkin in the ribs. Hard.

“Muh,” mumbled Spiderkin.

“Tux! Go check the breach.”

The robot sulked through the sliding doors into the corridor beyond.

Modesty straightened the skirt of her outfit and knelt beside Spiderkin. He looked all right and was beginning to revive.

“Modesty?” he said. “You hurt? Is Tux destroyed beyond all hope of repair? I feel like I’ve had the crap beaten out of me.”

“You were thrown around a bit when we crashed.”

“Crashed? My ship!” He jumped up too fast and stumbled. Modesty helped him stand.

“Where’s my staff?”

They searched the suspension deck and found the staff by one of the sleep tubes. Spiderkin stood the staff upright and inspected its lantern. “Must have been some crash. The lantern’s been knocked loose from its fitting.” He showed it to Modesty. “There’s hardly any water left.” He tightened the lantern’s attachment. “Looks like I won’t be using much magic for a while until I get more water.”

“You’ll have to come down from your ivory tower to join the rest of us ordinary mortals.” Modesty knew there was nothing ordinary about Spiderkin. He was a gifted technomagus. But she liked to hamstring him to keep him humble, or humiliated at least.

“I don’t live in an ivory tower,” he said. “Look at me. I’m dressed in rags.” He indicated the black and blue knotted cords and fabric of his outfit.

Modesty grabbed one of the knots and pulled Spiderkin close. “I like your rags,” she said. “They’re easy to yank off.”

“Hey.” Spiderkin tried backing away. “Time and a place. Crashed spaceship. Running out of air.”

Modesty moved with Spiderkin, keeping his outfit firmly in her grip. “The ship isn’t going anywhere, and Tux says there’s air outside.” She backed Spiderkin against a wall. “We should try to make the best of a bad situation.”

“Heh, oh, all right. Go ahead. Wait! Air on a moon? That’s rare.” He broke away from Modesty and approached one of the suspension deck’s computer terminals. He placed the end of his staff against the access panel, and wires uncoiled from the staff, joining with the panel.

Modesty sighed. Spiderkin’s curiosity had been aroused, which meant he’d lost interest in her. Again.

She joined Spiderkin and put her hands on her hips. “I wish you’d call the hologram like a normal person.”

“I like using my staff, and I’m not a normal person.” Spiderkin adjusted controls along the staff, and a hologrammatic projection of Hullabaloo appeared.

Modesty didn’t like the avatar Spiderkin had chosen for the computer. It wore less clothing than Modesty, and its voice was annoyingly seductive. Modesty wasn’t good at sexy. She was strong and good at smashing. It was hard to be a bombshell while pummeling someone’s face.

“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin to the hologram.

“Yes?” purred the avatar.

Modesty wanted to vomit.

“What happened? Why did we crash?” asked Spiderkin, “and why is there air here?”

The image circled Spiderkin as it spoke. “Our flight path brought us close to this planetary system. I spun down the reel drive accordingly.” The avatar smiled coyly at Spiderkin and glared at Modesty.

The avatar continued. “As we passed through this system, defenses on this small moon fired two shots at me–”

“–crippling this ship, stranding us on this moon, and endangering the life of my one and only true love,” said Tux, reentering the suspension deck. Spiderkin held up his hand. “Pause for a moment, Hullabaloo.” To Tux, he said, “What was that about air on this moon?”

Before Tux could direct any tirade at Spiderkin, Modesty cut him off. “Just tell us what you found.”

“Very well. The first shot damaged some unoccupied portions of the ship, like the galley. The second damaged both the crawl and reel drives. The Hullabaloo must have landed us as softly as possible with damaged propulsion engines.”

The hologram leaned against Spiderkin and lay its head on his shoulder. “I did my best.”

“That’s not all,” said Tux. Light from the hologram flickered across his glass bulb head. “There’s a localized gravity and atmosphere sink around us, and I saw something through the hull breach. Hullabaloo, show the immediate exterior.”

The hologram stepped away from the group and transformed into a cratered expanse of white and gray with lines of mountains on the horizon. Across the entire plain from mountain to mountain were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of spaceships, each crashed, some completely destroyed.

“It’s like the Sargasso constellation,” said Modesty.

“Well,” said Spiderkin, “at least we’re in good company. Obviously, it’s no accident that we were shot down. Further, we’re in a potentially dangerous environment. Who’s up for a look-see?”

“I’ll go get John-Joe,” said Modesty.

“You know that thing was built for mining,” said Spiderkin.

“Not the way I use it.” Modesty headed for the door. “Anyway, if we’re going to wander around a mysterious moon that has enough firepower to drop a spaceship, then I’m bringing my seismic sledgehammer.”

#

Later, after preparing the landing yacht, the crew set off from the wrecked manifolder. Spiderkin had insisted on bringing Hullabaloo to fly the yacht. Tux could have flown it, but Spiderkin didn’t like to leave the computer for too long. It tended to get bored and rearrange all his files.

The silence of the moon unsettled Spiderkin. There was just enough of a stale atmosphere to breathe and transmit sound, but there was little to hear. The yacht hummed quietly over the moon’s surface. The yacht’s hover panel kicked up a small amount of surface material, which hung in the air like a slow-motion snowstorm.

“Somebody say something, or I’m going to start breaking things,” said Modesty.

“If we don’t find some water for my staff, I won’t be able to help us get off this moon,” said Spiderkin.

“Somebody say something I want to hear.”

“I think I might have just seen a ghost,” said Tux.

“Well,” said Spiderkin, “at least we can entertain ourselves taking you apart to find out what’s wrong with you.”

“Sweetness,” said Tux to Modesty, “tell the charlatan that I really did see something over on that ridge.” Tux pointed a stubby, four-fingered hand toward a group of hills.

“Enough ‘sweetness’, Tux. You sound like my mom. What did you see?”

“On a hilltop, I saw a humanoid figure dressed in white, wearing a dark helmet. It waved as we approached, and then it disappeared. It didn’t just walk away. It vanished.”

“I’m chilled,” said Spiderkin. “We’re approaching the crashed ship.”

Scattered space-faring remains surrounded them. Some appeared whole and perhaps crashed recently. Others lay in broken heaps trailing away from the point of impact. Spiderkin recognized a few ships by their insignia. He wasn’t a pilot, but as a technomagus, he’d studied a great deal of history. These ships ranged from the early red rocket colonization ships up to his own modern manifolder.

“Whoever’s been doing this has been at it a long time,” said Spiderkin.

“I think I’m seeing things, too,” Modesty pointed through the front viewport along a “path” of debris. “There’s a light coming from one of those ships.”

“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin, “head for that light.”

“Anything you say, captain,” said the computer.

“You’re no captain,” mumbled Modesty.

“And you’re no nurse,” said Spiderkin.

The yacht parked in front of the lighted ship. Hullabaloo anchored the yacht, and Spiderkin, Modesty, and Tux disembarked. They approached the wreck with Modesty in the lead, her hammer at the ready.

Spiderkin thought about the impression that entrance might make. “Modesty, I think I’d better handle first contact. I look rough, but not malicious. Hide your hammer behind your back, and try not to look like a trap waiting to spring.”

Modesty pouted, but stepped back. Spiderkin approached the docking door and rapped on it with his staff.

He heard nothing except distant sounds of the wreck setting.

“I hear something,” said Tux. “It’s faint, but coming toward us from within the ship. I can also see approaching heat signatures. The ship is too bulky to discern shapes.”

A scraping and creaking of metal sounded behind the airlock door. It opened before the crew could react.

A small man with long, white hair, a beard, and huge, telescopic spectacles burst through the doorway. “Take me! Take me!” he screamed. “It’s my turn.” He stopped when he saw the trio outside. “Oh, I do beg your pardon. I thought you were someone else.”

#

“So why are a technomagus, a nurse, and a robot in a tuxedo traveling together?” asked the small man with the spectacles who had opened the airlock door. Spiderkin thought he looked harmless, but waited to decide for certain.

The small man, Dr. Getaway, led Spiderkin, Modesty, and Tux through the dusty corridors of the ruined spaceship. Emergency glow-bots floated above their heads. Occasionally, the light would dim, and a globe would drop below shoulder level as its power waned. The ship had been on this moon a while.

Dr. Getaway led the trio to the other survivors aboard the craft: two women and another man. They all sat on the floor of what had once been the bridge. There were no seats. The viewports looked out over the pale expanse of the moon. Above the horizon peeked a little blue planet.

Spiderkin fidgeted with the blue lantern on the end of his staff. “Well, she’s not a nurse. She’s Modesty Tight, my bodyguard. The tuxedoed floor lamp is her butler-bot, Tux Inferior.”

“Drink aniline,” said Tux.

“She’s dressed like a nurse,” said one of the women. She had been introduced as Karren Mockhitler. She was very thin, with angular features, a beak-like nose, and a grin like a jack-o-lantern. She sat against the wall of the bridge rather than with the group.

“No member of the medical profession ever dressed in such an impractical costume,” said Spiderkin.

“He designed it for me,” said Modesty.

“That’s degrading,” said Mockhitler.

“That’s not degrading,” said Spiderkin. “Degrading is what she did to me in the bath one time with the–”

“Okay.” Modesty held up a hand. “No one cares about our dirty laundry.” To Mockhitler, she said, “I don’t consider the outfit degrading. He likes it, and I like that.”

“Don’t take Mockhitler’s comments personally,” said Dr. Getaway. “She’s a bit reactionary.”

“I am not!” Mockhitler stood and pointed at Modesty and the other newcomers. “If I ran this galaxy, people like you would be–”

“Siddown and shaddap!” This came from the other man of the group, who had been sitting quietly beside Modesty. He had short, stubby legs and leaned forward on long, ape-like arms. His face was scarred and pitted like the moon and seemed stitched together.

Mockhitler sat.

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.

“Mmfhmr.”

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.

“Sorry?”

“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.”

“Modesty.”

“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.”

“I didn’t!”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“You didn’t.”

“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.

“Where did–”

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?”

Bang.

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?”

Bang.

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.

Hush nodded.

“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.

“You’ll see.”

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.

He stopped.

“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.

#

Tick-tick-tick.

The sound approached Spiderkin, but in the dense morning fog of Astroghast IV, he could see nothing but the stones beneath his feet.

Tick-tick-tick.

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.

Tick-tick-tick.

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.

“Ah-hem.”

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’.”

“Display.”

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.

“Modesty?”

“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.

 

Modesty smirked.

“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.

end

 

 

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.

Knowing Elly

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

She recoiled.

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.”

“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!”

“Uh-huh.”

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.

“Yes… Elly.”

“You’ve had her for four months, now?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yes…”

“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?”
“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.”

“Unique?”

“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?”

“Change?”

“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?”

“Go! Now!”

“We need to go there? What’s there?”

Elly stumbled away from me. “No – not us. You! Go now!”

“By myself?”
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 know.”

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.”

“Resistance…?”

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.”

“Why me?”

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?

Change.

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’

RESIDENT EVIL 7 biohazard_20170207010326

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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Does it?”

“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.”

“The end…”

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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“Thank you.”

“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.”

“OK.”

“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.”

“Alright.”

“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.

“Yes?”

“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!”

“Wh-what?”

“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?”

She nodded.

“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.

More than Just a Barroom Hero

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.

“Jo! Jo!”

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.

“Wha-”

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?”

“What?”

“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.

Whisper nodded.

“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.

“Pre-dis-pos-”

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.”

I shuddered.

“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.”

Whisper nodded.

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.”

“Thanks, Brash.”

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.

“I wi-”

“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.

“Anything els-”

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.”

“Jo?”

“Yes, Charl?”

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.

 

***

 

 

INTJ

by Nicholas Stillman

The week always started with Terry crumpling the letter into a tight ball. The letters came once every Monday over four years, and Terry Jamison crumpled all of them. He knew better than to tear them into slivers. It would only add an arts-and-crafts hour to his routine with an added cost of Scotch Tape.

Instead, he squeezed the paper ball harder than he did on any previous Monday morning. He then uncrumpled the letter and read the demands he had typed for himself over four years ago. Outside his bachelor apartment, the rumble of city traffic waited to annoy him further. The myriad of cars waited like circling, growlsome lions, eager to get closer and even more intrusive. Today’s letter, from his old extroverted self, would throw him into that swirl of noise and stenchy exhaust.

The letter recapped his orders from previous years: he had to dress up and continue becoming a master street magician, a sort of clown, really. He had to practice, privately and publicly, for two hours each day in rain, wind, or whatever tortures the winter out there dumped on him. Today, however, his old self gave an extra  instruction, one Terry could hardly remember having written all those years ago. The old Terry wanted more humiliation for the new, starting today.

Terry closed his eyes, but the gist of the demand remained as though typed on the inner side of his eyelids. He blocked it out with the help of a long grunt. A couple thumped past his apartment door, discussing their nighttime adventures. For once, he listened in, just to distract him from the nightmare in his hands.

He slid the crumply letter into a binder which loosely held the previous unballed letters. The folio sat on his steel kitchen counter for convenience. The cover had gathered grime and spatters from the nearby stovetop. A good housefire would take care of the whole collection, but even the old freewheeling Terry wouldn’t like that.

He opened the steel cupboard and whisked out the one pill bottle among the stacked, alphabetized cans. He swallowed two pills with 50 milliliters of tap water from a steel mug. The meds doubled his metabolic rate. Logically, the pecan shake he had guzzled earlier should replace some of his bodily atoms at a faster-than-natural speed. A femur bone regenerated itself entirely, atom by atom, over three months. The brain took only two. A whole human body, however, took over five years to replace itself via diet and breathing. Terry looked at the dust on the binder, his dead and shed, dried and drifted skin cells. The dust layer looked about twice as dense as anything he had ever neglected to clean under his bed. He tried to smile.

He paced, wondering if he could really win, if regenerating his body and brain a bit faster would restore his personality to that of the old, chattery Terry. He hated that Terry, but that former self technically existed first. The old Terry had primacy. And that young man had wanted to live out a sociable, frivolous life with all the embarrassments included. The first letter to himself had made a surprisingly logical case for self ownership.

Each step on the kitchen floor, however, made him feel as rigid and stuck as the metal tiles. He grabbed an equally durable steel pitcher and chugged a liter of water. It would flush out more ions, slowly erasing his newer, opposite self. But could it really change him back when combined with four meager years of remolding himself as a card magician? No one had beaten the justice system before by reclaiming the old self, one’s original deportment, through gradual reversion.

Terry put on his costume, a tuxedo and ascot over a pinstriped vest. He wore two sweaters under that to protect him from the cold. The tight top hat pressed on his ears with a fleece lining he had sewn on for added warmth. With a loud sigh, he donned his modified, felt-lined gloves and polished shoes. The weighted coattails practically clamped down on him too, so the suit jacket wouldn’t flop in the wind.

The accouterments shackled him. They felt like the straps of the Reverser chair, the colossal machine which had punished him for murder four years ago. The chair certainly had tighter straps than the tuxedo cuffs he wore now. However, even that most severe legal procedure had seemed less humiliating. The transcranial magnetic forces had modified his neurons in billions of ways, all while he slept under a state-administered sedative. He remembered how the guards treated him respectfully before and after he awoke as the new, opposite Terry. They had bored expressions on beefy, lax faces.

Life had seemed just as lax and procedural afterwards with his new, reversed personality. Seclusion and routine soothed him. The thought of shooting another wounded, helpless burglar felt grotesquely illogical, something a flailing gorilla might do. But the old Terry had wanted to shoot based on a spontaneous lifestyle and the whims of an overemotional brain. And the original Terry wanted those things back.

So the letters came. The court needed months to wrap up a murdered burglar case, and old Terry wrote plenty in those months. He had plenty of freedom too, so he paid an obscure delivery company to mail the letters in sequence.

The self-imposed punishment felt far worse than anything the state intended. Terry went outside and instantly wished he had a weighted scarf around his neck. It would break audience immersion, though, even without flopping in the wind. A scarf would remind spectators to hustle away to escape the cold themselves. Thus, the freezing wind cut into Terry’s face and loitered there, as it did every December morning. The fog of his breath blew away before it could warm the tip of his nose.

He stifled his sighs all the way to Garden Road, a 16-minute walk from his apartment. Despite the name, the commercial strip looked neither like a garden nor a road. Frost and filthy slush nestled along the lanes. A minus-ten wind calmed the regular noise that came with all the ugly faces on warmer days. Schmucks and people in their prime alike lacked cars and looked disgruntled about it. They clacked along to their nine-AM shifts like funeral goers, staring at nothing along the way. The cold kept their eyes down and their chins bent into their scarves.

Terry took from his pocket a folded hat, a little bowler the damn old Terry had loved and would still love. He unfolded it and punched the inside to restore its dome shape. He placed the bowler on the sidewalk just before his feet. It stayed there against the wind, secretly weighted, right-side up, and with a little sign attached which read FREE MAGIC. Terry rose with a groan, knowing some spectators still wouldn’t get it and would toss coins onto the hat’s tiny rim where they could.

He took one of the decks of cards from his pocket and began holding up aces to no one. They vanished into the deck again and reappeared in his pockets. The jacks and kings hopped through the deck as though chasing one another, until the jacks teamed up in a quartet to make the kings run off for good. Across the gray street with its frozen-out stains of road salt, the buildings themselves watched every trick–a perfect, silent audience. Waitresses flicked past the windows of a tiny restaurant in front of him. The place looked almost squashed, tightly wedged between a larger restaurant and a barber shop that charged fools quadruple what a haircut cost in the country. The gelid wind watched him harder. It slapped his face for its applause.

Pedestrians did occasionally stop, their interest piqued by a random trick in Terry’s 24-minute looping routine. He spotted one dumpy woman, dumpy as everyone else in their winter wear, who stayed annoyingly long. Terry had to stretch out the last several tricks by slowing his gesticulations. Otherwise the woman would see the routine loop over. Slowing down felt childish, probably even more so for the crowd. The woman finally scampered to the nearby bus stop, and the tricks resumed their normal speed.

Spectators looked at the bowler hat with its sign and repocketed their money. Some held up coins, forcing Terry to interact and shake his head. He waved their gestures off with operatic gestures of his own. Some set their coins on the hat’s rim anyway.

They eventually walked away, sometimes confused by the FREE MAGIC sign, but always smiling. At the one-hour mark, the puffy man in his more colorful suit arrived by the bus stop. He played his regular saxophone tunes to the urbanites who stomped past. Terry performed to the drifting music. He even matched a few card reveals to the climatic parts of whatever familiar radio songs the sax man played. The letter from last Monday said to draw from the environment.

A fluke housefire could still burn that letter, burn all of them, and the thought of it kept Terry warm.

More passersby came along and huddled to watch, bored with the junk and clutter of consumerism. They seeped from their steely, utilitarian apartments to the freezing urban circus outside. They gawked at Terry’s arms which swung robotically as though cleaning invisible windows with fanned cards. The grumpy kings and stoic queens did funny feats and dances Terry’s old self would enjoy. In the music he leeched from the sax man, Terry could almost see a stuffy pub interior, the curb no longer his stage.

He plucked out every preselected card and palmed them, all while wearing thick gloves against the brutal Canadian cold. His forearms twirled smoothly just like the magicians he had admired in childhood. His fake smirk never flinched, even as he recalled how the Reverser had utterly changed his attitude. Fumbles and failures would make that long-gone Terry giggle. Now, however, in the frozen rot and gusts of winter, a slip-up would feel excruciating. Only his stiff gestures and perfectionism gave him any relief at all. The wind tilted his top hat despite its tight strap, and his hands could only press on through the maze of pockets and moves.

After his two-hour performance, Terry picked up the bowler hat and shook off the coins. They tinkled onto the concrete and rolled away. He folded the hat and stuffed it in his pocket next to a stack of hidden kings. He walked away from the little crowd. They all clapped except for one familiar mustachioed man at the back of the huddle. He followed Terry in a suppressed huff, a plodding man with too much bulk around the middle for sure and more bulk likely hiding under the rest of his trench coat. Inspector Hanlon appeared for the act once a week like a joker ruining a flush. Lately, he had learned to do his legal stalking on Mondays, the same day the letters arrived with new instructions.

Terry sped away from the applause. He pretended the boom of loafers behind him belonged to a stranger, someone in a hurry for eggs cooked in a diner. Then, the greater boom of Hanlon’s voice hit him like yet another gust.

“Have you tried transcranial magnetic stimulation?” Hanlon asked. “I’ve seen felons walking about with homemade TMS helmets four times bigger than your top hat.”

“No,” Terry said. He stared ahead while he walked, as though the card show went on.

“Well, good,” Hanlon said. His mouth contorted into a simper which would probably last all Monday. “Dangerous stuff, trying to warp their brains without the proper warehouse-size machinery. They can, at best, manage to knock out some brain areas–nothing even close to the big switch back to their old selves.”

“Hm,” Terry said.

Terry stopped and waited for a crosswalk sign to signal walk. He checked the traffic eight times. Inspector Hanlon nearly huddled against his shoulder, blocking the view of South Street. With no winter hat, his ears turned a comical red.

“Yep, some people go pretty far trying to cheat the criminal justice system,” Hanlon said to himself as he checked the traffic too. “But not everyone. I just checked up on this one guy, actually, who choked a prostitute to death. Hated prostitutes. Wanted them burned off the Earth with godly fire. Well now he goes up and down Hollis street cracking jokes to them. He buys them coffee, the expensive stuff.”

“Right,” Terry said as he frowned at the sky.

Terry inhaled deeply and hurried across the street a second before the lights switched. Hanlon puffed along, all smirks and glances.

“Naw, I didn’t see any funny hats or geek-helmets on that guy,” Hanlon said. “He pays for his crime by embracing his new self. How about you, Mr. Jamison? Got any proclivities about trying to become the old you?”

“Yes,” Terry said.

Hanlon feigned a boyish look of surprise. He caught up until he and Terry walked abreast. Pedestrians swerved around them, around the wide waist of one and the stiff, weighted suit jacket of the other.

“Well, I have a duty to check up on your freaky new experiments,” Hanlon said. “I assume the old Mr. Jamison often replied honestly and abruptly, all spontaneous and carefree. So I guess you answered honestly just now to adopt that old personality, even though it stings a little.”

Terry walked into the headwind, his lips pressed closed and his gaze aimed at the pavement.

“Now, I appreciate all the times we’ve chatted, Mr. Jamison,” Hanlon continued. “You’ve got a respectable coolness about my sleuthing. But you must realize this reversion strategy of yours, including whatever you do at home, won’t work. You come off as stilted, stressed out, dogged, and dour. Only your dapper appearance gives you enough dignity to avoid a mental breakdown. It must feel painfully awkward, deigning to do this ridiculous act everyday. Despite your costume and card tricks, you still appear reserved, solemn even, just as the Reverser rebuilt you.”

“Sounds like a fitting punishment to me,” Terry said.

“But the system wants you reformed more than punished,” Hanlon said with a majestic wave of his own. “Our sunken economy can’t support life sentences anymore. The Reverser absolved you by giving you this new personality. But you INTJ types try to beat the system more than any other felons. That Introversion-Intuition-Thinking-Judgment combo gives you all the stubbornness and willpower needed to force your old self to reemerge. They try to restore their Extrovert-Sensing-Feeling-Perception lifestyles. But they live in constant stress trying to emulate their former ESFP selves. Give up pretending, Terry, or you’ll end up on the same heart medications as me.”

“I suspect the Reverser tampers with more neurons than it should,” Terry said. “It certainly changes more than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, your simplified version of the science.”

“It ought to,” Hanlon said. The pitch of his voice lowered. “You brutally shot a man in the face while he lay wounded with one in his gut. You did it with those same graceful hands of yours. With all this stress of reinventing yourself, maybe you’ll kill a second time and get the automatic death penalty.”

“How illogical,” Terry said. After a long, annoying walk in silence, he added, “Satisfied?”

“A few INTJs get desperate,” Hanlon said. “A gang of them broke into the Reverser facility. They tried to start up the machine without the committee. They would have strapped themselves one-by-one to that chair unsedated if the police didn’t haul them out of there hogtied. I wonder what you will do instead, when the faces wear off those cards.”

“I see a worn-off face everyday,” Terry said.

Terry turned sharply. He flounced through the narrow driveway to enter the parsimoniously small apartment complex where he lived. Hanlon stayed behind, whether from laziness or from having reached the limit of his legal encroaching.

Terry felt the cold still embedded down to his bones, even while he stood over his kitchen counter. He had turned the heat up instead of down prior to leaving, in preparation for the upcoming sauna routine. He pulled today’s crinkled letter from the binder and reread it with a groan. As with previous letters, it summarized his orders from the original Terry with his old ESFP preferences. The old self had known how sickening such demands would sound: looking up trendy magazines to learn about current fashion and fun, calling relatives and old friends often, buying them birthday cards, and espousing a lifestyle only a blabbermouth would enjoy. The old Terry had assumed temptation would arise to skip such orders, to crumple the letters and leave them crumpled for months or to burn them on the pavement just outside. The demands, then, needed repeating.

Terry skimmed the instructions, those draining, agonizing tasks which he still had to complete today. He looked up and bared his teeth to the ceiling fan. The last paragraph introduced a new technique, one even more humiliating than all he had accomplished so far. It told him to perform impromptu card tricks, to combine them spontaneously, to do them in random order, and to risk screwing up the whole routine. The last line told him to do what feels right.

He had failed to do any of that today. He had performed as procedurally as a parking meter until his two hours ran out. Only returning home felt right, even with Inspector Hanlon nagging him all the way.

The cupboard before him had a bank receipt taped to it, and the little numbers offered little hope. He could stay unemployed and keep the magician facade going for another 16 days. Then, the money saved from his old secretary job would run low, and his temporary retirement would end. Then, the job hunt would commence just as the letters dictated. He dug through the stack of them in the binder for guidance, but gave up. He already knew one of them hinted at a career as a gallivanting showman. He remembered writing the letter himself, to himself, but with a different attitude.

Terry slammed the binder shut and closed his eyes. He could at least appreciate the financial strategy of magic shows, if not the fun his old self had intended. He might even earn decent money in a world of recommodified human performance. The era of materialism died a bit more everyday out there.

Decent money. He could almost smell the beer breath of pub goers flowing over him, their chuckles and burps soaring up to the stage in a disgusting chorus. Their applause would surely sound like chaotic gunshots.

Terry stripped off his costume and the clothes beneath it and threw the bundle on the kitchen table. The big ball of cloth looked like a boulder to him, more permanent than the steel tabletop on which it rested. To fold everything neatly as he usually did would seem uncharacteristic of the original Terry, too obstinate for sure. But leaving the costume unfolded would save time in tomorrow’s dress-up routine, a more efficient move–also uncharacteristic of the old Terry. Either choice meant failure.

In the tiny bathroom, Terry placed a scorched clay flower pot on the bottom of the bathtub. He donned oven mitts and brought in the pan of baseball-size stones from the oven. He had let them slowly heat up during his torturous routine outside. They hissed and steamed while he poured tap water into the pot. With the door closed, and with a towel pressed under it, the cramped bathroom became a makeshift sauna.

He performed free-weight squat presses until sweat rolled off him like rain. Once exhausted, he sat on the toilet lid. It felt like another boulder of sorts, hard against his sweat-drenched boxers. His skin excreted not only toxins, but molecules of his INTJ self. Somewhere in the mix of today and tomorrow, a bit of the old Terry would replace whatever got pushed out of his sweat glands.

The steel walls seemed to breathe with him. Clouds of steam bounced off them in rhythm, as though the bathroom also wanted to transform its rigid design. Water dribbled down like sweat in the spaces between the indestructible panels. The heat rejected the ceiling and suffused through Terry instead. It hurt, but not as much as going out there among those ugly, gawking strangers. Their warm breath, full of chatter and random breakfast, always hurt more.

Terry stood and wiped the steam off the mirror. He stared while the glass quickly fogged up again. He saw only a ghostly blur, a man without eyes. He saw the soft capital punishment the cheapskate society had given him, the death of his old self and the slow, self-imposed erasure of the new one. The vague creature which struggled to look back at him could indeed break the system, but perhaps only by committing murder again. If the new personality strove to destroy itself, then the state had simply made a suicider.

He waited for the alarm timer to buzz in the kitchen. Instead, a series of thuds and clacks made their way through the door. It sounded like a raccoon clawing at garbage bins just outside. The city, however, with all its lifeless concrete and metal, had no raccoons.

The sounds came from the little window behind the refrigerator. Terry hurried to the kitchen. All his efforts to endure the sauna now dissipated, his time wasted like the steam which billowed out the bathroom door. He stood in his boxers before the fridge, staring at the puny curtains drawn across the window. The beads of sweat and steam on his skin turned to goosebumps.

A set of impatient hands fiddled behind the glass, hidden by the curtains. They jammed a levering tool, probably a short crowbar, between the sliding window’s stile and its casing. The plastic creaked, but the latches held. The tool slipped repeatedly, but the clumsy hands kept trying.

Terry sidled to the counter and grabbed the two biggest carving knives from the kitchen drawer. He returned to the window and waited with both blades raised and ready. A hand would soon slip inside. He would pin and yank it further inside, and kill anything above it with a dozen upward jabs. Any man could die with the right stab through the armpit. The oaf out there had interrupted the sauna, the one sure task that pushed out the newer self, if only an ion at a time.

Surely, Hanlon deserved multiple stabbings for his infringement. The man probably wanted it, and what other man would break in at noontime besides the Inspector? He wanted to take the bullet or the blade himself. It would spare Terry’s next random provoker the trouble of dying. Hanlon admittedly had heart disease anyway, and though he probably couldn’t fit through the window, he did know the first-story address. He knew who lived here: the nation’s most likely reoffender, the system’s greatest risk.

Terry’s blood both burned and chilled. He felt every rhythmic wave of adrenaline. He saw his future self strapped to a different padded seat, the one that administered lethal injections to repeat murderers. He didn’t care. Logically, Hanlon would keep overstepping his legal boundaries. He would only get snoopier and push harder to prevent a crack in the justice system. Even better, he could cause that crack now by creating the first reoffending murderer to leave the Reverser chair. Hanlon would give his life for the state to eliminate that flaw quicker.

The timer buzzed from the oven clock. It toned only once, but loud enough to feel like electrocution on Terry’s nerves. The bumbling hands outside froze, but soon resumed their prying on the window. Who else but the persistent Inspector would continue a break-in now? Hanlon even knew the daily routine. He knew the renter stayed home at this hour, exhausted and bitter from a morning full of social interaction.

One of the latches cracked off the window frame. Terry squeezed the knives like handlebars just before a motorcycle crash. He looked at the oven which stood there stiffly like a giant, waiting tombstone. He too stood just as solidly and still. The digital clock ticked away the last seconds before his commitment to murder and suicide. It would free him from the unbearable stress of extroversion. It would free others from the intolerable Inspector Hanlon.

By rote–he did everything by rote now–he pictured the original Terry standing so rigidly in his place with a calculated plan, one that included geeky levels of stealth. He had to smile. That old Terry had, of course, simply grabbed his handgun in a panic and shot. He had shot again much later in spontaneous rage.

Now, Terry felt the weight of the tuxedo, four years of it, pressing his whole, nearly nude body. He felt the hellish layers of it, the sweaters in winter, the underarm deodorant clinging to him in summer. He felt its hundreds of pressures all donning him at once and a new, eccentric street magician confined within that heavy, black cage. He felt the top hat clamped on his head, a black ball and chain. The second latch popped off the window casing. It clattered on the floor, and the window slid open enough for a chubby hand to slip through.

Terry screamed. He bellowed long, the way he imagined a howler monkey might do it in the steam and frightful shade of a jungle. The old Terry would have done something almost as crazy, though not as preposterous as an eight-second roar.

Outside, a metal object fell and clanged on the concrete driveway. A scuffle of loafers ensued followed by a scrape sound as hands rushed to pick up the tool. Loud footsteps thudded away and faded. An ever-pesky wind pushed its way through the curtain, making it bulge like a pumping heart.

Hanlon had probably run away from the apartment permanently. He would not face such a pent-up howl again. It would put a pounding into his ailing heart fast enough to kill him in a less heroic manner.

Terry put the knives away and closed the window. Neighboring tenants open their doors, and their muffled sounds annoyed him. Though clammy and cold, he donned his heavy tuxedo and went outside again. He returned to his spot on the street, his least favorite block of concrete out of all those ever stepped on. People gathered before him again, up close and breathy and full of blubbery giggles and susurrations. The ones who had watched on their way to work now watched again on their lunch break. Their snickers at each trick sounded just as squealy and grating. They did, after all, get to see a man perform graceful card tricks in puffy winter gloves.

While he mingled determinedly, Terry plucked a balled-up paper from his pocket. He held it up in feigned and exaggerated surprise, an improvised move to satisfy the demands of today’s letter. The audience expected a card, and they got garbage instead. With their ensuing chuckles, a pang in Terry’s chest also ensued. He paused to ease the strain of breaking the safe routine, to help temper the chaos, to calm the fire still in his blood from the botched break-in. He stared at the paper ball pinched in his fingertips, the first letter which he always kept with him on the street. It still served as a sort of ugly eyeball. It watched and made sure he obeyed.

He could almost see the words folded over themselves, crumpled and compressed. The old Terry had written one of his many whims there: he never knew why he picked street magician over all the other bubbly careers.

But now Terry knew. Beyond the fascination, the boy in him had always wanted to master the tricks. Although a reversed personality could never change back to its old self, he could instead change into his very old self: a child with a dream. The justice system never thought that far back.

He pocketed the ball of paper and found the king in his other pocket. To the crowd’s laughter, it had become a jack. Hanlon watched from the back as always, though paler now. He clapped along with the crowd, his eyes stoic and his mouth hidden behind his big mustache. For once, Terry didn’t know which trick the Inspector clapped for.

END

CROSSING

by ILGIN YILDIZ & KEREM SAVAS

 

It is dark, light, and dark again.

The darkness is the beginning and the end. The sudden flash of light in between, hosts action. It illuminates the bodies. As if built from fragments of dust, they scatter after a brief “beep” sound. They fly up in the air, splitting into their elementary particles.

They aren’t alive, anyway, I think to myself. They are empty of life. Their souls, if they exist at all, occupy another existence now. The bodies are just empty cocoons, all used-up, worn-out.

But still. Dead bodies of Terran refugees terrify me. Those fragile, lonely, desolate shells. They have intended to do good once. They have really tried. And now, they are smaller than dust, insignificant as dirt.

Their homeland, New Terra, was supposed to be everything Terra was not: The embodiment of human wisdom. It turned out, human wisdom was an oxymoron, a silly joke.

“The third group is finished,” Paq says. “You can go ahead and prepare the statement report.”

I divert my gaze away from the mist of exploded bodies and respond with a nod.

When I return to the Monitoring Department, I sit in my cubicle and glance at the monitor which recounts the names of the last group of refugees. Their consciousness has been uploaded to Mer where they will live happy lives as free people. The ceaseless white flow of letters on my monitor have become happy citizens of Mer.

This is our accomplishment as Abylans. We have managed to transform miserable Earthlings into happy beings.

*

The hate leaves me questioning. It is so powerful, yet so subtly embedded in the intricate web of our everyday life, it is hard singling it out, highlighting it. The hatred towards Terrans establishes the foundation of Abyla, it is its raison d’être, yet it is utterly out of focus, cheats the eye, forever hidden. Or perhaps, it isn’t really hidden but has been reinvented to acquire a positive meaning. It isn’t hate—it is a symbol of change, it is transformation.

Abyla, which is situated 200 million kilometres from Terra, had been founded and settled by Terrans while their planet had almost collapsed, exhausted by wars and climate crises. On its very soil, New Terra was founded. Under centralised governance, ideals of equality, harmony, and sustainability were cherished, and Terra was once again habitable, albeit barely. In time, social injustice became rampant and religious dogmas widespread, both among citizens and in politics. New Terra had fallen even more quickly than Terra. In the meantime, Abyla, flourishing rapidly, had become a powerful civilisation with Terran settlers.

The hatred leaves me questioning but it is rather hard not to see the underlying reason. Terrans are bad news. They have failed over and over. They have proven that they aren’t fit to live in harmony with the cosmos. Their ethos follows the idea of viral propagation. Their praxis never changes. And now, neither them nor their ways are welcomed in Abyla. The distance between Terrans and Abylans is so great that Abylans don’t see themselves as ‘human’ any more. We are Abylans and that’s it.

After the Fifth Terran War erupted, the refugee crisis was long-expected and Abyla was ready. The system was fairly simple. The refugees were given two choices: They would either agree to go to Mer after they arrive to Abyla or stay in New Terra. They would almost all agree to be uploaded to Mer. It symbolised a new life. Surprisingly, abandoning their bodies wasn’t that of an issue for them. It was as if they were fed up with carrying their bodies to wherever they went, and now, they were okay with getting rid of them once and for all.

Instead of uploading it to the system, I choose to visit the central barracks in person to deliver the statement.

I see them. Sick and helpless. Waiting to start over, be saved, and live. Terrans of all ages, all ready to be stripped off of their bodies. Their questions are ceaseless. Why should their bodies die in order for them to be transferred to Mer? What will happen at the Hives? In Mer, will their children be children forever? I watch the officials patiently and respectfully explain them the basics. The crossing will be smooth. They don’t need their bodies anymore. The Hives are little cubicles where their consciousness is transferred to Mer. Once they do the crossing, they will live a normal life—a life that resembles the one on Terra before the wars, famine, and sickness. They won’t have any memories of war. Their minds will be fresh, unburdened by those dark memories. Their new life will be free of all the problems they have faced on New Terra. They will have water, food, social services, and schools. They will govern themselves, live and work as respectable members of their community.

The offer is undoubtedly enticing and yet, sometimes some refugees change their minds at the last minute. They just can’t wrap their minds around the idea of living without a body. Hives are suspicious graves rather than conduits of a new life. This new life the officials are talking about, sounds like an impossible, unnatural way to exist. These refugees reject the offer and choose to return to the fire and brimstone of New Terra. Just like the father and son before me.

As I watch them, the father hugs his son and patiently tries to convince him that nothing good will come out of this Abylan scheme. The boy doesn’t understand why they are rejecting such a beautiful promise. Choosing pain over happiness is something he can’t come to terms with. He runs away from his father with tears in his eyes. His father goes after him and takes him in his arms once again, telling him that his decision is final, and he’d better obey. The boy eventually stops crying. He freezes with moist trails on his cheeks. He isn’t convinced. Still, he has no choice but to follow his father to the deportation ship.

*

The next morning, weather is humid. Before long, yellow sandstorms break out. Abylans take shelter inside shops and buildings. They sip their coffees and teas in cafés, waiting for the weather event to pass. Sandstorms are part of everyday life, and a weather event of this magnitude is so common that it has lost its meaning long time ago.

When I reach work after one hour, everyone is chatting and laughing.

“Good morning, Finn,” says Paq. “Nice of you to join us this morning.”

“The storm,” I say.

“The weather tracker,” he says.

I shrug off the sarcasm and sit on my desk. I turn on my monitor to check the daily data from Mer.

“We better go, the new group has arrived an hour ago,” says Paq.

Great. A spaceship full of refugees, first thing in the morning. Even though I’ve been working at the Monitoring Department for sixteen years, starting my day with tears and pain is something I’ve never been able to get used to. I still can’t forget the image of that refugee boy with tears in his eyes.

“Hey, Paq?” I say. “Did yesterday’s deportation ship return to New Terra?”

Paq turns his head to meet my eyes. “I’m not sure. Why are you asking?”

“No reason. I was just wondering.”

*

Mer is peaceful, quiet, and synthetic. I find its serenity to be eerie and unpleasant.

The very fact that it was produced to accommodate Terran refugees is hard to process. They will live there and die there, forever separated from our reality. Eternally locked in their oblivion. The idea of forever in the context of Mer is something that is grasped easily. It doesn’t denote a perpetual continuity, an impossibility, but rather, it is limited by and depended upon the workings and politics of its inventor, Abyla. If the future governments decide to put an end to Mer, erase the whole thing, they will do it. There is no safety net. No dissent voices. There will be nobody to stop them because there is nothing to be opposed to. Nobody believes that Mer is eerie and unpleasant. They rather perceive it as a safe haven for destitute immigrants. They believe that it is the ultimate compassionate resolution of the refugee problem at hand. And it is. That is, if the refugees are willing to give up two of the most fundamental parts of their existence: Their bodies and reality.

People say that reality is something we construct, that it is what we believe it to be. And that there’s no other reality besides this one, the one we have created. Reality is our stamp, our trace, our word. It depends wholly to language and its limitations. It relies on our minds, which do a quick work of compartmentalising the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal.’ And because reality is constructed and Mer is just as real as Abyla, refugees are fine there.

Abyla gives the refugees two choices: A death or a dream. If they choose to return to New Terra, they die either on their way or upon arriving their homeland. The dream, on the other hand, is a pleasant dream, but nonetheless, a dream. Even if for Abylans, it is a constructed reality, a truthful projection of our cherished ideals and morality. Even if it is the embodiment of our ethics and respect towards the refugees.

I look at my monitor. Mer is as beautiful as Abyla. It is its child, the fruit of its compassion. It lays before me, innocent and serene. Its skies are clear blue, occasional, tiny clouds are rushing this or that way. Birds are traversing this blue plane which is ever so beautiful. People are in their houses having breakfast, going to work, leaving their children to school, reading, and running at parks. They are waiting for their buses at bus stops, heading for the tram or metro station, getting their newspapers on their way. They are content and oblivious. A mild yellow light is falling on top of everything. Houses, cars, people, trees. It is so encompassing and calming that Mer resembles a place of childhood, full of contentment and happiness.

It is the little things that give Mer the illusion of real. Bird feathers and pollen flying around, traces on the barks of tall trees that sway in the wind, tiny fractures in the cobblestone pavements.

It is as if Mer has always existed, it is all that ever was and all that ever will be. It is here, and it won’t go anywhere. It is dependable. It will forever be faithful to our perception and memory.

*

I wake up to yet another sandstorm. When I check the weather program, I see that the storm will continue for an hour. It would be best to wait it out but I don’t want to be late for work.

After forty-five minutes, I get off my vehicle and make my way to the Monitoring Department. Once inside, I see that everyone is locked into their monitors and Paq is on the phone with the Director.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

Paq looks at me with serious eyes and returns to his screen. “Everything seems to be in order. I can’t imagine what went wrong,” he says to the Director. “We’ll send someone right away.”

I turn on and glance at my monitor. Mer is nowhere to be seen. All I see is a strange emptiness. A black void. My heart starts beating rapidly and I sit on my chair. I take a deep breath and reboot my monitor, as if the source of the problem is this small, grey screen. After a few seconds, the same black void greets my blank stare. My mind is filled with ceaseless questions and I’m scared. I feel like I’m losing the one thing I feel connected to.

Paq finishes his talk and sinks back in his chair. There is a thick silence in the room and everyone looks at their monitors with the same empty stares.

But after twenty seconds, suddenly our screens brighten, the display comes back abruptly, and locked into the images, we hold our breath. In Mer, the familiar life continues and everything looks in order. Nothing has changed.

Paq reboots his monitor. “Must be just a temporary cut.”

“This has never happened before,” I say. “You should still send someone. I can do the crossing.”

Paq watches Mer on his monitor. “There is no need,” he says. “Just a small glitch. It only lasted for four minutes.”

“Still, not that short,” I say. “I think it’s best to be sure. I’ll do the crossing and check everything in the Operation Room. Guarantee everything is in order over there.”

Paq looks at me and sighs. “I’ll tell you what. Just do the damn crossing. Guarantee it, whatever.”

At the Hives, I lay on the armchair with the receiver on my right temple. I think about how privileged we are to be able to do this—cross over to Mer without losing our bodies. Lucky.

I had been wanting to visit Mer forever. I’ve only crossed once, with the foundation team that set up the system. I’ve never been able to erase the feeling I had upon that visit. I had felt like my whole being was a part of something so inherently vital and whole.

I check the time and switch on the transfer device. “See you soon,” I whisper to myself. I push the green button and start counting backwards.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”

*

I find myself in Mer and that familiar wholeness returns at once, encompassing my whole being. It is soft and light, yet strong and purposeful. I gather my surroundings and immediately remember the Hives. In Mer, the Hives is just a small room with six armchairs.

I look at my hands, my legs, and body. I breath in and out but can’t really feel my breath. I rise from the chair, leave the Hives, and enter the Passage. I remember how it looks—it’s soft, grey walls, grey ground. I take one step but can’t feel the impact of my foot. The connection between my foot and the ground is very light, barely there. I start walking.

My surroundings, the tall, grey walls, convey a sense of safety and warmth. I know that the Passage is quite long. That it opens to a small terrace overlooking the city, and then a long trail which goes all the way down to a locked door. I will unlock it with my finger print and enter the city.

My face is getting number. My fingertips are getting warmer and tingling. It’s a good feeling—like I’m losing myself entirely to the ultimate wholeness which will caress me forever. Time is no object. Time doesn’t make sense. I check my watch and can’t believe that I’ve been here for only one minute, in Abylan time. Here, time is cheating and impossible to grasp.

I’m really in Mer, I think to myself. This is amazing.

As my soft steps carry me through the Passage and towards Mer, I gradually get more and more excited, impatient to feel the embrace of that strange universe. It is summoning me.

A few meters ahead, suddenly, I see a brightness emanating from something. I walk towards it and as I approach, the brightness intensifies. This object looks like a precious stone of myriad hues and tones of white. A magnet, pulling my futility towards itself to assimilate it within an inert wisdom. I’m drawn to it, helpless. Just a few steps left.

Then suddenly, I feel someone grabbing my arm. They punch my neck and I fall. My eyes are still locked into the precious stone. I’m sure that it is the heart of Mer. I want to see it clearly but my eyelids grow heavy. I fight the heaviness to no avail. I’m lost in darkness.

*

I hear whispers in a loaded silence. I’m tied to a chair. I can feel that I’m able to open my eyes but I stay still and listen.

“Maybe we should splash cold water to her face,” says a woman.

“No need,” says a man.

“Let’s just wait,” says another.

Then they are silent for a few minutes. I slowly open my eyes.

When they see that I’m awake, the four people around me, two men, a woman, and a little girl, look nervous. I watch them for a while. Silently, they return my looks.

“Are you okay?” asks the woman. She has raven black hair and large brown eyes. She is genuinely concerned.

“Yes,” I say. “Why…”

“I’m sorry that I had to punch you,” says one of the men. He gets up from the chair and starts pacing the room. He has wilful eyes and a red scarf around his neck. The girl hands me a glass of water. The other man watches her. He is the calmest one.

“Why did you do it?” I ask.

“We know that you’re coming from Deva,” the man with the red scarf says.

“Deva?”

“We know that you’re a Devan. What else could you be doing in the Passage?”

I take a deep breath. “Look,” I say. “I’m not Devan. My name is Talia Finn. I’m a citizen of Mer. I was merely exploring the area.”

Everything is ruined. I don’t know how to get out of this situation. They all look at me as if I’m an alien. They know I don’t belong here.

“We have been waiting for Devans to visit for a long time. Don’t lie to us. We can’t trust you. That’s why I had to punch you. We had to know your aim in coming he—”

The silent man intervenes and speaks slowly, decisively. “No citizen of ours calls this place Mer. This is Samsara. Mer belongs to your language, it is your invention.” He rises from his chair and comes near me. His cold stare is distant, aloof. “Look,” he says. You have to tell the truth. We will eventually find out. We won’t let you go until you tell us.” He walks towards the door and turns the knob. “You think about this for a while. We will leave you alone.”

I fall completely silent. I can’t find the right words. I know that I’m ambushed and nothing I say can save me. Except for the truth.

*

I owe them the truth. When I’m alone, this is the only thought I’m able to form. I have no other choice but to be honest. I owe them the truth. Besides, they won’t let me go until I explain everything. But this is such fragile information, I feel inadequate to deliver it. And what will happen when I get back? Paq will probably fire me. My big mistake won’t be disclosed to anyone except for the Director, and he will probably order a Blanking Procedure where the memories of refugees will be erased to have no recollection of this event whatsoever.

The two men return to the room after half an hour. I look at the man with the red scarf. He has a long and beautiful face. He looks at me with a reassuring expression.

“Alright,” I say. I take a long breath. “I will tell you.” I gather all my strength. “I’m here for a routine control. I have to make sure that everything is running smoothly.”

I can’t believe these words have left my mouth. I close my eyes.

*

I see Mer, which is in fact Samsara, peeking behind the window, vast and beautiful with smooth hills and misty mountain tops. It speaks to me in ways I’m unable to explain. I feel its essence, its kernel.

The man with the red scarf, Lars, tells me its story.

Once, Samsara was called Mer and its citizens enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous life. They had everything. Everything we Abylans, or Devans, designed, worked flawlessly. They were happy with their lives, never questioning the reality of it. Its polished, fine-tuned ways never bothered them. These weren’t the reasons why they started questioning their lives and existence.

Everything started with a shiny object.

It was nearly impossible to reach the Passage. There was a hidden path through Mount Mons and nobody knew about it. But one day, a little boy accidentally found it. And once he got inside the Passage, he came across a shiny stone-like object. He was mesmerised by it and tried to take it with him. But whenever he tried to touch it, he failed. His finger and the object never formed a connection. When his hand came closer to it, he could feel a certain warmth, intensifying gradually, but touching it was impossible.

Some started saying that it was a gift from gods. Higher beings who had some sort of willpower and control over them. The idea of god or gods was alien to them but it flourished very quickly. The shiny object was named Tantarum and was revered by Samsarans. Once a year, they made pilgrims to the Passage, watched its light, and prayed to it.

Lars shows me the Tantarum to see if I know anything about it.

I do. It is an Abylan coin.

It probably belongs to Paq, Volsag, or another monitoring official who was part of the first foundation team that set up the Operation Room in Mer. One of them must have dropped the coin which was to be revered as a holy object.

It is surprising to me how an idea of a celestial message can be this easy to sprout. The skies of Samsara are so peaceful, so quiet, it is mind-boggling to imagine anything to come from that plane of life. It’s merely an abstract blue fabric. An illusion, like everything else in here. Like the people I’m speaking to.

The only real thing here is the coin somebody dropped accidentally.

*

I tell them about Abyla during my first night in Lars’ home. I tell them about the concept of time and how it is much slower than it is here in Samsara. “Your one week,” I say, “equals to one day in Abyla.” They are amazed. This amazement quickly turns to sadness. I tell them about the sandstorms and how they wash the entire city with their yellow, orange, red hues.

They want to know how they have ended up in Samsara. I tell them about the refugee ships, the two choices, the Hives. They sit still and listen. The silent man, Unson, watches me with determined eyes. His conviction is a black stone under clear white water.

Particularly Lars’ wife and daughter, River and Kane, are curious about Abyla. They listen to me as if Abyla were a fairy tale city, full of wonder and amazement.

I don’t know why I tell them these details. These wretched tales from another time and place, from a reality they will never be a part of. But I almost feel a responsibility to convey these strange stories. Sometimes they look at me as if I’m mad, as if everything that comes out of my mouth is made-up, a blatant lie. But mostly, they find it hard to resist the temptation to believe. Because when they believe, everything makes sense.

*

Lars takes me to the Green Mountain one day. We hike and have a picnic. He offers me colourful fruits, all sweet and fresh. The mountain, just another Abylan invention, is strong and quiet.

Lars tells me that after the Tantarum, other things happened that made them become suspicious of their reality.

“After the Tantarum incident,” he says, “something else happened. Our dead returned. Two women and a man, after dying, came back but as different people leading different lives.”

I learn that these people, after their deaths, were seen by their close family and friends, under different identities, in different settings. One of the women, who was a teacher before, was seen as a cashier at a supermarket. Her daughter was in tears when she saw her. But the woman was telling her, over and over, that her name wasn’t Ada, she wasn’t her mother, she was living in the north of Samsara with her two boys. This wasn’t true—the daughter, as well as her other relatives were sure of it. In another case, a woman, after being dead for almost two months, was spotted by her father at the library. The man was perplexed, not able to explain to her that she was his daughter, had been dead for two months, and now, here she was. A year later, a woman told Lars and his friends that she had seen and talked to her long dead husband at a bus stop. Again, the man had no idea what she was talking about—thought that she was mentally ill, and practically ran away from her, leaving her in tears.

All these cases were researched in detail by Lars and his friends, a group that conducted technological and philosophical research dedicated to strange phenomena at Samsara University.

In Samsara, strange phenomena weren’t scarce. One time, an entire village had disappeared. One morning, when two farmers from the neighbouring village came to pick up some produce, they weren’t able to see a single soul in sight. All twenty-three villagers, comprising of twelve adults and eleven children vanished into thin air. They were never found.

Strange things happened all the time, and the most recent phenomenon was the blackout, which lasted nearly thirty minutes and ultimately caused a visit from me.

I’m surprised that the system we have established and shaped has caused such problems. It is strange to know that all these staggering events are the results of the shortcomings of Abylan technology. When it was running smoothly, there wasn’t a necessity for the citizens of Mer to question anything. Glitches caused questions and eventually awakened a strong suspicion in them about the nature of their existence. With the effect of metaphysical and religious beliefs, language itself began changing, Mer became Samsara, and the plane of existence that we Abylans occupied was known as Deva, the land of gods.

*

I work at the Operation Room which is situated inside the Passage. Even though I like being in the Passage, I don’t like spending such long time on the resetting procedure. I want to complete my task as soon as possible to go back to my life in Samsara.

During one of our daily walks, I ask Lars if he is happy.

He says that he is but his expression implies that he is trying to hide something. I don’t want to be persistent but I’m curious.

“Living in this place, being limited to it, doesn’t it upset you in any way?” I ask.

He looks at me with thoughtful eyes. He waits for a couple of seconds before answering. “Well, no. Reality is what you experience,” he says. “Samsara is as real as Abyla. Even more real, for it was invented by your, Abylan intelligence. It is its product. It is your perception of us, produced for us.”

He is right. The product of a mind is indeed more real, more consequential, more telling and solid than its owner. Samsara tells more about Abylans than it does about Samsarans. It describes us perfectly.

“But there is a whole other reality out there, I say. “Aren’t you a little bit curious about it?”

“Of course I am. But it doesn’t mean I prefer it to Samsara. I just want to learn what it is, how it works, and continue living my life, which has purpose and meaning just as yours.”

“Of course,” I say. But my words are painful and empty of meaning. They are dull and simple-minded. I feel stupid.

“But you have to make some changes,” he says quietly. “You need to find a way to explain everything to our citizens. Tell them why they are here. That this was their choice. You need to fix the glitches. And we need upgrades, more universities, libraries, and sports facilities, learning centres. We are still a part of the cosmos. Even if… even if we live in a made-up reality. I know being here is our choice but it doesn’t mean Samsara should be devoid of such things.”

I picture Samsaran children studying a made-up history about how Samsara was built by their Terran fathers, after the Fifth Terran War. About how it is the only place in the entire cosmos that hosts intelligent life, and how they are all alone.

*

At night, I realise that I haven’t heard of such silence before. In Abyla, even at nights when nearly everyone is asleep, the city continues making muffled, indiscriminate noises. Existence is noisy, I’ve always believed in that. But in Samsara, at nights, after I finish working at the Operation Room and return to Lars’ house, I find myself lying on my bed with eyes open, contemplating in this peculiar, impenetrable silence.

I told them a lot. I had to. I don’t know how I will manage to explain everything to Paq and the others when I return to Abyla.

When I go to my window which overlooks an old street, I see nobody. There is only the wind, occasionally blowing to my face. In such times, I question Lars’ contentment. When I asked him if he was happy, the expression in his eyes betrayed his words. He was right in saying that his existence was as purposeful and meaningful as mine but it doesn’t change the fact that he is living in a place where even the wind doesn’t speak to you. Here, even nature, the one thing that must speak its own mind and can’t be bothered with what you desire, that obstinate and unfettered force, looks like an empty vessel of invention and numbers. It is an illusion. It is believable, yet polished and sinister.

But of course, Lars isn’t aware of this. None of the Samsarans know this. The only reality they know is this one—of course they would think this is the only way life can be.

But as I spend more time here, I start feeling that I don’t really mind Samsara’s polished and synthetic silence. It gives me a sense of solidness, reliability, dependability. One thing you don’t get in the real world is security. In Abyla, your dealings with nature is a one-sided pact. You offer it yourself but you may or may not receive a decent life in return. Here, the pact is solid and reliable. Unbeknownst to Samsarans, in all its mighty secretiveness, the ultimate power has given them a good life.

*

I finish the resetting procedure in the Operation Room and download the new fixer to the program. Everything is set and I’m hoping there won’t be any blackouts in the future.

There is one less strange phenomenon in Samsara and I’m ready to leave.

Kane is sitting on my bed. She is sad to see me go. These last weeks, she was happy to listen the stories I told about Abyla. Everything she had learnt at school was refuted when I, a complete stranger, came to their house with her strange tales.

“After you return to Deva, will you visit the great library?” she asks. She has developed a curiosity towards my practical life, how I live and asked me many questions, like what I eat, my favourite colour, and books. Of course, her curiosity is stemming more from the fact that I am, unlike her, a Devan. She wants to know how the fairy tale beings live.

“I will borrow some new books,” I say.

She drops her head. “If… you feel bored, you can always come back.”

I smile. “Thank you, Kane. I like it here. I really do.”

I bid farewell to River. She quietly whispers goodbye and smiles. “Lars is waiting for you at the Passage,” she says. For her, I’m magical and awe-inspiring. She thinks that being a Devan, I’m wise, somehow. She looks at me like I’m the one invented her. Shaped her thick eyebrows, moulded her beautiful, lean body. I shake her hand.

*

When I step into the Passage, the familiar feeling settles inside me. The air becomes dense, everything is slower and heavier. As if a giant invisible being is sitting on top of everything. You have to grow accustomed to this feeling and make your way to the Hives, your walk becoming slower and heavier with each step. An invisible curtain has been pulled between this reality and outside. You are separated, wholly, from the objects you are surrounded with. Your subjectivity becomes naked and isolated, and everything is under a mild mist.

I spot Lars a couple of meters away. His back is turned to me and I can’t see his face and black eyes. His gaze is fixed on the Tantarum.

“Lars,” I say, touching his arm. When he turns to face me, I realise that this is not him but Unson. Lars must have been caught up in something. Perhaps he is at the university, busy with research.

“Hello, Finn,” says Unson. “Lars couldn’t make it. He wants you to know that he appreciates your kindness and he is happy to have met you.”

I nod. “I’m happy to have met you, as well. Don’t worry, I will speak with the officials about everything.”

“Well,” says Unson. “Lars trusts you with all his heart. He believes in you.”

I smile. My heart starts beating rapidly. Strange enough, I toy with the idea of telling him that I will have their memories erased when I do the crossing to Abyla. A part of me wants to tell him everything but instead, I take a deep breath.

Walking towards the Hives, our steps are in sync, moving slowly, determined. In a couple of seconds, I feel the familiar warmth of the small room. I open the hidden door with my fingerprint, and the heat escapes, hitting my face on its way out.

I turn to Unson and offer him my hand. “Be well, my friend,” I say.

He doesn’t shake my hand. His expression is clouded. Those eyes had scared me when I had first met him. They are always utterly full of thought. They are always elsewhere even while directed at you.

I wait for a little while and when I’m convinced that he won’t reciprocate, I lower my hand and turn my back.

Then suddenly, I feel an intense pain on my neck. Something has hit me.

Everything feels heavy. I try to hold on to a thought. I want to tell Unson that we have made a mistake. That Samsara shouldn’t exist. That it’s a symbol of our selfishness and hatred. But I can’t speak. My vision is blurry. Then the world collapses on my shoulders.

*

It is my first time at the Hives.

I couldn’t imagine that there would be a hidden room here. A place that would host my crossing to reality. To Deva, the land of gods.

I sit on an armchair and relax. I’m ready.

The Hives will be the uterus to birth me. The magic wand that will make me real. Make us real.

Our days are coming.

The first one will be me. I will adopt Finn’s physical being. Once I acquire a body, I will bring others, and it will go on, without stopping, until whole of Deva belongs to us—its real owners.

But you can’t own a land, can you? No, you can only inhabit a land, and it’s your choice how to inhabit it. And we will inhabit it as it’s meant to be, and it’s meant to be inhabited by Terrans.

Once we spread, Abylan bodies will exist no more. They will become Terran bodies and Abyla will become a dark tale. A somber story.

This is how we reclaim ourselves back. Our reality, which has been denied to us for all this time, will be ours again.

It starts with me, Unson.

 

***

 

Autoporn Cache

by Sara Kate Ellis

It’s one lousy dry afternoon in Corona Del Mar, and I’m trying to read Popular Mechanics.  My sister and grandpa are yelling, and I can only focus on the ads.  Sloop John B is on the AM, all muddy water rushing through a player piano, and my sister’s pulling her hair out because there’s a quarter less gas in the tank and she’s sure grandpa took the keys again.  He’s not supposed to drive.  He’s real forgetful and his reflexes are slowing.

“That’s a hundred bucks you just wasted acting like some petulant kid,” she says.  “How are we going to get that back?”

We use the car maybe once a month for emergency errands, or when we just get so cooped up that we want to kill each other.  The rest of the time it’s a carpool or the big diesel rumblers that bus me into the canyon and back on school days.

My eyes dart from the magazine to the embrasure leading into the kitchen.  Grandpa’s opening and closing his mouth like a puppet, trying to clench his jaw, but his teeth don’t line up.

“I didn’t do anything.”  He jerks a ragged hand toward a cookie jar, jammed full of dried out pens and receipts.  “You want your damn keys, they’re right there.”

My sister blows a strand of sweaty hair out of her face, and turns back to see her key ring where he says it is, propped up on the counter like a piece of rusty fruit.

“This is the last time,” she says.

“It ain’t even the first.”

When Dad died, we tried out a home for a year, but it cost too much, so here he is.  I’m supposed to keep an eye on him when my sister’s out, but there was a lockdown at school due to air quality, and I got home late.  Now she’s rushing around the house, trying to get ready for her second shift at a corrections facility in Carlsbad.

She drops her keys into her purse and snaps it shut.  “You just keep it up.  Pretty soon they’ll toss you in the clink for stunts like that.”

“Clink?”  He says it like it sounds funny.

Even though she got grandpa’s license revoked, there’s little chance he’ll be pulled over until the law goes into effect, when anyone over 65 is banned from operating a motor vehicle.  My government teacher Mr. Tran calls it chicken shit, says they’re too scared to take on the big polluters, so they go kick up a fit about aging boomers and rising accident rates.

“Too little, too late,” he says.  He likes to say that a lot.

Grandpa comes into the living room, lowering himself into a battered green easy chair with cigarette burns in one of the arms.  He’s wheezing, which is probably how my sister sniffed him out, and I wonder if that’s how smokers used to sound.  I turn on my side and try to focus on the article, but I can still see that shamed, glassy smile from the corner of my eye.

“Whatcha got there, Suze?” he asks.

Reluctantly, I sit up, swinging my legs off the sofa to give him space.  “One of Dad’s.  I just found it out in the garage.”

The just is for his benefit.  He’s already been through Dad’s things because there were other magazines and old movies that started going missing right after he moved in.  The ones I’d really been looking for.  Like most autoporn, they’re worth money; some of them are even illegal, but I don’t care about that.  It’s the women.  Their bodies aren’t swaddled in filterweave and you can see their skin, their necks and shoulders, their legs.

“That’s a Corvette,” grandpa says.  “I used to drive one of those.”  He points to one all needle-nosed and sleek, like some kind of sea creature that might slip out of the wet sand and slice you right in half.

“No you didn’t,” my sister yells from upstairs.

Outside the all clear sounds, which means the wind has picked up enough to let us go out if need be.  No one ever does. When I was little, there was a group of kids who played basketball at an old hoop in the cul-de-sac, but I haven’t seen anyone hanging around there in years except cats.

“That’s a C6, could get up to 205 miles per hour.”

He presses a gnarled thumb over another car, this time red, and I nod, wondering why they’d make something go that fast if it was already against the law.

“You okay for food?” my sister yells.  Her ride will be pulling up any minute, and I yell back a “Yeah,” but I’m getting hungry and thinking I don’t want to eat the leftovers.  Last night she made some peppery soup that tasted like the air outside.

“I know where one is,” grandpa whispers.  “Want to see the real thing?”

“Can we pick up Chinese?”  I’m only half serious. Right now he reminds me of this scrawny kid one class below me, the one who lies all the time and gets beat up.

“I do,” he says.

I shrug.  There’s no way he’s getting those keys back.

“Suze,” he smiles, his voice raspy with possibility.  “I know where she keeps the spare set.”

#

Grandpa says the sky wasn’t brown when he was my age.  At night there was just enough smog to turn it pink.  My sister can remember it, too, but I’d been born late, right after she left for college.

We zigzag slowly down what’s left of the old Pacific Coast Highway, and the shoreline against the dark looks like a long strip of fat on a pork chop.  I should be watching grandpa’s driving, but it beats me how anyone could get in a wreck at this speed.  He’ll die of old age before we do that.

“What I told you back at the house,” he says.  “It’s one hundred percent true.”

“About what?”

“The Corvette.  It was a beaut too.  Really hurt when it got stolen.”

He slows down as we approach a checkpoint, nothing serious along this strip.  Not like the cops with their smog guns parked up and down the 405.

“What color was it?”

“Orange, red.  I don’t remember.“  For a second, his smile disappears, as if he’s left the stove on back home.  Then he picks up, continues as if the whole thing is just occurring to him in real time.  “When that guy stole it, I had to go chasin’ him all over the country.  Spent a whole summer doin’ just that.”

“You go to New York?”

“I think so,” he says.  “I think I did.  And Texas.”

There’s a long silence before the guards wave us past the checkpoint. They’re looking for gas hogs and speed racer types, not my sister’s old Honda.  The traffic is finally thinning out, fewer rumblers and grassoline scooters and more of those fancy foreign hybrids with state-of-the-art air filters and double thick safety glass.  Grandpa waves his hand at them dismissively.

“You didn’t need all that then.  Sun was shining all the time.  You could go out in it as long as you liked.  Take your dog out for a walk on the beach and watch him roll in dead birds.  I met a girl who helped me out.  Name was…name escapes me, but she drove me all over hell and back until we found her.  The car, I mean.”

“Was she pretty?”

He frowns before answering.  “The car?”

“No.”

I wonder if my sudden queasiness is because we’re slaloming at a faster pace.  Rapid coastal erosion has turned this once gentle ramble into a patchwork of crisscrossing stitches, swerving inland then seaward then back like some great cement scar.

Grandpa slows before turning abruptly off the highway onto a steep and winding path that takes us through an abandoned development.  People used to live here, I think.  People used to think they wouldn’t fall in, and I reel back in my seat as we barrel headlong down the hill over pavement that feels more like clay.  I yell for him to stop, but that look on his face is wild, almost happy.

We’re angled almost straight down, the reeds and overgrowth streaking the sides of the car with a grimy war paint, as we stagger to a halt before an ancient, weatherworn sign: “Caution.  Road Closed Permanently due to Erosion.”

I can still feel my heart jounce.  Grandpa’s hunched over the dash, as if trying to get a last glimpse of a thrill that’s now slipping away.

“You still alive?”  I loosen my hand from the door handle now slick with sweat.

He coughs out a chuckle as I hand him a sheet of filterweave, wrapping my own carefully around my nose and mouth, tucking it behind my ears the way Dad taught me when the clouds first crossed the sea.  He used to weave it through his fingers, play all sorts of games.

“This stuff,” he’d say.  “It’s like that chicken egg problem, only verrry, verrry stupid.  Bunch of politicos got people all riled up, said they were going to embargo our oil, wrap our women up in gunnysacks, so we started a bunch of wars until the wells were on fire, and the ash got so bad we’re all wrapped up now.  What do you think, Suze? That funny or what?”

My filterweave is downy and smells like mint.  We’ve gotten ours mixed up, and Grandpa’s got the strawberry chew, a girly smell, but he doesn’t seem to care.  When we step outside, the air is surprisingly clear, and I’m tempted to lift the cloth and let some of its salty mist on my tongue, but I hear a kick and juddering sound.  Grandpa is laughing, standing over the caution sign, now leaning at a sharp angle toward the ground.  He’s acting just like my sister said, a petulant kid.  “Tell us somethin’ we don’t know,” he says.

I spot the rim of a guardrail that once might have protected us peeking out between the rocks and tufts of reed grass like a row of dirty teeth.  Around us, the remaining houses stand vigilant against the sandy churn below, some sagging backward, rearing back in shock.  This is happening to them.

I wonder if Grandpa’s wants to follow suit, to step off the cliff into some irretrievable past.  Instead, he sits down and pats the sand beside him.  I make my way over, careful to stay a good four feet from the brink.

“I thought we were going to see a car.”

He takes a thin flashlight from his pocket and aims it at the water below.  I can see little, just the white foam of the waves, a few jagged shadows poking their noses out of the water like sharks responding to the beam.

“It’s down there.”

“What?”

“The car.  This kid I was mad at, name escapes me.  He went right down into the water.”

I wonder how that could have happened if the shore was farther out, but I don’t say anything.  The wind’s picked up and it’s getting cold.  I want to get my food and get back.

“I was new at school see, and this kid, forgot his name. He didn’t like me. Thought I was moving in on his girl, so he said hey Joe, how about a game of chicken?”

That last word hits my stomach and I start to worry that he’s forgetting our deal.  I want to get orange chicken if we ever get out of here.  Mr. Tran calls it “fake ethnic food,” but it’s a favorite and we don’t get it very often.

“The idea is that the coward, the chicken, they go speeding toward the cliff.  Guy who gets closest to the edge wins, only this kid, he couldn’t stop.  Went right over.  He’s still down there.”

“You go to jail?” I ask, but the thing is, I know he’s lying. Grandpa lies a lot, but it never sounds like he is, because when he talks, it comes out of him all desperate, like he’s passing on bits of his own history and he’ll disappear if we don’t hear him out.  The best thing I can do is humor him. Make him feel good.  Make him hurry.

“No.  We just took off out of there, bunch of scared kids, and the police asked around, but they put it down to an accident.  I don’t know why I remember this so well.  I’m forgettin’ everything else these days.”

But it’s all still there.  When he’s out of the house, I can go through his things, find the magazines he took, along with Dad’s movie collection, and one of them, I know, will have some cocky kid who drives off a cliff because he can’t open the door in time.  It always turns out this way.  That two-lane blacktop he likes to talk about wasn’t his to begin with; he’s just doing his best to get it back.

When we get to the car, he hands me the keys.

“There’s no way.“  I point to the front fender, just a few inches short of the abyss.  “Besides, I’m not allowed.”

“Neither am I,” he says.  “But there’s a difference now. You ain’t going to be.”

He’s right.  I’ve got five more years until I can get behind the wheel, and by then the rules will be so tight I probably won’t get the chance.  But I do know how.  I’ve watched the movies, read the manuals, practiced steering and braking in the driveway.

“Come on, Suze,” he says.  “I can take it back up the hill first if you’re…”

“Chicken?  Yeah, I kind of am.”

But I do say yes, because I know what he’s giving up: one last look at a time where we could do almost anything we wanted, use up what we wanted, and the hell with the rest.  This ride will be my first and last.  And that’s how I can know him, know how his world worked, rushing from start to finish faster and faster until the end was the only thing left, and the middle?  Some old movie with a Corvette and a pretty girl.

###

Under a Rock

by Sarena Ulibarri

It had gotten to the point where no one even greeted me when I stumbled in bleary-eyed after work and went straight to bed. Not the husband, not the kid—not even the dog would deign to lift his head and sniff or bark at me. Normally, I was gone again before they woke up. Weekends, I often still worked at least half days, and the others in my house were always gone or absorbed in TV during the other half. I had become like a ghost in my own house.

Then I caught the first cold I’d had in years. Sick enough that management didn’t want me sneezing all over the conference room, but not so sick I wanted to be in bed, I suddenly found myself on the couch next to my thirteen-year-old daughter, Abby, with the realization that I had no clue how to interact with her.

“Uh,” I said. “You don’t have school today?”

“It’s summer.”

“Oh. Uh, what’s been interesting in your life?”

Abby shrugged, face in her phone. “A dino tooth showed up in the backyard yesterday, so that’s cool I guess.”

“Is…that some sort of game?” I turned away to sneeze.

“No, it’s literally a giant dinosaur tooth. You didn’t see it?”

I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been in our backyard. I had vague memories of it being large and somewhat wild when we moved in. If the dog or kid had really dug up a fossil, that was pretty neat. Maybe we could take it to a museum.

“Can you show it to me?”

She shrugged again. “You can see it for yourself if you just look out the window.”

Is she just trying to get me to leave the room? I sighed, blew my nose, and wandered toward the sliding glass doors that opened onto the yard.

A giant dinosaur tooth sat smack in the middle of our un-mowed back lawn. Truly giant: a good eight feet tall, and twelve or more from root to tip.

“Who put this here?” I yelled. The strain on my throat brought on a coughing fit.

“What?” Abby yelled back.

I recovered and went back to the living room so I wouldn’t have to yell again. “Who put that thing back there?”

“No one,” she said. “It just showed up.”

“Giant dinosaur teeth don’t just show up in people’s yards.”

She gave me a look like I’d just said the Earth was flat. “Yeah, they do.”

“No, they don’t.”

“Oh,” she said. “Are you one of the shark people?”

“The what?”

“Most people think they’re dinos, but there are some people who insist they’re the right shape for sharks.”

“A bit big for a shark, don’t you think?”

She shrugged. “That’s why more people think they’re dinos.”

“Want to tell me what the hell is going on?” That sent me into another coughing fit. Abby looked curiously at me.

“You really don’t know? Have you been living under a rock?”

No, I wanted to yell. I haven’t been living under a rock. I’ve been working sixty hours a week so you can live in this house and go to your dance lessons or your softball games or whatever else it is you do. Instead, I concentrated on getting that nasty chunk of mucus out of my throat and into a tissue. Abby handed me her phone.

“This is fancy,” I said, smearing fingerprints across its sleek black case. “How long have you had this?”

“Read it,” she said.

I blinked, sniffed, and tried to focus on the screen. It was a newsfeed full of stories from around the world about people finding these giant teeth in their yards or parking lots or the tops of their buildings. The stories dated back a couple of years.

“Is it April Fool’s Day?” I asked.

“It’s August.”

“I think…” I stifled another sneeze and handed the phone back to her. She pinched it gingerly, then wiped it with her shirt. “I think I need to go back to bed.”

I woke later, sure the whole thing had been a weird fever dream, but the tooth was still there. I slid the door open and stepped outside, then ran my hands across the giant tooth. It felt like cool marble. A slight hollow sound dinged back at me when I tapped it. I tapped my own teeth for comparison. According to the articles I’d seen earlier, the first few people who found them charged admission to see it, but that industry evaporated when they became more common. There was hardly a city in the world without at least a few.

Footsteps rustled the grass behind me, and without turning to see who it was, I asked, “Are there other parts of the dinosaurs showing up too? Bones and claws and scales? Er, feathers?” Dinosaurs were supposed to have feathers now; at least I hadn’t missed that.

When no response came, I turned and saw my husband. He looked more startled than I’d ever seen him, but he was looking at me, not at the giant tooth in the yard.

“Uh,” I said. “You see this thing, right?” I patted the tooth with the palm of my hand.

He glanced up at it. “Of course. But what are you doing here?”

“I still live here, last I checked?” He pursed his lips. I sneezed so hard it threw me back against the tooth. “Sick day,” I explained, wiping my nose.

“There’s a team coming to collect it.” He waved vaguely toward the monstrosity, and even as he spoke, I heard the beep of a backing truck. He unlatched the gate.

“Where are they taking them?”

“Government’s gathering them up, dumping them all somewhere in the desert.”

“Seems a waste,” I said, but no one was listening to me anymore. Three men and a buff woman loaded the giant tooth onto the flatbed of a truck. As they tied it down, the thought struck me hard that if I hadn’t been sick today, it would have come and gone from my yard without me ever knowing about it. How much longer would it have been until I heard about the phenomenon at all? One would probably have needed to drop straight onto my desk before I’d notice. How many other major events had I missed in the world?

The dog flapped out the dog door, sniffed my leg, then walked over and sniffed the tree in exactly the same manner before peeing on it.

I decided quite suddenly that I needed to find out where they were taking the giant teeth. It felt strangely important, like knowing that would make up for not knowing about any of this for the last several years. I hurried back inside, a little winded from even that much movement, and traded my robe for a baggy t-shirt and sweatpants, then grabbed a box of tissues and my car keys. On my way through the living room I spotted Abby, still on the couch.

“Uh,” I said, “You’re…you’ve probably got things to do. Friends and shows and games and such, right?”

She looked up from her phone, raised an eyebrow at me.

#

I followed the truck as it negotiated through city streets, occasionally steering with my elbows so I could blow my nose. My daughter sat morosely in the passenger seat, staring out the window.

There were other parents I worked with who talked constantly about their children, always so involved in their activities and education. My answers to their inquiries ran along the lines of, “I think she’s in seventh grade now?”

I didn’t know how they did it. I was always dead tired when I got home, and every bit of “free time” was consumed with some unpleasant task like grocery shopping or calling the plumber. My husband worked full time as well, but his hours were more flexible, less overtime. A co-worker suggested I see a doctor about chronic fatigue, and I had agreed it would be a good idea. If I could ever find the time.

The truck turned onto the highway and I glanced at my gas gauge, doubting my commitment to this quest. A few miles out of town, the truck started down a long dirt road into nowhere.

“Maybe we should turn back.”

“No!” Abby yelled, and I was startled by her sudden passion. “I’m already live-tweeting this. We have to follow through.” She snapped a picture through the windshield.

The truck had caught up to a line of similar trucks, all with giant fangs strapped to their beds.

“Why teeth?” I pondered. “It’s like some cosmic monster tried to take a bite out of the Earth and broke its jaw.”

“Sounds legit,” Abby said.

“Yeah?” I looked over at her, cracked a half-smile.

“O.M.G.,” she said. “Look!”

I turned back to the road, prepared to stomp on the brakes, but it wasn’t an impending crash she was pointing at. The tooth on the truck in front of us was dissolving into nothing, twinkling in the afternoon sunlight like dust. Abby scrambled for her phone. The thing completely winked out of existence.

“Did you get it?”

“No.” She stuck her head out the window, then climbed up on her knees and leaned her whole torso out. I grabbed the belt loop of her jean shorts and pulled her back in. I had at least that much motherly instinct left. “It’s happening to all of them,” she said. “Can we get closer?”

The dirt road was wide enough to my left that an oncoming car could have safely passed, but there seemed to be no one else on the road except the tooth trucks. I swerved into the other lane and sped up, pulling alongside one that had halfway dissolved. Abby filmed on her phone, then pointed ahead. “That one’s just starting to go.”

I sped up. Just as we approached, my chest seized and the coughing started. My eyes teared up; it was hard to see the road.

“Just a little faster!” Abby yelled, but I knew that one curve in the road, one rogue pothole, and we were done. My chest burned. I groped for a tissue. I pushed the accelerator for another moment, then let off it. The trucks whooshed past us on the right. My car tires thunked into a ditch. It took another two minutes for my coughing fit to resolve.

I leaned my head back on the headrest. “Did you get the video?” I croaked.

Abby pecked at her phone screen with quick fingers. “Yep,” she said. “But the internet’s slow over here, it’s taking forever to load.”

“We can…” I suffered a rattling breath. “…upload it at home.”

“No! I have to be the first. Come on, come on… Yes!” She raised her fists in the air.

Together, we pushed the car out of the ditch, but the effort did me in and I had to lay the seat back and rest for a while. While I rested, Abby took a walk up the road to see where the trucks were headed. She showed me another video when she got back: a large canyon or crater, empty but for the natural rocks, cactus, and scrub oak, and a line of flat bed trucks parked along the edge, the drivers all scratching their heads.

#

 

The next day, I woke up still sniffly and swimmy-headed. When I called in, my supervisor commented on my daughter’s video, which had apparently gone viral, as though to indicate that if I was well enough to be chasing after giant teeth, I was well enough to be at work.

“Did you watch the video?” I wheezed. “Pretty sure you can hear me hacking up a lung in the background. I’d be happy to send you a petri dish of my phlegm if you like.”

Fortunately, no such proof was required.

When I wandered out to the kitchen, my husband asked, “You didn’t quit your job, did you?” The concern in his voice was clear. We could be at risk of loan default and foreclosure within a month if I had.

“No,” I said, “Just another sick day.”

Abby was also sick. She sat red-nosed and wrapped in a blanket on the couch.

“Look.” She held her phone up to me, proud. “The video already has a million views.”

I wondered if there was some way to monetize this newfound internet stardom, then realized this also meant my fifteen minutes of fame were probably used up as “that annoying person coughing in the background,” as so many of the comments called me. Oh well. I was never one for the spotlight.

I handed the phone back to her. “That’s great,” I said. “Sorry I got you sick.”

She shrugged. “It’s pretty cool that you wanted to go out there.”

“Yeah?” She scooted over so I could sit on the couch next to her. The dog jumped onto the couch and curled up in my lap. “Let’s stick around here today, though. You can tell me what else I’ve missed.”

Ghosts of All Our Pasts

by Deborah L. Davitt

 

Cyrus: Originating

Cyrus tapped his fingers against the wood of the conference table. Sensors reported solidity, low friction, and a surface temperature matching that of the ambient air, or 25.5° C. The newsfeed report hovered in the air before his eyes, projected by the holographic display embedded in the table’s surface, but he didn’t need to read it. He’d already taken in the words through his wireless port, but he still processed it, for lack of a better term, at a more human speed. The faintly vainglorious thrill of reading about himself remained, but his lips pulled down into an unconscious frown as he did so:

 

PALO ALTO, North Am. Union, December 14, 2137

Eric Vauquelin, CEO of Allied Robotics and Transferred Consciousness (NYSE: ARTC), continues to withhold comment on the arguments in probate court regarding the last will and testament of his father, Cyrus Vauquelin. Vauquelin’s groundbreaking transference of his consciousness to an android body has mired the family’s company in a legal morass. Investors remain uncertain of the company’s direction as lawyers for Eric Vauquelin argue that if the android Cyrus is the same entity as the human, then any will naming the android as an heir would be unnecessary, making the document a tacit admission that the android is not the same entity as the human.

As part of the same legal stew, the android Cyrus filed for divorce a year ago against his wife—or widow—Sarah Vauquelin. Her lawyers contend that this proceeding is invalid, because Cyrus’ human death terminated the marriage, and that as such, no marriage currently exists. The matter is expected to go as far as the Terran Supreme Court.

The North American Union has imposed a moratorium on any further uploads while the matter remains a matter for judicial debate, but ARTC reports that fifty thousand people had already had ‘backup’ copies of their consciousness uploaded to storage servers before Cyrus’ ‘resurrection’ demonstrated the validity of the practice.

Now that’s what we call life insurance.

 

Cyrus had had plenty of time to process in the past two years. Oh, he had to power down for an hour or two at night for maintenance cycles. He had no recollection of these periods, but he could examine his logs in the morning, an unsatisfactory substitute for dreams. During his conscious hours, he’d reviewed his personal datalogs of his previous ninety-five years of existence, and found to his dismay that they seemed shockingly inaccurate. Pieces were missing—a result, no doubt, of having begun consciousness recordings in his seventies. He’d also found ways in which his mind had taken pieces of information found on either side of gaps, and created narratives that explained the data . . . narratives that did not correlate to facts he found in external sources. Unsettling, to realize how frail his mind had been before his death.

How many decisions did I make out of partial information, or out of hormonally-driven emotional reactions? he wondered, still tapping on the table.

The door opened. “Mr. Vauquelin? Your son is here to see you.” The young staffer stepped out of the way, and Eric strode into the room, carrying a briefcase and wearing a frown. Difficult to look at his son’s face and not see his own, Cyrus reflected. And while the anger inside him boiled up again—He betrayed me. They both did!—it was tempered by the realization of the voids in his own memory. I’m missing data. I may not be able to trust my internal narrative. Did they betray me, my wife and my son? Or did I betray them?

And how can I ever know for certain what the truth is?

“You asked for this meeting,” he said, not standing. Eric did not take a chair at the table, remaining on his feet. Wordless power dynamics. “What do you want to talk about, son?” Cyrus added, trying to sound off-handed. But pushing. Prodding at the central argument. Asserting that no matter what body he wore, Eric was still his son, and always would be.

“The power struggle’s destroying the company,” Eric replied brusquely, setting his briefcase on the table. “Not to mention what it’s doing to the family. And since society as a whole seems to need a precedent for how to deal with second selves—”

“Transferences,” Cyrus corrected automatically.

“You can have your lawyers regurgitate that line of bull for the courts all you want, but you and I both know that you’re not the same person as my father.” Eric opened the briefcase, removing a tablet from inside of it. They remained the most secure option besides paper for documents that couldn’t be trusted to a network. He stared at Cyrus now. “Admit it.”

“You, technically, are not the same person that you were two years ago, either,” Cyrus noted mendaciously. “You’ve had different experiences, shaping your mind, and the cells in your body have changed over time, as well.”

Eric stared at him. And Cyrus relented. “No,” he admitted quietly, leaning forward. “I was an old man. My mind was cloudy. Driven by habits of thought, anger, and fear. I still experience those emotions. It’s . . . hard not to fear your own dissolution, especially when you’re one electrical short away from it. I certainly still feel anger. But my mind is . . . clearer.”

“Then you’re someone with whom I can have a discussion. Which is more than I can say for the old man, the past few years,” Eric replied, his lips crooking down at the corners.

The words stung, but recollections stirred of broken conversations that had gone nowhere, or had repeated themselves in endless loops of fractured words.

“And you’re someone who needs to start thinking about the future,” Eric added. “Not to mention the crap your technology is going to kick loose in society.” He scowled.  “Everyone wants to live forever. But no one wants to report to their six-or-seventh generation grandfather or grandmother for the rest of eternity. Not to mention the fact that at the moment, your transferences are limited to the wealthy. If you don’t make immortality widely available somehow, you’re going to have a revolution on your hands.”

Cyrus nodded. “I know,” he returned, steepling his fingers. “That’s why I need the assets of the company.”

“No,” Eric returned evenly, sliding the tablet across the table. “You’re not getting the whole corporation. But I think I have a way forward. We split Allied Robotics and Transferred Consciousness. You get the TC half, all assets, all materials. You give up your personal assets, which will go into a trust for your grandchildren. And you drop the divorce with Sarah, and sign an acknowledgement that the human known as Cyrus Vauquelin died in 2135, leaving his wife a widow. And I will sign an acknowledgement that you, Cyrus Vauquelin, were born in 2135, and are a member of our extended family. That you are, in fact, my father’s brother.” He shrugged. “It probably won’t have much legal value initially, but a show of amity would probably help the courts move on with things.”

Cyrus glanced over the proposal on the tablet. “I’m surprised Sarah didn’t come with you. Disappointed, I have to admit.” No anger in his voice, and just a tinge of guilt. “I hired her to be my wife, you know. Decided love hadn’t worked out the first two times. I looked through the resumes that the HR department brought me till I found an intern I liked the look of. She thought she was up for a modeling job till I handed her the prenup and the ring.”

“Leave her out of this,” Eric told him, his voice tight. “She deserves that much.”

Cyrus pointed at a paragraph abruptly. “Without robotic bodies, the upload process is useless. You’ll be building the bodies my people require. You can hold us hostage for eternity.”

“We can come to an agreement on that in the future,” Eric returned evenly. “We have time. Those who’ve already had themselves copied are being held in servers, inactive, since the moratorium.”

“Is that all we’re ever going to be?” Cyrus asked, staring at the contract. “Copies? Secondhand selves?” Those words hung in the air for a moment, heavily. And he wondered how long they’d haunt him with the crystalline recollection of his machine mind.

Eric shrugged. “Depends on how each person handles their death. How much of a bastard each was in life. And what kind of ghosts they want to be for their families.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “I’ve already had my lawyers in talks with government officials, drafting laws to avoid felons—particularly child abusers, rapists, and murderers—from getting your immortality.” A humorless smile. “A new version of the old Calvinist elect, I suppose. But again, you have to make this available to more than just the one percent who can currently afford it.”

Cyrus began signing and initialing. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what your plans are?” The words felt oddly tentative.

“Plans?” Eric’s eyebrows rose. “I plan to provide improved robotics and better internal server architecture for the android bodies. Better software to ensure that files in the android body are constantly compared against a backup in the server, to avoid personality decay, while still allowing for personal growth through experience.” Eric paused, his shoulders shifting minutely, betraying momentary uncertainty. “Unless you’re asking on a personal level?”

Cyrus’s hand paused over the tablet. “Yes.”

“Sarah and I will be getting married quietly on Luna as soon as you drop the divorce suit.” Eric’s voice became rough. “We always figured that your death would be our second shot at life. But we never did a thing to hurry up your exit. Please . . .” Eric closed his eyes and swallowed, his voice going from that of a hard-edged businessman, to that of the boy Cyrus remembered. “. . . please know that.”

“I never thought you did, or there would have been a wrongful death lawsuit on top of all the rest,” Cyrus returned evenly, but he felt an astounding amount of relief, mixed with stung pride and anger. He considered it all, especially the confirmation that his son and his wife—widow—had been having some form of a relationship for some time. But . . . sooner or later, every father needs to step out of the way of his children. And all that hurt pride of an old man was just that . . . pride. She was as much a business arrangement as everything else in my life. He pushed it aside. Focused on the future, instead. “Any plans on uploading, eventually?” Cyrus hesitated. “I  . . . may not have been the best of fathers.” The admission hung there. And then, reluctantly, he added, “But that doesn’t mean I want to watch my son die.”

Eric awarded him another stare. “You’re in luck. Sarah told me last night that she didn’t think she could live without at least a copy of me around. And given that my copy would eventually watch her die, it wouldn’t be fair to leave him alone, too.” He shrugged, his voice going hoarse. “Either way, we won’t know it. We won’t be here. But they will.” He took the tablet back from Cyrus, clearing his throat. “You should look into how your tech can help with colonization outside the solar system,” he recommended, his voice all business once more. “Good long-term project. Also keeps the dead from messing up the economy of the living.”

Cyrus’ eyebrows lifted, accepting the change of tone and subject. “You mean, the solar economy might not survive a workforce that doesn’t require food or water, can work twenty-two hours a day, and will infinitely enlarge itself over time?” Sarcasm in his tone now. “Tell me something I don’t know, son.”

“I’m sure I’ll come up with something,” Eric returned, initialing the contract. “Glad I didn’t have to threaten you with a server wipe or something.” His tone remained distant, but under the determination, the hint of threat . . . vulnerability, too. “Since you’re not technically a person under the law yet, it wouldn’t even have been murder.” His eyes flickered up. “But it would have looked, smelled, and felt like patricide. So I’m glad we could settle this like rational beings.” Another quick, incisive look, and then an offered hand-shake. “Have a good life, Dad. Pleasure doing business with you.”

 

Nick: Awakening

August 21, 2195

 

Consciousness. Consciousness with no recollection behind it at first. Just a pervasive feeling of wrongness. Nicholas Juric tried to sit up, and found that restraining bands crossing his chest, arms, and legs prevented this. “What’s going on?” he called, turning his head to stare at the bare white walls of the room.

Recollection filtered back. This isn’t where I just was. I was at TCI with Beth and the kids. Our quarterly updates. “Hello? Did I pass out during the upload?”

A door situated somewhere behind him opened, and he could hear footsteps. “Mr. Juric? Please relax. Everything is fine, and disorientation is a normal part of the process.” Female voice, soothing, with no overt mechanical overtones. Thus, when the person addressing him came around the edge of his gurney, a shock of surprise passed through him. Her chocolate-toned skin had the faintly anomalous sheen that marked a TCI android; matte where it should shine, and waxen where it should be matte. Her face had been modeled on that of a woman in her late thirties, from all appearances. An interesting choice, given that she could have looked twenty-two for eternity, if she’d wished. “I’m Dr. Fairchild. We haven’t met before.”

“You’re a copy?” Nick blurted as she removed his restraints.

“At Transferred Consciousness, Incorporated, we prefer the terms transference or upload But yes. This is my second life.” Dr. Fairchild smiled, the expression surprisingly natural. “And this might come as something of a shock to you, but . . . this is yours.”

Surprise flooded through him, but Nick became aware, suddenly, that he could feel no attendant rise in heart-rate. No surge of adrenaline to accompany the jolt of fear. He couldn’t even feel himself breathing, and that shook him the worst of all. Panic set in, and now that his hands were free, he reached for his own neck, trying to find a heartbeat there. “That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t remember—” he faltered.

“Dying? Most people don’t. You conducted your last consciousness upload on February twentieth, 2140 at the Chicago TCI location, along with your wife and children. Per the terms of your contract with TCI, when you, well,” she paused and smiled again, more sympathetically, putting a hand on his shoulder, “when you died in a car accident on April fifteenth, 2140, your upload was moved to the transfer queue. You lost about two months of memories, I’m afraid.”

An accident? Oh, god. “Was I alone in the car? What about Beth and the kids?” They were his first concern; everything else could wait.

The doctor winced. “Your wife wasn’t in the car with you,” she told him softly. “But your son, Arkady, and your daughter, Lia, both were. They’re . . . well. They’re still in storage.”

Grief cut through him, intolerable and savage. “My kids are dead?” The words rang back from the walls, almost mocking him. And you are, too.

The doctor put a hand on his shoulder again, gripping tightly, a very human gesture. “Their bodies died, yes, but in good time, they’ll . . . wake up in new ones.”

Dully, still sorting through the shocks of his awakening, Nick asked, “Who . . . who was at fault in the accident?”

“Does it matter now?” Dr. Fairchild sat down on the edge of the gurney. “Do you remember the terms of your contract with TCI?”

“. . . something about colonization.” And then he had it, bright and sharp, the words of the contract scrolling across his mind’s eye with pitiless clarity. Nick’s hands shot up to cover his eyes, but the words burned there pitilessly. “Oh god, does that happen every time you ask about an end-user license agreement, too?”

“Pretty much,” she replied sympathetically. “You get used to it. So, you know where you are, correct?”

“I’m . . . on Theta Boötis D.” Nick’s words ground to a halt in pure wonder. I’m a construction worker who dropped out of college, and I’m on another planet. “I agreed that in exchange for a second life, I would work for TCI on Theta Boötis D or another comparable planet, once my consciousness was transported here and placed in a new body.” Then his head jerked up. “So why aren’t my kids awake?” he challenged. “That was in the contract, too.”

“Lack of materials, among other things,” she answered, simply. “Come with me, Mr. Juric. We’re all contract workers here, even me. And we’re building a new world, a new society. One resurrected person at a time.”

He followed behind her numbly, noticing distantly that his knee, arthritic since high school thanks to a bad tackle in his senior year, didn’t make him limp. Of course, that’s because it’s not the same knee. No original equipment. Am I even me anymore? I mean, I feel like myself, except I shouldn’t know that it’s 25.556° C in this corridor, and I do.

Dr. Fairchild paused in the pristine white corridor in front of a wide window, and Nick stared out of it, unable to speak for a long moment. The city below looked rough around the edges. A few manufacturing buildings, neatly clustered by what looked like some sort of refinery. Raw earth, piled up along the sides of fresh-looking cement roads. A rectangular, hangar-like structure, and the sharp noses of what looked like a handful of rockets beyond it. And above it all, a yellow-green sky, filled with puffy white clouds, with a burning white chip of a sun at noon blazing down on the whole scene. “As you can see,” Dr. Fairchild said calmly, “We’ve been hard at work since touching down here a year ago. You’re fortunate, Mr. Juric. You’re among the first five thousand souls to set foot on this planet, and I use that term advisedly.” A brief smile. “We’re pioneers. However, that is why your children have not yet been awakened. We don’t have the resources to provide them with platforms, and our priority must be adults who can immediately contribute. Also, the technology is so new, that no one really knows how a transferred consciousness that young will mature. No hormones. No need to learn, since we have computational algorithms and databases already installed.” She turned her head to regard him. “I’m sorry.”

“How soon?” His voice went hoarse. It made no sense, really; he didn’t have vocal cords to constrict. And yet, his voice responded to his emotional state. Must be one hell of a subroutine . . . .

“Perhaps ten years, depending on how efficiently our work here goes on. And how they respond to being Awakened.”

“Ten years,” he said, dully. “Arkady should be eighteen by then. Lia, sixteen.”

“Actually, since the trip here takes fifty-five years, since superluminal travel remains outside our reach, your son should be sixty-three right now.” A hesitation, and then, with more gentleness than he’d been expecting, she went on, “Or dead in a car accident. But his second self will be eight, and just as you remember him . . . in ten years’ time.” She paused again. “And you get to build the world that he’ll grow up in.”

Nick nodded slowly, wrestling with it all. Numbers danced across his vision. “It’s a fifty-five year trip. Beth was thirty-five, when I . . . left.” Left sounded better than died. “She’s ninety. If she’s still alive.” He stared out at the bare rock and churned soil outside the hospital complex. No sign of green plant life at all. “And if I sent a message to her today, saying ‘Hi, honey, I’m alive and awake. . . .’”

“It would reach Earth sometime in 2245,” Dr. Fairchild informed him. “Even with advances in medicine, Beth will have likely already died by that point.” Her hand came to rest on his shoulder again, that gentle, human gesture. “If it’s a comfort, there’s a good chance that Beth might already be on her way here. She was covered under your contract under, ah, survivor’s benefits. You can look through the messages we received while our ship was in transit, and the manifests for the ships scheduled to follow us.”

Nick closed his eyes and news articles, sent in a continuous stream from Earth, burned in his mind. Colony ships, with cargo holds crammed with robotic equipment and their servers packed with a freight of souls, have taken to the skies, bound for every star. Rather than send generational ships, with their vast requirements of food and oxygen, humanity has chosen to send itself to the stars in the form of coded information. We might not set foot on other planets for generations to come, but our ghosts will seed the universe, so that the living might follow in their footsteps.

Opening his eyes once more, he stared at the yellow-green sky. “Chlorine in the atmosphere?”

“Almost twenty percent, yes. It’s a pretty caustic environment out there. Totally unsuited for human life, but there’s an ecology. Of sorts.” Her voice turned rueful. “There are some pretty loud arguments on staff about whether we should terraform, so that humans can eventually live here, or if we should leave it as is, so that we’re the only form of humanity who can.”

That makes as much difference to me as knowing who was at fault in the car accident that killed most of my family, Nick decided numbly. “Where do I go to get started working?” he asked.

“You don’t have to start today. You can move around the atmospherically-sealed buildings and meet the rest of the Awakened. We’re trying to set up a process by which we can all talk to our loved ones who are still in the servers—”

“Just tell me who I’m reporting to, doctor. The sooner I get started, the sooner I get to see my kids again.” For a given value of them being my kids. They’re no more real than I am, except, maybe, we can be real to each other. He looked up at the green-gold sky once more, as if trying to look beyond the clouds and the blazing white chip of a star in the heavens.

What the hell happened to Beth after we all died? Did she mourn? Did her sister come to take care of her? Did she—oh, god, please no—commit suicide? Did she take comfort in knowing that we’d all meet again? But she always said that . . . she’d never know it if we did have second lives. Her second self would have awareness, but her awareness would end when she died. Nick wished that he could swallow as distress rose in him, but he couldn’t. “I don’t suppose we get . . . records from Earth, along with the newsfeeds and cargo manifests?”

“We received some, yes, but it’s hardly comprehensive.” Again, that note of compassion in the doctor’s voice.

Maybe she just . . . moved on. Went to counseling. Remarried. Adopted someone else’s kids. Or . . . lived alone all her life, waiting to die. He couldn’t decide which set of possibilities felt the most intolerable. “Doctor . . . not knowing what happened to my wife will probably drive me crazy. Not knowing for the next fifty to a hundred years? Definitely will.”

Dr. Fairchild turned to face him. “We all left people behind, Mr. Juric,” she told him. “I’ve told others of the Awakened to . . . think of our second lives as a kind of heaven. We don’t get to know what happened on Earth after we left, not entirely, anyway. And there’s an old poet who once said that the mind is its own place. It can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.” She gestured at the window once more.  “It’s up to you.”

Just concentrate on the job, Nick Juric decided. One foot in front of the other. Think only about the work. I’ll make this hell of a planet into a heaven, if I can. And maybe one day, for me . . . it will be. When I have everyone I love back with me, where they belong.

Changed or unchanged, so long as they’re alive? It’ll be enough.

 

Beth: Enduring

 

February 4, 2146

 

Coffee and tea urns steamed gently at the back of the conference room. A window, dull and filmed by dust, overlooked the Palo Alto skyline, but the eyes of most in this chamber were inwardly turned, seeing faces that weren’t there. Intolerable memories that needed to be confronted. “Beth, are you here to share today?” the counselor embedded in the circle of chairs asked, trying to reignite conversation.

The middle-aged woman jumped slightly, looking up from her recycled paper cup. “Oh, no. I just came to support Rebecca,” she murmured, brushing graying hair out of her face.

“Perhaps it would help everyone here if you told us how you dealt with the death of your husband and children.” Another gentle prompt. “It was sudden, wasn’t it?”

Beth drank the scalding coffee in her cup, ignoring the burn. It gave her time to choke down the grief. I knew coming here would be a mistake. It’s been six years. I don’t dwell on it every day anymore. But coming here, having to talk about it . . . but Rebecca needs to hear this. Not just from me, but . . . everyone here. So I may as well start. “Car accident,” Beth stated baldly, blankly. “Icy roads in Chicago. Semi-truck couldn’t stop at an intersection. Nick held on the longest. Almost a full day. But both of my children died at the scene.” She felt a sting and looked down, realizing that she’d crushed the coffee cup, and hot fluid had leaked over her hand. “I, ah, didn’t deal with it well. After the funeral, I had bereavement time and vacation, and I cleaned our house. Top to bottom. My husband—Nick—he liked beer. When he was alive, he collected the bottles from about different brands and microbrews. Set them all up along the top of my kitchen cabinets, where they got covered in dust and grease. I hated cleaning them. But I couldn’t throw anything out. I kept that house like a shrine. The kids’ rooms . . . as if I were waiting for them to come back. Nick’s side of the bedroom, the same.” She swallowed. “I went back to work. Finally, my sister here in Palo Alto told me I should come out here. Get a fresh start.” She stared blindly at the window for a moment. “I threw the bottles in the recycling bin. I packed up all the toys except a few as . . . reminders . . . and gave the rest to charity. And then I cried all over again, because I felt like I’d just killed them.” She stopped talking, feeling her throat constrict and tears threaten. After a moment, she went on, “I’d been living in the moment of their deaths for two years. It was time to let them go.” That sounds so nice and healthy, except I can’t let them go, because they aren’t . . . really dead, are they? Except they might as well be.

After everyone congratulated her on how strong she was, and how well she’d moved on, except I’m not and I can’t, the meeting took a break, and Beth found herself standing beside a man at the coffee table who looked vaguely familiar. “I hate it when they put people on the spot,” the man told her quietly. “It’s unusual.”

“Young counselor. Inexperienced at getting people to talk,” Beth replied, shrugging. “I’m just glad she didn’t get into the whole transferred consciousness thing. They always seem to want me to open up about my feelings on that.” Which is largely why I stopped coming here.

He grimaced. “I know the feeling. I usually go to a meeting closer to my apartment, and they always want to know if I’m angry at my wife for uploading.”

Beth’s eyebrows rose. It was refreshing to hear someone else talk about this. “I was,” she admitted. “Some days, I still am.” She turned away slightly. “It’s stupid of me, I know. Wherever he is, he isn’t . . . even awake yet, probably. Or even who he used to be.”

“It’s not stupid. Here we are. Stuck.” Bitterness soured his tone. “Can’t go back, can’t go forward.”

Beth stared at him. Dark hair, graying, dark eyes. Five o’clock shadow by three in the afternoon. Italian, or something else . . . . “If you don’t mind my asking, how did your wife—?” As delicately phrased as she could make it

“Cancer.” A brief, awkward pause. “The hell of it is, I’m in oncology, and I couldn’t do a damned thing for her. Had to turn over all her care to other people on my team at Stanford—”

“Oh!” Beth felt like an idiot. “I thought you looked familiar. I’m down in Emergency.” They could have crossed paths in the hallways a dozen times, but they would never have had a reason to speak to one another before.

He smiled faintly, but his eyes remained preoccupied. “You’re an RN down there?”

“Nurse practitioner. Transferred to ER work after my family. . . .” She let the words trail off. After the accident, it had just seemed right to try to save other people’s relatives.

An understanding nod from him. “Yeah. I know.” He sighed, and silence fell between them.

After an awkward moment, Beth asked quietly, “So why did she upload, exactly?”

“Afraid, I guess. And she was a psychologist. She thought that it would be an important experiment to preserve a personality through the upload process that had actually been through the death and dying process.” A muscle twitched in Dr. Tilki’s cheek. “They hadn’t done that, until her. They’d only done the quarterly updates of the personality and experience matrix. But her, they recorded every day, until she passed. Still connected to their recording devices. They gave me a chance to talk to her in the . . . server . . . and say goodbye.” The muscle in his cheek twitched again. “And then they put her back to sleep and shipped her off across fifty light-years of space.”

Beth hesitantly reached out and touched his arm, very lightly. “I would give almost anything to be able to talk to Nick and the kids one more time,” she replied, her throat constricting. “To say good-bye.”

“I said my good-byes every single time I visited her in the oncology section.” Buried fury and leashed pain in his voice now, though he kept his words soft. “Talking to a ghost, an echo of her in a machine? Sounding so . . . chipper and alive? Hurt even worse, somehow.”

Beth swallowed, compassion making her chest ache. “I’m sorry.” The words seemed inadequate.

He nodded, a half-smile kinking his lips. “No, I’m sorry. I’m wallowing. But you’re a very good listener.”

“That’s at least half of nursing,” she replied, smiling faintly now, herself.

“You know what the worst part is?” he added now.

“The fact that the courts can’t decide if remarrying is bigamous or not?”

“No, no, they’re eventually going to find that there’s a dividing line between the previous life and the electronic one, and that people aren’t the same individuals. Just like most churches have come down and said that the electronic copies aren’t souls. They might be people, but they’re not souls.” He rolled his eyes slightly. “The worst part, for me, is that half my friends tell me I shouldn’t grieve because she’s not really dead. The other half tell me I need to move on. How can I ever move on, if she’s not really dead? And if I do move on, if I find someone I like, and who I think would be a great mom for my daughter, what do I do then? Wait till I die to get around to living?”

She nodded. She’d read any number of disparaging remarks in the comments sections of newsfeed articles about people who’d remarried after their spouses had uploaded. “Some blogger reached out to me for comment after the accident,” she offered, looking away. “Asked me if I were proud that my children were the youngest uploaded to date.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dr. Tilki muttered. “Do people have no consideration? They asked a grieving mother if she was proud that her children had been taken from her?”

She shook her head, staring fixedly at the coffee urn in front of her. And, to her surprise, found her hand taken gently in warm fingers. “Would you like to get out of here?” he asked. “Maybe find someplace that serves a hell of a lot better coffee, and talk about . . . well, almost anything else?”

Beth looked up. “I’d like that,” she answered. “Maybe you could tell me about your daughter?”

“Amy? She’s eight this year.”

“That’s . . . exactly the age my son was.” She managed a smile. “You’ve got pictures?”

“About a million, yes. I’ll deploy those after we find coffee that doesn’t taste like watered-down battery acid, though, if that’s all right?”

Her smile warmed. Became sincere. “Absolutely.”

Hannah: Living

March 18, 2204

Hannah’s eyes snapped open and she sat up, fighting the restraints that kept her body in check against a flat surface. “Dr. Hannah Tilki? Please relax. There’s usually some disorientation at first—”

“I’m fine,” Hannah replied immediately. Oh, god, I feel fantastic. No pain. No weakness. No cloudiness in my mind.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” A dark-skinned female android moved out of the corner of the room to stand over her solicitously.

“Dying,” Hannah responded bluntly. “And then hearing my husband saying good-bye, and telling him not to worry about me, or to grieve. Because I wasn’t really dead.” She tipped her head to the side, her exultation tempered as realization filtered through her. “Wait. I died in 2143. I was slated to go to Theta Boötis D. That’s only a fifty-five year trip, sublight . . . .”

“Correct. Your ship arrived in 2198, but you weren’t a priority for Awakening.” A pause. “I’m Dr. Fairchild, by the way.”

Hannah regarded the other woman steadily. “You kept me in storage for six years, while you had five thousand Awakenings scheduled a year.” Wait, how do I know how many personalities they activate and load into platforms annually? She brushed that aside as a matter for another time, however. “People who died of cancer, like me. People who died traumatically, but don’t remember it. People who are construction workers and electricians and robotics specialists. Miners, surveyors, and any number of other professions . . . who have no social structure, no wives, no husbands, no children, no families to give them support during the transition.” She paused. “And waking up a trained psychologist to help them through the transition wasn’t a priority?”

Dr. Fairchild grimaced. “That wasn’t my decision, believe me. Those higher up felt that the lack of hormones in our current bodies would prevent violence and strong emotional responses to situations.”

“And you’re finding what? That people are, instead, apathetic, without families to strive for?”

“That. A truly staggering number of suicides. My superiors expected suicide not to be an issue at all, since depression shouldn’t exist in the absence of serotonin imbalances.” Dr. Fairchild shook her head and removed the straps. “Instead . . . .”

“Existential crises,” Hannah supplied, her mind racing. She hopped off the gurney, delighted by the painless, free motion of her new body. “Why are we here, if not to leave something better behind us, for our children? That’s been the core of human society since the Stone Age. And you can’t expect people to reach a level of abstraction immediately, seeing all the humans of Earth as our children. You can’t expect people to give up their social bonds instantly. That’s what makes us human.”

A wan smile. “You adapt quickly and move very quickly, Dr. Tilki.”

“I can slow down, but you should never stop moving.” Beth swung her head around, trying to register everything in her surroundings.

“At any rate, you’re saying precisely what I have been, for years now. Come on. You have a lot of work ahead of you, but perhaps the most important counseling task of your career is what I’ll ask you to handle first. Every society, as you say, revolves around children. Bringing them up. Leaving something for them, and letting them excel, in their time. We have several children under the age of ten in the servers. We haven’t been able to Awaken them yet, because it’s simply so . . . problematic.”

Hannah’s mind churned through the issues. “You’d be putting them in adult platforms, because customized child-sized ones would be a waste of materials? Also, they’d never experience the hormones and rapid growth of body that teenagers do. They were uploaded before almost all of their cognitive abilities had developed completely—which isn’t really done until humans are in their twenties, anyway. . . .” She trailed off, and then added, more softly, “Judging from the amount of information I seem to have at my fingertips, it would overwhelm a child’s mind.”

“We don’t usually supply a newly Awakened person with colony records and full intranet access, but your dossier suggested that you could handle it. And as I said, you seem to be adapting much more quickly than the average individual.” Dr. Fairchild handed her a tablet, and Hannah slid a hand across its surface, pulling up the records there and absently downloaded a copy of the files for herself. Wait, how did I know how to do that . . . ? So caught up in the novelty of it, all, she barely noticed that her own arms were hairlessly devoid of the freckles that had sprinkled them in life.

“These two will be your first patients, Dr. Tilki. Arkady and Lia Juric. Age eight and six respectively, at the termination of their first lives. Their father is here, and one of our best construction engineers. But he’s . . . drifting without them, I think. We can’t afford to lose him, as we’ve lost so many others.” Dr. Fairchild regarded Hannah. “So let’s give him his children back. And try to ensure that his children are stable individuals who can contribute to what we’re building here.”

The challenge loomed ahead of her. And Hannah smiled, undaunted. “Dr. Fairchild, I’m looking forward to meeting all of them.”

A whisper crossed her mind then, looking down at the records. Lia Juric is six. Amy’s sixth birthday . . . we were going to have her cake in my hospital room. But all I could have done was watch her open her presents. A trickle of regret, determinedly pushed aside. She’s in her seventies by now. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . she’ll upload. And I’ll see my little girl again.

            The next day, she met with Mr. Juric, the father of the children in question. He’d set his facial appearance at forty or so—precisely the age at which he had died. In terms of body conformation, he possessed a tall, bulky model, around two meters in height, which apparently reflected his original form as well. He also had what appeared to be a perpetual scowl, and a tendency to open and close his fists, as if looking for something to grip, which Hannah marked down as an unusual mental tic, reflective of agitation in a human, or a processing loop in a machine. A whole new world of diagnoses, she thought, burying her excitement. “Mr. Juric, I’ve been considering what we need to do to Awaken your children,” she began after introducing herself. “Normal human children receive information at a trickle compared to what an adult consciousness in an android platform can process. They’ll be bombarded with information. They’ll have computational algorithms already embedded, so they won’t really need to learn ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic.’” Her wry smile garnered no return. Hannah sighed internally and leaned forward, softening her voice. “What they really need is experience, Mr. Juric. A lifetime of choices, good and bad, with commensurate results.”

“Yeah.” His tone matched the scowl on his face. “And they’ve been stuck in a server without any experiences at all for decades. How do you plan to give them ten or fifteen years of experience without letting them wake up and experience things? Catch-22 much?” He barked out a harsh laugh. “And folks around here don’t seem to have the time or resources to let them run around making choices that don’t conform to the colony’s needs and the corporate line.” Disgust in his voice now, coupled with resentment.

Hannah wished she could take a quick breath. She had a solution for him, but didn’t know if he’d accept it. “Simulations, Mr. Juric.”

“Simulations?” He stared at her blankly for a moment.

“Games, if you would,” Hannah replied. “Games are how we’ve always taught children necessary skills, whether they played at war, at hunting, or at cooking. They’ve always played games to model adult skills and adult actions.” She smiled, hoping to catch his imagination with the idea. “In this case, I’d set up a procedurally-generated virtual reality simulation for them that would allow them to go through childhood as they would have experienced it. Grammar school, middle school, high school. Playmates and teammates and family. You’d join them in the simulation during your nightly recharge period.” Which would give you time away from work. A chance to dream. A part of your life that has nothing to do with the needs of the colony and the corporation. “They’d progress through childhood and adolescent relationships and crises at a much accelerated rate, and you’d be able to help them make good choices all along the path to adulthood.”

His scowl turned into a frown. “They’re artificial personality constructs, so you’re going to give them an artificial childhood. That’s . . . meta.”

“It seems a better idea than just throwing them into the adult world here and expecting them to function as adults overnight. I anticipate this taking about a year, perhaps two, depending on how much time we allow them to run the simulations each day. Measuring their progress at weekly and monthly intervals as we condition their responses.” Her enthusiasm carried her away, but her smile vanished as his black scowl reappeared.

“And when they wake up, and they’re here, and not on Earth? When they realize that they’re dead, and just ghosts, like the rest of us? Won’t they be bitter about having been lied to?”

The words held outright challenge. Hannah looked down for a moment, regaining her composure. “Mr. Juric, you very understandably want to protect your children.” Let’s not get into the meta game of whether they’re your children, or just what you perceive to be your children. You feel that they are; therefore, they are. “I would not lie to them. One of the most important things about games, is that everyone participating knows that they’re games. We would tell them that they’re . . . going to dream for a while. And when they wake up from that dream, they’ll be adults, and with you. Just as you’ll be with them every step of the way.”

He put his face down in his hands, and Hannah reached out and touched his shoulder with gentle compassion. “It’s the best I can do for them for now. And they’ll help us to understand how to Awaken dozens, even hundreds of other children. So that no parent here has to go any longer without their families.” Other than those who are still back on Earth, that is. One thing at a time.

He looked up from his hands, regarding her steadily. “All right. When do we start?”

“We’ll need at least a month to get the VR set up. Someone from the CS department will be re-tasked to assist me in developing it. It’ll be rough at first, but at least there are dozens of standard programs that we can work with here.” She paused, and then her enthusiasm for the job escaped her again. “And just think. We might be able to set up simulations for the adults here, too. So that we can reduce burnout, among other things. Almost everyone here works twenty hours a day, with four hours off for platform recharge. That’s not healthy—”

He shook his head, his expression turning cynical. “Not healthy for a human. But we don’t eat anymore, you know. Don’t drink. Don’t crap. Even if you meet someone you like, no sex. We don’t do much of anything that makes us human.” Juric’s face became weary. “Except work.”

“Exactly the problem. People talk about work with each other, but there’s no other socialization! I used to play violin, for example. There are thirty-five thousand Awakened at the moment. Surely, someone here knows how to play an instrument or to sing. But there are no concerts. No choirs. No music, besides what someone might cue up in the privacy of his or her own mind.” She raised her hands expressively. “Playing music together, performing  it, creates unique social bonds. Listening to a live performance does the same thing. That’s something human that could be done by anyone here. Theater. Sure, everyone here could read the lines off the scripts in their heads, but there’s more to it than memorization. There’s interpretation. Differences in how you might play the role.” She caught his dubious expression, but continued relentlessly, “All right, so Shakespeare isn’t for you. How about sports, Mr. Juric? Again, it’s the performing together that’s communal, as is watching the performance. Sure, everyone here has perfect reflexes, but every game will still be decided differently. Because we can’t control every factor on a playing field.” She threw her hands wide. “I can’t believe no one here has been doing these things. I’ve been Awake for a day, and I’m already thinking of all this.” She went to cluck her tongue against her teeth, and then stopped, rattled, as she realized that she had no idea how to do that anymore.

Juric snorted, or at least, it sounded like it. “All right. So I’m entering this simulation with my kids as a single father. I tend to think that children do better in two-parent households, but . . . Beth isn’t here.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’ll do the best I can.”

He did, too. She observed the simulation as Arkady and Lia ‘woke up’ inside what looked like a hospital to them. Their bodies inside the simulation were just as they’d been when they were alive, so no cognitive dissonance for them. And then the looks of disbelief on their little faces as their father told them that they’d died. At first they laughed, because Daddy was being so silly. Then horror. Fear. Denial. And finally, tears. “When will Mommy come and be with us?” Lia demanded.

“Wait. If Mommy comes here, it’ll mean that she’s dead, too, won’t it?” Arkady asked, clearly a step or two further along the curve than his sister. “I don’t want her to come here! I don’t want her to be dead, too!”

“But I want Mommy!” Lia wailed.

This is what the adults are missing, Hannah thought, watching the images unfold inside her own mind, but from outside the simulation. Somehow, these unformed minds have stronger emotional reactions than their elders, who adapt to the new circumstances with a blind sort of numbness, and become dependent on the routine of the job to get through each day. We need what these children have, to help our fellows retain their humanity.

She hadn’t really conducted any self-analysis yet. Too busy. Too immersed in the project of helping Nick Juric raise these two extraordinary young people, while providing emotional outlets for an entire colony of repressed consciousnesses. She told herself that she thrived on the challenge, on forming social bonds between thirty-five thousand other souls. So it came as something of a surprise when, during the second year of the simulations, Nick asked, “Why don’t you come inside with me? They’re teenagers now, effectively. They deserve to get to know the person who’s been designing their whole world.” He smiled faintly. “God. Or Mom, as the case might be.”

When Hannah hesitated, Nick caught her hand and tugged it, lightly. “Besides, Doc. You’re in need of a vacation in the worst possible way. Every sim you’ve been in, has just been for testing purposes before you give someone a week in Tahiti. Come on in. I’ll cook you the best batch of imaginary spaghetti you’ve ever tasted.”

The simulations took three years. And at the end of those three years, Lia and Arkady ‘graduated’ to full members of the Theta Boötis D community. They were given platforms and assigned jobs; Arkady on bioengineering team, and Lia on a surveying team that ranged over the planet, scouting for resources. Their experiences allowed dozens of other children to be Awakened successfully. And Nick asked Hannah, tentatively, to share his charging cubicle. And his simulations, more permanently. “No priests around,” he told her, uncomfortably. “So, not exactly getting married. I just . . . like playing house with you. Even if it’s only in my mind.”

Hannah reached out and touched his face, lightly. “I miss Anton,” she told him, gravely. “It’s only been three years for me, though it’s been more like ten for you, since you died. But I . . . don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. TCI sent word that he accepted upload in 2195, but I don’t know if he’ll even come to this planet. He was so damned angry towards the end.”

“With you?”

“With the universe, for taking me away. At the cancer, which he couldn’t cure.” She hesitated, and then admitted, “With me, for . . . treating death as an adventure, I suppose. I probably should have been more . . . aware of his feelings.” A nagging sensation of guilt. Yes. I should have. And it’s been so easy not to think about him or Amy here. So much to do. So many people to help. But I didn’t do much of anything for those who should have mattered most to me, did I?  “I’m often better at managing other people’s problems, than my own.” The low-voiced confession hung in the air for a moment. “But I like playing house with you, too, Nick. We can keep at it, if you don’t mind the fact that I’m always going to treat this all like . . . the best adventure there is.”

Nick pulled her platform closer to his in a human gesture she wouldn’t have expected from the automaton he’d allowed himself to become a few years ago. Synthetic skin the same temperature as the ambient air touched her own, and internal sensors recorded pressure. “That’s precisely what I’ve come to love about you,” he told her calmly. “So let’s give it a few decades.”

“And maybe in a year or two we can test out the sexual simulations I’ve been developing,” she blurted, and then laughed at the expression on his face. “Hey, just because we aren’t equipped in reality, doesn’t mean that simulations can’t help in that area, too.”

“You want to reinvent porn.” He shook his head. “Only you, Hannah. Only you.”

“No. I want to reinvent participation in an essential human experience.” She made a face. “There is a difference, you know.”

“No one will understand that. You’re going to go down in planetary history as Hannah Tilki, Queen of Robot Porn.”

“Oh, shut up.”

Lia: Evolving

January 15, 2240

The survey team’s hovercraft glided back into the city limits, and workers on the scaffolding of the skyscrapers waved down at them congenially. Lia disembarked, carrying her satchel filled with samples straight to Arkady’s bioengineering lab, a scowl on her face. She almost didn’t notice how many workers up on the skyscrapers gleamed silver under the sun. More and more people tended to inhabit work-only, durable platforms during the day, while returning to their human-form bodies at night, for socialization. Her stepmother would have gone off into a delighted lecture on the fluidity of identity in their new society; Lia took it as a matter of course, and a slightly annoying one, since it meant that she needed to use the blips of people’s ID chips instead of her facial recognition skills to identify them.

She stomped into Arkady’s lab and dropped her satchel on the bench beside his microscope. “And hello to you, too,” he said, not looking up from the eyepiece. “You’re in a mood.”

“I found three locations where your hybridized Terran plants are out-competing the native flora. You made them a little too strong, Ark. The point is supposed to be coexistence, not driving the native plants to extinction.” She slid onto the workbench, letting her legs dangle, and folded her arms across her chest.

Arkady rose from the microscope, a frown crossing his face. “Oh, hell. That’s not good at all. You have coordinates and samples?”

“All in there.” She jerked her head at the bag. “I don’t even agree that we should be terraforming this planet. We’ve adapted our platforms over the years to deal with the caustic effects of the atmosphere. We live here just fine as is.”

Arkady ran his fingers over her hair lightly. They’d adapted to their strange existence decades ago, and scarcely ever noticed the plastic sheen of their skin, or the too-perfect clarity of each other’s eyes. “This again.”

“Always.”

“Eventually, human colonists will make it here, and to all the other seed planets. It’s our job to make the way for them. We’ll be ghosts to them.”

“You and I never agreed to that. Dad agreed for us. And this is our home. We cling to far too much of Earth.” She scowled. “We still use Terran dates. This planet has a four hundred and eighty-three day orbit—and those days last thirty-seven hours each. Saying that today is January the whateverith is an irrelevant relic of a planet we don’t inhabit.”

He lifted her chin. “Lia, you’re fussing. That usually means something else is bothering you. Give.”

Lia shifted uncomfortably, but she’d never been able to lie to him. Not in their first lives, when he’d been her teasing older brother. Not in the simulation, in which twelve years had gone by at the speed of electrons dancing through their minds, an entire upbringing passing in just three years of external time. And not at all in the three decades since. “Meilin’s taking ‘maternity’ leave to go Awaken her kids in a sim.” She looked away, a hollow feeling inside of her.

A pause. “She’s been here for ten years. Weren’t her kids twelve or so when the earthquake got them? She’ll hardly be off any time at all, and she’s put in her time, same as Dad did—”

“And I’ve been here for thirty-six years, all told, and I’ll never—” The hollow chasm inside of her gaped wider.

Gentle fingers on her shoulders, and concern in Arkady’s voice. “Have you talked with Hannah about this? Sounds like an existential crisis—”

Lia put her head down on his shoulder for a moment, just resting. “It’s not the same,” she told him, her voice muffled. “Existential crisis in the newly Awakened means that they don’t know if they’re real. Or if there’s any point to their existence. I know that I’m real. I know what my job is. I’ve got you and Dad and Hannah. It’s just that . . . I feel so empty, Ark. And it gets worse every time one of my colleagues goes off to Awaken their family. Whether their kids were ten or fifty-five when they died.”

“In fairness, there are two hundred and twenty kids under the age of twelve who’ve been Awakened,” he pointed out gently. “Out of a colony of two hundred and twenty-five thousand.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she replied dully, turning slightly to look up at him. “You and I can never have that.”

His brow furrowed in concern. “You could create a simulated family,” he offered, hesitantly. “Find someone here that you like, who’d—”

“Play at being a father and husband?” Lia’s voice turned miserable. “Raise simulated kids with me, who could never actually come out of the simulator? I’d rather play with dolls.”

He pulled her in closer. “Lia, you’re scaring the hell out of me. This is the kind of talk that usually precedes someone wiping themselves.” Dread in his voice now. “If you go, I won’t have . . . I won’t have anyone to talk to.” Two hundred or so people had shared their experience of growing up in simulation, but none with them, besides each other. There was no one else who had their experiences, who understood them as completely as they understood each other. “Please don’t go. We already lost Mom. For decades, if not forever.” TCI had sent word that their mother had died and uploaded back in 2195. The year their father had Awakened. Her ship was en route, but accidents happened. Three ships had been lost, fifteen thousand precious minds wiped for eternity, in the past forty-five years. “Don’t leave me.”

“I don’t want to leave,” she told him, her voice still miserable. “I just want my life to mean something more than just an accumulation of soil and plant samples.”

He rocked her, a comforting gesture from their childhood. “Look, much as you want to deny that we’re human some days, we still are.”

“And are not.”

“Yes, yes. That’s a given.” He looked down at her, his face sober. “Humans do a lot of things. One of those things is making more humans. And I think there’s a way that you could do that. Take some of your core consciousness. Mix it with someone else’s. Like me mixing DNA here in the lab. Raise the resulting consciousness in simulation, as we were, and then house it in a body when it’s achieved a level of adulthood that Hannah can quantify statistically.”

She looked up at him, hope creeping into her. “You make it sound so easy. So straight-forward.”

“I doubt it will be,” Arkady admitted ruefully. “Nothing ever is.”

“And who would I even get to be the donor? I don’t want a child who’s just a clone of my mental processes.” She grimaced. “I’d bet that almost everyone here would have trouble thinking of that kid as . . . real. Valid. As much a person as they are. Look at all the people who think that our childhoods weren’t real. Just three years spent playing video games.” She paused. “But they were real years, for us. Real experiences.” She closed her eyes. “Sort of limits the pool of donors, you know?”

“I wouldn’t have that problem,” Arkady told her, an odd note in his voice. “I’ll be your donor, Lia. Just, for god’s sake, stay with me.”

She leaned against him once more. “Do you think god really cares about people like us? Ghosts? We’re alone, Arkady. All we have . . .  is each other.”

Arkady: Creating

 

March 18, 2240-September, 2300

 

Requesting server space and run-time for programs as large and complex as offspring promised to become required a petition to the TCI corporate business office as well as to what had become the planetary governing council—a group of about two hundred citizens with positions of authority in medicine, science, and management, as well as other individuals, who’d been elected the representatives of small ‘unions,’ who looked out for the well-being of the transferred consciousnesses of the colony’s workers. Nick Juric and Hannah Tilki were both on that council, a fact for which Arkady felt enduringly grateful for the next year as his joint petition with Lia worked its way through the approvals process. “Approvals?” Lia took to saying derisively. “They should call it the disapproval process. Certainly, everyone who reads the request form immediately queues up at least seven different arguments as to why it’s impossible, immoral, or unethical.”

Arkady hammered away at the process, however, countering every argument with one of his own. “Impossible? How so? Are we impossible?” he began one meeting, drumming his fingers on the table in front of him, a habit of life he’d never been able to break. “They’re sending us recordings of infant minds from Earth these days, inchoate blurs of perception and experience no more than a few months long, as grieving parents of children doomed to die of birth defects take solace in the hope that their child will have a more lasting memorial than a tiny tombstone—an immortal life.” He paused, turning to look around the sea of plastic faces in the meeting hall, and then glancing up at the camera drone hovering over his head, sending his glance into the vid feed thousands of other consciousnesses on the planet would access today, tomorrow, whenever they felt like downloading the recording directly. At the moment, about four thousand people had logged into the feed, and he could watch a continuous stream of their comments on the proceedings scrolling through part of his mind. Hannah’s worried that we might wind up as some kind of a hive-mind. She says group-think is dangerous. And then Dad usually laughs and points out how much of our off-hours are spent yelling at each other in these kinds of forums. And tells her that it’s all her own fault, for reminding people that there’s more to life—and afterlife—than just work.

He’d waited long enough for silence to exert its own gravity around his words, giving them more weight than they might otherwise have had. “TCI has forwarded those newborn files to us, like children floating in reed baskets across a sea of stars, and entrusted them to us. And people in this very room have advocated for raising those children through the same simulation process that has allowed over two hundred of us to grow to maturity.” He made a rude noise, watching Hannah turn towards him, her expression surprised, as he did so. “Dr. Tilki, could you explain for everyone here, and in the community at large, why that has yet to work?”

Frowning, Hannah nodded. “Those files, while they represent the hopes and dreams of the grieving parents who sent them to us, aren’t what we all are. Self-aware consciousnesses recorded before death. There’s not enough person there to make a consciousness.” She sounded upset, and looked down at her hands. “It’s one of the few failures of the technology,” Hannah admitted. “We’ve sent word back to Earth to stop . . . giving those parents false hope. But they keep passing those recordings on, anyway.”

“What does this have to do with the argument at hand?” Dr. Fairchild asked, leaning back slightly in her chair. Arkady had found it fascinating that over the years, the doctor had changed her hairstyle from the skull-hugging, curly buzz-cut she’d had when he was a child, to waist-length braids. She’d explained it to him, once: I don’t need to worry about bacteria or loose hairs falling into a wound with my android patients, Arkady. And everything we do, these days, is about identity. Not that it was much different when we were alive. Everything was about identity then, too. A wry smile had flashed whitely from behind her matte lips, before she’d patted her braids lightly with one hand. But these are about me remembering who I was, and embracing my whole life. As much as those folks who wander around in their mechanoid bodies embrace who they are now, and chide me for holding onto the past.

“Simply put,” Arkady replied, “using part of my consciousness and part of Lia’s to create a base pattern for the new consciousness would seem to stand a better chance of creating a viable mind than starting with a recording of . . . black and white images of a mobile rotating over a crib, and primal urges such as hunger, comfort, and discomfort. There’d be more person there, in essence.”

“Careful,” Dr. Fairchild warned, raising a hand now. “That comes dangerously close to suggesting that a human infant isn’t a person.”

Lia leaned forward from her place at the table, and adjusted her microphone with a hand more suited to working outdoors—titanium-shelled, ideal for work with heavy equipment and resistant to the caustic atmosphere. “For purposes of the transference process, they aren’t,” Lia replied bluntly, and Arkady looked up at the ceiling, wishing he could sigh as shocked whispers rustled through those around him, and the comments scroll from those watching the vid feed exploded with reactions.  “No, listen. They aren’t suitable candidates, and it’s a tragedy,” Lia called over the voices in the room with them. “If what we propose to do works, however? That’s a real solace we can offer parents who’ve lost children. Maybe then we can take those poor, insubstantial files, and add a little of the father’s mind, and a little of the mother’s, and then they’ll have the child they lost. Or at least a more reasonable facsimile.” Lia’s sorrowful tone suddenly became acid. “And goodness knows, it’ll give same-sex couples a chance at their own offspring. And would give people who only met here, after they died, a chance to make something together that was never possible before.”

“And we won’t know if it’s impossible till we try,” Arkady cut in hastily, watching the comments multiply in the chat feed almost exponentially, as Lia’s comments bloomed into rapid extrapolations by the people watching the meeting. “So, let’s leave aside impossible, and move onto unethical—”

“It certainly is unethical,” one of the TCI upper managers called, interrupting Arkady. “Creating life? Playing god?”

“Oh, come now,” Hannah called across the room cheerfully. “What do you think we’ve been doing all along? And I don’t just mean here on Theta Boötis D, or anywhere else there are transferred consciousnesses. I mean, since humanity’s inception.” Her merry grin faded into an expression of determination. “You might as well say that every time a human infant’s been born, it was an unethical act by two people playing god.”

The room and chat-feed both exploded once more, but by the end of the session, Arkady and Lia had received the tentative approval of the planetary council and TCI management to use a portion of the recreation and social services simulators for their special project. “Special project,” Lia had fumed under her breath. “What a way to put it.”

“Just wait till they get our requests for maternity and paternity leave,” Arkady told her, and relaxed internally when his sally got a laugh.

They opted to generate ‘twins,’ named Vasilija and Davi Juric in honor of grandparents whom they’d never met on Earth. And with the equal-parts fascinated and repulsed gaze of their entire community on them, they began the process of raising their children in the simulator. Hannah watched the simulations and made recommendations, particularly stressing that the new consciousnesses would need social stimulation to grow in complexity, and to learn to interrelate with other humans.

As such, Lia brought Meilin, her coworker, into their simulation one day, as Arkady played with the children in what certainly appeared to be a backyard, somewhere on Earth—though they’d chosen to add the green-yellow sky of Theta Boötis D overhead, and not the blue welkin of Earth. “Would you at least consider bringing your son and daughter in to meet them?” Lia asked, her avatar leaning on the image of a fencepost.  “Right now, they’re about the social age of four, and we’re planning on putting them in the school simulation with the rest of the Awakened children soon.”

Meilin’s lips turned down. “But they’re not Awakened,” she protested, staring at the children as Arkady brought them over. “They’re not . . . they’re not real.” She whispered the last, looking shame-faced, averting her eyes in a completely human manner. As if she couldn’t bear to look at the children while saying the words.

“Vasilija, Davi, say hello to your Mama’s friend,” Arkady told his two young creations, watching them with a peculiar mix of pride and apprehension. He’d mixed native and Terran flora in his lab many times before. And if a new rootstock had flourished, he’d been pleased, and if it had died off, he’d been vexed and gone back to the drawing board. But never had he felt the vicissitudes of existence as clearly as he did whenever the children were involved. They matter, he thought fiercely. They’re real because they matter. They matter, because they’re real. These tiny, nascent, uncontrollable, self-willed identities . . . matter. And I have to find some way to make everyone else understand that.

To his delight, Vasilija managed to emerge from behind him and offered Meilin one of her avatar’s tiny hands. “Hello,” she mumbled. “Mama says . . . you have a little girl? Can she come over and play?”

Meilin crouched down, her eyes now holding a mix of discomfort and curiosity. “I haven’t decided yet,” she replied, with more kindness than Arkady had expected. “What do you like to play?”

Davi stuck his head out from behind Arkady’s leg. “I like the construction simulator! Grandpa always lets me drive the big cranes, and my last building didn’t fall down!”

“It did too,” Vasilija retorted.

“It did not! It stayed up till you broke it with the wrecking ball—”

“Don’t argue,” Arkady reminded them, and smiled at Meilin. “If they come over, I’ll probably run one of my garden sims for them all. They should like that. I have a hedge-maze worked out that’s miles long. Should take them a good four hours to get through it.”

Meilin hesitated, but nodded. And after she left, and the children when back to playing, Lia took his hand and murmured, “Told you that increasing the size of their avatars’ eyes by two percent would help.”

“It helps now.” Arkady shrugged. “If they keep that look for their adult avatars, it’s going to put adults Awakeneds right into the uncanny valley when they talk with them.” He’d long since lost the reflexes of his human body, but this was one occasion on which he wished he could sigh.

“Yes, but by that point, what they look like will be their choice.” Lia’s voice held the same uncomfortable mix of fierce pride and complete dread that he felt, himself. And their hands clenched together so tightly that their biofeedback sensors warned of imminent deformation to the visual fabric of their avatars.

By the sixth year, Arkady was convinced he couldn’t remember a single easy day, though records and simulation captures let him relive brilliant moments of success. They sat through meetings with the entire staff of the school system, arguing vehemently over the ethics of behavioral modification when Davi displayed a tendency to hit other children in frustration. “No, we’re not going to just go into his code and rewrite him!” Lia exclaimed furiously. “How would you like it if someone went in and pruned out little bits and pieces of you? That’s unethical.”

“We’ll do it the old-fashioned way,” Arkady informed the teachers tiredly. “Feedback and response and stimuli.”

“But he’s falling behind because of his behavior, and he’s a disruption to the other students,” one of the teachers, Mrs. Hesbani. She’d never actually set foot outside of the simulations, and had declined taking any sort of android platform, placidly telling anyone who asked that making a body for her would be a waste of materials and energy, and that the simulator offered her more freedom of mind than a body could ever offer. Arkady didn’t understand that perspective in the slightest. But she was at least one of the teachers most sympathetic to children who’d never set foot in the real world, either.

Still, he felt on edge, and as if he needed to protect his children. Lia clearly did, too, exclaiming, “Yes, but what most of you propose—rewriting his code—is equivalent to recommending lobotomy to a human for being a minor inconvenience to you.”

They all shifted uncomfortably. Arkady met each of their eyes in turn. “If he falls behind, then he’ll have to make up the work later, and the other kids will have to get used to the fact that not everyone is perfect. Whether they’re living, dead, or neverborn.” Arkady  set his jaw over the last word, which left a ringing silence in the room.

Not every parent, after all, had been as flexible as Meilin, whose children wound up adoring Vasilija and Davi. Private messages about the unpeople, the neverborn, sometimes leaked out into public discourse. And from the way many of the teachers on the school staff suddenly looked away, a few of them clearly knew the term. Had probably used the term.

Arkady wanted to shout at them all. Wanted to demand, You see my work outside of the city? The lichens, mushrooms, and, yes, the very first giant sequoia spliced with the native trees? I’ve made something hybridized, of neither this world, nor our old one, something that will tower above all of us in generations to come. This is what our children are. Something new. Something unique. Something marvelous. Something ours. And you’re worrying about the fact that they were born from almost the same petri dish as my trees?

Get a life, you undead idiots.

But he didn’t. Because no one, living, dead, or otherwise, had ever been convinced of anything by someone yelling and bullying them about it. The only way people were convinced of anything, really, was by listening to or observing the actions of someone they respected. And to most of the Awakened, Lia and I are, and always will be, kids. It’s up to us to convince the people of our generation, and the ones who Awaken after us, to respect us and our choices. You can’t do that by yelling, screaming, or kicking. You do it by living well.

And so, when their twins graduated ten years into the process, with a self-perception of themselves as adults, and designed their own android bodies into which their minds could be decanted, Arkady thought he could see in their eyes the dappled shade of his hybrid sequoias, looming at the edge of the horizon. “Thank you for having us,” Vasilija blurted as she stood up in the real world for the first time, approaching him to hug him with her android arms. “Thank you for . . . everything, Dad.”

It felt real to him. “Thank you for giving our lives meaning,” he replied softly, looking over her head look at Lia. Davi had just wrapped his arms around his mother, and she’d closed her eyes in the bliss of holding her son in her arms for the first time in reality. Beyond Lia, Nick and Hannah held hands, Nick wiping at his eyes as if to chase away the tears he couldn’t actually shed.

_____________________

Fifty years later, Arkady had plugged himself into the simulator to run a garden sim for his grandchildren, when an alert flickered through his consciousness. He pulled his consciousness back into his body and sat up, exchanging worried glances with Lia and Davi. “A ship?” Arkady asked, unnecessarily. They’d all received the same information.

And, in spite of trusting the data, they all stepped outside, onto the fourth-floor balcony of the storage tier in which they kept their bodies when they weren’t using them, and stared up into the hazy clouds and peridot sky above, watching as a white ship descended. “We weren’t scheduled for another soul-freighter for another six months,” Arkady muttered, rubbing at the back of his head absently. The term had been coined by TCI management types.

Predictably, Davi made a face. “You might as well call them refugee ships, Dad,” his son said, still staring up at the sky. “The dead aren’t really welcome on Earth. I used to work with Repatriation Services. I heard horror stories from the oldest Awakened people . . . folks who just tried to go on with their lives, but their relatives just wanted to be able to move on and not deal with the skeleton at the feast anymore. Or they listened to their church leaders, who told them that we weren’t real, that the souls had moved on to be with god. And rejected, they give up and come here.”

“You’ve been listening to the first-gen Awakened people,” Arkady pointed out, trying to be soothing. “Don’t borrow trouble. There’s been at least five generations born since the technology’s inception.” And I’m from the first. Damn. I’ve never felt old before. “I’d expect there to have been some social adjustment to the new reality since then.”

Attention, TCI staff, contract workers, and others! Another alert blipped across Arkady’s field of vision. The ship overhead has broadcast her identity as the Terran ship, Lyra Celeste. They report five thousand living humans aboard, who departed Earth last year.

“Last year?” Lia repeated, out loud. “That’s impossible—”

“They did it. They beat Einstein and worked out an Alcubierre drive!” Arkady’s tone held a measure of fierce pride. I might not be human by their standards, but god. What we humans can do, when we put our minds to a task!

The alert scroll continued. They have a colonial patent, and would like to disembark. TCI management is asking them to delay, as we do not have enough facilities to handle their needs. The planetary council and TCI management are also calling for a population-wide forum tonight to discuss the new arrivals.

Davi’s voice held dread and a little anger. “They’re here, and they’re going to wave their colonial patent in our faces, and tell us to leave.” He turned towards them, giving his parents a fierce glare. “I won’t be forced out. This is our home. I was made here—born here. My kids came into being here, too. I’ve read enough of human history to know that they’re going to want to force us out, send us to a new world, and take this one for themselves. I won’t let that happen.”

And with that, the reality of the humans hanging above them, their ship like a sword held in the atmosphere by a thin thread, hit Arkady. He turned to look, really look at Davi for the first time in years. Their son’s eyes had already gone vague and distant as he chatted at the speed of electrons on the local network, probably conferring with his wife and sister. Davi had opted to dye his skin green some four decades ago, partially in homage to his father’s work with hybridizing plants, and partially, as he’d told them at the time, because I’m not entirely human, and sometimes I want to rub it in the faces of those who reject what humanity I have as insufficient for their tastes. The young man—sixty this year, but he’d always seem young to Arkady—had, at the same time, opted to change his hair fibers into something that more resembled sequoia needles. Not just a fashion statement, but a statement of identity and belonging. Many other of the ‘neverborn’ had made similar modifications to their bodies. Arkady knew of one young woman who’d declined a humanoid body at all, insisting on being embedded into the frame of a spacecraft, instead. Hannah had muttered and fussed about people losing their humanity. And Lia had countered, stridently, Maybe they’re just expanding the definition of what it means to be human!

Arkady stared at his son as if he’d never seen him before. And then looked up at the ship once more. “It may not come to that, Davi,” he murmured. “But I do hope they’re ready to expand their definitions of humanity. Dread rose through him. Humans have never been particularly willing to expand that definition in the past, have they? “Or they’re going to unpack whatever really large magnets they brought with them, and head straight for our server cores.”

Anton: Bridging

September 21, 2300

Anton Tilki’s eyes opened, and information spun in front of them like a galaxy full of stars. They left us in the servers for fifty years after our ship arrived on Theta Boötis D. That’s . . . one hell of a nice welcome. He sat up and turned his head to ensure that, per the information scrolling before him, that yes, Beth had been Awakened with him. His wife sat up, putting a hand to her head as if dizzy, and in spite of his anger at having been left effectively comatose for an extra fifty years, Anton felt himself smile. “Beth, you look amazing,” he told her, reaching out a hand for hers. “Just like when I met you.”

“Fortyish and plump?” She studied her hands. “These look a lot more real than android bodies on Earth do.”

“They’ve been improving the quality of their models. Less plasticine.” He stroked her hair, which felt amazingly pliable to the touch. If I’m a ghost, at least I get a pretty good grade of afterlife to haunt.

“Oh, god.” Beth blinked rapidly. “Is that date I’m seeing correct?”

“Yes. They waited fifty years to wake us. But then, how much demand do they have for ER nurses or oncologists, instead of robotics specialists and mechanics? We’re deadweight anywhere but Earth. But Earth can barely support the living, let alone all the dead.” Irony dripped from his voice as he stood, helping her up out of reflex. Arthritis had settled in when she was sixty-seven, and had progressively worsened over the decades. He’d stayed hale till the end, but when Beth had died in her sleep, he’d said goodbye to the daughter they’d raised, and his grandchildren, and requested euthanasia. So that if there was an immortal part to his humanity, it could be with her, and so that his recorded consciousness could travel with hers.

A door shushed open behind them, and they turned. “Mom?” a voice called, and two young people trooped in. Both were evidently androids; the female had obvious titanium hands. But their faces looked disarmingly like Beth’s own. “Mom, it’s us. Arkady and Lia.” Their smiles would have taken Anton’s breath away, if he’d had any breath. “We’ve been waiting for you for so long.”

“They woke us in 2204 or so—ninety-six years was way too long to wait for you, Mom.” They wrapped their arms around Beth, holding her tightly.

“I’m surprised that you remember me at all,” Beth said, yearning in her voice as she reached for them in return. “You were so young when you died.”

“Dad and Hannah made sure we remembered you,” Lia chirped. Anton jolted at the name Hannah, but thought, That has to be a coincidence . . . .

“We put in requests to have you Awakened once a year after your ship came in, but colonial authorities are pretty hot on everyone having a job or a purpose,” Arkady added.

“Your father’s well?” Beth asked, her expression strained.

“Yeah.” A slightly guilty exchange of glances. “He and Hannah Tilki, ah, sort of got married back in 2207 or so. They’re outside. Waiting for both of you.”

“Hannah Tilki?” Anton repeated, not even knowing what he felt at the moment. “My first wife?”

“Yeah, she’s kind of a planetary bigwig,” Arkady told him. “Head of the mental health and recreation programs.”

Anton glanced at Beth. “I think I’m all right with that,” he said slowly. Consideringly. “We’d already been dead for twelve years before they, ah. Got together.” Overall, he was surprised at his own lack of reaction. I’m numb, I think. Though this might be the mother of all awkward meetings.

Beth nodded, and replied, sounding just as dazed, “And I’ve been married to you for forty-seven years. That’s almost five times longer than I was married to Nick. And apparently, he’s been with Hannah . . . nine times longer than he was with me.” Her expression crinkled as the math took place effortlessly in her mind. “Damn.”

“Outstanding. Can’t wait to introduce you to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too,” Lia told them, relief spreading across her youthful-appearing face.

“Grandchildren?” Beth repeated, clearly startled. “What—how?

“Our kids,” Arkady responded. “Lia’s and mine. There are plenty of people here who’re upset about the whole thing. Artificial reproduction. ‘Ghosts shouldn’t have children.’ They also have the gall to call our kids neverborn.” He grimaced. “But we’re human, and one of the things that humans do is make more humans. Lia and I took parts of both of our core consciousnesses and combined them, and raised the resulting artificial consciousnesses in simulation. The result is a couple of healthy, well-adapted adults who’ve been in their platforms for about fifty years now.” His tone wasn’t casual, but it was matter-of-fact. “They got their adult platforms a few months before your ship arrived, in fact. And they’ve each, ah, had children of their own, since.”

Beth’s mouth dropped open. Anton supplied the words she couldn’t seem to bring to her lips. “Wasn’t that, well . . . incest?” he asked, trying not to sound appalled. This can’t be how Beth ever pictured meeting her children again. My god, do they even understand what they’re doing to her?

Lia shrugged. “It’s not like we have to worry about genetic defects,” she responded. “But that’s the other thing a lot of the older-gen models are upset about, yes. I don’t really understand it. We’re human, yes. But we’re also not.”

Arkady put a hand on her shoulder, having the grace to look embarrassed. “It’s not as if those of us who died as kids and got Awakened afterwards have, well, sex drives. I don’t even understand the recreational sims Hannah’s put together for that sort of thing. But a lot of people who were older when they died miss it. Different strokes and all that.” His eyes flickered between his sister and his mother, and he kept his tone soothing. Reassuring. “Lia’s just blunt, Mom. I’d elbow her to apologize, but she is who she is. Tact of a brick and all.” A look of wry affection at his sister.

“Rip the bandaid off,” Lia told him, making a face. “They’re in for a lot of surprises in the next twenty minutes. Best if they’re sort of numb for the rest, I think.” She looked back at their mother, and offered, more tentatively, “Vasilija and Davi are really looking forward to meeting you, Mom. Dad’s told them so much about you. Of course, you’re . . . a little different now.” A flicker of humor and sadness flickered across her expression. “All of us are, really. A lifetime or two of experience tends to do that.”

“I  . . . look forward to meeting them,” Beth managed, her voice unsteady, flicking a glance at Anton that read to him, clearly, as I have no idea what else to say, so I’m falling back on platitudes.

Mind spinning, Anton slid a hand under her arm and stepped out into the corridor with her, to where Nick and Hannah awaited. They let the kids drop the worst on us, so we’d be too numb to react to anything else. He paused, new information trickling into his consciousness. Kids. Ha. If I’m doing the math right, Arkady and Lia have been continuously conscious longer than either Beth or I lived

While both Nick and Hannah’s faces lit up at the sight of them, Anton could read apprehension in their eyes, as well. Amazing how well we simulate our humanity, he thought, distantly. Human. But, as Lia said, also not.

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Nick told them, breaking the awkward silence. “I’m so damned happy to see you, Beth.” A touch of what sounded like yearning, carefully suppressed. Decades of water under several bridges. “I always said, so long as I eventually got to see everyone I loved again, it wouldn’t matter how much they’d changed.” He smiled faintly. “And now I get to see if I was right.”

“Why did they decide to wake us now, and not fifty years ago?” Anton inquired sharply, wanting to keep the conversation free from remembrances of past emotion for the moment. He’d been objective about the situation until actually seeing their dead spouses in front of them. He’d been able to tally up the years each of them had actually spent together.  As if numbers on a tally stick offered some sort of protective ward against old love, and the pain of loss, and the power of memory. But on seeing them, objectivity had rapidly faded. Jealousy is stupid and pointless. But I’m still human enough to feel it.

Nick raised his eyebrows. “Straight to the point. I’ll show you.” He took them to a wide window. Outside, they could all see a green-yellow sky above a city filled with towering skyscrapers girdled with silvery monorail tracks. And hanging in that peridot dome above the cityscape, a white ship loomed, hundreds of feet long. It looked like nothing Anton had ever seen before.

Anton stared at it. “Aliens?” he finally asked.

“No,” Hannah told him, her voice soft. “Humans. Earth produced a working Alcubierre drive about forty-five years after you died. This is one of their first large-scale ships, which arrived yesterday. There are five thousand fully organic human colonists aboard that ship. They need . . . medical checkups. They need people who are used to dealing with the frightened, the injured, and the sick.”

“They’re scared,” Nick explained quietly. “Scared of us, in the main. All their ghosts.” He looked resigned.

“And the planet has never been terraformed to match human requirements,” Hannah added on. “We decided we liked the yellow-green of the sky. The bioengineers have been working with the native plants to produce more oxygen, sure, but . . . .”

“We held a referendum last night. The majority decided that this was our world,” Nick added. “We live here. It’s ours. Our families are welcome to join us. But we don’t want to be displaced by human colonists. Told to move on. Exorcized like unwelcome ghosts.”

“Every human generation has been displaced by the one that succeeded it,” Hannah added softly. “Except this one. We’re all going to have to learn to live with our ghosts.” She paused. “And we need people like you to be the bridge between us and them.”

“But we’re a hundred years out of step with you,” Beth objected. “And a hundred years out of step with them.” She paused. “Oh. Right. I . . . see your point.”

Anton stared up at the ship in the sky, and then shook his head. There were plenty of riots on Earth among populations who couldn’t afford uploading. Outright wars in third-world countries, where the dictators couldn’t get the tech for themselves, whipped up their populations against the countries who did make it available for their entire populaces. I don’t want to go through any of that again. “This place looks like a kind of heaven,” he said. “I’d hate to see it turn into some sort of hell.” Anton glanced over at Beth. “I guess we’ve got a job to do. Let’s go do it.”

Judith: Understanding

 

September 21, 2300

Seventy-two was, according to the healthcare industry, the new middle-age. Judith Poulin had her doubts about that. Her arthritic left knee had flared up, so she didn’t join the rest of the younger passengers who’d been practically grafted to the ports of the ship for the past day. Staring down at the city on the surface below.  She might have joined the younger people, but for that grinding pain in her knee. Technically, she had a perfectly good view of everything on the screen hovering in the air in front of her at her private table—better, probably, than what little she’d see out of a tiny window, past someone’s earlobe. But the other passengers seemed to want to experience it all first-hand, not predigested by a lens and computer interpolation. And she shared that desire. We all signed up to come here in the flesh, didn’t we? I worked my whole life just to get here while I was still alive. Yet now that I’m here . . . I’m not sure I want to be. Contrary human nature.

A flash of her husband’s face flickered through her mind for a moment, along with a forlorn accompanying thought: I wonder what Paul would have seen, if he were here. If I’d just cracked the math faster, if we’d been able to bring the drive on-line ten years earlier . . . would he be here with me today? Looking at this screen, and seeing . . . a point to everything?

With an effort, Judith pushed that line of thought away. It did her no good to perseverate on her husband’s death. Instead, she tried to focus on the present, adjusting the privacy curtain around her seat and table, and reaching out to highlight and enlarge the telemetry coming from the planetary surface. Scanning the faces in the crowd of androids looking up at the ship for hints of familiar faces.

A hand caught her curtain and twitched it back. “Excuse me, Dr. Poulin, but might I join you?”

Judith glanced up, prepared to brush off whoever it was. And then her mouth fell open on silence. After a shocked moment, she put herself back together. “Do you know, you look exactly like Cyrus Vauquelin?” It can’t be, of course. If he were aboard—for god’s sake, they’d have told me. Wouldn’t they?

“That would be because I am, Dr. Poulin,” the android, who looked like a man in his fifties, gray-haired, calm, but not running to fat,  assured her, taking the seat at the small table beside her. He left the curtain open, however, though he ignored the crowds milling around them. “One of them, anyway.” A faint smile touched his features. “I’ve been accommodated splendidly in a private cabin just across the hall from yours, actually. However, every time I’ve tried to knock, you’ve been out, and introducing myself by some impersonal text message just didn’t feel right.” He steepled his fingers together. “And since we are, between us, the authors of the current situation, you by leading the team that designed the Alcubierre drive that brought us here, and me for creating the transference process . . . I thought it important that we should meet.”

She stared at him, knowing that her expression had tautened. But the first words that rose to her lips were, “One of them, Mr. Vauquelin? How many bodies do you have running around, precisely?”

“At the moment? Six.” Cyrus Vauquelin shrugged. “One’s on Earth, minding the home office. The other five of us have each taken passage on one of your wonderful ships, to see how TCI’s employees and the colonists have been building the future. Eventually, we’ll all return home and experiment with integrating the experiences we’ve all had, into the body-mind of Cyrus Prime.”

She licked her lips unconsciously, a nervous reaction she couldn’t quite control. Androids took such odd risks with their perceptions of reality. Wouldn’t having six different sets of memories for the same time span drive someone insane? She wondered. How would they know whose reality was which? Except . . . it would all be his. Nevermind. Not my problem. As such, she cleared her throat and picked a word out of his reply to focus on, that didn’t require a degree in philosophy to pursue. “Colonists? Indentured servants, I’d say.” Her voice held challenge, and she met his artificial eyes squarely.

He chuckled, a rusty sound that sounded thoroughly organic. She admired the facility with which he emulated the laugh he’d likely used in old age, and respected that he, in the main, wore his years. At least some of them. What is he, two hundred or so by now? “For indentured servants, they have many of their own ideas, and while they remain contractors, quite a few of them seem to have fascinating hobbies. Such as designing whole new forms of humanity.”

Her eyebrows rose. After a moment, again sidestepping the direction the conversation had taken, Judith asked, “Mr. Vauquelin? If you have billions at your disposal, and six bodies into which you’ve copied your consciousness . . . may I ask why all of them look exactly like you?”

Another rusty chuckle. “I’m sure it seems like vanity. Ego written in very large letters.”

She spread her fingers slightly, acknowledging his point. “And it isn’t?”

“I actually have a very incognito model for when I don’t need or want to be recognized. Periodically, I used to download myself into it, and go paint in the Italian countryside for a month. It did me good not to be Cyrus Vauquelin for a while.” A sigh’s worth of silence. “Of course, since that particular model happened to have the form of a thirty-year old woman, I did have to learn how to deal with being hit upon incessantly.”

Judith had been reaching for her coffee mug, and now nearly dropped it. “You’re having me on.”

A pause. Then Cyrus smiled. “Yes, actually. I am. The spare body’s male, but substantially younger and looks nothing like me.” He shrugged and leaned back. “I like to vacation incognito, Dr. Poulin, but when I travel on business, it’s as myself. And frankly, still, here in my two hundred and sixtieth year? It’s still usually business with me.”

She looked pointedly at the curtain. “You’re not the only one who prefers a little privacy.”

He didn’t shift the curtain back into place. “I wanted to see you in the clear light of day,” Cyrus informed her, tilting his head to the side slightly. “It’s curious that the physicist most responsible for the drive that brought us here today hides in the shadows of her own ship.”

“It’s not my ship. Allied Robotics built it.” She grimaced. “Your son’s company.” And she caught the faint twitch of his eyelids at the reminder. I remembered right. There was bad blood between them, as the history books mention vaguely. And then, another realization: The old man’s still human, in spite of it all. Perhaps I should apologize—

A voice crackled over the loudspeakers, synchronized with a text crawl on the display in front of her: “Ladies and gentlemen and others, the local inhabitants are sending up a ship to dock with us. Medical doctors are aboard, and what we’re told is a welcome committee made up of delegates to local government.”

“Local government?” Judith heard a male voice sneer from several cubicles away, a hint of fear and contempt in that young voice. “Exactly how do ghosts have a government? I thought they were supposed to come here, make like drones, build the place up a bit, and then move on to the next planet.”

“Like convenient migrant workers. Ones who never linger or get underfoot,” Cyrus murmured, his voice contemplative and perhaps a touch ironic. “Always expanding out around the living, like a ring or a halo. Except, soon enough, there will be more among the dead than among the living.”

“That has always been the case, has it not, Mr. Vauquelin?”

His head snapped towards her. And suddenly, his smile widened. “Dr. Poulin, in the hundred and sixty-some years of my second life, I honestly can’t remember any person as young as you are, challenging me so directly.”

Young. Well, I suppose it’s all relative. She rubbed at her knee again, discreetly. “You are, as you said, Mr. Vauquelin, directly responsible for the mess we’re in today. You’re here. What do you propose to do about it?”

“I might ask you the same thing,” he shot back, as a faint thud echoed through the ship’s frame, indicating that a smaller ship had indeed docked with one of the hatches. “You’re here, too, aren’t you? Why did you come all this way? Why aren’t you at the windows, looking down at your bright new future, with the rest of them?” A little gesture towards the ports.

A voice blared over her own for a moment: “Docking clamps secure. All crew members to your stations. Prepare to release seals.”

Judith cleared her throat in the wake of the announcement. “When I was five, my great-grandmother, Amy Tilki-Poulin died.” She hesitated, and then plunged on, the words tasting hot and bitter in her mouth. “The family didn’t hold a funeral. My great-grandpa held a celebration, a send-off. They poured champagne over the coffin and threw confetti, because now, she’d be off to see her family in the stars once more. Her father and step-mother, at least. Twenty years later, we did the same thing for her son, my grandfather. Thirty years after that, my father wanted the same kind of goodbye. I wasn’t even allowed to mourn, because mourning had become unfashionable. After all, we’re all really just going to see them again, aren’t we? Unless they happen to choose to go to a different planet with their second family, and not their first. Or unless they choose to die unrecorded.”  She looked away, swallowing.

Cyrus raised his eyebrows, as if inviting her to continue, but when she didn’t speak further, he finally asked, “I assume that someone made a choice with which you didn’t agree?”

Judith stared past him sightlessly, her eyes filled with unshed tears. “My husband decided to die.” It took effort to force the words past her lips, and they felt like hot rocks, scraping the back of her throat as she did. “He was an engineer on the drive team. We’d worked together every day for thirty years. Numbers were practically the only language we spoke, even at home. I was comfortable with the silence. With knowing that we were drawing nearer our goal—well, my goal, anyway. Of seeing our families again while we were still alive. Of exploring the universe with this life,” she added, tapping herself just over the heart. “Not with some other one.” Judith exhaled. “Ten years ago, Paul shot himself. He’d erased his life-recordings beforehand, and left no note. He erased himself as thoroughly as any human can, in this day and age. He chose not to go on. To leave me, his family, our children, and our work. And no one around me knew what to say or do, because, you know what? We’re not allowed to mourn anymore. It’s unseemly.”

A room-temperature hand caught her shoulder, and Cyrus’ voice softened. “Dr. Poulin, I’m sorry. I did not mean to bring up such painful memories, or to mock them.”

She twitched away. “Why come here?” Cyrus persisted.

She shrugged. “To see if there’s any point to letting a ghost of myself continue on without me. To see if any of my family are still here. If I can even recognize them as such. And after that? I . . . don’t know.”

“There’s always a point,” Cyrus told her sharply, his fingers tightening slightly on her shoulder. “Your otherself matters, if not to you, who will die, but to those around you. Which is why your husband’s choice, which he didn’t even discuss with you, was cruel. But even if you don’t have a single solitary person left who’ll mourn your passing, or look for your ghost? You still matter. That’s something I didn’t understand until I died.” He smiled faintly. “I’d pursued immortality out of fear. Fear of losing control over my empire. Fear of dissolution. That other me . . . the first me? He’s gone, yes. He doesn’t know anything about what I’m doing now. But I’m here. And I’m not as frightened as I once was, of letting go. Of losing control. Which is why I’m here, Dr. Poulin. Not to control or force the people of this world. I’m here to observe.”

“Observe?” she repeated, her throat still aching, and moved in spite of herself at his words.  He doesn’t sound like a corporate raider, does he? “That’s all?”

“If they ask me for assistance, I’ll help if I can. But yes. I’m here to see what they’ve made of themselves and this world.” He nodded, releasing his grip on her shoulder. “I like to think I’ve learned a few things in the past hundred years or so.”

Gasps from the crowds of people around them caught her attention, and Judith turned to look as androids of various body conformations moved through the passenger compartment. Several looked to be made entirely of metal, more robot than android, but when they spoke, she heard pleasant human voices. Others looked entirely human, though one had, perhaps as a fashion choice, dyed his skin a vivid shade of dark green. “I’m Doctor Anton Tilki,” one of the male-appearing androids called out over the noise of the crowd. Judith’s heart skipped a beat, and she dug out a pair of highly discreet glasses to perch them on her nose and study the man’s face. I suppose he looks a little like my father. Could that really be my great-great grandfather? Tilki isn’t a common name. “They just broke me out of storage today, and I died about a hundred years ago, so I might not be completely current on medical technology, but the corporate types want me to give everyone a physical before we take you down to the surface to find living quarters in the pressurized areas that have an oxygen atmosphere for you. That part may take some time,” he added.

“Why?” came a shout from further down in the passenger area. “Why’s it going to take time?”

“Because,” one of the silver-bodied, more robotic-looking creatures replied, his tone placid, “the areas that aren’t pressurized, and have native atmosphere, are highly caustic, even to our bodies. If we have to go out into those areas, we either need to wear protective suits, like you, or switch bodies to a platform like this one. And personally, I don’t like wearing my work uniform all day.” One three-fingered metal hand reached up and tapped on the rather square-shaped head that was armed with video cameras for optical reception, and little more. “Many of us might have to go into storage in the servers just to make room for you. So . . . yes. It’s going to take a little time, and you’re not all going to go down there at once.”

Judith stayed seated. Her knee twinged too much to trust it with her weight at the moment, but as the various androids worked the room, she caught them—and the various young humans in the area—stealing peeks over at her and Cyrus. Well, mainly at Cyrus, she thought ruefully. Business tycoons who bring immortality to the masses are infinitely more recognizable than mere physicists who open a window in a universe of locked doors.

The doctor, having worked his way around to her private table, paused, staring at Cyrus for a moment, and then nodded. “Sir.” His voice held a slight chill.

“Do I know you?” Cyrus murmured. “Sorry, I may have to access long-term memory storage—oh!” He blinked, clearly taken aback. “Dr. Tilki, of course. We met when your wife Hannah volunteered to test the upload process throughout her final illness.” He paused, and then offered, quietly, “I’d offer my condolences, but . . . I believe she’s here, on this planet, isn’t she?”

“I’ve seen her, yes, now that I’ve been Awakened,” Dr. Tilki replied, his tone clipped, turning back to Judith.

Anton and Hannah Tilki. Those . . . yes, those are the names of my great-grandmother’s parents. “Dr. Tilki?” Judith asked, her voice sounding oddly small in her ears. “Did you have a daughter named Amy?”

The man’s eyes snapped towards her, and he caught the inside of her wrist in gentle, professional fingers, searching for the pulse there. “Yes,” he replied, looking puzzled. “I’m told she’s in storage here, too. Not yet Awakened. They seem to have some damned odd priorities here—”

“She’s my—you’re my great-great-grandfather,” Judith said, staring at the relatively young face of the doctor in front of her with avid eyes. “You died before I was born, and they . . . they woke you today . . . because they knew I was on this ship, didn’t they?” Too much of a coincidence to be anything else.

The doctor appeared rattled, but rallied. “Ma’am, I . . . don’t know.” Doctors hate those words. “But I can promise you that I’ll find out. That we’ll find out.”

Hours later, on the surface, TCI had organized a tour, mostly for Cyrus, but added Judith to the proceedings when they realized who she was. Inside of an environmental suit hastily provided for her frail human body, she stood on an observation platform atop the highest building and stared, wide-eyed, at a city of five hundred thousand souls that didn’t have a single grocery store, and whose people produced no edible crops. “We weren’t expecting humans to travel here for another hundred or so years, and even then, probably on generation ships,” a young man named Arkady apologized to her left. “We simply haven’t bothered with agriculture yet. Which is going to make feeding you lot a trick.”

“The most recent radio signals we had from you were, of course, fifty-five years old,” Judith murmured. “We understood then that you were working on increasing oxygen levels through plants, and that sustainable crops were just a few years away.”

Arkady made a face. “Haven’t been able to solve the chlorine problem. Can’t fix it into the ground, as plants on Earth do with nitrogen. That’ll make the soil even more caustic than it already is. Overall, it’s going to require a domed habitat for humans. Or one that’s underground.”

A corner of her mouth curved up. “Wouldn’t that be ironic? We the living, trapped in graves underground, while the ghosts walk the surface.” But her tone, in spite of her words, held no bitterness. Still, the young-appearing man stared at her, flummoxed.

Dr. Tilki, overhearing, hurried back over to her side. “I’m finding it best not to think of it in terms of a divide between the living and the dead,” he told her, obviously trying to find some way to bridge the gap. “I’m trying to think of everyone as a fellow-traveler in space and time. And, Dr. Poulin, these folk have lived—for lack of a better term—here for over a hundred years. They don’t want to be displaced—”

Judith held up a hand, shushing her ancestor. “And I understand that,” she replied. “I will work to help find a way for us all to coexist on this world.” I will? When did I decide that? “As you’ve all said, it will take time. Fortunately, for most of you, that’s a somewhat renewable resource.”

She caught the smile of relief on Dr. Tilki’s face, and turned to move away, trying to conceal the stiffness of her left leg as she did. Cyrus caught up with her, however, and slid room-temperature fingers under her elbow. “I can walk,” Judith told him with some dignity.

“Yes, of course you can. But the stairs ahead are steep, and not designed with older humans in mind.” Cyrus looked down at her. “You seem to be coming to terms with all us ghosts quickly.”

Judith turned her face away. “That’s because you’re not the ghosts that matter.”

Mid-step, she stumbled, and Cyrus steadied her, keeping her from pitching down a set of spiraling metal stairs that led back down the spire on which they’d been taking in the view of the city. “On the contrary, my dear madam,” he told her dryly. “I’d say that we’re the kind of ghosts that matter the most.”

“Your kind of ghost can be talked to and reasoned with,” she admitted, trying to catch her breath and feeling her heart pound against her ribcage at the closeness of the fall. “Which does make you much more agreeable—if more intractable and aggravating—than the other kind.”

He released her hand and moved to the railing to look out and down at the city once more. “You said on the ship that you were looking for a point,” he called over his shoulder. “For a reason. For something to show you why going on mattered, even if it’s just an echo. Look down! Isn’t watching this grow and develop and change reason enough? What more can you want, but wonder?”

Judith approached the railing cautiously, and stared down at the city once more. Silver spires and glass everywhere against that green-yellow sky. A plane of some sort, flying overhead, piloted by a human consciousness embedded somewhere inside of its frame. And she closed her eyes, thinking, Paul declined wonder. He declined eternity. Or at least a reasonable facsimile. And I’ll never know why.

But here, with her gloved hands curled around the railing, and Cyrus standing silently beside her, Judith could mourn, and let his ghost with all its unanswered questions pass away onto the wind.  “When the time comes,” she said quietly, so that only Cyrus could hear her, “I’ll choose eternity.”

 

The Ancestor’s Song

By Jackson A. Helms

 

“If you go into the villages, you need to know what’s fady,” the driver said.

“Fady?”

“People have superstitions.  If something is not allowed it’s fady.  If you violate a fady you will be punished.”

“What’s fady around here?”

“There is no fady in the city.  We’re more developed.”  He paused.  “But there are some who still believe.  My grandmother believes it’s fady to work in the morning on a Tuesday.”

“Do you work on Tuesday mornings?”

The driver laughed.  “I work every morning.”

The passenger looked out the window.  They drove east through fuzzy green rice paddies.  Red clay farmhouses, accessible by narrow mud walkways, sat atop earthen mounds in the center of each paddy.  She turned and saw the chaos of Antananarivo retreating behind her.  The capital’s jumbled houses and narrow alleys clung desperately to rocky outcrops towering over the sea of rice.

She was happy to leave the city.  She had spent her first days in Madagascar searching for a driver.  Now, finally on her way, she looked forward to a few hours of traveling.  She hoped the driver would not expect her to be social.

“My name is Nest,” he said.  “Like a bird.”

“That’s a good name.  I’m Elaine.”  She looked back out the window, trying to imagine life as a Malagasy rice farmer.

“What music do you like?”

“Oh, I like just about anything.”

Now she imagined the island’s first farmers.  They sailed here across thousands of miles of open sea, bringing their language and crops with them.  From their Asian homeland those seafarers had colonized countless islands across the Pacific—Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island.  Crossing the Indian Ocean, they planted their Asian culture here off the African coast.  Supposedly the language of some Dayaks in Borneo is so similar to Malagasy that –

“Do you like films?”.  Nest interrupted her thoughts.

“Yeah, I do.”

“Have you seen Jurassic Park?  It’s my favorite.  I think you’ve heard of it.  It’s an American film.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen it.  It’s a good one.”

“Are the dinosaurs real?”

Elaine turned her gaze from the farms outside and met Nest’s eyes in the rearview mirror.  “What?”

“Are the dinosaurs in the film real?  They look real.”

“No, they’re not real.  Dinosaurs used to exist, but they all died long before there were people.  Except for birds.  Birds are dinosaurs.  But the other dinosaurs, like the really big ones, went extinct a long time ago.”

“Then how did they have them in the film?”

“For Jurassic Park I think they used robots and models and animation.  Most movies today use animation, with computers.”

“Ah, America is so developed.”

“I don’t know.  People are the same everywhere.”

Her mind turned back to Madagascar’s first settlers, the clearers and burners of the forest.  They had lived alongside, and hunted to extinction, giant lemurs and dozens of other vanished animals.  Eggs of the 10-foot tall elephant bird, roc in Arabian mythology, were over a foot long and their shells could still be found across the island.  She had seen one on display in the capital.

The plateau they were crossing gradually expired into a series of jagged ridges.  It was here that Elaine finally saw forest.  In the sterile landscape they had crossed to get here—two hours of driving—they had not passed any natural vegetation.  Not an acre of woods, not any riverside jungle.  Just farms, paddies, and cow pastures, crops planted right up to the riverbanks.  But here some of the steeper slopes avoided the plow.

Her destination would be similar but larger.  A forest haunted by a remnant population of the world’s largest lemur, the indri.  Seventeen larger lemurs, some over 300 pounds, had already gone extinct.  But the indri, dubiously bumped up to first place and next on the chopping block, still lingered.  It had been eliminated from most of its range and now clung to existence in only a few isolated forests.  But it was still technically alive.

“That’s tavy.”  Nest nodded toward the disheveled farmland at the forest edge.  Rough fields studded with blackened tree stumps, the remains of recently burned forest, graded into older and more established farms.  “Tavy is when they burn to farm.  They’re planting coffee and mangos and bananas.”

“There’s some forest there too.  It’s the first we’ve seen today.”

Her enthusiasm for natural areas was not shared by Nest, who continued undeterred. “Have you tried coffee from Madagascar?  It’s very good.  The soil here is rich because it comes from the forest, and when we burn to make tavy it makes the best coffee.  Our zebu—that is what we call beef—is also the best.”

“I’ll have to try it.”  Elaine had little interest in sampling cows, or coffee, or anything else that she could get in any city back home.  This was Madagascar, and after monotonous days of city and farmland, she just wanted to see forest.  But today she would settle on the tourist lodge at its edge.

***

Elaine put down her spoon and looked up.  The waiter, standing attentively in the shadows, interpreted her sudden movement as a summons.  Elaine waved him off and continued listening.  The mournful sound trickled in, carried weakly on the wind from beyond the forest’s edge behind the restaurant.  It hung on the air, like a long hopeless yelp, and then cut out.

“That is the song of the ancestor.”  The voice startled Elaine.  She had not seen the woman approach.  “Sorry to interrupt your meal.  I am Barsama, the owner here.  How is the food?”
“The food’s great.”  She shook Barsama’s hand.  “My name is Elaine.  What did you call that sound?”

“The song of the ancestor.  It’s the call of an indri lemur.  Here we believe the first people were indris.  Then some of them decided to leave the forest and live on farms.  Those people became us.  The indris are the people who stayed in the forest.  So they are like our ancestors, and they sing sad songs because they miss us.”

“I’m actually here to look for indris.”

“Do you have a guide?”

“Not yet.  A friend recommended a man named Dedi.”

The woman paused.  “Yes, Dedi was the best guide.  Sadly, he died last year.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Dedi loved indris and always knew where to find them.  He even carried a staff that was carved like an indri’s head.  He said he wanted to live in the forest with them.”

“What happened to him?”

“He went into the forest alone and didn’t come back.  His friends went to look for him, and found his body with a large machete cut on his head.  We never learned who did it.  Dedi was popular with tourists, and earned a lot of money as a guide.  Maybe someone was jealous.”

“Geez.”  Elaine molded her face into what she hoped was a concerned expression.  “So what should I do?”

“I have a friend who is a guide.  If you would like, I could ask him to meet you here in the evening.  He can help you arrange everything.”

“Sure, that’s perfect.  Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  Enjoy your meal.”  Barsama turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

Elaine picked up her spoon, tilted her head to catch the end of a particularly long indri call, and bent back to her meal.

***

Elaine returned to the restaurant that evening to find a man waiting for her.  Alert, wiry, and standing a head shorter than Elaine, the man was difficult to age.  He could have been in his late 30s or maybe even 50s.  He introduced himself as Elaine approached.

“Good evening.  My name is Deux.  Are you Miss Lane?”

“Yes, I’m Elaine.  What was your name again?”

“Deux, like the number two.  Barsama told me you needed a guide.”

“Yeah, I do.  Are you the friend she recommended?”

“I am.  When would you like to leave?”

“As soon as possible.  I feel like I’ve been waiting for days.  Is tomorrow too soon?”

He gave a reassuring laugh.  “Tomorrow is no problem.  It’s easy.  I will take care of everything, and tomorrow night you will be sleeping in the forest.”

Deux agreed to meet Elaine early the next morning with provisions and a couple porters.  She handed him a stack of bills to buy supplies, then sat at a corner table, picked up the menu, and indulged herself with thoughts of the upcoming hike.  She had done it.  She had made it to Madagascar, found a remaining chunk of forest, and if all went well, would soon be face to face with the world’s largest surviving lemurs.

***

They set out the following morning.  Deux took the lead, and Elaine followed close behind with her pack.  Two porters trailed them, one hefting a nylon sack filled food and cooking supplies.  The younger of the two—Elaine thought he could not be older than sixteen—carried on his shoulders a rattan basket containing three thin and noisy chickens.  They would carry them into the forest alive and slaughter them as needed.

Even though the forest here was legally protected, farmers had cleared all the easily accessible areas for crops and pastures.  The forest edge hung a few hundred meters beyond the road, like a ragged black curtain marking the farthest extent of the settlers’ fires.  Recent rains had flooded the pastures.  That, and the quickly rising tropical sun, would make crossing the open area the most difficult part of the day’s hike.

Deux moved with the ghostlike stride common to experienced guides the world over.  He half ran along the packed red dirt trails, and seemed to wade through the marshes without wetting even his flipflops.  Elaine managed not to lose sight of him as he sped ahead of her, and somehow stayed ahead of the porters, although she suspected this was just because they did not want to pass her.

Elaine lifted her eyes from the trail and stole a glance at the forest edge ahead, now a wall of solid monotonous green.  Jungle, she thought.  Not in the romanticized melodramatic sense that was just a derogatory word for forest.  This was jungle in the technical sense, jangla, impenetrable thickets at the edges of clearings and riverbanks.  Elaine examined the tangle of shrubs, climbing palms, and five-meter high pandanus with leaves like serrated tentacles.  Beyond that wall lay the beckoning shade of the forest.

A frantic shout from behind caused Deux to run to the rear.  Elaine turned in time to see the two porters disappear into the trailside pasture grass.  Instinctively, she crouched and scanned the landscape for threats, and slowly became aware of Deux’s voice calling her name.

“Lane!  Miss Lane!”

“I’m here!” Elaine stood up.

“It’s the chickens, Lane.”  Deux called from some hidden dip in the pasture.  “They escaped from their basket.  Wait in the forest.”

“Okay.”

Elaine continued along the trail, chuckling at the thought of three men chasing those skinny chickens through the tall grass.  She found it hard to believe they would ever catch them.

She paused at the foot of a small hill to catch her breath and adjust her shoulder straps.  The forest edge waited at the top of the rise.  Why hadn’t she borrowed Deux’s machete before she went on ahead?  The sooner she found a way through the layer of jungle, the sooner she could drop her pack and rest in the shade while she waited for the guys, probably three chickens lighter, to catch up.

As she crossed the lip of the hill, Elaine saw a dark tunnel where the trail penetrated the forest edge.  Relieved she would not have to bushwhack after all, she ducked into the narrow opening.  Deux must bring people here often, she thought, then jerked her arm as pain shot through her elbow.  A drop of blood flowed from a straight slash through her skin.

“Dammit,” she cursed herself, more with disappointment at her clumsiness than with pain.  “Come on, Elaine.  Pandanus.”  She had brushed against the serrated edge of one of the spiraling plant tentacles.

Elaine shuffled to a large fallen log, dropped her pack, twisted her body to wipe the bloody elbow on the side of her shirt, and plopped down in the leaf litter to nap.

***

It was raining when she woke up.  No, not rain, but something else falling on the leaves around her.  Elaine flicked her eyes upward to see a dark shape snuffling through the tree tops, occasionally dropping bits of fruit rind or knocking loose dead leaves and twigs.  An indri?  Not likely, too small and dark.  Maybe some other lemur?  Elaine hazily rooted through her pack to retrieve her binoculars.  But sudden footsteps spooked the visitor into fleeing, its presence attested only by a dampening wave of ruffled vegetation.

“Bonjour, Miss Lane!”  It was Deux, newly arrived from the pasture.

“Bonjour!  How are the chickens?”

“The chickens are here.”  He waved his hand toward the rattan basket on the young porter’s shoulders.  Elaine was disappointed to see it was again full of live chickens.  The hens’ great escape had been a brave, if ultimately futile, effort.

“So what’s the plan?  Do you think we’ll find any indris today?”, she asked.

“No, not today.  It is already late.  To see indris you must find them in the morning.  We will rest here, and then go to our campsite.  In the morning we will find indris.  I promise.”

The porters set down their load and sat beside Elaine.  Deux doled out a snack of peanuts, individually wrapped cheese wedges, and milk biscuits.

“Deux,” Elaine asked after eating a few biscuits and cheese, “Yesterday my driver from Tana told me that if you go anywhere in Madagascar, you have to ask about fady.”

“That is true.  Every place has fady.”

“So what’s fady here?”  Elaine began shelling a peanut.

“There are two.  One, it is fady to piss near the water.  It makes the river dirty.”

“That’s a good one,” Elaine said.

“Two, it is fady to kill an indri.  People here call indris babakoto.  It means ancestor or family.  Killing an indri is like killing your friend, and it brings bad luck.”

Elaine thought about the hundreds of miles of farmland she crossed to get here, and the recently burned stumps and new pastures just beyond the forest’s edge.  “But you can still cut down forest to make tavy?”

“That is different.  It is not killing.”

“But it still kills indris.”

“Yes, but it is not killing.  It is only fady to kill indris yourself.”

The young porter suddenly interjected something to Deux.  He did not speak English, but had picked up on the discussion of fady and babakoto.  A quick discussion followed, ending with the older porter shushing the teenager.

“What did he say?”  Elaine asked.

“Gino says a family killed and ate a babakoto two nights ago.  But it was far from here,” he reassured her, “maybe five kilometers.”  Elaine listened silently, though she knew that five kilometers was not far for an indri or a human.  “Fidel says it is just a story.  He says the people here do not hunt.  They are farmers.”

***

They reached their campsite on a small ridge an hour before sunset.  The ground was mostly clear and Elaine assumed Deux, or some other guide, used the site regularly.  She walked a short way into the woods, dropped her pack near a flat spot, and used her knife to clear away a few seedlings.  But before she could begin piecing together her simple two-person tent, Deux called her back to the group.

She arrived to find Deux’s tent already erected about twenty meters away.  The porters’ shared tent parts were laid out near a used fire pit, next to the sack of food and cooking gear.

“Gino will collect wood for the fire,” Deux informed her.  “But first we need to have a fomba ceremony.  It is like a prayer.  We talk to our ancestors.  We thank them, and ask them to forgive us for anything we cut or take from the forest.”  Elaine nodded.  “You don’t need to say anything.  Fidel will do it.”

They joined Fidel in a semi-circle around the base of a moderately sized tree.  Buttress roots flowed from the ground up to the tree’s side, forming a series of wedge-shaped hollows around the lower trunk.  A perfect dwelling place for small animals or other spirits.

They squatted respectfully as Fidel murmured a short prayer.  When it was finished he filled a plastic cup with rum from a bottle and took a drink.  He passed the cup to Gino, who drank and passed it to Elaine.  She took a sip and passed to Deux.  As he tilted his head to finish it, the cup slipped from his hands, ricocheted flatly off a buttress root, and came to a stop in a pile of damp litter in one of the dark compartments at the tree’s base.

Elaine remained motionless, trying to maintain the demeanor of a respectful outsider to this fumbled rite.  Gino and Fidel looked expectantly toward the guide.

After a moment Deux laughed to relieve the silence, bent to the cup and brought it to his mouth a final time, making a confident show of draining the last clinging drops.

His recovery appeased the porters, who hopped up and went to gather firewood.  Deux began silently erecting the porters’ tent, and Elaine left to finish setting up her own.

She emerged later to find two chickens tethered under an overhanging boulder on the edge of the camp clearing.  A glance toward the fire revealed the naked body of the third, lying in splash of blood on a flat-topped rock.  The smell of burning feathers wafted from the low fire.

“Tonight, we will eat the first chicken,” Deux said.  “The chickens there,” he gestured at the tethered hens under the overhang, “will eat the food we throw away, and we will kill one tomorrow and one the day after.  This way the food is always fresh.  There are no refrigerators in the forest.”

Elaine smiled politely at his joke, then went to rinse her hands in a creek.

***

Elaine wanted to keep sleeping but her bladder would not cooperate.  She slowly opened an eye.  Still dark.  There might be time to go back to sleep after pissing.  She sat up, pushed her sleeping bag down to her waist, and put on a shirt.  Then she lay back down and wriggled her legs out of the sleeping bag and into her hiking pants.

Keeping one eye closed, both to preserve her night vision and to emerge as little as possible into wakefulness, she grabbed her water bottle, wrestled her way out of the tent flap and switched on her headlamp.  She wandered a short way into the trees, scanned the ground to make sure it was clear, and switched off the light.  She closed her open eye and squatted in the darkness, half dozing to the pleasant sound of urine drumming on the leaf litter.  When she finished she reopened the one eye, tipped a splash of water onto her hand and rinsed herself.

She pulled up her pants, took a few steps toward her tent, then switched on the light to find a glowing face staring back at her.

Elaine let out an incoherent cry and launched her water bottle at the apparition.

“Shit, it’s just you, Deux.  You scared the crap out of me.”

She placed a calming hand on her chest as her water bottle rolled to an ineffectual stop near Deux’s feet.

“I’m sorry Miss Lane.  Is it time to go?”  Deux, who had no watch, was apparently taking his time cues from her.

“No, I was just pissing.  It’s still early.  I’m going back to sleep for a while.”

“I see.”  Deux rubbed his bloodshot eyes and returned the way he had come.

Elaine leaned against a tree for a minute and let out a last quiet “shit,” then fetched her water bottle and returned to the comfort of her sleeping bag.

***

At sunrise she rinsed off in the creek, this time searching out a spot far from camp.  She wanted to avoid a repeat of last night’s creepy experience.  She shuddered again at the memory of Deux’s tired red eyes appearing at her vulnerable moment.  Then she pushed the image away and lowered herself into the cold water.

She followed the sound of the porters’ voices back to camp.  As she approached she felt the conversation speed up and get heated.  She had wanted to learn Malagasy, but after a week all she could manage was an occasional misaotra—thank you.  It was hard to force herself to learn the new language when most people spoke to her in French or English.  Here in the forest her language deficit was a severe handicap.  Unable to speak directly to Gino or Fidel, she had to field her questions to them through Deux.  And there was no hope of understanding camp conversations in real time.

Elaine arrived at the clearing to sudden silence. Deux sat alone on a log with his back to her, while Gino and Fidel squatted on the opposite side of the low fire.

“Good morning everyone.”

The porters responded with uninterested nods and began fiddling with pots and cooking gear.  Deux turned around and cheerfully asked if she was ready to see indris.

***

The two of them left camp, Deux and his machete leading the way.  After minutes of silence, Elaine asked how Deux was doing.

“I’m fine.  It is good to be walking in the forest.  It is like medicine for your mind.”

“Gino and Fidel don’t seem happy.  It sounded like you were arguing earlier.”

Deux waved his hand dismissively.  “They are idiots.”  He pointed to his head with his free hand.  “They have nothing in their brains.”

“Why do you say that?”

“They want to go home.  They say they are afraid!  I hired them for two nights, but they want to leave today.  Lazy.”  Deux turned around, and casually waved his machete toward her.  “Why didn’t you call me earlier?  If I had more time, I would have found better people to hire.  Friends that I could trust.”

“I’m sorry.  I couldn’t plan ahead.  I didn’t know any guides here.”

“It’s okay.”  His smile returned.  “This happens all the time.  You and I will still enjoy the forest.”

“We’ll stay one more night, and leave tomorrow afternoon?”

“Yes, we will.”  Deux froze.  “Listen” he whispered.

An indri song floated in the air and was joined by another.  Soon several indris were calling repeatedly to each other.  The calls seemed to come from every direction, meeting and overlapping around their heads.  Each call was a slow whine, like a drawn out toy trumpet note, some descending, some ticking upward at the end.

Elaine froze and let the songs move through her.  She was thousands of miles from home, and now the indri calls pulled her even further away.  Further back.  In her mind she again traveled to the island’s first farmers.  She watched them penetrate inland from the beaches over generations, imagined their first encounters with indris.  She thought about the animals those people encountered and drove extinct over the centuries.  The elephant birds, Malagasy hippos, lemurs even larger than indris.  Elaine knew the indris were communicating with each other, but the songs seemed like messages for her from her own history—from the babakotos.

Deux nudged her and pointed upward.  An indri leaped into view from the periphery and landed on a nearby trunk.  It did not jump or fall into the tree, but rather shot in horizontally as if fired from a gun.  Coming to a stop with its arms gripping the smooth trunk, it pointed its doglike head at her.  Its yellow-green eyes met Elaine’s.  Before she could fully process the brief tête-à-tête, the animal was off.  Bouncing from tree to tree like an errant ping pong ball, the tailless lemur was a hundred meters away in seconds.

“Let’s go” Deux said, and trotted after the indri.

Elaine followed, running off the trail and angling downward along the side of a ridge.  She reached back to steady her bouncing pack, and lost her balance.  Her right foot slipped leftward underneath her on the slick incline.  She landed heavily on her hip, and straightened her left leg to ride in a controlled slide down the rest of the slope.  As soon as she hit the bottom she was up and after Deux again.

He stopped and waved her over.  Elaine arrived panting and dirty to find Deux calmly holding up three fingers.  She looked around to see two indris nearby and a third in the distance.  She had no idea which of them was the one they had pursued.  The indris were quiet now.  They still called occasionally, but the songs were interrupted by feeding breaks as they foraged for young leaves.

It was over in fifteen minutes.  The far indri disappeared first, followed by the other two, and Elaine had no desire to pursue them further.  She had had her moment.  The forest was quiet again save for the buzzing of cicadas.

“That was amazing, Deux.  Thanks for finding them for me.”

“I told you it was easy.  I think we can find them again tomorrow morning, before we leave the forest.”

He ambled back up the ridge, carrying his sandals in his free hand to allow his toes better purchase in the muddy incline.  Back on the trail he put them back on his feet and shot a smile toward Elaine.  “Now we eat.”

***

Elaine smelled the boiling chicken as they neared camp.  The scent seemed to agitate Deux.  He picked up his pace and stalked with hasty strides, energetically swinging his machete.  Bursting into the clearing, he barked a question at the porters.  Gino stepped back submissively, while the older Fidel responded in a quick quiet tone.

His answer enraged Deux, who stepped closer to Fidel, towering over him now.  Deux began to shout, and Elaine watched in horror as he lifted his machete above his shoulder.  The blade whistled downward and embedded itself with a thud into a nearby tree trunk.  Deux stamped away in silence.

Fidel stared after him a moment, then gathered up his gear and began walking away along the trail out.  Gino flashed Elaine an apologetic look and ran to join the other porter.  Elaine watched them disappear, then looked around the camp.  A pot of stew simmered over the fire.  Deux’s machete was still half-buried in the tree—the one with the buttress roots where they had performed the fomba.

She pulled the blade free, turned to set it near the fire, and saw that Deux had returned and was sitting calmly on a log.

“They are idiots,” he spat.  “If they don’t want to stay two nights, okay.  But it is only noon.  They should stay at least until the evening.”

“It’s not a big deal.  It’s just a few hours.”

“But they cooked all our food.”  He waved his arm at the rock overhang, now conspicuously devoid of any tethered fowl.  “We were supposed to cook one chicken today and one tomorrow.”

“That’s fine,” Elaine tried to calm him.  “We can just eat this today, and heat up whatever’s left tomorrow morning.”

He waved away the suggestion without looking up.

***

Elaine spent the afternoon reading in her tent, giving Deux time and space to cool off.  She could not understand why he had flipped on the porters.  It was a little annoying that they wanted to leave a day early, but so what?  And if she were a porter and did not plan on staying another night, she would want to leave around noon too.  It would take a while to get back to the road, and the tropical sun sets early.  It was considerate of them to cook all the food before they left.

But Deux did not see it that way.  And that crazy machete thing?  She realized there was another reason she was giving Deux space—she was afraid of him.

This made her worry even more.  In all her travels, all the guides she had worked with in other countries, she had never been afraid of someone.  Was she slipping, losing her edge?  Getting too old and cautious to explore?

No, this was legitimate.  Even the porters were wigged out.  He shouted and buried a machete in a tree!  Their fomba tree, no less, where they had asked permission to enter the forest.

And now she was alone with him.  Just one more night, she consoled herself.  She had not come all this way, gone through all that effort to find a real Malagasy forest, just to retreat because some second-rate guide lost his cool.

A light rain drummed on the tent’s mesh top.  She put down her book and crawled out into the dark to put on the rain fly.

Afterwards she wandered over to the camp clearing to reheat dinner.  Deux had already gotten the fire going, and had erected a waterproof canopy over the clearing.  He was maneuvering the pot of chicken over the flames as Elaine approached.

“Good evening, Miss Lane.”

Elaine caught a whiff of rum as he greeted her.  His eyes were more bloodshot than they had been during their encounter the previous evening.  There must have been some fomba rum left in the bottle.

“Good evening, Deux.”

“The food will be ready soon.”

“Thanks for heating it up.”  Elaine figured she should try to calm Deux’s emotions.  But she was always so clumsy with these things.  “And thanks for organizing this whole trip.”

Deux did not respond.  The rain intensified, pounding now on the canopy overhead.

“I know it was really short notice.”  She gave it another awkward try.  “But I think the trip has already been worth it.  It was amazing seeing the indris this morning.  And we’ll have some more time in the forest tomorrow.”

“You lied to me earlier.”
Elaine stiffened.

“What do you mean?”

“You said you hired me because you didn’t know any guides.  But I know that you asked about Dedi.”

“I did ask about Dedi.  But I didn’t know him.  I just heard about him from a friend.”

“Dedi was an idiot.  But the tourists loved him.  Foreigners don’t know anything.”  Deux turned his bloodshot eyes towards her.  “It is not hard to find indris.  We all grew up in the forest.”

Elaine feared provoking Deux further, so stayed silent and tried to look concerned.  Just make it through dinner, she thought, then get back to your tent.

“I can speak to foreigners too.”
“Yeah, your English is great.”

“I learned it at the mine.  All this land used to belong to a French mining company.  I worked there for a long time.  But then the mine closed and the foreigners left.”
“When did that happen?”
“It was long ago.  But then they made the land into a national park.  They should have given it to us.  We need land for tavy.  They were idiots.”

“But now you work in the park as a guide.  And there’s not much forest left.  What about the indris and everything else that lives here?”

“You sound like Dedi.  He never worked at the mine.  He was too young.  He was happy when they made the national park.  Being a guide was his first job.  Other people had more experience, but Dedi got all the money.  All he cared about was indris.  He didn’t think about people.  Idiot.”

Elaine had no desire to get involved in local politics or dredge up an old murder.  She ladled some stew into a bowl and began gulping it down.  Deux did the same, and they passed the rest of the meal in silence.  As soon as she finished eating, she muttered a lame excuse about being tired and shuffled back to her tent.

***

Elaine woke in the darkness, her stomach twisted with anxiety.  Her dreams must have been disturbing but she could not recall them.  Lazily she reached for her watch where she had set it beside her sleeping mat.  Only midnight.  Her bladder began to nudge her outside.  But something held her back.  She tried to convince herself she did not have to go, or that she was too tired to get up.  But she knew she was afraid.

Come on Elaine, she thought, you have been camping for years.  No reason to be afraid of the dark.

But her tent, which usually felt like a protective home, now seemed vulnerable.  She was aware that all that separated her from the rain, from the dark, from anything—or anyone—was a thin nylon sheet.  Her tiny two-person tent was little more than a sleeping bag, and did not really protect her from anything except being seen.  If she turned on her headlamp she would not even have that, since her silhouette would be illuminated for all the world.  She, in contrast, could not see beyond the enclosing tent walls.  In this rain she would never hear approaching footsteps.

She reached up and stroked the sloping tent ceiling inches above her nose.  Someone could be standing outside right now.  It would be obvious from the shape of the tent where her head was.  One slash of a machete could tear right through the tent and into her face.

She waited but the imagined blow never came.  This is ridiculous, she thought.  Why are you intentionally scaring yourself?

Still, it took several minutes to work up the courage to leave her tent.  And she did not dare use a headlamp.  In darkness she navigated the space outside her tent and squatted, taking comfort in knowing the rain would mask her sounds as well.  Then she darted back inside.

***

At dawn she emerged to a dripping world.  She made her way to the fire and poked at the damp ashes.  They were scheduled to have one last early morning walk to find indris, then hike out in the afternoon.  But Deux was nowhere to be seen.  Probably hungover.

Elaine took the opportunity to bathe again in the creek.  When she returned and found the camp still deserted, she took down her tent and loaded her gear into her pack.  Then she sat and read, enjoying the indri calls in the distance.

By late morning the calls died away, and Elaine accepted that she had missed her last opportunity to see indris.   But she would be damned if she missed out on food.  She got a fire going and heated up the last dregs of their chicken and potato stew.  It was noon by the time she finished eating and cleaned up.  Deux’s absence had gone from awkward to infuriating.  They needed to leave soon if they were to make it to the lodge by dark, but Deux had not even gotten out of bed.

She walked over to his tent, stepping loudly so he would hear her before she arrived.  The tent flap remained shut.  Elaine stopped a few feet away, unsure how to proceed.  She hoped he was still in there and not roaming the woods nearby.  But something told her the tent was empty.  She nudged one wall with her foot.

“Deux?”

No response.  She kicked the tent, then reached out and shook it.  There was no one inside.

She realized then that she hated him.  She hated how he had creeped on her that first night, how he had treated Gino and Fidel, how he had ruined her last evening and morning in the forest, and now she hated him for putting her in this position.  What the hell was she supposed to do?  Keep waiting?  She had to hike out soon, but needed Deux to guide her, and he was probably passed out against a tree somewhere, still drunk from the night before.

Fuck him, she thought.  In the end she was only responsible for herself and her own gear, all of which she could carry out on her back.  The trail was clear, and even if she got lost she had an escape azimuth.  No matter where she was in the forest, she could use her compass to head due north and eventually hit the road somewhere near the lodge.  Elaine returned to camp, shouldered her pack, and set out.

When she had gone about twenty meters, she turned around, shouted a farewell “Fuck you,” and continued walking.

***

She walked with her head down and eyes on the trail, alert to the buzzing cicadas and bird calls.  She stopped for a moment to adjust her pack straps, then the air around her exploded with whining trumpet sounds.  Indris.  They were more hyperactive than she had ever heard them.  The songs bounced at her from multiple directions and repeated themselves frantically.  She searched the forest canopy in vain.

Her heart quickened and she picked up her pace.  Thinking she might get another glimpse of indris after all, she carried her pack forward at a lumbering trot.

Then she froze.  Deux straddled the trail ahead of her, arms akimbo.  His machete hung from his right hand, but he was otherwise unencumbered.  No water bottle, no pack, no sack of cooking gear.  He lifted his face from the ground until their gazes met.  His eyes were dark, like the hyper-dilated orbs of a deep sea fish.

“Deux?  What’s going on?”  No response.  “I looked for you but you weren’t in your tent.  So I figured I’d hike out and meet up with you later.”

Deux walked toward her, arms swinging languidly.  He seemed oblivious, as if her were whacked out of his skull on some hallucinogen.

“Deux, stop!  Hey!  Deux!”

Deux continued his approach.  Elaine took a step backward, then another.  Soon she was frantically backing away with her arms up, all the while shouting to get Deux to acknowledge her, to pull him back into humanity from wherever he was.  She stumbled and her pack carried her backwards.  She fell into a half sitting position, anchored to the ground by her gear.

Still Deux approached.  He was fifteen meters away now.  His right hand gave an anticipatory twitch, moving the machete blade slightly upward.  The fucker’s going to murder me, she thought.

Elaine’s hands scrabbled for the pack’s waist belt.  She unclasped it and tried to stand, but the chest clasp was still secured.  Fuck, fuck, fuck, she thought, as she fought to free herself.  Deux reached for her with his free left hand.  Then the chest clasp finally snapped free and she rolled to the right and scrambled to her feet.

She felt Deux’s fingers grasp at her shirt collar, slip away, and then curl around her right forearm.  He jerked her around so that she faced him, and pointed the machete in her face.

“You lied to me.  Foreigners are all the same.  Idiots!”

Elaine tore her arm free and pushed him hard in the chest with both hands.  He tripped over her pack and sprawled backwards.  She sprinted past him as he fell and pounded down the trail.

Deux did not follow.  After a while she slowed to a jog, then a walk as she took stock of her situation.  She had been so focused on escape that she abandoned her pack when she ran.  She would not have been able to retrieve it anyway with Deux right there, let alone run with it.  If she made it out she could come back for it later.  But her worst case escape plan—go due north to get to the road—was ruined.  It would be difficult to navigate across country without her compass, especially in the dark.  Her only option now was to stick to the trail, move fast, and get out by sundown.

A crash exploded to her right.  Deux must have gone off trail to cut her off, and now he erupted from the vegetation, angling toward her at a wild sprint.  She began to run, but Deux knocked her over with a flying tackle and scrambled on top of her.  He pinned her arms with his hands and straddled her.  His machete, tethered to his wrist with a leather thong, trailed along the ground.

Deux’s dark eyes stared into Elaine’s from inches away.  Then he screamed in rage, an endless wild yell.  His sour rum breath flowed into her mouth and nose and eyes.  He paused to breath then screamed again, tensing all his muscles and pouring into her his life’s anger.

Elaine struggled, but his grip was pitiless.  Over and over he screamed, exhausting himself with each effort.  Then he lowered his gaze from her face to search her body.  He paused, then removed his left hand from her arm.  It hovered over her throat before moving down to grope her breast.

Elaine pushed out her freed right arm, searching for something to grab, to push against.  Her fingers wrapped around a piece of smooth hard wood.

Deux’s hand fumbled with the buttons on her hiking shirt.  This was her moment.  She slammed the wood against his head with a crack, then heaved against the ground with her right leg, throwing him off her left side.  She scrambled to her feet, and he followed.  Wielding the wood with two hands now, she jabbed the end at his eyes.  He leaned back and the blow struck him on the nose and upper lip, sending him reeling to the ground.

Elaine darted off the trail, trying to put distance and concealing vegetation between her and Deux.

When she was sure she was alone she slowed down and got her bearings.  The piece of wood was still her hand.  It would be dark in half an hour or so.  Keeping the sun to her left, she walked in a vaguely northward direction.  The forest edge must be close.

She stepped right to go around a large pandanus, only to find more of the plants behind.  An impenetrable thicket of stiff serrated leaves reared out of the ground like a wall of swords.  She followed the barrier to the right, searching for an opening in the fading light.

A lone indri call broke the silence.  It was followed by others, all of them far away, wafting in on the fading light.  Then she heard footsteps behind her.  She turned to see Deux just visible in the distance, hacking at vegetation with his machete.

In a panic she dove into the wall of pandanus.   Holding her wood in front of her to protect her face she shouldered her way into the plants.  The leaf edges tore her clothes and skin.  But the plants did not give way.  She was trapped.

“Miss Lane!”  Deux shouted, and she heard the manic strike of machete against branches and vines.  He was close.  “Miss Lane!”

Elaine hurled herself to the ground to crawl under the arching pandanus leaves.  A few meters into the thicket, she heard Deux hit the wall behind her with a crash and another shout.  He began to hack a tunnel through with his machete.  The indri calls were frantic now, maybe half a dozen or more animals singing to each other through the tree tops.

Elaine pushed herself onward until the leaves opened above her.  Standing up, she felt a breeze on her face.  Dry soil crunched under her feet.  She was standing on charred cinders.

Tavy, she thought.  I’m out of the forest.

“Miss Lane!”  She turned to see Deux’s machete pierce through the pandanus jungle and cut the air near her face.  “Miss Lane!”

Then Deux wailed in pain.  His arm and machete snapped back into the thicket as he wrestled with the toothy plants.  She watched him flail against the entangling vegetation, and then slowly retreat back into the forest.  In the darkness it seemed like the plants themselves were dragging him away.  The indris called louder and fiercer than ever.

“Miss Lane,” Deux said again, but soft now, pleading.  “Help, Miss Lane.”  Elaine did not move.  His wails turned to sobs, then ended in an abrupt rasping gurgle.

***

Electric lights twinkled in the distance across the tavy.  Elaine followed them to a village and stumbled to the steps of the nearest farmhouse where an old woman sat cross-legged on a porch.

A final mournful indri song sailed to them across the tavy.

“Ah, you know the ancestor?” the woman asked and pointed to Elaine’s hand.

In the harsh glow of the porchlight Elaine examined for the first time the wood she had carried out of the forest.   It was not a log, but a staff, and its end was carved in the likeness of an indri’s head.

Issue 38 Poetry

The Book of Eve

The Book of Eve

I tell you temptation was cool As a string of pearls in my hands.

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Christine

Christine

You are dream etched in lipstick written in the curls of black rubber

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Light in the Window

Light in the Window

Dream a memory of clouds that chase the moon, of winds outside a house that knew a devastating war.

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The future of autopsy reporting

The future of autopsy reporting

from the allotted bloom spewing lilac into april

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All the Better, Dear Wolf

All the Better, Dear Wolf

Look, I know I’m a predator. I’m five years of age, in my prime,

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Transgender

Transgender

Cupid glistens in the middle of the sun. You’re blinded by such beauty.

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The Valley of Dry Bones

The Valley of Dry Bones

Not South, but somewhere in an arid space Where your heart beats slower,

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I unlearned my future

I unlearned my future

I unlearned my future when I tripped over trees birdsong at my knees like cricket call. I never knew

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Homebound

Homebound

lift the bowl to the stars and remember the cries of the infants

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Issue 38 Stories

Change of Light

Change of Light

Change of Light

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.”

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Robot Moon Love Little Blue

Robot Moon Love Little Blue

Robot Moon Love Little Blue

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.

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Knowing Elly

Knowing Elly

Knowing Elly

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.

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More than Just a Barroom Hero

More than Just a Barroom Hero

More than Just a Barroom Hero

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.

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INTJ

INTJ

INTJ

The week always started with Terry crumpling the letter into a tight ball. The letters came once every Monday over four years, and Terry Jamison crumpled all of them. He knew better than to tear them into slivers.

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CROSSING

CROSSING

CROSSING

The darkness is the beginning and the end. The sudden flash of light in between, hosts action. It illuminates the bodies.

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Autoporn Cache

Autoporn Cache

Autoporn Cache

It’s one lousy dry afternoon in Corona Del Mar, and I’m trying to read Popular Mechanics. My sister and grandpa are yelling, and I can only focus on the ads.

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Under a Rock

Under a Rock

Under a Rock

“Oh. Uh, what’s been interesting in your life?” Abby shrugged, face in her phone. “A dino tooth showed up in the backyard yesterday, so that’s cool I guess.”

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Ghosts of All Our Pasts

Ghosts of All Our Pasts

Ghosts of All Our Pasts

The newsfeed report hovered in the air before his eyes, projected by the holographic display embedded in the table’s surface, but he didn’t need to read it.

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The Ancestor’s Song

The Ancestor’s Song

The Ancestor’s Song

“If you go into the villages, you need to know what’s fady,” the driver said. “Fady?” “People have superstitions. If something is not allowed it’s fady. If you violate a fady you will be punished.”

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Expulsion

Expulsion

Expulsion

He slid from his pupal case, and though he witnessed other flies struggling to escape theirs, none of them suffered a time limit. None of the others nearly drowned in the strange secretion which covered him.

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