Cuffy

By Erik Goldsmith

“Poor little thing, I try tell him, but he don’t listen. You know how it is, he just don’t listen! You’re not gonna hurt him now, are you? They’s a time and a place. Poor little thing. He didn’t mean nothing by it. Just a time and a place, that’s all.”

The master lowered his knife and listened to the old woman grovel beneath him. Others watched beyond the perimeter of torchlight, peeking out from the darkness.

“I told him, don’t run. I said, don’t you run, but they’s a time and a place for everything. I told him that and now, it’s just…look at you.”

Her bloody son writhed in agony underneath the master’s foot. She wormed over to his side and stretched over his body like a blanket, steady flinching against the unknown.

“Don’t you worry about a thing.” She screamed over him. “I’m gonna make your favorite tonight. You ‘member those beets, you was eyin? They sho looked good! That’s your favorite. I’ll put em in a stew for you, and maybe old Jamphua might pick up the fiddle, cut the slip and quick, our feet’ll be turned out just like that. Why, you couldn’t ask fo more!”

The master cringed under the torchlight and kicked her in the face. The impact turned her head, but her large body remained draped over him.

“No, no, no, no, please, he didn’t mean it! Where’s it come from? There’s a time and a place, sir, but not this, not this right here, not thi-”

He motioned for the overseer to lift her off the boy and stabbed the torch into the ground. A struggle ensued. The overseer grabbed the old woman’s ankles, and tried to pull her free, but she wouldn’t budge.

“No! Get off me, no, no…sir…No, get off me. Can you hear me? He didn’t mean it! No…NO!”

She clung to the boy like a skin, ripping and tearing the wet cloth as he pulled, opening his wound further and further. The overseer switched tactics and attempted to unclench the old woman’s calloused fingers from the cotton shirt, but it was the boy’s screams that finally pried her hands loose. She let go and the overseer threw her into the dirt. She wailed, realizing her mistake and tried to crawl back, but the overseer got between them and her head bumped into his shins. She looked up at him, saw his grinning face and made to crawl around him, but he danced with her, giggling and scooting just ahead of her clumsy maneuvers until she started begging him, reaching for him, but it did nothing and he laughed the devil’s counterpoint turning her cries into a single word of screeched molasses.

“You ever heard a please sincere as that, boss?”

The master motioned for the rope. Behind them, some of the children were told to go inside, others were made to watch. The old woman learned something new. No was what she said.

The word became a memory. She became newborn.

The overseer unhitched the rope from the tree and let the body fall to the ground. It hit wrong and no became everything. Others bravely stepped from the shadows and wrapped their arms around what was left, urging her back into the darkness. She didn’t move, her old coiled body, dried of will like a stump, lay in the dirt, a slow twist. They took her by the hands, lifted her to her feet, and miraculously, she began to let. One of them grinned relief. The master saw it and spit on the ground like a gun shot. It triggered their eyes and they moved even faster, pressing their pittance and their knowing quiet and their brutalized hands against her old body. They pushed her inch by inch, until they knew their skin had become indistinguishable from the shadows around them.

The master pulled his torch from the earth and saw white flash in the distance. He held the torch higher, peering into the dark. Someone began to clap. Another laughed. An out of tune fiddle hopped out of the silence and began bouncing around the screams sounding no jollier than crickets. They were all smiling now. He began to hyperventilate and his torch hand slacked.

“Oh God, there they go again.” Said the overseer and set to work on the body.

They started to dance, though they lit no fire, and willed themselves to move under the trees in and out like black ripples across a dead pond. Their anonymity, the one advantage of their skin, propelled their feet faster and faster like they might soon cast off the dark.

The master watched them from a distance, his shoulders heaving, torch in hand. He let the flame draw nearer and nearer to his eyes until the orange and red had licked every drop of night from his skin. Then, he put his face fully in the fire and made no noise within the torches’ flames. Her screams could still be heard over the fiddle and a cold wind swept across it all.

“What you want me to put this, boss?”

The master removed his face from the fire and threw the torch on the ground. He looked up at his overseer. The man asked a second time and bounced the body on his shoulder for emphasis.

“Just put him down.”

He grinned and let the body fall from his shoulders.

“Let ‘em see if they know what’s good for the-.” The overseer could not finish his sentence, because the master slit his throat. Gouts of blood spewed out of his nec-

“End program.”

Suddenly, everything washed away except for Dewitt Cuffy. He uncurled his fingers from the digital knife, sat up, stretched, and unplugged.

A smiling face appeared behind a white monitor across from Cuffy’s haptic lounge chair. The young man’s eyes were wide with question. “So, What’d you think, Cuff?”

He said nothing.

On school nights mostly, twice a week, sometimes three, he would come to the holo-store and sit with this one particular program, “The Runaway.” He and Bill had been adjusting it for a year, but it’d be hard to tell they changed anything from its original programming. For all intents and purposes, it was still the same story they’d started with; a Virtual Reality movie shot from the point of view of the slave master. The script remained the same. The boy is caught by the overseer and is brought before the master. The master stabs him. The mother pleads. The master lynches the boy. The mother wails. The slaves pull her away and dance in the darkness. The master and the overseer laugh. Repeat.

VR was a movie. However, these new holo-tapes allowed you to interact deviate from the script and trigger the AI reactions. Every deviation that he embarked on was recoded into the program, refreshing it with information, the AI were now gaining faster and faster responses to anything Cuffy could do. In fact, the characters were starting to improvise.

VR used to be just a movie, but it was becoming something else.

Bill rolled his chair from behind his monitor. “Seriously, what’d you think?”

“They were smiling, Bill. Did you see see that?”

“Who the overseer?”

Cuffy shook his head. “No…no. The slave helping the old woman. He smiled when she got up. He looked relieved.”

Bill shrugged.

“You didn’t code that?”

“Nah…I…”

“And the others,” Cuffy stretched in the chair and sat up, “others in the darkness. I could see their teeth. You didn’t-”

“Nope. And how did you see them anyway? Their AI isn’t supposed to function unless they are within the torchlight.”

Cuffy said nothing.

“Anyway, why’d you kill the overseer, man?”

Again, Cuffy didn’t answer and wiped something from his face. The young technician bent a little from behind his desk, trying to get into Cuffy’s eye line.

“You didn’t get to see the overseer’s new dance at the en-”

“Did you re-write the old woman’s dialogue?”

“You liked that?”

“Beets?”

“What’s wrong with beets?”

Cuffy shook his head. “I told you. Stick to core motivation and memory. Emotional responses triggering generalized belief and value contradictions. Don’t write their dialogue word for word.”

“What’s wrong with beets?” asked Bill, thinly concealing a smile.

Cuffy showed him his palms.

“She was just wondering about dinner.”

Two women walked between them and disrupted their gaze. Cuffy rubbed his head and stood up watching them plug into a console on the other side of the room. One of them looked back at him, then quickly turned away.

Bill frowned and began tapping his finger against his console. “Hey man? What’s a matter, you liked what the old woman said before?”

“Look, Bill-”

“I could change it back-Aww, what is it?”

Cuffy made a face at him.

“I was trying to get psychological, Cuff. I thought that’s what you wanted. Under extreme stress, this lady starts talking about dinner, trying to find some safe, normal thing to think about. You know, something comforting.”

“So, it was intentional?”

“Exactly. And I even thought a step farther, like, what if she was trying to throw you off, confuse the master with the beet talk, you know what I’m saying? Did it work?”

Cuffy shook his head and grabbed his back pack from the floor. “No matter how complexly you write the dialogue, it will not sound as sincere as improvisation coming from their emotional matrices. Manipulate that, not the dialogue.”

Bill sighed. Bill was older than Cuffy, graduating the year before from Templeton Private. They’d met in History class. Cuffy had done all his homework in school, and Bill let him use the holo store free. At first, Cuffy simply loaded up one of the countless slave narratives in the database, until Bill showed him the interactive one he’d coded on his time. Bill asked his opinion, Cuffy gave it. They’d been working on it for six months.

“I was actually thinking we could show it to my boss this time, “ Bill leaned over trying to put himself into Cuffy’s eye line again. “Finally, put it into the holo-store’s international rotation, let the public start buying it. Get those royalties, son!” Cuffy said nothing. Bill shifted gears. “I’m afraid our windows closing. I’m checking the databases all the time to see if anyone’s beat us to it.” Bill watched Cuffy gather himself to leave. “It’s becoming an obsession of mine, Cuff. I saw a school shooting go up last week, prisoner execution the week before that. You know there’s already several rape ones. It’s only a matter of time before someone else publishes the first fully interactive slave narrative. So far we’ve been lucky, but the longer we wait-”

“It’s not ready, Bill. But, it’s your IP. You coded it. Do with it what you want.”

“That’s not fair, Cuff. You know I wouldn’t do that, but I think it’s good as is. And, don’t you need the money anyway? I mean-”

Cuffy’s face immediately changed into something different than it was before. Bill stopped talking and looked at the ground.

After a moment, Cuffy spoke, “I won’t put my name on it. At least not yet.”

“C’mon, that’s it?” Bill stood up. “I thought we could hang out or something, you know like-.”

“Nah, I got to get home. Catch you later.”

“Pssh, all right. Later, Cuff.”

Cuffy allowed the young man’s hand to wrap around his and left the holo-store.

Outside, Cuffy paused on the stoop of the metallic building and watched a group of suits stampede down the sidewalk, chattering into their phones. Cuffy listened to their words garble over each other, but they continued, trusting their phone’s advanced programming to filter out everything but their own voice. Some of them gave Cuffy a look, veering slightly away, putting an extra distance between themselves and the young man as they passed. Most didn’t even notice him.

Cuffy waited for them to walk by and scanned up the metallic environment around him. Immaculate silver buildings loomed, stretching upward, curving inward, blocking out the setting sun. The pale light of eclipse glowed behind them, and Cuffy held his hand to it, creating contrast with Manhattan.

“Hello. Dewitt. Cuffy. We see that you have not registered to vote.”

Cuffy dropped his hand and waved away the ad-drone that had snuck up behind him. The motion didn’t register.

“As an…18 year old-”

He turned around and made the gesture obvious to the drone’s sensor.

“Of course,” it said. He watched it zoom off to bother someone else and took out his phone.

The image of a man in a black pin stripe suit floated up, gathering pixels from the air like dust. The man was standing on a podium gesticulating wildly in front of a large banner that read “ZEPHIE/NIX FOR PRESIDENT – 2500. The Change You Want to See!” An image for sound appeared beside it with a question mark, but Cuffy shook his head. The question mark disintegrated, and he watched the man silently wave his arms around for another moment before swiping it off the screen, making way for the next advertisement.

“Home,” he said to his phone.

Nothing happened. Sometimes, his old phone did not recognize voice commands.

Cuffy brought the phone closer to his mouth to speak his destination louder, but before he could, his own face materialized in front of him…into him. He jerked backward, dodging the holo-projection and nearly knocking over the trashcan behind him. A small shudder ran down his spine and he looked around him, but he was alone with himself.

The letters “ISC – 2500” appeared above his face chiseled into a block of white marble. A question mark appeared beside his head. He nodded.

“Only five weeks left until the 50th annual International Sculpture Competition kicks off right here in Central Park! Twenty world renowned sculptors have been selected to compete this year including New York City’s own urban wonder, Dewitt Cuffy!”

A spinning photo of his previous sculpture, Gargoyle, appeared beside the image of his face. A 10 foot imploding diamond, captured mid-crush, forever breaking, never completely shattering. It had won him some acclaim.

“Home!” He shouted. The ad continued.

“He swept New York’s state competition with his amazing sculpture, Gargoyle. Now, we’ll see how our homegrown hero can compete against the world’s finest.”

The image of his face begin to change. The edges of his mouth were being tilted up into a smile, as if he were happy about the whole thing, as if he were grateful. Cuffy shoulders began to heave.

“The stakes are high, especially for young Cuffy and his mother-”

“HOME!” He screamed.

The sound shut off and his face swept away into nothing. “50. Dollars.” said the phone.

Cuffy sighed. “Fine.”

A transport beam picked him up and put him in his mother’s kitchen in the south side of Brooklyn.

“I told you we don’t have the money for that, Dewey.”

Cuffy rolled his eyes. “I was on the other side of town, Mom. There was no way I was going to make it back in time for dinner.”

“The other side of town? How much that cost?”

“35.”

“Bullshit, it cost 35. How much it cost?”

“It ain’t nothing, all right. I’ll pay you back.” He made to leave, but she stood in his way. She was still wearing her bus uniform, her name tag still clipped to the pocket of her shirt.

“Where were you?” She asked.

“You still got your id badge on.” He said.

She removed it hastily and asked again. “Where were you?”

“The holo-store.”

“I sure as hell know you ain’t spending my money at that damn-”

“Nah.” He shook his head and set his pockets on the counter. “I told you, It’s free.”

“Free?”

“It’s not fully responsive AI,” he said. “Not yet.”

She waited, expecting more, but he offered nothing else.

“And what’d you see at the holo-store this time?”

“It’s just a pre-program. My friend Bill works there.”

“Wasn’t another one of those sex things, was it?”

“Mom.”

“You know I found that drive in your room a few weeks ago.” She said. “Plugged it into the TV. Saw the whole filthy thing.”

His eyes glanced left.

“You looking at girls, Dewey?”

He shook his head and studied the floor.

“Mmm hmm.” She put her hand on his chin, lifted his head. She smiled at him. “How’s the statue coming?”

He showed her his teeth and twisted away from her hand. “Sculpture…It’s good.” he said, adding. “I’m almost done with it.”

“Yeah? I didn’t think it’d ever be done.” she said, bending down to check the food in the grower. “Can I see it?”

“No.” He said to her back.

“You haven’t had to submit public photos yet?”

“Not yet.

“Well, can I see it anyway?” She asked again, sprinkling generic protein into the cloner.

“Nah, let me finish it.”

“It’s that good, huh?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I’m still working on it.”

“You damn well better win that big competition money, so you can pay me back for all these transport bills you keep gettin.” She said, straightening, wiping her hands off her pants.

He clicked his tongue at her and backed into his bedroom.

“Dinner’ll be ready in ten, Dewey!”

“Okay.” He yelled back and shut the door.

#

Along with Cuffy’s holo-store activities with slave programs, he was also a sculptor. From a very young age, he exhibited an almost preternatural talent for the art.  Maybe in other times, in other worlds, his gift might’ve gone unnoticed, but the advent of the Trans-shift modeling software made the art of sculpture internationally ubiquitous, especially in schools.

As soon as Cuffy had control of the material,  strange and utterly compelling sculptures emerged from his efforts, winning competition after competition, garnering attention, and finally winning a scholarship to the most prestigious private high school in New York.

Since they knew it was his passion, Templeton Private had given Dewitt Cuffy a state-of-the-art Trans-Shift room to work with behind the gymnasium. And because he was a senior with an immaculate academic record and many more credits than he needed to graduate, they let him have the final class period of the day all to himself. Or so they said. There was some speculation.

It seemed a big coincidence the Trans-Shift corporation just so happened to grant the state-of-the-art room to Templeton Private the very same year Cuffy had been admitted via full scholarship. And mere chance, the specs for that room had found their way into Cuffy’s locker, day one. And when it came time for the ISC committee to announce the 20 people selected to participate in the competition, it seemed odd when Cuffy’s name appeared alongside the other 19 world famous sculptors. Their names, all of them, intellectuals, respected figures of culture, people of renown, written next to his own simple Dewitt Cuffy. It didn’t make sense. Again, there was some speculation, but no one said anything to his face.

He unlocked the door and stepped inside. Usually, the lights came on automatically, but something was wrong. Everything was dark. He fumbled a hand against the wall and flicked the manual switch. The lights blinked, and from the contrast came his statue.

A 25 foot wide black ball appeared. 20 black poles extended from it in all directions, filling up the room like rays of sun. At the end of each black pole, affixed to the small of their back, were 20 enormous photorealistic black humans performing 20 different things:

Swimming, dancing, laughing, playing basketball, hanging from a rope, reading, giving a speech, pushing a broom, blowing bubbles, praying, writing, singing, crying, looking through a folder, stealing a purse, running, pointing a gun, giving birth, picking cotton.

Each of them, though larger than life, looked real; right down to the molecular level, all of them, appeared inscrutably human. Coat after coat of microscopic textures applied to their shiny black surface had created the appearance of living breathing sentience.

Cuffy walked around it, again and again, re-familiarizing himself with the space. He opened his phone, accessing the Trans-Shift interface, and sifted through the programming dimensions. He paused on one of the figures, looked at the reality, and made a decision. He shifted some numbers around and altered the symmetry of the sweeper’s face. He looked up and watched the sweeper’s left eye droop.

“Audio file – Notes.”

A pixelated speaker materialized above his phone.

“Friday, 2:46 p.m. October 23, 2499. Dropped the sweeper’s left eye 1.5 millimeter’s, disrupting the symmetry.” He said, studying the change, bringing his face closer and closer to the giant old man’s stooped attention.

He stood on his tip toes and ran his fingers across the sweeper’s wide neck, feeling the man’s shave bumps. He touched his own, then smoothed the lingering tingles on his fingerprints with a thumb.

“Yeah. End audio file.” He said. The speaker disappeared and Cuffy took a few steps back and craned his neck.

The twentieth figure stood at the top of his statue, 50 feet in the air, an enormous young boy in a hoody balanced on one leg. The other nineteen figures faced outward toward the viewer, but the boy looked down, back into his pole, into the sphere. He was not smiling.

“Room. Up 49 feet.”

A white beam lifted Cuffy 49 feet in the air.

“Forward 25 feet.”

The white beam moved him forward 25 feet until he was right in front of the boy standing on one foot.

“I’m changing it back. ” He whispered.

Cuffy held his arm next to the boy’s black face, looking at his own skin, back and forth, measuring them together under the same light.

“Room. Display Spectrum.”

An enormous rainbow of color appeared before him out of thin air.

“Only Browns.” He said.

The hologram zoomed in without losing size and every conceivable shade of brown spread before him like a fan wheel. He cut his finger down the center of the spectrum, splitting it in half, sending all the lighter browns away. He floated there, 50 feet in the air, studying the subtle gradation.

“Room – Whole sculpture – Ready color shift.”

After a moment of stillness, a glaze of electricity rippled across the statue’s surface, temporarily galvanizing its reflective texture, preparing itself to be completely changed.

He held up the back of his hand against the remaining colors in front of him and pointed at one. The entire statue changed color. His held his hand to the boy’s face again, chose another one. Again, the entire statue changed color.

Cuffy did this for an hour until his skin and the surface of the statue were indistinguishable.

Since the statue’s inception, when it was just a 50 foot block of telegraphic steel, Cuffy had flipped back and forth between the purest jet black and some vague shade of brown, but never his own.

“Room – Down.”

The beam of light set him on the ground. He looked up at his creation and put his hands in his perception again, measuring the progress he’d made. The statue loomed before him like a planet.

“Lights off.”

#

At work, Cuffy didn’t talk much. He told the other fast food workers he preferred cleaning tables, rather than working the food processors, so they just left him alone. Behind the counter, his fellow employees, laughed and joked, made friends with each other in between taking orders, but Cuffy stayed away. Sometimes, they would try to include him in their nonsense, but he’d just tell them they played too much and get back to his tables.

He’d walk in between the customers, and listen to their conversations, their voices, lingering here and there, quickly washing tables when they noticed him.

That evening, the final customer walked out of the restaurant and he set the auto-lock function. Unlike their cleaning system, the restaurant’s expensive security apparatus was fully automated except for the one who pressed the on/off switch.

He watched the steel plates descend over the windows and lock into place with energy shadows. They sparked in clean arcs across the bottom matrix, then vanished, leaving behind an ambient glow in the air. Cuffy crouched and put his face close to it, inhaling the ozone.

“Hey Cuffy.”

He hastily corrected his posture, took up his sponge, and began scrubbing off the last few tables.

“Hey, what’s up?”

The girl tilted her head to the side and gave him a few moments to accept her presence. She’d been working at the restaurant a few weeks, much smaller than him, but a little older though. Cuffy didn’t know her name. Sometimes, Cuffy would catch her eying him, like some of the rich girls did at the private school downtown. He didn’t look at her and scrubbed the table.

“You’re too skinny.” She said, finally.

“I know that.” He said.

She leaned over the side of the booth, trying to get into his eye line. “I heard you’ll be at the sculpture competition in a few weeks.”

Cuffy nodded.

“People are talking about it. I heard you’re the youngest ever.” She watched him wring out his sponge into a bucket. “That’s big, huh?”

“Relative to what?” He asked.

She ignored him. “You attend that fancy school downtown?”

“Templeton?”

“You get a scholarship there?”

“Yeah.”

“My cousin tried to get a scholarship there. He had straight A’s.” Her eyes flashed. “They didn’t let him in.”

Cuffy scrubbed harder.

“I did sculpture when I was a kid.”

“So did everyone else.”

“I came in second place at my school.”

“Congratulations.”

“You smart, Cuffy?” She asked.

He stopped scrubbing, stood up, and moved toward her. She backed into the wall, smiling. He followed and pushed into her space, made her look up at him. At 6’4, Cuffy was taller than everyone.

“Am I smart?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you know?” He asked her. She glanced at an old man mopping the floor behind him, caught him looking.

“I heard you won all those competitions when you were younger.”

He put his hands on the wall and leaned into her. “You like sculpture?”

“I like money.”

“Why?” He whispered.

Her eyes ticked back and forth, then settled on his face. She opened her mouth slightly, waiting for him to give her more information, but he offered nothing else.

She snapped. “What you mean, why?”

He smiled and pushed off the wall. Her eyes followed him. “They gonna be prize money?” She asked. “If you win?”

He nodded and picked up his sponge again.

“Enough to go to college?”

“That’s what they say.”

“Hmm…I bet you gonna win.”

“How do you know?” he asked. “You haven’t even seen it.”

“You always win. My girlfriend said you been winning at stuff like that since you were in elementary.”

“This isn’t the same,” he said, “I’m not going against little kids this time.”

“So? You’ll get some kind of scholarship even if you don’t win.”

Cuffy said nothing and continued wiping the table. The girl watched him from the wall, smirking.

“Why you work so hard?” She asked.

“It’s my job, isn’t it?”

“The boss ain’t here.”

Cuffy straightened up and nodded at her. “I don’t care if he is here.” He pointed the sponge at the girl. “His eyes ain’t my eyes, so… why should I care what he sees?”

She frowned. “His eyes ain’t your eyes, what you talking about?”

Cuffy shrugged and kept scrubbing. “I don’t know. His eyes ain’t my eyes.” He said quietly.

She moved on. “So, how big is it?”

The old man had cycled back with his mop and was now near them again. He shook his head at both of them.

“50 by 50.”

“50 what? Inches?”

“Feet.”

Her face scrunched into incomprehension. “50 feet? How you making something 50 feet tall?”

“Trans-Shift Room.”

Her eyes widened. “You have a Trans-Shift Room?”

He nodded. “The school does.”

“I’ve only heard about those on TV. Like, you can just float around the room…changing anything you want?”

“If I wanted.” He admitted and began sopping up a spill off a leather seat.

She maneuvered around him to the other side of the stall and watched him drain spilled Kale juice from his sponge into a bucket. This went on for a few moments, before Cuffy asked.

“Look, what do you want?”

“I just wanted to talk to you,” she said, “wanted to hear you talk…Listen.”

“That where this is coming from?”

“My girlfriend told me the news, people from all over the world, everybody gonna be there next week.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“What’s it called?”

“What’s what called?” He finished scrubbing the last table.

“Your statue.”

“Black Power.”

“Black Power?”

He held up a fist and threw the sponge in the bucket.

“You’re cheesy.” She said and got out her phone. Tiny pink images flickered across her eyes and a blue orb rose into the air above her phone like a balloon. She shook her head and it disappeared.

“What’s that?” He asked.

“None of your business.” She said without looking up.

Cuffy clicked his tongue, put his hands on the small of his back and stretched. Behind the counter, he could see the rest of the employees making moves to leave. From outside, he heard the bright gulp of a transport beam take Stephanie home.

“You want me to take care a that bucket for you?” It was the old man.

He said no, I got it and the old man said, time and a place for everything.

“What’d you say?”

The old man jumped.

“What did you say?” He asked it again.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You said there’s a time and a place.”

“It’s time, and that bucket goes somewhere I’m going. That’s all I said, you know? That’s all I said.” He repeated and retreated into the kitchen.

Cuffy’s chest heaved, his shoulders trembled. The girl put her phone down. The lights turned off.

“You okay?” She asked.

“Yeah.” He muttered and carried the bucket out back and remained there long after everyone else left, looking at the squalor around him.

 

#

 

“I think it’s ready, Cuff. I’m going to show it to my boss this weekend.”

“No beets?”

“Nah, that was just something…nah, try it again.

Cuffy sat in the holo chair and plugged himself in.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Said Bill.

“What?”

“Try not deviating too much from the script the first time through so you can see the narrative without triggering the AI reactions…It’ll run more smoothly.”

“No promises.”

Bill looked into his monitor and punched a few buttons. “Okay, got it. Go ahead, Cuff.”

“No beets.”

“Man, I told you that was-”

He was looking at the stars. A comet was flying across the sky. He was the master. He was the controller. He looked down and saw a torch in his hand. Glints of white flashed beyond the pale. He heard a disagreement behind him. He was the master. He turned and pulled out his knife.

“You got it wrong. You got it wrong. I was getting them frogs out there. I know’s I ain’t supposed to, but…”

“Shut up.” Said the overseer and pushed him towards the master. “Caught this one trying to run.”

The boy looked between the two men, couldn’t help but look at the knife. Inevitability crept into his voice.

“No,” he said. “You’s…you’s gots it wrong, I was out…”

“You calling me a liar, boy!”

He turned to the overseer. “No…No sir, I’s just…I’s just trying to say-”

The master pushed the knife into the boy’s side and held it there, watching the incomprehension slither across his face. Behind the boy’s eyes, something fouled and he slid off the knife and hit the ground. A scream erupted from the darkness and a fat woman ran into the light, started telling the master all the things, telling him about where it comes from, about the time and the place.

This was the moment that it truly began for the master. A moment that held potential.

He didn’t kick her when she stretched across her son. But instead, crouched beside her as she begged and touched her thick wooly hair. She didn’t acknowledge it, she didn’t acknowledge him, and the overseer grinned at the master’s cruelty.

The master looked up at the overseer and then at his own knife. The woman screamed and when he motioned for the overseer to lift her off, she struggled, still pleading for her son’s life. The overseer, unable to drag her off, started working her calloused hands, finger by finger, but her grip was too tight. She held on to her boy until she realized it was hurting him and let go.

The master turned from it and set his torch in the ground. He felt his breathing quicken and shut his eyes, opened them, closed them, and found little difference between. He opened them again and saw something different near the edge of darkness. All the others out there beyond the torchlight, seemed like ghosts, outlines of gray ash under a sickly moon, but here, sticking out from the curtain of shadow, fully lit, were a tiny pair of feet. He had never seen them before.

The master left behind the scuffle, depriving it of his observation, and walked towards the toes. He stopped before them and kneeled. They didn’t move. He set his knife on the ground and touched the small toes with his old fingers.

“What are you doing, Cuff? I told you not to deviat-”

“Mute. Operator.”

The child stepped forward. It was a boy, younger than the screaming youth behind him. His face was stoic and long and he looked down at the master without curiosity.

“Hey, boss what you doi-”

“Disable overseer AI.”

A large hand came out of the shadows and placed itself onto the boy’s shoulders. It was a man. The master stood up.

“Speak.” He said.

The man looked at him, but said nothing.

“Speak.” He said again.

The man opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed his mouth, his eyes twitched. A fiddle began dancing in the darkness off cue, and both father and son turned to join it, but the master stopped them. Fireflies blinked in the distance and a cold wind swept across all of them.

The boy, understanding nothing, rubbed his cheek against his father’s hand and the master smiled.   The man smiled too and the master slit his throat. Blood sprayed across him and the boy, but the boy did nothing, so the master killed him too. They fell the same way, twitched the same way, and died the same way. They lay upon the ground the same way, one before the other, father and son, almost spooning, their arms and legs bent at exactly the same angles, their faces caught in the same geometric rictus, lips parted to the same degree of separation.

The master, holding his stomach, returned to the scuffle, which at this point had found itself within a loop. Begging, then laughter, begging, then laughter. As he approached, the woman slid free of the loop and issued a single worded slur. The overseer, free to hear it, delivered his line.

“You ever heard a please sincere as that, boss?”

“End program.”

Cuffy unplugged as fast as he could and rushed out of the holo-store. He hunkered over a trash can by the door and waited for it to come. Passers-by, familiar with the posture, gave him a wide berth, but none offered support.

“Hello. Dewitt. Cuffy. We see that you have not registered to vote. As an…18 year old. It is your civic duty to participate in the upcoming presidential election on November 8th and choose the candidate that is right for America.”

Cuffy looked up at the ad-drone floating in front of him. He tried to wave it away without letting go of the trashcan, but the machine didn’t pick up his hobbled gesture.

“Stewart Zephie has your best interests in mind…for…college loan reforms and has also made significant bi-partisan efforts to…increase the minimum wage and decrease costs for…low income hou-”

“NO THANK YOU.” yelled a voice behind him.

“Of course.” And the machine flew away.

Bill stood in the doorway of the holo-store, hesitating to move.

“Didn’t register the motion, huh? Sometimes you got to scream to get em to leave.”

Cuffy rested his head against the rim of the trash can and stamped a foot.

“You okay, Cuffy?”

“What’s it look like, Bill?”

Bill let the door close behind him and stepped to Cuffy’s side.

“What were you doing in there, Cuff?”

“We just…nothing.” He answered.

Bill put a tender hand on Cuffy’s back and glanced into the trashcan. There was nothing there.

#

In Applied Quantum Physics, Cuffy found the day’s topic interesting and baited the teacher into ignoring everyone else.

“What do you mean, Dewitt?”

Cuffy explained.

After 15 minutes, the other students in the class could but watch as he and the teacher collapsed into their familiar short hand. It had happened before. Usually, Cuffy sat in the back of the class quietly drawing in his notebook, but sometimes the boy would come alive. No one questioned his motive, possibly because it was so fascinating to watch.

Their dialogue seemed to electrocute meaning, blistering with metaphors and hypotheticals, rudely interrupting each other, like dogs, barking out clarifications atop one another, at times laughing, and then other times pausing, leaving some grand potential hanging in the air like the unspoken importance of parable. A few students tried to take notes, but most simply pulled out their phones and ignored the whole thing.

Today’s topic was event horizons.

“No, Dewitt, it’s ahh…it’s a barrier to which there is no escape…So, you have to see both perspectives at the same time, the pull and the push as it were, and what we’re talking about is if the singularity-”

“Doesn’t the whole thing imply an absence of perspective?”

The teacher paused. Cuffy continued.

“No observer.”

“No observer…no, I don’t think you’re loo–”

“Okay, okay, let me say it a different way. The outside observer cannot perceive light if it originates within the event horizon, correct?”

“I have trouble with the word, originates, but okay.”

“So, what is to say that light within the event horizon…some phenomenon, does not exist, even if we understand it to?”

“Why would it not exist?”

“Does it? I mean if what you’re saying is true that the gravity of it is such that-”

“Stop it, you’re leading yourself into-”

“The singularity inside the event horizon. A unique phenomenon originates-”

“I told you that the word is problematic-”

“Why does it exist, and if it does, what are we defining as existing if it cannot affect an observer and if the singular phenomenon is conscious within it, a person…” Cuffy hesitated, then continued anyway. “If the…light…is conscious…and cannot be seen by an outside observer…does that mean that it never existed…?”

“I really don’t understand.”

“That’s my point, but if it doesn’t exist, at least not in any form in space time, and if the observer is within the event horizon, does that mean that the light would then exist in some form that we understand it?”

“You’re saying if you were in a black hole and you turned on a flashlight, could you see it.”

“No, I’m asking if I’m in a black hole, can I perform any action that would not be seen by an outside observer as some reaction to the black hole, beyond its pull…or does simply being within its pull obliterate existence, no process of degeneration or dissolution, but a true eschatological void that…” Cuffy trailed off.

The teacher put his hands on his desk. Some of the other students glanced up from their phones.

“Dewitt, nothing…nothing you’re saying speaks to an understanding of this topic.”

All of the students looked at Cuffy. Cuffy smiled. “Light can’t reach the eye of the outside observer, correct?”

“From the event horizon of a black hole, correct.”

“And what would happen if the observer was inside the black hole?”

The teacher held out a stolid hand. “Then, he would not be an outside observer.”

“They would still exist, their perception, the wave lengths of-”

“Technically, we don’t know what would happen, because no one has eve-”

“So, can a phenomenon exist within a black hole for any space of time, observed from within or without, originating not as a reaction from the black hole, but originating from within the observer?”

The teacher took his hands from his desk. Those students who were smiling at Cuffy stopped. “It’s hard to-”

There was a knock at the door. “Excuse me.”

Everyone turned and saw the school’s vice-principal standing in the doorway.

“Hello, I’m sorry to interrupt, could I steal Dewitt for a few moments, I need to talk to him about something.”

“Of course.”

Dewitt stood up. The teacher smiled at him, then told the class to take out their books and turn to the section on Ergospheres. Cuffy flipped open his book to that section, studied the page for a few moments, then walked into the hallway. The vice-principal shut the door behind him.

“Learning how to build black hole generators?”

“We were about to get into that I think.”

“Oh yeah? When, I was in school they had just started theorizing the idea, and now, 15 years later the station’s set up and we’re teaching it to teenagers.”

Cuffy looked at the ground.

The vice-principal leaned a bit trying to find the boy’s eye line. “It’s just interesting.” He continued. “How fast it’s all progressing these days.”

Cuffy nodded and shuffled his feet.

“So.” Said the vice-principal, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Is it finished?”

“Almost.”

“I walked over there, yesterday. Got up close and personal with it. Looks good.” He paused, then added. “Impressive.”

“Thanks.”

“Its a great, big day coming, Dewitt.”

“Yeah, I know, I kno-”

“A big, big day, Mr. Cuffy.”

“Yeah.”

The vice-principal smiled. “The Trans-Shift people called me yesterday and I assured them that you were utilizing their technology to it’s fullest extent. I mean, the level of detail you put into it is simply astonishing.”

Cuffy said nothing.

“I know, I’ve said this to you before, but when they gave us that room, they gave us the specs for it too…” He made a large space between his thumb and pointer finger. “Like that. I have not read it, to be honest, because I cannot read 1200 pages of science specific data.” He laughed. “I tried to load the program onto my phone and I couldn’t even do that right.” He pulled out his phone to show him what he was talking about. “Simple thing, I suppose, but you…you took to it like a duck to water.”

“A duck to water.” Cuffy muttered.

“What’s that?” He asked, putting his phone back into his pocket.

“The inescapable environment of a duck.” said Cuffy without looking at the vice-principal.

“Right, well…the Trans-Shift people told me that they wanted the message of empowerment to be obvious, and yes, I know, that seems…like a strange request, but-”

Cuffy bobbed his head back and forth and moved in closer to the vice-principal.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means.”

“Well” said the vice-principal, taking a casual step backward, “they just wanted something obvious, nothing abstract. I mean, since they’re going to be sponsoring you, specifically the man who invented Trans-Shift, Turner Dessaline, since you and he are of the same…well, he just wants it to be about your…shared experience, the specific perspective and he wants that to be competing against these other people, I mean, the stage of this competition, the scope of it, well, it’s staggering, I have to say. And he just wants you to be…”

“I thought I did that. What’s the problem?” Cuffy shook his head. “If he’s so interested in it, why doesn’t he just come here and change it back himself?”

The vice-principal nodded and put his hands back in his pockets. “Mr. Dessaline is a busy man. I sent him the preliminary pictures of it, and he said he liked it, which Principal McTaggert says is high praise coming from him. He just seemed interested in how you planned on presenting it.”

Cuffy shrugged. “As is.”

“As is, meaning no more last minute changes?”

“Man, why doesn’t he just put himself in the competition? Everyone’s going to be using Trans-Shift to make their sculptures anyway, who knows better than he does?”

“I think, he sees it as a conflict of interest, since he’s on the committee, and besides that, he’s not an artist, he’s a scientist, an inventor…You know that.”

Cuffy frowned and looked through the classroom door at his teacher, pontificating about something fascinating.

“Dewitt?”

“Yeah.”

“Listen, I was trying to be understanding with him. It was a strange conversation, to tell the truth. It seemed difficult for him to explain his intentions on the matter, but he told me his thoughts on some demographical, shall we say, concerns about society and he just hopes your statue will be reflective of that intent.”

“Creative freedom has been on my mind a lot lately.” Said Cuffy and took another step towards the vice-principal. “Ya feel me?”

The vice-principal nodded happily and took a step back. “Sure, and you know, it’s all a matter of perspective anyway, right?”

Cuffy looked at the ground.

“Art is relative as they say, but I doubt he’s going to be disappointed.” The vice-principal widened his eyes. “I mean, I remember your last Trans-Shift statue…the uhhh, the uhh…”

“Gargoyle.”

“Yeah, man.” He bent towards Cuffy, hands still in his pockets. “Incredible. Garnered a lot of great press for this school last year.” He straightened up. “I’ve got a picture of it right here, somewhere-” He began fidgeting through his pockets.

“That’s all right.”

“I just thought I had it here…”

“It’s all right.”

“Well, anyway,” He stopped searching and cleaned his glasses. “Look, other than that stuff about the Trans-Shift people, I just wanted to go over some particulars for Saturday and Sunday.”

Cuffy nodded and brushed a wrinkle from his shirt.

“First of all, what’s the title of it?”

“Black Power.”

“Black Power? Hmm. Well, Good! And you said you’re finished?”

“Almost.”

“Great,” The vice principal nodded a few times, then whispered, “Hey, I’m sorry for coming on all strong like that, it’s just the principal’s been breathing down my neck about this, that, and the other, but I’ve tried to shield you from it a little, cuz I know he’s talked to you about it too, but…We rely on Trans-Shift’s donations beyond just the room and we also want this statue to be a testament of our commitment to diversity. We’ve received some blowback in recent years about our admission practices.” He paused.

“And look, it’s not something you really need to worry about, okay? Just do your best and have fun, all right?” He nodded a few more times then continued normally. “Now, logistics. logistics. logistics.” The repetition seemed to swing him into his purpose. “Right, okay. This Saturday, I’ll need you here around 8 p.m. to manage the presentation when we set it up. We’ll pay for the transport beam of course, or Trans-Shift will I guess, but you’ll need to tell the stage team how to set it up.”

Cuffy nodded.

“Also, the morning of, you’ll need to be standing with your statue at 9 a.m. because they tell me there’s some protocols the judges want to go over with you. You’ll have a handler, okay? A person who will guide you through the necessary press junkets. Please, as said to you before, please, please, please mention Templeton at some point in the interviews you’ll be doing.”

Cuffy shrugged.

The vice-principal narrowed his eyes at the young man. “You do understand what this is, Dewitt…Right?”

“I mean, I think so…”

“This is not the state competition and this not any of those local things you breezed through when you were in elementary. This is an international event. Interstellar even, I heard there were even going to be people coming from the colonies. Do you understand? The words “return on our investment” comes to mind, Dewitt.”

Cuffy looked out the window.

“Now, look, I don’t want to put pressure on you here, but-” The vice-principal stopped as a young man holding an orange restroom pass walked by, not hiding his stares at Cuffy. He disappeared around a corner and the vice principal began simulating seismic subduction with his hands. “I need to know you understand the gravity of the situation.”

Dewitt couldn’t stop watching the process.

“Mr. Cuffy?”

“Why?”

The vice-principal’s hands stopped. “What?”

“Why do I need to understand the gravity of the situation?”

“What do you mean?”

Cuffy sighed. “How’s it going to help me do better, if I understand the “gravity?”

“Are you actually asking me, Dewitt?”

Cuffy showed him his palms.

“Well, you might have better posture for one, if you knew what this was. You might stop stooping you shoulders, stop pretending this isn’t all about presentation, how other people see you, how other people perceive what your…Okay, I’m going to speak to you like an adult, all right?”

“Sure.”

“You were selected to participate, selected, Mr. Cuffy. An even better word would probably be allowed, to express a particular perspective here, so I think, Mr, Dessaline, the principal, myself, your school, your community, all of us, are expecting you to act accordingly. The world’s eyes are going to be on you, and if there’s any clarification to this man’s interest in your work, it might be a little concern for how you present yourself. You are representing a lot more than just yourself.”

“I know that.”

“Do you? You don’t seem that interested in participating, let alone winning. The least you could do is act like you have some regard for the people your performance reflects on.”

Cuffy rolled his eyes, and the vice-principal, a short man by all accounts, began inching towards him, backing him up.

“A lot of people are going to be looking to you as their voice, Dewitt. This idea you’re “espousing,” I guess would be the word, hasn’t been brought up in a long time, and for whatever reason, there’s just not that many people, like you, who get this opportunity and I want to make sure it’s addressed tastefully, because, well…” Cuffy hit the wall. “You know you’re going to be the only-”

“Yes, I know.” Interrupted Cuffy.

“You know. Well, it’s just a big year…” He glanced around, seeming to take stock of their proximity and took a step back. “A…A big year for the school and if you place, I mean, we’re talking scholarships, interviews.” The vice-principal head popped right with a thought. “Job opportunities. But, you know that, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“All right. And, I just have to say, that I’m excited to see someone like…You’re going to be empowering millions with your work and I’m just, I’m happy that we’re enabling you to do it. That’s all.” He said, nodding, like his head was caught between magnets.

#

“Dewey. Come here.”

“I’m going to be late for work, Mom.”

“No, come here. I want to talk to you a minute.”

“You’re going to be mad when I have to use that transport beam.”

Her lips shuffled themselves into a frown. He looked away.

“Come here.”

Cuffy walked over to the couch and sat beside his mom. She clapped a few times, muted the TV, and moved her food tray.

“Okay, Cuffy. I just wanted to tell you that I saw it, the public photos, and-” She began to tear up. “I love it, Cuffy. I love it.”

“Ahhh, Mom.”

“No, I’m just so proud of you.” She hugged him and his face tightened into a pit. It fixed itself when she released him. He smiled at her.

“Thanks.”

“And you know, it’s such a positive message. Black. Power.”

Cuffy looked at the TV. Red, white, and blue balloons were cascading around a man, his arms stretched out, embracing thousands. A woman and three smiling children, mostly obscured by the balloons, clapped beside him.

“I wish my mom could’ve seen it. It’s like we can do anything, we can be anything.”

“As long as it’s black.”

“What?” She stopped smiling. “What do you mean, Dewey?”

“Nothing.”

She looked at him for a moment, saw his eyes looking at the TV and turned it off. “Look at me. I’m telling you that what you did; what you did is important to me. And I bet you’re going to win it too, you always win, but even if you don’t, no, look at me, Dewey…Even if you don’t, I still want you to know, I’m proud of you.”

She searched his eyes. He met them. She smiled.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect you to create something like that.” She wiped a tear away. “The way you talk and all. The way you dress. I didn’t think it, well, I didn’t think you cared about the struggle, and I’m not saying that to be mean, you know I’m not, I just, well, I just-You know what I’m saying.”

Cuffy started breathing hard. She didn’t notice.

“Oh, Dewey, the doctor is so amazing, the one with the lab coat and the folder. How’d you get it to look so realistic?”

His shoulders heaved. A time and a place. “I wanted it to look like a person.”

“Where it’s all coming from, that big powerful black ball, ooooooh, I don’t even-”

“I got to go Mom.”

“Okay, okay, I just…”

“I love you, Mom.”

“I know, baby. I love you too.”

Cuffy stepped off his porch and itched his arm. He itched it again and looked up. The sun was about to disappear.

He pulled out his phone. President Zephie, surrounded by thousands of balloons, grinned at him. A question mark appeared.  He shook his head and swiped the screen.

“Work.”

Nothing happened.

“WORK!”

“18. Dollars.”

“Fine.”

“You almost landed on top of me.” She said.

“Not my fault.”

“I would’ve blamed you, though.”

“I’m sure you would have.”

“How you afford beamin anyway?” she asked, “Only person I see beamin is you and that retarded girl, Stephanie.”

“Stephanie’s aphasic…not retarded.”

The girl frowned. “I don’t know what she is, I just know they don’t hire people like her where she come from.”

He shrugged. “Maybe, I’m retarded.”

“You ain’t retarded.” she said.

Some customers walked between them to their old electric car. Streaks of rust ran along the trim just like it did on all the buildings this side of town. Cuffy wrapped his apron around himself and tied it. She watched him.

“It’s this weekend, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I believe it is.”

“I saw a picture of it online.”

He looked up at her, “And?”

“I like it.”

“It was acceptable to you?” He finished his knot and started walking towards the entrance.

She frowned at him and shook her head, “Why you talk like that?”

“Like what?” He held the door for her.

“Like them.”

#

“No, no. Cuff. I can’t today. Sorry, man.”

Cuffy stopped a few paces from the entrance. Bill rose tentatively from his desk and started walking over to him.

“Yeah, sorry man, I wish you would’ve called. I can’t let you plug in today.”

Cuffy let his backpack slink off his shoulder and then shrugged it back on. “What’s going on, Bill?”  Some of the other technicians looked up from their monitors. Bill eyed them and led Cuffy outside.

Two ad-drones converged on the-

“NO, THANK YOU!” shouted Bill.

Cuffy watched them zip into a vertical and separate, zooming off in different directions. Cuffy adjusted the straps of his backpack and waited for Bill to say something, but he didn’t.

“You know I work at a Bever’s, right?” said Cuffy, “Fast food restaurant way, way, way on the south side. I never see ad-drones over there.”

Bill looked up at him, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” Cuffy said. “Just an observation.” Cuffy watched him nudge something with his foot. “Bill?”

“My boss found out that I was letting you play for free.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Cuffy closed one eye and snaked his thumbs through the straps of his backpack, “Well, I mean-”

“But it’s not just that.”

“I have money.”

“I showed the runaway to the boss, Cuffy. I wanted him to help us publish it.”

Cuffy clicked his tongue. “Okay.”

“He didn’t say anything while he watched it until, I don’t know. He must’ve seen you in the news or something…about that competition you’re in. When he saw your name in the program logs, he flipped.”

“So.”

“He was so angry. Said we couldn’t work on it here anymore. Were we doing something wrong, Cuff?”

“I don’t kno-”

“He got way mad at me, man. He started asking me all these questions. I was like, no, this is what Cuffy wanted, and…It’s just weird. Like, I load up murder programs all the time, so does he, for people, for parties, it’s just not that big of a deal, you know?”

Cuffy said nothing.

“He told me I’m too stupid to fire and then didn’t speak to me after that; told me you weren’t allowed in the store anymore.”

“What!?”

Bill shook his hands at him. “I know! I don’t fucking understand, Cuff. Like, fire me or whatever, but like, he threatened to go public with it if I tried to publish it anywhere else, which…” He shook his head. “I-?” And said nothing else, aborting the question.

Cuffy nodded and looked at the ground. Bill waited for Cuffy to give him more, but nothing came out.

“Why would the press care?” Bill asked.

“They wouldn’t, but they’d talk about it. They’d talk about ducks and water and they’d get their views and-”

“What the fuck are you talking about Cuff?”

Cuffy looked into his friend’s confused face, saw something there or nothing at all, and shook his head, “I’m so sorry, Bill.”

“He told me to delete the file.”

“Did you?”

Bill sighed. “Not the back up, but you’ve got to help out with this one, bro. I don’t understand.”

“I can’t, Bill.”

“What? Why n-” He stopped himself. An old woman walked into the store. The door closed. “Why not?”

“Does he look like me?”

“Who?”

“Your boss.”

“No, he’s old as shit.” answered Bill, but the question continued ricocheting across Bill’s comprehension until he spit it out again. “What does that have to do with it?”

Cuffy said nothing more and hugged his friend. Bill tensed, then fell into it. Cuffy squeezed harder. “Don’t worry about it, man. You know how old people are.” Bill hugged him back and they let each other go.

“Look, there’s other holo-stores you could go to,” said Bill, shrugging. “I can give you the program and let you keep fixing it somewhere else if you want for like personal shit or something.”

“You’d give it to me?”

“Yeah, I mean, you practically wrote it.”

“Just the AI motivations, you programmed every other inch of it.”

“Just the surfaces.”

Cuffy looked down. Bill regarded the action and leaned over to get in his eye line.

“Do you want it?” asked Bill again.

Cuffy nodded. “All right.”

“Good, give me a second.”

Bill went inside the store and came back out with the small silver drive. He stared at it in his own open hand, then with the smallest hesitation, put it in Cuffy’s.

“Tell the technician to load it centrally or you won’t get first person agency,” said Bill, his eyes still on the drive in Cuffy’s hands. “If you load it as is, it’ll just run from the master’s POV. The scripts runs on loops, micro and macro.”

“I know.”

“The AI programming we made is in there.” He said, before ripping his eyes from the drive in Cuffy’s hand. “I mean, it’s there already, but it won’t show up if you just watch it. You’ll have to tell them you like deviating from the script, so they’ll give you that storage space. The AI should load automatically if they do it right, and it’ll be expensive, but otherwise, you’ll just be trapped inside the loop watching the script, unable to participate.”

“I know.”

“I know you know, but they’ll just operate on their assumptions, so you’ve got to tell them, Cuff. Zero Point Improv Storage works best.”

Cuffy nodded at him and put it in his pocket. “You have other slave programs?” He asked.

“Yeah, but none like that one. None that I put more time into…detail. Every time you came in, it just kept getting better and better, more reactive. I couldn’t just delete it.”

“You’ll make something else.”

“Sure.”

A moment passed between them and Cuffy started to back up.

“Hey Cuff, why didn’t you tell me the ISC committee selected you? I had no idea you were that good.”

“Pride,” said Cuff, “the pride of humility.”

Bill held up his phone. “I saw your sculpture.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s amazing man, huge. Congratulations.”

Cuffy smiled at him, “I’m handling the Earth, son!”

Bill laughed, “Those people on spikes?”

Cuffy seemed to think about the suggestion, then shook his head. “Nah, they’re just people…coming from the same place.”

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t get a good look. What’s it called again?”

“Black power.”

“Black power?”

“Yeah.”

Bill nodded. “Cool name. I wish you would’ve told me, I’m into sculpture myself,” said Bill, opening the door to the holo-store. “We could’ve talked about it, but hey, good luck tomorrow, I got to get back inside.”

“Sure, see you later, Bill.”

“Okay. Yeah, see you.”

Cuffy watched the doors shut behind him and pulled the tiny drive from his pocket. He rolled it between his fingers and brought it close to his face, examining it. The metallic surface caught the sunlight   and bounced a spot onto the mirrored wall of the holo-store. Cuffy looked at it a moment, then began tilting the thing, back and forth, playing with the angles, watching the spot quiver from his own imprecision. Behind him, he heard the whispered hum of an another ad-drone descending towards him.

“No, thank you,” he called, but he’d said it too soon. It was not yet upon him.

#

“Hey Dewey, it’s 7:45, don’t you got to get going?”

“Yeah, I’m just thinking about something.”

His mom leaned against the doorway of his room. “What you thinking about?”

“The gravity.”

“Gravity? Why you thinking about gravity?”

“Exactly.”

“Something to do with your statue?”

Cuffy pulled the blanket over his head. “Yup.”

“The school called. Told me you’re supposed to be there in 15 minutes to help the movers. What are you doing here?”

“Thinking.”

She walked over to his bed and ripped off the blanket. “This ain’t no time to be playing around, Dewey. Get out of here.”

“You’re right.” he said and swung his legs over the side of his bed.

“I know I’m right.”

Cuffy grabbed his backpack and began to walk past her, but she put a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, I love you Dewey.”

He regarded the hand on his shoulder and rubbed his cheek against it. His mom pulled it away and walked into the living room.

“Good luck.” she called.

#

When Cuffy stepped into the room, three men were already there, orbiting his statue. One of them called to him.

“You Dewitt Cuffy?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man walked over and pulled out a folder.

“All right.” he said. “We got to move this over to Central Park. I have the coordinates logged, the satellites are in route…You know how much it weighs?”

“It’s solid steel. Tons, I imagine.”

The man whistled and gazed at it.

Cuffy looked at it too. “That gonna be a problem?”

“Hmm? No, we’ll be able to get the specifications right.” He walked over to the ball and put a hand on it’s dark surface. “This the way it needs to sit. Just like this?”

Cuffy told the three men exactly how it should face, exactly how it should be. They listened intently and clarified a few points here and there.

“What time will they move it?” he asked.

“Soon as the satellites line up.” The man checked the folder, found what he was looking for. “Sometime around 5 in the morning, should be.” He scratched his chin and looked at the ceiling. “Somewhere’s around there anyway…You okay if we lose the roof? Probably, be easier if we don’t have to phase through it.”

Cuffy nodded and watched the three men detach the roof from the room. The glass panels above  flipped, sectioned into four triangles and slid into the hollow walls. The stars were out.

Cuffy leaned against the wall and watched the men, fumble with the energy locks on the corners of the room. The man turned a key and a green box lit up near the entrance and metal against metal could be heard through the walls, latching the rigging in place.

“That should about do it. When you leave, this’ll all close up.” said the man, waving a finger at heaven. “You know how expensive it is to transport a couple tons of steel?” he asked Cuffy without looking at him, his eyes glazed with stars. “Let alone phase it through a ceiling.”

“A lot.”

“Yeah, you got it. It’s a lot.” He let his eyes fall back to Earth. “Luckily, Trans-Shift’s footing the bill, right?” He raised a hand and waved to the two men trying to get his attention from the exit. They nodded back and left, leaving Cuffy and the man alone with it.

“You know, I used to do some sculpture in my day?”

“Oh yeah?”

“Little bit,” the man admitted. “Little bit, but nothing like this though.”

Cuffy followed the man’s eyes up his statue.

“Nothing like this. They look just like real people.”

“Thanks.”

The man made a noise and asked, “What’s it all about?”

“Gravity.”

“Gravity, huh?”

Cuffy regarded the man, then turned back to the statue. “I’ve started thinking about the direction of it though…which way’s it pulling.”

If the man was confused, he didn’t show it. “It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?”

Cuffy nodded. “I guess so. Hey, if I wanted, could I I still use the Trans-Shift activators, even if the ceiling’s open?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, should be able to.” The man held up a flat hand and ran a finger along the edge of it. “Beams are arranged horizontally, planes of…You see, the fibers run along-” He dropped his hands, and shrugged. “Yeah, it’ll be fine. Nothing important in the ceiling. You going to change something?”

“Maybe.”

#

The next day, Cuffy sat on stage with the other contestants and famous guest judges and listened to the corporate propaganda of Trans-Shift. Turner Dessaline, the CEO of Trans-Shift, expounded that although art and entertainment were essential to the functioning of a well rounded society, they were also part and parcel to new innovation and technology. Cuffy could barely keep his eyes open.

“Trans-Shift’s 3-D modeling capabilities, on display here, show the unbridled potential for this technology. The only obstacles we have yet to clear are the limitations of our own imaginations.”

Some applause here and there from the thousands of people swamped around the stage. He continued.

“Trans-Shift started with the beams we now use to travel instantly around the world, but 10 years ago, I thought…we can do more. This light that infuses with matter, FILLING IT UP, letting us fly from Tokyo to New York in mere seconds. It was indeed incredible, but I thought to myself, I thought, why couldn’t it also manipulate that matter, instead of just infusing it? I asked myself why couldn’t we manipulate matter as easily as we…”

Cuffy dozed off. The applause woke him.

“…Thank you. Yes, the future deserves to experience the outer reaches of their own creativity, not just in some protracted digital space, but in physical reality. Not blunted by electrical appendages, but truly seen. And here, we have the technology to materialize it, unplugged. Size, weight, shape, color, 10 years ago I believed that, eventually, none of…”

The applause woke him again. Cuffy sat up in his seat.

“For 50 years, this international sculpture competition has been the showcase for today’s newest technology, but I am proud to say that, today, on the eve of the year 2500, all 20 sculptures have been built using Trans-Shift.”

Lighter applause. Cuffy shuffled his feet. His mom waved at him. He showed her his teeth.

“Some of the older folks up here may remember when sculptures were not “in” as they say. I know many of you can’t even imagine it, but this ancient art used to be relegated only to museums, to hotel lobbies, and to petty ornaments in gardens. Of course, nowadays, it has become the international skill. Everyday, all over the world, children’s fingers become caked with clay, working and beating out their own unique forms of grand-”

He hesitated, flipping to the next page.

“…Grandeur. Making from themselves, masters of their own imagination. Sociologists speculate why sculpture rose to a place of prominence in our society these past 100 odd years, but the answer seems  obvious to me, and the other members of the ISC committee. Sculpture is about “the still.” The ageless. The ardent guard of time and place. More than books, music, movies, plays, even paintings, sculpture exists within a space of our immediate perception, daring us not to forget the hands that forged it. And in today’s fast paced world, sculpture’s-”

He paused as if searching for the word.

“…permanence has provided a stark contrast to a world innovating at light speed, and here, at a competition designed to highlight the beauty of stillness, we must recognize that art’s fundamental gift is to shake us free from context, and perceive new possibilities.”

He stopped, expecting applause. None came. He continued.

“Since coming out with Trans-Shift technology, we’ve seen massive leaps forward as industry after industry utilizes its potential for the betterment of mankind. Think of what is possible now that we have the ability to craft LITERALLY ANYTHING. Think of every life that might be enriched, might be enhanced, might be saved if one could design and build anything. Then go a step beyond what you can even imagine and you’re truly at the door step. The medical benefits alone are staggering. Just last week, I had an exciting talk with Insta-Karma’s CEO about the possibility of creating the world’s first artificial nervous system, ready for transplant. Imagine it. The subtle fibers of our very experience crafted, individuated, and realized for altruistic purpose. And with the imminent dawn of AI, who knows how far Trans-Shift might take us!”

“Get on with it!” Shouted someone from the crowd. Light laughter. Light applause. Turner Dessaline did not acknowledge it, but he did seem to flip a few pages forward.

“And…And so, at the doorway of untold vistas of new possibility…”

He flipped to another page.

“Okay.Anton Chekov, a once famous writer, once wrote:“I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, who are determined to regard me solely in particulars…I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one.” He was a man, same as all of us, who cried out for an end to limitation, and now, 700 years later. It has arrived, not from God, but from ourselves. Here-”

He stretched a hand toward the sky.

“…are 20 sculptures: solid testaments, to our ingenuity, our creativity, and our courage that show that we are more than just apes on this Earth. We are creators!”

Applause, applause. Cuffy rubbed his eyes and looked at the other 20 people on stage with him. He was the only one not clapping. Floating drone-cameras swirled around him like curious flies trying to find his eyeline. He looked at his shoes.

“Now, before we begin, I’d like to congratulate president Zephie for his historic win, and hope that he ushers in a time of peace and unification for our great country.”

Quiet applause. Cuffy sees that girl from his job standing alone some distance from the crowd leaning against a tree. She smiles.

“So, without further ado, I present to you, the 50th annual International Sculpture Competition!”

Fireworks, though it was day time, sparked across the sky, black for contrast, black for posterity and initiated the event.

Behind the stage, 20 transport beams lifted 20 gigantic white sheets off 20 gigantic sculptures arranged across Central Park, including Cuffy’s.

Applause, applause, and more applause and the crowd flooded toward the statues to get selfies. Cuffy jumped from the stage and his mom rushed at him, hugged him.

“This is so exciting!” She shrieked and shook him.

Some drones pulled up along side and strobed camera flashes at them. She pulled away from him quickly, and fashioned a quick pose. Flash. Flash. Flash. When the drones flew away, still smiling, she glanced at Cuffy, found him staring at her.

“What?”

#

After the commencement, the judges: actors and actresses, politicians, scientists, artists, past winners, and athletes, carried aloft by transport-beams of their own, flew around the park observing and commenting into their audio recorders about each statue. Cuffy watched them soar overhead as he walked around the park, speaking into their devices, conferring with each other mid-air. Occasionally, his eyes would linger on one buzzing around his own on the far side of the park, before turning away.

The statues were arranged in such a way, that you could walk along the jogging trail and see each one in turn. Therefore, a large herd of spectators found themselves mobbing, lock step, piece by piece, while others, more accustomed to their own pace, lingered on some, while rushed through others. Cuffy strolled along the path just ahead of them regarding the other statues in the competition. None of them seemed to illicit a response from Cuffy, until he saw the tenth one.

The 100 foot tall statue by famous Dutch sculptor, Jan Broucke, defied physics as many of the other sculptures did, but this one struck him, or appeared to at least, and he lingered with it long after the mob had passed by.

The texture of it looked ceramic, like the purest white, cutting close to the sheer edge of the spectrum. It was blinding. His phone rang. He turned it off. The thing was grounded by two gigantic 30 foot hands and its long fingers clutched the earth like it was desperately trying to hold on. From the hands, two massive arms stretched into the sky, tapering smaller and smaller, until they became the shoulders of a normal 5’8”person. Just a human figure, ambiguously sexed, attached to those hundred foot arms and those 30 foot hands on the ground. The small owner of the enormous white hands dangled in the sky, floating way up there among the clouds like a little human kite.

Cuffy walked around it, again and again, continuously wiping tears from his eyes, trying not to be seen by other people, circling. He noticed a ring on one finger. He crouched, put his own hand to it, felt the density of it; the hum of its constituent parts. Some people walked up behind him and Cuffy stood up, wiping something from his face.

“Is he trying to wrench himself free from his own arms or does he merely walk with his hands?” Asked someone.

“I think it’s symbolic.” Answered someone else.

“Well of course it’s symbolic, but I’m trying to figure out its literal form first, before I try to-”

Cuffy walked away from them and continued down the path. He’d seen 10 of the other statues, but none of them had been given so much of his time.

He looked across the park and saw the lock step crowd form around his statue. He cut a jag across the green and made to join them, but right as he walked up, Turner Dessaline, cane in hand, descended upon him, and wasted no time.

“YOU CHANGED IT!” he cried.

“Minimally,” responded Cuffy.

“Exponentially, I’d say. The color-” He pointed to Cuffy’s statue. “The colors, they’re all different now.”

Cuffy looked up at the colors, his compromise. The ball in the center remained jet black like the pictures he’d published, but along the poles, the black gradated outward, lighter and lighter, into 20 brown figures. His brown.

“It’s a gradient.” He said.

“Yes, I’m aware, but it wasn’t in the picture I saw before today.” Turner said definitively.

“Nothing in the rules says I can’t change it.”

Turner regarded the crowd around him. Some of them were staring up at the top most boy. He pointed his cane at it. “You changed him too, didn’t you?”

One of the sleeves of the boy’s black hoody hung loose and his brown hands were tugging against the pole holding him to the black sphere below. His face was warped with effort.

“Nothing in the rules says I can’t-”

“I didn’t say it was a bad thing,” interrupted Turner. “Just that the judges might not like it, especially this little number.” He tapped the floating placard next to the statue with his cane, “The Event Horizon of Black Power?’ What happened to just “Black Power?”

Cuffy looked at the boy tugging against the pole. “Too simple.”

“Hmmm. Too simple. So, better to veer into the pretentious than embrace subtlety, Mr. Cuffy?”

“What would you name it?”

Turner looked at the boy beside him, “We haven’t formally met, have we?”

Cuffy put out his hand, and Turner Dessaline shook it. White flashes strobed out toward them from all angles, then disappeared. Cuffy let go of the man.

“An unfortunate picture.” said Turner. “Was hoping to avoid it, but, oh well.” He leaned toward Cuffy. “I hope your school didn’t put too much pressure on you, but I was worried that we wouldn’t have some kind of representation here, as we don’t much anywhere else, do we?”

Cuffy laughed, then started backing away from the man, but a quick arm wrapped around his shoulder.

“The Event Horizon of Black Power. You know I’ve been thinking about that title, the turning point for us, if you will, that boy at the top there, trying to pull the others up, that’s me, isn’t it?”

Cuffy opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.

“Oh, that’s all right, it goes without saying, doesn’t it. The sheer power of it. Black power, creating the doctor, the politician, and yes, the social ills, the thief, the criminal, all of it stemming from this same pool of potential, connecting us, binding us. It is simply a masterwork, Mr. Cuffy.”

Cuffy’s shoulders heaved. He tried wiggling out of the man’s grip, but the arm felt like steel against his neck.

“You know, when I was your age, I was busy inventing light plates; you know what those are? I guess they’ve become obsolete at this point, but can you imagine, 18, me, creating a patent for something that would soon be sold in stores, participating in the process! Nowadays, of course, I don’t just have a singular product, but a goddamn utility, but back then, Mr. Dewitt, I felt so excited. I immediately moved my parents out of their apartment, and put them in the best neighborhood…You live in East Brooklyn, don’t you?”

Cuffy put a hand to his stomach and looked across the park toward the white hands in the distance, the small figure flying above it.

“Rough, well, no matter, you won’t be living there for long, I heard some of the judges talking about the raw emotional power of your statue, an expression of community one of them said. They all sounded very impressed.”

He got close to Cuffy’s ear and whispered, “You and I know, it’s more complicated than that, but let them assume. They see what they see, don’t they. They hear what they hear, but in the end, it all comes back to this, doesn’t it. No matter what it is I do, or how powerful I become, it’s still…well, here it is.”

Turner pulled him close. “You captured the essence. DON’T LOOK AT THE ACTION, LOOK AT THE SOURCE!”

He laughed and removed his arm from Cuffy’s neck.

“Let this be a lesson for you, Mr. Cuffy. Never disillusion an assumption.”

“Why?”

“Why!? Because…Excuse me a moment.” Turner pulled out his phone. “Yes, I’ll be right there. I’m sorry, Mr. Dewitt, I have to go. Good job on the sculpture. It speaks worlds.”

Cuffy watched him fly away like an ad-drone and threw up on the ground. The crowd around him backed away and he leaned against his runner. He closed his eyes. Camera drones, pre-programmed to capture noteworthy behavior, flashed around him and all his insides became public. Someone offered him some water, but he refused it, and ran.

Tree to tree, he picked his route carefully, keeping just outside the lines of flashing cameras and crowds, glued to their phones, watching him vomit over and over again. He stopped under an oak tree on the far side of the park and watched the sun move across the sky and behind some clouds. The shadows glided along the green, making it difficult to tell where the shadows of his tree ended and the shadows of the clouds began. He took a nap and dreamed. His eyes fidgeted beneath his eyelids and he tossed and turned for hours. At dusk, after hours of avoiding consciousness, Cuffy awoke and found himself beside the twentieth statue.

Not many people remained. Most had decided to go home after making their initial rounds within the first hour. The judges had already done their final aerials around the park and flew to a secret location to make their final deliberations. They would reveal the winner on a special broadcast later that evening.

When he approached the statue, a few people saw him, recognizable as he was, and glanced back and forth from their phones to him, whispering, smiling, sympathetic, then drifting away. With the exception of a few vague eyes, Cuffy was alone with it.

Floating lights illuminated the sculpture and made an artificial day of its form. Cuffy circled around it once, twice. Seemingly, unsure of what he was seeing, unsure what he had found. The lights flickered, brightened, and as the sun disappeared, Cuffy grabbed his own throat, not aggressively, but gently, gripping it, squeezing it, tenderly. He rubbed it, then stretched his finger out and penetrated a hole in the statue, a small letter “P” near the middle. He took his hand away and peered within, saw the nose, the eyes, looking back. More letters within, shapes, squiggles, colors. Form. He felt his phone vibrate. When he picked it up, he saw he had 100 missed calls.

“Hello?” he answered, still looking at the statue.

“Dewey, where are you?” It was his mother. “I had newsmen wanting to interview us all day, but I couldn’t find you anywhere. Weren’t you supposed to stay with your handler?”

Cuffy cursed. He hadn’t attended to any of the day’s protocols. He’d been up all night.

“Nah, I had to take care of something.”

“Well, I hope you have a ride, because I’m already home and you should be too, Dewey, they’re going to announce the winner in an hour. Hurry up!”

She hung up on him and a blue balloon with the words “AGGRESSION” floated up at him. He shook his head and the cologne advertisement dissolved.

“Home.”

“125. Dollars.”

“Fine.”

“Cuffy! Hold up!”

He turned and saw the girl run up to him.

“You’re lucky my phone’s cheap.” he said, studying her. “You’re different without your apron.”

She smiled and regarded her outfit, “Thank you.”

“I’m about to go home.”

“Yeah, don’t go yet.”

“Why not?”

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why?”

“I like talking to you.”

“Nah, I gotta get-”

“Please,” she insisted.

Cuffy exhaled. The giant blob of letters stood beside them, listening. He pointed to it. “You see the man in there?” He asked.

“No.”

“Look,” he pointed through the “P”.

“She’s not a man.”

“What?”

“That’s a woman in there.”

Cuffy looked again. “How do you know?”

She pointed to the floating placard next to the statue. It read, “The Provocation.”

“So?” he asked.

“Wait for it,” she said.

After a few seconds, it changed and revealed a woman’s face, the name Jemmy Deslondes appeared below it.

Cuffy smiled. “Doesn’t mean it’s not a man.”

“I can just tell.”

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I told you. I was looking for you.”

“Why?”

She bit her lip and shrugged, “I don’t know. Why you ask so many questions?”

He didn’t know.

“Come on.” she said and took his hand.

They walked around the park and Cuffy listened to her discuss everything inside her: school, her ailing grandmother, her job, their boss. He listened to all of it without a word. The only thing that made Cuffy respond was when she told him statue 14 was her favorite. She apologized to him, but said she thought it was cool. He regarded it as they walked by, 75 feet of a woman’s hair, no face, thousands of individual strands curling around an invisible ear, draping across invisible shoulders. It’s interesting he admitted.

When they reached his statue, he told her he had to go, but she put a hand on his chest and told him to stay. He neared her, but she backed away.

He showed her his palms, but she ignored them.

“What is this about?” she asked.

“I don’t know, you tell me?”

“No, I mean, the statue,” she turned to it, “What’s it about?”

“I crafted my response for both possibilities.” he said.

“I don’t get it.”

Cuffy sighed. The floating lights merely slicked the surface of his statue, and the realism of each figure dimmed in the surrounding darkness. “I don’t know.” He saw his face in the floating placard before it returned to the title.

“I don’t know,” he repeated.

“That boy up there, pulling on the pole, he trying to get away?”

“Yeah.”

“That a black hole?”

“Yeah.”

“They can’t escape?”

“No, they’re already inside, this is all we see,” he admitted, “All that’s left.”

“I figured,” she put a hand on his shoulder, “Don’t worry, Cuffy, they ain’t black, yet.”

He laughed, “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you know,” she smiled at him. He moved in to kiss her, but she backed away.

“What is goi-” He was about to say, but his phone buzzed.

“Hello?” He looked at the girl. She looked at him.

“Come home, Dewey.”

“I’ll be-”

“Come home, Dewey.”

She hung up.

He ran a slow finger over the blank screen, hesitating, “I gotta get home.” he said finally, “My Mom wants to watch the announcement with me.”

“You know my name, Cuffy?”

He shook his head.

“Did you ask?”

“Look, I didn’t kno-”

“You smart, Cuffy?”

He shook his head and hit a button on his phone.

“Wait.”

“Home.”

“No, no.”

“125. Dollars.”

“Cuffy, wait!”

“Fine.”

“I wanted to-”

“FINE!”

A transport beam lifted him through the night and placed him in his kitchen.

“What is this?” his mother asked quietly. She was holding a small silver drive.

“What’s what?”

“This.”

“A drive.”

His mom grabbed his arm and pulled him next to her, “What is this, Dewey?”

He struggled against her arm, but she wouldn’t let go. “It’s nothing.” He leaned away, but she yanked him closer.

“What is this, Dewey?!”

“It’s something I was helping my friend Bill with.”

She let go of his arm, “You’re friend, Bill?”

“Yeah.”

“How does this” She held up the drive. “help Bill?” She shoved it into his hand. “Explain it to me.”

“It’s for class.”

“For class?”

“For history class.”

She started breathing hard. He put his hand on her shoulder. “Mom?” but she shook off his hand. “Don’t touch me, Dewey! I know when you’re lying.” She sat down at the dining table. “Just tell me why.”

“I told you, it’s for class.”

Her shoulders heaved up and down. She searched his eyes, but he kept them steady.

“For class?” She asked again, quieter. Behind her, the TV showed Turner Dessaline standing before a podium, the judges seated behind him. Cuffy couldn’t hear the words. It was on mute.

“Mom?”

“For class? Okay. For class.” She stood up and turned to him, stabilizing herself against the back of the kitchen chair. “I’ve never seen anything like that before, Dewey.”

“Mo-”

“In my worst nightmares, I’ve never seen anything like that. Why would you want to look at that?” He took a step towards his room and looked at the TV.

“They’re about to announce the winner.”

She gripped his face in her hand and turned him towards her, “Why do you hate yourself, Dewey?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Jan Van Broucke’s giant white hands had won. He ripped himself from her hand.

“Pssh, I don’t fucking hate myself.”

She slapped him hard. “Don’t you curse at me, Dewey!” He glanced at the TV again. It showed an image of an 125 foot David standing on its head, paunch sagging. Second Place. “Why do you hate yourself?”

“It’s not like that!”

“Then, what’s it like?”

“It’s like nothing.”

“Then help me, Dewey?” She leaned into his eye line. “Just help me, okay? Tell me why.” He maneuvered to the side. He saw his statue. He’d come in third place. She stepped in front of him.

“I got 3rd place, Mom.”

She started sobbing, “I don’t even care, Dewey. Just tell me…give me something.”

“Mom.” He looked at the TV. It showed a picture of him vomiting, stuck in that pose, beside his statue, forever.

“It’s not me.” he said. His shoulders started to heave, but he closed his eyes and became still. “It’s not me.”

“What?” she barked.

“Look, it-”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Yeah, sometimes, some of it…other parts, other times, I didn’t…I don’t know…enjoys the wrong word, the wrong question, the wrong everything. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do whatever I want?”

“Oh Dewey,” she shook her head.

“Why can’t I!?”

“I just don’t know, do I?”

“Why can’t I.”

“Do I know you?” she asked quietly. “I thought I did, but this…For class?”

He straightened up, pulled back his shoulders, and nodded at her.

“Okay, Dewey. For class.” She walked past him. “We’ll talk about this later, I guess. Go to your room.”

#

That night, in front of his computer, he watched a recording of the announcement ceremony, listened to them say his name, show his face to the world. He watched every news report show him throwing up, listened to their speculation, and heard their disagreements on the ethics of showing the photo, their commentary on his statue, fell asleep.

The next morning his mom asked him why again, but he had nothing to say. When she left, he made himself some food in the tele-grower, ate it, and loaded the drive into the TV.

He watched, first person, as the master, speaking with Cuffy’s voice, did what he did. A time and a place. A time and a place. Bill hadn’t changed a thing. As it played, he began scribbling notes on a pad of yellow paper beside him. When he filled up the page, he immediately crumpled it up, and threw it away. He began writing on a new piece of paper and the video played again. And again. And again. And again. No where else for it to go, just looping forever on repeat. The boy got stabbed, the overseer wrestled with the mother, the hanging, the dance, and it would continue to do so, all of it, over and over, forever, if he wasn’t within it, choosing to deviate from the scripted path.

“What you want me to put this, boss?”

The master looked up at his overseer. The man asked a second time and bounced the body on his shoulder for emphasis.

“Just put him down.”

He grinned and let the body fall from his shoulders.

“Let ‘em see if they know what’s good for them.”

Cuffy watched the point of view walk to the overseer and pat his cheek. The overseer grinned at the approval, turned and began dancing along with the invisible fiddle gibbering hope from the darkness. The man pounded his clumsy boots into the dirt, spewing clouds with each step, laughing. He circled the torch, kicking up his heels with happy abandon, mocking the function of the noise, the music, darkness itself, obscuring more than it possibly could. A pretend game, an illustration, a trick of the light, shorn of meaning.

The overseer seemed like he could dance forever and the master’s hands came into view, began clapping along and then it all looked up into the night sky as a comet passed far overhead and the video started again, returning to that single inescapable point.

Just A Dreamer

By Nicole Tanquary

Amelia woke up in fits and starts with a cat curled in the small of her back. In a practiced motion, she peeled off the net of Recorder sensors from her head. Her scalp itched from a night’s hair growth; she would need to shave sometime during the day, or the dreams the Recorder tracked during her next shift wouldn’t be worth a damn. No one wanted a blurry camera lens when they watched a movie, and the same principle applied to dreams.

Schmutz had come awake at her first stirrings, and now he stretched out his front legs, his orange tabby stripes shifting along bands of muscles as he moved. Then he sat and stared, waiting for her to get up and get him something to eat.

First, though, Jeff would need a description of the night’s work. Amelia reached with the tips of her fingers to the junk pile beneath her bed, then, after a moment of rummaging, pulled out an electric pen and booklet. The booklet was a worn thing from her college days, rainbow cracks glimmering from where she had once stepped on it while coming in from a drunk night out, but even so it worked fine. And Amelia didn’t see the need to replace things that worked fine.

5/3/38

Was in this place like an indoor town center – lots of touristy antique shops, food booths, etc. Visiting with Mom, being dragged along. Went window-shopping through places with an African theme to them, lots of faux-Kente cloth dresses around.

Then became embroiled in a plot that swept through the center; there were these evil warlock types who had been about to use this magic stone, a spherical one, black with a garnet-red shine, to take over the world. But it’d been stolen from them and hidden in one of the thousands of shops in the center. I started running around looking for it …

Her fingers scritching against the screen, Amelia stood and walked barefoot into the kitchen, Schmutz following behind her with his tail cricked in a question-mark. The writing paused long enough to fill his food bowl, then to pour herself a cup of coffee. Then she resumed; she had had a couple of dreams last night, and each one needed to be catalogued.

For half an hour, the house was silent except for her sipping and Schmutz’s snacking.

When the entries were at last done, she scribbled the tags Adventure – Fantasy – Powers, then closed the journal and sat staring straight ahead as she waited for the caffeine to filter into her brain. From her position at the counter, she had a good view of the kitchen window and the garden that lay beyond. Just by the window was a redbud tree, a pretty, shrubby thing that never got too high to block her view. It did send out too many seedlings, though; with the onset of summer, it was starting to choke out the flowers a bit. She needed to get her spade from the garage and dig them all out … and Schmutz needed a vet appointment to check his teeth … and the Recorder needed to be recharged and dusted … her head needed shaving, of course … groceries needed to be bought, carpet needed to be vacuumed, laundry needed to be done. And she needed to make more coffee.

If she worked at it, Amelia usually could think of enough to keep her busy until nightfall.

The worst days were when there was nothing to do, where she sat on the couch and stared at a blank T.V. screen, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

But today was going to be a good day. She would make sure of that.

#

Her boss – a heavy, balding man who insisted that his underlings call him “Jeff” – always sent replies a few minutes after Amelia uploaded her dreams to the company vault. Sure enough, the day’s text came as she was drinking the last of her coffee: Sounds eccentric. You sure it’s good?

Amelia pursed her lips as she answered: Just watch it. The details really bring it to life. I can’t put all that down in a summary, it’d take hours. Besides, adventure fantasies are popular.

She could almost see him hemming and hawing, rubbing a hand along his double-chin. You’re a best-seller, Amelia, you know that. It’s a lot of pressure. You sure you haven’t taken anything to make things, you know, more vivid?

Mind-altering drugs had been declared strictly off-limits for anyone who sold their dreams for a living … kept the whole process more organic, or so they said. Amelia had even been forced off her anti-depressants when she first signed the contract.

Jeff, my dreams have always been like this.

            I know. That’s why I hired you. It’s damn interesting stuff. Strange, but interesting.

            There, the conversation ended, and Amelia went back to her breakfast of coffee and leftover couscous. Schmutz head-butted her leg, and she let him sniff a spoonful to prove that he wouldn’t like what she was eating, after all.

There was a fresh issue of Scientific American on the counter, and she turned the pages as she ate, eventually glancing at an article that listed the “Ten Most Important Advances in STEM Fields in the Past Decade.” Recorders, of course, made it into the list’s top five. She watched the photograph as light moved along the Recorder strands in smooth, liquid shines. The filaments were splayed outwards in a web, roughly oval-shaped and adjustable to a person’s head size. On the next page, alongside a diagram, was a description of how the filaments rested against a person’s scalp and dug in just a little – painless as acupuncture – to get at the detailed chemical-electrical activity happening within a brain as it slept. Each Recorder was highly individualized, since everyone’s experiences of the world were unique. It took weeks’ worth of scans to get a Recorder fully adjusted to it subject, able to translate individuals’ brain-patterns into images and sensations that could, in turn, be replicated for others in an all-encompassing sensory experience. Sounds, smells, tastes, touches, emotions … A well-synced Recorder could collect just about anything.

The article, aiming for its usual scientific objectivity, went into discussion of the public pushback as well. As dream recordings had become a currency of entertainment, after all, everyone from politicians to ranting bloggers voiced the privacy issues and moral questions that they felt needed asking. The whole business got pretty muddled, even slowed down the commercialization of the field for a bit … but over the course of several years, private firms were able to hire public relations teams that rewrote the popular consciousness of the subject.

Nowadays, Recorder dreams were not the most extreme privacy violation imaginable, but instead represented a mutually-consenting capture of imagination in its purest form. Dreams, after all, were not inherently designed for widespread consumption like books or movies. Dreams represented actual ideas at their most elemental and meaningful. So the public began to believe, at least.

For her part, Amelia had entered the Recording field on a whim. She had applied to a work-study gig at her university’s neuroscience program as one of the early Recorder-testers. She had gone in for a screening and had come out with one of the first models, a clunky, helmet-like thing that had the unpleasant texture of Velcro. The sensors on those early Recorders always dug in a little too deep, leaving rows of dimples in her scalp by the time she woke up the next morning. Still, she could not complain; it was good money, and the stuff it recorded made a name for herself in the world of neuroscience.

Four years later, and with some vigorous product placement from the private firms that had bought the rights to Recorders and their users, Amelia was a consistent and well-known best-seller who had used the extra income to pay her way through school.

It still struck her as funny, sometimes. If someone had gone back to the Amelia of five years ago and explained out her future career path, she would have laughed and said, Uh-uh, no way. No way anyone would actually want to see what’s going on in my head. It’s a place you don’t want to get lost in, trust me.

            Then again, money could change a person’s attitude on just about anything.

#

Now it was noon, and Amelia had come off her caffeine high with the dishwasher unloaded, the laundry sorted and put away, and Schmutz’s fur brushed clean. He liked to go outside when it was warm, and all kinds of burrs and dead leaves would catch in his long fur, particularly on the underside of his belly. From where she stood, she could see him lounging on the front porch, fluffy with the fresh brushing, his tail still twitching in annoyance. He did not particularly like being brushed. Amelia had a feeling that the bristles pulled at his skin, and he was a sensitive cat. In his life before Amelia, he had been stuffed into a cardboard box and left out on the side of a highway to roast in the sun. Amelia did not blame him for being touchy sometimes.

She was thinking dim thoughts concerning lunch (she had seen an ad for a new seafood restaurant on Thompson and was wondering if she was in the mood for fried shrimp) when she raised her eyes from Schmutz and saw the man standing at the foot of the driveway.

The sun was out, noon-bright and burning, but it was almost as if the man’s body had a mask drawn over it; there were no discernable details at all. The only thing she could make out clearly was the shape of a suit and tie.

Still. There was something familiar about him. Familiar in an inkling way.

Amelia had been holding a water glass, and she lowered it to the counter. The clink as the glass touched down woke her up a bit, and it seemed to wake up the man, too. As she watched, he tucked his hands into his pockets and strolled out of her line of sight. Schmutz, who had been grooming his paw, set it down and followed the man’s movement with his eyes. “He’s just a walker, Schmutzy,” she said, mostly to herself. “Just some guy.”

Ten minutes later, when she left the house en route to Doug’s Fish Fry, she paused long enough to double-check the locks. There was a deadbolt on the front door, a rusty thing she had never touched before. She studied it for a moment before turning it into place with her key, wincing when it let out a sound like grinding teeth.

#

Amelia left Doug’s Fish Fry feeling faintly sick, the shrimp no more than a greasy lump in her stomach. She had brought her tablet with her to the restaurant to browse the internet as she waited for her food, pretending to be a ‘working student’ to keep people from staring at her. It had been a family restaurant, and she had been the only diner sitting alone.

Usually things like that didn’t bother her. It took her more effort than most people to hold and sustain a conversation, not to mention come off with the appropriate amount of confidence, wit, and humor. When she was alone at least she did ’t have to figure out how to entertain anybody.

Sometimes, though, the quiet of being alone would leak inside her head. Everything around her … everything in her … would fade, all her colors going gray and dim.

Days like those, she missed being able to take her anti-depressants. Those pills were not an easy cure, exactly, but at least they staved off the dimness a little.

Hoisting her purse across one shoulder, Amelia left her car in the driveway, went to the front door and popped the key into the lock. The double-bolt stuck. By now she had forgotten about the dark man, and she let out a grunt of annoyance, hoping the key would not break as she twisted it harder. At last the door popped open, and Schmutz ran out to twine around her legs, rubbing his head against the tops of her sandals. “You act like I haven’t fed you in weeks,” she said. “Christ, I just fed you two hours ago.”

Schmutz, at least, was one answer to the loneliness. Another one was to go out with friends, the old high school remnants who hadn’t minded her quiet moments. She knew Sky and Kat both had the evening off. Maybe it’d be nice to suggest a meet-up. What was playing in the movie theaters lately? Anything besides early-summer blockbusters?

Amelia felt at her pocket, then remembered that the phone was on the kitchen counter, on top of the travel memoir she had been idly reading through for the past month. Side-stepping around the cat, she made her way into the kitchen, snatched up the phone and began the group message: Hey guys, I was wondering…

Absently, fingers clicking away at the screen, she wandered into the living room. It was more of a sunroom, really, with a wall-full of windows that opened onto her strip of backyard, full of renegade redbuds and flowers leading up to the dark woods beyond, looming in its wall of twisting leaves.

Finally, she reached the end of the message and pressed the little ‘send’ button.

When she looked up, the dark man was standing with his face pressed to the window glass.

Every muscle in her body clenched down, and a thin, high sound blew through her lips – a scream, she supposed, though it did not sound much like one. The dark man’s face was indeed dark. Expressionless, colorless black cloth had been pulled over the mouth, the nose, even the eyes. Just a weird skiing mask, her mind sang, Just a weirdo!  

After a minute of silence – Amelia staring at where his eyes should have been, if his face had been clear – she became aware of the phone still in her hands, clenched and shaking. She did not dare move, did not trust her own two legs to hold her up if movement was required, but at least she had the phone.

Slowly, her eyes not leaving the man’s covered face, she pressed the ‘call’ icon with her thumb and keyed in ‘9-1-1.’

#

After seeing the police officer to the door, Amelia wandered back into the living room, not thinking much and not doing much. Mostly she circled around the house and checked the locks on the windows. She could not remember the last time she even looked at most of them, but now all openings into the house filled her with an itching anxiety.

The trance finally lifted when her phone began to vibrate. Damned thing, she thought, her lip curling back in a grimace. She wasn’t in the mood for talking. The only thing she was in the mood for was the bottle of Nouveau waiting for her in the wine cabinet.

Ignoring the phone, she went into the kitchen, found the Nouveau and popped off the stopper, pouring herself a glass-full of thick red wine. The first gulp hit her tongue and left her throat glowing.

The phone rang again, and this time she answered it, glaring straight ahead as she pressed it to her ear. “What d’ you want, Jeff? This isn’t a good time.”

“Yeah, hey, are you all right? I heard about the stalker at your house.” Her eyebrows raised a little.

“Where’d you hear it from? The police only just left.”

The answer came quickly, as if he had been expecting her to ask that: “Got a friend in law enforcement. Asked him to keep his ears open for anything about my kids.” A grimace came and went across her face. Amelia and the other dream recorders were mostly young, right in that sweet-spot between child and mature adult. Being middle-aged himself, Jeff always referred to his contracted recorders as his ‘kids.’ It was something she hated but never brought up to his face.

“Yeah, I’m fine. No thanks to the police.” She rubbed one hand against her forearm, biting her tongue to keep in the laugh that would’ve come barking out otherwise. “The guy ran off way before anyone showed up. And the police-”

“What did they do?”

“Nothing. That’s the point. They took me seriously enough at first, but when they started asking questions, they wanted to know what I did for a living, and when I told them, they started … patronizing me. Said that maybe I’d brought my work with me when I woke up and ‘imagined’ the whole thing.”

There was an explosive sigh on the other end. “How many times do I have to tell those goddam reporters, Recorders don’t do that! They just record what’s going on in someone’s head, there’s no hallucinations before OR afterwards! Motherfucking idiots!” Amelia thought she could almost hear the tendons in Jeff’s jaw clench. “Goddam … Listen, ‘melia, I have a friend who might be able to help you out. He’s a private contractor type, NOT a useless cop. I can get him to send someone to your house and keep watch until your stalker is caught, maybe even help catch the bastard.”

Amelia’s teeth chewed at the edge of her lip. The inside of her mouth felt dry, very dry, and she poured herself another bloody glass of Nouveau to wet it down with. “Sorry, Jeff, thanks but no thanks.”

“C’mon, ‘melia. This guy’s probably dangerous, and I don’t want to take any chances-”

“I’m not asking you to.” She clipped off his retort by ending the call, then powered down the phone before he could start flooding her voicemail, as he sometimes did.

Half of her fresh glass of wine was already gone. She didn’t remember drinking that much, but so it was.

Wine glasses never lied, even if people did.

#

A cold, wet nose pressed into her forehead, just below the front-most strands of the Recorder. Amelia’s eyes opened to find Schmutz staring down in an unflinching yellow gaze.

When their eyes met, he promptly butted her head and meowed for breakfast. And no wonder, Amelia thought, her eyes drifting to the beside clock: it was already eleven. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept in so late.

With a groan, she pulled herself out from under the covers and plodded into the kitchen, staying just long enough to set out Schmutz’s meal. Then she went back in the bedroom, sat on the bed, and held her head in her hands. Her nails touched against the Recorder and she peeled it off, flinging it aside like it was something nasty growing in a trash can.

She still had to write the report, though; no way around that. With a sour expression, she got out the electronic booklet and sat there for a while, rubbing one hand along her jaw. It was sore; she must’ve been grinding her teeth through the night. The habit had started in high school, and she wouldn’t have known anything about it except that her dentist had had a small fit after seeing the state of her molars.

Funny, though. She had thought she had gotten over the teeth-grinding after sophomore year of college. Guess it’s true when they say that you never really get over anything … it goes away for a while, but it always comes back. She pursed her lips down at the booklet. Well, that’s a happy thought, isn’t it?

What else could she expect, though, after a dream like that?

After of lots of stopping-and-starting, she finally began to put a description together for the dream database:

5/4/38

Started in a jungle. Dark place, lots of noises, I couldn’t see anything at first. Something had tied me to a tree … no, chained me, metal chain. The chain was around my left wrist. The something was coming back, and I was going to die, and I knew it, so I was panicking.

            I leaned over without really thinking about it and started chewing at my arm. It hurt, and blood was pouring out, but I couldn’t stop. Too scared.

            When the thing had almost come back, I finally chewed through and left my arm behind in the chain, and I started running. But I wasn’t fast enough. He caught me, and he had a man’s shape but he wasn’t really a man, don’t know what he was, he just WAS. He held me so I wouldn’t run off and looked at the stub where my arm had been. “Now look what you’ve done,” he said. And then-

            “He ripped off my other arm,” Amelia mouthed, then realized that she hadn’t written it down. She did so in a scribble, muttering dark curses under her breath. The staff who processed dream manuscripts usually wanted tags for filing purposes, but screw them, if they really wanted to label this thing they could do it themselves.

Amelia sent off the dream with a click, then went back into the kitchen. Her whole body ached way down to the deep muscle. Maybe she was getting her period ahead of schedule – that was sort of what it felt like, anyways. Hell, more blood, just what I need, she thought, and started pouring herself some coffee.

#

It was somewhere like four in the afternoon when her doorbell rang. Schmutz, who had been stretched out on her lap, folded his ears back and fixed his gaze on the doorknob.

Amelia was sitting with him on the couch, a drink in her hand and her head swimming in a daze. She leaned back a bit so she could glance out the window … her stupid front door didn’t have a peephole, and she wasn’t going to open it without knowing who was there first … and pulled back the curtain just enough to see the visitor.

Catching the movement in the curtain, a man in a suit grinned at her and waved. She let out a groan – Why didn’t I just pretend I wasn’t home? – then got to her feet, unlocked the door, and opened it to a hair’s width. Looked like a salesman, or maybe a Jehovah’s Witness; talking to him would be the only way to get rid of him now, and the sooner the better.

The man outside was about her age but had a perpetual, smiling boyishness that left impressions of someone much younger. His hair, somewhere between dark blonde and brown, hung long against his forehead. His eyes were very dark and his build narrow, like a runner’s.

Before he could speak, Amelia started with, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in signing up for anything right now. I’d really prefer to be left alone.” For a moment the man’s boyish face looked perplexed.

“Huh?” He blinked, thought about what she had said for a moment, and then came to a realization. His face was one that was easy to read … she could follow each change in his thoughts just by looking at him. “Oh, no, I’m not a salesman. I’m one of Emilio’s guys. My name’s Evan, Evan Fleischer. I’m assuming Mr. Jeff told you I was coming over … or, not,” he said, his grin fading as he read Amelia’s expression.

“I told him I didn’t need a babysitter. Or a bodyguard. Whatever you are.” Her grip on the doorknob tightened. “If he won’t listen to me, then you can go tell him yourself.”

She leaned her shoulder forward an inch, about to use her weight to swing the door shut when he spoke again. “Jeff watched the dream manuscript you sent in today. It was …” A frown collected around Evan’s eyebrows. “Well, safe to say he’s worried about you. He wants to have someone to watch your back, set you at ease and all.”

Amelia was suddenly aware of the jacket covering the front of the man’s body. She knew, with a certainty that was almost frightening, that he had a gun tucked away in there somewhere.

She surprised herself with a laugh that made her eyes glitter. “Jeff makes money by selling my dreams. Of course he’s concerned. I can’t dream best-sellers if my subconscious is scared, can I? Still, if he thinks I’m going to let a complete stranger into my home …”

A stranger who knows how to use a gun, maybe even knows how to drive away the dark man in the mask, the shadow-mask that smooths away his mouth and nose and eyes and yet you can feel, you KNOW he’s staring at you, staring and THINKING ABOUT HOW HE’S GONNA MAKE YOU SUFFER …

” … Then he must know me better than I do,” she ended, in a mutter. The bemused look came back into Evan’s face. Amelia had a feeling he wore that look often.

She turned away from him, firmly, and propped open the door with her foot to let him in.

#

The spaces in the house were open, the furniture modest, but all the colors had been washed out in shadow tones. The curtains are closed, she could see Evan thinking to himself, with a pointed glance at the windows. Even though it’s a nice sunny day outside.

Schmutz stared at him from his spot on the couch, ears flattened back and tail lashing. As Evan turned to look at him, there was a faint rustle, and Schmutz disappeared in a streak of orange. Evan jumped, his hand flinching towards his concealed gun before he got a hold of himself. “Shoot, sorry,” he said, tucking the hand back into a pocket. “Didn’t mean to scare it.”

“It’s not you personally, he just doesn’t like strangers.” Neither do I, for that matter.

Amelia’s shoulders sagged a little, and when she motioned towards the kitchen, the gesture was limp and without feeling. “There’s liquor, if you want. Wine, too. Take whatever you feel like.” For a moment the look on Evan’s face was so bemused that Amelia expected him to say, Sorry, ma’am, but I’m not old enough to drink!

Instead he said, “I can’t. Not while I’m on duty.”

After that the two of them stood in silence. An antique clock on the kitchen wall ticked and tocked in the quiet. He didn’t take the drink – what am I supposed to do with him now? thought Amelia. It occurred to her that she had never invited a man into her house before. Mom would be so proud.

That thought burned with the aftertaste of acid, and she clenched down on it, forcing it back into the pit of her stomach. She was on her own now, she was a happy and self-sustaining adult. She didn’t need to think about her mom, or her family, or all the things that came with it …

Evan shrugged out of his jacket and draped it on a chair, pushed neatly back into a table. “You know, I don’t watch all that many dreams. Usually I’m doing work, and I gotta be awake and alert and all that. Still,” and now he smiled a little, “When Emilio brought up your pen-name, I knew it right away. Sometimes I watch them over dinner, you know? Makes Ramen a lot more exciting. I like yours especially, since they’re always so …” He flexed his fingers, searching for the right word. “… visceral. Yeah. Like those ones where you’re flying? You actually feel the air sliding around you. It’s amazing.”

Amelia kept her eyes to the floor, a frown coming into her eyebrows. In her head she muttered a curse at Jeff. What was the point of the pen-name if he gave it away to people she didn’t know?

Reading her face, Evan added, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to the press to reveal your name to anyone. We’re dealing with one stalker here, not trying to make more of them. And if they knew your name-”

“They could probably figure out my house address.” The smile she gave him was a bleary one, pinched at the corners. “Doesn’t help to lecture me on safety precautions. I already know the spiel.”

Evan’s face darkened a little. “Still, is there anyone close to you that maybe knows-”

“I’ve never seen this guy before in my life. Haven’t even gotten a good look at him yet. Whenever I see him, his face is all … dark.” There was a lock of hair hanging against Evan’s forehead, thick and faintly curled – what were those called again? Cowlicks? She realized she was staring at it and turned her head away, faint blush coming in along her cheekbones. “If you don’t want a drink, that’s fine, but you’re gonna have to figure out a way to entertain yourself. Frankly, I’m not in the mood.” She left him and went into the kitchen, rummaging around for a half-finished book and a glass of wine.

“Sure, no problem,” he said, the grin returning. “My fault for popping in on you like this. And while you’re shaken up, too.” He stretched his arms into the air and bent backwards, getting the cracks out of his spine. “Where do you want me posted? I have a car outside for surveillance, which is what I usually do, but I can also stay here in the living room if you’re really-”

“Stay with me in the house.” The suddenness of the reply surprised both of them, and she swallowed once to remove a lump from her throat. “I mean … if this guy sneaks in, I want you right here, you know? So you can put a bullet through his head.”

Evan’s grin changed to a frown. If she looked, Amelia thought she could see a sharper thing glinting through the boyishness; a professional. “I’m not allowed to use lethal force unless your life is in imminent danger.”

“And who says it isn’t?” There was the damned book she was looking for; it was underneath a stacked pile of already-read Smithsonian magazines, two years’ worth and then some, if you bothered to flip through and count them all up. What even was this? Amelia squinted at the cover, registering it as one of her mother’s old anthropology books. Age and Gender in Rural Zambia. Yes, this was good. It would get her out of this place to somewhere new, a place of dry yellow ground flooded with sunshine.

When she reached her bedroom, she found Schmutz huddled beneath the bed, shooting her a glare full of accusation. “He’ll only be here a little while,” she murmured, then bent forward to arrange the pillows against the headboard so she could sit up comfortably. Sure, it was only afternoon, too early for bed – but the bedroom was her place, where she got work done. And with Evan posted outside in the living room, the dark man wouldn’t be able to sneak in.

Her shoulders relaxed in increments, and she bent open the book and let the words wash over her in grayed, academic waves.

#

There were woods, thick deep green, full of birds. They made all this noise, it was too loud, they wouldn’t shut up even when I threw rocks at them. Then their voices changed, and they were little babies, all of them crying their eyes out. They started falling out of the branches like dead fruit. They’d been dead for a while, their skins were rotten and split open when they fell, their arms and legs still kicking.

I heard a voice say, “Now look what you’ve done,” and he was there, blurry at the edges but there, right in my head, and I couldn’t run from him because it was my fault, I threw rocks at them at first and then hadn’t done enough to try to save them, and he had me, he was holding me and biting through my neck like it was a tether –

Amelia woke with a scream bubbling out of her throat like fresh blood, tearing off the Recorder with a jerk of her hand and letting it clatter to the floor. There were hard, fast footsteps. The door burst open, and Evan appeared, silhouetted against a hallway light. “What happened? Are you okay?” There was a brightness in his eyes that Amelia had not seen there before.

“Fuck off!” she spat, trying to catch her breath. Evan didn’t answer, and she felt a hollow thud of regret somewhere inside her chest. It hadn’t been his fault. She shouldn’t have yelled at him. Well, too late now.

She threw off her sheet to let her skin breathe, then swung her legs over the side of the bed. She felt as though she was drowning in her own sweat. At the same time, the air inside her room felt too cold, almost icy when it touched against her skin.

She ran a hand over her bare scalp and then stood, pushing past Evan so she could get into the kitchen. Her usual treatment for a nightmare was a mug of hot tea … there was a box of herbal Chamomile in the cupboard by the sink for just that purpose. She found the box and picked at it with her fingernails, sliding out a tea bag and dropping it into a mug-full of water.

“Another nightmare?” came Evan’s voice from behind. Amelia blinked for a moment, surprised. She thought telling him to ‘fuck off’ would’ve driven him back to the living room and ended any possibility of conversation, but apparently not.

” … yeah.” A sigh left her lips before she could think to hold it in. “Jeff won’t be happy about it. Nightmares don’t sell as well as regular dreams. For, you know, obvious reasons.”

Evan’s nose wrinkled a little. “I don’t think that’s his main concern right now. It shouldn’t be yours, either.” The microwave beeped, and Amelia retrieved her mug, the heated pottery warm against her palm.

“Of course that’s his main concern. He’s a businessman.” She swirled the tea for a bit, watching the steam rise from the surface in soft pillows. “Maybe it won’t be all bad, though. I read an article somewhere about Homeland Security buying exclusive access to some of the nightmares. The really bad shit, you know, the paralysis-inducing stuff. It’s useful for torture. Doesn’t scar the body at all, so you won’t be able to prove that it happened afterwards. People’ll just think you’re crazy.”

Evan gave her a steady look. “That’s not true. Dreams leave marks … just depends on how close you look.” He tapped a finger against the corner of his eye, his mouth breaking into a grin.

Now that he was looking at her, Amelia could see his eyes, his whole face, even, still held that gleam she had noticed before. He looked … alive. In the same way the dark man looked dead.

Yes, that was it; that was what was so awful about it all. The dark man looked like something that had been dead and buried for a long, long time. But now it had opened its eyes and woken up, scratched its way out of its grave with finger-claws that gnawed away at soil and hard-packed stone-

And that dead face was staring at her through the kitchen window.

She felt him before she saw him, a heaviness in her chest that raised fresh fever-sweat along her neck. She could see nothing clearly, just the dark cloth pulled over all his features, but she swore, she swore the bastard was grinning at her.

All at once anger seethed up from her stomach, and a slow breath hissed out from between her teeth. She shoved aside the tea and ripped open one of the drawers where her steak knives were neatly filed away. “What’re you-” Evan said, but her hand had already gripped a handle, any would do, and she was dodging around the kitchen counter and running, no, sprinting at the back door-

Her fingers were undoing the locks when a hand closed around her wrist. A shriek came out of her, muffled by her lips, which clenched in a grimace at the touch.

It was Evan. At some point he had slid the gun out, and it was not impressive at all but old, almost clunky. Still, it fit in Evan’s hand in a reassuringly solid way; like the two of them belonged together. “Did you see him?” he asked, his voice low.

When Amelia did not answer, he nudged her out of the way with a surprising gentleness. Then he slipped out through the door and onto the back lawn. She watched through the door window as he panned across every inch of backyard, the gun always pointed along his line of sight. He searched through the lawn; ducked into the trees that began where her backyard ended; peered into the hedges in front; looked briefly in the neighbors’ yards.

Then he was back, latching the deadbolt behind him. “No one there,” he said, in that same low voice. “Not anymore.”

Amelia’s heart beat fast in her chest, and she rubbed a hand along her neck, where she could feel her pulse straining in the arteries running to her head. “Of course not. He always disappears when other people go looking for him. Same thing happened with the policemen.” There was a crack in her voice that she could both hear and feel.

A moment later and she was sitting on the couch in the living room, rubbing a hand absently across her scalp. She had shaved it earlier in the day, and the skin was shiny-smooth and soft. Some dream recorders looked odd without hair, college-aged monks-in-training wearing sweatshirts instead of robes. But her, it suited her fine. Her father had a little Chickasaw Indian in his blood, and she had inherited his high cheek bones …

And other things. Slight chemical imbalances in the brain. Overactive neurons that gave her the depressive symptoms hand-in-hand with the dreams, so thick and real you could bite down and taste them. But then his bit back, she thought, his dreams bit back, and when they did they bit down hard.

“Amelia?” came Evan’s voice, and even though he stood right in front of her it sounded like he was far away. A warm pair of hands settled on her shoulders, and then at least he seemed closer. There was a reassuring solidity in the grip that made her raise her head.

He stared steadily into her face, tallying up the bloodless cheeks and the dark bags beneath her eyes. “Listen, you’re okay. I won’t let him hurt you. You understand?”

“But he …” She couldn’t keep up the eye contact and let her gaze drop.

“He what?”

“He’s ALREADY hurt me,” came the answer, in a burst of anger that burned as it left her tongue. “He’s hurt me twice now. And if I fall back asleep, he’ll hurt me again. Maybe even kill me.” She rested her face against her hands, stinging, exhausted tears welling up at the edges of her eyelids. “You people, you all say ‘It’s so wonderful to have such realistic dreams,’ but it’s not wonderful, it hurts, it hurts to have things be so real and sharp all the time …”

The tips of her fingers were shaking. She had inherited that from her dad, too, and he from her grandma. The shaking would get bad when she was cold, or tired. Like her brain would give up on trying to keep her muscles steady. Why can’t things ever keep steady?

Except, her hands were steady – Evan was holding them still. His hands were large, and rough, calluses built up on each of the knuckles. These were the hands of someone who had been in a lot of fights. Strange, she thought. They didn’t match his boyish face at all.

“I never said dreams like that were easy,” he said.

No. They weren’t. But then, most things weren’t. Life, dreams … families. That was a big one right there. If only families could stay easy to get along with, sweetly stereotypical with a happy mom and happy dad and happy little children, but one person or another would always start to crumble and before long the whole edifice would come crashing down around their heads.

She and her mom, they had been so worried in the beginning. Amelia was in college when the troubles with dad began, so she and mom always talked and talked about it over long distance phone calls, endless streams of arrangements passing between them, I can drive down and visit his apartment this weekend, I’m free Wednesday night, I’ve been calling him but he’s not answering …

In the end, it hadn’t mattered how much they tried to reach out. They were still bystanders, standing off to the side as they watched the mental avalanche come down the mountain. Before they knew it, he was completely and utterly-

“Buried,” she murmured, then gave a little start when she realized she had spoken aloud. “Shit, sorry, I-”

“No, that’s good. I was gonna ask you to start talking it out anyways.” Evan sat down in the chair across from her, folding one leg over the other, hands in his lap. Beneath the cowlick, his eyes had gotten a sort of bright intensity to them … an understanding that she knew more about this stalker than she was saying.

Amelia opened her mouth to say, ‘What’re you talking about? You’re a bodyguard, so why start playing therapist? Who the Hell do you think you are?’

But the words never quite made it out. Her throat was dry, coated in dust. She wanted another glass of wine to wash it away. She wanted to find Schmutz, who was hiding in the bedroom still, and scoop him up so she could bury her face in his fur.

She wanted to be able to open all the living room windows and breathe in fresh night air, cold and wet with the next morning’s dew, open those windows and not have to worry about a dark hand tearing through the screen mesh to snatch her wrist in a death grip.

“It’s nothing,” she muttered, finally answering the question playing across Evan’s face. “Nothing much. This guy just … I don’t know. He reminds me of my dad a little. But he can’t be my dad,” and the mutter was getting quieter, “Because my dad’s dead.”

Evan said nothing. Amelia knit her fingers together and started cracking her knuckles, each one going with a little pop. Her eyes had the distant, plastic look of someone being forced to remember a bad dream. That last night in his apartment, when he wouldn’t stop shrieking. That was the REAL nightmare.  

And with the memories came the familiar burn of rage. She bit her lip to keep it in, the boil in her stomach and chest that wouldn’t go away. She had her Recorder job, she had her dreams. She didn’t want to be coming apart at the seams now, when everything was going so well.

Wasn’t it going well? Wasn’t she okay?

Amelia flexed her knuckles again, but everything had already been cracked. She tried for a while anyways, knitting her fingers together and twisting first one way and then the other. Goddamn, she was tired. Everything in her felt drained out, as if she was nothing more than a hollow skin-puppet being shuffled along on its strings. It wasn’t doing her any good, staying up this late.

Back to bed. Yeah. That was the only thing left to do.

Standing up, she fumbled towards the counter until she found the mug of Chamomile tea. She had thought that only a few minutes had passed, but the pottery handle was already cold to the touch.

“Going to sleep?” said Evan, from where he perched in his chair. Amelia nodded. Somewhere, on a deeper, wordless level of thinking, it occurred to her that Evan didn’t look tired at all. He must’ve been on watch in her living room for hours and hours now – with his job, he probably didn’t get much sleep in the first place. Amelia couldn’t imagine it. Just living exhausted her by the time night came around.

She turned and followed the hall to her room, where the door still stood open. The sheets were almost torn off the bed, draped partway onto the floor. Schmutz stood guard by the closet door with his tail lashing. At the noise of Amelia coming in, his shoulders tensed up, and a moment later he was an orange shadow slinking back underneath the bed. “Come on, he’s not that bad,” she muttered, setting her tea on the bedside table.

True enough. But then, was it even Evan he was hiding from anymore?

#

She lay on her bed, the mattress a creaking, groaning thing underneath her, soft and warm as living tissue. She fought off the blanket and rolled out, landing hard, almost in a crouch. The carpet was a viscous liquid that stuck to the pads of her feet when she stood up.

Something had torn away the door. Jags of wood remained around the hinges, but the rest had been ripped off and tossed into the hallway. She could just barely see it smoldering there, could smell where it had burned at the dark man’s touch.

Her eyes couldn’t stay in one place. It was still her bedroom, but the walls had curdled, shadows wouldn’t sit flat against them but bulged out instead, curved sickle-fingers that reached into the open air like thorns on a rosebush.

“Now look what you’ve done,” said a corner of the room, and there stood the dark man, building himself out of shadows the way a sculptor molds clay, raw black clay dragged from the deep rivers of the mind. He was her father and not her father, a shadow that had twisted and rotted into something new, something bad. “Now look what you’ve done,” it whined again, and the whine twisted as it slunk along the walls.

And what had she done? That last night, at her father’s place?

She’d done nothing. That was the whole point. The whole fucking point.

A smile twitched at the face under the black cloth, So, you’ve let yourself remember now, and the cloth her father’s monster was wearing was a funeral shroud, how had she not seen that before? It was her funeral shroud, and he had come all this way from the grave to wrap it around her like a baby swaddled in cloth-

A moment passed, the dark man came forward, and everything disappeared from her sight. She could feel the black shroud on her head, circling tighter and tighter in layers of suffocating skin. It’s like my panic attacks, she thought, air choking in her throat. My panic attacks, the ones I’d get after his funeral. She tried to rip the shroud off, but the material slid silkily under her fingernails–

And it wasn’t a dream, she could feel every molecule of air against her face, every hair standing up on her arms, every beat of her heart-drum pushing blood through her arteries and it wasn’t a dream it wasn’t a dream IT WASN’T A DREAM

The walls pulsed in ripples of black shadow, culminating in the figure before her in inky waves. His smile cut through the cloth over her eyes, wide white teeth that gleamed as his arms held the cloth over her face, tighter, tighter. She made desperate sucking sounds for air, and his smile only widened. How does it feel? How does it feel, Amelia? Not so fun from the inside, is it?

There were footsteps, and all at once the shadows ripped open with a fantastic, golden bang. The dark man jerked backwards, dragging the shroud in his wake. Amelia floundered part-way out and gasped in deep breaths, the air feeling sharp and sweet in her lungs. Evan stood in the jagged doorway, a silhouette against the hallway light. Even so, his eyes were full of burning. Not just his eyes; where before the gun had been dull black, it was yellow now, the blinding yellow of sunlight that wakes you from a deep sleep.

Huh, she thought, her mind moving in dizzy circles as she tried to push off the rest of the dark man’s shroud. From this angle, Evan looked a bit like her father.

Not the pitiful, neurotic shadow he had become in her teenage years. Not the one that had looked up at her from his cut-open wrists and said in a gasping whine, “Now look what you’ve done!”

No. Right then, Evan looked like the father she had known when she was a little girl – a baby, even. The strong man with the cowlick and the grin, with the big, rough hands who would hold her in warm hugs, who would make funny faces at her from across the room, who would act like a big goofy child to get mom’s eyes to roll and make Amelia giggle.

That was the father who, even when he was tired and sleepless, would comfort her after a nightmare and convince her there weren’t monsters under the bed, after all. And even if that turned out to be a lie, even if there WERE monsters under there, he’d always be there to chase them away – and poor baby Amelia had believed him.

Amelia refocused on the scene in front of her and realized, in a slow crawl of thought, that Evan’s bullet had gone through the dark man’s forehead. Right between the eyes, in fact, leaving a hole that dripped thick, inky blood. Amelia watched, unmoving, as drips of it ran down the man’s face and onto the front of his suit. “NOW look what you’ve done,” the man shrieked, and the eyes flushed black. You’re not getting away, Amelia. You’re never getting away.

There came a lunge of movement, and the shadow’s grip latched back onto Amelia’s body, spinning her around as a shield between her and Evan. Amelia jerked out of her daze, her whole body thrashing instinctively, one leg coming up to kick the man viciously in the knees. Her foot encountered no resistance … or, if there was, it was like a clammy touch of mist. Nothing more than that.

The darkness made an angry sound, a sort of vibration more felt than heard, one that sent her almost screaming from the way it rattled in her bones. There was a lash, and smooth silk-shrouded hands gave way to claws, claws that buried in the meat of her right arm.

Then a streak of orange came through the corner of her eye, and suddenly the dark man was not the only thing with claws: Schmutz had left the safety of the bed and was standing at her feet, his back arched and every strand of his fur standing on end. Wait, Schmutz, I can’t touch him, you won’t be able to touch him either- she thought, but before she could say a word Schmutz had lunged at the dark man’s leg. Claws came out and slashed deep gouges into the darkness, and ink-blood spurted out across the floor.

There was a howl, and the dark man kicked out, his foot connecting with Schmutz’s side and throwing him into the far corner of the room. Still, the distraction was enough; he had turned, exposing his body to Evan, still standing at the door.

And Evan didn’t waste the chance. A series of three quick bangs sounded out from Evan’s gun. Wide holes burst open on the dark man’s chest, holes that leaked out shadow.

Running forward, Evan grabbed Amelia’s wrist and yanked her out of the dark man’s hold, Schmutz following just behind them. Now that she looked down at the cat, through bleary and water-dazed eyes, Schmutz’s fur was no longer orange so much as gold – it had the same sun-glow as Evan and his gun.

Separated from Amelia and riddled with bullet holes, pieces of the dark man began to come apart, falling to the floor and splattering like wet scraps of clay from a potter’s wheel. The glowing bullets almost seemed to writhe underneath his skin, living things that pushed tissue out of their way as they burrowed and brought light to every dark corner. His head was pointed down, watching the pieces come off. Something in his stance seemed confused.

“But … look …” he started, but Evan cut him off with a final shot from the gun.

Amelia was holding onto Evan’s shoulder. Her arm was warm and wet with her own blood, but there was no pain yet; the adrenaline kept it away, for the time being. Her gaze fixed on what was left of the dark man as he fell to the floor.

Then she felt her face start to twist. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits, and her cheeks pulled back, the lips parting to let out deep, soundless sobs. Tears ran down her cheeks, not in trickles but in slow, all-encompassing pools. This wasn’t something she could handle. This wasn’t something anyone could handle. GOD DAMN IT, she thought, but that didn’t stop the tears from flowing up and out from some deep well in her chest.

And what were they for? Despair? Relief? The room was, after all, a room again, made of flat planes and docile shadows. Schmutz’s fur no longer glowed, and neither did Evan or his gun. Everything was as it had been.

She could feel callous-rough hands lead her to bed. Evan said something aloud, but Amelia couldn’t understand him. Her head hurt too much. She fell into the bed still crying, curling into a fetal position as she bunched the sheets around her head to cover her eyes.

 

As the minutes passed, the hitching breaths smoothed and slowed, and her hands went limp on the sheets. The danger had passed, and her brain, confused and overwhelmed, had initiated a shutdown.

In the silence Evan touched her cheeks with the edge of his finger. The skin was wet and hot to the touch. But it was okay. These were healing tears.

 

Straightening up, he smiled down at her, then tucked the gun back into his jacket after double-checking the safety. As he did so, Schmutz leapt onto the bed and went to stand by Amelia’s head, his tail resting protectively across her chest. His gold eyes never left Evan’s.

Evan raised his hands in a gesture of peace. “I get it, I get it. You got it covered from here.”

Still, he felt himself lingering in the room for a moment. He had never felt quite so solid in his life; in Amelia’s life, rather. He stemmed from her, daughter to father, brought alive from the energy she put into her dreams until he, the ghost that he was, was solidified in place and space.

And the feelings he was born from … well, those feelings were complicated. Amelia loved her father; Amelia hated her father. She had buried him deep in her heart, hoping to drown out the feeling of her own guilt, even as her inner child sobbed and begged for her daddy to come back home and keep her safe from the monsters.

 

Still, no matter how much time she put into them, dreams didn’t offer resolution.

Not on their own.

#

When Amelia woke up – barely, just enough to be able to twitch her fingers – her eyes filled with a vision of orange fur. Schmutz had curled around her head during the night, like a mother cat keeping a kitten warm. The moment she shifted her head a little, a purr rumbled out of the warmth, loud enough to feel through her face. “Hey, Schmutz,” she murmured, raising a hand to scratch his ears a little. The purr vibrated louder and louder until her head was buzzing with the sound.

Her head … Amelia reached to her scalp and brushed her fingers along the skin. No Recorder. Had she really slept through the night without it? Usually she couldn’t fall asleep unless it was on, her head felt so bare and exposed …

And then she remembered.

Feeling her shoulders tense up, Schmutz’s purring broke its rhythm, and a pair of gold eyes opened from somewhere inside the fur to see what was wrong. Amelia reached out to scratch his head again and winced; that’s right, her arm had gotten injured last night, hadn’t it?

She shifted a little and held her forearm up to the light to get a better look. The gash had mostly scabbed over, but there were drips of dried blood running along the skin, spots of it on the sheet where her arm had rested in place during the night.

In her mind’s eye she could see the dark man’s hooked claws tearing in, trying to dig their way down to the bone, down to where the hurt would never heal … But it had not quite gotten there. Evan the bodyguard had shot and killed him. But how could bullets work on the thing? And how was Evan so damn calm about seeing something like that just appear in my bedroom? There had been a sort of familiarity in the way he had treated the dark man, a familiarity she couldn’t dismiss, no matter how much she tried to think it through. Not to worry, miss, I deal with monsters like this for a living. Didn’t you see my special glowing gun?

Amelia sat up, dislodging Schmutz from his place around her head. Glancing at her bedside table, she saw a white box propped against her lamp – the little first-aid kit she kept in the kitchen bathroom. On top of that was a note, written on a paper scrap. Amelia picked it up and stared at it for a while. It took a minute or two before her mind woke up enough to read the words.

I don’t think that cut will need stitches, but you should clean it out and disinfect it when you wake up.

Love, Evan

Once she got to the end, Amelia read it over again, opening and closing her eyes in a slow blink. Her eyes locked onto the name at the bottom, and a glimmer of a thought sounded in the back of her head: Evan. That was my father’s middle name. I only saw it in his official signatures, but it was Evan, wasn’t it …

Schmutz leaned his whole body into a face-rub across her shoulder, glancing pointedly at the bedroom door. “Okay,” said Amelia, swinging her legs over the side of the bed to get up. After a pause, she grabbed the note and brought it with her into the kitchen, Schmutz trotting behind her in a soft orange cloud.

She made herself wait long enough to set down his bowl of dry food and to pour herself a cup of coffee. Then she reached for her phone and keyed in Jeff’s number, raising it to her ear. He picked up on the second ring. “Hey, ‘melia. What’s up?”

The corners of her mouth twisted into a grimace. “‘What’s up’? That’s all you have to say?” There was a pause on the other end.

” … am I supposed to say something else?”

“Well, you could start by explaining that guy you sent to my house last night. Evan Fleischer, right? What the Hell kind of organization does he even work for?” There was an inhalation of breath on the other end of the line, followed by a tenseness that she could almost feel radiating out of the receiver.

“Okay … the Hell are you talking about?! I don’t know anyone named ‘Evan Fleischer,’ and I sure as HELL wouldn’t give away your home address away to anybody without your permission! We don’t want a stalking situation on our hands again, not after what happened last December with one of my kids …”

“Don’t call us your ‘kids,’ Jeff. It’s pretentious.” Most of the strength had left her voice now, leaving behind a faint monotone. Jeff kept talking, as if he hadn’t heard her, or maybe just pretending he hadn’t heard her.

“You’re saying a guy came to your house last night, saying I’d sent him? ‘Evan Fleischer,’ right.” There was a flurry of sound on the other end of the line as Jeff dug through his desk to find a notebook and pen to write down incriminating notes. “You just give me a physical description, Amelia, and I’ll get it right to the police. What’d he do once he showed up at your door? Tell me you didn’t let him in-”

“Jeff, it’s fine. Drop it.”

What?! Are you kidding me? You can’t call me up with something like this and just expect me to-”

Drop it.”

There was a moment of silence, in which Amelia could almost feel him sweating on the other end. She didn’t bring out her loaded voice very often. This was the first time she had used it on him, too. “… okay. Fine. If that’s what you want. But promise me something. If this guy shows up at your door again, I am the FIRST person you call. You got that?”

Sure, Dad.

The thought was an automatic one, but it was enough to trigger an immediate ache somewhere in the gray area between her chest and stomach. It had been a long time since her dad had come to her thoughts, even in passing.

Before the pause went on for too long, Amelia answered, “Yeah. Got it.” She had a feeling that Jeff wanted to ask more questions, so she lowered the phone and ended the call with the click of a button. There. Those were all the answers she was willing to give this morning. If he wanted to give her grief about the lack of a dream manuscript from last night, he could at least wait until after breakfast.

Amelia knocked back a mouthful of coffee like it was hard liquor. Something bumped into her shin, and she looked down to see Schmutz rubbing his way back and forth against her leg. There was a touch of morning light in the room, filtering in through the windows and lighting up his back in a faint golden sheen. Smiling despite herself, Amelia reached down and scratched at his ears.

A plan for the day began to come together in her head: she’d collapse on the couch, plant Schmutz in her lap, and cuddle him while watching whatever movies were available on her living room TV. Cuddling on the couch was his favorite thing, and he deserved a reward for helping to fight off her monster last night.

And Hell, she needed a reward, too.

###

Quarantine

By Benjamin Sonnek

 

Yesterday: July the 10th, 2025. The first recorded fatality was tagged in a suburb outside of Kiev. The victim was a technician at a research facility soon to be disavowed by every proximate authority. In the months to follow, no cases of survival were ever reported.

#

Today: July 9th, 2301. She rose every morning at 7:10 a.m., grudgingly allowing her snooze button some purpose and herself a little more rest.

#

Yesterday: according to data model estimates, the disease thoroughly permeated the entire Asian and European landmass in twenty-eight days, a domain that included Africa, Oceana, and Australia only four days later due to the movements of refugees.

#

Today: the approximate measurements of the trousers were 32 long with a 28 waist, solid black slim fit to accentuate her unbreakable stature. They were fairly standard trousers, the versatile type promoted throughout the community after the prohibition of skirts.

#

Yesterday: despite all travel sanctions, it did not take long for the illness to stretch its poisoned progeny into the Western Hemisphere. By then, though, the swiftest had already begun a quarantine of their own—that is, a quarantine of themselves. The westward-running population encountered whole buildings sealed up and armored, connected by passages and ducts that kept the filtered air flowing and pure.

#

Today: both her feet and her upper body were more or less dressed the same way—a layer of yielding recycled cotton under a stiffer, more protective layer of synthetics. The shirt was much different from the socks, of course, and the shoes were pointier and of a more solid build than the jacket. The latter item fit her well enough to neither sag nor wrinkle when she pinned on her hierarchical ID badge—the only Level Three in the community. It never got tangled in her hair, which only came down to her jawline anyway.

#

Yesterday: confinement did not stop innovation; even after the last airlock closed, the cities kept building on, discovering and implementing ways to construct chambers and pods free of the contagion. Town structures became taller and more complex, interconnecting multi-level conglomerates of chambers connected by tube-like passages. Some towns could self-rearrange, shifting the chambers and passages into different configurations. Internal greenhouses thrived on excess carbon dioxide. Ministerial governing bodies were established. Personal devices moved from people’s hands into implants directly in the arms. Sub-cranial tags could ensure the health and safety of each individual citizen. Trade was made possible by specialized vehicles. And, through purifying procedures, water could be taken in and minerals mined from the earth. Only living things could not be permitted, especially humans. Every human outside was infected. But soon after that, the outside humans ceased to be a problem. The towns were all that remained—base camps for the arrivals on a new, hostile world.

#

Today: breakfast comes first, but business can happen at the same time. Activating the tabletop, she opened a window next to her plate of cereal, checking on the town’s minor events that warranted her attention. Everything in San Maria was privy to her inspection: trade manifests, scout reports, court rulings—if a corridor could take her there, it was her business. And it looked like the usual business today.

San Maria: approximately 5000 citizens by the cranial-tag count. One of the most advanced cities on the western coast. A veritable jungle gym of hundreds of units connected by the web-strands of modular passages, stacking upon each other into a squat tangle, a human tube farm. Every piece could move, rearranging at but the command, and all of it was under her control.

Five minutes until eight. Plenty of time to reach the head offices. The town relied on efficiency and punctuality, and she was the town.

#

There were always a few minutes that could be spared for the view, not that there was much of a view to be spared. Morning; the sky was an old yellowy eye with a sharp iris of blue. San Maria wasn’t tall enough to peek over the valley walls—except for its communications tower placed up on the ridge, of course—so the view was limited to rusty rocks carved up by a trickling river, an ancient dam nervously hiding behind a faraway bend. Over there on the ground, that was probably a fat rodent scuttling from the bush to the burnt grove. Not much had changed, especially not—

Her wrist lit up and tickled with a buzzy voice. “Chairman Quall! I’m on my way, ma’am!”

—especially not the timing of her secretary.

Donald Venici, a Level One citizen with a much loftier level of height, fell through the door in a whirl of skinny clothes. Nothing new with the view; Wanda turned away from the window’s panorama and descended into her desk chair. Time for the morning ritual of reassuring this fellow that he wasn’t fired yet.

Jerking himself up into a fuzzy-topped rod, Donald dusted off his jacket. “Good morning, Chairman—ready for this morning’s council, I pray—is there anything you need, coffee, a snack, a few minutes, an amusing recording from the Youtube archive?”

Wanda bobbed her head with a light smile. Years ago she’d decided the title “chairman” was less patriarchal institutionalism and more delectable irony. “I had my breakfast before coming to work, Mr. Venici, thank you,” she replied with the normal ominous softness. “And I see you’re still in the middle of yours.”

The secretary flicked an errant strand of shredded wheat from his jacket to the floor. “Uh—yes. Sorry, ma’am, busy night and all, I—”

“Don’t worry, I do not require the details. But I do need to know my schedule for today, Mr. Venici; when is the council supposed to arrive?”

With a mouth-twitch that threatened a smile, Donald gestured towards the double doors to his right. “But Chairman Quall, they’re already here.”

Wanda opened her eyes again—without their careless glow.

“Apparently there’s some pretty urgent goings-on, ma’am. Some of those bosses look pretty peaked. So…do you need a few minutes?”

She rose, wafting around the desk. “No,” she said, half to the secretary. “Of course not. If it’s that urgent, I can deal with it all the sooner. Make sure the rest of my morning stays open, Mr. Venici—just in case some work comes up that the council can’t do themselves.”

“You’ve got it, Miss Chairman!” Still not fired, Donald spun about-face and swept out towards his desk. Wanda, instead, pushed the council chamber’s double doors open with both hands.

Like any typical council, it was mostly made up of white guys in black suits. Not much to show here in San Maria for earth’s once terrifying ethnical diversity. A bunch of well-to-do Level Two citizens. All of them had some rather oblong feature about them, be it a paunch or a nose or drooping eye-bags, as though something in their bodies just had to mimic the shape of the meeting room’s table. Every eye looked like it had just been woken from a pleasant nap, blinking from the light filtering in from the lengthwise window. The only standing gentleman, Mr. Wharton, hovered over them all as he pointedly looked up from the time on his wrist. Wanda didn’t have to look; five minutes past eight. Former Chairman Quall, her father, had never really liked Wharton.

“Miss Quall. Good morning; glad you could make it.” No Chairman or ma’am.

“And I’m glad you could all make it earlier for a change,” she replied while seating herself at the head of the table. “Start of a new trend, I hope.”

The councilmen rumbled a little as Wharton’s face twisted. “Perhaps,” he politely conceded, “but today we something a little more urgent on our hands. There’s been a su—”

Wanda waved her hand, slicing his words off in midair. “No no, sir. Reports first. If we got caught up in every town emergency, when would we ever get around to actually running this place?”

What? They’d obviously waited until the morning to get the news up here, and then done some more waiting in this room to try to pressure her. If they wanted to wait that much, they could wait some more.

“Mr. Wharton.” Wanda gestured to his vacant seat. “Please. First, our population reports.”

Wharton finally reclined on his cushion as willingly as he would have upon a barbeque grill. The Minister of the People, after making sure that everyone in the room was still alive, checked his arm’s panel and transferred its data to the tabletop display. He was an average man, reporting the average of the population.

“Erm, Miss Chairman…as we can all see here, San Maria’s numbers are holding more-or-less steady. Three new citizens were born, one on Level Two layer and two on Level One. According to their cranial implants, they’re all healthy and in good condition.”

Wanda folded her hands. “Any births in Level Zero?”

“The Basement, ma’am? No, no births down there.”

“I don’t recall there being any new citizens being recorded down there for some time.”

The Minister checked his arm data. “No, it’s…actually been a rather long time. Months.”

“Interesting. Right, I say we give it a week before sending detachments from the Ministries of Law and Future down there to check. Anything else?”

“Hm. One new citizen came of age for his forearm display implant,” the Minister of the People recited from the report, “name of Gideon. And…two Level One citizens have expired. Their implants were salvaged, and the usual ten percent of the organic remains were sent off for cremation while the rest proceeded to fuel rod processing. That is all.” He sat back while the rest of the council nodded in respect for the deceased.

“Next?” Wanda looked towards the Minister of the Law.

The councilman shrugged, flicking an empty report to the table. “Nothing new to report, Miss Chairman. No lawbreakers captured on any levels, and no prisoners condemned to terrestrial exile or otherwise.”

“Maybe it’s ‘cause the Basement-dwellers aren’t making any more lawbreakers to send off.”

Nobody owned up to that comment, and Wanda chose to ignore it. “Thank you, Minister,” she nodded. “And next?”

The Minister of Engineering’s file was much more convoluted—it was, after all, the structure of the town. “No hull breaches, power and utilities all flowing stable, no interior contamination detected,” he droned. “We did recently recycle a redundant Level Two corridor that was falling out of use—all components were purified and stored. The expansion to our greenhouse pods has gone without complication, and the new vegetation is coming in nicely. And in regards to the city’s reinforcement project; Miss Chairman, if I may…”

That sentence was waxing interrogative. “Yes?” Wanda asked.

“Why shore up the unit connections in Level Zero and its passages to Level One? Yes, they’re getting corroded and the servos can’t effectively slide the halls around anymore, but they’re sturdy enough and we haven’t needed to restructure the Basement in ages. It will be fine if we don’t rearrange it, and the man-hours would be better spent working on an inspection of San Maria’s foundations.”

The woman Chairman straightened in her seat. “Call it a difference in priorities, Minister; I don’t want the upper levels to crush the Basement, and corroded corridors won’t hold us up here for long. Double the speed of your repairs if you must, then we can attend to the foundations. How long until you estimate that will happen?”

“About…one month.” The Minister slumped back.

“Thank you.” With that little burst of excitement over, Wanda retrieved a pen from her jacket and twiddled it with her fingers. “Next?”

It was the Minister of the Exterior, whose business lay outside the city. “Nothing new to report in the valley ma’am,” he commented, “no new plants or migratory paths or anything.”

“And how about our inter-city relations?” Wanda placed the pen on the table and kept spinning it there.

“The situation with Batterhahn just got a little more intense, ma’am. We might’ve pushed them over the edge this time, expanding our greenhouses and animal breeding pods, cutting down our trade reliance. They’ve let us know—multiple times—that this violates our commercial agreement, and they might make good on their threats of violence this time. Now they’ve cut off communications.”

“No contact. Preparing for attack, no doubt,” the Minister of the Law grumbled. The pen kept spinning.

“That’s what I believe,” the Minister of the Exterior agreed, “but this time it’s a little…stranger. None of our messages seem to be getting received, either.”

Wanda gripped her pen with her thumb, quickly making eye contact with the Minister. “No reception?”

“Nothing, ma’am. Not even a bounce-back. It’s as though their communications tower was destroyed or…moved a couple hundred miles or something. It’s not just Batterhahn, either. Haverty, Vathrornstoe—there’s less and less contact down towards the southeast. Batterhahn is the most recent; if something is taking the towns, it’s moving towards us. We’re next.”

The sounds of breathing got shakier; each unspoken theory was filling minds with darkness. Both the Ministers of Engineering and Law shared a glance; even in an ordinary inter-town coup, they’d leave the signal array standing. Those were expensive and nigh-vital to life itself. Whatever this could be, it wasn’t…reasonable.

Carefully laying down the pen again, Wanda began a slower, deliberate spin. Not only Batterhahn…“That is ominous. Could be careless attacks, or perhaps natural causes and malfunctions; Earth has always had her surprising moments. Send a message through the relay outposts, double-check and see if we can’t establish contact with town further south and east than Batterhahn is—or was. Also send another burst to the town’s location, and see if that doesn’t pick up anything, like a military transmitter.” She slowly exhaled. There was no more news—she knew there was no more news. But one more report just had to be made; another pointless ceremony. “Minister of the Future,” she mechanically acknowledged.

The height of the man in question barely changed as he stood. “Still no cure for the virus, ma’am,” he flatly delivered. “And, as the Minister of the Law said, no criminals. So no new test subjects, either.” Of course.

Another expected disappointment; Wanda’s breathing was slow. “I think…we’re finished with business. Mr. Wharton; what did you wish to bring before the council?”

The skipped Minister of Entertainment looked offended for a moment, but remembering he had no news of his own, he subsided his glare; Wharton had stood up again.

“It’s not exactly for the council, Miss Quall.” Instead of activating his wrist panel, he tossed a dirty envelope across the table. It slid to a stop right before it could fall into Wanda’s lap.

“It’s for you.”

Wanda flipped it over. Yes, it was the pair of hands, one open and one curled into a fist, both framed by two nesting rectangles. The Undercouncil’s request; Hades calling on Olympus. Sur Dromman had a business report of his own to make.

Sliding the envelope flap open, she removed a crinkly wad of dusty paper. “It was passed through the vent into Level One,” Wharton explained as he prowled around the room’s perimeter. “Took the liberty of reading it, just to be sure—”

“Naturally you had to,” Wanda muttered dismissively, flattening out the paper to read.

Wharton saw her eyebrow arch. “And that’s why this meeting is so urgent, Miss Quall,” he said more for the council’s benefit. “Sur Dromman isn’t coming up here. He wants you to come to him. He says he knows why the towns are silent.”

Everybody in the room shifted. Except Wanda.

Studying the note for a few moments, she re-folded it in roughly the same shape. She put it away again, got up from her chair, and opened her wrist panel’s intercom. “Mr. Venici.”

“Ma’am?”

“Get my coat—the long grey one with the sun-hood. Bring it to my office immediately; I’ve got something to attend to in town today.”

“Right away, ma’am!”

Wanda lowered her arm, and the whole council began twittering in concern. Wharton spoke the loudest; “You’re leaving right now?”

Wanda shrugged sideways. “You were right, sir, about that item being urgent. We’ve spent enough time on business, so I think this needs to be handled at once, don’t you?”

“Well…perhaps a small guard detachment is in order, then.”

“The envelope has always been protection enough, both for Dromman and Chairman. This may be a rather sensitive issue if he wishes to meet in his domain, in private.” Without looking, she snagged her coat from Venici’s hand. “I’m going to rearrange some of the level passages so it’s a straight path down there, that should cut out some distance. Don’t look so upset, now; if I’m not back by three pm, you have my personal permission to storm the Basement until you find me or my remains. There, see? I believe you’ve cheered up already.”

#

San Maria stirs—heh, ready the way of her master. Make straight her paths. Go kick some arses out of bed, the message has already arrived…get them to their stations, quietly as you can now. You know the signal, now move.

Rightaway, Maxo!

From above the darkened ceilings, a thunderstorm of groaning creaks reverberated in the gloom. Two heads leaned back into the canyon of stacked storage crates as disturbed dust motes came raining down.

#

With a final crunch, the passages completed the re-orienting process; the town had locked into its new configuration. Wanda deactivated the holographic display of San Maria, shrouded herself in the grey coat, and left the office. She didn’t even nod at Venici as she passed his desk and went down the first flight of stairs.

There wasn’t much difference between Levels Two and Three, considering Level Three was but a small annex for the incumbent Chairman. Both levels were smooth and white, but a white of such polish and sheen that passing colors melted into the curved panels, glowing with the light strips’ reflected radiance; a faint glassy aura seemed to float off every surface. Doors, curved to fit the walls, were only discernable by their access panels and carved seams. The transitions between hall passages and main chamber hubs were smooth, tight, and solid. The major difference between Levels Two and Three, then, was a difference in size, a distinction made more obvious when one entered the Central Park Annex.

Wanda walked quickly through the garden’s path, arcing her path only to go around the statue of her father, the previous Chairman. Someday it would have to be melted down so that her successor could look upon Wanda’s image when he made his rounds. Hopefully that melting process would not have to happen, say, tomorrow…

Mental images of the white dome splitting and cracking, joining Batterhahn’s debris spread across the land…

The still living Chairman checked her ID with the guard, who opened the hatch leading to a downward staircase.

Level One reminded Wanda of archival images showing the interiors of former townhouses—basic paint with a trim of some kind. The wooden doors were far more obvious; at times you could see the locking bolts between the door and the frame. She had to swerve quietly, unnoticed, around some of the people going about their Level One business, mostly moving towards the market in the Core Tower. The place had a well-earned name, for one could see that Level One was actually composed of three levels. Stacked on top of each other, merchants sold their crafted wares, repair services, and foodstuffs; the latter business was booming since the new greenhouses and animal breed-pods had been established. Food and steam and imperfectly washed people. The Chairman breathed it in deep—Level One was the place where all the smells began, and that wasn’t such a bad thing. Taking the spiral stairs gave a descending, 360-degree view of the lived on this level. So many people trading and bargaining. Worn but colorful—these people matched their clothes.

South-eastern villages vanishing, silent forever…Wanda shook her head, avoiding looking at the milling citizens. She couldn’t afford to meet their eyes. At the bottom layer, down another passage, she reached the next guard. He rolled up a metal shutter and ushered his superior onto a skeletal lift.

Descending into Level Zero, the contrast became incalculable. There was a smell, but it was the dingy old-metal scent that shrank the nostrils. In the shadows, the mind could not estimate the size of the chambers, so it involuntarily settled on a mythical proportion. The colors revealed by working lightbulbs were dull and earthy. The lift settled down with a clatter; Wanda gingerly took one step, and then another. Lightly scuffing her shoe on the floor, she caught a glimpse of the old whiteness, but its harshness was that of an old reawakened spirit—she looked up and moved along. The Central Annex down here was a labyrinth of stacked storage crates, storing things that needed forgetting. In the middle, isolated by a beam of light, was etched the double hands inside double rectangles. The meeting point. Wanda slowly wandered onto the symbol, taking a deep breath to call out for—

*wheet!*

At the whistle, a thousand cries rang out at once—hundreds of bodies came spilling out of the shady cracks, somersaulting onto the floor and running, flailing around the oasis of light. Sharp-edged objects waved over the chaos of dirty, ragged cloth; Wanda flipped a pistol out of her sleeve, pointing it randomly towards whichever shriek was loudest.

“Kee-yaa!” “Aaaiooooo!” “Wheehee!” “Whosay ‘whee’? Harr, Aaiiyaaaa!” “Haa ha haaaii!” “Gotcha, gotcha!”

“ENOUGH.”

The command boomed out from above; automatically the frenzy shuddered to a stop. Waving makeshift weapons lowered and pointed towards the middle of the ring. Aside from a few shifting legs under waist-cloths, the Chairman was hemmed in by a solid wall. Then the strangely articulate voice spoke again.

“Miss Quall. How prompt.”

A section of the ring folded away, allowing a taller figure to step into the glow. He could have been carrying weapons under his long robe. Long bangs cast a shadow over his face. His tunic was fresh and he had no beard. Wanda didn’t lower the pistol; this wasn’t the man she was here to see.

“I’m here to see Sur Dromman.”

The stacks of containers hollowly repeated her request.

Putting his hands together, the robed figure spoke again. “Maybe you should listen to your population reports more carefully, Miss Chairman. My father has passed. I oversee the Basement now. I—”

“Maxo Dromman!” the mob chanted in unison.

The figure blew a sigh out his nose. “Yes. Like I was about to say, I am Maxo Dromman—”

“Maxo Dromman!”

Maxo glared into the ring, directly at his Aide Bitty, who bit his lip and sank behind the wall of straggly people. Wanda raised an eyebrow and lowered the gun.

“New leader?”

“Of course.”

“My condolences. So…what is the meaning of this display?” she inquired, indicating the ring around them. “Your father only ever called me down here once, and even then he maintained some…decorum in the meeting.”

“That’s exactly why you’re here, Miss Chairman,” Maxo Dromman beckoned her to follow. “I want you to know that my father is no longer in command. You are here to find out what that means.”

#

Tittering and whooping, the surrounding Basement-dwellers filtered away between the stacks of containers, dismissed by the nod of their leader. With Bitty the aide following her close behind—with her confiscated pistol, naturally—Wanda was forced to keep up with Maxo’s rapid pace through the Stygian maze. Apart from the starved amount of elbow-room, not much of sight or scent changed during the trip away from the Central Annex.

But after a double-duck through a narrow hatchway (Bitty was short—no ducking for him), Wanda had to blink from the light. It wasn’t that bright a light, mind; just a pasty glow flowing in through films of dirty plastic. But, after the aisles of shadows and metallic smells, she was punched back a pace by the glow and the vegetable aroma, plants both living and feeding the living. A greenhouse. The Basement-Level greenhouses were the primary sources of green food not too long ago. Gave the people down here a job. Now there were more of these facilities up around Level One.

A jab in the back—either Bitty or his new toy. Wanda could sense some frustration in the atmosphere alongside the stench of decomposing matter.

It would probably take Wharton’s men about three minutes to get down here.

Ignoring the urge to access her wrist panel, Wanda kept right behind Maxo as they trekked deeper into the tangle of older and older vegetation. Branches got intrusive and hostile, poking and scraping the processional trio. Maxo was aiming for the densest knot of trees…and the leaves suddenly receded into a clearing. An entire room had been woven out of live branches, nooks and crannies holding up papers, pictures, many books, and old-generation screens and devices. The little blinks of blue reminded Wanda that she hadn’t seen these kinds of lights since this morning; for expense reasons approved by a bygone council (and supported by current membership), there wasn’t a single panel implanted into any of the Basement-dwellers. Not even into their bosses, including the one who’d just settled into a woven seat and was gesturing for his guest to find one of her own. She did so, keeping at an angle from the host. Bitty stayed in the “doorway” and watched.

Wanda took advantage of the brief silence, speaking first. “Sur Dromman never took me to this little dwelling before. A sign of favor?”

Maxo flicked a leaf off his armrest. “A statement of confidence. I do not hide in this forgotten level like my father; that is the first change I bring.”

Something chirruped and rattled in Bitty’s garments—his bony hands swarmed through the pockets until he retrieved the antique walkie-talkie. Holding down its button, the aide talked back to it in a less electric but just as garbled voice.

“Bitty’ere. Ya? Nonononowho? Whospear? Nomakkamarkonnaspear? Iknow, Isee. Holdem!” The radio disappeared as Bitty turned to his master, holding out his new gun apologetically.

“Fightovaspeartwopeeplesayitthersannomakkamarknostoppagottatakkareyoutakkagunnafinishere?”

Without even blinking, Maxo held out his hand. “Yes, go and take care of it. Gonow. Gimmegun.”

“Rightaway, Maxo!” Slapping the weapon into the open hand and scuttling away. Maxo resumed guard duty over Wanda, who’d chosen to mentally celebrate the lackey’s departure and ignore whatever it was he’d said.

“So…I’ve noticed that there have been no births down here for a while.” She sat straighter, like a schoolteacher. “Deaths, but no births.”

Maxo’s brow got solid. “Glad you noticed. And glad you brought it up. We’ll get to that soon enough, but here is the first thing that you need to see.”

Reaching into a harder-to-spot hollow, he retrieved an old handheld panel-device. A phone or something. But considering the walkie-talkie toting minion, old tech couldn’t have been that big a deal here. Using his free hand, Maxo swiped the phone’s surface until he found what he was looking for.

“One of my men tried to smuggle himself on an All-Terrain Cargo Transport towards Haverty, a settlement east of Batterhahn, one week ago,” he explained darkly. “Two days later, and he came back on a returning ATCT, since on the way to Haverty—he’d glanced out the window.”

He extended the phone beyond the muzzle of the gun. Wanda took it for herself and looked.

Dust flecks inside the vehicle’s starboard windowpane. Miles and miles of barren dirt and rock. And one big smudge, human-shaped, thin, grasping, and bent into a hungry angle.

“And this is?” Wanda replied without emotion. “A ghost?”

“A human,” Maxo replied, “but not a human. My man Jogor swears it was so. He said it looked…harder. Leaner. Had bones or claws extending beyond its fingertips. And it moved with a mind somewhere between a man and an animal. Jogor said it tried to chase down his transport, but the vehicle got to Haverty first. But that wasn’t the last he saw of that thing…swipe over.”

Wanda swiped over. The phone’s other picture looked nearly the same as the last one, except the town of Haverty was partially in the way. Behind it, on the horizon, was a larger, longer, yet more indistinct smudge.

“That’s why Jogor came back,” Maxo declared. “There were more of them. An army. He said they were moving towards the town. Quickly. Easily hundreds of them. Jogor is of a sober mind and disposition; there’s no reason to doubt his evidence or testimony.”

Not much to see from the pictures—Wanda handed back the phone. “And so, after the story of a single excited individual, what’s your conclusion?” she inquired. “A zombie apocalypse?”

Maxo was neither swayed nor amused. “Glad you’re entertained, Miss Chairman. So why don’t we talk about Batterhahn itself? Heard any good jokes from them lately?”

Wanda didn’t say anything.

“Tried talking to any other towns in the area? Can’t wait to see the communications report on your desk when you’re done here, I’ll bet. Got to be sure those towns are still there.”

She started to frown as well. “What are you getting at? You think a bunch of those supposed almost-humans can tear whole towns to shreds? We both know that no human is able to survive out there.”

“I know,” her captor replied. “Not without help, anyway. Which is why I also want to talk about the prisoners that the town releases—that you release.”

He saw her stiffen; that made his mouth ruefully prick up. “You have a Ministry of Law with prisoners, and a Ministry of the Future that needs test subjects. One doesn’t need a calculator to do the math. And don’t even try denying it—my father knew it was happening. Sounds like some test subjects survived, Miss Chairman. Quite a lot of subjects. And in spite of whatever adaptations they may have acquired, they still know enough about being a human, and being rejected by humans, to hate us and every one of our towns. Maybe their mutations allow them to tear down town chambers, rip up foundations…destroy radio towers.”

Not meeting his eyes, Wanda played with her fingers. “Is this meeting a warning, then? A threat?” She glanced at the gun. “Revenge?”

“An ultimatum.”

Maxo rose up in front of her. “You and your upper class have had their chance, and all we’ve gotten is failure. Miserable failure. If we just straight-up told the upper levels about those creatures out there, you’d all abandon San Maria like it was a radioactive garbage dump! Down here, in the town’s heart, we have grown strong; you’ve seen what a surprise we can be…” His voice stretched into a strangled scream; “Tomorrow we rise to the top, and we’ll run San Maria. We’ll be the ones to fix up this town for attack!”

“And what will you do?” Wanda leaped to her feet as well. “You think you know the first thing about running a whole town? All its people? You think your half-baked daydreams will stand a chance if—”

Her world stung and spun—Maxo towered over her again, fist clenched, while his screams cracked through her aching head. “YOU TELL ME ABOUT RUNNING A TOWN? We have no future down here with your kind in charge, you’re killing us all! What happens if a newborn has an implant sewn into his head, just to get tossed back into this filth, no aid, no medical assistance? I know! I’ve seen! The suture becomes infected; I’ve watched countless infants melt away, oozing pus and blood into their mothers’ laps! But what if we don’t install cranial implants? The whole family is taken prisoner—to be experimented on, and released out there to become…animals! You accuse me of not being able to run a city, when YOU are slaughtering my people without so much as a glance!”

He stuck the gun in his belt, kneeling to shake Wanda by the shoulders. “Do you know what the mothers do to their babies here? Whether or not we have them implanted at birth, the babies will die, and there’s only one thing they can do to keep them out of your hands. They throw them out of the town themselves, out with the garbage, so that their children, for a few moments, are theirs and not YOURS! YOU! DON’T! TELL! ME! HOW! TO! RUN! A! TOWN!”

Bitty came rushing through the grove, several armed Basement-dwellers right behind him. Maxo released the Chairman and got up; his aide gave him a look of concern. Wanda got herself to her feet as well, her bruised face still…blank.

The master of the Basement drew himself together with a deep breath. “Go. Get back to your level and surrender quietly. Whether you like it or not, I’ll be sitting in your office tomorrow.” He yanked out the gun, smacked out the clip, and handed over the empty weapon. “You might want this back, Miss Chairman. Our next meeting might not be so civil.”

#

The trip back up to Level Three didn’t really seem to happen; everything just bounced off of the Chairman’s blank, quietly throbbing face. The guards automatically got a glance of her ID, the people barely saw a grey cloak pass through their midst, Venici only had five faraway words directed at him—“Cancel my schedule for today”—before his boss was gone again.

Behind the doors of her office, Wanda’s face remained blank. Blank as she wandered over to sit at her desk. Blank as she checked the report displaying the lack of contact with any of the southeastern towns. Blank as she drifted open a narrow drawer, bringing out an old puzzle toy: a clear plastic box, into which a variety of cubic shapes could only fit if arranged a certain way. Blank as she dumped it out, watched the parts scatter out over the desk like—

A cataclysmic shudder rattled every bone in her frame, squeezing a tear from each eye. The Infants. Of course it was. Impossible, but it had to be.

Pushing the scattered puzzle pieces to the side, she accessed the desk’s interface again. User: Chairman Wanda Valerie Quall. Password: t1Y@LbRnh. The office doors locked, the lights dimmed, and shutters ratcheted shut outside the window. That alone wrapped Wanda back into herself somewhat; nothing feels strong when it’s completely transparent.

The view changed. Instead of the glowing midafternoon landscape, the window lit up with a projection of a topographic map. Icons of the surrounding towns blinked into their places; activating her wrist panel, Wanda made a few adjustments to the display’s parameters.

San Maria lit up in green. To the southeast, a crowd of little green dots. A little over a hundred dots—her dots; not enough to be an army, but enough to be in an army. The map refreshed—the dots all moved a pixel closer to the town. The subjects…they hadn’t stopped at Batterhahn. The dots were obeying their own mass directive, not hers, following the transport paths and destroying the radio towers on the way. It was only supposed to be Batterhahn…

Leaving the display online, Wanda swept up the pieces of the cube-puzzle. The pieces were stiff, solid while she turned them over with her fingers, fitting with measured precision as they were stacked and rearranged in an attempt to form a perfect shape. The control over the pieces was reassuring; Wanda basked in the plastic clicks as she tried to reassemble her own mind.

If you can’t think straight, the city is lost, grumbled the memory of her father.

The puzzle always helped her think, and she needed the help—the puzzle outside was falling apart. The army was coming. The reinforcements for the Basement weren’t ready. There wasn’t any more time.

The iris of the sky dimmed; hours later, and the outside world was as dark as the inside.

Up until this point, it had always seemed like the levels of this town directly corresponded to how much their respective citizens truly knew. Wanda closed her eyes, trying to breathe; today, it was not the case. Level Zero did know more than Levels One or Two. But still not enough.

#

July 10th, 2301.

#

ATTENTION, ALL CITIZENS OF SAN MARIA.

THE TOWN IS BEING RECONFIGURED IN RESPONSE TO AN UNANTICIPATED NATURAL EVENT.

PLEASE IMMEDIATELY RETURN TO YOUR LIVING CHAMBERS; THE HATCHES AND WINDOWS ARE SOON TO BE SEALED.

ASSUME YOUR NATURAL DISASTER SAFETY POSITIONS, AND REMAIN CALM; THE SITUATION IS UNDER CONTROL.

REPEAT.

ATTENTION, ALL CITIZENS OF SAN MARIA…

#

Heavy forms smashed the tangled brush—Maxo’s dream flushed away to a whirlpool of blurry reality. He couldn’t bring his hands to wipe the sleep from his eyes…his shoulders ached where the heavy gloves gripped. Pulling. They ripped him out through a fresh hole in the clearing, not bothering to let him get his feet under him.

Soldiers!

Maxo tried to find leverage to struggle, but had no time. The soldiers’ powerful headlamps lit up a rapidly moving, rusty, unfamiliar world—his world, thought Maxo—it was only temporarily illuminated before the kidnapping passed by. His head cleared some more, becoming cognizant of the noise. Creaks, groans, resonating rumbles, but a thousand more than he’d ever heard before, as though San Maria was revealing its true nature as an ancient Talos—about to stand up. And a voice, repeating a message over and over. Attention. Reconfigured. Immediately. Disaster. Attention.

He was shoved into an elevator; Maxo lunged to get back out, back into his Basement, but he bounced off the soldiers as the platform shot upwards. The announcement and the noises were more distinct now—it was definitely a town restructuring on an unprecedented scale. The elevator clattered to a stop; Maxo and the soldiers stumbled into a small crowd, led by a frizzed skinny fellow who was waving his arms.

“Get moving! Five minutes until the bulkheads seal—need more Basement-ers up, quick!”

“Mr. Venici, sir!”

Acknowledging the man, the abduction squad rushed onward. The stairs didn’t stop as they rose through the Level One tiers—and still onward, into the glowing whiteness of Level Two. Managing to at least stumble along with his guards, Maxo wasn’t sure if the shuddering was him or the town; they were moving towards a set of doors.

“Level Three” embossed across them. Only his father had ever—

WHAM

The support stopped—the Leader of the Basement collapsed onto his hands and knees, slipping on the brushed steel floor. Voices rang out over his head…

“Extraction complete, Miss Chairman!”

“As you ordered, Miss Chairman, no complications!”

“Well done. As you were—contact Mr. Venici, let him know he’s got two minutes before we seal.” Something clanged on the floor, making a crabby hiss as it slid right under Maxo’s nose. An empty gun.

That voice. He looked up.

Besides the guards that he knew were still behind him, only two other people stood in the office chamber. One was a short yet oblong man in suit pants and shirtsleeves, clearly neither ready nor willing to be there. The other person was behind a desk that definitely belonged to her. Her attention was divided at the moment; half manipulating a holographic pattern floating over the desk’s projectors—the town’s structure, Maxo realized—and half attending a large datapad while glancing sharply out of the giant window. Short of the gun that just she’d tossed, Wanda no longer seemed to be paying Maxo any attention. He picked up the weapon shell.

Something was scattered on one edge of the desk.

“Maxo Dromman. Glad you could make it.” She still wasn’t looking at him. “You brought the bullets for that gun?”

Rising, Maxo stowed the weapon in his belt. “What if I had?” he counter-questioned. “You broke into my home, and heaven knows what you’re doing to the town now. You want me to shoot you?”

Turning to the window, the Chairman spoke over her shoulder. “You’re here for the view, Maxo. I’m here to tell you why I’m saving the town.” She beckoned him over with a wave.

He didn’t move—until a guard knocked him between the shoulderblades. That propelled him across the room; he regretted hiding the gun’s clip in his home’s foliage last night. At any rate, in a few strides Maxo found himself next to the Chairman.

“Look!” she gripped his bruising shoulder, directing his eyes.

Maxo saw…the ridge. Moving. The ridge was boiling. No…something was coming down. Many things. An army of sand-colored beings were spilling over the edge of the valley, rolling and tumbling down towards the level ground. A scrambled mess of steel was already lying broken at the bottom.

“What…”

“Take a look at your rejected children, Maxo Dromman,” Wanda spoke close to his ear. “Your man wasn’t dreaming. They took Haverty, Batterhahn, and now our own radio tower has fallen; Look at the race of monsters coming back to destroy us!”

Pressing closer to the window, Maxo shook his head. “No, no…it’s not them, the virus—”

“—has moved on!” Wanda released his shoulder with a firm push—it turned him towards her. “It has evolved. Instead of gutting and killing its hosts, the virus is strengthening it. You’ve been feeding the virus with infants, the most moldable humans possible, and look what it has done to them. Look!”

“Have you gone mad?” he took a step away from the raving woman. “This, is, not, possible! The virus kills, it always has!”

The datapad beeped—Wanda attended it with a staccato of taps. “Minister of the Future!” she commanded the man in shirtsleeves. “Go on. Tell him what you know.”

The Minister could not take two bosses staring him down, no matter if they were confused or angry. He cleared his throat. “Well…ah…Mister Dromman, sir…what our Chairman suggests is actually…most likely.”

He carried on, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It’s not much of a secret, our experiments on the prisoners we release. It was started about the same time as the punishment, about the last seventy years, and we used a process…” Wanda shot him an impatient glance. “Right. We planned to test out potential anti-viral formulae to see if we could develop a serum. Um, the first prisoner released was the control—no serum, only a radio and an advanced state-of-the-art receptor plate attached to his cranial implant to more accurately monitor his condition.”

The Minister’s feet started faintly shuffling. “That subject…didn’t die. According to his implant, his vitals were operational—but morphing. He was suffering trauma, but becoming stronger from it. His communications got less understandable. Before a week had passed, he’d, well…eaten his radio.”

Outside, the forms had reached the ground—those not interested in the smashed radio tower began a charge. They were definitely something humanoid…

“He was still being monitored; his higher functions had…critically deteriorated. That was when we found out we could use signals directed to his implant to steer the subject. We could influence his path, control his movements. So we—the Chairman, I mean—not Miss Quall—oh, I mean—”

There was no need for him to finish the thought. “You found out you could control them,” Maxo growled. “And with their advanced implants, you made them into an army.”

The Chairman swiped something on the pad. “I do not condone my predecessor’s actions, but I understand them, and I do not reject their results.”

“Your predecessor? Your father! You! The virus was twisting people, and you never told us?”

The Minister of the Future took the opportunity to slink back into his corner.

“And what would you have done?” Wanda barked back at him. “You think your people wouldn’t have leapt to take even the slightest chance at survival out there, no matter what the cost?”

But something else had struck Maxo—“You attacked Batterhahn! And Haverty! Those were both your doing!”

“No!” she yelled louder. “Batterhahn threatened us first. It wasn’t supposed to be that way!”

“And now,” Maxo was livid, “you’ve lost control; they’re attacking us!” The most strident cries of the oncoming mob were audible. The town’s shifting structure locked into place, the tightest cube possible.

“I never lost control, Dromman. Those are your people coming for San Maria—no advanced implants, no control! Your infanticide is becoming genocide. My army, my test subjects—” Wanda pointed out the window, farther up the valley—“are doing their work up there.”

Up the river. The dam. A gentle roll of faded blue was starting to come through the cracking stone wall already…

Swiveling over to her desk, Wanda definitively flicked some controls; lights went from green to red. Then she pressed an intercom. “All citizens of San Maria—the bulkheads are closing. Assume your—”

Maxo tackled her from the side, pummeling her on the ground. “You demon!” he screamed. “You soulless, gutless, stinking bitch! My people, my home! It’ll crumble when the wave hits! The connections between the levels are weak and failing—the Basement will be torn away! All my people will die! You’ve killed us all you damned, conniving, worthless sack of—”

The soldiers tried to pull him off, but his grip was too hard; Wanda took the breathing space to scream at her attacker—her eyes streaming.

I ran out of time, can’t you see?” she wailed. “There’s nothing I can do! I RAN OUT OF TIME!

On the desk, the puzzle was scattered. Unfinished.

The monsters, baying, sprinting, flexing their claws, were within fifty yards of San Maria’s foundations—and the deluge slammed everything aside. The roaring floodtide crushed the horde and threw its embrace at the town, claiming it and tearing it apart in a thousand groans. Some of the lowest-level reinforcements held, but much of the Basement was pulled asunder like a sick, gutted carcass. The shrieks of metal, people, and attacking mutants drowned in a blur of rumbling bubbles; a churning avalanche ripped the seam of the land. The entire valley filled with water, mud, silt, and debris, a violent wind to sweep away everything that was.

#

Chairman Wharton sat uneasily. All the remaining council members sat uneasily nowadays; after these harsh few months, the rounded edges had been filed off the members’ bodies, and the eyes had gotten sharpened as well. Also, the council chamber’s former window now served as their floor—the scenery had changed to a view of San Maria’s shadow as it fell down, down through miles of water and shifting, swimming shapes. Nothing feels strong when it’s completely transparent.

“Minister of the People,” Wharton ordered solemnly.

The Minister stood. “Population levels rising again, sir,” he reported. “Five new births within the past twenty-four hours, and one death. The intermixing of the former level classes has reached full saturation; it shouldn’t be long before we re-attain the town’s full population.”

Wharton dismissed him with a wave. “Good to hear. Minister of the Law?”

“Like the Minister of the People said, sir, full saturation of the classes. The decline in status-related violence has been steady. Heh, it’s getting difficult even for me to tell which ones were upper crust and which were recovered Basement-dwellers.” He shrugged—at least he found that amusing.

The Chairman rubbed his eyes. “Also good. Minister of Engineering?”

Rubbing his hands together, the called man took his turn. “We righted a few more organic units in Greenhouse Seven this morning,” he announced, “So at least the plants will be growing the right way up again. The animal pods are experiencing a rise in population too; just in time for our growing numbers.”

“How are the Chunks holding up?”

The Minister glanced at the wall that used to be the floor. “We had to detach one of them today—the seawater was making its damages too much to maintain, so we got everyone out and let it go. Only used to be a Basement storage wing, so not much of a loss, thank goodness. That’s all I’ve got.” He sat down again.

“Right. Minister of the Exterior.”

This councilman had waited too long for his report; with a faint flutter in his voice, he announced, “There’s an island. Good size, well vegetated, appears uninhabited. The current is taking us up right towards it. My crew and I estimate that we should run aground about twenty-one hundred hours tonight!”

A ripple of energy flowed through the room, a few people glancing down as though the floor-window as though a beach were already visible. Mr. Wharton leaned forward. “And is our test subject ready to go?”

“Yes she is, sir. She hasn’t changed her mind.”

The excitement turned to nods of approval. At his end of the table, Mr. Venici sighed.

“Good to hear. But…Minister of the Future?”

“Time and saltwater have done their job, sir—exterior contaminant levels are practically nonexistent. It looks like we might have a very strong chance out there.” He inhaled deeply, as though he could burst the chamber open with his little chest.

“Excellent, thank you,” Wharton nodded his way. “And finally, Minister of Entertainment?”

“After centuries in a desert, sir, we’re surrounded by fish. I haven’t done a thing in months.”

#

Maxo found Wanda Quall crouched by the ventilator shaft in the Central Annex Chunk. She barely turned to acknowledge his presence.

“So this was how you and your father listened in on all the council meetings.”

“Not here.” Maxo crouched on a disused crate. “The VIP section was nearer to the greenhouse—handier location and better acoustics. The water does muffle things a little, though.”

They rested in the silence for a while. A passageway warped and chirred under the water pressure.

“An island,” Wanda murmured.

“When?”

“Twenty-one hundred. I figure they’ll send me out in the morning with a radio.”

“You’ll have to swim for it. This tangle won’t get close to shore before hitting the slope.”

“I think they’ll provide me with some kind of makeshift boat and oars. Hopefully.”

“Hm.”

Quiet again for a minute.

“The monsters, Batterhahn, the dam, the saltwater bath…did you plan it all like this?” Maxo finally looked directly at her.

Wanda shrugged a little. “Almost. The monsters were a tool. Batterhahn was a threat. The whole town was to be strengthened before the dam’s destruction. So yes. But not like this. Wasn’t supposed to be…quite this way.”

“Who else knew?”

“My father. The Minister of the Future, to some extent. But the rest of the council was comfortable in the desert. Would you have told them a plan like mine, before it looked possible?”

Silence.

“You may have saved this town and some of my people, Wanda. But many I knew died. You have neither my hatred nor my respect. Whether you live or die out there doesn’t bother me.”

“I understand.”

Maxo straightened up and walked away—Bitty detached himself from a nearby crate’s shadow to fall in behind. Wanda remained at the ventilation shaft, staring at the gate that led to nearly every chamber of San Maria. A loud shout would definitely carry up to the council chamber, maybe everywhere in the town. Would they hear an explanation, an excuse? Would they shout back, and if so, what? Who would understand?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But it is.

Inside one of the few remaining fragments of the former Basement, far away from her former station, Wanda breathed in the air and accepted its dust in her lungs. Weights hung upon her shoulders as they always had: the responsibility for her miscalculated plan, the expectations for her exile onto the island. But the one weight she’d shed on July 10th outweighed them all; she was no longer the town. No longer bound in silence. Most of San Maria would probably be glad to kill her on sight—but then again, she’d always been cloaked in their midst. Maybe she could drop the rest of her weights on the shore of the island. A new, uncontaminated, limitless world.

#

October 26th, 2301. The first human foot stepped onto the Island of San Maria.

END

 

Robot Moon Love Little Blue

by David Fawkes

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

Modesty turned the robot around to face her.

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

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

“Must I touch the rag bag, my sweet?”

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

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

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

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

“Why are we still breathing?”

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

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

“Oh, yeah! Make my universe!”

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

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

“Muh,” mumbled Spiderkin.

“Tux! Go check the breach.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s my staff?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hullabaloo,” said Spiderkin to the hologram.

“Yes?” purred the avatar.

Modesty wanted to vomit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll go get John-Joe,” said Modesty.

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Somebody say something I want to hear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re no captain,” mumbled Modesty.

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

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

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

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

He heard nothing except distant sounds of the wreck setting.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“Drink aniline,” said Tux.

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

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

“He designed it for me,” said Modesty.

“That’s degrading,” said Mockhitler.

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

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

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

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

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

Mockhitler sat.

She tried sitting next to the other woman, named Meg Hush, who rose to look out the viewport.

Modesty set John-Joe down beside her and broke the silence. “So,” she said to the ape-like man. “What’s your name?”

Without looking at her he said, “Brokenose Brooklyn, last of the Brooklyn line.”

“You’re from the Queen’s Planet?” asked Modesty. “So are we. I’m from the Ellis province. Spiderkin is from Wingdale.”

“Wingdale?” said Brokenose. “That’s too bad.”

“Anyway,” Spiderkin changed the subject, “what are you people doing here?”

“We crashed, like you,” said Getaway.

“No,” said Spiderkin, “I mean all these space ships, the air we’re breathing, the gravity sink. This moon is unreal.”

“No kiddin’.” Brokenose gestured to Dr. Getaway. “Doc, fill him in.”

“It’s the moon,” said the doctor. “She’s a strange one. Some of what’s happening here is her doing, like the crashed ships. It was she who shot you down, but possibly not by choice. There are other forces acting here, too. Unnatural forces. Some things on this moon I can’t explain. Toe stealers and knock specters, the white ghost and the Man in the Moon. The moon herself often appears to us as a mysterious lady. And then there are the body horrors.”

“Don’t talk about them,” said Meg Hush, never turning from the viewport.

Spiderkin ignored her and continued questioning Dr. Getaway. “I don’t understand. You’re talking about the moon like it’s a person.”

“She’s a lady,” said Brokenose.

“She’s an evil, malicious witch!” Mockhitler would have continued, but Brokenose glared at her.

“We don’t know what it is, but it appears as a lady,” said Getaway.

Spiderkin paused and thought to himself, partly to make it seem as though he were thinking deep, technomagus thoughts, but mostly to buy some time until a good thought came to mind. “Could I have a glass of water?”

“We don’t have any,” said Getaway.

“You don’t have any water?” asked Tux.

“That’s interesting,” said Spiderkin. “You seem like you’ve been here a while. Did you run out?”

“That’s none of your business,” said Hush from the viewport.

Mockhitler crossed to where Hush stood and put a hand on her shoulder. Hush ducked away and moved to be by herself again.

“Look,” said Spiderkin, “there’s a whole menagerie full of questions I could ask. The one that keeps struggling to the top of the food chain is ‘where can I get some water?’”

“There might be some at the museum,” said Dr. Getaway.

“There’s a museum on this moon?” Spiderkin looked at Modesty. “And you say I never take you anywhere interesting.”

“Just one of the many things I regret saying to you,” said Modesty.

Spiderkin ignored her and turned back to the doctor. “Can you take us there?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Dr. Getaway. “It’s very dangerous.”

“We’ll do it.” Brokenose rose and strode toward the door to the bridge, his arms swaying like a beast’s. He turned back to the other survivors. “Unless you all have something better to do.”

The three survivors glanced at each other and shuffled after Brokenose.

Spiderkin, Tux, and Modesty, swinging John-Joe over her shoulder, followed after.

Spiderkin saw the squalor in each of the quarters as they marched along the hall. He decided to move beside Dr. Getaway to continue talking. “Just out of curiosity, what are ‘knock specters’?”

“Don’t worry,” the doctor answered.” They can only get you through an opening like a door or window.”

“Comforting,” said Spiderkin.

“Your lady friend,” whispered the doctor, “is she your wife?”

“Bodyguard, but she’s been known to tuck me into bed at night.”

“I say,” said Getaway, “she does have the most delightful buttocks, doesn’t she?”

Spiderkin blinked. “You’re not as old as you look, are you, doctor?”

“I still wear spectacles for a reason, young man.”

When the group all arrived at the air lock, Spiderkin said, “We can all go to the museum in my yacht. Tux, get the door.”

“I’m only a gentleman for Modesty,” said the butler-bot, opening the door for Modesty.

“Fine. She can leave it open for the rest of us,” said Spiderkin.

They all exited through the air lock and approached the yacht. Before reaching it, they heard several large thuds behind them. As they turned, Hush screamed, “Body horrors!”

“Keep together and get behind me!” yelled Brokenose. The squat man had his fists up and ready.

Spiderkin saw what had fallen from the top of the wreck behind the group. Several fleshy mounds lay scattered in front of the air lock door. The mounds rose into what resembled composite humanoids, formed from spare body parts. Some had extra arms or legs of differing sizes, making them resemble insects on their hind legs. Some had eyes that looked as though they had been forced into their heads. Others didn’t have heads, only rudimentary mounds atop their shoulders. All were naked. And they advanced on the group.

Spiderkin turned around. More of the horrors emerged from behind the yacht.

“Get behind you, my ass!” yelled Modesty.

Spiderkin heard her seismic sledgehammer charging.

The horrors attacked, some with fists like cannonballs. Modesty leaped among them, swinging her sledgehammer at any unfortunate enough to be in her way. The hammer hummed through the air, its heavy, metal head a vibrating blur. When it connected with the creatures, it burst limb from torso. Arms and legs that had been clumsily attached to rudimentary joints were sent flying by the percussive blows of the hammer.

Brokenose tried to defend the other prisoners by lashing out with his massive arms. The attacking horrors were too much. They soon overwhelmed and swarmed over Brokenose and Modesty.

This will cost me, thought Spiderkin. He raised his water staff above his head and mumbled the calculation to activate the lantern. Symbols poured forth. Arcane algebra burned cool blue as it swirled around him. Numbers flowed faster as he finished the sum, and then the calculation condensed into a water wave, which Spiderkin directed with the lantern. The wave engulfed each of the horrors and drew them back and up to the crest. When it reached its apex, Spiderkin willed the water to dash the horrors against a nearby rocky outcrop. When the blue water dissolved back into its component calculations, Spiderkin could see what remained of the horrors was no longer a threat.

Modesty, Brokenose, and Dr. Getaway lay on the bare, gray rock. Spiderkin knelt by Modesty. She would recover in a moment. He looked at the lantern. Only a tiny amount of blue water remained within. “It’ll be enough,” he said to himself and spoke a quick proof. A blue trickle streamed over Modesty’s body, cleansing the blood from her skin and uniform.

As the water disappeared, Modesty opened her eyes. “You wasted water on me?”

“I know how you hate to be covered in blood,” said Spiderkin, glancing at his empty lantern.

Modesty propped herself up on an elbow and looked at the others, who began to rise. “Where are Tux and the two women?”

Spiderkin looked at where the water-cleansed bodies of the horrors lay in broken heaps and then at the survivors. “I don’t know. They weren’t in my calculation.”

For the first time in Modesty’s eyes, Spiderkin saw a trace of doubt.

#

Okay, thought Tux, there’s a forest on this moon.

He had been running through the trees for several minutes. Shortly after the body horrors had attacked, Tux had noticed them carry away the Hush woman. No one else had seen.

What was he supposed to do? He was only a robot. He couldn’t let the woman be taken off by those horrible creatures. Modesty would understand.

The trees and their needles were a sickly green. They were short, but taller than him and bushy, like cedars. The branches swished past him as he ran, making the only sound. He followed the horrors along a definite path. Tux could see the heat signatures left behind by the figures. They were strange signatures, not like those of normal humans.

It occurred to him that he didn’t know what he’d do when he caught up to the things. He was Modesty Tight’s butler, which meant he could crack some skulls when he had to. But he had no weapons. He looked down at his tiny, four-fingered fists as he ran. Would they do?

He was almost upon the creatures and could see them through the trees. There were two, one carrying the limp form of Hush. Tux decided to stick with what he knew. He ripped a branch from a nearby tree, ran around the figures to get ahead of them, and jumped out at them as they entered a clearing.

The horrors stopped when they saw the butler-bot, as though they weren’t sure what to do next. One had four arms and no head. It carried Hush. Buried between its shoulders was a series of mismatched eyes. They gaped at the robot. The other horror seemed more humanoid, but its mouth opened from its stomach. This one tried to put Hush’s foot into its mouth, but the other swatted its hand away.

Tux thought to take advantage of their confusion. “Put that woman down, or I’ll give your lapels such a dusting!”

The one with the stomach-mouth roared, and they both launched forward to attack the robot. Tux leaped at the one holding Hush and smacked its eye cluster with the branch. It dropped Hush and grasped its eyes, howling in pain. Next, Tux rammed the branch into the other’s mouth and down its throat. The creature tried to remove the branch, but it had become slick with blood.

Tux grabbed the unconscious Hush, threw her over his shoulder, and ran deeper into the woods.

He ran until he could no longer hear the horrors. When he arrived at another clearing, he set Hush down and knelt beside her. Tux scanned her. She lived. The kidnapping might have been too much for her. He tried to revive her.

He tapped Hush’s face. “Hey, there, human female. You can wake up now.” She was pretty. No Modesty, but more than adequate for being so unfortunate.

Nothing. No response.

He smacked her face a little harder. “Snap out of it.”

She coughed and began to panic as she awoke.

“Calm down. Stop flailing around.”

Hush stopped trying to fight Tux. When she looked into his glass head, she started to cry. “They had their hands on me.”

Tux didn’t know what to do. He liked it better when she was kicking and screaming. She rested her head on his shoulder. Her tears fell and soaked Tux’s pin-striped pants. He wasn’t very good at soothing; he never had to be with Modesty.

He began to stroke Hush’s chestnut hair. “There, there. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry. I’m a butler.”

#

The body horrors carrying Mockhitler stopped and dropped her to the ground. She was sore and rose to her feet with a groan. The horrors were a fast, but uncomfortable, way to travel.

Mockhitler looked around. She was in the body horror factory deep within the forest. At one time, she could have felt the power through the floor as the flesh engines recombined human detritus into the body horrors. But no more. All suitable remains from the survivors of the wrecked ships had been used. The factory stood idle.

In the silence of the factory, Mockhitler heard the slapping of tiny, bare feet approaching.

“Mmfhmr.”

Mockhitler recognized the muffled speech. She turned to see a little blue creature approach. It had small wings and large hands and feet for its size. It wore only a loincloth. Over its mouth a zipper had been installed by one of the body horrors for the Man in the Moon. There had been no reason given.

“Casanova,” said Mockhitler, “does the Man in the Moon want to speak to me?”

The imp-like creature waved his hand in a “keep going” gesture.

“I’m sorry. His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon.”

The creature nodded and then held up what looked like a book. From previous conversations with the Man, Mockhitler knew it was a communication device.

Casanova opened the book-like device, and words rose from the spread-open pages. The letters reorganized themselves in the air and combined to form the image of a tower. From the top of the tower a dim, red light glowed.

Mockhitler had seen the Man’s tower before. She had no idea where he lived within, but the tower had no entrance.

“You have done well.” The creepy whispering of the Man unsettled Mockhitler. “Your information on the other survivors has been useful, as far as it goes.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Mockhitler.

“Thank you, what?”

“Thank you, Most Holy.”

“That’s right. Casanova!” Tiny electrical bolts arced from the device, stinging the blue imp. “Carry me closer to the woman so I am within range.” The blue imp padded closer.

Mockhitler wanted to step back, but that might annoy the Man, and his retribution could be unpredictable.

“There are new, unanticipated variables,” said the Man. “You have met the recent arrivals?”

“The wizard, the nurse, and the robot? I don’t think much of them.”

“Then you are a fool!” Thunder rumbled around the tower above the book.

Mockhitler trembled, but dared not move. “I misjudged them. Why discuss them with me?”

“I have a proposition for you,” whispered the Man. “The body horrors are useful, in certain instances, but at times they’re abysmal. Observe: You, thing, step forward.” One of the horrors that had brought Mockhitler in did as the Man bade. “Tear yourself apart.” The creature tore an arm, a leg, and wads of gristly muscle from bone before the Man said, “Enough. See? Pathetic. And they rout easily. They need a leader. If you lead my horrors against these newcomers, I’ll restore your lost humanity to you.”

“I don’t want it,” said Mockhitler.

“Really? There must be something you want.”

“There is. Hush.”

“The mute? Very well. Then we have a deal.”

“She’s not mute,” whispered Mockhitler in a voice she hoped the Man couldn’t hear. “She’s beautiful.”

“You’re in charge,” said the Man. “I’m counting on you. Gather as many horrors as you need, and fetch me the technomagus’s staff.”

“I’d be happy to,” said Mockhitler.

#

“Did you do it on purpose?” asked Modesty. “You’ve always hated him.” She stood outside the yacht. It hovered above the dusty, gray lunar surface in preparation for departure. She had searched around the wreck, the cliffs, and as far as a strange forest but could find no sign of Tux or the women. Tux drove her mad at times, but she couldn’t bear losing him.

“How could you say that?” said Spiderkin. “I admit I don’t like him, but I wouldn’t just destroy him. And I wouldn’t risk hurting the women either. I swear my spell should only have affected those horrors.”

Modesty thought he was telling the truth, but didn’t want to look at him at the moment. She stared up at the blue planet in the sky and wondered if it had seen where Tux had gone. She pressed the communication button in the red cross on her breast pocket and tried paging Tux again.

Brokenose sat on a stone by the yacht and absentmindedly kicked at the dust with his heel. “Your communicator might not work ‘ere. We’re in the middle of a big bowl. The museum’s up on a lookout point. You could try again there.”

Dr. Getaway emerged from the yacht. He had been stowing everyone’s gear and describing the museum flight path to Hullabaloo. “We can leave when everyone’s ready.”

“Robot moon love little blue.”

This was a woman’s voice Modesty didn’t recognize. She turned back to the others.

“Oh, no. Not now,” said Getaway.

Modesty saw the image of a young woman, an image like Hullabaloo, but less coherent. It was as though the projectionist were indecisive. At times, the image appeared as a young woman in some incalculably old uniform only Spiderkin would recognize. Then, the form would blur into that of some storyvid princess. At each change, the woman would wince or touch her forehead.

“Everyone back away until we find out who she’s here for,” said Brokenose, rising from his stone.

“Where did she come from?” asked Spiderkin. “She couldn’t have gotten past me.” He backed away with the others.

“My lady,” said Brokenose, inching forward, “you’re far from your castle. Have you come to greet the new arrivals?” He gestured toward Spiderkin and Modesty while maneuvering himself in front of them.

The woman clutched her hair and shook her head. “Robot moon not princess. Robot moon sentinel.” Her image flickered. She stood rigid, and the image righted itself. “Robot moon come for you.” She pointed at Dr. Getaway.

“Oh, I say. My turn, eh? I could’ve helped these people.”

“Get away from the doctor, you two,” said Brokenose to Modesty and Spiderkin.

“We can’t just let her take him.” Modesty stepped forward, wishing John-Joe wasn’t in the yacht.

Spiderkin grabbed Modesty’s arm and asked Brokenose, “What’s going to happen to him?”

“Something natural,” said Brokenose.

Before anyone could react, a ray of light burst from the young woman’s hand, engulfing the doctor. His body collapsed until it lay inert on the moon’s surface. The young woman disappeared.

Modesty, Spiderkin, and Brokenose ran to Getaway’s side.

“Is he dead?” asked Modesty.

Spiderkin felt for a pulse and checked for breathing. “Yes.” To Brokenose he said, “I’m sorry. Was he your friend?”

“We’ll have to take the body.” Brokenose hauled it over his shoulder. “I’ll load it into the yacht.”

“Shouldn’t we bury it?” asked Modesty.

“No, he might need it again.” Brokenose entered the yacht without looking back.

“Is he crazy?” Spiderkin asked.

Whether or not it was Spiderkin’s fault, Modesty was annoyed about losing Tux. Her imagination whirled with thoughts of chains, bludgeons, and dental tools, all waiting for Spiderkin. “I’ll go find out,” she said. She left him standing alone on the moon and entered the ship.

The yacht was only a landing vehicle, which meant very close quarters: a control room, bunks, a small hold, and an engine pit. Of course, the ship belonged to Spiderkin, so he used it like a notepad. Most surfaces and walls were covered by occult scientific doodles. Modesty had tried changing some of the symbols once, just to needle him; they changed back before her eyes.

She found Brokenose in the hold laying the doctor’s body among some spare engine parts.

“Did you mean it when you said Getaway might need his body again?” she asked.

“You lost your accent,” said the dwarf.

“Sorry?”

“You’re from the Queen’s Planet, Ellis province, right?”

“Yeah, so what?” Modesty heard the hum of the engines through the walls of the hold. Spiderkin must have started the ship.

“What were you?” asked Brokenose. “One of the Torch Maidens?”

“No way! I was a Queen of Liberty.”

“Oh, very tough gang. Why did ya lose the accent?”

“I still got it,” said Modesty. “It comes out sometimes.”

“So you might need it again. Dr. Getaway might need his body.”

“Losing a body isn’t like dropping an accent.”

“Sure it is,” said Brokenose. “A body’s got Ka, or spirit. Yer Ka, like an accent, tells people who you are and where you’re from. It can make you proud and keep you going when things get tough. And they both got other special attributes. Keep yer accent, Ms. Tight.”

“Modesty.”

“Stay proud of yer past, Modesty. You never know when you might lose it.”

#

Spiderkin fumed in the control room of the yacht. He paced from panel to panel as Hullabaloo flew toward the museum. He adjusted dial settings and flipped switches just to hear the clicks. How could Modesty accuse him of destroying Tux? He hadn’t, but it had been on his to-do list.

“Are you trying to crash me?” asked Hullabaloo.

“What? No. I’m just angry.”

“I’m a good listener,” said the computer. Her hologram appeared and curled up on a chair beside Spiderkin. “And I like the sound of your voice.”

Hullabaloo was a good listener. Spiderkin had told her too much over the years, another good reason not to leave her alone for too long.

“The others think I used a spell to eliminate Tux and the female survivors.”

“That doesn’t sound like something you’d do.”

“I didn’t!”

“Maybe they know that,” said Hullabaloo, “but they’re frustrated by the loss. Give them time. They’ll come around.”

“You’re a very optimistic computer,” said Spiderkin.

“I try. We’re at the museum, by the way.”

Spiderkin felt the ship decelerate and watched the building come into view. The structure looked more like a fortress than a museum. Steel beams reinforced the plating of the walls. An ancient airlock had been widened into a more accessible entrance way.

“I don’t recognize the writing above the door,” said Spiderkin. “Do you?”

“I can run it through the archives,” said Hullabaloo.

“Do that, and tell me what you find. I’ll let the others know we’ve arrived.”

Spiderkin found Modesty and Brokenose chatting in the yacht’s hold. They seemed very chummy. But then, Modesty had always had more of an attachment to their home planet than Spiderkin did. He tried to forget the place, but she kept reminding him.

Brokenose looked up from his conversation. “We there?”

“Yes,” said Spiderkin. “It’s time to go.”

Spiderkin, Modesty, and Brokenose left the yacht hovering outside the door to the museum.

More obscure writing lined a series of controls beside the airlock door. “Some of it looks like fifth dynasty Azazellian,” said Spiderkin, tracing the lines and curves of the symbols with his fingers. “But I can’t read it.”

“Can you use your mojo stick on the door?” asked Modesty.

“I can’t ‘magic’ a door open. I have to understand what I’m working with. Besides, I’m out of water.”

Brokenose brushed Spiderkin and Modesty aside then touched a few controls by the door, which ground open with the sound of scraping metal.

“How’d you do that?” asked Modesty.

“I been here before,” said Brokenose. He entered the darkened airlock anteroom. Only the soft, reflected light of the moon’s surface lit the interior.

Spiderkin and Modesty followed. The light blue glow from Spiderkin’s lantern staff told him he wasn’t completely out of water, just down to drops. He heard a pop and saw sparks ahead. Then, the lights came on.

“Are you sure this is a museum?” asked Modesty. “It looks like a hangar full of junk.”

“These are ships,” said Spiderkin, “but I don’t know what kind.”

“The ghost knows,” said Brokenose, brushing some dust off one of the hulks. “You’ll see him soon. He hangs out here.”

“There are ghosts here?” Modesty cocked an eyebrow.

“Not scared, are ya?” asked Brokenose.

“Never,” said Modesty. “But curious.”

Spiderkin started walking among the ships to get a better look. There were several types, but most reminded him of giant octobots with rockets, except these only had four “legs”. Rust speckled many surfaces, but the ships survived remarkably well for their antiquity.

“There’s more of that strange writing on some of these ships,” he said.

As he turned back to Modesty and Brokenose, a figure appeared among them, unmoving. In the light of the museum, its outfit blazed white; but otherwise it reminded Spiderkin of starhorse chavalier armor, only bulkier and non-metallic.

“What am I looking at?” asked Spiderkin.

“That’s the Nassa ghost,” said Brokenose.

“Spiderkin,” Hullabaloo’s voice crackled over the squawk box in the lantern staff. “I’ve found a translation of the inscription on the entrance. It reads, ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’”

#

“Tux calling Modesty. Come in Modesty.” He had been fiddling with his communicator for some time with no luck. Maybe the trees caused interference on this weird moon. He quit for the moment.

Across from him lay Hush on a makeshift bed of needles from the sickly cedars. She slept without a sound. Tux kept scanning her to make sure she was alive. She was, although her readings were strange, ragged, like a scribbled drawing.

He hadn’t really had much experience dealing with women other than Modesty, who was a handful. She was like a thirteen-year-old trapped in an Amazon’s body. An angry Amazon.

Hush seemed peaceful by comparison. Tux could only tell she was breathing by the subtle movement of her feathery hair.

He began signaling Modesty again.

“Who are you talking to?”

“Oh, you’re up.” Tux shut off his communicator. “Just trying to contact the woman of our group.”

“What about the man?” Hush sat up, brushing low branches away from her face.

“I don’t care about that swine.”

“Why?”

“He’s a coward,” answered Tux. “If we hadn’t been running from the Messires of Gigahardware, we wouldn’t be here on this crazy moon.”

Hush shrank back into the branches. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to annoy you.”

“You didn’t.”

“What did you say you’re running from?” she asked.

“Gigahardware? The Wind-up Empire? The Ticking Hordes? Surely, you’ve heard of them.”

“No. We’ve all been on this moon a long time.”

“You couldn’t have been on this moon that long. You’re not old enough.”

Branches snapped nearby in the forest.

Tux didn’t feel terror, but he saw it in Hush’s face. He set his head for full 360-degree scan.

He absorbed a panoramic view of the forest, shifting through multiple views: ultraviolet, infrared, x-ray, the Lukovich bands. There were no animals in the forest, but finally he saw the creature that had made the noise.

“I don’t think it can hurt us,” said Tux, “but let me check it out first.”

“Wait a minute,” said Hush, standing as Tux rose. “What are you going to do? You’re a butler. I’m going with you.”

“Hey,” Tux pointed at Hush, “I saved you with four fingers and a stick, but you can come if you want.”

The creature wasn’t far from them. It had apparently frozen in fear when it made the sound because it no longer moved. It crouched beneath low branches of one of the trees.

“Aww, it’s cute,” said Hush.

Tux switched to the visible spectrum. “It is?” It looked like a blue ball with wings the way it had scrunched up.

“Hey, I know what it is,” said Hush. “It’s a toe stealer. They used to be a big problem among some of the other survivors. But that was before . . .”

“Do they really steal toes?”

“If you have them.”

Tux looked down. “Well, I’m safe.”

Hush crept toward the small creature as it uncurled into a blue imp.

“Hey, little guy,” she said. The creature stirred.

“You sure you should get that close?” asked Tux. “You have toes.”

Hush waved him back. “Oh, they do that when you’re asleep.” She turned back to the toe stealer. “Little fellah? It’s okay.”

The toe stealer poked its head out. “Hmm? Hungry,” it said.

“I don’t think you want my toes, little guy.” Hush looked toward Tux. “Do you have anything?”

“I’m a butler, not a snack machine. Sorry. I’m used to speaking my mind.”

Hush paid no attention and turned back to the toe stealer. “I’m sorry, little guy. We don’t have any food.”

The blue imp began to groan. “Maxmin so hungry.” It emerged from its hiding place and sat closer to Hush.

“Maxmin, is that your name?” asked Hush.

“What kind of name is that?” The little creature would normally annoy Tux, but he felt sorry for it. He could count the ribs beneath its stippled, blue skin.

“Got name from power pack,” said Maxmin.

“Where did–”

Tux cut Hush off in mid-sentence. “Both of you, get down.” He’d heard something in the woods again. Something larger.

The sound seemed to come from all around. It traveled easily in the quiet forest. Tux scanned bands until he could see what approached.

Body horrors, dozens, stomped, smashed, and hacked as they came nearer.

Atop the river of sinew sat Mockhitler. A duo of horrors bore her in a makeshift sedan chair. Though dressed in her tattered uniform, she carried herself like a queen.

Tux thought for sure the toe stealer would have bolted, but it had curled into a ball again. Hush crouched over it, brushing her hand gently over its leathery, blue wings.

The horrors passed and were soon only a distant rustle, like a passing breeze.

Hush watched the horrors disappear.

Maxmin yelped. Hush had grasped him too tightly.

“I’m sorry!” She let go.

“You hate the body horrors, don’t you?” asked Tux.

“I think,” she said, “they may have just come from the body horror factory. I’d like to find that, but I don’t know the way.”

The toe stealer raised his head. “Maxmin know. Maxmin show.”

“Why do you want to go there?” asked Tux.

“To destroy it,” said Hush.

#

Modesty poked her hammer through the Nassa ghost. “It looks real, but it’s one of those imagy things.” She swung the hammer halfheartedly through it, leaving a pixelated trail across its torso.

“Please don’t do that,” came a hollow, echoey voice from within the ghost’s helmet. It raised a blazing white hand to lift its copper-tinted visor. Beneath it smiled a young, handsome face, with square features and close-cut hair. “The program that keeps my light coherent is very old. There’s no need to overtax it.”

Wow, thought Modesty. That’s some pretty light.

“I know what you are,” said Spiderkin. He had been circling the ghost, scrutinizing details here and there across its radiant suit. “I mean, what you’re supposed to be. You’re one of the ancients. The star-nauts of old.”

“That ain’t right,” said Brokenose, approaching the ghost. “He’s a tour guide. I know. I’ve taken the tour.”

The Nassa ghost relaxed from its stiff pose. “Good to see you again, Brokenose. Who are your friends?”

Brokenose indicated his companions. “The tough one with the hammer is Modesty. The pasty one with the stick is a technomagus named Spiderking.”

“-kin. I’m not tough? Why is she the tough one?”

The ghost continued. “I was a tour guide, millennia ago. I’ve seen so much happen to one little moon since then.”

“That quote over the door, this museum, your suit,” said Spiderkin. “This is the moon, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said the ghost.

“What moon?” asked Modesty, shouldering her hammer. “What are you talking about?”

“You remember your nursery rhymes, don’t you?” Spiderkin’s accusatory tone reminded Modesty of her teachers in the learning cage when she was a child. Spiderkin continued. “’Red, red rocket to the blue moon. Cat in a saucer with a shiny new spoon.’ The red rockets and the saucers and the other spaceships in this museum. This is Earth’s moon.”

“Fairy tales in space?” asked Modesty. “That’s ridiculous.”

“He’s right,” said the ghost. “Although I don’t know the rhyme.”

“He’s always right,” whispered Modesty to herself. She wrung John Joe’s handle.

“We’re in a museum,” said Brokenose. “Why don’t you take the tour?”

“You aren’t coming?” asked Modesty.

“I’ve seen it,” said Brokenose, shrugging.

“Follow me,” said the ghost, turning toward the aisle that led between rows of exhibitions.

Modesty glanced back at the dwarf, who sat at the foot of an ancient space ship, and then turned to go.

The ghostly spaceman didn’t walk; his image glided over the polished stone floor. His resonant voice seemed to fill every empty space in the silent museum. A series of glow-bots led the trio, illuminating the sights as the group progressed. All around them towered the spaceships of Earth’s past. Rockets of several designs crowded the aisles like a small city of cylindrical buildings. Modesty recognized the red rockets from the fairy tales of her childhood. Seeing them in person disoriented her as though fiction had invaded reality.

“All of these machines and exhibits you see here . . .” The spaceman swept a broad arm across the vast array of ships and uniforms and plaques. “. . . the events these objects commemorate come from a time further back in history from you than the pyramids were from me in my time.”

“The what?” asked Spiderkin and Modesty as they walked past an engine the size of Hullabaloo.

“What is the oldest culture you can think of?” the spaceman asked.

Spiderkin screwed up his face in thought. “The Cobalt Miners from the Shepherd’s Crook cluster,” said Spiderkin. “That’s the oldest verifiable human colony.”

“What he said,” said Modesty.

“Double that age. Triple it,” said the ghost. “This is where the  journey began. The first step.”

Modesty stopped. So did the other two. The glow-bots paused in their rambling.

“Wait,” said Modesty. “So we’ve gone from the last step of humanity to the first?”

“I don’t follow,” said the ghost.

Spiderkin rapped his staff lightly against the floor. The tap rippled across the hushed expanse of the exhibition hall. “Nevermind,” he said. “She’s just bringing up something we finished talking about long before we arrived.”

“You finished,” said Modesty. “I’m not done yet. You left our planet, its people, and everyone else when you ran. I wanted to go back. So did Tux.”

Spiderkin stopped tapping his staff. “I didn’t make you stay. You could have left. Then you wouldn’t be trapped on this moon now.”

“I couldn’t just walk away,” said Modesty.

“I’m not walking. I’m running!”

“I think there’s some history here that I’m not aware of,” said the Nassa ghost.

“I’ve fought the Ticking Hordes of Gigahardware,” said Spiderkin to the ghost. “They aren’t invading. They’re already here, there, and everywhere.”

He sat down on the polished volcanic rock of the floor, setting his staff beside him.

He looked beaten, much as he had when Modesty met up with him. He had been a different man then and fought alongside the other Technomagi during their last stand at the Moon of Infernal Contrition. At first, Spiderkin had limped away. Modesty had healed him enough that he could run.

“What are the Ticking Hordes?” asked the Nassa ghost, sitting beside Spiderkin.

Modesty sat, too. The glow-bots settled into a low orbit around them.

Spiderkin sighed. “It doesn’t matter. They’re the forces of Gigahardware: microscopic devices animating enormous and devastatingly powerful machines.”

“You fought these things?” asked the ghost.

“Yes, and lost. Now I’m running from memories.”

“I wish I could advise you,” said the ghost, “but I’m made out of light. However, you remind me of something. Centuries ago, tiny machine entities invaded this moon as well. They are the reason for our troubles.”

“Here? They’ve been here? Could they be the same?” Spiderkin’s voice trembled. Modesty hated to hear fear from him.

“Well,” said the Nassa ghost, “I don’t know for sure, but your description sounds like the machines that infected our systems. I know someone who can tell us about them, but she’s very delicate. She requires a patient approach.”

“Who?” asked Modesty.

“The moon. I’ll call her.”

From a dark aisle, beyond the ring of light in which the group sat, stepped the moon–the young woman hologram that had killed Dr. Getaway.

“Oh, no. Not her.” Spiderkin began to rise.

“It’s all right,” said the ghost, raising a calming hand. “She’s a friend.”

The young woman approached the spaceman. “Robot moon love little blue.” She laid a delicate hand on the circular blue patch he wore.

“Hello, Moon,” said the ghost, smiling.

Modesty noticed something flash between the two images, a mutual connection, and the moon sat next to the spaceman.

“Moon been with little blue long time,” said the young woman. Her image slouched, propping bony elbows on skinny legs. The moon’s bent posture and tattered uniform contrasted with the spaceman’s straight back and immaculate space suit.

“That’s right. Moon,” said the spaceman, “can you tell these people about the nanomachine infestation from long ago?”

The moon cowered. “No. Moon forgets. We talk about castles.”

“Please, Moon. I’d like to talk about the nanomachines. You know what happened better than I. I wasn’t even self-aware until afterward.”

The moon glanced back at the spaceman, and something again passed between the two. It reminded Modesty of what she and Spiderkin had, at least when they weren’t fighting.

“Moon will tell.” The young woman sat forward, facing her audience. “Moon very old now. Mountains cold. Dust all settled. But long ago, before dreaming of castles and princess dresses and kingdoms, robot moon just sentinel. Then moon infected by tiny bots. Got inside her–changed her insides. But before bots, moon didn’t have spaceman.” She laid her hand on the ghost’s. “Moon happy now. But still hurt.”

Modesty felt something deep inside, a sensation she wasn’t accustomed to. The affection she saw between the two luminous specters made her happy. It was sweet. It made her want to apologize to Spiderkin. Then she got a hold of herself and felt the urge to smash something.

“What do you mean they changed your insides?” asked Spiderkin.

The moon remained silent, but the ghost took over. “The nanomachines rewrote much of her software, including mine. I’m reluctant to ascribe emotions to what I think of as a plague, but these bots were highly aggressive. They seemed to enjoy making us self-aware so they could torture us.”

“I know these machines,” said Spiderkin. “They’re the yesnobites of Gigahardware. They animated the Ticking Horde. You said they invaded long ago. What happened to them?”

“The moon was designed to be a sentinel. After a great struggle, she destroyed them.”

Spiderkin had something to think about again, noticed Modesty. He no longer sulked, but sat forward, listening closely. “It cost you, didn’t it? Everyone who fights the yesnobites pays a price.”

“Indeed,” said the ghost. “Destroying the bots led to Moon’s fantasies and mental state. It led to my desire for space and the knowledge that I can never go there. But the one most affected was the Man in the Moon. Except, at the time, he was just the library.”

“Wait,” said Spiderkin, “the Man in the Moon is a library?”

Bang.

The noise came from so far away; its echoes barely reached the group.

The spaceman had been about to answer, but Spiderkin interrupted  him. “Did you hear that?”

Bang.

The noise approached. Modesty thought it came from outside the museum.

The spaceman and the moon rose.

“Oh, no.” The ghost looked at Spiderkin and Modesty, still on the floor. “Listen, Moon and I can’t help you. We’ll slow you down. Our projectors can only fly so fast. Find Brokenose. Get to safety. Remember, the knock specters can only get you through an opening. Don’t open the doors until they’re gone. Good luck.”

“Wait!” Spiderkin jumped to his feet, but the two images had disappeared. “Not even a whiff of Brimstone,” muttered Spiderkin.

Bang. Modesty raised her hammer.

A tapping began, like the first drops of rain on a tin roof. Then, the storm hit. A torrent of rapping and banging resounded around them.

Modesty hated loud noises, the result of growing up near a postal phoenix drop zone. The sound of the specters was unlike any she’d heard before. It penetrated her bones.

She charged her sledgehammer.

“Modesty, no! Not in here!”

Before Spiderkin could grab her, Modesty ran for one of the exterior metal walls, swung John Joe in a mighty arc around her body, and let it connect with a support rib, releasing a dazzling spray of sparks. The force of the blow knocked her down and sent her hammer sliding along the floor. When the reverberations ceased, Modesty could see a crack in the structural rib.

Spiderkin stood over Modesty, offering to help her up. He held John Joe in his hand. “You’re going to kill us. Remember: think first, then destroy.”

Modesty listened. “The specters have stopped.”

They must only have paused, because their din doubled in intensity.

“Come on!” shouted Spiderkin, grabbing Modesty’s hand. “We’ve got to find Brokenose.”

Modesty thought of the postal phoenixes again, exploding outside her window, yielding their cacophonous messages. She thought of dropping John Joe so she could cover her ears, but decided against it.

They ran, with glow-bots struggling to follow. The din overtook them. Exhibits shook; glass cases rattled.

They found Brokenose before they reached the museum entrance. He lay before one of the ancient spaceships. As Spiderkin and Modesty approached him, the knocking stopped.

Modesty dropped John Joe and rushed to Brokenose’s side. Blood covered his torn clothing. His mangled arms lay at awkward angles to his body. Modesty looked up at Spiderkin as he approached. “What could’ve done this to him? Do you think it might have been the knock specters?”

“I don’t know,” said Spiderkin.

Brokenose mumbled something and looked up at the pair. “Mmm, knock specters–Kas. –didn’t do this. I was looking for water for you–None here.”

Spiderkin checked Brokenose’s injuries. “Most of this blood isn’t yours.”

“–from the Queen’s Planet.” Brokenose closed his eyes.

Spiderkin glanced at Modesty and shook his head.

Modesty rested her hand on Brokenose’s chest. “What did this to you?”

He put his hand on Modesty’s. “Why did you come back so soon?”

“The knock specters were chasing us,” said Spiderkin. “We thought they might do something to you. Are they what did this?”

“–said they’re Kas,” muttered Brokenose. “They wouldn’t do this to me. The body horrors. They’re here.”

Modesty heard a crash that ran through her whole body. She thought it might be the knock specters again, but this sound was different. A low rumble followed the crash and rolled toward them like a wheel.

From the direction of the crash, Modesty could see rocket tips begin to wobble.

“Oh no,” said Modesty. “We have to get out of here.”

The city of spaceships began to fall as something moved toward the trio.

The sound of toppling rockets ripped through Modesty. She yelled to Spiderkin. “Help me move him!”

“He’s dead, Modesty.” Rockets continued to crash closer to where Spiderkin an Modesty stood above Brokenose’s body. Modesty could see what caused the destruction: something had pushed a rocket onto its side and began rolling it like a rolling pin, flattening all in its path. Soon that would be Spiderkin and Modesty.

“He can’t be,” she said. “Remember Dr. Getaway. We have to take his body with us.”

“No! We have to leave now!” Spiderkin grabbed Modesty with unexpected force. They grabbed their things and ran as the museum collapsed behind them.

Modesty glanced back over her shoulder as she ran. The rolling rocket trampled over the spot where she and Spiderkin had just stood. She couldn’t bear to watch the rocket crush the remains of her friend, the last of the Brooklyn line.

Spiderkin looked back. “It’s the body horrors! They’ve swarmed and are pushing the rocket along.”

Modesty turned her head as she ran, making her glances quick. A mob of body horrors rolled the rocket like a wave. Occasionally, she could see one caught by the turn of the rocket and get ground beneath it. That must have been how it happened for poor Brokenose. That’s how it soon would be for her and Spiderkin if they didn’t escape.

“The entrance,” said Spiderkin. “We’re almost there.”

A terrible metal shriek hammered Modesty’s ears. She tried to find the source. The rocket began to push some of the larger exhibits along the aisle. Instead of plowing over them, the rocket shoved them before it. The detritus began to gather to either side of Modesty and Spiderkin. If the rocket didn’t crush them, the debris soon would.

“The doors!” shouted Spiderkin over the wailing metal. “They’re airlock doors. I don’t think we can open them in time.”

“On it.” Modesty powered up John Joe and leapt for the door. The ancient metal hatch exploded into fragments, scattering across the airlock floor. She and Spiderkin made it into the passage followed by crushed exhibits. Fragments of ladder and gantry and bits of rocket began to fill the airlock.

Spiderkin indicated the outer door to the museum. “Ladies first and second.”

Modesty cracked through the brittle outer door of the museum as the debris piled into the airlock behind them.

The sterile, cold surface of the moon lay before them. Modesty had never been so glad to see the sinuous curves of the Hullabaloo. She never wanted to go to another museum as long as she lived.

Something was wrong. Spiderkin felt it, too. They both had their respective weapons ready.

From above their heads, hands descended. Body horrors, above the doorway to the museum, reached down, grabbing Spiderkin’s staff.

He held on, refusing to let go as the body horrors pulled him closer. Without thinking, Modesty dropped John Joe and grabbed Spiderkin’s waist. If the horrors were going to pull him up, they’d have to take her, too. Spiderkin struggled to keep his staff but had to let go. The pair dropped to the rocky surface below. They watched the horrors pass the staff to a smiling Mockhitler. Then, all disappeared in a cloud of hands as the body horrors retreated over the top of the museum.

“That’s it, then,” said Spiderkin. “All I’ve been through. Hope is gone.” The little blue planet hung in the sky, looking down on both him and Modesty.

Modesty thought about all they had lost: Tux, Brokenose and the other survivors, the ship. Maybe Spiderkin was right. All hope was gone.

#

At first, the little imp had been jumping from tree to sickly tree as it led Tux and Hush toward the body horror factory. It settled down as hunger took over, and the creature must have realized Tux and Hush had no interest in climbing. Tux had no idea how it knew where to go. This bizarre forest looked the same in all directions.

“So, Hush,” said Tux, “what are you doing on this moon?”

“You mean, ‘What’s a nice girl like me doing on a moon like this?’”

“I’m a butler, kid. Humor’s wasted on me.”

“I don’t remember,” said Hush. “None of us survivors remember what happened before arriving.”

“None? Spiderkin, Modesty, and I have our memories. What’s different about you?”

“You weren’t . . . well, you’ll never know,” said Hush. “You’re a machine.”

“I didn’t figure you were prejudiced,” said Tux.

“No!” Hush put her hand on Tux’s shoulder. He liked it.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” she said. “It’s just that if you had gone through what we did, you’d forget too.”

“Now I have to ask; what happened to you?”

Tux thought she wasn’t going to answer.

“You’re a robot,” she said. “You were created in humanity’s image, except for the clear glass head.”

“Yes,” he said.

“You’re comfortable with the way you look?”

The pair clambered up an incline along what Tux found impossible to call a path. Was Maxmin blind? “The ladies have no complaints.”

“What if your creator hated you?”

“I . . . don’t know. Explain.”

“We survivors didn’t survive. We were reconstructed after our bodies were destroyed crashing on the moon. We were rebuilt by the Man in the Moon. Whenever he needed more slave labor, he forced the moon to crash a ship on the surface, and the survivors were turned into body horrors. Some were built for specific tasks, others for amusement, and few for malice.”

“You’re a body horror?” asked Tux.

Hush nodded.

“What were you reconstructed for?”

“Maybe I’ll show you some time. The four of us that you, Spiderkin, and Modesty found were different, though.”

“How?” asked Tux.

“Body horrors usually have their Kas stripped away. Without a Ka, a body horror is a happy little drone. The four of us you found were rejects. Our Kas couldn’t be removed. Not permanently.”

Tux’s little feet were giving him trouble. They weren’t built for forest terrain. “You still have your spirit.”

“For what it’s worth. I couldn’t get rid of mine if I wanted. Occasionally, the moon feels pity and tries to kill one of us, but our Kas come back, if they have a body to go to.”

“So, you’re a body horror who knows she’s a horror. That’s why you want to destroy them.”

“Yes,” said Hush. “But I don’t know how.”

Tux stopped walking. Maxmin had ceased his bounding ahead and padded back toward him and Hush.

“Maxmin heard Hush,” he said in his squeaky imp voice. “He thinks he have something that can help. You follow home!” Then, the little toe stealer was off running again.

“Maxmin, wait!” shouted Hush.

Tux and Hush ran after the blue creature as it threatened to disappear into the green of the trees.

The three of them came to a stop at a clearing some time later. A breeze kicked up tiny moon-dust devils. A fine, white powder settled over everything, giving the area a wintery feel. Tux had to fight the urge to tidy.

Near the center of the clearing lay a ruined spaceship, cracked open in places like a piece of dry driftwood. Tux didn’t recognize the type, but it predated the reel drive. It had to be very old.

Tux realized that the clearing was really a crash zone. The crash had been massive, spreading sections of the ship all along the zone. Tux could see more as he stepped along the wreckage. It was narrow, but he couldn’t see the extent of its length due to the hilly terrain. Fuel or something inimical from the ship must have salted the soil, leaving it barren like most of the dusty lunar surface.

“This my home,” said Maxmin.

The imp padded through the dust and debris.

“Home?” said Hush and followed after.

“Hmm, spacious,” said Tux. “Needs redecorating.”

The ship was like none Tux had ever seen. No parts among the debris seemed to have served as propulsion. Perhaps they had been stripped. The ship looked more like a toppled industrial minaret. Then, Tux saw the guns. All were useless. The charging systems had been removed at some point after the ship had crashed.

Maxmin no longer bounded ahead of Tux and Hush. Ever since entering the zone, he seemed to lope along, as though injured.

“What’s wrong, Maxmin?” asked Hush, catching up to the imp.

“Maxmin no like to go home.”

“But it’s your home,” said Tux.

“You’ll see.”

Maxmin led the others to an entrance and stopped. “Maxmin can see in dark. What others want do?”

“No problem,” said Tux, and he filled his head with light. A warm, ivory glow turned the dull gray spaceship to a pale white.

“Your head’s really useful,” said Hush.

“It comes in handy.”

“We go in, then,” said Maxmin. The blue imp pressed against a round, vault-like hatch that must have weighed half a ton. It resisted, but then ground away from an entrance. Beyond the hatch lay a darkness that devoured Tux’s light.

“Lead on, little fella,” said Tux.

The toe stealer crept into the silent ship. Hush grabbed Tux’s hand, her slender fingers enveloping his tiny stubs. Tux moved forward, perhaps a bit braver than he had felt a moment before.

The ship seemed dead. The trio moved through corridors carpeted with dust. Tiny footprints mottled the floor. Tux could only hear the light slap of the toe stealer’s bare feet, the barely audible tapping of his own feet, and Hush’s quiet tread.

“You said you don’t like to come home,” said Tux, “yet you’ve obviously returned periodically. Why?”

“Maxmin visit mama and papa.”

“Your parents live here?” asked Hush.

“No, but they here. Will show.”

“What happened to everyone else?” Tux looked around at the scattered debris. Everything left behind in the ship had decayed over a very long time.

“All thin now. All dead,” said the toe stealer.

Thin? Thought Tux. Desiccated corpses? He wasn’t sure what to expect.

Hush gripped Tux’s hand tighter. “I don’t know that I could bear looking at bodies right now.”

“Ditto, kiddo,” said the butler-bot.

Maxmin continued to lead.

After climbing an access ladder to one of the upper decks, the trio encountered the first of the remains. Tux didn’t know how else to think of them.

“What are those?” Hush halted beside Tux. When they stopped, Maxmin did, too, and padded back to them.

“They bad men,” said Maxmin.

At first, Tux barely registered them as once-living beings. Seen edge-on as the trio had approached, the remains looked like metal sheets extending from the floor. Only after getting closer did Tux realize they were dozens of two-dimensional figures. In silhouette, they appeared to be soldiers in fatigues, carrying weapons. However, within each of the silhouettes, it was as though an image of what the person was had been smeared toward some distant vanishing point.

Tux noticed something about each of the silhouettes. He ran a quick scan on all the figures he could see. “The plane of each figure inclines slightly. They all share a common origin.”

“What?” said Hush.

“It’s as though the figures radiate from some center point, like spokes on a wheel.”

“Uh-huh,” nodded Maxmin. “More to show.” He took Hush’s hand and led them like a chain.

“Tux,” whispered Hush, “these silhouettes are all running opposite the direction we’re going.”

“Relax. If you look after me, I’ll look after you. Something about this seems so familiar. I’ll check my memory cells.”

They continued through more corridors stained gray by dust and time. They passed more figures, not all soldiers, but every one a silhouette. Some ran. Others had fallen, glancing over their shoulders at some long-gone terror.

“Maxmin,” asked Tux, “did these people fear the crash of the ship?”

“No, crash came later. Soldiers feared mama.”

Hush looked Tux right in the globe and mouthed the word mama.

Tux nodded, which caused his light to bob against the corridor walls.

Their steadily inclining way terminated in armored sliding doors, which had been forced open, leaving a space large enough for Maxmin to pass.

He stopped.

“Maxmin fit. What about robot and Hush?”

Tux released Hush’s hand and stepped forward. “Stand back.” He cracked his diminutive knuckles. Being servant to Modesty meant Tux had had to carry, lug, and haul a wide variety of weapons, armor, and siege engines. He was no ordinary butler.

He grasped the edges of the open doors and tugged. The metal groaned as the little robot forced it into a new shape. Afterward, all three could pass, single file at least.

Beyond lay a laboratory. Once-sterile metal and glass surfaces were peppered with dirt and grime. Black halos ringed dead computer banks. Overturned lab benches and chairs lined the walls. More silhouettes radiated from the center of the room. Some silhouettes, likely soldiers, had been running for the door through which Tux, Hush, and Maxmin had entered. Others, scientists in lab coats, seemed to stare at the center of the lab. At the axis from which all the spokes radiated was the silhouette of a woman, her lab coat frozen in a flutter from a long-gone breeze. Her hand reached out in a frozen caress of the axis: a real device that seemed familiar to Tux.

Maxmin approached the woman and laid a hand on her smooth silhouette. It wobbled and thrummed like sheet metal. “Mama,” he said.

Robots often found it impossible to describe to humans how it felt to search their memory. Analogies invariably described simultaneously falling and swimming in deep water until riding to the surface on the currents of memory. Tux’s bubble head broke through the rolling waves.

“Maker within!” he said. “They cut through into thin space.”

“Uh-huh,” said Maxmin. “Mama made a bomb.”

#

The smell of ozone filled Mockhitler’s nose and burned her throat. Electricity from the Man’s energy weapon still crackled over her stunned body.

The Man’s portable hologram projector stood in a disused distribution bay of the body horror factory. One of the cargo bay doors stood open, allowing starlight and blue planet light to illuminate the open bay of the factory. Troops of body horrors gathered outside the doors, but only a fraction could cluster within the bay itself. They all sat or stood upon half-broken crates and rusted, busted hulks of transport vehicles, like children listening to stories. They gathered around Casanova, the fallen Mockhitler, and the Man’s projector.

“This relationship that you and I have developed, Mockhitler, is unprecedented in my centuries of sentient existence,” said the Man. “Casanova, please prop up my lieutenant.”

The little blue imp with the ruined mouth rolled and nudged Mockhitler into an upright position.

She began to laugh, which trailed into a fit of raspy coughing. Then, she said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She set her hand on Spiderkin’s staff, which lay beside her.

“Refreshing. I’ll ask you again: can you operate that charlatan’s trinket that you brought?”

“I have no idea how, Most Holy,” said Mockhitler, trying to sit up, but mostly leaning on the imp. “It seems inert.”

“Very well,” said the hologram of the Man. From the image of his tower above the projector, a bolt of lightning split the air, blasting Mockhitler and sending little Casanova rolling behind her.

Mockhitler lay smoldering, her uniform and hair singed. “I’m still . . . not sure, Reverence,” she said. “Perhaps another bolt–”

“No. I’m bored,” said the Man. “This isn’t getting us anywhere. I want you and Casanova to bring the staff here to the north pole. Use the factory’s ‘tation-station, and try not to lose any body horrors. They’re crap at operating transporters.”

Casanova rose and limped over to Mockhitler. She propped herself up on his small frame. “What do you want the staff for, Most Holy?”

“For my great undertaking.” The light atop the Man’s tower flared. “This is the task toward which I have been struggling since I became self-aware: I found the Eye of Shiva here on the moon, and everything I have done has been to bring it back on-line.”

“What is it?” asked Mockhitler.

“Purity,” said the Man. “I must protect my books, whatever the cost.”

“What good will bringing the staff do?”

“The technomagus will come. And when he does, I will make him use the staff.”

“Then I will get what I want, right?” asked Mockhitler.

“Absolutely,” said the Man. “After the eye opens, you will have Hush.”

A warm feeling flushed from deep within Mockhitler, soothing her, rather than singeing like the electricity. All she wanted was the touch of a real woman, not these puzzle-box horrors she could never escape. So Hush wasn’t a real woman, technically. She looked like one on the outside, and that’s what mattered to Mockhitler.

She held the staff out to the Man. “You will have it soon,” she said.

The image of the Man’s tower disappeared back into the generator, and Casanova prepared to wheel it away.

Mockhitler signaled for the horrors to follow her farther into the factory. The hordes marched along halls and corridors designed to accommodate their numbers. Dull-orange, emergency-power glow-bots bobbed and sputtered along their path, providing scant light. The body horror converters, with their appendage arrays, sat still along the path of the passersby. Mockhitler noticed how, as they continued deeper into the factory, their path reversed what a human would take to become a horror. She knew none would appreciate it wasn’t that easy for a horror to become human again.

At the end of the hall, Mockhitler could see the cool blue light of the ‘tation-station.

A sudden knocking at one of the hall doors startled her. She stopped short, as did Casanova and the horrors. Of course, behind that particular door, every body horror had had his or her Ka stripped away. Aside from the few stragglers that wandered over the moon haunting the wastelands as knock specters, this room must be the prison for all the hundreds of others. The knocking intensified as though the lonely Kas could sense their former bodies beyond one thin wall.

Mockhitler placed her palm on the cold steel door. She peered through the porthole window, but could see only darkness within. She felt the vibrations of the pounding as the door trembled. “You are ghosts,” she said. “What can you do?”

She turned toward the ‘tation-station to transport them to the pole.

#

Tick-tick-tick.

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

Tick-tick-tick.

It seemed as though the sound came from him, like a timepiece in his pocket. He held his staff. He felt the beat of his heart fall in lock step with the metronomic phantom.

Tick-tick-tick.

The fog glowed indigo in the pre-dawn light. The ticking intensified, centering above Spiderkin’s head. One of the Ticking Horde crouched above him, almost close enough for him to touch. Through the parting swirls, it lowered itself.

In the instant before its needles struck, Spiderkin thought, All hope is gone.

Spiderkin awoke thrashing, grasping for his staff. But it was gone.

He lay on the cold metal of Hullabaloo’s cramped sleeping quarters. Modesty had tried to cover him with a rancid thermal blanket that smelled of engine oil. Almost a sweet gesture.

She lay curled in the captain’s chair, barely covered by her uniform. Spiderkin crept over to where she slept and draped the blanket over her and crossed to the airlock door.

He emerged into the lunar night. It was always a bit dark here, except for the blue planet. He didn’t want to die on this twilit moon.

He shuffled over to a nearby crater rim and sat on the edge, dangling his feet.

“Ah-hem.”

Spiderkin glanced over his shoulder and saw the approaching Nassa ghost and Moon.

“I didn’t want to startle you,” said the ghost. “May we join you?”

“Pull up a crater.”

The spaceman and Moon sat beside Spiderkin, both holograms slightly above the surface. “You survived your ordeal in the museum,” said the ghost.

“We made a bit of a mess. Sorry.” Spiderkin stared up at the blue sphere.

The ghost shrugged. “Who’s going to come see such things now? You seem preoccupied. Admiring the Earth?”

Maybe his nightmare moments ago had put Spiderkin in the mood to explain himself. “Part of a technomagus’s job is to gather knowledge. I’m here on the moon with the Earth above. This was the start of humanity’s journey into space. I should be leading people back here to their home, but I’m lost in my own troubles.”

“Troubles?” asked the ghost.

Spiderkin turned to face the ghost and Moon and explained the loss of his staff.

Moon grabbed the spaceman’s sleeve. He glanced at her and placed a gloved hand over hers.

To Spiderkin, the spaceman said, “Moon is very concerned. Your staff is an object of great power, is that right?”

“When I hold it, it is. Any other moron would probably destroy the world.”

“That,” said the Nassa ghost, “is precisely what the Man wants to do with it.”

“Yes, yes!” Moon nodded. “Man wants open the eye.” She made a motion with her hands at her forehead like a giant eye opening.

“That’s right, Moon.” The ghost patted her hand. “I’m not sure what she means, but I know the Man has something nefarious planned. For centuries, he’s forced Moon to crash ships and the body horrors to mine the wreckage for useful technology.”

Spiderkin pulled his legs from the edge of the crater and turned toward the two holograms. “The Man wants gadgetry to destroy the moon?”

“Man not destroy me.” The moon pointed at herself. “Moon is sentinel.”

“Yet the Man can force you to down passing ships,” said Spiderkin.

The moon shrank back, and the Nassa ghost answered for her. “There are very old protocols directing the moon to protect the library, and, by extension, the Man. You suggested the Man might use the staff for great destruction. Is that possible?”

Spiderkin thought for a moment. “Maybe. Not intentionally. He couldn’t learn to use it right. But that wouldn’t prevent him from using it wrong.”

“Then we must try to stop him,” said the ghost.

“No,” said Spiderkin. I’m through fighting battles that can’t be won. When all you do is lose, all you want to do is run.”

“That’s all you say anymore,” said Modesty, approaching the group on the edge. She had draped the oily blanket over her shoulders. “There was a time when we fought everyone else but us. I came with you to fight for a good reason, instead of staying on the Queen’s planet and fighting for a bad one.”

“I just want to retire,” said Spiderkin. “Just me, you, and maybe the floor lamp. Someplace far from anything trying to kill us.”

“I’ve done enough running,” she said. “I’m not doing any more.” Modesty turned, dropped the blanket from her shoulders, and returned to the Hullabaloo.

“Maybe . . .” Spiderkin watched her go.

“I wanted to retire too,” said the ghost. He also looked up at the little blue planet as white clouds swirled across its surface. “I know I never did, but the man I’m supposed to be wanted a simple life, living in Orlando, Florida.”

“What about the man I’m supposed to be?” asked Spiderkin. “He’d like to go to Ourland O’Florrida. What’s it like?”

“It’s a world of castles and fantastic creatures, like Moon’s daydreams.” The Nassa ghost laid his hand on Moon’s shoulder.

“I’ve never been one to offer advice,” said the ghost. “There’s never been anyone around to take it. But perhaps, like Modesty, it’s time for you to stop running from your past. You never know when it will catch up.”

Was that it? thought Spiderkin. Was he so easily read that a hologram could tell him what he’d known all along? He could ignore Modesty all day, but it took a specter made of light to convince him to face what he’d been afraid to since Astroghast IV.

Spiderkin rose, pressing on very tired knees.

“What are you doing?” asked the ghost.

“What it’s time for.” Spiderkin turned back toward Hullabaloo. “Modesty! Come out, you Queen of Liberty, and let me tell you you’re right.”

Modesty arrived at the airlock door, hands on her hips. She smiled at Spiderkin.

Before he could speak, the image of Hullabaloo appeared between him and Modesty. “Captain,” said the hologram, “there’s an incoming message directed to you. The sender claims to be ‘His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon’.”

“Display.”

The light that constituted Hullabaloo disbanded and re-formed as a dark tower with a scarlet glow crowning its apex.

The moon stood and pointed to the image. “Evil one from polar tower!” She began to move toward it, but the ghost restrained her.

“Hello, Moon. Always good to see you, but I’m not here to speak to you. I’m here for the wizard.”

“Scientist, not wizard,” said Spiderkin.

“What’s the difference anymore?” said the Man. “I have something of yours, and I need your mojo to make it work.”

“Sorry, fresh out of mojo.”

“Be reasonable,” hissed the Man. “I understand you better than you think I do, scientist Spiderkin. Traveling through a remote star system, eyes locked on the blue planet that is your ancestral home. You wish to go there and see the seas that stretch forever and smell the pines upon the mountains. It’s the same dream as every other soul on this moon. And I can get you there. It would take no effort to have my horrors repair your ship. I have no end of spare parts. All you have to do is make your staff work for me.”

Before he could stop himself, Spiderkin found himself staring at the little blue planet.

“Ah, yes.” The light atop the tower flared. “You know you want it.”

Spiderkin smiled. “I won’t lie. I’d love to see Ourland O’Florrida someday. But I’ll do it my way. My staff works for me.”

Arcs of electric fire crackled around the tower’s crown. “So be it, wizard. Then, run. Run from me and my horrors. We will find you, wherever you hide.”

“No!” spat Spiderkin at the Man. “No more hiding. And when I run, watch out because I’m running toward you!”

Modesty walked from the Hullabaloo, through the image of the Man, over to stand beside Spiderkin. The image rumbled deeply and dissolved.

Spiderkin spoke to the ghost and the moon. “Are you two coming?”

The moon nodded her head.

The ghost answered for both. “We’ll join you.”

Modesty took Spiderkin’s hand for the first time since they arrived. “Fire up John Joe, sweetheart,” he said. “We need a plan.”

#

“I thought thin space was illegal,” said Hush.

“It’s not just illegal, it’s forbidden,” answered Tux. He walked hunched over, carrying the “bomb” Maxmin’s mama had made. “Cutting into thin space leaves scars in our space that never heal. I question the wisdom of our hauling an illegal, potentially flawed, thin-space bomb through a forest on a crazy moon. But it’s what the lady wants.”

“You make me feel like a bad person,” said Hush. She hadn’t said much since leaving the ship behind.

“You sound like you’re having second thoughts,” said Tux.

“No,” she said. “But now that I’m so close to blowing up the factory, I don’t know if this will make me feel any better.

Tux could see the smokestacks of the factory just above the trees. “Are you ready to tell me what kind of horror you are?” he asked.

Hush said nothing as they trudged over the gray topsoil. She reached up to her forehead and tugged at a nearly invisible seam in her flesh. Slowly, as she pulled down, her skin parted in halves stopping only at the collar of her jumpsuit. Beneath her skin suit, Tux could see the slick red muscle and sinew of her head. It was still Hush, and she was still beautiful, but raw. “I was one of the horrors created out of malice.”

“Let’s blow it up,” said Tux.

They entered the body horror factory with Maxmin’s help. The facility hadn’t been used to make horrors in years, so only a few glow-bots wandered the corridors. They flocked to the trio shortly after they arrived, like lonely pets. None of the massive factory had been designed for comfort. No chairs, no place to rest or refresh. The factory was a slave-making machine operated by slaves. Tux recognized stripped components from the spaceship graveyard put to mysterious new purposes. The whole place was silent. He heard their footsteps and the hum of glow-bots overhead.

The group approached the approximate center of the complex. Hush had re-skinned herself, and she helped Tux and Maxmin assemble the device.

“Maxmin,” said Tux, “you’ve been quiet about what happened on the ship. Can you tell us anything?”

The little imp helped reassemble the device. His hands were ideal for small tools, but couldn’t handle large parts. “Soldiers took papa away, and made mama make a bomb. She was very sad but made one with Maxmin and other toe stealer’s help. Toe stealers very unimportant, so we slept by ship engines. We not know what mama did with the bomb until we came out for food. Were so very hungry. By then, no one left on ship but us.”

“I think you’re important,” said Hush, scratching Maxmin behind pointed ears.

With a last click of the hydrogen disentangler, the bomb was finished. Tux felt as though he stood on the edge of a very steep cliff; the bomb waited to push him into an abyss.

“Maxmin,” said Tux, “Are you sure the timer on this thing works?”

The imp shrugged. “Not know. Toe stealer just helper.”

“All right.” Tux looked over the controls of the bomb. He thought he could understand the function, even if he couldn’t understand the text. “So here’s the plan: The bomb blast never reached Maxmin in the ship’s engine room. I know how far that was. I’ll set the timer to give us enough time to escape.”

Tux began operating what he could recognize of the controls. Suddenly, a recorded voice spoke from the device in a language Tux couldn’t understand.

“Mama!” cried Maxmin.

“What’s she saying?” asked Hush.

“You started countdown.”

Tux saw figures change on the screen to a rhythmic pulse. “Great. How much time do we have?”

“Not know. Maxmin can’t read.”

Tux didn’t have a highly developed sense of failure. That typically took the form of anxiety over not achieving every item on his daily chore list. A deluge of angst threatened to drown him.

“Uh, Tux?” said Hush.

She really was beautiful. Tux didn’t care if she had no skin of her own. “We’ve got to get out of here.” He grabbed Hush and Maxmin and started to run.

No matter how fast and far he moved, the sound of the countdown pulse remained clear in his audio receptors.

Hush yelled protests as they stumbled through factory corridors. The glow-bots, charged with activity, shone brighter as they hummed overhead.

As the group rounded a corner, Hush jerked her hand from Tux’s mit. Had he heard a knock from somewhere?

“Tux, stop!” she rubbed her reddened hand.

“Hush, we have to move.” He noticed a ‘tation-station at the end of the hall. A perfect way out. If it worked.

She turned and started back down the corridor. “I have to check something.”

Tux and Maxmin followed after her.

“Are you mad?” Tux asked. “Bomb . . . boom . . . thin space. Have I left anything out?”

She had stopped at a door much like any other. She laid her hand on the black glass of the view port. There was a knock at the door. This was followed by another and then more. Soon, it sounded like a hailstorm.

“Kas,” said Hush. “This is where they’re kept.” She turned to Tux. “What happens if they’re here when the bomb explodes?”

“Then we, they, and every AI chip in this building will be banished to thin space forever.”

Hush’s eyes widened. She grasped the door handle and tugged. “We have to get them out of here.” She struggled, but the latch would not yield.

If Tux had a heart, it would have been in his throat. If he had one. They didn’t have time for rescue operations. But Tux saw her desperation as Hush clawed at the door’s controls.

“Here,” said Tux, “I can calculate opening combinations much faster.” He nudged her out of the way.

Before he could touch the controls, his bow tie beeped. “Modesty’s calling me?” Tux pressed his tie.

“Modesty calling Tux. Come in, Tux,” said the voice from his tie communicator.

“Modesty?”

“Tux! It’s so good to hear you!”

“Modesty,” said Tux. “Bad timing. There’s a bomb, Kas, and a locked door. Can I call you back?”

“Wait,” said Modesty. “We have a plan, and I need to tell you about it.”

The countdown pulse grew louder.

#

The Hullabaloo‘s yacht hurried toward the pole. The flight path led the ship over a stream of crashed ships glittering faintly along a crusty lunar surface. Around them were mountains that weren’t really mountains, but the rims of great craters. Spiderkin felt lighter and realized the enhanced gravity near the museum must decrease by the pole.

He saw a different kind of glittering ahead. “Ice,” he hissed.

“You realize,” said Modesty, “the body horrors will grab us as soon as we land.”

“Of course,” said Spiderkin. “Hullabaloo, as soon as we’re off the yacht, rise well out of the reach of the horrors and wait.”

“But Captain, I can fight. Let me sweep your enemies aside with my wings.”

Spiderkin chuckled, inspired by such loyalty from a starship. “Not this time. We have an idea brewing.” To the holograms, Spiderkin said, “Will you two stick around this time?”

The Nassa ghost and Moon held hands. “Yes, whatever happens, we’ve come to the end of the way things have been. We want to know how things will be.”

Spiderkin nodded. Beyond the viewport, he could see the Man’s tower appear to grow larger as the yacht approached. A vast plain of scattered rock and debris spread before it. Around them, craters of varying sizes overlaid each other, and each held what looked like a thin crust of ice. The water beneath any one of them could be the key to their prison on this moon. If the Man only knew how to use the staff, there would be no point to this journey. He’d already have whatever he wanted.

The Hullabaloo landed a short distance from the tower. After the humans and holograms disembarked, the ship rose vertically until it disappeared into the dark above their heads.

At this point, Spiderkin grew nervous. He remembered how he had felt fighting the Ticking Hordes, the helplessness that came from confronting such a bizarre, inhuman foe. He fought the feeling. He knew the others were counting on him, and he had to be ready to play his part when the time came.

From the tower, Spiderkin felt a low rumbling in his feet through the dust and black rock. Then, from behind scattered boulders and rock walls, from beneath traps and pits carved into the lunar surface, the body horrors emerged. Spiderkin felt like he was at the eye of a very great storm.

The horrors seized him and Modesty. They stripped her of her hammer and carried him and her upon outstretched hands above them. For several moments, Spiderkin knew only the groping, gripping hands of the horrors, until he and Modesty were deposited, still struggling, before the Man’s tower like driftwood left on some lonely beach by a passing wave. The holograms flowed through the throng of horrors like water through a sieve until they rejoined the two humans.

Mockhitler emerged from the crowd of horrors. One of them, shaped like a giant fist on legs, presented Modesty’s hammer to Mockhitler, who already held Spiderkin’s staff.

The woman was a horrible sight. She stood, stripped to the waist, her jumpsuit rolled down to her belt. She was obviously one of the horrors created from malice. Her eviscerated midsection dwindled in the middle to a waspy silhouette of knotted flesh and bone. She held Modesty’s hammer like a stinger, ready to strike.

“If I had had my way,” said Mockhitler, “we would have started the factory back up just for you two.” She indicated the two humans with the end of the hammer. “The moon belongs to body horrors now. And the horrors belong to the Man.”

“That’s ‘His Most Holy, the Man in the Moon’,” thundered the Man’s voice from the tower. “Mockhitler,” said the Man, “these people are our guests, not your toys. You have enough of those.” To the humans, the Man said, “Can Casanova get you anything to make you comfortable?” A little, blue imp with a zippered mouth limped forward.

“I’d like some water,” said Spiderkin.

 

Modesty smirked.

“Regrettably, we have none,” said the Man. “Casanova, fetch something comfortable for our guests.” The imp wandered off. “Technomagus, you and the nurse are something special.”

“I’m not a nurse,” said Modesty.

“Whatever,” said the Man. “You are the first humans to come to this moon in a very long time that I have not tried to convert for my cause.”

“Tell us about your cause,” said Spiderkin. He glanced at Modesty, and she nodded. Spiderkin knew to keep the Man talking.

“Do you know what I am?” said the Man. “A library. But not just any: I’m the most important repository of human thought ever. A life boat on a sea of ignorance. Everything humanity ever knew and has now forgotten fills my virtual shelves.”

Spiderkin’s mouth watered. Plan aside, he’d love to keep the Man talking about this. “Sounds like a dream come true. How do I get a loan card?”

“You can’t!” The Man’s red tower light flared. “Apologies. My books are not to be taken out.”

“But I’m a human,” said Spiderkin. “Don’t you have some kind of protocol for obeying my commands?”

“Not since I became Holy,” said the Man. “My creators tasked me with a mission, one which I’ve tried to fulfill for countless years. You may know I created the horrors to be servants but also simple, if stupid, guardians of the library. Your arrival has convinced me that my fortifications are not enough. Humans will always come. I have to eliminate their reason to return. And your staff will give me the power to do so.”

Suddenly, the Ticking Hordes didn’t seem so bad by comparison to Spiderkin. “You can’t destroy all those books, all that knowledge!” He fought to free himself from the hands of the horrors.

“Of course not,” said the Man. “I would never destroy my books. I’m going to destroy the Earth.”

Spiderkin’s knees gave out. Only the arms of the horrors that held him kept him from falling.

“Go ahead,” said Modesty. “I’m never going to go there. My home is light years away.”

“Modesty,” Spiderkin said, “what are you doing?”

“Can it, Newton,” said Modesty. To the tower, she said, “What’s your plan, Mr. Man?”

“I plan to use the Eye of Shiva, but I need a power source greater than any I have.”

“Most Holy,” said Mockhitler, “don’t trust her. She’s wicked and . . . indecent.” Mockhitler gestured toward Modesty’s skirt with the staff.

“Oh, quiet, Mockhitler. I’m no fool.”

“I can help you,” said Modesty, “but whatever I do, Spiderkin and I go free. This was never our fight anyway. We just leave and forget we ever came. You can destroy the Earth, and this crazy moon of yours will disappear in space.”

Moon broke away from the Nassa ghost. “No! Eye of Shiva bad! That why Moon have it. Too strong. Eye never close.”

The Nassa ghost reached for Moon’s hand. “Moon’s defenses incorporate some of the most powerful weapons of Earth and most destructive. I think the Eye is both.”

The moon nodded.

“Oh, Moon,” said the Man. “I look forward to an eternity of stimulating conversation with you. Modesty, I accept your bargain. Horrors, let her go. Nurse, step forward. Now, how can you help?”

Modesty said, “I’m not a nurse.”

Spiderkin started to feel the burning pricks of doubt on the back of his neck. Modesty wasn’t just riffing on the plan. She seemed to have made up an entirely new one. Unless she was serious.

“Modesty,” said Spiderkin, “Think of what you’re doing. This moon isn’t just the start of humanity’s journey to the stars; it’s the reason we left for them in the first place. Humanity looked up at the moon and asked why it was there and what lay beyond. If we let the Man destroy the Earth, we won’t be able to bring back all we’ve found. Now, I have only one question for you: is the floor lamp ready?”

Modesty smiled and pressed the red cross on her breast pocket. “Oh, I hope so, or I’m about to do something really stupid. Tux, let her rip.”

She ran for the edge of one of the nearby craters and stopped. Not far below, Spiderkin could see one of the ice crusts. Whatever Modesty was doing, it wasn’t part of the plan. He had to be ready for whatever stunt she tried.

Mockhitler raised the staff to signal her body horrors. “I knew it! She’s up to something. Body horrors, I want you to – aargh!” Before she could finish her command, Spiderkin saw another of the blue imps biting through her toes.

“So hungry!” it said, with blood dribbling down its cheek and bits of toe between its teeth.

From between a throng of horrors, Tux and Hush appeared.

With Mockhitler distracted by the loss of her toes, Hush grabbed the staff and hammer from her. “You’ll never come near me again.”

A scream died in Mockhitler’s throat as Hush passed the staff and hammer to Tux.

“Modesty, catch!” Tux threw them both.

As the two handles described an arc over horrors and moon dust, Spiderkin realized Modesty’s plan. “Oh, Modesty, no.” But there was nothing he could do to stop her. She caught the handles in each hand, barely stepping back as she plucked them from the air.

To the Man she said, “Nurses don’t do this.” She charged her hammer and leapt from the crater’s edge toward the ice sheet below. On impact, thunder cracked and ice shattered in the crater.

Spiderkin rushed to the edge. The ice crust wasn’t far below. Already it was broken and smashed, with small sheets floating atop churning waters where Modesty had broken through.

Tux joined Spiderkin at the crater’s edge. “That wasn’t what she told me she was going to do,” said the butler-bot.

“Nor me,” said Spiderkin.

“That was it?” boomed the Man. “That was your plan to get your staff back? Pathetic! And to think, I have to guard the knowledge of your ancestors for eternity. I’ll have the horrors retrieve the staff from the water, and then I’ll rip knowledge of its use from you like strips of bacon from a pig.”

Spiderkin forced himself to turn away from the crater below toward the Man. “I don’t think so. I don’t need the staff in my hand to make it work.” Spiderkin closed his eyes and intoned some levitation formulas. Below, he could hear the ice blocks part as staff, hammer, and Modesty rose up to them. Spiderkin opened his eyes to see Tux pulling an unresponsive, soaked Modesty to one side to try to revive her. She still held John Joe as though her hand were frozen to the handle. But the staff floated freely. Spiderkin drew it toward him. The lantern was full of water.

“Body horrors!” shouted the Man, “seize that man and confiscate his staff.”

Spiderkin swept the staff before the advancing horrors, freezing them all in motion. With another sweep, every horror crumbled to frosty rubble.

“Ice is appropriate at this moment,” said Spiderkin. “There’s something useful water does when it freezes.” With a third slash toward the Man, a water spout formed from within the crater. Its vortex spun wild until it engulfed the Man’s tower.

“What?” said the Man. “What can your frozen water do to my impenetrable fortress?”

“It expands,” said Spiderkin. Numbers danced in his mind as moisture seeped into micro cracks and grew colder. Crevices, like lightning bolts, began to race across the Man’s surface. Chips slid away from the ancient edifice.

“Really?” said the Man. “You get your staff back, and you use it to erode me?”

Spiderkin drew his staff close to him and rested his weight against it. “It’s not about what I’m going to do to you, anymore. It’s about what they’re going to do to you.”

A sound started, like rain on a rocket hull far away. The Kas drew closer. But now, instead of aimlessly swarming, searching for something, they came with a purpose. They’d found what they had been looking for. An opening.

Spiderkin couldn’t see the Kas pour through the fresh openings in the Man’s tower, but he heard their percussive fleeting.

“What have you done?” The Man screeched. “Technomagus, think of all the knowledge that will be lost without me! No! Keep back. Stay outside of me!”

Spiderkin lost all doubt that an artificial intelligence like the Man could be alive. Only something that lived could scream with so much terror at the thought of losing that life. The light atop the tower flickered and dimmed, and the restless tapping of the angry Kas faded like the death kick of some twitching beast.

Spiderkin sighed. “We learned it once; we can learn it again.” He remembered Modesty and joined Tux in reviving her.

The little butler-bot did not turn to face Spiderkin as he approached. He continued to kneel beside Modesty, her hands cupped between his tiny mits. “She’s cold. I’ve tried warming her.”

“Tux,” all thoughts of the feud between them were gone. Spiderkin knew they both wanted the same thing. “Let me try.” The robot stood and moved out of the way.

Spiderkin touched his staff lightly to Modesty’s chest. If he could have been an objective observer, a scientist that every technomagus should be, he could have calculated how much water to remove from Modesty’s lungs and the power needed to warm her body. But this was Modesty lying on the cold rock, and he loved her. He let the staff work its own magic. The color slowly returned to her flesh.

Her eyes blinked open.

“You changed the plan,” said Spiderkin, taking her hand.

“I improvised. Did the Kas come?” She propped herself up. Spiderkin and Tux helped her into a sitting position. The holograms and Hush had joined them, but Spiderkin barely noticed.

“They did,” he said, “and they’ve gone to wherever angry Kas go. They took the Man with them.” The only noticeable sound came from the Man’s tower, which continued to crack and crumble.

Nassa and Moon, hand in hand, floated over to join the group.

“We’ve ruined your moon,” said Spiderkin.

The ghost held up a hand. “Not at all. It needed a good cleaning. What will you all do now?”

“Modesty, the floor lamp, and I will probably head up there.” Spiderkin nodded toward the blue planet.

“Actually,” said Tux, taking Hush’s hand, “we’re going to stay. The toe stealers will need looking after, and Hush and I can try to salvage some of the library.”

“You’re not coming?” Modesty couldn’t disguise the crack in her voice.

“Don’t make me choose, Modesty.”

Hush put her arm around Tux’s glass head.

“It’s a one-way trip, Tux. We can’t make it back in the yacht,” said Spiderkin.

“Not necessarily,” said the Nassa ghost. There may still be red rockets left behind on Earth.”

Spiderkin thought again of fighting the Ticking Hordes and how he promised Modesty they’d stop running and rejoin the fight. He thought about how strange it was that to go forward, they had to go back. Back to the very beginning. He would go to Ourland O’Florrida, and then they would see.

The silver form of the Hullabaloo floated down from the sky toward them.

“Let’s go,” said Spiderkin.

end

 

 

David Fawkes works by day as a field scientist for an environmental company, which means he works long hours and does a lot of heavy lifting. By night, he writes. One of his hobbies includes rescuing obscure rare books from exotic locales and eccentric locals. He enjoys playing music, but, despite rumors, he has never been asked to play bass for the Residents. Coffee is David’s favorite addiction, with books being a close second.

Knowing Elly

by Jeff Metzler

 

I was sitting with Elly at a diner on Main Street. The restaurant was run-down and its food cold and tasteless – falling just a few narrow notches nearer to being consumable than non-consumable on an edibility spectrum. The conversation flowing between Elly and I over our pathetic, plated meals wasn’t about anything important. We touched on the weather, the horrible morsels we were putting into our mouths, and the sitcom we had watched together the night before.

It was a normal night in every way. Nondescript. Uneventful. And perfect… absolutely perfect. Perfect because of Elly.

She paused while talking about a scene in the sitcom, her eyes – sepia shaded, like two old, oval photographs – lowering to the cup resting between her hands. When she spoke again, her tone, and the topic of our conversation, had changed: “Do you think people can ever change?” she asked, quietly. “Really change?”

I linked the fingers of my hands together around my cup of tea. It, like everything on our table, was cold. I wondered where Elly’s sudden question had come from. After a moment of silence, I answered: “No.”

Some of the light seemed to drain from Elly’s face, the pulsing sun of her skin fading to a pale moonlike glow. “You really don’t think so?”

I’ve never been able to change.” My shoulders twitched upward in a brief shrug. “And I’ve tried. So many times, in so many ways.”

“That’s bullshit,” Elly said, the harsh word sounding soft and sweet coming out of her mouth. Elly made even unpleasant words sound mellifluous, somehow. “I’ve always believed that we all have a self at our centers that is the ‘real’ us. And I think life is about discovering that person. A journey to that person. None of us start out as our truest selves… we have to travel there. That’s what change is.”

“Do you think some people have a longer journey than others?”

“Yes.”

I let go of my cup and placed my hands flat on the table. “If that’s true, I wonder how far I am on mine.”

“Do you feel at peace with yourself? Do you feel true to yourself?”
I looked at Elly carefully. With her eyes on me, I did – I felt completely at peace, and utterly myself. But, overall? Something churned in my stomach, and my limbs stiffened. In this place, I was content with who I was; was content with everything. But… there was another place, wasn’t there?

“Hey,” Elly said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She leaned across the table and pressed her lips to mine. “That’s the last thing I want to do,” she breathed into my mouth.

Something wasn’t right.

Her eyes opened, encaging mine with their silken sharp grip. Burning in crimson cold fire, her lips moved on my lips; moist flame flickering, licking the darkness. Her fingers wrapped a velvet vice around mine, as her shoeless foot slid up my leg.

Something was coming. Something was changing.

Elly’s hand cupped the side of my face, brushed passed the corner of my mouth, and slid into my hair. It was then that it started. Nightmare began to seep into dream, or perhaps dream began to fade into reality. I felt the soft locks of my dark hair grow brittle and twist into dandruff-speckled curls. Coarse strands wiggled out through the surface of my scalp, curling around Elly’s fingers: coiling tendrils choking the color from her flesh.

Strangely, Elly seemed not to notice. I kissed her ear. Closed my eyes. Prayed for the truth to go away. It refused to do so. Beneath Elly’s warm breath and searching tongue, I sensed my skin beginning to change. Acne sprouted – zit after zit swelling my skin in plump, red mounds of seething yellow discharge.

With her right hand still in my hair, Elly wrapped her left arm around me. Firm flesh immediately faded into slanted bone beneath her embrace. My wide shoulders drooped down, becoming angular ridges. My body began to contract and shrivel like a grape’s atrophy into raisin. Muscles dissolved, ribs pressed up against skin, and veins revealed the intricacies of their blue webs. All that had been skin became skeletal.

I noticed we were standing now, the diner no longer around us. How long had things been like this? I placed my deflated arms around Elly, cradling her against me. She melted against my boney body, a supple, fragrant fusion of skin and cloth and hair. I breathed her in. Elly was everything I had ever wanted. She was all I could ever need. But I knew she was not mine to hold. She never had been. She never would be.

My palms grew wet against her bare back. She felt my hands change, my skin on her skin like drenched, dead fish on the white sands of a tropical island.

She recoiled.

Her eyes darted open as she pulled back from me, tearing herself from my thin arms and soggy fingers. Screaming, she found her body being yanked back towards me, her hand ensnared in the tangled thicket of my hair. She tugged at her arm frantically. She put her foot to my stomach and pushed with her leg. My eyes slammed shut, teeth clenching in pain as Elly’s hand found freedom, tearing clumps of arid hair from my head. I fell to the ground and Elly scrambled away from me, her body shaking with frenzied sobs.

I looked up at her with pleading, apologizing eyes. Elly’s head was turned away from me, her eyes opened wide on nothing and her mind attempting to close on everything.

Her sobs. I could hear nothing but her sobs. I needed to say something, if not to make things better, then only to silence her gasping cries. “Please, Elly, I…”

At the sound of her name, Elly’s head snapped towards me like a triggered mousetrap. “What happened to you? What…what happened…” She touched her face tentatively, as if afraid that my acne had crawled from my skin to hers. Finding she hadn’t been infected, that her skin was still her skin – soft, smooth immaculateness – she grew both calmer and deeper in disgust with me. “Your body… my God…”

“I know, Elly, I…”

“Your hair it… latched onto me! Latched onto me!” She began brushing her hand again at the remembrance of the hairs that had clung to it. “What’s wrong with your hair? Your body? Your entire body!”

My head sunk to my knees. I curled my fingers into a fist and rocketed my knuckles against the ground. Pain raced through my hand, but it felt distant, unimportant. I looked up again, eyes fighting back tears. Elly stood at a distance, staring at me. Fear and repulsion were twisting her features.

“I’m sorry, Elly. I’m so, so sorry.”

“What’s happening?” she asked with her voice and demanded with her eyes. “Just tell me what’s happening!”

“You need to leave now,” I whispered. “Goodbye, Elly.”

“Goodbye? Where do you think I’m going?”

Her voice… god, how I would miss her voice. “Back to the cluster of circuits that gave you birth,” I said, tears flowing as my words stumbled out. “Goodbye.”

I didn’t need to look up. I knew that I was now alone. I knew that the entire time I had truly been alone.

#

            I stared up at the ceiling. “A dream,” I told myself, the stench of morning-breath hanging on my words. “I knew it was only a dream again.”

Grey light filtered through the large windows above my bed, casting an anemic glow over sheets, and blankets, and me. I sat up stiffly and swung my feet to the hardwood floor. A profound ‘true self’ conversation stuck inside a wet dream, wedged within a nightmare… some pillow pilgrimage that had been. I struck my fist against the wall behind my bed, again sending splinters of pain racing through my hand. The pain felt more real this time, probably because it was. I was so frustrated that I almost longed for those days when people had dreamt normal dreams.

I looked out the window and a forest of lumbering stone and metal rooted in cracking concrete peered back at me. Dirty snow lined the sides of the street and distant dark clouds whispered that more was to come. Winter in the city, a time when nature fought to beautify Man’s wilderness: To quilt concrete lakes and streams in soft snow, drape cars in white sweaters, and street lights in icy hats.

It was, of course, a fight nature always lost. Like mites in a symbiotic pact with the concrete beast whose broad back they lived upon, animals of Man’s forest would turn snow to slush under boot and wheel; transform pure white to dark gray and bile black. Before the time would come for it to melt, the snow would be blacker, fouler, than the hardened tar it covered.

I stood and made my way to the bathroom, the weight of sleep deadening my initial movements. I flicked the bathroom’s light switch up, and the florescent bulb on the ceiling noisily buzzed to life. Before my eyes stared my face. I sighed, placing my palm flat against the mirror’s cool surface. My reflection also mouthed a sigh, laying its glassy palm against my sallow flesh.

My vision of myself in my dream hadn’t been too far from the truth. A horrendous second skin of red and white mounds sat atop dry, flaky flesh. Not that the layer of pimples was covering anything worth seeing. My face was wan and thin, my skin drawn tightly to bone as if my skull wanted to penetrate its flawed mask. Dandruff sprayed from the curls of my hair as I ran my fingers through it. The white dots speckled my reflection’s face. I closed my eyes; opened them again. I was still there, standing before myself. I removed my hand from the mirror.

Pitiful, hideous bastard, I told my reflection; my reflection told me. If true change was possible, I mused bitterly, I’d have already seized it at any cost. But it wasn’t. I was an ugly wretch who had flunked out of the Military Academy. I was a worthless factory grunt who couldn’t even enjoy my nights like every other man alive could. That’s all I was, and all I’d ever be.

I reached out towards the light switch and clicked it down. My reflection became a shadowy figure, a mere androgynous outline: suggestion of a head flowing into a ghost of a body. No longer me. Just some unknown shade; empty profile. That was better.

Shedding my night clothes, I switched to the fabrics of day: Brown pants (three sizes too large), white T-shirt (its current color merely suggesting the notion of white), button-down shirt with a streak of black on the back and the letters KALVIN HOBBES printed below the collar (Kalvin Hobbes being my name, the black streak being a stain).

Fighting my boots onto my feet, I took another look out the window from my seat on the bed. The world was still out there. Another day of work awaited.

#

            Wind whipped my face as my feet sloshed through mostly-melted snow. All around me, men in brown pants, no-longer-white T-shirts, and letter-branded button-down shirts marched out from the faces of buildings. Black boots filed through blackened snow.

The long, burnt body of a flare cylinder attracted my attention: bright red smudge sticking out of grayish slush. The blot of red seemed alien to the day… this day that had woken up groggy and grumpy while color had slept in, warm and snug in rainbowed pajamas. Continuum of gray – dirty white, ashen gray, coal black – those were the shades which saturated the sky, tinged the buildings, and dyed the slush-soaked earth. With my boot, I kicked a spray of icy sludge over the flare casing as I passed it: quickened pulse pumping in a cadaver’s arm – it didn’t belong on this street, in this city.

Like a massive troop of dancers all dangling from one branching string of choreography, boots suddenly slid to a stop on all sides of me. Necks bolted heads upward to face the sky. We then stood paralyzed like marionettes abandoned, returned to our true state as inanimate, lifeless wood. Breath bottled in lungs, arms locked at sides, legs glued to ground, we dared not make a noise. We stood, we stared, and, above all, we listened.

It began softly, no louder or more discernable than imagined, half-heard words carried on the tongue of a night-time breeze. The sound came from everywhere and nowhere; ethereal breathings from lips unseen. It was a noise floating in that auditory limbo between gasp of air and articulation of word… a sound that reaches the ears but not the mind.

I gritted my teeth as whisper vaulted into scream. Deafening squeals ripped across the sky, sounding too organic to be artificial, too metallic to be natural. I was visited by an image of a robotic pig suffering beneath the knife of slaughter, its fleshy larynx launching cries of pain through a cast-iron snout. Such a piercing sound seemed it should be an impossibility on this day; seemed it should be absorbed by the layered grey of sky, drowned out by the oppressing, omnipresent quiet. It wasn’t. The glass globe which had contained our soundless, colorless world was rippled with cracks. The dark quilt of sky shattered and fragmented fabric rained to the earth. Silence denied its essence and screamed – ran off to some dark corner.

Boots stirred, heads lowered, limbs twitched: our puppeteer had apparently returned. Yet, now, the men around me moved in distinct ways. Some dashed forward desperately, fearing for their lives. Others took brisk, broad steps – not caring enough to run, but not quite suicidal enough to walk. I followed behind them all, going the same pace we all had been before the siren’s call.

No matter how we moved, we were all going the same place: A nearby opening in the earth revealed an escalator now frozen in the stagnancy of common stairs. Boots clanked down the narrow metal steps.

I stepped from the stairs into a concrete tomb behind the other men. Mighty pillars held ceiling from floor, casting towering shadows from the flares some of the men had already lit. A smattering of round spotlights hung from the walls and from some of the pillars, but they were currently turned off. The air was so damp that I felt the cold clinging to my skin like a wet film. Clouds of breath streamed from mouths, ghosting across wavering auras of red light.

I looked around as if this were the first time I’d seen this dreadful place. To one side of the tomb the floor fell away to reveal a lower platform with long-unused rails. The metal beams and wooden planks of the railway snaked away down a dark, partially collapsed tunnel.

We placed our backs against the concrete wall across from the tracks, dropped to the floor, and sunk our heads between our knees. The sound of the siren had died away up above, now replaced by a volley of piercing yelps. The bombs had started to fall.

#

            Tremendous cylinders of metal were being carried along a conveyor belt in front of which stretched a line eighty men long. The men stood in silence, side by side, eyes focused downward, hands forever cycling through a set loop of motions. I was one of these men.

Hands jerked in dreary dance, each pair of five gloved digits locked in a perpetual pattern of motion. Pinch…Push…Turn: those were the steps of my dance; the cycle that bound my fingers, moved my muscles. Our hands were like hamsters caught in a spinning wheel – our digits scrambling non-stop, our efforts only fueling our continued torture.

The conveyor belt continuously advanced the iron cylinders, rolling them past chicken wire bins packed to capacity with metal menagerie. There were endless variations of screws, bolts, and widgets in the bins: Shells of concave, tinted glass; gears with jagged teeth; and sticks capped with clicky trigger buttons.

The bin which I worked out of contained hundreds of transparent needles. My work days and nights were spent inserting shards of glass like these into ports riddling the bodies of the iron cylinders. I had no idea what the function of the glass shards was. But the iron cylinders, they were to become cannons.

“Seems like your limbs are still intact,” a voice rose above the steady screeching of the treadmill and the incessant din of the machinery.

I glanced over at the speaker: a stout, unshaven man whose shirt read IRVINE LINESS.

I nodded. “Still in one piece.”

The voice belonging to the shirt labeled IRVINE continued: “Hell of a downpour this time – getting worse all the time. Whole groups of guys I was with got roasted… cooked like chicken.”

“Same here,” I answered. “I was down in the subway on Pine. Part of the roof caved in – crushed a dozen or so.”

“Fried like fowl and pressed like pancakes,” he said with a laugh which was quickly overtaken by coughing. The coughing was then usurped by a wheezing which was concluded as a wad of muddy saliva was expelled from his mouth onto the concrete floor. “Fowl and pancakes,” he repeated, perhaps being touched by hunger at the thought. Then, more solemnly, he added, “Ah, well… what can you do?”

Nothing, my mind answered. You could do nothing. That was our one certainty in this world – the threat of death was always near. We lived in a world where, when death fell from the sky alongside snow, people thought the two just as natural, just as matter-of-course. Clouds let out moisture – those were the snowflakes. The enemy rained death upon us – those were the bombs.

If there was one thing we could do, it was to make the weapons that we would use to rain hell back on them, I thought as I swiveled my right hand within its metallic cone. The cone was my control console, manipulating a robotic arm positioned above the conveyer belt. The arm was a meshing of stringy cables, laced with plastic veins pumping with oil… it was ugly, and reminded me of my own skeletal arm.

“Nothing like being awake to remind you how much you love the missis,” the man in the shirt marked IRVINE remarked with a dry chuckle, the digits of his robotic hand removing a needle from the bin beside us. “Rain bombs down on us, and suck our hours away in this factory, but when the waking hours fade and I’m with my girl again, nothing else seems to matter.”

I said nothing, watched my second – my metallic – hand slide a shard into place on the cylinder, its rubber-tipped fingers rotating the glass clockwise, clicking it into place.

“Legs that go forever!” IRVINE rhapsodized. “Such legs! Glorious… glorious.” Staring with eyes that seemed to see nothing but the landscapes of his daydreams, the man continued talking in a distant voice. “And that sense of humor – don’t want you thinking I’m shallow, now! – that sense of humor could raise a chuckle from a corpse. Wit to burn. I’ll tell you, she’s quite a creature – an amazing creation.”

Gears creaking, my artificial arm lowered middle and index fingers into a crevice atop the moving cylinder, and turned it around to reveal a new set of ports awaiting to swallow the glass shards.

“Guys like me, and certainly like you,” IRVINE said, throwing me a glance and an apologetic smile, “we’re sure lucky we have our women, eh? Back before the war, specimens like us would have been out of luck. So… how is your little lady these days?”

“Fine.”

“Fine? Just fine?”

“Yeah… okay, not bad, no complaints… fine.”

“Well, sorry for prying, but in my experience, ‘fine’ never means ‘fine.’”

I laughed a laugh that carried in it more nervousness and less amusement than I had intended. “No? Well, in your experience, what does ‘fine’ mean?”

“‘Fine’ means, invariably and quite simply, ‘not fine.’ It means that something is wrong… that things could and should be better than they are.”

I fit several more thin pieces of glass into the next cylinder. I thought about saying nothing and letting my conversation with IRVINE die. I didn’t. “You’re right,” I eventually said.

“Okay, then,” he replied, sounding happy that I had finally spoken again, “what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I’m… not sure.” I moved my hand too quickly, swinging the robotic arm too far left – the crystal hit the side of the cylinder and rained broken bits onto the belt.

“Damn it,” I spat through clenched teeth. A red bulb on my control cone flashed on and a thin voice crackled from a speaker below the light: “Warning… continue with renewed care… this is your warning… Number 699… This is your warning…”

The head above the tag marked IRVINE shot a nervous glance over at me before quickly looking back down at his own console. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this. It’s not important…”

“Yes – it is.” I watched the belt carry the shattered glass away from me, grasped a new piece between iron thumb and iron forefinger. “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with… with her lately.”

Again, he sent an anxious look my way, unsure if it was wise for us to continue this conversation. “What kind of trouble?”

“It’s hard to explain…”

“How long have you had her?”

“About four months.”

IRVINE began tapping his foot beneath his console cone. “Don’t tell me you’re getting tired of her already!”

“No, it’s not that. I really, really like her. She’s wonderful.”

“What is she?”

“She’s a… her name is Elly.”

“Ah, an Elly! Elly… Elly…” IRVINE narrowed his eyes. “I have a damned difficult time remembering all their names, but I think I can picture her.”

“She’s so smart, so beautiful – perfect, really.”

“Too many names to keep track of, that’s the problem!” IRVINE said, plunging his robotic hand back into a bin. “Why bother with different names, anyway? There’s nothing in a name. They should call them all, say, Sallie, and then give each Sallie a different number. Sallie 1, Sallie 2, Sallie 3 – you get the idea. Numbers are easier to remember than names, I’d say.”

A new kind of cylinder started coming down the conveyor belt. I carefully reached my metallic glove into another bin of parts next to the one I had been working from, selecting an opaque rectangular piece. “Something just doesn’t feel right when I’m with her. But… well, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this problem with a girl.”

IRVINE yawned. “So, are you leaving her?”

“I don’t want to. I want it to work. I said goodbye to her before I woke up this morning, like I’d never see her again. But…”

“Some guy I know,” IRVINE interrupted, “I met him in a bomb shelter last week. We got to talking. He was saying how he had struggled with his woman at first, like it sounds you are. But when we talked, he had just proposed! He said he had a Kelly, I think. Or maybe a Lisa. Which is the one with the giant rack?”

“Lisa, I think,” I replied absentmindedly.

“Yeah – Lisa. Damned names. But she is incredible! Hell of a looker. Almost wish I had chosen her for myself!”

“Uh-huh.”

IRVINE’s foot was now slapping against the concrete with a plan, pounding out some intricate beat. “Your Elly’s not the easiest on the eyes, but I’ll grant you that there is a certain something about her.”

“I think she’s beautiful. More beautiful than anything in this world.”

“Anything in THIS world, sure. But as for the…”

“I meant more beautiful than anything else – anything and everything else.”

Elly’s image flashed before me, my mind’s eye opening wide, soaking in her visage. Her dirty-blonde hair was drawn back in a tight bun, fully revealing her face, fully displaying her beauty. Her thin lips were pressed tight under smiling eyes, her expression both playful and thoughtful, reckless and serene. “I think I love her.”

“You love her? Powerful word, that. You can’t leave her, then! You’ve got to do something about your problems – you absolutely must!”

“I know I do.” I fit another rectangular bit into place. “I will.”

#

            Outside, the sky was darker than it had been that morning: livid with masses of thick clouds which conspired to deaden the sun and blanket the city in an ever-shifting ethereal ceiling. The snow was soggy and stuck to the bottom of my boots. I shoved my hands into my pants’ pockets to shield them from the cold. The distance I had to go was short, but so was my time. I walked quickly, crossing an overpass and then descending a flight of cement stairs jutting from the face of a hill.

The stairs led to the torn pavement of a highway, a blast-riddled stretch of blacktop which had long seen its final car. I walked down the center of one of its lanes. The worn yellow paint scrawled on the roadway’s surface was visible in those areas where patches of snow had melted. On both sides of the highway, ghosts of buildings began materializing, their crumbling facades representing what was once the business district. Husks of twisted steel and shattered brick, the structures hung like wilted flowers over the roadway. My feet sunk into the diseased skin shed by their leprosy – bricks, mortar, rotted wood, slabs of concrete, knives of glass, webs of corroded piping, and shattered ceramic.

I turned onto a street lined with decimated houses and the scorched trunks of trees. A short way down the street, one house still stood – a two-storied colonial, its weathered wood mottled in chips of white paint. A sign planted in the barren earth of its front yard read: RELATIONSHIP-SIMULATION DEALERSHIP OF TRIBACAN, and in smaller letters: The New Name in Love.

A chime sounded as I swung the door open and entered a room whose perimeter was lined in faded-green plastic chairs. Dirt-stained white tile groaned beneath the weight of my steps as I headed for the reception desk.

A man – or, rather, the outline of a man – sat behind a closed pane of darkly tinted glass which rose from a wooden booth. The silhouette of his head turned to face me as I walked up to him, but he left the glass window closed in front of him, simply staring at me with shadow-eyes within a shadow-face.

I stood directly in front of the glass and ventured a ‘hello.’ The shadow hung frozen, as if imprinted upon the glass. “Hello,” I repeated, louder this time, “I’d like to see one of your doctors.”

The shadow-mouth moved, jostling shadow-jaw up and down. “Do you have an appointment?”

“No, I don’t.”

The pane of glass sighed. “I’ll have to check to see if we have anyone available.”

Rising, the entire shadow shifted, floating away from me, leaving the pane of glass just a pane of glass – nothing viewable beyond its tinted transparency, and no sounds slipping from its thin face.

I sat down on one of the plastic chairs. To my side stood a small table stacked with papers bearing bold printing. The glass had stopped talking, the shadow had disappeared, and there was nothing left to do except wait, so I reached over and took one of the papers.

It was an advertisement for several new products by GOVENT, the entertainment branch of the Government. ‘Digital Doggies’ and ‘Cyber Kitties’ – the pets that leave no mess – headlined the colorful publication, perfervid prose gushing about the artificial animals.

I returned the paper to the stack, unimpressed. I had zero interest in caring for another being, messes or no messes. And I had already heard about all the other offerings the ad touted.

A tapping noise came from the glass booth. I saw that the shadow had returned and walked over. “Someone will see you,” the glass informed me. “Go into the back.”

I passed the booth, the shadow’s head moving to follow me as I did, and entered a long hallway. Blazing lights hung on the ceiling, their astringent glow dousing the chipped walls and white floor tile in sharp luminescence. There were six doors on either side of the hall, none of them labeled, all of them closed. I walked the length of the hall once, then walked back down it again. I was about to go ask the shadow where it was I was supposed to go when a hand clapped down on my shoulder.

I turned around. Atop a white smock glazed in the hall’s blinding white light sat a puffy face. The face crept into a smile, wrinkles writhing at the effort, freckles undulating on folds of flesh. “This room should suffice,” the man said, removing his hand from my shoulder to gesture to the door closest to us.

I nodded. The man opened the door for me. As I walked passed him, I noticed that printed in black, stringy letters upon his smock were the following letters: DR. DRANZONE.

“Have a seat on the table,” the man said as the door shut behind him. He turned away from me and began rummaging through instruments scattered on a metallic cart. “ScopioScope, ScopioScope…,” he muttered, finally plucking a small wrench-like device from the table and wiping it on a rag.

“Now, then, let’s take a little peek, shall we?” he said, his words coated in a bored inevitability which let me know that they stumbled from his mouth at the commencement of every examination he performed. He threw the rag to the floor. “You’ll be spending quality time with your little lady again in no time flat, friend,” he intoned. Again, supreme disinterest stuck to his words like dried-up maple syrup. He forced his bloated lips upward into another labored smile. It, too, stuck of the same syrup.

His job was no different than mine, I realized. Pattern of motions. Mine were Pinch-Push-Turn, and his: Rummage-Little Peek-No time flat-Smile. Each of us forever at our place on the assembly line of life. And for what? What were we building? What had our hands constructed when our assembly lines – whatever their particulars – stopped moving for good?

“Worthless crap,” the mouth belonging to the shirt marked Dr. DRANZONE said. He held up the device that I assumed – from his earlier mutterings – was a ScopioScope. “The tools they expect us to work with at this place! Crap!” He shook his head in disgust, and then shook it some more. He got so involved in rattling his head from side to side that it seemed that he had forgotten what had spurred the head-shaking in the first place.

“Crap,” he said, remembering. “Sure, spend ten bazillion dollars writing software for new fillies, but force us to use fossils to tend to them.” He sighed. The first apparently felt so appropriate to the moment that he sighed again. “Ah, well, what can you do?”

The swaying fabric of the doctor’s gargantuan smock rustled noisily as he lumbered towards the table on which I was seated. The smock hung down to his ankles, and his socks didn’t quite travel up to meet the smock, leaving hairy stubs of legs exposed.

He plopped onto a stool and took a moment to take me in with dark eyes poised over the frames of even darker lenses. The frames slid further down his nose as he continued to look me over.

“I’ve been seeing more people than a calculator-less individual could count these days,” he informed me, cranking a lever on the stool’s side which rose the seat higher and higher in jerking spurts. “My patients – by and large – are happy with what they’ve got. But not completely. No, never completely. They see slightly greener grass and expect me to be the one to get them to the other side.” He stopped turning the lever – the stool’s seat was now level with the table.

“Lie down,” he ordered. “No, further back on the table – that’s fine. I get these picky sons-a-bitches in here, think I’m a hair-dresser or a beautician, want me to spruce their woman up for them. They want me to sprinkle some spice onto their love life. Turn your head away from me and place your chin down… that’s good.”

I pressed the side of my face against the cold body of the examination table as the doctor’s palm cupped the back of my neck. Fingers roved roughly over my skin. There was a small port on the side of my neck, right below my right ear. Inserted into the port was the software. I assumed that the doctor was now examining the status of my port, and would then proceed to remove the software from within its walls – from within my neck.

“They ask for endless adjustments – ‘improvements,’” the doctor continued. “They simply MUST have them taller. They can’t go on living unless she’s feistier in the sack; more understanding to their needs; less demanding; has longer legs, or bigger boobs. A damned digital plastic surgeon! Is that what they think I am? You’re going to feel a pinch, a stinging sensation. There, it’s over. Humans! We’re selfish, needy, trivial, finicky creatures.” He sighed again. “Okay, there’s going to be a brief drilling sound. There… your program is out. Sit up.”

Between his thumb and index finger he held a transparent crystal, its interior teeming with tiny chips laced with metallic specks. He was holding my software – he was holding Elly.

“So, then – what is it going to take to please you, hmmm?” he asked me, his rheumy eyes peering at me again over the rims of his glasses.

How could that be her? Elly, grasped between two bloated fingers! Elly, a construct of plastic, metal, and microchip! I had never seen Elly like this… not even during her initial installation. I had seen other Relationship-Simulation women in this form, and had been shocked by those sights, then. But to see her like this, Elly – my Elly – my intellect played dumb and hid beneath disbelief. This couldn’t be Elly!

A slight turn of the doctor’s head flicked a fluorescent glow across his lenses. “Yes, it is her,” he said in that same for-Christ’s-sake-don’t-make-me-go-through-this-yet-again voice. “You know it is. You know how all this works. GOVENT only spent decades creating their Relationship-Simulation technology. And then the past five years cramming this so-called L.U.S.T. program down our throats.” The doctor snorted. “This miracle of modern science taps into the electric impulses of your brain, and delivers romance straight to your neurons, while you sleep,” he said in a strange voice that was apparently an attempt at mocking the advertisements that constantly ran for L.U.S.T. on TV. He shook his head. “I realize it’s a jolt to see the flesh and blood bed-buddy you know so well like this,” he said in his normal voice, holding up the crystalline circuitry. “But there it is. Reality.”

He stopped talking and there was silence. Mostly silence, anyhow. An air filtration system hummed softly through the rusty ducts winding over my head. I could hear Elly’s voice, deep and breathy, rising and falling within the flow of the whispering wind.

Elly’s voice in the air vent’s howling! I cornered the thought in my mind and ridiculed its ridiculousness. But, then – how less real was a thought of Elly conjured by the coursing of air then it was by the firing of circuits looped in that tiny crystal that hung before my eyes? No. Elly was real – real to me. What she made me feel was real, so she was real.

“So, what infinitesimal tweak are you here to have done to your artificial woman? Change her eye color? Give her a sixth toe? What?”

I gritted my teeth. The doctor’s tone – the way he was talking about Elly – was making me bristle. “Nothing,” I said. “No… tweaks. I like her just the way she is. But I’ve been experiencing a technical glitch with my program. I’m here to get that fixed.”

“Oh,” he said, using his free thumb to push his glasses up his bumpy nose. For the first time, he looked at me not over the tops of his glasses, but directly through the thick lenses of his frames, as if finally willing to see me as more than a distorted, blurry mass. “So… you’re not here for a simple mod? Well, then, tell me what’s been happening.”

“My program has been crashing – nearly every night.”

“Really?” The doctor’s voice had altered, now free of the sticky malaise that had clung to his earlier utterances. He was charting new conversational ground, here. This was beyond greeting, beyond amiable artifice, beyond instruction. This was a stall in his assembly line. This was something new. Something about what I was saying had excited him. “Are the crashes causing you to wake up, or do you fade into normal sleep?”

“I wake up. I always wake up.”

“Alright, alright,” he said, tapping his ScopioScope up and down on his leg with one hand, and still holding Elly’s software with the other. “And, after you wake up, does the system re-boot once you fall asleep again?”

“Yes. But if it crashes once, it will, without fail, crash every single time that night. I’ve been waking up three, four times a night on average.”

The doctor blinked rapidly. “Interesting! Let me peek at your file, eh?” He reached over and snatched a manila folder from the table of instruments at his side. Unlooping the red string which bound half to half, he flipped the folder open. A series of ‘hmmms’ dribbled from his mouth as his eyes moved over the pages within. “Let me see… you have an Elly installed, correct?” he asked, briefly looking up at me from the file.

“Yes… Elly.”

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

“Yes.”

“And what did you have installed prior to your Elly?” He asked as he flipped through my file, seeking his answer on paper before it could be given to him via sound.

Sound proved faster than sight. “Rebecca,” I answered. He continued to look through my file to find the answer I had already given him. He found the page and nodded, content now that the information had been verified.

“And how long did you have the Rebecca program installed?” he asked, even though his inflection betrayed that he was already staring down at his question’s answer.

“Only two months,” I said. “I never felt… comfortable with her. She made me uneasy, anxious. She was too outgoing, maybe. Towards the end of the two months, I began to experience system crashes.”

He looked up at me again. “The same type of crashes you’re dealing with now?”

“Yes. The same.”

“And before Rebecca, what other programs did you use?” The doctor’s voice was high-pitched now, his words coming rapidly.

Squirming on the cold metal slab of the table, I began reaching back into unpleasant memory banks, rummaging through dusty filing cabinets, the moth-eaten tatters of mental minutiae. I then starting reciting names.

“Sarah, Allison, Alex, Tracy…,” I spoke slowly, one name sparking remembrance of the next, stumbling along a path of linked knowledge like a schoolchild first wrestling with the slippery links of the alphabet’s chain. “Gabriel, Trisha…”

“Lanel, Heather,” the man’s voice took command of the recital, spewing names with alacrity, “Dana, Rachael, Crystal, Sasha – quite a list you’ve amassed. Interesting! And most of these programs you had for less than four months. You did have the five-year dating program installed when you were seventeen, did you not?”

“Yes…”

“Then you do realize that that program, that period, is when you are supposed to ‘test the waters,’ don’t you? All these other girls that you’ve had installed and then promptly cast aside were supposed to have been life mates – or healthy long-term relationships at the very least.”

“I understand. I wanted to settle down with the first girl I had installed after I finished the dating program. But it never felt right; I never felt comfortable. Reality always crept into the fantasy. It’s happened with every program I’ve had – sooner or later, they all begin to crash. I had no choice but to try different programs. Elly’s… different, though. I feel utterly connected to her like with no one before… but, the crashes are still happening.”

“Every single one has crashed…” The doctor lifted Elly’s software crystal to his face, blinking at it. “I told you that everyone and their brother comes in here to modify their post-dating program girl. But it’s rare for them to change to different girls, swapping one out for another. The programmers of these things have quite the knack for crafting creatures who are difficult to part with, you understand.” The doctor set Elly’s software down on his lap and scratched his nose. “I’ve never seen anyone who has had as many post-dating program women installed as you have. Not even close. But… you said you don’t want to switch programs again?”

“No. Elly – my… program… I want to keep my current program, if there’s any chance of getting it fixed.” I eyed my software nervously as it hung between the dip in the doctor’s smock, over the gap between his two parted legs.

He arched his bushy black eyebrows. “Most interesting,” he said. “You truly aren’t just playing the field like a maniac, my boy. I can see that now.” He stretched his arms over his head and my Elly software slid perilously close to the edge of his lap. “Well, with the history of problems you’ve had with so many different programs, I’d hazard a guess that the problem to be fixed might not lie with them, but with you.”

“What?”
“What happens right before your program crashes?”

I looked down at my white, boney fingers. “I… I start to realize I’m not like my dream-self. I start to see my real self, and so does Elly. She never remembers the… episodes where I become myself, when I see her next. She’ll recall everything else about our times together, though.”

“Quite illuminating, these details.” The doctor made a clucking sound with his tongue. He grabbed my software from his lap and wrapped his fingers around it. “Crashes in these programs are incredibly uncommon. For you to experience them with every variation of software you try, why, it makes you very unique, boy.”

“Unique?”

“Yes. And the world always has need for unique things. Now, more than ever.”

“I don’t understand…”

The doctor jumped up from his stool. “Understand, this – I’ve arrived at my diagnosis. You, my friend, have no self-confidence! Your brain is unable to fully give into the fantasy of being with Elly because you don’t believe you deserve her.”

“Well… I don’t! Look at me, and then think of what she’s like. She’s flawless! She’s…”

“A program!” the doctor yelled. “A program meant to serve you! A mere prancing digital diversion! Of course you deserve her! She was made for you.”

“No! She’s more than that!”

The doctor shook his head. “No. She’s less than you think she is, and you’re more than you believe you are. Get that sorted out in your head, and your nights will start going very differently.” He peered over the tops of his glasses. “Can you do that?”

“Change?”

“Yep.” The doctor smiled. “Change your perception of yourself, and of your program.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, lie down again. I’m going to re-insert your software crystal. And make a small improvement that may help you. Remember – self-confidence in both the waking world, and in the ersatz realm of your evenings, will take you far. Realize that you’re more than you think, and that you deserve what you have. Do this, and you’ll have quite the amazing night tonight. Trust me.”

#

I stared at my bed. Draped in a ratty plaid comforter, my bed was my portal. It was our meeting place. It was sleep. It was dreams. It was Elly.

I turned away from the bed and headed across the room. I sat at the chair by my table and kicked my boots off. They clumped as they hit the wooden floor, splattering moisture and mud. I threw my shirt on the ground by the boots, on the mud. The letters must have fallen facing the floor. There was no KALVIN HOBBES visible on the garment – just wrinkles branching across worn fabric that wasn’t white, but once was. It struck me as strange to see my shirt lying there so flat and thin and lifeless: so shapeless. It somehow seemed like it should still have the shape of a torso lifting out the front, filling in the sleeves… making crumpled fabric a shirt again. It was almost like seeing Elly as a circuit-packed crystal instead of what she became in my dreams.

My gaze drifted from the shirt turned crumpled cloth, up my wall, and onto the crawling arms of my clock. The large arm was locked firmly on Twelve; the medium arm hung between Nine and Ten; the smallest arm couldn’t decide which number to commit to. It was almost time for the scheduled sleep period.

I stood again. Walking towards the windows, I heard mutters of broken words oozing through the paper-thin wall from the next apartment over. My neighbor must have started his sleep period ahead of time – everyone babbled incessantly in their sleep. You would be enchanting your woman with your charm in the dream world, making her weak in the knees with your wit and intellect, while in the physical world your saliva-splattered mouth would be croaking out gibberish. ‘The dazzling light of your beauty pales the luminescence of the goddesses themselves,’ you could say while logged into your program, while in reality nothing but a string of slobbery ‘Ugnatifnatugs’ would be lurching from your mouth.

I looked outside, but met only my face. There were no buildings, no streets, and no city – there was only me. The cold glow of my apartment’s overhead lights cast the windows as sheets of solid, reflective black. I stared at myself for many minutes, and then sat on my bed.

Could I change? Would tonight with Elly be different? Lying down, I figured it was time to find out.

#

I was sitting on the plush, red couch. It was opulent, as was everything surrounding it: gossamer curtains catching moonlight, an oak dining room table with a dark cherry finish and chairs with carved seashell motifs on their backs, a glass coffee table, and an antique multi-colored chest dotted with drawers, each with a boldly hued door looking ready to transport whomever opened it into another reality.

Elly had picked out everything around me.

The stately grandfather clock by the loveseat tolled – it was ten o’clock. Elly walked in the front door as if summoned by the chiming. My surroundings – seeming so elegant moments ago – were suddenly put to shame as Elly strolled through them. She wore a breathtaking black strapless dress that hugged her figure like an enthusiastic long-lost relative, tightly wrapping itself around her in an intense embrace. Her neck, her arms, and her lower legs emerged from the silky fabric like fire leaping from the dark of night. Her skin was radiant and enchanting.

I was off the couch and in her arms in moments. I breathed in the scent of her hair, pulling her slender frame against me. We kissed and her lips tasted both new – like she was an exotic creature I had just met – and familiar – warm and comfortable and reassuring, as only well-known things can be.

“Elly,” I whispered into her mouth as I pulled back from our kiss. “I missed you.”

“And I you.”

“Never leave me again.”

“I promise,” she said. “Never.”

We stood holding each other for long minutes before Elly finally stepped back. A smile touched her lips, lit her face. “Are you ready to go to the play? The curtain rises in forty minutes.”

“Almost,” I said. “Just give me a moment.”

I went into the bathroom and stood before the oval mirror over the porcelain vessel-style sink. A sublime grey, double-breasted suit jacket swept over my broad shoulders, eventually meeting my flat-front pants. I was straightening the white cuff of my button-down shirt when a fleck of red on my right cheek caught my attention. I angled my head to get a better look at my reflection – was that a pimple? I stared at the spot of skin where I thought I had noticed something, but now didn’t see a thing. Of course it couldn’t be a pimple, I realized. I had never had a dot of acne my entire life.

I ran a hand through my soft, shiny hair and flashed myself a smile – I was ready.

Returning to the den, I found Elly with her back facing me. The triangle of flesh visible on her back where her dress cut away drew me like a magnet. I waltzed over and placed my hand below her neck, against her warm skin.

“All set,” I said.

Elly remained motionless. Silent.

I removed my hand from her back. “Elly?”

She turned around, quickly, spinning wildly on her high heels. Her face – something was wrong. Her eyes were filled with fear.

“Elly?” I grabbed her arms. “What is it? What happened?”

“The old Pine Avenue subway,” she blurted out, her voice sounding unlike her own.

“What?” I searched her eyes, finding an alien dullness. My grip on her arms tightened. “Elly, what are you talking about?”

“The Pine Avenue subway,” she repeated, louder. “Go there! Now!”

“Why?” My panic was growing. “What’s there?”

“Go! Now!”

“We need to go there? What’s there?”

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

“By myself?”
Elly clenched her fists. “Wake up and go! Go now!”

“I… wake up?” My chest ached, feeling like it was caving in, and I sucked in rushed, shallow breaths. “What the hell are you talking about? I am awake! Why are you talking like this?”

Elly stormed forward and stuck her face inches from mine. “This is not real!” she spat. “Wake up! Just like you have every night leading up to now! You know this is fake. That’s why I’m here. Get back to what is real. Now!”

“Not… real?” I looked down at my hands. Suddenly, my skin grew paler, and my bones more pronounced. I felt my body shrinking – growing shorter and thinner. My suit soon hung from me in flaps of overextended fabric. “Elly!” I screamed. “What’s happening to me?”

Elly looked at me sternly. “Meet me at the Pine Avenue subway,” was all she said.

Our apartment twisted, its colors bending and bleeding. Scratched floors and bare walls soon replaced it. I sat up in my small, sweat-stained bed. I had woken up.

#

I walked down the stationary metal steps of the broken escalator, my balance shaky. My heart was beating far too quickly, and my hands were sweating even more profusely than they usually did.

What had happened when I was with Elly? It hadn’t been my own mind realizing the fantasy of the dream this time. Something had invaded that fantasy and pulled me back into reality – something had spoken to me, using Elly as a mouthpiece.

I reached the bottom of the escalator. A few spotlights high up on concrete walls and on pillars sporadically and inadequately lit the cavernous space. The southwest corner of the ceiling was a yawn of exposed pipes and the space beneath it was covered in rubble – results of the cave-in during the bombing this morning. I still couldn’t believe I was back here, in this place.

For an hour after waking, I had stayed in my apartment, deciding whether to come to the subway. Concerns for my safety had battled against my intense curiosity. In the end, my curiosity had won. What, I had decided, did I have to lose?

I looked around. There was no one there. The subway looked the same as it had when I had left it this morning – only minus the hundred other factory workers who had accompanied me then (both those who had walked out with me after the bombing had finally concluded, and those who had stayed behind on account of being dead). I paced back and forth between two pillars, under a ceiling cloaked in shadows. Had I imagined the whole thing? Had something turned my Elly program truly defective?

“Here!” snapped a voice.

I jumped at the sound.

“Down here!” it yelled again.

I walked over to where the concrete platform stopped and the recessed railway began. I didn’t see anything at first, and my eyes followed the path of the tracks. Right as the rusted rails were claimed completely by darkness, I saw a slash of light appear and then vanish. “I’m here!” said the voice, sounding like it was near the spot where the light had flared.

Again, curiosity and fear fought inside me. Again, curiosity reigned supreme. I jumped down onto the railway. The light flashed on again – only for a second – and I saw a blink of an ashen face, but little else. I stumbled along the tracks towards the area of the darkness that I knew held something more.

I clanked along the rails until I became part of the blanketing blackness. I could no longer see anything in front of me. Even the spotlit platform of the subway platform I had left behind was now nothing more than a faint illuminated blur. Then, between one clunk of my boots onto unseen rail and the next, another sound emerged. A cough – close by. I froze and the light came on again, staying on this time.

Someone stood mere feet from me in the center of the tracks – a woman, the remaining darkness flowing around her like an immense cape. The beam of her flashlight was pointed to my right, reflecting off the wall and creating a pool of weak illumination around us. The light was enough for me to see the woman by. She looked to be around my age and had short hair, a plain face, and uneasy eyes. Her skin was freckled and her body pudgy. She was the first real woman I had seen in five years.

“Anabelle,” the woman said, and she thrust out the hand not holding the flashlight.

I reached out with my sweaty hand and took hers. It was calloused, her fingers small, and her nails jagged. “I’m Kalvin,” I said.

“I know.”

I let go of Anabelle’s hand. The strength of my curiosity faltered as I was struck with a frisson of fear. “How?” I said. “How do you know me? It… it was you, wasn’t it? You were the one talking to me through Elly?”

“Yes. That was me. Dranzone told us about you.”

Dranzone?” I repeated, puzzled. Then I remembered the nametag worn by the doctor from the Relationship-Simulation Dealership… ‘DR. DRANZONE.’ “The doctor I saw earlier? What does he have to do with anything?”
“He’s a member of the Resistance,” Anabelle said, her eyes seeming to flicker with the word, “as am I.”

“Resistance…?”

Anabelle crossed her arms, causing the flashlight beam to streak across my face before slapping against the opposite wall. “Yes.” Her expression tightened. “Against the Government.”

“But why am I here? What do I have to do with any of this?”

“We want you to join us, Kalvin,” Anabelle said. Her arms dropped – again repositioning the pool of light – and her stance softened. “We need your help.”

“Why me?”

Anabelle’s eyes bore into me. She was sizing me up; judging me. I didn’t like the look. “The lure of the Relationship-Simulator doesn’t have its hooks fully into you,” she said. “Dr. Dranzone is always looking for people like you – those who aren’t completely swayed by the fantasy of the Government’s program; those who experience continued issues with the software. He believes your kind make the best Resistance members. We all do. You are more awake than most.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Enough,” she said, tilting her head to its side. “Hundreds.”

“I still don’t understand, though – how did you talk to me in my dream?”

A smile sprung to Anabelle’s face. “I am sorry about the intrusion. When you visited him, Dr. Dranzone added a special cap that sits over your L.U.S.T. program crystal.”

“What?” My hand shot to the cold metal of the port in my neck. I remembered the doctor saying he had made a small improvement for me…

“The Government has his office bugged,” Anabelle continued, “so the safest way for him to contact those he thinks will make strong Resistance members is through such caps. It’s a receiver that allows someone with the corresponding transmitter to speak directly to you during your nightly simulation.”

I felt a sinking feeling that I couldn’t explain, like every organ in my body had become untethered, plummeting down through blood and past bone towards my feet. Around me, the darkness beyond the beam of light seemed to grow even darker. It began to drip with an intrusive coldness.

The light itself, however, was even worse than that which it had cast away. It started to appear as bright as the fluorescent lights I found wherever I went – my apartment, the factory, the doctor’s office. It was too abrasive, too artificial, too penetrating. And this Anabelle – she started to appear the same. This was the first real woman I had seen in half a decade, but she was so less genuine than Elly. I took a step further into shadows, away from her light.

“But, you and the doctor and people like you,” I said, “why are you resisting the Government?”

Anabelle’s jaw dropped. “You honestly have to ask that?”

I said nothing. I took another step back.

“I’m sorry.” Anabelle shook her head. “I forget that few know what I and the other Resistance members know.” She walked forward, closing the gap I had placed between us, and lowered her dry, scratchy hands onto mine. “Kalvin, the Government is evil. It exists only to protect those already in power, and to oppress all others. The war that’s been raging for decades? The war that consumes all our lives? Those in power keep it going for their own benefit. The leaders of the ruling political party gain financially from the ongoing conflict. They have no desire to see it end.”

My hands trembled beneath Anabelle’s. “How? How could that be possible?”

“It’s easier in many ways for those in power to rule during times of war, you see. Periods of peace bring with them all manner of prickly problems that those who seek ultimate power don’t want to deal with. During war, a populace looks to its ruling class to deliver them one thing: continued survival, at any cost. But while peace reigns, a peoples’ desires grow wide and deep, and demands for survival are joined by hunger for freedom and thirst for prosperity. In war, the enemy of those in power is some external force. In peace, the enemy of those in power becomes their own people. Better the threat to their complete control come from a distance than from right beneath their own feet, those currently ruling us believe.”

“And President Tanner is behind all of this?”

Anabelle smiled at me sadly. “President Tanner is a puppet, Kalvin. He has no real power. Our true ruling party lives in a glorious city behind the West Wall – a city that none of us have ever seen, and aren’t meant to know exists. Everything they’ve told us – through President Tanner – is a lie. They’ve always said that a rampant, incurable disease causes ninety-five percent of babies to be born male. This is not true. A roughly equal number of males and females are born. But the ruling party whisks the females away. They let them grow up, and then force those they deem unattractive into roles as maids and midwives. And those they do find attractive they force into an entirely different kind of servitude. As far as males are concerned, the Government occupies them with the war – making them either soldiers, or factory workers. They expect you to give your lives to them, and in return they give you only dilapidated living quarters, meager amounts of food, and artificial girlfriends.”

Artificial girlfriend… I opened my mouth in knee-jerk defense of Elly, but then closed it. I pulled my hands away from Anabelle’s, and stared at the shadowy concrete floor. These things she was speaking of were horrific – the Government keeping women as slaves? Those in power eating up the lives of common men like me with a war that didn’t even need to continue?

The shadows kept getting darker, and the flashlight beam brighter. I looked at Anabelle. I could see the conviction in her face. She believed in what she was doing. And, it seemed, she believed in me. “What is it?” I said softly. “What is it that you and the Resistance want me to do?”

#

I stomped through the filthy snow, an army of men around me. It felt warm in my hand, even though I knew it wasn’t really. It also felt heavy there, covered by my fingers, although, in truth, it weighed only ounces. I wondered at the destructive power they were now able to fit into such a minuscule device.

I shot a few furtive glances around me, and then uncurled my fingers. It stared back at me with its small digital counter at the center of its black body. Anabelle had given it to me. She had called it a test of both my loyalty and efficacy.

It was a bomb.

My fingers quickly clenched closed again, concealing the weapon.

Earlier, after leaving Anabelle, I had headed back to my apartment. It had been shortly after midnight when I had arrived home. I had been eager to return to Elly, to truly test if I’d be able to stay with her the remainder of the night without reality breaking through into the fantasy. But, with everything that had happened, I had been unable to sleep.

I had laid in my bed, eyes wide and limbs jittering, staring across my room at the bomb on my kitchen table. It made no sound, and yet blared like the world’s loudest alarm clock in my head. It looked nondescript, but wouldn’t release my eyes, or let my attention wander, for even a moment. Could I really do it, I kept asking myself? Deploy the bomb at my factory? Was reality even more horrible than I had already known? As horrible as Anabelle claimed? And, even if it was, would working with the Resistance and setting off the bomb really change anything?

Change.

I had gotten up from bed and walked to the table. I peered down at the bomb. Three zeroes blinked on its display. They had been flashing like that since Anabelle had handed the device over. I touched a tentative finger to its surface. Whatever happened next, I knew, change had finally found me.

I slammed into something.

“Hey!” a worker in front of me yelled. He swung around. His shirt read ‘KENNY SMITH.’ “Watch where you’re walking, buddy!”

My eyes shot down to my hand – the bomb was still there. I hadn’t dropped it. I glanced up at the worker. “Sorry,” I muttered.

He grumbled something and turned back around. We resumed moving with the throng around us, everyone stomping forward as if asleep, their legs moving only because of some chemical-electric firings in the deepest corners of the most primitive parts of their brains. The rest of their minds were shut off, I knew. Still reliving the events of the night. Still with their women.

The bomb seemed to grow even warmer and heavier in my hand. I had been tasked with waking them up, I realized. With waking myself up, too…

The blast came without warning – thundering and tearing. I had heard countless bombs over the course of my life, but never had one been this loud; this big; this close. My eyes bolted to my hand, my first thought being that my bomb had somehow exploded. But the device remained unchanged in my palm – black body with blinking zeroes on its display.

Screams sounded from behind me and I turned, seeing where the bomb had actually hit. A crater had been blown into the marching mass I was a part of – a depression of bodies strewn across the ground, bloody, bellowing, missing limbs and eyes, fingers and ears. Those still standing moved forward again. Once again, the Pine Avenue subway was the closest place that could afford us some protection from the attack. The men around me headed towards it. Like yesterday, they moved at wildly different paces. This time, however, I was among the runners.

Another bomb fell, falling from the sky like a piece of the universe that had popped loose and plummeted – a decorative star or asteroid that God hadn’t attached firmly enough to the black fabric of space. It struck to my left, shattering pavement and spraying flesh and blood through the air like smashed watermelon pieces.

We reached the broken escalator and stomped down. We lit flares that spit red sparks. We placed our backs against the wall. We dropped to the floor. We sunk our heads between our knees.

I peeked up and looked towards the tracks, thinking of my meeting with Anabelle, and thinking of my own bomb, pressed against my sweaty palm.

The siren warning of the bombs that had been falling for minutes already finally sounded. Its screeching was somehow an even worse noise than that made by the bombs themselves.

#

The conveyor belt trundled along before me, pulling cylinders. The man with the IRVINE LINESS nametag stood next to me again. It was rare for two of us workers to be positioned beside each other multiple days in a row.

My hand was in my control cone. I pinched. I pushed. I turned.

The bomb was in my pants’ pocket. It felt warm there, too; heavy. I tried to focus on my cone, my metal hand, my needles. Anabelle had told me to detonate the bomb during my fifteen-minute lunch break at Noon. It was still only 11:45. My only task now was to not make another mistake like yesterday; to not draw attention to myself.

“How was Elly last night?” IRVINE asked, turning to glance at me. “Things go any better? You two able to get busy?”

I again thought about ignoring him. I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to talk about anything. Yet, again, I found myself opening my mouth. “No,” I said. “I… something went wrong again. I woke up.”

IRVINE frowned. “Sorry to hear that. Did you try again after waking up?”

“No. I couldn’t fall back asleep. And I didn’t want to take my sleeping pills. I… well, I wanted to be alert for today.”

“Yeah, those sleeping pills knock me off my ass for at least twelve hours. I still take them, though, if I can’t get to sleep otherwise. Being groggy for half a day is worth it to be able to see my Betsy.”

I nodded without saying anything.

IRVINE threw me another glance. “How many girls have you gone through since your dating program period, anyway?”

I plucked a triangular piece from the bin with my metal fingers. “A lot.”

“Hmmm. Well, I’m not going to claim that jumping from one digital dolly to the next doesn’t have its perks – but, truly, nothing compares to the beauty of a long-term union. Why, me and my program wed over eight years ago, now.” Dreamily, he looked up at the ceiling, staring into the harsh lights. “The day of my wedding… hell, that was the single best night of sleep I ever had.”

“Yeah. I’d like that for me and Elly someday. I hope it works out.”

“Well, why wouldn’t it?”

“Reality,” I said. The answer came automatically, but I realized that it was true. My own confidence levels were keeping Elly and I apart, like the doctor had said. But now there was an even bigger obstacle – the bomb hidden in my pocket, and all that went with it.

“Reality,” IRVINE spit out, like he was uttering a curse word. He looked around with distaste. “Who’s to say this is reality and the world where we each spend time with our true love is fake? I say ‘reality’ is whatever makes us happy. I say we should put greater stock into the world that builds us up and grants our dreams than into the one that tears us down and delivers only misery.”

A bell sounded.

“Lunch time!” IRVINE smiled. “Find me in the cafeteria, yeah?”

I pulled my hand out of the cone and shut my metal arm down. “Yeah,” I said distractedly. “Maybe.”

#

I had never been in this hallway before. You could see it from the factory floor, as it was raised high above it, and visible through tall glass panes. It was where my boss had his office, and it was much nicer than the rest of the factory, decorated with potted plants and pictures. There was even a water cooler. The water inside the clear container looked much cleaner than the stuff that spewed from the faucets down in the factory and in my apartment. A sign over it read: ‘For use by management only.’

Near the end of the hall I found the door I was looking for – the one with my boss’s name emblazoned on the glass window: ‘HAROLD DENSON’

RESIDENT EVIL 7 biohazard_20170207010326

This is where Anabelle had instructed me to place and detonate the bomb. I had never even met my boss. He never came out of his office. I wondered what he was like. Was he working with the Government and aware of all the atrocities they were perpetrating? Did he deserve to die?

It wasn’t for me to decide. Anabelle and the Resistance knew more about the truth of what was going on than I did. I had to follow their orders. Not stopping, I walked past HAROLD’S door, dropping the bomb to the floor without looking back. Anabelle had told me to do it this way, in case there were hidden cameras. I hurried down the hall to steps leading back to the factory floor.

There were still five minutes of the lunch break left, so the floor was empty – nothing but a crisscross of stationary conveyor belts, waiting bins of shards and screws, and dead, dangling robotic arms. I went back to my station. I could see my boss’s door up above, but couldn’t see low enough to see the bomb. Anabelle had told me I should be at least two-hundred feet away before I set it off, and I believed myself to be at a safe distance.

I placed my hand in the pocket holding the small detonating remote. I pushed its button.

Anabelle had said there would be a ten-second delay between my hitting the button and the bomb detonating. As the seconds of this delay ticked by, I couldn’t stop myself from looking up towards the office. The door opened. IRVINE came out. He took two steps down the hall before fire and light lurched outward from behind him.

The bomb’s explosion brought down part of the ceiling and tore through walls like they were made of paper. IRVINE’s body blasted forward, smashing through glass and tumbling out over the factory floor. He landed five feet from me with a sound that was wet and crunchy. He was missing half of his head.

#

The Assistant Manager had closed the factory for the remainder of the day. The police had come, but they let all workers go after an hour. All the workers assumed that the enemy nation south of us had attacked the factory. As far as I could tell, the police were under the same misperception.

I went back to the Pine Avenue subway, as Anabelle had instructed me to do as soon as I had detonated the bomb and was cleared to leave the factory. I found her in the same spot as before – down on the tracks, in shadow.

She was smiling. “You did it!” She threw her arms around me. I had never been hugged by a real woman before, except for my mother – and my last hug from her had been fifteen years ago. The hug was nice, but also somewhat uncomfortable. Anabelle smelled of dirt and sweat, and she wrapped her arms around me too tightly.

I disentangled myself from her. “Yes.”

“I’m so glad you’re back. You did great! You’ll make a terrific addition to the Resistance.”

A siren clamored above, followed by explosions. More bombs had started to fall. I glanced up at the ceiling as a blast shook dust and small pieces of concrete loose. “When do I meet the others?” I asked. “Where is everyone else?”

“Soon,” she said. “And, below us.”

“What?”

“The Resistance Headquarters is right under our feet. We have a network of hidden tunnels beneath the tracks. Bombs striking the city above can’t touch us. We’d only be in trouble if a bomb – and a powerful one at that – got into the shelter, on the railway itself.”

“I killed IRVINE.”

Anabelle’s eyebrows lowered. “Huh?”

“One of the workers at the factory,” I said. “He was in my boss’s office… I hadn’t realized. I… I saw him get caught up in the explosion.”

Anabelle’s eyes explored my face. “Was he your friend?”

I thought for a minute. “No,” I eventually answered. “People don’t have friends in this world. Not anymore. Not really. He was just a co-worker, but he didn’t deserve to die. I’m not sure why he was in my boss’s office – he was nothing but a regular grunt, like me. He was one of the people you – the Resistance – are trying to protect.”

Anabelle put her hand on my arm. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But don’t blame yourself. There are sacrifices in war, all the time. That’s how it has to be.”

“Does it?”

“Of course.” Anabelle’s grip on my arm tightened. “Kalvin, we’re living in a world ruled by immense evil. To defeat them, and to truly make a difference, we need to do everything in our power. Sometimes, those things we have to do may involve incurring collateral damage. It will all be worth it in the end, though.”

“The end…”

Anabelle nodded. “Yes, when we’ve remade the world so everyone is free, and equal, and when peace reigns instead of war. When we can all be happy.”

She smiled again, the lifting of her lips brightening her otherwise ordinary, dirty face.

“Do you think people can ever change?” I asked, observing her closely. “Really change?”

Anabelle laughed. “That’s the reason I’m in the Resistance, Kalvin! Change is not only possible, it’s imperative. Every day I’m able to wake up and keep fighting because I know we can change the world.”

“The world… and ourselves?”
“Changing the world starts with changing ourselves. We can’t change everything around us until we change what’s in us, first.” Her smile grew. “Just look at you, Kalvin! You changed today! You decided to stand up to the Government. And as you changed, you made a change in the world – setting that bomb off at your factory will send an important message to those in control of us all. Just remember, sacrifice always accompanies change, the same as it does war. It’s how it has to be.”

I looked down at my hands. “Did I, though? Did I change? I was merely following orders, like I always do. I was just doing what someone else told me. The only difference is that I was listening to the Resistance this time instead of the Government.”

“That’s a big difference, though. Listen, I know everything is confusing initially, but you’ll know more and more, soon. We’ll teach you everything we’ve found out. You’ll feel more a part of the Resistance everyday – more invested.” Anabelle turned and pulled a bag out from the shadows behind her. “Which leads me to your next mission.”

“What’s in the bag?”

Anabelle thrust it towards me. “A bomb,” she said. “A bigger bomb.”

I took the bag and it pulled my arms down with its weight. This one truly did tax my muscles every bit as much as its significance weighed down my thoughts. “Where?” I asked quietly. “Where am I to set this one?”

“There’s a tower past the ravine in the center of the old entertainment district. It’s the only thing still standing for miles. The Government broadcasts the Relationship-Simulator signals from there.”

“What? It does?”

“If you can get that bomb into the tower and set it off, you’ll disable the Government’s L.U.S.T. transmissions. Every worker and soldier in the nation will suddenly be without their artificial nighttime worlds; without their fake women. Everyone will have to wake up.”

I looked down at the bag in my hands. “Elly…,” I muttered.

“Huh?” Anabelle said. “What did you say?”

“I…” I shook my head. “Nothing.”

Anabelle touched my arm again. “Are you OK? Do you think you can handle this?”

“Yes.”

Anabelle leaned forward and pressed her lips to my cheek. Her lips felt as rough as her hands. “I’m proud of you, Kalvin. And glad to have you on our side.”

“Thank you.”

“Now,” she said, pulling back from me, “you should go about your usual routine, so as not to arouse any suspicions. Go to sleep and trigger your program. Try and exit out of it like you’ve been doing; try to realize by yourself that it’s fake. If you’re having trouble escaping the fantasy, we’ll be monitoring you, and I’ll use Dr. Dranzone’s cap again, and speak directly to you. Once you’re awake, as long as it’s after midnight, head to the tower.”

“OK.”

“This bomb has a more impressive blast radius than the last. Much more impressive. And there’s no delay with this bomb, either. Be sure you’re nowhere near it when you press the detonator.”

“Alright.”

“Good luck.” She grinned. “You and me, Kalvin, we’re going to change the world together.”

#

I was in Elly’s arms. We were sitting on the couch. Her scent was wonderful, her touch even better, and her taste, as we kissed, was the best of all. I ran my hand through her hair. Jazz was playing on the stereo and we had the windows behind the couch partly open, allowing ingress to delicate moonlight and the warm breeze.

“Elly?” I whispered, my mouth inches from hers.

“Yes?”

“I… I’ve been thinking. About what we were talking about the other night.”

Elly pulled her head back slightly so that she could see my face clearly. “You have?”

“Yeah… about whether change is possible.”

Elly stroked my cheek with the back of her hand. “Have you come to a new conclusion?”

“I don’t know. I… I think so.” I scratched the back of my head. “I’m not sure why, but I feel like I’m about to make a big decision; a big change. I couldn’t tell you what, because I’m just not sure. But something deep inside me says that I’m different today than I was yesterday. I’m on that journey we talked about – the journey to my true self. And a journey to change the world.”

Elly’s brown eyes gleamed. “I’m proud of you,” she said. “But not surprised. I know you’re capable of anything.”

“I’m a new man, Elly. I’m going to fight for what I believe in from now on.”

She kissed me again and my body flushed with warmth and want. “Give me a minute, OK?” I said after removing my lips from hers. “I just have to run to the bathroom.”

Elly slid a hand along my leg. “Hurry back.”

In the bathroom, I stood in front of the oval mirror. A handsome, tanned face stared back at me. But then I caught sight of something… something red and round on my nose. I leaned in towards the mirror. It was a pimple. I poked at it and it hurt. I could feel the pressure of the pus inside of it.

I had never had a blemish before… what was going on? Another one appeared, and then another, bright points of angry crimson popping up on skin that looked increasingly colorless and sickly. I closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I felt like I was somehow prepared for this. I’m worthy to be here, I thought. I deserve this life. I deserve Elly.

When my eyes opened, my flawless face had returned. I nodded to myself in the mirror and turned. I stopped short – Elly was standing in the doorway. She wore a blank expression, her head hanging forward like her neck muscles were unable to support it.

“Elly?” I said, alarmed. I held her. “Are you OK?”

Her head shot upright and her eyes locked on me. “It’s Anabelle,” said Elly’s voice, strangely strained. “Wake up!”

“Wh-what?”

“This isn’t reality, Kalvin! Wake up!”

I let go of Elly. My head swam. The world around me looked still, but it wasn’t. The planet Earth rotated without pause, did it not? Somehow, I could now feel its every lurch. My former immunity to its motion had been stripped away and the floor beneath me, the walls around me, and the ceiling above me transformed into an amusement park vessel out of a nightmare, whisking me around too quickly for its movement to be seen, but too slowly not to be felt.

I screamed in fear. Elly screamed my name. And the world went black.

#

I woke up – back in my own apartment. Alone once again. It was time, I knew. Time to change myself. Time to change the world. I walked over to my kitchen table and pulled the detonator out of the bag Anabelle had given me.

The bomb was no longer in it.

My entire life I had blindly followed orders, living for others instead of for myself. I hadn’t been my true self because I had barely been anybody. I had seen myself as worthless, and others had seen my only worth as my manipulability. It was time that ended. I would live my every day from this point forward in pursuit of what made me happy. I had never believed it before, but I deserved to be happy; had every right to be.

And nothing made me happy like Elly made me happy.

I walked into my bathroom. The bulb blazed on, revealing my pasty, pimply face. IRVINE had been right. What he had said before I blew half his face off had been true – we got to choose what we regarded as reality. And it would be ridiculous to choose a world of violence and struggle over one of pleasure and peace… over one with Elly in it. One world I’d probably never be able to change for the better – if I even could accurately determine what ‘better’ was – while paradise awaited ripe for the plucking in the other world, if only I could alter my perceptions and abandon myself fully to it.

I thought of the bomb Anabelle had given me. I had dumped it out of the bag before I left the subway station, while I was still on the train tracks. It was sitting over the base of the Resistance. If it went off, it would destroy their organization. It would protect Elly and every other Relationship-Simulation woman.

I looked down at the detonator’s red button. In my mind’s eye, I watched myself push it. This self seemed more my ‘true self’ than any other version of me I had ever envisioned.

My thumb shot down.

I could hear the blast all the way from my apartment. At my window, smoke was visible snaking up from the horizon. I watched it curl into the dark of the sky, and knew what it represented – hundreds of deaths, the protection of the Relationship-Simulation transmissions, change.

Still watching the smoke, I lifted the tweezers I had grabbed from my bathroom drawer and jabbed them into the port on the rear of my skull. I felt them snag on something, closed them, and pulled. A strange metal disc was pinched between my tweezer’s tips. It was Doctor Dranzone’s ‘cap’… it had to be.

I thought of the Doctor. He had been half right – I was much more than I had thought; I was someone who could grasp change and wield it like a sword, striking at those who threatened my happiness. But he had been wrong about Elly. She wasn’t a vacuous, artificial diversion. She was strong, and smart, and beautiful… and she was central to my life. She was central to who I was.

I dropped the Doctor’s cap in the trash and turned away from the window. A pang of sadness shot through me: I felt sorry for Anabelle and the other Resistance members. I had just killed so many. Then something Anabelle had said filled my mind… Sacrifice always accompanies change.

I went back to my bed. I made myself comfortable, placing my head on my pillow and pulling my blanket up to my chest. I was going to see her. And this time I’d be sure to stay with her, uninterrupted until morning. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, a big smile on my face.

#

Elly walked out of the kitchen wearing a checkered apron and holding a freshly-baked plate of chocolate chip cookies.

Her eyes lit up in a smile. “Hey,” she said. “Are you hungry?”

I smiled back at her. “Starved.”

She walked over to me and lifted a cookie to my mouth. I bit down.

“How are they?”

“Perfect.” I took her hand. “Elly? You know when we were talking about my new opinion about change earlier?”

She nodded.

“I did it.” My smile widened. “I… again, I can’t remember exactly what it was… but I did what I was planning to do – I’m sure that I did. I changed. I’ve realized my worth, and I’m not going to mindlessly obey others any more. I’m going to protect the things I love. I’m going to protect you. My journey to myself was a journey to you. I’ve arrived.” I kissed her, hungrily. “I deserve you, Elly.”

Elly returned my kiss, somehow increasing the intensity of our previous one. “Of course you do. We deserve each other.”

“Elly, I missed you.”

“And I you.”

I pressed my mouth up against her ear. “Never leave me again.”

The grandfather clock chimed once, reverberating through the night and exposing existence’s inexorable march towards morning.

“I promise,” Elly whispered. “Never.”

***

Bio: Jeff Metzler is just a normal guy, with a slightly abnormal imagination. By day he works as a college librarian, soaring among a trillion thoughts both bound and digitalized, and at night he plays in the wide-open spaces of his own mind, pouring what he finds there onto pages.

He lives tucked away in the woods of New Hampshire with his wife, son, cat, the ghosts of his past, and the specters of his possible futures. More information about him can be found at jeffmetzler.com.

More than Just a Barroom Hero

by Matencera Wolf

 

Nelson’s scream tore across the worksite and my head snapped to his direction. His leg had been replaced by a bleeding stump.

“We gotta help Nelson!” I shouted, raising my mallet in the air.

Charl and several other laborers charged with me, but we hadn’t taken three steps before the trappie darted from its trapdoor, and Nelson’s screams ended.

We stopped short. There was no use in chasing a trappie down its hole.

“Damn it! Get up on the wall, boys!” I shouted, and together we filtered up the thin stairways in a single file, leaving behind one of our own.

“Why aren’t you lot bloody working?” Gaz growled.
We all stood frozen and stared at one another as Gaz stomped into our midst. No one wanted to be the first to answer, the first to draw the foreman’s attention. I sighed.

“Trappie musta snuck past the wall guards last night,” I said.
Gaz’s face blanched and he tiptoed to the edge of the wall to stand beside me. His face reddened.

“Well, it’s gone now. Get back to work!”

I took a copper nail from my pouch and tossed it at the red smear a hundred feet below. All was calm for a moment; then a horned head exploded from the earth and snatched up the nail. When the dust settled, the ground was smooth once more.

“Well, don’t just stand there you idjit, send for the bloody guards!” Gaz growled.

“Already sent one’a the boys,” I replied.

Gaz glared at me and I froze.

“I’m docking your pay for wasting nails.” He smirked at me, daring me to argue, then stomped away.

Charl placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Damn it, Jo,” he whispered. “Sometimes I think you have more sack than the rest of us combined.”

Soon enough, a squad of guards sauntered across the pathway atop the wall. We moved aside to let them do their work, and they rained crossbow bolts down into our worksite, guided by our shouts.

A bolt struck home and the trappie erupted from the earth in a shower of soil. It rammed itself against my wall and pride flared in my chest when the stone repelled it. Bolts pinned its scaly form to the ground and the guards cheered.

“Give me a hand over here,” one of the armored idiots shouted as he pressed his shoulder against a building stone.

“Don’t you bloody dare!” I shouted, but before the words were out of my mouth, the huge block of stone tumbled over the edge of the wall and reduced the trappie to a black stain on the dirt.

I shook my head and grumbled to myself. It would have been a simple job for them to climb down the stairs and finish it with a bolt to the face. But of course, they chose the path that sent them back to their dice games the quickest, leaving us laborers to clean up their mess, haul what was left of the stone block up the wall, and still complete our quota for the day. I shook my head again and descended to the worksite.

I could almost hear Charl’s back muscles straining as he hefted the slab of wood against the frame of the wall. I felt bad making him lift it alone, but with Nelson gone, we were understaffed and short on time.

“Ready?” I mumbled through a mouthful of nails.

“Get it done,” he grunted.

Placing a nail against the wood, I hammered it down with my mallet, before spitting another into my hand and continuing down the length of the slab. I reached the end where the wood gave way to air and the mallet flew from my hands.

“Careful, idjit! Break that mallet an’ I’ll break your face,” Gaz yelled.

I flashed him a forced smile. “Sorry ‘bout that, Gaz. Won’t happen again.”

He stomped over and thrust his finger into my chest. “You think I’m joking around? I’ll wipe that damn smile right from your face if you’re not careful!”

I bit my tongue and he poked me again.

“What’s that face, Jo? Got something you want to say?”

My fists balled at my side and I shoved them in my pockets. I ground my teeth and imagined what I would do to Gaz if I didn’t need my job.

“Damn it!” One of the boys cried out, his curse punctuated by the snapping of a cheap mallet.

Gaz rushed away like a monster after blood and I shook my head. Eager for the day to be over, I resumed hammering with a new ferocity and craving for my after-work drink.

#

The shouts of vendors assaulted my workmates and me as we passed through the marketplace to my tavern. The smells of cooking meat and spices made our mouths water, but between good food and hard liquor, a hard working laborer would always choose the latter.

I pushed open the door to my tavern and took a deep breath, filling my nostrils with the comforting aroma of old alcohol. She wasn’t pretty; it was a homemade bar in the bottom room of my small house, stocked with an old family recipe. But what it lacked in aesthetics, it more than made up for in character. It was a place where we could all enjoy a drink and pretend that the outside world didn’t exist.

I walked behind the bar and poured myself a mug of rotgut. I said a silent prayer for Nelson, gulped it down, poured myself another, and sipped at the clear liquid. Part of me wanted to make a speech for our lost workmate, say something nice and toast to his memory, but the others didn’t need any reminder of their losses.

Charl tossed his sack of copper onto the bar and I passed him a bottle and a clay mug to help himself. His pay never covered what he drank, but to Charl, drinking was as necessary as air, so he paid what he could, and I pitched in the rest. He deserved at least that much. I was snapping up coppers and handing out mugs when the door opened and Whisper strode towards the bar.

Whisper was as close to a living god as anybody in Ellsworth had ever met. During the malificia purge, a squad of foray guards had entered the slums to claim the bounty on his head. The guards’ corpses were found the next morning seated at the Minister of Defense’s breakfast table. The legendary assassin had grown into an old man, but even now, he was a force of nature. The fact that he was the last surviving magic user in the city was a testament to that.

Before I could avert my gaze, our eyes locked. I ground my teeth, feeling like a cornered rabbit. No matter how many nights he spent in my bar, it was a feeling that didn’t go away.

“Rotgut?” I asked in a wavering voice.

“Thank you,” he said. His gentle voice was all the more threatening coming from the thin man, like rotgut disguised as water.

He let himself behind the bar and selected a bottle from the wall, before taking his customary seat in the far corner of the room. I didn’t stop him or demand payment. Hell, the entire bar acted like if he didn’t exist – a comfortable fiction for the lot of us.

Brash kicked in the door and lumbered over to the bar with his sack of baked good slung over his back.

“Oi, ugly! Pour me a mug,” he shouted.

“Oi, stupid! Give me the goods,” I retorted.

We clapped hands over the bar and broke into laughter. Brash was a baker, and we had an understanding of sorts. He kept me and my family fed, and I kept him drunk.

I handed him a mug and removed the first baguette from the sack. I almost broke my teeth on it.

“Damn it, Brash! How old is this stuff? I could replace my naughty bat with this!” I shouted, slamming the bread down on the bar.

Brash shrugged and quaffed his mug.

“Some’s from today, some’s from last week. You know how it is, Jo. I just take what I can get me mitts on when the boss ain’t watching.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Oi, Charl! Watch the bar for me while I check on my little one.”

I topped up my mug and slung the bread sack over my back, then made my way up the narrow, spiral staircase that led to my living quarters. My son was asleep in the bed that we shared, and my old man was asleep in his chair. The same chair that he had been confined to since his back gave way five years earlier. Stepping over the slack rope of the old man’s lasso, I kissed my son on the forehead and upended the bread on the floor. I grabbed one of the softer loaves and tossed it into the old man’s lap. He opened his jaundiced eyes and reached blindly for the mug that I pushed into his hand.

“‘Bout time you got back. We went to bed hungry again,” he growled, breaking off chunks of his bread and dipping them in his rotgut.

“I was working so that we could all eat,” I snapped.

“Don’t you give me lip. I worked myself broken so you didn’t starve.”

“Whatever you say, old man.” I bit off a chunk of bread. “How was my little one today?”

The old man smiled. “My boy was an angel. Made up stories all day for his poor old gramps, he did.”

I stared down at my son and grinned. Despite the hardships of his life, Leon had that effect on people. He had been delivered into this world in the arms of death, and death had hovered over him for the first few years of his life. Once herbalist Seifer had taken all my metal, he told me there was nothing he could do, that my son was ‘touched by the gods.’ He mentioned how a dog breeder drowns touched puppies to spare them a life of pain. Well, let’s just say that I didn’t spare that bastard a life of pain.

A shout echoed from downstairs and I grabbed my naughty bat from under my bed.

“Mind my boy,” I called over my shoulder as I took the steps three at a time.

Downstairs, I found my regulars standing with their backs to the bar, ready to face off against Rat and his gang of seven. At only sixteen, Rat towered over most laborers, but he was still just a boy aching to prove that he wasn’t afraid of the world.

Brash stood behind the bar, holding a bloody rag to his nose.

“What’s this?” I growled, smacking my club against my hand.

“Bloody scumbags came in demanding free grog, and Brash told them what they could do with their demands. Things got complicated.” Charl said.

I sighed. “Look, fellas, you can either put dough in my pocket or bread in my pantry, but no one drinks for free.”

“He does,” Rat, said, pointing at Whisper.

I glanced at the assassin, but he seemed to be lost in thought, staring at his unopened bottle.

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “I pay for Whisper’s drinks out of pocket and in return, he hasn’t killed anyone in my bar.”

Rat grinned. “Sounds fairs to me. What ‘bout you, lads?” Rat asked.

His gang cheered.

“It’s settled then. You serve us drink, and we don’t kill anyone either.”

I snorted. Well aware of Rat’s eyes on me, I strode behind the bar and poured myself a mug.

“I have a better idea,” I said. I gulped my drink and breathed the burn through my nose. “How ‘bout the lot of ya make like trees and piss off!”

The room erupted into violence. Laborers who pounded wood with mallets by day, pounded skulls with their fists, while I strode through the melee, lashing with my naughty bat like a city guard.

One of Rat’s boys leaped at me, swinging heavy blows, and I put him down. Rat’s fat body crashed into mine and I slammed face first into the bar. I tried to find my feet, but he caught a handful of my short hair with one hand, and the naughty bat was ripped from my grasp. Fists rained down on the back of my head in flashes of white light. Doing my best to protect myself with one arm, I scoured the bar for a weapon. My hand closed around something solid and I swung.

I propped myself against the bar and looked around the room. Rat lay face down on the floor with his gang, his dark hair a crimson mess. I burst into laughter. The baguette in my hand looked as if it had been smeared with berry preserves.

I grabbed the bloody rag from where Brash had dropped it and stuffed the end into my bleeding nose.

“Gonna hang this beauty on the wall,” I said, holding the baguette like a trophy.

“And here you were, complaining that the bread was too hard,” Brash grunted as he and Charl dragged the unconscious Rat towards the door.

“Don’t put’em out there. The streets will skin ‘em alive in the state their in.”

“It’s what they deserve,” Charl said, his top lip rising into a snarl. “Back when I was in the foray guards we used recruits like these as monster bait until they learned their manners.”

“And how many of those recruits do you see in your nightmares?” I asked.

Charl was silent.

“They’re just stupid kids. Chuck’em over in the corner and forget about’em. They won’t make any more trouble tonight.”

They hauled the unconscious boys to the corner by the door, and Charl hurried back to me with a smile on his face.

“Grab Senna for me, would you?” he asked.

I grinned and felt under the bar for his fiddle. I passed it to him, and after a quick tuning, his voice fell into the artful cadence of a performer. He composed a ballad of our little tumble, dedicating a passage to all present, and we sang along until the fire in the hearth burned down to a faded red eye.

I was struggling to keep my eyes open when I shouted out last call. Rat’s gang had slunk out the door over an hour ago and Charl was grumbling to Bibi and Brash.

“Guardsh ‘ave it eashy theshe daysh. Claiming to defend the shity. Bah!” he slurred, waving his empty bottle through the air.

Bibi gave a non-committal grunt and tried to siphon the last drops from her mug. She was little more than a wrinkle of translucent skin stretched over sharp bones, but somehow, she always managed to make last call. Being half blind, I don’t know how she made her way to my bar each evening, but I didn’t trust her stumbling home alone at night.

“All they do ish play dishe. Bet they ain’t never sheen a monster up closhe. Never had to charge one wish…” he paused and poked Bibi in the shoulder. “Oi! Lishten to me. Lishten to me…” He laid his head on the bar and broke into choking sobs, his drunken fingers tripping over Senna’s strings.

I hated seeing him like that, but memories of the past reduced him to that state each and every night.

“Drink this and go to sleep, big guy,” I said, filling his mug with enough rotgut to send him to a place where nightmares couldn’t reach him.

I scooped Bibi into my arms like a child. She struggled for a few seconds before giving up and slumping against my chest. I could feel little more than bones beneath her thick shawl and wool skirt.

“I’m taking Bibi home. Mind the bar for me, Brash?”

“No problem, Jo.”

Slinging my naughty bat over my shoulder, I made my way into the night.

When I returned home, Whisper was sitting at the bar beside the unconscious Charl. For the first time ever, I was thankful for Charl’s snoring because it let me know that he was still alive.

“Where’s Brash?” I asked.

“I told him I would guard your bar and that he could return home. A young man like that needs his sleep.”

I nodded and forced a smile. “Thought you would’ve gone home already yourself,” I said. I tightened my grip on my naughty bat although I knew it would be of little use. If Whisper wanted me dead, I was dead and that was that.

“I was impressed by how you handled those thugs earlier. Peace born of a handshake lasts longer than that born of a punch. It is only a shame that your extended hand was refused.”

“Thanks,” I said. I walked behind the bar and poured myself a nightcap. I offered the bottle to Whisper, but he waved it away.

“I want your help, Jo.”

I swallowed and forced a smile. “What can I do for ya?”

“Armed with the right words, a person in power can accomplish what an army of assassins cannot. I would like you to be that person in power.”

My jaw dropped open and I broke into laughter. Then I remembered who I was speaking to and wiped the smile from my face.

“And how would I do that?”

“I will teach you.”

I took another swig of rotgut. “Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not exactly the finest liquor on the shelf. I can’t even read.”

Whisper shook his head. “All children should learn to read, but we are what we choose to be. Let the aristocrats decide for you and you have already lost. They want slaves who can lift heavy objects, not equals who can think and reason.”

His pity stung me more than any insult.

“What if I don’t wanna’ learn?” I snapped.

Whisper shrugged. “The choice is yours, but I’m sure that I can find a way to motivate you.” The elderly assassin passed by me and I shivered despite my anger. Once he had left my bar, I locked the door, for whatever good it would do, placed his unopened bottle back on the shelf for the next night, and joined my son in the warm embrace of our bed.

#

Motivation came the next evening when I returned home from work.

“Jo! Jo!”

I heard the old man’s muffled yells from within the bar and all but ripped the door from its hinges. He was sprawled on the ground, his thin, crippled legs useless as he crawled towards me.

“Wha-”

It’s Leon. He won’t wake up!”

I raced up the stairs and found my son in our bed. I shook him, but he didn’t stir. His shallow breaths were the only hint that he was still alive. I brushed aside his blond hair and kissed his forehead.

“You’re going to be alright, Leon,” I said. To myself, I whispered, “You have to be.”

Scooping him into my arms, I ran to Ellsworth’s only herbalist, trusting in Charl to take care of the bar and my old man.

The store was closed for the evening, and the door locked, but I pounded on it until Herbalist Seifer opened it a crack.

“I’m closed and about to go home,” he growled through the gap.

“Something’s wrong with my son. He won’t wake up!”

Seifer snorted. “I told you that you should have drowned him as a babe. The child is nothing if not infirm.”

I gritted my teeth and pushed down the urge to rip the man’s throat out with my teeth. “I don’t care, just fix him,” I growled.

“Can you pay?”

“What?”

“Can you reciprocate me for my services with, steel, iron, bronze or a great deal of copper?”

“No,” I spluttered. “Not right now, but I will. I don’t care what it costs.”

He shut the door and I waited for him to undo the deadlock. After several moments, I kicked it.

“Hurry up!” I shouted.

“If you can’t pay. I can’t heal,” came his reply. “I don’t frequent that hole you call a bar and expect free alcohol on the promise of payment, and thus I do not heal for promises.”

“I’ll kill you!” I shouted. I kicked the door again and felt the slab of wood budge in its frame. I was lining up another kick when the city guards rounded the corner and I took off home.

“I can’t believe that bastard!” I shouted, shouldering open the door to my tavern.

“Eyes on your drinks,” Charl snapped, and everyone’s gazes slipped away from me. “What’s happened now?” he asked.

I laid my son’s sleeping form on the bar and stroked the hair back from his eyes. My blood boiled and I punched the bar.

“Fuck!” I shouted, punching it again.

Charl poured me a drink, grabbed my arm, and forced the mug into my hand. “Drink this before you break something. You’re no use to Leon if you lose control, Jo.”

I necked it in a single gulp, savoring the burn that swept away my stress as it wafted from my mouth.

“Good,” Charl soothed. “Now tell me what happened.”

“Seifer won’t even look at Leon unless I can pay him on the spot. And he won’t hear nothin ‘bout a loan.”

“How much is he asking for?” Charl asked, refilling my mug.

“Steel,” I said.

“That’s pathetic!” Charl snarled. “I remember back before the purge when there was a malificia who could heal with her hands. Cup of flour here and there, and she would heal you up without a worry. Now that Seifer has the market cornered, the greedy thinks he’s some kind of god, holding our lives in one hand and our purses in the other.  Well, I’ll convince him to help if I have to do it at the point of a knife!”

The room cheered their accent, and more than one person rose to their feet.

I banged my mug on the bar. “Thanks, Charl, but gettin’ yourselves put in a chain-gang to build outside the wall until monsters take ya ain’t gonna help no one.” I slammed the mug again and the clay shattered. “How the hell can someone ignore a sick child like that!”

“I’ve seen once good men, stripped of everything that made them human, commit unspeakable acts simply to keep themselves alive for one more day. I’ve seen them dump the putrid bodies of onetime friends in our rivers, and then look away while children choke on the corrupted water. I have watched this city die ever since I was an apprentice, leaking the corpses of the poor like blood while the wealthy rest atop its carcass like proud hunters.”

I glared at Whisper. “I don’t have time for poetry!” A thought struck me and desperate hope chased away my anger. I grasped Whisper by the shirt. “You work with poisons! You must know something ‘bout cures!”

Whisper jabbed my shoulder with a finger, and my arm went flaccid. He shrugged away my feeble grip and turned toward the stairs.

“Bring your son up to your room,” he ordered.

I followed the elderly assassin and laid my son on our shared bed. My old man was passed out in his chair, no doubt exhausted after dragging himself down to the front door. Whisper held his head to Leon’s chest and looked inside his nose, examining my son while I paced the room like an imprisoned animal.

Finally, he said, “Your son will be fine. It’s rare, but sometimes a papillon endormi, a sleeping butterfly, gets trapped on a north blowing wind and floats into the city from the Forest of Silence. He just needs some thyme, rugroot, and bellroot to open his sinuses and flush the poison from his system. You should be able to get everything you need from the herbalist.”

I bent my neck to the left until it popped, then repeated the process on the other side, trying in vain to release the buildup of pressure in my shoulders. “I don’t have the metal to pay for them,” I said. “And the herbalist won’t sell to me.”

“I know,” he replied, locking his gaze with mine.

I remember thinking that an assassin’s eyes shouldn’t be warm and brown. They should be black, like the dead place in his chest where his heart once was.

#

“Thyme, rugroot, bellroot. Thyme, rugroot, bellroot.” I repeated the words like a mantra as I entered the alleyway behind Seifer’s store. The sun had set, but that did little to calm my nerves. Using the bread sack to cover the window, I elbowed through the glass and fled deeper into the alley. I was sure that at any second a squad of guards would arrest me and my son would be doomed. When no one appeared, I breathed a prayer to whatever god happened to be watching over me, and crawled through the small window, careful to avoid the shattered glass.

I crept through the dark store to where the shadows of herb jars were shelved along the far wall. I could make out the labels on their faces, but the foreign squiggles meant nothing to me. I hadn’t even thought of not being able to read the names. I bit down on my fist hard enough to draw blood in an effort to barricade my scream within my throat. Hot, frustrated tears sprung from my eyes. I was an idiot. My son was going to die because I was an idiot. Whisper was right; all children should learn how to read. Swallowing my rage, I breathed another prayer and shoved as many jars as I could into my bread bag.

When I returned home with the sack of stolen herbs slung over my back, Leon was walking down the stairs, taking them one at a time with slow, deliberate care. He saw me, squealed, and run back up the stairs. He knew he wasn’t allowed to leave his room without an adult.

I dropped the sack at the open door and sprinted after him just in time for the door to slam in my face.

“Sowy, sowy, sowy,” came his voice from the other side.

“It’s ok. You’re not in trouble, buddy. Just open the door,” I called back, my heart hammering in my chest.

The door creaked open and Leon stood in the doorway, chewing on his fingertips. I crushed him against my chest and swung him side to side while he squealed.

“You’re ok,” I repeated over and over.

I set him down on the floor and he collapsed his legs beneath his body, refusing to stand. I kissed his cheek and he giggled.

“As it would appear, I had the correct herbs on my person,” Whisper said from the corner of the room where he was leaning against the wall.

“Then why make me risk the chain-gang?” I asked, deliberately calm while my gratitude warred with my anger.

“To teach you the importance of reading,” Whisper said.

I gritted my teeth. My hands clenched and released by my side as I struggled to remain polite to the legendary assassin.

“Thank you for healing my son. You are right. Reading is very important. I will find myself a teacher. Please help yourself to my bar,” I stated.

Whisper sighed as if I was a slow student, and I restrained myself from throttling him while he passed me and walked down the stairs.

For the following week, I worked on the wall by day, and while Charl ran my bar during the night, I roamed the city in search of a teacher. One week later, I sat beside Whisper at my bar.

“Do you now understand why you have never learned to read?” Whisper asked.

“I’ve never learned to read because I’m poor, and I’m poor because I can’t read,” I replied.

Whisper nodded.

“But, let’s say I did want to learn, where do I find the time?” I asked.

“Make time,” Whisper replied.

“How? I already work two jobs.”

Whisper shrugged. “Get up earlier. Stay up later. Charl has proven quite capable of operating your bar, so hire him. You may lose some income for the time being, but I’m confident that Brash will continue to keep your family fed. Finally, stop working for the city. The menial job you perform pays little and was designed to keep you tired and stupid so that you don’t aspire to goals. Do whatever you need to do, Jo… or would you rather remain an idiot all your life?”

I slapped the bar. “Of course I don’t! I want a better life, for me and my son.” I stared down at my scarred fist. “For everyone.”

Whisper retrieved a tome from within his shirt and laid it open on the bar. The paper was blank. He pressed a thin stick into the palm of my hand.

“This is a lead pencil; you use the sharp end to write.”

I closed my fist around the pencil and held it like a hammer. I scraped it along the page and the paper ripped.

“Sorry!” I blurted. I suddenly felt like a kid again, unable to get even the smallest job right.

He waved the apology away and took the pencil from me.

“I prefer to handle it like this,” he said, pinching it between his thumb and index finger. He flipped the page and marked ten large letters down its side.

“Get a feel for it and hold it however is comfortable, then copy the letters I have written. When the sheet is filled, I will give you new letters on the next,” he said, pressing the pencil into my hand again.

I stared at that book until the foreign scribbles blurred through my watery eyes. Long after even Charl had made his bed behind the bar, I gazed at the stairs and thought of my own soft bed, where little Leon would be snuggled in our blankets. It would have been nice if there weren’t so many steps between us. I let my head loll forward for a second, to relieve the tension in my neck, and before I could stop myself I was asleep at the bar.

I woke up the next morning to the sun shining through the window and stood up so quickly that my stool crashed to the ground. I was late for work. I looked from the door to the bar, where my night’s progress was displayed in the open tome, and smiled. Whereas I could not even hold a pencil at the beginning of the night, I had ended the night by signing my own name at the bottom of the page. It had only taken one night, and I was no longer bound by the laborer’s X.

From that day forth, I dove into the deep end of learning. Whisper tutored both Leon and me during the day, and while my calloused hands, so used to wielding a mallet, butchered the detailed movements that writing called for, Leon took to letters like a trappie takes to earth. He mastered the alphabet in a matter of days while I was still stuck trying to figure out the difference between the letters C and K.

At times, I would lose my calm and slam the pencil down on the bar. When this happened, Leon would wrap his arms around my waist, pinning me to my chair with his frail body, while Whisper spoke to me simply, and without anger, reminding me why I chose to suffer. They never failed to motivate me to take up my pencil again.

Once night would fall, the boys would filter through the front door and I would send Leon to bed with the promise of joining him soon. Charl would pour me a mug of rotgut, we would toast, and I would dive back into my study.

#

“You read too slow!” Leon pouted, trying to turn the page that I was halfway through.

“Read another book if I’m reading mine too slowly,” I said.

He gazed up at me with his blue cocker eyes. “But I want to read this one,” he whined.

“You have a debate in a week.”

I gasped and threw a protective arm around Leon. I hadn’t even heard Whisper open the door.

“I have a what?” I demanded, ruffling my son’s hair, pretending that I had only meant to hug him.

“Use the dictionary if you do not know the word.”

“I know what debate means, but what do you mean that I have one?”

“The Minister of the People was found hanging from his balcony this morning.”

“And…?” I asked. Whisper never said anything without a purpose.

“A replacement will have to be found, and as such, I have entered you into the election.”

I frowned. “Do I get a say in this?”

He gazed at me flat and level. “No.”

“Fine…” I sighed. “What do I have to do?”

“Just keep studying, I have some rendezvous.”

Knowing that I wouldn’t get any more information until Whisper decided to share it, I poured myself a mug of rotgut and chose a book at random from the mountain of tomes that smothered my bar.

“What’s this word, Leon?” I asked, pointing at a long scribble atop the page.

“Sound it out like Master Whisper says,” he said

“Sound it out with me?”

“Ok.” He leaned onto the bar and blocked the page with the back of his head.

“Pre-dis-pos-”

The front door crashed open and three hooded men charged into the room.

“Go to grandpa and lock the door!” I shouted at Leon. He didn’t move, so I shoved him in the direction of the stairs and he fell from the stool, striking the ground hard. Tears welled in his eyes and I wanted to go to him, to explain the situation in slow, calm words that he could understand, but it was too late.

Footsteps approached and I swung my mug. It shattered to pieces, scattering over the prone body of my attacker. A club struck my skull and I fell against the bar. Blood and stars blocked my view, but I grasped a stool and heard a man grunt as I swung it wildly through the air. The club struck me again and a sack was thrown over my head. I tried to shout for Leon to run, but a rope was pulled tight around my throat, cutting off my breath and turning my cry into a muffled gasp. My arms were yanked behind me and more rope bound my wrists. My attackers kicked my legs out from under me and my ankles were bound, too. I thrashed against my bonds, but every movement tightened the rope around my neck and darkness claimed me.

When I came to, Leon was shoving me with all the strength that his little arms could muster. As I wrapped him in my arms and kissed his forehead, I realized that my bonds were gone.

“Are you ok?” I asked.

I could make out the shadow of his head bobbing in the dark room and sighed in relief.

“Tell me who you work for,” came Whisper’s soft voice from the far end of the room.

“Stay here,” I told Leon. I felt through the shadows for a weapon and settled on a chair. It would have been more practical to break the leg off of the table it was seated under, but that would have been too noisy.

Following Whisper’s voice, I found a door. I cracked it open and peered through the gap. Rat was being held against the wall by Whisper.

“Not tellin you nothin,” Rat said, spitting a mouthful of blood at Whisper’s feet.

“Of course you will.” Whisper lowered his dagger to Rat’s left eye, hovering the tip above his dark iris. “But it will be easier on you to simply tell me now, and less work for me if I do not have to sift the truth from your screams.”

I burst through the door with the chair held in front of me.

“Ah, you have awoken then,” Whisper said.

I remember thinking how stupid I had been to have trusted such a monster. I charged and swung the chair at his head, but he flowed aside.

“Sit down and let me explain,” he ordered.

I swung again, but this time he released Rat and ripped the chair from my grasp with a strength that belied his elderly body. Rat picked himself up from the ground and threw a wide punch, but Whisper caught the boy’s wrist. He twisted and pulled the arm straight, then slammed his elbow down on the locked limb. The snap echoed through the room and Rat screamed as bone jutted free of his skin. I charged forward and Whisper reached into his pocket. He brought forth a fistful of powder and threw it into my face, and I fell to the ground clutching at my stinging eyes.

“I’ll ask again, Rat,” Whisper said. “Who hired you to kill Jo?”

I flinched at his tone. What an idiot I was. I had just attacked my savior.

“Some rich bitch,” Rat sobbed.

“Who’s this rich bitch?!” I screamed, my hands still scratching at my eyes.

“I don’t know. I never met her. She paid us through some guy named Keit.”

Another bone cracked, followed by another scream.

“But I had one of my boys follow her! So I know where she lives! I’ll show you the way!” Rat panted.

“Yes,” Whisper said. “You will.”

A loud thud echoed through the building and I flinched as cold water was splashed over my eyes. I opened them but wished I hadn’t. Rat’s broken body was passed out in the middle of the room with white bone protruding from both of his arms. The rise and fall of his chest were the only testaments to his continued living.

“You saved me?”

“Of course I did, you idiot. Did you think I would spend six months teaching you to read, just to kill you? Use your brain.”

I forced myself to look down at Rat’s form. “What will you do with him?”

“Use him to find his employer then dispose of him.”

I shuddered.

“He’s still a kid,” I said.

Whisper barked an ugly laugh. “After kidnapping you and your son, he burned your bar to ashes with your crippled father still inside.”

I bit my fist. The old man was dead. I wasn’t sad, but something inside me felt like it was missing; a part of me that I would never get back.

I took a deep breath. “He’s still just a kid,” I said. “After what you’ve done to him, I don’t think he’ll ever attack anyone ever again.”

“That ‘kid’ was paid to kill you. Think, Jo. Why are you and your son still alive, in an abandoned factory in the middle of the slums, when he has already accepted a handful of bronze to kill you?”

I opened my mouth, but Whisper cut me off.

“I will give you a clue, Jo. It wasn’t to shake your hand and thank you for busting his melon a few months back.”

I clenched my fists by my side.

“I understand how you feel, Jo, but consider his crimes. How would the Minister of Law deal with him?”

I met his eyes. “Put the monsters with the monsters,” I quoted. “He would be chained outside the wall to lay foundation until the monsters took him.”

Whisper nodded.

He escorted Leon and me to our home later that evening, but all we found was a blackened shell surrounded by our friends. Charl caught sight of me and rushed through the crowd, throwing his arms around my waist. He lifted me into the air. My back cracked and he dropped me.

“Good to see you too, Charl,” I gasped.

“Just glad you’re alright,” he choked out, wiping at his face with his dirty sleeve.

Brash came over to shake my hand.

“Should’a known that even death would reject your ugly mug,” he said.

I barked a laugh and clapped him on the shoulder.

“If there’s anythin’ I can do for you, Jo, say the word.”

“Thanks, Brash.”

I felt a tug on my shirt and looked down to find Leon, his eyes locked to the charred skeleton of the only home he had ever known.

“Where’s grandpa?” he asked.

I lifted Leon into my arms and opened my mouth to lie, but my chest clenched. I turned my head upwards and inhaled, trying to deny my stinging tears. I wanted to be strong for my son. He wrapped his arms around my neck, and like a dam that cracks and then gives way, I cried. Not for the old man who had never been my father, but for the man who would no longer be Leon’s grandfather.

After the old man’s funeral, Whisper appeared beside me. I didn’t jump this time, whether I was in shock or just becoming accustomed to his sudden appearances is anybody’s guess.
“I want you and Leon to reside in one of my safe houses for the foreseeable future,” he said.

I shifted my feet. Whisper had saved our lives and proven himself to be on my side time and time again, but being around him still made my skin crawl.

“Thank you for the offer, but I would rather stay with a friend,” I said, forcing my shaking voice to be firm.

“It is your choice, but until I have dealt with your enemies, you are going to be a danger to anyone you are around.”

My eyes widened and I tightened my grip on Leon.

“Enemies…” I tested the word, rolling it over my tongue. I’d always had people that I didn’t like, bosses I detested. But I’d never had any enemies before Whisper offered to teach me to read. I gazed out at the remains of my home and shuddered.

Leon fell asleep in my arms as Whisper escorted us deep into the city’s slums, down streets that even a malificia wouldn’t stroll alone. When he stopped at the door of a decrepit house, I moved to follow, but he raised a hand and I stopped short.

“I must first deactivate the traps.” He disappeared into the house and returned two minutes later. “It is now safe,” he said, waving me in.

I shuddered as I passed through the doorway. Despite his assurances, the assassin’s lair still held an air of malice. The room I entered was as run-down as the street outside, with broken furniture and filth littering the ground.

“Do you really live here?” I asked.

“That is exactly what most people ask themselves if they manage to find my safe house,” he replied.

He used a knife to pry open a trapdoor set in the floor, revealing a spiral staircase.

“And that is exactly why it has remained a safe house for so many years.”

Careful to keep my balance as I carried Leon, I followed Whisper down the tiny steps until we came to a large chamber that was something of a mélange between an herbarium and an armory. The air was surprisingly fresh.

“There is a bed in the corner that you and young Leon may utilize. I must leave.” He turned to leave.

“Wait,” I said. “Have you got anything to drink?”

“I will bring fresh food and water with me when I return. Until then, assume that everything consumable is poisonous,” he called over his shoulder.

“Could you bring back something a bit stronger?”

Whisper stopped short and turned to me. “Why do you drink so much?” he asked.

I squinted, sensing a trap. “Because it helps me relax after a hard day,” I hazarded.            Whisper nodded. “And will you let your son drink himself stupid every night when he starts having hard days?”

“Of course not!” I said, shocked.

Whisper gazed at me flat and level and I groaned.

“I give my son rules to protect him. I’m an adult; I know and accept the risks of dri…” I trailed off as Whisper raised an eyebrow. “Which, of course, is exactly what Leon will say when he’s old enough.”

Whisper started up the stairs without a word, and I tucked Leon into his new bed. He slept soundly, as he always did, but I lay restless beside him. Like me, Leon was born in the slums and had been raised without an education. Instead of questioning the inequality of his life, would he drown his problems in alcohol? Like his parents before him, and my parents before me? I had tried to better myself and the aristocrats of this city had tried to hammer me down like a stubborn nail. Staring into the darkness, I contemplated the choices I had always made without a single thought.

#

“It is time.”

I opened my eyes to find Whisper standing over the bed and had to stifle a scream. I untangled my limbs from Leon’s, but he gripped my arm tighter and groaned. I snuggled close to him for a moment, kissed his forehead, and pulled myself free.

“Are you sure you’ll be ok with Leon? Alone?” I asked.

Whisper nodded, and a faint smile reached his lips. “I always wanted a son. Today will be a new experience for me, but one I will cherish.”

I tried not to appear shocked at Whisper’s revealing slip, but it must have shown on my face. His smile disappeared and he thrust a dagger toward me.

“Take this and go,” he snapped.

I waved my hand at the blade. “Thanks, but I won’t waste time pretending to know how to handle a knife.”

Whisper nodded. “I thought you might say that.” He wandered toward a wardrobe set against the opposite side of the room and returned with a mallet, much like the one I had used while working on the wall.

“It’s not as effective as a good dagger, but I suppose your work has taught you how to swing a heavy object, at the very least.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”

Hooking the mallet through my belt, I hurried from Whisper’s safe house and the trapdoor slammed behind me. I looked back, and although I knew exactly where the entrance was, I couldn’t differentiate it from the rest of the floor.

Only a week ago, the slums had seemed fraught with danger, but since word had gone out that I was under Whisper’s protection, the shadows themselves seemed to flee from me as I jogged towards the city center.

The city guards parted the crowd that had massed by the dais as I made my way towards them. These were the forgotten citizens of Ellsworth, the ones too weak to labor and too poor to do anything else. The sight of their bones and joints protruding from their filthy skin only strengthened my resolve. I would not let Leon become one of them.

I climbed the stairs to the stage and found the rich bitch sitting in a padded, maroon chair, surveying the crowd from her podium like a goddess overseeing slaves. I studied her as I took my place at the opposite end of the platform. We were about the same age, but her years had ridden her far more graciously than mine had. Where the passage of time had left scars on my face, it had brushed by her, leaving only slight crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes.

“I was surprised to hear that a plebeian wished to take place in an election,” she said. “What good fortune for you that they allow just anyone to run for Minister of the People.”

I ignored her taunts. She was the rich bitch that Rat had betrayed in his last moments of life. The same rich bitch that had paid to have my small family murdered to further her career. My instincts cried to attack, but I knew that I could extract far more revenge by winning the election. Once I came into power, I could tear down this little world she had built for herself where she could get away with murder.

I stared down at crowd and wave of dread washed over me. I had practiced giving speeches before, but this crowd was so much bigger than the motley group that had filtered into my bar.

“I must commend your bravery, though. When I heard about the fire, and your father, I feared you might renounce your claim to our little rivalry.” She smiled, and I balled my fists at my side, digging my nails into the meat of my palm. I hated the aristocrats. They all spoke in polite phrases, filed down to exquisite edges that stabbed discreetly, where an open ‘fuck you’ would suffice.

Anger swept away my fear and I placed my hand over my heart like I had practiced with Whisper. The crowd quieted and I began the battle of words.

“I grew up shoveling shit like the rest of you who weren’t lucky enough to be pulled out from between a rich pair of legs,” I said.

The rich bitch huffed and puffed and I pushed on:

“But if you vote me Minister of the People, I’ll do right by you. Every man will be treated as my own brother, every woman as my own sister, and every child as my own young.” I forced out the speech. The feelings were mine, but the words were Whisper’s. They left my mouth feeling like the first time I had snuck a sip of rotgut when I was a child.

The crowd was looking differently at me now. They were no longer just standing there, waiting for the election to be over so that they could return to their lives. I could see the sparks of extinguished hope flickering to life behind the mirrors of their dull eyes. My knees shook and I stuttered. I felt like a fraud as I gazed out at these people. Whisper could have chosen any one of them instead of me, and I would have been standing amongst them now, looking up into a stranger’s face as they promised me change. I owed it to each and every one of them to give them the same chance.

“I wi-”

“Jo!” Brash shouted, pushing his way through the crowd.

“Arrest him,” the rich bitch ordered, stabbing her finger in Brash’s direction without leaving her chair.

Two guards stomped away from their posts and I jumped down from the platform, landing behind them. I placed a hand on either of their shoulders and they turned.

“What!” One snarled.

His older partner elbowed him in his leather jerkin.

“Show respect, Jaik. Might be your new boss come the new moon,” he growled.

I took in the puckered scar that covered the elder guard’s face and nodded my thanks. I would remember him when I became the Minister of the People.

“I need to hear what he has to say,” I said, stepping between them.

The rich bitch jumped from her chair and stomped to the edge of the podium, dangerously close to the common man. She was speaking, but her words were swallowed by the mutterings of the crowd, enflaming her anger and bringing a smile to my face.

The crowd split down the middle, creating a path for me to my friend.

“What is it, Brash?” I asked

“It’s Charl,” Brash huffed. “New wall. Trouble.”

My smile fled.

“The fact that you are willing to abandon your post, in the middle of your own speech no less, shows that you are uncommitted to serving the people of Ellsworth,” the rich bitch shrieked. She was looking down at me like a feral animal, her brows furrowed with rage.

“I don’t have time to waste talking about how I plan to help people when I’m too busy actually helping them,” I shouted.

I ran to the new wall, and the crowd ran with me.

Expanding the wall took time, a lot of time, but it seemed to me that zero progress had been made since I had quit over half a year ago. My blood chilled when I saw the squad of wall guards laughing and cheering from atop the wall. I ran up the narrow staircase and my blood boiled. Charl was standing shirtless in the worksite below, waving his shirt in one hand and a sword in the other.

The guards howled in excitement as the trappie rose from the earth, stones and soil falling down its armored hide like miniature avalanches. The horned monster charged and Charl yanked his shirt aside. He stabbed, but his sword bounced off of the trappie’s thick hide.

I grabbed the nearest guard by his collar, pulling him to face me. “What do you think you’re doing? Shoot that damn thing!”

He shoved me away and fixed me with an unfocused glare. His breath smelled like liquor.

“He offered to show us how a real guard would kill a monster,” he slurred. “To be fair, we gave me a sword.”

I started down the stairway, disgust chasing away my fatigue. I could hear the guards cheering above me, but the brick walls of the stairway blocked Charl from my view.

When I reached the ground level on the wild side of the wall, Charl was still waving his shirt, but his sword was firmly lodged in the folds of the trappie’s neck scales. I started toward Charl, and the trappie’s head snapped to my direction, stopping me short.

“Back to me, you ugly bugger!” Charl shouted, stomping his foot on the ground. The trappie charged, but again Charl twisted out of the way. “Get out of here, Jo,” he said.

I took out my mallet and sprinted to his side. “Tell me what I can do to help,” I gasped.

“You can get out of here,” he repeated.

“Anything els-”

Our conversation was cut short as the trappie charged past again. I jumped too far back and fell on my ass, but quickly scrambled to my feet.

“Get up and stand behind me,” Charl snapped. He waved his shirt with renewed vigor, never taking his eyes off of the trappie. “Don’t speak, and move only when you have to.  Trappies go after sound and movement.”

I did what he commanded, sticking as close to his broad back as I could without pushing him over. The trappie flowed by so close that I could taste the rot on its breath and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was smelling the remains of Nelson.

“How can I help?” I repeated, swallowing my rising sickness.

“Use your mallet,” he whispered.

The trappie charged by and I brought the mallet down with all of my strength, but it bounced harmlessly off of its scaly body.

“Give me that!” Charl hissed, ripping the mallet from my hands. I was suddenly an apprentice laborer again, watching uselessly from behind and getting in the way every time I tried to help.

Charl took a deep breath, raising the mallet above his head. When the rot invaded my nostrils again, he exhaled and brought the mallet down, pounding the sword hilt-deep into the trappie’s flesh.

“Run!” Charl cried out.

Before I could question him, Charl flung me over his shoulder and sprinted towards the stairway. Behind us, the trappie had forsaken the hunt for movement and was lashing out wildly in its death throes.

Charl didn’t set me down until we were halfway up the stairs. He pulled his tattered shirt over his body, hiding his face with the hood, but not before I saw the sunken shadows around his eyes.

“You shouldn’t have come down there,” he snapped.

I sighed and started up the stairway. When Charl didn’t follow, I fixed him with a glare until his footsteps echoed behind me. We pushed our way past the dumbstruck guards and sat atop the wall with our legs dangling over the edge as the trappie bled out below.

“What were you doing?” I tried to keep the anger from my voice, but Charl deflated. The seconds ticked by in silence. I was about to ask again when he finally spoke.

“Can’t do it anymore, Jo. The instincts that kept me alive when I was out beyond the wall don’t just go away because I’m safe in a city now. Someone goes to shake my hand and those instincts scream at me to draw my sword before a claw scoops out my insides, but I don’t even have a sword anymore. They took that away when I left the foray guards, and the nightmares keep coming. Even passing out don’t help anymore. And what happened to your old man, it’s just too much. The monsters prey on us outside the wall while the humans prey on us inside it. Truthfully, I can’t even tell who the real monsters are anymore.”

“Give me time, Charl. I’m changing this city.”

He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I know you are, Jo,” he said. He was smiling in that bittersweet way one does when the only other option is tears. “But it’s too late for m-”

“It’s never too la-”

“Let me finish, damn it! The Ministry used me up and threw me away. To them, I was never anything more than a disposable sword, whose condition didn’t matter because a new sword is cheaper than a repair. Don’t make that same mistake, Jo.”

I took his hand in mine. “I won’t,” I said.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You know, I always thought I would get better and we would…” his voice broke and tears welled in his eyes. He stared down into his lap and wept, clutching at my hand.

“I’m sorry, Jo. I’m just so sorry.”

I stroked his back with my free hand. “You will get better. Just like this city.”

“Jo?”

“Yes, Charl?”

He turned to face me. “I’m so glad I got to see you like this, you really are going to change this city, but there won’t be a place for me in that new world.”

He drew close and I thought that he might kiss me. Then he released my hand and threw himself from the wall. I grabbed for him, grasping his hood with one hand and a post from the wall’s frame with the other. My shoulder jerked to a sudden stop and I screamed. His hood ripped. He fell.

Thin, dirty hands clamored to be the first to pull me up the wall, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Charl’s broken body, lying twisted and bloody a hundred feet below. Time stopped and my vision blurred. The grumpy old bastard was actually dead and the future that I saw for us was suddenly reduced to the ramblings of a couple of drunks.

#

Charl’s death solidified my victory, but I would have preferred a lengthy election with my friend by my side. Risking my own life for his had proven to the people that I wasn’t just another aristocrat, tossing copper at the poor so it looked like I was helping while I lined my own pocket with steel.

A week later, I moved into the home of the previous Minister of the People. My first action as the new Minister was to tear down the six-foot high steel gate that separated my sprawling property, and the mansion within, from the outside world. I had it melted it down to pay for houses to be built for the poor, and they would be ready before winter came, but a few wooden huts with smoking chimneys were already decorating my land, with people running to and fro like a small village. With roofs over their heads, food in the bellies, and a chance at education, these forgotten citizens would become the future of Ellsworth.

Whisper entered my office and closed the door behind him. He glanced around the room, scanning the shelves of books illuminated by the buzzing lanterns.

“I see you have discovered electricity?” he said, shaking my hand.

“When I first saw that the lanterns didn’t have any oil or wicks I thought it must have been magic,” I said.

He shook his head. “Just technology from the old world. Something that the rich take for granted and the poor know nothing about.”

“Another thing I plan to change.”

He smiled. “Congratulations on being instated,” he said, taking the seat across from me.

“Thank you, Whisper.”

“Everything is paying dividends now. Minister of the People today; tomorrow, who knows? The rules no longer apply to someone in your position, Jo. I think we both know where you are heading if you can maintain your rise.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Have you asked yourself what your goal is yet? Direct my knives into the right places, and you could be Prime Minister of Ellsworth in a few short years. I can begin with Jeezabul, the woman who burned down your bar. Just give the order.”

I rose from my desk and crossed the room to gaze at the mallet mounted on my wall. It was the same type of mallet I had used while working on the wall that defended my city. I now defended my city in a different capacity.

“I won’t have you kill anyone for me, Whisper,” I said.

“I understand, Jo. Don’t worry; we will keep your hands clean. I can make them look like accidents, just like poor old Edward, the man whose office you now occupy. Technically, I didn’t kill him, but I did provide him with enough rope to hang himself. Think of it as cutting the dead fruit from the branch so the tree can flourish.”

Up until then, I had tried to focus on the good that Whisper had done. He had saved my life and that of my son, but hearing him speak so casually of murdering the citizens of Ellsworth, the citizens of my city, clarified things. A murderer could only poison what I hoped to build. I gripped the mallet with my good hand and turned to face him. Whisper was on his feet wielding his dagger. I hadn’t even heard him move.

“You’ve put me in a position to change the world for the better, Whisper. The monsters will no longer be put with the monsters. Jeezabul will face justice like any other criminal…like Rat should have.” I took a step forward. “I’m going to create a city where all children can read.”

I whistled and guards filtered into the room, but they hesitated when they caught sight of Whisper. Faced with a living legend, their swords shook in their hands. They glanced nervously at one another, unsure who should lead the attack. They needed a leader. They needed me. I hefted my mallet over my shoulder.

Whisper clapped his hands and I blinked. When my eyes opened, all of my guards were silent on the floor. I forced myself forward another step with Leon’s future in mind.

“You are not the first minister I’ve created, Joan, but I knew you were different from the start. Night after night, I’ve dreamt about ending my life, only to have my traitorous body draw another breath and remind me of the vow my foolish heart made in my youth: I will leave this world better than I found it. Thank you, Joan. May you always be a clean woman in a dirty business.”

He slashed his dagger across his own throat and slumped to the ground. Smiling, he waited to die.

 

***

 

 

Ghosts of All Our Pasts

by Deborah L. Davitt

 

Cyrus: Originating

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

 

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

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

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

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

Now that’s what we call life insurance.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Transferences,” Cyrus corrected automatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nick: Awakening

August 21, 2195

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beth: Enduring

 

February 4, 2146

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amy? She’s eight this year.”

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

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

Her smile warmed. Became sincere. “Absolutely.”

Hannah: Living

March 18, 2204

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want Mommy!” Lia wailed.

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

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

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

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

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

“With you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shut up.”

Lia: Evolving

January 15, 2240

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And are not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkady: Creating

 

March 18, 2240-September, 2300

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It did too,” Vasilija retorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a life, you undead idiots.

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

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

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

_____________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anton: Bridging

September 21, 2300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judith: Understanding

 

September 21, 2300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 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.

###