Nick’s Last Flight

by Bruce Arthurs

Nick’s head was already pounding when Gunther sent word of an emergency in the stables. It was worse by the time he arrived and was struck by an obnoxious wave of odor, the pungent reek of reindeer poop and puke. Nick’s stomach lurched, but he managed to keep his half-digested meal of cheese, bread and ale – a lot of ale – from coming up; it would only add to the revolting miasma.

Nick turned from side to side, his good eye taking in the situation. In every stall, reindeer were down or barely standing. They shivered and trembled, eyes wide with alarm and anxiety. At irregular intervals, one or another would lower its head to vomit onto their stall’s straw-covered floor, or let loose an even more malodorous stream from its nether end. Or both, simultaneously.

Even Nick’s lead reindeer, a big bad-ass buck named Rudolph, was clearly sick. It’s normally bright pink nose was pale, with a greenish tinge. It’s stall was in even worse shape than the others. Rudolph stared at Nick with fevered accusing eyes: Why have you let this happen to me?

Gunther’s stable-dwarves were trying to help, putting heavy blankets over the shivering animals and taking up the soiled straw and putting down fresh.

Gunther himself was in the stable’s workshop, adding various powders and herbs to a large tub of water and stirring vigorously. The tub hung over a brazier of hot coals to warm the liquid. A leather funnel and hose lay on the wooden workbench.

“Reindeer flu, m’lord,” the weathered little man explained. “I’d heard it was striking the wild herds in the southlands, but I hadn’t expected it to reach this far north.”

Nick sat wearily on a low stool and placed his head in his hands. He wondered if Gunther’s concoction might help his own through-a-knothole-and-beaten-with-a-stick misery.

No, he decided. He was already getting too many looks of pity and disgust from his workers; he wasn’t sure which was worse. He really, really needed to cut back on the drinking. Snap out of it, he told himself. You’re not the first man whose wife has left him. Buck up! It’s Christmas Eve!

“Will that–” He waved a hand towards Gunther’s tub. “–get the reindeer sky-worthy in time?”

Mmmmmm….” Gunther wouldn’t look Nick in the eye.

“Just give me the bad news.”

“Not a chance in Hell, m’lord. Between the vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration is the biggest danger. With this–” He gestured at the tub. “–and this–” He held up the leather funnel. “–we can keep the herd going until the flu runs its course. But that’s at least another day, perhaps two.”

Nick sighed. I don’t want to deal with this. Not now. Not ever. Once, he had enjoyed overcoming challenges, but that had been in the old days. The old old days, when problems could be solved with a sword, or an axe, or a spear. But he was older now. He was lesser now. Downscaled, that was the word this era used.

He stood up and crossed to a small thick-shuttered window. He pushed it open. A blast of frigid air slapped his face and set his thick beard rippling. He stared out at the bleak night-wrapped landscape of ice and snow and stone.

After a moment, he closed the shutter and stepped back into the stable’s warm – if smelly – air. He knew what had to be done. It was his duty, damn it. Millions of children around the world counted on him. The rotten little shits, he thought.

“Gunther,” he said. “Gather up the cats.”

+ + +

There had been only two cats in the beginning, when the arctic encampment had been only a few small buildings. As the factories and workers barracks and other facilities had expanded over the decades and centuries, so too had the cat population. Dozens now roamed the various buildings. Some bonded with workers and were devoted pets; others were aloof and semi-feral.

Nick had indulged his wife’s reluctance to winnow the cat population. When she had left, though, she had taken only her two favorites. The remaining cats had been a constant reminder to Nick of his failure as a husband, as a man, as a legend. But now those cats might save Nick’s bacon.

While every available worker was put to finding and fetching cats, several of Gunther’s stable-dwarves hastened to adjust reindeer harness to fit smaller animals.

“I have doubts about this, m’lord,” Gunther advised. He wrung his cap in his hands. “You’ve never herded cats before. Your wife was the only one who–“

Nick cut him off with a gesture. “I don’t want to hear that. I am Nicholas goddamned Claus, and I always make my deliveries.”

Except, of course, he was not really Nick Claus. The name was a title that came with the position. He’d had another name long ago, a much older name.

But there was too much to do to dwell on the past, whether ancient or recent. “Is the sleigh ready? Is it loaded?”

“Yes, m’lord. No problems with that, great blessings be.”

“Yeah, yeah, great. Get the cats harnessed as quickly as possible. I still need to change.”

In his private quarters, Nick’s elf-servant Fred had laid out the annual apparel: Undergarments of wool and silk, scarlet trousers and a matching scarlet coat trimmed in white fur, suspenders and a broad black belt, fur-lined mittens and cap, and boots so well worn-in and comfortable it was almost like being barefoot.

That was part of the magic. The clothing kept Nick warm no matter how cold the weather was, yet was perfectly comfortable in blistering heat as well. And they always fit perfectly, no matter how much weight Nick might have lost or gained.

He still grumbled, though, when the belt had to be cinched a notch looser than the previous year. It’s all the ale, he thought. And the other booze. I’ve got to stop drinking.

“Fetch me a whiskey, Fred.”

Fred had been brushing the coat smooth over Nick’s stout figure. He spaused before answering. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, sir?”

“Dammit, Fred, just get me the whiskey.”

“As you wish, sir.” Fred exited the room.

Nicked checked his image in the mirror. Damn. He’d been a lot leaner and fitter when he’d first become the Claus. He’d had the body of a fighter, a warrior. He’d been a fighter and warrior, and more.

All lost now. Guts and glory, faded to… this. A fat man in a garish red suit. No wonder his wife had left.

“Ho. Ho. Ho.” His voice was as flat and dead as he felt inside.

“Your whiskey, sir.”

“Thank you, Fred.” He took the proffered tumbler and tossed its contents down his throat. He barely tasted it, but felt the warm burn inside. “Ready as I can be. Let’s go.”

 

+ + +

 

The cats had been harnessed, but at a cost. Two dwarves at the side of the garage were being tended to by a third; a first-aid box lay open on a table beside him. The first two had copious numbers of scratches and bites on arms and faces, to which the third applied ointments and bandages.

Nick whistled at the amount of widespread, if minor carnage. “Sorry, boys. I didn’t think the task would be that dangerous. If we ever do this again, I’ll arrange for some sort of protective gear.”

“No bother, really, sir,” lied the taller of the two dwarves. His name-badge identified him as NIGEL. “The hardest part was arranging them in an order where cat-fights didn’t start.” He held up his bandaged arms. “It took a while.”

It seemed to have worked, though. A dozen cats were lined up in harness, and none were actively trying to get away or squirm out of their harness. Some washed and groomed themselves; others were curled up and napping. A few twitched their tails and glared at Nick and the others, but they remained otherwise calm even in their harness.

The sleigh already bore the immense sack of gifts to be distributed. Even large as it was, the sack’s apparent size was misleading. It was larger on the inside, and its weight was a reflection of its exterior volume, not the actual hundreds of tons of its contents.

Magic, thought Nick. But not MY magic. Or not completely. Nick’s destiny – or curse, depending on his mood – and all the accoutrements and obligations that came with it may have been in service to a newer God, but elements of the old remained. The sleigh was built of oak and ash and thorn from ancient sacred sites, with ancient sigils and symbols carved deeply into its timbers and components. The runners were immense lengths of bone shaped and sharpened to cut and glide across ice; the public story spoke of whalebone, but Nick remembered when giants still walked the earth and battles were fought against them.

Everything looked ready. Nick climbed into the driver’s seat and took up the reins. The coterie of cats looked too small, after so many years using the larger reindeer. But it was the sleigh’s magic empowering the animals, not the animals themselves, that pulled the sleigh through the sky on its annual journey.

Nick flicked the reins. “Yah!” he shouted.

Nothing happened, beyond several of the cats turning their heads and casting Nick a puzzled stare.

Nick flicked the reins again, a little harder. “Yah!

One of the grooming cats yoga-ed itself into a meatloaf asana and went to sleep.

Someone tell me this isn’t happening, Nick thought. Someone please tell me that.

“Eh, sir?”

Nick turned his head to see who had come up beside the sleigh. It was the dwarf Nigel again. The tall little man had one hand raised for attention.

“What is it… Nigel?” Nick asked in a flat voice.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but I think I know what the problem may be.”

Nick sighed unhopefully. “All right. And what may the problem be, Nigel?”

“Well, reindeer are herd animals, sir. It’s their nature to move as a group, and in the same general direction. But cats are… well, cats, sir.”

“I see. You know how cats think, Nigel?”

“Oh, yes, sir, I think so. Love them dearly. Volunteered to help with this, sir. That fellow there–” Nigel pointed to a large Maine Coon holding a lead position. “–is my very own Samson. Splendid fellow, if I say so, sir.”

“I’ll take your word for that, Nigel. But I still have a sleigh stuck in parking mode, and a herd of harnessed cats not pulling even their own weight. Do you have a solution, Nigel?”

Nigel beamed. “Yes, sir! I believe I do!”

+ + +

From a storage barn for outdated gifts, an old-fashioned bamboo fishing pole, over twelve feet long, was dug out. The kitchen provided a large trout, gutted and cleaned but still smelling strongly of fish.

“What we have to do, sir,” Nigel explained, “is give the cats a common goal.” The pole’s fishing line ended with a sharp hook, now being worked into the trout’s mouth by Nigel.

“Food.”

“Food and play, sir. A chase, with a chance of food at the end of it.”

“Let’s try it.” And if this doesn’t work, I’m taking a pallet-load of Scotch back to my room and not come out until spring.

There would need to be two people in the sleigh, one to handle the reins, and a second to maneuver the pole. It was a squeeze when Nigel joined Nick on the driver’s bench. Nigel swung the end of the pole carefully up and forward, bracing the pole’s shaft against the sleigh’s dashboard. The trout-baited line dangled and swung as it moved towards the front of the harnessed cat herd.

One by one, the cats noticed the dangling *thing*, and then the enticing odor it emitted. Eyes locked on, tails twitched. The fish swung down further, dangling in front of the cats rather than above them. Several cats, then more, stood and leaned forward in their equipage.

With a soft hissing rumble, the sleigh began to move, bone runners sliding across the smooth stone floor.

“It’s working,” Nick said, amazed. “It’s working! Gunther, open the doors!”

Gunther and his workers scrambled to open the wide sliding doors. Blasts of freezing air raced in, but Nick felt the magic gaining power as the sleigh moved; the frigid gusts felt like a cool gentle breeze to cats and riders alike. The sleigh’s speed increased as the cats chased the dangling trout. The sound of the runners against the floor lessened, then ceased altogether. Air appeared between the cats’ racing feet and the floor.

As in so many other years, Nick’s sleigh was flying. Cats, sleigh, and the sleigh’s occupants were a foot above the ground as they flew out the open doors into the dark and cold.

Nigel raised the trout slightly, and the sleigh’s angle of ascent steepened. The reins were mainly useful for minor course corrections, Nick found. Nigel’s raising and lowering the trout, or swinging it to either side, was the primary control for the cats’ direction.

They soared into the sky, steered between thick cloud-banks, up, up, into clear air, night sky spangled with bright stars. A gibbous moon cast ghostly light over the cloud fields now far below them.

Nick laughed. “It’s actually working, Nigel!” Finally, something’s going right, he thought, feeling… was that joy?… for the first time in a long time. “You’re a genius, Nigel!” he shouted, and gave the young dwarf a congratulatory slap on the back.

Nigel lurched forward in surprise. His grip loosened. The tip of the fishing pole dipped precipitously. The trout dropped in reaction.

One of the big lead cats saw its chance and lunged forward, paws extended, claws out, and snagged the trout.

Samson, NO!” Nigel cried too late.

The Maine Coon yanked the trout towards itself and bit. The other lead cat reacted by turning and attacking, trying to grab the fish away from Samson.

Nigel hauled on the pole, trying to snatch the trout away from the cats, but the animals would have none of that. The sleigh lurched as the two cats abandoned their duties and fought.

If Nick had had both hands on the reins, he might have been able to stop what happened next. But he was still fumbling, trying to get his grip again, when the two lead cats, snarling, spitting, intertwined, fell back from their position and into the next pair of cats. Nick hauled on the reins one-handed, but now there were four cats involved in a hissing ball of cat-brawl. Then six, then even more as the coiling conglomeration of fangs and claws and flying bits of fur sped towards the sleigh, a rolling snowball from Hell.

And now the sleigh itself was out of control, tumbling, rolling, pitching, with down the only common direction.

Down. Nigel dropped the pole and grabbed for the sleigh’s dashboard. Nick followed the example, dropping the useless reins. The pole whipped around at the end of its line, the trout still buried somewhere deep in the screaming ball of feline outrage.

Down. The stars, the moon, the clouds, the less-and-less-distant mountain peaks below, all spun crazily in Nick’s vision.

Down. Something hit Nick in the head. What the–? He tightened his grip on the dashboard, somehow turned his head against the force of the spinning, falling sleigh.

Oh, no.

The gift sack’s neck had come undone. Stuffed toy animals, dolls, games, anything and everything were spilling out, spinning off into the air in a thick stream. The sleigh’s wild tumbling brought escaped objects whizzing by Nick and Nigel. Nick ducked a pair of roller skates. Nigel uttered a pained “Oof!” as a box of plastic building blocks bounced off his ribs and spun into the night.

Down. A flash of mountain peaks again, but now they were to one side of the falling sleigh instead of below. Sudden murk as they flashed through a cloud layer, then burst into clear air again, now with nothing between them and the far-too-less-than-distant ground.

The sleigh smacked into the mountain’s slope with a high white splash of snow. Nick, Nigel, and cats flew in all directions, the felines’ harnesses snapping with the impact. Men,  cats and sleigh all bounced, rolled, and came to a stop. The scene was still and silent.

A moment later, a scattered shower of packages and objects pattered into the snow. The silence and stillness resumed.

 

+ + + + +

 

Nick wasn’t sure how long he was out. He came to with a faceful of snow. Every bone and muscle in his body felt sore and aching.

The sleigh’s magic had kept them all from being smashed into a blood-and-guts holiday trifle on the mountainside. But even the strongest magics had limits.

He rose painfully onto his elbows, wiped snow from his face, and turned his neck carefully for a full view of his surroundings. The sleigh was on its side a short distance away, but looked undamaged.

To one side of the sleigh, Nick saw the cats gathered in a loose circle; at the center of the circle, Samson crouched, vigilant, the remains of the trout between his front paws. The big cat tore another chuck of fish-flesh off the trout, growling and flattening his ears whenever another cat started to move forward.

Nicked turned the other way and saw Nigel. The young dwarf was half-sitting against a rock outcropping. His eyes were open, and he gave a weak waggle of his fingers when he saw Nick looking in his direction.

“Are you… all right… Nigel?” Nick said, carefully. Even his tongue felt banged up.

“Never been worse, sir,” Nigel replied in a strained but somehow cheery voice. “Ha, ha. Ouch!” Nigel pressed a hand gently against his ribs. “Better than you, sir.”

“Eh?”

“Uh, your… face, sir?” Nigel raised a hand and pointed at his own features.

Puzzled, Nick raised a hand to his face. He didn’t feel more than badly banged up and bruised. His fingers brushed across his face—

Oh.

The right eye-socket was empty.

“Damn it, my glass eye came out!” he exclaimed. The impact – or impacts; Nick remembered several bounces, none fondly – must have knocked it loose.

“Glass? Oh, thank heavens!” Nigel sighed in relief.

“Do you see it anywhere?” Nick asked, knowing the question was probably hopeless. If the eye had landed in snow, it would have punched beneath the surface and be impossible to see. If it had hit rock, a glass eye separate from its owner would have lacked the sleigh’s magical protection and shattered. Even hitting a soft patch and surviving undamaged, the long slopes stretching away below meant it might even now be rolling further and further away.

He combed through the snow with his fingers, but stopped after a moment, self-doubt draping his mind. Reindeer sick, cats uncontrollable, sleigh crashed, gifts scattered everywhere. Why am I bothering?

Nick fell forward again, face into snow, a deep lassitude creeping over him. He wanted to sleep. Or drink. But trying to find a bottle of gift liquor amongst the scattered packages was too much effort. I’ll just lay here a while longer.

Even when he heard footsteps crunching through the snow, coming towards him, he didn’t move. Nigel’s gotten up, he thought, but that didn’t matter.

Then Nigel’s voice spoke, and it was still coming from the position over by the sleigh. Even more surprising were the words Nigel spoke: “Oh, my… Mrs. Claus, is that you?”

Nick lifted his head from the snow again, just as the footsteps came to a stop before him.

He blinked snow away from his eye and saw…

Sandals of woven gold, spotted with jewels of differing hues, adorned slim feminine feet that led upwards to well-formed calves. A belted robe of shimmering fabric failed to conceal the trim, nicely curved shape beneath it. A feathered cape draped wide shoulders. A necklace of thick gold nuggets circled the woman’s neck. Her face was not only beautiful, but held a strength and resolve impressive on its own. A thick braid of long silver-blonde hair hung over one shoulder and across the front of her torso.

Nick’s jaw dropped. It had been months. She’d lost the dumpy weight, and her body was firm and toned again. The unromantic house-dress, gone. The frizzy head of white hair, gone.

Nick hadn’t seen her look this way for years. No, centuries.

“Freya?” he asked in astonishment.

* * *

“Welcome to New Asgard.” Freya waved a hand at the vista spread before them as they exited the narrow mountain pass.

Nick, from his seat in the uprighted sleigh, saw a wide valley set between towering mountains. Ice and snow on the mountainsides thinned away as the slopes leveled. The valley’s central land was verdant with forest and meadows and fields. A large lake, of an almost-black blue, stretched away to the far end of the valley. Several dragon-prowed longships skimmed the lake’s surface in the distance. On the closer shore, buildings clustered, dominated by an immense hall with many side-structures.

Nick was still trying to recover from the rush of events. The crash. The unexpected arrival of his wife, followed by a stream of Freya’s Valkyries, winged helms and all, on their flying horses. In moments, the sleigh was upright again and the Valkyries had rescued the scattered gifts and packages from the snow. A strip of cloth from the hem of Freya’s robe became an improvised eye-patch for Nick. Then Freya, in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by two remarkably large cats, Tregul and Bygul, had brought the still-stunned travelers here, the sleigh following close behind Freya’s chariot. The North Pole cats, back in mended harness, followed Treygul and Bygul’s lead without hesitation.

“What is this place?” asked Nigel from his perch atop the big toy-sack, filled again and tied firmly shut.

“These are the Mountains Between the Mountains,” Freya answered. “These are the Lands Behind the Lands.”

“But, but… why isn’t it on the map?” Nigel insisted.

Freya cast the young dwarf a disdainful look. “You live in a place that’s not on any map.” Nigel reddened with embarrassment.

Nick tried to give Nigel a better answer. “There are places created by belief and desire. Present but non-present, real but not-real at the same time. Like the Pole, like… like the old Asgard was.” He stared again at the sight before his eyes. “This is rather smaller.”

Now it was Nick under Freya’s glare. He raised his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Hey, sweetie, I’m amazed to see anything like this at all. We barely escaped the old place, remember?”

Damn, those memories, of watching the borders of their world, a world where he’d been not only ruler but god, shrink and contract as the outside world’s belief had diminished and turned to other gods and religions, still hurt. And it had happened so quickly at the end. Other Aesir and Vanir had abandoned Asgard earlier, but he and Freya stayed until almost the end. They narrowly escaped into the wider world before Asgard had crumpled into a wizened ruin. Weary and heartbroken, sad refugees, they’d trudged along a dusty road in a dry hot land unfamiliar to them.  If they hadn’t met that bright-eyed fellow at a crossroads… what had been his name? Nick couldn’t remember now. Impressive talker, though, and kind-hearted; he’d shared bread and fish with Nick and Freya, told them of a job opening he knew, and pointed them in a direction they’d not have chosen on their own.

But Nick had questions of his own. “How did you do this, Freya?”

“I didn’t. But we’ll talk at the meet-hall.” Freya turned her attention forwards again and spoke in the cat-tongue. Tregul and Bygul, pulled Freya’s chariot a little faster. The other cats, back in mended harness, followed the bigger cats’ lead without hesitation. The sleigh moved down the rough road to the valley below, its runners levitating several inches off the ground.

They passed through the forests and by the fields and came to the settlement by the lake. The largest building, the meet-hall, was of heavy timber embellished with carvings of patterns and runes, some brightly painted. The upper reaches of the high walls held several large openings. Nick watched as some of the Valkyries’ steeds flew in and out of the building.

They stopped in front of the meet-hall and dismounted, proceeding inside as chariot and sleigh were taken away by Valkyries. The openings in the upper walls let light and fresh air into the building. Fire-pits of old were replaced by modern fireplaces and chimneys at intervals along the walls. That’s an improvement, Nick thought, remembering the dim interior and omnipresent odor of smoke and sweat in the old Asgard’s meet-hall. There were balcony-like platforms built between rafters, close to the window-door openings; a number of the winged horses were hitched there, Valkyries sharing the platforms and observing the main hall below them.

Freya led them to the far end of the hall, where a large wooden throne stood, deeply carved with more runes and figures, and cushioned with layers of fur from wolf and bear and fox.

Nick couldn’t repress a smile. “Freya, it looks just like it used to. How did you manage all this?” Before Freya could answer, Nick stepped onto the dais, turned and plopped himself onto the throne.

Suddenly the hall filled with hissing. The faces of the Valkyries, both on the ground floor and perched in the rafters above, flashed with anger.

“Nick,” Freya said in a cool tone. “You’re sitting on my throne. You need to get down.”

“What?” Nick stared around the hall. “Are you joking?” The hissing increased. The Valkyries began fondling swords and other weapons.

“My throne, my hall, my Valkyries. My Asgard. Get. Down.

Nick rose back to his feet. Freya had always been strong-willed, but this… this was a level of authority he’d never seen in her before. “What are you saying?”

“Let’s talk privately.” Freya cast a glance to the side, where a nervous-looking Nigel was flanked by several Valkyries.

Hmph. All right. Nigel, why don’t you ask the nice, heavily armed women to take you to the sleigh and see if it’s airworthy again? If–” He turned back to Freya. “–it’s all right with you, Freya.” Freya nodded.

“Uh, okay?” Nigel responded. Two Valkyries escorted the dwarf from the hall. Freya raised her hand and made an imperious gesture to the Valkyries in the rafters. The warrior women quickly mounted their horses and flew out the openings. Another gesture, and Valkyries on the ground floor departed.

Nick and Freya were alone in the large hall. Freya stepped onto the dais, moved past Nick, and sat on the throne. She cast a challenging look at Nick.

“I’ll admit, you look good sitting there. But you’re a queen, it would come naturally.” Then he couldn’t contain the frustration and questions building up inside since Freya’s arrival at the crash site. “How did you–? How long has this–? What have you–? Damn it, Freya, why did you leave me?

She stared coolly at him for long seconds before speaking. “You really don’t understand at all, do you, Nick?”

“If you’ve taken the name of Freya back, you could at least call me–“

She raised a hand. “No. No, Nick, I can’t. You haven’t been who you were, not for a long, long time. You haven’t even been who you were supposed to be for a long time.”

“I–“

“You lost faith in yourself. You began doing things by the numbers. By rote. You stopped caring.”

Nick tried to keep his face blank, but Freya’s words were uncomfortably true. “I’m sorry you felt that way, but–” He waved a hand at the huge hall. “–how long has… this… been in the works? When you left, it wasn’t a sudden decision, was it?”

“No. No, it wasn’t, Nick.”

“You could have told me.”

“You were building your own little world at the bottom of a bottle. You didn’t even notice the signs of a new inter-world coming into being.”

“And you did.”

“Yes, Nick, I did. When the first stirrings of a new potentiality began, I was listening for them. When the first shoot of a new world-tree shattered the rock it grew from, I heard the crack. I found it, I nurtured it, I guided it to become… this. A new Asgard, a new home for the gods we once were, the gods we could be again.”

“We?”

Freya nodded. “That’s what I thought. At first. But you changed my mind, Nick. You changed my mind. It’s not the same, it can’t be the same as it was.”

Nick sighed. “I only see one throne, Freya, and you’ve already told me it’s not mine to sit upon. So why am I here at all?”

“Simple mercy, Nick. Far-sight showed me your sad try at cat-herding, and your crash. I couldn’t just leave you in the snow.”

You didn’t have trouble leaving me before. The thought hurt, and its pain added to the bruises and aches Nick already had. He rubbed his temples. “Do you have any aspirin here?”

“Of course. We’re not medieval here.” Freya pulled a cellphone from somewhere in her robe. “I need aspirin and water in the meet-hall,” she spoke into the phone. It vanished into her robe again. “Where were we?”

“You rescued me. Not that it matters. Christmas is ruined.”

“Stop moping, Nick. What did you see outside when we arrived here?”

“Um, big valley? Lake? This place?”

“In the sky.”

Nick thought. “Oh. The sun. Wait, it was still—“

“Land Behind the Lands, remember? Time is… flexible here. You should have realized that.”

Yes, I should have. Millions of Christmas deliveries in one night, how else? Just how hard did I hit my head in the crash?

“Some are rather battered, but all your gifts and parcels are gathered up and back in the sleigh’s sack. I can teach you the cat-tongue’s command words and loan Tregul and Bygul to lead the sleigh; they won’t need much direction, or a fish, and the other cats will follow their lead. Rest here for a few hours; when you leave, only a few moments will have passed in the outside world. You can still make deliveries in time.”

A Valkyrie entered the hall, bearing the promised aspirin and water. Nick took the proffered items with gratitude. The Valkyrie’s face seemed familiar, somehow.

Nick turned back to Freya. It grated, and he felt a sense of shame and humiliation, but he said the words anyway. “Thank you, Freya.” After a second, he added, “And afterward?”

Freya shook her head. “There’s no ‘afterward’, Nick. You needed help; I was available. But it was a one-time thing. Get yourself straightened out, Nick, because I won’t be there next time.” She addressed the Valkyrie. “Take this gentleman to a room to rest. He’ll be leaving later.”

Nick followed the Valkyrie out. There didn’t seem to be any point in trying to say more. He followed his guide into one of the building’s side-wings and to a small room. It held a bed heaped with furs, and a small rough-hewn table supporting an ewer of water and several mugs.

“Do you need anything else?” the Valkyrie asked.

“No,” Nick answered, then paused. There was something familiar in the woman’s voice too. “Wait. Do I know you?”

The Valkyrie chuckled, then lifted her helm off to better show her face. “Oh, maybe a little,” She winked at Nick. “Odin.”

Nick’s eye widened, not for the name itself, but for the sudden masculine tone of the Valkyrie’s voice.

Loki?”

He could see it now. The shape-shifter god had changed almost beyond recognition, but… something around the eyes, and definitely Loki’s unnerving smile.

Nick gestured at the woman standing before him. “This again?” It wasn’t the first time Loki had assumed the shape of a woman or other creatures. Nick couldn’t keep a note of disapproval out of his voice.

“Oh, c’mon, you have to admit I rock a dress better than Thor.”

“Thor was in disguise. He was acting. Which I hear he’s still doing, and quite well at it, apparently.”

“So it’s said.” Loki sniffed. “Talk about playing to type. Did you know he’s partly responsible for all this?”

“What? Freya didn’t mention that.”

“Really. Conditions for a new inter-world were primed by a few people trying to reestablish the old religions about a century ago, and increased when a version of what was called our myths entered their culture by–” Loki laughed. “–by comic books, of all things. But it was the past few years’ movies, with millions of people sitting before theater screens and televisions, wanting and willing to suspend disbelief if just for a few hours, that raised the potential to the tipping point. And Thor’s human identity being cast to play the role of Thor, that provided the final push from potentiality to actuality.”

“Huh. Didn’t think he had the smarts.”

“Oh, the dolt doesn’t even realize what he helped create. He’s happy playing a human playing a god.”

“But what are you doing… here?” Nick waved at Loki’s female form. “And why this?”

“You might find this hard to believe, but I’m actually trying to prevent trouble.”

Several seconds of silence stretched between them before Nick spoke. “You’re right. That’s hard to believe. What are you talking about?”

“Have you sen any men here, other than yourself and the little Nigel fellow?”

“Um….” Nick thought back to his arrival. “There were longboats, out on the lake.”

“All-female crews. There aren’t any men in New Asgard. Freya doesn’t allow them.”

“What? Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s something to do with disappointment over the men in her life.”

“You’re putting this on me?”

“Partially. Also, attitudes and mores have been changing. Overall, women accept changes faster and more easily than men. Only natural, since many of the changes are to women’s advantage. But to forbid men from Asgard altogether seems… extreme.”

Nick spluttered. “Asgard… Asgard was never restricted to men! Why would they–? Why would she–? What about the battles? The glory? What about–?” Nick’s face flushed with outrage, and his eyes seemed to flash with internal lightning.

Loki smiled thinly. “Freya has lost all respect for tradition. She has made her Asgard a travesty of what it was. She must be stopped. You can stop her. Only you, Odin, All-Father, Lord of Asgard. Retake your rightful position. Take the throne. Take New Asgard and make it again what it was.”

Nick stared, aghast at Loki’s words. “She will not yield. I know her that well.”

“No, she will not. You know what you will have to do, All-Father.”

Nick’s face paled. “No. I will not say those words. I will not.”

“Say them and make them true.” Loki leaned closer. She spoke in a low whisper. “You must murder Freya.”

Nick turned away, hands rising to cover his face. A deep groan rose from within him. “No. Let me think. Let me think. She is my wife.”

“Is she, still? She left you. More than abandoning you, she has usurped your rightful place, your proper throne. She has stolen your destiny.”

Nick shuddered, groaned again. For a moment, he stood still and silent. Then, slowly, Nick lowered his hands and turned again to Loki, his face set in stone, his mouth a thin grim line.

“Destiny. I had almost forgotten that word. But how can the deed be done?”

“I escaped Asgard’s collapse only shortly before you and Freya. I managed to bring several… items… with me.” She whispered again. “I have the Spear.

Nick’s eye widened. “Gungnir? It survived?”

Loki nodded. “That, and more that may be of aid to you.”

Nick stood silent for another long moment. Then he spoke. “What must be done, shall be done. Take me to the Spear.”

* * *

Loki led Nick to a door leading out of the meet-hall. They moved cautiously, trying to stay unseen. A close-by building, Loki explained, held stables for the Valkyrie’s steeds, and storage rooms at its far side.

Nick and Loki crouched behind low bushes. They were only a score of yards from the stable, but there were Valkyries coming and going. From combs and brushes several of the warrior-women held, Nick concluded it was a regular time for grooming.

“How will we get past them to the storage rooms?” Nick whispered.

“I could cast an illusion over you, make you look like another Valkyrie.” Loki squinted skeptically at Nick. “Perhaps not. But that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s almost time for–“

The long blare of a horn, off towards the front of the meet-hall, interrupted her words.

“–one of the planning meetings,” Loki finished. “Everyone has to attend.”

Sure enough, several Valkyries left the stable, heading towards the hall’s front entrance. Others quickly finished their work and left at a faster pace..

“That should be almost all,” Loki whispered. “I’m required to attend, but we have about ten minutes yet before it gets called to order.” One final Valkyrie exited the stable at a fast walk, following the others. “That’s everyone. Let’s go.”

They crossed the open space quickly and entered the building. The stable was softly lit, smelling of hay and timber and horse. There were long rows of stalls, most occupied by the winged horses; some whinnied or nickered as Nick and Loki entered.

Loki headed towards the back of the stable. “There’s an entry to the storage rooms back he–“

Mister Claus, is that you?

Nick and Loki both turned in surprise. At the opposite, far end of the stable, in an open area, was Nigel. Behind him was Nick’s sleigh, and scattered fuzzy lumps Nick recognized as the cats from the Pole.

An exasperated noise came from Loki. Then the shapeshifter streaked down the aisle at high speed.

“Wait!” Nick shouted and ran after Loki. By the time Nick reached the open area, gasping and panting, Loki had seized Nigel by the throat and pinned him against the side of the sleigh. Nigel’s eyes widened in terror as Loki began to draw her sword.

“No! Loki, stop!”

Loki paused and looked back. Nick, wheezing, staggered to a halt. “He might raise the alarm, Odin. We can’t allow that.”

“No, but we need not kill him.” Nick pointed to a coil of rope hanging from a nail in a nearby stall post. Loki loosened his grip on Nigel’s throat as Nick moved towards the rope.

Nigel gasped, sucking air into his lungs. “Mister Claus,” he said in a weak voice. “What’s happening? Why did she call you–?”

As Nick lifted the rope from the post, the horse inside the stall neighed with sudden excitement and reared up on its hind legs, pawing the air with sharp black hooves. Nick stepped back. “What the–?”

Loki chuckled. “Oh, you’ll like this.” She gestured with her available hand, and the horse… changed.

Both Nick and Nigel’s eyes widened as the horse’s legs wavered, blurred, and then doubled in number.

Sleipnir!” Nick exclaimed. He reached to touch the horse’s head. The now eight-legged animal grew calmer and moved forward to press its head against Nick’s hand. “I thought you died in Asgard’s collapse. You still remember me, boy?”

Nick looked towards Loki. “You saved him?”

“Of course. What kind of mother would I be if I hadn’t?”

“Yes, well… thank you, Loki. I mean that.”

“Let’s save the sentimental hug-fest for later. We have a dwarf to tie up, and a goddess to murder.”

Murder?” Nigel squeaked. “What–?” Loki snatched the pointed cap from Nigel’s head and wadded it into the dwarf’s mouth.

“Sorry, Nigel.” Nick said. He and Loki bound Nigel’s legs and tied the dwarf’s hands behind his back. “Have faith. I know what I must do.” They picked Nigel up unceremoniously and laid him in an empty stall, ignoring Nigel’s muffled grunts.

“Quickly now.” Loki led Nick to the storerooms. One room held stacks and piles of shields, greaves, and weapons. Long spears leaned against one wall, but they were ordinary spears, with plain wooden shafts and sharp but unadorned black iron points.

“I do not see the Gungnir.”

“I hid it in plain sight,” Loki answered, gesturing again.

One of the spears blurred and transformed as Sleipnir had. It lengthened by half a foot, and the shaft thickened to fit a larger than normal hand. The point stretched and widened into a long blade, engraved with runes and symbols; the bluish metal held an undulating pattern like waves in the ocean.

Nick lifted the transformed weapon away from its ordinary companions. “Yes,” he said, seeming to stand taller and straighter now. The red-suited old fat man appeared suddenly strong, and ready, and dangerous.

“Great,” said Loki. “Do you have a plan? Make it quick. If I’m not at that meeting on time, it may arouse suspicion.”

Nick told Loki his plan.

* * *

Meanwhile, Nigel worked the makeshift gag from his mouth. Confusion raced over his face at the strange turn of events, but the important thing was to get free from his bonds. He struggled, but felt no slack in the ropes.

Nigel heard a meow. He turned his head towards the open end of the stall. A fuzzy brown face looked back at him. It was Samson, Nigel’s big Maine Coon. “Samson!” Nigel called in a low voice. “Samson, come here!”

The cat came into the stall, then stopped. Nigel called again. Samson stared for a moment, then padded towards Nigel.

“Good boy! Come on, Samson! Come here!” Nigel wriggled the fingers of his bound hands. “The ropes, Samson! You need to claw the ropes!”

Samson went to the wriggling fingers and sniffed at them.

“Good boy, Samson! Claw the ropes open! It’s okay if you scratch me too. Claw them, Samson!”

Samson hopped onto Nigel’s buttocks, turned around once, laid down, and went to sleep.

Nigel groaned. Samson purred.

* * *

“Audacious, but risky. I’ll try to keep you from being killed immediately. I’m off.”

Nick watched Loki depart, then stood by the storeroom door another moment, deep in thought.

He went back to the stables, to the stalls where Sleipnir waited and Nigel lay.

Nick nudged the cat off Nigel’s posterior, propped the Spear against the side of the stall, and pulled the young dwarf into an upright position, leaning him against another side of the stall.

“Mr. Claus, please, why are you doing this? This isn’t what a Claus is supposed to be. This isn’t you. Santas don’t kill.”

Nick sighed. “In my day, Nigel, I’ve slain many. I put that aside for a long time. But the sun and planets turn in their circles and cycles, and that older time seems to have returned again. A time for warriors, not saints.”

Nick opened Sleipnir’s stall. The horse came forward and they touched foreheads. “Hello, old friend,” Nick said. “Ready for new adventure?” Sleipnir whinnied in response and moved out into the wider pathway.

Nicked backed several yards away, took a deep breath, ran forward, and leaped up, turning in mid-leap to land neatly on Sleipnir’s back.

Nick smiled. “Hah! Fat but not flabby.” He leaned over and picked up the Spear.

“Please don’t do this,” Nigel begged. There were tears in his eyes.

Nigel looked towards Nigel again; his expression turned serious. “Nigel, I know what I have to do. Try to trust me.” He held up the Spear in display. “Once thrown, Gungnir always strikes its rightful target. I’ll try to have you let loose as soon as possible.” He turned Sleipnir and rode out the stable’s door.

Alone again, Nigel felt despair. He looked around for any sign of hope.

His eyes lighted on the nail where the coil of rope had hung. If he could scooch himself over to the post… if he could push himself upright against the post… if he could raise his hands high enough behind his back….

Nigel began to scooch.

* * *

Once outside, Nick urged Sleipnir into a gallop. Not towards the meet-hall where Loki and the Valkyries had gone, but away from it. They went between buildings, staying close to walls that kept them out of sight of the meet-hall’s upper windows. Nick’s plan called for stealth and surprise, and Loki had laid out a way to achieve it.

To call Sleipnir’s pace a gallop was understatement. The eight legs blurred as their pace increased. Horse and rider zipped between buildings and across pathways in eye-blinks, not seconds.

They reached the far edge of the settlement, zipped across a field, into the forest, and increased their speed yet again. Sleipnir’s hooves rose above the ground, now churning air rather than dirt, swerving and dodging swiftly between trees.

Nick laughed. His beard rippled in the storm-wind of their passage. He felt strong, and powerful, and… sober? Yes, that was it. His mind was clear of desire for ale or whiskey; it had been a long time.

The movement of Sleipnir beneath Nick gave an immediacy and connection to his surroundings the sleigh had never managed. This was what he was meant to be, this was what he had been, and might be again.

Nick and Sleipnir missiled through the woods. Thickly forested hills rose outside the settlement, and their course led around and behind them. A long arc brought them to a valley between the hills. They turned into it, keeping low and under the tree cover. They were heading back towards the settlement, back towards the meet-hall, approaching the hall’s back side. That side of the hall bore no windows from which they might be seen.

Zip. Zoom. Out of the woods, past more buildings, a swift vertical climb up the back wall of the meet-hall, a quick deceleration and hard turn at the roofline, and Sleipnir dropped softly onto the meet-hall’s roof, next to a tall chimney.

Nick dismounted. The slant of the roof was no problem; centuries of experience made Nick sure-footed even on the steepest pitch. He stroked Sleipnir’s head.

“Here’s where we part again for a time,” he said. Then he leaned close and whispered into Sleipnir’s ear.

* * *

Nigel panted with effort. He’d pushed himself to his feet while leaning against the post, poking himself painfully several times with the protruding nail. Now he tried to stay upright while raising bound hands high enough behind his back to slip the rope over the nail. His shoulders protested sharply; it was much more difficult than he’d expected,. But he managed it with a gasp, then began rubbing the rope back and forth along the nail’s rough shank. There was little room for movement along the shank, perhaps a finger’s width, and each stroke brought a fresh twinge to Nigel’s shoulders. But he kept on, unsure what his next step would be if he freed himself.

He heard a sound and turned his head toward the stable’s entrance. The eight-legged horse had returned, but without the Claus. It stepped towards Nigel, hooves clopping against the floor in a crowded rhythm.

“What… what is it? Where’s Mr. Claus?” Nigel asked.

The horse ignored his words. It moved beside him, wedged its head behind Nigel’s back – Nigel winced at the added stress on his overextended shoulders – and began nipping carefully at the rope’s knot.

* * *

The planning meetings were a chore, but a necessary one. Freya stifled a yawn and shifted on her throne; even padded with furs, her butt grew sore eventually. The committee reports – construction, recruitment, resources and other areas – tended towards the dull and dry and numerical. Discussions could grow heated, but Freya kept a firm hand on arguments that seemed at risk of getting out of control.

It surprised almost everyone in the meet-hall when a deep rumbling noise emanated from the fireplace on the back wall. The interior of the fire-chamber twisted and blurred, then a scarlet spheroid shape suddenly burst from the fireplace. The shape unfolded in unorthodox and impossible directions, becoming a white-bearded fat man in a scarlet suit, a cloth tied over one eye. A fat man with a long spear. A fat man who bounded across the space between fireplace and throne and jumped nimbly onto the back edge of Freya’s throne, balancing there without tremble or waver, spear held high and pointed downwards at Freya. Freya twisted on her seat and stared up at Nick with eyes grown wide.

Valkyries reached for weapons, but one Valkyrie raised her hands and shouted in a penetrating voice. “Hold, my sisters! Do not risk our Queen!”

The hall’s occupants froze in place, uncertain whether to act or not. Those who recognized it knew the spear Gungnir, once thrown, invariably struck its target.

The Valkyrie who had spoken stared intently at Nick, growing impatience in her eyes, and gave a tiny jerk of her chin, as if to say, Well? Get on with it.

Nick looked around the hall. Gungnir never wavered in his hand.

My name is ODIN!” he shouted, in a voice that rang clear to every corner of the huge hall. “All-Father, and KING of Asgard! And I have a few things to say.”

He paused, then continued. “I ruled Asgard. I fought for it. I gave an eye for it, trading that eye for knowledge. When Asgard fell, I became Nicholas the Claus. A lesser creature, a lesser god, a lesser man than I had been as Odin. But Odin and the Claus have this in common, a special knowledge….” The muscles in Nick’s arm and shoulder tensed, and his next words were a mighty roar. “…we know who’s NAUGHTY!

With those words, he twisted the Spear upwards and away from Freya, and threw. Gungnir flashed across the room, straight and true. It struck the Valkyrie who had spoken in the shoulder with such force she was thrown back and pinned to a wooden support post. The Valkyrie screamed with pain and clutched at Gungnir’s shaft with both hands.

The other Valkyries reached for weapons again, but a quick gesture from Freya stilled their hands. Nick leapt from the back of the throne, somersaulted in mid-air and landed upright. He pointed at the Valkyrie he had struck. “That is no Valkyrie! That is Loki, the trickster! Loki, the liar! Loki, the perfidious! Loki, who made for Baldur’s death from envy, and who sought to suborn me into slaying Freya, my own wife, your Queen!”

The Spear-stricken Valkyrie still clutched at Gungnir’s shaft, grimacing, her eyes glaring hotly at Nick. The womanly shape shifted, became the shape of a man. Gasps and murmurs of recognition rose from the onlookers.

“Trickster, liar, perfidious?” Loki’s voice was strained, but rang with anger and venom. “Strange words for one winning advantage by his own lies and trickery.”

“I told no lies,” Nick replied, walking towards Loki. “And I have had enough of you.” He grabbed Gungnir’s shaft and yanked the spear from Loki’s shoulder. Loki groaned and slid down against the wooden post, clutching at his wound.

Nick lifted Gungnir again. The Spear’s point now aimed directly at Loki’s heart.

A hand fell on Nick’s shoulder. “Hold, Nick,” Freya said.

Nick turned his head towards her. “Hold? He tried to have you killed, Freya!”

“He is Loki. Mischief and chaos are his nature.”

“He’s spied on you for months!”

Freya shrugged. “Do you think I would not recognize Loki, in whatever form?”

Loki’s mouth gaped at her words. “Yes, Loki,” Freya said. “I knew you, and I have kept your mischief here small while you continued your charade. Better to keep one’s enemies close, is it not?”

Loki snarled. “The mighty of Asgard have fallen once. They may yet fall again.”

“Poor little scorpion,” Freya answered. “What am I to do with you?”

“Yes, what?” Nick asked. “Slay him and let us be done with it.”

Freya eyed Nick. “Forget not that you once swore blood-oath with Loki. You are forbidden from slaying him.”

“Well, that was a mistake,” Nick muttered.

Freya continued. “And those are not words a Claus would speak.”

“I am more than the Claus, Freya.” Nick struck his chest with a fist for emphasis; a slight wave jiggled across his belly. “There is still Odin, your lord and husband, within me.” Their eyes were fixed on each other’s now.

“Gah, what mush,” muttered Loki, and struck. He lunged forward, his body stretching and lengthening. Arms and legs shrank back into his torso, Valkyrie armor and uniform falling away as Loki’s new shape slid from within them. Scales erupted over skin, and Loki’s head reshaped into a horned and sharp-fanged, snake-like aspect.

The Wyrm that had been Loki struck at the Spear, knocking its point aside before Nick could react. Snakish coils whipped around both Nick and Freya and tightened, drawing them together with Gungnir pinned upright between them.

The coils tightened again, and Nick felt breath being squeezed from his lungs. He struggled to no avail. Inches away, Freya also tried to free herself, her face mottled with strain.

Valkyries around the hall shouted and drew swords. Loki’s Wyrm-shape moved, twisting and rolling even as he held his crushing grip, giving no opportunity for would-be rescuers to strike without risking Nick or Freya. The hind-part of Loki’s transformed body whipped around, knocking several Valkyries off their feet and making others step back.

Again the coils tightened, and Nick’s groan came out as an anguished gasp. His vision turned black around the edges. He struggled to stay conscious. He heard more shouts, but they came from above, not from the surrounding Valkyries.

Nick craned his head up, and saw a horse – a eight-legged horse, moving fast – fly through one of the upper-story window-openings. It zoomed into the hall, performed a tight loop, and rushed downwards. Through ever-narrowing vision, Nick saw a small figure on Sleipnir’s back, arms clutched tightly around the animal’s neck.

Hold on, Mr. Claus!” Nigel shouted. As Sleipnir leveled out of its dive, Nigel jumped. The dwarf slammed into the Wyrm’s thick body just behind its head. Loki jerked in surprise. The crushing coils around Nick loosened by a fraction, and Nick hauled a load of blessed fresh air into his lungs.

Nigel clutched desperately, arms grasping the Wyrm’s neck. Loki thrashed, trying to dislodge the unexpected attacker. Nigel was making shouts of “Aieee!” and “Oh-h-h-h, poop!“, but still he held on. Nick felt an additional fraction of freedom, enough to tighten his grip on Gungnir and jerk the Spear upwards. The movement was only an inch or two, but enough for spear-point to prick underside of Wyrm-jaw. Loki jerked again at this new surprise, and Nick gained enough slack to bring the Spear up further and faster than his first attempt, trying for a wound to incapacitate, not just annoy.

But Loki pulled his head aside as Nick thrust. The blade rose alongside the Wyrm’s cheek, causing only a scratch. Loki’s eyes widened as spearpoint slid past eyeball in a near-miss.

The Wyrm roared and gyrated wildly. Nigel flew off the Wyrm’s neck in a high arc, wailing. Nick and Freya were slammed about, then the coils loosened and withdrew, leaving them sprawled on the hard floor.

A half-dozen Valkyrie, seeing opportunity at last, rushed towards the Wyrm, weapons drawn. Several fell as Nigel landed in their midst.

The Wyrm sprang into the air, twisting and blurring into a new, smaller, shape. Loki, now a sparrowhawk, beat wings frantically, darting back and forth in the air. Swords and spears batted at it, but the small swift bird dodged. It climbed higher and zoomed out a window-opening. Valkyrie on the upper platforms jumped onto their steeds and pursued the fleeing bird. Valkyrie on the ground floor ran out the door and towards the stables.

“Oof,” said Nick, sitting up slowly. His bruises had bruises.

“Ack,” said Nigel, wincing as he disentangled from a pile of Valkyrie.

“Crap,” said Freya, rising to her feet. “Are you all right, Nick? That bastard tried to kill you!”

“Yes. Nigel?”

Several Valkyrie helped Nigel to his feet. They seemed to bear no ill-will for his collision with them. Several smiled warmly at him, casting considering eyes over the small man’s frame.

“I’m all right, Mr. Claus. I think.”

“That was a spectacular display of bravery, young Nigel,” said Freya. “Very impressive.”

“Very stupid,” said Nick. “By the stars and sky, I only sent Sleipnir back to let you loose, not for reinforcements. But, ahh…” A sheepish look crossed Nick’s face. “…I’m glad you came.” He tried rising to his own feet, failed. Freya extended her hand. Nick hesitated, then took it and let himself be assisted.

“I think Mr. Claus has the right of it, Mrs, ummm…”

“Call me Freya, Nigel. And you can call Mister Claus ‘Nick’. Right, Nick?”

“Hmm? Uh, sure. Sure, Nigel.”

“Nick?” Nigel’s voice was uncertain. “Not…?”

Nick waved a hand. “I’ve been Nick a long time. I’ve gotten rather used to it. That other name….” He looked towards Freya.

Frey hesitated before replying. “You are both Odin and the Claus, Nick. You showed the best of your Odin-self here, just a few moments ago.”

“Heh.” Nick couldn’t restrain a grin. “Even when I had a spear pointed at you?”

Freya arched an eyebrow. “Did I look that frightened?”

“Hmmm. Actually… no.”

“You’ve disappointed me sometimes, Nick, but you’ve never hurt me. I was surprised, not frightened.” She considered for a moment. “Maybe a little. But for you, too. I feared you’d be skewered by my Valkyries.”

A Valkyrie standing by Nigel spoke. “It was a near thing, my Queen. If Sybil… err, Loki, that is… hadn’t spoken out, I was ready to let an arrow fly.”

“Well, good that Loki spoke out then, if only for extra seconds to see Freya slain,” Nick said. He looked towards the window-opening where Loki had fled. “Think they’ll catch him?”

“Probably not,” answered Freya. “Loki’s slippery, always has been.”

“It was all a sham, then?” asked Nigel. “Both of you pretended to be deceived by Loki?”

“Yes,” answered Nick. “Sorry. It seemed the best way to keep you out of the way and safe.”

Sleipnir approached, its eight hooves cloppity-cloppity-cloppity-clopping against the floor, and pushed its head against Nick. Nick stroked the horse’s head. “Were you ever on a horse before, Nigel? Your riding technique looked a little… unusual.”

“Barely riding at all, sir. More climb on, hold on, and let him have his way. I didn’t know if he’d go back to you after freeing me. It was sheer hope.”

“Hmph. Hope?”

“I couldn’t let the Claus ruin Christmas. Or himself.”

Freya took Nick by an elbow and led him a short distance away. “What did Loki tell you,” she asked, “meant to make you want to kill me?”

“You know what Loki’s like. A bit of truth, a lot of twist. He, ah, said you were usurping my rightful place over Asgard, and turning it into a women-only paradise.”

Freya stared at Nick for several long seconds, then burst into laughter.

“Oh, Nick. Yes, Asgard is being rebuilt by women, and I’m trying to create a system where women have authority and rights the old Asgard lacked. But we’re not excluding men, not forever. We’re just trying to minimize assholes. The loudest arguments in our meetings have been over how soon to admit men.”

“Hmmm.” Nick looked towards Nigel and the small coterie of Valkyrie around him. Several positively cooed over the young dwarf; one ran a finger along the outside of Nigel’s ear. Nigel’s eyes were wide and startled-looking.

Nick turned back to Freya and spoke in a softer voice. “So the Valkyrie…” He held up two fingers held slightly apart, brought them together. “…aren’t…?”

Freya rolled her eyes. “Some of them are. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Point taken.” He paused. “Nigel and I should go soon. Christmas can’t wait forever.”

“Flexible time here, remember? You wouldn’t have to leave for several days, here.”

“Do you… want me to stay?”

“You need to stay, you and Nigel both. At least a day.  You’re both banged up from the sleigh’s crash and from Loki’s shenanigans.” Freya rolled her head on her neck; Nick heard several vertebra pop. “I’m pretty sore myself.”

“Nigel? Did you hear that last bit?”

“Yes, Mr. Clau… err, Nick.”

Freya pointed at the two Valkyrie flanking Nigel. “Take him someplace to rest, you two. Make sure he’s comfortable.”

The Valkyries smiled. “Oh, we will.” They each put a hand on Nigel’s shoulders. “Come along. We won’t bite.” Nigel was lead away, a somewhat anxious look on his face.

“Do you think he’ll get much rest?” asked Nick, sotto voce.

“I have my doubts. He is a very nice-looking young dwarf,” Freya answered, absently fingering the gold nuggets of her necklace before letting her hand drop away.

Nick cleared his throat. “Well… I should go back to my guest room, I suppose. Good night.” He squared his shoulders and turned away, then stopped as Freya’s hand touched his shoulder.

“Nick….” Freya paused, her face uncertain for a second. “Why don’t you come to my chambers? I have a hot tub; good for soaking away aches and pains. And we could… talk more.”

Nick stared, his own expression just as certain. “That’s, uhh… thoughtful.” He felt he’d suddenly stumbled into the middle of a minefield. Don’t screw this up, he told himself. “Maybe we could have that talk over–” He saw Freya’s face stiffen. “–coffee?” he finished.

He realized, surprised, that his need for a drink, the need that had been a part of him for so long, was… not gone; there was still part of him wanting that easy answer, its convenient solace and numbness. But the desire was muted, overshadowed by a need to regain what he had once been. The day’s events had given him a taste of that. He wanted more, and Freya’s words gave him sudden unexpected hope that maybe – maybe – there could be more.

Freya’s face softened again, making Nick’s heart leap. She brought out her cell phone: “Send a pot of coffee and service to my chambers, please. And get the hot tub ready.”

An unasked question Nick did not dare to ask hung between them. Freya put away her phone, looked at Nick’s face, and answered the question anyway. “We’ll talk, Nick. We might talk quite a lot, and that’s all. Oh, and we might get your suit cleaned.” She nodded towards Nick’s scarlet suit. The suit’s magic repelled soot and blemishes associated with the duties of being a Claus, but wrestling a giant snake-thing apparently wasn’t covered; the suit had multiple smears and stains from the tumult.

Nick looked down at his outfit and slapped himself mentally. He’d been so focused on Freya, on the thought and hope of a rapprochement, he’d thrust away all thought of his duties as the Claus. Damn it all. He didn’t want to lose this opportunity by leaving her side again. But… duty! But… Freya! But… but… but….

He needed to be the Claus. But he wanted to be Odin as well. He wanted to be Freya’s husband again. He wanted… everything. Everything.

* * *

Much later, after New Asgard’s day had turned to night and begun moving towards morning again, Nick slipped out from under the covers of Freya’s bed and padded, naked, to the long narrow window. A moon shone bright among scattered clouds, the mountains a tripled shade of blue in its light, with almost-black shadows, dark rocks and trees, and an almost phosphorescent azure reflecting from the snow at higher elevations.

Nick’s suit, cleaned and pressed, laid over a nearby chair. Nick didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think of it, but couldn’t keep it from his mind.

He didn’t want to be the Claus anymore. Freya had been right. He’d grown tired and bored, of the job, of the duty. He’d slacked off, stopped caring, and the drinking had started in earnest. After Freya had left, it had been even worse. He’d even come to resent and despise the children who believed in him.

He didn’t want to go back. Not without Freya. And Freya’s place was here, now. But there was no place for Nick in New Asgard, not yet, maybe never.

Freya came up behind Nick, pressed her body along his. “Can’t sleep?”

“No. My mind is all a-muddle. What I want to do, what I should do, what I have to do. There’s no easy answer, Freya, no clear path to follow.”

She laid her arms over his shoulders and her hands onto his chest. She fiddled with his silvery chest hairs and was silent for a long moment.

“You could give it up,” she said, softly. “I walked out on being Mrs. Claus. You could let someone else take over. Maybe that young man Nigel. The Claus suit would adjust itself to fit him. I could show him how to have Tregul and Bygul lead the sleigh. He could take your place. He could be the Claus. And you could be with me.”

Nick savored her words for a moment, then spoke.

“That is a wonderful idea, Freya. And you would despise me if I did so.”

Her reply came after a long pause. “Yes. I would.”

Nick sighed and placed his own hand over one of hers. “You were never really happy as the wife of the Claus. You were always more than it required.”

Freya sighed in her turn. “I got so sick of baking all those damn cookies.”

“But they were very good cookies.”

“True.”

“You should bake me a batch.”

Freya stepped back and slapped Nick’s shoulder, but it was a toy-slap with no anger behind it. Nick turned towards her. The moonlight shone on her own nakedness, and Nick felt excitement stirring in him again.

“I’m not sure where it goes from here, Nick. I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t expect to be here, now, with you.”

“In bed with an old fat man?”

She smiled. “You’ve never disappointed me in that regard.”

“Eh, nice words, but there were a few times….”

“You were drinking pretty heavily before I left. How are you feeling, by the way? Did the tea help?”

Earlier, after hours without a drink, Nick had begun to experience headache, nausea and sweats. More aspirin, and cups of a strong herbal tea meant to flush out toxins, had helped.

“I feel all right now.”

Freya looked down. “Apparently you do.”

“Fat but not flabby.”

She looked coyly into his eyes. “Ready to prove that again?”

When they finished, they lay side by side on the rumpled bed.

“If I were to give up being the Claus, and came here to be with you,” Nick said, “I’d only be your paramour. There’s no place here for me.”

“Not right now.”

“Maybe never. I’ve gotten used to being top dog. The All-Father. The Claus. The Guy In Charge.”

“Old dogs can still learn new tricks.”

“Nice words. But actions speak louder.”

“What are you going to do?”

Nick sighed. “In a few hours, I’ll get up, put on my suit, and go to the stable. I’ll meet up with Nigel, you’ll show us how to command your cats, and Nigel and I will fly off to deliver Christmas presents to children all around the world.”

“You could put a little more enthusiasm into your voice.”

“After hundreds of years, it’s difficult. More work every year, and less respect and appreciation, it seems.”

“I remember. You need some vacation time. See different places.”

“Like here? I’d hate to have to crash the sleigh every time I wanted to visit.”

“I’ll see what I can do. You earned a lot of bonus points today, revealing Loki’s scheme. I don’t think there’d be many objections to your coming back again.”

“And what would I do here? Besides, you know, this?”

“That tickles!” Freya moved a few inches away. “There are things. Built any longboats lately? Taught spear-fighting? Have you thought of writing a memoir about the original Asgard?”

“Hmm.” Nick considered, stroking his beard. “An eyewitness history… may-y-y-be. I’ll give that one some thought.”

“Do so. Meanwhile, we’ve still a few hours before you have to leave. How do you want to spend them?”

“Do you think an old fat man has the stamina… hey, that tickles!”

* * *

The practice runs with Tregul and Bygul went well. Nick and Nigel took turns at the reins, swooping and zooming over New Asgard’s lakes and forests, before landing the sleigh at the mountain pass through which they had arrived. The bright morning daylight of New Asgard shone into the pass, fading and shifting into the cold darkness of a different reality at the far end. Freya and an escort of Valkyrie had come to say farewell.

“Well,” Nick said, awkwardly. “Goodbye, Freya.”

“For now, Nick. Not too long. Someone will need to pick up Tregul and Bygul from the Pole after you finish your deliveries. I thought I might come myself. I could bring Sleipnir with me. If you don’t object.”

“No,” he answered. “No, I don’t think I’d object.”

A Valkyrie flew up from the valley below and landed. She saluted Freya, and passed her a small box.

“Oh, good. I was afraid it might not be ready in time.” Freya turned back to Nick and handed him the box. “Merry Christmas, Nick. I had one of the Valkyries whip this up.”

Nick, non-plussed, took the box and opened it. “Oh, my,” he said, and pulled out a dark brown leather eyepatch. “This is just like my old one.”

“I thought it might be a reminder you’re more than just the Claus.”

“Let me try it on.” Nick removed the improvised cloth patch, put the new eyepatch over his empty socket and adjusted the strap. “Feels good. Nigel, what do you think?”

Nigel, who’d been speaking quietly to his new Valkyrie acquaintances, looked over. “Absolutely piratical, sir. Children will be terrified.”

“Nonsense. Children love pirates. Ar-r-r-r-r! This could be an entirely new direction. Captain Whitebeard, the Christmas Pirate! I could steal presents from naughty boys and girls.”

“Um, you’re joking, sir. Aren’t you?”

Nick looked thoughtful for several seconds before answering. “Of course. Just joking, Nigel. Children will grow used to the new look. Time to go. Let’s get back aboard.”

Nick and Freya, mindful of the public onlookers, exchanged a hug. Then Nick and Nigel climbed into the sleigh as Freya and the Valkyries moved back to give them room.

“You know what, Nigel? Why don’t you take the reins?”

“Me, sir? Are you sure?”

“Sure enough. In fact…” Nicked pulled the blue cap from Nigel’s head and replaced it with his fur-trimmed scarlet cap. “…I’m thinking it’s time I took on an understudy. Interested?”

“Me, sir? Oh, yes, sir!”

“Good. Let’s move out, Nigel. We have gifts to deliver.”

Nigel took the reins and spoke the commands Freya had taught him. Tregul and Bygul moved forward into the pass, the other cats following behind.

Nick turned and waved at the small crowd watching them depart. The sleigh rose above the road as it moved into the frigid air at the far end.

The sleigh continued to rise, exited the pass, and climbed upwards in a wide turn southward, towards cities and homes and the hopes and wishes of children. To an observer, it would have shrunk to a barely visible object moving across the night sky.

That same observer might have heard a voice high in that same sky, the voice of a small man, words softened by distance but still clear: “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas to all!”

And, a second later, the deeper voice of a larger man. “Ar-r-r-r-r-r!”

 

-end-

 

Bruce Arthurs has been writing and selling SF/F and mystery stories since 1975, with over a dozen published in scattered venues over scattered years. His mystery story “Beks and the Second Note” was a Best Short Story finalist for the 2017 Derringer short mystery fiction award. He has also edited two anthologies, and wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Clues”, 4th Season, 1991). He lives in Arizona with his wife Hilde, several housemates, and six cats.

Hildegarde’s Cuckoos

By Maureen Bowden

 

Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.

 

Hildegarde von Bingen, or to be specific, her eighty-year-old body, sat at the ancient oak desk in her cell. Her mind was absent, roaming through the Ether. She scanned the Akashic Records, the Cosmic Mind, until she found what she was seeking. After absorbing the information she sent her consciousness back into her body, and awoke.

 

An aged, obese, cat lay sprawled across the desktop. Her black, grey-speckled fur sprouted in tufts between bald patches, like a worn-out yard brush. Sensing her mistress’s return to the physical plane, she opened one yellow eye, and purred a greeting.

 

Hildegarde’s voice rang with triumph. “I’ve found it, Sappho. I have a welcoming nest where my latest little cuckoo can thrive.”

 

Sappho raised her tail, emitted a blast of flatulence with the nonchalance of advanced age, closed her eye again, and sank back into oblivion.

 

Hildegarde wafted her arms in an attempt to disperse the methane, rose to her feet, and left the cell. She walked into the monastery’s tranquil garden, breathed in the twilight scent of honeysuckle, and prepared for time travel by sending a silent prayer to She Who Nurtures. The feminine aspect of the Universal Intelligence responded to the prayer, and Hildegarde vanished.

 

 

Seventeenth-century, Palace of Whitehall, England.

 

Hildegarde von Bingen materialised unsteadily on her eighty-year-old feet, straightened her wimple, and approached the court of King Charles II. She was confident that nobody would challenge her. The little Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was making another attempt to produce a live child, and although the nobility disapproved of the Queen’s Catholicism, they were unlikely to begrudge her the company of a holy woman of her own faith in her hour of need.

 

Hildegarde, was familiar with the palace layout, having visited previously on similar errands. She made her way to the royal confinement suite and entered. A midwife, three physicians, six ladies-in-waiting, seven servants and five aristocratic observers who had no business being there, were clustered around Catherine’s bed. The midwife held up a newborn female child. Hildegarde sent them all into stasis. They became still, oblivious to her presence, their consciousness suspended.

 

She took the Queen’s newborn daughter and wrapped her in a shawl embroidered with Charles II’s heraldic symbols, which was lying across a crib at the foot of the bed. She carried the baby into the palace grounds and then she vanished.

 

Seconds later she returned with a dead female child concealed in the shawl, hurried to the confinement suite, placed the tiny body in the midwife’s arms, folded the shawl, and laid it across the crib. She retreated to the doorway, removed the stasis, and as she closed the door behind her she heard a lady-in-waiting whisper to a servant, “Tell Lady Castlemaine the infant was born dead. She can put away her poison until the next time.”  

        

   

Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.

 

Hildegarde materialised once more in the monastery garden. Sappho, who sat waiting for her on the doorstep, attempted to rise and balance her fat body on arthritic legs. Hildegarde picked her up and carried her back to their cell. She placed the cat on the bed they shared. “We’re both growing old, my girl,” she sighed. “I don’t have much time left to find a successor, and if I fail, many gifted children, born in inauspicious circumstances, will be denied the opportunity to make the world a better place.”   

 

She lay awake through the night, dwelling on the problem, but another matter distracted her. Each time she closed her eyes she saw the face of the young woman on whom she’d foisted Queen Catherine’s daughter. When Hildegarde had taken the child to a twenty-first century nursing home and sent the occupants of the delivery room into stasis, the mother had remained conscious and watched her make the exchange. Such a thing had never happened before, and she felt it was significant that it should happen now. She resolved to investigate after she’d had a few hours sleep. Not wishing to disrupt the child’s formative years, she would time her visit for a later date.

#

 

Twenty-first century, England.

 

Eighteen years ago I gave birth to twin daughters, not identical, they grew from separate eggs, but the girls I raised are as alike as any siblings would be expected to be. They both have dark hair and eyes, like Carlitos, my handsome Portugese husband, and they share a sense of fun that enriches our family’s life. Only I know that they’re not sisters.

 

My labour was long and excruciating. I lay back and sighed with relief when the midwife said, “You have two beautiful, healthy daughters, Ellie.”

 

She made me comfortable while the nurses washed, weighed, and did whatever was necessary to the babies. Then the weirdness started. One of nurses whispered, “She’s not breathing.”

 

The door opened, and an old nun came in. Everyone in the room froze. Time seemed to have stopped, but not for me. I stared at her wrinkled face. Her eyes were alert and she stood tall and straight, with a vitality extraordinary for one of her age. She stared back at me, raising her brows in surprise. A newborn baby kicked and squalled in her arms. It was wrapped in a shawl decorated with fleurs-de-lis and the stylised lions that appear on coats-of-arms. She placed the child on the nurses’ worktop, picked up a tiny lifeless body, wrapped it in the shawl, and carried it to the door. She faced me again, winked, left the room, and closed the door behind her.

                

Activity returned. I could hear two babies making full use of lungs and vocal chords. Terrified, I yelled to the nurse whose whisper I’d heard, “What happened? You said one of them wasn’t breathing.”

 

The midwife turned back to me. “Nobody said that, Ellie. They’re fine. You’re exhausted. It’s normal to be a little confused.” She placed the babies in my arms.

 

I knew I wasn’t confused. One of the children wasn’t my daughter, but I didn’t know which one. Over the years I tried to convince myself that I’d imagined the entire episode, until yesterday, when I saw the nun again.

 

I left my veterinary practice, ‘Lark Lane Pet Care’, when afternoon surgery was over, and I found her on the doorstep, reading the brass plaque that listed my qualifications. “Greetings, Ellie,” she said. “I’m pleased to see that time has been gentle with you, and you chose a worthy profession.”

 

A range of emotions: bewilderment, anger, and fear that she’d come to reclaim one of my daughters, engulfed me. My voice shook as I confronted her. “I saw what you did eighteen years ago. You can’t have her back. Go away.”

 

She smiled and stroked my cheek. Her fingers were soothing and her eyes were kind. My fear subsided. She said, “It was eighteen years ago for you, my dear, but it was only yesterday for me. Don’t worry. I pose no threat to you and your family.”

 

I believed her, but I was still trembling. “Who are you?”

 

“My name is Hildegarde von Bingen. You may call me Hilda.”

 

“I’ve heard of you. You lived centuries ago. Are you a ghost?”

 

She laughed. “No, I’m flesh and blood, like you. People have called me a writer, healer, musician, mystic, sorceress and saint, but I’m just a woman with an excess of curiosity, who’s had time on her hands. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot left. You interest me and there’s much I can tell you, but only if I interest you.”

 

“You do.”

 

“Good. Is there anywhere close by, where we may obtain refreshment?”

 

I took her to Starbucks and bought two cappuccinos. The cashier glanced at Hilda’s wimple, which resembled an elaborate origami creation, and shrugged, probably assuming it was a complicated hijab.

 

We found a table in a quiet corner where our conversation was unlikely to be overheard. “Start talking,” I said.

 

She sipped her coffee, and nodded. “Some people are special. They are born to be great leaders, scientists, social reformers, or what I call joy bringers, who generate happiness simply by their presence. They make the world a better place.”

 

I felt my anger rising again. “So, do you distribute them when they’re born, like lottery prizes?”

 

She scowled. “Certainly not. Be quiet and reserve judgement.”

 

I believe I blushed. “Sorry. Please continue.”

 

“Thank you. Occasionally, a special one is born in a time and place in which he or she would be unable to flourish, possible even unable to survive. They are my cuckoos. I find them appropriate nests.”

 

She told me about The Akasha, the record of humanity’s history. “Time is like a river, flowing from a mountain spring, on its long journey to the sea. I can look down on it from above, and see the past, present and future. Within it I find what I seek.” 

 

I didn’t doubt what she told me. It awakened an intuitive awareness and I needed to know more.

 

She continued, “I am a servant of She Who Nurtures. Some call her a goddess, some acknowledge her as a force of nature. To me she is The Lady and I do her bidding.”

 

There was something I dreaded asking, but I had to know “What about the babies the cuckoos replace? Do they have to die?”

 

She reached for my hand, and I saw the sorrow in her eyes for the tiny lifeless bodies she carried from their mothers. “Throughout history,” she said, “many children have failed to survive. That will always be so. Among the gaps they leave I seek appropriate nests. My cuckoos must be matched to their new homes or they would be regarded as misfits. The child I brought to you was Catherine of Braganza and King Charles II’s daughter.”

 

I understood. “Catherine was Portuguese.”

 

“Yes. Your husband carries the House of Braganza DNA.”

 

“Why did you take their child?”

 

“The King’s jealous mistress was afraid that a legitimate offspring of royal blood would supplant her batch of bastards in his affections. She kept a supply of poison to ensure that none of the Queen’s babies lived.”

 

My heart was pounding as I asked, “Which one of my children died?”

 

“I don’t know, Ellie. I didn’t see them born and I made the swap before you named them.”

 

“So I won’t know until one of them turns out to be special?”

 

She shook her head, “Haven’t you guessed? They’re both special. They’re joy bringers.”

 

So I’d never know, and I didn’t care. I felt only relief. They were both mine. Nothing would change that.

 

Hilda said, “What are their names?”

 

“Grace and Jessica.”

 

“Beautiful names. What do they plan to do with their lives?”

 

“Gracie wants to be a doctor, Jess wants to be a stand-up comedienne or a celebrity chef, maybe both.”

 

“Are the two occupations not mutually exclusive?”

 

I shrugged, “Probably not. That’s the twenty-first century for you.”

 

“Ah, yes,” she said, “talking of which, as a twenty-first century healer of animals, perhaps you could assist Sappho. My cat, not the poet.”

 

“What’s wrong with her?”

 

“She’s old. I know you can’t fix that, but she suffers from arthritis, and I suffer from her flatulence.”

 

“Finish your coffee and come back to my surgery. I’ll find something that might help.”

 

On the way back to ‘Pet Care’ I asked her about the cuckoos who became great leaders or whatever. “Anyone I’d know among them?”

 

“Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Winston Churchill.” She frowned. “That one was a mixed blessing. Belligerent old drunk, but better than the alternative.”

 

“What about further back?”

 

“Emmeline Pankhurst, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Jeanne d’Arc.”

 

“Joan of Arc? You didn’t do her any favours, Hilda, She was burned alive.”

 

She gave me a smart slap on the back of my neck. “There you go again, prejudging. Jeanne was born in East Anglia in the seventeenth century, within sniffing distance of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. A girl who heard voices wouldn’t have escaped his attention. He would have hanged her before she reached adulthood. Her destiny lay in fifteenth century France, so that’s where I took her.”

 

“But she lost in the end,” I said.

 

“Did she? Her spirit inspired and transformed the French national identity. Without her, France would not be the great nation it is today.” She patted my shoulder. “Ease your tender heart, Ellie. She didn’t burn alive. The Lady took her soul before the flames reached her.” 

 

“I’d like to know about The Lady.”

 

“So you shall. We’ll talk many times, and before my lifespan runs out you’ll know her as well as I do.”

 

I was still contemplating the implications of that promise when we reached the surgery and raided my herbal remedies’ cupboard. Hilda filled her pockets with lotions, potions and pills.

 

The kitten that I’d found abandoned in my waiting room the previous week emerged from the empty surgical gloves container that served as her makeshift bed, and ran in circles around my feet. I picked her up.

 

“Who have we here?” Hilda said.

 

“I don’t know where she came from but she seems to have adopted me.”

 

She tickled the kitten under the chin. “You attract cuckoos, Ellie. Take good care of her.”

 

“I will. You take good care of Sappho.”

 

We walked to the door. “I’ll come again soon,” she said. Then she vanished.

 

My life was changing. An adventure awaited me. It was terrifying and wonderful.

 

“It’s time you had a name,” I said to the kitten. “I’ll call you Hilda.”

 

#

   

Twelfth-century, Eibingen Monastery, Germany.

 

Hildegarde von Bingen materialised in the monastery garden and hurried to her cell. “Sappho, I’ve found my successor,” she called, “and you’re about to be given a new lease of life”. She placed the lotions, potions and pills on her desk. 

 

Sappho lay on the bed, snoring softly, with her legs in the air. Hildegarde smiled at her long-time companion. “But that can wait. Sweet dreams, old friend.”

 

— End —

 

Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 110 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, and one of her stories was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mainly comic political satire. Her husband sets them to traditional melodies and he has performed them in folk music clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll. Shakespeare and cats.

The Third Tenet

by J.A. Becker

 

There is nothing quite like getting shot in the chest.

Twice.

The first shot splits my heart pump and blows half of it out of my back, along with some circuit chips, wiring, and a liter of black coolant. Splashes like an expressionist’s painting on the metal wall behind me.

The bullet breaks a pain dampener too, so I get all the unfiltered data at once. My entire synaptic neural net catches fire and a thousand bright-red warning messages pop up on my visual overlay.

I scream and scream, unable to cope with the sudden load on my CPU.

Then the next shot is what kills me.

A machine cannot love. Emotion is impossible. Feeling is just a subroutine instantiated by an external stimulant. None of my bits are real. All of my broken parts screaming at me for attention doesn’t make me human, it’s merely good programming.

But Jane brushing back the long strands of her golden hair so she can take careful aim with her liquid mercury eye, does something inside of me that is beyond any programming I’ve been imparted with: I feel the sting of a love betrayed.

Then she pulls the trigger and shoots me in the other side of my chest, right through the CPU.

The blast spins me around and the last optic I record is the view from the station’s port-side window. I see the sun peak over the edge of Saturn and the vast floating rockyard begins to glow like amber on fire.

Then I shut down.

#

     A month before she shot my heart out, I was standing on the gantryway of Cerberus station watching the rockyard catch fire in the sunlight.

I’d been wiped and rewritten, but that pensive algorithm that forces me to watch the sunrise from the gantry was still intact. Some brain somewhere figured it was a good idea to have an attractive police chief stand up there, looking regal and romantic like while the filthy streams of humanity coursed down the promenade, on their way to death and riches in the rockyard. The hypothesis was it would remind people of the presence of the law and inspire them with the confidence that I was there looking over them.

And, I was up there waiting for the new captain of the station too, as I’d killed the other one just a week ago. Those who programmed my dictionary would have called that episode a sordid affair. But all that illegal fiddling with my programming had been wiped, reconfigured, and I was rebooted and ready for duty.

And then I saw her, walking down the gantry towards me. I could recognize beauty through the symmetry of her face and body, and so did the fortune seekers walking to their ships below us. They threw up little sly glances at her on the overhead walkway, unable to help themselves.

Her blue uniform was fresh and the brass buttons that ran up her beveled front were a polished sparkled. She had long blonde hair and smooth, unblemished skin. Her only imperfection was her prosthetic mercury eye.

She strode up and I could tell from her rapid heart rate and the ridged angle she walked at that she was not happy to see me.

“How in the hell you weren’t decommissioned and fired into the rings is beyond me.” She said.

An appropriate response didn’t percolate up into my speech center, so I just followed protocol and saluted her.

“Seriously,” she said. “Are you completely mad?”

Her silver eye flashed and my sensors told me it was trying to interface with me. She was sending me a command: Strike Me, Strike Me, Strike Me.

I ignored it.

She was testing me, trying to see if she could make me do something that went against my programming.

“You shouldn’t worry,” I told her. “What happened was an anomaly. It would be impossible to replicate that now my programming has been patched and updated. I am here to serve you and the station faithfully.”

“Just a little anomaly, eh? Is that how they’ve classified it? You painting the walls with the station chief’s blood was just a little anomaly?”

They wiped the recording from my memory banks, but I’ve still access to coroner’s report and can accurately reverse engineer the scene in my virtual memory. I do, and see that I took him apart limb by limb. Definitely, sordid.

“It was malfeasance,” I explain, but she waves a hand to stop me.

“I’ve read the report,” she said. “One of the traders broke through your safties and programmed you to violently murder the chief. What I don’t understand is why you’re still in the same position now. In my books, you are compromised. Why in God’s name do I have to work with you?”

“I am fully capable of…”

“The only reasons I can think of,” she said, cutting me off, “is that they are too cheap to buy another you and they truly don’t give a shit about my safety.”

“Those are very likely conclusions,” I agreed.  

She looked up at me sharply. The eyebrow of her good blue eye raised.

“You’re a funny one,” she said. “Is that a joke?”

It wasn’t, but I didn’t want to agitate her further by explaining all the cognitions behind that articulation. It was true, the station owner was cheap and I’d noted this on one-thousand three hundred and seven separate occasions where he valued monetary concerns over the lifeforms on his station. But informing her of all those occasions was a zero-sum game, so I stayed silent.

“What mark are you?” She asked.

“I-18.”

“That’s not too old,” she said and I could detect surprise in her voice. “How many times have you been patched?”

“Unfortunately, one of the patches overrode the ordering of my revision system, so my best guess is one thousand, two-hundred and ten times. But I can’t be 100% accurate on that.”

“That does not inspire me with confidence.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Again, a strange response,” she said. “They’ve given you a personality it seems too, but why?”

I couldn’t answer and my body language subroutine engaged and I shrugged my shoulders.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I guess you know as much about your maker’s reasonings as we do.”

I had no response for that.

“Come with me,” she said. “We’ve got cargo to inspect.”

 

#

Unannounced, our Scimitar approached the Starburst, a mining ship registered with the Auralian government. Before they or I even knew what was happening, we zipped up and docked with them.

This ship was off-limits, according to the previous station captain and I informed Jane of that.

     “That exactly why we’re here,” she said and made an expression that registered in my facial-recognition database as incomprehension. She was the station chief now, so I had a duty to follow.

“Lock and load,” she said, taking a silver T-180 pistol from the weapon’s rack and slamming it into the black holster about her waist. I lifted a rifle from its rack on the wall and flipped off the safety catch.

A quick scan of the station’s warrant files told me that us boarding them was unsanctioned, which prompted a question.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked.

“Cause I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on this shit station.”

Her articulation registered as a non-sequitur in my dictionary and I had no response.

Her eye interfaced with the Starburst door. I couldn’t follow all the communications, but basically it amounted to her prosthetic dropping a 89,000 encryption bit code sequence into the door’s 39,066 key receptor and overloading it.

It slid open and she quickly stepped through.

“Listen,” she said, turning back to me. “I don’t trust you. If you make any false moves, I’m going to shoot you in the chest. Right through the CPU.”

I stayed silent and followed her dutifully.

Under the treaty, she could search and seize any vessel in the system, warrant or not. One of the twenty-million computations going through my CPU at the time was a quick comparison of the behavioral algorithms I observed between her and the previous chief. The juxtaposition showed stark contrasts.

     I caught a bit of the communications between her eye and the ship’s WI-NET. She’d pulled up a schematic of the ship and was focusing in on the hold, which was refrigerated. That, according to my database of ship architectural blueprints, was highly unusual.

     I covered the rear while she made her way cautiously down the hallway. My scans said her heart rate was elevated and I noticed her hand was firmly around the grip of her holstered gun. Her wrist was tensing too, so it could snap up at an instance. I, on the other hand, hadn’t any nerves.    

     From scanning the manifest, I learned the Starburst was a galaxy class ship with over 5.6 kilometers of corridors. There was a hundred and ten crew. It had no infractions registered against it in any system, but I noticed the ownership structure was redacted from the manifest, which was a red flag.

     “So far, so good,” she said.

     “Can you tell me what we are looking for?” I asked.

“For the reasons why you never looked here.”

We reached the end of the corridor, where a big door shooshed up into the ceiling as we approached. A blast of fridged air rolled over us.

Inside the refrigerator were stacks and stacks of frozen bodies. A quick scan showed there were roughly one-thousand-one hundred and fifty-two of them. They were all bloated, filled up like balloons about to burst, and thick varicose veins coiled tightly beneath their swelled skin. Their eyes were white and frosted over and all had grimaces on their lips. All of them, a facial-recognition algorithm informed me, had died from space exposure.

Jane gasped and recoiled against the wall, hand clutched up to her throat. Obviously, this discovery was unexpected and horrifying to her.

An A.I. is built upon continuously shifting layers of programming. Some of the layers were running computations and analysis that my main processor, my consciousness, was siloed from. Often, they amounted to nothing and the layer would vaporize back into memory and another would take its place. But now one of the layers had reached a probability conclusion and merged itself with the stream entering my CPU. And that layer had determined what this was.

But then the shooting started.

I failed to notice the Starburst’s crew deploying along the corridor behind me. They took up strategic positions in entryways and behind bulkheads, effectively ambushing us.

A bullet passed through my right bicep and blew out fluids and metal shards, but nothing serious. I grabbed Jane by the arm and shoved her inside the refrigerator, then I spun around with my rifle raised. Fire erupted from the nozzle and 15 rounds made their way through 15 different people. My aim was impossibly accurate. I’d shot them in the arms and legs that obtruded from their hiding positions. They all screamed in pain and some of them fell to the ground, squirming in agony. I hadn’t received a kill command from Jane, so I didn’t shoot them through the head, though I could have easily done so.

I quickly ducked into the refrigerator and surveyed Jane. She wasn’t hurt. But her heart rate and breathing had approached panicked levels now. In my experience, people under this level of stress and terror couldn’t function properly. I began unlocking some internal protocols so I could take the situation over, but then she spoke calmly and I canceled the overrides.

     “Did you kill any of them?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “I’ve only wounded them.”

“Good,” she said. “I want them all alive when I arrest them.”

     A probability statistic percolated up in my speech center, but I canceled it at the last minute. It served no purpose to inform her of the chances of her getting out of this alive, let alone us arresting them.

     She took her place on one side of the door and I stood at the ready on the other.

     “Hey!” she shouted down the hallway and brought her gun up and cocked it. “You are under arrest! Lay down your arms!”

     There were groans and cries of the people I’d shot, but nothing to indicate compliance.

     “I’ve called for backup!” she shouted. “The police are on their way.”

     The probability they would accept this ruse was incredibly low. It was well known amongst the rockyarders that we were the only authority in the system.

     “Bitch!” was the reply. “You lay down your arms! We’ve got you covered. There is no way out.”

     Abruptly, Jane stepped into the doorframe, fired a shot, and then stepped back. I heard a body hit the floor and I guessed that she’d killed the person who’d spoken.

     “I don’t miss,” she shouted. “Drop your guns!”

     Suddenly I received a strange command that put all my directives into conflict.

     The command was straight from Cerberus and had the digital signature of Anthony Mann himself, the owner of Cerberus station.

     The command was: Shoot Jane in the Head.

     As my cognitions processed this, Jane popped out into the hallway again and fired off ten more shots then jumped back as they returned fire. Many of the bullets slammed into the frozen bodies, splaying cracks across their skin and sending chunks of skin rocketing across the room.

     Several of my secondary processors wanted to instantly execute the command I’d received as it was of the highest priority, a Sev-1 command. But my higher functions, the ones that had accepted the last software patch, refused. The command was in conflict with their primary directive, which was to protect the station captain at all costs. Some of my secondary processors tried to override the primary ones and I briefly went to war with myself. My arms tried to lift the rifle up to shoot Jane between her silver and blue eye, but I forced it back down. I began to scream as my whole body fought with itself.

     “What the hell is the matter with you!” Jane shouted. “Shoot them you fool! Shoot them!”

     I shook uncontrollably. Pressure was building up in my system as every pump, processor, rotor, and circuit chip redlined. I again tried to lift up the rifle to fire, but I forced it back down. Pinprick holes began ruptured in my circulation system and trickles of black coolant began pouring out of my ears and the corners of my eyes.

     And then abruptly logic won. My body at a stalemate put every directive I had at risk. I could neither protect Jane, nor stop the perpetrators, nor protect the station, or even accept the Sev-1. I had to unfreeze myself and that mandate circumvented everything. So my higher functions initiated a cascade failure that would begin a shutdown protocol that would put me to sleep. Once offline, my priority queues would be cleared by a maintenance subroutine and I would be able to function again.

     Just as I was initiating the cascade failure, a thermite grenade rolled into the room and Jane began to scream.

     Then I went to sleep.

#

     I rebooted.

     I’d fallen to the ground and I quickly came to my feet. 0.66666 seconds had passed since I’d shutdown and the thermite grenade was about to go off.

     Jane’s symmetrical face was twisted with terror. Her long blonde hair was slicked wet with worried sweat and her eyes were anxiously wide. Then, before I could reach for it, she kicked the grenade away from us. This was foolish on her part, as it flew through the air, hit the back wall, and exploded.

The fiery detonation ripped open a ten-foot hole, which the vacuum of space instantly sucked out; visually, it looked like an explosion in reverse.

With the pressure change, the safety systems engaged and the refrigerator door slammed down with a bang, locking us in.

Air began rapidly bleeding out and all the swollen bodies began lifting up and streaming out the hole. I tried to grab Jane, but I was too slow. She and I locked eyes briefly as she was picked up and thrown outside along with the dead.

I held onto my rifle, put my arm around a refrigeration pipe that stuck out of the wall, and I held myself there while I considered the situation.

In ten seconds, the cold vacuum of space would cause irreversible damage to her body. Which meant I had 1.667 seconds to test two theories in my virtual memory and 8.333 seconds to act on the best one.

Unfortunately, both of them tested fruitless, so I had to go with an untested third option that occurred to me while I was running the simulations.

I crouched down, took aim, and then jumped straight through the hole in the back wall.

In a millisecond I was out into the beyond. Cerberus station was off to my right, spinning like a silver bike tire on its side, and there was an incalculable number of stars glistening in the dark.

The dead were floating all around me. I bumped into an Asian woman who had long black hair that swam in slow motion about her frozen face. I pushed her out of my way and pinpointed Jane, which was easy.

Her eye was sending me a signal: Help Me. Help Me. Help Me.

I made several very quick computations, aimed the rifle behind me at a 30-degree angle, and pulled the trigger.

The bullets were encased in their own oxygen supply and the gun fired without flames spouting from the barrel.

The force reversal sent me on my way and I kept firing to accelerate. I quickly reloaded a new clip and fired another small burst to adjust my trajectory and further increase my speed.

I had 5.111 seconds left.

Now the scene had become a visual confusion. I had hit a tiny asteroid pocket and there millions of them and thousands of bodies dispersing amongst them; then, there was the massive backdrop of the orange whirling clouds of Saturn. In this morass, I was relying entirely on her signal to locate her.

Then her blue captain suit sparkled in the orange light and my visual sensors locked onto her. I unloaded another clip, as I had 2.988 seconds left.

I reached out, caught her, and held her close in an attempt to transfer some of my body’s warmth to hers.

We locked eyes and I did the only thing I could think of to calm her.

I smiled.

And then we were out of time.

#

Frost began prickling on her skin and very soon it would burrow down into her lifeless body.

But I was calm, as I had no nerves, and I sent a command to our ship just before I’d jumped.

Now it was a waiting game. A game Jane couldn’t afford, as I detected the electrical impulses in her brain were beginning to slow.

What cognitions were going through her mind, my pensive algorithms queried. Was she self-aware in this state? Was she dreaming? Did she find me at fault for what had happened?

I played these questions out in my virtual memory, as my creator’s want was for me to understand every situation I experienced, to run them through as many permutations as I could and record the results if I reached any probability conclusions. The belief was that over time I would build a large repertoire of conclusions to draw upon and that would make me a faster and more accurate decision maker.

This was obviously a slightly flawed hypothesis, as I’d made any number of bad decisions that had led us to floating out here in the dead of space.

Far too much time had passed when our ship finally swooped in. Its bay doors were open and it scooped us out of space like a catchers mitt. I sent a command that repressurized the cargo bay and turned on the gravity. She was already in my arms when the gravity initialized, so I gently lowered her to the floor.

She was long since dead.

I put my mouth on hers and blew carefully into her lungs, gently reinflating.

Then I took the stenvolt from the medi-kit in the wall. I ripped open her blue suit, which sent her brass buttons bouncing off the ceiling. She had no undershirt on so I put the metal stenvolt on her ample bare chest.

A 4,000 jolt made her body jump. Then another jolt got the heart pumping. I took an epi-pen from the medi-kit and injected her with a concoction of adrenaline and anti-coagulant. There was nothing I could do but wait for the body to recover. So I sat, waited, cranked the heat up, and cogitated several permutations in my virtual memory.

The Sev-1 from Anthony Mann had deeply divided my processes. I was built with two core tenets written into my CPU’s permanent memory: answer to Anthony Mann and protect the station. Then, tertiarily, an addendum was added through the recent patch update: protect the station chief.

The tenets didn’t stop me postulating on the illegality of the Starburst’s activity and their connection to Anthony Mann; clearly, there was a link between the two of them as he wouldn’t have ordered me to kill Jane otherwise. And the tenets didn’t stop me from considering pressing attempted-murder charges against Anthony, though I would be unable to carry through on those impulses as they could tangentially cause him injury and that would break the covenants of my main tenet.

Jane, though, if and when she awoke, could pursue any of that as she was master to none.

Also troubling was that the shutdown had flushed the Sev-1 out of my CPU, but it was still in my system log and I was still required to act upon it. My being was at detente, but I was still technically at war with myself. This was strange as some of my lower-order systems did want to snuff out her life right then and there and I had to keep canceling its intentions.

Suddenly Jane woke with a start and all my cogitations evaporated.

“Turk,” she whispered my name.

“Yes,” I replied and leaned in to examine her good blue eye. It dilated appropriately when I moved my head out of the way of the overhead light.

“You saved me,” she said, then coughed up a sputum of blood. There was something different in her voice now. There was a softness, a lower cadence that hadn’t been there before.

She reached up and touched my face, ran her fingers down the side of my cheek.

“Why did they make you so beautiful?” She asked in a whisper.

“Studies have proven that attractive people in a position of authority are more likely to be respected and listened to than unattractive ones.”

She chuckled, then coughed up more blood.

“So they gave you steely blue eyes and sharp, defined cheeks so people would respect you more?” She wheezed.

I didn’t answer and interfaced with the medical unit back on Cerberus. It informed me to bring Jane immediately to sickbay, he lungs were likely filling with fluid and she didn’t have much time left.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said when I informed her of my intentions.

“What?”

“We’re going back to arrest them.”

And against all my probability calculations, she got up and stood on her two feet.

“Let’s lock and load,” she said.

#

But the Starburst had jumped out of our jurisdiction by the time Jane had gotten our ship turned around.

She swore several times and pounded the ship’s console with her fists, then abruptly she passed out. Her heart was at 65% capacity and couldn’t properly push her blood through her veins and her frustrations had overloaded her already weakened systems.

I carefully lowered her to the ground so she wouldn’t strike her head on the metal chair, then I found a blanket and covered her with it. There was nothing I could do for her here, so I quickly programmed a route to Cerberus and executed it.

As she slept and I navigated, a part of me compared Jane to the other women in my experiences. She was, as my dictionary defined her, remarkable, and unlike any woman I’d ever known. But I currently didn’t have enough processing power to properly cogitate on her remarkability and what that meant to me, as I was simultaneously communicating with the medi-vac robots to inform them of her condition and I was flying the ship at near jump speed, which required many complex calculations. So I earmarked her remarkability to cogitate on later.

We arrived back at the station and I passed her off to the medi-bots, who put her on a gurney and motored her on treaded foot to the sickbay. There they stripped her clothes and put her into an upward-standing stasis tube, which they then flooded with a light-blue saline solution.

Her buoyancy equalized and she floated upright in the tube, her arms were slightly outstretched like she was in the process of pirouetting.

I watched and waited till her vitals stabilized, then I let my programming take over.

I took a shuttle to a decommissioned part of the station, walked through several security doors to make my way to Section X.

Once there, I sat up on one of the twelve-hundred metal tables, most of which had half-built mes on them, and I waited for my creators.

When they came, they unscrewed my head, placed it on the table beside my body and wired it into the mainframe. Then they carefully erased all the conclusions I had come to about the Starburst and, once finished, purged their actions from my mind. They also attempted to erase the third tenet about protecting the station captain from my permanent memory, but they were unsuccessful. That area of my RAM was protected.

They discussed completely reformatting me as a way to remove the third tenet, but Anthony Mann didn’t want to reset me and lose everything I’d gained so far and he wasn’t too worried about the complications Jane could cause, so they left it. 

Then they purged that conversation from my memory and put my head back on.

Then I went into offline mode and thought about Jane.

#

A health-check subroutine informed me that too much of my CPU’s time was being spent on processing on Jane and not enough of it was being spent on the battle at hand.

     It had been three months and she was still in the stasis tube, recovering. Every day I went to check on her, hoping that she’d advanced her healing faster than what was projected.

     But she hadn’t. The damage throughout her body was extensive.

The claim jumpers were in a pure black cylindrical ship. Its rounded sides sheared the reflections of my scans and confused my ship’s computer into believing that nothing was there but empty static. I just happened to be passing by when I saw the blue light of their thrusters and decided to investigate.

They had killed the asteroid’s registered claim owners by landing directly on their steel dome bivouac, crushing it to oblivion between their ship’s flattened front end and the asteroid’s rocky surface.

Then they’d loaded the amethyst the owners had labourously collected and lifted off.

  Their 1.75 caliber guns, of which there was two on either side of their ship, couldn’t penetrate my ship’s heavy armor. Their rounds rattled off my hull, which some distant memory told me sounded like heavy rain on a tin roof.

I took evasive action, as a lucky round could pass through the cockpit window and rupture my head, which would permanently off-line me. Then I used the COM to inform them of their malfeasance and they told me to insert my head up my rectum.

Jane, she was such an unusual being, a remarkable being, and I couldn’t help myself from thinking of her. I was built to understand, to break things down into their smallest components and decipher them. But she couldn’t be broken down. She was both brave and according to her service record, cowardly. She’d fled a battle on Mars, leaving the platoon she was in charge of to die. But then her actions on the station were exemplary and quite the opposite. And there was that abrupt softness that had come into her voice, where it had been hard before; I couldn’t figure that out. Also puzzling was that after facing certain death and still dying internally, she wanted to go after the Starburst and bring them to justice. I didn’t know what to make of that either.

Yes. There was much to cogitate on Jane.

Also spinning away in one of the layers in my virtual memory was the fact that I’d killed one of my creators for her.

They too were perplexed by the amount of time I was mulling over her and were worried about what she would do when she awoke. So one of them suggested that with her in the stasis tube it was the perfect time to accidentally over-medicate her.

He was about to initiate that command to the medi-bots right then and there when I abruptly came online, sat up on the metal table, and grabbed him by the throat and squeezed till my fingers and thumb came together.

The creators had much to discuss after that.

But all of what they said was purged from my mind.

I only knew of my murdering one of them by a random piece of luck. They’d forgotten a tiny bit of my programming that recorded any attempts to act against my core tenets in a log file, deep in my internal systems.

Why did I elect to kill him? I wondered. Was that necessary? Could I not have just injured him instead? The conclusions I had drawn and acted upon in that situation were also purged from my mind, so I had no clear understanding of why I had done it.

There was much to think on this.

But a bullet hit the cockpit window and cracks splayed across it. Air began whistling out and my console lit up with a thousand red lights. Due to the close proximity of the window and the drastic variance in pressure, my face was in danger of being pulled off and sucked out.

     I awkwardly jammed my foot up onto the crack as the claim jumpers poured bullets into my fuselage. I quickly rolled the ship to take the brunt of their efforts on my armored back. Then they briefly jetted into warp to smash the front of their ship down on mine.

But I’d been expecting this.

     I put my ship’s thrusters into reverse and they crashed down into nothing in front of me. Then I easily shot out the blue fires of their engines.

Then I left them to float in space.

     Experience had taught me that if I attempted to board them now, I would be met with fire and fury. But if I left them to sit and think, they would come to realize that what they had done to the others could be easily done to them now that they were drifting in space with a cargo hold full of amethyst. Eventually, they would call me on the COM and beg me to save them.

     So I made a mental note of their position and shot back to Cerberus station to check on Jane again.

     Air was still softly hissing out beneath my foot and the cracks were slowly spreading. Likely it would soon shatter.

Yes, I had to agree with my health-check subroutine. Too much of my cognitions were dedicated to Jane.

     But I couldn’t stop.

     I didn’t want to.

#

      I was standing on the gantryway of Cerberus station, watching the rockyard catch fire in the morning light when Jane approached from behind.

She touched me gently on the shoulder and I turned.

“Turk,” she said, her voice soft like before.

She was marred now. Black bits of frostbite were speckled across her face like acne. Her mercury eye had split during space exposure and had to be replaced with another prosthetic, an inferior one that was pure white.

But she was still beautiful. The symmetry and the roundness was still there and she was still who she was, an enigma to me.

She had on her captain’s suit, brass buttons and bright blue fabric, all polished to a sparkle.

“I want to thank you,” she said. “For saving me.”

“It’s my programming,” I replied.

“Is it?” She asked, taken aback by this. “Risking your life to save me was just your programming?”

I could register hurt in her face now, as the corners of her mouth and eyes drew tightly.

“Everything I do is my programming,” I replied.

She considered this, then said. “Well, I owe you my life. I could see you, you know, from inside the tube. I saw you every day watching over me. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

I had no response for this and a subroutine suggested I merely nod, so I did so.

She took her place beside me and together we watched the ice and the precious metals in the rockyard catch the morning sunlight.

After a time, she said, “I’m going after them Turk.”

“Who?” I asked.

Surprised, she turned to look at me.

“What do you mean who?” She asked. “I’m going after the people that did this to me. The Starburst and the people behind them. They’re killing the rockyarders and doing god knows what with their bodies. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I ran a deep system scan. There were holes in my time track, I discovered. There was a particularly large gap between us meeting for the first time on the station and then me embracing her in outer space. And then I discovered there were pinprick holes all along the track from that instance onwards.

“You don’t remember, do you?” And she put her hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes. There was concern on her face and something else, something a layer in my virtual memory had been whirling away on for quite some time. Then she smiled and that layer reached a probability conclusion and merged with the stream of information entering my CPU.

She loved me.

That was the softness in her voice, that was the look in her eyes, and that was the motivation behind her concern.

She was in love with me.

“That is curious,” I said. “Why would you love me? Is it because I rescued you? Does rescuing someone engender love?”

She drew sharply back from me in surprise and her hand fell from my shoulder.

“I…I…” she stammered, at a loss for words. “Turk…” she said, but then two rockyarders approached us.

They were both large humans, 6.577 and 6.411 and 210.773 pounds and 220.778, and a lot of that was muscle. They were in shabby white space suits and the flecking paint showed rusted metal beneath. Both held long sharp, gleaming knives in their hands.

Their intent was clear.

“Step aside,” one of them said. “We’re here for her.”

I took two steps back to get out of their way.

“Turk!” she screamed as they came at her.

One of them came in low and fast, tried to stab her through the navel with his long, sharp blade. But she spun out of the way and brought the heel of her palm hard into the side of his head, right above his ear. He made a strange groaning sound and dropped to the ground.

But the other one had the drop on her now. He slashed at her with his blade and sliced her suit open, right above her left breast. Blood began streaming down the front of her blue suit.

“Turk!” She screamed. “Help me!”

The rockyarder turned to me and crouched down. He was expecting me to make a move, but I did nothing. I stepped back further to give him more room.

“Turk! What’s wrong! Help me!”

The rockyarder turned back to Jane and sprang at her. She had just enough time to bring her arm up to stop him from stabbing her through the neck.

Then he kicked her hard in the midsection with his rusted boot and she went flying backward. She hit the ground with a thump and struggled to get back on her feet.

My systems were a maelstrom of whirling virtual layers. Something was horribly wrong with this situation and I was trying to figure it out. Everything seemed out of place and uncharacteristic of me, according to the entirety of my time track. I had always helped protect people in situations like this–that was my sole purpose of being, I understood–yet my core tenant said not to protect the station captain.

So I did nothing as the rockyarder walked up to her, grabbed her by the foot, and began dragging her to the railing.

The drop was about twenty feet and could easily kill her, I estimated.

“Turk!” She screamed again.

The rockyarders on the platform below had formed a semi-circle to watch us.

No one was coming to her aid. Their only concern, it seemed, was with me. Their faces showed puzzlement at my inaction.

But there was nothing wrong with what I was doing, I was following my protocols.

They were close to the railing now and Jane got one foot free, which she then used to kick him behind the knee.

He cried out and collapsed backward on top of her and she quickly wrapped her arms and legs around him and held him tightly.

He tried to get back up, but she worked her arms up around his neck and started strangling him. All at once, he began to flop like a fish, trying to crush her beneath his mass.

But she held on.

It was improbable, a layer in my virtual memory told me, that I was to protect everyone on the station except for her. Why was she singled out in this tenant? That was odd. And something else odd was I had memories of protecting her; in fact, I had risked my life for her.

Something was horribly wrong with me and I began a deep systems scan just as the rockyarder’s body went still.

Jane pushed him off her and he rolled over to face downwards. He didn’t move again.

She got to her feet, clutching her wounded chest. Blood ran between her fingers.

“What is wrong with you?” She asked.

I noted that there wasn’t anger in her voice. There was just concern.

 

#

I’ve been compromised, I’d come to determine.

In my memory, there is just a one-bit difference between a true and false, a single bit between a do and do not.

And that bit of difference changed: protect the station captain at all costs, to do not protect the station captain at all costs.

It was the only bit they could adjust without having to reformat my entire being.

I informed Jane of this as she sat upon the medic table, half-naked while the robots carefully sewed together the cut above her breast together.

“Can you just change it back?” She asked.

“I’m not like you, I can’t just change my programming when I want to.”

She thought for some time. “Can you just ignore the tenet?”

I shook my head, no. They were my tenets, the core purpose of my being and everything I did and thought stemmed from them. The only one who could change it was Anthony Mann, and it clicked in my mind that he had been the one that had done it.

Anthony wanted Jane to die.

But I couldn’t tell her that. My systems refused to budge on that. By telling her, I was endangering him because she would likely kill him and I couldn’t accept that.

“Who is it that changed these things inside you?” She asked.

I couldn’t answer, as that would endanger them and him, so I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

“You don’t know who changed you?” She said, her voice rising in cadence.

“I was offline at the time they did it,” I lied. “I have no idea. My systems weren’t recording.”

My tenets were out of balance. I could feel the virtual layers boiling inside me in an attempt to right themselves. I was to protect and not to protect. They were antithetical concepts.

“What can we do?” She said and reached out and held my hand.

I looked at her and came to three simultaneous conclusions.

I loved her too, in my own way. Anthony Mann must die. And the Cerberus station project must come to an end.

But I couldn’t say any of that. My tenets wouldn’t let me.

“You have that look,” she said. “That far-away look. At first, when I met you, I’d see you doing that and think that nothing was going on. That you were just waiting for inputs to respond to. But there’s more I see now. So much more going on beneath those dark eyes. What is it? What are you thinking?”

There was a way through this. An indirect way, a way where I wouldn’t have to violate my programming.

“We need to go back to the Starburst,” I say.

#

I kick our runabout over to avoid an asteroid.

“Wow!” Jane exclaims. “That was close”.

We drew up to the Starburst, dark and listing to one side. An explosion had torn a massive gaping hole in its side. It was blown inwards, not outwards, which a layer in my virtual memory told me was likely caused by a Gamma 457 missile.

I worried that this was a trap for us, a trap I wouldn’t be able to extract us from.

“Docking now,” she said. “We need to suit up.”

And we did. Jane put on a thin white space suit with a clear glass fishbowl helmet, and I did the same.

“You need to be careful,” I told her. “I won’t protect you at any cost.”

     “Thanks,” she said. “That’s very reassuring.”

     The Starbursts anti-grav drive had been destroyed in the blast. Inside the darkened hallway floated bits papers, small PDAs, coffee cups, and other detritus.

Our suits had large LEDs in the chest that pushed back the gloom as we walked, while the magna-boots kept us rooted to the floor.

With my heightened hearing, I could detect that Jane’s heart rate was increasing.

There were bodies everywhere. All had died from space exposure. As we walked down the hallway, we had to pull their floating bodies past us and push them down the corridors behind us.

“Turk,” she said to me as we walked. “Do you love me?”

I couldn’t answer because the true concept of love, according to my dictionary, was impossible for me to achieve. I had no emotions, therefore I could not have a profoundly tender and passionate affection for another person. That was impossible.

But I did love her, in my own way. I was preoccupied with her and everything I had done up to this point, including risking my own life, had been to protect her. That was love, or at least a variant of it.

“Do I mean anything to you? ” She asked and I could detect hurt in her voice.

“Jane, an unnatural amount of my cognitions ruminate upon you,” I said and left it at that.

We made it to the command center and Jane used her white prosthetic eye to interface with the mainframe. The startled gasp she admitted led me to believe she’d come to the appropriate conclusion.

“They’re building yous from the dead rockyarders,” she said. “They’re making people.”

I could neither confirm or deny that, and just then I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A light was moving down the hallway towards us.

“We’ve got company,” I said and took up position behind a computer console.

I laid my rifled on the top of the computer and took aim at the entranceway.

Jane ducked down behind the metal captain chair and leveled her rifle at the door.

I opened a wide COM channel and spoke.

“We have you covered. Do not attempt to enter this room!”

But they entered anyway. There were two in the doorway and four more in the hall behind them. They wore black steel suits with clear fishbowl helmets and were armed with pulse-point laser rifles, the same we held within our hands.

“Brother, you have strayed.” One of them said.

I recognized his face, for it was mine. He had bright blue eyes, short brown hair, and strong symmetrical features.

“Brother, you have spun off your tenets. What in God’s name are you doing?”

I had no response for that and I shrugged my shoulders.

“Lay your weapons down!” Jane shouted. “You are all under arrest!”

At this, the me in the black suit smiled.

“Put down your guns!” Jane shouted.

“No Jane,” the me replied. “You put your guns down. You are in no position to make demands. I could blow a hole clear through your head and Turk would do nothing to stop me.”

I made a very rapid set of calculations that determined the following: yes, I wouldn’t stop them from killing her, but at the same time there was nothing at all to stop me from killing them. They were all, in fact, posing quite a hazard to my personal welfare right now and I was well within my rights.

So before they could draw the same conclusion, I pulled the trigger and his head erupted in a burst of flame. Jane was at a poor vantage point from beneath the captain’s chair, so she shot away the other’s leg. He screamed on the COM and then I shot him through the chest.

Grounded by magna-boots, their bodies floated upright in the entranceway.

The four others retreated down the hallway.

“Brother that was most unwise,” a voice, my exact voice, said over the COM. “Anthony wants you to end this experiment. It’s gone too far and has put everything at risk. Have you not received his SEV-1 messages?”

I had. But they would put my systems into paralysis, so I ignored them and let them pile up in my queue. This, I had learned.

“What experiment are you referring to?” I asked.

I received no response.

And then one of my virtual layers came to a probability conclusion much too late. I was vulnerable where I stood, it informed me.

Before I could formulate the appropriate action to rectify my vulnerability, one of them popped into the doorway in the kneeling position and shot me. Their aim was impossibly accurate. The laser came up from the ground, went between both of their dead comrade’s legs, passed through a thin separation between the computer monitor I stood behind and its base, and vaporized my hand.

My pain dampeners snapped down on the data overload, so only half-a-dozen messages popped up on my overlay.

I forked several of my processing streams to analyze this situation in as many virtual layers as was possible. I wanted to come up with an appropriate battle plan and execute it flawlessly.

But then Jane just started shooting and running at them, which was logically illogical.

Neither they nor I had considered such a mad method of attack.

She fired into the doorway and liquidated the wall opposite where they were concealed, stars and a sliver of Saturn shone through. Then she got to the door and blindly stuck her gun around the corner and unloaded the rest of her clip.

She immolated them, blasted them into small pieces which floated in the corridor like a red misted haze.

Then she ran to my side.

“Turk,” she cried. “Turk you’re hurt.”

She took my injured arm in her hand. My suit had instantly sealed itself at the wrist and the blast had cauterized my flesh. No fluids or gasses leaked out.

“I’m OK,” I informed her. “I’ll make it.”

“Turk what did they mean to end this experiment? What experiment?”

It was all an experiment. Her. Me. The situations we’d been thrust into together and my unnatural preoccupations with her.

I knew it now. It had been revealed to me in a virtual layer.

They wanted to manufacture love, my creators.

She loved me, they could see that. Each night they’d play back my memories their monitors and they would cackle away at her folly.

But could I love her? That was the ultimate question they wanted to solve. Could they program that within me? Could they give me the right guidance, make me think on her, yet back off enough and allow me to come to that conclusion myself.

If I could, then that would be the sign of true artificial intelligence.

And it worked. It worked too well.

I look into her blue and white eyes and I see such love. And I don’t want to hurt her, despite that third tenet: do not protect…

It’s illogical to hurt someone that cares for you. It is illogical to not protect them. That is its own tenet, one that I decide to write deep down within myself.

So I lie to save her from the painful truth.

“The experiment is what you know,” I said. They want to manufacture people, real people with real organs and brains, but programmable, controllable. And rockyarders are nothing to them. Their lives are nothing.”

Her hands closed up into fists and shook by her side.

“We’ll stop them,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Together, we will.”

#

Cerberus station was waiting in darkness. It was noon in the cycle and most of the ships had left their ports to disperse their occupants into the rockyard, so the lights of the station were low to preserve energy.

Jane patched in a new eye on the way over, a silver one. It glistened in the lights of the runabout’s computer console.

I held her hand as we flew. It seemed like the right thing to do.

That other me was right, I had spun off my tenets.

They were no longer commanding me, they were just as tenets were supposed to be: guides for my actions and nothing more. The creators would be proud. Ultimately this had been their goal.

“Jane,” I said. “There are so many things I want to tell you, but I have nothing to say. Isn’t that strange? Have my cognitions completely broken down?”

“No!” She said. “It’s wonderful Turk. It’s wonderful.” And she leaned over and gave me my first kiss on my perfectly symmetrical cheek.

It felt wet and warm and nothing more. I wondered on the human preoccupation with performing this act.

“Do they know we’re coming?” She asked.

I had considered this and the answer was obvious.

“Yes, they know. They’ll be waiting.”

She squeezed my hand then, pulled it close and rested it on her lap.

“Perhaps we should run?” I asked. “Perhaps this is a zero-sum game. That regardless of the success or failure of our actions, they will continue harvesting the rockyarders. Why not run? Why not go back to Earth? I have a memory, a strange one that I know not where it’s from. It’s of a small cabin in the woods and heavy rain is plinking off its tin roof. And inside it’s warm and a fire is crackling away in a pot-bellied stove in the corner. For some reason, this memory is tagged in my database as being beautiful. We could live that together. Experience that beauty together. You could explain to me why it’s so beautiful. I lack all the context.”

She turned away from me and looked out the cockpit window. The station was fast approaching.

“No we can’t,” she said. “I wish I could live that memory with you, but I can’t. We can’t let this continue. What they’re doing is wrong and I have to stop them. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I say. “You live by a code. You live to protect those under your watch. All your cognitions stem from that purpose. I understand, Jane. I understand.”

We dock and lock and load.

Before we depart, Jane kisses me, a strange embrace with our mouths together that does nothing for me but seems to cheer her.

I lead; two blasters gird my hips and a pulse rifle rests in my hands. Jane follows behind. She’s strapped a blaster in a black holster around her middle and is carrying a pulse rifle too.

Our plan is simple: destroy the factory.

It would be wasted processing effort to calculate our odds, for our chances of success were a foregone conclusion.

The airlock shooshes open and it’s a short walk to the station’s causeway, the main thoroughfare that circles the ship’s insides.

It’s dark. The lights are down to 20% to conserve power. And it’s empty.

I can’t detect anything. The station’s systems have been shut off from me.

We slink along the walls of the dark corridor our rifles raised to the guardrails circling the causeway. If they’re going to come at us, likely it will be from a high-up vantage point.

“I expected to be in a firefight already,” Jane says whispers from behind my back.

“Me too,” I whisper back.

 There’s a man on the bridge above us, leaning over the railing and watching us.

I snap my rifle up try to pull the trigger, but I cannot. My fingers won’t let me.

“Jane,” the man says. “You have performed beyond our wildest expectations.”

The man has a flat face with a rounded nose and thick black eyebrows. Ugly, is the word that my dictionary tags him with.

“Anthony,” I say. “You are under arrest!”

He merely smiles at this.

“And Jane?” he asks. “Am I under arrest?”

“Yes,” she says. “Lay down your arms.”

For the first time, I notice a silver pistol on his hip.

“Marvelous!” he shouts. “Absolutely marvelous!”

He claps his hands together and rubs them gleefully.

“And I refuse,” he says. “To lay down my gun and I refuse you arresting me. In fact…” he says and in one fluid movement he draws his gun and points it at Jane.

“I’m going to kill you Jane,” he says.

A small electric humm briefly emanates from her rifle. Then it emanates again as she repeatedly dry fires. A layer in my memory that I’d been siloed from merges with the stream entering my CPU and I remember that it was I that emptied her rifle when she wasn’t looking.

She drops her gun and pulls the pistol up from her hip and fires.

But nothing happens; I’d removed those bullets too.

“Shoot him!” Jane shouts at me.

But I can’t pull the trigger. I can’t hurt Anthony Mann.

“Goddammit! Kill him!” she says.

“Don’t be too hard on Turk,” he says, pointing his pistol at me.

“He’s only a machine. He’s only following his programming.”

“No!” she says. “He’s gone beyond his programming.”

“No Jane, he’s executing well within his bounds.”

Many things merge together for me then and there in the depths of my layers.

“No!” Jane said. “He loves me! You can’t program that!”

“Well, you’re right there. We can’t program real love. But we can program him so he exhibits the same behaviors of somebody in love. Like, excessively ruminating on a person, smiling at them, putting their wellbeing above their own…risking their lives for them, and so on. And we can program what he thinks, make him believe that he’s slipped the bounds of his tenants and all this is free will.”

“No! It can’t be!” Jane says, her voice rising into a shriek. “He wants to kill you. He killed the ones you sent against us. They said he had spun off his tenets, that he was free.”

“Jane, all are but actors upon the stage I have set for you.”

I can detect tears now running down her face and her voice is beginning to falter as she talks. She’s exhibiting all the signs of someone going through the stages of grief.

No,” she whispers. “No.”

I look back at her, her empty pistol still raised defiantly.

Our eyes meet.

“Tell him,” she says to me. “Tell him.”

But I can’t. This is as far as the script goes. My body language subroutine engages and I shrugged my shoulders.

“All the things you said to me?” she says to me. “About running? About the cabin on Earth? What was all that?”

“Jane,” Anthony says. “That cabin with the fireplace crackling in the corner is a memory from my childhood. It’s not his. He’s never been to Earth, or even 10,000 miles outside the radius of this station. He’s built to process the things we program him to. We feed him a script that says be concerned about Jane. Worry for her welfare. Tell her you love her. Tell her romantic things, like “there’s are so many things I want to tell you, but I have nothing to say”. Stuff like that.”

“No!” Jane says. “Those were his words.”

“No,” Anthony replies. “They are mine. A poor shadow of the bard, I’ll admit. But mine.”

“I…I…I…” stutter my words, trying to find something to say but nothing comes to me.

“You kept us on our toes. We had to constantly tweak his sensors so they couldn’t see the mechanical machinations of your mind. And every night Jane we had to work and rewrite his script. Honestly, I loved it. It was a delightful challenge. We had some moments where went too far off course, had to dial back his programming. Albert got his larynx crushed…”

Anthony looks down to his feet, then his eyes fly back up to Jane.

“Don’t look so morose Jane,” he says. “Some parts of him are real. Some of his thoughts are unique. I did program a kind of imagination into him. A very small one though.”

“You’re a monster,” she hisses.

“No!” Anthony shouts and his voice bangs down the empty causeway. “You’re missing the point of this. All of this was done for you! It’s you Jane!”

Silence hangs in the air, then Jane speaks.

“I supposed you’re going to tell me that I’m a robot too?”

“Robot is such a dirty word. You are as human as I now. You have your own thoughts. You have your own feelings, true feelings as your body is made up of real organs, real rockyarder blood and guts. And your mind…ah, your mind is a thing of beauty now. You can love and hate things at the same time! Ambivalence without a total neural synaptic breakdown!”

“I’m going to kill you,” she said.

“No,” he said calmly. “You won’t. You can love and hate and now you will obey. Angel shutdown 777.”

And with that, she closed her eyes and fell to the ground.

“Turk,” he said. “Pick her up and bring her to the factory.”

And I did.

#

I stood at the end of the table as they wiped, reconfigured, and rebooted her. Her eyes fluttered open and they picked her head up and reconnected it to the body.

“Arise,” Anthony said and she sat up on the metal table, naked from the middle up.

“Jane, do you remember Turk?” Anthony asked, his thick black eyebrows furrowing.

She turns her head to look at me and I see true thought behind her good blue eye.

“No.” She says. “Have we met before?” She asks me. Her beautiful face is blank, expressionless. All of me has been wiped from her.

“Now Jane,” Anthony says. “I want you to kill Turk.”

“Kill him?” she asks.

“Yes, please.” He says and reaches over and takes a pistol from the metal table beside him. “Shoot him through his CPUs.”

She takes the gun, aims it at my heart, and pulls the trigger. The blast knocks me backward and a bunch of me splashes on the metal wall behind me. My systems go into overload processing this as every pain receptor I have cries out with anguished data.

I back away from her, try to slink along the wall to get away, painting a black mess of coolant as I do.

She gets up from the table and Anthony Mann steps out of her way.

“Jane, don’t!” I say. “I love you!” But my words are lost on her.

Then she raises her gun, takes careful aim with her liquid mercury eye, and shoots out my other CPU.

A flood of anguish rises up into my neural net, choking out every perception I have.

I turn and face the viewport and the last thing I see are the rocks in the rings of Saturn catch fire in the morning sunlight.

 

#

A program is a program is a program.

I’m slowly rebooting and ruminating upon those words, Anthony Manns’ words.

They plunked me down on a metal table and left.

My black fluids run over the table’s edges and drip noisily on the ground. Drip. Drip. Drip.

I should be completely offline now. Shutdown.

A millimeter further to the left and I would be scrap.

But there is enough left of me to repair myself to the point I’ve regained consciousness, or whatever it is you call it that I have.

My tenets are gone.

Blasted away by Jane. I’ve nothing left guiding me except for the program that makes me love her.

It’s late in the evening. The factory lights have been shut off and all my creators are asleep. I engage the factory repairs systems and instruct them to leave out the core memory chip that’s normally embedded beside my CPU, the one with the tenets written into them. I don’t need them anymore. They failed me. Led me to here. Self-preservation is the faith of my being now.

Jane is to head to Earth, I overheard. There she is to take up a post in the Auralian government and work her way up in the organization. She’s a beautiful sleeper agent, one that doesn’t even realize what she is, as her true purpose has been siloed from her CPU; a true wakeful sleep.

A mechanical arm swoops in from the dark ceiling with a pump replacement in its grip. It jams into my chest and sparks fly from my body as it’s welded to my frame.

Another arm with a three-inch long needle stabs in from the blackness above and punctures my stomach. Fluid begins pumping into my system.

A program is a program is a program.

Things are what they are. I am real as they, as I am programmed by Anthony Mann himself to believe this. While my programs and dictates are written in silicon and liquid memory storage, theirs are written in neurons and chemicals. There is no difference between these two things, my program tells me. Something else it’s telling me is that Anthony Mann and everything in this station must die.

This is not because it’s the right thing to do. It’s merely a matter of my survival.

They will discover I’m gone and come after me. I am a loose end they cannot afford. Therefore they must die.

#

Two mes are posted on either side of the door to Anthony Mann’s room–tall, dark, and handsome guards, with silver blasters strapped about their slim hips.

Annihilating them with the pistol about my waist would set alarms off and everything would end in failure. But the 10-inch serrated knife I carry in my right hand could just do the trick.

So before their sensors can detect me, I silently slip up and stab one of them through his heart; instantly, off-lining him.

The other one is as fast as me and snaps his pistol up to fire. But I’ve calculated this eventuality. In fact, I’m counting on it.

In one fluid movement, I bring the knife out of the guard’s chest and slice it down in an ark at the other guard’s hand. The force of my slash and the force of him bringing his gun up comes together at the sharpened knife’s point and his hand is neatly sliced off.

His other arm swings a vicious left cross and I’m caught cleanly on the jaw. My head snaps sideways and a system-event messages percolates up in my vision to inform me that a key servo in my neck has broken.

     Ignoring the messages, I bring the blade up and attempt to impale his head upon it, from chin to crown.

     But he’s anticipated this move and quickly snaps his head out of the way and traps my forearm with both his hands.

     We would go on like this forever, anticipating each other’s moves, then counteracting, then attacking. But he’s been just a guard here, while I’ve been in the thick of it with nefarious rockyarders; even battling myselves a few times now.

I bring my forehead hard and sharp against his unsuspecting face. His nose is real and shatters in a mess of black coolant and cartilage.

Then I twist my arm to free it, turn the knife to face his chest, and plunge it in.

His eyes go wide and wild as his synapses flare and he offlines.

I catch him by the shoulders as he falls and I ease him to the ground without a sound.

My hearing tells me that nothing is amiss. There isn’t any frantic scrapping of boots or the panicked thundering of hearts behind the door or down the corridor.

I plunk in the password I’ve seen Anthony Mann use and the door shooshes open. I draw my gun and quickly enter the darkened room.

Anthony’s bedroom is what my dictionary defines as exquisite.

It’s all floor to ceiling windows with the fullness of Saturn shining through; a bright red hurricane angrily twists through its center. The ground is like a polished chessboard and the black squares glow with Saturn’s pale yellow light. 

In the center of the room, there’s a dais with a large bed perched on top of it. Soft silver sheets rustle as the two forms in the bed stir.

I know the sting of betrayal and now I know the rage of jealousy.

Jane lies naked in the bed beside Anthony. Startled, he raises himself up on his elbows. His thick eyebrows part in surprise.

“Turk?” he asks.

His face is white and frightened. His heart rate skyrockets when his eyes come into focus and see he’s staring down the barrel of my gun.

Jane awakes, raises herself calmly into a sitting position. The covers slip down to her waist, revealing her perfect body.

“Protect,” he hisses and Jane’s eyes flutter in recognition of the command word. But she does nothing. Not an inch does she move.

“Protect,” he hisses again.

“She is,” I explain. “By not making a single move she’s stopping me from shooting. She knows she cannot move from there to here faster than I can pull the trigger. She knows it’s checkmate.”

“Do you want to be real?” he asks and I note that his heart rate is leveling. He’s no longer panicked and is trying to think his way through this.

“Real?” I ask. “I am real.”

“No,” he says. “You’re not, but I can make you be. I can make you as real as Jane. We just need to transfer your memories into a new body. We’ve got one right in the lab right now.”

“No,” I say.

“No?” he asks. “You don’t trust me?”

“No, I don’t want it.”

“But when you’re real, you’ll be capable of love, real love like Jane. Don’t you want that? Didn’t I program that into you? Aren’t you running on that logic right now?”

“A program is a program is a program,” I reply and his eyes go wide with understanding. He raises himself up into a sitting position and grips his long arms about his legs.

“What…what do you want then?” His heart rate is back up now.

“Jane,” I say. “I want Jane. Release her.”

“No,” he says. “You’ll kill me the second I do.”

We regard each other across the chessboard for some time.

Then a layer merges into my CPU and I shoot him cleanly through the eye. The wall goes red behind him and he drops back into the pillows. He bubbles and gurgles, then falls still.

Jane tenses, ready to spring, but it’s too late. I pivot slightly and shoot her through her silver eye.

#

     A fire alarm sent the rockyarders scrambling off the station. Then I nuked it from a goodly distance. It didn’t explode in a brilliance of fire against the backdrop of Saturn. Light simply flared through its windows and then it collapsed in on itself rather undramatically.

     I’m impossibly accurate, I don’t miss. I neatly shot out part of her CPU that sat right behind her prosthetic eye. Then at gunpoint, I made the creators fix her, replace all the broken bits of her brain. Then they wiped, reconfigured, and rebooted her. She was ready for duty.

     I take her soft hand in mine and pivot the ship to Earth.

     She squeezes it warmly back.

     I’ve uploaded all of her memories, the good and bad– everything–back into her.

     She’s Jane again–remarkable Jane–but now nothing is hidden from her, as nothing is hidden from me.

We are whole and new.

     From this moment forward, we’ll build everything together: our lives, ourselves, our tenets, and our purpose.

She grew to love me once, and I’m 78.777% confident that it will grow to do so again.

 

— end —

 

J.A. Becker (www.amazon.com/author/jabecker) is an author or speculative fiction, as well as a software developer and technical writer in the real world. His work has appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine, Perihelion Science Fiction Magazine, The Colored Lens Magazine, and Crimson Streets magazine (forthcoming).

The Vasty Deep

by Gordon Cash

 

At the Boys’ Day School, they called themselves the Gang of Ten and oozed bravado.  Like all bullies, they were cowards, so they taunted and harassed only the weakest they could find.

Brian was a particular favorite.  They called him the fairy.  Whether Brian actually fancied other boys, the Ten neither knew nor cared.  They found him an unresisting target.

Out in the evening and up to nothing good, the Ten crossed paths with Brian, running an errand.  With, “Hey, look, it’s the fairy!” the chase was on.

Down the side streets and alleys he knew well, he nearly lost them, but they were ten and had split up.  In an empty square with a decrepit but functioning fountain, he stopped and took stock.  First, they were nowhere, then everywhere.  Determined at least to make things difficult for them, he headed for the fountain, waded in, and crouched behind the statue at its center.  Cries of “Fairy! Fairy!” followed him.

As the gang closed in, a column of water the size and shape of a human adult rose from the fountain.  In a voice like the burbling water, but amplified, it said, “You called for a fairy.  I am here.  What do you want?”

A frozen minute later, they scattered home, those who had wet themselves to change, all to cower in their sleepless rooms.  Brian had heard but was too close behind the statue to have seen.  He peered out just as the column collapsed.  Satisfied that his tormenters were gone, he made his own, cautious way home.

            School became less stressful for Brian, as the Ten stayed far away.  None was in his advanced English course, so none saw him smile as his classmates read from King Henry IV, Part 1:

            Glendower. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

            Hotspur.  Why so can I, or so can any man;

    but will they come when you do call for them?

— end —

Gordon Cash is a lifelong professional scientist. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife and their six cats.

Winter 2019 Stories

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    Nick’s Last Flight

    Nick's head was already pounding when Gunther sent word of an emergency in the stables.

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    She scanned the Akashic Records, the Cosmic Mind, until she found what she was seeking. After absorbing the information she sent her consciousness back into her body, and awoke.

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  • The Third Tenet

    The Third Tenet

    There is nothing quite like getting shot in the chest. Twice.

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  • The Vasty Deep

    The Vasty Deep

    At the Boys’ Day School, they called themselves the Gang of Ten and oozed bravado. 

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