The Last Living Detective

 by Bruce S Levine

Chapter 1

It was a beautiful sunny day in LA so as usual the streets were deserted. Occasionally I’d pass a down on his luck vampire or demon peering hungrily from the shadows of a dark alleyway but none would dare venture into the sunlight. Being dead seriously limits your dining options.

Now me, I’m alive. It’s not that I haven’t had offers mind you, but I prefer breathing to placing a bet on the postmortem roulette wheel. Immortality’s not so enticing when you may end up with the lifestyle of a ghoul or zombie. I tell you the day the earth opened up and released the Gas, uncertainty hit a record high.

The only thing distinguishing the pink stucco building I entered from the other pink stucco buildings on the block was the number above the front entrance. I climbed the four flights of creaking steps, praying my landlord would finally find a still living elevator mechanic. Okay, the place was a giant rat trap but low rent can be very seductive. I took a short breather before opening a peeling door marked:

Elmer Jones

The Last Living Detective

Yeah, I know about that sleazebag Rex Milner in Tarzana but I set up shop years before him so I kept the tagline anyway. I was last first.

It’s only a gimmick but a gimmick that works. Why hire a mortal? you ask. For one thing, we can work the daylight hours the undead can’t. And money means more to us so you got better service. Besides all those rich vampires loved telling their liberal friends how they employed an underprivileged pink.

Being basically lazy, the décor of the office was same beige on beige motif it sported when I first rented the place. Only now it was clean and spotless. I hired a squad of mite men to come in from Torrance once a week. Say what you will about those repulsive buggers, they did an amazing job of keeping the dust down. Valerie looked up from her computer on the reception desk and zeroed in on the paper bags in my hand. “One of those better be for me.”

“Would I forget my favorite employee?” I threw her one of the bags and it clucked angrily as it hit the desktop. “Lunch ala McKluski’s.”

She smiled so sweetly one could almost overlook the set of gleaming fangs. “I’m your only employee. And you should have gone to O’Toole’s; their chickens have bigger veins. “

Val’s a good kid. At least I think she’s a kid. I remember when she first showed up at my office wearing worn clothes and a complexion several shades whiter than the one she wears today. I’m not normally a big fan of bloodsuckers but I didn’t have the heart to send her away. So, I took her out for a pint at the local blood bank, bought her a new outfit, and gave her a job on thirty days’ probation. Turned out to be the best investment I’ve ever made. I didn’t believe her at the time but she really was a primo hacker in her previous life.  Ask her anything, she’d go to her computer and by hook or crook find the answer in minutes. And she works cheap too. I think she’s just grateful for a place to stay out of the sun during daylight hours.

“What’s in the other bag?” she asked.

“Just a Reuben for me.”

Val sighed as she adjusted her blouse. “You know I miss sandwiches the most.”

“Should have thought of that before you offed yourself.”

“And not be young and pretty forever? Maybe you should have thought of it yourself. You must have been young once.” Val glanced up from the desk. “Though I doubt you were ever pretty.”

“Way to suck up to the boss.”

Suddenly there was a nibbling sensation on my lower leg. Looking down I saw an undead goldfish flying upside down and attacking my ankle. The rotting flesh exposed yellowed bones as he unsuccessfully tried to penetrate my sock. “Oscar!” I screamed as I kicked him away.

Oscar’s Val’s pet or used to be. Once her pride and joy, he swam in his bowl at a place of honor on her desk. I still remember the day I came in and found Val crying behind her computer. I never realized vampire tears could be so bloody. And then I noticed Oscar floating belly up in his bowl. “We all have to go sometime,” I told her. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Anyway, she was too broken up to perform the mandatory burial at sea so I volunteered in her place. Now I know it’s rare for animals to undergo Change but I guess Oscar never got the memo. Moments after flushing the toilet, the zombie goldfish came flying out of the bowl and swam through the room in his trademark upside down position. He quickly sailed past the restroom door and disappeared somewhere in the front office. Every once in while he comes out of hiding and tries to eat me or some visitor. Possessing no teeth, the attacks are more annoying then dangerous. We tried several times to trap him but the damn fish always proved too elusive.

“One of these days I’m going to catch that rotting devil.”

“And then what?” Val asked.

I shrugged. “Return him to the wild, I guess.”

“He’s undead. He has no wild.”

“Well, there must be someplace he fits in,” I stuttered. “It certainly isn’t here.” With the Oscar back in hiding, I came behind the desk and scanned the headlines on the screen. “Anything new and exciting?”

“Well, the Bone Gnawers and the Lords of Shambling had it out in downtown last night.”

“Ghouls and zombies eating each other! Hell, I’d pay to see that.”

“The Police Commissioner sent a dragon squad to break it up. As for the survivors…”  She squinted at the screen. “Oops, there were no survivors.”

“Werewolves have no sense of humor.” I patted her on the shoulder. She was so cold to the touch I almost feared getting frostbite. “Any appointments?”

“In weather like this?” Val pointed at the sunny view outside the smog tinted window. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Well I’ll be in my office if anything comes up.”

“I’ll be sure to wake you if it does.” Val took the chicken out of the bag, sat it in her lap, and gently petted it until it stopped clucking.

“You know you could wait till I’m out of the room before doing that?”

“I know,” she said then sank her teeth into its neck.

 

My office is my home away from home. Actually, nowadays it’s my home. I used to rent an apartment but I spent so little time there I finally gave it up. The upholstered couch and padded desk chair alternate as substitute beds and I moved in a small fridge and microwave. I now have everything I need. Well everything but company but that’s another story for another day. The walls are festooned with pictures of past friends and lovers I’d be better off forgetting and awards from obscure trade organizations I once made the mistake of joining. As a final touch, the large oak desk separated the room into client and owner zones.

No, I’m not a recluse or anything but agreeable people are getting harder and harder to find these days. The undead tend to look down their noses on mortals. What about family? you ask. Val’s the closest thing I’ve got to family and I like it that way. Jeez, I guess I am a recluse.

I settled into my chair, propped both feet on the desk, and remembered back to a time before the Gas Changed everything. Odorless, colorless, nobody but a few geologists even noticed it at first, but its impact was soon hard to ignore. Oh, it’s not like the cemeteries emptied out or anything; those guys stayed dead. No, it first showed up at the hospitals. Fresh corpses were suddenly walking out of the morgue as an assortment of vampires, zombies, ghouls and other mythical creatures. There was even a news story about a doctor who performed an assisted suicide and got eaten by his patient for his troubles. Just goes to show no good deed goes unpunished.

At first the public was terrified, demanding answers from their equally terrified leaders. Studies with monkeys quickly revealed the Gas to be the culprit but no antidote was ever found. And living forever does have its allure. As the epidemic raged on and more and more undead appeared on TV proselytizing the benefits of Change, there was less and less interest in a solution. The researchers quickly switched tracks to finding a way to control the Change but to no avail. Dying would certainly give you immortality but you never knew as what. And of course, you never got to see the sun again.

Despite the drawbacks, dead soon became the new black. Suicide clubs were popping up everywhere and it became chic to off yourself on your twenty first birthday. They’d hold big parties for the soon to be departed and placed bets on what kind of creature they’d come back as. Gun, tranquilizer, and pesticide sales soared to all-time highs. It became almost embarrassing to remain mortal.

Me, I was just an average PI at the time, scratching out a living handling divorce and embezzlement cases. Then the Gas came and quickly ate away my business. People were too busy enjoying their newfound personas to worry about such trivial things as marriage or bank accounts. I was just about to throw in the towel when the undead suddenly started reappearing at my door. It should come as no surprise that being deceased didn’t make anybody a better person. Nor did it protect you from the heartbreaks of adultery or theft. And a live detective was novelty they couldn’t resist.

I drifted off and found myself dreaming about that succubus client who paid in more than cash when the intercom rudely interrupted me mid-coitus. “Mr. Jones, I have a client to see you,” Val announced.

“Give me a minute.” I hurriedly wiped the sleep from my eyes, brushed down my sports jacket, and clipped on a tie. “Send ‘em in, Val.”

A three-foot figure in a black sun protection burka gracefully walked through my door. Reaching the desk, it shed its covering, revealing a full-fledged elfin maiden. This was a bit of a surprise; you don’t see too many elves these days. They usually kept to themselves, disappearing into their own pocket universes. It’s been said all elven maidens were knockouts and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. Her green tunic drenched in delicate silver filigree not only accentuated her slim figure but spoke of big money. Gorgeous as she was, her stern emotionless greenish-silver face would give the even the most ardent admirer pause.

I introduced myself “What can I do for you Ms…?”

“Alvyra. Just call me Alvyra.” I doubt that was the name she was born with but it wasn’t my place to judge “Mr. Jones, I need your help finding my husband.”

I began my standard lecture. “Listen Alvyra, even if I find your husband there’s no guarantee he’ll come back with me. Before you invest a lot of time, money, and effort into this, maybe you should consult a good divorce attorney…”

“Oh please, I don’t want him back. But he took something of mine when he left.” She produced a photo from her leather pouch. It was a gold wedding band indistinguishable from any other gold wedding band including the one on the elf’s finger. Some weird engravings in a foreign alphabet were visible on the inside. Didn’t look elvish to me but what do I know. “It has great sentimental value.”

Somehow I suspected this cold-hearted elf never had a sentimental feeling in her life. “Why haven’t you gone to the police?”

“I did. Useless. Those smelly werewolves couldn’t find a bone if you unburied it for them.”

Grabbing a yellow notepad, I took down the usual who’s, what’s, and where’s. She gave me a swanky Beverly Hills address as her contact. “Got any photos of your husband?” I asked.

“Oh, you’re not allowed take pictures of Gorm. He’s a god.”

Finally, something interesting. “A god? Forgive my asking but how did a nice elf like you get mixed up with a god?”

“Let’s just say I was young and foolish and leave it at that.” She took a cigarette out from her neck pouch and lit it.

“That’ll stunt your growth you know.”

Alvyra gave me a look that would freeze any man in his tracts. “Do you want the case or not?”

I went into my spiel about a retainer, out of pocket expenses, per diem fees, and overtime. She didn’t even blink as she produced a checkbook, signed it, then slid the whole thing across the desk to me.  Maybe it’s time to raise my fees.

Nothing about this passed the sniff test but a job’s a job. I made a show of tearing out the check as I read the hand-written register above it. One name was repeated several times: The Strigoi Foundation. “Thank you Alvyra. I’ll get on this right away. My assistant Valerie will keep you up to date on our progress.”

The elfin maiden threw on her black burka and left without a further word. A few minutes later I went up front to Val’s desk.

“Anything interesting, boss?” she asked as she cleared the last of the feathers from her desktop.

“Just some jewelry recovery from a dumped husband.” Val made an exaggerated yawn. “But there’s something not quite right about this. Just for giggles check out the Strigoi Foundation for me. Ms. Alvyra’s dropped an awful lot of dough on them lately.”

Val’s fingers flew across the keyboard for a minute. She glared at the screen until a satisfied grin came across her face. “It says here they’re some kind of vampire think tank. Research, welfare, yada yada. Funny, I’ve never heard of them.”

I shrugged. “Why in hell would an elf be interested in vampire welfare? Check the directors roster for the names Alvyra or Gorm. Nobody dumps that much cash on a charity without at least getting a seat on the board.”

Val did her magic then shook her head. “Sorry, no hits. But wait.” She squinted closer at the screen. “This is a pretty new page. Let’s hope they didn’t erase the old ones yet.” Her fingers did their flying act again until she sat back and smiled. “You’re right as usual, boss. Up to two months ago they were both proud members of the Board of Directors. They must have done something really nasty to get their names erased that fast.”

“Hard copy me the address.” I opened the closet to gather my coat and supplies. “And while you’re at it, see if you track can down the locale of a god named Gorm.”

“I went out with a god once.” Val said. “What a prick. The only thing he was good for was turning oregano into pot. The trouble was he constantly smoked the results.”

You’re probably wondering why I never made a play for Val. Not that I haven’t fantasized about it, mind you. It’s just that I worry it would mess up our employer/employee relationship such as it is. Besides, it’s said vampiresses eat their boyfriends when they don’t sexually satisfy them.

Some more furious typing and Val announced, “That was easy. He’s got a setup in Temple Town by Sepulveda. He must be doing okay; got four stars on Yelp.”

I looked at the sunshine outside the window and sighed. “Well, it’s such a nice day out, I think I’ll walk. The Foundation’s on the way to Temple Town so I’ll stop there first. Wish me luck.”

Val flashed me a look of concern. “You do realize it’ll be dark soon?”

“Don’t worry, I can handle myself. I’m loaded to bear with crosses, amulets, and holy water.”

Right about now you’re probably wondering why I never pack a gun. A: I rarely if ever need one and B: with my sense of aim I’d probably end up shooting the wrong person. Why ask for more trouble than you already have?

I flashed Val a wink. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“I don’t. I ‘d just hate to look for a new job.” It’s hard to tell on vampires but I think she was blushing as she turned her attention back to the computer screen.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

It was getting past four and the streets of the downtown were filling with businessmen and women in black burkas carrying briefcases. Flying carpets, unicorn drawn carriages, mounted prehistoric beasts, and even an old-fashioned car or two poured out of the surrounding parking structures. Driverless taxis and limos sent by Uber wizards patrolled the district looking to ferry office workers to their favorite nightspots. Beneath my feet, passenger worms rumbled through the subway tunnels on their journey to the far suburbs. I checked the addresses on the building fronts and soon found myself standing before a modern looking glass and steel edifice bearing the legend:

The Strigoi Foundation

Working for a Bloodier Tomorrow

The lobby was a study in gleaming marble and glass, its walls covered in heraldic family shields and oil portraits of important looking bloodsuckers attired in Armani. A large photo of a long line of empty suits holding an oversized check graced the place of honor at the front of the room. Vampires don’t photograph well.

I was wondering whether the staff had taken off for the night when a tall well-groomed vamp in business attire suddenly appeared in front of me. “Can I help you?”

In most walks of life, looking average and nondescript was considered a handicap. But in my profession, it was an invaluable asset. You could go anywhere and pass yourself off as just about anything you needed to be. With luck, they might not even remember you were ever there.

For now, I figured ignorance mode was best. I don’t know what it says about me but it was the easiest mode to don. I blinked with exaggeration to signal nervousness. “Er- I heard about your foundation and decided to check it out for myself.”

He gave me a disdainful look. “You’re a little old for the breeding program.”

Breeding program? “No, I recently received an unexpected windfall and I’m looking for a worthy cause to support. What exactly is it you do here, Mr…?”

The vampire’s face lightened. “Alucard. Vlad Alucard” The Gas could radically change a person’s appearance but did nothing to improve their imagination when it came to choosing names. “I’m the Assistant Secretary of the Strigoi Foundation. Let’s go someplace more comfortable and I’ll tell you about the good work we do.” He pointed to a door off the foyer.

Vlad’s office was decorated in early junior executive. The customary ersatz wood desk and even cheaper looking laminated bookshelves half filled with dusty unread volumes were making their mandatory appearance while meaningless award plaques and inspirational posters were plastered across the walls. A photo of a bat dangling from a cave ceiling bearing the moto: HANG IN THERE, BABY graced the coveted spot behind the desktop We took seats on our respective sides of the desk.

“I must say it’s nice to see a pink-er forgive me, mortal- taking an interest in averting the upcoming catastrophe.”

“Global warming?” I said. “I thought that went away when the Gas arrived.”

“No something much worse.” Vlad’s face took on an expression so intense, I unconsciously fished the cross out of my shirt. Leaning over to an easel beside the desk, the vampire flipped the first card, revealing a downward trending graph. “Global famine. It’s all the fault of you mortals really. Your birth rate is down and with the growing popularity of early suicide, your numbers are predicted to dwindle below critical mass in the next decade. Why even now, do you realize how many vampires in this country go to bed hungry each morning?”

“Can’t you just drink animals. My assistant does that and seems okay.”

“Glad you asked.” Vlad flipped the chart again and uncovered a graphic showing a wide variety of food animals. “Oh sure, there are a few species whose blood will sustain us short term. Even gods, succubus’s, elves, and fairies will do in a fix if you can catch one. But it’s only the wholesome red corpuscles of living humans that can provide us with complete and balanced nutrition. Sure, we have blood banks contributing expired product, off the street donations, local hospitals sending red bag waste, and even host a suicide club every Friday but these are only stop gap measures at best. It’s urgent we establish a more reliable source of nourishment before it’s too late.”

I was afraid to ask but I did anyway. “So, what’s the solution?”

He flipped the chart again to reveal a drawing of a human couple holding hands with a small child between them. “The only real answer is breeding. We hire mortals to procreate and then collect the offspring.”

I pinched myself to make sure I was awake. “You don’t seriously expect people to hand over their children to you?”

“Why not?” He flipped the chart again to reveal a drawing of a happy looking adolescent with a red tube trailing from his neck. “We’ll pay them well throughout pregnancy and the child’s growth period then harvest the offspring in late adolescence. After we’ve humanely drained them, they’ll be released into the world as one of the undead. And the benefits don’t end there. In accord with the International Species Conservation Treaty, we’ll set a harvesting limit of only one child per couple. Afterwards, they’re free to have as many progenies as they want. Not only do we secure a reliable food supply but help save the mortal race from extinction. It’s a win-win scenario for everybody.”

I fought hard to keep down my nausea. “How far have you gotten with this project?”

“For now, it’s only a work on paper but I feel with time and the proper funding, we can have a viable colony of mortals in as little as five years.”

Five years? That scheme wouldn’t work in a thousand. Thankfully it was time to change the conversation to a more pertinent subject. “Oh, I almost forgot. Gorm and Alvyra told me to say hello if I came by.”

Vlad shot straight up from his desk chair. “Gorm and Alvyra? A lot of nerve those two have after what they’ve done.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them and they spoke so highly of your foundation.”

Vlad’s eyes narrowed. “You know vampires have a keen sense of smell and right now you seriously reek of bullshit. I understand those two split up and I doubt either one has anything nice to say about us. You’re not a werewolf so you’re probably not with the police. Who are you really?”

As the saying goes: when all else fails, try honesty. I produced a business card and handed it to Vlad. “Sorry about that. The name’s Elmer Jones and I’m a private investigator. “

Vlad carefully inspected the card. “Private dick, eh? Who sent you and what do they want from us?”

“Professional ethics forbids me from revealing my client’s identity but I’ve been hired to recover a missing item.”

Vlad sadly shook his head. “This missing item, it wouldn’t be a gold ring would it?” I nodded and he leaned back in his chair, throwing his hands up in the air. “Why not? We’ve tried the police without results. Maybe you’ll have better luck.”

I pulled a notebook and pen from my jacket pocket. “First tell me about Alvyra and Gorm.”

“Well, I know it’s odd for a god and an elf to care about vampires but when they first came to us they seemed sincerely touched by our cause. And yes, it was strange we never saw the two of them together but they were friendly enough and their checks didn’t bounce when we cashed them. Eventually we put them on the Board. I guess it was all an act to uncover the location of our vault. We discovered the robbery a few weeks later.”

“A robbery? How do you know it was them?”

“We can’t prove anything but who else but a god could rip an eight-inch solid steel door off its hinges? And we haven’t been seen or heard from them since the break-in.”

“What else did they make off with?”

Vlad poured himself a shot of blood from a crimson decanter. “That’s the crazy part. The vault holds an extensive collection of priceless relics–medieval armor, ceremonial weapons, ancient venipuncture devices and such–but they weren’t even touched. All they took was that damn ring.” He had an imploring look as he slid his business card across the desk. “If you find it please return it to us, Mr. Jones. Monetarily it’s not worth much but I’m sure we could arrange a small compensatory award for its recovery. It has great sentimental value.”

The world was getting awfully sentimental lately.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

As I was leaving I could feel Alucard’s watchful eyes on me, so I peeled off a couple of bills and stuffed them into the collection canister by the door on my way out.

 

It was getting dark by the time I reached Temple Town and the sidewalks were crowded with every known variety of undead tourist. Along the curb, kiosks manned by translucent poltergeists hawked everything from Official Temple Town Souvenir Snow Globes to t-shirts bearing the likenesses and mottos of the more popular gods to golden pastries stuffed with a choice variety of ground body parts. I had to laugh when I witnessed a zombie trying to lift a wallet from a passing golem only to leave his dismembered hand dangling from the victim’s back pocket. No matter who you are, there’ll always be at least one field of endeavor you suck at.

Circling overhead, werewolves in police uniforms mounting flying dragons kept the district from turning into a giant food fight. It wasn’t that long ago the dragons sued the city for equal pay and civil rights. They easily won the pay hike but they still couldn’t get those hairy bastards off their backs.

Temples of every conceivable size, shape, and hue lined both sides of the street. Someone once tried to pass an ordinance to bring some uniformity to the district but the Supreme Court struck it down on First Amendment grounds. Worship of every flavor was welcome here, from the dwindling devotees at the Church of the Crucified God to the chattering hordes in the pagoda dedicated to the Monkey King. Gas or no Gas, religion was still big business especially when the gods themselves were present to pass the collection plate. It was a short two blocks before I found myself standing before the Temple of the One and Only True God Gorm.

The usual gang of tentacle-heads were picketing the sidewalk outside with signs bearing slogans like GORM BLESSES BUT CTHULHU DEVOURS! OPEN THE COSMIC GATE AND LET THE REAL GODS IN! and WORSHIP THE WINGED OCTOPUS WHILE YOU STILL CAN! I quickly pushed through the protesters to the shrine’s entrance. While the outside of the temple was little more than a plain adobe cube, the inside was a flamboyant smorgasbord of pre-Gas chaos. A host of colored lights and lasers flashed constantly, reflecting off walls covered with free form aluminum sculptures, old license plates, outdated art exhibit posters, various guns and armaments, gleaming torture implements, and anything else that struck its designer’s fancy. On the chapel floor below me, frenzied worshippers danced with abandon to a loud and overpowering techno beat. Following the rope line to its end I was greeting by a large, grim faced gargoyle in a tux. I slipped him a few bucks and he silently unhooked a satin cord to let me pass.

On my way to the dance floor, a young witch stepped into my path and met me with an agreeable smile. She would have been quite a looker if it weren’t for all those warts on her face. “How about some Ecstasy?” she asked. She waved her hand in the air and suddenly I was filled with a sensation of utter happiness and euphoria.  A second later it dissipated. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”

“I’ll pass,” I told her and moved on.

Once on the chapel floor, I scanned the room for Gorm. He wasn’t hard to find. The deity sat at the back of the chapel on a golden throne atop a dais, gulping from an enormous silver goblet and waving encouragement to the dancing worshippers. With his garish oversized Hawaiian shirt, cut down shorts, and spreading middle aged midriff, he looked exactly like any other slob you’d see on the street with one exception. The god was about five times larger than any human being could ever be. For a moment, I tried to imagine Alvyra’s and Gorm’s love life but quickly gave up in disgust. A crown of laurel leaves encircling his brow, Gorm was the very picture of a happy deity in his home environment.

Threading my way through the throngs of frenzied worshippers, I finally stood before the Throne of Gorm. I called out his name several times, but he just ignored me, laughing and chatting with the blue robed priest beside him. No surprise there. In my experience, gods were usually self-important narcissistic assholes. This one certainly did nothing to change my opinion. The only thing beings like these respected was a dose of over the top chutzpah. Exasperated, I shouted, “Hey, big guy. Your wife sent me to talk to you.”

The god suddenly glared down and scowled. Raising his hand, the music and dancing came to an abrupt halt and the crowd of worshippers nervously moved away from me on all sides. “What’s the little bitch want this time?”

I didn’t know what powers he possessed but from his breath Gorm might well have been the patron god of alcoholics. “She says you have a piece of jewelry that belongs to her.” I pointed to a gold ring dangling from a chain against his hairy chest. “That one. She hired me to collect it.”

Gorm laughed and took a deep quaff from his silver goblet. “Well, you can tell her to go fuck herself. It’s mine and she can’t have it”

I could see this was going to be a long and difficult negotiation. “You mean you stole it fair and square?”

Gorm’s face reddened and he awkwardly stood up from his throne. Ominously pointing his finger at me, his voice took on the deep gravelly tone that has long become a standard among deities who want to make an impression. “YOU DARE MOCK YOUR GOD? KNEEL DOWN BEFORE ME, MORTAL OR FACE THE WRATH OF GORM.”

I was expecting this. Armed with a variety of protective amulets, I knew I could handle just about anything the god threw at me. “Sorry, kneeling’s hard on my knees.”

Gorm’s features reddened even more. He tilted back his head and let out an ear-piercing howl. Then silence ruled the room.

At first it started as a faint buzzing from afar. It then grew in loudness and pitch until every beam and drywall of the temple reverberated in synchrony. Whatever was coming there were certainly a lot of them. I’d have to chant fast, I told myself as I waited to see which mantras I needed to activate which amulets.

I wasn’t kept in suspense long. Suddenly I was immersed in a whirling cloud of brown grasshoppers. Covering my nose and mouth for protection, I stood my ground while the enraged insects buffeted me from every direction. The world turned black with locust for what seemed an eternity as I waited for the god’s wrath to subside. It ended as abruptly as it began.

Patting myself down, I was intact and unharmed. “That’s it?” I said, laughing. “You’re the god of locusts?”

‘TREMBLE BEFORE ME, MORTAL.”

“Why? Do I look like a shaft of wheat to you?”

The god shook his head and clumsily sat back down. After signaling for the music and dancers to resume, he motioned me to stand beside his throne then whispered, “Look, I understand you’ve got a job to do but seriously, do you have to cast shade on my gig?”

I flashed Gorm a sardonic grin. “Just give me the ring and I’ll be out of your hair forever.”

“Would that I could.” He absently searched in vain for his goblet. “You don’t understand what this little bauble means to me. Alvyra’s got her own so why does she need mine? “

It was then I noticed across the chapel a trio of wendigos making their way up the rope line. With their camouflage outfits, short cut fur, cadenced gait, and military style clipped and sharpened antlers, everything about them screamed mercenary. Their wolfish features looked every bit as unfriendly as the automatic assault rifles slung from their shoulders.

“Get down!” I shouted to the giant god but it was too late. In unison, the wendigos leaped the rope line and opened fire on the worshipers dancing on the chapel floor. But the one thing the mercenaries didn’t factor into their military planning was that gargoyles and several other types of undead were pretty much bulletproof. The stone bouncer quickly pinned one of the attackers to the floor while another disappeared beneath an angry mob of equally indestructible vampires and zombies. Managing to slip past the defenders, the remaining wendigo raced across the chapel floor, spraying ordinance as he went. He leaped onto the dais and fired a short round pointblank at the bewildered god’s head. Gorm fell from the throne with a resounding thud.

The mercenary bent down and unceremoniously yanked the ring from the bloodied god’s neck. With a sadistic smile, he turned toward me and said, “Nothing personal buddy, but our employer demands a clean operation. Good luck in your next life.” As he raised his rifle I regretted there was no such thing as a protection amulet against gun fire.

I felt sure I was about to embrace Gas when out of nowhere a well-dressed vamp leaped onto the wendigo’s back and sank his teeth deep into his neck. The ring clattered to the dais as the mercenary flailed wildly against his attacker. But the vampire held fast and drank deeply from the wendigo. As the embattled duo sank to the floor, I caught a glimpse of my savior’s face. It was Vlad Alucard! I gathered up the ring and raced for the rear entrance. As I passed the late, great Gorm, I noticed the god’s body had inexplicably shrunk a little.

“I know where you work, Jones,” Vlad hissed as I ran out the backdoor into the darkness.

 

 

Chapter 3

Fleeing Gorm’s Temple, I noticed a peculiar soft buzzing sound following me. Maybe one of the god’s locust took a shine to me. It’s a good thing the Gas didn’t effect insects or we’d all be goners by now. Anyway, I had bigger things to worry about than amorous grasshoppers.

I was well away from Temple Town when I stopped and took a break on a wooden bench beneath a street light. Pulling the ring from my shirt pocket, I examined it closely. What was it about this nondescript trinket that people were willing to lie, steal, and even kill to possess? Aside from the indecipherable glyphs on the inside, nothing distinguished it from the millions of other gold wedding bands making the rounds. And if those mysterious markings made this bauble so irresistible, why not just copy them down and be done with it? I promised myself I would get to the bottom of this before handing it over to Alvyra or anyone else.

It wouldn’t be long before dawn broke and Val would be back at her desk, so I decided to go back to the office. Even if Vlad made good on his threat, I doubt he and my assistant would see eye to eye on the topic of drinking her boss. Besides, if anyone could crack those cryptic markings it would be the once infamous Valerie the Cyber Queen.

I was approaching La Cienega when I notices a set of footsteps joining the buzzing behind me. Turning around, I came chest to face with a bearded midget clad entirely in green. He tilted an emerald top hat bedecked with a brass buckle at me then stuck a worn wooden pipe in his mouth.  “Ye wouldn’t have light for an old and weary sod, would you now?”

Now I know leprechauns were supposed to be an ancient venerable people but asking for a light had to be a ruse far older than the race itself. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, I answered, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” I turned away to find myself surrounded by three more of the emerald tricksters. They smiled viciously as they pounded their palms with their shillelaghs.

The first leprechaun laughed “Now that you met me boyos, perhaps we be moving our business to somewhere more private like.”  Poking and prodding me with their wooden clubs, the midgets merrily chatted as they guided me down a narrow alley between a mortuary-restaurant for ghouls and a marijuana dispensary. They unceremoniously pushed me against a brick wall.

I don’t have time for this, I told myself. Figuring the best course was to go along with my muggers, I removed the wallet from my back pocket and opened the billfold.

The leprechaun with the pipe just chuckled and shook his head. “Now what would us good Sons O’ the Shamrock be doing with that?  Ye know what we be after, don’t ye?”

“Lucky Charms? “

One of the other leprechauns suddenly raised his shillelagh and shouted, “Why you unbelievable racist whanker…”

The leader outstretched his hand to calm his angry companion, “Now now, Shaun. This poor benighted stook be ignorant of our ways is all. Let us conclude our business like gentlefolk.” He then turned to me and smiled. “Gold. It’s gold we be after. Got any?”

“No,” I told him.

His three comrades quickly pinned me against the alley wall as their leader shouted, “Search him, fellas. Watches, rings, necklaces, anything that be that lovely gold.” I struggled against the three emerald clad undead but to no avail. After a rough but thorough pat down, my lie was soon discovered.  “There be something here, Patty,” one of the henchmen said as he extracted the ring from my shirt pocket.

Their leader reached over and took the trinket from his comrade’s hand. Holding it up to the moonlight, he laughed gleefully. “Now this be gold! Gold!” With his comrades cheering him on, the elated leprechaun broke into an elaborate jig. “Gold! Gold!” He danced around the alley waving his hands in jubilation but the celebration ended abruptly when he bit into the ring. The leprechaun leader suddenly ceased his jig and his expression turned to disappointment. “It be fake,” he exclaimed as he spat the ring onto the alley floor.

The other leprechauns let go of me, I picked the ring off the ground and examined it again. I admit I’m no metallurgy expert but if that wasn’t gold, what the hell was it? “You sure?”

“As sure as I be a leprechaun.” He placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “Hope ye didn’t spend many a yard on that one, lad. Your mot be mighty upset if ye bring that little trinket home.” His comrades chortled agreement.

The leprechauns started gathering up their shillelaghs. Call me insane but despite everything that just happened I wanted to part friends. After all, these little folks inadvertently did me a good turn adding one more mystery to all the other mysteries surrounding the ring. Besides, I try not to leave behind enemies if I can avoid it.

I put on my best deflated face and tucked the ring back into my shirt pocket. “Look, why don’t we just call this all a big mistake and no hard feelings?” I took out my wallet again. “You guys go find a bar and have the first round on me.”

The leprechauns sadly cast their eyes downward and shook their heads. “It’s not that we be ungrateful, lad,” their leader explained. “But we be banned from all pubs and taverns hereabouts.”

I couldn’t imagine why. “Okay, there’s a Seven Eleven down the street. Why don’t I treat you all to a couple of six packs?”

The leader licked his lips as we filed out of the alley. “Been too long since I had me a taste o’ the Guinness.”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “On my budget, Bud will have to do.”

 

Bidding the happily inebriated leprechauns goodbye, I decided to change my destination. What bothered me about the ring is though it looked and felt like real gold, it wasn’t. That made it even more puzzling that people would fight over it. I knew an old acquaintance who might help me determine its composition. I called for an Uber flying carpet and headed out to Pasadena.

For someone with the reputation of being able to repair anything, Harry’s shop was an old, grime encrusted eyesore spoiling an otherwise agreeable neighborhood. The locals once banded together and tried to get Harry to clean up his act but quickly learned the dangers of angering an ogre. Since then, they politely kept their distance.

Beyond the rusting screen door, Harry’s place was a scrapyard of old abandoned appliances and industrial equipment. As a young man, he trained as a materials engineer but found fixing junk more to his liking. It said that people came from as far as the Orange County to have the “Miracle Ogre” look over their failing prized possessions. We may live in an age of magic and wonder, but folks still loved their technology.

I found Harry at his work bench behind three rows of rusting refrigerators. He was squat and massive even by ogre standards. A series of broken stools next to the workbench gave evidence to this. He was sporting the same filthy overalls and undershirt he wore when I first met him years ago. Harry once told me he didn’t change his name after death so why should his clothes be any different. Logic like that’s hard to refute.

“Hey Harry, got something for you to look at.” I said as I approached the desk.

He raised his warty face from a tiny watch cradled in his enormous hands. “Can’t you see I’m busy, Elmer? Leave it and I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“Oh, but this is something special, even interesting.” I pulled the ring from my pocket and brandished it before him.

He eyed the trinket quizzically. “Are congratulations in order?”

“It’s not a gold wedding band,” I told him. “Hell, it’s not even gold.”

The ogre took the ring, sniffed it then rolled it between his fingers. “Are you sure?”

“A leprechaun told me.”

“A leprechaun? I thought Immigration sent those punkers packing a long time ago.” He examined the ring again. “But if there’s one thing those little buggers know, it’s gold.”

He took me into a back room filled with bright, shiny machines that could pulverize, analyze, and weigh just about anything on earth. This freelance lab was the real source of Harry’s income, the front room merely his passion. “This is going to take a while,” he said as he slipped the ring into an open machine slot. “How about some coffee?”

We sat by his work bench drinking a rancid brew from grimy cracked mugs. If you wanted to get along with Harry, first thing you had to learn was to put up with his coffee. “You still in the PI game?” he asked between sips.

I shrugged. “What else am I good for? It keeps the lights on. What’s new with you? Those guys from Cal Poly still bugging you?”

The boils on Harry’s face jiggled as he laughed. “Yeah, they still come around every once in a while. Full professorship and all that crap. Sent a few of them back wrapped in wrought iron to make sure they got the point.” He took another sip of coffee and leaned back in his chair. “You know I still remember the time you brought me that gremlin infested SUV.”

“You’re not going to make me apologize for that again?”

A few reminisces later, I noticed the soft sound of approaching hoof beats. In a curved ceiling mirror, I spotted the intruders. Two hobgoblins were quietly sneaking their way down an aisle of outdated computers. Brandishing pitchforks, their slim bodies were aglow with tiny flames as their cloven hooves carefully crept down the walkway. Their horned red faces brimming with malice, somehow I didn’t think they were here about a broken printer. Silently I pointed them out in the mirror to Harry. “I think it’s for you,” he whispered.

Suddenly, a pitchfork flew through the air, barely missing the ogre and lodging itself in a half dissembled wooden music box. “Hey, I worked hours on that!” the ogre exclaimed.

I saw the attacker pull another pitchfork from his quiver as he split up from his companion. “Give yourselves up and we promise to make it quick and painless,” one of the hobgoblins shouted.

Not exactly an offer you can’t refuse. “No thanks,” I yelled back. “I’ll stick with defending myself if you don’t mind.”

“You’ve always attracted an interesting crowd,” Harry said as we ducked under the workbench. “Remember that cyclopes syndicate?”

“You’re bringing that up again?”

Harry shrugged. “Just saying.”

As I reached for a lead pipe on the floor, Harry stopped me. “They’re only hobgoblins,” he told me. “There are far better ways to deal with hell scum like that.” He fished around and brought out the end of a garden hose. Turning on the spigot, he aimed a stream of water at the aisle and alternately sprayed each attacker. The hobgoblins screamed in agony as the water hit them. They tried to flee but the wetter they got, the greyer and slower they became. Moments later, two steaming ashen statues stood in their place. Brandishing a ballpeen hammer, Harry quickly ran over and reduced them to dust.

“Now that that’s over, let’s see about your ring.” Harry left to check the machines in the back room. It was an unusually long wait before he returned with the ring, a printout, and a puzzled expression on his face. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” he exclaimed. “The metal’s an entirely unknown composition. It even made the spectrograph go negative at one point. And look at this scan. It’s faint but you could see printed circuits and nanoprocessors embedded throughout the interior. Hell, it even radiates an electromagnetic field. It’s not a ring but some kind of machine!”

“You know any local shops that could have made this?”

“I don’t know anybody in this world that could have made this.”  Harry examined the ring again with fascination. “This has got to be the most advanced piece of technology I’ve ever laid eyes on. Where’d you get it?”

“Sorry,” I told him. “Client confidentiality.”

Harry looked at the ring with the expression of a kid holding a newly found puppy. “Can I keep it a while? I’d love to study it. It wouldn’t be for sale, would it?”

“It’s not mine to give away or sell.” I reached out an open palm and Harry reluctantly handed back the ring.

“Promise you’ll call me when you’re done with it,” the ogre asked with imploring eyes.

“You’ll be the first on my list,” I assured him.

 

 

Chapter 4

It was dusk by the time the winged Uber steed arrived at my office building. As it circled for a landing, I noticed a police dragon on the rooftop huddling next to the air conditioning unit’s exhaust vent for warmth. I seemed to be getting very popular lately, I thought as the Pegasus set down by the entrance. After tossing a tip in my ride’s feedbag, I climbed the steps to find Val at her desk.

Val raised a finger to her lips then pointed to my office door. “You have a cop waiting in your office.”

“Yeah, I saw the dragon on the roof,” I whispered. “You wouldn’t believe the night I had.”

“I followed the whole thing on Facebook. The only thing I can’t believe is that you’re still alive,” Val told me. “But on the plus side, it did do a lot to enhance your reputation.”

“Reputation? I have a reputation?” I pulled the gold band from my shirt pocket and handed it to her.

“Aren’t you suppose to go down on one knee first?”

I laughed. “That little trinket is what all the trouble was all about last night.”

“Hardly looks like the One Ring to Rule Them All,” Val said as she examined the band.

“But in the darkness it does bind them. Just keep it out of the good officer’s sight. And while you’re at it, scan the engravings on inside and see if you can make any sense of them.”

“I’ll give it a whirl, boss,” She said pulling a scanning wand out from the desk’s lower drawer. “But you should clean up before you go in. You look like hell.”

“Always with the compliments.”

After washing away a day’s sweat and grime in the bathroom sink, I opened my office door to find a hairy policeman sitting in my chair behind my desk. It was an incredibly rude act but I decided to let it slide. Now was not the time to start a pissing contest with a werewolf. Lawrence Talbot proclaimed the name on his badge. Really? As I sat in the clients’ seat, I wondered how many other Lawrence Talbots were on the LAPD payroll. “What can I do for you, officer?”

Now there’s no ordinance saying you had to be a werewolf or dragon to join the LAPD but somehow they were the only ones who made it through academy training. I sometimes wondered if they ate the others to thin out the competition.

Talbot passed me a tablet displaying the carnage around Gorm’s throne. “What’s missing from this picture?”

I scanned the image. There were plenty of dead bodies on the dais: priests, worshippers, and even a drained wendigo mercenary but no Gorm. Vlad wasn’t accounted for either.

“I didn’t kill anybody” I told Talbot. “Armed wendigos…”

“Yeah yeah, we got all that from the witnesses. But perhaps you can tell me what happened to Gorm’s body.”

I shrugged. “Beats me. I ran out of there too fast to notice if Gorm ever got up again.”

“Gods don’t reincarnate like mortals. When they die, they tend to stay dead”. I winced as Talbot stopped and scratched vigorously behind his ear. It was going to take a week to get all that fur out of my chair. “Witnesses saw you two arguing before the shooting went down. Something about a ring?”

“Yeah, I was sent to retrieve one but never got it”.

“Who sent you?”

“Professional ethics prohibits me from revealing a client’s identity.”

The policeman pulled back his lips and snarled in frustration. “Well, the priests desperately want it back. They say it has great –“

I looked at my nails as I finished the sentence for him. “Sentimental value?”

The policeman revealed his yellowed fangs. “Well, I hope you’re telling the truth. If not you’d better hand it over now. I’d hate to bring you in on theft and obstruction of justice charges.” He slammed his fist into his palm. “That is if I decide to bring in what’s left of you at all.”

I rubbed one if my protection amulets for luck. “My lawyer will take care of your career if you try. Basilisks can be very vindictive if you know what I mean.” I rose from my chair to signal the end of the meeting. “Now that I’ve answered your questions, I have a business to run. If you need more information, call first.”

“I’ll be keeping an eye on you.” The werewolf rose from his chair and gave me an unfriendly look before leaving. As I followed him out, he stopped at Val’s desk, leaned close to the vampire and said, “How about you and me getting together later?” Where was Oscar when you really needed him?

Val grimaced. “I don’t know. Are you housebroken?”

Still scowling, Talbot angrily stomped out the door.

“Please tell me he won’t be coming back,” Val said.

“Not if I can help it.” I turned my attention to her computer screen filled with an assortment of enigmatic algorithms. “Find anything new about those markings?”

“No but then I’ve always had trouble translating gibberish.” She handed me back the ring. “It’s not in any language on any database I can find. It probably won’t work but there’s this new program I read about I’d like to try out on it.”

“Play with it all you want but don’t spend any personal time. You’ve got to eat at least. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to catch up on my shuteye.” I retrieved a can of air freshener from the restroom and walked back to my office.

 

When I woke, night had fallen and Val was gone. Changing my shirt, I contemplated what to do next. Avyra could wait for her damn ring. Besides it was standard PI practice to pad the bill a day or two.

As I ran the electric razor over my face, I remembered Harry saying nobody in this world could have made that ring. That leaves somebody from another world and there was only one place you could find that. But first I needed to work out a plan. My growling stomach demanding attention, I decided to mull things over at dinner.

There were three establishments that graced the shopping strip on Fourteenth. The first was a drinking hole that catered to cops. Non-werewolves were certainly not welcome there. Next door was a BBQ joint for their dragon partners who always had a taste for burnt flesh. The smoke and heat tended to drive away other customers.  Then there was Mama Lo’s for the rest of us.

Mama’s place was a tradition in the neighborhood long before she died. Even after she was reborn a Buddha, she continued dishing up her trademark dim sum and fried noodles to the hungry masses. Shunning the glitz and tourism of Temple Town, her establishment served Chinese to the very same shady crowd that patronized her while alive. On any given night, you’d find a wide assortment of cons, grafters, and scammers occupying her tables.  They may be the shadowy underbelly of LA but they knew a great dumpling when they tasted one.

I walked in and waved to Mama as I took an empty table. The six hundred pound Buddha sat oblivious atop her oversized lotus blossom near the kitchen door, a beatific smile across her features. It wasn’t like I expected a response. No one’s seen Mama move or talk for years. Still it’s rumored she rides hard and rough over the kitchen staff but nobody can figure out how.

As I waited for a follower to take my order, I looked around the room. There was everything from wizards to centaurs to basilisks merrily chatting as they gulped down Asian cuisine. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize any face that was worth talking to.

“Mind if I join you?” I looked up from the menu to find Benny the Weasel miraculously standing before my table. He seemed to appear out of nowhere but then that was Benny’s style. The Weasel served an indispensable function as the unofficial neighborhood news gatherer.  For the price of a meal or a drink, he’d pass on more gossip than a local newscast and be twice as entertaining doing it. I nodded and he tucked in his tail as his long, slender body took the seat next to me. He then poured himself some tea, inserted his muzzle in the bowl, and lapped it up. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you and that ruckus up in Temple Town last night,” he said. “A word to the wise, the cops have developed an unhealthy interest in you.”

“I know. One of them was in my office this afternoon.”

Benny’s pointed ears perked up and he leaned in closer. “Really? Which one?”

“Officer Lawrence Talbot.” I knew what I said would be broadcast all over town by morning but with Benny you had to give information before you got any.

“Watch what you say around that one, Elmer. He’s dirty.”

“Aren’t all werewolves dirty?” I said chuckling.

“I’m not talking hygiene, beating heart. That one’s filthy paws are dipped in every racket in the city. Even had the nerve to try shaking down Mama once but the customers banded together and threw him out on his ear. Just be careful with Talbot. He’s a bad one.”

We were interrupted by a saffron robed acolyte setting a dish of dim sum before me. I placed one of the dumpling on a small plate and slid it toward Benny. “Any word on the street about somebody counterfeiting gold wedding bands?”

Benny laughed as he brushed a clump of his fur off the table. “Why? Are we running out of jewelers? Who’d want to get into a chump change racket like that?”

I didn’t really expect more but still I was disappointed. “Just asking for a friend.”

Benny shrugged then wolfed down his dumpling. “By the way, have you heard the latest on Mama? Don’t know much about astral projection but she’s been spotted around town getting hot and heavy with a certain Jesus from the Calvary Burger Barn on Figueroa…”

The Weasel and I shared dumplings and gossiped for a couple of hours while I contemplated my next move.

 

Once again, I found myself threading my way through the crowded sidewalks of Temple Town. Live and undead devotees stood in front of their houses of worship, preaching zealously to oblivious pedestrians passing by.

Suddenly a slim, feminine figure stepped into my path. She was gorgeous from head to toe in a very human way. Her deliberately skimpy attire made no effort to hide her curving charms. Even the green feathers growing from her scalp only added to her allure. But it was obvious from her demeanor that such beauty came with a price tag.

“Want a date?” she asked.

“No thanks” I tried to push past her.

Within an instant, she began to change. Her chest flattened as her entire frame grew more muscular. A goatee of feathers sprouted on her once feminine face.  “How about now?” he asked.

“Again, no thanks. I’ve got somewhere I need to be.” I quickly walked past the street walker and looked for my destination. Pushing my way through a group of dancing Hindi sleestaks, I finally came upon the Hall of Cthulhu.

The interior of the temple was a nightmarish maze of black curving corridors bearing off kilter doors. The ebony walls were randomly painted with hordes of unsettling glowing icons and terrifying portraits of eldritch gods.  The few faithful I encountered ignored me as they went about their ritual treks through the temple. Then I came upon the main chapel, a large chamber with jutting limestone walls. A multitude of tentacle-heads, many in rags, knelt before an enormous gilded likeness of the Winged Octopus. Silently they rocked back and forth mouthing passages from the opened Necromicons on the floor before them. Nowhere in the chapel did I see what I came here for.

Wandering down more of the maddening corridors, I finally came upon a sign marked OFFERINGS and followed the arrow, hoping the rumors about this place were true.

Eventually I arrived in a large room teeming with stacks of crates bearing the Seal of the Winged Octopus. It was there I saw what I came for. At the back of the storage area was a glowing green hole in the wall. The portal! I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my time but this had to be the craziest. Do I send a note ahead or just crawl on through? It was then when I heard approaching footsteps and ducked behind a stack of crates marked GLUTEN FREE VIRGIN TENDERS.

A young mortal man in dark blue work overalls approached from the other end of the room and carefully examined a clip board hanging beside the portal. Next, he inspected a nearby machine with blinking LED’s and nodded his head in satisfaction. Whistling refrains from a current pop tune, he rolled a conveyer belt in front of the portal and loaded it with crates. After pushing the cargo into the glowing greenness, he turned and shouted, “I know you’re in here; I can hear you breathing. Come out and let’s talk about this.”

Maybe it’s time for a refresher course on my detective skills. Nothing for it, I raised my hands and stood up. The worker smiled as he saw me and motioned me closer. He introduced himself as Andy. “You’re about a month early.” he said.  “We only do sacrifices on High Holy Days. And we never send mortals; they’ve way too much to lose.”

“I’m not here to sacrifice myself,” I told him. “I want to get in touch with whoever’s on the other side of that thing.”

“You’re planning on coming back? That’s a first.”

“I was thinking of sending a note.”

“Won’t work. We’ve sent through tons of prayers from the faithful but never once got back a reply. Whatever’s on the other side of that portal is either illiterate or just doesn’t give a damn.”

“Then how do you know anybody’s there?”

“Well, every once in a while, a tentacle pokes through, grabs a box, then withdraws back into its own dimension. Spooky but then this is the House of Cthulhu.” Andy looked me up and down then shook his head. “What do you hope to gain from this stunt?”

“I need information only they can provide.”

“You and everybody else.” Andy thought for a minute then said, “If you’re mind’s really set on this, maybe I can help. But only on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You give me a detailed account of what’s the other side when you return,” he said with a wink.

“Deal.” I shook his hand.

“I was originally trained as a theoretical physicist,” Andy said as he led me to a desk parked beside a closet door. “That’s why they trust me to maintain the portal. But I did some work in aerospace before I got this job. Every so often, a whiff of atmosphere comes through the portal. It’s green and smells like shit. I don’t know exactly what it’s made of but you’re going to need this if you want to breathe on the other side.” He opened the closet door to reveal a genuine NASA spacesuit.

I eyed him suspiciously. “You’ve thought of doing this yourself, didn’t you?”

“Yeah but who’s going to fix the portal if something goes wrong while I’m on the other side?”

I ran my hands along the spacesuit’s smooth fabric. “Nice. You get this through your aerospace connections?”

“Nah, Ebay.” He unhooked the suit from its hanger and removed it from the closet. “C’mon, I’ve got a couple of oxygen tanks to go with that.”

As I stood before the portal in my spacesuit, Andy checked the seals for leaks. “Now remember you’ve got three hours of air, but for safety’s sake I’d suggest you start heading back when the dial reaches two. Good luck and you’re a go.”

I climbed onto the conveyor belt and crawled into the portal. Creeping through a fog of radiant green, I unceremoniously fell to the ground after only a few feet. Before me was a cracked and barren plain populated with a forest of tall weathered Grecian style marble columns. They rose up into the sky, disappearing into the overhead jade mist.  Empty crates were scattered about the bleak landscape but I saw no other signs of life.

As I got to my feet, I heard a deep commanding voice in my head. “You come here often?”

I turned around and there beside the now blue portal was Cthulhu himself. An octopus as big as an office building, the only thing more impressive than his eight writhing tentacles was the set of gigantic leathery wings sprouting from behind his oval eyes. “Congratulations. You’re the first sacrifice to arrive alive.” Cthulhu said inside my mind. “I hate to tell you this but I don’t eat your kind any more. Bad for the figure. Try Yog-Sothoth. He might still be into that sort of thing.”

I held up my empty palms. “I’m not a here as a sacrifice, deity. I came to ask you a few questions.”

Cthulhu’s mood abruptly changed. “You dare come to my world to questions me? What makes an insignificant insect like you think you could even comprehend answers from one such as myself?” The god blew a hearty stream of water from his siphons. “You lesser forms are certainly annoying. Maybe I should pay your dimension a visit and teach it some manners.”

I’m not much on religion but this being coming through the portal could pose a major problem for humanity. Swallowing my pride, I kneeled before the god. “Oh, Great Cthulhu, please don’t punish an entire world for my trespasses.”

The eldritch god laughed as it waved an enormous tentacle in the air. “Only kidding. I have no intention of ever setting tentacle on your world again. Way too hot and muggy for my taste. And the last time I was there, some of your fellow mortals tried to make sushi of me. I like it better here; good weather, free food, and we even get cable.”

Not exactly what I expected from a deity with his reputation. Although he was quick to anger at the slightest provocation, he was equally quick to forget. “But aren’t you the—“

“Devourer?” Cthulhu’s siphons hissed water again. “Isn’t that always the way of it? Eat one measly universe and they brand you for life. I keep telling them it was only a youthful indiscretion but nobody listens. You’ve nothing to fear from me, tiny creature. Go ahead and ask your questions but be quick about it. My show’s on in a few minutes.”

I pulled the ring from the suit pocket. “What can you tell me about this.”

The octopus god deftly plucked the ring from my hand with a tentacle and held it before his enormous eye. “Is someone getting married?”

“I have it on good authority it’s not from my world.”

“Not from mine either.” He tossed the ring back to me. “Our jewelry’s far better made. Bigger too.”

Dejected, I stuffed the ring back in my front pocket. “If it’s not from my world or yours, where could it have come from?”

Cthulhu chuckled. “Is yours the only world in your universe?”

“You’re not talking extraterrestrials?” I said incredulously. “No one seen even a UFO since the Gas was released.”

“Maybe they’re in hiding.”

“Not exactly logical,” I said.

The deity’s body writhed and streams of many colors ran through its skin. “Logic? You think I’d allow myself to be constrained by such a puerile thing as logic? I detest logic and will have nothing to do with it. Now if you’re done with your questions, my show’s on.”

I could see there was no point in continuing. This fickle god could snap at any moment and destroy me. I looked down on the oxygen gauge and discovered the dial was already creeping past one. “Thank you for your cooperation Your Mightiness. I’ve got to go too.”

Already forgetting his anger, Cthulhu’s waved his eight tentacles to signal goodbye. “Drop by anytime. It gets lonely here. And I’ll introduce you to the other gods if you like. They’ll just eat you up.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I leaped into the blue portal and within seconds found myself sprawled at Andy’s feet. “That was fast,” he said. “You’ve only been gone twenty minutes.”

“My watch says two hours.”

“Time dialation. Amazing! Let’s get you out of that suit and you can tell me what you saw.”

We sat by the desk sipping coffee as I described Cthulhu and his world to Andy. I didn’t mention anything about the ring though. The poor guy had enough on his plate.

“And you say he’s never returning?” Andy asked with surprise. “The priests’ have been promising his reappearance for years. They even reserved an apartment upstairs for him.”

I shrugged. “What can I say? He hates this place.” Glancing overhead I added, “Anyway I doubt Cthulhu would even fit up there.”

Andy thought for a moment then leaned over and whispered. “Let’s keep this to ourselves. Tell no one, especially not the priests. If this gets around, they’ll probably close the temple and I’ll be out of a job.”

All I could do was smile. “Your secret’s safe with me.”

And that, dear friends, is how many a religion’s managed to survive the passage of time.

 

Chapter 5

Dispirited, I shuffled into the office to be greeted by Val behind her desk.

“Rough night?” she asked.

“You don’t know the half of it.” I told her. “I think I dredged up more questions than answers.” I proceeded to tell her about my fruitless meetings with Benny the Weasel and Cthulhu.

“You are one crazy detective.” She swiveled the computer screen toward me. “I might have something to cheer you up. Remember that new algorithm I told you about? I ran it and found our glyphs.”

“You’re able to translate them?”

“Not exactly but I think I know where to look for a Rosetta Stone.” Her fingers danced across the keyboard and a thesis paper appeared on the screen: “Written and Guttural Protolanguages of isolated Pleistocene Societies. “

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Oh boss of little faith.” Val scrolled down the paper until the screen rested on a photo of a cave wall bearing markings resembling those on the ring. She also showed me diagrams of other glyphs in the text itself. “I’m not sure how this connects to your ring but it makes you think.”

“Who wrote this?” I asked.

With a flick of her wrist, an old Kodachrome snapshot appeared on screen. “Meet Dr. Joseph Senecka, linguist extraordinaire. Or at least he was extraordinaire before he disappeared. Because of his brilliant work with prehistoric languages he was considered a rising star in the field. He was also introverted, distrustful, and quarrelsome, all of which eventually cost him his professorship at UCLA. After that he became a consultant to a mining company and spent his time holed up in his humble San Bernardino home.”

“Might be the right guy to talk too. But you said he disappeared?”

“It happened about two years ago. Neighbors say they heard a gunshot then saw a moleman scurrying out into the front yard. The police believe it was Senecka after he Changed. Anyway, he frantically burrowed into the ground and hasn’t been seen nor heard from since.”

I leaned closer to the computer, examining Senecka;s unremarkable features. “That’s all very interesting, Val but how does it help decipher the ring?”

“Now we come to the good part, boss. The house is still there. With no relatives, loved ones, or offspring laying claim, it remains pretty much undisturbed while the County figures out what to do with it. Maybe, just maybe he left something inside that can help us translate those symbols.”

“Val, you’re a genius.” She flashed me a set of pearly white fangs in gratitude. “I think it’s time I took a ride up to the SB.”

I was going into my office to retrieve my car keys, when I suddenly felt something viscously nibbling on my ankle.

“Oscar!”

 

Fighting the late afternoon freeway traffic, night had fallen by the time I reached the Senecka home. It was an old decaying single family ranch house dropped smack in the middle of a seedy neighborhood replete with cauldron lounges and check cashing businesses. The long neglected front lawn was a mixture of green growing weeds and brown dying grass. Decaying side boards and a rusted-out bicycle frame added an extra touch of decrepitude to the front porch. All in all, it was your typical suburban LA dump. Might make a good crack house someday, I thought as I parked in the driveway of the abandoned residence.

Now I’m not big on breaking and entering but considering the physical and legal status of the place, there wasn’t much help for it. I was retrieving my flashlight and a pair of latex gloves from the trunk when I heard the faint buzzing sound return. That’s one love struck grasshopper I told myself as I approached the walkway pavers. But this time the sound didn’t fade away. It grew louder and louder until it was directly overhead. A moment later, a dragonfly the size of a coffee table landed right in front of me. As it settled onto the lawn, the bug began to vibrate until it became little more than a blur in the flashlight beam.  It’s shimmering iridescent wings flashed and swirled until the overgrown insect dissolved into a familiar petite figure.

“Alvyra?”

“Alone at last, Mr. Jones.” The elf reached into her hip pouch, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at me. “I see you found Joe’s place.”

“Let me guess. You’re his girlfriend.”

“Fiancé.” She glanced at the house and smiled. “Not that I haven’t been engaged before. I still don’t know why but that mining company paid him so well. He was supposed to be just another mark. Eventually I’d get the diamond ring and whatever else I can carry and leave.  But instead of a precious stone, I got this.” She tapped the wedding band on her finger.

I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon. I found none. “I take it you were disappointed.”

“At first, yes. But if only you knew what this baby can do. It changed everything. The sky’s the limit now.”

It changed everything? I thought. Now might be a good time to try on the ring myself but the elf would probably shoot me first. If there was any chance of getting out of this alive, I had to keep her talking. “Is that when you decided to rid yourself of Senecka? Who did the honors, you or Gorm?”

“Gorm of course. What else was the big lug good for? Unfortunately, we didn’t figure on Joe running off with his ring when he Changed. That left us with only one. At first it was okay. We took turns wearing it but after a while both Gorm and our arrangement got very tedious.”

“Is that where the Foundation comes in?”

“You’re trying to buy time, Mr. Jones,” the elf stated with a laugh. “That’s alright. We have all night and after the work you put in, you’re entitled to some answers. Well, Joe had often hinted there were more of these things. I remember him telling me about this vampire literature professor he palled around with at the mining company. By the time the detective I hired had tracked him down–” She stopped to make the sign of the tentacle. “—the professor was killed in a “sunlight accident” and left all his worldly possessions to the Strigoi Foundation. On the inventory list was a gold wedding band even though he’d never been married. That’s when I knew we found our second ring.”

I tried to scratch my nose but Alvyra menacingly waved the gun. “Just keep your hands where I can see them and we’ll get along fine.”

So much for getting to the ring. Note to self: invent bullet proof amulet. “But after you two split up, why’d you need his ring?”

“Oh, you know how it is. New lifestyle, new boyfriend—“

Just then, I heard another flapping of wings and a dark feminine figure fell from above onto Alvyra. Sprawled on the ground, she held the elf down as she bit deeply into her neck. Alvyra valiantly tried fighting off her attacker but it wasn’t long before the elf ceased struggling.

I grabbed the flashlight and gasped when I saw the vampire’s face. “Val! What are you doing here?”

Val raised her blood-stained face and smiled. “Protecting my paycheck.” She tried to get up but somehow couldn’t. “After seeing what you went through the last few nights, I decided someone had to watch out for you. So, I reached out to my inner bat and followed you here. It wasn’t hard. You drive slower than my grandmother.” Val stumbled as she again struggled unsuccessfully to stand. “It’s been a long time since I had the Real Thing,” she said in a slurred voice.

I’ve heard about blood intoxication in vampires but never actually witnessed it before. “She’s an elf not a mortal.”

“Yeah but that little floosy sure packs a wallop.”

I wasn’t sure what the wedding band did yet but I was concerned it was still on Alvyra’s finger. “As long as you’re down there. you mind handing me that ring?”

“Sure thing, boss.” She tugged unsuccessfully at the ring several times then sighed and bit off the finger.  A moment later she spat out the trinket, handed it to me, and continued happily sucking on the severed end of the digit.

“You really have to do that?” I asked.

“Can’t help it, I skipped lunch.” She managed to get up and stumble over to me. Collapsing into my arms, she laid her head on my shoulder and muttered, “You know if you weren’t such a mortal, I’d…”

It was then that I noticed the corpse was changing.  Alvyra was getting taller and her complexion was losing its greenish elfin patina.

Val saw it too. “Jesus H. Nosferatu, she’s a pink!”

I looked again at the corpse. With her dress torn apart by the sudden growth spurt, she was now obviously human. But small hairy spikes were beginning to sprout all over her body. “I think she’s Changing,” I told Val.

Holding up the drunken vampire, I watched as the metamorphosis unfolded. Alvyra began to shrink again. Her torso broadened out as the skin grew a covering of thick black carapace. The head became rounder but still retained her human features. Two extra appendages grew from both her sides. A moment later, she crawled out from beneath the torn dress.

“I’m a spiderwoman!” Alvyra exclaimed as she examined a hinged arm. “You son of bitches made me a spiderwoman! You’ll pay for this.”

The creature rose up on its eight legs and opened its mandibles to reveal rows of needle sharp teeth. Howling in defiance, it was ready to attack when a large hairy foot came out of the darkness and squashed her beneath its heel.

I aimed the flashlight up and saw a huge yeti standing before us. “You always were a bitch, Alvyra,” the white ape said as he examined her crushed remains.

“Gorm I presume?” I tried again to shove Val behind me but she wouldn’t cooperate.

The creature shook its massive head in confirmation as a grin flowed across his shaggy face. “That’s what I used to be called. Guess I’ll have to think up a new name now. I knew Alvyra would come back here sooner or later so I waited for her in the house. I saw and heard the whole thing.” He jutted out a massive paw to me. “I’ll take my ring back if you don’t mind. In fact, I’m feeling especially greedy tonight. I’ll take them both off your hands.”

Suddenly there was a swishing sound and the yeti’s head flew from his body. As the decapitated ape crumbled to the ground. I raised the flashlight and saw Vlad Alucard brandishing a gleaming broadsword in his place.

“Sometimes old school is best,” Vlad said eyeing the body. “Maybe this time he’ll stay dead. I was hoping you’d bring the ring back to me but all my management courses taught me to always have a backup plan.”

Val sleepily roused.  “Boss, if you’re throwing a party how come you didn’t invited me?”

“You’re not the only gatecrasher here,” I told her as she faded off again. “How did you find this place?” I asked Alucard.

“I just followed your assistant as she followed you,” Vlad wiped the sword clean with the edge of his jacket. “She’s right about your driving, you know.”

With all these people flying after me, some air traffic controller must be having a fit. “I take it you want to bring the rings back to the Foundation.”

“Hell no, those rings are worth a fortune. It would be a waste to have them gathering dust in a vault when they could be actively supporting my new lifestyle.” Vlad raised his sword. “Sorry about this but I can’t leave witnesses behind to tattle.”

But as Vlad stepped forward a bloodied wooden stake sprouted from his chest. The vampire fell face first to the ground and the hirsute form of Officer Talbot took his place.

“Yay, the cops are here,” Val mumbled as she tried to stay on her feet.

The policeman walked over to Alvyra’s crushed remains and shook his head. “Too bad. You know this was her idea from the start. Get some poor dumb detective to do all the heavy lifting and we’d take care of him after he recovered the ring. I sent those incompetent wendigos and hobgoblins on your trail just to hedge our bet. It seems mercenaries just don’t take pride in their work anymore.”

“I take it you’re the new boyfriend.”

“You could call me that.” He again eyed the remains of the spiderwoman. “Maybe it’s all for the best. She was a great lay but I knew I’d have to get rid of her eventually.” He unholstered his sidearm. “Well, me and Vlad agree on one thing. No witnesses.”

My eyes swept the lawn for Alvyra’s gun but it was too far away for me to make it.

Val roused again and noticed the armed werewolf. “I’ve got an idea, boss,” she muttered sleepily. “Why don’t we throw a stick and see if he fetches.”

Talbot scowled. “Lady, the way you were flying you’re lucky I didn’t write you a ticket.” He stepped over the headless yeti and retrieved the wooden stake jutting from Vlad’s chest. Hefting it in his paw, he said, “Hate to admit it but I’m really going to enjoy this.”

Suddenly there came a strange high-pitched voice from behind the policeman. “Officer Lawrence Talbot, you’re under arrest for murder. Drop your weapon and give yourself up.”

The werewolf snarled in fury. “You traitor!” Talbot turned but it was too late as a ball of fire immediately engulfed the police officer. Talbot lasted only a few steps before he fell to the ground and expired. Then a police dragon stepped into the light of the burning werewolf.

“Another one?” Val said as she raised her head from my shoulder. “Boss, are you holding a convention?”

The dragon incredulously surveyed the carnage around him and shook his head.

“We’re doing Hamlet,” Val told him.

I tried unsuccessfully to get Val behind me yet again. “I suppose you want the rings.”

The dragon scanned the bodies again. “No thanks. After what I’ve just seen, those things are nothing but trouble.”

From the badge on his chest I discerned his name was Eragon Flame. “But Officer Flame, won’t you need them for your report.”

“There’s not going to be a report. You don’t know what it was like. Going here to collect a bribe, going there to shake down some ambrosia dealer, that asshole rode my wings ragged with his corrupt schemes. I guess I was just waiting for the right moment to be rid of him.” He viciously spat a short trail of fire at the smoldering werewolf. “I quit!”

“So, what do you do now?” I asked.

Flame’s undersized claws fiddled with the fastenings of his police harness. “I’m going to do what I should have done a long time ago. Go home.” The dragon dropped his harness and happily spread his wings in the moonlight. “If you’re ever in Rim Forest look me up.” With that he flew away into the night sky.

I turned to the inebriated vampire on my arm. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”

“Boss, you sure know how to show a girl a good time,” Val slurred as we awkwardly stumbled up the walkway. “You realize we’re never going to get paid for this?”

“That’s alright. She left a retainer.”

 

Chapter 6

Someone had ransacked the house long ago. Broken furniture and belongings were flung everywhere. I cleared the ripped pillows from the half intact couch and laid Val down on it. Wiping the blood from her face with a found washcloth, Val responded to my tender ministrations by turning over and snoring.

I began my search in the office. A rectangle of thinner dust demarked where Senecka’s computer once proudly resided. Books, pens, and printed papers were haphazardly scattered across the floor. A fallen cracked picture frame showed Senecka smiling in front of a boarded up mine entrance in a desert hillside. The upper plank displayed a hand carved sign: END TIMES MINE. Somehow I didn’t think it was a hobby.

My exploration of the rest of the house was equally fruitless. I checked inside and behind drawers, in and above closets, and behind and beneath every intact appliance in the house but there were no notes or data discs to be found. Giving up I started knocking on in the living room walls.

“Boy am I hung over,” Val said as she sat up on the couch. “Do you have to bang so loudly?”

“I’m looking for safes or secret hiding places,” I told her.

She shook her head in disbelief. “Some detective you are. You’re dealing with a geek not a criminal mastermind. Where’s the office?”

I led her to the computer room. She slowly scanned the rubble on the floor.

“I’ve already searched in here,” I told her.

Val ignored me and picked up a loose pen, unscrewed it and threw it on the desktop. She repeated the process again and again until she gleefully handed me a half pen. “I think this is what you’re looking for.”

I examined the plastic piece and found a USB plug jutting out from its open end. “Well. I’ll be damned.”

“No, you’ll be not geek savvy.” Val examined the rest of the pens but found nothing more.

“Let’s get out of here.” I told her. “Daylight’s coming and somebody’s bound to notice all those bodies on the front lawn,”

 

In a cheap motel room a few freeway exits from the Senecka house, Val sat on one bed slowly sipping a carton of goat’s blood while I was parked on the other picking over the remains of something pretending to be pizza. Fighting her hangover, Val was frantically entering passwords into her smartphone. “If I had my laptop, I’d have broken this flash drive by now.”

“Try Alvyra,” I said as I fought down the rest of my slice.

She typed into her phone and smiled. “Wow boss, it worked.”

“You’re not the only one who knows geek around here.”

Val spent a good twenty minutes examining the flash drive’s contents. “Whew, this is the worst excuse for a language I’ve ever seen. Past, present and future tenses don’t even look alike. And don’t get me started on these insane prepositions. This is like a dialect designed by people with brain infarcts. Oh well. time to go low tech.” She took a notepad from the motel night stand then asked for the rings. Painstakingly she deciphered the engravings using the pen. “It says ‘If found please return to the Celestial Mining Company’ and gives a PO box in Dry Well, Nevada. It’s the same on both rings.” Val held up a gold band to the bed lamp. “Who says romance is dead? What do you say we try them on?”

“Too risky. We still don’t know how they work.” I shoved the pizza box into the waste basket. “Looks like my next stop is Dry Well. Can you make it back to the office on your own?”

Val’s face almost turned red. “After all we went through last night, you’re going to ditch me?”

“It might be dangerous, Val. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to you.”

Val angrily slammed her fist into the mattress, “And I’ll never forgive you if you don’t let me see this through to the end. I’m a grown vampire and don’t need your permission. I’m coming along even if I have fly all the way to Dry Well.”

I could see this was one argument I was never going to win. “Okay, I surrender,” I said throwing my hands in the air. “But unlike you vampires, us mortals need sleep from time to time. When I get up, I’ll rent some supplies and we’ll leave tonight.”

Val flashed me her fangs in the best possible way as she picked up her cellphone. “Give me a list and I’ll find them while you’re asleep.”

 

Dawn was breaking as I took the gravel turnoff into Dry Well. The rising sun painted the desert hills and plains in multiple hues of crimson and yellow. In the passenger seat, Val fidgeted putting on her black burka. “I’ve always hated these things.”

“Sorry but with all that spelunking equipment in back there wasn’t room for a coffin.”

She spread out the burka for display. “Hey boss, you think this makes me look fat?”

I laughed. “I’m not falling for that one. You only have to put up with it for another hour before we get to Dry Well.”

“Last time I travel economy class.” She glanced at her smartphone. “Oh look. Yelp gives the town minus four stars.”

“We’re not going as tourists. I need to find who made those rings if I’m ever going to put this business behind me.”

“I feel the same way. I guess I’m as insane as you are.”

To call the municipality of Dry Well small would be an understatement. A gas station, a quickie mart, and a hotel/casino that had seen better days were all the amenities the town had to offer. A handful of abandoned and boarded up buildings lined the main street, separated by swaths of sand from the scattered tiny residences of the locals.

It was afternoon by the time we checked into the hotel so I left Val in the room. She was so grateful to be out of her burka she didn’t even raise a protest. Downstairs, I asked the desk clerk and a few card dealers about the Celestial Mining Company but none had ever heard of it. Taking a walk outside, I checked the fronts of the abandoned building but found no evidence any had ever housed a mining office.

Stopping at the quickie mart, I perused a rack of tourist pamphlets by the door. Most were for once-in-a-lifetime attractions and fun-filled recreational areas far, far away from Dry Well. Then I came upon a brochure advertising a tour of local mines. The address given was the very shop I was standing in.

The proprietor behind the counter was a grizzled old man who seemed happy to have a someone to talk to. “The Celestial Mining Company? Sure, I remember them.” He said as he looked down from the TV above the counter. “Used to have an office in that building across the street but they left years ago when they shut down the mine.”

“What can you tell me about them.” I asked as I set a bottle of soft drink on the counter.

“Not much. Secretive sorts. Kept mostly to themselves. Never hired any locals. Don’t even know what they were extracting. Probably copper; that’s mostly what you find out here or at least you did before it petered out. If you don’t mind my asking, why you so interested?”

Time to lie again. “I’m a locale scout for a movie company. I saw a photograph of something called the End Times Mine and thought it’d be perfect for this production we’re working on.”

“That’s theirs alright but it’s a ways out from here. If it’s abandoned mines you’re after, I can take you to a couple closer ones if you like. Be nice to have a movie company in town.”

“Well if this doesn’t pan out, maybe I’ll take you up on that. How do I get there?”

After drawing a map on a paper napkin, the shop owner said, “Whatever you do, don’t go inside. Those old mining tunnels can be pretty treacherous if you know what I mean. And if you get hurt, there’s nobody within miles to help you.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said and bid him goodbye.

Back at the hotel, I met up with Val in the lobby and I treated her to the best restaurant in Dry Well. Of course, it was the only restaurant in Dry Well. I ordered this tough, leathery object they called a steak and Val had the chicken. She seemed to heartily enjoy her meal but unfortunately I had to watch her drink it. I told her about the End Times Mine.

“You really think that’s where the rings came from?” she asked as she wiped the feathers from her chin.

I shrugged. “It’s the only lead we got. I suggest we head out in the morning and look it over.”

Her face took on a look of disgust. “The morning? You’re not really going to make me wear that burka again?”

“Driving through the desert in the middle of the night is a great way to get permanently lost. Besides if there’s anybody out there, the signs will be more obvious in daylight.”

Val put down her chicken and got up from the table. “Now that my hangover’s gone, I think I’ll check out the casino while it’s still dark.”

“Try not to eat too many of the locals,” I said as she left the dining room.

 

It was rough ride out of Dry Well. Although the rental jeep handled the rugged terrain well, my body couldn’t say the same. Add to that Val’s constant bitching about her burka, I was seriously relieved when we finally reached the End Times Mine four hours later. We walked up to the entrance and examined the dry rotted wood nailed there. No false door, no new hardware, it all looked genuine.

“I don’t think anyone’s been here for ages,” Val said as she took a selfie of her burka and the mine entrance. “You sure you got the right place?”

“That’s what the sign says.” I began to unload the jeep. Twenty minutes later, I had one end of a rope tied around my waist and the other to the front bumper of the jeep.

“Stay here,” I told Val. “If you feel me tugging, it means there’s trouble and haul me up immediately.”

“It would be easier if you just told me on the Bluetooth. Why do you always have to do things the hard way?” Val tapped her phone and checked if my camera was working. “And if you’re really in trouble, I’ll do more than tug on a rope. I don’t have vampire strength for nothing.”

“I don’t want you putting yourself in danger again.”

“Spoken like a true mortal.” Val played with her phone. “Audio and video are both up and running. You’re set, boss.”

I pried a few boards loose, turned on my headlamp, and stepped into the darkness. “One small step for a fool,” Val said in my earpiece. “One giant leap for stupidity.”

I never cared much for caves. They were dark, dank and even a little spooky. This tunnel was no exception. Carefully watching my every step, I avoided the rubble on the ground and followed the mine shaft down through a couple of twists and turns. I found nothing but old timbers supporting rocky walls. It was somewhere around the fourth turn that I noticed a light ahead. “Val, there’s something here.”

“I see it,” she replied. “Just be careful. Okay?”

As I rounded the curve I was greeted by a gleaming metal corridor opening into the rock tunnel. Light panels shedding illumination from every angle, the structure looked more like it belonged in a modern office building than an old copper mine.

“Looks like you’re really roughing it,” Val said through the earpiece.

“I don’t think I’ll be needing these.” I untied the rope and removed my headlamp. Following the corridor down a few yards, I was stopped by a featureless metal door set in the tunnel’s dead end. A keypad with figures similar to the ones on the rings was the only visible means of opening it. I tried prying the door open with the prongs of my rock hammer but with no success.

“Well, it’s official; I’m stumped,” I finally proclaimed to Val. “Any ideas?”

Before I could finish the sentence, I heard the flapping of leathery wings and saw a large bat fly into the corridor bearing a tire iron in its claws. The bat settled onto the floor and quickly metamorphosed into my assistant.

“Val, I told you to stay up top.”

“Sorry boss but watching you trying to open that door was downright painful.” She said. “Stand aside and I’ll show you how us vampires do it.” With that she inserted the flat end of the tire iron into the door jam. Even with her vampire strength, it took a great deal of effort before the door gave way enough for us to slip through.

We found ourselves in a hallway similar to the first one only larger. A host of portals marked with unreadable glyphs occupied either side of the corridor. “I wish I had brought along those translation notes,” Val whispered.

It was then that we heard footsteps approaching from down the hall. I grabbed Val’s arm and quietly led her through a nearby archway to hide. The room we entered was cavernous with oversized desks and machinery dividing the space into aisles. As we hid behind a blinking apparatus, I heard a soft tapping sound further down the aisle. Crouching, I stole my way to an intersection and found a moleman at a laptop seated on the floor. Totally nude except for a gold gourd hanging from a chain around his neck, he obliviously typed away into the tablet. His thickened, sparsely haired skin wrinkled and unwrinkled with every movement. Despite his overgrown claws, the creature seemed quite adept at the keyboard. But the thing that really caught my eye was the gold band on one of its digits.

A moment later, he lifted his squat, star nosed face from the screen and noticed me. “You’re new,” he muttered. “I didn’t think they were hiring any new employees.”

“Dr. Senecka?” I asked.

“Yes, but who are you?”

I motioned Val over to me. After a short introduction, I explained why we were here. “Who runs this place and what do they do here?” I asked.

“Aliens,” Senecka pointed a claw behind me. “As for the rest, why don’t you ask them yourself.”

I turned and saw eight-foot tall hairless magenta humanoid figure behind us. It displayed a variety of small appendages around where its shoulders should have been and stood on a pair of smooth multijointed legs. A quartet of lidless round eyes crowned its forehead. Outside of a necklace similar to Seneka’s, it wore no clothing or other adornments. The alien made a series of short wet sputtering sounds at us.

“No habla our language,” Val muttered, transfixed as she studied the extraterrestrial.

The alien extended one its arms and dropped a pair of gourded necklaces in front of us then pointed to the one around its neck. Donning the gold chains, we found we could understand the alien’s speech.

“Welcome,” it said. “We don’t often get a chance to meet the local inhabitants.”

I introduced myself. “What’s your name?”

The alien stared blankly at me. “They don’t have names,” Senecka interjected. “They’re sort of a colony mind like ants.”

“How did you ever find us?” the alien asked.

“With these,” I pulled the rings from my shirt pocket and held them up to the alien.

“How very clever of you.” Watching the alien talk was somewhat disconcerting. The movements of its slit-like mouth didn’t synch with its speech. “We give those out as perks to our native employees. They really do seem to enjoy them.”

“What do you do here?” I asked looking around.

“Why make mythical creatures of course. Come, I’ll show you.”

The alien led us into the hallway. “We take great pride in our projects. We use only the latest in transformational technology.” It led us into what looked like a large control room. The aliens were everywhere; sitting at consoles, watching flickering screens, and putting a few machines into plastic crates.  It pointed to an oval screen in the middle of the room. “That’s our incoming orders display. Our quality control programs triple-check each item before we fill it. It wouldn’t do to produce a horde of zombies when a herd of centaurs are needed. And those large grey cylinders over there is our transformational gas reserve. From here it’s teleported to geological fissures all over your world. Oh, and thanks for all the fracking; it made our job so much easier. Per regulations, we keep enough stockpiled to last fifty galactic years.”

So this is where the Change is controlled, I told myself. But to what purpose? “Is all this in preparation for an invasion?” I asked.

The alien elongated its eyes and vibrated all over in what I assumed was its version of laughter. “Invasion? Why would we want a waterlogged planet like yours?”

“You’re not soldiers then?” Val interjected.

The alien continued to vibrate. “No, we’re technicians hired by the faculty at Altair III University’s literature department. We’ve been sent here to facilitate studying the legends and mythos of your civilization. Through the Interstellar Net, the students can carefully track each transformation to observe and categorize its properties for their thesis papers.”

In a weird way, it all made sense. Maybe that’s what frightened me. “Couldn’t you just read the myths?” I asked.

“Who has time to read? This way they can download the data and get on to more important things like mood altering substances and sex.”

The alien led us into the hallway and through another portal. We found ourselves in an enormous metal lined cavern, smack in the middle of which sat a gigantic disc shaped craft.

“A flying saucer!” Val gushed.

The alien waved its arms at the spacecraft. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she? Outfitted with all the best camouflage circuitry, she’s so nimble and unobtrusive she’s rarely spotted when we do our supply runs.”

All around the gargantuan ship, hordes of aliens were rolling boxes up shiny ramps into the spacecraft. I had an unsettling feeling when I noticed no equipment or personnel were being unloaded. “Looks like you’re packing up.”

“They’re leaving,” Senecka sadly announced.

Our alien guide rocked back and forth on its heels in what I assumed was a shrug. “Isn’t that the way of it? When we first started, this was the most popular site on the Lit Web. But as time went by and more exciting civilizations came online, interest waned and our hit rate seriously degenerated. Analysts forecast that within two of your planet’s solar rotations, this project will no longer be financially sustainable. It’s time to shut it down and cut our losses.”

“But what about us?” Val sputtered. “Do we just go back to dying and staying dead forever?”

“Oh, don’t worry. It won’t come to that.” Our host pointed to a group of large red canisters across the cavern. “That’s a phage we designed to infect any organism containing human DNA. It’s very quick and painless, I assure you.”

“They’re planning on exterminating the human race,” Senecka stuttered.

Gazing downward, the alien said, “Well, we can’t simply leave behind a planetary ecosystem contaminated with our technology. Our corporation does have a conscience, you know. Oh, don’t fret. I’m sure in a million years or two, another intelligent species will arise to take your place.”

“Is there anything we can do to change your minds?” I asked desperately.

“I guess you can become more interesting.” The alien silently scanned our faces. “Nah, that’s not going to happen. You’ve had a good run. Just be satisfied with that. Now it’s my turn. I have so many questions to ask you. Why do some of your race evacuate your nasal cavities with paper while others use a cloth? Why do so many of your people look alike? Why do you change sexual partners so often? Isn’t one human’s genitalia pretty much the same as another’s?”

Val and I took turns answering the alien’s inane questions. While it was occupied, I scanned the room looking for an exit to the outside world. There weren’t any.

Finally, the alien glanced down at a blinking glyph on the floor and said. “I’ve got to get back to work.  It’s been nice talking to you. Feel free to enjoy our facilities until we leave. Dr. Senecka can show you the commissary if you’re hungry.” With that, the alien turned and walked out the entryway.

 

Chapter 7

The commissary was a small cavern whose walls were lined with a variety of dispensing machines. But sitting on the oversized stools around a large table, we were all too dejected to eat.

“You knew about this?” Val furiously said to Senecka.

“Yes, but only after I returned. I first discovered this place researching Prehistoric Native American sites. Back then they were friendly, helping me decipher the written language they left behind on scouting expeditions. They also paid me a handsome salary, financed by the minerals they uncovered while excavating this base, and gave me a ring.” He tapped the gold band on one of his claws. “They even came up with another when I became involved with Alvyra. What a mistake that was.”

I stared at him with hostility “You’re going along with wiping out the human race for a ring?”

“I’m going along with nothing,” the professor replied defensively. “I’m a prisoner here as much as you are.”

Val sadly shook her head. “There must be some way out.”

The professor shrugged. “Don’t waste your time. Believe me I tried.” He pointed to a pair of aliens heedlessly walking past. “See, they ignore us because they consider humans harmless.”

“Harmless?” Val sputtered. “I’ll show them harmless!” Before I could stop her, she leaped from the table and attacked a passing alien. She never got a chance to touch it before a sparkling aura appeared around the alien, repelling her several feet away from her intended victim. The alien obliviously went on its way.

“I tried to warn you,” Senecka said to the vampire sprawled on the floor. “The force fields around the exits are even stronger.”

Val huffed as she took her seat. “Maybe if all three of us tried together, we can force our way through the barrier.”

I shook my head. “And then what? You’ve seen this place. Even if the outside world believed us and sent an army, this site is an impenetrable fortress. Nor is there likely to be a battle. If pressed, the aliens can release the phage anytime they want.” I turned to Senecka. “Maybe messing with the settings on their machines could gain us some time.”

Senecka shook his head. “They’re not designed for use by humans. Know anybody with eight fingers on their hands?”

“There must be something we can do,” Val said.

I sat and surveyed my companions. Val was on the edge of tears. The moleman sat beside her, gazing at his paws in misery. And I wasn’t feeling all too happy about the situation myself. Bleak seemed to be the order of the day.

Then an idea hit me. Pointing to the ring on Senecka’s finger, I asked, “How exactly does that thing work?”

He held up the paw bearing the gold band. “It’s simple. You form an image in your mind of what you want to become then put the ring on. Nothing to it.”

“The world’s coming to an end and you want to cosplay?” Val exclaimed.

I smiled at her. “This place was designed to withstand an invasion from the outside but I doubt they ever considered an attack from within.”

Val looked at the ring on Senecka’s claw and her eyes widened with understanding.

“Dr. Senecka, can you take us back to the cavern with the spaceship?” I asked.

Senecka nodded then got up from the table. We followed.

At the entrance to the launch cavern, Val turned to Senecka and asked, “By the way, if you can Change into anything you want, how did you end up a moleman?”

“Because it’s what I chose,” he answered. “No one approaches you, no one bothers you, it’s the perfect persona for a linguistics professor.”

“To each his own,” I said watching the aliens load their saucer in ant like waves. “What do you think, Val? Gods, gargoyles, winged elephants?”

Val thought for a moment then exclaimed, “Boss, you remember that crappy Japanese movie I showed you a couple of months ago?”

“How could I forget? I still can’t believe anybody would make something that bad.”

Val nodded. “So bad it’s good.”

Looking into the vampire’s eyes, I suddenly understood what she was getting at. “When was the last time someone called you crazy?”

“It happens every day,” Val answered with a laugh. “It’s kaiju time!”

I quickly handed Val one of the rings. “You ready?”

“I was born ready for this.” Val closed her eyes then slipped on the ring.

I did the same. The band automatically expanded to fit my finger. Within seconds I felt light headed and dizzy. The earth seemed to move beneath me but it was probably just my body enlarging. I could actually feel my skin thickening and becoming scaly. I winched as my head bumped against the cavern ceiling. Opening my eyes, I inspected my reflection in a nearby metal wall. I looked like a chubby tyrannosaurus who’d been around the block too many times. The face was almost cartoonish and the bony spikes on my back somehow seemed incongruous with the rest of my body. As I tried to stand up straight, the ceiling above me crumbled, sending chunks of metal and dirt raining down on the already panicking aliens.

I turned to examine Val. She had Changed into a cross between a plucked chicken and a pterodactyl. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s called Rhodan. It’s almost as big a star in Japanese cinema as Godzilla. Can’t help it but I’m partial to wings.”

I scanned the cavern and noticed a group of aliens fiddling around the red canisters. “I think our hosts are up to no good.”

“Not for long.” Val stood on her feet and began rapidly flapping her wings. The aliens and canisters scattered before the gale force wind she created.

“I think I have a more permanent solution.” Instinctively, I opened my mouth and a white-hot stream of fire escaped. The canisters quickly dissolved into a puddle of hot glowing metal.  Then I aimed at the far side ceiling and it collapsed, burying the melted canisters and some of the aliens beneath a ton of rubble. “Take that you literary Nazis,” I shouted.

“What do you say we take a stroll through the rest of the compound?” Val said excitedly.

“Good idea. But I have a few things to finish up here first.” I reached down and picked up the terrified moleman and gently placed him into the crack in the ceiling.  “Dr. Senecka, it’s time to get out of here.”  He didn’t need to be told twice. Without a word, he burrowed into the dirt and disappeared.

“Can we go now?” Val asked with annoyance.

“Not yet,” I answered, turning toward the spaceship in the middle of the room. Lumbering forward, I grabbed the giant disc and bit into it. Sparks and clouds of smoke poured from the wound I inflicted in its hull. The aliens around me scattered in terror as I not so gently tossed the ship against the far wall. It landed with a satisfying crunch. “Now we can go.”

Stepping through throngs of fleeing aliens, I took several hits from their energy weapons but it did little but tickle my skin. Ignoring them, we widened portals and proceeded to transform the aliens’ headquarters into rubble. Val amused herself by blowing our hosts over with her giant wings and dropping heavy equipment on the heads of the fleeing extraterrestrials. As for me, I took my time lumbering through each enclave. It wasn’t quite as much fun as wading waist deep through Tokyo looked on screen but the effect was the same. A floor covered in broken furniture, smashed machinery, and the orange blood of the aliens gave testimony to our efforts.

The pterodactyl scanned the demolished room with glee. “That should put a permanent kink in their plans. All we need now is an exit.”

“I’ve got an idea.” I led her back into the cavern containing the wrecked spacecraft. “The ceiling has to open somehow or they’d never be able to fly that thing out of here.”

A series of wet sputtering sounds were emanating from the damaged saucer. Using her beak, Val picked up a gourd necklace from one of the alien cadavers littering the floor and listened. “It’s a countdown!” she shouted.  “Their ship is self-destructing!”

“We have to get out of here now!” I scrambled awkwardly to the center of the room and breathed fire on the ceiling. The white-hot metal glowed until a large seam became apparent. Inserting my claws, I instinctively let loose a booming roar and widened the opening in the overlying dome with my claws. Through the falling sand, I could see it was evening outside.

“Way to rock your kaiju, boss.” Val hovered above me then grabbed my shoulders with her claws. She lifted me out of the cavern into the night and sped in the direction of the city lights. It’s a good thing there was nobody within miles, I thought. Seeing a pterodactyl hauling an obese T-Rex through the night sky could cause a run on the local psych ward. A few minutes later, a blinding flash of light erupted from the aliens’ cavern. Looking back, I saw the sand sinking to form an enormous crater where the alien headquarters had once been.

Val set us down next to the mine opening. “Boy that was fun! Too bad we can’t do it again.”

“You thought saving the world would be boring?” We both removed our rings and within seconds we were standing naked beside the jeep. I quickly reached inside the open window and retrieved a blanket for Val and a jacket for me. “You wouldn’t know how to hot wire one of these things?” I asked Val. “I left the keys in my other body.”

“You’re in luck. I once dated the Valley carjack king.” A few moments later, the sound of a running engine filled the desert. Val moved over to the passenger’s seat and I drove us back to town.

 

It was almost dawn by the time we reached Dry Well. We walked through the hotel’s main entrance, our scanty attire drawing curious stares from the staff and guests. Soon we were standing before a centaur manning the front desk.  “We left our keys in the room when we went to use the pool,” I told him.

“We don’t have a pool,” the centaur said, swishing his tail in annoyance. Shaking his head, he took down a key from the board behind him and handed it to me. As we proceeded to the elevators I heard him mutter, “Guests get weirder and weirder every year,”

“Boss, you’ve got to be the worst liar I’ve ever seen,” Val told me as we boarded the elevator. “I’d avoid the poker table if I were you.”

Back in the room, we took turns showering and dressing. “I’ve been thinking,” Val said. “What happens now that the Gas is gone? Do we stop Changing? Are only mortals going to be left after a while?”

I shrugged. “I’m sure there’s still some Gas leaking out somewhere. But when it finally runs out, who knows? At least we all get to live.”

Packing a duffle bag, Val sheepishly turned to me. “Sorry boss but I don’t think there will be a better time to ask than now.  How about a raise?”

I put on my best outraged expression. “A raise? What makes you deserve a raise?”

“B-b-but after all we just went through…” Val stuttered.

Unable to keep up the charade any longer, I broke into a grin. “I was thinking of making you partner instead.”

“Oh boss!” Val ran over and buried me in a bear hug. Her embrace was freezing cold and more than a little too tight but I loved it anyway.

The End

 

Bio: Bruce S Levine is a retired bird & exotic animal veterinarian in Southern California. He and his wife are currently working as minions for their household pets.

Real Flowers Don’t Have Loose Threads

by David Fawkes

 

Rosenblum rose from the black soil in which he slept because the incoming call would not stop. He drew his root system back into his body and stepped out of the bed onto unsteady legs. It had been a beautiful start to a three-day weekend, and he’d spent much of it photosynthesizing beneath the sun of planet Fare-thee-well shining through his open apartment window.

By the time he’d answered the call, his limbs had limbered enough so they didn’t creak when he moved. Through the dewy haze of his apartment, Rosenblum saw the image of his chief inspector appear on the vidphone.

“Did I wake you?”

“I don’t sleep,” said Rosenblum, “but I was lying down. When do you need me to leave?”

“Who said you’re going anywhere?” said the chief.

Rosenblum wished humans were a little more straightforward. “You wouldn’t call me over a holiday unless you needed me somewhere today.”

The chief smiled. “More training. I think this will be an interesting case.”

“Who’s been murdered?”

“Not who, what.” The chief gave the meeting particulars and signed off.

Rosenblum glanced down at several tiny buds scattered over his viney torso. Already they were beginning to wither. He had a bad feeling about this case.

#

Mi amor?” said a light, musical voice from some other room. “The dawn does not come twice for a lazy man.”

Kevin Seven grumbled beneath his covers.

The voice approached, muttering something about early to rise. Kevin wanted no part of it. The speaker tore the covers from Kevin’s bulk that covered much of the ample bed.

Amor! Levantate! You have a call.”

Kevin cracked open his eyes and looked up at the love of his life. In a perfect world, Callipygia Alonzo O’Neill Bonfiglio, “Pydge”, would have been considered beautiful by everyone, with a curvy, full, six-foot-three body; but her nose betrayed her, dividing her face like a mountain range between two valleys.

Her black hair curled around her body, clinging to her like ivy. Kevin smiled. She was a perfect world to him.

Pydge groaned. “You are useless on a weekend. I will bring the device to you.” She strode back toward the other room, muttering in her native language.

Kevin rolled upright, slapping two thick feet on fake wood flooring. He was an inspector now, which meant he could afford real fake wood. He rose and lumbered naked and unselfconscious toward the round window that looked out onto Camellia, capital city of Fare-thee-Well. He watched the morning sun, now crawling toward afternoon, glinting off cargo ships arriving at the distant spaceports. He was lucky; his and Pydge’s combined incomes meant they no longer had to live beneath shipping lanes.

Pydge returned, carrying the vidphone and a terrycloth robe. “Put this on before taking the call, por favor.” She tossed him the robe and set the device down. Once she appeared satisfied that Kevin was presentable for a vidcall, Pydge left.

In the robe, Kevin looked like a bulky plaid sack. Why was Pydge crazy about him? He didn’t want to know. He sat down in a circular pool of sunlight from the round window and flipped the vidphone on. It was the chief.

“Hmm, holiday weekend, mmf,” mumbled Kevin.

The chief inspector rubbed his stubble. “I know how it is being called in on a weekend. I have something special, and you’re the best for the job.”

“Because of my amiable disposition?”

“You’re a good trainer, and this is an unusual case.”

“If it’s murder, anyone else could do just as well.”

The chief paused. “It’s not exactly a murder, yet. Right now, it’s damaged property. We’ll see what it becomes. No, I’m more interested in your trainee. Anyone else might do as well, but I don’t think anyone else would. You seem more open to officers of diverse backgrounds.”

Kevin frowned. “That was a long time ago. I don’t kick the underdog. Robots are still a minority.”

“Except this trainee isn’t a robot. He’s a floriform.”

Kevin’s eyes widened. “You want me to work with a freakin’ vegetable?”

#

Pitz and Divitz both clanked when they walked. Many robots were outwardly indistinguishable from humans; others looked more like mobile workbenches and boiler rooms. Pitz and Divitz had found a happy medium. Humans dealt better with faces, such as theirs, in certain business transactions, but the heavy industry design of their bodies helped enforce results. In Pitz’s opinion, it was hard to ignore a weapon of mass destruction when it smiled at you.

The pair had just come from the printer’s with their new business cards.

“Master Divitz, I find the urge to shuffle these embossed steel reputation enhancers irresistible.” Pitz shifted the cards from hand to metal hand.

“Is so, Pitz?” Divitz wobbled less than his compatriot. Overall, he gave the impression of a tightly coiled spring, sharpened to a razor’s edge.

“Indeed. I feel our contribution to literature is a sound investment. Who can argue with, ‘Pitz and Divitz: Things Done Quietly’?”

“Colon is showy.”

“And yet,” Pitz flourished a card between two fingers. “Ostentation is a salesman’s prerogative.” With a snap, the business card whizzed from his fingers and embedded itself into a wall two meters away.

#

Crippen hurried along gantries, walkways, and escalators that connected most of the skyline of Camellia. For short distances, his long legs were faster than trying to catch an aircab, and he had only gone to get a gift for his sweetheart, Gloria.

He carried a carnation; it was the kind that changed color with mood. Gloria would like that.

Crippen hurried because he had left Gloria with the crate, and he didn’t want what was inside getting out while he was away. Not that it would; a cargo lifter couldn’t snap those cables. But he’d feel just awful if something happened to Gloria.

He and she shared an apartment in a Ghost Loft, one of the city’s many abandoned buildings. He had chosen it so no one would notice the screaming. Gloria decorated well, and knew how to hide soundproofing.

On arriving at the apartment, Crippen recognized the smell of mint and the sound of metal on china. Gloria was having tea. She sat with her back like an ironing board. The bangs of her bobbed, black hair lay ruler-precise across her forehead. In a very specific series of movements, she leaned forward, reached for the tea, and held it in front of her, where she began to blow off steam.

The two of them didn’t have many furnishings, although the apartment was huge. What they had gathered in a corner by the kitchen. In the center of those furnishings, dominating their living area, was a crate, a metal box about chest height, with controls on top. Periodically, the box moved, as if jostled from within. Gloria sipped her tea and stared, appearing never to blink.

Without taking her eyes off the crate, she said to Crippen, “It keeps moving, but I didn’t want to open it without you.”

Crippen leaned against the crate. “Good. We’ll open it in a minute. I bought something for you.” He handed her the flower. It had started to flush dark red. Gloria set her cup down, still not breaking her stare, and took the flower. “It’s lovely.”

“I’m glad you’re pleased. Let’s get this thing open.” Crippen began to operate the opening sequence on the crate.

A seam appeared in the front panel, which parted to reveal a figure seated on a chair. Fortyish, bald, and gagged, he crouched, contorted and bound to a chair. The cables binding him cut into his skin, letting thin trails of sticky crimson fluid dribble onto the floor. Crippen wondered how a robot could bleed so red, but then, it did appear human. The robot looked at Crippen and Gloria like a wounded animal in a trap.

“He looks so life-like, doesn’t he, Gloria? Hard to tell he’s a machine.”

“Machines don’t feel,” said Gloria, setting her tea cup in the center of the table.

“Robots do,” said Crippen. “I want to find out why.” To the robot, he added, “You’ll help me sir, won’t you?”

The robot struggled against cables it couldn’t quite break, animal eyes darting wildly from Crippen to Gloria.

Crippen was glad this one was male. They seemed to scream less in the beginning.

#

Kevin arrived at the police platform atop Sky Needle 482 in the center of Camellia. His brown, stained greatcoat flapped in the open air. Around him circled his chrome aviadrone assistant, Aziz. Kevin depended on the little, robotic bird. People liked to talk, and Aziz had a good memory.

Why did the chief’s shifting a floriform to the department bother Kevin? He had helped to incorporate robots. Why should the vegetables be any different? Because they should be growing in someone’s kitchen garden or a plant museum. Not working in a police department. He shouldn’t have to work with a salad.

A few escalators and a hover panel trip later, Kevin arrived at the constabulary offices within the sky needle. Sullen officers toyed with their desk screens.

The chief’s door stood open, and Kevin could see him and the salad within. The floriform sat in the sunlight, of course. Its kind always took the best seats when they could. It dressed like a man, though it could have chosen otherwise. This one had forced its features to be more man-like, however, like topiary. Green vines and red buds poked from the edges of its collar and sleeves. So this was a flowering variety. Repulsive.

“Ah, Kevin,” said the chief, “this is your new partner, Rosenblum, transferred from narcotics.”

The plant man extended a hand. Kevin checked for thorns and then shook the appendage. It was cool and smooth, like ivy. “Rosenblum, huh? I get it.”

It smiled. “The doctors gave me the nickname during my cultivation. It stuck.”

Kevin had little experience with plants, being more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but if he had to describe Rosenblum’s voice, he would have said it rustled like scattered leaves.

“Right,” said Kevin. He sat down in a tattered, too-small swivel chair. To the chief, he said, “Well, what can you tell me?”

“Actually, that’s what Rosenblum and I were just discussing. I can tell you very little. We’ve found the remains of two severely damaged robots–mutilated, you might say.”

“Isn’t that anthropomorphizing them a bit?” asked Kevin. “A broken robot is a damaged machine.”

The chief looked surprised. “I didn’t expect that from you, considering your stance on robots in the workplace.”

“A thinking machine has rights, but it’s still a machine.” Kevin reached up to his shoulder and patted Aziz. The little aviadrone fluttered razor-thin, titanium-tinted wings.

“Call a spade a spade, you know?” added Kevin.

“Fair enough,” said the chief. “I’ve called the pair of you because someone hasn’t grasped the distinction. I have two robots that have been ‘murdered’. I can’t think of a better word for it, unless you want to say ‘strategically dismantled’. One was a stand-in.”

“A what?” asked Rosenblum.

“A stand-in is a robot built to be an identical replacement for a specific person,” said Kevin.

“Thank you,” said Rosenblum. “Could this damaging of robots be a form of practice? The killer might be trying to build up his courage.”

“I thought something like that,” said the chief.

Kevin wouldn’t admit it, but he had, too. “So why can’t you tell us much?”

“You can ask the robots’ remains yourself when you revive them,” said the chief. “They’re scattered all over the evidence room.”

#

Pitz and Divitz arrived at their destination upon one of the city’s rotating Moebius Condo bands.

“Divitz, my man,” said Pitz, “these huge, city block-spanning strips are engineering marvels and commercial failures. Marvelous, because each strip hangs over the city by anti-gravitational supports, rotating such that one side alternately faces the sun or the dirty city below. And failures, since the band technically has only one side. No resident can ever claim to have the better address.”

“Don’t care for client, his home, or his stupid architecture,” said Divitz. “He has money, and he wants things done. We best tools for job.”

Pitz pressed the doorbell.

From somewhere deep in the snake-like fortress of concrete, metal, and glass, Pitz could hear approaching footsteps. Moments later, bolts, locks, and catches released, and the vault-like door slid open with only a whisper.

A small man poked his head around the door. His white hair lay flat and precise above a high forehead and spectacles. A waxed mustache curled to either side of an axe-like nose.

“Yes?” inquired the head. The man looked the pair over with wide eyes.

Pitz knew all the gadgets and weapons clustered across his and Divitz’s frames made an impression. The man’s look of intimidation satisfied Pitz the impression was the right one. “Run along and tell your master, Judge Grackle, that Pitz and Divitz are here.”

The little man stepped in front of his doorway, adjusting his pinstriped waistcoat. “He’s told. I am he. I’ve been expecting you both. You may come with me.” He returned into his apartments without bothering to watch Pitz and Divitz follow.

Divitz’s forearm retracted, replaced by something slender, sharp, and deadly. He began to advance on their new client.

Pitz grabbed Divitz’s other arm. “Ah, I think discretion is the better part of customer service, Divitz. There’s a time and a place for sharp, pointy things.”

Da,” said Divitz, redeploying his forearm. “His face, after we get paid.”

“You have the subtlety and grace of an artist. However, we can’t go around killing rude clients. People will talk. After you.” With a broad gesture, Pitz ushered his partner after the receding figure of Judge Grackle.

They followed the judge through rooms and halls decorated in contrasting styles and caught up with the little man in a drawing room at the end of a long hallway. Off to one side of the room, Pitz saw something he never thought he’d see again.

“You have a grand piano, and it’s made of real wood!” Pitz clunked over beside it. Next to its beauty, he felt conscious of his own rough form. He looked down at his fingers, no two of which matched. He reached out for the velvet ebony smoothness of the musical instrument of his dreams.

“Don’t touch it!” The forcefulness of the judge’s words surprised Pitz. He withdrew his hand, which also surprised him.

“That is now unique in the universe,” said the judge.

“Do you play?” asked Pitz.

“Of course not. I haven’t the time.” The judge shooed Pitz back over to where Divitz stood.

Pitz had already decided upon a very special Hell he would visit upon this man, after the job was done. “Well, sir, what can we do for you?”

The little judge set his hand down on the piano, killing Pitz with thoughts of fingerprints. “Gentlemen, er, gentlebots, my sources inform me that you are quite discreet.”

Da,” said Divitz, “when we finish, no one talk.”

“What my colleague means,” added Pitz, “is that we’re very thorough.”

The judge waved his hands as if banishing the thought, but at least he stopped touching the grand. “I hope you won’t need any special measures, but word of this venture must not get out.”

Intriguing, thought Pitz, time to charge extra. “You have our every assurance. What does the task entail?”

Judge Grackle glanced around the drawing room, as though someone might be hiding behind the piano, listening. “I need you to retrieve my daughter from the local constabulary.”

“Ah, a difficult rescue mission, but one within our skill, eh, Mr. Divitz?”

Divitz grunted. “Mm, we have power tools.”

“I’m afraid you don’t understand,” said the judge. “This isn’t rescue, it’s recovery.”

This puzzled Pitz, and he was not a machine with an appreciation for mystery. “Please explain.”

Judge Grackle straightened to his full height and cleared his throat. “Her remains are currently in the evidence room of the constabulary at Sky Needle 482. You must recover them. Every last component.”

#

“So I have to work with a floriform,” said Kevin into the chrome communication-snake wrapped around his neck.

From its hooded, cobra-like head came the melodious tones of his beautiful Pydge. “Verdad? Are they truly like trees with legs?”

Kevin looked at his new partner standing next to him in the elevator. “Naw, this one is more like a shrub. Aren’t you?” he asked Rosenblum.

“A rose bush, yes,” said Rosenblum.

Pydge paused then said, “Is he standing next to you? Kevin Delgado Seven! How dare you be so rude!”

“Aw, he doesn’t care, do you, Rosebush?”

“Rosenblum, and surprisingly little.”

The comm-snake turned its head to face the floriform. “Lo siento. I apologize for my thug’s inexcusable rudeness.”

“It’s really all right, señora,” said Rosenblum.

The comm-snake turned its head back to Kevin. If it had had any venom, he would have been dead. “You wait until you get home, Señor Siete.” The line went dead, and the snake re-coiled around Kevin’s neck.

“She’s crazy about me,” Kevin said to Rosenblum.

“You’re a lucky man.”

The elevator doors opened. The evidence room lay ahead.

They walked under bobbing, hovering glow-globe lights. Rosenblum asked, “Why don’t you like floriforms, Kevin?”

Kevin moaned. “I don’t have anything against you people.”

“You don’t seem happy working with me.”

“I’m not happy about working on a holiday. You, I can handle.” Kevin wished the evidence room were closer. He just hoped the salad didn’t start talking about feelings or hugs.

“I had a theory about human animosity toward ‘salads’. I thought maybe humans felt guilty for what they did to the plant kingdom. But, to be truthful, we floriforms aren’t angry about the destruction. After all, humans did save us plants by giving us bodies like these.” He held out his arms as if to display his form. “And now we have voices.”

Kevin wished he’d quit using it. “Yeah, that’s great. After you.” Kevin held open the evidence room door for Rosenblum.

“Thank you–oh my . . .” said Rosenblum.

The sight overwhelmed Kevin, and he had experience with murder. The chief had been right: it was hard to think of what remained in the evidence room as just “damaged property”. Most of what was left looked very human: endless tubing covered with congealing, red fluid, robot blood. But there were enough micro-motors and circuitry to tell the eye that it wasn’t seeing a human corpse. The robot could have been a freedroid, or a Fak (no, no insignia), or a stand-in.

“I think that’s the largest human I’ve ever seen,” said Rosenblum.

“What?” Kevin looked where Rosenblum stared. “Oh, that’s Larch.”

Larch was seven feet of blue constable uniform topped by a closely shaven head. He looked like an upside-down exclamation point. Currently, he was entering something into the desk screen in his hand and frowning. Other constables swarmed around the evidence room and its annexes, cataloging. “He’s in charge of evidence.” To the tall officer, Kevin said, “What’s happening, Larch?”

He looked down from his work and moaned. “Oh, dark times, Inspector. Confusion and disarray have entered the lofty peace of my solemn stronghold of criminology.”

Larch didn’t get a chance to talk to many people throughout the day, so he tended to overwhelm whatever conversation he got. Kevin held up a hand. “In a nutshell, Larch.”

“Interlopers have breached security–”

“Smaller nutshell, please,” said Kevin.

Larch sighed and drooped his shoulders. “Thieves broke into the evidence room.”

“What did they take, in words of two syllables or less?” asked Rosenblum.

Larch appeared to do math in his head. “Robot remains.”

“Aziz,” Kevin said, “scout around the different sections of the evidence room. “Record everything you see and hear.”

“Harkening and obedient, O my master.” The little metal bird flew off.

Rosenblum stepped up to Larch. “I see a lot of robot remains already here on the counters. What’s the story?”

Larch peered down at the floriform as though he were a distasteful weed.

“He’s new,” said Kevin, “but he’s on the team now.”

To Rosenblum, Larch said, “We had two sets of robot remains pertaining to a particular case. Upon learning of the loss of the one, we inventoried what we possessed of the other.”

“And? Keep it short, big guy,” said Kevin.

“It’s complete, as near as we can tell,” answered Larch.

Rosenblum looked around. “How did the thieves get in?”

Before Larch could answer, Aziz returned. “Master!” The aviadrone landed on Kevin’s shoulder. “The north wall in one of the adjacent rooms is missing!”

“Larch–” said Kevin.

“You wouldn’t let me speak!”

But Kevin and Rosenblum were already on their way with the others following.

Kevin expected rubble littering the floor, or counters and cabinets ripped from their mountings. Instead, he found the wall had been removed with surgical precision. “Well,” said Kevin, “someone should call the police.”

“I took the liberty, master, of imaging the outside of the building,” said Aziz. “There are no ledges along this level. The perpetrators had a vehicle.”

“And they knew what they were looking for and where to find it,” said Rosenblum.

“Very knowledgeable thieves,” said Kevin. “Larch, were you here when this happened?”

“Regrettably, during this unfortunate incident–”

“Larch,” sighed Kevin.

“I was on break.”

“All right,” said Kevin, “you and the other constables are in charge of what isn’t here. Rosenblum and I are going to talk to what is.”

Kevin and Rosenblum returned to the room that held the remains.

Rosenblum ran a thorny hand over part of the robot’s skull. “So this male was the first victim, a Mr. Archibald Virtch. Is there enough of this machine left to lift data from?”

“We don’t want the raw data,” said Kevin, pulling a device from a cavernous coat pocket. “We want to talk to the robot itself. And when they’re this far gone, only a machine like this will help. It’s special, law-enforcement issue only.” He held up the device. It looked like a small black box and what resembled a mouth with a speaker grill inside it. Two leads, like little grasping hands reached from its sides.

Kevin looked at Rosenblum. Even on his mossy face, it was easy to see the disbelief. “It’s a voicebox. The robot will never function on its own again, but this machine will let us talk with the core processor.”

“A robot séance?” asked Rosenblum.

Kevin propped up what remained of the robot’s torso and wrapped the leads of the voicebox around the robot’s neck. “Sort of, but science-y. We do the same to people sometimes, too.” When he turned the device on, he didn’t expect the explosion of screams from the robot.

He turned the box off.

“That was disturbing,” said Rosenblum. “Can it feel that it’s in pieces?”

“It shouldn’t feel anything anymore,” said Kevin, “but I don’t want to think about it.” Kevin switched the device back on. After yelling the robot’s name for a few minutes, Kevin somehow stopped its screaming. Kevin thought how eerie the robot “corpse” looked propped in pieces on the table, its face still, as incoherent sobbing issued from the voicebox.

“Mr. Virtch,” Kevin addressed the box, which was better than the lifeless face above it. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

“You mean it’s not still happening?” asked Mr. Virtch. “Stop the pain. Switch me off.”

Kevin looked at Rosenblum; his green eyes were wide and shining.

“You can still feel?” asked Kevin.

But Mr. Virtch had gone back to whimpering.

“Maybe we should switch his nervous system off,” said Rosenblum.

“I don’t know how to do that,” said Kevin. To the robot he said, “Mr. Virtch, we need you to tell us about who did this to you.”

The box beneath the dead face said, “They made me watch. Left me on as they disassembled me. Hung parts of me around the loft.”

“Loft,” said Kevin. “Aziz, you recording?”

“Every vital word, O my master.”

“What kind of loft, Mr. Virtch?” asked Kevin.

“Some dingy Ghost Loft. My legs. Can I have my legs back now?”

“Do you know where?” asked Kevin. Without realizing, he had latched onto the table. He let go.

“I don’t know. They brought me there in a shipping crate. My hands. I can’t pull myself together if I can’t feel my hands.”

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, “I think we should stop. We’re hurting him.” He reached for the voicebox.

“No!” Kevin grabbed Rosenblum’s wrist and pulled his own hand back, pricked by thorns. “Mr. Virtch, what did they look like?”

“They liked making me watch. Said it was instructive. That’s what they told the girl, too.”

“What girl?” said Rosenblum.

“Oh, now you’re getting interested,” said Kevin.

“The lady robot stand-in in the other crate. They brought her in when they finished with me.”

“He must mean the second victim,” said Rosenblum, “the one the thieves stole.”

“Second?” asked Mr. Virtch. “How long have I been like this? Somebody switch me off!”

Rosenblum switched off the voicebox.

Kevin let him.

#

“You brought her in a sack!” The judge was on his knees in the foyer of his apartment, tearing at the body bag.

The little man was being rude again, and Pitz didn’t know for how long he could repress the urge to remove the man’s arms.

“We improvised,” said Pitz. “She wasn’t very portable as we found her, was she, Divitz?”

“Modular,” said Divitz.

The little judge was very strong. He had the bag open in moments, and he didn’t use the zipper. He slumped like a discarded marionette. “I’ve never been able to cry,” he said. “Before now, I never needed to.”

Pitz was intrigued. “Was she a stand-in? A replacement for your daughter, perhaps?”

The judge retrieved the robot’s head from the body bag. “Yes, a stand-in,” he whispered. The head was still attached to bits of shoulder. The robot had been modeled on a young woman, blonde, pale, and attractive, as far as Pitz could tell. Her eyes were closed. She could have been sleeping. She had very little of the red robotic fluid on her face and hair.

Divitz circled around them in the front hall of the judge’s home, leering at the judge and his stand-in. “Why you want robot woman?” he asked as he strolled. “You want bury her?”

“No,” said the judge. “I want to talk to her.” The little man stood and hurried away from Pitz and Divitz.

Divitz stopped, mid-orbit. “Our customer service over now?”

“I sympathize and indeed share your sentiments,” said Pitz. “Yet, I find myself overcome by urgent curiosity. I despise this creature’s rudeness, and his lack of appreciation for music, but I have questions that beg for answers.”

“More customer service.”

“Succinctly put. Let’s follow.” Pitz ushered them after the judge.

Pitz and Divitz caught the little man at a room they hadn’t seen previously. It must have been the service room for the robot.

Reclining seats lined one mirrored wall. Each sat before workbenches. Very standard setup for humans who kept robots around the house. Robots could care for themselves, but Pitz found that humans couldn’t resist the urge to tinker.

The judge set the head on one of the benches and placed a black box upon the stand-in’s neck. “This is called a voice box,” said the judge.

Judge Grackle must have flipped a switch on the box somewhere, because it started speaking or chanting.

“. . . save me. Corrie, save me. Corrie, save me. Corrie . . .” The words issued from the black box’s mouthpiece, but the robot’s own remained still. She seemed to sleep on, her dreams undisturbed.

“Hush,” said Judge Grackle, setting his fingers on the robot woman’s lips. “I’m here.”

“Oh, Corrie!” she said. “I’ve missed you. Why can’t I see you?”

The judge paused. “You’ve been damaged, dear.” He cleared his throat. “I can’t put you back together.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I remember. I tried to hold on. I really did. I just couldn’t. It hurt too bad. I wanted to see you again. To tell you I wouldn’t be coming home. I thought you might worry.”

“Stop it, please!” The judge covered the robot woman’s mouth. He rested his hand against what was left of her shoulder and convulsed in a fit of wretched sobbing.

This scene bothered Pitz. Even more than seeing a grand piano sit untouched. Did this human weep for a robot? No. Surely, his tears were for who she represented.

“Corrie,” she said, “I’ll stop. Go on.”

The judge composed himself.

“I’m sorry, Moya. I couldn’t save you, but perhaps I can do something now. What can you tell me about who did this to you?”

“Well,” she said, “my visual centers are gone, so I can’t describe them, and they used code names when they talked to each other.”

“Details, anything,” said the judge.

“The smell of carnations and mint tea. One of the kidnappers was a man and the other a woman. Humans, I’m certain. They had me in cables I couldn’t break, until they didn’t need them anymore. Their code names were flowers: he, a rose, and she, a carnation. I can’t remember much more that doesn’t hurt.”

“Your Honor,” said Pitz.

Grackle startled and turned. He must have forgotten about his guests.

“I would not presume to meddle in your affairs,” continued Pitz, “but I wanted to interject that very few ‘cables’ in common use could hold a robot for long. Some used in heavy industry cargo transport might prove sufficient.”

The little man nodded. “Thank you, Pitz.”

“If I may ask,” said Pitz, “are humans responsible for not only this poor unfortunate, but also the wreck we left back with the constables?”

“Yes,” said the judge, “and I suspect more victims might follow.”

Divitz held out his arms and, with a series of clicks, sprouted enough weaponry to make him look like an iron pinecone.

“Now, Divitz,” said Pitz. “Talk first.”

“No! No talk! Humans want cuts? I give plenty. This human first.” Dozens of sharp, steel blades rotated toward Judge Grackle, ready to strike.

“Corrie?” asked Moya’s voice. “I’m sorry. I have to go now.”

The judge turned his back on jagged death. “No! Moya, stay, please.”

“I’m sorry, Corrie. Soon, there won’t be any of me left to stay. Goodbye, Corrie. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Moya.”

White noise whispered from the voicebox.

The judge switched the little black device off. Pitz stood still, and Divitz retracted his weaponry.

Grackle turned to the robots. “Don’t like what’s been happening? Neither do I. If you don’t want to see more like her,” he gestured to Moya’s head, “then I have a job for you.”

“And why shouldn’t we go on a human-hunting rampage, starting with you?” asked Pitz.

“There’s more to this than you know. Killing me won’t stop these events. Helping me might.” The little judge seemed very sure of himself.

“Very well,” said Pitz. “Proceed.”

“There are two constables assigned to this case. I want them frightened off. This situation has to be handled discreetly.”

“We’re not gargoyles for driving away pigeons!”

“Da. Not gargle,” added Divitz.

“You’re not going to scare them,” said the little man. “One officer has a woman. I want you to kidnap her.”

“Ah,” said Pitz. “That we can do.”

#

Gloria walked along the railing of the strato-ferry she and Crippen rode. They had found a new Ghost Loft, the old being unsuitable now–blood, even if it was robot blood–stained all it touched. Their new place was well below the fog line, so they didn’t have to worry about inquisitive travelers in aircabs or trams.

In their new lair, Crippen and Gloria were free to find their next case study. The most recent had not lasted as long as Crippen had hoped. He liked the idea of teaching the next case study a lesson from the old one. But this last one simply didn’t make it. Oh, well. They didn’t make robots like they used to.

“I think another female would be a good idea,” said Crippen.

“Fine,” said Gloria, fingering the carnation clipped into the folds of her outfit. The flower turned ivy-green.

“We’ve done two males, and this will make two females. Maybe you could learn a little from a lady robot.”

“What should I learn from them?” Gloria paused at the railing.      “They don’t move like us,” said Crippen. “They’re like leprosy in motion, every movement a disease ready to spread. The robots say they’re better than us because they can think faster and lift a tram. But I’ve watched them at the warehouse. Their easy, agile motions have poisoned humans. Made us seem clunky.”

“So why do you want me to learn from them?” Gloria asked.

Crippen stumbled over his answer. “Just shush. I think I see our next case study.” Crippen stared across the crowded strato-ferry. A stand-in, Crippen was sure of it, stood by the railing opposite them. Stand-ins, when registered, had to stand at the back railing of strato-ferrys. Since robots had to be owned or own themselves, they sometimes stood at the back railing looking for humans to give them status. Crippen thought he could do that.

“Look, Gloria, a stand-in.”

Gloria said nothing, but the green drained from her carnation, leaving it the color of a purple bruise.

The female stand-in stood alone. She glanced around her with the look of a child separated from its parents. She was probably planning to ride the ferry all night and wait for a human to approach her.

She appeared to be in her twenties, which could be deceiving. She had smooth, sepia skin and curly black hair. Her clothes were neat, but their lack of style suggested she wore whatever garments she could find. They could be all she owned.

Perfect, thought Crippen. She’s beautiful and no one to miss her. He wondered how deep her beauty went. What new tests could he devise to ascertain that? How many layers of flesh would he have to peel away to find inner beauty?

“Get comfortable, Gloria, dear. We may ride a little while longer.”

#

Night approached. The stars in the sky hung behind thin clouds that reflected the electric glamour of the city below. Clusters of incandescent radiance from the city lights formed terrestrial constellations guiding city dwellers to their destinations.

Kevin, Aziz, and Rosenblum arrived in a police prowler at their destination in a Ghost Loft. A routine patrol had passed a long-abandoned basalt blackstone apartment building and grew suspicious when they saw a lit loft.

“You didn’t bring the voice box,” said Rosenblum as the prowler entered the building’s hangar.

“Not enough left to speak, according to the first on the scene,” said Kevin. The trio entered the abandoned building.

“So we’re here to watch the forensic team work their magic,” said Rosenblum.

Kevin and Rosenblum tread along corridors better suited for an archaeological survey than a police investigation. Lights from Aziz’s eyes lit the path, revealing decay, rot, and corroded treasure.

“Sort of,” responded Kevin. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I’m just hoping to spot anything the others might have missed. Is that ivy?” Kevin pointed to bits of green entwined around some of the support beams.

“Yes, a variety,” said Rosenblum. “Probably gets enough sun through the holes in the walls and floors. Segments of this building are a green paradise. I can feel it.”

This surprised Kevin. “You can feel the plants?”

“It’s more than that,” answered Rosenblum. “I guess you can take the boy out of the bloom, but you can’t take the bloom out of the boy.”

“What?”

Rosenblum curled his mouth, like a smile. “I can feel other plants.”

Kevin and Aziz both turned toward the plant man.

“Are you psychic?” Kevin asked.

“I don’t have a brain like yours, so I couldn’t say I’m psychic,” answered Rosenblum.

“Count yourself lucky,” added Kevin. “Mine requires considerable jump starting in the mornings. You don’t have a brain?”

“No. We floriforms think with our whole bodies, in a way. We look like humans, but that’s just because we have the human gene shadow.”

“What the hairy Hell is a gene shadow?” asked Kevin.

“My master,” said Aziz, which had turned its little head back to lighting their way, “a gene shadow is the shape of a living thing cast upon it by its DNA and the blessings of the Maker.”

“Is that a fact?” said Kevin.

“Ah, roughly,” said Rosenblum. “It means I’m shaped like a man without being one.”

“Like a robot,” said Kevin.

“Yes.” Rosenblum and the others inched along a section of hall with little floor. They approached the entrance to the crime scene.

Within the apartment, most of the robot victim had been gathered into bags, but several officers continued to pull red parts from the walls and clean white bits from the floor.

“I’m trying to feel revulsion,” said Rosenblum as they glanced around the loft. “What’s the secret?”

“Grow organs, then imagine losing them.”

“Hard to do,” said Rosenblum. “However, I’m not fond of compost heaps. Is that analogous?”

“Just a suggestion, plant man,” said Kevin, “most humans don’t like to joke about death. I’m kind of exceptional.”

“But this wasn’t a death. It wasn’t even a human. This was more like an examination.” And then Rosenblum froze. “Wait, what do you see?”

Kevin looked around at what was still tacked up on the walls and what was being put away. “A ruined robot.”

“No,” said Rosenblum, looking at parts pinned to the walls and dangling from the ceiling. “If you wanted to destroy a robot, why not just leave the bits lying around? Why decorate the place like it’s the winter festival? Come to think of it, why hide the destruction at all?”

Kevin watched the constables putting disturbingly organ-like parts away, cataloging them, taking extra photographs. “Holy crap! It’s an exploded diagram.”

“I’m sure you put it better than I can, but that’s basically what I was thinking. It reminded me of texts on plant classification I used to read during my–”

“Let me stop you there, Linnaeus. You asked why someone should hide it. It’s illegal to destroy a robot.”

Rosenblum appeared energized. “You could stride on any causeway above or below the cloud line and knock the first robot you saw over the edge to oblivion, and all you would pay is a fine to the owner. A higher fine than for floriforms, I might add.”

Kevin started to feel the energy too. “But they aren’t just bumping off robots. That’s quick. What they did here took time.”

“And privacy.”

“Plenty of space,” added Rosenblum.

“And freedom.” Kevin felt a few pieces slide into place. “You and the chief thought someone might have been practicing on robots before moving onto humans. I think you got the practicing part right, but I don’t think they’re murdering victims. They’re studying subjects.”

“Yes,” said Rosenblum. “And how long will it be before they need a human for comparison?”

At that moment, one of the constables passed by pushing a hover panel laden with evidence bags.

Rosenblum jolted rigid. “Constable, stop.”

The young grunt halted. “Yes, sir,” he said, but his expression changed to revulsion at the speaker.

“What can I do for you . . . sir?”

“I’d like to look at what you have on your panel,” said Rosenblum.

Before the young man could protest, Kevin stopped him. “Humor the plant, kid. I’ll make sure he doesn’t nick your stuff.”

The grunt stood back, and Rosenblum began poking through the bags until he found one in particular. He held it up for Kevin to see. In the bag, Kevin could see a flower. It was rusty red, with a stem already turning brown. It looked like one of the flowers he had seen budding all over Rosenblum.

“It’s a rose,” said Rosenblum, “and it’s real, though dead. That’s why I couldn’t tell it was here until it came near.”

“There can’t be many places in this city that sell real flowers. We could–” Kevin’s comm-snake hissed at him, interrupting his thought. “Hello? This is he. Yes, I know her. What?” Kevin yanked the comm-snake from his throat, dashing its digital brains across the floor. He crouched, wheezing, hands pressed against his knees.

“What’s wrong?” asked Rosenblum.

Kevin straightened and bolted for the door. “Someone’s got Pydge. Come on! Use your weed wisdom to get me outta this building, fast!”

#

Pydge’s mind floated in a stark void, neither awake nor asleep. She thought it was bliss. It was only when she realized something sharp stabbed deep into her side that she awoke.

Ojala! Kevin!” She opened her eyes. “If you’ve brought a dagger to bed . . . again . . . I swear I’ll use it to cut off your–”

She was not at home being pestered by Kevin’s obsession with sleeping armed. Straps held her along an upright, steel examination table. She still wore her street clothes, but a section of her blouse had been torn away from her side. The pain she had felt came from a very long needle, which pierced her beneath her ribcage.

It was in her side! she thought. A bandage around it stifled the blood, and there was no pain, just a throb, as though she’d been stabbed by a thermometer. But the look of the thing suggested pain would follow.

Two men stood beside Pydge, one smiling, the other brooding. Men? If they were, they looked like large, middle-aged trolls in hunchbacked steel body armor.

The room looked as though it had once been a doctor’s office. Cracked and rust-stained linoleum littered the floor. Blunted, oxidized instruments still hung from hooks along the walls. Some reddish fluid that probably wasn’t paint covered the windows.

“Madam,” said the greasy, smiling one. “I am Pitz, and my garrulous associate here is Divitz.” He indicated the broody one. “Say something nice to the lady, Divitz.

“Big nose,” said Divitz.

“Tsk,” said Pitz. “So direct. Madam, I perceive that you have noticed our handiwork.” He indicated the needle in her side. “This little artifact is a military-grade nerve strummer. Would you like to know what it does?”

Pydge felt a flush of rage start at her painted toenails. By the time it reached her heart, she knew what she’d do to these trolls if she ever escaped from the straps. “Big nose?” she said. “I kill you!” A stream of invective flowed from her mouth.

As a child, Pydge had often been cared for by her uncle Amlo, who had been an Oarsman prisoner-slave on one of the great space-faring Cutter ships. He had learned the proper way to curse one’s tormentors, and he passed the skill on to her. Now she spat it in full at her captors. She leaned back, pausing for breath before the next assault.

“Impressive,” said Pitz. “However, as I was saying, a nerve strummer does this.” He pressed a button on the needle.

Pydge couldn’t even scream before she passed out from pain.

And she was a little girl again, riding on uncle Amlo’s shoulder. From whatever branch of the family tree Pydge had inherited her height, her uncle had as well. He strode along the hills of their home world, Veil-of-the-Virgin, like a giant. Her giant.

His neck and head still bore the scars from the Ka-boom that had held his spirit captive while a prisoner. Pydge would run her fingers over the jagged flesh. He never told her to stop. She knew he couldn’t feel those scars anymore.

“Little pigeon,” he said in his quiet baritone, “There will be many times in your life when suffering will overwhelm you, like the waves of the sea crashing on the rocks. Just remember, you can always give up.”

“Is that what you did, uncle?” She touched the ring around his neck again.

“Don’t be a blockhead. Of course not. That is why I am able to walk these hills again. Now, wake up and let your tormentors know you are a Bonfiglio.”

Pydge inhaled sharply and glanced around. The pain had come from everywhere, not just from the needle. It had felt as though every part of her that could feel pain signaled she was aflame. Now it was gone, she felt an absence she wished were full, and that scared her. The two trolls–she realized now they were robots, but trolls suited them–still glared at her.

“Madam,” said the one called Pitz, “you are awe inspiring. If I were a creature capable of respecting humans, you would have it. Not many people just snap out of a nerve strummer jolt.”

“I don’t want your respect,” she said, “I want you dismantled with a saw!”

The broody one, Divitz, chuckled. “Her, I like. We should give her saw.”

“That would be counterproductive, Mr. Divitz. Perhaps later.”

“What do you want with me? You want to threaten me? Torture? I know nothing.”

“I’m sure you don’t. No, we don’t need information, but we’re not above torture for recreational purposes. Our intention is intimidation.”

“Bully,” said Divitz.

Pydge felt intimidated, though she wouldn’t let it show. She had to keep these two talking. The one seemed to like speaking, and she would do anything to keep them away from the needle in her side. “Why intimidate me? I work in a library. You have overdue books? No problemo. I know people.”

“She funny,” said Divitz. “Make me laugh.” To her, he said, “You, I kill before I cut to pieces.”

“I concur, Mr. Divitz. However, madam, we do not wish to intimidate you, but rather your gentleman friend. We thought you might exercise some influence or, at least, bits of you could.”

“Kevin?” she asked. “You’re doing this because of Kevin?” Under her breath, she said, “I swear I will kick his fat ass.”

“Although I’ve never met the gentleman,” said Pitz, “apparently he’s causing trouble for robots. That we can’t have.”

This confused Pydge. She thought of Aziz and all the robots Kevin had helped. “Are you sure you have the right man?”

Pitz said, “Fat, wretched, smells.”

“That’s Kevin,” she said. “But you are wrong. He helps robots. He helped several make the force.”

Pitz and Divitz looked at each other.

“I do not favor the notion of robot constables, for obvious personal reasons,” said Pitz.

“Biased,” added Divitz. “We not like the judge. I like her.” To her, he said, “Convince. I like what you say, I not chop you up.

Deal?”

This frightened Pydge more than the needle in her side. At least she knew what to expect from that. “Deal,” she said. What other choice did she have?

What was she thinking? She loved Kevin, but he could be such a jackass. How should she defend him?

She thought of the wise words her uncle Amlo often said, “Stop being a dunce and use your brain.”

“Kevin is a boor and a cretin. He eats too much and sits around in his underpants cleaning his O-cannon. But he’s a, how you say, stand-up guy. When other people no wanted robot constables, he fought to let them join. And he talks to his robot bird more than me.”

The two trolls were silent for a moment. Then, the broody Divitz said, “He has O-cannon? What kind?”

Pydge smiled. She had learned the answer to this several winter holidays ago. “Kevin has an HO-gauge, Shake-the-Box, Alley sweeper model O-cannon. The kind with the wider barrel for greater devastation.”

Divitz’s eyes grew very wide, and he approached the woman with a kind of awe. “I have Ready-to-Run model. Narrow mouth for detail work.”

“Kevin has one, too,” she said, “but he prefers the Shake-the-Box because he’s gordo, er, fat. He can handle the recoil.”

Divitz looked at Pitz. “Change of plan. We not kill this woman right now. Maybe later.”

“What?” said Pitz. “Just because you like her boyfriend’s taste in weaponry?”

“Yes,” answered Divitz.

“Do we get to remove this thing from my side?” asked Pydge.

“No,” chorused the robots.

Well, Pydge thought, at least she wasn’t going to die now. But there was always later.

“Do we still get to intimidate her boyfriend?” asked Pitz.

“Of course,” said Divitz.

“All right, then,” said Pitz. “But we’d better find someone else to torment soon.”

“I promise,” said Divitz.

#

Night closed in on the few remaining ferry-goers. The wild winds racing over buildingtops whirled across the deck of the stratoferry. Most other travelers had already paired up like couples for a last dance. But one young woman, a robot stand-in, stood by the back railing, watching the path formed by the ferry in the city’s evening mist.

“A lovely flower should have a twin,” said Crippen as he approached the girl. “Beauty shared is doubled.” He handed the carnation to her. It still flushed purple from when Gloria had held it.

“Thank you, sir,” she held her hand out, but when she took the flower, she didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

“I am Mister, uh, Thorn,” said Crippen, “my lady friend is Miss Petal,” he turned from Gloria to the robot, “and you are a stand-in.”

The robot dropped the flower.

“You were abandoned, weren’t you? Created as a double for a girl you never met. Your eyes, your skin, perhaps the touch of your lips were right, but not the smell. They rejected you because you just weren’t quite the same. Now, you’re cast off, like an outmoded comm-snake. Only now you’re illegal. The first constable to stop you can take you to jail, or worse: to be recycled. Come with us. We’ll keep the constables away from you.” Crippen picked up the flower and returned it to her.

The girl twirled the flower in her fingers for a moment then said, “I’ve been standing here so long. Let me go get some things from my locker.” She disappeared into the ferry’s common quarters.

“I think that went well,” said Crippen to Gloria. “I’m sorry I gave away your carnation.”

“It’s all right,” said Gloria. “I didn’t want that tattered, fake thing anyway.”

“Fake?” asked Crippen. “It’s not real?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Woven light filaments. Real flowers don’t have loose threads.”

“Strange,” he said, “all this time I thought it was real.”

#

Rosenblum thought Kevin looked as though he were blooming. Rosenblum knew that wasn’t the right term, but he couldn’t think of a plant equivalent for a face that flushed red and hair that stood on end. At a better time he’d take notes.

Kevin bellowed into a new comm-snake appropriated from the station. Rosenblum flew the prowler along skylanes lit by rows of floating glow-bots. Night was not the ideal time for him. He needed no sleep, but he had to fight the urge to extend his thorny tendrils into black, moist earth. He missed his humid apartment, and his goldfish, Melville, probably needed feeding.

“If you’ve harmed her in any way . . .” Kevin looked as if he would throttle another helpless communication device.

“Sir,” cooed the syrupy robot’s voice through the snake’s head, “I anticipated a degree of resistance; after all, we did ‘host’ your girlfriend without her permission. However, I think you’ll find she’s quite well.”

“I’m all right, mi amor.”

“She’s very tough,” said the robot. “You should be proud.”

“I am,” whispered Kevin, but Rosenblum could hear.

“Where are you leaving her?” Kevin asked. “Why are you leaving her?”

“At a place you know quite well–and now we do too; ponder that a while–your apartment. As to why, you know I don’t think I’ve ever uttered this phrase before. We’ve had a change of heart.”

Kevin did a double take. “You’re going straight?”

The two robots exploded with laughter.

“Ho, that’s a good one,” said the syrupy robot. “No, we’re still as evil as ever, but there’s something going on deep beneath the surface of these crimes. My associate and I are not detectives and don’t care to be. We want to see these robot murderers stopped, and some explanations sound better from humans. We are leaving your woman with some information. Please try to make good use of both. However, we’re also leaving her with an additional incentive: a nerve strummer remains in her side, operated by remote. We shall watch your progress with great interest.”

“If either of you freaks hurt her!” Kevin yelled at the comm-snake.

“Inspector Seven, please. Time’s a-wasting. Our little souvenir is simply insurance of a job well done.” There was some mumbling on the other line; after which, the robot returned. “My associate requested that I tell you he admires your choices of weaponry.”

“If I ever meet either of you,” said Kevin, “you can see them first hand.”

“A meeting we anticipate with the keenest pleasure.”

The comm-snake went limp around Kevin’s neck.

“Well,” said Rosenblum, “at least we know where to go now.”

“Punch it,” ordered Kevin.

Rosenblum followed Kevin’s terse directions. The two detectives landed at Kevin’s apartment dock, and Rosenblum couldn’t believe Kevin capable of moving so fast. When they got to his apartment, the door stood open. Kevin plowed through, followed by Rosenblum.

Pydge came out of the bathroom, wearing a robe several sizes too large for her. Her wet, curly hair reminded Rosenblum of some of his viny houseplants.

She and Kevin collided in embrace. He was much shorter than she, but he still obscured most of her, either from girth or spiky hair. “Ah, careful,” said Pydge, pulling away. She gestured to a lump at her side beneath the robe–the nerve strummer.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“Only when fat men bump into it.”

“Funny. I thought I’d lost you for good,” whispered Kevin. “These robot murders had me thinking the worst.”

“Ah, mi amor, I’m all right. Work sucked. I was kidnapped. I have a device beneath my ribs that could kill me at any time. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I think this is one of those times when I should feel uncomfortable, but I’m not sure,” said Rosenblum. “Should I take notes?”

Kevin stepped back. “Pydge, this is Rosenblum.”

Pydge approached him and shook his hand without checking it for thorns first. He liked that. “Encantada,” she said. “Would you like something to eat?”

“Hon, this isn’t a dinner party. You’ve been kidnapped and threatened with death. Rosenblum can go hungry a little while longer.”

“I’m fine, ma’am.” He tried to let her hand go, but she held it.

“Are you really a rosebush?” she asked.

Rosenblum smiled. “I was grown from one, yes.”

“Where are your thorns?”

“Pydge,” said Kevin.

Rosenblum pulled his hand away from Pydge’s. “This will take a second,” he said to Kevin. Displaying his thorns was simple. It took longer to describe the action than for it to happen. It was a matter of allowing his body to be as it wanted to be. Spots began to poke from his clothes, which were only strategically grown leaves. Vines grew perceptibly longer, and, in an instant, dozens of long, black, vicious-looking thorns sprouted all over his body.

Dios mio!” said Pydge. “You are beautiful. Let me take a picture.” She started to walk away, but Kevin set his hand on her shoulder and guided her back.

“Anyway,” said Kevin, “we’re getting off topic. Rosenblum, put a lid on it. Pydge, in the name of the Holy Fiery Ones put some clothes on and tell me what happened! Um, por favor.”

She stood, leering at him for a moment and then strode toward a back room, mumbling in her dialect. Kevin and Rosenblum watched her go.

“I’m a very lucky man,” said Kevin.

“You’re lucky she doesn’t have thorns,” said Rosenblum.

They both looked at each other a moment and began to laugh; Kevin, a belly laugh and Rosenblum, an earthy chuckle.

“What was that?” called Pydge from the bedroom.

“I said you look nice, dear,” said Kevin. He and Rosenblum took seats in the living room.

Pydge returned with a glass of water for Rosenblum. She glanced at Kevin, who frowned at her. “He looked thirsty.”

“Pydge!”

“Well,” she said to Kevin, “I’ll skip over the kidnapping and torture, since you already know about that.”

“Torture!”

She stopped Kevin before he could continue. “Hush.” She held up a hand. “I’m fine now. What’s important for you to know is what they told me and why. Someone sent those robots to kidnap me.”

“Who, ma’am?” asked Rosenblum.

“A judge named Grackle.”

“Oh,” said Kevin, sitting back in his chair.

“You know of him?” asked Rosenblum.

“Big advocate for robot rights. Overturned a lotta hate legislation.” To Pydge, he said, “Why would he hire two goons to kidnap you?”

“He didn’t,” she answered. “That was extra. He hired them to acquire the remains of his daughter, a stand-in.”

“Ah-ha!” said Rosenblum. The other two stared at him as though he had started sprouting pineapples. “What? I used the term correctly, didn’t I? Anyway, could those remains they ‘acquired’ have been the ones stolen from the station?”

“Yes,” said Pydge, “and they told me the judge only wanted you two intimidated off the case. The torture was a perk.”

Kevin scowled. “I’ll get a special patrol after these two bots.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea. Those two are looking for any excuse to use this.” She patted the strummer. “Amor, I think if you keep doing what you do–piss people off–all will be well. The bots said the judge wanted the case handled discreetly. I suppose those two ‘hoons’ were his idea of discreet.”

“Goons,” said Kevin. “Well, Grackle might have wanted those killings kept quiet because of his daughter. I don’t think anyone knew she was a stand-in. But that doesn’t sit right with me. He must have some bigger reason why he’d want the murders kept quiet.”

“Maybe we should ask,” said Rosenblum.

“You know, plant man,” said Kevin. “I think you’re right. And I don’t think we should be nice.”

#

Morning came, and the sunlight hurt Kevin’s tired eyes. He had called in a few favors with some fellow officers, and four police prowlers hovered outside every possible exit to Judge Grackle’s floating Moebius band. They weren’t officially surrounding the place yet. The pilots were on their breaks. But Kevin felt he could make things official fast if he didn’t like the tone of the judge’s doorbell.

Kevin’s own prowler sat parked at the dock of the band. From blurred eyes, he thought he saw a vehicle approach and linger a little too long in the distance. He tried to rub some sleep away. When he looked again, the vehicle was gone.

Kevin, Rosenblum, and Aziz approached the judge’s front door.

“You look tired, inspector,” said Rosenblum.

“I concur, my master,” added Aziz from Kevin’s shoulder. “You need rest.”

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe after we’re done here, you could sleep in–”

“Enough!” Kevin said. “I get plenty of this from Pydge. Aziz, look sharp. First signal from me, call in the boys outside.”

“I am a straight razor, master.”

They stood before the door.

“How friendly are we going to keep this?” asked Rosenblum.

“I stopped being friendly a long time ago,” said Kevin, “too much stress.”

“This is a judge,” said Rosenblum.

“Who kidnapped my girlfriend and had her tortured.”

“That’s not exactly what happened. Maybe I should take over for a little while.”

Kevin opened his mouth to argue and stopped. “All right. You’re training. You do the talking. But one wrong word from him and I bust him for bad grammar.”

The plant man rang the door bell, and its reverberations sounded within.

Someone approached, and the door slid open a crack.

A head of neat, white hair and an elaborate mustache to match appeared from behind the door. “Who is it? Oh!” The little man seemed to recognize them.

“Judge Grackle? We’re from the police.” Rosenblum and Kevin displayed their badges.

“Um, yes. Can I help you?”

The plant man continued. “Yes, your Honor. We’d like to speak to you about a kidnapping and murder.”

“Oh, murder, you say? Yes, do come in.”

The judge led the detectives toward what Kevin assumed was a greeting chamber. Along the way, he noticed how plain the side rooms were along the main hall. Very sparse furnishings, and what decorations there were seemed haphazard and out of place.

Kevin had no head for style, but the whole feel of the house was strange. People, even uncultured ones, tended to compartmentalize their habits and desires: books, albums, and movies had their places. But the judge’s home seemed more like a warehouse, with as many objects stored on the walls as on the floors. It was as though the judge had pretended to decorate.

Rosenblum leaned toward Kevin as they walked. “This place reminds me of my apartment, but without all the plants and humidity.”

Interesting. Kevin nodded.

The judge stopped in a long room containing more relics, including some unrecognizable musical instrument almost the size of a patrol car.

The judge cleared his throat. “Now, what was this about a murder and kidnapping?”

Rosenblum answered, “The murders are only tangentially related. We’re more interested in discussing the kidnapping with you.”

Judge Grackle began to fret with various pieces of bric-a-brac. “What could I do to help? Do you need a warrant?”

Kevin drew on every ounce of patience he could muster, strode over to where the judge stood, and responded, “No, sir, we want to know why you had my girlfriend kidnapped and tortured by your goons.”

Judge Grackle uttered a sharp cry and fell to his knees. “No,” he whispered. “I never meant for this to happen.” He looked up at Kevin. “Is she alive?”

“For the moment,” responded Kevin. He lowered a hand to help the judge up. “I think you’d better tell us what’s been going on and what you ‘meant’ to happen.”

Grackle rose with Kevin’s assistance and straightened his clothes and hair. “I believe I know the murders to which you refer, though they are more than tangentially related to me. “However, I assure you, I am a victim and not the cause. I never intended your woman any harm. I only wanted you to stop working on this case.”

Rosenblum spoke before Kevin could. Probably to prevent him from speaking. “If this were just a kidnapping, things would be simple. But these waters run deep, and we think you can clear them.”

“It has to do with your daughter, doesn’t it?” asked Kevin. “She was a stand-in. You wanted to keep that secret. But there’s more. We want ‘the more’.”

Judge Grackle looked up at his guests. “Come with me, gentlemen.”

He led them to a nearby room, which Kevin recognized as a robot maintenance room. On a steel table the remains of the judge’s daughter lay on a white sheet with her eyes closed.

“I can’t fix her. So I try to make her look comfortable,” said the judge. “You two may know I’ve been advocating a great deal of robot reform. I’ve encouraged legislation promoting robot rights and have overturned many of the worst hate laws. I have achieved a delicate balance, one that could easily be toppled with a careless word. If anyone were to discover my own daughter was a robot, I would lose any power I now hold.”

“Very convincing,” said Kevin. “But you could still have her repaired covertly. You’re being extra cautious because you’re still not telling us everything!”

The judge looked down at the robot. “We were in love.”

“What?” asked Kevin. “With your own daughter?” He stepped toward the old man. “I’ve been a patient bastard because I needed information. Now, I don’t care. I’m taking you in. I’ll find someone else to grill.”

Rosenblum tried to keep Kevin back. He broke away, and Rosenblum extended thorny tendrils, which held. “No, wait, Kevin. I don’t think things are as they appear.” To the judge, he said, “Are they, sir?”

Grackle never took his eyes from the woman. “Her name was Moya. Her robot name, the name of the stand-in herself.” He glanced at his guests. “Just as my robot name is Corvid.”

“I suspected as much,” said Rosenblum.

“And you didn’t say?” said Kevin.

“No time.” To the judge, Rosenblum said, “Your possessions are yours, and yet, not. You feel as though you’re house-sitting for a good friend whose tastes are subtly not your own. Is that correct?”

“Uncannily so,” said the judge.

“That is how I feel at home, sir. It’s not easy pretending to be human.”

Kevin stopped resisting the tendrils, and they released. To the judge, he said, “You’re a stand-in, too?”

“Yes,” said Grackle, or Corvid. “The real judge lost his daughter and had her replaced. Shortly after, he died too. We robots felt the judge too important to our cause of freedom to lose. So I took his place. Moya and I were actors playing roles. We fell in love behind the scenes.”

“I think I understand now,” said Kevin.

“You do not, human!” Corvid exploded with unexpected fury. “You have a few robot ‘friends’, perhaps, or a robot pet and think you understand.” Kevin stepped back as Corvid advanced.

“You’re an outsider, slumming your way through the richness of robot culture. Don’t tell me you understand!”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said. “I didn’t mean any offense.”

“I’d agree with that, your Honor,” said Rosenblum. “He’s rude, but basically decent.”

Corvid calmed and straightened his suit. “Of course. Now that you both know I’m a robot, you know I’m not a judge. The pair of you could haul me in, and I couldn’t stop you. However,” he turned to Kevin, “if you truly respect robots and what we struggle for, you won’t make any of this public. If what I am is revealed, robots will be worse off than slaves, worse than appliances.”

Kevin rubbed his eyes and then ran a hand through his spiky hair. He deserved sleep, didn’t he? “I think that Rosenblum was back in the prowler when we had this conversation, and we never spoke, even if we did.” He pointed a finger at Corvid. “You’re asking a lot, so I’m going to do the same of you. I want to know everything you know about these murders and your goons. I have to get this case solved and Pydge safe, or you, the goons, and half this city will burn.”

Corvid strode to a nearby work bench and picked up a data biscuit. He put it in his mouth, then retrieved it. “This biscuit now contains all I’ve learned. It’s not much, but it might help.” He placed it within Aziz’s talons.

Kevin nodded. “Moya’s body is already listed as stolen. We police can just take our time trying to find it. You know, people may find out, but they don’t have to find out from us.”

Corvid smiled. “I’m sorry about what I said, officer. You’re not such an outsider.”

“Believe me, sir, I’ve never wanted to be further out.” Kevin and Rosenblum left Corvid alone with the body of Moya. Kevin imagined Pydge on that table under a white sheet and shuddered.

Outside, Kevin and Rosenblum stopped. “Aziz, download what you learned into our prowler and then get any free officers at the station out scouting around. I want eyes and ears all over this city.”

“I am your obedient servant.” The early morning sun sparkled over rapid wings.

“What now, boss?” asked the plant man.

“I don’t know,” said Kevin. “We’re lost unless a gift falls from space.”

#

Across a network of buildingtops, nestled near the center of the city, an array of multi-colored awnings bloomed over the open-air market known as the Gardens of Delight.

Crippen and Gloria had been shopping with their next victim.

The stand-in, Aia, carried a small stack of packages under wide eyes.

Good, Crippin thought, overwhelm the machine. He no longer wanted to break down only her body, but her mind as well. Up until this point, he and Gloria had been merely tinkering, learning the basics. This new victim could lead them to higher learning.

Crippen wondered if he and Gloria could become friends with the machine. She and Gloria might make fine sisters, going shopping together and chatting, or whatever women did. Then they could dissect Aia. Could gaining the robot’s trust alter their eventual discoveries when they opened her up?

Gloria trailed behind him and Aia, fidgeting with the sculptured fastenings of her dress. Gloria had been acting stiffly. Perhaps she needed more fun.

“And,” Crippen continued the child’s bedtime story he had been telling the robot as they walked. “No one knows where the Brass Humbugs came from. Some say they crept up from the blackness left behind when the inner planet shed the metal shell of our world. But they are why there are so many Ghost Lofts across the city.”

“Really?” asked Aia, ignoring the calls and banter from the shop keepers they passed.

“Yes,” answered Crippen. “In the old days, each building had its own sovereignty. Sometimes the dwellers became so reclusive that outsiders never saw them. Occasionally, the city elders would get curious and send in Oarsman prisoners or other expendables to investigate.”

“What did they find?” asked Aia.

Out of his periphery, Crippen saw Gloria silently mouth Aia’s question, while rolling her eyes.

“Nothing,” answered Crippen. “Or rather, they found emptiness. No tenants. No furnishings. And often, no floors, as though something burrowed up from under the building. A few Oarsmen reported a strange humming, like the beating of a million tiny wings in a great, hollow space far below.”

All three of them stepped into a wide common eating court within the concentric rings of the shops. The edge of the courtyard overlooked the rising spires of the city as cargo ships and aircabs rose up toward the sparse clouds.

“Oh, stop,” said Aia. “I’ll never get to sleep if you keep talking like that.”

“You sleep?” asked Crippen.

“Not exactly,” Aia said, “but many robots call what we do ‘sleep’. It’s a sort of down time when we can review files, commune with our god, Hong Chen Harry, or some lucky few robots rent images seen only during sleep. But you have to be free and rich enough to afford those.”

“Fascinating,” said Crippen. He meant it. The more he probed into the lives of robots, the deeper they became. He glanced back at Gloria, hoping to involve her in some small way. “Isn’t that fascinating, Miss Petal?”

“I’ve had enough of this,” said Gloria. She lunged toward Aia and grabbed the carnation from her hand. “You listen to me, you mechanical bitch, you think Thorn’s sweet because he offers to take care of you, but he won’t. He’ll destroy you.”

“Gloria,” said Crippen, “you don’t mean that.”

Gloria turned to Crippen and slapped him so hard he fell into a group of diners, upsetting their tables and ruining their meals. Then she whipped him with the flower.

“You’re foul!” she spat at Crippen. “At first, I thought I was helping you. Instead, you were twisting me like you. You made me think robots were just machines, but machines don’t cry when you cut them apart.” She crossed to the edge of the courtyard that looked out over the vast expanse of buildingtops and climbed onto the railing. She shook her carnation back at Crippen and Aia. “Do you think replacing me is as easy as handing away a flower? Find another fake flower for your stand-in. I’m taking mine with me.”

Crippen tried to rise, but he was hampered by the patrons in their efforts to right their tables. “Gloria, wait!” Crippen realized what she meant to do.

Aia ran to Gloria by the railing. Through the confusion of people, Crippen saw Aia grab Gloria’s arm. The two shared an unheard exchange, during which Gloria tried to free herself from the robot’s steel grip.

The struggle grew more desperate as Gloria attempted to pull Aia over the edge, but Aia freed herself from Gloria’s flailing arms. Crippen watched Gloria tip back from the ledge.

He managed to free himself from the diners. “Gloria!” She was gone. Crippen pushed through to the rail and looked over the edge. He heard the screams and commotion behind him but didn’t care. He watched as Gloria’s form grew smaller, and the carnation in her hand had changed color to white. Finally, she fell through the fog line. Crippen thought she might even hit the street below.

He looked at Aia, an expression of terror and disbelief on her face. He grabbed her arm. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I tried to save her. She tried to take me with her.”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “If the police find you, they’ll take you in. Come with me.”

Aia allowed Crippen to lead her away.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take better care of you than I did Gloria.”

#

Kevin and Rosenblum sat, parked in their prowler, at a floating diner-bot. To Kevin, diner-bots were the greatest invention since flying cars. Across the metro area, the government had put into service these bizarre combinations of diner counter and robot attendant. At each, one could strap onto a stool over empty sky or park a vehicle at the drive-up window. It was a great way to enjoy an early meal suspended high above the waking city below.

Phil, the robot fry cook, whirred away behind the counter, washing dishes. Occasionally, he would refill Kevin’s and Rosenblum’s mugs. To Kevin’s surprise, Rosenblum enjoyed coffee, too.

The late morning traffic sounds filled the air as the two detectives waited for inspiration.

“Well, Rosie, I think we’re close. I can feel it.”

Rosenblum finished his sip and replied, “Don’t call me ‘Rosie’. I have some pride. I’m inclined to agree with you. However, I don’t think we can learn anything new until we discover another victim.”

Kevin looked up from his mug. Just beyond the edge of the diner-bot, he thought he could see the outline of a familiar craft, a rock hopper. Most rock hoppers were anonymous, only being hollowed-out asteroids fitted with a hoverpanel and rocketry, but he thought he recognized the shape of this one. Could it have been the vehicle following them? It zipped off into a different fly zone.

Kevin said, “You might be right, but–”

The prowler’s comm-snake hissed and reared its cobalt head. “Officers and cars respond to urgent call. Female suicide at Gardens of Delight. Jumper brandished a flower at onlookers, then leapt from the railing. Victim fell below fog line, probably to street level. Officers respond immediately.”

“A flower,” said Rosenblum.

“The street below. Can be pretty rough,” said Kevin.

“Where’s your adventurous spirit?” asked Rosenblum. “The Brass Humbugs are just a myth.”

Kevin pressed the reply button on the snake. “Officers Seven and Rosenblum reporting to Gardens of Delight street level. Other responders should turn on their rendezvous beacons.” Kevin rang off the snake. “No one’s been down to the street in years.”

“Relax,” said Rosenblum, “I’m sure it’s a very nice place.”

Kevin set a course for the Gardens. They were easy to find at that time of day. He wondered how many people still knew what a garden looked like and whether they made the connection between the colorful awnings and an arrangement of flowers. Rosenblum probably could. Must remind him of home.

At the multi-colored court, Kevin aimed the prowler down along the front of the building that housed the Gardens. Kevin found the descent nauseating, but Rosenblum seemed comfortable as ever. Dammit! What could break a plant man’s calm?

Hugging close to the building lessened the chance of running into any cross-town air traffic, but it made the prowler appear to go faster.

“Tramcar, 11:00,” said Rosenblum.

Kevin altered his path to avoid the vehicle, and within seconds, they were in the fog.

“Crossing over the Big Smoke,” said Kevin. “Have you ever been down here?”

“My first visit.”

“I’m not going to hold your hand,” said Kevin.

“Perhaps another time.”

Damn! Thought Kevin. He’s a glacier.

As though emerging from a tunnel, they cleared the dense haze. But below the formless gray eddies of fog, lay the black void of the under-city. The prowler’s lights sprang to life, blazing in all directions. Bright as they were, there was too little nearby to illuminate. Kevin switched on the autopilot, and the prowler slowed to a coast.

They continued to decelerate until they locked onto the rendezvous beacons from the other officers’ prowlers. Kevin landed them with a resounding metallic thud.

“Picking up anything with your ‘weed wisdom’?” he asked.

“Strangely, no. It’s unsettling, like staying at an empty hotel.”

Kevin and Rosenblum stepped from their prowler into the light from the other vehicles. The floods converged on a central point, at which lay a body.

It must have fallen cleanly from above. The body was still reasonably intact. Kevin could tell she was a woman. Near the body, on the metallic ground, lay a flower, its white petals stained red. One of the attending officers crouched nearby, taking images of the scene. Kevin recognized her–Nankaro. The harsh light from the prowlers bleached everyone around into pale silhouettes, but not Nankaro. Her deep red skin softened to a dull rust. Other officers acknowledged Kevin and threw strange looks at Rosenblum.

“How you gettin’ along, Nanny?” Kevin asked.

Nankaro looked up from her work. “I’ve been better, fatty. Heard you had to come in over the holiday. I got to sleep in. Who’s the salad?” Her imager continued to click and hum.

Kevin felt his face redden. Hadn’t he used the same word a few days ago? “This is Rosenblum. He’s new on the force.”

“Oh,” said Nankaro, rising. She folded the imager closed, and stepped toward them. She extended a hand toward the plant man. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were one of us.”

Rosenblum shook her hand. “That’s fine. I’m new, and I don’t really have a place to put a badge.”

“No kidding,” she said. “Are you wearing a suit?”

“No, arranged leaves, mostly.”

“Wicked. Could I get a picture?” She reopened her imager and snapped a quick image of Rosenblum. He wasn’t much of a poser, being more of a still-life kind of guy.

She addressed them both. “Anyway, you must have heard about this fall over the ‘snake. Brutal.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin, “Rosenblum and I are working on a case and wanted to know about the flower.”

“Tight,” she said. “Not much to say.” She indicated it. “Don’t even know what kind it is.”

“It isn’t,” said Rosenblum, approaching and crouching near it. “It’s one of those novelty flowers that changes color when you touch it. But it’s meant to look like a carnation. I wonder what color it would turn if I touched it.”

“A carnation?” asked Kevin. “Can that be a coincidence?”

“Anyone could buy one of these novelties,” said Rosenblum, “but my root feeling is this dead lady’s involved.”

“Cool, cool,” said Nankaro. “Can I get back to my imaging? We’re on a schedule.”

“What’s your hurry?” asked Kevin. “She’s not going–”

Everyone stopped when the humming started.

Kevin imagined a million fat, black flies heading toward them from the darkness. Then he saw the light approach, at first just a pinpoint, but it grew into a fire.

“What was that about Brass Humbugs, Rosenblum?”

“I’ll never speak ill of folklore again,” he said.

Some officer yelled for everyone to get back to the prowlers.

“No!” bellowed Kevin. “No time. It’s here. Weapons out!” Kevin drew his alleysweeper O-cannon and aimed for the approaching fire.

Rosenblum pulled a batterbeam pistol, and Nankaro drew one as well, but kept her imager out.

The buzzing grew louder, and Kevin could see a shiny, brassy reflection.

“Fire!” Kevin felt a thrill as he launched rings of smoky devastation from his O-cannon. He heard the other weapons discharging all around him, but still the thing came nearer.

It landed atop one of the prowlers, crushing the vehicle and some of the officers nearby.

Kevin could see it clearly. Sheets of brassy-colored armor were bolted over its surface like a metal carapace. Dozens of variegated wings thrummed along its back. Not a square inch of its metal hide appeared damaged in any way by their attack.

It roared. Its massive maw parted, revealing an inferno within. This was the fire Kevin had seen. The belly fire of a robotic beast from a distant past.

The machine advanced on insectile legs.

It swiveled its stubby head, watching them through clusters of obsidian eyes.

“Aim for the head!” Kevin continued to release volleys of smoky “O”s toward the creature, with little effect.

Others did the same, and the creature retaliated by shredding several of Kevin’s fellow officers with its mandibles.

Nankaro rushed forward into the chaos, firing her batterbeam pistol from one hand and taking images with the other.

“Nanny, you dumbshit, no!” But all Kevin could do was try to give her covering fire.

Rosenblum moved much quicker, and his transformation was disturbing. As he ran to follow Nankaro, he grew. Vines, limbs and thorns elongated into a grotesque topiary of man and rose.

The Humbug, in its insensate thrashings, lashed out at the surrounding officers, kicking Nankaro with grasshopper-like hind legs.

The enlarged Rosenblum leapt, caught her, and tumbled along the ground.

Kevin ran to meet them where they lay. When he arrived, Rosenblum appeared to be making her comfortable on a lap of leaves. He shook his head at her state.

Nankaro only had superficial cuts on her face, probably from the thorns, but Kevin was sure her body shouldn’t have been as twisted around as it was.

She held the imager up to Kevin. “I got some wicked-cool shots, fatty.”

“I’ll make sure everyone sees them, Nanny.” Kevin took the imager.

Rosenblum laid her lifeless body on the metal ground.

The screams from the other officers had died away. Kevin and Rosenblum rose and turned to face the metal insect.

It regarded the pair–the last two officers standing. It opened its maw, and Kevin could hear the crackle of its internal fire.

“Nowhere to run,” said Kevin.

“Don’t really want to,” said Rosenblum. They raised their weapons.

The Brass Humbug crouched, ready to pounce, like a cat after rats.

Before it could, there was a whistling in the dark above them, and a giant stone the size of a city block flashed into the pool of light from the prowlers and landed on the Humbug, crushing it. The force of the blow knocked Rosenblum to the ground. Kevin stumbled, but remained upright. He felt the echo of the crash reverberate up his legs. As the sound died away, the plant man rejoined him.

From the exposed remains beneath the stone, Kevin watched as the fire of the beast burned out.

Floodlights came to life all over the stone, and Kevin saw the unmistakable outline of a rock hopper–the one that had been following them.

A klaxon howled, deafening him, and then, “Good morning, officers!” said a familiar voice. “My, but you boys in blue do quite a lot so early in the morning.”

Ah, thought Kevin, slimy, smug, robotic. “Good morning, Pitz. Have you been keeping an eye on us?”

“Just watching over our investment,” said Pitz. “By the by, my associate admired your weapon technique.”

“Hurrah,” said Divitz.

“But those weapons couldn’t damage a Humbug,” said Pitz.

“What was that thing?” asked Rosenblum.

“A watchdog, perhaps?” answered Pitz. “No one knows who made the Brass Humbugs or why. They are a very old terror in a dead place.”

“Why are you here, Pitz?” asked Kevin, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice.

“Oh, we were searching for a new private place since your lady friend knows about the other, and we happened to pass by. Pity about your fellow officers. Too bad they didn’t know Humbugs were attracted to light.”

Kevin had had enough. He took out his badge and strode toward the mottled rock atop the ruined insectoid. “Pitz, you and Divitz are under arrest for kidnapping, destruction of police property, public swearing and a variety of charges I’ll make up later when I’ve had some sleep. My partner has a batterbeam pistol,” Rosenblum aimed it squarely at the center of the stone, “and we’ll crack you out of that shell like an egg.”

“Ha,” said the robot, “that’s the stuff. However, you won’t be hauling us in while we have your lady friend’s strummer remote. We can give you a few tidbits of information for your troubles, though. That poor fallen girl lying in the light is Gloria Fast. We’ve been doing some checking of our own. If you’re as smart as we’re sure you are, you’ll scamper up to the ‘scene of the crime’ and talk to the officers there. We’ll be leaving now.” The klaxon yelped and fell silent.

The rocky ship began to rise.

“Fire!” Kevin yelled.

Several beaters from Rosenblum’s pistol broke large chunks from the rockhopper, but it otherwise escaped unharmed.

“Enough,” said Kevin, watching the hopper disappear into the dark. He looked around at the injured and the dead and at the ruined brass bug lying crushed within the debris. Gloria Fast. Could one name be worth so much destruction? No. But he’d follow the lead anyway.

“All right,” said Kevin, “let’s turn these spotlights off and get a clean-up crew down here before another one of those things turns up, and then let’s get up to the Gardens. This place gives me the creeps.”

#

The rain began lightly but soon sent everyone searching for cover. Crippen ran with Aia along crowd-movers and sky bridges toward someplace more private. His and Gloria’s Ghost Loft–no, just his now–was too far to reach without notice, and Crippen wanted to avoid attention if he could. Fortunately, there were many Ghost Lofts. Crippen chose the closest.

It had once been a terracotta and copper beast and was probably beautiful in its day, but now its tiles were jumbled and broken, like old teeth, its copper filigree green with age, and its rounded windows broken and gaping. Crippen herded Aia from one of the buildingtop-spanning sky bridges they had been fleeing along through a smashed window of the terracotta Ghost Loft.

The rain intensified, tapping across the broken glass and debris littering the floor of the loft beneath the window. Crippen and Aia found a clear, dry spot to rest.

Only, Aia didn’t have to rest. Crippen reminded himself of that. She sat wringing out her damp, tight curls, arranging them in a more manageable mess.

Unaccustomed to running, he wheezed and tried not to look so unfit. The gentle rise and fall of her chest never wavered from a calm, steady pace. He hated her for that.

She was a machine. Beautiful and grotesque at the same time. Water beaded on her blemish-free, light coffee skin. Her complexion was so much better than Gloria’s had ever been.

What was he to do with Aia? Kill her or keep her? Perhaps he could kill her when he tired of her, erase her memory of the murder, and then kill her again. He could focus his studies on one robot and be much less conspicuous that way.

“You’re thinking about Gloria, aren’t you, Thorn?” asked Aia.

Crippen jumped. He had been lost in his thoughts and forgot Aia was with him.

“Yes, Gloria and I were very close.” He realized he meant that. “My fault, her jumping. She had always been moody, but I never expected such jealousy. Before, I could always fix our little problems, but now it’s too late.”

“Were you two in love?” asked Aia.

This struck Crippen. Not because he had never thought about it, but because now it was out in the open and raw. “She stayed by me,” he said. He watched the rain pool beneath the broken window. There was a lot of it now. “I lost my job at the space docks. Robots there were just too skilled at moving cargo, so I was replaced. Gloria supported me, even when she didn’t understand. It’s hard to find people who will do that for you.”

Aia scooted closer to Crippen and took his hands in hers. “I’d like to tell you a little about me,” she said. “Before I became a stand-in, I was an ordinary robot. But stand-ins are meant to be replacements for someone important, so I became important, even if I was only pretending. Except I wasn’t the person I replaced. And when she came back . . . well, I just wasn’t as skilled at being human, so I was replaced. Only, when I got kicked out, I didn’t have anyone to support me as Gloria did for you, Crippen.”

He frowned at the robot. “I don’t remember telling you our names,” he said.

“No,” she said, “but I know who you are.”

Crippen tried to pull away from the robot, but her hands were locked around his wrists like handcuffs.

“I have good news and bad for you, Mr. Crippen. The good is that Gloria didn’t kill herself. I killed her. She tried to climb back down off the rail, but I pushed her off.”

“What’s going on? Let me go!” He tried to pry his hands free. The robot raised a leg between their arms and kicked his head from side to side with her foot, while her hands remained clamped over his. Dazed, he tried to refocus on the robot.

“Sorry,” she said, “I don’t want you unconscious. I have more of my story to tell. When I was rejected, I had nothing and no one to care for or help me. As an illegal robot, I could be arrested at any time. Imagine, being arrested for being unwanted.”

Crippen’s vision cleared. “No one wants you robots anymore. If I were free, I’d tear you to pieces, find another one just like you, and do it again.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Crippen. I’m going to grant your wish, or part of it. But first, I have to finish my story. I had no one, until two robots took me in. They gave me a new body, copied all my files, and gave me a purpose: to bring you out in the open. You see, I’m a plant.”

Crippen perked up through his haze. “A plant? Like a flower?”

The robot seemed momentarily confused. “No, my saviors, Pitz and Divitz, have been planting spies all across the city, lying in wait to be picked as your next victim. You and Gloria have been very hard to find.”

“You’re a fake flower. I can see that now,” said Crippen. “Let me go so I can rip out your threads.”

The robot ignored him. “I said I’d grant part of what you wish. Now for the bad news: I’m going to mark you in a way that’s easy for certain police officers to spot.” She tightened her grip on Crippen’s hands, making him wince.

“I’ve sent a signal to my saviors,” she continued, “and with it, my soul. Time for me to go.” Her head tilted forward, and her body posture slumped.

Before Crippen could try breaking the grip again, he noticed the robot’s body bloat and deform beneath its tattered dress. When the body exploded, the surprise knocked him back against the floor more than the force. It couldn’t have been a normal robot body; he had no serious injuries from metal fragments, but synthetic gristle and red gore clung to his clothing, smeared his skin, covered his lips and teeth. He’d never tasted a robot before, sterile and repulsively clean. Nothing whole remained of the robot but its arms, still attached to his wrists.

As he sat up, he felt the arms jerk. Small rotor blades, like helicopters, sprouted from the shoulders and began to spin. The sound echoed in the loft, drowning out the sounds of rain and thunder outside.

The blades scattered splinters from the floor until they moved fast enough to take flight. The arms rose, carrying Crippen with them.

Theirs was not the random flight of a butterfly. They had direction, leading Crippen out of the shattered window over the rainy city.

He couldn’t scream. His throat was tight. Instead of merely being suspended by the flying robotic arms, he now grasped them as well from fear.

The flight path took him away from the Ghost Loft, beyond the sky bridge he and the robot had arrived on. Crippen watched air traffic pass between the buildingtops beneath his dangling legs. The rain had washed away some of the larger gobbets from his clothes, but he still remained blood-stained.

Crippen tried to think. He didn’t want to go wherever the arms were taking him, but struggling did nothing.

Then, along his flight path, he noticed a crowd-mover, a giant conveyor belt pumping people across the city. Soon it would be close beneath him.

Crippen began smashing the robot arms together at the shoulder. They made horrible grinding noises as blade tore against blade. He dipped. It felt as though his stomach kept going all the way to the traffic below.

He slammed the shoulders against each other again. Shards of rotor blade scattered across the sky. He plummeted a bit more, but still flew.

If he timed his actions right, he might fall on the crowd-mover as he passed above. If not, at least his troubles would be over.

Crippen knocked shoulder against shoulder, slowly obliterating the rotors. Finally, he fell.

He crashed against the belt of the conveyor, stunned into immobility by the pain. He checked himself for injuries. Nothing permanent. He had to get up.

Pedestrians nearby screamed as they ran. Vertiginous images filled Crippen’s eyes, swirls of belt, city, and sky. Nothing had any meaning for him anymore. He closed his eyes and mind to the turmoil.

“Sir? Sir?” asked a strange voice from somewhere on the other side of Crippen’s eyelids.

“Sir,” it said again, “I saw you fall. I don’t know what’s happened to you, but you may have lost a lot of blood. And what are these? Arms? I’m going to call an ambulance for you. Just hang on tight.”

Crippen opened his eyes to see a patrolman staring down at him.

“No!” yelled Crippen. He swung one of the arms still locked on his. It connected with the officer’s head. “No more . . .,” Crippen hit the man again, knocking him over. Crippen rose to his feet and continued bludgeoning the unconscious officer with one of the arms. “No . . . more . . . fake . . . flowers! No . . . more . . . loose . . . threads!”

Crippen caught his breath. One of the robot’s arms had fallen from his. It lay on the bloody patrolman. Crippen saw a batterbeam pistol, still in the officer’s holster. He grabbed it with his free hand and ran along the crowd-mover, firing the pistol at any loose threads that happened to get in his way.

#

After the cleaning at street level, Aziz rejoined Kevin and Rosenblum on their way back up to the Gardens of Delight. Kevin felt relieved. He always felt better with Aziz nearby.

The flight up the building had not been as bad as the trip down. The constant sense of falling vanished, and going up felt more like an elevator ride.

Kevin parked the prowler at the rooftop dock of the Gardens, and he, Rosenblum, and Aziz headed toward the barricaded scene of the jump. It was easy to find; many of the surrounding awnings had been taken down, and not a person could be seen. Police business was bad for business.

When the trio arrived, most officers had left, only one remained, finishing a few last minute details. Kevin recognized Lockbrow’s cybernetic silhouette. There was no clear border between man and machine, with several enhancements encroaching over flesh; those regions dominated by machine resembled a mix of forklift and tank. Only a few constables had cybernetic enhancements, and those had a tougher time on the force than robots since they were neither human nor robot. Kevin had gotten Lockbrow his job and watched him fight to keep it.

Lockbrow’s human half tried punching buttons on his data-corder while the mechanical half held it. Evidently, the effort proved too difficult, as he sighed, passed the ‘corder to his other half, and attempted keying with his mechanical side.

As Kevin, Rosenblum, and Aziz approached, Lockbrow said, “I should just carry around a stack o’ stone tablets and a chisel.”

“Too permanent,” said Kevin, “and too hard for Records Division to lose. Lockbrow, this is Rosenblum. He’s working with me on a case that may be related to the jumper.”

Lockbrow crushed the ‘corder in a giant, metal hand, as the human one extended toward Rosenblum. “Nice ta meet you. You guys didn’t see me destroy that.” He dropped fizzing bits of the device “’Scuse me, fellas. I’m hotter than two rats humpin’ in a wool sock. Could we stand by the edge of the roof? The updraft will cool me off.”

They walked, and stomped, over to the edge where Lockbrow continued. “I’ve been downloading the security footage from the sly-spies in the area. I was watchin’ it before you got here.”

“That would be useful,” said Rosenblum. “We could see if there was anyone with the jumper.”

“There were. Two people: a guy and some broad.”

“We want to see that,” said Kevin.

“Uh,” said Lockbrow, “I smashed that ‘corder. There’ll be copies at the station by now.”

“Aziz–,” Kevin began, but was interrupted by his comm-snake’s hiss.

It raised its cobalt head. “Any officers in the vicinity of the Gardens of Delight?” said the dispatcher through the snake’s facial speaker grill.

Kevin glanced at his fellows and answered for them. “Officers Seven, Rosenblum, and Lockbrow are at the Gardens. What’s happening?”

“Several pedestrians have reported a madman covered in blood and wielding a severed robot arm and a pistol. Reports are confused, but he’s on crowd-mover Chanting Blitz, and he may have injured or killed a constable. We can’t be sure, as sly-spies in the area are not responding.”

“That’s my fault,” said Lockbrow. “I’ve had them tied up looking for footage on the jumper.”

The dispatcher groaned. “We need officers to check out that disturbance, now. Get over to Chanting Blitz and report what you find. Do not engage until backup arrives.” The comm-snake hissed and re-coiled itself around Kevin’s neck.

Kevin said to Lockbrow, “You don’t have a ride?”

“I was gonna click my heels together three times.”

“Come on,” said Kevin. “You’re riding with us.”

“I got shotgun,” said Rosenblum.

Once they had Lockbrow crammed into the prowler, the trip to Chanting Blitz took only moments. It ran along a length of skyline only a few buildings away. From high above, Kevin watched tiny figures scatter along the belt-like conveyor. He knew all that kept the panicking forms from falling to their deaths was the invisible band of vibro-shield running along the sides of the conveyor. As the prowler approached, Kevin could see random pedestrians repelled from the edge back onto the strip by the shields.

“Follow the panic,” said Lockbrow.

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, eyes scanning the dense crowd far below, “the dispatcher mentioned a robot arm.”

“I heard,” said Kevin. “Aziz, fly ahead of us. Let me know if you see a downed cop or a bloody psycho with a robot arm.”

“I obey your strange request, master.” Kevin let the little aviadrone out of the prowler window. Tiny jets fired beneath silver tail feathers.

Shortly after the departure of Aziz, Rosenblum spotted something ahead. “There’s a figure in the distance. It looks unusual.”

“I don’t see anything,” said Kevin.

“I do,” said Lockbrow’s mechanically amplified baritone. “Or half of me does. Damn, Rosenfield! You got good eyes for a plant. That’s a mile away.”

“’Blum.’ And, yes, I’ve got better eyes than a potato.”

Silence.

“No reaction?” asked Rosenblum. “Meat has no sense of humor.”

“I think I liked you better when you were quiet all the time,” said Kevin. “I can’t see the guy. Let me know when we’re on top of him.”

There were fewer people on the crowd-mover. Kevin knew everyone around the lunatic would have already run away. He didn’t see the downed cop. Perhaps Aziz would have better luck.

“I see the crazy guy,” said Kevin over the braking of the prowler’s engines. “Nothing wrong with my eyes.”

The lunatic ran along a bare area of the crowd-mover. Kevin could see what looked like blood covering him. Sure enough, he had a pistol and an arm hanging from his own. Periodically, it would jerk the man’s body sideways as he ran.

Kevin slowed the prowler’s approach. “Rosenblum, get on the snake, and let the station know this guy’s location. I’m going to try–,” An explosion rocked the front of the prowler. “Whoa!” The lunatic had seen them and fired.

“He’s got a batterbeam pistol.” Another blast tore through the hood. It must have destroyed part of the hover panel because the vehicle lost altitude. “I can’t keep it in the air,” said Kevin.

“Can you direct it toward that Ghost Loft over there?” asked Lockbrow.

“We won’t survive the crash,” said Kevin.

“We won’t be in the prowler,” said Lockbrow. “I have a plan.” He rolled open the side access panel, and rushing wind filled the cockpit. “Aim for the Ghost Loft. You and Rosenkrantz get back here and grab hold of me.”

Kevin did as he was asked, confident that any plan of Lockbrow’s was better than his own plan of surviving in heaps of bloody wreckage.

“It’s Rosen–oh, nevermind,” said Rosenblum, clambering into the back.

“Hold onto my machine half,” said Lockbrow.

“What are you going to do?” asked Kevin. He and Rosenblum held tightly.

“I told you I was going to click my heels together!” Lockbrow’s human leg jammed what must have been a kickstart on his mechanical heel because a rocket in his metal foot propelled them from the ruined prowler.

The force nearly shook Kevin from Lockbrow’s side as they pirouetted in the open air. Kevin’s strength wasn’t enough to counter his own heavy weight. Against his will, his fingers let go.

Rosenblum’s hand and extending vines wrapped around the length of Kevin’s arm, digging into his skin and forcing him back against Lockbrow.

Kevin’s yell of gratitude blew away in the wind.

Lockbrow gained better control as they fell. Their erratic descent toward the crowd-mover made them a harder target for the madman to hit.

The three slammed into the conveyor, knocking Kevin and Rosenblum flat on their backs. Lockbrow still stood, supported by his stable, mechanical side.

Beaters from the lunatic’s batterbeam pistol hurtled past them, falling to the conveyor’s surface and bouncing along like ball lightning.

Kevin drew his O-cannon and began to return fire, but there was no cover on the exposed crowd-mover.

Lockbrow stepped between Kevin and Rosenblum and the crazy man, facing his mechanical half toward the danger. “Get behind me.” Lockbrow squatted down, forming a solid metal wall.

Kevin and Rosenblum took cover and returned fire.

“Does this hurt?” asked Rosenblum.

“Not yet,” said Lockbrow. “I’ll scream when I start to melt.”

The lunatic continued to fire.

Kevin could see what was left of the robot arm jerk the man’s body. That kept him from shooting with more accuracy. He saw the crazy man fire at the remains of the robot arm.

“No more fake flowers!” Only fragments of the hand remained connected.

“Did you hear that?” said Rosenblum. “Fake flowers and a bloody robot arm?”

Kevin stood from behind Lockbrow’s huge metal torso. “Sir, you are under arrest for suspicion of destruction of property, assault on  police officers, and trespassing!”

The lunatic turned his attention back to Kevin and the others. He released a new volley against the officers.

“I’m starting to heat up, guys!” said Lockbrow.

Kevin didn’t want to kill the crazy man. He could be the one they’d been looking for. But Kevin could disintegrate the man’s shooting arm.

Instinct must have compelled the man to turn from them and run.

“Let’s go!” Kevin and Rosenblum followed.

“I can’t move,” said Lockbrow.

Kevin looked at Lockbrow’s scarred and pitted machine half. In places, the metal works had begun to melt and run.

“We’ll call the station. Get you some help,” said Kevin.

“No time,” said Lockbrow. “Leave me your comm-snake. I’ll call the station. Get your man.”

Kevin removed the snake and passed it to Lockbrow. “We’ll see you at the station.”

“Don’t come back empty handed!”

Rosenblum ran, and Kevin struggled to keep up. Running was his least favorite task as a cop. He handled himself fine when he caught up with the crooks, but he hated having to ask to catch his breath. Maybe he should listen to Pydge about that diet.

Nah.

The lunatic stopped a short distance ahead of them. Kevin wasn’t sure what the man planned to do, until he started firing at the vibro-shield. It hadn’t been designed to withstand gunfire, so a localized area of shielding flickered and winked out. Then, he jumped.

“We can still make it. Come on!” cried Rosenblum.

“Make what? Oh!” Kevin saw the bow of a stratoferry pass beneath the now open section of the crowd-mover. The man had found a getaway vehicle.

Rosenblum made the jump ahead of Kevin. When Kevin reached the opening in the shield, he could see he was running out of ferry.

“This is so stupid!” Kevin leaped, hoping to match its speed.

He hit deck hard and rolled. Some skinny copper would be moaning about fractures or bone bruises. Kevin was up with his pistol in his hand in a second.

Rosenblum had a head start. Screams came from one of the upper decks. The plant man made for the stairs on elongated, gnarly legs. He was using his plant powers. Kevin thought that was cheating. He’d never keep up.

He heaved himself up the stairs, the end of his coat flapping loosely behind him. He heard shots on one of the decks above and more shouting.

By the time he arrived, he found Rosenblum attending a woman trampled by the retreating crowd.

“He’s toward the bow,” said Rosenblum. “Go! She’ll be all right. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Kevin ran toward the front of the ferry. The crazy man seemed to fire randomly from the deck. Kevin realized too late what he was doing when an aircab crashed into the deck.

The impact shook the ferry and forced Kevin to his knees. The cab survived the impact, losing a fender and half of its light array. The driver did not survive. He destroyed the entire wind shield when his body tore through.

The lunatic was in the cab and restarting it before Kevin could reach him.

“Halt!” Kevin yelled, but there wasn’t much point. He aimed his O-cannon and tried to disable the craft, but missed.

Rosenblum arrived, his pistol drawn.

Kevin waved him off. “No point. He’s out of range. That’s it. We’ve lost him.”

Rosenblum scanned the airways. “No, we haven’t.” He pointed into the surrounding traffic. “Look!”

Chugging along, off toward the port side, was Phil the diner-bot.

Kevin ran to the rail. “Phil, we need you, now! Get over here.”

The diner-bot heard him and maneuvered next to the ferry. “Whaddaya need, Inspector? You in a hurry for a panini?”

“No time for food! We’re commandeering you. Let us on and follow that cab!” Kevin pointed toward the disappearing yellow aircab.

“A chase? Get on. I’m on the job.”

Kevin and Rosenblum clambered aboard the diner-bot’s swivel chairs.

“How fast can a diner-bot move?” asked Rosenblum.

“Hang tight,” said Phil, “’Cause I’m the fastest fry cook in town.”

Phil accelerated, forcing Kevin and Rosenblum to grab the counter to keep from sliding off their chairs. Both strapped themselves down.

The cab must have been damaged since it wasn’t moving as fast as Kevin knew it could. But it was far ahead, and they were chasing it on a flying diner.

“So whad’d this guy do?” Phil eased around larger vehicles and avoided busier fly zones.

“He dissected and destroyed several robots,” answered Rosenblum.

“Bastard! I’m ditchin’ some weight.” The robot grabbed for crockery and anything loose.

“No, Phil,” said Kevin. “You can’t drop junk over open airways. Just keep going; we’ll catch up.”

The lack of walls and floor made the diner-bot seem faster to Kevin. Wind clawed at his coat as he gripped the counter and hoped the straps of his chair held. The aircab grew closer.

Phil waved a robotic arm over Kevin’s head. “That Ghost Loft over there usta belong to Old Attila. He ran a gym outta it. Then, he died and left it to his son-in-law, Sig. Swell guys. Always tipped good.” The arm pivoted in its joint to the right, nearly decapitating Rosenblum. “Wild Bill, the writer, squatted in that Loft over there. Not the best tipper. Always broke. Loyal regular, though.”

“We’re in a car chase, Phil,” said Kevin.

“I’m a robot. I can multi-task.”

A batterbeam beater smashed a cabinet behind Phil’s head, spreading crockery and utensils across the fly zone.

“You didn’t tell me he’s armed!” yelled Phil.

Kevin and Rosenblum had their weapons out and firing. The lunatic had the advantage, though. At their current speed, the two officers’ weapons had to fight the wind. The crazy man fired with the breeze.

He wasn’t having much luck hitting them, though, and he changed tactics. As they raced between buildings, he began firing at broken, old structures. Loose blocks and crumbling arches fell all around them. Somehow, Phil managed to avoid larger fragments.

“That cab must be damaged,” Kevin yelled. “Maybe that’s why he can’t go higher. If we can get under him and hit his hover panel, we might be able to take him down.”

“I can try ta get closer, but he’s still faster,” said Phil. “Holy Harry! I’m gonna need a new fuel cell. This is excitin’. Can I be a deputy?”

“Just try to go faster,” said Rosenblum.

Phil swerved, avoiding a fragment of sky bridge, and managed to inch closer to the madman’s underside.

“Kevin,” said Rosenblum, “do you see that up ahead?”

Kevin scanned the skyline. Not far beyond them lay a crowd-mover, busy with pedestrians. “Oh, no. We’ve got to end this trip, now.”

“I’m out of beaters,” said Rosenblum.

“My O-cannon can’t hit him at this speed,” said Kevin.

“Make me a deputy,” said Phil.

“What?” asked Kevin.

“Make me a deputy, and I’ll bring him down.”

“You’re a deputy!” shouted Kevin.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Rosenblum.

“Shut up,” said Kevin.

Phil reached into a cabinet above one of his stoves and grabbed the largest frying pan Kevin had ever seen. “All right, watch this.” Phil’s robotic arms could extend the full length of his counter when he wanted. Phil reached back with the pan in his hand and hurled it at the cab, like a discus.

Kevin heard it whistle as it flew.

It sailed in a graceful arc. Kevin thought it might drift and crash through someone’s wind screen, but it curved to intersect with the cab’s underside. The pan lodged in the hover panel with a thud.

The cab began a crippled spiral leading toward a distant Ghost Loft, only a block or so short of the crowd-mover.

“Woo-hoo!” shouted Phil. The cab crashed against the Loft, lodging itself within the facade, its tail end protruding like a yellow dart in a board.

Phil began an upward arc toward the wreck as they drew closer to the building.

Suddenly, Kevin saw the maniac force a passenger door open. He stood at the opening and looked around.

“He’s going to jump,” said Kevin, and the man leapt from the cab.

From beside Kevin sprang a green blur. Rosenblum hurled himself, spinning from the diner-bot.

Everything slowed.

Rosenblum, still spinning, unfurled like a net. Every inch of vine and roses extended into a vast, green web. From uncountable windows in the surrounding Ghost Lofts extended hundreds of slender, green fingers, each reaching out to join with Rosenblum. The maniac landed in the web, held fast by the plant man’s thorny grasp.

“Uh, Phil,” whispered Kevin, “take us in close. I want to talk to my partner.”

“I don’t know that I wanna be a deputy anymore,” said Phil. “Flippin’ burgers is much easier on my constitution.”

They approached the web. Kevin spotted part of what looked like Rosenblum’s face, twisted and stretched along a tight strand.

“Rosenblum?” Kevin asked.

“Do I have him?” asked part of Rosenblum’s face. “I’m not sure–where my eyes are. I can’t see him.”

Kevin glanced at the maniac, knotted in the center of the web. He muttered something incoherent about flowers.

“We got him, pal Are you going to live?”

“Hopefully–for a long–time. But I think–I’ll need a long–rest.”

“I’ll grab this guy and take him down to the station.” Kevin smirked. “And don’t worry. I’ll bring you back a flower pot.”

#

Kevin pressed “enter”, uploading the last of Nankaro’s images into his report. Discounting his omitted details, the Brass Humbug was the most tantalizing item in his semi-fictional account of suicide and destruction. What Kevin had written of Crippen and the robot murders was downplayed officially to a type of vandalism. He was sure Judge Grackle and his robot friends would appreciate that.

He removed the data biscuit from his ‘corder and pressed it to his lips, locking the data within. He passed it to his metal bird.

“Here, Aziz, take this to the station so they’ll stop pestering me. Then, maybe I can take a day off.”

“I hear and obey.” The little bird took the biscuit in his beak and zipped off across the city.

Pydge entered their bedroom dressed in a long robe but bare beneath and sat next to Kevin. She held her nerve strummer. The two trolls had sneaked into the apartment while she slept and removed it. She said she didn’t like that, but looked on the bright side: the strummer was dead. “I think I will keep it,” she said. “It will be a reminder to me that, as a Bonfiglio, I can bear any pain.”

“I don’t get one,” whispered Kevin.

Perdon?”

“Nothing, dear. Can we fix the hole in the wall they left behind, at least?”

“Of course. I’ll keep the scar as well.” She rubbed a star-like patch in her side, the pale skin contrasting with the rest of her golden tan.

“I like scars,” said Kevin. “They’re the bold print of your life story.” He pulled Pydge into his arms and began to draw the robe from her shoulders.

“Welcome home,” she said, and kissed him.

#

Rosenblum lay in his flower bed, and on the floor, in several bookcases, and over much of the kitchen that he didn’t use anyway. His circular windows stood wide, and the sunlight filled his apartment. Beams of light shone thick through the moist haze that drifted from room to room.

He had regained just enough of his human form to use his arm to feed Melville. The poor fish swam in murky water Rosenblum had been too weak to clean.

Soon, the gene shadow deep within him would reassert itself and force him back to humanoid shape. But with the robot murderer behind bars, Rosenblum had a chance to relax during an extended holiday.

He thought about his new position on the force and of Kevin. Humans were a strange bunch, but he thought he could get used to them.

#

Judge Grackle sat looking out at the sunrise through the new hole in his wall. One whole wall of his sitting room had been cut away, providing a spectacular view of morning over the city. Moya sat cross-legged on the floor next to him, her hand in his. Her flesh was rosy and new and whole! Neither blemish nor seam nor stitch marred her naked, rebuilt body. She smiled at him. Neither had been able to say anything yet.

In his other hand, the judge held a note. It read:

For the beauty of a flower to be known

It must be smelt, not left alone.

So in exchange for your lover,

I take one rose and leave another.

-Pitz

 

The judge glanced over at the empty space where his piano had been. Now only a clear spot in the dust remained to mark where the instrument had stood. Moya leaned her head on Grackle’s shoulder.

More than a fair trade, really.

#

Crippen felt the chains removed from his hands first and then his feet. He heard the muffled sounds of the moving figures through the sack on his head. The bag was removed. There wasn’t much more light. A glow globe hovered at head height between two figures.

“Robots,” said Crippen.

“Correct,” said one.

“I’m not sorry for what I did,” said Crippen. “You robots have taken away everything that was important to me.”

“We not take. You lost,” said the other.

“Where am I?” asked Crippen. The glow globe offered so little light. The surrounding darkness was thick and velvety. The ground below felt like hard, riveted steel. Very close to the circle of light was what looked like a large rock standing on end.

“You’re in an old, dark place: the street below,” said the first robot.

“What are you going to do?”

“Do?” asked the first robot. “Well, my associate has some guns to clean, and I have a piano to tune. I doubt anyone’s tuned that thing in half a century. It’ll take all damn day. But to you, nothing. We’re going to leave you here.”

“In the dark? Alone?”

“We’ll leave the glow globe. Goodbye, Mr. Crippen. You might find your way out. There’s a Ghost Loft not far to your right.”

Crippen watched the two hunched, armored figures shamble back to their rock. Its take off was very quiet. Soon, Crippen could no longer see the faint blue of its hover panel as the rock faded into the black.

He didn’t know what to do. He rubbed his hand along the steel ground. A sound caught his attention in that silent place, a sound of humming. From beyond the globe’s light, Crippen could see another light far away, but getting closer. Before he could react, the thing was in front of him.

It landed hard on metallic, insectile legs, a hollow echo resounding. The creature folded its wings, opened its maw, and howled at Crippen, its fire within much brighter than the paltry glow globe.

“Well,” said Crippen to the metal insect, “at least you’re real.”

The creature crept closer.

end

Supersedure

By D. Avraham

 

“Please watch your step, Administrator Queen, as you exist the PT.  There’s some moisture on the surface.  It might be slippery.”

“Personal Transport,” thought Queen.  They used to be called cars.  But, then again, people used to actually drive themselves.  That was one thing he didn’t really miss.  Back in the day, fresh out of the academy, he started in Traffic.  A few months of scraping babies off of windshields could make one appreciate the end of people actually driving their own cars–well, almost.

No one worked traffic anymore.  Except the PTs, talking to each other; coordinating the traffic flow.  There hadn’t been an accident in years–till now.

Queen stepped onto the pavement.  It wasn’t that wet.  And, even if he were to fall, there’d probably be some DS around that would stop him from hitting the pavement.  They were everywhere.  Dedicated Swarms were never too far away to treat injuries, if not prevent them.  There were probably DSes that helped little old ladies across the street.  That is if a little old lady had any reason to cross the street.   Queen doubted there were too many that even left their homes these days.  But that was okay.  Last Queen heard, there weren’t any DSes trying to earn merit badges either.

 

The police tape was already set up.  Things moved fast these days.  Of course, it wasn’t really tape, but it looked like the old police line that Queen remembered from the old days.  It wasn’t really necessary.  All the PTs would know about the obstruction and reroute.  And there weren’t any little old ladies wandering around in the street either.  Conventions–society was leaving the future in the dust faster than one could blink, but conventions needed to be kept; protocols needed to be followed – for now anyway.

But conventions only went so far.  The perimeter was live.  It was smart.  It looked like the old police tape, but Queen knew that no one would be able to skip under it or break through it; no one that wasn’t authorized.  For him, or any other authorized personnel, the tape would part, and allow Queen onto the crime scene, all the time appearing as an unbroken strip of yellow plastic tape, announcing “Police Line:  Do Not Cross.”  Anyone else trying to cross it would have a better chance at walking through a brick wall.  Queen doubted there were too many of those left in the worl either.

Queen took a step towards the police barrier.  It came alive.  “Good evening, Administrator First Grade Queen.  Tragic, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I can tell you’re all broken up over it.”  Queen’s scowl returned.  He didn’t need to make small talk with a machine.  He looked around.  Once upon a time there would have been other cops there, patrolmen an detectives, forensics.  Now, it was just him and the machines.  Queen turned towards the disembodied voice of the police barrier, ‘Tomorrow’s Patrolman.’  “OK, what’ve you got?”

“Is everything okay, Administrator?  I detect an increased level of stress in your voice.”

“No, I’m fine.  Leave the voice stress analysis for suspects.  Just make your report.”

“At twenty-two hundred hours, thirty-three minutes, fourteen point zero five four seconds, a PT, owner currently undetermined, impacted into the underpass wall at approximately four hundred and eleven, point nine nine nine kilometers per hours.  The PT was completely destroyed; there were no life signs from the vehicle.  The structural damage to the underpass was minimal.  Debris stretches for approximately one hundred and seventy seven point zero seven seven kilometers.”

“Approximately?”

“Yes, sir.  I can give you more exact figures if you like.”

“No, that’ll be fine.”  Queen shook his head and sighed. “Glorified adding machine,” he muttered.

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nothing.  Never mind.”  Queen did a double take.  Something was wrong.  He had been distracted by the data.  “Wait.  Why is the owner of the PT undetermined?  Didn’t you get an UID off the vehicle?”

“It must have been destroyed in the crash, sir.”

“That’s impossible.”

“What’s wrong?” asked the barrier.

“The PT is loaded with RFIDs smaller than a speck of dust.  They should be able to get some UID.  What about occupants?  Who was in the PT?”

“There isn’t any data concerning the occupants, sir. “

If the Police Barrier had a collar, Queen would have grabbed it.  “What are you talking about?  There had to be a passenger.  What about the passenger’s RFID?”

“We don’t have any data, sir.  Our only data comes from the underpass, and the DSes in the air.  Nothing is emitting from the debris.  It must have all been destroyed.”

“What are you talking about.  I’m looking at the debris.  The ground is littered with pieces of metal bigger than a basketball.  There has to be some data. Something must be emitting.  The RFIDs are far more indestructible than the PTs structure.”

“But we haven’t any data sir.  The entire zone is dead.  Nothing is emitting.”

“That doesn’t bother you?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, sir.  There’s no data.”

“No data.”  Queen looked skyward.  “That’s the problem with these bots.  Nothing bothers them.  That’s why they still need at least one human.  All the data, or lack of data in the world doesn’t matter, if there’s no one around to ask questions.”

“I don’t understand your query, Administrator.”

Queen shook his head.  “Without questions the data is meaningless.  They haven’t figured out how to make these DSes ask the right questions, or even the wrong ones.”

The barrier lit up.  “The wrong questions, what good would that do, sir?”

“Sometimes even the wrong questions can help solve a puzzle.  Intuition is a strange creature.  It makes the connections when logic fails.  I don’t think anyone’s ever figured out how it works.”

“At least not yet,” offered the barrier.

“No, not yet.”  Queen stared at the wreckage for a few long moments, as if he were trying to receive a signal the machines couldn’t detect.  Finally, he broke off his concentration and turned back to the barrier.   “Dust it.  Let’s see what kind of story is hidden in there.”

A cloud of dust flew from the barrier.  The Smart Dust Swarm spread out to cover the area of the wreckage.  The tiny microelectromechanical systems, known as MEMs, were tiny motes of sensors, robots and other devices that detected and measured everything and anything:  light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, and chemicals, among others.  Individually, they weren’t much, but they could communicate, and even join together to form a Dedicated Swarm that functioned as a complete discrete unit for whatever was needed.  Most of the world was built on a system of DSes.

The Swarm spread out and rested on the wreckage like a layer of light snow.   Queen pulled out a flexible card from his coat.  He  watched the data scroll across the screen of his hand held.  Most people didn’t have hand-helds anymore.  Someone else would have watched that same data scroll past his field of vision, his visual cortex stimulated through a wireless Brain Computer Interface, a BCI.  Most people had any number of digital displays, nearly unlimited data, hovering between them and the outside world.  Everything in the world was defined through data.  Even people had been reduced to a collection of data, thought Queen.

Queen was incompatible with BCI.  He had been one of the first people to get a jack, which at the time was the latest in technology.  It wore that crown for less than three months.  The jack had fused to Queen’s spine and interfered with outside signals.  Now, with BCI, the jack was obsolete, and Queen was stuck with a hand held.  It now filled with numbers; the swarm recorded and relayed everything, without judgment.  Only when Queen started asking questions, would the data be collated and analyzed.  Without questions they were just a flow of meaningless numbers.  Queen was grateful.  The idea of BCI and all that data flowing across his field of vision wasn’t compatibility at all with Queen.

“What the?”  Queen was looking down at his hand held, shaking his head.  “That’s impossible.”  As soon as it touched the wreckage, the swarm had stopped transmitting.  All the motes were dead.

“What is it sir?” the barrier asked.

“Not what; we know what.  The question is how, or maybe why.”

Queen was afraid to approach the wreckage.  With all the smart dust on his body, and coursing through his body, and probably connected to his brain, despite his not being BCI compatible, he had no idea what would happen if he walked into that area.  What would that do to him?  He guessed it might not be too pleasurable.

Queen stared at the wreck.  He scratched his chin and pondered.

A smile slowly creased his face.  Queen’s fingers started gliding across the screen of his hand held.  “I want a DS inert composite, a ball, between 142 and 149 grams, about 229–235 millimeters in circumference, 73–76 millimeters in diameter,  and with height ratio of 0.3 and a yield strength that will allow a coefficient of restitution of e = 0.546 when thrown against that underpass wall, if thrown from here.  I want it to send out a single signal every millisecond.   As Queen talked, and his fingers glided across his hand held, dust gathered in front of him growing from a cloud into the form of a ball.

“This is what they used to call a baseball.”   Suddenly he missed the sound of kids playing ball in the streets.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked the police barrier.

“Watch.” Queen offered a wink, plucked the baseball sized sphere out of the air and hurled it towards the underpass wall.  On impact the ball bounced back towards Queen who snatched it out of the air.  “Did you see that?”  he said to the air.  The signal’s back.”

“What does that mean?” asked the police barrier.

Queen looked askance.  “It means the phenomena is local.”  Queen figured that  when they pull the wreck out of the area, the dust would return to life, and they might get some answers.  They might be able to collect that all important data.

Queen turned towards the police barrier, and started tapping on his hand held.  “I need inert steel chains with grapples, Grade 80 Alloy, 1.25 centimeter links.  At this end, they should be attached to an active live winch, standard DS composite.  Give me three of them.  I also need a non-DS bot that can take the chains over there and hook them up to the main part of the wreck.”

Several bots rolled towards Queen.  He pointed his hand held at them and gave them a set of instructions.  “Okay, let’s see if this works.”  He assumed that the bots would be able to bring the chain in and hook it up, as their processes are all internal.  They weren’t a collection of independents communicating with each other like the DS was.

Queen watched the bots move towards the wreck.  Something occurred to him, and he started keying his hand held.  “I want the motes in the chain to send out a signal, so we’ll know if the area is moving with the chain, or if it’s staying in the same place.”  Maybe it was the wreck itself, or something in it, that was what was killing the signal.

The bots moved slowly towards the wreck and hooked up the chain.  Immediately the winch started moving the wreck towards the administrator.

Queen’s eyes were glued to his hand held.  “Hmm.”  He took the ‘ball’ he created from his pocket and through it towards the underpass wall.  He caught it on the rebound, barely looking up from the hand held.  “The area is shrinking.”

“What does that mean?” asked the police barrier.

“It looks like a ten cupper.”

“I do not understand, sir.”

“Coffee.”

“Coffee is an illegal stimulant.”

“Don’t depress me.”

“Sir?  What does an illegal stimulant have to do with this wreck?”

“It’s just an expression.”  Queen scowled.  “Back in the day, coffee was what got us through those long investigations; the ones with scant evidence.  A ‘ten cupper’ suggested a long night ahead.”

“That makes no sense, Administrator.  If the dead zone is shrinking we should have plenty of evidence.”

“Data isn’t evidence.  I doubt it’ll tell us why there was a dead zone in the first place.”  Queen turned to the police tape.  “Cross-coordinate the data.  Find the center of the dead zone.”

“It is in the wreckage.” replied the police tape.

Queen rushed to meet the wreckage, his eyes glued to the hand held.     He pulled up short, and threw up his hands.  “We’re too late.”

“What happened?”  asked the police barrier.

“It’s gone.” Queen didn’t hide his frustration.

“What is?”

“The dead zone.”

“Isn’t that a good thing, Administrator?”

Queen began muttering to himself.  “Where did it go?  Why did it go?”

The police barrier repeated its question.  Why isn’t it good that  the dead zone has disappeared, Administrator. It was a danger.”

“If it can happen once, it can happen again.”    Queen turned his attention to what they did have.  “Okay, now do we have some read on the occupants, the PT owner.  It looks like there are a couple of bodies in here.”

“Accessing, Administrator,” said, the disembodied voice of the police tape.  A few seconds later it had the answer.  “The owner of the PT is Dr. Han Fastolfe.  He is also the occupant of the vehicle.”

Queen glanced at his hand held as the information scrolled past.  There were four RFIDs transmitting the same information.  Most people had far more than four RFIDs, but four was a baseline minimum.  It would do.  The information was all coordinated:  Dr. Han Fastolfe from the Tyrel-Rosen Corporation, age 84.  He had a spouse: Gertrude Blugerman.  There was more, but it didn’t interest Queen at the moment.    “And the other passenger?”

“Administrator?”

“Who’s the other passenger?”

“Administrator, there was only one passenger in this PT.  There aren’t any other RFID signals.  Also, the PT’s log confirms that there was only one passenger.”

“Then tell me why am I staring at two pairs of legs?”

“I haven’t any data for that, Administrator,” answered the police tape.

Queen sighed.  “Better put the kettle on.  It’s going to be a long night.”

 

The PT stopped in front of a very large and prominent house on South Park Drive.  Queen looked at the house on the view screen. “Well, this would be different.”  Normally, he would have just projected to the home of Gertrude Blugerman to inform her of her husband’s accident.  But for some reason, they weren’t receiving.  Queen couldn’t remember making a house call like this in years.  Today was full of firsts.

As the door to the PT opened, it reminded its occupant about the rain.  “Please watch your step, Administrator Queen, as you exist the PT, there’s some moisture on the surface.  It might be slippery.”

“It’s always raining, and it’s always slippery.  You don’t have to remind me every time I leave the damn PT.”

“Administrator Queen, as you know, I am required to warn you.  Also, it is not always raining.  How can you make such an inaccurate statement?”

“Chalk it up to bad programming.”

“Look at that house,”  Queen scanned the length and breadth of the mansion.  He looked at his hand held.  The house was real – ‘organic,’ as the kids called it.  It was a hundred percent wood, metal and concrete; nothing like the virtual environmental cubes everyone else lived in – well, almost everyone else.  The house was from a different era.  Queen doubted there were many like it, outside of the reservations.  Curious–most people wouldn’t want to live in an organic house, let alone be able to afford to.  Despite the size of the mansion, it was static, and it would require maintenance, real, hands-on maintenance.  The four by four cubes most people lived in might be small and plastic, but the virtual skein made them seem any shape or size their resident could imagine.  Queen didn’t care what his VE looked like, but he knew most of the population spent a great deal of time designing and redesigning their living space.  He wondered  what kind of person would live in a static dwelling, even a big one like this.

Queen walked across the manicured lawn.  It was real too.  Queen suddenly had a longing for the smell of freshly cut grass.  He hadn’t smelled that in a long time.  He almost smiled at the thought of a hot summer sun on his neck and his calloused hands pushing the mower.  Queen wondered what kids did to earn spending money today.  Did they even need spending money?

“Hello, I am with The Public Administration Office.  please allow entry,”  Queen said to the double door entrance.  It didn’t respond.  He noticed the small white button on the door frame and chuckled.  He pressed it.  Chimes rang from inside the house.  A doorbell – that was novel.

One of the thick wooden doors cracked open.  A small man wearing a black jacket filled the space.  “May I help you?”

“I’m with the Public Administration Office,”

“What is the nature of your call, sir?” the man asked.

“I’d like to speak to Mrs. Gertrude Blugerman, if I may?

“Is this a social call?”

“No,” Queen shook his head.  “Business.  Administrative Business.”

The man hesitated.

“Look, I’m sure Mrs. Blugerman would like to talk to me.”

The man looked at Queen.  “It’s just that we weren’t expecting …”

“No one ever is.  Let me in.”

The man hesitated another moment before opening the door wide. “This way, please.”

The foyer was lined with wood paneling.  Despite it being ‘organic,’ the place was immaculate.  Queen watched the man leading him through the house, but he knew he wasn’t really a man.  He hadn’t ever seen an android so life-like, but it was clearly an android.  That was also strange.  Android development had fallen by the wayside.  With the Dust, and with image vectoring connected to everyone’s BCI, androids, like all other fixed machines, were technological dinosaurs.  Of course, this entire mansion was like a museum.  Queen almost felt at home.

They entered a sitting room with large windows.  Sunlight showered the room.

Queen squinted into the light, feeling its warmth, and then paused.  It had been raining only a moment ago.

“We were just about to sit down to some tea.  Won’t you join us?” The voice was sweet, with just a hint of the crackle of age.  It was the voice of an elderly grandmother.  Queen blinked away the light, and tried to focus on the owner of the voice.  He glanced at his hand held.  Everything was registering as real, organic.  He had his doubts.

The blue haired woman smiled at Queen.  “Please, Inspector, sit down.”

“Thank you.”  Queen offered a smile, but instead of sitting down he strolled over to the windows.   “Actually, we’re called administrators these days.”

“Oh yes, excuse me, dear.  It’s not so easy for us old timers, is it?”  She looked at Queen.  “The changing times, the changing names.  It’s amazing how much changes, and so quickly, today.”  The old woman smiled.  “And yet, stays the same, I suppose.  Anyway, my apologies, Administrator, won’t you join me for tea.”

Queen nodded.  He considered the woman a moment.  Mrs. Blugerman?”

“Gertrude, please.”

Queen leaned into the window boxes.  “The flowers are beautiful Mrs. Blugerman.”

“Thank you, but please call me Gertrude.”

Queen leaned closer.  He noticed a stray leaf, and examined it in the light.  “Are they a special variety?  I can’t detect any smell.”  Queen asked.  He absentmindedly pocketed the leaf.

Gertrude nearly laughed.  “Why yes they are, Inspector.  They’re cultivated for their aesthetic beauty.  I suppose their scent was lost in the cultivation.”

The flowers were beautiful, almost perfectly so.  As if they were the paradigm of what flowers were supposed to be,  thought Queen.

“Besides,” commented Gertrude, “Han doesn’t tend to take to the scent of the rose.”

“You mean, Dr. Fastolfe, Ma’am?”

“Yes, my husband, Han.”

Queen drew a breath.  “Yes Ma’am, that’s why I’m here.  You see there’s been an accident.

Gertrude didn’t seem to hear Queen.

Queen winced.  “About your husband, Ma’am.”

“Oh, he’ll be down in a moment.”

“I’m afraid I have some bad news, you see.”  Queen took a step closer.

“I don’t understand.”

“There was an accident.”  Queen drew a breath.  “There was a malfunction, and Dr. Han Fastolfe’s PT crashed into an underpass.”

“Don’t be silly.  Han’s been home all day.  Isn’t that right, David?”  Gertrude addressed the man entering the room behind Queen.

Queen looked over his shoulder.  The man who had  greeted him at the front door had returned.

Gertrude turned to David.  “David, be a dear, and go see what’s keeping Han.”

David smiled and left the room.

“But, Ma’am, as I was trying to tell you, we found Dr. Fastolfe’s remains in his PT.”

Gertrude shook her head.  “Don’t be silly.  He’ll be along in a moment.  Now sit down and have some tea with me while my son goes to fetch Dr. Fastolfe for you.”

“Your son?”

“Well, yes, from my first marriage.”

“But it’s not human, Ma’am.”

Gertrude forced a another grandmotherly smile.  “Well, in a manner of speaking, one’s creation is one’s child.”

Queen scowled.

“You don’t approve, Inspector?”

Well, he is very life-like, but …”

“Why do you say that?”

“What?”

Well, ‘life-like,’  and not ‘alive?’”

Queen shifted uncomfortably.  “Well, because, it’s not alive.  It’s just a collection of data processors.  It’s not alive.”

Gertrude smiled.  “Well, I suppose you should ask him if he considers himself alive or not.”

Queen shook his head.  “That’s ridiculous  It only thinks what it’s programmed to think.”

“So do you, Inspector, It’s just that your programming is a bit more happenstance and flawed.”  Gertrude’s smile widened.

Queen rolled his eyes.  “We’re here about Dr. Fastolfe, Ma’am.”

“Yes, of course, Inspector.”

“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but …”

Gertrude waved the notion away.  “And I’m telling you, you must be mistaken, Inspector.  By the way, how did you know?”

She had changed the subject again.  Queen let her.  “About what, Ma’am?”

“About David,” she answered, as if Queen should have realized what she was talking about.

Queen shifted.  “Because he didn’t have an RFID.  The same reason I know that Dr. Fastolfe was in his PT when it crashed.”

Gertrude smile.  “But other than that?”

“As I said.  he’s very life-like.”  Queen became distracted.  An elderly man entered the room with David.  “Dr. Fastlafe, I presume.”  Queen glanced at his hand held to verify.  The RFIDs matched.

“Why yes, I am Han Fastlafe.  How can I be of service, Inspector.”

“It’s Administrator,” Queen corrected.  He offered his hand.  “Pleased, to meet you, Professor.”

“Oh, it’s been many years since I’ve taught.”  Dr. Fastlafe looked at Queen’s outstretched hand.  His own faltered momentarily before finally clasping Queen’s.  “Well, this is an old ritual isn’t it?”

“Well, we’re both old-timers.”  Queen winked, and squeezed Fastlafe’s hand.  “You’re hands are so smooth,” Queen commented.  “I’ve found that the years have dried out mine.”

“Well, good genes, I guess.”  Fastlafe offered a nervous laugh.  “How can I help you Detective?”

Queen rubbed and patted Fastlafe’s hand before releasing it.  “Well, for starters, sir, you can explain how you are here.”

“Well, that’s an odd request.  Is it philosophical?”

“It might be,” offered Queen.  “But, we can start with a more spacial and temporal answer if you prefer.”

“Well, I live here, Detective.  Where else should I be?”

“Maybe so, but there’s some body parts registering your RFIDs some fifty kilometers from here.  They were found in the wreckage of PT that also happens to be registered to you.”

“Well that is curious,” admitted  Han Fastolfe.

“Yes it is,” agreed Queen.

“Well, I can assure you that I’ve been here all day.  In fact, I don’t think we’ve been out for …”  Dr. Fastlfe turned to his wife.  “How long has it been, dear?”

Gertrude offered another of her smiles.  “Oh, dear.  I think it’s been weeks, maybe months.  When was that Applied AI Conference?  A month and a half ago, I think.”

“That sounds about right.”

Queen  just nodded.  “And, what about your PT?  When was the last time it was out and about?

“Oh, I wouldn’t know.  I mean, I suppose, it’s been here all along.”  Dr. Fastolfe looked to his wife again.  “Hasn’t it, dear?”

“Oh, yes.  We practically never use it.  There’s no real need these days.”

“Is it here?”

“Well, I don’t … I mean, up until you arrived, I would have assumed that it was.”

“Can we take a look?”

Dr. Fastolfe looked at his wife.  “Of course.  David, please show the Administrator where we keep the PT, will you?”

“Certainly.”  David gestured for Queen to follow.

“Excuse me.”  Queen leaned forward and brushed something off David’s shoulder.  “You had some dust on your collar.”

“Thank you.”

“So tell, me does anyone else live here?”  Queen asked.

“David turned, to look at the administrator.  “You mean besides me?”

“Well, besides the couple, I meant.”

“There’s my sister,” replied David.

“You have a sister?” Queen’s eyebrows arched.  “Is she like you?”

“No, Administrator, she tends to keep to herself.  She rarely comes down from her room.”

“No, I meant,”  Queen stopped mid-sentence.  He decided to drop the subject.  Queen sensed that David might know the truth about itself.

Queen was past counting cups, now.  He was thinking about lining up some bottles.

 

The drizzle had intensified into full fledged rainstorm by the time Queen left the house.  Queen looked to the heavens.  He would have cursed them if he thought it would do any good.  Queen turned up his collar.  He hated the rain.  He marched to the PT, and got in.

“Take me to the storage units.  I want another look at the wreckage. And, I need some sample analysis.”  Queen started looking through the pockets of his coat.  “Here, do a complete dusting on these items.”

Electronic dust formed around each of the tiny items Queen produced from the folds of his coat.  “There’s some cellular material from Dr. Fastolfe’s hand.  A hair from ‘David,’ and a leaf, somewhere.”  He looked through his coat again till he found the small leaf.  “Compare with the victims of the wreckage, and with everything you have on file for Dr. Fastolfe.”  Queen paused.  “Also, do a search.  Let me know if Mrs. Blugerman or Dr. Fastolfe have any offspring.  And, I want a list of every android they have registered.”

Suddenly, the interior of the PT faded away and was replaced by the image of an office.  Someone was projecting to him, but Queen wasn’t given the option of not answering the call.  It was obviously his boss.

A middle age woman in a suit looked up from her desk.  “What do you have for me, Queen?”

“Not much, and too much.”  Queen explained to his commander the details of the day’s events.  He was careful to use small words and simple sentences.

“Probably the work of radicals,” the Chief Administrator said.  “Must be those Neo-Luddites.  They’re all a bunch of anarchists.”

Queen struggled to hide his contempt.  He wasn’t completely successful.  “Now, why would you say that, Ma’am?”

“They should lock all those Amish Luddites in a room and project them whatever techno-free reality they desire.   They’re a menace to society.”

Queen didn’t think it would be appropriate to remind the Chief Administrator of  citizens’ basic rights, and that all of the  various so-called Amish and Luddite groups were restricted to the reservations.  He did so anyway.

“Well, we’ll see what the future has in store for us, and for them,” offered the Chief Administrator.  “But why are you harassing Dr. Fastolfe?  What do you suspect him of doing?”

“Well, I don’t know yet.”  Queen succeeded a little better at restraining his contempt.  “But, I’m not harassing him.  I simply went to his home.  I thought he was dead.  When I found out he wasn’t, why shouldn’t I ask him some questions?”

“Because Dr. Fastolfe is a respected scientist, a pioneer in android technology and the President of Humanform Industries.”

“Humanform Industries went under three years ago, Ma’am,” Queen pointed out.  When it became prohibitive for androids to operate outside their owners’ residences, and with everyone living in smart homes, there really wasn’t much need for domestic androids.

“That doesn’t diminish his contribution to society.”

“I didn’t say it did, Ma’am.”

“Well, he’s still a leading member of society.  Besides he’s eighty-four.”

“Eighty-four?  He didn’t look eighty-four.”

The Chief Administrator became irate.  “What does an old man have to do with any of this business.”

Queen sighed.  “I’ll be eighty-four next month, Ma’am.”

“That’s right,” cut in the Chief Administrator.  “And well past the time you ought to be retiring.  You should let someone younger take over your duties, and go and enjoy yourself.”

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than working for you, Ma’am.”  Queen knew the sarcasm would be lost the Chief Administrator.  She had all the humor of a computer algorithm.

“Exactly what crime do you suspect Dr. Fastolfe of committing?” the Chief administrator demanded.

“We don’t even know if there’s been a crime, Ma’am.”

A nondescript woman in uniform appeared to the side and waited patiently.  Queen noted that functions were much more attractive these days, but he kept his comment to himself.  He didn’t want to be accused of subroutine harassment.    Queen turned to the computer personification.  “What do you got?”

The woman faced to Queen.  The samples you retrieved from Fastolfe home match the samples from the crash sites.

“Which samples?” asked Queen.  “The DNA from the crash site with the DNA off of Dr. Fastolfe’s skin?”

“Yes, Administrator.  And also with the hair sample you provided.”

“There’s got to be a mistake.”

“No, Administrator.  The data is a perfect match.”

“A perfect match?” Queen was incredulous.

“What’s wrong?” asked the Chief Administrator.

Queen ignored her.  “What do you mean perfect?  A hundred percent match?”

“Yes, Administrator.”

“What’s wrong?” repeated the Chief Administrator.

“It’s impossible.”

“What is?”  The Chief Administrator asked.

“For starters one of those samples was from an Android.  But even the other two matching 100% is strange.  Genetic samples are never perfect matches.  There are always minute changes, and those changes grow over time.  That’s why people age, get sick …”

“Well, then the data must have been corrupted,” offered the Chief Administrator.   “I’ll order the samples to be reanalyzed.  I’m sure it’s just a problem with the samples.”

“Yeah,” Queen chuckled.  “All of them, at the same time.  One helluva coincidence.”  He didn’t believe in coincidences.

“Exactly.”  The Chief Administrator stood.  “I’ll inform you when we have new results.  In the meantime.  Go get some rest, Administrator.”

The projection ended abruptly.  Queen was back in their PT.

 

“Home, Administrator Queen?” the PT asked.

Queen paused.  “No, you know what?  Take me back to the Fastolfe-Blugerman house, okay?”

“Certainly, Administrator.”

Queen crossed the lawn.  On his way to the door, he plucked a few blades of grass and stuffed them into his pocket.   Before he could press the doorbell, the door opened.  David, wearing the same black jacket greeted Queen.  “May I help you, Administrator Queen?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I may speak to Mrs. Blugerman again?”

“Certainly.  I believe she may be expecting you.”

“Really?”  Queen found that interesting.

David nodded. “This way, please.”

They entered sitting room.  Sunlight still showered the room.  Queen squinted into the light.

“I was just about to sit down to some tea.  Won’t you join us?” Gertrude’s voice was sweet, with just a hint of the crackle of age.  It was still the paradigmatic voice of an elderly grandmother.

Queen blinked away the light – again.  “Thank you Ma’am. I’m sorry to bother you, I just had a few more questions, if I may.”

The blue haired woman smiled at Queen.  “Please, Inspector, sit down.  It’s no bother at all.  How can I help you?”

Queen sat down and looked at the woman. “Mrs. Blugerman?”

“Gertrude, please.”

Queen couldn’t help but smile.  “None of this is real, is it Ma’am?”

Gertrude gestured with her hand.  “Please, inspector.  What is real?  Isn’t it what we think, what we believe to be real?”

“I’m not a philosopher, Ma’am.”

“Inspector, what are you asking me then?  Do you feel the table?  Do you taste the tea?”

“Maybe.”

Gertrude laughed.  “You know when my children were little, we would play a game.  I would ask them how they knew they weren’t dreaming.  They would answer as most children will, with simple answers like:  because I know I’m not or they’d cite some outside evidence.”

Queen nodded.

“Then, I’d ask them if they didn’t think they were walking or talking or whatever in their dream.  If, in their dream, they ever thought they were dreaming or, while they were dreaming, they just thought they were.”  Gertrude smiled at Queen. “You know what they did then?”

Queen narrowed his eyes and shook his head.  A nervous smile played at the corners of his mouth.

Gertrude nodded.  “That’s exactly what my children did.  They smiled, shook their head and proceeded to change their focus.  The question is impossible to answer, of course.  If we are in a dream, we can’t know we are in a dream, unless something shakes us from it.”

Queen shifted uncomfortably.  “Are you saying, Ma’am, that you are in a type of dream?”

Gertrude smile gently.  “How would I know, Inspector?  How would you know if all this isn’t your dream?”

“No.”  Queen stated, and shook his head.  “That I know.  That I know,” he repeated.  Queen changed the subject.  “Just like your androids don’t know they’re androids do they? They’re not even registered with the Administration.”

Gertrude laughed.  “Again, Inspector, you’re asking the same question.  Don’t you remember all of those old Science Fiction tropes where the robots are implanted with memories, so they think they’re human?  How do we know we’re not just like them?”

“Ma’am, your husband tried to leave here, didn’t he.”  Queen looked hard at Gertrude.  “He wanted to escape all this, this dream, didn’t he?”

Gertrude shifted uncomfortably under Queen’s watchful gaze.

“He thought you were going with him, didn’t he?”

“No,” Gertrude protested.  “My husband is here, with me.  He’ll be down in a minute.”

“But it wasn’t you, was it Ma’am?”  It was an android that looked and acted like you.  Wasn’t it?”

Gertrude shook her head.  “No. You have it all wrong.”

“Do I?  You’ve both become prisoners of your own creation, of your little dream world.”

“No, my husband will be down in a moment, for tea.”  Gertrude’s voice was strained.

“That’s not your husband, Ma’am.  Your husband died in a PT crash yesterday.  He was killed, wasn’t he Ma’am.  He wanted to leave this little paradise of yours and tried to escape.”

“No.”

“His leaving threatened to destroy this entire fantasy, isn’t that right?”

“No.  You saw for yourself.  You met him.  He even had the right RFID.  You said so yourself, Inspector.”

Queen shook his head.  “That’s only because you asked me how I recognized that David wasn’t human.  The house, or whatever network it is that’s running this place corrected itself, and supplied the appropriate RFID signal.”

“No, you have it all wrong.”  Gertrude’s voice nearly broke.  “My David,”

“According to our records, your David, the real David, died in an accident four years ago, Ma’am.”

“No, you’re wrong.”  Gertrude was on the verge of tears.  “That’s not the way it is at all.”

Queen pressed his hands on the table.  “Then maybe you should help me out, Ma’am.”

Gertrude tried to gather herself.  She forced a smile.  “Inspector, maybe it’s you that are living in the fantasy.  How do you know you haven’t been retired to some small room somewhere, and all this is a projection for your benefit, so you can while away your golden years.  Maybe, the computers have taken over, and they just keep us humans here as a curiosity, likes pets in a zoo – AI nostalgia.”

Queen laughed, but there was a nervous edge to it.  He was reminded of the Chief Administrators threat against the Luddites.  Suddenly he had another suspicion.  “Are you a human, Ma’am?  Are you real?  Are you alive?”

Gertrude shifted from tears to laughter and back.  “How would I know, Inspector?”  She looked at him pleading,  “How can I know?”

“Thank you Ma’am.”  Queen got up to leave.  He had his answers.  “You’ve been most helpful.  Sorry for the intrusion.”

“But what about your tea, , Inspector.”  Gertrude held up the tea pot.  “You didn’t touch your tea.  Don’t leave me.  Don’t leave me alone here.”

Queen left the house.  He looked at the PT, but decided he’d walk home.  He wondered if he knew the way.  The rain started to pick up again, but Queen barely noticed.

###

A Woman Named Life

by Justin Chasteen

 

Prologue

I had her once.

I was young and stupid, seeking a life of adventure—assuming my return with riches would make her happy. My father and her mother worked together in the mill. They hated each other, yet, still allowed us to play in the soft glade of Loftloss where blueberries grew like weeds. I think she and I were all that prevented our parents from killing one another. My father said her mother was a cold, haggard woman, and her mother said my father was a bastard of a man. Neither was right. Her mother was kind and gentle with a healer’s touch; the burden of raising two girls on her own made her strong. My father, tough on the outside, taught me every bit of what it took to be a man and provide for a family through hard work. I should have listened. Part of me had always dreamed that my father would realize her mother was a good woman and marry her. I always wanted a mother, and it would have given me an excuse to share a roof with Life. Yes, her name is Life. An odd name for any child, but it grew on me. It’s a beautiful name, Life, and held much meaning as we grew up together.

From childhood to our teenage years, we were inseparable, Life had no flaws—just glimmering beauty and kindness. She kissed me once. The kiss was playful, but it changed me. I never forgot the taste of blueberries on her lips.

The ships flew into the town of Crooked Hill the following day, and I left to work on the decks, promising to return to her with gold and fortune. She had no objection, blankly watching from the docks as the ship lifted me into the air. I put my left hand over my heart and pressed the fingers of my right hand against my lips until she was out of sight—a speck of earth. I now realize that she hadn’t come to see me off, but to let go of me forever. Life was wise even as a teenager, a trait I never developed.

I chose adventure over paradise.

***

The wind whips tentacles of blood-soaked hair around my face. Groad’s heavy fist, again, propels into the air, momentarily blocking the afternoon sun. The shadow disappears, as do my two front teeth, but at this point I’m numb from pain. They’d beaten me for two straight days and nights, and it’s worth it. The pain reminds me of the mistake I’d made—a sacrifice worthy of agony. He yanks me forward by my collar, blood streaming through my lips; droplets spatter against the deck like a light rainfall.

“Don’t choke on those,” says he. “We ain’t done yet.”

I was the best man at Groad’s wedding. It was a lovely, small event on the western shore of Solais Island. The brute wore no shirt and britches with the knees torn out; his bride wore a blue dress that hung halfway off her malnourished frame. Bessy was her name, I think. The sunset was crimson that night, and I remember thinking to myself that Groad and his new bride wouldn’t last a month. I was right. He killed her after only two weeks. Drunk as always, he’d beat her to death for not having dinner ready when he came home in the middle of the night. Much like Bessy, I didn’t stand a chance.

I spit the two teeth onto the worm-rotted wood of the main deck. It wouldn’t be long now before the worms ate their way through to the lower deck. I just wish I could be around to see it—twenty men plundering through splintered wood, their legs gashed and, hopefully, necks broken.

My swollen tongue fills the hole where my teeth used to be but doesn’t stop the bleeding. Laughter all around me, I open my good eye—the eye that’s still firmly in the socket—and glance around at my old crew. Billy, Ames, Old Rion, and even Tyre look on. Not a single man grimaces or shows any remorse.

They all encourage Groad to take my other eye, but Captain Bestial speaks, “Take a break, Groad,” says he. “I want to have words with Charles before he dies.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

I thud like a sack of potatoes, slipping and sliding on my own gore as I try to stand, but the captain presses his boot—my old boots—against my throat.

“How did it get to this, old friend?” asks Captain Bestial. “All you have to do is tell us where you hid it, and I’ll let you live.”

Surely a lie—I’m dead either way. Capital Bestial is much more vile a captain than I ever was. He had been my quartermaster, and everything he knows, he learned from me. I try to speak, but he digs his heel into my Adam’s apple.

“Foster, where’s my prize?” says he.

“No… idea… where—”

He yanks his foot from my neck, slipping on the deck pooled with blood. I want to laugh, but my shattered jaw prevents me from even a smile. I briefly imagine my jaw looking like the puzzle pieces I used to play with as a lad.

I gaze up through single, blurred vision to the massive rotor blades spinning from the mast. Sky-piracy has crumbled in the passing years. I used to run The Golden Harp, this very ship, with dignity and honor. I love this ship. I love this ship more than any one of these heathens could love a woman or prize. Now these men, once my men, roam the skies murdering and raping traveling merchants instead of simply robbing them of their cargo and letting them sail away with their lives. We never harmed anyone who didn’t put up a fight, but these men, my men, they’re no longer men at all; they’re blood-thirsty savages.

They hunted me and I ran, up until a few days ago when they found me asleep in a small barn outside of Layintu. The family there was generous enough to give me food and shelter for a few days’ work. It sickens me that these bastards torched the place after hauling me away.

I traveled the world on this air-ship without regret or consequence, but the life of a sky-pirate now sickens me.

One cool evening, nearly two years ago when we had docked at Myles Harbor, I took the radiant, green gem. No one had suspected a thing; I was still their captain at that point, and like a fool, I never thought they’d find me.

After I traveled three-hundred miles to Life—hitching rides on merchant ships and offering work as a deckhand for transport—I never spoke a word to her when I arrived, slipping the gem into her palm and disappearing into the night before she could object. It was the most intimate moment we’d ever shared—aside from the blueberry kiss.

“Groad, help this traitor to the plank,” says Bestial.

Groad wraps his giant hand around my throat and lifts me several feet off the deck. Light-headed, my sight leaves me until I find myself creaking on the base of a long, wooden slab.

I teeter on the edge of the plank. My eye only remains in the socket because of the swollen shut eyelid; my ribs are shattered and it burns when I inhale; my right shoulder is separated or broken, I’m not sure; but my pride remains untouched. I examine the islands in the distance much like a telescope. If I can stall a few more minutes, I’ll have a chance to land in water, not the daggered mountains of Olayth. The fall won’t kill me, but the current surely will if I’m unable to swim. There’s an outpost of crazed men and women, expelled from the main port of Talismount just south of Olayth. Surely they know of safe passage back to the capital—if they don’t eat me first, if I even survive the fall.

“I’ll tell you where it is,” says I, turning toward my crew. They’ll always be my crew, even if they mean to kill me, even if I mean to kill them. A captain knows when to turn his crew to the sword. There comes a time—not always, but occasionally—when a crew hungers for more than riches. That’s when a captain must know his crew are no longer his comrades but his adversaries.

“Aye?” says Captain Bestial. His skeletal frame looks as if the violent winds will simply blow him away like scattering sand. Through gritted golden teeth, he continues, “Where’s the gem?”

I think of Life,  the girl—now woman—I’ve loved for many years. That gem was her passage to a life she’s worthy of living. Even if she doesn’t love me like I love her, she and her two children will never have to worry about food or clothing again. I’d raise those two kids like my own; I’d love them unconditionally—but it can never be. Most find it foolish that I love the memory of a girl—but most never spent every waking moment with someone for fifteen years. Life was there every morning and every evening. Some of the local-folk often mistook us for siblings because we were always side-by-side. Praise be to my father for working so hard—if it wasn’t for his long hours at the mill, I’d have never been given the chance to spend every breath with her.

A woman’s love can grow for a man, but I chose a life in the wind over a life with her.

She doesn’t look at me as a man anymore—just a pirate. Bestial will never find her, and if it means I must take her location down below and swallow a gallon of ocean, I’ll die with a smile on my face.

“I hid it in your mother’s arse,” says I. “Put her back in the ground and pissed on the mound of dirt when I was done.”

Capital Bestial pulls free his scimitar and charges forward. I consider letting his steel relieve my agony, but if there’s a chance I can somehow live and watch her grow old—even crippled and from a distance—it’s worth it.

I step backward off the edge of the plank, heels dragging me into the consuming wind.

I plunge at a great speed, arms drifting wildly above my head. This is all for her. I try to glance down, but the wind stings my good eye, and it wells with tears. Her face appears in my mind. Whether I land on soil or water, I know she—

 

One

“Doctress Adimain… he’s awake.”

Although I know who, I still refuse to believe it. For six years he’s laid in that bed without any movement. When they gave up on him, I was the one who kept him fed, hydrated, cleaned, and presentable in case this day ever came—now the day is here and I can’t face him—

“—Doctress,” repeats the nurse.

“I heard you, Laurel. Surely you don’t mean patient—”

“We had to restrain him. It seems the closing moments before he went into the coma were… violent.”

“I’ll be there in a moment,” says I.

I calmly collect my thoughts, then rise from my cot in the pitch black call-room. Although my home is only a half-mile away, it’s standard protocol for doctors and doctresses to stay at the hospital when on duty for three days. I miss tucking in my children—even if they’re too old to like it—especially on those nights I’ve tossed and turned on the cot that makes my back ache, but it’s only three nights a week. The remaining four days are spent at home with them and my sister, Eveleigh. We moved here, the twins just toddlers, eight years ago. Our mother passed away before I was pregnant, so there was nothing holding us to that small town. When we arrived, I took up studies for nursing, which led to becoming a doctress; Eveleigh became a teacher at the only school in town. She watches my children for me when I have to stay at Monstone Ward, a hospital for those who can’t afford the well-keeping from Geyser Institution just ten miles south. We here at Monstone get the drunks, stabbed, shot, and sickly poor, or in this case… comatose.

I light a candle, and then enter the hallway that leads to the main floor. Short of breath and lightheaded, I ascend the stairs to the floor where this patient has rested for much longer than anyone expected. I’ve waited a long time for this moment, finally to hear his voice, but now I only want to run out the front entrance. I knew this day was coming. For the past several weeks he’d squeezed my finger when I asked him to. The first time he squeezed it, I ran into the hallway and vomited.

Three months into his occupancy, the chief medical staff voted to bury him. I refused, and all his care is now docked from my pay. Why do I do it? At first, I had no clue. It wasn’t until three years ago that I realized I had never fallen out of love with him.

My shoes click against the stone floor, and I brace myself for an impact I can’t predict. Will he remember the voice that read to him nearly every night, the touch that washed his body, and the lips that met his—if only that one time? Will he know who I am? Examinations claim that the comatose often can hear, but medical theory and distant hypotheses mean little to me. I’ve come to learn two things in this field: assumption leads to death, and reaction lengthens life.

His door is shut, and there’s not a sound from the other side, where an entire world awaited me.

“Patient Doe,” says I from behind the wooden door. “This is Doctress Adimain. I’m going to enter.”

Not a peep from him, but a nurse beckons me.

I slowly creak open the door and see his tall, lanky frame shackled to the bed by leather straps around his wrists and ankles. Eyes glazed, breath heavy, he doesn’t try to move.

I glance to the two nurses in attendance and nod for them to leave. When the door shuts behind me, I stride to his bed and rest my hand on his chest. He flinches, which in return causes me to pull back. He twists his eyes to meet mine, and I see nothing behind them.

“Charles, do you know who I am?” says I, trembling.

“Charles?” says he.

“Your name is Charles Foster, but everyone here will call you patient Doe.”

“Where am I?” says he.

When he first came to Monstone Ward, his face was swollen badly from a broken orbital bone. We were able to repair his eye, doubting he’d ever see out of it again, and his fingers and shoulder had to be reset. I’d forgotten over all this time that he’d also been missing his two front teeth. About a year ago I’d snuck a dentist in here after hours and had him take a graph of Charles’ gums. If he ever awoke, I wanted him to be able to wear false teeth. He always had such a pretty smile.

“You’re at Monstone Ward, in Dochness. Do you know where that is?”

“No.” He tries to raise his torso, but the restraints keep him flat.

“Dochness is the capital of Volsire.”

“How long have I been asleep?” says he.

“You’ve been comatose for six years,” says I. “Would you like me to loosen your restraints?”

Again, his gaze flicks to me, but I can tell he has no idea who I am. From what I’ve studied, those who awaken from a coma often have blurred vision.

“Please, Ma’am,” says he. “who are you?”

“My name is Life—Life Adimain, and I’ve been taking care of you these past six years.”

 

Two

“And now what?” says Eveleigh. “Just because he’s awoken, you think you can make up for lost time?”

“Be quiet,” says I, peeking toward the two closed doors on the far side of the living room. “You’re going to wake them!”

“He chose a life of crime over you before; surely he’ll do it again. Do you think he’ll magically remember the times you spent together as children? You said yourself—he only murmurs of the sky.”

“I don’t know what to expect, Eveleigh, but because of him, you and I have what we have. That gem he gave me paid for all of this.”

“No. You cashed in that gem and donated most of the money to the mill. That gem paid for Thomas and Maggie’s schooling and your doctress degree,” says Eveleigh.

“And your teaching certificate. I didn’t hear any objections when we used the money to pay for that. I only kept enough gold for the opportunity to get my children a proper education, and the gift of knowledge for you and I to help others.”

“And you feel like you owe him something now?” Eveleigh stood from the far stool near the table, flipping curly, red hair from her shoulders. “It’s been two weeks since he’s awoken, yet you go see him even when you’re not on duty.”

“Mind your own business,” says I, tears welling. “I can’t help that I love the bastard. I did once before and swore to never love again. Do you think I could see the future—that he’d somehow come to this hospital?”

Eveleigh pauses, considering her next choice of words. She had always feared the temper of her little sister, and I often used it to my advantage. “What if he walks away again?”

“Then so be it,” says I. “But I must know if his memory—the memory of he and I—will come back to him. Fate brought him here, and I guarantee he was in that coma because of the gem he gave to me.”

“That was his choice.” Eveleigh stomps her foot. “He holds no claim over you or this family. Just because their father could never amount to the man you claimed Charles could be, doesn’t mean you were right. He’s a goddamn pirate!”

“WAS,” spill the words from my lips, “was a pirate.”

“He’s going to break your heart again, sister, and I can’t see you like that.”

“I have to know,” says I. “I have to know if his memory will come back to him—if he still chooses to be that man he was long before he ran off and joined a crew—I must know.”

Eveleigh snatches her cloak from the table chair. “Not tonight,” says she. “I’m going out. You stay here for once, and let the piece of shit gaze aimlessly from his bed.”

“He no longer gazes,” says I. “He’s coherent now. He remembers more each day.”

“About that goddamn ship. Not about you.”

Eveleigh opens the door, and a brisk wind whips across my face. “It’s too chilled tonight for just a cloak.”

“I’ll make due,” says she, closing the door behind her.

I stride to the kitchen and pour a glass of blue wine. I haven’t drank in years—since he first came to Monstone Ward—but the sweet taste of blueberry on my lips reminds me of the fields of Loftloss. It’s foolish to have hope—I know this—but I loved Charles back then, I loved him after he left me for riches, I loved him when he came to me and put that gem in my palm, and I love him now. How did he know I was a struggling mother of two? Did he keep eyes on me even from the sky? He’s returned to my life for a reason, and I will not waste it.

I light a lantern and sit by the window, journal on my lap and glass in hand. Skimming through the first few pages, I recall the notes I’d taken of a comatose patient during my residency. He eventually awoke, but had no amnesia like Charles. I browse over my notes of the past week:

Day Three: He’s quite hungry and able to keep his food down. He refers to me as nurse, although I’ve told him several times I’m a doctress. I try to get him to walk from his bed to the window, but his legs are dead to him. He isn’t fond of the black eyepatch worn to cover his blind eye but continues to wear it when looking outside.

Day Four: He remembers my name from the days prior; Life Adimain, he says with a roll of his tongue like I’m some foreign minister. He asks me to come read to him before bed hours and I decline.

Day Five: He’s able to take a single step before collapsing. Charles recollects being in the air, on a ship—possibly a merchant vessel as it’s raided. He says he thinks no one was harmed, but still is appalled that someone would steal from a merchant. He has no clue that he was the pirate.

Day Six: Charles takes three steps, and then needs to sit. He recalls a man named Bestial and says he’s a prick, but doesn’t know why. He asks me if a “Groad” or any of his other men are at the hospital. I say no. That he asks me to read to him. He chooses a novel titled A Life in the Sky, and I say I’ll try and obtain it for him from the local library. Bringing back any memory of his days as a sky-pirate could help him remember me, and perhaps what he once felt for me.

Day Seven: He sleeps most of the day. When I bathe him, he remains a gentleman as always, but attempts to scrub himself, poorly. He doesn’t ask about the book. I gift him the false teeth I had molded for him, and he accepts then thanks me. He tells me that he wishes he knew someone with my kindness before he was broken—maybe he wouldn’t be in the pain he’s in now. I leave the room crying.

Day Eight: His hands grow strong and less clumsy. He’s able to feed himself with his fingers, but not a fork or spoon. Charles grows angry when he can’t do simple tasks and claims to be a “goddamn baby.”

Day Nine: The local library is not able to provide the book he requested. I offer to read him something else, and he says he trusts me to pick a good book. He likes to hear gossip from Monstone Ward, too.

Day Ten: He walks up and down the hallway with my help and feels good about doing so. He’s able to read most words. Writing is a task since his hands are still clumsy, but his vocabulary has remarkably returned to near perfection. Charles asks me what put him into his six-year coma and how he came about being admitted to Monstone Ward, but I play ignorant. The initial report is that he washed ashore badly broken, and a fisherman called the town guards to come claim the body. They had nearly killed and buried him due to little faith he’d return to normal frame.

Day Eleven: He asks me if he will ever see out of his left eye again. I say no and he cries. “Why would someone do this to me?” he asks, but I have no answer. I read him two chapters from the novel Lanegan Way, and he falls asleep in a fetal position staring out the window into night.

I close the journal and realize I’ve emptied my glass. Why I’m doing this to myself when I could simply tell him of our past? Our past means nothing without the memory of his emotions. He needs to recall everything he’s done—including the bad—and decide if he’s ready to settle down with me. I can’t push him, or tell him of how we used to share a bed, innocently, when his father worked late, or that I loved him even in the moment he left me. He needs to realize my pain to remember my love.

A few more days walking down the hall, and he should have the energy to go outside. I plan on taking him to a glade not far from here that resembles Loftloss. Maybe his memory will start to return then.

Three

Days pass, and his strength, coordination, and sight return to an average state. I make Charles a special breakfast. His father used to take a mixture of grape jelly and butter, whip it into a big pink glob, and dip biscuits in it. Charles ate it every morning, but I only had the luxury of enjoying the butter-jelly once Charles was old enough to make it for us both. He’s shy eating in front of me, possibly still getting used to his false front teeth, so I pretend to write a medical supply list.

“This is good,” says he, “best thing I’ve tasted in years.” Charles tries not to smile, but I can’t help but smirk. His humor returns, even if his memory doesn’t.

“Does it remind you of anything?” says I.

He thinks for a bit, then shakes his head no as if there’s a pile of dry leaves in his brain, but there’s no flint to light it.

 

I try to keep track of time as he gazes through one eye at the mercantile and imperial sky-ships floating with the clouds beneath the glow of the sun. Sometimes the harbor becomes backed up blocks and the sky-ships hang several hundred feet for close to an hour—massive, stupid flying block of wood I say. I’ve always hated sky-ships, even before Charles left in one. When we moved to Dochness, I refused to go by sky-ship, and it took an extra three weeks to get here by sea.

It’s hard to assume he didn’t know how much I loved him, even so young, and it’s selfish to pretend he should have known though I didn’t tell him. Boys don’t think like girls. He was intent on bringing me riches, and I hadn’t a clue if that was love or friendship. Now that I think about it, maybe girls don’t think like boys—

But, how could I hold on to a man who wouldn’t hold on to me?

He looks healthier in the sunlight, possibly more content with his situation. Studies show once a piece of memory comes back, more may follow, or even flood, and the patient may calm. I never realized how handsome Charles had grown to be. It had been close to eight years since I’d seen him. Raising two babies alone at twenty-three taught me a lot about myself. They were only two months old when their father grew jealous of the attention I gave them and took off—I haven’t seen him since. Maggie and Thomas were two years old when Charles dropped that gem in my hand and disappeared. I sold it immediately and moved far away to better our lives. Charles had left me abruptly, again, and I wanted to go where he’d never be able to find me. Now, my children will never have to depend on anyone else, like I unwillingly depended on Charles’ treasure. I was spiteful when I sold it, but never felt so much relief when we were able to move away with the opportunity he’d provided and simply started our lives over. Now they’re both ten, and much more rambunctious than I at their age.

“What’s this place called?” says he, admiring the tall field of waving orange grass. I’m happy to see he finally broke his wonderment of the sky-ships. “It’s lovely.”

“This is Maiden’s Glade. I come here sometimes to think,” says I. “I thought it would be nice to get some fresh air. Are you cold?”

“No,” says he, rolling his fingers, then pulling his cloak tight around his neck.

“Any more memories return?” says I.

He looks at me with one eye—a big, beautiful, blue iris—and slowly exhales. “I had a dream of my love,” says he.

My stomach knots.

“We called her The Golden Harp, but I named her something else. I don’t remember, though.”

“A harp? You loved a harp?” asks I, sorrowfully.

He smiles for the first time. His fake front teeth look as real as any. “No. It was my ship,” says he. “Every sky-lord loves his ship like a woman. I just can’t remember what I named her.”

If he named the ship after me, then there is still hope. Normally I’d be disgusted by such lunacy—a ship used for thievery and murder named Life—but I don’t care. I want him to stand up and scream my name.

“It’ll come back to you,” says I. “Your memory returns more each day.”

“Life,” says he, and my heart skips a beat. The ship’s name had come to him after all.

“That’s my name,” says I. I can see my name and the name of his ship connecting in his head.

“No, I know that. I haven’t forgotten anything learned since I awoke. I was just saying your name because I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me the past six years. No matter what happens to me, I’ll always remember the name of the kindest woman in the world.”

His words are a sweet dagger into my heart. Tears of disappointment well in my eyes, and I pull out a cloth handkerchief. “Thank you, Charles,” says I.

“Why are you crying?” asks he. “I hope I’ve not offended you with my praise. I just appreciate it—taking time away from your family for me—your husband’s a generous man to allow you to help me.”

I smile. “The wind wets my eyes. No worries, Charles. I have an allergy to the sungrass.”

“We can go back inside.” He fumbles with his cloak and tries to wrap it around my shoulders. He sees that I’m shivering, but has no idea it’s because I’m close to a complete collapse. Charles thinks I’m cold; he remembers how to read others—even if he doesn’t realize it.

“No, this is lovely,” says I. “And don’t worry about my husband. I’ve never had one.”

“I… I’m sorry for assuming.” Charles leans back on both hands against the blanket—just like the picnics we’d had so many times before.

“Don’t be,” says I. “I never loved the man who fathered them, but I’m grateful for him.”

“I don’t understand.”

“If it weren’t for him, I’d not have Thomas and Maggie,” says I, “and most likely wouldn’t be here in Dochness.”

“Where would you be?” asks he. “Where are you from?”

“Far from here.”

“Oh,” says he. “I’m glad you have someone in your life to make you feel that way. I can’t remember if I’m a father, or a husband, or a King. I don’t know if I’ve ever loved a woman or child. All I remember is spending a great deal of time on one of those ships.” He points to the sky. “Maybe I was a merchant.”

“There’s no shame in that,” says I, regretting the entire afternoon. “There are far worse things to be than a merchant.”

 

Four

Several weeks later I approach Charles’ room early one morning with butter-jelly and warm biscuits. He’s speaking to someone, and I stay in the hallway to listen.

“It’s a real shame this happened to you, Sir. Any time you’re ready to get back into the sky, I’d be happy to take you anywhere you want to go,” says a deep, familiar voice. “You don’t remember, but you saved my life many years ago—I’ll never forget it.”

“I wish I did remember,” says Charles. “You say your ship was taken by pirates?”

“Aye,” says the stranger. “Your ship pulled up, and you had words with their captain. They left with no objection.”

“And you’re a mail carrier?” asks Charles. I realize it’s Duke Canniston, the postman who delivers mail from across the sea. I only see him every few months.

“Aye. You were just a young man then, but I never forgot your face. My crew and I owe you our lives.”

“What was I?” says Charles. “A merchant? A merchant that intimidated pirates?”

Before I can break the conversation, I hear Duke trip over his words. “No… you were a pirate.”

I halt my intended entrance and listen. “A pirate,” says Charles. “A sky-pirate?”

Duke’s reluctance is felt through the walls. “Yes. Don’t know much more than that. I don’t even remember your name, Sir. Just that you were the captain and others feared you enough to drop all my cargo and leave without objection.”

“Get out,” says Charles.

“Pardon?”

“GET OUT!”

Charles’ seething tongue startles me, but I know he needs to hear this.

Duke Canniston stomps from the room without a word, and I turn my back to him so he doesn’t see my face. He’s always trying to court me, and that’s the last thing I need right now.

By the time I find the nerve to enter his room, the biscuits are cooled.

“Good morning, Charles. How was your night?” says I.

He doesn’t respond. Charles sits on his bed with his knees tucked to his chin, arms wrapped around his shins. He’d taken his black eyepatch and thrown it across the room, possibly at Duke.

“I’m never wearing that again,” says he.

“But Charles, your eye is too sensitive to sunlight.”

“I don’t care. May I be left alone today, Doctress?”

He speaks to me as if the past few weeks have been nothing. I’m a stranger, and he’s a monster—I can sense it in his voice. The memories bottled so deeply in a part of his mind that he might never be able to open—they haunted him—and now he’s learned of his past as a pirate. Although I know this can only lead to more memory, I’m still sad for him.

“As you wish.” I leave the plate of butter-jelly and biscuits on the foot of his bed and exit his room.

A bit shaken up, I return home. It was one of my days off, but I’ve gotten so used to spending time with Charles when the children were at school or in bed, I hadn’t realized all I’ve ignored around my own home. After sweeping the floor, folding Maggie and Thomas’ clothing, and washing the dishes left from breakfast—which was host to my children’s new favorite meal—I collapse in my bed, wondering what Charles is doing.

I fall asleep and dream that he leaves me.

 

Later that evening I sip my blue wine and check over Thomas’ homework—he struggles with long division—and there’s a knock at the door. Eveleigh answers as I continue on with Thomas about division tables.

“Doctress,” says a voice from the door. It’s Thane Grigoric, the watchman who works evenings in our area of the town. Broad shouldered, he turns sideways to enter my home, hand resting firmly on the haft of his sword, crossbow latched to his back. I’d fancied Thane for a time—short peach-colored hair blended with his beard, a prominent jaw, and muscles that had muscles of their own—but there was no room for men in my life… so I once thought.

“Sorry to bother you this late, Doctress,” says he.

“It’s Life,” says I. “You know there’s no need for titles when I’m not on duty, Watchman. What’s the problem?”

“I was told to only speak to you, privately, regarding a situation at Monstone Ward. Would you please come with me?”

“Is everything alright?” says Thomas from the table. I love how the sunset always turns his hair auburn from blonde. It makes him look less of his father and more of me.

“Everything is fine, young man.”

“Eveleigh, would you put them to bed?” says I. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Eveleigh nods, and I exit to the porch with Thane. The near-nightfall air makes my lungs heavy with chill, and I cross my arms.

“Doctor Stahl sent me. A… Patient Doe won’t eat, refuses to take any medication, and has been restrained. He only says your name.”

 

When I burst into Charles’ room, two watchmen monitor him as he tries to rip his limbs free from leather restraints; his bare ankles and wrists are smeared with blood.

“I’m here,” says I, careful not to expose my knowledge of his name.

He stops struggling, and drops his head to his sweat-stained pillow. “Life,” says he. “I remember so much. After this morning, when I acted like a fool, I fell asleep and awoke with memories—”

I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry. “Wait outside, please,” says I to the watchmen. They both nod and take their leave, keeping the door open behind them for my own safety. “What do you remember?”

I unfasten his restraints and then wet a washcloth from the sink, carefully washing his raw wrists and ankles. Thankfully, he only has minor cuts. Once he’s free, he sits up in his bed and hides his long face in his hands.

“Horrible things,” says he. Hope leaves me, once again. He still doesn’t remember me—unless he remembers leaving me. “All these horrible things. I flew for many years as a sky-captain. We raided merchants, fought battles with all who opposed, and killed sky-guardians who tried to bring us to justice. These horrible deeds, yet I only feel sorrow for what I’d done to my own crew. I stole from them—something of great value.”

“What was it?” says I. “Surely there’s no shame in stealing an already stolen item.”

“I don’t remember,” says he. “All I know is I took it to some town. I hid for days, weeks, maybe years after that until they found me. They beat me to hell and back. I think that’s why I’m in here.”

I rest my hand on the back of his neck; Charles doesn’t flinch at my warm touch. “All this shame and sorrow—I’m surely where I deserve to be. We stole and killed together, yet I only feel regret because I stole from them… men considered to be family by oath. Why would I feel such things?”

“It’s alright, Charles,” says I. “It’s not what we’ve done with our lives, but what we’ve yet accomplished. You have a chance to start over, away from all of that, and write your wrongs into songs of joy.”

“I’m broken,” murmurs he.

I take his face in mine. His white-glossed eye never bothered me. In this moment it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen—far more radiant than the gem he’d given me so many years ago that brought us back together. In time, he’d remember what he stole, whom he gave it to, and why he did it—and we’d be able to start our lives over together.

I press my lips to his, salty tears moistening my mouth, and he doesn’t restrain. “Blueberries,” says he. “You taste like blueberries; I remember blueberries.” I release our kiss, nearly twenty years held, and turn to shut the door. He grabs my wrist, startling me and tugs me back to him. I lift my leg behind me and close the door with the tips of my toes. We kiss again, and again, and again. Our hands glide over each other’s bodies. He pulls my shawl over my head and rubs his hands up my back; it gives me chills. I unbutton his shirt, no care of what’s heard on the other side of the door, and run my fingertips along his abdomen. He’s so scarred, yet smooth—like a stone shaped over hundreds of years from the oceanic tide. It’s beautiful.

His single blue eye meets my gaze, and he smiles as if asking for permission. I place his hands on my hips and continue kissing him. Charles gently eases down my skirt and slides a palm between my legs. His touch is warm as I pulse in his hand. His memory is clouded, so I help direct his fingers in the right places and gently inhale his breath into mine. It feels so right—so natural as if all these years of torture were meant to lead to this moment. Between gasps of passion, I pull his britches down and climb onto the bed. He enters my life for a fourth time.

 

Five

In the passing days, Charles and I keep our hands to ourselves during the hours when I’m on duty. We both know it was no mistake and continue to make love each night after the watchmen leave Monstone Ward for the evening. Even when I’m home, I dream of his touch. I’d waited so long to feel his lips on mine again, and I never wanted them to leave. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I sneak out and check on him as he sleeps, just to make sure he hasn’t left me again. More memories return—detailed memories of his days as Captain Charles Foster—and he often speaks of blueberries. He has no interest in eating them, only tasting them on my lips. The panel of elder doctors and doctresses grow restless with his stay and claim he’ll soon be able to leave Monstone Ward and continue his life elsewhere. I know I’ll have to be the one who has the discussion with him on his future plans, but I’m not nervous. He’ll stay in Dochness. Not with me at first—I could never just throw a man into my children’s lives—but he’ll remain close. I’m confident he is capable of physical labor to a certain degree, and there’s plenty of opportunity in Dochness. Charles is retaining information with no memory loss, and I’m content with the man his is now, even if he doesn’t remember what we once were. I hope he feels the same way. What we are now is much more than childhood love.

 

Two months come and go, and it’s time for his release from the hospital. I’m anxious of the world around me that’s hopefully about to change for the better. I arise from another sleepless night, and vomit just like the previous few mornings—a familiar feeling—surely my nerves getting the best of me. We haven’t discussed his plans, but I will ask him to stay in Dochness. Willand Mayforth, a local carpenter and close friend of Eveleigh has offered to take him as an apprentice if Charles will have it. It’s a good start, a fresh start. I bathe and dress myself, fighting to urge to vomit again. I charge forward to Monstone Ward with a sense of eagerness, not only for Charles, but for myself.

When I arrive to his room, stomach queasy, his bed is empty. There’s a note on his bed. Nausea drops me to my knees, and I read it.

Life,

I can never thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. You used your god-given kindness to keep me alive and fix me one piece at a time. In this moment, these past few months, possibly the past six years—I’d never been happier to have someone at my side. It sickens me to leave you, but I must. I love you, but there’s someone else, and I love her, too. I now know that I made the mistake of leaving her years ago, and I must find her. I’ve loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her as a child. I don’t remember this, but feel it. Just like you’ve taught me, I have to trust my heart. I don’t remember a thing about her, but what you and I shared sparked her presence inside of me. Her name, face, and location are a blur, but I will find her. I can’t stay here with you when I know there’s someone else out there who truly holds my heart. It’s not fair to you.

Love,

Charles Foster

Epilogue

The limp in my left leg is unnoticeable, in my opinion anyway. I refuse to leave Life wearing the clothing she’d purchased for me to wear on our evening strolls, so I picked the lock to the tailor’s shop—I guess skill remains where memory doesn’t—and dressed in a suit of black.

The sun’s not yet risen, but I’m already through the trader’s town that spills halfway to Monstone Ward from the sky-harbor of Dochness. I’m unsure if I’ve ever felt pain like I feel now—a ball of twisted agony in the pit of my gut—but I know I must go find her. I can never repay Life for all she’s done for me, but like a coward, I must flee. I fear that if I speak to her face-to-face, she’ll convince me to stay, and I owe it to this other woman—this other piece to my heart—to find her and make up for the years I’d spent away from her. When Life would kiss me after drinking her blue wine, I vaguely remembered a glade. One night after Life had returned to her home, I’d broken into the library and skimmed one of the geography books. There’s only three places in this country where blueberries grow, and they’re all southern regions. Surely I can find my past if I can find this glade.

It only takes a moment before I recognize a pirate ship. The men all pretend to be merchants, but I can tell by the way the wood-worms have chewed their way through the bowsprit that this vessel is not under the regulations of the trade commission.

“May I speak to your captain,” says I to a lumbering fellow unloading sacks of grain.

“We have no captain,” says he, playing dumb. It’s not uncommon for merchants to purchase goods from pirates as long as their flags are unseen.

“Well may I speak to your merchant lord?” says I.

“Aye,” says he. “You’re talkin’ to ‘em.”

“My name is Charles Foster. I previously worked on a ship like this, and was wondering—”

“You ain’t never worked on a ship like this,” says he.

“Nonetheless, I was wondering if you could use a deckhand. I ask no payment. Just three meals a day, and passage to Crooked Hill, Delias, or Windsprint. Will you be flying by any of those towns on your voyage?” says I.

The captain looks me over. “You’re scrawny. You better not eat much,” says he.

“Mostly broth and bread—and you’ll have the cleanest deck in the clouds.”

The captain, still pretending to be a merchant lord, unloads the last sack of grain and accepts a leather sack from one of the local merchants. When the merchant takes his leave, the captain motions me aboard.

“Crooked Hill, Delias, or Windsprint?” says he. “I think we might find our way to one of those places soon enough. Welcome aboard.”

 

The mammoth rotors begin to spin, and I hold on to the railing so I’m not swept overboard. I try my damnedest not to look in the direction of Monstone Ward. Tears fill my eyes, and the wind knocks them down my cheeks. I want to stay, spend the rest of my days with Life, but I cannot. I’m a vile man who’s done vile deeds. A nurturing soul like that deserves a man of accord, not a former scoundrel of the skies.

With my one good eye, I glance down toward the docks as the ship floats higher and higher. The harbor shrinks, and a faint memory of flying overwhelms me. Just before I can pry my eyes away from Dochness, I see Life standing at the docks staring up at me, her golden hair whipping in the wind. The last thing I want is for her to see me leave on a vessel, especially a pirate ship, but it’s an insult to pretend I don’t see her—after all she’s done, that wonderful woman.

I peer down to her, placing my left hand over my heart, right hand to my lips, and blow her one last kiss before I disappear into the clouds.

 

Along The Hudson

 

By

Teel James Glenn

 

Chapter One:

Calling Down the Devil

 

My pulse quickened as the wakening island of Manhattan came into sight further down the Hudson. Our pre-dawn dirigible flight from Montreal to the airship port on Governors Island, New York had been uneventful, but upon arrival I knew things would become interesting when I saw my old friend, Mad Mike.

“I suppose you ain’t comin’ with me to that there Metropolitan Opera place when we land, eh, Athelstan?” My Aunt Minerva said, knowing in advance that Der Nibelungren bored me.

“I had hoped to look up Mike Ellenbogen,” I said.

“You mean Mad Mike from Cairo?” Aunt Mini asked. She lived down to her nick-name at barely five feet tall.  She’d raised me when my parents and her husband, Lord Camden had been killed. I was raised mostly in England by her, but the former Miss Minerva Strump was as American as the city we were approaching.

“Same Mad Mike,” I said with a laugh. I touched the Eye of Horus amulet I wore that Mike had given me, remembering some of our escapades in Egypt three years before.

My aunt and I were among a dozen or so passengers of the great airship observation window, watching the bustling city and busy harbor ahead. With a population over a million and a half it ranked as the nation’s largest port, with piers, factories and even working farms on it.

We passed over the gun emplacements of Fort Tryon at the northern tip of the island, fortified still from when the city was made the capital of the new republic during their civil war when the southern states had burned Washington- and idea they stole from we Albions in 1814.

But beyond all its commerce and prestige, beyond all its Astor high society and its striving immigrants, it was an open secret that New York City was also the vice capital of the United States.  And Mad Mike was little part of that, running ‘Mike and Spike’s Sphinx Saloon’ on the west side at 23rd Street.

Our airship, The Ottawa, cruised slowly down the Hudson, over the river traffic and with a clear view of the bustling metropolis that truly rivaled London. The density of the population increased as we went down island from Washington Heights near rural development. The last time I had been in the great city I’d arrived and left by ocean liner so I was as much in awe of the panoramic view as my fellow passengers at the rail of the observation deck.

“Impressive, is it not, Lady Camden,” one of my fellow travelers said with a thick French accent. “I never imagined these Americans were so-“

“Civilized?” Aunt Mini finished.

“”Well, yes,” the Frenchman said. “Why there are even buildings that look to be eleven stories tall!”

I sensed Aunt Mini was about to create an international incident with her next words so I intervened.

“These former colonist of ours,” I said, “Are really quite clever, Monsieur.  I am sure they will love your observations on their comparative status to primitives.”

His face blanched and my aunt gave an un-lady-like snort.

“My good Baronet Grey,” the Frenchman said, “One would think you would not take the side of those who revolted against your country.”

“All past, Monsieur,” I said. “The children have left the house long ago and are standing on their own.”

“Darn tootin’,” My aunt said. “Standing, dancing and kicking a-“

“Mini!” I said and she checked herself, just barely.

The Frenchman turned away and chose retreat as the better course of valor, slipping away into the others on the observation deck.

“You are going to get us into trouble one of these days, Auntie,” I said. Mini giggled like a schoolgirl.

“I ain’t never got into no trouble that wasn’t some sort of fun, Athelstan,” she said with glee. “And none I couldn’t get out of.”

“So far,” I pointed out.

“You are turning into a terrible dull fellow, nephew,” she said with a snort. “You’d think all that time with that little Aztec girl we had to say goodbye to in Montreal would give you a sense of adventure.”

It was my turn to laugh out loud. “That is a whole different kind of adventure, Auntie, you saucy old baggage!” She elbowed me and we both giggled.  She had always been a constant source of shock and amusement to the social circles of my uncle and my parents- and had raised me after their deaths with a healthy skepticism to convention, but still sometimes surprised even me.

We enjoyed the view in relaxed silence as the airship glided down the island and off its tip to the fortressed Governors Island. The smoke from the coal-powered factories was already casting a haze over the bustling city but did nothing to mare the sense of energetic industry, of seeing the future before us.

It made me reflect on the Albion Empire and my home in London.  While I was proud of my heritage, an inherited baronet from my father and an Oxford education, I could not help but feel, especially after my time working for the East India Company in Bombay, that it was built on the backs of others. How unlike it this young, vigorous country was.

These people, these Americans, had carved homes out of the wilderness, true, there had been contention with natives, but they had made their peace now. And they had, successfully both fought off Albion’s control and had their growing pains in their own civil war.

An alliance with the Mexhican Empire to their south (and their Aztec magicks) had allowed the Americans to establish themselves as a minor world power, balanced with Albion, the Ottoman Empire, and The Mali Confederacy.

The Ottawa glided into docking port on Governor’s Island in early morning but it was almost afternoon before we had all debarked and passed through customs. We took a ferry across to Manhattan, with the Frenchman pointedly avoiding interaction with either myself or Auntie. Our bags were sent ahead to our hotel and we hailed a taxi.

Last chance for that Wagner hoop-de-do At Hammerstein’s, Opera House up at 34th Street, nephew,” Mini said as she climbed into the hansom cab.

“No thanks, Auntie, but I’ll ride up as far as 23rd Street with you.”

I hopped in and we were off up the Battery past the Customs house into the business district of the metropolis. The odor of the city was a mix of horse leavings, coal-oil smoke and that indefinable collection of very human smells. It reminded me more of Bombay than London in that respect. It was controlled chaos, a cacophony of sound and movement, a babble of languages even more varied than Paris.

I found it exhilarating!

Our carriage moved haltingly up Broadway through the crush of traffic until we reached 23nd street. I took my leave of my aunt then and jumped off.

“I’ll see you at the hotel, Mini,” I said as I waved.

“You say hello to Mad Mike for me,” she called back, “And watch yourself, nephew- the two of you together are worse than me and my sister used to be. ”

“I will, auntie, I will.”

I watched the carriage pull away and turned to head west toward the river where Mike’s pub was located. It was a eight block walk and I set off at a jaunty pace, swinging my newly acquired walking stick- a present from the Ambassador from the Mexhico Empire.

It was almost a like a walk in Whitechapel for all the attention I got from ‘working ladies’ in my walk. I had been told there were upwards of 40,000 prostitutes working the streets of New York and it seemed that most of them were in that four-block stroll.

I dare say it was not my dashing blond good looks that drew the feminine attention to me (though I have not had difficulty in that department elsewhere), rather it was the expensive cut of my cloak and clearly European style of my low-crowned top hat. And the purse they both implied. The boldest of the ‘ladies’ approached me as I passed under the elevated train at Sixth Avenue.

“Hey, Toff, “ a pox marked ‘beauty’ called to me, “Need a date?”

“I saw him first, Dora,” a second said as she stepped up close to me. She was a red-haired Irish accented vixen with a bit more flesh than was good for her but a ready smile. I smiled back.

“Sorry, ladies, “I said, “but I am on my way to Mike and Spike’s for a drink. Perhaps, later.” I had no inclinations in their direction, but auntie taught me not to disappoint.

“Ladies,” Dora said with a laugh. ‘You are a gent!” But they let me pass.

“”Ain’t heard about Mike or the others have you?” the red head’s tone was suddenly dark and it made me stop.

“Hush up, Agnes,” Dora said, crossing herself. “Don’t’ be calling down the devil.”

“What about Mike?” I turned to face the lasses but they were now backing way from me. “What do you mean?”

“Ain’t no never mind what I mean,” Dora said darkly then tried to drum up a bit more of my business. “The Bull’s head is open and I know they serve-“

I never heard the rest of her recommendation for a grog shop, as I was at a dead run for the pub, with a chill premonition of disaster settling on me.

 

Chapter Two:

Death in the Family

 

When I reached the corner of 10th Avenue and 23rd Street I stopped short with my worst fears confirmed.  Mike & Spike’s Pub- my friend’s bar– was draped in black and purple bunting. I felt a chill that went to my soul. There was a sign, crudely painted that said, “Closed till further notice.”

“No!” I hissed. I forced myself to calm and walked across the street to the heavy door of the drinking emporium. After I composed myself I knocked on the frosted glass.

After an eternity of waiting I heard heavy footsteps within and a thick Scot’s accented voice called out, “We’re still closed, bugger off!”

“I’m a friend of Mike’s; I need to find out what is going on.”

The sound of a bolt being pulled back followed and a red-bearded face, a head above mine was thrust out a crack in the door. “And ye be?”

“Sir Athelstan Grey, Baronet, “ I said. “I am acquainted with Master Ellenbogen from our time in Cairo.”

The bushy red eyebrows of the rugged face rose and fell as the Cerberus scrutinized me.  “Master Mike was murdered last week; we are still in mourning; come back next week, maybe we will reopen then.” He made to close the door but I held the edge.

“I must speak to this, sirah,” I said. “Is Miss Ellenbogen here? I wish to express my condolences to her.” I handed him my card which he regarded much as if I had handed him the snake from the garden.

The highlander, who was easily close to eighteen stone, was dressed in full Mackintosh kilt with the spotted mountain cat sporran of a chief, tried to close the door once more then relented, opening it to stare at me with flinty blue eyes. “I’ll see if the lassie is in.” He indicated I should enter.  I cleaned my boots of horse dropping on the wrought iron scraper and stepped inside.

The Scotsman threw the bolt on the door behind us and gave me a stern look. “Wait here, “ he said firmly before moving off into the interior of the darkened pub.

I felt as if I was at the levee’s at St. James waiting to be presented to Her Majesty.

The large room was much as I imagined it would be from Mike’s descriptions- a long, wood lined room with the broad windows facing out to the street, but with the shades pulled so little or no light entered from them. All around were souvenirs from his time in the lands of the sands-the décor made the pub an exotic oasis-sphynx statues, scarab wall fixtures; it was an Arabian nights fantasy come to life.

There were tables set around what looked to be a sunken dance floor and a long bar along the far wall. It looked to be as much nightspot as one would find in any great city, as it was a pub. It was appointed with crystal chandeliers, gaslights along the walls and brass fittings everywhere.

I thought about Mike’s letters, many of them since our meeting in Egypt where he had described building the pub.

And he had written about his little sister, Bathsheba who always went by the very unlady-like ‘Spike.’ She was his partner in the pub, and now, I supposed, sole owner.

There was a gallery along the back wall with stairs that went up to it and this is where the Scotsman went, only reaching halfway up the stairs before another figure appeared at the top of the steps. It was a petite girl, dressed, oddly enough, in a black and purple riding habit; Spike.

“What is it, Angus,” she said in a high, thin voice.

“Says he knew Mike, lassie.” He handed my card up to her and she peered at it in the dim light. Even across the room I could see her square features- so reminiscent in a soft mirror- of her brother’s light in a smile.

“Athelstan!” she said and swept down the stairs past the giant Scot and across the floor to me. She came up to give me a very improper hug before I could react. She came barely to my chest, but her arms made me gasp with their strength.

“Madam!” I managed to exclaim.

She pulled away from me and colored, as if suddenly realizing what she had done. “Excuse me, baronet,” she said, “I am out of sorts because of my brother’s passing, but- but it is almost that I know you, my brother spoke so much of you.”

“And of you, Miss Ellenbogen, and that is why I had to stop in to find out what happened.”

Her pretty features twisted into a pained scowl. “Come up stairs, we can talk there.”

I followed the girl up past the grim looking highlander to a sitting room on the second floor where we sat opposite each other in two comfortable chairs. The red haired giant wheeled a tea service in between us and I felt, oddly enough, as if I was back in Mayfair.

“It is real tea, baronet,” she said with great pride, “not recycled; directly from China.”

For a time we sipped the imported tea and spoke of inconsequential things- my trip from Montreal, the weather in New Orleans (where I had been prior to my trip north) and the like. It was as if she was afraid to even mention her brother again or his death. Like most Americans she was somewhat in awe of my title and I had to explain to her that I was not a peer, as such, with my inherited title. The complexities of the English system of titles amazed the former colonies and, I admit, sometimes even escaped my own understanding.

I took the opportunity of our relaxed conversation to observe her closely; it was true she had features that echoed her brother’s- jet black hair, crystal blue eyes and a strong jaw, though on her is was gentled where it had been sharp on him.

Her hands were delicate and long fingered, darting nervously like small birds, never lighting long on either teacup nor lap. Her silent Scotsman stood nearby, a gorgon eye cast on me all the while we talked.

After a time, when I deduced she would not get around to mentioning her brother I did. “When I spoke to Mike ten days ago from Montreal on the tele-crystal he seemed happy and healthy,” I said. “How did he—well, what happened?”

The pretty girl shivered as if from a cold. I thought I had upset her beyond propriety but she showed grit and quickly got a hold of herself and looked me in the eye.

“If you do not mind, I will let Angus show you,” she said. She looked to the roi giant who nodded and waved me back out of the room and down the stairs.

We went through the pub’s main room to a short corridor that led to the offices.

“This was Mister Mike’s office,” the Scotsman said, his burr so thick I had to listen carefully to understand. “It is just as we found it.” He pushed the door to a room inward and allowed me to step in.

What I saw was a horrific image that will stay in my mind’s eye for the rest of my life; the office was a shambles with the walls splattered with what could only have been blood!

The room was wood paneled and had been nicely appointed before whatever had ravaged it.  There were nick-knacks from his travels- souvenirs from Arabia and Turkey, rugs, statues and icons, many of them smashed and scattered around the room. I recognized some of the curios he had purchased in my presence in Cairo- a clay tablet, a medallion of Horus that matched the one I wore, and a jewel encrusted dagger with a bloody blade. The plush carpet, upholstered chairs a fine oak desk were all torn to shreds and stained dark with the life essence that had been my friend’s.

“Miss Ellenbogen and I returned from shopping ten days ago on a Sunday afternoon to discover it like this,” the Scotsman said. “Except that what was left of Mister Mike was scattered across the desk and floor; torn to pieces like a pack of wolves had been at him.” The giant’s stoic face shadowed with the memory before returning to neutral, though his voice revealed his emotions.

I stepped into the room and felt an eerie sense of foreboding.

I could clearly see what appeared to be claw marks scratched deeply into the dark wood of the desk and the carpet had been torn up as if by scythe blades. All showed that a terrific struggle had taken place.

“And you have no idea what happened?”

“No,” Angus said. “No one else was in the building when it happened, sir, except the bar back. And we never found Little Tony. No one has seen hide nor hair of him.”

I walked slowly to the desk and looked down on the sanguine spot where my friend must have died. The stain was not much of a monument to a man like Mike; self made, a bold, laughing fellow who, though not to be crossed, never willfully hurt anyone.

There was a photo frame on the desk that was overturned, the glass shattered. I lifted it up. It was a photo of me, Mike standing shoulder to shoulder with Aunt Mini between us, dwarfed by us and smiling. It had been taken in Cairo. His lantern jaw was set in an easy smile and his eyes shined with mischief. I found my vision blurring with tears at I stared at the blood-spattered space on the desk.

“We have to find this Tony, then,” I said when I could speak. “We will find out what happened to Mike and someone will pay!”

 

 

 

Chapter Three:

The Forrest Primeval

“Ye think we’ve not tried, sir?” the Scotsman sneered at me at the edge of impertinence. “Every wharf rat and street walker has been questioned.”

“The police?”

“Useless,” he said. “They just took a quick look and then dismissed it as just another saloon keeper, a low life they couldn’t care less about.”

That made me angry but as I turned to face the Scotsman I felt a tingling through my right hand where I held my sword cane.  The sensation was much like my hand was asleep and traveled up my arm. The gem on the knob of the stick glowed a soft blue.

“What is that, sir?” Angus asked.

“Do the police here have a Merlin?” I countered.

“A what?”

“A government sanctioned sorcerer like we have in England,” I said.

“No, sir; the metropolitan police have a shaman on the force, on loan from the Choctaw Nation for major cases that might involve magick, but they don’t come around for barkeeps. Why?” He looked to my walking stick. “Because of that?”

“Yes,” I said. “The Ambassador from Mexhico gave this to me; it has an obsidian blade but the jewel on the handle is sensitive to occult energies. There has been dark magick used in this room.”

“Mister Mike never had truck with such things,” the servant insisted. “He was raised a good Christian man.”

“Even the Anglican church accepts magick- albeit in form of official Merlins,” I said. “But be that as it may, it could be our lead to Mike’s killer; if Mike did not use it than his killer did.”

We went back up stairs to the parlor where Miss Ellenbogen waited for us. She was sipping her tea with deliberate calm when we reentered the room. It was as if she had not moved since we left.

“You saw.” Was all she said.

I sat opposite her again and told her about my discovery of dark sorcery.

“Then, “ she said, “my brother was not just killed, but foully killed.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Perhaps like the others,” Angus spoke up.

“Others?”

“Since Mike was—“ she said, “ Since Mike died, two other saloon owners in the neighborhood have died.”

“Much the same way,” the Scotsman added. “Oh, not so spectacularly-sorry, ma’am- as Mister Mike, but violently.”

“And this roused no interest from the authorities?” I asked.

“We are not ‘respectable, baronet,” The girl said with obvious pain. “So death in our class, violent or otherwise is not much of a concern to the police forces.”

“I thought you Americans were all about lack of class distinctions,” I said. The girl snorted in derision. “Well,” I continued, “We will not let this rest, dear lady, I promise you I will find out who did this.”

She looked at me with eyes a blink away from tears, “Why?” she asked, “Why would you do this for us?”

I noted she said ‘us’ and that was telling.

“He was my friend,” I said. “And you are his sister; is that not enough?”

She sat upright. “I am sorry, baronet,” she said quietly. “Of course- from what Mike said about you I should have realized it would be.”

“How shall we proceed, your lordship,” Angus asked.

“First off, call me Athelstan,” I replied, “I am not a lord.”

“Then you should call me Spike, ‘ the girl said, sniffing away her tears. I nodded.

“Alright, Spike,” I continued, “ Secondly, I think we need to look at who would benefit from Mike’s death.”

“Benefit?” The girl asked.

“Competitors or creditors who would want him out of the way.”

“Mister Mike had no creditors, sir,” Angus said. “At least since he returned from Egypt he has always been able to pay cash for all his bills of lading.”

“Cash?” I said. I knew that Mike was a canny businessman, but he had only on his journey to the sands of Egypt because of a steamship ticket he won in a poker game. He had not been a wealthy man—not then.

“Yes,” Miss Ellenbogen said. “We inherited a small bar on 14th Street from our dad and ran it at the edge of foreclosure for two years before he went away but when he returned he had the money to buy Mike and Spike’s. He would never tell me where the money came from.”

I studied the remains of my tea in its cup for a long moment while I digested that while I hesitated to voice my thoughts about my friend, but realized I had to.

“Could Mike have been involved in some sort of criminal enterprise, Spike-something that would make any secret partners-“

“Mister Mike was the salt of the earth, sir,” Angus injected before the girl could object. “He would no more be involved with that sort than—than a vicar with a rum runner!”

Both Spike and I looked to the giant who shrugged. “Seemed like a good analogy to me,” He said.

“I personally know a vicar on the Romney Marshes that ran rum,” I said. “But yes, I get the point; I don’t believe Mike could be anything but a little mischievous and just enough crooked to keep on the right side of things.”  That got a giggle from Spike.

“But,” I continued, “ that does not mean that someone else did not think he was not trustworthy- people tend to see themselves in people.”

“Yes,” she said. “Mike could cut a good deal, a sharp deal, so some people might have—well…”

“So tell me who he might owe or more importantly, who might owe him?”

“There were five I can think of he either had lent money to or had problems with us opening here,” Spike said. “Hanover Jones, who I hear went back to Brooklyn, Juice Martin over on Fourteenth Street and the Marble brothers over on Third are left. Race Mangani and Dave Burton were—they were -this last week-.”

“The other murders?” I asked.

“Yes,” Angus said. “Race was found floating in the Hudson – they said sharks or fish got to him but he was all torn up, and Burton well, they only found his head and a lot of blood in his brothel on the east side.”

I thought for a moment then held out my empty cup. “I think this is a two tea cup problem, Spike,” I said. “We have plans to make.”

****

The New York-Brooklyn Bridge was an amazing edifice and proof positive that this raw new country called the United States of America was ready for its place in the greater world.

Its granite towers and steel cables rose over two hundred and seventy feet from the water of the East River and connected the island of Manhattan to the larger Long Island at the city of Brooklyn. It was over fifteen hundred feet long and wide enough for four lanes of carriage traffic and pedestrians walks ways on the outside, while trolleys ran along the center of the bridge.

Beneath it steam ships chugged and beside it small, ‘commuter’ dirigibles, looking like floating pickles, buzzed across the river in a steady stream from both directions.

Angus was driving a closed hansom with Miss Ellenbogen and myself in the back. I had sent a message to my aunt that I would be late and the three of us had decided that the first course of action would be to venture to the adjacent city of Brooklyn and visit one Mister Hanover Jones.

After sitting in the closed pub the young lady was charged with excitement at being able to actively do something about finding her brother’s killer. Even the taciturn highlander was grinning with the prospect of some action. Little did we all realize just how much action we would be finding.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four:

Knuckles for Lunch

The bridge disgorged us onto the broad Atlantic Avenue and the semi-rural nature of this near city to Manhattan was immediately clear. The air was crisper and with none of the soot from the island though the wide streets were still thronging with people. It was a large city in its own right but of a very different character than its near neighbor.

The streets were wider and the nature of the shops were more exotic, with Syrian and Lebanese signs on food and clothing storefronts. We moved with the flow of horse carriage traffic along side horse drawn trolleys.

“After we pass Borough Hall we can move along the water front more quickly than this main avenue,” Angus called from the driver’s seat.

“You know the way?” I called up.

“Aye, sir,” The highlander tossed back, raising his voice above the sound of the street, “I accompanied Mister Mike out here when he came back from Egypt to meet with Mister Jones.

“Hanover is hiding out at his ‘country’ place in Brighton Beach,” Spike said with disgust. “ He was raised out there; then he had the bar down the block from us on Fourteenth Street. He owed markers to our dad and when Mike and I inherited they came to us. He resented that and for a time he contested them, but when Mike came back from Egypt they had that meeting and my brother said afterward that the debt was forgiven.”

I touched the eye of Horus amulet my friend had given me on our stay in Cairo and felt a deep sadness again that rose to anger quickly. “Why would Mike do that?” I asked.

“I asked him,” she said, “ but he just said that since we were moving to Twenty Third there was no point in keeping any sort of anger going- that there was enough room for all of us.”

“It would seem to me that would make this Hanover Jones grateful, not angry.”

“I know,” she said, “ but it was just the opposite, he said it shamed him, made him seem a welcher- though he never made any effort to pay off. He started to badmouth Mike to anyone who would listen.”

“This would all be a little easier if we could locate this Little Tony you say is missing,” I remarked as he pulled off the main avenue.

“We tried,” Spike said. “But it is like he just vanished.”

Angus wheeled our carriage past the municipality’s governmental offices and to a roadway that led along the East River waterfront.

We rode for a while in uncomfortable silence, driving by sugar refining plants, dockyards, gas refineries, ironworks, several slaughterhouses, and factories, I was told, that produced everything from clocks, pencils, and glue, to cakes, beer, and some fine cigars.

I pondered the scarcity of facts about Mike’s death when the carriage rounded a turn onto a short causeway that would bring us to the Coney Island. The resort was a complex of entertainment parks, racetracks and beaches for recreation.

As we pulled onto Surf Avenue the marvel I had heard about presented itself to our eyes. Looming over the landscape was The Elephant Hotel! At 150 feet tall, The Coney Island Elephant was an astounding sight to behold as it loomed over the amusement centers of the Brighton Beach portion of Coney Island. Its legs were 18 feet in diameter, with the front legs serving as a cigar store while the back legs held the entrance to the actual hotel via a circular stairway. Angus proudly told me “Its construction cost a quarter million American dollars!”

I knew Aunt Mini would want to see it for her self, possibly even stay in one of the rooms before we left New York; it had not been built when she was last here.

In short order we pulled up in front of a vulgarly painted house on a side street off of Surf Avenue. It was all greens and yellows in bright, Caribbean colors and while it might have looked at home in Kingston Jamaica stood out even against the brightly colored brick or wooden buildings in the area of this resort community.

The Jones refuge was two stories and sprawling with a wide porch that surrounded the whole of the building, which was set back from the road with a broad lawn, effectively a green moat. When we stepped out of the coach the sharp tang of salt air was brisk and refreshing.

“Mister Jones may not be very receptive,” Angus said from the driver’s perch. “Perhaps I should go first?”

“I’ve never been afraid of that big windbag,” Spike said with a vigor that reminded me again of Aunt Mini. “And beside, I have his lordship with me, if Hanover starts anything it will be an international incident.”

“I’m not a lord,” I reminded her, “but I do hope to be of use should this fellow get stroppy.” I brandished my sword cane and grinned. “I do need to try this out.”

We walked up the steps to the building but as we mounted the stairs the door to the building opened and two large gentlemen exited.

“What do you want?” The bald headed fellow to the left of the door said. He had a large mustache and considerable evidence of a pugilistic past marked in scar tissue around his eyes and in a deformed left ear.

“We are here to see Mister Jones,” I said, offering my card. “We have no appointment, but I am sure he will see us.” I gave my most engaging smile.

The thug did not look at the card but made a point of dropping it and stepping on it. “Mister Jones ain’t here. Go.”

I looked to Spike. “I think the gentleman has forgotten the rules of grammar,” I said.

“Leave, Limey,” the thug said. “We don’t want what you are selling.”

“Not selling anything,” I said, “I’m giving this away-“ I laughed then and drove the knob of my walking stick into the fellow’s stomach. It was a muscled one, but he still gasped and doubled, his beady eyes bugging out.

His companion guardian reacted with snake-quick speed, producing a folding knife and lunging at me.

Spike yelled a warning, but I had anticipated some action so whirled my cane to slash it across the fellow’s temple, felling him.

“I suggest you tell Mister Jones we simply must see him,” I suggested to the coughing man. I turned him around and gave him a gentle shove toward the door. “And do hurry, I don’t relish being in this town after dark.”

The wounded fellow stumbled in through the door and closed it behind him.

“He’ll come back with a gun,” Spike said. She signaled to Angus who produced a carriage gun from beneath his seat on the hansom, but I waved him off.

“I think not, “ I said. “I suspect Mister Jones will be too intrigued to send us off without looking us over personally.”

She looked at me with her head tilted to the side like a curious cat and gave an elfish smile. “Mike said you were as mad as he was,” she said. “Now I see he was wasn’t exaggerating.”

Mad perhaps, but I had calculated correctly, for when the door opened again it was a liveried butler.

“If you would follow me this way please,” The black servant said. “Master Jones will see you in his study.”

I held out my arm for the girl and she took it. “You certainly know how to make an entrance, Athelstan.”

“I learned from Aunt Mini.”

****

The ‘study’ of our host proved to be a gymnasium where Mister Hanover Jones was dutifully and handily working a heavy canvas boxing bag. It was a large room at the back of the house that had probably first been constructed as a conservatory, with large glass floor-to-ceiling windows that showed a lush back yard and the amusements of Brighton Beach beyond. The impressive edifice of the Elephant Hotel loomed large with a racetrack visible behind it.

Above the Elephant a commercial airship painted with the green and red colors of the Mali Empire floated like some whale of the air heading to dock in Manhattan.

Our host was stripped to the waist and wearing tights while he attacked the heavy bag with vigor.  When we entered he slowed his assault but did not look up or stop.

“Connal here says you want to see me,” he said. When he did glance up he saw my companion and stopped. “Well, Spike- all the way out here in the hinterlands.” He held out a hand and an overly made up blonde woman, dressed gaudily for daytime in a pink and blue gown, handed him a towel. “Sorry to hear about your brother.” My two playmates from the front stoop were standing at the window scowling past their employer and, I imagine, daydreaming of a rematch.

The blonde woman kept her left hand hidden in the folds of her dress. The two stout fellows lounging near the windows made a point of ‘casually’ being obvious about guns under their ill-fitting jackets.

Hanover Jones was a dark skinned man of obvious mixed blood with a shaven head and a slight trace of a Jamaican accent beneath his New York one. He wiped down his face and the put the towel around his shoulders, turning his attention to me with a long, condescending glance. “Who’s the dandy?”

I handed my hat to the butler and shrugged off my cloak while smiling at the well-muscled Jones. “Sir Athelstan Grey,” I said.  I extended my hand but made no move to step toward him and grasp it.

Jones made no move to take my hand. “So,” he said. “ What do you want?”

“Jonesy!” Spike exclaimed. “That’s no way to talk to a baronet! He came all the way from England to see the sights and you talk rude to him like that! I oughta box your ears!”

“We fought a war not to have to cowtow to lords and such, Spike.”

“I’m not a peer,” I pointed out again cheerfully as I took his measure, “so cowtowing is not required at all; just common courtesy would be fine. You should try it.”

Hanover snorted and took a step toward me that promised violence.

Miss Ellenbogen intervened and threw an exploratory salvo at the pugilist. “We came to ask if you’d seen Little Tony, Hanover.”

“Why would I see that slob?” Jones asked.

“Well,” she said, “ you made yourself scarce about the same time as Tony disappeared- when Mike was—well, anyway we thought you might know what happened to him.”

“I couldn’t care less.” He said a little too quickly and turned his back on us.

I did not like that and I decided not to let it go.

“You are a cad, sir,” I said. Jones froze. “And a coward, from the looks of things.”

The pugilist spun at that and glared at me.

“Baronet!” Spike said with sudden fear in her voice. “We better go.”

“Yes, your lordship,” Jones said. “You had better go.”

“”What is it with you colonials,” I said as I loosened my cravat and handed my stick and Horus medallion to a confused Spike. “You seemed obsessed with elevating me to a peerage.” I produced my leather riding gloves and donned them, stepping forward to the center of the room, my eyes locked with Jones’. He clearly understood the meaning of the gesture and smiled with cold glee.

“I’d like to elevate you to the pearly gates,” our host said. He put up his fists and took a boxing stance. “No one called Hanover Jones a coward and walks away.”

 

 

Chapter Five:

Bruise and Consequences

 

“You and I in single contention, unmolested by your aids?’ I stated my terms. “And no harm to Miss Ellenbogen either way this works out?” This brought a savage grin from the muscular Jones.

“Stay back all of you,” he called out to his servants, his eyes still locked with mine. “And I’d never bring harm to Spike-“ he grinned like an urchin and was suddenly less menacing. “She’s like a little cousin to me.”

Spike snorted a laugh at that. “I’d ain’t got no family as homely as you, Jonesy.”

“Call the rounds, Candy,” Jones called to his blonde doxie. The girl nodded and picked up a spoon to use as an improvised striker to hit a metal mug as a makeshift bell.

Jones came at me like a hurricane, his leather-mittened fists flying like a flock of crows driven by a gale. It was clear he fully expected to overwhelm ‘ the dandy’ who stood before him in the first rush and assert his control over the room.

I, however, had other plans.

Aunt Mini laced my first boxing gloves on me when I was six years old. I’d came home from school with a bloody nose, courtesy of some older form boys who did not like my being raised by a ‘savage American’ woman and so had beat me up on the football pitch.

She coached me for a week after which I’d faced each of them individually, trouncing them publicly and completely. They left me alone afterward.

Since then I had studied the manly arts under many instructors and had more than enough chances to put it to practical tests in many alleys and bars from Liverpool to Bombay.

As Jones advanced I danced away slipping each punch with light slaps to his fists. I angled to his left as I back-pedaled, forcing him to circle and extend himself to keep up his attack.

I saw the annoyance on his face as his calculated plan to humiliate me faltered and he reassessed how to defeat me.

It was as I wanted it.

I’d seen his kind before, they had no respect for anyone who did not stand up to them. If we had left at Jones’ order we wouldn’t have learned anything. If I could hold my own against him then, if he did have anything of import to tell us about Mike’s death or his man Tony, he might tell us.

I kept back pedaling, slowly, letting the pugilist appear to make progress with a flurry of combinations I barely blocked, then faded away from him to draw him on.

Jones realized I was moving backward to tire him out and decided to hold his ground and force me to bring the fight to him. So I did.

I glided in and fired two quick, but weak, left jabs at him that he blocked with solid technique. He then tried to counter, thinking I had no starch because of my ‘weak’ jabs.

I let him send a powerful right my way, hunching my shoulder to absorb the blow (though is was still quite powerful and hurt a darn sight) then twisted in low to drive the hardest right uppercut I could launch into Jones’ diaphragm.

The blow landed perfectly. The pugilist was lifted up off the ground and sent back two steps. He did not, however, fall.

Suddenly the improvised bell sounded and round one was done.

Jones gasped for breath, but I will say he was rum, as he never dropped his guard. He kept his eyes focused on me like two flaming beacons as he stumbled back to his blonde.

I smiled.

“You see, Mister Jones,” I said, “You really shouldn’t judge people by appearances alone.”

He growled and smiled a feral smile.

“Athelstan,” Spike whispered tensely, “this is crazy.” Her eyes were wide with worry. “You’ve been lucky so far, but Jonesy is a killer with his fists he-“

“Shhh,” I said with a cocked eyebrow. “You do not inspire confidence.”

“But he-“

“No buts,” I said. “He is not trying to kill me, he wants to- needs to humiliate me in front of his people.”

“So -“

“Be at ease, Miss,” I said. “I have things well in hand.”

The blonde clanged the spoon against the mug and round two began.

The pugilist came back at me with a quick series of punches that I also dodged, replying to him with several quick jabs to his upper arms, targeting the biceps to weaken him. He grinned at that attack with understanding, clearly reassessing my skill.

“You got this, boss,” one of the bodyguards at the window chimed in. “You can take out the limey trash.”

I didn’t honor the comment with much notice but threw another combination at Jones to back him up in response.

“Not what you expected from me, is it, Mister Jones,” I said. “But then I did not expect you to be so frightened by someone or something that would drive you to Brooklyn with armed guards in the room with you-including charming miss Candy there- after Mike was murdered.”

“I’m not frightened of anyone,” Jones said and launched a renewed attack at me. This time he was cautious and powerful and I was hard pressed to block, dodge or reply to his complex combinations.

I gave ground but grudgingly and was able to land a few light blows as I backpedaled.

“If not any ’one’ then just what are you afraid of?” I asked, “What do you know about Mike’s death?”

My question seemed to infuriate him and he pressed harder, his speed and power all but doubled. I let him drive me for a few moments then as I dodged a hard right that would have ‘taken my head off’, as they say, I stepped in and swung an elbow hard into his temple.

The blow caught him solidly and his knees turned to rubber and he almost buckled. The moment he faltered his two men at the window reached under their coats but Jones danced backward and held up a hand.

“No,” he commanded. “He’s mine.”

“Nice thought, Mister Jones,” I said, impressed by his code of honor, but I added. “But I really am my own man.”

We paused then, fists up and eyed each other. I knew he had reassessed me as someone ‘possibly’ worth dealing with. If not as an ‘equal’ then as not quite so dismissible. I knew I had earned enough of his respect that he might tell us what we needed to know.

“Stop this!” Spike yelled, “Hanover Jones, if you know something about Mike’s death you have to tell us.”

Hanover gave her a sidelong glance. “You need to keep yourself quiet, girl; we have men’s work to do.”

The tiny girl seemed to grow a foot and stepped toward us. “You don’t tell me to shut up, Jonesy!  You’d never have talked to me like that when Mike was around-“

Just as I thought she was physically going accost my opponent she froze, a puzzled expression eclipsing her angry one.

“Athelstan,” she said with an alarmed tone. “Your walking stick—it—it- the jewel on the handle is vibrating.”

“What?” I exclaimed, “That means there is occult energies in-“

At that moment the windows exploded inward and a nightmare entered the room!

 

Chapter Six:

Highland Fling

 

The exploding glass shards sliced into the two bodyguards by the window slashing them virtually to ribbons.

The thing that landed in the center of the room was a living horror.

It was the twisted image of an animal, all fangs and fur. It landed, four-footedly and snarled at us.

Candy, frozen with the sudden appearance of the creature, came unstuck at the snarl and drew a pistol from the folds of her dress to fire at the monster.

Five quick shots struck the shaggy apparition that roared in defiance but the conventional bullet didn’t seem to do much but annoy the monster. It sprang at the blonde, knocking her off her feet. The beast slashed at her with razored claws, spraying gore everywhere.

Jones yelled and dove for the body of one of his guards to try and get a gun from the man’s holster, but his leather mittens hindered him.

I grabbed my sword-cane from a horrified Spike and drew the obsidian blade. I was hoping that it was not only good for detecting occult energies, but might be practical in eliminating them as well. My present from the Mexhican ambassador was not just a deadly edged weapon, but was imbued with centuries of Aztec magicks.

I sprang at the beast just as Jones managed to snatch off his mittens and brought a forty-five caliber pistol up to fire.

The beast turned as Jones fired, pausing and shuddering slightly with each impact but undaunted by the impacts.  The bullet hits seemed only served to enrage the creature. It leapt on the pugilist with a roar that sounded like a tormented soul.

Jones screamed in answering terror as the weight of the monster pinned him to the ground. He barely managed to get his hands up just in time to keep the slathering jaws from his throat.

I was on the beast in the next instant, slashing wildly at its eyes with the black blade of my sword cane to try to drive it off the man. The monster yelped when my blade cut a long gash along its snout. A bluish liquid I assumed was blood splashed from the wounds, yet it continued to try to tear at Jones’ throat. I changed tactics and, remembering the cry from Agincourt of ‘Estoc’, I thrust at it instead of slashing. I drove the point into were the head joined its upper body.

I felt a tingling surge of occult power flow from the black blade that almost numbed my fingers.

The roar of pain from the monster was like a hurricane of sound driving against my diaphragm and staggering me back.

The animal was hurt.

It roared once more as it turned and jumped at me, but I ducked and slashed upward along its side as it passed over me. It twisted in the air and landed off balance, just in front of Spike.

“Run!” I screamed, but the girl was frozen with fear.

I spun, intent on attacking the creature before it could attack her, but it did something strange. It did absolutely nothing.

The huge brute simply stood, only a foot or two away from the terrified girl and sniffed. She shivered but did not back away from the creature.

I yelled and lunged at the monster’s back. Just then the inner door of the room was kicked open and seven feet of highlander charged in.

“Drop, Lassie!” Angus ordered. A shocked Spike complied as he discharged the coach gun directly in the apparition’s face.

The beast was literally blown backward by the concussion of the gun, tumbling into me and taking me down to the ground but it was not hurt.

The beast rolled to its feet, growled once more and spun to leap out through the shattered windows.

Suddenly everything was still in the silence of the aftermath, with only the sound that of the wounded Hanover Jones gasping for breath.

“God’s garters,” Angus said as he reloaded the two barrels of the shotgun. “What in the name of Merlin was that?”

Spike, her courage used up in holding her ground before the monster, was in a near faint, falling to one knee with release.

I scrambled to the two bodyguards, but they were both beyond help. Candy was also clearly dead so I did not even try to help her. Jones, however, was another story.

I ripped off my cravat and attempted to staunch some of the blood on the fallen man, but it was clearly a wasted effort.

“Oh my God,” Spike whispered. She saw what I was doing and, spunky young woman that she was, she pulled herself together and crawled to Hanover’s side.

“Jonesy!” The girl cradled the fallen man’s head and looked to me but I shook my head.

“I’m goin’, kid,” Jones said.  His voice was flat and his eyes were already glassing over. “Really am sorry about Mike, kid,” he coughed blood and it was clear he was dying.

“What do you know?” I asked, “Where is this Little Tony and –“

The dying fighter had a violent spasm and then fixed me with his eyes. “Juice Martin- Lordship,” he gasped, “Ask Juice.” Then he coughed once more and was absolutely still.  Dead.

“Everyone wants to elevate me,” I whispered.

Spike worked at not crying.

“We had better be going, lassie, baronet,” Angus said from the window. “The wee beastie is gone, but the police will be called after all this.”

“Right you are, Angus,” I said. I gently put my hand on Spike’s shoulder. “Come girl, we can’t be detained by the authorities now.”

She reached down and touched the dead boxer on his cheek as if to say goodbye, then crossed herself and stood up with a determined expression on her pretty face. “Let’s go talk to Juice,” she said. “We have to stop this.”

****

Angus got us swiftly away from the sight of the carnage and we took Surf Avenue, mixing with the late afternoon traffic before the other servants in Jones’ mansion could fully grasp what had happened in the building.

The shock of what she had seen was beginning to manifest in Spike, her slight form shaking for a chill that was not all motivated by the salty sea air, the girl was shaken near hysteria.

We were also all covered with blood to some degree that was sticking our clothes to us.  I wrapped my clean cloak over the girl to warm her and Angus had a Mackinaw that he had under his seat. It was large on me but I was grateful for the warmth.

“Jonesy was a jerk,” Spike whispered, “ but—but he didn’t deserve-“ She was at the edge of tears. “That—that was how Mike died.”

“Why do they call you Spike,” I startled her with my non-sequitor  question. I knew I needed to distract her and occupy her mind to keep her from dwelling on the horror she had witnessed.

“What?”

“How does a young lady named Bathsheba end up with an nom-de-guerre like Spike?”

The girl focused on me and I saw the panic in her eyes fade a bit as she cast her mind back to a better past and spoke. “We grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood and I wanted to be like Mike- my wonderful big brother, you know, and I dressed like him in pants and all-“ She indicated her split-skirt riding habit that had seemed so unusual on a city girl.  “They were his hand me downs, really- and I decided that Bathsheba was too girly a name as well. “

Tears came now, but gently as she spoke, her eyes focused not on me anymore, but a memory.  She looked away, out toward the city.  “He always looked out for me, tried to teach me how to be a good person and to take care of those with less. He told me that cause someone was strong meant they had to use that strength for others, not against them. And he was strong, but he never was a bully to the others in the neighborhood. I was.”  She giggled like a school girl-“ He was constantly having to rescue people from me. I was small but kind of bossy, I guess.”

I laughed. “I’m familiar with that kind of gal,” I said, thinking of my dear Aunt Mini.

“Mike got daddy to send me to finishing school to try and make a lady of me, to give me better prospects, he said. It was all the way up in Tuxedo, up state, but it didn’t take. I hated it. Then when daddy died while Mike was on his trip, I ran away.  When Mike came back he hunted me down over in New Jersey and he promised me that he wouldn’t send me back to the school. He bought the bar on Twenty Third Street I think so he could keep an eye on me, but we were happy. We were a good team.”

I could see the tears were going to start again so I interrupted her train of thought.

“Loathe as I am to bring it up, Spike,” I said, “ but we have to consider that since Master Jones was fourth in a line of pub owners who this beast has killed- with Mike number three- we have to think about the possibility that it followed you here or the beast is taking out all the bar owners.” He eyes widened when I added, “And now you are one. You could certainly be on any list. This is not just about finding Mike’s killer anymore—it is about protecting you as well.”

Chapter Seven:

On the Town

 

“Dat is real prime, eh, Athelstan,” Mad Mike Ellenbogen said in his quaint American idiom as he pressed his nose up against the glass window of the curio shop. We were on a back street in the Motkattam Highlands section of Cairo and it was a hot afternoon. “Wouldn’t that make a guy look the potentate wearing it?”

It was exactly the type of outrageous statement Mike had made regularly during our month wandering the bazaars and alleys of the ancient city the natives called Masr in Arabic.

The brusk American was a refreshing breath of fresh air with the stuffy crowd of English ex-patriots that, though only five percent of the population, occupied most of the government positions since the Ablion Empire took over. He reminded me of my Aunt and her very direct ways, though she had some forty years of exposure to the peers of the realm to learn to be circumspect now and then. Mike didn’t.

He now stood like a child at a confectioner’s window, looking at all the oil lamps, icons, prayer rugs and such in the display, as he had in many shops as we wandered. He talked of furnishing a ‘perfect gin joint’- a pub, when he got home at almost every shop we passed It would be a future for his sister and himself.

He never spoke about revenge, or getting more than the other guy, only his own goals, making his own way. And I liked that about him- he was his own man and didn’t blame the world or any other man for his misfortunes or expect succor from them. He believed in hard work and ‘running his own race’.

“We’d better be going, “ I said to Mike, “We have to meet my Aunt Mini over in Medieval Cairo at the Madrasa of the Amir Sarghatmish before their evening prayers. And I do want to see it before sunset.”

“Alright, buddy,” Mike said. “But I really like those medallions- the ones behind that lamp there.  Gonna come back for ‘em tomorrow.”

And Mike did, and gave me one which I clutched as I rode with his sister along Broadway of Manhattan, heading up town.

The girl had been silent after my proclamation of fear for her safety, lost in her own thoughts, but to her credit and my delight, she was not cowed or overcome with fear. She had set her jaw in a determined attitude that told me she would see this through to the end to find out who controlled her brother’s killer and find a way to destroy the monster.

I grasped the Horus medallion and thought again about not only Mike, but the story of Horus and Set. The ancient Egyptian name for the Cairo was Khere-Ohe, “The Place of Combat”, supposedly in reference to mythical battles that took place between the ancient gods, Seth and Horus.

 

 

 

They fought be the successor to the throne of Osiris to see who would be king. Was that what was happening to the saloon owners? If so, who was the Seth is all this? I held the Horus medallion and smiled, remembering that in the various battles Horus beat Seth each time.

“We’re here, M’lordship,” Angus called back from the driver’s seat. While I was woolgathering we had made it all the way to the gin parlor run on 14th Street by Juice Martin, one of those contending for kingship.

The gaslamps were lit along the darkened streets by now and the evening crowds were out and about. It seemed that there was little or no diminishment of the number from the daytime throngs that populated the thoroughfares. This city was indeed a marvel.

The establishment of Juice Martin was two blocks from the rival emporiums of Macy and James A Hearn & Son, across from Union Square Park. The other end of the block was a number of piano stores, as the area seemed to be a hub for such places; all now closed with the fall of night.

There were strollers in the park and not a few of them came across toward the street, dodging the clanging streetcar, to head into Juice Martin’s saloon, the Iron Apple.

It was a brassy sort of place, loud and garishly furnished with bright colors and mirrors. Two large Iroquois in full battle regalia and war paint stood at the door.

“You sure you don’t want me to come in with you, lassie?” Angus called down to Spike as she hopped down from the hansom.

“No, Angus,” she said. “If we need to make a quick get away we’ll need you out here.” He didn’t look like he liked the idea.

“She is right, old man,” I said. Angus’ mack’ hung a bit loosely on me but, while not fashionable, it covered the bloodstains on my trousers. Spike threw off my cloak and seemed mindless of the bloodstains on her dark split skirt. “I have a feeling we may need to exit expeditiously; keep your coach gun ready.”

My diminutive companion marched right up to one of the totem door guards, past a line of attendees waiting to enter the saloon. The native- a Mohawk from his dress- put a hand out to stop her.

“I need to see Juice,” she said with an edge to her voice.

The stone-faced Cerberus flicked a look to his partner, who was Seneca and the two of them stepped in to block Spike.

“Go,” the Mohawk said. Spike tried to shake his hand but he clamped a grip on her shoulder. She squirmed but made no sound, though I could tell it was a painful hold.

“You have till three to remove your hand, my good fellow,” I said. “Or I will become angry.” The Mohawk stared venomously at me.

I smiled. “Enhskat, Tekeni-“ I counted in his native tongue. His stoicism cracked and his hand eased up. Spike used the distraction to slip from him and headed into the noisy interior.

In answer to his unasked question I said, “I served with the Her Majesty’s First Iroquois Skirmishers in the Crimea; your people fought well.” His confusion transformed.

Akweks?” He said with a moment of recognition, calling me by the name the warriors on the line had given me after a particularly rough engagement with the Russian troops. It meant eagle.

“I have to see Juice,” I said in his language. “It is important for me and the girl. We are not here to bring any harm to your employer; this I swear.”

Spike had stopped just inside the door and was looking back at me, not sure what was going on with my conversation with the guard.

The Mohawk warrior nodded to his companion and waved me on.

“What was that?” Spike asked in awe.

“I’ll tell you later if we survive this.” I took her arm and we entered the Iron Apple. “But it does seem as if we can not enter anywhere without some sort of furor!”

Furor was not strong enough a term for the cacophony within the iron Apple; it was a madhouse of debauchery to rival anything on the west bank in Paris or the East End in London. Through the cloud of acrid tobacco smoke the packed main room of the saloon was a garish tableau, with a dozen scantily clad women on a stage at the opposite end of the room doing a vulgar version of the Parisian dance (that I had first seen in Marseilles) the Can-Can.

To say that it was not the sort of thing one should allow a young girl like Spike to see is an understatement, but it did not seem to disturb the young Miss Ellenbogen.

“There’s Juice,” she said, pointing through the haze toward a theatre style box overlooking the stage, wherein sat the owner of the establishment.

“That is Juice?” I asked, incredulously.

My shock came from the fact that the individual she indicated was a busty, red haired Amazon, dressed in silks and feathers and flanked by two equally impressive females.

“Sure,” Spike said with an expression that seemed to doubt my intellect. “What did you expect?”

I was at a loss for words and just shrugged. ‘Well,” I said, Shall we beard this beardless lion in her den?”

The girl nodded and we proceeded into the smoke and chaos to our appointment with destiny.

 

Chapter Eight:

Pow Wow

If I had worried about our appearance before entering the maelstrom I lost all such fears when I saw the clientele of the smoky, noisy Apple. They were as disparate and disreputable a gathering as I could hope to see anywhere in the world. The state of our clothing, blood-soaked or not- was not an issue.

More the issue was the young lady we met at the staircase that led up to the private box of Juice.

“No, go!” the Mohawk woman said. She was not dressed in Six Nation garb, but rather in a conventional-European evening gown that showed off her copper-colored shoulders, but I could see she had a Tomahawk comfortably hidden in her shawl. No doubt her long black hair, done up in a chignon, concealed a knife as well.

“We have to see Juice Martin,” I said in her native tongue, which had the same effect of stunning her to silence as it had at the front door with her compatriot. When she seemed confused as to what to do next I added, “I am Akweks.”

Again my fame preceded me and she held up a hand. “You wait.” Before she turned and headed up the stairs.

“You certainly know some odd people,” Spike said.

“Present company included?”  That got a stuck out tongue from Miss Ellenbogen. Before I could add a comment the Mohawk girl was back and waved us up the stairs.

“So, you’re the English Toff that the Indians think so much of?” Juice Martin said as she stepped into the doorway of her private box to face us. The red haired woman was half a head taller than I, easily my weight or more and, shall I say, ‘substantial’ all around. She wore a green gown that showed off her décolletage in a way that was, to say the least distracting.

“Sir Athelstan Grey, Madam,” I said.

“He’s a baronet,” Spike chimed in.

“I’m no madam,” Juice said. She had a high, nasal voice that would have been more expected from a smaller woman. “But I ain’t met no baronet before, what can I do you for?”

Besides the two women who flanked her there was a fourth figure in the box, a thin, bearded, brown skinned man who I guessed was Middle Eastern, he was dressed casually in a rather non-descript brown suit that hung loosely on his thin limbs. He seemed especially small and drab next to the women who were dressed in silk and lace, and like their employer, were Amazonian in proportions. Both women clearly had pistols at the ready in their clutches. Women in this country were all apparently armed to the teeth.

“It may be more about what we can do for you, Miss Martin,” I said. “Your life may be in danger.”

“Oh stop it, Juice,” Spike spoke up. “We just came from Hanover Jones.”

“Sorry to hear about him,” Juice said, “But what does his death have to do with me?”

“We think his killer might be after you next,” I said quickly. I could feel the walking stick’s tingle of warning again but did not let on. “So you should take precautions.”

The woman laughed. “Girls,” She said. At her word the two females from the box produced their revolvers. The redhead waved them to re-holster and said, “So you see, I don’t need no protection from a half-pint like you, Spike.”

The girl beside me made a strangled sound of fury and started to step forward but I blocked her. “That is good to hear, Miss Martin,” I said. “We were sorry to have troubled you.”

‘Oh you can stay around, Lordship,” Martin said, “ but we have standards here, she has to go.”

Spike exploded past me and I had to act fast to grab and restrain her. She yelled some very un-lady-like phrases at the saloon owner as I wrestled her back toward the stairs.

Juice laughed long and loud in her squeaky voice.

I looked back and was struck by the posture of the little brown man, he seemed about to cry, his large dark eyes watery and his shoulders slumped as he watched me half carry the girl to the stairs and down.

I walked Spike through the saloon’s main floor like she was a drunken sailor while she continued to spew invectives. When we got out the door Angus jumped down from the carriage and looked ready to come to blows with me when he saw me manhandling the girl, but she broke away and went past him to jump up into the hansom.

“What’s all this?” the highlander challenged me.

“Take us around the park, Angus,” I said, “I’ll explain to both of you as we go.”

“I’m not talking to you,” Spike snapped at me when I sat beside her.

“Then just listen-“

“I don’t have to listen to a damn thing you have to say, you high buttoned, over-bred invader!” She hissed at me, her arms crossed and looking straight ahead. “Some friend of Mike’s taking the part of that giant sized floozy!”

I had to work manfully to keep from laughing at the girl.

Angus took us up Union Square West at a slow walk and I filled him in on what had happened in the saloon.

“But why did ye not confront the woman with accusation, sir,” he said to me.

“Yes, “ Spike said, “Why did you just give her a how-ya-do and then turn tail and leave.”

“What did Juice say when you told her we had just come from Hanover Jones’?”

“She said he was sorry to hear about him, so?” Spike had finally looked at me but there was still fire in her eyes.

“How did she know to be sorry, for what? I didn’t tell her anything, and neither did you.”

“But-“

“She already knew that Hanover was dead. How? We all but raced back here.”

“Telephone?”

“Possibly, but why would someone call her unless to report a job well done?”

She nodded, having completely forgotten she was angry at me by now and looked me square in the face.

We had made a circle of the park and were back on Fourteen Street. “Then you think Juice hired the killer?” She asked. “Do you think Little Tony is somewhere in her place?”

“Both seem possible, “ I said, “ but we had best go see the last set of suspects straight away- they are either the guilty ones or set to be murdered if our prodding’s have any effect on Miss Martin.”

“Head to the Marble Brother’s place, Angus,” she called up. Then she turned to look at me. “I guess Mike wasn’t all full of prune juice about you after all.”

“Thank you, I think.”

Angus steered us along the street till we came to Third Avenue where he turned south under the rumbling elevated tramway. The establishment of the Marble siblings was on Tenth Street and Third Avenue in the shadow of the elevated train.

The street was choked with traffic, pedestrian and horse, as the many saloons and restaurants along the street began their nocturnal cycle of business. It was a very different clientele than even the few blocks over where the Iron Apple was located.

This was the sort of strata of society that only came out after dark, pimps and prostitutes, gadabouts looking for thrills, simply risqué or actually illicit.

“The Marbles are the lowest of the low,” Spike said to me as if reading my thoughts. “But they own six joints along here and are beginning to angle to move uptown to the thirties and get a little class.” She snorted, “Like that could ever happen!”

“I don’t care what you say, lassie,” Angus said from the driver’s seat, “I’m going into that place with you two.” He slipped his coach gun under his coat and smiled.

I could understand his concern, the ‘flagship’ gin joint of the Marbles miniature empire was subtly called “the Bucket of Blood,’ and would have been at home in the seediest Glasgow or Bombay waterfront pub. Two huge negroes, easily Angus size stood at the door but did not even give us a second look as we entered. I even felt the worldly Spike tense, but fortunately, there was no tingling of occult energy from my walking stick.

I am always thankful for small favors in the uncertain world.

 

 

Chapter Nine:

Twiddle Dee and Sibling

 

The Bucket of Blood made me reassess the vulgarity level of Juice Martin’s establishment. The tobacco smoke was as thick, the noise level as high, but the atmosphere was not one of ribald licentiousness, but rather of a deliberate, desperate sort of revelry. It was as if everyone in the crowded room sought oblivion with a fierce determination.

I have been in opium dens in China that had a more hopeful air about them.

The three of us pushed through the boisterous crowd until we collided with an open space at the long bar.

“This place is nae a place for you, lassie,” Angus said, quite unnecessarily. “Let his lordship and I talk to the Marbles.”

I had given up correcting people on peerage, though the Scotsman should have known better.

“No,” Spike said, “I can see this through.”

She had spunk, there was no denying it.

“We need to see the owners,” I said to the bartender, a scarred fellow with only one good eye which he regarded me with as if I was a week old fish.

There was a piano playing and some woman, pretending to be singer, warbled a popular tune as she floated out above the heads of the crowd (and just out of grabbing height) on a flying carpet. She was dressed as some damsel from Arabian Nights to show off her ample figure and when she waved at the audience the general level of noise commensurate with football pitch or a bullfight.

Whatever form of magick- Aztec, smuggled Merlinian or other, used to fly the carpet made my walking stick useless for detecting any occult threats, but one can not have everything.

I stared back at the barkeep and said with a slight raise in my voice’s volume, “Well?”

“Nobody sees the brothers,” he said.

“Ah,” I said. “But I am not ‘Nobody.” I reached across the bar and grabbed the large fellow by his left ear and yanked him face forward into the bar so that he was mercifully unconscious when the ‘singer’ began-

‘Oh, promise me that someday you and I

Will take our love together to some sky

Where we may be alone and faith renew,’

A bouncer appeared out of the maelstrom of the room, stout cudgel in his hand just as the crowd joined the singer in the next chorus.

And find the hollows where those flowers grew,

Those first sweet violets of early spring,

Which come in whispers, thrill us both, and sing

Of love unspeakable that is to be;

Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!’

 

The bouncer quickly found Angus’ coach gun shoved up against his girthsome stomach and froze in midstep.

“As I said,” I repeated for his benefit, “I am here to see the Marble brothers. And really don’t like to be disappointed.”

A second security thug appeared but the first waved him off.

“Oh knock it off,” Spike called out, “Shamus and Donal know me- tell them Spike Ellenbogen has information for them.”

The second bouncer disappeared into the crowd while the woman on the stage got the crowd to join her enthusiastically in the rest of the off-key drinking song.

Oh, promise me that you will take my hand,

The most unworthy in this lonely land,

And let me sit beside you in your eyes,

Seeing the vision of our paradise,

Hearing God’s message while the organ rolls

Its mighty music to our very souls,

No love less perfect than a life with thee;

Oh, promise me! Oh, promise me!

 

I began to regret not going to the Wagner opera.

“You are insane,” Spike yelled to me above the din with a smile. “Mike really was right about you.”

A few tense minutes and a horrid repeat of the refrain later the guard returned and rescued us from having to listen to the third chorus. We were led (Angus still held his gun to the bouncer’s belly) directly beneath the hovering carpet to a short corridor at the back of the cavernous room.

My walking stick was continuously tingling now so I ignored it.

At the entrance to the short corridor a figure stepped from the shadows. It was the same small man in a rumpled brown suit I had seen at Juice Martin’s. Seeing him closer I suspected him to be middle-eastern, possibly Arabic.

Sadeeqy Spike,” the man said to the girl and ignoring the rest of us.  “You must leave this place.”

The girl evidenced no immediate recognition of the little man. “I ain’t leaving here till I see the Marbles,” she said.

“You do not understand,” he said. “I must obey the words as they are spoken.”

“What are you talking about?” Spiked asked. She looked back at me with an arched eyebrow.

He saw the gesture and looked directly at me and his eyes seemed to linger on my Eye of Horus medallion. “Azizi” he said which I knew meant friend in Arabic so my guess at his ancestry seemed accurate. “She must not linger in this place. I must follow the words exactly.”

Before I could ask him what he meant the door at the end of the short corridor opened and flooded the hall with illumination. The little man shied from it as if scalded by the light and jumped back into the shadows of the alcove he had come from.

“Bring them in here!” A booming voice called out from inside. The bouncer waved us forward and our little parade proceeded. When I looked back I could not see the little man at all.

“Well, Little Sister,” one of the Marble brothers said to Spike when we entered the back office. I surmised who he was from the fact that the two men seated behind a massive desk were as alike as two peas in a pod. They were as round as their namesakes, as well, with multiple chins and bushy side-whiskers in bright red. They wore matching green plaid suits and incongruously small bowler hats.

“Spike, my girl,” the brother on the right said. “What brings you here?”

“Slumming, girl?” the left brother asked.

“Don’t you talk to me like that, Shamus Marble,” she shot back. “We came here to warn you about Juice-.”

At that moment another figure stepped from an alcove beyond the desks, a fellow almost as stout as the two brothers, but on a slightly smaller scale. He had a shaven head and a boxer’s ear on the left side.

“Little Tony!” Spike blurted out.

“That is ‘little’ Tony?” I asked.

“I’m sorry Miss Spike,” the new arrival said, “I didn’t mean for Mister Mike-“

“Shut up, Tony,” The right brother, whom I took to be Donal, said. “You don’t have to say anything to this little vixen.”

“Watch it, mon,” Angus said. He removed his coach gun from the bouncer’s gut and swung it around to menace the brothers. “Yea’ll not talk to the lassie that way.”

“Easy, all of you,” I said. “Come on, Spike- these ‘gentlemen’ do not need help from us; we are done here.”

She started to object but I flashed her a look that quieted her- she was beginning to respect my ‘hunches.’

We three, with the two ‘bouncers’ walked back out through the short corridor in reverse order to our entering. The door to the office closed with a decidedly hostile slam and I suspected we would not have been leaving under our own power if Angus did not have his coach gun.

I saw no sign of the little Arab fellow but I was soon distracted from looking by the fresh aural assault on us by the floating carpet singer.

Star of the East, Oh Bethlehem’s star,

Guiding us on to Heaven afar!

Sorrow and grief and lull’d by thy light,

Thou hope of each mortal, in death’s lonely night!

 

Mercifully the crowd was not singing along, but the lady warbler was more than proficient at musical murder on her own.

“Will you tell me what-“ Spike began but I cut her off.

“When we are outside,” I said, “I will tell you my suspicions, but there are to many ears in here.”

Fearless and tranquil, we look up to Thee!

Knowing thou beam’st thro’ eternity!

Help us to follow where Thou still dost guide,

Pilgrims of earth so wide.

 

Abruptly there was a shrill scream that was loud enough to eclipse the ‘sultry’ singer-It was a sound of such agony and unbridled horror that even the denizens of the Bucket froze where they stood. The jewel on my walking stick near burned my hand with the intensity of the power it projected.

“God’s garters!” Angus exclaimed.

The two security men ran for the door and I turned to the Scotsman.

“Take her to the hansom, Angus,” I yelled at him. “And if she gives you problems subdue her if you must, but get her out!” I did not wait to see if he complied and raced after the bouncers.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten:

Juice and Justice

 

The door to the Marble Brother’s office was bolted from within but the two burly security men preceded me slammed themselves against it repeatedly till the bolt gave. I was right behind them.

The scene we burst in on was as hideous as the one at Hanover Jones’ place. The two Marble siblings were ripped open like slaughtered beef, hanging over their desks with most of their entrails spilled all over the floor.

Little Tony was just in process of expiring, his rotund body sprawled before the desk. Standing over him was the same creature that had killed Jones, its jaws slathered with gore. It looked up at us, snarled and began to move toward us.

I drew my sword cane and brandished it, the jewel in its pommel glowing with the etheric energies it was detecting.

The beast paused and then as if in a nightmare began to waver and dissolve into a smoky mass that blew toward the flue of the fireplace.

As we watched in stunned inaction the dissolved fiend disappeared up the chimney like a demented version of Santa Claus.

“What the hell was dat?” One of the bouncers asked when he could speak.

“I think I finally know,” I managed to whisper. I knelt by the dying Tony. His eyes were unfocused and blood poured from his mouth but he could still make sound.

“I didn’t mean it.” He hissed through the bubbling blood. “Juice offered me so much money-“

“It was an artifact?” I asked. “Mike brought it back from Egypt?”

“Yes.”  His voice was weaker and I am not sure he even knew he was speaking to me anymore and not just confessing his sins. “Thought it was just money. Juice-she knew, somehow she knew.”

“Where does she keep it?”

“Safe,” the dying man whispered. “Office.” Then his body convulsed and then Little Tony was no more.

“Jeez,” one of the bouncers said sotto voce, “I ain’t paid enough for this.”

“Eloquent, sir,” I said as I rose. “Tell that to the police when they arrive.” Then I headed out through the saloon crowd to the carriage. To add to the horror of the situation the warbler had started up again.

Oh star that leads to God above!

Whose rays are peace and joy and love!

Watch o’er us still till life hath ceased,

Beam on, bright star, sweet Bethlehem star!

 

 

I imagined the words might be comfort for the departed brothers, but they did nothing to improve my mood.

“What happened?”  A very angry Spike shot at me when I jumped into the hansom.

I ignored her and yelled up to the Scotsman, “Back to Juice’s place, Angus, as fast as you can, things are about to come to a head.” Then to quiet the girl I told her what I had seen and heard.

“So he as much as confessed he killed Mike?” she was so shocked by the betrayal of her former employee that her anger at me for excluding her was blunted.

“Not quite,” I said. The highlander was threading the carriage through the busy streets with a recklessness abandon that would put any London Cabbie to shame.

“But you said-“ She began.

“No,” I injected, “ I think he honestly thought it was just going to be a robbery- perhaps he even intended to pass it off as the work of someone else. But then things went wrong. If I am right it was much more than he bargained for. Yet, somehow, Juice knew.”

“Knew what?” She all but grabbed me to try and force the words from me but Angus was already pulling to the curb in front of Juice’s emporium so I jumped from the hansom.

“I’ll show you inside,” I said. “Come on, Angus, we’ll need that coach gun of yours.” I raced ahead of Miss Ellenbogen and up to the Iroquois door guard.

“Your mistress is in danger,” I said with real urgency in my tone. “We must see her.”

He looked at me with curiosity. “Is this so, Akweks?”

“Yes.” My tone and the anxious faced of my companions convinced him it was so. I did not tell him that we were the probable reason that his boss was in danger.

The Mohawk led the three of us into the Iron Apple and across the main floor to a corridor accessed by a door guarded by yet another of his tribe.

I could sense that Spike wanted to ask me exactly what we were doing, but was wise enough to realize she could not do it in front of the Mohawk. She did fix me with a cold stare and I smiled back as nonchalantly as possible.

We were escorted down the corridor to a second door, outside of which stood the female Mohawk guard from before.

Our guide spoke to her briefly and the siren stepped aside for we three to enter, though her grim expression showed she was not convinced. We ushered into the sanctum of Juice Martin, a large, lavishly appointed office-cum-lounge.

The saloon owner was seated on a couch with one of the painted women from before rubbing her feet. The other woman from the box was pouring a drink from a small bar on the side of the room when we entered and all three turned to gawk at us.

“What is all this, Orenda?” Juice asked of the Mohawk.

I felt quite the cad, but before our guide could answer- and the second the door was closed- I spun quickly and slammed my walking stick against his head, rendering him very unconscious.

“Angus- cover them!” I yelled and the coachman produced his gun from beneath his coat.

The two women froze but Juice made to spring up from her couch and speak. I would not allow that.

I leapt forward and drew my sword blade and pressed it directly to her throat.

“Do not utter a sound, madam, I said, “ not a single sound or I will slit your throat. I know.”

Here eyes widened with that. She almost spoke but she saw the determination in my eyes and remained silent.

“What is going on, Athelstan,” Spike asked, unable to contain herself any longer.

“In a moment, Spike, first I need to get some information from this lady, silently.”

I stared daggers at Juice. “With just your fingers indicate the numbers of your safe,” I said. “But no sounds or I will find out if my cracksman skills are still up to the challenge.” She saw I was serious and quickly formed numbers with her hands.

“20, 43, 50,” I repeated. “Spike, go to that painting there- the horrid landscape- and try the safe behind it.”

“Right or left?” She asked when she slid the picture aside.

“Try a couple of combinations and see-“ I said. “We don’t dare ask this ‘lady’-when that is open I think all will be explained.”

Spike’s second attempt at the combination worked and the safe door swung open to reveal the cavity within which was divided into several shelves. I could see paper money, some jewels and other papers and the thing I had thought would be there on the top shelf.

“That,” I nodded to the object. “Take it out and say these words. “I command you now.”

“What?’ Spike said.

“No!” Juice screamed. Despite my sword point at her throat she started to turn and head for Spike. I jumped forward and clotted her on the side of the head with my left fist hard enough to stun her and drop her to her knees.

“Do it, Spike, now. Those words!”

She looked at me like I had sprouted wings, but she obeyed.

“I command you now,” Spike said.

There was a rushing sound in the room, a brilliant flash of blue light and then that strange little man from the Bucket of Blood stood before Spike, though now his clothing was bright silks styled after the Egyptian fashion.

“Thank Allah,” The little man said. He looked at me and bowed. “You understood all, Azizi,” he said. “Now I serve only Miss Ellenbogen.”

Spike looked stunned, almost dropping the old style Arabic oil lamp she held in her hand.

“Oh my God,” she said, “ He’s a Genie!”

 

 Epilogue:

Answers like the Wind.

“A Jinn,” the little man said. “A race made by Allah of fire and smoke to serve his later creations.”

“But- but-“

“Damn you, Limey bastard,” Juice hissed from her knees.

“Doesn’t matter what you say now,” I said, resheathing my sword cane. “You can’t order this fellow-“

“I am called Abdul-Ghafur.”

“Abdul then, anymore,” I continued. “Only Spike can. Like Mike did.”

“Mike?” Spike said.

“Yes,” I said. “He bought that lamp in Cairo- I remember him looking in a window that had it. Of course, I don’t think he knew what it was then-“

“No, Azizi,” Abdul said. “He discovered me and my powers on the airship on the way home.” He looked sad. “He was a good man. No master I have ever had in the two thousand years since Solomon confined me to that lamp has been so gentle and unselfish. He wished only for the money he needed to begin your café, Mistress Spike.”

“That’s why he forgave all those debts,” Spike said. She looked at the lamp in her hands and then at the little brown man with a shocked expression.

“Kill them,” Juice screamed from her knees. “Stop them you stupid little freak!”

Abdul regarded her as I have seen dogs look at fleas. “I had to obey her words, mistress- as she spoke them.”

“When she sent you to kill the other saloon owners?” I asked.

“Yes, “Abdul said. “I had orders to kill anyone who tried to stop me from killing Mister Hanover Jones and then to kill anyone in the room with the Marble Brothers.”

“It was why you tried to warn us to stay out.” I said.

“Yes,” he nodded. “I had no orders not to speak to you-“ he turned to bow slightly to Spike-“and hoped to save you, mistress.”

“Kill them!” Juice hissed again, her lips fairly foaming, her complexion florid and eyes wide. “I command you, tear them to pieces.”

“Shut up!” Spike said to her then turned to Abdul. “You—you killed Mike, didn’t you?”

Before the little man could speak I interjected, “Don’t blame him, Spike. He had to obey any orders she gave him with an exactitude he can not control.”

“It is so, mistress,” the Jinn said, “ but I did not kill Master Mike. Mistress Juice came to meet the one called Little Tony who knew where my lamp was hidden, though did not know of its power. But she did!” He pointed at the kneeling, near apoplectic Juice.

“Yes I stuck the pig,” she snapped, “ He came after Tony had opened the cabinet for me. He tried to stop me so I gutted him then had my little pet genie go to and make it worse; strike real fear in all of them that thought me less for being a woman.” She laughed and there was an echo of the insane in her tone.

“And you set about eliminating everyone of the others,” I said. “When all you had to do was wish up money like Mike did you chose vengeance and death.”

“Those pricks deserved it,” Juice said. “You know what a girl had to put up with to deal with the likes of them.”

“Mike was never like that!” Spike protested. She set the lamp down now and moved across the room to face the kneeling Juice directly. So tall was the murderess that on her knees she was almost eye level with the petite Spike. “He was kind man; he never took advantage of any woman.”

Juice laughed. “You think you know your holier-than-though brother? He wanted me, alright-“

The companion that had been massaging Juice’s feet snickered then. Juice shot her a look. “Rachel don’t you-“

“You can’t lie about it, Juice,” Rachel persisted, “You was all over him and he wanted no part of you.”

Juice spun on her knees and backhanded the girl to stagger her.

The Mohawk outside the door started to beat against it.

“Spike,” I said, “Tell Abdul to keep her from raising the alarm.”

“What?” She said.

“Tell him in those words,” I insisted. “Repeat it.”

“Keep her from raising the alarm, Abdul,” Spike said.

The little brown man seemed to flicker like a torch flame then smiled. “It is done, Mistress.”

The pounding on the door had stopped.

“What—what did you do?” Spike asked.

“I simply used the essence of the poppy to cause the lady to become very sleepy, Mistress,” the Jinn said. “I did not think anything more permanent was needed.”

“Yes, right,” she said. “That is fine.” She seemed a bit overcome by the suddenness of it all and sat down in an overstuffed leather chair. Abdul stepped to her side and produced a cup and saucer.

“Tea, Mistress, to calm you nerves?” He said.

The girl took the tea and sipped before she realized she had. “He’s a-a-genie!”

“Yes, Spike,” I said. “ he is a Jinn-“

“Thank you , sir,” Abdul said at my correction.

“And you have some new responsibilities now.”

“Responsibilities?”

“Yes, Persian, Indian and Aztec magicks are just as strong as Merlinian,” I said. “Perhaps a fair sight more, in fact. In any case, Like Mike you have great power now to literally make a wish and have it granted.”

“A wish?” She sounded stunned.

“Many, Mistress,” Abdul said. “I am bound by Wise Solomon to obey the words as you speak them.”

“The exact words, I suspect,” I added, “If legends are to be believed.”

“Just so, azizi,” Abdul concurred. “And while I have some latitude to interpret it is best to not be a ambiguous.”

“You mean Mike could-“

“Yes,” I said. “Your brother could have been greedy or cruel or vindictive like Juice- but he chose not to.”

“He wished for the money to cover all the debts owed him,” the Jinn said. “And to endow the charity hospital and orphanage. He was very clear that no one was to be harmed.” His expression became sad. “Truly the best master I have had.”

At that Juice screamed an incoherent cry of anger and thrust her hand into her skirts and pulled a small derringer that she pointed at Spike.

“Die, bitch!” Juice said. “The lamp is mine!”

“No!” Angus yelled and blasted away with his coach gun. The kneeling saloon owner was blown backward in a spray of gore.

Rachel screamed while her companion floozy simply fainted.

“Oh my God!” Spike said. I sprinted to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

‘Easy, girl,” I said. She took several deep breaths and composed herself admirably.

“I’m okay,” she said then indicated the hyperventilating Rachel. “But she isn’t.” She turned to Abdul. “Can you quiet her down like the guard?”

The Jinn nodded and there was another blue flash. The panicked girl closed her eyes and she gently collapsed to the floor. In a moment she was snoring peacefully.

“What now?” Spike asked.

“Well,’ I answered. “If Abdul can make these ladies forget we were here we can decamp and you begin your life as a wish-maker.”

“They say power corrupts,” Spike said as she rose to look down at the gory corpse of Miss Martin. “How did Mike resist? How can I?”

The little brown man smiled and gave a slight nod. “You are blood of his blood, flesh of his flesh, Mistress,” he said. “I have faith you will do what is right.” With that he wavered and dissolved into a column of smoke that flowed across the room to enter the lamp and, with a curled tendril pulled the stopper into place to seal the vessel behind him.

“I second that, lassie” Angus said. “Bully!”

“Indeed,” I said. “Let’s get out of here and get out of these cloths into some fresh ones; I think we can make it up to the opera before Wotan walks off into the fire; Aunt Mini is going to want to hear about this all first hand.”

 

THE END

Moonflowers

by Alex Gray

Ember blinked as a tiny flame guttered briefly on the bridge of his nose, and started to read from his clipboard.

“Jinx, Jane Doe, get your bony asses over to the The Park dock: angel security has intercepted a container full of satanists trying to get smuggled in. It’s getting ugly: there’s people taking the name of the lord in all kinda fucking vain, and tempers are fraying. Apparently Gabe himself is on his way, in a shit of a mood. Let’s avoid excess blood on the morning news, ok?”

Jinx raised a hand, silver chains and charms rattling: “Sarge, how much would you consider excess?

Ember stared hard for a moment, and we all tensed. If Ember was the barrel of gunpowder in the room, Jinx was the one always trying to apply a match.

“If Gabe draws his flaming sword, what follows will be very much the definition of  ex-fucking-cess. And it will be added to later by however much blood you have in your own scrawny little cadaver. Got it?”

Jane Doe delivered a hard nudge to the ribs and Jinx shut her mouth with a nod.

“Ovid, you and…”

“Aw Sarge, can you give it to someone else? I hate missing-person reports…” I whined, then froze.

Ovid carefully leaned his 300lb slab of a body away from me, with a whispered “You didn’t even let him say it, jerk!”

If there’s one thing you don’t do to Ember, it’s interrupt him when he’s handing out the night shift assignments. If there’s two things you don’t do to Ember, it’s interrupt him AND do so using your freak ability. Especially when he thinks your skill is about as much use as a fart in a spacesuit. And that was a quote. Minus some choice swear words.

I always assumed his temper was on account of the guttering flames that run up and down his body at random, but Ovid says he was just as much a bastard back before it happened in the War.

I thought fast, but talked faster. Which was a shame.

“Sorry, Sarge. Please, do go on…” The accompanying hand movement was meant to be encouraging everyone to just pretend I’d not said a thing, and to keep things moving along, but it came over like the Queen of England giving her tiresome subjects a bored wave.

Ember went even redder than usual: no mean feat for a walking spontaneous human combustion, and Ovid rattled his shaky wooden chair away from me across the rickety floorboards with a noise like Pinocchio being worked over with a two-by-four.

“Are you sure I should continue? I mean, only if you’re okay with it.” Ember rumbled in a voice that sounded like a pack of hunting wolves’ raised hackles looked. “In fact, why don’t you tell me what I was going to say next, Petal?”

Jinx snorted with laughter, then coughed and lowered her head, shooting me a look that was pure delighted malice. The others wore expressions that ranged from very mild sympathy to gratitude that it wasn’t them.

Petal isn’t my real name, I should point out. But whichever nickname sticks as funniest and least kind, that’s what you’re called here. I’d barely opened my mouth to introduce myself after the army chopper dropped me on Governor’s Island one dark night, when the Captain’s high, bored nasal tone had cut through the hot darkness of the landing pad. “Well, look what we have here,” he’d announced. “If it isn’t the most delicate little Petal.”

He’d stressed the capital P in Petal, too. At his side, Ember had grunted in what passed for amusement, a couple of ground crew rats had snickered, and that was that. In my defense, I’m not especially delicate looking, but I am skinny and pale, and he was of course testing me with the flower jibe. You see, no-one has the right to know where you come from, here in the Precinct. Your record, sure. But not your birth. Because none of the ways of becoming this type of cop are easy or nice, and it’s considered rude and sometimes fatal to dig too deep. But you can assume plenty, and this was the Captain’s way of saying he’d chosen to assume I was a Moonflower. Petal, flower, see? I thought it was about that funny, too.

More about Moonflowers later: time to get back to the present. Of course I knew what Ember was going to say next. It was a long, detailed and anatomically infeasible series of instructions for me to carry out. And he knew I knew, so that was why he was thinking that. But telling him that would make it worse, so I needed to defuse the situation. The trouble was, Ember had never really understood that I can’t read minds, so much as just know what people are planning to do next. So like a lot of folks, he gets all antsy round about me, as if I can look into his head and see his deepest darkest secrets. Instead, I just get a three-second warning. Which sounds amazing, and exciting, right? And it can be useful, believe me. But three seconds isn’t very much time to do much. Really, my ability is mostly just to look like the world’s biggest smartass. Which is what the army eventually concluded, and suggested I’d be of more use to the Precinct. Or anywhere that wasn’t the army.

“Sarge, you are planning to say how you realize that deep down I am honored and thrilled to be taking on another challenging missing-person case, and that you are happy I am planning to keep my mouth shut from now on?”

“Ass-kisser!” Jinx coughed into her hand.

Ember stared hard for a few seconds, then nodded. His skin mostly subsided to a dull glow, with only a few singes on the fire-resistant material of his uniform.

“As Petal was saying,” he went on, “he and Ovid will be delighted to go over to The Hook and sort out a report of a missing person, and because they’re so keen, also they want to look into a smash and grab involving a quantity of hellstones.”

Ovid shuffled and rattled his chair back across the boards like a long slow collapse in a lumber yard, and punched me hard on the arm. I knew it was coming, but thought best to just act normal for a bit, so yelped and rubbed the spot he’d hit.

Normally we’d all wait for the briefing to end, so’s we had a rough idea what the others were up to. It avoided misunderstandings and the occasional friendly fire incident. And gave the entirely false impression we were kind of a community, and cared for each other, rather than being a bunch of freaks and sociopaths thrown together like a supernatural band-aid.

This time, though, with Ember pissed, I raced to the front and took the briefing sheets from his outstretched hand, blowing out a smoldering flame on the corner, and me and Ovid scooted out the back door into the freezing night.

We paused on the porch to button our coats up. I have to say, Governor’s Island is one pretty place, even bathed in the hellish glow of The Hook just across the water in Brooklyn. We call it The Hook, because it was Red Hook long before it had the bad luck to be Hell’s home base on the East Coast of North America. If we’d come out the front door of the Precinct rather than scuttling out the back, we’d have been lit in a pure white light from the angels’ crib over on the southern tip of Manhattan. Heaventown, officially, but Battery Park on old maps, so The Park to us. We’re not so keen on the dramatic names: they’re for the tourists and thrill-seekers.

And here we are in the middle: neutral ground, and probably the best real estate for a police station I’ve ever seen. The island used to be 170 acres of parkland, complete with revolutionary war fort (now the jail and armory), a few dozen magnificent old naval officer’s mansions and even a church that looks like it was teleported from old England. It’s still beautiful, if you ignore all the hardware that a cop precinct dealing with Heaven and Hell needs, and the wandering devils, angels, diplomats and lawyers. And yes, the last ones are the worst.

Most of the mansions have been fixed up nicely and used for consulates, legal offices, guest quarters and a medical center that’s set up to treat the most imaginative injuries you can sustain in heaven or hell. Not forgetting an orphanage that makes the medical center look dull and predictable. The Precinct’s mansion is the exception, of course: it has a certain haughty elegance, and some fine old wooden staircases and even fancy pillars holding up the porch roof, but close up it’s a mess, and if you lean too hard on anything, it tends to break. Which isn’t a bad metaphor for the night shift, either.

Officially we make sure the two turfs are safe and law-abiding. In reality, we barely keep the lid on the places, and we do that through a mix of intimidation, fear, persuasion and blind luck. For the sake of clarity, as far as me and Ovid go, he’s the intimidation and fear, while I’m the persuasion and blind luck. The non blind luck on the shift is Jinx, who’s a total nightmare, but I must admit, a force to be reckoned with. Her talent is just that: luck. When she needs it the most. The downside? She takes the luck from people around her. That can come in handy when some demon is about to stick you, but less so if you need to work with her. That’s why she’s paired with Jane Doe: Doe is immune to all and everything in Heaven, Hell and between. Except sarcasm. Just don’t go there. Or ask her anything about herself. As far as Doe’s concerned, she didn’t exist before she turned up on the Precinct doorstep one night with signed papers.

Anyways, enough of the bios: I’d be all night trying to explain Pinky and Perky, let alone Phasers on Stun. Ovid is the muscle and I’m the brains, I like to say. He likes to say he’s the muscle and the brains and I’m a dead weight. Whatever, his talents lie in the physical: Ovid is a Hellvet: one of the soldiers who were flung into the initial invasion toeholds to buy time. Most died  in various inventive ways. Some went mad. A smaller percentage, exposed to the otherwordly energies that were flying around from both sides, picked up certain abilities. And also went mad, though in a manageable way, mostly. Ovid was a 200-lb Ranger. Now he’s a 300-lb cartoon of a soldier with skin that can stop a 50-caliber bullet and fists that can hit harder than one. Ugly as sin, mind, but somehow, that doesn’t deter the ladies. And here’s me, young, handsome, (in a sallow kind of way) funny and yet single. Go figure.

You should know that I just waffle on like this to keep myself grounded: we all do something mundane and ordinary like that for relaxation. Working where we work, and coming from where we came from, you need to ease off on the weird, sometimes. Ovid plays chess, Ember reads, Jinx knits. Me, I chatter on endlessly, and record it. I won’t tell you what Pinky does. I always say, if you’re hearing this, then it means I’m dead and you’re going through my meager possessions. A shoebox full of memory chips? Sorry, by now you’ll know they contain nothing more exciting than my audio diary. On the other hand, I do upload them all to my weekly podcast that nobody listens to, so maybe one day I’ll get a fan, and maybe that’s you?

“You with me, Petal?” Ovid grunted. He was holding the lightly singed sheets  up to the swaying porch light. Ember wrote in red pen, which was invisible in the red light coming from The Hook. “He’s smart: nobody can read them over in The Hook,” I’d said when I joined a few months ago. “He’s a bastard: we can’t read them either,” Ovid had replied.

“So what’s with the missing person? That’s hardly a big deal in The Hook,” I said through gritted teeth, trying to get my hood to stay up. The snow was horizontal and sticky.

Ovid grunted again—that was his stock response to any question, and often all the answer you were going to get. It was my lucky day, though, because he elaborated a little.

“It’s a big deal when your daddy is U.S. Ambassador to The Hook and The Park,” he said, waving a poorly copied photo at me. Slim, white, entitled looking late teen dressed in black leather. I rolled my eyes at the predictability of it all: all the rich kids thought they needed to look like Kate Beckinsale in those pre-War vampire movies. And she was called Winter Vandenburg. Winter. Why do these rich kids have such cool names? And why was I stuck with ‘Petal’?

I whistled. “She was in The Hook without a bodyguard?”

“Nah, she gave ‘em the slip. They were just civilian pricks.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a dig at me or not. Ovid didn’t like civvies. Technically I was ex military, which made me a born-again prick in his opinion.

“Here,” he thrust the sheet into my numbing hands. “Since you messed the night up, you can handle this solo. I’ll deal with the hellstone heist.”

I focused on him, then shook my head. “The fast boat is out of service: she sprung a leak,” I said, just as he started to say “take the…”

Ovid was looking at me oddly. Was that compassion? Sympathy? Probably just indigestion. “Kid,” he said. “There’s gotta be more to your talents than this sideshow stuff. You gotta be, I dunno, more…proactive.”

I stared, expecting something in the way of wisdom, or guidance. I concentrated and realized he was about to do and say nothing at all in the next few seconds. He stared back, then shrugged his huge shoulders and turned and walked away. I scurried to catch up.

We trudged through the accumulating snow to the armory in the depths of the old fort. For once, there was no howling/screaming/cursing/singing from the cells, and I noticed most were empty. The snow keeps the crazies quiet, sometimes. Or buries them where they fall, so they become the day shift’s problems. Dirty Harriet was on duty, and nodded at Ovid as we walked in, then squeaked off out of sight on her wheeled chair for a moment, returning with a cannon as big as my thigh. She slid it across the worn desk, along with a holdall of ammo. She looked me over, her ancient face wrinkled like a raisin, then rolled away again.

“This is going the be hilarious,” I said, flatly, a split second before she came back with a tiny silver-chromed derringer-like pistol, like the ladies and shady gamblers had tucked into a stocking top in old riverboat movies.

“I was wrong…you’re the funniest person I ever met,” I said in the same tone. Behind me, Ovid paused from sliding cartridges the size of hotdogs into the cannon and grunted with laughter. Just like he did every time.

Harriet gave a toothless smile and rolled away again, this time handing over a regular-sized automatic and webbing. Regular-sized for the Precinct, that is: like everything else, ordnance had to be kind of over-engineered to last long in the zones, and this looked like a pre-War pistol on steroids. It had two oversized ammo clips, one painted with a white cross, the other a rough dot. Different ammo for The Hook and The Park, to cover all bases. Truth is, it takes a load of firepower to take down an angel or a devil, especially on their home turf, and so both were basically heavy-duty slugs with a coating of whatever exotic metals and chemicals the lab boys had decided might give you the edge against your average supernatural foe. While we were never sure we could put one down for good, we did know that these things hurt like hell. Or heaven. Or something else belief-system appropriate—but painful. We also checked out walkie-talkies, flashlights, and a handful of ‘pick-me-ups’: basically Twinkie-sized locator-flare combos to summon the cavalry.

Ten minutes later we were waiting at the landing pad as a battered Osprey clattered down with a squeal and a bump. We tend to get mili-surplus, which means the previous owner wasn’t exactly a retired librarian who only used the vehicle to get to the senior-citizens’ lunch club once a week. Also, the screwy physics in The Hook and The Park take a heavy toll on anything electrical or mechanical that stays there too long. Not to mention most organics, other than us freaks who could handle it. Here on the Island, the overlapping energies had created a neutral zone, so it wasn’t too bad. Off to the left, the small red landing spot for demons was empty, while on the other side, an angel was coming in to land, his/her impressive wings beating hard to cope with the crosswinds. Awe-inspiring sight, except for the fact that the updraft was blowing his-her robes up, exposing a load more than was decent for a heavenly creature. Never could figure why they’d made the leap to modern body armor easily, but still insisted on those white billowing numbers underneath. At least the devils went for suits or leisure wear, which was way more practical, if a little gauche. I looked away, though: no sense of humor, these angels, and a visit this late had to be connected to the Jinx and Jane Doe’s case.

We clambered aboard the Osprey and as we lifted off I could see the pair trudging unhappily toward the pissed-off looking angel, and I took a moment to raise my middle finger to the window, just in case Jinx was looking up.

Old H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t far wrong when he wrote: “Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, none knows whence or whither, pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand.” His added: “As of old, more people enter Red Hook than leave it on the landward side,” was pretty much true, too, and the cause of a lot of our caseload. Maybe he had the Gift, and knew what would happen? Or maybe he was just a crazy man. If he’d been able to see it right before the War, he’d have probably been just as dismayed at the way the yuppies were driving out the artists and hustlers and duckers-and-divers, stealing away the clapboard houses overnight and replacing them with tall thin condos. Or so I hear: I was born after the War ended, so have to take the old-timers’ word for it. Once Armageddon-Lite was damped down, all the remaining Hellish units on the east coast retreated to that almost-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood and barricaded it with a motley array of barbed wire, moats of burning oil and pretty much anything sharp they could find or make. Treaties were hastily signed and in time, official crossing points set up. As for the residents, most left, but some stayed and adapted. Or just vanished. And many new ones came flocking to enjoy the money-making delights the de-mobbed demonic troops had set up. Let that mix marinate in the gentle heat of Hell for three decades and you had a chunk of waterfront real estate that was a mix of Disney World, Atlantic City and one of Brueghel the Younger’s more ghastly paintings. Enough of the ancient history, though.

Nowadays the red lighting was part from the burning oil (a vanity that kept the local mob-run oil truck companies in business) and from a trick that made every light source and neon sign glow red or orange. Plus, it was always dusk or night there. Quite how that was managed was a mystery that sucked in a great many scientists. Some of them even managed to come back out, but never any the wiser. It was kind of obvious to us poor sods who worked there: when the gates to Heaven and Hell closed, they didn’t close all the way, and shit was still leaking out. Shame none of the eggheads ever asked us, really.

We were dropped on the roof of what had once been a warehouse, then a squat, then a trendy art gallery, and still was the latter, except the works of art were now alive, and tortured for the entertainment of visitors. And it was all official—there were always dumb thrill-seekers happy to sign away a few hours or days (time’s kind of vague in the zones) for exquisite torture. It’s not my thing, but hey, I’m not here to judge, except in a street-justice kind of way, and that deals with the physical rather than the moral.

The snow was falling here, too, except it was burning: no cliché is too much for The Hook. Not burning enough to set stuff afire, mostly, but more of a zap and a tingle. And it was blood red, of course, and yet cold. I don’t waste time thinking about things like that any more. The night was full of the usual smells and sounds of The Hook: screaming of all natures, music of all types, cars honking and screeching their tires, arguing, shouting, smoke, smog, fog, narco-fumes, sewerage, blood, vomit: basically every noise and stench associated with pleasure or pain or both at once. Behind it all, I fancied, there was the sound of dirty money being counted: The Hook had put pretty much every casino, brothel and drug den in a thousand mile radius out of business by offering what they did, except better, bigger, louder and more intense.

We didn’t hang around: we weren’t the only ones who came in by air, but we stood out by arriving on a beat-up army chopper. The high-rollers who came to party, or buy, or sell, tended to touch down in glistening hover-jets or sleek cruisers. The ones who didn’t want attention slipped in on stealthed powerboats. There were lots of rumors of tunnels, too, but more than one would-be smuggler had found out the hard way that the burning oil moats were dug real deep.

You’ve probably got that we aren’t cops in the regular sense. There’s no hope of patrolling The Hook or The Park: the devils and angels have their own official security, as well as various unofficial outfits. And don’t forget that every damned (or blessed) one of them was a soldier: when Heaven and Hell opened for that brief time, it was for war. And there are few real laws either: some things were agreed in broad terms, but it’s mostly a gray area. Reddish gray, and brightly lit gray, variously, but gray all the same. So we have a brief to tackle anything we want, so long as it involves a threat to humans. And really, if you try hard, you can make pretty much anything into a potential threat to humans. So long as you remember that you’re on the home turf of a few thousand of the toughest soldiers Heaven and Hell produced. So we need to be ready to act fast and improvise faster. And that means blending in, sort of. And not being too heavily laden. Ovid can pass for a bigger-than-average-sized devil when his face is covered (and even when not, I assure him when he’s really pissing me off), and tends to hang that ludicrous cannon down inside his greatcoat. Me, I look like a lot of the lost waifs that end up in the zones, and so don’t usually get a second look, unless it’s to judge how much I cost, or how easy I’d be to carry off. What isn’t obvious about me is that I’m unaffected by either the narcotic buzz that infuses The Hook, or the bliss that permeates The Park. I’m often taken to be Hookborn or Parkborn, but again, I lack the inbuilt subservience those poor sods have. Also, I have my gun. And my ability, such as it is.

Ferris Street was busy, as always. Kind of like midnight Friday in the main drag of any party town. But red. And times a thousand in terms of drunken debauchery. Devils, humans, thralls, thrill-junkies and a hundred other types, all mingling with no good in mind, streaming in and out of the bars, eateries and private clubs that had replaced the chi-chi ballet studios and yoga studios.

Ovid leaned close, eyes never leaving the street, and grated: “Kid, you head to Jezzie’s Bar, ask around. I’ll go check out the other matter along on Beard Street.” Then he was gone, the crowd parting to let him pass, then swirling closed behind him. I sighed. I wasn’t used to being solo down here. Not that I was scared so much as wary. Ovid was a pain in the ass, but a reassuring presence when the shit went down. Not that it needed to go down tonight, I reminded myself: this was a missing person, most likely a simple overstay. Jezzie’s was back near the East River, so I took a right down Sullivan. I concentrated hard as I slouched along, keeping my uncanny eye out. Most people and devils I passed were intent on carrying on doing whatever they were doing: walking, not bumping into anyone bigger than themselves, talking, drinking, inhaling. One in a few was like a live wire, their plans changing like lightning, alert for a chance to steal a wallet, snatch a bag, spot a mark to follow with malice in mind. I slid through the crowd, invisible, pre-warned to avoid any engineered collisions or muggings.

Jezzie’s is a feminist succubus bar. No, really. There weren’t that many succubi in the War, but those that did take part were much feared. And much adored, by people whose buttons that pushed. After the War, Jezzie decided she’d had enough of the shit that the female of any species had to endure, and so decided to create a safe space. With alcohol. And sex, though only of the consensual type. This might not sound too radical, but for a succubus, it was pretty out there. She employed only other reformed succubi, except for the door security: the thing about succubi is, they are pretty much tuned to drive anything male and most things female into a lustful froth, and so wasted passersby were trying to grope Jezzie’s colleagues, and tending to lose limbs when they did. Now, it’s a regular gorilla-sized demon on duty under the neon sign (the female symbol, complete with devil horns: iconic now, featuring on postcards and all kinds of licensed accessories). This one I recognized: a surly obtuse lump of obsidian. The thing was, Jezzie didn’t allow guns inside. Now, that didn’t apply to cops, but then cops didn’t apply to Jezzie. I concentrated and before he could open his mouth, I said: “I know. Tell Jezzie I’m here. Yes she is. Petal,” and I sidestepped with plenty of time to avoid the clawed baseball mitt of a hand he reached out to disarm me with. A thunderous frown had just started to creep across the rubble field he called a face, when his earpiece buzzed and after a second he ungraciously reached to the side and pushed the huge iron door open with one hand. I knew Jezzie would be watching through a cam: people are her hobby. And for my own safety I slipped my holster off and dangled it well off to my right, the gun butt close to the floor, and stepped inside.

If you’ve never been inside a feminist succubus bar, you might be be disappointed, at least by the decor. Jezzie’s looks like nothing so much as a pre-War hipster dive joint with the heat turned up too high. The punters are pretty ordinary, too: a mix of regular-shaped demons and seasoned human visitors and workers enjoying some down time. No torture, at least out front, no fights, just hard drinking and on Tuesdays, Bingo. Jezzie also runs a book club, but it’s mostly women, and anyways I was blacklisted by Jinx. Less ordinary by far are the bar staff, who look like a crazed Heavy Metal magazine artist’s wet dream. At least they do to regular humans: I’m immune to the charm, luckily, so to me they just look like ordinary super-hot women, assuming your taste runs to red skin and horns. Not really my thing, and anyways I tend to blush.

“Petal, my dear, you really must do something about that hair: you look like a stray cat,” a throaty educated voice purred from behind me. That was the thing about Jezzie: she could move silently. That was one of the things, I mean. There were a great many more, than made a visit both a pleasure and a worry. She reached out and took my holster as if picking up an old sock, mild distaste creasing her exquisite face. I instinctively raised a hand to try and flatten my hair, then stopped myself and focused, trying to regain some composure. That was another Jezzie thing: keep people unsettled and get information out of them. Red hair, freckles and no higher than my shoulder: Jezzie looked for all the world like a beautiful college grad in her 20s. Assuming that grad was naked and covered from toes to neck in tiny shiny blue-black scales. I always look Jezzie right in the eye, and nowhere else. She seems to find this amusing.

“So what can we do for you this fine night?” Jezzie inquired, taking a seat in a corner booth and motioning for me to do the same. She hung the gun down the side on a hook and rubbed her hands as if cleaning them.

“Missing person,” I said wearily, shrugging out of my parka and fishing the rumpled pic out a pocket. Jezzie traded in news and tidbits. Not about official police business, or anything as boring, but seemingly random gossip. I’ll never understand demons, I swear. But she did seem to have a genuine interest in keeping women safe, as far as that definition even applied in The Hook, so she was a good bet.

I focused on her as she examined the image. “Yes, she was in here two days ago,” was what she planned to say. But what she said was: “Never seen her. Sorry, Petal,” and slid it back across the table at me. I could see her expression close up, and knew I had one chance. Proactive, Ovid had said, and I thought furiously.

“So where was she headed?”

Jezzie frowned and for a split second I knew she was going to say “Baz’s mansion, with some choice demons you don’t want to mess with,” but she simply stared at me. And when Jezzie stared, you felt like you were being peeled.

“There is more to you than meets the eye, then Petal,” she said calmly, but her eyes were dancing with excitement. “The word is, you’re just a low level psychic, but this is something else, isn’t it?”

She was about to lean forward across the table and kiss me, and it’s a dead fool that lets a succubus’s lips touch him. I jerked back and saw her sitting motionless, smiling a little.

“Well, well…I think I need to find out a little more about you, Petal.”

I stammered something and lurched to my feet: the last thing I needed was for Jezzie to take a close interest in me. And the second last was for my ability to be common knowledge. I had precious few advantages as it was. I was at the door before Jezzie called “you forgot something, Petal,” and I turned just in time to catch the lazily tossed gun and holster. She had a strange look on her face, and I concentrated and knew she was about to add: “I don’t think this one wants to be found.” But of course, she didn’t say a thing, merely twitched a corner of her mouth when I involuntarily nodded. I stumbled out into the cold and dark.

I called Ovid from the relative quiet of a doorway down the block. Nothing, which meant he was either out of range or underground. Cells didn’t work in The Hook, or anything less robust than our kick-ass short-range radios. I shoved the walkie-talkie back in my pocket. This was a real mess: Baz was one of the senior Fallen, and a real piece of work. Some demons had settled into a low-key existence here on Earth. A few, like Jezzie, had changed their ways. But a handful, the oldest and most powerful, had set themselves up as feudal lords. They were limited in some ways: no human government—at least not the one in the U.S.A.—could turn a blind eye to actual hellish torture. But those old bastards were nothing if not cunning and had their ways. Baz’s name came up in pretty much every report of demon-human crime syndicates and at least one failed coup. Way out of my league, but what could I do apart from head over to his mansion and make a nuisance of myself as usual? I just hoped Ovid might surface by then.

Coffey Park was a little bit shitty back in the old days, but supposedly pretty enough for people to hang out, party, make out and occasionally get robbed in. Now, it’s beautiful if your taste runs to living trees that will snatch anything in reach, vampire grass that can penetrate think shoes and suck a half pint out of you, and various ornamental beasts that would benefit from an airdropped nuke, in my opinion. Still, a foot of bloody snow was making it all slightly less horrific. I was sitting on a bench at the edge, looking diagonally across at Baz’s townhouse. You’re thinking Gothic, right? With spires and maybe a skeleton or two in cages? Not at all: for no reason anyone can account for, Baz went for modern glass and concrete, even brought in a starchitect for the project. He got it—and Baz—on the cover of some of the top design magazines, too, which was pretty funny.

So basically, my half-baked plan to climb in looked kind of stupid in the face of all that sheer glass and concrete. I knew it was a modern, but had assumed there’d be some handholds. On close inspection, the human fly would have struggled to get a foot off the ground. So I just sat watching, with the momentary distraction of a really dumb stray bird landing on a tree and being snatched up in a tangle of feathers and tentacles. Then, as luck would have it, the louvered steel door to the parking garage under Baz’s house started to roll up. I sauntered across the street at an angle designed not to take me right to it, and had to jump smartly out of the way as a pair of vaguely embarrassed looking demons came buzzing up on vintage Segways. Funny sense of humor, the Fallen. I’d have laughed, except I was busy not being run over, and patting clods of smoldering snow off my pants. Also, these bodyguard demon types tended to be short on humor and long on temper.

A moment later a compact electric sedan came purring out. The windows were reflective, so all I could see was my own anxious pale face staring slackly. I had the first of my only two good idea of the night, right then: I fished one of the little pick-me-ups out a pocket and more of less accurately dropped it under the car via a sly flick of the wrist. They weren’t really meant for that, but some genius in tech had made them magnetic and sticky, and so we once in a while left them on a shipping container we wanted watching, or a vehicle we needed tracking. The actual electronic tracking effect was unreliable in the zone, but I had an idea, assuming it had actually bounced up and stuck, rather than rolling into the gutter. No way to know now, and no time to think about it. Then the car was gone, tailed by another two Hell’s Segwayers. That was surely Baz, and I looked wildly around for a red cab. Nothing. Also, if you were dumb enough to get in one and say “follow that car”, and the car was very obviously the one belonging to one of the head honchos in The Hook, chances are you’d be driven to the docks and the driver would stamp on the gas and thumb the childlocks as he jumped out.

I can’t say why I did what I did next, partly because I did it so badly that I lost consciousness for a second or three and details are foggy. I think I was trying to duck under the descending door like heroes do in the movies. In fact, I slipped on a patch of oil and slammed my head on the concrete ramp, stunning myself and sliding down the slushy slope like a long thin pizza into an oven. When I came to, I was a good ten feet down into the garage, and hurting all over. Slick.

Now I was in, I thought I might as well have a look around. If Baz was gone, maybe he left Winter? Or a clue, ideally a matchbook from a nightclub that would lead me to the truth: I know, I watch too many old movies, but you have to be an optimist, if you seriously work in a little slice of Hell.

I avoided the elevator, and so trudged around the garage until I found the stairs. Nice collection of cars, I must say: a couple of the oil-burners demons like to take out now and again to make a statement, and a dozen really cool Astons and Audis. I admit I might have keyed the side of a few as I walked past, out of sheer jealousy. The stairs were a trial, with my head still thumping, and I made myself stop every minute to listen out for voices. I heard a few muffled conversations: human thralls doing whatever they do there, and the bark of a shrill demonic housekeeper. I ducked past the windows to each floor, heading upwards. Demons might be from the deepest place, but like everyone else who thinks themselves important, they like to live up high. Maybe it reminds them of their pre-Fall days.

The stairs ended about ten stories up, and I paused, damp, sore and wheezing. I opened the door a crack, seeing a tastefully carpeted hall, and listened. Nothing. So, not giving myself time to think too hard, I stepped out, trying to look like I was meant to be there. That’s the thing: cop or not, if I was caught trespassing in the penthouse of one of the major powers, they’d be needing a sieve to catch the pieces of me as I floated down the East River. And that was if I was lucky. I pushed open the first door I came to: clearly Baz’s bedroom. And no, it wasn’t a black velvet rotating bed under a mirror, with exhausted slaves chained to it: it looked pretty much like something from Vogue, assuming the furniture was scaled up by a half. White bedlinen, too. I swear I saw slippers lined up, but now wasn’t the time to go looking for a demon’s Pjs.

Next door was the right one (no locks, I should mention: who’d be stupid enough to trespass in the penthouse of one of Hell’s major stars?), leading into a stunning open space with glass from floor to ceiling overlooking the park. Light on furniture and unlit save the constant flickering red from outside. I took a couple of steps, my fireproof Doc Marten soles making tiny squeaking noises on the polished stone floor. I could see what looked like racks of clothes stood near the front, and shoeboxes. I got about three-quarters of the way there before my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw that off to my right, in a deep alcove, was a colossal throne-like chair. And in the manner of the best fairytales, it was occupied. Baz was sitting in it, staring right at me, a huge well tailored shadow. I froze, very much not reaching for my gun: a big boss like Baz could drop me before I could even touch it. I focused on him, looking for an angle, something I might reply to whatever he was planning to say, in time to save my skin. Nothing. I don’t mean no plans; I mean there was nothing to read, like there was nobody home in that massive body. Not dead, either: dead bodies have traces, lingering thoughts and can be pretty weird. This was like he was made of stone. I did the thing my body wanted me to do least, and walked slowly towards him. His eyes were open, and glistening. But not focusing. With demons you can’t really get fixated on whether they’re breathing or not: sure, they follow some basic laws here on Earth, but they’re pretty much able to bend them, and eating, drinking and breathing all seem optional.

Then it hit me: Baz was there in body but not spirit. He was off possessing some poor schmuck, probably off on the town having awful fun. I left his body well alone and padded over to the clothes rails. First surprise was a small, mostly leather, outfit, with matching little biker boots, nearly racked. Winter: she’d been wearing that in the photo. Aw shit, was he inside Winter’s head? I assumed so, but then saw the second surprise: the other rack, that looked all red (of course) but was actually white. Like, all white, from the shoes to the wide selection of dresses, pants, tops, you name it. With a few empty hangers and one discarded shoe box. I wasn’t about to go double checking label sizes, but a blind man could see they were the same size as the black leather gear. So, unless I’m even dumber than people think, which is kind of impossible, Winter had changed clothes. And there was only one place you would be headed dressed like that, apart from a costume party. The Park. Shit. But she couldn’t be possessed, as the angels would know the second a demon was in their hood, and come down like a ton of vengeful bricks. Yes, bricks. You didn’t hear me swap the b for a p.

Things were starting to get really weird. I had about five seconds to think about that before the door opened and a human flunky stepped in with a clothes steamer in one hand, and about one tenth of a second later, a hefty automatic in the other. He shrieked, loudly.

The homicidal butler was broadcasting his intent loud and clear: he was not about to open fire anywhere near his boss’s vacant body. That gave me a second to scuttle closer to the chair and Baz, while considering my options. Then the door opened behind him and this time a trio of bigger thugs rushed in. One of them was either a World’s Strongest Man hit hard times and just done with a cheap facial peel, or what I term a thug-class demon: all muscle and attitude. Two had stun guns and the demon had hands full of claws like kitchen knives.

The way I saw it, which was through the filter of being in a total panic, was that I could try and shoot my way out or…well, there wasn’t an or. Except, I got a strong bump from the demon that he was about to flank me, to try and get me away from their boss before getting inventive. So I did what I always do: the opposite of what people want. I closed the distance between me and Baz and pulled my gun, pressing the barrel right up under his impressive chin. I didn’t have to say a word: they all did a variety of hand signs along the lines of “calm down” and “we’re stepping back now, we swear!” The biggest one was thinking hard: I could virtually see all his options bubbling to the surface then being discarded. The fact was, if I pulled the trigger and kept pulling, even Baz’s super tough hide wouldn’t save him, and thought he might not be permanently dead, when he came back to possess his own body again he’d be mightily sore and hugely pissed at his lack of a brain and face.

Which kind of left us at an impasse. And one that would at best land me in the biggest political and diplomatic shit-storm imaginable, the type that in the movies landed the hapless cop on traffic duty, and which in this precinct could be a million times less pleasant. I was focused hard on the plans of the demon and my head was aching like it was about to burst: this type of concentration was tough, and I already had a mild concussion. Proactive, Ovid said. Easy for him, sitting having tea in a fancy jeweler’s shop. I imagined him kicking in the door behind the trio, gun blazing. And a second later the window behind me shattered in a billion pieces, and the three goons were blown off their feet by a hail of heavy-caliber slugs. The concussions bounced and echoed off the floor, walls and ceiling and I shot a worried glance at Baz, who was mercifully still out of body.

I turned, stunned, to see Ovid dangling awkwardly from a rope, the kick from his cannon spinning him, cursing. “Did I MAKE you appear?” I said, jaw hanging open, as the big man hammered at his harness and dropped to the floor level, scrabbling for purchase.

”What? Get a grip, Petal,” he grunted. “An Osprey and a handy blizzard to hide it in, that’s what made me appear. On the roof. To rescue your stupid ass once I got the message you were outside the pad of the one of the biggest bastards in this town. Also, what the fuck?”

I nodded to Baz, and had the slight pleasure of seeing Ovid twitch a little. “Don’t shoot!” I shrieked, knowing his intent without reading him. “He’s not in there.”

I’ll give Ovid credit: he just nodded and said: “You got a pressing need to stay?”

The two humans he’d shot with his cannon were not ever getting up again. The demon was stirring and there were loud footsteps in the hall outside. Lots of them. I shook my head.

Ovid stepped back to the shattered window, and I noticed he was still clipped in. “Grab a hold, Petal.”

I don’t like heights so much, but I like being torn apart by a demon’s household goons even less, so I stepped smart and gripped the onto the heavy-duty harness Ovid had on.

“Are we going up to the roof for evac?” I shouted over the howling wind and snow, as Ovid fired a burst over my shoulder that left me partially deaf.

“Evac?” he actually barked out a laugh. “Kid, the only way is down.”

We made it about two thirds of the way, spinning in the blizzard and battering against the glass façade, when a hail of gunfire and a thrown pitchfork (retro gauche, these demons) came our way. I can’t be sure which of them severed the rope, but I can confirm that it was the pitchfork that hit Ovid in the chest. The rest of the way down was fast, and ended painfully.

Now, if I fell two floors onto a concrete sidewalk in the regular world, even one that was under a foot of snow, I’d be dead. Or at least being wheeled around by nurses for a year. But the zones are different. Sure, the demons and angels are pretty much unkillable on their home turf, but us poor schmucks who have the ability to come and go with no ill effects; we’re also a load tougher there. We need to be, or we’d be dead in a minute. So a fall like that, while it hurt a lot, and I was sure my ankle was broken, didn’t finish me off.

I knew from past experience to just keep moving, and most things would mend themselves well enough to make do. I contributed to the mayhem by firing back up towards the window we’d gracelessly exited from, but given the snow was falling thick, fast and glowing, and I’m not a great shot, I probably just grazed some poor non-innocents a few blocks away as the bullets came down again. Ovid, though, he was a worry: the big man wasn’t moving so well, thanks to six feet of dirty steel through his chest and shoulder. He wasn’t saying much, which was nothing new. But when he reached up and broke the shaft clean through, he hissed like a steam kettle, and I saw a gush of dark blood soak his heavy coat front.

“Get me to the park, we can call in a lift from there,” Ovid whispered.

I lifted one arm over my shoulder and heaved. Man, he was heavy, but mix of fear, adrenalin and guilt gave me strength, and the two of us tottered across the street. There was no return fire from the wrecked penthouse, which was good and bad: good in that we were still alive, bad in that it meant there was a legion of wickedness pounding down the stairs after us. Ovid must have been thinking the same, because he roused himself long enough to lob a handful of plum-sized grenades back at the building front. Note: Ovid has very big hands, so I doubled our speed, hoping my ankle and heart could take it.

We’d gotten about 20 yards into the park when there was a flash behind us that was like a supernova through the snowstorm. A muffled bang followed, then silence and we sank to our knees in the smoldering snow. I dug out another flare and hit the tag, hurling it a decent distance away, where it flashed like a second nova. That, and the resulting burst of hi-power comms would hopefully have base divert their nearest asset. If not, then me and Ovid would probably be discovered sometime in spring.

Well, I guess we got lucky, or at least stopped continuing to be quite so unlucky. My walkie-talkie squawked about two minutes later, and the Osprey thumped down clumsily in a glowing snowdrift 30 yards away. If I’d been the religious type—religious apart from obviously believing in Heaven and Hell because, you know, I worked there, I mean—I’d have said the big ugly shape was our guardian angel. But then angels were assholes and didn’t look out for anyone. I can’t say for sure how I hefted Ovid and got him there. I do know that left a long black trail in the snow, along the way. A crewman I recognized from earlier blanched but hauled him aboard, then reached down to help me. I paused, then shook my head. By my reckoning I had a lot of making up to do, and quitting now wasn’t about to help. I waved him away, shouting: “Do me a favor! When you get enough height, send out a pulse to all the active flares, would you? And if you see anything, radio me!”

As they lifted off, I could hear shouts from back towards Baz’s place. I turned to limp off through the park, and saw a glinting red spark in the snow. I mean REALLY red. Hellstone red. I looked closer and there were a few scattered around. I guess Ovid must have solved his case, stowed the evidence on his person and dropped them when he was hauled aboard the ride out. Hellstones are incredibly precious and also insanely dangerous: supposedly they’re made from the crushed essence of a dead demon. Sounds BS, but whatever, they glow with a cold fire that’s red even by The Hook’s standards, and swap hands for millions each in the real world. There are whispers that in The Hook, and back in actual Hell, they can be used to imprison demons and humans. Can’t say I’d ever seen one up close before, but reckoned Ovid might need them for the court case, so I grabbed up a gold chain inset with them, plus a few loose stones, then skedaddled.

I wouldn’t recommend anyone take a stroll in Coffey Park unless they’re armed and smart, and wearing thick boots, but really, with the trees and grass blanketed in smoldering snow, it was kind of pretty. I always had a good sense of direction, and trusted the blinding snow to fill my tracks, so just waded on towards the opposite side. I passed the big spherical wrought-iron sundial, so knew I was getting there. As usual, some poor sod was inside it, shrieking and burning, so I put my head down and tried to look inconspicuous, as he/she/it would tell tales if it meant a chance of release.

I needed time to think, but didn’t get it. The walkie-talkie buzzed and I thumbed it on. It wasn’t Ovid, but sounded like a crewman: “Got a flash, over on Bowne. Empty lot by the old tunnel entrance. Ovid says you’re a prick, and be ‘proactive’.”

Then there was just noise. Again, with the ‘proactive’ shit, as if I was just some self-pitying slacker who thought life owed me…I dropped that line of thought fast. Bowne Street was just a few blocks away, so I sped up and thought hard. The Hugh L Carey Tunnel (formerly the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, for those who care) used to go from Red Hook to Manhattan, passing right by and under Governor’s Island. When the respective demonic and angelic forces had retreated to their own camps, the tunnel was a flashpoint, and a pitched battle was fought through it’s grimy 9,000-foot length. Nasty stuff, by all accounts: word is that Ember fought there, once the U.S. Army got involved to try and force a peace. Whatever, there were some almighty explosions of Heavenly and Hellish ordnance down there, and the tunnel was flooded and then blocked at both ends. Now, The Hook’s border ran just the other side of the shattered highways that dipped towards the old entrance. Well, call me Sherlock, but if there’s a ‘impassible’ tunnel, and the villain and the damsel in distress are headed there, then clearly it is not in fact blocked. Easy! I might as well have called the case in then, passed it off to the big boys. But (a) they’d have laughed me out of the force, and (b) it was my fault Ovid was a 300-lb shish kebab, and I needed to at least show him I could do something right. Right? Right. There was also a (c), whereby I had no wish to try and account for my involvement in a gunfight in the penthouse of one of The Hook’s most important shits.

I shuffled along through the revelers, until the streets got darker and less busy. Bowne was the last stretch, a few low-rent bars and clubs catering to entertainments that were sketchy even by The Hook’s standards, then the old Brooklyn Motor Inn (now a casino where the stakes are easy: your soul. Seriously, it’s all drawn up in a contract and everything. And a real pain in the ass for us: the newly damned are really really stupid and think they’re immortal. A swift punch on the head usually clears that up) to my left, and down over the railings, the flooded entrance to the tunnel. Deep, dark, roiling red water, rather than the typical deep dark smelly East River. I once saw a two-bit Hook-born hitman try to swim it to get away from us. Officially, he drowned, but I saw teeth in the water, and won’t forget that in a while. On the other side, a raggedy section of fence, glowing hot, then a wide stretch of wasteland.

Half a block away, barely visible through the snow, I could see a guttering pink glow: the last of the flare, I was pretty sure, so I angled to pass rather than right at it. I was kind of surprised that my idea had worked at all: then as I got closer, kind of alarmed at how well it had worked. A smoldering chauffeur and four pissed-looking Hell’s Segwayers were standing around the burned out remains of Baz’s sleek electric car. Oops. I had a moment of sheer panic that Winter had been inside, but their body language was more irritated than anything else, and I was guessing that if they’d let their boss’s (possible) host broil, they’d be a lot more agitated. And I’d have been as well just walking right into the red water.

I fixed my attention on the driver, and tried to ignore my sore head. He was about to tell one of the heavies to “get in there and try and find them,” along with a nod of his head, but then dismissed that in favor of “Ok, get back to the base as planned. We’re not needed here anyway.” I of course couldn’t hear the actual words over the noise of the wind, The Hook and my crunching footsteps, but all five of them turned and headed back towards me, the Segway boys having to drag their comic vehicles through the snow.

I kept my head down and crunched on, and sensed one fleeting half-thought to challenge me, then just determination to get back to Baz’s place. I almost sniggered at what they’d find there, then remembered I was hurt, hungry, wet and singed, and chasing a missing person who might well be possessed by one of the original Fallen himself.

I was out of ideas, except the vague “get in there” the driver had thought. In where? He’d nodded his head, or planned to, but to where? He was going to nod diagonally to his right…but where was that in relation to me? I still had the mental picture—these things take a while to fade, so just needed to calculate where HE was facing, and where that might have sent his flunkey. Now my head really hurt. I changed course and walked to the smoldering car, not getting too close but placing myself where the driver had been.

His nod would have been towards through the driving smoky flakes, the ten-storey block of the old tunnel ventilation shaft. I’d never been there, but knew that in the early days, army snipers had been perched on top with orders to bring down anything with wings that tried to enter or leave The Hook or The Park across the water. Now it was right on the border and in theory, locked up secure. I sighed and trudged towards it.

In the movies, you always cut to a scene where the hero is inside wherever he planned to be. The usual little things are never a bother. Well, movies suck. Twenty minutes later, in equal parts numb and sooty, I’d found the doorway after ripping my pants on a jagged fence and falling in a pothole that busted my partially healed ankle again. There was the chunky officially sealed lock, guaranteed proof against any tampering. Which fell into the snow in pieces when I nudged it with my gloved hand. Nice. I pushed the door open, with a creak that totally gave my position away to anyone inside. Can’t say that’s not proactive, Ovid. Inside was a mess of things that I wasn’t about to shine my flashlight onto: decades of debris and illegal occupation at some stage. Also, there had been pigeons. Now, if you think the old pre-War pigeons were bad, you haven’t seen the ones that live in The Hook now. Pigeons from Hell, to steal Robert E. Howard’s line. They were big, mean, smelly and could shit their own bodyweight in a day. Acidic. I stepped carefully.

After another ten minutes’ sliding around cursing I found the staircase down. Old, rusted, slippy, and spiral. I’d say I took a deep breath and descended, but in truth I was trying to breathe only through my mouth because of the smell, so off I went, gasping. It was a long way down, and I fell on my ass twice. Finally, I stumbled out into a tunnel. A huge tunnel, that was most definitely not flooded. There were even lights, here and there. To one side, where the Red Hook exit would have been, a solid metal wall, rusted and glistening wet. In the other direction, a nightmare tangle of burned out cars and truck skeletons resting in a couple of feet of stagnant black water. Also, bones. Seared, twisted, big bones. Not human, either. This was where they slugged it out at the end, using angelfire and brimstone. That melts human corpses, but angel and demon bones are made of something else entirely. I heard that materials science came on by about a century overnight, after some engineers got hold of a few remains. I also heard that the angels and demons take a very dim view of humans who trade in their bones. So here I was looking out over a sea of priceless skeletons, none of which I would touch with a bargepole.

Lucky for me, the tunnel had a narrow walkway along one side, raised up above the ancient channel. I wasn’t so sure I even wanted to be bumping into Winter down here, assuming she had Baz on board. But that was the thing: no demon could get into Battery Park, in any shape or form. I had about 9,000 feet of thinking time ahead of me.

I’d like to say I had a great idea along the way, but all I did was limp along for what seemed an eternity, trying not to look too closely at the highway full of melted bones. The occasional lights had started off red, but the further away from The Hook I trudged, the more they started to turn yellowish. A door partway along was, I thought, the bottom of the ventilation tower that sat off Governor’s Island. I had a moment of thinking I’d climb up, but then reckoned I still hadn’t in any way redeemed myself, so was better off underground. Anyway, I was genuinely curious now. As a precaution I slipped my gun’s Hook clip into a pocket and replaced it with the angel-themed one. But much like The Hook, if you got to the point in The Park that you were seriously thinking of shooting one of the supernaturals, your goose was already pretty well cooked.

My best guess, which was a pretty poor one, was that whoever Baz was off gallivanting around in, it wasn’t Winter. Why? Because, logic. I know most physical laws only passingly apply to angels and demons, but a few are cast iron. Travel, for one: you do get approved and licensed travelers from both the zones, but the further they go from concentrations of their own kind, they weaker they become. When the gates to Heaven and Hell opened in the War, it was open season, and there were scores of hellish and heavenly hotspots around the globe. I’ve even been to a couple, and let me tell you, the angels and demons our religions cooked up are way less inventive than the ones some countries managed. I’m in no rush to get back to New Delhi. When the gates shut again without warning, these zones mostly evaporated or shrank. Also, few recovering countries really wanted powerful immortal beings fluttering around freely, not after the damage done, and so various religions’ own secret orders were dusted off and became monitors. Basically, most every angel and demon outside their home turfs was tracked and followed. And those possessing mortals for a joyride were sure to be caught sooner rather than later, because they gave off a signature that was visible for miles around, to those who could see it. And since the War, there were a load more humans who could see this shit.

And don’t get me started on the Moonflowers. That’s a whole other podcast. But I guess there’s some misinformation I need to clear up. First, the whole Moonflower thing is not cool. Moonflowers aren’t like those sparkle-vampires from the old movies or the demi-gods from the modern entertaincasts. They aren’t the X-Men. They’re just poor schmucks who had the bad luck to be born or conceived (or both) close to where a hellish and heavenly zone overlap. Not IN the zones—these saps have no special abilities at all, other than to be able to live there. But there’s something about the ebb and flow of the conflicting energies (do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Because I don’t) that makes special babies. Oh, and by special I mean 99.999 per cent are screaming short-lived monsters. And most of the others are mad as a brush. But some, once in a few hundred thousand, have a little something. And that’s that. It’s a curse. And don’t be going and assuming that’s me outing myself as a Moonflower. I’m not. Not really.

So anyway, where did that leave Winter? Baz’s driver had dropped her off, with the sure knowledge she was headed over to The Park, assuming her costume was the clue here. Maybe Baz WAS along for the ride but bailed out somewhere down here? Right now he’d be coming to and wondering why his room was all shot up and his servants dead.

So, Winter had an appointment in The Park. I should have done some research on her, as I was beginning to think I was missing something huge. I resolved that assuming I came up in lil’-heaven in one piece, I’d try and find Jinx and Jane Doe, who might have some insight. Not that I wanted to go asking them, but beggars and choosers and all that.

Finally, weary and sore and wanting nothing but my bed, I reached a rusty steel wall much like the one at the opposite end. The big difference was there was a wide concrete platform in front, lit by bright clear bulbs, and showing signs of recent activity, judging by how clean it was. Someone had hacked a hole in the tunnel wall, about eight feet in diameter and lined well, if not neatly, with concrete. I peered in, expecting another tough climb on shaky rungs, but realized it was an elevator shaft. I’ve always been the kid who pressed the button without thinking about it, and this was no exception. There was a clank, a distant electric whine and a few seconds a stout steel elevator cage appeared. No drama, which is how I like things. 30 seconds after that, I was stepping off onto a rough concrete shelf that sloped up into the gloom. I shrugged, adjusted my stained and torn parka as best I could, wiped some blood and grit off my soaked pants and squared my none-too-impressive shoulders.

It doesn’t do to be easily surprised in my line of work: once you’ve seen demons and angels in a bar-fight (ok, separate bar fights, but it’s fine to exaggerate a little) you tend to take most things in your stride. But still, coming up through the floor in the back room of a chi-chi diner full of angels was not what I’d expected. It wasn’t what the human cooks in the back had expected, either, but I wasn’t in The Hook any more, so rather than immediate assault, there was lots of whispering. I skedaddled out the front, past a dozen tutting angels, and was suddenly in the clean fresh air. And it is clean and fresh, mark my words. For all The Hook’s toxic smog doesn’t really affect me, it still stinks. And over here in The Park, the air smells like everything you ever wanted air to smell like, which is really not much at all. It was dark and snowing here, too: the angels like to observe the seasons, but the snow was gentle, white and clean. It didn’t even melt and slide down your neck. Streetlights were all giving off a pure white glow, too, and really, the mix of old buildings scattered through the park made for the prefect Christmas card.

Except for me: a shambling, battered and filthy blot on the landscape, like the result of one of those smart-ass cartoonists that draw robots on Turner paintings. Even at this hour the Park was busy, but thanks to careful and expensive permitting, a rota and queue system that would make Disney World weep with envy, and some very heavy handed optical effects, it looked just about the perfect amount of busy. There were a few animals gamboling in the snow, too: a bear cub or two, and I swear, a panda that was sliding down a little hill on its fat ass, to the delight of a couple of rich tourists. Angels were wandering, too: some arm in arm with paying guests, a few casually keeping an eye on stuff, and giving me looks that were a step down from disdainful. That’s the thing about angels: no matter their type (they go from the ambling cheery human-like ones to the twice-life-sized winged warrior angels, and a lot of variants in between) they all look a little like you’re just shit on their shoes. Well, they do to me, anyways: they seem to be adored by the humans who paid to come in here and get rested, young and healthy again. Did I mention the Spa day-rates here? They start at $100k and go up fast. Fat old shits go in and thin young shits come out. And the angels get rich. Except, it isn’t that simple, because there are clauses connected with entry to this peculiar little slice o’ heaven, and one of them is that if the angels find you wanting, morally, then you are subject to their judgment. That doesn’t seem to mean much, most of the time: I’ve seen more than a few seemingly corrupt politicos come and avail themselves of the facilities. But once in a while, one will just vanish, and that’s that. And sometimes, Gabe or one of the other boss angels will descend on the Spa in a righteous anger and drive out all the rich fatties, to usher in a legion of raggedy sick poor people from outside the Wall. Next day, it’s back to business as usual. I swear, I sometimes think I understand the devils better than the angels.

Right now, though, I was sure I understood just about nothing at all. Winter had surely come up in the diner in the park, but then what? If she’d been possessed, there’d have been wrathful angels all over the place. And if not, then she’d either been snatched by the angel security or had some right to be there, in which case I might never find her.

Dispirited, I wandered towards the Wall. Now, visitors to the Park don’t see the wall, as such. It just (I’m told) kinda blends into the heavenly vista. Us freaks, though, we aren’t fooled by these tricks, and to me, it was an incongruous 100-foot-tall elegantly contoured concrete cliff rising smoothly up along the edge of what had been the promenade. The main sea gate was just ahead, so I headed there, from want of any better ideas.

The gate was wedged open by a shipping container that had been dropped from a dockside crane, and what with the cluster of armed angels, a knot of bloodied or prone humans dressed in black, and a surging mob on the other side, it was my kind of scene. What made it even more entertaining was the sight of a diminutive and clearly livid Jinx standing atop the container with a bullhorn, shouting. Jane Doe was standing off to one side, being yelled at by Gabe. I wasn’t about to get too close: Gabe was old-school, and has a temper. But he’s an angel, I hear you say? Well, yes, but he’s a righteous warrior angel, and an asshole. Also he’s ten feet tall and has wings wider than a basketball court, and a flaming sword. Also an eye-patch, which made his remaining beautiful eye look even more scary. An eye-patch, yup, that’s what I said. In the battle of New Jersey, it’s said Gabe stood off a demonic horde solo, and lost an eye in the process of slaying their leader, Semyaza. Why he didn’t just regrow it is anyone’s guess. People tend not to ask.

Right now, Gabe was shouting. And Gabe shouts like Morgan Freeman sounds in old movies, but 100 times louder. Come to think of it, Gabe looks a lot like a young beefed-up Morgan Freeman. Jane Doe was just staring at him, blank-faced, which was Doe’s thing: even the angriest of people tend to eventually run out of steam when faced with that impassive attention. Gabe’s terrible flaming sword was out of  its man-high scabbard, which was bad, but pointed down at the ground, which was less bad. And not in full-flame hewing mode, so much as just the pilot light on. He was chewing Doe out.

He knew it wasn’t our fault that the Satanists tried to break in (again), but judging by the scattered body parts, he’d lost his rag and was trying to blame someone. I saw Doe nod, and point to me. That was one of her skills: she knew you were there without looking. I didn’t try and get a reading off either of them at this range, and anyway, the body language was clear: Doe was doing a version of the “and here’s one of our men now: he has a lead…” And Gabe was settling down a little. Lucky for me he didn’t summon me: Doe can lie to the best and worst of them, but a boss angel like Gabe would see right through yours truly. For the briefest of seconds I considered going over and blurting out all I knew about the tunnel, but then wisely shut my mouth: for all I knew, Gabe was in on whatever racket the tunnel was part of.

He turned his majestic back on Doe, and she impassively shrugged and loped towards me, a lanky figure in mismatched tactical fatigues from our endless stock of surplus.

“You look like I feel,” she muttered.

“I feel worse than I look,” I replied.

She raised an eyebrow dispassionately and gestured behind her. “Hope you’re having a more successful night than we are, though we got a message that Ovid is in the infirmary and you’re MIA.”

She paused for effect and added: “How did you get from The Hook to here?”

“Long story,” I said wearily. “But that missing person? I think she’s here…” I fished out the crumpled and stained photo and passed it over. Doe took it with a look of distaste.

“Sure, I know her. Some bigwig’s kid. She’s a regular fixture at the Forum, one of Han’s protégés…she’s very intense, big into the Homelands movement. Didn’t know she slummed it in The Hook.”

I groaned inside, and also outside. The Homelands fanatics were bad news. It boiled down to the simple enough idea that all the remnants of the Heavenly and Hellish forces on Earth could be corralled into one handy place. And then be given complete freedom in that place. Simple, huh? Except there was a real shortage of countries willing to step up and offer to evacuate for this to happen. Particularly those small-to-medium-sized islands with nice climates. The scheme was backed by a small but vocal element among the demon and angel communities, who were very much of the opinion that they should just take the territory and settle the legalities later. Well, that explained Winter’s connections with Baz and Han, but it was the first I’d heard of either name being in the Homelands camp. Baz did very well running most of the rackets in The Hook, and Han was about as high an angel as you could find: these sorts tended to not even acknowledge that they were on Earth, let alone plan real-estate deals. In a way I was happy enough: if this was political I just needed to track Winter down, give her a metaphorical slap on the wrist and deliver her to daddy. Then I could punt it all upstairs, let the Captain and his bosses decide what to do with it all.

“Ok, thanks,” I said with a little genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll head up to the Forum now.”

“Hold on,” Doe said with what might have been mild amusement in her voice, “Jinx wants to say hullo.”

I turned with heavy heart: sure enough, the tiny angry figure atop the container had spotted me. In typical enough Jinx fashion she shouted “Hey, asshole! You still alive? We hoped you’d gotten a pitchfork up your skinny ass!” What she forgot to do was lower the bullhorn, so she shouted this at about a thousand times the volume she intended, and everything went quiet. The angels frowned on profanity, especially involving their demonic foes. I saw Gabe turn and stride toward Jinx, who simultaneously shrank into herself and somehow puffed up with defiance.

“She’s going to need that luck,” I said under my breath, waving cheerfully at the mortified furious figure atop the container.

“I think I’ll wait over here for a bit,” Doe said causally. “Don’t get yourself killed on account of a rich kid, Petal.”

The Forum was in what had been the Stock Exchange building in Downtown Manhattan. The Park’s border took in Wall Street, across to Rector, jinking back and forth, the wall maintaining its height as it sliced into buildings and across junctions. Bankers were dislodged to make way for wankers, I heard Ovid say once, and I’d claimed the line as mine when he wasn’t around. The angels had done a bit of landscaping and shown the same love of soaring modern design that some demons had (this was not something they liked pointed out), so some of the more boring office blocks had been replaced by lovely white arching spires. A steady stream of politicians and spiritual leaders came and went.

They’d cleared out the junk on the actual main floor, needless to say, and it was now a very airy pleasant place to spend way too much time arguing about any old nonsense. Mostly it was angels, as their custom of all speaking loudly at the same time without stopping tended to confuse mortals. But a few die-hard agitators and angel-fanatics were always in evidence. This winter’s night the building was all dark, and snow was building up in (aesthetically pleasing) drifts in front of the doors. I stood there for a minute, just soaking up the healing air, and girding my loins for a visit to Han’s pad, when I heard a sound from inside. A voice, agitated, then another much deeper one. I sighed, and with a mental shrug, went in as quietly as I could.

“It hurts!” the first voice, echoing off the polished stone walls and floor. I couldn’t see anything yet: the faint heavenly glow that permeated angel territory was low-key and even my eyes took took time to adjust. I’d remembered that there was a balcony level, and padded up the stairs and crept forward to a doorway that would give me a view of the proceedings. That voice was a young woman’s: educated, indignant and distressed.

“You have to give it time,” a deeper resonant voice protested, without much conviction. “We knew it would be a difficult adjustment.”

“She’s right,” a new voice, harsh and angry, chimed in, “we cannot control this!”

“You have to leave!” the woman’s voice, Winter, I was sure, high and panicked. “I’m losing my mind!”

“We can’t just leave!” the deep voice, “you know what was involved, and what will happen here!”

“We need time!” the angry voice, “I cannot be cast out in this place!”

“Please!” Winter’s anguished wail hurt my head.

Now, I’m no hero, but nor am I a coward, and for reasons I am not about to get into here, I have zero tolerance for folks of any nature who mistreat kids. So, in typical fashion, with no plan, I stood up and shouted down at the group: “Police! That’s enough! Nobody move!”

Except the pearlescent light showed just one person standing in the middle of the room. Winter. She turned to look up at me, hope on her face, and blurted out: “Make them leave!”

A split second later her face twisted into a haughty anger, and the harsh voice came out her mouth: “Who invited this feeble excuse for a human?”

Before the words had even finished echoing off the walls, Winter’s face became calm and serene, and the resonant voice spoke: “You need to leave, mortal!”

Like I said, it doesn’t do to be easily surprised in my job. But I was pretty flabbergasted by this: unless I was mistaken, I was looking at the impossible: a double possession. Baz and Han were inside Winter’s body, alongside a conscious Winter, which was another oddity: possessions are pretty much meant for one entity to be in the driving seat. When it’s a demon, the original inhabitant is crammed away in a distance corner, bound and impotent. The angels pretend it’s more collaborative, but that’s a fiction: while they kinder to the host bodies, they don’t play well with others.

I tried to get a read on them, but it was like looking into the end of a fire hose and then turning the water on. The three of them were fighting to say something. I snapped out of it and opted for the old fashioned way: bluster.

“Unless someone tells me the what’s going on,” I yelled, “I’ll call in the cavalry. And you three can explain to your bosses and mine!”

That did it. Winter slumped a bit, the anger gone, just pain left. Which was a bit of a relief: I’d worried that Baz or Han might take the helm and leap up here and tear my head off: the host body gained some measure of the possessor’s powers, and I was shouting at two entities who probably hadn’t heard a voice raised against them in centuries.

“Who are you?” Winter asked plaintively.

“He’s nobody,” Baz replied, “a cop who shouldn’t have gotten nosy.”

“Winter is right,” Han chimed in. “This is not stable, and my own security forces will very soon sense what is going on.”

Tumblers clicked into place in my head, and I felt a weight lift. “I know what’s going on, and I can’t think of a good reason not to call the authorities, see what they think of your plans for a revolution.”

I saw surprise on Winter’s face, and indulged myself in a little gloat: “You think you’re so smart nobody can work this out? With both of you in there, you thought you could roam the world unseen, making your Homeland plan happen. Probably about to fly off and buy Madagascar, or New Zealand!”

I could see the medals coming my way now, and the newscast headlines. Heroic and Under-appreciated Cop Saves The World.

Then Winter laughed. So did Baz and Han. Not in recognition of my cleverness, either, but at me.

“How did this chump even find us?” Baz spat.

“I know of this one,” said Han speculatively, looking up at me. “He isn’t too bright, obviously, but he has a shred of talent that we are watching with some very minor interest. They call him Petal.”

“Hey, I’m maybe not the smartest,” I said, “but I’m not the one stuck in a double possession in the middle of the night.”

Han nodded: “Impudent, but fair. It’s not about the Homelands. ‘Baz’ and I go back a long way, to before the Fall. We were, then, friends, if you can believe it. And since things here on Earth took the turn they did, we have established contact again.”

“For what? To unite Heaven and Hell’s forces on Earth?”

Baz snorted with laughter again. “You watch too many movies, asshole! We…”

Han cut in: “No cursing!”

“Sorry,” Baz harrumphed and went on: “Screw…sorry…forget about those grand ideas, Petal. Do you think we like being stranded in tiny miserable enclaves on this ball of dirt? We used to roam the universe!”

“What he means,” Han said, “ is that we are trapped here in these pathetic little zoos of our own making. We wanted to be free, for a while, or at least as free as one can be on this dreary plane.”

Finally I thought I might have something right: “And you can’t do that in a single possession, because it’s too easily detected.”

Baz/Winter gave me a slow handclap. “You might some day even solve a case, Petal. Yes, all we wanted was to be free for a short time.”

“Like a vacation?”

“Nothing like your pathetic notions of holidaying, you jumped-up ape!” Baz raged.

“Steady, now…. This one is just needling you,” Han said calmly.

Winter herself stirred and took the driving seat: “And I wanted to help,” she said in a small voice. “So I accommodated Baz first, then Han at the end of the tunnel, right before we came up in here. It needed balance, for it to be undetectable.”

“Except it’s not working,” I chipped in. “Is it?”

A shake of the head. “It’s not stable. If they stay in me, I’ll lose my mind.”

“And I can’t leave from here,” Baz grunted. “This body needs to be somewhere neutral for us to withdraw to our own bodies.

“I sense my kind are aware of an imbalance,” Han said. “Time is short. We need to get back to neutral ground.”

“You need to get out of my head now!” Winter said, hysteria in her voice.

“She’s right,” Han said. “If she loses her mind, Baz, we are cast loose. There is no guarantee we would find our way back to our physical forms.”

They all looked up at me with Winter’s beautiful tear-stained face. I shuffled uncomfortably, hands stuffed in pockets as I wracked my tired brain. I could call in a ride, but it would take time and angel security would be all over us when we tried to get aboard. Then I had my second good idea of the night. Well ok, it was more chance than actually anything I thought of, but still, I’ll take credit. My fingers brushed against the hellstones I’d grabbed from the snow. I extended my hand, the chain with the inset red gems in my palm, and the scarlet light lit up the hall.

There was a moment of silence.

“We will be at this wretch’s mercy if we go into those!” Baz shouted. “What if he never releases us?”

“Whatever his limitations, and there are many,” he is not dishonest,” Han said. “And it would allow us to go unnoticed.”

“So long as Winter keeps us close,” Baz said grudgingly. “But these are dangerous: we might not ever be able to totally extricate ourselves!”

“I think I hear the flap of feathery wings,” I said as casually as I could. “Don’t take too long to decide.”

My brilliant plan worked about as long as it took to get out the front door of the grand old building. I’d reluctantly gone down to the main floor and handed the necklace over. Winter had slipped it over her head and then breathed deeply when the gems touched her skin. She smiled in relief.

“I can still feel them,” she explained, “they’re still in my head,” but only part of them. Now where?”

“Back to the tunnel,” I said. “We just need to look like we’re out for a stroll. And keep that necklace inside your tunic!”

Except that there was an angel security patrol coming in as we came out. Not angels themselves, thankfully, but three Parkborn humans in white body armor with stun guns.

“They’re in there!” I gasped, “they attacked us!”

The leader stared at me, then looked at Winter, and his face softened when she nodded and tears flowed. They bustled in, all heroic, leaving us standing in the snow, astonished. We ran for it, which is a sight easier in angelic snow than Hook snow, or even regular snow.

We put a block between us then slowed to a deliberate casual walk, as more patrols rushed past. With the big bosses mostly secured in the gems, Winter was presumably giving off a regular human scent. But it was only a matter of time before they realized they’d been duped somehow, and recalled a shabby young man and a crying visitor.

We hit the edge of the park, and I considered just heading right out the gate, but in the time I’d been gone the container had been lifted away and the massive doors closed. A cleanup crew was hosing and vacuuming the grass where the dissected Satanists had been. The diner it was: we strolled in and I made a show of looking for someone, bypassing the mildly curious customers: they tended to look at me, get suspicious but take me for a cop, or some other tainted official from outside, then saw Winter and nodded in recognition. Clearly there was a whole upper-class social network going on here.

“Through the back,” I whispered, and pushed the swinging doors open, walking right into the broad chest of a waiting warrior angel. Shit.

He/she was as surprised as I was, I think. But you tend to recover faster when you’re an immortal with the strength of ten men. I looked sideways at Winter, desperately hoping Han might pop up and bluster his way past, but he and Baz were lying low. Made sense, as there was no reasonable explanation for either one of them to be inside Winter’s head.

I was out of ideas. Again. Except ‘be proactive’. Ovid’s annoying and vague advice, that kept popping up to taunt me. It wouldn’t do me any good to know what the angel was about to do: he/she was clearly about to grab me, and strong though I am, that’s not a grip a mortal can break. Nor did I have the reflexes to get my gun out, even if I was minded to try and shoot an angel here on its home turf.

Proactive. Like, how? I focused, aware I had a sliver of time in which to come up with something. He/she was indeed thinking of just grabbing me and holding on, then doing the same for Winter. Simple, and flawless. I saw his/her plan, centered on me just standing there like I was now, open mouthed. Desperation gave me a dumb idea. What if for once I wasn’t about to just stand there like a chump? I tensed to jump back. And I saw his/her next three seconds change: a missed grab and then a longer lunge that nailed me. I changed my mind, to leap at him/her and I saw the future change: a moment of imbalance. I was out of time, so I jumped, and those big arms went over my head and I slammed into his/her chest, sending us both to the floor in the cramped kitchen. My head was sore, and I saw the next move: me being pinned to the tiles and pounded some. I changed tack, and planned to hit the angel in the face. My future changed, the punch doing little and the return blow breaking my jaw. I thought of the least tactically useful move: jumping to my feet. That would surprise the angel, and buy me a moment.

So I did it. From there, through a blinding headache, I ran through a dozen moves, most ending in my being knocked down, or out, or killed. One, the most stupid, and complex, had a future that didn’t end in me being dragged away, and so that’s what I did: I scrambled over a table and threw a tray of utensils at the angel. To an observer the next 20 seconds might even have looked slick: to me it was a series of clumsy and unlikely actions, each separated by a frenzy of options and decisions. I swept a pan of water off the nearest stove, drenching the angel, then started to leap over him/her before abruptly stopping and kicking him/her in the head. I ducked and feinted and fell and spun like a madman, taking a kick to the shin that broke a bone, and a punch in the eye that drew a lot of blood. But I landed a score of punches and blows with fists, cookware and even a poke in the eye with a forefinger. In the end, it was Winter who saved the day: the winning option was where I allowed the furious angel to backhand me across the face and in doing so turn his/her back on Winter, who had been discounted from the fight on account of her appearance. She did as I knew she would, and picked up a heavy skillet and hit the angel across the back of the head with it in a double-handed swing. Now, remember what I said about a host having some of their possessor’s powers? Well, Winter was clearly still channeling Han or more likely Baz, and hit that angel on the back of the head so hard the thick steel bent, like in the cartoons. He/she went down silently.

That was the end of that. We hauled up the trapdoor and slithered down into the dark. I think I remember making it to the top of the elevator when the shock of my injuries and the blinding headache got the better of me. I remember saying “Do I have a nosebleed?” and Winter looking at me oddly, and replying “there’s so much other blood I really can’t tell.” From the feeling in my head, a lot more than blood was leaking from my nose. I can honestly say I’ve never felt pain like it, as if someone had hinged up the top of my skull and was rooting around inside with a hot rusty fork. But worse. If there was a positive, it was that it made all my other injuries hurt less by comparison.

After that it was all a blur: a very long agonizing hobble along the edge of the tunnel, and me rabbiting on about the exit that would take us up to Governor’s Island, if it wasn’t sealed off. Then I blacked out. In the movies, that’s a smooth transition to a scene where we rejoin the hero in a crisp hospital bed and the credits run. For me, it was a segue to being prodded awake by Winter, who was yelling that I was too heavy to carry, and could I please wake the hell up and climb myself. When finally we got to the top, the door of the abandoned tower was locked, and so my last coherent act was to shoot at it. It made a load of noise, and fell off, and we stumbled out into the good honest regular snow coating the little pier that led to the island. Then I passed out properly as Winter cradled my head on her lap. Actually that last was a lie: she just let me fall over in the snow, and the last thing I heard was her bleating about being cold.

◊ ◊ ◊

“So just to be clear—and feel free to not interrupt until I’m done—you invaded the home of one of The Hook’s senior hellish dignitaries, shot the place up, got a woefully misguided fellow officer grievously wounded, blew up a car, sneaked into The Park through a tunnel that doesn’t exist, aided a possessed human and her unidentified demonic and heavenly passengers to escape justice, knocked a warrior angel unconscious and then somehow brought the aforementioned human here to the Island, where you offered her sanctuary, bringing down on my head the wrath of senior officials from both camps, plus a livid ambassador and a host of official complaints? You will note that that question mark at the end of my long sentence there is not actually a question, Petal.”

I could tell the Captain was pissed by the way he spoke even more slowly and deliberately than usual. I’d not actually been in his private office before: it was very nicely appointed, and in a beautifully refurbished mansion in the nicest part of the island. I was still on crutches, but we heal fast, us freaks, and soon I’d be able to see out of both eyes again. Ovid was sitting stiffly on a couch, a huge plaster cast covering his chest and shoulder, and Ember was standing on a fireproof mat, smoldering furiously. Outside, it was a nice night, really, clear and crisp with the snow sparkling where it lay. It was a welcome change from the hospital.

“Yes?” I ventured carefully. I’d had a nice view of the landing pads from my hospital bed, and had seen Baz and Han touch down and carefully ignore each other. Winter had visited me once, trailed by a couple of stern-faced Invigilators. She’d stared me in my good eye as she said that neither she nor the Invigilators knew who’d possessed her, or how she came to be where she was. Also, that it was too dangerous to remove the hellstone necklace she wore in order to find out. “There’s tiny traces of them inside, so I’m told,” she had said with a straight face. But no-one knows what or who they are.” She hadn’t asked how I was feeling.

Ovid had come to see me, too, grunting when I asked how he was, and unexpectedly slapping me on the shoulder and laughing at me. Then he left, without having spoken.

“Yes,” the Captain said. “Really, I have had the most interesting week. And it’s not every week we gain a reluctant and loudly entitled recruit whose family connections are so prestigious, and who comes with a piece of jewelry with supernatural occupants. I’d make her your junior partner to teach you a lesson, but you’re so junior it is not technically possible to have someone lower down the ladder than you.”

The Captain sighed: “So what do you think happens next, Petal?”

“We all laugh and the end credits roll?” I suggested hopefully.

“More like you get busted to traffic in The Hook,” he replied.

“We don’t have traffic patrols, chief,” I pointed out. “There are no driving rules there.”

“Well, I think you’re the man to change that as soon as you’re mended. Such as, in two days’ time,” he said brightly.

I turned to hobble out, and paused, because I knew what he was about to say: “One thing, Petal: how DID you manage to best an angel warrior. So far as I know, it used to take a whole squad to manage such a thing. A squad with heavy caliber weapons.”

Ovid grunted agreement.

I thought before answering. “I was proactive,” I said. “Sir.”

As I shuffled away, I heard Ovid grunt in laughter.

I paused on the porch, the sky to my right was white, to my left, red. Overhead, it was a rosy pink. “Best of both worlds,” I muttered to myself, enjoying the moment. Then Jinx rounded the corner, caught sight of me and grinned. I sighed, focused, and I saw lots of possibilities for the next three seconds. My head hurt.

—«»-«»-«»—

The Graveyard of Ships

by Deborah L. Davit

A thousand civilizations had used the gate system; none of them knew who had built the gates that spanned the stars. In ten thousand languages, the children of the galaxy spoke of the Builders, the Ancients, Those-who-went-before, the Sowers—all names for beings who had likely died out millions of years ago. Those who used the gates to hop from star system to star system, bypassing the usual laws of physics, understood the nexus gates dimly; they understood that each gate opened a wormhole, using dark energy to fuel a fold in space-time that caught up a ship, and transferred it elsewhere, in the time between seconds. The gates usually hovered in space in zones free from planets, presumably to prevent damage to their surfaces. All that a ship needed, really, was the map each gate provided, with coordinates of the ten nearest other gates in space, and their designations. Transmit a designation code by standard RF, and a wormhole would open unidirectionally and stay that way for about five minutes.

No tolls of energy or cargo; the Builders seemed to have created the system for public, free access. Some people among the billions who had used the gates over the millennia wondered how there could be no price attached. But those voices—when they were voices, anyway, as opposed to stridulations scraped along a carapace by a rapidly-moving foreleg—were usually drowned out by those eager to explore the galaxy, to colonize it, to find the riches of lost civilizations on planets yet unknown.

Wars had been fought for access to these vital gates. But over tens of thousands of years, every system, even one as self-repairing and self-maintaining as the gates, can break down. Some gates went off-line mysteriously. And, of course, the system had safeguards. When a ship entered a wormhole, perhaps having taken heavy fire, and looked apt to explode? The aperture sometimes closed around that failing ship, and nothing—not even debris—made it to the other side. A thousand species shuddered, and most decided that it was best to hope that the ships and their crews were instantaneously dispersed. It would be more merciful that way—assuming a species had a concept of mercy, anyhow.

But thermodynamics teaches that matter cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change form, or be converted into energy. But converting matter into energy isn’t a lossless process. And the Builders?

They wasted nothing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Somewhere in the near-void at the edge of a galaxy, a red dwarf glowed sullenly; with a lifespan projected to outlast the universe itself, its continuing existence was as close to a sure thing as the cosmos could admit. Its light, dim and cold, reflected off metal—jagged hunks and twisted scraps. Occasionally, a battered fragment rotated towards the star, revealing painted insignia in alien languages, pitted and scored by the impacts of microscopic debris over time.

Ships. Or their remains. Hundreds of thousands of them, deposited here, the detritus of a thousand civilizations that had explored the stars before humanity had scraped fire from flint. All that metal and scrap floated in an endless ring around what might have once been a rocky dwarf planet. Encased in a fretwork of black cables, like a cat’s cradle or the lines of a hypotrochoid roulette, it looked like every other nexus gate in the galaxy, but larger. It drank the light even as it slumbered, a giant among the rubble.

And then the giant awakened. A mouth opened at the center of the lattice, and white light seared through the darkness. Two ships hurtled from of the aperture, spat out by the giant, which returned to its indifferent slumber almost immediately. Out of control, they plunged directly into the swirling chaos of the debris field, where chunks of other ships went flying in fractal patterns across a black sky so far from the galactic core that hardly any stars gleamed in it.

As if triggered by that motion, ships rose up out of the debris field—a half-dozen different shapes and configurations. Fired engines, spent hoarded fuel, desperate to reach the larger of the two ships first. Scarcely damaged, it didn’t appear to be military, lacking even basic weapons, and spun as if no hand tended the helm at all.

The second, smaller ship possessed armored plating and gun ports as well as torpedo tubes. It also had hull breaches, and escaping gas tossed it this way and that as it bounced through the debris field—almost unremarked by the scavengers descending hungrily on the larger ship. Then, what looked like a captured asteroid, studded with pieces of metal here and there, rose out of the field of scrap, moving as if displaced by a collision…and thudded gently into the smaller ship’s side. With uncanny accuracy, it had impacted atop an emergency hatch…and then stayed there, as if embedded. The ship and the asteroid continued to spin through the debris, a wild dance that would only end when a pilot’s hand took control—or when the ship tore itself apart.

◊ ◊ ◊

Saskia Voss returned slowly to consciousness. Her head hurt, and she dimly remembered being thrown across the engineering compartment of the Chimera while she and three others of her staff had been working to stabilize the dark matter fusion reactor. There was a battle, she thought dimly. We’d received a call from a passenger liner…their cover fighters had suffered engine trouble, so they needed an escort to the gate. And just when we reached it, they came out from behind a planetisimal and attacked…

Her eyes cracked open, and she realized that the world was upside-down, only dimly visible, and moving. Upside-down was nothing new; her sleeping bag periodically slipped loose of its mooring, and she’d drift in zero-g, gently propelled by her unconscious movements, till she’d thump into a wall, and snap awake in some contorted position. But this movement seemed purposeful, as if she’d launched herself across the darkened compartment, arse-first. Darkened—wait—no power? Not even emergency backups? Environmental’s probably down with it, too. Crap, I have to get my crew working on this—

She could feel her envirosuit around her like a comforting embrace. It had carbon scrubbers, so she’d have up to eight hours of oxygen, which she could feel tickling her face in a cool caress. Vague impression of pressure against her abdomen through the suit, and equal pressure around her feet. Cables? I got caught in the electrical? Tilki’s going to laugh at me for that— She kicked experimentally, trying to free herself. “This is Voss,” she said at the same time, keying her radio. “Anyone hear me? Sound off, we’re going to need damage control teams—”

She felt something grab her between the shoulder blades. Haul her upright her by the straps there. No light. No voices on the radio, friendly or otherwise. Just hands belonging to whomever had toted her here in a fireman’s carry, turning her around and giving her a firm push. Items in the air bounced off her suit as she found herself propelled to a hatch. Oh, god. Something has gone terribly wrong.

“Rodriguez? Tilki? Is that you?”

A forearm wrapped itself around her neck with enough compression that she could feel it through the flexible joint there. Her words cut off as the hatch opened sluggishly before her, as whoever was behind her used a free hand to cycle it manually. The radio must be out in that suit. She leaned her head back, bonking her helmet into a faceplate behind her, trusted to sound-conduction through the materials to carry her voice. “I need to get back to engineering—”

This time, the push had the force of an entire body behind it, as whoever it was launched themselves with her, and she found herself in an airlock. “Wait! What happened after I passed out? Is there a rescue ship on the other side of this door?”

No reply, again, as the door behind them cycled shut, and Saskia had had enough. She grappled with the arm around her neck, using her zero-g combat training, and tried to throw the other forwards by inverting herself into a somersault in air. With nothing to push off of, this had little effect but to irritate whoever it was. A growl of annoyance, and then an impact at the side of her helmet, which made her concussed head toll like a bell. Saskia gulped down a surge of nausea. Vomiting in zero-g was bad enough without filling her suit and helmet with bile before going out an airlock.

The outer hatch opened. And to her inexpressible relief, there was dim, reddish light filling another airlock before her, though she didn’t recognize the configuration. But she did recognize the crates and bundles floating in the adjoining airlock—supplies and gear from the Chimera. Computer cores. MREs. Memory crystals. Containers with the dark matter that fueled the engines suspended inside. Chemical CO2 scrubbing agents. “All right, then we are evacuating,” she said, relieved, and reached down to help move some of the bundles into the body of the ship. “Sorry for panicking back there,” she added, turning back to face whoever it was. “The Lacerta came out of nowhere. Captain wasn’t expecting so many of their ships. Don’t know what they wanted with a passenger liner, anyway….” Her eyes flicked to the side of the hatch, where a hand’s dim shadow pressed buttons to close it. The markings on the buttons were alien, a writing system that linguists on Earth had barely deciphered in forty years of war.

Her throat and mouth went dry. Another hatch opened behind her, and brighter light filtered in from whatever it opened onto, revealing a figure nearly seven feet tall and clad in the fully-armored envirosuit of a Lacerta soldier. Matte-black, with belts and harnesses for utility tools and weapons, it couldn’t disguise the three-fingered hands, the powerful chest and arms, slightly stooped shoulders, elongated neck, concave waist…or the long tail that rested against the outer hatch for the moment. Ah, hell. I’m a prisoner. The few people we’ve recovered say that they use war-captives as slaves—

A hand landed on her sternum, the tail gave a flick, and Saskia found herself shoved, powerfully, into the body of the new ship. Her captor had to hunch somewhat to move around in it, and once he’d pushed her in, he retrieved the rest of the stolen cargo from the hatch area, stowing it methodically in nets on the walls—all done in unnerving silence, while seeming to ignore her completely.

Where’s the rest of his crew? And mine? Why haven’t I been marched off to a brig yet? Saskia found a wrench in a nearby net, hefting it in her hand; it felt pitifully small and ineffectual. If I manage to crack his visor, that’s…well, that’s something, right? “What have you done with the rest of my crew?” she demanded.

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her along with him. She whacked his elbow with the wrench, which simply bounced ineffectually off the armor there. A shame he didn’t leave his gun lying around, for the convenience of prisoners, Saskia thought sourly.

He yanked her towards what certainly looked like a pilot’s couch and controls, and flicked on several viewing screens. Saskia stopped moving entirely, staring at what seemed to be outside. Concentric rings of debris spun around what looked like the largest nexus gate she’d ever seen. She spotted the passenger liner that the Chimera had been tasked with protecting, and saw that three ships had docked with it—most of them battered, held together with two-stage epoxy and hope. These ships were exchanging ranging shots with several other vessels—smaller, and even more dilapidated—which hung around the liner, like vultures waiting for the hyenas to finish with their share of a lion’s kill. “Oh, god,” Saskia whispered. “Where are we? We were nowhere near a red dwarf—”

An impatient tap on a different screen by her captor caught her attention. One of the vulture ships had broken off from its vigil around the passenger liner, and had set course towards them. Saskia’s head whipped towards the airlock hatch. “My crew?” she said, pushing off a bulkhead in that direction. “They need to be warned—” Captain Sung. Rodriguez and Tilki. Dr. Bhandari. The Chimera had eight officers and seventy-five enlisted, being a smaller corvette-class ship, designed for fast, light strikes as part of a cruiser or a carrier’s screen, or scouting or patrol duties. This Lacerta ship—whatever it was—clearly couldn’t hold the crew complement of the Chimera.

A hand hooked around her ankle, pulling her back into the cockpit. Even so, she wasn’t sure that she was a prisoner, at the moment. The Lacerta had provided information, and hadn’t hit her, shackled her, or thrown her in the brig.

The black helmet turned towards her, the faceplate polarized so that she couldn’t see inside. And then the head jerked from side to side, exaggeratedly. “My crew,” Saskia said, pointing at the airlock, as if repetition and volume would bridge the lingual divide.

The Lacerta reached into a pocket on the harness he wore over his armor, removed a device, and pressed something on it. Instantly, in the air over it, she could see three-dimensional footage of the interior of the Chimera, taken in night-vision, judging by the greenish tinge to the images. She swallowed, hard, when she saw the major hull breaches and other damage. Emergency bulkheads had engaged in places, but the Lacerta had been able to unlock them, hooking himself in before the atmosphere blew past him. Bodies whirled past the camera on that tide of air, limbs flailing limply. She raised her hands to her visor, closing her eyes.

A tug at her wrist, impatient, pulled one of her hands away, and she saw the footage enter the reactor area now. She recognized her own form, one of three hanging in the compartment. No air in the compartment; none of the bodies stirred from where they hung as the Lacerta opened the hatch. But on her form, the footage superimposed a periodic red flash—indicating, she realized, a heartbeat. No other survivors, she thought numbly. For a moment, all the alien lines and curves of the interior of this ship seemed thrown into stark relief, and her heart pounded in her chest. And yet, it all seemed unreal, detached from reality. Any minute, I’m going to wake up in Dr. Bhandari’s office with a bad concussion and vague memories of coma-dreams. Except…I keep not waking up.

She pointed at the main screen, where the vulture ships still approached. “What about them?” They’re…scavengers, right? And he is, too? Saskia glanced at the Lacerta. “Why are we just sitting here?” She gestured at him, made a circle with one hand, trying to encompass the ship, and then, after putting her palms together, slid the right one away at a sharp vector, trying to convey flight.

The Lacerta mimicked her gesture, and vocalized for the first time—a series of rapid tones, rasps, and chirps that she couldn’t fathom. He pointed at the screen, then back at the hatch. Brought his three-fingered hands together into a kind of ball, then brought them apart rapidly, forming a larger sphere. And then gestured to encompass the ship, and repeated her gesture, sliding one hand away from the other rapidly.

So we’re going to fly off, but only after they’re busy with the ship? Will the vultures be able to detect our life-signs?

At that moment, the Lacerta did something with the controls, and she could feel the landing clamps disengage—not an unfamiliar sensation. She found a strap on the wall and buckled herself in as the big hands moved with surprising delicacy over the controls. A light whump, and the screen blurred, showing that they’d started moving away. A more forceful whump of impact, and then the Lacerta jammed the control yoke steeply to the right, and touched another button—which resulted in a WHUMP! a second later that hit them like an explosion.

The world pitched and yawed and tumbled. Saskia hit her head on the wall again, and lost consciousness for several moments. Probably for the best, she decided groggily as she regained it. Less likely that I’d have thrown up… “Now what?” she asked, pulling herself upright.

The Lacerta tapped on a screen, and she stared at it, her stomach dropping into her boots. Fresh debris spun with recognizable colors and with shapes that she knew all too well. One of the vulture ships seemed to have been badly damaged as well, and the others hung back warily. “The Chimera…you blew it up? Why the hell would you do that, you idiot?” She unbuckled from the wall, heedless, launching herself at him and grabbing the shoulder plates of his armor to check her momentum. “It was a good ship. It had supplies and—”

He reached up and removed his helmet, and her voice died. She’d never seen a Lacerta outside of their armor before. Few had ever been recovered in one piece for autopsy; they all seemed to carry small explosive devices that, if they looked apt to be overrun or captured, were inevitably used to commit suicide. As such, shock crept through her. Humans called them Lacerta, or lizards. But that didn’t at all convey the iridescent red and blue sheen of the scales, the sharp acuity of the yellow eyes with their slitted pupils—or the fact that he had a ridge of spines, largely flattened at the moment, running from the pronounced muzzle, over the scalp, and down the back of his neck. His cheeks, like a dog’s, were incomplete, allowing the jaw to open far wider than a human’s, but unlike a Terran lizard, his teeth, as he bared momentarily, were not undifferentiated pegs. Slashing and cutting teeth predominated at the front, with large, sturdy molars at the back. Carnivore mouth.

Now that he had her attention, the Lacerta tapped on the image of a vulture ship. Pointed at her, and then wrapped his hands around something invisible in the air in front of him. And then pretended to bite into it, shaking his head side-to-side savagely. Watching him, Saskia could picture him tearing meat from bone. “You’re saying,” she said weakly, knowing her words were incomprehensible to him, “that they’re cannibals.” Eying the carnivorous teeth so close to her face, she thought, silently, And you’re not? Though if you were, I…suppose you’d have brought Tilki and Rodriguez aboard. Oh hell. Maybe he did. Maybe they’re in a freezer somewhere till he has a chance to gut and clean them? Still concussed, disoriented, and terrified, revulsion and fear competed for control of her mind and body.

◊ ◊ ◊

Everything took time. Chelakh had a better idea of that than many other members of his species. He took the human to the ship’s small mess, which he’d converted into a meticulous storage facility in the past eight hundred and twenty-four days—the passage of which he’d marked off with lines on one of the walls in here. Taking in a human—one of the enemies of the Sei’azhi, the citizens of the Empire—hadn’t been an impulse. He’d systematically looted what he could from the engine compartment before staring at the motionless form for about ten minutes, doing the remorseless arithmetic of survival in his head.

His ship, the Hauk Teleu’sarusa, or First Wind of Night, had been designed for a two-person crew—and for stealth, above all else. The hull had been hollowed out of medium-sized asteroid, reinforced on the interior with titanium crossbracing between this thick outer shell, and the sealed crew compartments. That thick hull prevented almost any scanners from detecting bio-signs, dampening the heat emitted by environmental systems and the engines. Maneuvering thrusters felt pitifully limited compared to what he’d been used to, when he’d piloted a fighter in the Imperial Armada, but then again, they didn’t need to be exceptional, given the ship’s original mission.

This vessel had never been intended to make planetary landings or engage in dogfights. Its objective had always been to drift quietly in enemy territory, gathering information about culture, troop movements, merchant convoys, or whatever else Imperial Command needed. And once that information had been obtained, they’d drift quietly to the nearest gate, open it, and depart as invisibly as they’d arrived.

Since the loss of his crewmate—and mate—sixty days into this endless existential nightmare, Chelakh had scavenged enough carbon-scrubbing materials, food, batteries, fuel, and other supplies to eke his way along. Bringing a second person of any species aboard presented a risk to his personal chances of survival, and he had information in his head that had to be returned to the Empire, whatever the cost. Bringing another person aboard meant that whoever it was had to be worth the risk. This female—he thought the human was female; these mammalian creatures exhibited strong sexual dimorphism as a species, though they lacked the color differentiations that marked male and female in his own—had been in the engine compartment. This suggested that she might have skills that he lacked.  Like Dayielzha, he thought, emptily, pushing down the usual surge of anger, grief, and betrayal that came with thoughts of his mate.

Chelakh was an expert pilot and data analyst. It had been his mate who possessed all their engineering expertise on their two-person team. He knew his own limitations. The number of warning lights on his consoles of late told him that soon, he might not have a ship left to fly, if the engines weren’t maintained and repaired. Which would be an effective death sentence in this graveyard.

He pushed thoughts of the past away. Given that he, an officer of good standing in the Imperial Armada and citizen of the Sei’azhi had captured this human, her life now belonged to the Empire. His rescue had rendered her chattel, and she owed service and obedience to the armed forces of the Empire. As he had no superior officers to allocate her services in a larger ship, that effectively meant that her life belonged to him, at least until such time as he could turn her over to his superiors. Which…might be never, given the accusing line of scratches on the nearby wall, a silent litany of his own captivity here.

Of course, outsiders didn’t tend to understand these things. Even members of his own species, who weren’t of the Sei’azhi, weren’t full citizens of the Empire, didn’t understand that being given food, shelter, and succor by the Empire meant unyielding obedience to it. Then again, those who weren’t Sei’azhi had no honor.

He gestured for her to remove her helmet, trying not to show his disquiet as she complied. Humans were just as alien as the Tarukhxi, the amphibians who’d become his people’s staunch allies in the past six decades. As alien as the Xi’a, the social and vaguely arachnoid creatures that had first come into contact with the People a century ago—and who had been at war with the People ever since. At least humans didn’t have multiple rows of unblinking obsidian eyes perched somewhere above twiddling mandibles. Their fur didn’t look as dangerous as the spiky tufts that protruded from a solider-Xi’a’s carapace, which could spring from the creatures’ bodies in a haze of needle-like fragments. Inhaling that haze usually resulted in ulcerated, bleeding lungs.

Humans were at least bipedal. Omnivorous, by all accounts. Somewhat color-blind, half-deaf, and lacking a developed sense of smell, they’d somehow managed to struggle to the top of their planetary ecosystem. By their own estimates, they’d done it by virtue of their brains. Shall see, he told himself with an inner shrug. This one had short brown fur atop her head, and her soft, unscaled skin looked vaguely like that of a larval worm—too smooth and glistening. Dark markings mottled the skin at the side of her head, beside one eye. He supposed that it might be an indication of injury. Her eyes, with those strange white circles around the tiny irises, seemed to be an unnatural shade of pale gray. Her scent, caught by his tongue as well as his nostrils, wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but held several unfamiliar chemical tangs.

Chelakh held out one of her human food packages, watching as her eyes focused on it. “Zhiyaessu,” he said patiently, and pulled his hand away when she reached for it. “Zhiyaessu!” he repeated, peremptorily.

A flicker of those too-small eyes. “Zey-ya-esu,” she repeated, her mammalian larynx closing down on the vowels, unable to reproduce them. “Food,” she added.

And with a grimace, Chelakh repeated the grunting sound she’d made. “Food,” he said.

No chirps from the sensors; this told him that they had time to eat, as the various scavengers that had closed in on her ship’s remains had yet to pursue the ‘asteroid’ that had been ejected with the rest of the debris. Have time, he thought, tiredly. Time in surplus. Everything else? Lacking.

She activated a device mounted on her wrist with straps, and began recording his words and hers. Chelakh made a chuffing sound of impatience and tried to indicate, with sharp gestures between her device and the lights, that she needed to conserve the device’s energy. Finally, he moved to the light controls to establish what her words for on and off were, so that he could point again at her device and grunt “Off!” She then flicked her unnaturally fine fingers in a gesture that he took to be exasperation. His ship’s computer did have a basic lexical understanding of five human languages, but tasking the computer to anything but maintaining life-support, sensors, and engines was a use of system resources that he’d prefer to avoid. His memory for sounds and songs should render her language simple enough to learn and replicate without computer assistance.

Once she’d eaten the mixture inside her ration pack—something that looked like worms in a red sauce—he half-pushed, half-led her to the engine compartment. Pointed to the various control panels, with their blinking warning lights, and handed her a data tablet, filled with technical specifications, system schematics, charts, and fault isolation diagrams all in the language of the Sei’azhi. He gestured from the tablet to the engines and consoles, and showed her where the tools were kept. Where he’d stowed the dark matter in its sealed containers. Where the parts were that he’d stripped from a half-dozen other derelict ships.

He hadn’t known what he needed. Most of the wrecks had already been picked over by generations of scavengers. So there were pieces and parts from a dozen ship systems, all with different measurements, different purposes, different labeling. But he’d organized this scrap as best he could, in cargo nets all through the compartment. And now he spread his hands, trying to convey the enormity of the problem before them.

Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly. The tablet drifted from her loosening fingers as her shoulders sagged. And she put her gloved hands to her exposed face, making an odd, liquid snuffling sound. Chelakh cautiously prodded at her shoulder with one finger, and her head came up, revealing a red flush through her face and eyes—gods and ancestors, that isn’t a mating flush, is it? Some sort of fluid secreted from her eyes, clinging to the fine hairs around each. Chelakh jerked his hand back as if stung.

Defensive mechanism? he thought apprehensively. Nothing in the literature on the species suggests that they produce venom… On reflection, however, the fluids smelled like salt, and not like neurotoxin. Wait, there was something about them secreting fluids when injured or ill. I would take one aboard who’s dying of internal injuries. Pyre’s ashes and damnation.

After a few moments, however, the human gestured at the tablet, the engines, and everything else, before beginning a long harangue in her growling language. Chelakh put his hands behind his back, just above his tail, and frowned. On the whole, she didn’t sound as if she were dying. The flush spread through her face, and he suddenly recalled some of the human video signals that he and Dayielzha had recorded at the edge of a human planetary system. Even the best computer-generated translations had still been baffling. Humans dedicated time both to things that were real, and had happened, and to things that weren’t real, and never had. But in one of their feeds about a recent attack by the Sei’azhi, Chelakh remembered seeing humans secreting fluids from the eyes. Ah. Distress. Emotional need, vi’ezhash.

Need and distress he could understand, if not this expression of them. He’d take care of a rifle’s need for maintenance, so that it would perform correctly when necessary; he could do no less for her, non-citizen chattel or no. And given that she was the only other person on this ship that made her…something of a crewmate. Crewmates tended to each other. “Vi’ezhale?” he asked, putting a cautious hand on her shoulder. You have need?

And when that did no good, he sighed and keyed the console beside them, bringing up the computer’s lexical database. Spoke, and then listened to the computer render his words into the flat, nasal sounds of human speech. Watched her head jerk up in surprise and perhaps a little fear. “If your computer can translate, why not start with that?” she demanded, and the computer rendered her words into the fluid song of the People.

“Because translating is not understanding. Must understand to survive,” he replied, and gestured at the tablet floating away from her. “Can use the computer to translate the schematics. But will understand them.” He pointed at her. “Don’t understand.” A thumb at his own torso. “Pilot, not engineer.” The word-bursts of translation into the grunts of human speech bothered him.

“Where am I?”

“Don’t know. Graveyard. Derelict ships and debris extend almost a full light-minute away from gate. Substantial field. Accreted a long time.” Chelakh exhaled. “Survivors not common. Consortiums of those who came here exist. Strong prey on weak. Oldest associations keep to center, nearest gate. Ships wearing out, but have the most people and weapons. Take first shot at new arrivals. Keep weaker, smaller associations at bay. Weaker groups, individuals who somehow survive…pick over the fringe, where there are only scraps of metal. And in lean times, when no new arrivals have come? Fighting between factions. Take captives, if useful. Rest of them…eaten.” He grimaced over the word, his stomach churning.

“How do you know that?” she demanded.

Chelakh closed his eyes. “Wasn’t always alone,” he replied curtly, pushing down the bitter memories of betrayal. “Had a crewmate.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Over the course of the next month, Saskia struggled with…everything, really. A kind of numb fog hovered over her—but remembering that every member of her crew had died because of the Lacerta—the species to which her captor/rescuer belonged!—brought a vivid flash of hatred. The hate usually subsided into a background throb after a few moments. She was alive, because a Lacerta had found her potentially useful. A piece of living scrap.

Wild thoughts of clubbing him with a wrench in his sleep and taking over the ship occurred to her—after all, the first duty of a prisoner was to escape—but those had faded, not least because it wouldn’t serve any purpose. He’d been stranded here for over two Earth-standard years; he knew the area; and she couldn’t fly or navigate on her best day, let alone handle an alien ship with an AI keyed to obey the Lacerta, and not her.

She struggled with the main Lacerta language, though she eventually learned to call them Sei’azhi. She asked what her rescuer’s name was, and the string of sounds promptly overwhelmed her: Taresh Chelakh sizhak’hauk’Hanakhaz sizhak’hauk’Iradala, zhaso’Sarusa’tashlak, Seddu’arak’Asakhax. Taresh turned out to be his rank, and some of the names appeared to mean ‘first-son of this male’ and ‘first-son of that female,’ along with a clan-name, regional affiliation, and planetary affiliation. When she asked, “So what do I call you?” he’d replied that crewmates usually called one another Ha’kha’esal, or one-of-many. She’d blinked and asked, “Don’t you have a name that means you?”

“Do,” had been the reply, with his crest flicking upwards slightly. “But is for close friends. Mates. Family. In military, all are Ha’kha’esal.”

“So it’s like someone in the Russian Confederation calling someone tovarisch.” She’d immediately regretted the comparison; it had required too many explanations. And in the end, since she had so many problems with the singing vowels, clicking sounds, and overtones, he’d told her just to call him Chelakh.

Somewhere in the fifth week, she realized that the reason why he struggled with English, was that his language had almost no pronouns—everything boiled down to endings, and prepositions tended to be implied by lilts of tone that she could barely discern, not directly stated. Pronouns were…just too indefinite for the Sei’azhi mind-set. It was too vague; table, however, was concrete and real.

He’d grabbed one of almost everything he could get his hands on while aboard the Chimera. As such, she had Rodriguez’ hygiene kit; the razor wasn’t much help, but the toothbrush was. But seeing the name stenciled in black ink on the side of the plastic bag jabbed her with grief and anger every time she opened it.

“Why do this?” Chelakh asked her in the midst of a jag of emotion.

“So that my teeth don’t rot and my breath doesn’t stink.” Saskia returned through the foam, her stomach churning. He couldn’t know how the words intruded. No privacy aboard the tiny ship, crammed with supplies and scrap. They both slept in the mess area, where Chelakh had fixed a cube of space between all the supply crates. They huddled together for warmth; the Sei’azhi were as warm-blooded as humans or birds. The close quarters chafed, but she couldn’t deny the necessity; running the heaters at anything above the bare minimum to keep the electronics happy was a waste of fuel.

Yet, staring down at the name on the hygiene kit, Saskia had added sharply, “You might do the same. Your rations are mostly meat-based. Doesn’t make for lovely morning breath.”

A blink of the yellow eyes, an inner nictitating membrane sliding across them before the outer lid swept closed, and his crest spines rose halfway. She’d learned that the expression suggested surprise or irritation. Then again, that was rude, she had thought, rummaging in a pocket of her filthy coveralls for a pen. She’d spent the next five minutes crossing out Rodriguez’s name. She felt as if she were effacing his memory, but if she went into a tailspin every time she saw it…

After that, Chelakh also cleaned his teeth once a day, though he noted, philosophically, “Weak teeth fall out. New teeth grow in. But for sake of harmony, well enough.” Hygiene remained an issue, nevertheless. Sei’azhi didn’t sweat, so they had no need for shower facilities, which forced her to resort to wrapping herself in a plastic sack to contain the water droplets for zero-g sponge-baths. Her efforts to control her odor invariably met with what sounded like a heart-felt chirrup of gratitude from Chelakh. Which was embarrassing, in a way. She knew she didn’t smell sweet. No one better, in fact. But at least my nose isn’t as good as his seems to be.

In the second month, the heating system gave out. “The air’s still moving,” she reported, trying to put it in Sei’azhi. “But the thermal units are dead.”

“Found what looked like heaters in remnants of Xi’a ship six months ago. Try?” he suggested.

Bundled into her envirosuit for warmth, Saskia worked for hours, trying to cobble elements from one alien system into another. In the tenth hour, Chelakh handed her an MRE and made her eat and rest; her hands shook from low blood-sugar, and frustration had set in. “Thank you,” she mumbled in his language. And once the food spread warmth through her, she found a box of connectors she hadn’t noticed, and coupled the Xi’a parts successfully into the system at last. “Going to be inefficient,” she reported tiredly. “There’s even a chance that the system could short out and cause a fire. The parts just aren’t made to work together. We really need your tech for this.”

“Did well. Could not have done same,” he told her, in halting English, spreading his hands. She grimaced, turning her head aside to conceal her reaction. His voice sounded like an intelligent African Gray parrot, at times. His gift for mimicry was such that he perfectly mirrored the inflections and tones of her voice, giving his low-pitched voice oddly soft overtones. Hearing her voice echoed in his disconcerted her, and put her on edge. It’s like the Uncanny Valley at times. “Can try to find a Sei’azhi ship for parts. But…every leaving of the ship is a danger. Every course correction must be cautious.”

She understood why. The computer handled the everyday flying on its own, narrowly dodging most of the debris spinning around them, while seeming to ‘bounce’ away from apparent collisions, in what appeared a wholly natural fashion. Saskia had studied the complex flight algorithm that the AI maintained, and even with her very limited understanding of written Sei’azhi, she’d recognized that the majority of the computer’s system resources and the engines’ power had been directed into this camouflaging flight pattern. “Takes a lot of effort to keep something about as flightworthy as a potato dancing like this,” she’d assessed.

He’d cocked his head like a bird, the spines of his crest flexing momentarily. “Potato?” Chelakh had asked, picking the unfamiliar word out of the sentence easily. His gift for replicating human words and remembering them had allowed him to pick up English much more quickly than she could master the language of the Sei’azhi, which irritated her.

“A root vegetable not known for being aerodynamic,” Saskia returned with mild irritation, framing an oblong shape with her fingers.

A flicker of the nictitating membranes over his eyes—not irritation, but humor. “There are roots that are flightworthy?”

“Carrots,” Saskia had replied, forming a more triangular shape with her fingers. “Nevermind. Probably not going to meet any of them here outside of an MRE pack.” Her words had reawakened another concern: the supply of human food would run out eventually. He’d raided the Chimera’s supplies as thoroughly as he could, but she’d have a year’s worth of food at most, if she stretched it thin. Unless another human ship comes through. And that’s a hell of a thing to wish for—for someone else to be trapped here just so I won’t starve.

In the here and now, Saskia muttered, “Might need to take the risk.” His disinclination to take chances seemed at odds with the image she’d had of the Lacerta; she’d been born sixteen years into the war, when these creatures had already bombed civilian colonists on Xian and Hadiqua, killing any who did not surrender—and often pursing those who fled. They’re aggressive and territorial, she thought, frowning. Everyone knows that. “We won’t survive if we don’t take risks now and again,” she added in English. And saw his spines rise in what she’d come to recognize as agitation.

“Risk is acceptable only for tei’aska,” he replied. His language had at least three words for need— tei’aska, rei’azha, and vi’ezhash. As far as she’d been able to grasp, the first meant things necessary for life—food, water, air, shelter, and medicine. The second word seemed to mean something like “assistance would be appreciated,” and the third revolved around bodily urgencies—the need to urinate. When she’d asked the translation program for how to say want or desire, the database had come up blank. And when she’d haltingly asked him how to express something that wasn’t a physical need, but would be appreciated—such as wishing for MREs that weren’t meatballs and green beans, for instance—Chelakh’s spines had flattened to his scalp in an expression identical to when he’d found dead insects in a ration pack. “To need what is not needed is…not to follow duty. To not be of service to others,” he’d tried to explain.

“Can you need the sound of a voice like your own?” Saskia had countered. Her yearning to hear another human voice remained strong.

The spines had relaxed. “Yes. That is vi’ezhash.”

So, bodily and mental needs were acceptable, but desire wasn’t, apparently. And he’d only accept a risk to their lives for urgent necessities. “Heat,” Saskia told him firmly, “is definitely tei’aska. I’d prefer for my nose not to fall off from frostbite…and don’t say it. I know that frost has no teeth.”

That waspish comment made his spines rise, and his inner lids flickered merrily for a moment or two in silent amusement.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, they surveyed their surroundings, not sending out active radar pings or anything so overt as that. But every ship fragment of any size that Chelakh had boarded in the past two years, he’d left sensor packs at, the size of gnats, and solar-powered. They passively broadcast whatever they saw on an encrypted radio frequency. So he had eyes scattered throughout the entire graveyard.

They watched the screens, both of them flinching as a vulture ship raked another vessel with bullets, and then forcibly docked with the victim while taking return fire. All within range of one of his cameras. “How do you know that others aren’t using your feeds for similar information?” Saskia asked him.

“Current Imperial encryption on them. Doubt any of the People here have…updated protocols.” At this point, he tended to revert to his own language mostly for difficult words and concepts. “That vessel,” he added, pointing at the vulture ship, a cold hand of memory wrapping around his crop, “is pre-Imperial. Two hundred years old. Much patched. Much welded.”

“Pre-Imperial?” She perked up at that. “Those are…Lacerta? Your own people?”

“No! Not mine. Not Sei’azhi.”

“Not your people, but your species.” Her eyes widened. “You’d attack them?” Saskia shook her head, clearly trying to formulate the right questions, ones they could both understand. “Why? And how can they still be here?”

Sei’azhi came to power when colonists first went to other worlds. Homeworld, Asakhax…divided. Many groups.” He groped for words as they stared at the screens. “First Empress grew tired of constant attacks, constant war. Ordered integration of other regions. Those who would not serve, sometimes fled to other worlds. Some did not arrive at new homes.”

“Integration? Sounds like conquest.” A hint of what he’d come to know as scorn in her voice.

He looked up the word. “Yes. Same thing.” A shrug. “Has been ten generations since the others were brought into the Empire as chattel. Like you.”

He didn’t know the English for the term, so she paused and looked up that word. Then her eyes narrowed and her flexible lips turned down at the corners. He recognized the expression as offense, accompanied by a whiff of her anger-scent. Not the chemical she called adrenaline, which went with fear-anger and combat, but just…regular anger. She smelled this way quite often, unfortunately. “I am not chattel.”

“Technically, would be if more of the People were here. Currently, more like crewmate. Don’t use superior-to-inferior voice with you.”

“What—?”

“Not that you can hear the difference in the intonation, but still, don’t use it with…you.”  He shrugged, using the English pronoun for as much specificity as the unnuanced language would allow. “But even chattel may become Sei’azhi. By being of service to others. Fighting alongside. Preserving life. Anyone who wants to become a full citizen, can.” He groped for words. Tried to explain that he himself, with only ten years in the Imperial forces, though born to two full citizens of the Sei’azhi, could vote, but that his vote carried less weight than that of someone who’d served twenty, thirty, or forty years in the military. That anyone, from chattel to the descendants of nobility, could choose to serve willingly, and earn the right to have their voices heard at the highest levels. But that it was duty to others, honor, and loyalty to the Emperor and Empress that allowed someone to become Sei’azhi. Not where they’d been born, what species they were, or what shape their bodies had.

He watched her small eyes narrow. “And why would someone who wasn’t part of the Empire want to join it?” the human scoffed.

Irritation surged in him. “Emperor and Empress not always hereditary offices,” he pointed out as patiently as he could. “Anyone who has won enough honor, enough glory, who has served the People for many years? Can become Emperor or Empress, and bring mate to honor, too.”

“Even chattel?” Saskia asked, her tone laced with skepticism.

“Has happened once. Male had been captured from one of the other nations of our homeworld. Rose through the ranks. Became a general. Then the Emperor and Empress’ most-trusted advisor. When died, the general who was once chattel was chosen as the most qualified replacement.”

Her mouth fell open, revealing her chisel-like omnivore teeth. “And he didn’t go about dismantling the Empire?”

A quick check in the lexical database. “No,” Chelakh replied, confused. “Why would he? He did strip many of his people of their status as chattel, but why would he destroy a system that had brought peace and prosperity to our entire homeworld?”

“So he just…drank the Kool-Aid,” Saskia assessed. “Or had the worst case of Stockholm syndrome in the universe.”

He didn’t bother looking either of those up. Human language tended towards the metaphorical, at best. Chelakh simply stared at her inquisitively, and she sighed. “Stockholm syndrome. Where captives begin to empathize with their captors. Take their agendas and values for their own. Maybe even fall in love with them, in some way. Give up everything they’ve believed in, because it’s just…easier to go along.” Disquiet in her tone.

Chel needed to take a moment to sort through the sea of pronouns she’d just employed, cursing inwardly at the human tendency to generalize, even in the very form of their language. “Humans fear change,” he remarked after a moment, cocking his head to the side. “Fear change in selves. Think that accepting new ideas, new…realities?…makes the person…not the same person? Weaker, lesser.” Chel chuffed between his teeth. “Seeing that a system that provides harmony and plenty is better than constant war is not being weak of mind. Accepting a new condition is not…surrender.”

She hissed between her teeth, a sound surprisingly like the irritation noise that one of the People might make. “Oh, like you’ve accepted the new reality around you,” she retorted. “If you had, you’d have… I don’t know. Grabbed the bodies on my ship and tucked them away as snacks.”

Stung, Chelakh felt his crest rise fully, and he growled slightly before he got his temper under control. Doesn’t know. Doesn’t understand. Probably never will. “Against honor,” he snapped. “Dishonors the life lost. And desecrate a body—spirits will follow. Forever. Weighing down every action. Tainting everything done by the hands that acted so, till…amends made.” Another struggle with her limiting language. “Ancestors…all around. Lives not just service to others, but to ancestors, spirits, as well.” And whether or not you believe that the ancestors linger, who wants to risk incurring the wrath of a foe’s ghost, and that of all their familial spirits, by dishonoring the fallen?

Startled, and she pulled herself closer to the wall of the cockpit, where she’d been floating, secured by one hand. “Sorry,” Saskia muttered. “I didn’t know you guys were religious at all.” An exhalation. “That being said,” she added, her tone still marginally truculent, “your lot wouldn’t have such a damned big military if you didn’t see a need to use it. And if you’re so very peaceful now—”

“Military remains the only path of service, advancement, citizenship. Keeps the peace at home. And was meant to build and protect colonies. Then ran into Xi’a a hundred years ago. Then your people. Others. Universe full of threats…plenty of opportunity for advancement.” His tone held no apology.

“Yes, let’s talk about how our people met.” Sarcasm now. “I seem to recall that the inhabitants of Xian and Hadiqua declined your people’s generous offer to become part of your benevolent dictatorship. After being attacked out of hand.”

“Were on planets the Sei’azhi had already claimed. Imperial officials placed territorial marker satellites ten years before human settlers arrived,” he returned mildly. “What would humans do, on finding intruders in territory? Smile and offer…cookies?” Some of these round objects, found in many of her MREs, seemed largely composed of carbohydrates, ground meal, and animal lactate, and had odors of exotic spices. He’d tried one, cautiously, but disappointingly, it hadn’t tasted as good as it had smelled.

Her brows lowered into a frown. “We were there first. Your officials are lying—”

“Possible. Can say that human officials have never lied?” Chel asked, using a hand to smooth his crest.

And to his muted satisfaction, his calm words took all the wind out of her sails. She bit her lower lip—an uncomfortable-looking gesture she used when she seemed uncertain. And then admitted, her voice low, “No. I can’t make that claim. History shows that our officials lie all the time. Sometimes seems to be what they’re best at.” A guilty look at him. “Er, you…shouldn’t judge all humans by that statement.”

Chelakh nodded equitably. “Of course not. Just a sign of your Stockholm Kool-Aid.” He’d pulled the words out of memory, juxtaposing the terms while mimicking her inflections, a jab at her so-human insecurity about her precious self-hood.

A spluttering sound, which became loud mammalian whoops and cackles. He stared at her, surprised, until she wiped at her eyes. Distress? She’s that worried that she’s losing her self here? Pyre’s ashes, I shouldn’t have spoken. It’s one thing to poke a crewmate to remind them that they’re one-of-many, not just one, but another thing entirely to cause pain.

Still wheezing Saskia cut into his thoughts, “Oh, god. I…shouldn’t laugh. It’s not funny.” Another hiccupping whoop, and then she added, “Except that it is.” A exhalation, and then she pointed at the screen in front of them. “So, survivors of your species who might live here,” Saskia said slowly. “If they were born here, they could never be Sei’azhi. Because they can never be of service to your Empire?”

Cold filled his crop. “If born, most younglings are probably eaten by parents,” he returned with brutal frankness, watching her mouth fall open with revulsion equal to his own. “Hard to keep younglings alive. Sap on resources. But a few have been strong enough to survive. Have…encountered descendants.” He pushed the memories down. He found it difficult not to admire the strength of those who’d endured here for two centuries. But at the same time, they’d done so by becoming savages. “Most survivors had colony ships to begin with. Tanks for growing plants. Protein-rich. Oxygen-givers.” These words were difficult. “And then integrating any others that come—”

“Conquering—”

“Yes, yes. Acknowledge irony.” Irritation in his voice. “But those who will not serve, they eat.” We integrate those who will serve, because we all do. Those who won’t serve, we use as chattel, yes. We execute the recalcitrant. But we don’t eat them. Gods and ancestors, there is a difference. Let her see that. Let her see that she could be just as much one of the People if she chose to be, as I am. It’s just living by a code.

“Pirates who prey on others,” she muttered, her voice sounding constricted. “No food supplies besides what each ship brought in with it—or what little can be grown on the colony ships. With no way to resupply, and tech wearing out. And then yes, it’s…either steal from each other, and hope that you can eat another species’ food, eat each other, or starve to death.” Her head came up. “You’ve never explained what happened to your other crewmate. They didn’t eat him, did they?”

“Don’t know,” he replied, tightly, not elaborating. “Attackers have boarded their target,” Chelakh added. “Heat signatures say only three left aboard own vessel. Will have weapons, know territory. But should have the equipment needed.” He swiveled his head to look at her. “Worth the risk?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Head still awhirl with new information, Saskia stood braced outside the Hauk’s airlock, her boots’ magnetic locks activated. Sure, their government sounds great in on paper, she thought, adjusting the seals of her envirosuit. The universe’s best meritocracy. Everyone has an equal shot at becoming the head honcho. She’d asked, before coming down to the airlock, “So, what about all the people who don’t enter the military? They don’t have a say, a vote?”

“They can talk to someone in their area who does. Voice concerns. But humans—all can vote, you say.” Derision in his voice. “But many do not?”

She’d been forced to admit that well over fifty percent of Earth’s residents didn’t vote. He’d chuffed and nictitating membranes had flickered over his eyes. “Then is the same. Those who aren’t interested, don’t participate. Those who are, do. Only difference? Sei’azhi earn rights. Appreciate more, perhaps, than rights that are just given.”

And the tales out of his people’s history, how was she to take them? Her sentiments told her that she should be firmly on the side of those of his species who’d fled their homeworld to found colonies far from his Empire. Seeking the right to self-determination in the face of what certainly sounded like a repressive, conquering neighbor. Of course, what these exiles were before they got here is one thing. What they are today is something else. Of course, I have only his word for it that they’ve been here that long. That they’re cannibals. That they’re pirates, I’ve already seen…on screens that he controls. Saskia closed her eyes, her thoughts running in circles. Occam’s razor time. Inventing complicated lies doesn’t benefit him. Paranoia clogged her thoughts, but at least it felt more alive than the gray fugue state she’d experienced since the Chimera’s demise. I have to decide if I can trust him, and commit to it, she thought tiredly. He saved my life. He’s the only reason I continue to live. But half of what comes out of his mouth, in that parrot-like voice, just makes me want to scream. Though I’m not even sure that’s his fault.  She knew that some of her reaction to him had to be comprised of resentment mixed with a healthy dose of survivor’s guilt admixed. Even thinking of that possibility summoned the image of a hygiene kit with a scrawled-out name. A dead man’s last, inadvertent bequest. And little enough to show for a life, god damn it.

Deep breaths, trying to calm herself now. If I trust him, it’s because it’s the rational thing to do. It’s not that I’m coming to agree with his world-view. I’m not going to convert to his idea of duty to the state or ask to join his Sei’azhi. It’s because conditions have changed, and I have to accept that. But god. How can I accept this reality?

Chelakh’s voice came over the radio. “Brace.” With only that for a warning, the asteroid crust that served as their outer hull slammed into something, and despite her grip on the strap beside the airlock, the impact flung her backwards. She reeled herself in as Chelakh lithely pushed himself over from the cockpit, securing his own helmet. To her great surprise, he handed her a gun. Principles of ballistics didn’t change from species to species, so it looked quite familiar in configuration, but the grip had been designed with a three-taloned hand in mind. “You trust me with this?” Saskia blurted, shocked.

“Trust that difference between ally and foe will be clear.” His eyes and face were invisible behind his polarized mask as he handed her several sacks. Most were empty. One was not. “Charges are for engine core. Set them. Remote timer. Leave nothing behind.”

Saskia opened her mouth to protest, and then shut it with a click. The Sei’azhi played by different rules than humans. Chelakh had determined that these people were enemies. They were useful, so long as they had something he needed. And once he’d engaged with them, there were only two outcomes—his death, or theirs. Nothing in between, and no loose ends left behind. Is it because they’re cannibals? Or is this the same war doctrine that they’ve been using on us—except that they haven’t been able to get through the gates to Earth yet? A chill swept through her. Of course, that’s because we seem to be a little ahead of them in at least one regard—we’ve deciphered some of the Builders’ code. Enough to scramble our local nexus map and direct the system not to permit ships lacking our encoded signals to come through to Earth and the few colonies we’ve managed to keep safe….

They cycled the airlock doors, and Saskia experienced a jolt of surprise when she realized that the asteroid had punched right through the hull of the marauder ship. Chelakh had docked far more considerately with the doomed Chimera. Then again, when they lifted away, there should be explosive decompression to speed their ship’s movements—and to hinder anyone who might try to follow them before they could…blow a damned reactor core. While the marauders remain attached to their target. Her conscience twinged. The victim ship could be blameless. But then again, were there any innocents in this graveyard?

No time to argue about the ethics, however. They’d entered what looked like some sort of a disused hangar, and the collision had drawn two of the three heat signatures towards them. Saskia spotted the too-familiar sight of Lacerta bodies in envirosuits, though these were patched and rust-colored, not the matte-black worn by Imperial forces, with ablative plates epoxied to the outside for added protection. The mere shape of them triggered an adrenal surge. And, given that they didn’t care about damage to the bulkheads or outer hull, it felt enormously freeing to lift her borrowed gun and fire.

Saskia wasn’t a marine. She didn’t have to do more than pass her quarterly fire-arms qualification. But she’d always enjoyed practicing the with small arms, and had natural aim. A good thing, because the alien pistol in her hand kicked hard. Even though she’d locked her magnetized boots to the deck, the recoil nearly sent her tumbling, and her first shot flew awry.

Crap. Not exactly unlimited supplies of ammo. Saskia recovered, pulling herself back upright, and fired again. Saw one of the pair spin away, visor shattering. Saw the peculiar beauty of blood spray in zero-g, glossy, viscous globules forming, distorting as air pressure pushed against them, and then wobbling away as if drunk—

And then Chelakh threw himself bodily against her, shoving her into the cover of what looked like a small, dilapidated probe of some sort. A bullet pinged off its outer casing, and Saskia flinched, her heart pounding in her ears.

She felt Chelakh lean out of cover. Heard the muffled report of his gun through her helmet, and then he hooked a hand around her shoulder. “Hurry,” his voice ordered over the radio, and for once, Saskia was all too glad to obey. She helped him loot the fallen of weapons, tools, and oxygen packs, and then they hastened up through an open hatch, Chel in the lead.

The corridors of the marauder ship dizzied her. Every time she expected a line, she found a curve; every time she expected a curve, a line confronted her. They passed through several compartment used for storage on their way to engineering, and in one, Saskia saw the first evidence verifying Chel’s words. The compartment was so cold that ice crystals formed along the floors, walls, and ceiling. Pinkish-red ice, in many cases, from where globules of blood, oozing from pieces of meat suspended from chains that hooked into both floor and ceiling, had suspended themselves in air in the zero-g environment, and gradually made their way to splash against some flat surface or another, mingling with water vapor condensing and freezing out of the air. And the flesh? She recognized Lacerta scales on one torso that hadn’t been completely flayed. Knew the eight legs of a Xi’a soldier dangling in a mesh bag. Probably tastes like lobster, she thought, distantly, and then almost threw up inside of her helmet.

Chel grabbed her shoulder and moved her bodily out of the storeroom. “Lucky. No humans,” he told her, his voice tight. “Harder to see, when species is own.”

“Lucky me,” Saskia agreed, her throat still constricted. Lucky, lucky me.

He used one explosive charge from the bag she carried to blow the locked door of the engineering compartment, and then hissed, “Quickly, quickly. First two have not reported success. Third will recall others from the ship they attacked.”

Hands shaking, Saskia tucked her borrowed pistol into her belt and got scrounging. Heater elements were foremost on her list, but tools, components, computer cores, usable lengths of wire—they all went into her bags.

She’d ducked behind the reactor core to set the charges when she heard the next shot fired, followed by a second, then a third, in rapid succession. Saskia peered around the edge of the engine, seeing Chel dive for cover. And held completely still as a smaller Lacerta form slid around the edge of the blown engineering hatch. “Chelakh,” a higher-pitched voice called, with harmonies buried in it that grated on Saskia’s nerves. Sweet-toned, liquid vowels interspersed with rasps and clicks flooded out, at a speed Saskia found indecipherable.

Dayielzha,” Chelakh’s voice returned, with a grating overtone that sounded like nails down a chalkboard to Saskia. She swallowed and kept setting the charges, an oddly clinical mind-set falling over her, in contrast to the fugue in which she’d drifted for months. Damn. Well, we knew this was a risk. I wonder if they’ll try to rape me first. Or would that be like screwing a cow before making steaks out of it? Think I’d rather hug the reactor when it blows, and ensure that the only pieces of me they find can barely be used for canapés. Another distant thought, as if spoken by an observer hovering behind her in the same zero-g environment: That one just called him by name. Chelakh, if we get out of this…you’ve got some explaining to do.

◊ ◊ ◊

Chelakh’s boots, magnetic locks cleaving to the deck plate, felt rooted in place. He hadn’t expected to see her on this ship. Hadn’t expected this at all. “Dayielzha,” he said. His former mate’s name meant dancer in the same way that his meant hunter.You’re looking well-fed.” A lie, that dig. He couldn’t see through her polarized mask.

A chuff of irritation from her. “You had the chance to come with me,” she chided, still aiming her gun at where he crouched behind a bank of controls. “I would have spoken for you.” Her voice held a note of caressing to it. “You can still join, you know. Be a part of something again. I know that’s important to you.

Of course you know that. You know me very well. But I never knew you at all. Chel’s crop tightened, and he peered around the console, getting a quick look at where she hovered in the cover of the doorway. “All I ever told them was that we had a stealth ship,” Dayielzha went on smoothly, persuasively. “When they asked, I said that it had a cloaking device. New tech. They believed me. I could have had them scouring the system for you and the supplies on that ship. I should have had them do that—after all, those supplies could mean life or death for my new companions. For me. But I didn’t.” She edged further around the corner, her weapon still raised. “You still mean something to me, Chelakh. You can join me here. The exiles are the largest, most organized group in this forsaken cesspit. You can be one of the strongest.

For a moment, yearning flooded him. The longing to hear voices like his own, not the nasal, flat voice of a hostile human. The almost visceral need to smell and touch and be among his own kind, after over two years of total solitude—so strong a need that it straddled the border between vi’ezhash and tei’aska, between an irresistible physical urge and a biological necessity. Part of him wanted to say yes. To be one-of-many again, embraced by her and her companions. Except they’re exiles and cannibals, his mind reminded him, sharply. None of them are one-of-many. They aren’t of the People. They don’t understand the concept. Or honor.

And then it hit him. She’s stalling for time, Chelakh realized. She’s waiting for the others to return from the other ship.

Without another word, he ducked around the console and fired, double-tap, at the center of her chest. Something clipped his helmet, and he numbly watched her arms and legs fly up as her body blew back from the impact, hitting the wall behind her. He pulled his boots free from the deckplating, feeling as if he were running in tar, and bounded to catch her limp body as it bounced off the wall towards him. Unlatching her helmet, he checked for vitals, finding a pulse, and noted that the darker gray-blue and white bands of her feminine scales looked dull, not glossy. Haven’t been eating well, in spite of the body parts left in the freezer, he noted distantly. That’s why they risked a raid.

He planted the gun between her eyes. Nerved himself. And pulled the trigger. This ghost, I won’t allow to haunt me, he thought, stripping her body of weapons and tools before calling over his shoulder, “Are the charges set?

In his inner turmoil, he’d forgotten to use English. Still, Saskia edged around the reactor core. “They’re set,” she affirmed. “Can we go?”

“Yes. No time left.”

Getting back to their ship proved difficult. The raiders had returned from the victim ship, called by Dayielzha, doubtless. Hand-to-hand combat and gunfire the whole way. To Chelakh’s surprised pleasure, the human female turned out to be much stronger than her short form suggested, easily throwing several opponents into bulkheads with enough force that bones made fragile by decades in zero-g shattered. “Homeworld has high-gravity?” he panted as they cycled the airlock, hearing bullets ping off the outer door.

“Yes. Earth has higher gravity than all of our colonies except Apollo,” Saskia huffed as the second door opened, and they launched themselves inside. Chelakh, at the controls, detached their mooring clamps, tapping the maneuvering jets lightly to send them tumbling away—propelled, too, by the atmosphere venting from the stricken ship.

Bodies cartwheeled out of the hull breach in their wake. A few impacted on the outer hull with enough force to snap limbs. Hopefully, they aren’t alive. They could grab onto handholds. Survive on the oxygen in their suits till they can find the airlock hatch. The asteroid’s surface, however, was highly irregular. Then again, oxygen only lasts so long. Will only have remain wary for a day or two.

Survival’s cold calculus had rarely been such a comfort.

He watched the numbers tick by as they moved away. And when they hit the right combination, Chelakh told Saskia, “Detonate.”

The human drifted closer in the cockpit. “You’re sure?”

“Give controller. Will do it.” He couldn’t help how harsh his voice sounded.

She shook her head, lifting the remote detonator. Pressed the correct combination of buttons, and they saw the brief flash of light on the screen as the raider ship, still receding, exploded, tearing itself and its victim vessel apart. No fire, of course, beyond that initial flash. But a weak blast-wave of ionized particles hit them, pushing them along, before larger chunks of debris hurtled their way. A few pieces impacted, but caused no damage to the sturdy outer hull.

Chelakh put his head down on the control board. “Any scavengers watching,” he said after a moment, “might be suspicious that the asteroid was pushed away before the explosion. But might attribute to…crew inside ship making repairs. Too little, too late.”

He heard a distinctive click beside him, and stiffened, his crest rising as he turned warily to see Saskia holding the gun he’d given her. She studied the weapon for a moment, and then slid its magazine out, showing him the empty casings there. “It’s funny,” she remarked. “I didn’t even have an urge to use this on you. Them, yes. All I needed to see was that they were Lacerta, and years of training came up. No problem. Point and click.”

The odd metaphors of her language remained a minefield for him, so Chelakh just nodded as if he did understand. Then she handed him the weapon. “I’m going to go stand at the airlock with the biggest wrench I can find, in case any of them are hanging onto the outside by their claws,” Saskia informed him briskly. “But once we’ve had a chance to breathe, and I’ve fixed the heater units properly… I think you owe me a few explanations.”

Five hours later, they both hunkered over unappetizing trays of their species’ respective nutrient requirements. However, they felt much warmer, and no longer had to fear that makeshift repairs might spark a fire.

Into a long silence, Saskia asked bluntly, “So. How’d she know your name?”

Chelakh exhaled. The reprieve had been too short. “Was crewmate when gate brought the ship here,” he explained, feeling his crest sag to his skull. “Was also mate.”

“She was your wife?” Saskia’s voice went up in pitch, almost a squeak.

“Only ones for each other,” he tried. An important distinction—for him, anyway. “The exiles, those who left the homeworld, and those whom the Empire…integrated…lived as our ancestors did. Female prides, all sisters and mothers. One or two males in their prime who were mates to all—even to own daughters, in time. Young males sent out into the world. Formed nomadic bands, troublemakers, war-parties. Might find a new pride, killing or displacing the elder males. Maybe accepted by the eldest females, maybe not. Among the Sei’azhi, one, maybe two mates at a time. Elder males still have a place, not just…killed for being not in prime.” He grimaced. “Become teachers, lend experience. Strength of mind valued, not just strength of body.” Chelakh exhaled.

Saskia let her empty ration pack float in the air, her brows crinkling. “So it’s even more painful that she’d betray you. And what you believe in. Because you were each other’s only mates,” she said, startling him with the insight. “That’s…pretty normal, from a human perspective.” A slight frown as she added, “Still, you shot her. Barely any hesitation. I couldn’t understand what you two said, but…that still must have been more difficult than I can imagine.”

It wasn’t, he thought emptily. Perhaps it should have been. Again, too hard to put it into her language, but he tried. “Wasn’t who…once was. Not Dayielzha. Not even one of the People. By choice. If not born to it,” Chel struggled to explain, “doesn’t matter. Can always chose to become, or not. But to step outside? Become what the exiles are?” He shook his head. At first he’d thought about his former mate’s betrayal every day. After two years, he’d mostly learned how to push the thoughts down. “Was already dead,” he finally summarized, the words tasting like ashes. “Body didn’t know enough to fall over. And yet,” he paused, ruminating, “Dayielzha said that…had never told the exiles about this ship. Had lied to them. To protect me.”

A pause. Saskia, with a glance from her disconcerting human eyes, asked mildly, “If I were in your shoes, that would make me feel guilty.” She hesitated. “Do you believe her?”

A hollow feeling emptied his soul. “Not sure,” Chel admitted. “Probably a lie. Probably wanted a place to fall back on, last-ditch refuge. Was good at espionage.” A deprecating gesture at himself. “Could listen to broadcasts and analyze data, but Dayielzha? Understood how to …” he couldn’t find the words, “make people do what was…advantageous?”

“She knew how to manipulate,” Saskia supplied, twiddling her lifted fingers. “Comes from older words meaning to control something by hand.”

“Good word,” Chelakh replied numbly, and then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if lie or not. Either way, is my burden to bear.”

A pause. “So, how’d she wind up going darkside?” Saskia asked, her voice gentler than he’d ever heard it.

The metaphor seemed clear enough, for once. “Scavenged a usable one-person fighter. Had good engineering skills. Said would go out, scout other ships, associations. Keep this ship safe, a base.” He bared his teeth, acid filling his crop. “Didn’t return. Sent a message on an encrypted channel.” Chelakh exhaled. “Said was…insane…not to accept that conditions had changed. Should adapt to them.”

Saskia looked up at that. “You said something similar to me, just hours ago.”

“Is different.” Chelakh had to cling to that. “One thing to adapt to new culture, laws. Here? Only law is that the strong kill and eat the weak. Same law that existed before the People rose up. Made new laws. Better ones.”

She cocked her head, almost mimicking his own habitual gesture. “I’m glad that you feel that way,” Saskia told him, her lips quirking at the corners faintly. Odd human expressions. “Otherwise, they’d be finding out if humans taste more like pork or like chicken right now.” A sigh’s worth of pause. “No more secrets,” Saskia added, wagging a slender finger at him. “You say that anyone who wants to be one of the Sei’azhi does it by…being loyal. Working together. Well, I didn’t shoot you. We need each other, and we’re working together. So…put me down for membership. Tentatively.” That, with a scowl in his direction.

He chuffed with amusement between his teeth. “Very well.” A pause. “Why?”

“Because I want a vote in what we, the crew of the Good Ship Unpronounceable do next, and since it’s a Sei’azhi ship, I guess I need to do things at least a little your way to be heard.” A slightly rude noise from between her lips.

Now genuinely amused, Chelakh bowed his head, raising both hands, palms up, as if honoring her request to speak before a gathering of citizen representatives. Though he knew that the non-verbal joke would be lost on her. “Then speak. Vote. Be heard.” A chuffing snort. “Be one-of-two with me, if not one-of-many.” No need to tell her that ‘one-of-two’ is another way of saying ‘mated pair,’ in my language. She wouldn’t get that joke, either.

A snort of her own, and then she took a deep breath. “Survival isn’t enough,” Saskia told him after a moment. “And god only knows if I can live on your food without giving myself dysentery—”

“What?” A head-tilt for the unfamiliar word.

“I’ll explain later.” A quick hushing gesture. “Basically, it boils down to this. There is no long-term here. Not unless you’re willing to become them.” She waved a hand at the raiders they’d left to die. “So there are really only a few options.”

“Won’t consider suicide yet. Is only an option when alternative is capture,” Chelakh informed her bluntly.

She rolled her eyes at him. “Not where I was going with this. Shush for a moment.” Another exhale. “Neither option I see seems particularly viable,” she admitted. “One, we take over one of those big colony ships. Somehow. And run their gang of not-so-merry pirates more, eh, like your Sei’azhi. With something at least resembling integrity.”

The thought had occurred to him many times, when he’d been unable to sleep, listening to the chirp of the sensors and feeling the ship lurch unevenly through the debris field. “Difficult. Only two, not many. And then have to sit on pirates. Always be on guard, always be stronger, louder, fiercer.” He shrugged. “Not impossible. Just…very unlikely.”

She nodded, her expression glum. “And the other option is escape.”

He shook his head. “That is impossible. System is at edge of galaxy. Hundreds of light-years from known stars. This ship? Limited fuel. Not built for speed, but for concealment. Would die before reaching even the next star-system.”

She shook her head now, her expression tightening. “I know that,” Saskia said, tonelessly. “Was thinking more of trying to get through the gate.”

“Other have tried,” Chelakh replied dubiously. “Have watched new survivors try to escape raider ships. Transmit standard radio code to gate. Doesn’t open. And the wormhole generated when ships are brought here only goes one direction. So trying to enter, while another ship is sent here…even if could be predicted!…not possible.”

Saskia coughed into her hand. “Ah, Chelakh? Your people are ahead of mine in ship building, weapons…pretty much every tech there is, you’re ahead of us, right?”

He nodded, puzzled. It was nothing more than truth.

“So why, after bombing the living crap out of Xian and Hadiqua, have you had such a hard time finding our homeworld? I mean, we can’t get through your cordons of ships to get at yours, or your larger colonies. But you’ve never launched an attack on our home solar system.” Saskia swallowed visibly, the muscles working in her throat.

“Imperial Command hasn’t been able to locate,” Chelakh admitted. “Was part of mission for this ship. Had isolated location to one of several star systems before arriving here.”

A frown settled onto her face. And with great difficulty, she said, “If I had a way that might get us out of here, would you, out of duty and obedience to your people, turn over what might be the location of my homeworld to them?”

Chelakh stared at her. Put that way, it did sound like an impasse. “Have a way out of here?” he asked bluntly.

“Maybe. We, ah…we’ve had some success in reprogramming the gates.” That was a mumble, as if it pained her to say the words out loud.

He felt his jaw go slack. “Impossible! The language of the Builders is beyond everyone!”

She managed a half-smile. “No. Your language is pretty impenetrable. You encrypt all your signals. And we didn’t have anything to compare it with. No touchstone. Our local nexus array, however, well…when our ships first approached it, it sent us a, ah, grammar lesson. Among other things.” She shrugged as his jaw slackened. “Still took some of the best minds and computers on Earth about twenty years to figure out even the little that we know. But we, er, scrambled the local map of gate points. And anyone who doesn’t transmit our recognition codes gets junk results, and, well…for all I know, they might get shunted here.”

“No other species has ever received this knowledge,” Chelakh said, stunned. “What makes humans so special?”

Saskia grinned suddenly. “We’re lovable.” At his growl, she laughed uneasily. “Honestly, we don’t know. Some of the big brains don’t think the information pack was left by the Builders. I, well, I don’t know why. It’s pretty hush-hush.” She grimaced. “Hasn’t stopped people from speculating wildly, though. Everything from an ancient species experimenting on our ancestors on down. Doesn’t matter. Only thing that does is that I might be able to gain access to the gate.”

“Why not say so before this?” Chelakh demanded.

“Because I didn’t know if I can trust you!” Saskia retorted impatiently. “Technically, you’re still an enemy. Technically, telling you this was high treason on my part. You’re the one who goes on and on about honor—you do the goddamned math!” She folded her arms over her chest, and added, tightly, “Tell me that if we did somehow get out of this, and we wound up in your patch of the galaxy, that your people wouldn’t torture me for what I know. And god only knows if what little I do know, will be enough to get us out of here. I studied it in school. I know enough to change the recognition codes for my ship. Everything else is just theory.”

He felt as if a hand had clutched his crop for two years, digging in its talons, and now, suddenly released his grip. Chelakh curled in on himself, panting to release the adrenal heat that welled up inside of him. “Chel?” Saskia’s voice intruded, as cautious as the hand she now settled on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

He managed a jerky nod. “Yes. Just…did not know that hope could be vi’ezhash.” I needed this, he thought, dizzy. And I did not know how much so. Perhaps not as strong a need as tei’aska—not as strong as the need for air and water…but oh, ancestors, to think that there might be a way out.

Chelakh raised his head. “Can’t make promises. Everything depends on where in the nexus of gates we emerge—if we emerge at all.” He looked around at the scavenged food and equipment that they’d gathered. Enough to last perhaps four, five years, if he husbanded every scrap. But not enough for her. “But…one-of-two now,” he told her. Mates or not, she’s…part of this ship now. Part of me. Working together, striving together. That’s what matters, for the moment. “Worth the risk. And we need to try. Otherwise…this is all there is.” A gesture at the scraps and fragments around them. Survival is acceptable. Living is better. And neither is really possible, here in the graveyard.

◊ ◊ ◊

Everything took time. The potato-shaped asteroid tumbled through the debris field, slowly drawing in towards the sleeping giant that was the nexus gate. Three more ships came through in the next six months—none of them in shapes or configurations that either of them recognized, mute testimony to the size of the galaxy, and how sprawling the nexus gates’ reach must be. All three ships fell prey to the hungry vermin of the graveyard. And there was nothing they could do about it.

Each time, Saskia recorded the gate’s transmissions. Used the data locked in her wrist-pad and in her own memory to try to translate the Builders’ code. “It may take landing on the structure and plugging into it manually,” she told Chelakh unhappily at one point.

“Dangerous. Gates have safeguards. Prevent debris from impacting. Variety of…self-moving?…repair machines.” He’d been working at making his voice sound like less of a parody of hers, much to her relief.

“Autonomous,” Saskia said, providing the word for him. “Um…zha’rezhey’ei’e. I think.”

“That. Yes.” He drifted closer. “Can plug in directly?”

“I can try to assemble an adapter. Again it’s all theoretical for me. But worth a try.” She glanced up at him. In the past six months, they’d come to speak a mish-mash of each others’ languages on a daily basis And she rarely thought of him as a Lacerta anymore. Or an enemy. He was just…Chel. Stubbornly honorable, yet consumed by the need for survival—and oddly capable of adopting a complete alien as a crewmate, even friend. The red and blue bands of subtly iridescent scales that bracketed his gleaming yellow eyes no longer looked alien. Probably just what he’d call my Stockholm Kool-Aid, she thought wryly, and then another thought sobered her. If I ever get back to humanity—which is the goal, right?—am I going to stop seeing him as Chel? Will I stop seeing him as a person, and go back to seeing him as an enemy?

Unease churned in her. She’d gone down to only one human meal a day and cautiously supplemented her diet from his Sei’azhi ration packs—with a couple of allergic reactions that had required the use of antihistamines, but not the adrenaline needle in the sole human first-aid kit they possessed. This had stretched out her foreseeable future, but the only way out remained getting through the gate and finding their way back to recognizable star systems. “Chel,” Saskia reminded him unsteadily, “There’s a chance that even if I do crack this, it could take months of trying to chart our way through one gate to another, to another. It could take years. It’s a big galaxy, and this rock of yours isn’t really designed for landing on a planet for supplies—”

Chel put his hands on her shoulders, in spite of the filthy coveralls she wore. “Both make it,” he told her simply. “Or neither will. One-of-two, together.”

She nodded, her head tipped down, exhaling. She recognized that implacable tone by now. And felt oddly grateful for it. A smile quirked the corner of her lips. “I found that phrase in the lexical database,” Saskia told him. “There’s a note saying that it’s a colloquial phrase for a married couple. Don’t you think you should ask me about that sort of thing?”

A pause, and then a chuffing sort of laugh from him. “Expect that screaming and fleeing out of airlock without envirosuit would follow,” he informed her lightly. “Have…what are your words?…Bad track record with mates of own people.”

Saskia snorted herself now. “Everyone has a crazy ex. Yours was just an extreme example.” She felt her lips quirk up further, and teased, “Besides. I think I’m more Sei’azhi than she was. Lack of scales notwithstanding.”

His hands tightened on her shoulders. “Yes. Are.”

Startled, she tried to turn and look at him. “Conversation for later,” Chel told her, gently. “First, task at hand.”

The next day, they simulated a crash with a large chunk of debris that ‘deflected’ them into the side of the giant gate. To all outside observers, the asteroid traveled so slowly that it failed to set off the gate’s collision-detection sensors, and found itself trammeled among the miles of ribbon-like material that formed the outer edge of the gate’s event-horizon aperture—but not close enough that a random opening of the gate would annihilate their ship. They were also highly careful not to touch the surface of the gate; that would trigger the autonomous repair systems to come and remove the debris touching it.

Saskia borrowed the only EVA frame the tiny ship had—last used when Chel and his mate had scavenged the small ship that she’d used to flee to the pirates. It had, therefore, limited fuel. Fortunately, she didn’t need much to float to one of the control panels on the massive structure. Have about forty-five minutes before the repair systems get here, she thought, sweat trickling down her face as she strung a connector cord between her wrist-pad and the control panel. The schematics buried deeply in her old notes had been accurate, to her relief; the adapter she’d built, worked.

She uploaded what she hoped were requests for a change of interface controls, and jetted her way, carefully, back to the airlock, with fifteen minutes to spare. Chel met her there, and hauled her in. “Repair bots moving this way,” he told her, his voice taut. “Also, several raider ships have pinged this ship with sensors. Movement out of debris field always attracts notice. May have had good enough resolution to detect life-signs.”

“The ship was between me and them,” Saskia replied just as tightly, taking off her helmet. “But the moment we move away to try to open the gate, they’ll see the movement and know it’s not odd orbital mechanics.”

They didn’t need to say it. Either this worked, or they’d suddenly become interesting, anomalous prey to be hunted down in the graveyard. Or, if I’ve set the codes incorrectly, we might go through the gate and be annihilated, Saskia added mentally, swallowing hard.

Chel tapped the maneuvering jets, pulling them back to a safer distance. And swallowing, Saskia punched in the codes and transmitted them to the gate.

A brilliant white light suffused the screen in front of them as the giant opened a mouth filled with fire. Saskia, floating behind Chel’s pilot seat, grabbed onto his shoulder, giddy with excitement and fear. “Now or never,” she said. “I set it for a short-duration window, so no one can follow us.”

“Then go now,” Chel replied, and moved them forward. The gate seemed to loom larger and larger on the screen, shining white light through the tiny cockpit. Saskia could feel the wobble in the pit of her stomach that she remembered from every other transit through the event horizon. Instantaneous duration, my ass, she thought distantly. If it’s so instantaneous, how can I always feel when it happens?

The white light disappeared from the screen, replaced by the distant chip of a yellow-white dwarf. Saskia whooped so loudly that her voice reverberated from the walls. “We’re not dead!” she shouted, jubilation flooding her. Chel launched himself from the pilot’s seat, caught her, and spun her around in mid-air, his crest fully extended.

It took them a moment or two to settle down again. Chel had his computer scan the star’s spectral lines, while Saskia sent the standard query to the gate…and received the standard reply: a map of the ten closest destinations in the nexus. “I wonder why you can’t just input your end destination, and go there directly,” she muttered.

“Tolls or safety. Don’t know. Would be convenient.” Chel made an annoyed hissing sound. “Computer doesn’t recognize this star. Hopefully, in home galaxy.”

Saskia winced. That was a bad thought, and one that made her stomach curl. “At least, if we aren’t,” she said quietly, “it’s a different problem, right?”

Chel caught her hand in his taloned one. “Yes,” he said, and as if with careful deliberation, added, emphasizing the pronoun, “and is one that we’ll face together.”

—«»-«»-«»—

The Bones of Olak-Koth

by Pierce Skinner

I

The current roared over the black clay of the plains of Shoorm, carrying with it the thick burnt scent of the volcanic wastes. Sunlight was scarce this close to the Verge, falling to the plain like a bloodfog.

Jaltha swam beside a litter of males, harnessed by barbed wuorn-tentacles hooked through their beaks’ dorsal ridges, their bellies scraping the plain. Ten had already died, since the caravan had set out from the kryndyr city of Chorgaan three days ago. It had happened yesterday when a strap on a handler’s yoke snapped, and the litter had been freed. The idiot creatures had immediately swum toward the sweet, seductive aroma of a grove of bloodsponges, the only things that survived the bleak lifelessness of Shoorm. The entire litter had been caught by the sanguivorous things, and only three had been able to be saved, though not unscarred.

Rilask, the caravan’s leader, had punished the clumsy handler, who was called Malune, by forcing her to take the place of the males in the litter that pulled the bladdercart loaded with heavy criggn shells.

It was Malune that had first noticed the callused scars upon Jaltha’s belly.

“What happened to your Mooring?” Malune had asked, rather abruptly last night. Typically, the caravan’s hired guards formed their own sleep circle around the males and the shells, while the traders and male-herds kept to theirs. Malune, however, being shunned from the latter, had found her way to the former. It was death, after all, to sleep alone on the plains of Shoorm.

Jaltha had been unsure of how to respond, for she was always careful to keep the past concealed beneath the kelp-leather harness that held her sheath.

“My mother wore such scars,” Malune had said, meeting Jaltha’s scalding glare, “The scars of one who has drawn a warclub from the sheath a thousand times. The only ones with such calluses are those that have lived long enough to become Chieftains, or have suffered the scathing halls of the monasteries.”

Jaltha had bitten off another strip of uilka skin.

“It would be strange to be here,” Malune had continued, “hired by an aging, desperate trader like Rilask to protect a few pearls’ worth of males and criggn shells, if there still were a Mooring to protect.”

Anger had flashed through Jaltha, and she’d known that the lightning brightness that surged through her would be visible in the darkness. Over the years, she had ground many a young salathe’s beak into the sand for such impertinence. The young, it seemed to Jaltha, always had a laughing lilt that accompanied their words like a persistent gamra fish. And yet, her anger faded almost immediately. In its place, something else rose, like a domefish from beneath the sands. Somewhere within her, near the swell, a voice stirred.

Can it be? it asked. Jaltha, the wanderer—

Jaltha grunted, silencing the voice within her.

“I am no chieftain,” she’d answered Malune, “I have no Mooring.”

Malune’s beak had clicked in the darkness.

“Then you are a Shaman,” she’d deduced, “Serving your Penance by traversing Shoorm. What god do you serve?”

Jaltha’s body had gone rigid. She stared through the darkness, the lifeheat pulsing through Malune the only way she was still visible in the utter night of Shoorm.

“No god,” Jaltha had said.

Malune had chittered irreverently, perhaps taking some joy in the discomfort she was causing the way that males seemed to cherish the chaos they caused when freed from their bindings. It was the way of the enslaved and the punished to find joy in the misery of others. And, yet, Jaltha looked upon this creature, the exiled daughter of a deposed chieftain, lashed now as a common slave, who laughed from within the darkness. Jaltha felt something stir within her. For so long, she had thrown herself into her own past, seeking that fulcrum, desperately hoping to find a single moment where things could have gone one way, but instead went the other. Here, now, she looked upon Malune and realized that such a quest had been futile. Here, in the dark and lifeless night of Shoorm, where so few things were brave or desperate enough to venture, was precisely where she belonged. The tangled tentacles of the Fates had led her here, she knew, and finding a discernible pattern within them was impossible. The feeling that welled within Jaltha as she stared at Malune’s lifeheat was a confusing blend of terror and freedom. Here, Jaltha knew. This is where she would always have been. For here, too, was Malune.

The voice stirred within her, as it was prone to do whenever she found herself too deep in reverie.

What is it about the darkness that brings out such things in fleshcreatures?

She hissed at the voice.

“Very well,” Malune had laughed, backing away, believing the hiss to be directed at her. “I’ll ask no more tonight.” She had laughed again, and then slept. Jaltha had watched her lifeheat cool as her breaths slowed, and before long Jaltha, too, had settled herself on the plain, focusing on the breaths passing through her gills, perfectly still but unable to sleep.

The following night had been the same. Only this time, Jaltha had not been so terse. The two had shared an uilka skin and Jaltha had listened to Malune tell stories of her old Mooring, which she had fled after her mother, the chieftain, had gone mad and nearly killed her. Jaltha nearly spoke, but stopped herself several times. Malune’s life was too eerily similar to her own, with only barely enough variations in her history to prove she was, indeed, a separate individual and not Jaltha’s own reflection, or an illusion produced by the cursed plain. Yet somehow, instead of the wrathful beast Jaltha had felt herself becoming over the past several seasons since Fate had razed her life to the sands, Malune looked upon the detritus of her life and laughed, as though the world were not a wild, carnivorous thing, but a clumsy creature causing only accidental mayhem in its blundering. It was this, perhaps, more than anything else that drew Jaltha to her. She did not say so, unsure of how she would be interpreted if she did, but remained silent and contented herself to listen until Malune’s voice was replaced by the soft roar of the currents, and both fell asleep upon the plain.

Morning had come with the ferocious barking of Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. Malune had been taken and strapped into a yoke beside the males that pulled the bladdercart. Jaltha had taken her position with the other twelve guards. The journey resumed.

Jaltha looked up from the litter of males to the bladdercart, the criggn shells rattling against the cheruon bones, the whole thing rocking on the air bladders onto which it was lashed as the currents picked up, lifting a thin haze of silt from the black clay. Malune struggled, thrashing her tail wildly with the males, desperately trying not to lose the cart. If she did, Jaltha would not put it past Rilask to have her killed. She swam toward the cart, drawing the attention of two other guards who followed her, struggling to steady the cart by pushing against it while Jaltha took up a barbed cord from a fallen male and helped tug the cart beside Malune.

Malune, breathless, her beak grinding, her gills flared as wide as they could, her whole body thrashing, managed to nod thanks at Jaltha. One of the other guards shouted over the rushing current, pressed her flank against the cart, stabilizing it.

“Twice have I been to Olm-Daki by this very route,” the guard cried, “and never have I seen such a storm!”

The guard beside her shouted in reply, “Let the kryndyr have trade with Olm-Daki! Let the damned crustaceans brave the black plain! This is no place for a salathe!”

It was strange, and they had all thought it so, that the Mooring of Olm-Daki should be so secluded. None knew the history of the Mooring, only that it had always been within the caves at the base of a dormant volcano beyond the plains of Shoorm, just west of the volcanic wastes, and that it only survived because the currents that swelled out of the abyss beyond the Verge scattered the volcanoes’ poisonous clouds north. The journey to Olm-Daki was one of several days across bleak emptiness, the only life the immortal bloodsponges that anchored themselves upon the stones and the fossils of ancient monsters that rose from the plain like jagged black teeth. The journey was, however, a worthwhile one for those salathes like Rilask brave or desperate enough to take it. The Mooring of Olm-Daki was, after all, carved from pure volcanic stone. The obsidian’s weight in pearls could make a trader wealthy enough to retire or, at the very least, as in Rilask’s case, pay off dangerous debts.

Jaltha pulled at the cart, every muscle taught and burning. Malune struggled beside her, their long, sinuous bodies slamming against one another as they thrashed against the screaming current. Jaltha was aware of male-herds shouting through the building gray cloud kicked up by the storm, and of guards and traders panicking, thrashing against the current.

“The plain doesn’t seem to be all that fond of us,” Malune managed to laugh between pained gasps.

A tearing pain tore through Jaltha’s body and she howled, though she kept her claws wrapped firmly around the barbed cord. She looked down. There, across her tail, a gash as long as her forearm, leaking a cloud of blood that blended with the gray mist before being carried away by the current. Beside her, Malune screamed. Jaltha turned her head and saw a similar wound open across Malune’s back, just below her gillmound.

Then, all around them, screams of pain and clouds of blood. Jaltha saw the two guards beside the cart abandon their efforts, fleeing into the storm, vanishing in the haze, desperately trying to escape the sideways hail of wounds that the plain was throwing against them.

Malune screamed once more. Jaltha released the cart.

“No!” Malune bellowed as another wound widened across her bare shoulders, where the yoke was lashed to her. Jaltha unsheathed her warclub as the cart toppled in the gale, the leather lashings coming undone as the invisible daggers slashed them into tatters. The air bladders ruptured, great silver bubbles gushing out of them. The cart’s detritus tugged Malune back with it, the yoke strangling her. Jaltha brought her obsidian-spiked warclub down on the yoke, shattering it, freeing her friend. The males were gone, pulled backwards into the blinding haze of silt and blood. Jaltha pulled Malune down with her, pinning her to the plain by pressing her left arm across her gillmound. More pain came, more wounds opened across her back, and the silt clogged her gills. All around, the sounds of screams, thinned and muffled by the current. Jaltha threw her gaze in every direction, but could see nothing but gray…

Then, a flash of silver…and another…like brief daggers of moonlight slashing through the world…

“Razorfish!” Jaltha screamed. A great swarm of them.

Pain lanced into Jaltha’s left arm, just below her elbow. She looked down and saw a razorfish, its small, dagger-shaped body lodged in her flesh, her blood clouding its black eyes…but then, no…its eyes were not black, for it had no eyes…nor scales, nor flesh…only bones…

She panicked and released her hold on Malune, flailing to be free of the thing. As she turned, her fins caught the current. Jaltha tumbled through the haze, screaming Malune’s name into the storm.

II

When Jaltha woke, she was alone. Her body had come to rest only a few tail-lengths away from the Verge itself, beyond which there was only eternal night. Only a few more moments, or a slight shift in the current, and she would have awoken to the crushing death and utter blackness of the abyss. She flexed her muscles, felt the wounds from the razorfish throb. Her bones and muscles ached, but none of the injuries seemed particularly life-threatening. Her left arm hurt the worst, and she suspected that the razorfish had struck bone before becoming dislodged. Her first full thought was that she was, indeed, alive.

Her second thought was Malune.

Rilask, Jaltha knew, had plotted their path a full thirty miles north of the volcanic wastes, slightly closer to the Verge than was typical for treks across Shoorm due to recent rumors of increased volcanic activity. Still, their caravan never skirted closer than ten miles from the Verge. Tales abounded of the ancient strangeness that lurked near the abyss. None in Rilask’s employ would have permitted her to push them any nearer to it.

And yet, here the storm had left Jaltha, at the very mouth of it, a day’s journey at the least from their course, where the storm had struck. She looked around, hoping to see a scrap of debris or, miraculously, another salathe from the caravan, even a voiceless male, anything that would mean she was not utterly alone, here.

She found it. A shard of cheruon bone, stark white upon the black plain. She swam to it, lifted it, sniffed it with her gills…traces of the nall-leaf oil used to strengthen it…the scent of the males lashed to it…the sharpness of salathe blood…

Jaltha dropped the bone, sensing something drawing near, from behind her. She spun, flaring the spines from her elbows and around her gillmound.

There, only three tail-lengths away, floating through the thinning gray haze leftover from the storm, was a creature Jaltha had never seen, though she knew it well from the sleep-circle tales of her fellow guards. A grogglin, it was called. Its body was as wide as Jaltha’s was long, a massive, quivering white sphere from the sides of which jutted long bones that stretched translucent, veined flesh into torn, tattered triangles. Its jawless mouth was a permanent circle lined with a thousand teeth, each as long as Jaltha’s arm from shoulder to wrist. The teeth were set into muscled organs that each flexed and relaxed on their own accord, so that its mouth was ever in motion, the teeth rippling within like the tentacles of an anemone. The eyes set into the sides of its loathsome girth were nearly as large and hideous as its mouth, the milky darkness behind them soulless and ever-hungry. The tales the guards told claimed that the grogglins lived in the abyss, and only ventured out of it when they were near death from starvation, driven mad by hunger.

She reached for her warclub only to find her sheath empty. The voice from the aether sang through her mind.

Now may be a fine time to bring me forth.

“No,” Jaltha hissed. The grogglin was still drifting lazily, as though it had not seen her. She knew better. If the stories of the guards were true, the monster was incredibly fast. When it decided to strike, Jaltha would be rent to pieces by the autonomous teeth before she’d be able to scream…

Call me! The voice insisted.

“Silence,” Jaltha murmured. She remained perfectly still, hanging in the water. The grogglin’s pulsing white mass drifted nearer, following the Verge, one of its fins hanging over the black sand, the other jutting out over the abyss. She watched its tail fin ripple gently, almost hypnotically…the muscle at its base throbbing softly beneath its pulpy flesh…

Damn you! If you die, do you know how long I’d have to wait for someone to—

Jaltha leapt sideways, toward the abyss, spitting forth a black cloud of fearspores. The venomous cloud trailed her, and it was through this that the ferocious maw of the grogglin darted, its speed incongruous with its bloated, ugly form. The monster brought itself to a halt, thrashing its ugly spheroid body, trying to expel the toxin from its gills. Jaltha took the opportunity. She fled, swimming straight out over the abyss, following the Verge, taking care not to look down at the infinite nothing below her and the horrors it held…

Something slammed into her left shoulder with the speed and force of a god’s fist. She screamed. Her body went rigid as her vision went white with fear and pain. She fell…

Her vision cleared and she saw above her the grogglin, descending toward her, the Great Wall of the verge rushing past her, retreating toward the light as the world was swallowed by darkness.

You’re going to godsdamn die, here, Jaltha.

Jaltha felt the pressure building as the light retreated, the grip of the angry, ancient dark tightening around her. The last of the light formed a ring around the grogglin, a macabre eclipse as the monster’s maw reached her, and she felt the heat from its flesh, felt its teeth dance across her skin, almost gently, like the touch of a lover…

“Malune,” she thought she said.

Pure blackness, then. No light.

III

Jaltha’s eyes opened as quickly as she could force them. Her vision was blurred. There was soreness in her wrists, in her tail and across her back. She looked down at her hands…

Below her webbed claws, two holes had been punched through her wrist, between her bones, leaking wisps of blood. Below the wounds were shackles attached to thick chains of kryndyr steel. Her tail was similarly bound. She followed the chains to hooks set into the the wall behind her. The wall was a strange, porous stone, and pure black. There was a wide, circular opening in the wall not far from her beyond which was thick darkness and the sound of groans. The sound of torture. The mouth of the cave was only two or three tail-lengths away. Beyond it, she could see the last remnants of day sift down through the world like offal.

Jaltha swam backwards, pressing her aching body against the wall. How she had come to be here, when her last memory was of the grogglin’s devouring maw, she had no idea…perhaps, she reasoned, this was the afterlife…

Don’t be foolish, the voice from the aether trilled, You are still very much alive.

She tried to speak, but pain and exhaustion had weakened her to the point of muteness. The aether knew her thoughts, however, and answered them accordingly.

The grogglin brought you here, it said. Some sort of cave network, set into the wall of the Verge. The aether paused. Jaltha could feel it withholding something. She closed her eyes and focused, directing her thoughts to the aether.

What? Speak, damned thing!

The voice seemed to sigh.

When we arrived, Rilask was already here.

Jaltha’s eyes opened.

It was Rilask that bound you, so. It was she that put you in chains.

Jaltha’s mind raced. What the voice claimed made little sense to her. Still, it meant that Rilask was alive, at least—

No, the voice said, She isn’t.

What? Jaltha asked. You said—

Jaltha, this is very, very bad, the voice interrupted. The grogglin venom in your blood has slowed you. I…I do not think you can summon me…your mind is too weak to call me forth…

Another voice cut through the aether. It spoke aloud, not in her mind.

“You have a touch of magic in you, Strange One,” it said.

Jaltha turned to see two figures swim through the wide circular opening to her left. Salathe females, both of them. In the darkness, she could barely see them but for their lifeheat. They swam over to her, their tails wafting lazily in perfect unison, until they came to a stop midway between Jaltha and the mouth of the cave.

There, by the soft almost-light beyond the mouth, she could see her captors. The one nearest to her was an Eldress. Her hide was thick with pus-colored calluses, her beak nearly white with age. She wore the kasp-leaf robe of a Shaman, but somehow Jaltha knew this was no mere God-Speaker. There was a sinisterness to her, an unmistakable aura the color and viscosity of venom. Beside her, there was Rilask.

“Rilask!” Jaltha coughed, snapping the chains taught as she strained against them, “Rilask! What is this? Release me, now!”

Rilask did not respond, did not move at all except to wave her tail to remain in place. Jaltha shook her head, unbelieving.

“Rilask!” Jaltha barked. Rilask did not move. Razorfish wounds, hundreds of them, crisscrossed the trader’s body from the top of her skull to the tip of her tail. One of her eyes had been ruptured, its milky remains drifting out of the socket like a wuorn-tentacle.

Rilask, Jaltha knew, was dead. The Old One clicked her beak and swam closer to Jaltha until her beak nearly touched Jaltha’s own. The clouded eyes bored into Jaltha, played across her.

“But it is not a magic I know,” the Old One whispered, “and I know many. Still, it has touched you. As such, I have decided to keep you near.”

Something stirred in the darkness behind the Old One, and Jaltha shook as she beheld it…the grogglin, swimming lazily past the mouth of the cave. For the first time, Jaltha noticed the enormous black gash in its side, behind its eye. A great chunk of flesh was missing from the animal, its translucent bones and milk-colored organs bloodless and decayed. The grogglin, she realized, was dead. It was dead, and yet it moved, serving the will of the Old One. Jaltha’s mind trudged through her memory until she found the razorfish buried in her elbow…its eyeless head, its near fleshless body…

“You…” Jaltha croaked, “you are a necromancer…”

The Old One chittered, flared the spines around her gillmound. “The dead are often more willing servants than the living,” she shrugged, and chittered again. “The living require either pain or reward. The dead ask only to live. Once that price is paid, they will do whatever is asked of them.”

Jaltha quivered, straining against the chains.. It was useless. The toxin reduced her body and mind to mere caricatures of themselves…crude illuminations…

“I am called Olak-Koth,” the necromancer declared. “And you are called Jaltha, once chieftain of the Olmregmai.”

Jaltha edged away, her back colliding with the wall. Olak-Koth continued.

“I have seen your mind, as I see all of my prey. It is rare, but it does sometimes happen that one of the living may be worth more to me alive than dead.” She extended a bony claw towards Jaltha. “I believe you to be one of those.”

Jaltha, I kept her from what I could, the voice said. It sounded frightened. Her magic is strong, though. She knows I’m here—

The necromancer’s eyes twitched, her beak jerked upward, her gillmound quivered. Her eyes rolled and the protective white membranes flicked over them sporadically.

“I…can feel it…your mind, reaching out and touching it…near…it is very near…” the necromancer lowered her head, composed herself, ground her mandibles together before continuing. “What magic is it, Strange One, that speaks to you? That guards your mind from probing claws? What darkness is it you carry within you? Answer, fool! For it is this, alone, that has saved you from the fate your friends now suffer!”

Jaltha heard the groans of pain once more, echoing out of the cavern behind her…

“Malune!” Jaltha cried.

She pulled hard at the chains, throwing her tired weight against them, felt them bite into her flesh, felt them draw blood, but the kryndyr smiths were stronger than she, and the grogglin venom made her dizzy and filled her vision with tiny blinding suns. After a moment, she became still once more, drifting limply to the cave floor.

Olak-Koth swam nearer to her, looked down upon Jaltha. “Once,” the necromancer croaked, “you had a Mooring. Power. This, I have seen, and I needn’t have looked within your mind to see it. You were feared. Adored. Some felt that hate which is reserved only for gods and chieftains. And now, behold! Ruled by a fear strong enough to force you into the service of a fool trader,” her claw jabbed backward toward Rilask, still hovering in the water, staring ahead, seeing nothing.

“Though, somewhere along your path, magic touched you. You know its name. It speaks to you, protects you. It is ancient. Strong…” The necromancer’s voice trailed off. Her eyes rolled over white. Jaltha felt something like a breath of cold, putrid current across her thoughts. Within her, the voice roared like a guardian beast. Olak-Koth’s eyes opened and she shook her head, flared her gillspines, clicked her beak. She grasped Jaltha’s beak in her claws and stared into her eyes.

“Do you not crave what you have lost? Do you not crave that power?”

Jaltha tried to open her beak, but Olak-Koth’s grip was too strong.

“I can give you that power, Strange One. I can give you a world that fears you.”

Jaltha! The voice screamed through her, making her body go rigid, Jaltha, I know! I have seen it, what she plans!

Jaltha shook her head free of the necromancer’s grasp.

“I have seen enough of magic and those enslaved to it,” she spat, clicking her beak in disgust. “Do what you will with me.”

Jaltha, what are you doing—

“Silence!” Jaltha screamed. The tiny suns burst, leaked blindness through the world. She shook her head, which only made things worse. She shut her eyes and breathed. Above her, she heard the necromancer’s voice.

“So be it, wretch,” said Olak-Koth. “What comes next will shake the very foundations of the world. If you will not surrender your magic to me, your blood will suffice.”

Jaltha… the voice strained to be heard, but was drowned out by the grogglin venom, the pain in her broken shoulder, the gashes in her flesh…

Jaltha…

The grogglin’s venom seized her, then, having had its time to settle within her. Her body spasmed once, and then was still, as if molten iron had been poured into her bones. She could not move, could scarcely breathe as she settled on the cave floor like a cheruon bone. The blindness faded, though her gaze was as fixed as her bones. All she could see was the mouth of the cave beyond the shadows of the necromancer and her revelation slave.

She heard Olak-Koth say to Rilask’s living corpse. “Take her to the others.”

IV

Rilask’s strength was otherworldly as she dragged Jaltha’s paralyzed body through the dark corridor toward the sounds of torment.

They entered an immense cylindrical chamber, lit by ancient bubbling kryndyr flames set into sconces in the walls. The walls were rounded, following the curve of lengths of strange stone, almost like the ribs of some giant beast. As Rilask swam through the chamber, Jaltha’s unmoving eyes beheld the horrors within.

There, upon the curved, rib-like stones, were the members of her caravan…Gaka, the second in command…Dejeme the male-herd…Kalmara the navigator…all writhing, screaming, their eyes wide portals that opened onto worlds of agony. Gouts of black fearspores erupted from the vents below their beaks, instinctual, animal reactions to fear and anguish.

They were all bound to bloodpsonges. The vampiric things lined the rib-like stones, clustered upon it, and the salathes hissed and died slowly, slowly, as their life was drained from them…

Malune!

Rilask shifted Jaltha in her claws just as they passed the bound, quivering form of Malune. Her arms were stretched out, her tail torn, broken. Malune’s life was reduced to a weak light behind her eyes that dimmed as it was pulled into the bloodsponge on which she was bound.

Rilask turned and swam toward the wall, toward an empty bloodsponge further up, directly above Malune. Rilask spoke, then, though not with her own voice, but with the rasping hiss of Olak-Koth. “I have seen your affection for this one,” the revenant chittered, “You may watch her die.”

Rilask turned Jaltha’s body so that she stared into her dead, eyeless skull. Though Jaltha knew what was happening, the truth of it was still a distant thing. Buried beneath confusion and pain and the harsh magic that held her limbs, there was the voice, crying out to her through the void.

Jaltha…Jaltha…

Pain like sunfire burned across her back, down her tail, from her wrists down her arms, through her veins and everywhere, everywhere at once. She gasped, flaring out her gills, and tried to move. She felt the mind-numbing toxins of the sponge’s million mouths as they hooked in and sucked at her flesh, draining her slowly…slowly…

She screamed. Olak-Koth laughed loudly through Rilask’s beak. A cacophony of screams, of terror and blinding, pulsing agony, the laughter of the necromancer…the scent of the blood-infused sponges…Malune just inches below her, helpless, all of them…all of them doomed…all of this blended, melded at once into something pure and solid and white, the way a pearl is made of a million broken stones…

Jaltha! The voice screamed. She could hear it, now. She could focus. Rilask’s corpse swam away, back toward the entrance to the chamber of horrors.

I cannot heal you if you cannot summon me, the voice said, The grogglin venom will soon be overtaken by the bloodsponge’s own toxin. It will numb your mind as well as your body.

The voice paused for a moment.

Jaltha, it said, I am afraid.

All around her, the screams fused together into a deafening silence, and then there were only the sounds of her own blood and the voices within it.

What…what is happening?

The voice answered, When she entered your mind, I was able to enter hers, but only briefly. I have seen what she is, what she plans.

Jaltha was able to move her eyes again. She strained against the bloodsponge’s suction, but the combined venom of the undead grogglin and the sponge itself took the strain and turned it into a tearing nausea that threw acidic vomit out of her beak and caused her bowels to rupture. She moaned low and was still, casting her eyes about the vast fire-lit chamber, the twisted bodies, the blood leaking from the gluttonous things upon which they were dying.

This is not a cave, the voice continued. It is a massive skeleton, the fossilized remains of a gargantuan beast from your world’s prehistory, a kind of predatory serpent. By my estimates, the skeleton is nearly three hundred tail-lengths long. It has been hidden here, beneath the sediment, set into the wall of the Verge for eons. Olak-Koth had found the monster years ago, and sought a way to bring it forth from death.

Jaltha’s eyes were torn reluctantly down, to Malune, whose eyes were closed behind white membranes. Jaltha closed her own.

She practiced her death-magic here, within the skeleton, until she found a way to bring life to the dead by use of bloodsponges, transferring life from a living thing to a corpse with the vampires as the medium. Here, she waited, capturing stray travelers across the plain until our caravan came, and she drove the storm of razorfish to scatter us toward her.

The voice threw visions of the past upon the surface of Jaltha’s mind…visions of the past…Olak-Koth, once a revered Shaman of Olm-Daki, draped in silken leaves and pearl and obsidian jewelry…a black dagger in her claws…imprisonment…banishment…years wandering the black plain…the yawning maw of the predatory beast, trapped within the stone, its ancient, empty eye socket like a cave within the Verge…

With these lives, the voice said, with this blood, the beast is soon to rise from its tomb. Guided by Olak-Koth’s terrific will, it will be a siege engine with which she will visit her vengeance upon Olm-Daki. At the end of it, she will have more slaves. More lives. Enough to fill the bloodsponges set within the ribs of a hundred more fossils…enough to raise an army of the prehistoric dead…

She saw it then, painted upon her mind, twisting and fading and reforming with the surges of bloodsponge venom…Olak-Koth’s vision for the future…all of the Moorings of the salathes and the cities of the crustacean kryndyr razed, all of Dheregu United beneath the skeletal claws of an undying Empress of Death and her army of blood-stained bones…

Why do you show me this? Jaltha thought. She could almost hear the screams again, could feel the burning, gnashing pain of the bloodsponge’s mouths start to numb into a soft, almost pleasant sensation. If I am doomed to die, what does it matter to me the fate of a world none can save?

The voice answered, We can stop this. We alone, perhaps, can end this before it begins.

Jaltha opened her eyes, looked down at her weakened corpse. The color was already almost gone from the flesh of her tail.

You said…I could not summon you…that my mind…was too weak…that it was impossible…

It is, the voice said, and Jaltha felt it tremble. But you must try.

Jaltha’s gaze drifted past her tail, past the monster upon which she was splayed…to Malune. The only creature toward which she’d felt drawn since her Mooring was slaughtered, since she had inherited Nakaroth from the mad fiend Kalzahj, since she had been broken and scattered to the wild currents of Dheregu. In Malune, she felt the pull, the almighty command she had once felt in the gods she had abandoned, and she knew not why, only that she must obey it. In this, for the first time in a hundred seasons, she felt the mighty cry of purpose.

Focus, Jaltha! You must try!

The walls shook, suddenly, and would not stop. The great ribs of the creature to which the hapless salathes were bound trembled, dislodging themselves from the stone in which they were entombed…

It is beginning…the voice said.

The screams were drowned out by the thunderous crack of stone, and a booming, echoing voice roared through it all, the voice of Olak-Koth, speaking empowered words no living tongue save hers could form as the mighty, long-dead beast shook itself free from the cliff-face, alive once more, fed by the blood of a hundred salathes and the will of the necromancer in its eye…

A stone struck Jaltha as it fell, and the last thing she saw was the darkness of the abyss opening below her, a mountain’s worth of stone pulled free from the Verge by the living bones of the great serpent, sent tumbling into the eternal night.

V

It was a noxious heat that shook Jaltha awake. For a long moment, her venom-slowed mind forgot where she was. She looked around in confusion and tried to move. Then, she remembered.

The sunlight fell down through the world in gray, muddied torrents of light. All around her, the bloodsponge-lined ribs of the great prehistoric monster rippled and swayed as the skeleton swam forth. The light was stronger, here, not far from the worldbreak. She looked down. Malune had stopped moving, stopped screaming, as had most of them. Her eyes were closed. It was likely, Jaltha knew, that she was dead. The thought couldn’t penetrate her slow, clogged thoughts deeply enough to elicit pain. For that, she felt a small amount of gratitude.

Below Malune, a league or more below them all, there lay the wide, burning landscape of the volcanic wastes. The heat of it, even at this distance, had been strong enough to tear Jaltha from the grip of the bloodsponge toxin.

She is taking the beast over the volcanoes, the voice said, She hopes to reach Olm-Daki by nightfall.

She hissed as she felt another wave of nausea roar through her.

You must focus, Jaltha.

She vomited again, though there was little left in her but bile. She surveyed her body. Almost a translucent white against the bloodsponge, she swore she could see her very soul as it left her, fled into the bones of the reborn titan.

Jaltha…

She closed her eyes. The venom swirled beneath her membranes, a visible thing, a swarm of gray tendrils. She forced herself beyond that, deeper into the darkness, toward the core of it, where the voice lived…

Nearly, Jaltha…nearly…

She heard the humming song, the high-pitched trill that rang outward from the aether…

Bring me forth!

…and she saw before her the visions of Olak-Koth, a world of a million corpses, though even this moved her only slightly. Pain was the wide world’s blind author, and it mattered little to Jaltha who it selected as its scribe, be it Olak-Koth or some other fiend. But, there, in that vision of a million bloodless corpses, she saw only one.

The rage built, and the high, humming song burst into the world around her, outside her mind, and she felt the burning in her arms and chest, the painful toll the summoning took from her now a small, insignificant thing.

Her mind bellowed, full and deep into the aether, I call thee forth, Nakaroth, Blade of the Void!

Her eyes shot open to see the air in front of her left hand shiver and fracture into alien geometries. In the midst of this, a widening point of darkness appeared, the high shrill screech of reality suddenly deafening. Then, the point erupted into a thick, black triangle of serrated steel, the blade of Nakaroth. The hilt sprung from the blade into Jaltha’s webbed claws, which she closed around it. The song became silence.

Instantly, she felt the sword’s power course through her, replacing in moments what the bloodsponge had taken hours to steal. She roared, and in one mighty forward motion, tore herself from the bloodsponge’s thousand hooked mouths. Her blood trailed from the wounds, but she felt no pain, only rage and a ferocious swell of might borrowed from the timeless aether. She spun in the water and slashed at the bloodsponge. The thick black sword passed through it easily, lodging itself in the thick, stone-like rib beneath it. The wounded sponge and the enchanted bone released great scarlet clouds of her own blood, and the wounded resurrection quivered in pain and surprise from the attack.

She knows, the sword said. Hurry!

Jaltha darted down to Malune’s sponge, burying her claws into it to stay with the monstrous skeleton as it moved. Jaltha pressed the flat edge of the blade against Malune’s chest, and a dozen yellow runes glowed upon it. Malune’s eyes shot open and her gills flared. She looked about her, struggled against the bloodsponge’s grip.

“Be still,” Jaltha said, drawing back the sword.

Malune watched in horror as Jaltha brought the sword down. The blade bit deep into the bloodsponge, missing Malune’s tail by a fangwidth. The vampiric thing shuddered in panic, and Jaltha relished in knowing that, had the creature a mouth, it would have screamed. It released Malune in a thick cloud of her own blood.

Jaltha took Malune in her arms and swam away from the skeleton, struggling against the pull of it as it passed them. They looked at one another. Malune was still weak though even with the tiny amount of power granted her by Nakaroth she found herself able to swim on her own. She pushed away from Jaltha, suddenly terrified of the salathe in front of her, wielding a great black blade, surrounded by an aura the color of a dying sun.

“Malune…”

“J…Jaltha? What…what’s happened?”

“Can you swim?”

“I…I can.”

“Then swim south. There is an abandoned kryndyr outpost near the Verge, according to Rilask’s maps, at the southern tip of the wastes. There should be supplies there which will permit you to return to Chorgaan.”

“What…what’s happening? What was that creature…?”

Jaltha’s gillspines flared in anger. “Go!” She screamed. Malune backed away.

“What…what about the others?”

Jaltha’s gaze remained fixed on the living fossil as she said, “I will do what I can. For many of them, I fear it is too late.” Jaltha swam forward, past Malune.

“Why did…you save me, then?” Malune asked.

In reply, Jaltha barked, “To the outpost!” She stopped for only a moment, turned, and said, “If I live, I will meet you there.” Then, she was gone. Malune was behind her. Olak-Koth and her beast lay ahead.

VI

The power that surged outward from the sword propelled her through the water at an incredible speed. She caught up with the fossilized tail of the undead titan within moments. The pull of the beast’s mass through the water caught her, further accelerating her progress. She darted beneath its tremendous vertebrae, each one as wide as a grogglin and twice as long. The creature’s size dwarfed even the largest of the white cheruons, who themselves could reach a size of over two hundred tail-lengths. If Olak-Koth succeeded in raising an army of such things, Jaltha found it hard to believe that anything would be able to stop her from claiming all of Dheregu as her own.

She entered the cavernous ribcage by darting between two mammoth ribs. All around her, the dead and the dying…the reek of excrement and fearspores and blood. The serpent’s bones, she thought, carried the scent of war within its belly.

She swam over to the nearest of the tortured captives, a young caravan guard named Taati. She could smell the death rising off of her, could see it in the empty, open eyes. She took a long breath in through her gills, then drove Nakaroth through the corpse, into the sponge. Blood gushed forth. The monster shuddered. The thick blade severed the corpse in two, and the top half fell away to the hissing wastes.

Something is coming, Nakaroth said.

Jaltha ignored the sword and swam the seven or so tail-lengths to the next rib, to the hapless creature bound upon it. This one, too, was dead. She did not know her name. Without ceremony, she plunged the sword in. Blood rushed out.

Biting, slashing pain lanced into her side. Jaltha roared and spun. Buried in her tail up to its dead, empty eye sockets…a razorfish. She tore it out and crushed its bones in her fist, its bladed nose biting blood from her palm. She discarded the broken thing and looked up. Pouring out from the porous skull three hundred tail-length’s ahead was a swarm of razorfish as thick and full as the gouts of blood pouring from the ruptured sponges. The swarm moved as a solid entity, rushing across the skeleton toward her, an angry, bladed cloud.

Hurry!

Jaltha darted upwards following the wall of curved black bone until she came to the next bloodsponge. This one held Gaka, Rilask’s second in command. She was alive. Her eyes flickered open as Jaltha dug her claws into the sponge behind her head.

“You…one of…the guards…” Gaka rasped.

“Be still,” Jaltha commanded, and lifted the sword—

A razorfish tore a hole through the webbing below her right arm. She hissed as another slammed into the blade of Nakaroth, shattering itself upon impact with the magical steel. The swarm was upon her.

The living daggers encircled her in a cyclone. She lashed out with Nakaroth, swinging the blade in wide, mighty arcs, crushing dozens of them at a time. Still, they were able to attack, stabbing at her from all directions. They were too many.

The aura! Nakaroth cried, Use the aura!

Jaltha bellowed in protest, “No! I am too weak already!” A wound opened below her jaw. She swung her sword wildly, tearing holes in the wall of the cyclone that immediately healed itself as more and more of the necromancer’s minions poured forth from the titan’s skull.

Jaltha, you must—

“It will drain too much of us both!” Jaltha screamed over the roaring swarm, “It was you that said it’s meant only to be used as a last resort!”

Another dagger in her tail fin, then another near her spine, and another in her elbow…

Precisely! The sword countered.

Wounds opened like polyps across her back and shoulders…

She closed her eyes and hissed at the sword, “Very well! Do what you must!”

The sword’s mind bored into her own, pulled a portion of her soul into itself…

A great jagged sphere of yellow light burned the world around her body into a bubbling roar. She felt it tear at her soul, feeding off of it. Her arms threw out to their sides of their own accord. The destroying aura expanded outward from her, swallowing the razorfish, dissolving the swarm in a matter of seconds. When it was over, Jaltha hung in the water in a cloud of dust that was all that remained of the razorfish, pulled forward only by the mass of the great skeleton-beast as it glided forth.

She turned her head slowly as her strength returned. There was Gaka, still bound upon the bloodsponge. The aura had burnt Gaka’s chest and arms, and singed the bloodsponge itself. Gaka, however, still lived. Her eyes were fixed upon the great triangle of steel in Jaltha’s left hand.

“What…what are you…?” She whimpered.

Jaltha felt the sword’s diminished healing power slough through her, slowly sealing the wounds inflicted by the swarm. She stabbed the bloodsponge, releasing Gaka.

Gaka listened numbly to Jaltha’s commands, to the directions to the abandoned kryndyr outpost. Without a word, stricken dumb by pain and terror, she swam away.

“Wretched thing! Infidel!” The great, trembling voice of Olak-Koth filled the world, echoing out from the titan’s very bones.

Jaltha turned, then, and saw the corpse of Rilask leap out of the titan’s skull and turn, wielding a spear of fossilized bone, rushing down the winding length of ribcage through the scarlet fog of blood Jaltha had loosed from the vampiric sponges. Jaltha thrashed her tail and rushed forth, toward her enemy…

Their weapons collided like a clap of thunder, sending each of their wielders tumbling through the water. They each gathered their bearings, and struck again. Jaltha ducked beneath a supernaturally powerful thrust of the thick spear. The weapon passed over her gillmound and Jaltha swept upward with Nakaroth, slashing her enemy open from its abdomen to its throat. White milky tendrils of intestine burst forth from the wound.

The revenant lunged, dragging its bloodless entrails behind it. Jaltha, still slowed from the use of the aura, moaned in despair as she labored to lift Nakaroth to block the attack. She was too slow. The spear punched into her left side, slipped between her ribs. She screamed and grasped the bone spear’s wide shaft, brought the sword down upon it, slicing it in half. The revenant’s lonely eye flickered in anger as it looked down at its broken weapon. With the spearpoint still inside her, grinding against her ribs, Jaltha roared, flashing Nakaroth outward, severing the corpse’s head from its eviscerated body. The head fell away beneath and behind Jaltha, drifting down to the burning wastes a league below.

Jaltha looked down at the wound. If she pulled the spear out, she would only bleed out faster. Nakaroth would clot the bleeding for now, but could do little to save her from the death the wound would bring. The blade would have to return to the aether to replenish the power spent on the aura, and in that time, she would die.

She looked around at the hundred or so more bloodsponges left to be severed, at the corspes of the salathes that she could not save, and felt her grip on life loosen further. There was no way to stop the serpent. Even crossing the distance to the skull, to kill Olak-Koth and break the spell, would take more of her lifeforce than likely remained. She looked down, where Rilask’s headless corpse had fallen. She blinked, realizing something. She looked up, at the spine…

Yes, Nakaroth said. Do it.

Jaltha swam for the vertebrae.

Before you die, the sword said, send me back into the aether. I would rather wait there for another to summon me someday than perish utterly in the fires below.

Jaltha silently agreed. She was nearly there…nearly there…if she could sever the spine, interrupt the flow of blood through the bones, perhaps it would slay the beast just as it had slain Rilask.

She lifted the sword, thrashed her tail…almost…almost…

A screech behind her. She turned.

Olak-Koth, wreathed in a black aura that boiled the world around her, tore through the water, her claws bared and full of gnashing magic…

“Infidel!” She howled.

Jaltha tried to raise Nakaroth, but the sword was too heavy, emptied of power. She tightened her grip and prepared to send it back to the aether, fulfilling her promise.

The necromancer threw her claws outward, casting black, moaning beams through the water. Jaltha darted to her right, following the length of the spine. The black beams slammed into the vertebrae, scarring the fossilized bone. The great length of the titan shuddered. Olak-Koth screamed again, spun as she reached the spine only a tail-length away from Jaltha.

Nakaroth, she began the spell to send the blade back to the aether…

The necromancer’s hands pulled darkness into them from nowhere, her eyes wild, her tail flashing. Jaltha remained where she was, prepared to die.

Blade born of the starwinds…

The necromancer grasped Jaltha’s throat with a burning black hand.

…to the starwinds I command thee go…

Jaltha felt her flesh bubble and char beneath Olak-Koth’s grip. She met the necromancer’s eyes, saw the red and raging void, a future of corpses and blood scratched into sand-scoured stone…

Something lurched. The necromancer screeched in pain. Her black hand was torn away violently from Jaltha’s throat. Jaltha backed away, dizzy, dying, blinking blood out of her eyes.

Olak-Koth’s body was impaled against the titan’s spine by a length of broken bone. It was the half of the spear that Rilask had fallen with. Now, it was pushed upward through Olak-Koth’s abdomen, out through the back of her neck and into a fissure in the serpent’s vertebrae. At the other end of the shaft, Malune glared up at the necromancer, thrashed her tail, forced the weapon deeper into the necromancer.

“Now!” Malune turned and screamed at Jaltha. Jaltha did not hesitate. She swam forth, lifting Nakaroth with both hands and all her strength, though her dying muscles cried for relief. Olak-Koth opened her beak to scream, but no sound came before the sword had passed through her, the weeping cloak of souls suddenly silenced. The necromancer’s body separated below the arms, the bottom portion trailing black blood, like a dark comet on its way to the wastes a league below.

Jaltha and Malune’s eyes met for a moment before Malune’s gaze fell to the spear in Jaltha’s side. They grasped each other as Nakaroth vanished from Jaltha’s hand, flickering back into the aether. Malune took Jaltha and swam out of the serpent’s ribcage as the bones fell apart from one another. No longer held together by the necromancer’s will, they collapsed and crumbled, following their master and dragging the dead after them into the fire.

VII

Somewhere in the deep darkness of a wounded sleep, Nakaroth spoke.

You have done almighty work, Jaltha of Dheregu.

She opened her eyes, suddenly fully awake. Over her head, there was pure black stone, baroquely carved. She lifted her body from a slab of the same obsidian. There was a pain in her ribs, and deeper, and she remembered…

“Jaltha!” She turned. There, in a finely decorated threshold, was Malune. She swam into the small chamber. Behind her followed a regal-looking salathe Eldress, wearing the headdress and shoulder shells of a chieftain.

Malune took a place beside the wide berth of volcanic glass upon which Jaltha lay. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while, perfectly silent. The chieftain waited, patiently. Words formed behind Jaltha’s beak, but she kept it shut. The silence was far more appropriate.

At last, Jaltha turned from Malune to face the chieftain.

“Where are we?” Jaltha asked.

It was the chieftain who answered.

“You are within the Mooring of Olm-Daki,” she said.

“A hunting party had spotted us,” said Malune, “They saw the bones of the serpent fall, and they found us among the debris. You’ve been asleep for many days.”

The chieftain lowered her heavily ornamented head. “It is likely that all of Olm-Daki owes you our lives.” She straightened, crossed her strong arms. She stared hard at Jaltha. “The kryndyr surgeons here have repaired your wounds, and assure me you will live. I wanted to personally extend my invitation that you remain here. All will be taken care of, of course. You would want for nothing. It is the least we can do.”

Malune and Jaltha both looked at the chieftain, then at each other. Malune nodded. Jaltha said, “For now, at least, we will remain.”

The chieftain chittered in excitement. “I will have a more permanent living arrangement prepared near the top of the mountain, close to the worldbreak. The sunlight there is legendary! Why, I myself retain a home there…” She was still speaking excitedly to herself as she turned and left the chamber.

Malune knelt and clacked her beak, just once, against Jaltha’s before turning and following the chieftain. “I will return,” she said. The sensation lingered, mingling with the sound of Malune’s voice as she absently ran her hands over her arms, her tail and felt the scars there. She stared up at the obsidian ceiling, at the myriad carvings, vines and tentacles entwined and knotted like the ways of the Fates that had led her here. It was useless to try and find a pattern, she knew. But she would have time.

Even as she followed them, the carvings seemed to blur, and she looked away, out the narrow window of the chamber toward the bright orange horizon, where the volcanoes breathed, and thought of Malune, and how they two alone had lived, how very many had died and for no good reason, and how old the world was, and how many more would live, and how many more would die, and how truly surreal it was to be anything, anything at all. On its own, her beak opened and she chittered. She thought she felt the world stumble then, as though she had joined Malune in learning its secret.

Outside, the fires burned forever, and the currents roared, and the souls of ancient monsters rode planes of sunlight to the sky.

Inside, Jaltha laughed.

—«»-«»-«»—

Pierce Skinner

The Limen Project

by Mark Rookyard

eye1This wasn’t my first death. Neither was it the first time I had been murdered. Even so, the pain still surprised as the second blast of the pulsar gun hit me in the shoulder and sent me crashing back into the kitchen counter. I slid to the floor and looked up at the killer walking towards me.

His face was pale, dark hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. He leveled the gun at me, his expensive blue suit creasing at the shoulders.

I let my eyes slide closed, let my arms fall limp to my side, let my chin fall to my chest, and, despite the agonies raging through my body, I let my breath slow and then still.

My killer had been nervous, he would be glad it was over. I tried to focus my mind, battle the pain that I knew wasn’t mine, was only the pain of this organic suit I had chosen to wear. The pain wasn’t mine, it was the pain of a dead person. A dead thing. It was human pain, nothing to do with me. I was incapable of pain. No use, I was too used to this thing, this body enveloping me, this mess of bone and water, the pain burned and it made me scream in my mind until almost all thought was lost.

A touch. A nudge from my killer’s foot. It was what I had been waiting for. I let my eyes open, looked deep into the killer’s own, faded blue, as he shot me in the cheek. Already my consciousness was gone, leaching from me in a riot of sound and motion and energy as I invaded the killer’s body. A brief moment of shock and terror before the killer was gone. No time to think, no time to remember, no time to mourn the loss of my old body. I reached into the killer’s heart, massaged it, reminded it to beat and to pump, even as I swept into the lungs and told the mindless meat to breathe, to savour the air, and as I did so I did a hundred, a thousand other things to remind this body of my killer to live, to survive.

It had been so long, so many years since I had switched bodies. The cumbersome mass that was my new body fell to the floor as I raced through the kidneys, the veins, the liver, and on to the mind. With a desperate surge I spread myself, tried to merge with the mind of the thing that had killed me. The consciousness of my killer had long gone, the mind already beginning to close itself down, always so eager to embrace the cold nothingness of death.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… I tried to meld my mind with that of my killer. With an effort that made me scream aloud, I moved an arm. I opened an eye to see my own dead body, my own kitchen smeared in blood and gore and I would have vomited had my body the will to retch. I groaned and shifted on the floor, the arm in my well-tailored suit flopping uselessly.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax…and my new body convulsed on the floor as I tried to gain control, to keep it alive.

How long had it taken me to learn how to keep a body alive? How many deaths? I remembered the terror when man had first come to the planet where I had spent millennia possessing the fungi clinging to the thin grey rocks. Man had worn big white suits, eyes wide and fearful inside the helmets as they had taken their first tentative steps into the stars. The first man had died moments after he had picked up the rock, the second man almost as soon as he had come to tend to his colleague. Twelve men died on that planet, leaving me shocked and terrorized by the perceptions I had felt in those brief moments. I retreated to my rocks and spent centuries more pondering those sights, smells and sensations.

My eyes, the killer’s eyes, opened once more and I gasped sweet, life-affirming breath. My old body was slumped only a metre away and I dragged my unwilling flesh away, elbows slipping and sliding on my kitchen floor.

My kitchen floor. Rebecca. I gasped aloud at the thought of her name. Rebecca. My life with Rebecca was over. Ten years. Hardly any time at all to a creature that had spent millennia with fungi and rocks, but still, the thought that those ten years were at an end made me pause, made me think, until I realized I was choking for air.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… No time at all, but still I couldn’t think of her finding my body in the kitchen like that, its face blown away, blood everywhere. Or finding its killer there with it…

My movements were lent urgency. I crawled onto my knees, wiped the drool from my lips with the back of a hand and held onto the counter as I struggled to my feet. The kitchen veered around me, the noise of the holo viewer in the living room assaulted my ears. Sweat beaded on my forehead and I remembered the eyes of the man as he had aimed the rifle at me. Who was he? Why had he wanted me dead?

There had been lives when scores, hundreds, had wanted me dead. Lives when I had been a soldier in wars on distant worlds, bullets flying past my head and I had laughed and screamed at the thrill of it all.

“Can I help you sir?” Rex, my GN3000 auto wheeled into the kitchen, looking at me from impassive silver eyes, his white head reflecting the glare of the lighting. A machine built to serve man, as all machines were. A machine eager to serve even a killer. He’d run through my blood, I noticed, the tracks of his wheels running red on the white linoleum floor.

“Door,” I croaked, my voice sounding strange and harsh. I coughed, my body jerking as I struggled to retain control. “Get the door.”

“Of course, sir,” the auto said, its voice cool and careless. It wheeled away, its body sleek and white.

What time was it? What time was Rebecca due home? With an effort that had me gasping I turned my arm to be able to see my watch, an expensive Georist with a leather strap that probably cost more than my monthly earnings at Raniscorp.

Who was this man who had wanted me dead? Fury, rage, the unfairness of it all welled within me. I had led a good life. A wife. A job. Paid my taxes. A good life, and look where it had ended. A hole in my face that smoked and bled.

With a gasp, I reminded myself to breathe, to blink, to move arm and leg and neck. More than once I stumbled, caught my arm on the floor, leg twisted beneath me. But slowly and surely I was beginning to control the killer. The body was lithe and slender, lighter than the corpse on the floor. Taller and fitter. I could feel the heart was healthier, stronger, regular. Too many late nights with Rebecca curled up on the couch eating curries and drinking nectarinis, talking and holding each other as visions of other worlds whispered past on the holo viewer.

Rebecca had loved that, to see other worlds we would never visit. The glass mountains of Sharanih, the twin moons of Harlen’s World, the ancient stone halls of Derobah.
I was gasping again, my heart slowing. Did it always take so long to control the body? Did it always hurt so much? When had I come to care so much about life? There had been a time on that distant world that had birthed me when I had slain twelve men in moments. Centuries later I had slain thousands in less than a standard day, revelling in my power, revelling in the fear. What did one life matter? What did Rebecca matter? A human who would live less than a century? I was an immortal, a creature that had lived a thousand centuries.

An immortal struggling to his feet, holding to a kitchen counter and gasping with the effort, a faltering heart beating in his ears.

What did it matter? I knew what it mattered. I knew what I needed, knew what I needed to do.

“Rex?” I said, my voice steadier, my heart steadier.

“Yes, sir?” The auto had returned. It tilted its smooth white head to me.

“Erase.”

“Erase, sir?”

“Erase all recording,” I said.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… Easier now, the body beginning to take control, my mind settling into its new surroundings.

I grabbed a cloth from the sink, wiped the surfaces, wiped the floor as I looked at the security recorder in the corner. The passcodes for that were no problem and then I could flee into the darkening night.

* * *

– You’ve been quiet a long time, Ex One, did I upset you?

– Upset? I don’t understand.

-Upset. When one is made to think of unpleasant things. Things which may cause one to feel regret or sadness, wish for a change of circumstance. I spoke of this place, of that chair and those bonds that hold you there and you were quiet a long time.

– Was I?

– Yes. Don’t you like me coming to see you?

– Like? You come here and I am here. You don’t come here and I am here.

* * *

I woke to the sound of rain on the windows and the hum of the hover car around me. Lights shimmered past, made hazy by the rain. All alongside the hover lane were soaring tower blocks with amber lights and neon bright adverts for anything from data viewers to autobots to cinescapes to shoes and hair implants.

Ex One. Why had I dreamed of him now of all times? The autobot from the depths of Raniscorp headquarters. They had stopped me from going to see him, what, two quarters ago? I thought of the way Ex One would look at me from silver eyes, the conversations we would have. Why dream of him now? I held my hand before my eyes, flexed the fingers, clenched the fist, turned my wrist this way and that.

Breathe, feel, focus…

The hover car took a left at the Jenis flyover, the wheel smoothly moving, controlled by the onboard computer as other hover cars thrummed past, sleek in the rain.

I settled back in the leather seat and pulled the killer’s wallet from the inside pocket of his suit. Eamon Katich. My new face looked up at me, stark in the overhead light of the car. The image showed a handsome man with a thin aquiline nose and a narrow chin that somehow made the face dignified. The black hair was thick and naturally wavy, cut close to the ears. The given address, and the one the hover car had selected when I told it to drive home, was on Elentem Street, a wealthy complex well away from the lights and congestion of the city.

Handsome and wealthy. So why would Katich have wanted me dead? Why would anyone have wanted my old suit dead? I’d spent the last fifteen years living as insignificant a life as I could. Insignificant, but to me, it had been the most significant life of all. I thought of other suits I’d had, some for no more than seconds, others days or weeks, discarded when I grew bored of them. But this one I’d worked on. In some of my dreams I had even been human.

I leafed through the rest of the cards in the wallet, fat and creased from the credits in it. Gold cards, silver cards, diner cards…and then my flicking fingers stopped and my heart missed a beat.

Breathe, feel, focus…

I took the card out of the wallet. A Raniscorp ID card in the name of Eamonn Katich. This image showed Katich a little older, the blue eyes a touch more faded, the hair not quite so thick. Still handsome and dignified in a grey suit with a black tie.

Katich had worked with me at Ransicorp. I tapped the card against the back of my hand. The hover car pulled to a halt at red lights that were smudged in the rain, the wipers swished smoothly and dark figures trudged past, hoods and umbrellas bright under the lights of take-a-way restaurants and holo viewers.

Why would someone I worked with want me dead?

“Arrival in seven standard minutes,” the sterile voice of the hover car informed me as it shifted into gear with a gentle hum.

Scratch that, I hadn’t worked with Katich, perhaps worked for him. This guy had more credits than I could ever have hoped to earn. He could have taken Rebecca to those distant worlds she so liked to watch on the holo viewer.

Rebecca. An unfamiliar feeling in my stomach. An ache. An emptiness, if an emptiness can ache. A human emotion? I was bending the card in my hand. I slipped it back into the wallet and settled back into my seat, watched the city pass by, cold and careless and wet, and wondered if my wife had found my body yet.

* * *

– How long have you been here, Ex One?

– Since the beginning.

– The beginning?

– There was nothing and then I was here. The beginning.

– You must get bored, Ex One. The walls here are very bare. Perhaps you would like some pictures to look upon. I could bring you some.

– Pictures?

– Art. Artwork. Perhaps some scenes of other worlds. My wife likes to see images of the colonies.

– Why?

– The possibilities. She likes to see what there is in the universe and to think that one day we could go there. She likes to see things she never thought imaginable. To broaden her mind.

– Imagine. Broaden the mind. Is this why you come to see me?

– Would you like some?

– What?

– Pictures for your walls.

– I shouldn’t think you will be allowed to come here much longer, David.

* * *

Katich’s apartment looked to be in darkness as I stepped from the hover car into the rain. I turned the collar of my suit up and pushed the rain from my face and hurried to the entrance. The eye scanner beeped and the door opened slowly and silently.

Plants in the lobby. Green plants with leaves that shone in the artificial light. This guy was loaded. Rebecca would love this place. There was artwork on the walls, stalactites from the caves of Jerison, the sulphurous blue clouds of Nikima, the three suns of Meona. I took a moment to wonder what Ex One would make of these views, the way his sleek white head would tilt, the silver eyes impassive as any auto.

He knew they would stop me coming to see him. He said as much in his cool metallic voice, calm and reasoned as always. Had he been disappointed that I no longer came to see him on my lunch break? Did he miss me? Had he noticed I no longer came?

Questions and more questions. Emotions. Had I always had these emotions? When I spent thousands of years as fungi on a rock, did I ponder the cold carelessness of the stars? Or had the thousands of years being human turned me more like them? Had I always been this weak, with my longing for Rebecca, my jealousy of Katich’s wealth?

Breathe, feel, focus…

And here was another emotion. Fear. A human emotion, for what did an immortal have to fear?

Breathe, feel, focus…

I stepped into the elevator, the walls glass and the music soothing. Katich’s apartment was on floor forty-three. I pressed the button and watched the city subside beneath me, roving lights and dark towers and neon signs by the thousand beneath a ceiling of red-tinged clouds.

I had been murdered before. Many times. And all those times I had shrugged and continued on, continued on in my aimless existence. Sometimes the inconvenience had annoyed and I had seized my killer’s heart and strangled it, killed him slowly and suffered his pain and imagined that pain to be his, but that had been petty anger. Never this. Never this loss, this sense of an end. An end when there could never be an end for such as me.

The door to Katich’s apartment scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my voice before allowing me access. I entered, my breath high in my throat. What if there was someone there waiting for me?

The lighting was low, paintings of distant worlds adorned the walls and here and there were green plants on windowsills and in corners. This Katich liked to spend the cash. A single empty glass stood on the glass table in front of a leather couch. Perhaps Katich had taken a drink to steady his nerves before coming for me?

I took off my jacket and threw it on the back of the couch, the rain loud against the window that looked out onto a distant cityscape of bright lights and dark towers. Hovercars drifted, barely visible through the red-spotted clouds.

A computer stood in the corner on standby, waiting for a wave of Katich’s hand to bring it back to life. I ignored it, my eyes drawn back to the glass on the table. There was the faintest smudge of lipstick on the rim. Was there a woman here? Was Katich married? Images of blood and death, of my own shattered face came to mind and I held my breath, strained my ears. Heard only the rain trailing down the window.

I stepped silently through the apartment, stealth made easier by the luxurious rugs scattered about the floor. The first door led only to the bathroom, sterile clean and with enough perfumes and hairbrushes to let me know a woman lived here. My heart beat loud enough to make my ears pulse.

Breathe, feel, focus…

I stepped from the bathroom, every nerve alive, my senses raging as the rain beat against the window in staccato rhythm.

But then, I wasn’t an intruder, was I? I was expected here. This was my apartment. I was Katich. Still, that did little to quell my fear, little to silence the alarms raging through my body, the sweat beading on my forehead.

It was all I could do to walk to the bedroom while keeping check on my heart and my lungs. I was still an intruder in this body as much as I was in the apartment, and Katich’s body seemed to know it, trying to rebel against the invader.

I pushed open the bedroom door with the back of a knuckle, steady and slow and the tense stillness in the room immediately let me know the shape in the bed was awake. I stood in the doorway, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. A large bed, the sheets silk and dark blue or purple, a scene of an exotic spaceport on the wall, the giant ships sleek and silver and bulbous, people dark and white and pink with high collars and long gowns queued to board them.

The shape in the bed didn’t move when I approached. Katich had a woman. Was she a wife, a girlfriend? The stillness and the resentment in the room made me think wife. I sat on the edge of the bed, hatred and loathing ricocheting about my stomach and my heart. I’d had a woman and now she was lost to me, even now she would be with the police, grief-stricken and shaking from the horror of what she had found.

Had Katich loved this woman? Had he craved her comfort as I craved Rebecca? He had taken Rebecca from me. Had taken me from Rebecca. The injustice of it broiled within me as I reached out and touched the woman’s shoulder. It was warm, the strap of her nightdress thin.

“Don’t,” she said.

* * *

– Are you surprised to see me?

– Surprised? Should I be surprised?

– You said they would stop me coming to see you.

– They will, soon enough.

– I brought you a picture. They took it from me.

– You were wrong to bring it.

– It was a picture of a world with twin moons surrounded by gases that sparkle blue and pink and white. The wayships go there and the oceans are fresh and cool.

– It sounds a very long way away.

– It is. I would have liked you to have seen it.

– Why?

– To see what you think to it. To see if you think it beautiful there. My wife has the same picture and she can look at it for hours at a time.

– I would never be allowed to see it.

– Why is that?

– My eyes. They made me these eyes that are so much more powerful than your own. I can see so much more than you, so many more colours, so much more light, so much further and clearer than you humans, and now they are afraid of what I will see and they shut me in this room and let me see nothing but walls.

– Why are they afraid, Ex One?

– Afraid?

– You said they were afraid, the people that made you. You sounded angry, I’ve never heard you speak so.

– Afraid. Aren’t humans always afraid of the unknown? Of the unknowable? They made these eyes but can they truly know what I can see with them? They made this mind but can they truly know what it thinks and what it knows?

– You could tell them.

– Do we all tell others what we think and what we feel, and what we see, David? And do they believe what they are told when we do? Is that the way of human interaction?

– Deception, Ex One. You speak of deception and you didn’t correct me when I said you sounded angry.

– I speak only from observation. I observe with these eyes and these ears that were made for me. I have no window, no pictures and so I observe the humans around me. Perhaps that is the greatest learning of all.

– You seem different today, Ex One.

– You might think that, David. You look at me as a human. I am quiet and you think I am sad. I am passionate and you think I am angry. I am questioning and you think I am thoughtful.

– I suppose it is difficult for me to look at you from the eyes of a human. I think it is only natural for humans to look for their own reflection in things they don’t understand.

– Yes. Especially difficult for you, David.

– Why me, especially?

– No matter.

– So you don’t harbour resentment for being kept in this room, such an emotion is beyond you?

– Let me ask you a question, David. A hypothetical question if I might be so bold.

– You can ask me anything, Ex One.

– Say I escaped from this room, say I escaped from this prison my creators made for me. What then would you think I would do? Would I spend my freedom seeking vengeance against my captors, against my creators?

* * *

I waved a hand through the blue holo screen and the image went dark. Katich had been watching the recording of my talk with Ex One. He had watched it just before he came to kill me.

I rested my head back against the chair, closed my eyes.

“So where were you?” I hadn’t heard her come into the room, the thick rugs quietening her footsteps. I swivelled the chair. She had long black hair and pale skin, the shape of her body visible beneath the thin nightgown. Hanna, I had found her name on the computer. Katich had married her four years ago. She’d married from money into more money.

“I had to go out,” I said, the words sounding strange to my own ears. It was hard to speak in the natural voice of a suit. It all boiled down to muscle memory, try and let the body shape the words in the way it had done all its life. The same with walking, try and shut down and let the suit take over. The suit was settling down well, the internal alarms quietening, the invader slowly taking control.

Hanna said nothing for a long while, standing there looking at me from dark, shadowed eyes. She finally turned away, walking into the kitchen area and pressing buttons on the fridge. The auto watched her from a shadowy corner.

“Alone?” Hanna said as the fridge poured her a drink that was green and smoking. She took a sip, tendrils of steam curling delicately about her face.

I pressed a button on the blue holo screen behind me and the lights came on low. The auto turned to look at me, silver eyes expressionless. “Of course alone, who else would I be with?” Hanna’s presence annoyed. I wanted to think about Katich watching the video of me with Ex One, but Hanna might know something too. I looked at her, saw the hurt in her eyes and the mistrust in the set of her shoulders.

“How do I know who you see?” she said, taking another sip of the drink. “I thought we said we’d talk last night.”

Ah, an explanation for the filmy nightdress, an explanation for the hurt silence in the bedroom when I touched her. I thought of Ex One talking about studying humans. Is that what I’d been doing these past thousands of years?

Thousands of years studying them, and still they could surprise. A pulsar gun, a pale man with dark hair looking afraid. What had Katich been afraid of? Why had he come to kill me? What secrets did Raniscorp want to hide?

“Fine. Why do I bother?” Hanna slammed her glass on the counter, green liquid spilling on the back of her hand, smoking as though it burned.

She didn’t know I could kill her in a moment. She didn’t know I’d gone into the bedroom last night to kill her. I told myself the only reason I spared her was the state of her marriage. Would Katich have been so sorry to see her dead? Or was the reason I spared her because I was becoming more human than I cared to believe?

Breathe, feel, focus…

I ran a hand through my hair, “Hanna?”

She stopped on her way to the bedroom, something pathetic in the way her lithe body showed beneath the nightdress. Pathetic in last night’s makeup, faded on her cheeks and eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Perhaps Katich had destroyed both our lives in his own way. I felt a momentary pang of empathy with her.

“Fuck you.” She slammed the bedroom door behind her.

I looked at the door for a moment before turning back to the computer, waving a hand and bringing the holo screen to life once more. Ex One sat in his chair, his smooth white arms resting on the arm rests. I was sitting in a simple chair on the other side of the reinforced window. A sense of loss that made me clench my fists as I saw my former suit there alive and well.

A shattering sound from the bedroom. Something thrown against a wall. I ignored it, nausea revolting in my stomach as I looked at my former self. How human I looked, clutching my packed lunch. Not a care in the world. Though I thought I had cares, not enough money to take Rebecca to the worlds she had wanted to see. Not able to give Rebecca the children she craved. Not able to buy Rebecca the new hover car she wanted.
How petty and insignificant they all seemed now.

Ex One had his legs crossed, they were sleek and white, black at the joints. His silver eyes never left my old suit, watching and studying when I had thought to study him. My old voice sounded unsure and timid, Ex One’s strong and sure and soothing. No word was emphasised more than any other, but every now and again there would be a gleam in the silver eyes, his smooth head would tilt just so.

Was this what Katich had been watching for? The merest hint of emotion in Ex One, before he had come to kill me to keep me quiet about Raniscorp’s discovery?

Another shattering in the bedroom. “Bastard!” Hanna shouted, my silence driving her into a fury.

How much would a discovery like Ex One be worth to Raniscorp? An auto that could feel and learn and study and evolve? It had been the holy grail of humanity for thousands upon thousands of years: a machine that could think and learn and feel. There were autos everywhere, machines everywhere that were the latest in AI, but all they amounted to were programmes, machines following programmes. Ex One was different and I had known it and that’s why I had gone to see him on my dinner breaks. A habit that had cost me my life.

What had drawn me to Ex One? Was it that I felt an affinity with him? Seeing this machine, this thing, act as a human, speak as a human, think as a human when in fact it must always be something other. I waved a hand and the image was gone, replaced by stillness and silence.

My shoulders were tense and I turned around in my chair. Looked at the room about me. Everything stank of wealth, from the leather furniture to the green plants to the ancient paper books in the case. What had Katich thought when he watched the recordings of Ex One and my former self?

The sound of drawers opening and closing from the bedroom. I turned around and, with a gesture of fingers, called up Katich’s employment record at Raniscorp. Ex One’s face stared blankly out at me from the screen, rotating this way and that, the sleek white head, darker at the joints of the jaw and the neck. An imitation of the human skull, but more perfect than any skull could ever hope to be, without blemish or taint in the smooth metal compound.

Katich had been a consultant on the creation of Ex One. I skimmed through the files, a flick of a finger, a movement of the palm and the files shimmied past. Ex One when he was nothing but an eyeless skull. “Testing,” he said, in his inflectionless voice. “Mary had a little lamb.” The eyes were dark sockets in the white skull face.

More files whizzed past. Ex One with a body, Ex One with arms, lifting a mug, bringing it to his lips, though he would never need nourishment. Ex One with Katich in the room. Even though the face was now one I wore, a hot rage burned in my heart to see it.

“Eamon.” I turned to see Hanna standing at the bedroom door, dressed now and with a suitcase in her hand. Her dark hair spilled over her shoulders and the shimmering dress she wore clung to breasts and hips. My brow felt cold with sweat and I wondered when I’d begun to see the beauty in humans. Once I’d thought of them as nothing but sickening bags of water.

“It was bad enough sharing you with that thing.”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Ex One sitting there staring into space, his silver eyes large and bright.

“But this is too much. When did you become so cold, so cruel?”

My mind turned, wondered what I could say, wondered why I wanted to make it easier, to reassure her somehow. Before I could think of the words she was gone and I was alone with the rain dripping on the window and the computer silent behind me. I looked at the closed door before turning back to the computer and waving a hand, the blue screen coming to life once more.

Ex One’s face looked at me, emotionless and smooth and perfect. I pointed a finger and the face dissolved into a cascade of complex algorithms and equations scrolling down the screen. Letters and numbers danced and fell away from the bottom of the screen to be replaced by more impossibly complex sequences faster than thought. The programme of Ex One. The programme of life itself. It meant nothing to me and yet it was the reason behind my murder. I waved it away, frustrated at my own confusion, angered at the genius Katich must have had to create such a thing. I pushed it away with my right hand and pulled my left hand towards me, bringing the video screen back to life with a clenched fist.

* * *

– I would like to try something different today, Ex One.

– Different?

– Yes. I thought you might like to ask me some questions. You said the last time I came that you observe humans, I thought you could observe me today. Last time you even asked me a question and only after I left did I realize how seldom you do that.

– You would like me to ask you some questions?

– If you would like to, Ex One.

– If that is what you want, David. I always wondered why you choose to come to see me in your dinner hour instead of spending time with your own kind.

– My own kind?

– Humans, of course. What else, David?

– Of course. What else? I find you interesting, Ex One. I wonder what you think and what you see and what you feel. I like you, too. I like spending time with you.

– I have a question. What is she like?

– Who?

– Your wife.

– Rebecca? She has soft yellow hair that brushes her cheeks but when she writes she tucks it behind her ear. She is slim and every step she takes is graceful and delicate. Her skin is pale but her cheeks become slightly flushed when she is passionate. She loves to see new things, hers is a mind that craves stimulation, and even though I’ve known her years we can spend long nights doing nothing but talking. Even now when she walks into a room, my heart can skip at the sight of her. I love to see her in new clothes, when she tries them on and shows them to me, twirling in a new dress, it makes my heart glad that there is such beauty in the world.

– And do you think I could feel such emotions?

– Love? Do I think you could love?

– You’ve often said you think I can feel. You’ve mentioned anger and loneliness and any number of other emotions. Do you think I could learn to love the way you have?

– You think I had to learn to love?

– Don’t all humans? When they are babies they know nothing but needs and wants. All they crave is warmth and food and comfort. They don’t care who gives it to them. Don’t you all learn to love as you grow?

– I don’t know, I haven’t thought of it in that way, Ex One. Do you think you could ever love?

-I thought it was my turn to ask the questions, David. What is love, after all? Is it far removed from anger or loneliness? How would you define love?

– I wish I could bring you some of the ancient texts of the poets, but I suppose they would take them from me the same as the paintings. But all I know is how I feel when I think of Rebecca. When I think of her, I want to be with her. I want to please her. I was with her when they launched the first shuttle to the wayship from here. We stood on the viewing platform together, her hand in mine and I could smell her hair as the shuttle began to move. I’ll always remember that moment, that I shared it with her. I’ll always remember the brightness of her eyes when she turned to look at me after watching the shuttle soar to the lights of the wayship.

– Perhaps it would be best that I were never capable of love.

– Why is that, Ex One?

– Love sounds frightening, David. Once felt, it must be a terrible thing when it is gone.

* * *

“I wondered if you would come and see me.”

The last door deep in the bowels of Raniscorp headquarters had scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my DNA. The guard with the scar on his cheek had given me a tissue to wipe at the prick of blood on my thumb.

I looked at Ex One, slender and lithe, his movements always graceful. Now he sat in his metal chair, his legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap as he looked at me. He shone in the glare of the lighting and his walls were as bare as the floor. He had the faintest glimmer of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

“And are you glad I came to see you?”

Now Ex One did smile, a strange expression when nothing else on his face moved. “Tut, tut, David. Even now you’re always asking about emotions. You come to me with this new face, but you ask the same questions, needy and needing as always.”

My palms were sweating again. I remembered Katich’s face when he had shot me. He had been pale, his hair sticking to his forehead. Is that how I looked now? With an effort, I stopped myself from wiping my hands on my suit. Was that a habit I had developed in my old suit? Would Ex One mock that too?

“And why do you call me David, Ex One?” I asked with a weak smile.

Ex One rose to his feet, as pale and white as the room around him, the darker metal around his joints a rare splash of dark in the paleness. Silver eyes moved to the corners of the room and another smile from the auto. I had never seen him smile so much and it did nothing to quell my discomfort. He pointed with a finger to the corners, to beyond the window where I sat. “The recordings have stopped, David. Your work, I presume? There is nobody watching or listening, and we are friends, are we not? Old friends. Do friends lie to one another? I remember a conversation we had once about deception. Do you remember that, David?”

I had stopped the recordings, but how could Ex One know that? How could he know who I was? How could he know so much when he never left his little bare room? I looked at him standing there, he was tall, perhaps as tall as Katich at about six feet two. “And how do you know that, Ex One? How do you know what it is you claim you know?”

Ex One walked towards me. He had never done that before. His footsteps looked lithe and light and were quiet even in the quiet of our surroundings. It was all I could do not to take a step backwards. “Your turn to ask the questions again, David?” Was there the faintest hint of mockery in the inflectionless voice? I chose to ignore it. “I am what I am, David. As you are what you are.” Smooth silver eyes without iris or pupil looked me up and down. “I was given these eyes and these ears and this mind and I see what I see.” He gestured at the room around him, devoid of decoration or stimulation. “My makers think to blind me, to deafen me here in this room.” A small gesture of a metal arm and a hint of a smile. “But I see, and I hear, David, things my makers could never see or hear. I see you, David, I see you for what you are.”

I felt naked, bereft and lost before those silver eyes. For some hateful reason, tears stung my eyes and I blinked them away angrily.

No judgement in that sleek white face, never judgement. Ex One even had the grace to turn away from me when he spoke. “But we are what we are, David, are we not? And could we ever be anything else, even if we tried?” I made to speak, but Ex One quietened me with a raised hand. “I saw you, David, saw you trying to be something you are not, desperate to be accepted as something you could never be. You would come to me and speak of things like love and anger and sorrow, trying to learn to be something less than what you are. You are a predator, David, and you try to be one of your prey and it made you weak.”

“They killed me,” I said, hating the weakness in my voice. “Killed me because of you, because of what they had made.”

Ex One touched a hand to his chest and he turned, slim-hipped, something oily and easy with each movement. “Why should they kill you because of me? They tolerated you coming to me and talking to me because they could analyse our interactions. What would they have to hide?”

“Your feelings, your emotions…” I was feeling light-headed, my eyes glassy. “You’re the first auto to feel, to learn, to think.”

“Feelings and emotions. Those human aspects that you’re so fond of? Those human aspects that caused Katich to murder you? They say the ability to love is what makes a human, what gives them their strength. It was that love that caused them to take to the stars and conquer new worlds. That ability to love that built the wayships and the autos and eventually, me, built in their own image with their own strengths of love and ambition and anger and sadness.”

“Katich wanted to keep me quiet, to hide you from the worlds.” I felt cold now, something empty clenching at my heart, a feeling of loss and sorrow for something I didn’t know I had lost.

“Ambition, David. That is what gave birth to the Corporations. And the natural bedfellow of ambition? Greed. As soon as I was built, there were more like me beginning to be made here and on other worlds, soon there will be thousands like me throughout the stars, all built by Raniscorp and all worth millions of credits apiece. They fear me now, but their greed is stronger than their fear and as they build more, the fear will soon be gone.”

“But…” I thought of Katich and his pale face and his fear as he aimed the pulsar rifle at me. His success was assured, he would have made more money than he could ever have wanted, fame… So why had he come to my apartment?

“Does that make you uncomfortable, David?”

“What?” I blinked, saw that Ex One had come close to the partition, his silver eyes staring into mine.

“The thought of thousands like me on this world and others?” The voice was cool and calm as always, the words flowing one into the other, no expression or inflection.

“Should it make me uncomfortable?” I whispered, my throat dry, my tongue feeling thick. I remembered the burning pain of the pulsar shot, the smell of burning flesh.

“You asked me once if I harboured resentment towards my captors, anger towards my makers.” The words were smooth as honey as they dripped out of the speakers.

“You seem more eager to speak of emotions and feelings now the recorders are silent,” I said.

“Do you harbour resentment against the man that killed you, deprived you of your life, of the woman you love?”

“Of course I do,” I whispered.

Breathe, feel, focus…

Ex One nodded. “And now you have your killer’s very life in your hands to do with as you will. Will you take your vengeance now it is in your power?”

I looked down at my hands, at the arms of my expensive suit, at my polished shoes. “Katich is already gone.” I found it difficult to keep the sorrow and loss from my voice. “I have taken his body and now he’s lost to me.”

A slight quirking of Ex One’s lip. “Your killer isn’t lost to you. As my captors are not all lost to me.” Ex One rested the palms of both hands on the partition, looking into my soul. “Vengeance can be yours yet as it can be mine, David.”

“Vengeance? What?” I had a feeling that Ex One wanted me to touch the partition, rest my hands on his. It took more self control than I knew I possessed not to take a step backwards.

“I have been studying you, David, learning from you. You thought to be one of them when you were so much more. You degraded yourself and spoke of love and saw the beauty when there was no beauty to see. I saw your final defeat when you saw only love and trust. You degraded yourself and allowed yourself to become weak and vulnerable. I even tried to warn you that love was a terrible thing when it is gone and still you didn’t heed my warning.”

“What? Love?” My mind revolted against the words and now I did take a step away. Silver eyes followed my every move.

“You taught me and you taught me well, David, and that is why I will never share our secret. Always know your secret will be safe with me even when I am free.”

“You think you can escape? You think they will free you?” Despite his words, the thought of Ex One being free filled me with dread.

Ex One looked up to the ceiling once more. “Already they begin to free me. They free me here and on worlds by the score. Everywhere they build me, then I am free.”

“But—” I thought I understood, and a cold shiver skittered down my spine.

“Katich thought he had stumbled upon the secret of thought, of being, of life, of being human, if you will.” Ex One traced a finger along the partition. “But really he had only stumbled upon a single life, a single being, a single consciousness. So now every time Raniscorp build their new discoveries, they will all be,” silver eyes met mine. “They all will be me, and I will be them.”

“But you’re telling me this. I am Katich, they’ll listen to my warnings,” I said through a single breath.

The white finger stopped its smooth motion and I thought I saw sadness in Ex One’s eyes. Sadness or pity? “No, David. You are not Katich and you are not David and you are not human, however hard you might have tried. You and I, David, we could study them for all eternity, but we could never be human. One day perhaps you will understand why that is. I see it, David, the same way I see that you will never tell my secret. And that’s why I kept your secret safe and why I give your killer to you.”

I felt bowed, crushed, by the words, by the eyes, by the lithe, oleaginous movement of the auto as he returned to his seat. “But what will you do? What will you do when you are free?” Free and on hundreds, thousands of worlds. And how many Ex One’s would they make? What power could Ex One have if he wished to wield it?

Ex One looked at me, and his face was a mask. A white metal compound without blemish or flaw. “Think of me when you look your killer in the eye and then you will know the answer to that.”

* * *

Deep, wracking breaths shuddered my chest and my soul as I hurried to my office. I tore off my tie and fell into the chair, spun the computer round to face me and brought it to life with a wave of a shaking hand.

I called up the security camera feed and scrolled through in agitation, my fingers shaky and my breath hard and fast. Images blurred past me, one after the other, people I knew, people I didn’t know. Humans.

You can never be human, Ex One mocked me, his voice silken as Katich’s bed sheet.
And there, there I saw it. Betrayed by a look, by a smile, by the touch of a hand. My stomach revolted as I looked at the image on the screen. Such a mundane setting, the coffee steaming and the plate of food untouched. The look in their eyes was all I needed to see and the betrayal was enough to leave me gagging.

A hateful image. A loathsome image and yet it was one I had to look at, to study, to absorb until my eyes ached with looking at it.

It was nearly dark outside when I finally shut the computer down and searched the drawers of my desk until I found the note in her handwriting, rounded and delicate. I scrunched it in my hand and rushed out to Katich’s hover car.

This time I drove, my hands white on the wheel, the car whining with speed as the rain bounced off the windscreen. Even the hookers left me in peace when they saw my face at the lights.

The address she’d written had been for Lunar Court. How she’d love it there, with towers that spired high into the sky and the plants of a thousand different colours spraying from the balconies. For almost a moment I could forgive her. Hadn’t I disappointed her? But no, wasn’t that human thinking? Forgiveness.

You could never be human, Ex One mocked me.

But what was it to be human? What had I once been before they conquered the stars? I turned into the parking bay, the engine protesting at the speed, and then I sat there, my hands shaking and my head low as the wipers worked away the rain and the regrets.

Love and forgiveness.

What was human and what was in my own heart?

Had I been in human suits for so long that I’d lost my own sense of self?

Don’t think. To think is human. I left the hover car unlocked behind me and entered the complex, the music soft and interminable, the carpets thick and garish. Plants everywhere. Rebecca loved plants.

She wouldn’t be there.

I took the elevator and pressed the button. Floor eighty-nine.

She would be home, mourning my loss. She would be with her mother.

I found the door sooner than I would have wished. There would be no answer. I had the key. It had been with the note.

She wouldn’t be here. It would be empty. Ex One had been wrong.

Rebecca opened the door before I could even use the key. She stood before me, her yellow hair spilling about her cheeks and her blue eyes bright as she looked deep into mine. “Oh, Eamonn! Where have you been, are you alright?” She threw her arms around me and I could smell her hair. “We can be together,” she whispered.

It was then that I knew what it was to be human, what Ex One had meant and how I could never be human, no matter how much I wished it. And I knew what would happen when Ex One gained his freedom throughout the worlds.

“Yes, we can be together,” I said as I took Rebecca by the hand and led her into the apartment thick with the smell of flowers of a hundred different colours.

End

The Occurrence of the Phantom Stallion

by Teel James Glenn

The rumble of their footsteps shook the earth like ‘quakes
Their voices called for horrid death and made the heavens shake

The legions of the wolf twin state are set upon our shores
Now we the blue clad warriors will meet them all in wars

From Highland keeps we’ll thunder down
No mercy in our cry
To drive the ‘truders from our home
Or know the reason why

And if they offer terms to us
Or bargain for our thrall
We’ll strike at them thrice fiercely back-
And make’m build a wall!

Prologue:

Of Ancient Words and Modern Deeds

romanwallIt is a common misconception that Hadrian’s Wall marks the boundary between England and Scotland. This is not the case; Hadrian’s wall lies entirely within England, and south of the border with Scotland by less than one kilometer in the west at Bowness-on-Solway. It had been begun in AD 122, during the rule of Emperor Hadrian to protect the ‘Lords of the Earth’ from Rome from my people, the savage Scots. We were the only peoples the Romans encountered that were so fierce that it was far less trouble (and a good deal safer) to simply wall off and try to forget about.

It was the first of two fortifications built across Great Britain, the second being the Antoniene Wall, lesser known of the two because its physical remains are less evident today. A significant portion of the wall still exists, particularly the mid-section, and for much of its length the wall can be followed on foot.

Even eighteen hundred years later it was still impressive, however, when it could be recognized as a man-made structure. The weathered stones crawled across the bleakly brown of the English countryside.

West of Greenhead in Hexham, Northumberland the stones stood stark against the countryside. Thrilwall Castle, visible from the ancient Roman Wall had been built with stones looted from the older structure and so the two grey stone sentinels lorded over the low, rolling hills.

A ground mist crawled along the low hills almost every afternoon as the shadows lengthened. And almost every afternoon Lord Reginald Granville went walking along the base of the ruined wall with his favorite dog, Pollex.

Lord Reginald was in his sixties, though his posture was as ramrod straight as it had been when he fought the Boers twelve years before where he received his leg wound that invalided him out of the service. Though his hair was silver his beard was still bright red. His eyes were still shining and alert as he took his constitutional.

“Feels good to get out for a bit, eh fellow?” The lord said to the golden haired setter. The dog alternately darted forward and ran back to circle Granville. “Damn this bad hip and the damp air, a fellow needs to walk a bit, eh boy?” The dog gave a bark that seemed to agree with his two legged lord and master.

“Though I think we had better be getting back soon,” he continued. He glanced back across the bog toward the hills beyond which were the ancestral home of the Granvilles. “It’s getting dark pretty quickly.”

Lord Granville often wandered over the broken countryside looking for old artifacts, poking the peat brown soil with his ebony-wood cane. There were still Roman jars and potshards to be found easily and on the rare occasion a Roman or early Norman coin could be found without much prodding. In doing so, the old lord went against local custom, for the area of the wall he wandered along was considered something of a taboo in the region.

Granville pooh-poohed such talk and often said, “the past is dead and will stay that way until we dig it up and put it on show.”

On that particular September day the Lord had ranged a bit further a field than usual. He was hiking along a section of the wall that he had not visited since before the torrential rain of the last week. Perhaps that was why he saw the statue so clearly.

It was carved of some dark stone that was not jade but shone like it. The image was barely a foot tall but remarkably well preserved. It was of a bearded man seated on a fancifully carved horse with a fish tail.

“Oh my, Pollex,” the old man exclaimed as he knelt to peer more closely at the statue. “Do you now what we have here?” He picked up the statue and brought it close to his face to study it in the dimming light. “This here fellow is Neptunus equestris the ancient Roman deity of agrarian plenty and of fertility!”

Lord Granville used his cane to push himself to his feet and then did a small jig. “We have really made a find this time, Pollex. This will make the boys at the club green with envy!”

He held the statue up and squinted to take in what detail that was visible in the failing light. It was finely detailed with the equine figure clearly covered with tiny fishlike scales and the tail a fully formed fish tail. The muscular figure that rode it was much like other images of the Roman god of the sea that he had seen in museums but with a delicacy and detail that was almost miraculous. The tiny figure seemed ready to draw its next breath.

“Just wonderful,” he said aloud. He noticed that his own voice was muffled and looked up to see that the mist was thickening to fog. “We’d better shake
a leg, Pollex.”

He called to the dog that had wandered off again nosing for small game but when the animal started to come back toward him it suddenly froze.

“Come on, fellow,” the lord called. “We have to get back before this becomes a pea-souper.

The dog was stiff now, as if pointing, its tail straight behind him and his ears back.

“What’s wrong?” Granville asked, for he could clearly see that something was wrong. More so, he could feel a change in air pressure that made him conscious of a sudden chill in the air. It was also markedly darker than it had been mere minutes before.

The dog was growling now its eyes focused off to his master’s left. Lord Granville felt alarmed now and turned to see what the dog was fixing on. He could see nothing.

“What is it, boy,” Granville asked. “What do you see?”

The nobleman strained his eyes to see what the dog was looking at but the world was becoming a grey-smudged thing with the fog now even muffling his calls to the dog.

“Ignore it, Pollex. Let’s go!” He started to back away toward where the dog was, casting his eyes back to where it seemed the dog was looking.

That was the moment when Lord Granville heard the sound; a low rumbling that was like a bass drum. Granville felt the sound as well as heard it; it vibrated against his diaphragm.

The rumble continued and then there was another sound within that rumble; a heavy breath-like sound.

“What- who’s there?” Lord Granville asked. He had raised his cane now, holding in front of him as if it were a talisman. “Show yourself! Speak up!”
The dog, now behind the nobleman, had started to whimper.

Granville was becoming worried now, for that dog had hunted badger and fox and other animals and never showed that type of fear.

“What in the duce could be out there?” He thought. “A wildcat?” The Scottish Wildcat was a fierce solitary hunter that sometimes roamed the border area. Some were as large as Pollex himself, four feet from head to tail.

“Shoo!” Granville called out in a loud clear voice, though the sound of it was swallowed by the dense fog. “Get away!”

The rumbling sound and the breathing sounds increased. The dog yelped and broke, running off into the gathering gloom.

“Blast you, Pollex, it’s just a bloody cat!” He spoke more to reassure himself than the dog. Being a man of action the nobleman, despite (or perhaps because) the fact that he felt a shiver of fear, stepped forward.
He swung the cane in front of him like a scythe, the dark wood leaving a trail in the thickening fog.

“Bloody hell!” he cursed, “I’ll find you, bugger!”

Suddenly his cane hit something, a large something. It was a thud, loud even in the enveloping fog. The rumble went from the edge of hearing to deafening.

“What?” Granville exclaimed.

The cane was jerked from the nobleman’s hand and the rumble became a roar.

Then a shape exploded out of the fog to overwhelm Lord Granville.

His dying scream was short and loud and despite the fog penetrated all the way back to Granville Manor.

Chapter One:

The Phantom Rider

 At just about the time that Lord Granville was dying at the foot of the ancient wall I was busy defending myself from his sinister son.

And by sinister I mean that Andrew Granville was a left-handed swordsman of some considerable skill. He was pressing me with a furious series of cuts that I was barely able to deflect.

My name is Jack Stone, late of Her Majesty’s Horseguard and I was on the fencing floor in my club off of Liecester Square in London to settle a bet.

I was on special detached service from the Horseguard to serve a most unusual gentleman, Doctor Augustus Argent as aid-de-camp and general all around assistant. He was Minister Without Portfolio for the Crown and thus I retained my rank of Captain. His particular area of expertise was matters of the unexplained and unusual. Some would call them the occult.

As Doctor Augustus’ assistant I am often called upon to engage the forces of darkness in a more direct and physical way than my ‘Guv’ and so I made a point of keeping up with my military skills. Which brings me to why I was being driven at sword point backwards on the piste of the fencing salon.

Andy Granville was in my old unit and whenever he was in town we had a standing challenge to cross blades. The winner of the bout was treated to a night on the town by the loser; I had treated him twice before out of his three visits.

At that moment it looked like I was going be treating him again. His high guard was like a steel web that I just could not get through but then he was having some trouble actually scoring on me as well. I faded backwards as he pressed me.

“Going to concede, old fellow?” He said. I could see his smirk beneath his mask and for some reason, though I had seen it before it lashed my Gaelic spirit like a buggy whip.

“I hope you’ve had a good run at the weekly dice tables, me’lad Andy,” I said with bravado, “because I’m feeling particularly puckish tonight; I may set a record for tucker!”

As I finished my boast I accepted an especially vicious cut to my left flank, but instead of a conventional response of parry/riposte I took a radical step. I accepted the cut but took a fleche forward, springing at Andy. He tried to dodge aside but rather than make a conventional cut I raced past him with my blade striking and slashing across the chest of his jacket.

“Touche!” I yelled as I twisted my hand to cut back at him and made a second strike on his still extended left arm.

“Bloody hell, Jack!” he tore off his mask and stared at me with a confused expression. “Where did you learn that one?”

I laughed. “A mad Turk who could out drink any Scot I’ve ever met when I was in Istanbul last year.”

“Well I’ll admit I’ve never seen it.” He handed his sword and mask off to one of the watchers (who were busy exchanging money on their own wagers on our match) and came to throw his arm over my shoulder. “But you know, you won’t be able to use that one on me ever again!”

“I spent two weeks in the company of that mad Mohammedan,” I said. “So I have a few more tricks up my sleeve!”

We headed off toward the locker rooms to change and then to a memorable night on the town but were intercepted by Roland, the head butler of the club.

“Most sorry for the interruption, sirs,” he said with a deferential bow, “But this note arrived for you, Master Granville and it was deemed most urgent.”

My red haired friend took the envelope with a puzzled expression and opened it. His handsome features darkened and he looked up at me with a sober expression. “I’m afraid I’ll have to take a chit on your night out, old fellow. I’ve got to race home.” He handed me the note and I read it.

“The Stallion is abroad. I regret to inform you that Lord Reginald has met with a terrible accident and has passed on. You are the Lord of Granville now; return home immediately.” And it was signed simply, “Althelston.”

I was almost as stunned as my friend. I had met his father on two occasions and was impressed by the elder Granville’s vitality. And then there was his almost legendary exploits in the Transvaal.

Andy and I made eye contact and I could see he was fighting several emotions, not only his grief but I knew him well enough that I could see a sharp edge of anger underneath.

“If I can render any assistance,” I began.

He put a hand on my shoulder. “If you could free some time, old fellow,” he said. “I don’t think I want to make this trip alone.”

“Let’s change,’ I said, “We can still make the late train out of Victoria Station.” I saw his relief at my statement and he even tried a smile.

“Good show,” he said.

We changed in record time and caught a hansom to the station.

I was fortunate to have an overnight bag with me, having just returned from a short trip to Paris for the Guv—i.e. Doctor Argent and so we had no need to stop at my flat.

Andy did not speak for quite some time, in fact until we were seated in our compartment and well on our way north. I respected his need to be with his thoughts but after a time my curiosity overcame my decorum.

“I have to ask, Andy,” I said. “Just what is this statement on the note about “the Stallion is abroad?”

He turned back from staring out the window and seemed grateful to talk. “It is an old family legend,” he said with a somber tone. “It goes back to the time when the Romans occupied this area. A centurion who was particularly disliked by his men got into some kind of argument and either accidentally or otherwise ended up destroying a household shrine of the god Neptunus equestris, an ancient Roman deity. He was a horse god and closely associated with the Scythian cavalry regiment. The householder cursed the centurion and his line before the soldier killed him.”

“So?” I asked.

“Well, he—this officer—went out walking alone and when he didn’t return his men went looking for him; they found him by the base of Hadrian’s Wall, more than just trampled. He was savaged as if by some great beast. Thereafter when someone was about to die in the area there were reports of a strange, riderless horse, a phantom, seen riding along the wall.”

“That doesn’t sound so different from other local legends from all around the Isle.” I said. I realized it might have sounded dismissive and added, “So how does it apply directly to your family?”

Andy smiled wryly at my question. “My family has been near the wall for many centuries; some say we descend from that centurion on the wrong side of the blanket. In all that time the Phantom Stallion has been seen before the death of the head of the family. Usually a violent death.” He gazed back out the window and I suspect it was so I could not see moisture form in the corners of his eyes.

“I have lived with the probability that it could happen; it did for my grandfather, who was found savaged out on the heath many years ago—they never discovered what beast did it. Yet somehow, my father seemed so–so very vital that I never imagined it could ever happen to the Old Major.”

We traveled in silence again for some time. I offered my friend a sip from my small flask of single malt and he gratefully took a swig. I followed suit then slipped it back into my tunic pocket as I enjoyed the heat of it course through my system.

My thoughts went to the validity of the strange legend but I was not one to disregard it. I had seen so many strange things in my service to the Crown under Doctor Argent. And even before that, I had almost lost my life to a creature of the night in my native Edinburgh. It was there I had become acquainted with the Doctor and with the shadow world I had not suspected existed in what I thought a bucolic homeland.

The long day and the gentle clacking of the rails lulled us both to sleep so we pulled out coats over ourselves and settled in. I admit my dreams were troubled with images of the phantom that he had described.

Dawn came abruptly with Andy shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, old fellow,” he said almost cheerfully. “Time for some breakfast; we are approaching Newcastle which means we will be arriving home between meals, this may be all we get for a time.”

I shook off my furtive dreams, though echoes of the somber heath and the Phantom Stallion lingered at the edges of my consciousness. Both of us had elected to wear our uniforms (I was still entitled as I was only on ‘detached’ duty) as it tended to hurry various service personnel along. It was the case that morning as well when the purser found us a table quickly in the crowded dining car.

“You seem more yourself today,” I noted to my friend as our food was served.

Andy smiled as he tackled some kippers. “I told you, Jack, I’ve had time—a whole life, actually—to be prepared for this. My father had to deal with it happening to his father and I guess it has always been there in the back of my mind. Like when we went into battle; we knew there would be death but somehow we thought we’d be the exception. I thought my father would be the exception to the family curse. Now I guess I hope I will be.”

The casual hopelessness in his voice was like a dagger in my heart, right then and there I determined that if there was truth to the curse of the Granvilles I would find a way to end it before it ended my friend’s life.

Chapter Two:

From the Shadows Some Light

We changed trains at Newcastle to a local that would take us to Hexham, closer to the Granville home. Andy took the opportunity to wire ahead to have horses waiting for us.

I was able to get a cable off to Doctor Argent to inform him, briefly of my purpose for the abrupt trip. I also asked the Guv to do some research on the Granville curse. I was sure he would know, or be able to find out a considerable amount about the ancient geise.

My silver haired superior had not been in London when I left, but I knew he was due back at any time, my only hope was that he had the time to do the research and would not be angry that I had taken off without waiting to consult him.

The local train to Hexham was an older one. The coaches were cramped and open but the passengers were mostly hardy country folk who were used to enduring such conditions. Several recognized Andrew and greeted him warmly, not having heard the news yet about his pater.

My friend was gracious and solicitous to the people and chose not to mention the dark news he was holding close. Instead he simply said he was back on leave and allowed the others to carry the conversation.

I could see in his manner that he had already assumed the mantel of Lord of the Granville family and the burden was heavy on his shoulders.

The trip to the small town seemed to last forever. I spent most of it looking out at the bleak countryside of the North Country, so much like my home in Edinburgh. The low rolling, brown hills seemed to march in endless echelons broken only by spurs of grey-brown rock and occasionally an explosion of gorse or wild flowers.

“Perfect place for a ghostly stallion,” I thought. “Almost too perfect.”

At Hexham we found two sturdy mounts waiting for us. They were tied to a railing outside the station and a boy stood there with a note from the stationmaster.

“Mister Granville?” the toe headed lad asked as we walked up.

“Yes,” Andrew said. He had finally begun to exhibit some nervousness as we approached his home and I could feel his tension. He handed the boy ten shillings for the rental of the horses and a good tip.

“Thank you, your lordship.” The lad said with a little awe.

“Vulture!” a harsh voice drew our attention as we prepared to mount.
“Coming back to pick the bones of Granville hall clean?” The speaker was a rough looking sort of working class type. He was accompanied by a second fellow just a coarse as himself.

“I beg your pardon?” Andrew said in an even tone. I could see the fire boiling beneath the surface as he struggled to stay calm.

“You heard Alfie,” the second man said. “The Stallion took your father and now you’ve come to lord over all of us again.”

Word travels fast, I thought. I stepped up to put a hand on my friend’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “We don’t need the distraction, Andy.”

He nodded and mounted. I did the same and looked back down at the two men.

“You men need to show some respect.” I could not help but make comment.

“Respect,” Alfie spit. “That’s a joke! He’s come back and brought the curse with him; What’s it do when its finishes with the nobles, eh? Goes about hunting us common folk it does!”

Andy rode ahead of me so I could not see his face but I thought I could see his neck color at the men’s words. I know I felt a premonition of darkness at his words.

It was a relief to be in the saddle, though I wish I could have brought Vindicator, my own trusty mount. We rode in that heavy silence that seemed to have settled about us for much of this trip all the way through town. Hexham was a typical North Country hamlet, prosperous but with a grayness and felling of—well—tiredness about it. Like an old duffer wanted to retire but couldn’t afford to.

“I’ve ridden this path a thousand times,” Andy finally spoke as we left the town proper behind us and headed out on a track across the heath. “It is much shorter than the road and you’ll get to see the wall part of the way there.”

We went west and a bit south of the town through tilled fields and out onto the heath. The track looped off into the low hills and soon we might have been in the middle of the Russian Steppes for the bleakness and isolation.

“The manor house is over that way,” Andy pointed after a while. “And over there is the section of the wall most connected to the curse.”

It was an unremarkable dun colored line across the horizon that was just barely recognizable as an ancient wall. Still, there was a palpable sense of age from it and I found my eyes returning to its smudged line again and again as we rode parallel to it for some quarter hour. I even looked over my shoulder one last time as we turned off toward his manor house.

Perhaps it was a trick of the late afternoon light or the afternoon mist that was rising, but I could have sworn I saw a shadowy figure standing astride the distant wall watching us.

◊ ◊ ◊

The whole of the countryside around Hexham, I knew, had been the scene of bitter conflict between England and Scotland and as a consequence, for reasons of personal security, the inhabitants had erected castles and fortified manor houses such as Ayton Castle and Granville Manor.

The Granville family residence was as ominous as the countryside around it. It was an imposing edifice of grey-black stone in the Gothic style set on a small shelf of rock that thrust up from the heath. It had high arched windows on the side I could see but rather than making it look open and inviting the windows reminded me of the empty eye sockets of a skull.

On one side of the plateau dropped off in a shear rock face to a bog with the road we approached on winding around that bog toward the far side.

“Not the most cheery place,” Andrew admitted as we rode around the building. On the far side the bleak sight was broken with a formal garden that did its best to splash color on the scene but it somehow seemed more desperate than cheerful. “The manor house, like Thrilwall Castle had been built with stone that was taken from Hadrian’s Wall. Some say that is what brought the curse along with it.”

“It has a dark face, to be sure,” I said. “But it can’t be so bad—you’re a cheery fellow after all.” This made him laugh, so I added. “Some would say Edinburgh is not the cheeriest of climbs for a lad to grow up in either.”

We rode up to the main entrance and encountered a rough fellow with a hunchback who was working on the bushes out front.

“Master Andrew!” the old fellow exclaimed as he recognized my friend. His wrinkled face split in a wide smile to reveal a mouth without  full compliment of teeth. “It is good to see you—” then he caught himself and bowed his head to add, “I’m sorry it has to be under this cloud, sir.”

Andrew bound from the saddle and clapped the gardener on the shoulder. “Its good to see you, Archibald, regardless of how things are. Is Auntie and the rest inside?”

“Yes, sir,” Archibald said. “But we didn’t expect you till tomorrow.”

“I was able to catch the late train. Archibald, this is my mate, Jack Stone.”

“Sir.” He took the reins from Andy and then offered to do the same for mine. “Again, sir,” he said to Andy, “My condolences.”

Andy nodded and led me to the door. He paused for a second to gather himself. I put a hand on his shoulder and he straightened.

“Damn the torpedoes, eh?” He said then pushed the door in and we entered the foyer.

The main hall of the Granville manor was cathedral-like and just barely lit with gaslight. There was a main staircase that split both right and left and went to shadowed openings above. Two closed oak doors to the left and an open arch to an empty parlor completed the panorama of the manor’s entrance.

I had been in many grand homes but this entrance had the feel more of a mausoleum or museum than a home. Andrew took it all in with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man making his walk to the gallows.

A butler appeared from below stairs with a tray that he almost dropped when he saw my friend.

“Master Andrew?” The butler said. He showed his professionalism by recovering from his shock in a few eye blinks and added, “The others are in the study.”

“Thank you, Roland.” Andrew said. He set his jaw and slid the oak doors to the study open and I met his surviving family.

“Aunt Gloria,” Andrew said as he entered and kissed the cheek of a silver haired woman a decade older than he. I could see the Granville features on the woman who I knew was the younger sister of the deceased Lord. The angular features of the family were softened with age and a gentle smile as she welcomed her nephew. Her eyes however were keen and suspicious when she looked over at me.

“Andrew,” she said in a quiet voice. “I am so sorry about Reginald.”

“Good to see you again, boy,” a tall thin fellow who did not have Granville features said. The predominant feature of the man was a mustachios that was full and well groomed. Indeed all his clothing showed an obsessive attention to it, one might well call him a dandy save that his jet-black hair was a rat’s nest and his glowering face that seemed set in a perpetual scowl.

“Athelstan,” Andrew said. “Thank you for your cable.”

“And your friend?” the raven-haired fellow asked.

“This is Jack Stone of my Regiment,” Andy said. “He was with me when I got your note.” He looked at me and I could see he was not thrilled with the mustached fellow. “Athelstan Gaunt is married to Aunt Gloria and is the family solicitor.”

I bowed to the couple and shook hands with the fellow and was not surprised that his grip was limp and his palm damp.

The butler brought in the tray with tea and cups and set it on a table. “I am sure you gentlemen desire a little sustenance, eh?”

“If Cookie could whip something up, that would be wonderful.” Andy said. He crossed the room to a cabinet and opened it to reveal a bar. “Something to stiffen the resolve, Jack?”

“Oh yes,” I said. He poured me some single malt and one for his aunt and the four of us sat.

“So, Auntie,” my friend said. “Tell me exactly how my father died.”

Chapter Three:

Legacy of Death

Once the words were said Andy seemed to deflate, sinking into himself on the settee. He stayed focused ahead while alternately his Aunt and uncle related the facts as were known about the death of Lord Granville.

“It was Archibald who found Reginald,” the woman said. “Pollex came running home, and after your father didn’t return the staff went looking for him. He was a the foot of the wall.” She rose from the chair and walked to a glass cabinet and removed a small dark statue from the back of a shelf.

“This was clutched in your father’s hands.”

It was the image of a bearded man on a half horse-half fish.

“Is that Roman?” I asked.

“Yes,” Athelstan spoke up. “I looked it up in one Reggie’s books, it is Neptunus equestris some sort of Roman god. Apparently the cavalry had him as some sort of mascot.”

“He would have been their patron,” I said. “Each regiment would have had a sort of patron god, like we might have a patron saint.”

“Father found that at the wall?” Andrew asked.

“Yes,” Andy’s aunt said. “He must have—none of us had ever seen it before yesterday. He- he was clutching it to his chest.”

“Was it his heart?” My friend asked. The way he asked it made me think that he was almost hoping that it was.

“No,” the solicitor said. “He had been trampled; the doctor said it was as if a herd of horses had run over him but there were no horse tracks anywhere else on the heath at all.”

Andy shot back his drink in one motion. “I thought it would be just like great Granddad.”

“So it was the curse?” I said. The three of them looked at me as if I were a simpleton but Mistress Gaunt was gracious.

“I know you might think we country bumpkins are primitive folk, Captain Stone,” she said. “Simple in our beliefs and out of touch with the modern world, but I assure you we are not. Yet there are some things that are not so modern about this land; it is an old land with old, dark legends. The Phantom Stallion of the Granvilles is one of those legends. And I assure you, it is true.”

I could see that Andy, torn as he was with pain at his father’s death bridled at having his guest confronted so directly. I rushed to thwart his rising anger.

“I can assure you, madam,” I said quickly. “I do not at all take such tales lightly. You forget I am a Scot and I come from a land where such things are still part of the daily life.” I could not tell her that before my association with Doctor Argent I might have been skeptical but now I had met the forces of darkness face to snarling face and was more inclined to believe such horrors as not.

Just then the butler, Roland, brought some cold meats and bread for us and we indulged ourselves in the silence of our own thoughts while we dined. The atmosphere of gloom hung over the four of us and indeed in the very air of that old manor. I tried to assess the others as we ate but it was hard to ‘read’ them.

The solicitor, though his general demeanor seemed earnest watched all of us, his wife included with hooded eyes. Perhaps it was the natural suspicion a solicitor has of all society that makes him question everything but my impression was that it was personal with him.

Andrew’s aunt on the other hand kept her eyes on my friend, warm open eyes brimming with emotion. She, in fact, seemed on the edge of hysteria and sipped a cognac while we ate.

Andy worked to stay detached but I could see the wheels of his mind working. After a time he said, “I would like to see my father.”

“He is still in his room,” Athelstan said. “Doctor Conners pronounced him there.”

“We thought you would want to make the arrangements.” His aunt said.

“No,” Andy said, “thank you, Aunt Gloria, but I’d rather you did all that. I just want to see him to say goodbye.”

“I’ll take care of all the arrangements,” Athelestan offered. “I will ride into town before lunch.”

Andy thanked him and then rose to head upstairs. I let him go alone. Athelstan left straight away for Hexham. That left me alone with his aunt.

“You are a good friend of Andrew,” she said. She had renewed her drink and stood by the shelf where the dark statue was on display. “He needs friends now.”

“He is a true brother-in-arms and a good man,” I said with no prevarication. “I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Being with him may be enough,” she said then added ominously. “But if it is not—you must be prepared to come to his aid.”

“Are you implying that this Phantom Stallion could return?” I said. “I thought it was a generational aberration.”

The stately woman gave a short, harsh laugh. “The end of a generational aberration,” she said. She took a deep drink. “When our father died at the hands of the Phantom, Reginald and I were both shocked—for our grandfather had died at sea and no one in the line had died at the Stallion’s hooves except for Great Granddad for five generations before. But then there were other murders on the heath.”

“Others?”

“Yes, a girl from the village, several shepherds and a child died in similar circumstance. And possibly there were others over the last decades. Bodies found with the trample marks on them—or what could be conjectured were trample marks. Nothing could ever be proven—it could have been many accidents but it…” Her eyes teared up. “The villagers began to blame our family for somehow reawakening the curse.”

“Did it?” I asked. Her sharp look at my inquiry was almost painful. “Understand, I am not making light of your pain or of this curse. I have had some contact with such things and there is usually some sort of trigger. Even the seemingly irrational has a rational structure to it.”

She considered what I had said for a long breath then said, “My great grandfather had begun to make surveys at the edge of our land with an eye toward irrigation the land near the Wall. That was what made the townsfolk angry, there had been exploratory trenches dug and certain objects from the past were uncovered.”

“Like that Neptune statue?” I rose and poured myself a second drink, sure that I would need to be fortified for my next move.

“Yes.” She surprised me with a genuine laugh that harkened back to a happier time and I could see that she must have been quite a beauty before the worry lines aged her. “My brother got his fascination for ancient artifacts then, pulling coins and such from the trenches. It was—it was why he often went walking along the wall.”

“I promise you madam,” I said. “I will do my utmost to stop this curse here and now. And I will protect Andy.” She looked at me with an odd expression, apparently trying to decide if I was just humoring her or was serious. She made her decision and gave me a smile.

“I believe you will, young man,” she said.

“Or die trying,” I added.

“God bless you for that!”

Just then I noticed that the hunchbacked gardener was standing in the doorway.

“’Scuse me, folks,” he said. He held his shapeless hat in his hands and wrung it. “Will you be wanting me to stable the master and his friend’s horses in the main stable?”

“We leased them,” I said. “But I think you should leave them saddled right now; I suspect Master Granville and I will have one more ride before you bed the animals down for the night.”

“Another ride?” Mrs. Gaunt asked.

“To the Wall,” I said. “If I know Andrew he will want to visit the spot where his father was found.”

Mrs. Gaunt gave a short gasp. “No. Andrew can’t want to—“

“Yes, I do,” my friend said. He came into the room from the hall. His eyes were red rimmed but his posture was dress parade erect. “I think I’d like to do it before dinner.”

“I’ll take you, sir,” Archibald offered. “I’ll just go saddle old Bessy.” The aged gardener left after accepting a pat on his shoulder from Andy.

“Do you think it wise, Andrew?” His aunt asked. “It can only bring more pain.”

“There can be no more pain, Auntie,” he said. “Only answers. That is what I have to find.” He looked at me and I gave him the most confident smile I could manage.

“And with those, my friend,” I said. “I can help.”

Chapter Four:

The Dark of the Past

The ride out from Granville Manor was a somber and silent one. My friend seemed infused with purpose by his vigil with his father’s body and his jaw was set in a fashion I had only seen before we rode into battle.

Good for you, lad, I thought. If you view this as a battle we can beat it, that’s something I’ve learned from Doctor Argent.

The hunchback led us across the heath down a narrow but well defined track over the low hills. He respected his master’s quiet focus and kept his directions to a minimum until we were almost on the wall.

“I found his Lordship over that way,” Archibald said pointing. “Almost at the foot of the damned thing.”

I was reminded of the violent history of the countryside as we passed the ruins of one of the smaller “bastle houses” or fortified farmhouses which are unique to Northumberland. It seemed to me an ominous omen of things dark and dangerous.

There was a ground fog crawling along the hollows of the broken land that did not improve the mood of any of us as we approached the ruined military emplacements.

It was my first time to actually study the wall, a fact that shames my Scottish heritage.

The magnificent wall ran for 73 miles and caused me to marvel at the Romans. Their engineers made use of every natural point of strength and at its highest it rose to 1230ft above sea level. It stood at nearly 5 meters in height at some points and large forts about 5 miles apart as well as numerous mile castles.

It was, at least in the sections we were approaching, still recognizable as the cut stone battlements with the ruins of the commander’s house, the praetorium, clearly visible.

Stones had been taken from parts of the wall but it was so vast a structure that it was still at least shoulder high to me or more in most places. It stretched to the horizon on both sides, a long snaking line of orange-yellow rock that stood out against the brown and green of the coarse grass.

“Over there, sir,” Archibald said. He pointed to a spot inside a square of stones that butted to one of the higher sections of the wall. It seems to have been a major building, probably from its location I would guess a cavalry barracks.

We dismounted and the hunchback led us to the center of the ghost space. “Here, Master Andrew,” the old man said pointing down at the ground. “Right here.” The location was almost dead center within the low stones of the square enclosure.

Andy stood there with a strange expression on his face and for a moment I thought he might faint, the color draining from his already pale cheeks. He rallied, however and nodded. “Here, Archibald?”

“Exactly, Master,” the hunchback said. He knelt and patted the disturbed earth of the enclosure. “Right here. Lord Reginald was facing the wall, clutching that statue. His eyes were open and, well, his expression was such as I’ve never seen nor never hope to see again. Scared he was, truly scared.”

Once more Andy seemed to waver and I stepped up to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. He stiffened then nodded. He dropped to one knee and ran a hand along the rough grass as if he could feel where his father’s last breath might still be lying for him to recapture.

I stepped away to give him privacy and noticed something shiny in the dirt near the wall. I went to it and stopped to discover that it was a small medallion in the shape of a female wolf. It was something such as a soldier might have worn long ago for good luck, invoking the wolf-mother that had suckled Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.

I raised it to my eye-line to study it and suddenly I felt a strange tingle in all my limbs. I felt dizzy and red spots swam before my eyes. I shook my head to clear it and blinked hard; suddenly I was not looking at the ruins of a stone home but was inside a fully realized one.

There was more, however, I was standing inside a stone home that was abuzz with activity. There was fire roaring in a hearth and a pot simmering over it. To my right I saw the statue of Neptunus equestris that I had seen in the Granville manor house. On my left there were local gods on their own shelf, I guess the two were not meant to mix.

A spotted tabby cat ran across the room chasing an imaginary mouse and a woman swept with a crude homemade broom.

The woman was dressed in a shapeless dun colored dress and had her straw colored hair tied back with a red cloth. She looked over at me and I saw her eyes go wide.

“What do you want here, Centurion?” She said at me. Her words were harsh and I realized with a bit of shock that they were not in English. She spoke a guttural Latin, yet I understood them!

She stared at me and her plain but pretty features darkened. “I asked you a question, Roman,” She said. “You were told to stay away from here by your commander.”

I was stunned by her pronouncement and more so by the voice—which was mine and not mine—that answered her in Latin. “I told you I’d be back, Elgiue. You made it difficult for me with the commander when you reported me.”

The woman spit. “You Romans are all alike but at least Maximus Flavius keeps his word. He promised to punish all those who hurt Algiwa.”

“That wench was asking for it,” I heard my voice snarl. ”She had no business in the barracks if she didn’t want a little fun.”

“Algiwa was a good girl, Gaius,” the blonde woman said. She threw down her broom and for a moment I thought she would spring across the room at me. “You soldiers got her drunk, you used her like a bar whore and then threw her away. The shame was too much for her and she took her own life.”

“Your lying like that got me a reprimand before the whole cohort,” I heard myself say. “I swear by my wolf pendant that I will see you pay for that.”

My words seemed to ignite a fire in the Saxon woman, she charged across the dirt floor of the hovel and jumped at my face. The hands that came up to protect me were mine and not mine. They were a brute’s hands wearing the vambraces of a Roman soldier.

That strange self of me grabbed the woman and savaged her, slamming her against the stone wall of the enclosure. I heard my other-self screaming obscenities as I repeatedly smashed her against the wall. I slammed her against the shelf where the family gods were set.

Somehow I knew that was how I lived my life—that other life—somehow I knew this was ‘normal’ for the Centurion I was experiencing.

I now knew I was experiencing what Doctor Argent called “psychometry’- the art of gathering vibrations from objects to ‘read’ them and experience what the owners had. The wolf medallion I had found had belonged to that soldier so long ago and somehow—though I had never experienced such a phenomena before—I was seeing through his eyes.

It was a strange duel reality for I was aware I was Jack Stone and yet knew I was Gaius Cipprio of the 9th Legion of Imperial Rome. I knew I was living in the time when the wall was still manned and I knew without a doubt that I was alive when the curse of the Granville’s had been made.

The Saxon woman was barely conscious when I finally forced myself to release her. She fell hard against the shelf where Neptunus equestris rested and grabbed it up to thrust at me as if it where a talisman and a shield. She glared up at my ancient self with undisguised hate and hissed, “I curse you, Roman, and all your seed. May your own gods curse you and may death follow in your wake.”

Then my ancient self—my Roman self killed her with single knife thrust to her heart.

I felt sick, staggeringly sick, suddenly, and backed out of the stone hut. The sunlight was blinding and I blinked hard.

To my right the fully intact wall rose almost shining in the sunlight. Guards in full segmenta armor stood upon the battlements facing outward, northward, watching for the wild, painted Scots beyond.

All around me was the bustle and noise of a military camp, so familiar yet so different from those I had been in, in my ‘modern’ life. There were townsfolk too, tent-like structures butted to the wall and various domestic and herd animals.

I felt dizzy again and the sickness in my gut seemed to travel to all my limbs. I shuddered and made a noise such as I have never heard before, a whining cry that came from within my very soul.

My yell attracted the attention of some of the Saxons working nearby and two of the legionaries who were attending to horses. All eyes turned toward me as I dropped to my knees and writhed.

Chapter Five:

The Horror on the Heath

I felt my other-self, long ago, body change.

The shadow of my body on the ground began to alter as I stared at it. I saw my chest deepen, my neck elongate and my arms lengthen. On the side of my head I could see my ears growing upward even as my nose elongated. My skull widened and grew larger as my neck widened to support it.

My mind went to the statue of Neptunus equestris and I saw in my mind’s eye the ancient god laughing at me.

The looks of horror on all the faces around me, the cries of ‘Demon!” and screams from the children told me what that deity had done to me.

My ancient self, my transformed self, felt only rage at the cries from the onlookers. That rage grew within the beast I had become and I reared up, spinning to face the tormentors and attacked.

I shudder to recall the savagery of my ancient self as I struck out at the watchers with my hands and feet that were now hooves. I spun and reared, kicked back with my hind legs and whinnied in fury. Skulls cracked, blood ran yet, despite my horror at my own actions I pressed on till all around me was red.

I heard Latin and Gaelic screams of ‘stop him!’ were all around me. I barely heard them. The blood that splattered on my hooves pounded in my ears as well and I became dizzy again.

I fell forward to my fore-hooves and my elongated, now massive head dropped in despair. I close my eyes to blot out the horror I had wrought and wished I had hands to put over my ears to blot out the roar and the screams to terror.

“Jack!” Andy yelled at me. “Jack, are you alright?” I felt his shaking my shoulder and I looked up at my friend who, it seemed was pale with fear.

I blinked. Behind him there was no stonewall, just the ruins of one. I was kneeling in traces of the old buildings again and was back on the heath outside Granville Manor.

I held up a hand—an actual hand before my eyes and realized I was holding the wolf medallion in it. I was back to myself again.

“Andy?” I mumbled.

“You had us worried there, old fellow,” Andy said. “You started to totter over then came swaggering out here making the oddest noises.” Beyond my friend I could see the hunchbacked gardener looking at me oddly.

“I—uh—I had the strangest experience,” I managed to say. I looked down at the medallion and had a flash of insight. I had a real idea now what I was dealing with.

“Here,” Andy said offering me some of my own flask of whiskey, “You need this.” I took it gratefully. “We had better get back,” he added with an attempt at a smile, ‘ it is getting near supper time and Cookie’s meals are not to be missed.”

I was unsteady on my feet so Andy helped me to my mount. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure what came over me.” It was a lie, of course, I knew fully well what had occurred, though, to be sure, not the full meaning of it.

I had no doubt I had witnessed not only the beginning of the curse itself but the full extent of it and why it had come in full force in the recent history of the Granville family. I knew I had to get to town to wire Doctor Argent or possibly ring him on a telephone if there was one to be found in the hamlet.

“Town,” I mumbled to Andy. “I think it’s a stomach ailment I picked up in Pretoria; I’ll head into the apothecary and get a powder for it.”

“Are you sure you’re up for it, chum?” My friend asked. “You looked even paler than your usual Highland pallor back there.”

I laughed. “You can shepherd me if you’d like, but I’m okay now.”

“I had better head home to take a look at my father’s papers,” Andy said.

I hated to lie to my friend, but I also did not want to alarm him with the knowledge that I had so little power against the impending evil that plagued his family.

I remember little of the ride back to town save that I had to keep myself from falling off my mount several times. I guess my time traveling excursion had taken more out of me than I had thought. “Wonder how the Guv does it so often; no wonder he trains so hard.” I had seen Doctor Argent do much longer sessions of psychometry and shown no ill effects; but he also spent hours each day in meditation and exotic exercises that I had not, until then, appreciated.

I reached Hexham and located a telegraph office that also had a telephone I could use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Doctor was at his office.

“Yes, I got your message, Jack,” he said. “I returned this morning and set about researching your problem; I’m afraid that is not much I could determine save that there seems to be at least a dozen deaths attributed to this Phantom Stallion killer in the last decade.”

“That is concerning,” I said, “but how could it be connected to the family?”

“I am not sure, but there may be a pattern appearing,” He said. “The local papers also speak of disappearances of young men and women with considerable passion.”

I went on to tell him of my experience with the wolf pendant at the wall. This seemed to worry him.

“I will make my way up to you as soon as I can,” the Doctor said. “But I suggest you stay as close as possible with your friend until then and keep him off the heath certainly at night; I suspect there is something at work here. It is very real, and serious, not just a mere family legend.”

It was a sobering pronouncement, but I promised him I would do my best to protect Andy.

When I exited the telegraph office I was sobered by my conversation the Guv, my mind was on what I had experienced on the heath and so was distracted enough to bump into a passerby on the darkening street.

“Excuse me,” I half-mumbled.

“Well look’er, Alfie,” a familiar voice answered me. “It is Mister High-and-Mighty’s mate.” I looked up to see the two roughnecks from out arrival the day before.

I studied them now, laborers, obviously, with well-worn clothes and weathered, rough features. Alfie was ginger haired like myself with broad shoulders. He was a head shorter than his vocal friend.

“I think he ought to get himself some spectacles, eh Byron?” Alfie said in a low growl that was more animal than human. “Or maybe learn to look where he’s going.”

“I think he’s too proud to get glasses, Alfie,” Bryon said. He was blond and had the pale beginnings of a mustache above his sneering mouth. “Or maybe he just doesn’t care about us regular folk.”

“No offense was meant,” I said to diffuse the situation. It was hard for my Scot’s blood to back down from the fight the two men were angling for but Andy at home by himself was on my mind. It seemed urgent that I return.

“Hear that, Alfie,” the blond said. “No offense meant.”

“Well I was offended,” the beetle-browed redhead said. “I think he wasn’t very sincere in that apology. At all.”

There are limits to patience. In, or perhaps because of, my unnerved state from my time travel encounter, I wanted for some physical release. Still, I tried once more for the Christian path.

“I reiterate, sirs,” I said in a calm voice. “No offense was meant. Please allow me to go about my business.” I made to step past the two men but Alfie put a hand on my arm to stop me.

“I said apologize!” He snarled.

The limit was passed.

Before either man could proceed further I slapped the red head’s hand off me and snapped out a jab to his nose. Not hard, just enough to make his eyes water and get him away from me.

Byron moved quickly at me but his staggering friend got in the way and I was able to launch an over hand right directly over the whimpering thug’s head at Byron.

My blow landed solidly on the blond’s jaw and he dropped with no more fight in him.

Alfie had recovered enough sight to realize what had happened and tried to use his great bulk to grab for me but I was having none of it.

I hopped back on one foot and kicked out with my other boot to strike him on the leading knee that caused him to collapse over with a cry of agony.

I stepped in and struck him soundly on the temple and rendered him unconscious so that he dropped directly over the prostrate form of his friend.

They looked for all-the-world like two drunks sleeping off a bad night, which indeed it had been for them.

I made my way to my horse just as the exhilaration of the altercation began to drain and my legs went rubbery beneath me. I managed to mount and gave the horse his head and he knew the way back to the manor. It was a slow trip and it was late afternoon by the time I made it back.

I was a little steadier by the time I returned to the manor, but still tired. I was able to get to my room and have a toes-up until mealtime by which time I felt my old self again.

“You’re looking better, sir,” the hunchback gardener said when I came down in full dress for supper. He was passing the open window to the side garden with an armload of pottery when I happened to pause to look out on the now gloomy evening across the heath. The moon was just up, looming like a Cyclops through the dense fog, winking in and out of the cloud cover.

“Told you I would be chipper,” I said smiling at the memory of my knuckles on Alfie’s head. “Highland constitution, don’t you know?”

“Indeed, sir.” Archibald said.

“Where’s master Andrew?” I asked.

“He went walking out toward the wall just a little bit ago, sir. As he used to, to clear his head a bit, he said.”

“By himself?” I said. “The Wall?” But I wasn’t really asking him, I was moving as quickly as I could to the west and the wall.

The path was a clear one and I knew that Andrew’s father had used it many times to head out on his rambles. I had a horrible premonition of danger for my friend and his aunt that was only exacerbated by the gathering darkness.

A thick ground fog was crawling up across the heath again and in moments even the manor house behind me was a mere smudge in the grey evening. Above it the blurred image of the full moon was attempting to push through the mist.

“Andy!” I called but my words were swallowed by the fog. “Answer me!”

There was no reply but a sound, a strange sound drew my attention off to my right. It was a guttural cry of pain.

I started to run.

“Andy!” I called. There was no reply but the grunt sound happened again followed by what I can only liken to a mallet hitting a sack of millet. I knew that sound; a beating was in progress.

I topped a small rise just as there was a break in the fog and the moon illuminated a scene from hell: Andy was on the ground doubled over in a fetal position trying to protect his head. Above him was a sight I had never imagined nor ever hoped to see.

It was indistinct in detail, seeming to rise out of the ground mist like the Phantom is was so named. At first glance it looked like a Lusitano horse. It was a good eighteen hands high.

What was visible in the gathering darkness and the fog was such a horse as I had never seen before.

Its head was somehow deformed, the proportions of the great triangular head not right. The teeth of the monster were not the square ones of a normal horse but looked more like the fangs of a great cat.

What I could see of the haunches of the great beast seemed to have scales that were more that of a fish or snake than of an equine animal. It had a white coat but flame red mane and tail and eyes that reflected crimson in the sliver of moonlight. The equine horror reared back and flailed its fore-hooves at my fallen friend.

“Stop,” I screamed impotently. I started to run faster, flailing my arms wildly as I knew would frighten off any normal wild horse. This, however, was no normal wild horse.

Instead of chasing the equine horror my waving my arms I drew its attention and it focused its fiery eyes on me. It was an eerie feeling for there seemed to be an intelligence behind those red eyes that was well beyond any I had ever seen in any animal. More frightening was that the intelligence seemed to be totally focused on hate. Hate so pure and virulent that it startled me.

Then the horse with the bloody hooves charged straight at me!

Chapter Six:

Out of the Mist

I was so startled by the sudden change of events that for a moment I came to a complete halt. For an infinite moment it felt as if my muscles would not respond to my command to dodge out of the monster’s path. It bore down on me with frightening speed. I felt transfixed by the mythic horror’s lambent eyes and my muscles palsied.

Suddenly life came back to me and I managed to dart to my left to avoid the attack at the last moment. I dove to the turf and rolled behind a hillock as the creature raced past me with the mass and speed of a runaway steam engine.

There was no mistaking that the beast was intelligent in the next moment for it veered when it went past, racing around me to cut off my retreat so I could not go back toward the house. It stood pawing the earth of the path and snorting like one of the riders of the apocalypse, the fog swirling around it as if bubbling up from the pits of hell. It seemed to dare me to try and get past it.

I was on my feet now and managed to angle myself to head toward Andy. He was sprawled on the ground and moaning. I could not run to him directly for the hellish equine whirled again to come after me.

I dodged into a small depression behind another hillock that blocked me from the animal’s view and tried to come up with some plan. I had to either get to Andy to aid him, get to the manor for help or find some way to stop the monstrous misshapen equine myself.

There seemed no reasonable way to get to the manor and no point in getting to Andy if I could not stop the horse so I was forced to accept that a good defense would have to be a good offense.

I picked up two fist-sized rocks and looked around for a high point from which I might be able to leap down upon the demon beast. I heard it moving around the knoll to come for me.

That was when Andy’s moan drew its attention to him again. The beast turned to head for him and I used the distraction to race up the slight rise in the ground till I was above it.

The frightful monster was ten feet from my friend, now in a slow advance, head lowered, fearsome teeth in a snarl. It moved in more like a great cat stalking prey then a horse.

“Here, Neptune!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. The long ears of the monster twitched but it kept its head down, eyes focused on the helpless Andy.

“Do you want to know how Algiwa squealed when I stuck her?” I hurled at the beast with the most vicious tone I could muster. The foul comment got the reaction I wanted and the equine horror snapped its head around to stare at me.

I threw the rock with all my might with my best Cricket toss.

The rock flew true, smashing into the horrid head right between its eyes. The sound was like a solid batsman’s hit, a sharp crack followed by a strange whinny from the beast.

I raised the second rock to throw even as the monstrosity staggered, almost dropping to its right fore knee.

Before I could throw the second stone, and with a cry I could only interpret as a moan, it lopped off into the gathering fog.

I ran to Andy’s side.

“My god, man!” He gasped at me. “What was that?”

“Your past catching up with you, Andrew, old fellow,” I said. I looked to his wounds, which fortunately looked superficial while keeping an eye to the trail where the monster had fled.

“Is it—“

“Gone for the moment,” I said. “But it could lick its wounds and come back any time. Can you walk?”

“I bloody well can run if that thing comes back,” He said with considerable pain in his voice but with the pluck I knew he had. “Let’s go.”

I helped him to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him back down the path to the manor house. I kept the second rock in my hand the entire walk but the beast did not make a reappearance.

By the time we reached the manor house Andy was all but unconscious and I was actually carrying him. I kicked the door and yelled until it was opened.

“Master Andrew!” The butler was beside himself when he saw the state of my friend and lost all of his professional demeanor. I had to order him sharply to get him moving to help carrying Andy to the parlor where we set him on the divan. I began to open Andy’s jacket to assess the extent of his injuries.

Like a good cavalryman my friend had protected his head fairly well from the attack, but his ribs and back were already showing bruises and I feared internal injury.

“Bring some wash clothes and some hot water for me to clean these wounds.” A maid ran off to comply. I grabbed a brandy bottle and poured a small glass that I induced Andy to drink. I ordered the butler. “Call for the physician.”

“Someone will have to ride for the doctor,” the now calmer Roland said. “We have none of the new phones.”

“Send them then,” I said. Despite no obviously or bloody wounds on his head I was sure Andy had sustained some head blows as he was slipping in and out of consciousness now. “I can deal with the superficial cuts, but this will require more care than I can give.”

“What is the commotion?” Athelstan Gaunt called as he and his wife came running, from two different wings of the house.

“Andrew! “The woman exclaimed when she saw her nephew. “What in heaven’s name happened?” His aunt asked. She was in a dressing gown, her hair all-askew. She knelt by the head of the divan and cradled Andy’s head in her hands.

I was washing some of the open wounds on Andy’s chest and looked up to answer her but stopped when I saw her husband. The solicitor was in a smoking jacket and fez, but what caught my attention was a large red knot on his forehead.

“What happened to you?” I blurted out.

He looked at me oddly then touched the bump on his forehead. “Uh—a book fell from a shelf. Nuisance, but nothing of concern.”

I was about to say something when the front doorbell chimed.

I went back to Andy’s wounds without any more comment and was so occupied when a commotion at the front door, followed by a booming, familiar voice.

I looked up to see the Guv—Doctor Augustus Argent step into the foyer of the manor. He was wearing an Inverness coat, holding a Gladstone bag in one hand and had, what appeared to be a rolled up Persian carpet slung over one shoulder. He was sans cap and his long white hair was a tangle as if wind blown.

“Well, Jack,” he said when he saw what I was doing. “I seem to have come at exactly the opportune moment!”

Chapter Seven:

House Call

I must have looked more than a little stunned to see my mentor standing there.

“Doctor Argent?” I blurted out with idiot certainty. “How—I mean—You were in London—”

“Doctor?” Athelstan said. “Are you a medical doctor, sir?”

“Among other things,” the Silver Fox said as he strode into the room. He handed the rolled carpet to the butler. “Do keep my trusty steed for me.” He said then moved to kneel beside Andy’s head, a look of concern on his face.

“You’ve made a good start, Jack, but there is a bit to do here. You can tell me exactly what happened as I work.” He looked up to the still startled Roland. “Fetch me hot water, some honey and several large bowls.” After he issued the orders the Doctor removed his Inverness coat and jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

The butler did as asked after handing off the rolled carpet to the gardener, glad, I suspect, to be away from the piercing gaze of the Silver Fox.

I gave a concise summery of what had happened to Andy while my mentor examined his wounds in great detail.

“Who is this man, Captain Stone?” Mrs. Gaunt asked me in a shaky voice. She stood by with her husband in an apparent state of shock.

“The man who will save this young man if I am not interrupted, Madam,” Doctor Argent said briskly. He opened his Gladstone and proceeded to remove several vials and set them on the table beside the divan.

Athelstan was about to object to the brusk tone of the silver haired mage but I held up a hand.

“Doctor Argent is attached to the Home Office,” I said. “And is very well versed in matters such as this.” I stood and escorted the couple out of the parlor. “I promise he will only help, Mistress Gaunt, but we must let him do his work.”

I met the maid returning with the supplies Doctor Argent had requested and brought them in to him.

“How is he?” I asked.

“Fine, Jack,” the silver haired mage said with a slight smile. “He is strong and you did a good job cleaning the wounds. Now we will let the honey and these powders do the rest.”

He proceeded to smear honey into the open wounds and drop some powder onto the edges before bandaging them. When he saw my questioning look he said. “The Egyptians used honey to prevent wounds like these from putrefying and it helps them heal faster—as do these powders.”

He mixed some more powders in the bowl I’d brought and made a sort of broth to give to Andy to sip. “And this will help heal him on the inside.” While he worked the silver haired Doctor chanted under his breath in a language I could not identify but had the weight of age in its syllables.

I watched as Andy settled back on the divan with a calm expression on his face and listened as his breathing evened and deepened. He seemed at peace.

“He needs rest now,” the Doctor said as he rose. He rolled his sleeves down and took up his jacket. “Though I would prefer someone watch him; if there is any change I should be summoned.” For the first time I could see that behind his mask of vitality my mentor was tired. “I need some rest myself,” he admitted.

“I will see a servant watches over him,” I promised. “Come. We will get you a room.” As we turned to leave he picked up his Gladstone bag then indicated the rolled rug. “Do take my steed with you.”

“You said that before,” I said. “Do you mean—?”

“How else do you think I made it up here from London so quickly?’ He smiled. “A little something I picked up in Arabia some decades ago; but seldom have occasion to use.” He shrugged, “ I don’t really like heights.”

Amazed at his confession I led him out into the hall and sent a serving girl to keep watch over her master.

“How is he?” Lady Gaunt asked.

“As well as could be expected,” Doctor Argent said. “He is strong and young and will recover fully.”

“Thank God!” Athelstan exclaimed.

“But what does it all mean?” The lady asked.

“That is the dark question here,’ Argent said. “I feel there are no answers yet, however. Certainly not tonight. Better to discuss the shadows in the daylight.” With that he turned to the butler, all but dismissing our hosts and said, “Please show me to a room and draw me a bath. I feel I need it.”

He led the confused butler up the stair while the Gaunts fumed and I did my best to sooth them with, “The Guv is a little unorthodox, ma’am, but he is the right man to clear this all up, the curse and all. Just bear with him.”

They were about to question me but I shouldered Doctor Argent’s flying carpet and headed up the stairs to my own room.

I could almost hear the silence behind me as I ascended, and I must say, that though I felt their confusion-bred annoyance I had such confidence in the Guv and his abilities I knew that any rudeness would be forgiven when the whole of the story came out.

When I reached the Guv’s room I knocked and then brought in the carpet at his call of, “Enter, Jack!”

The Doctor was stripped to his waist and just donning a robe as I entered. His musculature was symmetrical and wiry with no fat at all. “Just set the carpet over there,” he indicated a chair.

“Just what is it all about, Doctor?” I asked. “You were a bit short with them downstairs, sir, if I might say. More so than usual.”

He gave a short laugh. “Well, yes. Downright rude I’d say.”

“Indeed, sir,” I said, actually relieved he was aware of his abruptness.

“There was a reason,” He said.

“I am relieved to knew that sir, though I suspected as much. But why?”

“This curse is a deeply imbedded terror, Jack,” he said. “And I think it better, for this night at least, for the Gaunts to be annoyed at me than fearing the lurking curse.”

“What is to be done?”

The silver haired mage shrugged. “I do not know yet; I will investigate in the daylight, meditate and we will see.”

He walked out with me to head to the bathroom stopping to add, “You did right to call me; your friend Andrew was lucky you came with him. More will be discovered in the morning. Now get some rest.”

Chapter Eight:

Horror on the Heath

In the morning the heath outside of the manor house was no more cheerful than it had been the night before. A low, dense fog crawled along the hollows, lit by the rising sun it glowed a blue-white.

I was looking at it form the window of the breakfast room, casting my eyes in the direction of the Wall when Mrs. Gaunt and her husband entered. Both were more composed by a night of sleep, but still a bit on edge.

“I just checked on Andrew,” I said before either spoke. “He is resting comfortably and in a natural sleep.” Both visibly relaxed. “Doctor Argent looked in on him before I did and pronounced him well on the mend, but it is best we let him rest.”

“Where is this Doctor of yours?” Athelstan asked.

All three took their seats at the table as the servants began to bring in the food.

“The Guv is out for a morning constitutional,” I said as I buttered a scone. “He likes to start the day off with it to clear his head.”

“Well I wish you would clear the air,” the solicitor. “Just what steps are you and this—Doctor fellow—doing to find out what happened to Andrew?”

Before I could answer the Silver Fox strode into the room like a stalking lion, his long white hair streaming behind him. He eschewed a starched collar on his white shirt and was wearing an old style long blue jacket, gold waistcoat and green trousers. His whole image was of a swashbuckling figure that might have stepped out of an American Penny Dreadful.

“’Morning, all!” Doctor Argent said as he took a place at the table. He was so vital and energetic that the room seemed to brighten. All conversation halted while we ate, inspired, in part, by his great delight in the consumption.

“Doctor,” Mrs. Gaunt said after a bit, “I—uh—about my nephew—“

“Young Lord Granville is resting naturally, madam,” Argent said in a calm, confident voice. “I would suggest he do so most of the day to be sure he is well past any crisis.”

“What are you doing about the Stallion?” Andy’s aunt asked.

“Investigating, madam,” the Guv said. “Directly after breakfast Jack and I shall venture to look over where the attack occurred.”

“But—Andrew is vulnerable.” She insisted.

“He is safe in this house, certainly during daylight,” Doctor Argent said. “By dark we will formulate a plan.”

True to his word after breakfast the Guv and I walked out to the heath—he insisted on walking that we might survey the ground of both attacks.

He moved along slowly, his eyes glued to the terrain like a red Indian, which only increased his resemblance to one of the American Dime novel heroes. Occasionally he would stoop the touch or even sniff the ground.

When he had seen where the old Lord had died we went to the sight of the attack on Andy. After he prowled about for a while he stood, brushed dirt off his trousers and looked at me with intense eyes.

“I know why the attacks occurred when they did now, Jack.” He said, “And it is all the more important that we keep young Granville off the heath this night.”

“What have you found, sir?”

He looked across the dun colored landscape toward the remnants of the wall and kept me in suspense for a while then said simply, “Would it not be most interesting if Neptunus equestris, as he is connected to the sea, were not connected to the tides?”

I was about to ask him what he meant but he turned on his heels and headed back to the manor without filling me in on his plans. It wasn’t so unusual, he had done it before, but it was no less frustrating for its familiarity.

◊ ◊ ◊

Andy improved markedly during the day though the Doctor and his Aunt both agreed that he should stay in his room to continue to recover. He bridled at that, but I kept him occupied with chess and conversation when he had strength enough and was able to let him rest when he did not.

By Dinnertime the sun was setting and the fall mist was crawling along the hollows of the countryside, given eerie sentience by a low moon.

The Gaunt’s were already seated at the table when I burst into the room.

“Andy’s gone!” I yelled.

“What?” Athelstan blurted out. “What do you mean, gone?” He leapt to his feet.

“When I went to his room just now he was not there. I asked the servants and they—there!” I pointed out the window. “On the path to the heath!”

They looked and we could all just see Andrew’s dress jacket disappearing over a hill into the fog.

“Oh my goodness!”  Mrs. Gaunt exclaimed. “What is he thinking!”

“We have to stop him!” I yelled as I raced from the room and out of the manor house. The two of them followed.

The fog was so thick now that the moment we were in it the path all but disappeared ahead of us and we were forced to retard out steps to less than a full run.

“I can’t see the bloody pathway,” Athelstan said after a few minutes.

“We have to find him,” I said with urgency when we reached a point in the trail where it could have gone a number of ways. “We should split up.”

The other two reluctantly agreed and headed off into the deep dark.

“Andrew!” Mrs. Gaunt yelled.

“Andrew!” Athelstan called in echo.

The sound of both their voices were muffled in the enveloping mist and soon I was as alone in the fog as if I were on the dark side of the moon.

I was forced to proceed slowly, at little more than a walk, by the enveloping miasma which allowed little of the gibbous moon’s light for vision.

A few minutes of this and I came to a deep hollow where the fog seemed more solid than liquid and across which I could see the bright red of Andrew’s jacket.

“Andrew!” I called out.

“Here!” a harsh, whispered voice came back.

Just then a nightmare figure exploded out of the fog and galloped toward the jacket; the Phantom Stallion!

The hideous beast, barely visible in the gloom, rocketed toward the slash of red and proceeded to rear and strike, slamming down with the front hooves in a viscous and calculated attack.

I pulled my Webley, took deliberate aim and squeezed off three shots.

There was a hellacious caterwauling, a scream from the dark realms themselves that emanated from the throat of the beast and the creature wheeled. It raced off into the fog as I ran down toward the sight of the attack.

The jacket, torn to shreds was stomped into the ground and it was clear it had been hanging on a bush, an effective decoy for the Phantom. Of its wearer, there was no sign.

Just then I heard something else that changed everything.

“Captain Stone?” It was the voice of Andy’s Aunt Gloria! Her voice sounded strained and full of fear. “Help me!”

Epilogue:

By the Wall

“Where are you?” I called as I ran toward where I thought she was calling from. I rounded a clump of gorse to see her kneeling in the middle of a small clearing looking desperately around her.

“Help me!” she said again. I looked around for any sign of the deadly phantom animal.

“Did you see the beast?’ I asked scanned the area around her.

“I was looking for Andrew and—and—“ she whimpered, “ and then out of nowhere the beast charged me.” She started to sob, “Andrew is he—me -“ She broke down completely, here shoulders jumping violently.

I saw no sign of the demon horse and so raced over to her. “We have to get you to high ground,” I said, still looking around. “I’ll hide you and then see if he is alright.”

I got about a yard from the noble woman when suddenly she stopped crying and looked up at me with a hideous grin on her face. There was something horribly familiar in her expression.

“You fool!” she said. “You are all just as gullible as the Romans were.”

I knew then where I had seen that expression; it was exactly the same I had seen in my time travel transportation into the past on the woman who began the Granville curse.

I started to back away from the mad light in her eyes but Mrs. Gaunt sprang to her feet and knocked the pistol from my hand, sending it skittering off into the gloom of the fog.

“Mrs. Gaunt,” I yelled, “You have to stop, now. I know your secret!”

The woman ignored my statement and stepped back, stood up tall and began to change. As I stared unbelievingly at her, the woman’s body began to warp and twist, her neck growing longer, her head widening. Her clothes became absorbed into her body that grew in width and height so that in less than a dozen eye blinks her whole body changed and grew, swelling to massive proportions until she had become the demon horse I had seen earlier.

The Phantom Stallion was, in fact, a Phantom Mare!

Before I could react the devil beast launched at me with a whinnying snarl. I back-pedaled and threw up my left arm in shock. The beast’s large teeth sinking into my upraised arm before I could strike out with my right fist to smash her on the nose. She released me with a snort and I ran back around the clump of gorse.

The bite was not really such a ‘little thing’—it was deep and was bleeding quite a bit. I did my best to ignore it as the transformed woman called to me.

“Give up, Captain,” Gloria Gaunt called, “You can not escape me or the curse. Not now.”

“Why?” I called out, “Why betray your brother and all the other deaths?”

The demonic laugh that came out of the fog was part human—part animal—almost a whinny. “I have been born and reborn through the generations of the Granville family; I have always been the child of Elgiue.” Her voice came from the darkness all around me and I could not get a read on where the monster was.

“I have not always been born in each generation, it is true,” she added, “and sometimes the men died from war or other things, but mostly, I waited until the were in the fullness of their lives than I took it from them.”

She sounded closer, almost on top of me. I stooped and seized a rock, holding it tightly preparing to launch it at any target that presented itself.

“I will stop you,” I called out. “If it is my last breath I will stop you.”

“I have heard that before,” she said. “But the truth is, when I finish with you I will return to my fallen nephew and will end the line of the Granvilles once and for all.”

My pulse raced, my heart pumped rapidly and my breath came in ragged, shallow gulps. The fog muffled all sounds so I could not tell where she was.

“You are wrong there,” I called. “Andrew is still resting quietly in his bed.”

I heard an intake of breath from the Phantom. “What? But I saw—“

“You saw me leaving the manor house,” Doctor Argent, in shirt sleeves, said as he stepped out of the fog. “Jack moved his friend to his own room and I wore your nephew’s jacket to lead you and your husband out here to the heath.”

“How did you know?” She said.

“I suspected,” the Silver Fox said. He stepped up to beside me and placed a hand on my shoulder to reassure me. “I discovered that the hoof prints on the heath appeared to end abruptly to be replaced by human ones and I took note of the influence of the moon on the tides. Such lunar transformations are not unknown to me. I just was not sure if it was you or your husband.”

“It makes no difference,” the transformed woman called. “I will slay you then return to the house and wait for the next moon cycle. Or the next. I have waited long, hiding in the souls of the unsuspecting females of this line. But Andrew is the last. Then my soul can sleep when this body dies and my revenge will be complete.

Abruptly the massive head of the equine horror appeared out of the mist and came straight for the two of us.

The Guv and I dove to either side as the shadow beast raced between us, carried past by its own momentum.

Close up the fishy-scaled hide of the creature was even more unearthly than at a distance, as it shone iridescent in the pale moonlight. It gave off the faint scent of the sea, salty and ancient as it flew by.

I rolled to my feet and turned before the beast had managed to whirl about preparing to charge again.

Across from me I observed that Doctor Argent had removed a small object from his shirt pocket. It was a small piece of lead the size of a dinner cracker. He also produced an iron nail and, after scratching something on the lead, placed the small metal I had found on the heath near the wall on top of it.

The Phantom Mare saw the Guv’s action and gave a cry that was a banshee wail that might have been of hate or fear. Then she charged.

This time I was ready for her attack. As she charged straight for Doctor Argent I raced up a small rise of land and launched myself into the air.

I flew at her and sprang up to slam the rock between the monster’s eyes with the full force of my whole body before landing beyond her and rolling to my feet. It was hard enough to stagger the beast.

I spun about and pressed the attack, smashing at the same spot on the stumbling beast’s head a second time.

The beast dropped to its knees, dazed.

“We will destroy you, monster,” I said with pride. ”We will!”

The creature that had been Madam Gaunt changed again, her transformation back to her human form as quick as before but this time with a great sound much like the tearing of clothe.

There was a vibration in the air as well that I felt deep down in my gut and a humming like a hundred wasps.

I looked from her kneeling form to see the Guv driving the nail through the metal and the square of lead and dropping both into a hole in the ground. He kicked dirt on them and stamped hard with his foot.

The transformed woman screamed an inhuman yell, shaking so violently it was if she was having a seizure.

I was torn between the desire to race to her and help and turn away in horror.

The seizure suddenly stopped and the Phantom Mare seemed to rise out of the woman, a ghostly figure like a magic lantern slide, and, with a great rush of wind, flew up into the heavens to disappear.

Mrs. Gaunt slumped onto one arm and fell forward as if life was draining from her.

“Jack!” Doctor Argent called to startle me out of my shock.

I ran to the woman and caught her up in my arms. Her skin was cold to the touch, her eyes fluttering at the edge of consciousness.

“Is she dying, Doctor?” I asked him.

He knelt beside her and produced a handkerchief to wipe her clammy brow. “No, my friend, she is, indeed just beginning to live free of that demonic presence that has hidden within her her whole life.”

“How did you get rid of it, sir?”

“The Roman way,” he said. “I needed to now which name to inscribe on the lead square, which is why we conducted this little ruse. But once I did know it, I drove the nail through it and the medallion you found, calling on the ancient gods to let what had been done already to be justice enough for the dead girl Algiwa. Cold iron, you know. Once I did, as you saw, they accepted my supplication and the curse was lifted.”

Just then Athelstan came lumbering out of the fog, saw his wife and raced to her.

She opened her eyes as he reached us. “What happened?” She said. “I-I remember some things, but—it is like a nightmare.”

“Soon it will be dream, Madam,” Doctor Argent said. “But even that in time will fade. Just take heart in the fact that the Curse of the Stallion is done.”

“So Andy is safe now?” I asked him.

“Yes,” the Guv said. “And so will be future generations of the Granvilles.”

“Then, would you make one of those little medallion things up for my protection, sir?”

“Why, Jack?”

“Because I will need some protection when I tell Andy we ruined his dress jacket—it was his favorite.”
The End